Monday, December 21, 2009

Micro Air Vehicles

This youtube video demonstrates the versatility of military Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs), otherwise known as bugbots.

Remotely controlled, insect-size UAVs are the ultimate in close or convert reconnaissance. Computer technology and battery power has finally reached the point where microbots — the next step before nanobots — are feasible. Given modern, mass-produced nanoscale computer chip technology, it is likely that the "brain" of each microbot will cost only a few dollars per chip. Quite unusual for defense technologies. (of course, the brain is only one part of a larger technology system, once you include all the remote control systems)

DARPA has sought technology like this for a while (BBC report from 2006). Maybe they are now a reality?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Unmanned submersible crosses Atlantic

Washington Post reports:

An aquatic glider called the Scarlet Knight, a 7-foot-9-inch submersible device, shaped like a large-winged torpedo, had just become the first robot to cross an ocean.

Scarlet's recovery on Dec. 4 ended a trip that began April 27 off the coast of New Jersey. For those seven months she was directed by computer, modem, satellite and GPS device from a control room on the Rutgers campus and, one time, from Palmer Research Station in Antarctica. Most of the time, however, the glider was out of contact underwater, moving slowly up and down to depths of 600 feet, safe from ships, nets and storms.

I have often wondered about the feasibility of unmanned, undersea vehicles (UUVs). Although slow, they could move cargo easily. Surveillance missions could be conducted, just like the science mission described in the article. For the military, you could send a swarm of UUVs towards a target, confident that several would reach their target regardless of a robust enemy defense.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Beast of Kandahar

AvationWeek reports: The secret is out. The U.S. Air Force has confirmed the existence of the “Beast of Kandahar” UAV that was seen flying out of Afghanistan in late 2007. The jet aircraft – a tailless flying wing with sensor pods faired into the upper surface of each wing – is the RQ-170 Sentinel, developed by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. An Air Force official revealed to Aviation Week Friday afternoon that the service is “developing a stealthy unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward deployed combat forces.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

Honduran crisis ends quietly

FP reports that the Honduran crisis is "ending with a whimper": If all goes according to plan this weekend, the Honduran leaders who ousted President Manuel Zelaya in the face of nearly unanimous international opposition, will hand power to a new government

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Unmanned undersea military vessels (UUVs)

StrategyPage writes: Israel is using a locally made USV (unmanned surface vessel), the Protector, to patrol the Gaza coast, and the waters around the Lebanese border. [...] The Protector USV is basically a four ton, 30 foot long (9 meter) speedboat (up to 72 kilometers an hour) equipped with radar, GPS and vidcams, and armed with a remote control 12.7mm machine-gun (using night vision and a laser rangefinder) There is also a public address system, to give orders to boats that should not be there.

While unmanned surface vessels make a lot of sense — with Earth's surface 70% ocean, there is a lot of surface area available — one wonders about unmanned submarines. Subs are already going low-tech with the advent of personal subs and cocaine subs. It is not a leap to imagine completely unmanned submersibles, or UUVs, as the US Navy calls them.

Given the stealth capabilities of a UUV, it is surprising that UUV development has not been given a high priority at the DoD (as far as I can tell). The US Navy forecasts use of UUVs initially in mine clearing operations, a capability that is very relevant today in the Strait of Hormuz.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Dollar replaced in oil trading?

The Independent (UK) reports on secret talks aimed at replacing dollar-denominated oil with a basket of currencies including the Japanese yen and Chinese yuan, the euro, gold and a new, unified currency.

It seems reasonable to consider an oil import tariff.

A tiered, temporary tariff could help wean the United States off of foreign oil.

  • Tier 1, no tariff: oil sourced from Canada, Mexico
  • Tier 2, light tariff: oil sourced from democracies with a free press
  • Tier 3, full tariff: oil sourced from other nations
  • Tier 4, punative tariff: Oil whose origin is undeclared or undetermined

This tariff would address the same goals as a carbon tax, help shift us away from foreign sources of oil, encourage energy efficiency and technology gains, and be a measured, quantifiable response to this latest move by oil producers.

This tariff is compatible with our NAFTA obligations. Also, market disruption is reduced because Canada and Mexico are two major sources of foreign oil — which continues unhindered under this tariff.

Oil diplomacy would roil world affairs, but that's nothing new. Probably difficult if we want any amount of Arab help with Iran, an issue rapidly heating up. At home, oil prices would likely increase a bit, serving to decrease demand.

Risky? Sure. But some new thinking is needed, and cap-n-trade is not it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

US Library of Congress report on Zelaya removal

An article in TNR linked to a "widely overlooked" report on the Zelaya removal in Honduras, from the Library of Congress. The report attempts to answer the question of whether or not the "coup" was legal. The Senior Foreign Law Specialist from the Congressional Research Service concludes,

V. Was the removal of Honduran President Zelaya legal, in accordance with Honduran constitutional and statutory law?

Available sources indicate that the judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system.

However, removal of President Zelaya from the country by the military is in direct violation of the Article 102 of the Constitution, and apparently this action is currently under investigation by the Honduran authorities.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The last Predator

Strategypage reports: Next year, the U.S. Air Force will buy its last MQ-1 Predator UAV. After that, the MQ-9 Reaper will be the primary medium UAV for the air force. The main reason is payload capacity. The Predator can only carry 450 pounds (204 kilograms) internally (and 300 pounds externally), compared to 800 pounds (364 kilograms) internally and 3,000 pounds (1.36 tons) externally for the Reaper.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Friedman and the gas tax

Thomas Friedman stumps for the gas tax in his latest column. Although this blog agrees with his conclusion, as previous posts have noted, Friedman's column presents the arguments poorly; you get the feeling he phoned in the article from a dinner party.

