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Disaster Tech Pushes Ahead

Monday, August 28th, 2006

So many things went wrong in the government’s sucktastic response to Hurricane Katrina, it’s hard to know where to begin to make fixes. One place might be the basics — communicating, and getting a sense of the scene.
saIII_up.jpgIn the days after the storm, while the feds and local officials floundered, ham radio operators and teams of guerrilla geeks took it upon themselves to keep Katrina survivors informed. Drone-makers sent unmanned spotters into the skies above New Orleans, to get a look at the devastation.
The efforts — and so many others like them — were beyond inspirational. But the impact of these self-starters was muted, because they couldn’t share information or resources all that well. The infrastructure (both hardware and soft) just wasn’t in place.
That’s the problem a disaster response drill, conducted last week in San Diego, aimed to correct. Everyone from IBM to Sprint to Google to U.S. Joint Forces Command participated in the test, called Strong Angel III. And everything from inflatable antennas to high-speed wireless networks to text-message news feeds to games for humanitarian aid was tried out.
It didn’t all work perfectly, as the New York Times notes.

Last Monday, the group began to assemble a makeshift command center at an abandoned building near the San Diego airport. But a state-of-the-art wireless network, intended to route video images, satellite map coordinates and other data from an impressive array of mobile computers, software analysis tools and command programs failed to come to life.
“Finally I said, ‘Lights out! Everyone turn everything off and lets start over,’” said Brian D. Steckler, a computer scientist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who was in charge of more than a dozen interlocking networks at the heart of the command center.
Hundreds of computers and even cellphones were shut down, and then the network was slowly turned back on, segment by segment. Too many high-bandwidth applications had clogged the network, including a powerful video camera and “rogue” transmitters set up by participants intent on creating their own mini-networks.

But Strong Angel did meet its #1 goal — to “mapping and developing” relationships for disaster response. Programmers from Microsoft and Google, for example, teamed up “to allow sharing [of] a single set of digital satellite maps seamlessly and to overlay event data relayed from emergency workers throughout the San Diego area,” the Times said.
Most observers, like Defense Tech pal John Scott, agreed if these projects take the main lessons of the drill to the heart — by keeping collaboration tools simple, low-bandwidth, and platform-agnostic — they should be “hugely helpful for the next disaster.”

Hybrid Truck’s Katrina Duty

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

Diesel-electric hybrids vehicles are all the rage at the U.S. Army’s Tank-automotive and Armaments Command in Warren, Michigan. Rising fuel prices and attacks on fuel convoys in Iraq have inspired a number of programs to develop more fuel-efficient trucks. The idea, according to industry, is to cut the Army truck fleet’s fuel consumption by 20 percent by 2010.
HEMTT ARMOR.jpgBut there are other advantages to hybrids, according to Gary Schmiedel at Oshkosh in Wisconsin, which builds the Army’s Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck. HEMTTs are tough mothers. During the January elections in Iraq, I talked to HEMTT crews who barreled through AK fire to pick up ballots (see photo for the result). Schmiedel says a new breed of HEMTT, the A3 model, will retain all the ruggedness and combat utility of its predecessor, but with the added capability to export up to 100kW of 3-phase AC power, thanks to its new capacitor-based hybrid engine.
To test the A3, and as a public service, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Oshkosh sent a prototype to New Orleans to serve as a mobile generator. Since it uses the same standard of electricity as our public grid, exporting power is as simple as firing up the HEMTT and plugging in your appliance. The New Orleans-deployed A3 enabled workers to pump out the flooded basement of a hospital.
Hybrids are more expensive than their conventional counterparts. But they promise overall savings over their lifetimes thanks to reduced fuel consumption. And they offer many benefits besides, including those demonstrated by Oshkosh’s HEMTT A3 after Katrina. These days I’m on the hybrid beat for National Defense, so expect more on the subject in coming weeks.
– David Axe

PM’s “Lessons of Katrina”

