Monthly Archives: August 2014

Interim Disposal of Fukushima Nuclear Waste

anti-nuclear protesters in Japan pushing fake nuclear waste

Fukushima Prefecture is set to accept the construction of an interim facility to store radioactive waste from cleanup work due to the nuclear disaster, advancing the stalled process of decontaminating the affected areas.  The prefectural government has decided to shoulder the difference between the appraised value of land in Okuma and Futaba, where the structure will be built, and the price it would have fetched before the 2011 accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The decision came after landowners insisted that the land should be bought at a fair market value because the current appraisals are much lower than pre-disaster estimates.  Consent from local governments is expected to move forward the central government’s plan to start transporting radioactive soil and other contaminated waste to the storage site in January.

Okuma and Futaba host the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The residents of the two towns are still living as evacuees due to high levels of radiation in their hometowns. Talks between local officials and the central government over the planned facility reached an impasse after Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara enraged landowners with a comment in June.  “In the end, it will come down to money,” Ishihara said, referring to efforts to gain local approval for the storage facilities. Residents were angry because of the implication they could be easily bought.

The stalemate threatened to jeopardize the entire decontamination operation in the prefecture since the storage site is indispensable to advance the work to clean up and rebuild the affected communities.  In an effort to break the stalemate, the central government on Aug. 8 offered to double the funds to be provided to the local governments to 301 billion yen ($2.9 billion).

Fukushima Prefecture to accept intermediate storage facility for radioactive waste, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, August 23, 2014

Militarization of Japan: the Fourth Force

Japan will add a new division to its military or Self-Defense Forces in 2019, to protect equipment in orbit from space debris as well as other attacks, a source familiar with Japan-U.S. relations said, according to a report by the South China Morning Post.

Japan revised a law regarding its non-military activities in space in 2008, allowing the creation of a “space force,” which will initially be responsible for monitoring dangerous debris floating within close vicinity of the Earth, as well as protect satellites from collisions or attacks, according to the report, which added that the U.S. has been informed of the development by the Japanese Defense Ministry. There are around 3,000 fragments of space debris currently at risk of smashing into reconnaissance or communication satellites around the Earth.  Japan will assist the U.S. military with the information it obtains through this program, and looks to strengthen bilateral cooperation in space, or the “fourth battlefield,” the report said.  The “fourth force” will initially use radar and telescope facilities in the Okayama prefecture that the defense ministry acquired from the Japan Space Forum, which also owns the Spaceguard Center radar facility in Kagamino and a telescope facility in Ihara.

Units from Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force are currently being considered by the defense ministry to make up parts of the new space force. And, the Japanese ministries of defense, education, culture, sports, science and technology, along with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, will jointly acquire the radar and telescope facilities from the Japan Space Forum, a Tokyo-based think tank that coordinates aerospace-related activities among government, industry and academia.

Japan and the U.S. have reportedly been working on a space force since 2007, when China tested its satellite destruction capabilities by launching a missile against one of its own satellites and destroyed it.  In May, at a space development cooperation meeting held in Washington, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed to increase cooperation in using satellites for monitoring space debris, marine surveillance, and to protect one another’s space operations. Japan also pledged to share information acquired by JAXA with the U.S. Strategic Command.

Excerpts from Alroy Menezes, Japan’s ‘Space Force’ To Protect Satellites In Orbit, International Business Times, Aug. 4, 2014

West versus Islamic State – the Apostles

Undercover warriors [led by the US spy agency CIA] will aim to “cut the head off the snake” by hitting the command structure of the Islamist terror group responsible for a trail of atrocities across Iraq and Syria, reports the Sunday People.  PM David Cameron has told the SAS and UK spy agencies to direct all their ­resources at defeating IS [Islamic State] after a video of US journalist James Foley being beheaded shocked the world.

British special forces will work with America’s Delta Force and Seal Team 6. The move sees a rebirth of top secret Task Force Black, which helped defeat al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq .This time the counter-terrorist ­experts will be targeting Abu Bakr ­al-Baghdadi, leader of IS and now the world’s most wanted terrorist.

A source said: “We need to go into Syria and Iraq and kill as many IS members as we can. You can’t ­negotiate with these people.  “This is not a war of choice. They are cash rich and have a plentiful ­supply of arms. If we don’t go after them, they will soon come after us…You have to get on the ground and take out the commanders – cut off the snake’s head.

The new task force will comprise a squadron of the SAS, special forces aircrews from the RAF and agents from MI5 and MI6. The operation will be led by America’s CIA spy agency.

One of the first jobs will be to identify the British Muslim shown on an IS video released last week apparently cutting Foley’s head off with a knife. UK intelligence sources confirmed that the killer, believed to be a British-born Pakistani from London, is already at the top of a CIA “kill list”…

Troops will also train Kurdish Peshmerga fighters…There are also moves to revive a defunct Iraqi special forces unit called the Apostles, which was ­created by the first Task Force Black a­fter the Iraq War.