While a gas or carbon tax de-incentivizes in a far more direct and honest manner than CAFE or similar government-mandated standards, it cannot be argued — as Friedman does — that a gas tax is "win, win, win, win, win — with no uncertainty at all."

Like most consumption taxes applied to basic goods, such as a state sales tax, the adverse effects of such taxes have more impact on the poor. And on an even more basic level, nobody likes higher prices, even after understanding the [dis]incentives behind a gas tax.

And there is uncertainty aplenty, as there is with every mechanism intended to push a market in a particular direction. The intent of any gas tax is to coerce the free market in a desired direction; a form of intentional, legal market manipulation. Hopefully a benevolent manipulation for which market participants will be well prepared. But that process is filled with uncertainty — and that's a good thing! It is the free market at work.

Friedman makes his case, but he does so poorly, omitting key factors incumbent in an honest debate.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Stratfor on Russia, Iran, Israel and Poland

Republished from
By George Friedman

The United States announced late Sept. 17 that it would abandon a plan for placing ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Instead of the planned system, which was intended to defend primarily against a potential crude intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat from Iran against the United States, the administration chose a restructured system that will begin by providing some protection to Europe using U.S. Navy ships based on either the North or Mediterranean seas. The Obama administration has argued that this system will be online sooner than the previously planned system and that follow-on systems will protect the United States. It was also revealed that the latest National Intelligence Estimate finds that Iran is further away from having a true intercontinental missile capability than previously thought, meaning protecting Europe is a more pressing concern than protecting the United States.

Poland and the Czech Republic responded with a sense of U.S. betrayal, while Russia expressed its satisfaction with the decision. Russian envoy to NATO Dmitri Rogozin said Moscow welcomes the decision and sees it as an appropriate response to Russia’s offer to allow U.S. supplies to flow into Afghanistan through Russia. Later, the Russians added another reward: They tentatively announced the cancellation of plans to deploy short-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad, which they previously had planned as a response to the components of the U.S. BMD system planned for Poland and the Czech Republic.

Polish Despair and Russian Delight

Polish despair (and Warsaw seemed far more upset than Prague) and Russian satisfaction must be explained to begin to understand the global implications. To do this, we must begin with an odd fact: The planned BMD system did not in and of itself enhance Polish national security in any way even if missiles had actually targeted Warsaw, since the long-range interceptors in Poland were positioned there to protect the continental United States; missiles falling on Poland would likely be outside the engagement envelope of the original Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptors. The system was designed to handle very few missiles originating from the Middle East, and the Russians obviously have more than a few missiles.

Given that even small numbers of missiles easily could overwhelm the system, the BMD system in no way directly affected Russian national security: The Russian strike capability — against both Poland and the continental United States — was not affected at all. Indeed, placing the system on ships is no less threatening than placing them on land. So, if it was the BMD system the Russians were upset with, they should be no less upset by the redeployment at sea. Yet Moscow is pleased by what has happened — which means the BMD system was not really the issue.

For Poland, the BMD system was of little importance. What was important was that in placing the system in Poland, the United States obviously was prepared to defend the system from all threats. Since the system could not be protected without also protecting Poland, the BMD installation — and the troops and defensive systems that would accompany it — was seen as a U.S. guarantee on Polish national security even though the system itself was irrelevant to Polish security.

The Russians took the same view. They cared little about the BMD system itself; what they objected to was the presence of a U.S. strategic capability in Poland because this represented an American assertion that Poland was actively under the defense of the United States. Of particular note from the Russian point of view was that such a guarantee would be independent of NATO. The NATO alliance has seen better days, and the Russians (and Poles) perceive an implicit American security guarantee as more threatening than an explicit one from NATO.

This whole chain of events was an exercise in the workings of the Post-Post-Cold War World, in which Russia is a strong regional power seeking to protect its influence in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and to guarantee its frontiers as well — something that in the West has often been misinterpreted as a neurotic need for respect. Poland is the traditional route through which Russia is invaded, and the Russian view is that governments and intentions change but capabilities do not. Whatever Washington intends now, it is asserting dominance in a region that has been the route for three invasions over the last two centuries. By the Russian logic, if the United States has no interest in participating in such an invasion, it should not be interested in Poland. If the United States chooses Poland of all places to deploy its BMD when so many other locations were willing and possible, the Russians are not prepared to regard this choice as merely coincidence.

Overall, the Russians desire a new map of the region, one with two layers. First, Russia must be recognized as the dominant power in the former Soviet Union. The United States and Europe must shape bilateral relations with other former Soviet states within the framework of this understanding. Second, Central Europe — and particularly Poland — must not become a base for U.S. power. The United States and Europe must accept that Russia has no aggressive intent, but more to the point, Poland in particular must become a neutral buffer zone between Russia and Germany. It can sign whatever treaties it wants, attend whatever meetings it wishes and so forth, but major military formations of other great powers must remain out of Poland. Russia sees the BMD system as the first step in militarizing Poland, and the Russians have acted accordingly.