Saturday, March 4th, 2006

You won’t like, or agree with, every conclusion — especially not if you work for the mayor of New Orleans. But Popular Mechanics’ ridiculously comprehensive cover package on the “Lessons of Katrina” is really worth a read.
PMX0306leveefailpresc-lg.jpgEspecially nice is how Pop Mech leverages its DIY home-builder know-how to offer up fixes for future hurricane-fighting. Here’s an example:

In 1965, the same year Hurricane Betsy swamped large sections of New Orleans (including the Lower Ninth Ward), the Army Corps of Engineers presented Congress with an audacious blueprint for protecting the city from a fast-moving Category 3 storm. The $85 million Barrier Plan proposed sealing off Lake Pontchartrain from the gulf with massive, retractable flood barriers. The goal: Stop storm surges 25 miles east of the levees that encircle New Orleans. After Betsy, the plan was expanded to include gates on two of the four drainage canals that slice into the city from Pontchartrain (two of which breached their floodwalls after Katrina). But, environmental groups objected to the impact that the Pontchartrain floodgates might have on wildlife and wetlands. The Sewer and Water Board of New Orleans vetoed gates on the canals. So the Corps instead built higher levees and floodwalls.
Now, 40 years later, the Corps is again studying how to design gates for Pontchartrain and the New Orleans canals that will have minimal impact on the environment and navigation, but will still be able to block Katrina-strength storm surges. The report’s due date: January 2008. Meanwhile, engineers are also studying how to strengthen the existing levees. One idea is to replace fragile I-wall barriers with more robust T-walls, which use three rows of foundation pilings that can withstand pressure generated by hurricane-force floodwaters. A wide concrete slab, or “skirt,” on the protected side deflects overflowing water that could otherwise wash away supporting soil. T-walls held throughout Katrina without a leak.

Next month’s cover story might not be half-bad, either. I hear they got some defense technology dork to look at the Pentagon’s big weapons programs, and try to figure out who things are meant to fight.

Katrina Smoking Gun (or Not)

Wednesday, March 1st, 2006

Remember when the President said he didn’t think “anybody anticipated the breach of the levees”? Never mind.
bush_katrina_briefing.jpg“In dramatic and sometimes agonizing terms, federal disaster officials warned President Bush and his homeland security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees, put lives at risk in New Orleans’ Superdome and overwhelm rescuers, according to confidential video footage” obtained by the AP.

Bush didn’t ask a single question during the final briefing before Katrina struck on Aug. 29, but he assured soon-to-be-battered state officials: “We are fully prepared.“
The footage — along with seven days of transcripts of briefings obtained by The Associated Press — show in excruciating detail that while federal officials anticipated the tragedy that unfolded in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, they were fatally slow to realize they had not mustered enough resources to deal with the unprecedented disaster.

Watch the tape, if you can. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching.
UPDATE 10:45 PM: Some of you are already asking, “What does Katrina have to do with defense?” It’s pretty self-evident to me. But click here for an explanation.
UPDATE 03/04/06 5:09 PM: The AP issued this clarification to the story yesterday:

In a Wednesday story, The Associated Press reported that federal disaster officials warned President Bush and his Homeland Security chief before Hurricane Katrina struck that the storm could breach levees in New Orleans, citing confidential video footage of an Aug. 28 briefing.
The Army Corps of Engineers considers a breach a hole developing in a levee rather than an overrun. The story should have made clear that Bush was warned about floodwaters overrunning the levees, rather than the levees breaking.
The day before Katrina, Bush was told there were grave concerns the levees could be overrun.
It wasnt until the next morning, as the storm made landfall, that Michael Brown, then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Bush had asked about reports of breaches. Bush did not participate in that briefing.

To me, the “top” versus “breach” argument is largely semantic; what matters here is that the folks at the top were told in advance how bad Katrina was looking. But, check out the comments, and you’ll read a lot of people telling you otherwise.