Excerpts from Aaron Sharp, SAS and US special forces forming hunter killer unit to ‘smash Islamic State’, Mirror, Aug.23, 2014

The Oil Curse – South Sudan

South Sudan’s oil fields have become a battleground in the struggle for power in Africa’s newest nation, encouraging Western nations and regional mediators to consider international monitoring of crude revenues as a way to remove a major bone of contention from such conflicts.  South Sudan sits on Sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest crude reserves, and its oil fields were early targets in fighting that erupted in December 2013 and has rumbled on despite two ceasefire deals and U.N. warnings that a man-made famine looms.

It marks an alarming slide into dysfunction by a nation whose creation three years ago the United States hailed as a foreign policy success. Instead of lifting the nation out of grinding poverty, oil is blamed for stoking a war…Diplomats and regional mediators said monitoring revenues was gaining traction as an idea for discussion, though the mechanics of such a system and how the warring sides would be pushed towards a deal have not been determined….

South Sudan’s oil output has tumbled by about a third to 160,000 barrels a day since the fighting began in December 2013, but it remains the main source of cash for President Salva Kiir’s government both by selling crude and by borrowing against future earnings, digging the nation deeper into debt.  As of June 25, 2013 South Sudan owed $256 million to China’s National Petroleum Corp, which has 40 percent of a venture developing South Sudan’s oil fields, and a further $78 million to oil trader Trafigura. [a Dutch multinational commodity trading company] It plans to borrow about $1 billion from oil firms in fiscal year 2014/15, equal to about a quarter of forecast revenues.

Rebel leader Machar, who was fired as deputy president last year, said oil sites would be a “legitimate target” unless funds were put into a neutral escrow account pending any deal.

But President Salva Kiir’s government says such outside intervention would violate its sovereignty and insists it has not bought arms since fighting began.  “We are not the protectorate of anyone,” presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said. “We have the right to buy arms, but we haven’t bought anything since December,” he said, despite rebel claims of weapon shipments arriving in recent months.  Kiir and Machar come from rival ethnic groups, and the conflict has re-opened deep ethnic divisions in the country.

Monitoring revenues is on the table for talks sponsored by the regional African grouping IGAD, though diplomats acknowledge it can only be part of a broader deal on how to share wealth and power in the divided nation…South Sudan has already lost billions of petrodollars in its young life. Kiir wrote to 75 former and serving officials in 2012 seeking the return of $4 billion that disappeared since 2005. No significant amounts were repaid, diplomats said.  Though the country – the size of France – has almost no roads and only a third of its 11 million people can read, South Sudanese now watch more wealth frittered away on fighting than on building roads or paying for schools….Fighting has killed at least 10,000 people, displaced 1.5 million and left a third of the population facing the prospect of famine as they have not planted crops…

But Western diplomats say pressure for a deal on oil monitoring needs to come from the region, led by heavyweight neighbours such as Kenya and Ethiopia.China, with its oil interests, would need to support the move, though diplomats said it had worked with the West during the crisis. Alongside China, other oil investors are India’s ONGC Videsh and Malaysia’s Petronas.”  If they can get the oil sector right, share the oil revenues in a much more inclusive manner, then that will dictate the country’s future,” said Luke Patey, author of a book on Sudan and South Sudan’s oil industry.

Excerpts from South Sudan conflict drives idea of oil wealth monitoring, Reuters, Aug. 1, 2014]

The Flow of Dirty Money through Trade

A few years ago American customs investigators uncovered a scheme in which a Colombian cartel used proceeds from drug sales to buy stuffed animals in Los Angeles. By exporting them to Colombia, it was able to bring its ill-gotten gains home, convert them to pesos and get them into the banking system.This is an example of “trade-based money laundering”, the misuse of commerce to get money across borders. Sometimes the aim is to evade taxes, duties or capital controls; often it is to get dirty money into the banking system. International efforts to stamp out money laundering have targeted banks and money-transmitters, and the smuggling of bulk cash.

But as the front door closes, the back door has been left open. Trade is “the next frontier in international money-laundering enforcement,” says John Cassara, who used to work for America’s Treasury department. Adepts include traffickers, terrorists and the tax-evading rich. Some “transfer pricing”—multinationals’ shuffling of revenues to cut their tax bills—probably counts, too. Firms insist that tax arbitrage is legal, and that the fault, if any, lies with disjointed international tax rules. Campaigners counter that many ruses would be banned if governments were less afraid of scaring off mobile capital. Trade is “a ready-made vehicle” for dirty money, says Balesh Kumar of the Enforcement Directorate, an Indian agency that fights economic crime. A 2012 report he helped write for the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, a regional crime-fighting body, is packed with examples of criminals combining the mispricing of goods with the misuse of trade-finance techniques. Using trade data, Global Financial Integrity (GFI), an NGO, estimates that $950 billion flowed illicitly out of poor countries in 2011, excluding trade in services and fraudulent transfer pricing. Four-fifths was trade-based laundering linked to arms smuggling, drug trafficking, terrorism or public corruption.