From the standpoint of the Bush administration and the Obama administration early on, the Russian claims to great power status, rights in the former Soviet Union and interests in Poland represented a massive overreach. The perception of both administrations derived from an image developed in the 1990s of Russia as crippled. The idea of Russia as a robust regional power, albeit with significant economic problems, simply didn’t register. There were two generations at work. The older Cold War generation did not trust Russian intentions and wanted to create a cordon around Russia — including countries like Georgia, Ukraine and, most important, Poland — because Russia could become a global threat again. The newer post-Cold War generation — which cut its teeth in the 1990s — wanted to ignore Russia and do what it wished both in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union because Russia was no longer a significant power, and the generation saw the need to develop a new system of relationships. In the end, all this congealed in the deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic.

For Russia, Poland mattered in ways the United States could not grasp given its analytic framework. But the United States had its own strategic obsession: Iran.

Iran: The U.S. Strategic Obsession

The Islamic world has been the focus of the United States since 9/11. In this context, the development of an Iranian nuclear capability was seen as a fundamental threat to U.S. national interests. The obvious response was a military strike to destroy Iranian power, but both the Bush and Obama administrations hesitated to take the step.

First, a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be no one-day affair. Intelligence on precise locations had uncertainty built into it, and any strike would consist of multiple phases: destroying Iran’s air force and navy, destroying Iran’s anti-aircraft capability to guarantee total command of the skies, the attacks on the nuclear facilities themselves, analysis of the damage, perhaps a second wave, and of course additional attacks to deal with any attempted Iranian retaliation. The target set would be considerable, and would extend well beyond the targets directly related to the nuclear program, making such an operation no simple matter.

Second, Iran has the ability to respond in a number of ways. One is unleashing terrorist attacks worldwide via Hezbollah. But the most significant response would be blocking the Strait of Hormuz using either anti-ship missiles or naval mines. The latter are more threatening largely because the clearing operation could take a considerable period and it would be difficult to know when you had cleared all of the mines. Tankers and their loads are worth about $170 million at current prices, and that uncertainty could cause owners to refuse the trip. Oil exports could fall dramatically, and the effect on the global economy — particularly now amid the global financial crisis — could be absolutely devastating. Attacking Iran would be an air-sea battle, and could even include limited ground forces inserted to ensure that the nuclear facilities were destroyed.

The country most concerned with all of this is Israel. The Iranians had given every indication that they plan to build a nuclear capability and use it against Israel. Israel’s vulnerability to such a strike is enormous, and there are serious questions about Israel’s ability to use the threat of a counterstrike as a deterrent to such a strike. In our view, Iran is merely creating a system to guarantee regime survival, but given the tenor of Tehran’s statements, Israel cannot afford to take this view complacently.

Israel could unilaterally draw the United States into an airstrike on Iran. Were Israel to strike Iran by any means, it most likely would lack the ability to conduct an extended air campaign. And the United States could not suffer the consequences of airstrikes without the benefits of taking out Iran’s nuclear program. Apart from the political consequences, the U.S. Navy would be drawn into the suppression of Iranian naval capabilities in the Persian Gulf whether it wanted to or not simply to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. Even if Iran didn’t act to close off the strait, Washington would have to assume that it might, an eventuality it could not afford. So an Israeli attack would likely draw in the United States against Iran one way or another. The United States has had no appetite for such an eventuality, particularly since it considers a deliverable Iranian nuclear weapon a ways off. The U.S. alternative — in both administrations — was diplomatic.

Israel and Complications to the Diplomatic Alternative

Washington wanted to create a coalition of powers able to impose sanctions on Iran. At meetings over the summer, the Obama administration appears to have promised Israel “crippling” sanctions to prevent any unilateral Israel action. At an April G-8 meeting, it was decided that Iran must engage in serious negotiations on its nuclear program prior to the next G-8 meeting — on Sept. 24 — or face these sanctions.

The crippling sanctions foreseen were some sort of interruption of the flow of gasoline into Iran, which imports 40 percent of its supply despite being a net exporter of crude. Obviously, in order for this to work, all of the G-8 nations (and others) must participate, particularly Russia. Russia has the capacity to produce and transport all of Iran’s needs, not just its import requirements. If the Russians don’t participate, there are no sanctions.

The Russians announced weeks ago that they opposed new sanctions on Iran and would not participate in them. Moreover, they seemed to flout the ineffectiveness of any U.S. sanctions. With that, the diplomatic option on Iran was off the table. Russia is not eager to see Iran develop nuclear weapons, but it sees the United States as the greater threat at the moment. Moscow’s fundamental fear is that the United States — and Israel — will dramatically strengthen Ukraine, Georgia and other states in the FSU and on its periphery, and that Russia’s strategic goal of national security through pre-eminence in the region will be lost.

From the Russian point of view, the U.S. desire for Russian help with Iran is incompatible with the U.S. desire to pursue its own course in the FSU and countries like Poland. From the U.S. point of view, these were two entirely different matters that should be handled in a different venue. But Washington didn’t get to choose in this matter. This was a Russian decision. The Russians faced what they saw as an existential threat, believing that the U.S. strategy threatened the long-term survival of the Russian Federation. The Russians were not prepared to support a U.S. solution for Iran without American support on Russian concerns. The Americans ultimately did not understand that the Russians had shifted out of the era in which the United States could simply dictate to them. Now, the United States had to negotiate with the Russians on terms Moscow set, or the United States would have to become more directly threatening to Russia. Becoming more threatening was not an option with U.S. forces scattered all over the Middle East. Therefore, the United States had to decide what it wanted.