Katrina Tech: What Worked, What Sucked

Wednesday, October 26th, 2005

cane.jpgIn this month’s Wired, Mike Keller has “the inside story of how one hurricane” — that’d be Katrina — “wreaked telecommunications havoc. Check out his (all-too-brief) article on “what stayed online, what didn’t — and why.” DSL and cells drowned. TV stations and emergency radios rose to the surface.

FEMA Official: Feds Snoozed Through Katrina

Thursday, October 20th, 2005

AP: “Federal Emergency Management Agency officials did not respond to repeated warnings about deteriorating conditions in New Orleans and the dire need for help as Hurricane Katrina struck, the first FEMA official to arrive conceded Thursday.“

Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA regional director, told a Senate panel investigating the government’s response to the disaster that he gave regular updates to people in contact with then-FEMA Director Michael Brown as early as Aug. 28, one day before Katrina made landfall.
In most cases, he was met with silence. In an Aug. 29 phone call to Brown informing him that the first levee had broke, Bahamaonde said he received a polite thank you from Brown, who said he would check with the White House.
“I think there was a systematic failure at all levels of government to understand the magnitude of the situation,” Bahamonde said…
Later, on Aug. 31, Bahamonde frantically e-mailed Brown to tell him that thousands are evacuees were gathering in the streets with no food or water and that “estimates are many will die within hours.“
“Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical,” Bahamonde wrote.
Less than three hours later, however, Brown’s press secretary wrote colleagues to complain that the FEMA director needed more time to eat dinner at a Baton Rouge restaurant that evening. “He needs much more that (sic) 20 or 30 minutes,” wrote Brown aide Sharon Worthy.
“We now have traffic to encounter to go to and from a location of his choise (sic), followed by wait service from the restaurant staff, eating, etc. Thank you.”

No wonder DHS Secretary Chertoff now says that FEMA bungling, and not an inept local response, was the primary problem with the handling of Katrina.
THERE’S MORE: The LA Times has Bahamonde’s classic response to a FEMA flack’s urgent request to give Brownie some more time for dinner:

“OH MY GOD!!!!!!!” Bahamonde messaged the co-worker. “I just ate an MRE” military rations “and crapped in the hallway of the Superdome along with 30,000 other close friends so I understand her concern about busy restaurants.”

Drones on Hurricane Hunt

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

One of the promises of unmanned airplanes has been that they would handle jobs that were too dangerous for flesh-and-blood pilots to handle — not just over a battlefield, but here at home, as well.
drone_storm_small.jpgHere’s a mission which fits that perfectly: Last week, an Aerosonde drone took off from southern Florida, rode through Tropical Storm Ophelia, and “provided the first-ever detailed observations” of a killer storm’s “near-surface, high wind… environment.”

“Today we saw what hopefully will become ‘routine’ in the very near future,” Joe Cione, a researcher at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, said in a statement. “If we want to improve future forecasts of hurricane intensity change we will need to get continuous low-level observations near the air-sea interface on a regular basis, but manned flights near the surface of the ocean are risky. Remote unmanned aircraft such as the Aerosonde are the only way…“
While the successful use of NOAA’s WP-3D Orion, its Gulfstream-IV aircraft and the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s WC-130H aircraft have been important tools in the arsenal to understand tropical cyclones, detailed observations of the near-surface hurricane environment have been elusive because of the severe safety risks associated with low level manned flight missions. The main objective of the Aerosonde project addresses this significant observational shortcoming by using the unique long endurance and low-flying attributes of the unmanned Aerosonde observing platform, flying at altitudes as low as 500 feet…
The Aerosonde platform that flew into Ophelia was specially outfitted with sophisticated instruments used in traditional hurricane observation, including instruments such as mounted Global Position System (GPS) dropwind sondes and a satellite communications system that relayed information on temperature, pressure, humidity and wind speed every half second in real-time. The Aerosonde also carried a downward positioned infrared sensor that was used to estimate the underlying sea surface temperature. All available data were transmitted in near-real time to the NOAA National Hurricane Center and AOML, where the NOAA Hurricane Research Division is located.
The environment where the atmosphere meets the sea is critically important in hurricanes as it is where the ocean’s warm water energy is directly transferred to the atmosphere just above it. The hurricane/ocean interface also is important because it is where the strongest winds in a hurricane are found and is the level at which most citizens live. Observing and ultimately better understanding this region of the storm is crucial to improve forecasts of hurricane intensity and structure.