American attention in the run-up to the Oct. 1 talks with Iran was focused by Israel. The Obama administration had adopted an interesting two-tier position on Israel. On the one hand, it was confronting Israel on halting settlement activity in the West Bank; on the other hand, it was making promises to Israel on Iran. The sense in Israel was that the Obama administration was altering Washington’s traditional support for Israel. Since Iran was a critical threat to Israel, and since Israel might not have a better chance to strike than now, the Obama administration began to realize that its diplomatic option had failed, and that the decision on war and peace with Iran was not in its hands but in Israel’s, since Israel was prepared to act unilaterally and draw the United States into a war. Given that the Obama diplomatic initiative had failed and that the administration’s pressure on Israel had created a sense of isolation in Israel, the situation could now well spiral out of control.

Although all of these things operated in different bureaucratic silos in Washington, and participants in each silo could suffer under the illusion that the issues were unrelated, the matters converged hurriedly last week. Uncertain what leverage it had over Israel, the United States decided to reach out to the Russians. Washington sought a way to indicate to the Russians that it was prepared to deal with Russia in a different way while simultaneously giving away as little as possible. That little was the redeployment of BMD components originally planned for Poland and the Czech Republic to ships. (Money already has been allocated to upgrade additional Atlantic-based Aegis warships to BMD capability.) Whatever the military and engineering issues involved, whatever the desire not to conflate U.S. strategic relations with Israel with pressure on the settlement issue, whatever the desire to “reset” relations without actually giving the Russians anything, the silos collapsed and a gesture was made. From the Russian point of view, the gesture is welcome but insufficient. They are not going to solve a major strategic problem for the United States simply in return for moving the BMD. For that, the United States got access to Afghanistan through Russia if desired, and the removal of missiles in Kaliningrad. The Americans also got a different atmosphere at meetings between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at the United Nations next week. But the sine qua non for Russian help on Iran is Russia’s sphere of influence in the FSU. The public relations aspect of how this sphere is announced is not critical. That the U.S. agrees to it is.

This is the foreign policy test all U.S. presidents face. Obama now has three choices.

  1. He can make the deal with Russia. But every day that passes, Russia is creating the reality of domination in the FSU, so its price for a deal will continue to rise from simply recognizing their sphere of influence to extending it to neutralizing Poland.
  2. He can select the military option of an air campaign against Iran. But this means accepting the risk to maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf and the potentially devastating impact on the global economy if oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz are impacted significantly.
  3. He can wait to see how things unfold, and place overwhelming pressure on Israel not to attack. But this means finding a way to place the pressure: Israel in 2009 does not have the dependence on the United States it had in 1973.

The Importance of Poland

Ultimately, the question of Iran is secondary. The question of U.S.-Russian relations is now paramount. And ultimately, policymakers don’t really have as much freedom to make choices as they would like. Under any of these scenarios, the United States doesn’t have the power to stop Russian dominance in the FSU, but it does have the ability to block further Russian expansion on the North European Plain. Preventing an amalgamation between Russia and Europe is a fundamental interest to the United States; neutralizing Poland and depending on Germany as the Russian-European frontier is not inviting — especially as Germany has no interest in reprising the role it played from 1945 to 1991.

The United States has an Iran crisis, but it is not its fundamental geopolitical problem. Interestingly, the Iran crisis is highlighting the real issue, which is Russia. It is Russia that is blocking a solution to Iran because Russian and American interests have profoundly diverged. What is emerging from Iran is the issue of Russia. And obviously, when Russia becomes an issue, so does Poland. If the United States acts to limit Russia, it will act in Poland, and not with BMD systems.

The Obama administration’s decision to withdraw BMD is insufficient to entice Russia into assisting with Iran. An agreement to respect Russian rights in the FSU would be sufficient (and in a way would merely recognize what is already in place). Obama might quietly give that assurance. But if he does, the United States will not add Poland to the pile of concessions. The greater the concessions in the FSU, the more important Poland becomes. The idea of conceding both Russian hegemony in the FSU and the neutralization of Poland in exchange for Russian pressure on Iran is utterly disproportionate.

The United States has already completed delivery of 48 late-model F-16C/Ds with advanced offensive capabilities to Poland. That matters far more to Polish national security than BMD. In the U.S. tradition with allies — particularly allies with strong lobbies in the United States, where the Polish lobby is immense — disappointment on one weapon system usually results in generosity with other, more important systems (something the Poles must learn).

As the United States has a strong military option in Iran, redrawing the map of Europe to avoid using that option — regardless of Polish fears at the moment — is unlikely. Moreover, Washington also could decide to live with an Iranian nuclear capability without redrawing the map of Europe. Ultimately, the United States has made a gesture with little content and great symbolic meaning. It is hoping that the Russians are overwhelmed by the symbolism. They won’t be.

For their part, the Russians are hoping the Americans panic over Iran. The fact is that while Russia is a great regional power, it is not that great, and its region is not that critical. The Russians may be betting that Obama will fold. They made the same bet on John F. Kennedy. Obama reads the same reports that we do about how the Russians believe him to be weak and indecisive. And that is a formula for decisive — if imprudent — action.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Team America, World Police: Iran edition?

This WSJ op-ed presents a fair summary of security problems created by a nuclear Iran: clear and present danger to Israel, and provoking a Middle East nuclear arms race. Israel is noted to be openly telegraphing its strike capability, through media and military exercises.

The article's headline, "Obama Is Pushing Israel Toward War", seems a bit of a stretch, however.

The author, Bret Stephens, argues that it is not in America's interests that Israel be the instrument of Iranian disarmament. That seems fair. Stephens concludes "it is an abdication of a superpower's responsibility to outsource matters of war and peace to another state, however closely allied"

That conclusion carries with it the implicit assumption that it is America that must police the world. This blog does feel that the American military, particularly US naval power, has contributed to smooth global free trade and overall (relative!) peace. However, it's a fair question.

Nuclear capability is a point of national pride for Iran, and it increasingly seems likely that diplomacy, incentives and sanctions will not deter Iran from that goal. This seems to imply two likely outcomes: a military strike to eliminate this capability, or gritting our collective teeth and implicitly permitting Iran to join the club of nuclear-armed states.

Given that a military strike is difficult for reasons related to politics, resources and geography, is the most likely outcome a Middle Eastern arms race? The Saudis are certainly not going to calmly sit beside a Persian neighbor that has made war on Arab states in the past. But neither does anyone want an actual nuclear war.

So, do we want America to push the seemingly likely (and quite dangerous!) outcome aside? Is that our responsibility by default, as the lone superpower?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The hidden surge; plus: war support slipping?

The LA Times reports that duties of support units in Afghanistan will be contracted out, allowing 14,000 non-combat personnel to be replaced by 14,000 "trigger-pullers". This increases military presence without increasing the number of deployed troops.

The move would beef up the combat force in the country without increasing the overall number of U.S. troops, a contentious issue as public support for the war slips.

Is public support for the war slipping? The article does not provide any supporting data for this. Judging from what I read and hear, Afghanistan is largely on auto-pilot as far as the majority of Americans are concerned. The populace hopes things go well. News of Iraq and Afghanistan has largely faded since the November 2008 elections.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

UAV news

More UAV news bits from around the world...

Popular Science posted a long cover story, video and other bits at

Pakistan begins production of its own UAV, the Falco.

EADS confirms test flights of its combat UAV, the Barracuda.

Boeing announced deals with the US military for unmanned rotorcraft (helicopter-like aircraft).

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Autonomous ground vehicles pass realistic tests

StrategyPage reports: The U.S. Army's decades long effort to develop a practical autonomous UGV ... has succeeded. Earlier this month, two T2 vehicles equipped with sensors and control equipment, successfully passed realistic tests. One of the test subjects ... successfully approached a village ..., did a perimeter sweep at speeds of up to fifty kilometers an hour, then patrolled the streets, avoiding the pedestrians, and finally departed the area.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

UAVs as communications relays

StrategyPage: UAVs As Communications Relays

An American Bat UAV was recently fitted with communications relay equipment (so that its ground units, especially those operating in mountainous terrain) could get much more range out of their radios (whose signals are often blocked by mountains). These tests with the communications relay gear were a success, and were performed for an "unnamed government customer" (most likely SOCOM or CIA, although the army and marines are also potential users).

Consider the tactical advantage when the US military begins to engage swarms of UAVs for various tasks on the battlefield.

Monday, August 10, 2009

WSJ credits Obama with Pakistan foreign policy success

From the Wall Street Journal: A Taliban Takedown. Pakistan has been an early Obama foreign-policy success.

If true, the news that a CIA drone killed Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud last week is a notable victory in the war on terror, both for Pakistan and the U.S. [...] The strike also underscores that Pakistan has been an early Obama Administration foreign-policy success. Only three months ago, the Taliban were marching on Islamabad and U.S. officials were fretting about the lack of Pakistani will to resist Islamist extremism. But the U.S. worked behind the scenes to encourage a counterattack, Pakistan’s military has since retaken the Swat Valley in the north, and Mr. Zardari’s government has put aside some of its petty domestic squabbling to focus on the main enemy.

President Obama has also stepped up the pace of drone attacks, which are now thought to have killed more than a third of the top Taliban leaders. These columns reported a month ago on an intelligence report showing that the strikes are also carried out with little or no harm to civilians.

For cosmetic political reasons, the Obama Administration no longer wants to use the phrase “global war on terror.” Yet in Pakistan and Afghanistan it is fighting a more vigorous war on terrorists than did the previous Administration. Whatever you want to call it, the death of Baitullah Mehsud makes the world a safer place.

If confirmed, this is fantastic news. The upcoming elections in Afghanistan promise to be vibrant, with Karzai and key rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah duking it out over radio in campaign spots, although there are inevitable reports of pre-election shenanigans.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

An atomic unit of media consumption

Recalling a year-old post from this blog, Where News Websites Get It Wrong.

Copyright law shaper and guru William Patry inaugurates a new blog discussing copyright law. In his first post, Patry digs up a very insightful from Marissa Mayer's discussion on May 6th to a Senate subcommittee:

The atomic unit of consumption for existing media is almost always disrupted by emerging media. For example, digital music caused consumers to think about their purchases as individual songs rather than as full albums. Digital and on-demand video has caused people to view variable-length clips when it is convenient for them, rather than fixed-length programs on a fixed broadcast schedule. Similarly, the structure of the Web has caused the atomic unit of consumption for news to migrate from the full newspaper to the individual article. As with music and video, many people still consume physical newspapers in their original full-length format. But with online news, a reader is much more likely to arrive at a single article. While these individual articles could be accessed from a newspaper's homepage, readers often click directly to a particular article via a search engine or another Website.

Changing the basic unit of content consumption is a challenge, but also an opportunity. Treating the article as the atomic unit of consumption online has several powerful consequences. When producing an article for online news, the publisher must assume that a reader may be viewing this article on its own, independent of the rest of the publication. To make an article effective in a standalone setting requires providing sufficient context for first-time readers, while clearly calling out the latest information for those following a story over time. It also requires a different approach to monetization: each individual article should be self-sustaining.