Back in ’02, I wrote a story for the Times on civilian UAVs. The star of the story: an Aerosonde over the Arctic Circle, monitoring the frozen seas and skies.
THERE’S MORE: American spy sats will be watching Rita from above, the AP says. Meanwhile, NASA has transferred control of the International Space Station from Houston to Moscow.
(Big ups: UV Online, Sploid)

Rita: Watch This Blog

Wednesday, September 21st, 2005

Defense Tech pal Kris Alexander works for Texas’ homeland security department. Which makes his blog absolutely essentially reading, now that a category 5 killer hurricane is about to put the whomp on the Lone Stars.
Rita3.JPGHe runs down the reasons to hope and the potential “friction points” as the state gets ready for a rumble — from Texas’ 375,000 Katrina refugees to the hospitals that have already cleared out. Bottom line:

All of this is happening without one bit of federal resources being committed. FEMA is at the state operations center, but its a state and local show right now. We never planned on FEMA saving our bacon. And no this plan didn’t happen overnight. It has taken years of detailed planning to reach this point. Will there be screw-ups? Yes. Will we do better than LA and NOLA? Probably.
This isn’t meant as hubris. I feel that too many people, especially in the left side of the blogosphere, have rushed to defend the LA state and local governments. I disagree. I think they screwed up regardless of whether or not FEMA/DHS was slow on the draw. I don’t think, knock on wood, that anyone is going to drown and die in a nursing home on the Texas Coast.

THERE’S MORE: Kris reassures us that the big hospital on Galveston Island is being evacuated. But what about the “hot zone” biodefense lab there?
AND MORE: The Journal runs down the gagdets you need to make it through an emergency (too bad they didn’t do it before I re-stocked my disaster kit). And Xeni has pics of the sonic blaster we’ve discussed here before.
AND MORE: “Is it my imagination,” asks Kathryn Cramer, “or isn’t the use of sonic blasters as weapons to deliberately inflict pain on crowds ‘torture’ as defined in article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture?“
AND MORE: John Little, from Blogs of War, works in downtown Houston. “I have a window office on the eight floor of a building in the Texas Medical Center. I have to assume that in a couple of days I’ll have a windowless office on the eight floor of a building in the Texas Medical Center.” He’s got a great list of resources for folks looking to track the storm.

Pentagon’s Homeland Priorities

Wednesday, September 14th, 2005

Spencer’s article on the military’s homeland security mission got me thinking. So I did a little digging, and found this Pentagon “Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support.” It reinforces the money quote from Spencer’s Katrina response story, that “the system that we have worked as it was designed. It was never designed to get masses of aid into place in 24 hours. And that’s the problem.“
strat_doc.jpgCheck out the teeny-tiny emphasis that the generals place on responding to a disaster that doesn’t have to do with WMD:

Key Objectives of the Strategy
Within the lead, support, and enable frame work for homeland defense and civil support, the Department is focused on the following paramount objectives, listed in order of priority:
Achieve maximum awareness of
potential threats.
Together with the Intelligence Community and civil authorities, DoD works to obtain and promptly exploit all actionable information needed to protect the United States. Timely and actionable intelligence, together with early warning, is the most critical enabler to protecting the United States at a safe distance.
Deter, intercept and defeat threats at a safe distance. The Department of Defense will actively work to deter adversaries from attacking the US homeland. Through our deterrent posture and capabilities, we will convince adversaries that threats to the US homeland risk unacceptable counteraction by the United States. Should deterrence fail, we will seek to intercept and defeat threats at a safe distance from the United States. When directed by the President or the Secretary of Defense, we will also defeat direct threats within US airspace and on US territory. In all cases, the Department of Defense cooperates closely with its domestic and international partners and acts in accordance with applicable laws.
Achieve mission assurance. The Department of Defense performs assigned duties even under attack or after disruption. We achieve mission assurance through force protection, ensuring the security of defense critical infrastructure, and executing defense crisis management and continuity of operations (COOP).
Support civil authorities in minimizing the damage and recovering from domestic chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-yield explosive (CBRNE) mass casualty attacks. The Department of Defense will be prepared to provide forces and capabilities in support of domestic CBRNE consequence management, with an emphasis on preparing for multiple, simultaneous mass casualty incidents. DoDs responses will be planned, practiced, and carefully integrated into the national response. With the exception of a dedicated command and control element (currently the Joint Task Force Civil Support) and the Army National Guard Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Civil Support Teams, DoD will rely on dual capable forces for the domestic consequence management mission. These dual capable forces must be trained, equipped, and ready to provide timely assistance to civil authorities in times of domestic CBRNE catastrophes, programming for this capability when directed.
Improve national and international capabilities for homeland defense and homeland security. The Department of Defense is learning from the experiences of domestic and international partners and sharing expertise with Federal, state, local, and tribal authorities, the private sector, and US allies and friends abroad. By sharing expertise, we improve the ability of the Department of Defense to carry out an active, layered defense.
(emphasis mine)

Northcom’s Muddy Mission

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

Spencer Ackerman has a dynamite article in this week’s New Republic about the Defense Department’s Katrina response.
honore.jpgBottom line: “The system that we have worked as it was designed. It was never designed to get masses of aid into place in 24 hours. And that’s the problem.”

Four years after September 11, the Pentagon’s homeland security apparatus still possesses more Qs than As. National Guardsmen, under the command of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, didn’t reach New Orleans until Friday. Northcom [U.S. Northern Command] established a joint task force to facilitate help, but many of the ships it ordered to the Gulf Coast just reached the area this week. It’s true that the Defense Department doesn’t bear the lion’s share of the blame for the disastrously shiftless response to the hurricane: Its domestic operations, justifiably constrained to limit the use of the military in the United States, support state governors and the Department of Homeland Security, which spectacularly failed its first major post-September 11 test last week. But its uncertain response to Katrina underscores [Heritage Foundation homeland security guru Jim] Carafano’s long-standing concern that homeland security still isn’t the priority in the Pentagon that it needs to be…
[After 9/11, the Pentagon created its Northern Command, to protect the continental United States.] But, in practice, the Pentagon didn’t seem to prioritize potential domestic missions. Northcom, for example, was given responsibility for directing military operations in the event of a domestic disaster but was not given command over any troops and hardware for its immediate use…It took another two years for [Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense Paul] McHale to issue a Defense Department strategy for homeland security…
[When Katrina hit, Northcom had a] lack of immediately deployable military assets. By Thursday… [Northcom’s] JTF Katrina’s initial contribution of about eight naval ships and 50 helicopters had yet to arrive, nor had the hospital ship Comfort left its Baltimore port…
What’s more, in at least some cases, a lack of coordination between northcom and the Guard hampered the relief effort. Colonel Roy Nomey of the Louisiana National Guard’s 256th Infantry Brigade eagerly awaited the arrival of JTF Katrina’s additional vehicles for his food-distribution mission, since his 300 men (the remaining 3,700 troops in his brigade are in Iraq) didn’t have sufficient equipment to get them to New Orleanians in need. “My people are ready. We’re poised around New Orleans to set up food distribution centers, but we don’t have enough vehicles that sit high enough to get through the flooded streets,” Nomey told
The Dallas Morning News.