These types of changes will require innovation and experimentation in how news is delivered online, and how advertising can support it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Rep. Frank threatens Iranian-like sanctions on tax havens

FT: Threat to ban groups based in havens

“We will instruct the [Securities and Exchange Commission] and Treasury and the Fed to deny access to the American financial system to any country that holds itself out as a haven to escape our financial regulation.”

[...] Mr Frank says he envisages an exclusion programme that would work similarly to the sanctions the Bush administration imposed on Iranian banks in 2006 as part of efforts to deter that nation from developing nuclear weapons. The main Iranian banks are prohibited from directly accessing the US financial system. Analysts say that programme has made business more difficult for Iranian banks, although they are able to route transactions through intermediaries.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

CNN on drone warfare

Nothing particularly new or enlightening, but this CNN article on how robot drones revolutionized warfare indicates how mainstream and routine UAV warfare has already become.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

US military heavy bomber to be unmanned

In a strategypage article on US Navy's interest in UAVs, we see this:

The U.S. Department of Defense has decided to make the next generation heavy bomber an unmanned aircraft. The Department of Defense also wants the new aircraft in service by the end of the next decade, some twenty years ahead of schedule. [...]

the Pentagon finally got hip to the fact that the UCAS developers were coming up with an [unmanned] aircraft that could replace all current fighter-bombers. This was partly because of the success of the X45 in reaching its development goals, and the real-world success of the Predator and Global Hawk.

UAVs are clearly bringing about a shift in tactics. Computers and unmanned navigation have proceeded to the point where a UAV can take off, fly to target, attack, and return completely unassisted by humans. Furthermore, the loss of fighter pilots is greatly reduced.

UAVs can swarm air defenses as an expendable first wave of any assult.

In terms of combat air support, UAVs can hover over the batterfield, performing 24/7 recon or hitting select targets from the air. The US military uses UAVs in precisely this fashion, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

India focusing more on China?

According to this article, India's military leaders now consider China their biggest threat.

China is modernizing its military at a rapid rate, including upgrades and exercises aimed at moving Chinese forces thousands of kilometers in a short period of time. China naval activity in the Indian Ocean has been on the increase.

India's headline-grabbing adversarial relationship with Pakistan, on the other hand, appears to be on the wane. Pakistan is thought to be much less of a threat to India, a realization brought about in part by the first-ever publishing of Pakistan's military budget, which produced a number smaller than expected.

Will China be satisfied with the Himalayans as a buffer? History tells us that China is not very expansionistic, particularly compared to Russia, though it does like friendly (or puppet) buffer states.

Monday, May 25, 2009

NPT's rapid collapse

(re-posted from an FP blog comment)

The nuclear non-proliferation effort and NPT have been slowly melting for decades, and now nears total collapse. This latest North Korean nuclear test is only the latest evidence of this trend. On the other hand, Fareed Zakaria postulates that Iran may not want the bomb.

Short of invasion, what can realistically be done to avoid Iran or North Korea acquiring nuclear technology? Nothing, for both NoKo and Iran well know that a nuclear device is a major bargaining chip, a major international status symbol.

Post-Iraq, it seems like any consensus for political violence (war) is absent, if it ever existed, even in blatant presence of a nuclear weapon-capable technology.

Iran and North Korea are both militarily and politically difficult to attack. Sanction regimes, the traditional carrot-and-stick, appear ineffective. The ever-rumored Israeli attack on Iran seems unlikely to induce Iranian regime change, or reduce Iranian desire for nuclear capability.

Therefore, it seems likely that Iran and North Korea will gain enriched uranium capability, and similar technology, while avoiding war.

Given that, other nations will move rapidly to acquire nuclear capability of their own. Iran and NoKo will join Israel, India and Pakistan as political cover for many nation-states to develop or acquire nuclear technology.

I could even see the Russians moving in to exploit such a situation, by playing arms dealer to a willing world. If the USA won't sell nuclear technology to the Middle East, Russia will. Iran was merely the first customer of Russia Arms, Inc.

Much appears to hinge on Russian willingness with regards to Iran... but even a best case scenario would only slow, not stop, the march of nuclear progress.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Details of China's Internet censorship leaked

Wikileaks posted extremely sensitive Chinese government-mandated censorship keyword lists and policies from the leading mainland Chinese search engine, The material is revelatory.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Foreign policy and torture

Foreign Policy's blog discusses the impact of the United States' past and present policies on torture, and the "disavowal" (their words) of the Geneva Conventions.

To review, extra-national terrorists present a unique legal obstacle to the Geneva Conventions, because the Geneva Conventions are written to cover only armed combat between nation-states by uniformed soldiers. Terrorists are neither uniformed, nor (usually) tied to a sovereign.

Nonetheless, at the time this issue arose during the Bush presidency, I felt that the United States should follow the Geneva Conventions anyway, to set an example for other peoples and other nations.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cuba policy criticism round-up

WSJ: Towards a new Cuba policy. It is a good time to acknowledge that neither the U.S. embargo nor engagement by the rest of the world have helped Cubans attain their rights. Sanctions, though ethically justified, can't work unilaterally; treating Cuba as a normal partner is immoral and counterproductive. A new unified approach is needed.

Foreign Policy: Think Again: Engaging Cuba Why dealing with the Castro regime is a fool's errand.

And our own guest blogger, Joe Garzik, provides some historical context regarding the United States' policies vis a vis Cuba.

Old enemies linger?

(reposted with permission; as submitted to New Bern, NC's Sun Journal)

To the Editor:

The Sun Journal’s lead editorial on April 8 urged ending the economic embargo against Cuba, which has been in effect since 1962, and supported restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. Why wasn’t this done years ago? It is an interesting question.

We fought a world war against Germany and Japan in the 1940s, and today they are two of our best nation-friends. We fought a ten-year war with North Vietnam, which today welcomes Americans as tourists. Why can’t we be friends with Cuba? Perhaps history will offer us clues.

In 1961, President John Kennedy invaded Cuba at its Bay of Pigs. The invasion was a failure. In 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. In 1964, our government’s Warren Commission investigated the assassination and concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, “acting alone”, killed President Kennedy. However, the American public remained skeptical and suspicious of those findings.

From 1975 to 1978, a U. S. Senate committee, informally called “the Church Committee”, re-investigated the Kennedy assassination and, in 1979, issued its final report. It concluded that President Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald “probably as a result of a conspiracy”. What? Oswald probably had some help? Who else was involved?

The Church Committee’s interim report published the following: “We have found concrete evidence of at least eight plots involving the C.I.A. to assassinate Fidel Castro from 1960 to 1963.” In 1975, Fidel Castro gave U. S. Senator George McGovern “a list of 24 alleged attempts to assassinate him in which Castro claimed the C.I.A. had been involved”. Therefore, both our government and Fidel Castro agree that our C.I.A. had been trying to kill Castro. Do you think Castro sat idly by and did nothing in return? Wouldn’t he have wanted to assassinate the man trying to assassinate him?

One of the members of the Church Committee was N. C. Senator Robert Morgan. I distinctly remember seeing Senator Morgan on television saying, “Personally, I think Castro got to Kennedy before Kennedy got to Castro.” That is, Senator Morgan believed that Castro was behind the Kennedy assassination!

Much of the Church Committee’s report about the Kennedy assassination still remains classified. What secrets remain under wraps? I do not know, and you do not know; however, it has always been my suspicion that our country intends to punish Castro for the Kennedy assassination until Castro dies. Could this be the reason why our country has never resumed normal diplomatic or economic relations with Cuba? You be the judge.

Joe Garzik
New Bern

Thursday, April 9, 2009

China wins economic war game

According to The Politico, The Pentagon recently sponsored an "economics war game," a first of its kind for the US military. Professors, hedge fund employees, investment bank managers and others played roles as various countries: United States, Russia, China, etc.

Apparently, China won. Their control of so many US dollars was a decisive factor.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

US jet downs Iranian drone

Wired Magazine: An American fighter jet shot down an Iranian drone as it was flying over Iraq, U.S. military sources in Baghdad tell Danger Room.

Monday, March 9, 2009

More on Cuban policy shift

Following up on the last post, this article in The Guardian (UK) describes how the Obama administration could present this policy change formally at next month's Summit of the Americas, as an olive branch to Cuba, and indirectly, to the rest of Latin America (which has already warmed ties with Cuba).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The loosening of the Cuban embargo?

This story came across earlier this week: The omnibus spending bill currently under Congressional consideration includes language that would allow Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba once a year, and end limits on the sale of American food and medicines in Cuba. The Obama administration backs the provision, but Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is threatening to hold up confirmation of science nominees unless the Cuban embargo continues.

We applaud the Obama administration for supporting the easing of the Cuban embargo, and agree with Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who spoke about the Cuban embargo with Flake notes how US-Cuba policy not consistent with US policies towards other authoritarian and socialist regimes, and comments "the default should be freedom; allow Americans to travel". We strongly agree.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Washington foreign policy shift

RCW posted an excellent stratfor analysis of the Obama administration's foreign policy shifts, with regards to Iran and Russia.

Read the whole thing. Here are some highlights:

  • Clinton announced that the US would like to invite Iran to a March 31 conference on Afghanistan. This is a clear break from past Bush admin policy.
  • Washington voted to restore NATO ties to Russia.
  • Washington told Georgia it "needs some space" in its relationship. Georgia membership into NATO is highly unlikely, now.

Regarding that last point, quoting:

By disappointing the Georgians at this summit, the United States just moved the line of Russian influence in the former Soviet periphery several hundred miles to the west. The United States essentially told a recently war-ravaged country on the border of Russia — whose only real protection derives from its alliance with Washington — that the need for the United States to work out a deal with Russians is a bigger priority right now than providing for Georgia’s security. That message is likely to be met with horror throughout much of central and eastern Europe and with delight in Moscow.

That said, the diplomatic stage is still being set, and there is much more to be worked out in the United States’ distrust-filled relationships with both Tehran and Moscow. We will be watching for Russia’s reaction to the U.S. gestures on Friday, when Clinton meets with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and for the level of actual progress in negotiations in the month before Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev meet.

Regardless, Thursday’s events provided very clear indicators that Washington has — for the time being — chosen a new foreign policy path that will win some and lose some. Now is the prime moment for the major global powers to reposition themselves.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Anti-trust policy and systemic risk

Some food for thought...

If a corporation is deemed "too big to fail", that necessarily implies a government and taxpayer guarantee against failure.

Should we start considering such entities as targets to be forcibly broken up?

The alternative, a government bail-out, implies that government will rescue "too big to fail" companies — but only during the bad times. During good times, corporate managers will run the company. This leads to incredibly unbalanced incentives:

A "too big to fail" company is managed by executives who need not worry about what happens when the company fails.

Compounding the problem, political appointees and elected officials inevitably inject their own agendas into the mix during the rescue, complicating and possibly prolonging the pain (politicians are not known for their business acumen).

This happened with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, due to their wink-and-nod government guarantee. These incentives can arise with any company anoited publicly as posing systemic risk to the financial system.

AIG agrees to break itself up

AIG will on Monday announce a radical plan to break itself up after 90 years as a global insurance conglomerate by ceding control of its two largest divisions to the US government in exchange for a $30bn-plus lifeline. (FT link)

Interestingly, this is the recommended solution suggested for AIG by John Allison, BB&T chairman, and the longest-tenured CEO of a top-25 financial services company, in his Jan 29th lecture on the financial crisis (video) at the Ayn Rand Institute. In fact, Ayn Rand seems to be popping up everywhere recently.

One wonders if a Citi break-up is in the cards, also?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Carbon taxes highly unpopular in US

Blog FuturePundit collects loads of links citing the unpopularity of gasoline taxes in the United States. A must-read.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Collapse of the carbon market

The European market for trading carbon has collapsed, which exposes the extremely counter-productive side of carbon trading:

If permits are cheap, and everyone has lots, the green incentive crashes into reverse. As recession slashes output, companies pile up permits they don't need and sell them on. The price falls, and anyone who wants to pollute can afford to do so. The result is a system that does nothing at all for climate change but a lot for the bottom lines of mega-polluters such as the steelmaker Corus: industrial assistance in camouflage.

Even though this blog is no fan of taxes, we strongly endorse a carbon tax as a program more transparent, honest and effective than any carbon trading scheme. See this older post or simply click on the carbon tax label at the bottom of this post.

Lugar calls Cuba sanctions a failure

Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a draft report (PDF) Monday saying it is time to reconsider longtime U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba.

This blog has long thought the current US policy towards Cuba is counterproductive. Ending the embargo would not only increase the well-being of Cubans, it would tie Cuba economically to the United States. Given the Cuban population in south Florida in particular, the United States already has strong cultural ties with the island.

On the downside, lifting the embargo would bring an influx of dollars into Cuba, which would prop up the Castro regime, much like US and petro-dollars prop up Chavez in Venezuela. In Cuba's case, this should be mitigated by new dependence on US dollars flowing from the US. Once the money stream is flowing towards Cuba, the Castros will be reluctant will close those floodgates again.

Iranian UAV capability

A Washington Post editorial from Feb 19 covers the development of a new Iranian military capability: a new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Interview with Peter Singer

Wired Magazine interviews Peter Singer, the author of Wired for War, about drones on the battlefield, and how they will shape (and fail to shape) warfare in the decades to come.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rumblings of a trade war

Foreign countries are quietly and not-so-quietly expressing their discontent with the proposed US fiscal stimulus package. The package includes a "Buy American" requirement attached to stimulus-related spending on iron, steel, and manufactured goods used in construction.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Government micromanagement

This is what happens when you take on the government as a partner in your business:

[US Treasury Secretary] Geithner directed Treasury officials to express the government’s disapproval of the [Citigroup] jet purchase, which top executives interpreted as an instruction to abort the deal.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

USAF: unmanned aircraft tip the scales next year notes that the US Air Force will procure more unmanned than manned aircraft next year. The article also links to an older CBS story from Oct 2008 describing duty changes in the pilot corps.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Seip this week said the service is "all in" when it comes to developing unmanned systems and aircraft.

"Next year, the Air Force will procure more unmanned aircraft than manned aircraft," the general said. "I think that makes a very pointed statement about our commitment to the future of [unmanned aircraft] and what it brings to the fight in meeting the requirements of combatant commanders."

Seip said the Air Force currently has 85% of its unmanned air force deployed in Southwest Asia operations and 15% stateside to train pilots and for operational test and development. The Air Force is doing all it can to speed up the UAS pilot training process, he added.

This blog continues to predict that use of unmanned aircraft will surpass even what the Air Force generals describe publicly. UAVs have significant strategic value on the battlefield, where one "pilot" can control a swarm of highly automated drones. See our previous post on this subject for more.

The Great Firewall of Germany

Germany follows in the footsteps of China by implementing a country-wide filter (English translation) of websites the government has deemed illegal.

Largely this will consist of sites containing objectionable speech (most notably Nazi websites), and websites related to crimes such as child pornography.

Censorship: not just for dictatorships anymore!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Go away, travellers!

The United States continues its idiotic policy of scaring away international travellers:

New rules went into effect Monday requiring people traveling to the U.S. under the visa waiver program to register online in advance, instead of filling out paper forms in flight or at the airport. The new program, designed to improve U.S. security, has been voluntary since August, but became mandatory Monday. Travelers are being asked to fill out the forms at least 72 hours in advance of travel.

Full story...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Carbon tax mini-update

Apparently now the Exxon CEO is saying good things about a carbon tax (at least in comparison to cap-and-trade schemes)

And asks, Does the country need a big gas tax?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Boots on the ground during US admin transition

The move by Isreali tanks and troops into Gaza is the latest news in the counterattack against Hamas. My first reaction was to think about US politics. Many people predicted Isreali military activity during the transition to the 44th US President.

Of course, the conventional wisdom was anti-Israeli, assuming that Israel would provoke hostilities against Iran. Instead, it was Hamas breaking the ceasefire that led to this point.