The basic technique is misinvoicing. To slip money into a country, undervalue imports or overvalue exports; do the reverse to get it out. A front company for a Mexican cartel might sell $1m-worth of oranges to an American importer while creating paperwork for $3m-worth, giving it cover to send a dirty $2m back home. One group of launderers was reportedly caught exporting plastic buckets that cost $970 each from the Czech Republic to America. To lessen the risk of discovery the deal may be sent via a shell company in a tax haven with strict secrecy rules. This may mean using a specialist “re-invoicing” firm to “buy” the oranges at an inflated price with an invoice to match and charge the importer the true price. The point is to get paperwork to justify an inflated transfer to the seller. Re-invoicers are used by multinationals to shift profits around, which gives them a veneer of respectability, says Brian LeBlanc of GFI—but they also “feed a giant black market in the offshore manipulation of paperwork”…

American authorities have ratcheted up penalties for banks that assist money-launderers, knowingly or not. In 2012 they reached a $1.9 billion settlement with HSBC after concluding that Latin American drug gangs had taken advantage of lax controls at its Mexican subsidiary. And last year they imposed a $102m forfeiture order on a Lebanese bank implicated in a complex scheme involving the export of used cars to West Africa with the proceeds funnelled to Hizbullah, an Islamist group. Alternative remittance systems and currency exchanges, such as the trust-based hawala networks in Asia and the Middle East, and Latin America’s Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE), offer another route to launder money through trade. ..A recently leaked Turkish prosecutor’s report describes an alleged conspiracy involving Turkish front companies and banks, an Iranian bank and money-exchangers in Dubai. By marking up invoices for food and medicine allowed into Iran—to as much as $240 for a pound of sugar—the scheme gave Iranian banks access to hard currency from Iran’s oil sales that was locked in escrow accounts overseas, to be transferred only for approved transactions…

In the meantime, launderers who curb their greed and invoice goods worth $10 for $9, or $11, will probably continue to get away with it. A dodgy deal is almost impossible to spot if the pricing is only slightly out and you see just one end, says one American investigator. “You can study the slips all day long, and all you see is stuff being imported and exported.”

Excerpts from Trade and money laundering: Uncontained, Economist, May 3, 2014, at 54

India’s Drones and Nukes

Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggests that India appeared to have followed through on its publicly announced intention to build the  Special Material Enrichment Facility (SMEF) and started constructing a large enrichment centrifuge complex near Chitradurga, Karnataka.  Furthermore, [o]n June 20, 2014 IHS Jane’s revealed that India was possibly extending Mysore’s Indian Rare Metals Plant into clandestine production of uranium hexafluoride that could theoretically be channelled towards the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.

This week the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggested that the country appeared to have followed through on its publicly announced intention to build the SMEF and started constructing a large enrichment centrifuge complex near Chitradurga, Karnataka, where, between 2009 and 2010, approximately 10,000 acres of land were allegedly diverted for various defence purposes.

Within this walled-off tract, 1,410 acres in Ullarthi Kaval and 400 acres in Khudapura were allocated to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre for the purpose of developing the SMEF, the ISIS said, adding that a further 4,000 acres in Varavu Kaval and 290 acres in Khudapura were allocated to the Defence Research and Development Organisation for the purpose of developing and testing “long-endurance (48-72 hours) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles.”…

The report’s authors, David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, said that the new facility “will significantly increase India’s ability to produce enriched uranium for both civil and military purposes, including nuclear weapons”, urging India to therefore announce that the SMEF would be subject to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, committed only to peaceful uses….At the heart of India’s apparently strong enrichment thrust is an urgent need for Highly Enriched Uranium for the indigenously developed INS Arihant nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine and probably for nuclear and thermonuclear weapons.

Excerpt from NARAYAN LAKSHMAN. Karnataka home to second covert nuke site, drone testing: report,  The  Hindu, July 2, 2014

VTOL-X Plane Phantom Swift

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is to undertake in July 2014 conceptual design reviews for the four vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) X-Plane contenders a Boeing programme official disclosed on 24 June 2014.  Announced by DARPA in early 2013, the VTOL X-Plane programme is geared at demonstrating efficient hover and high-speed flight. The specific requirements are that the aircraft achieve a top sustained flight speed of 300 kt to 400 kt; raise aircraft hover efficiency from 60% to at least 75%; present a more favourable cruise lift-to-drag ratio of at least 10, up from the current 5-6; and carry a useful load of at least 40% of the vehicle’s projected gross weight of 10,000-12,000 lb (4,500-5,450 kg).

Of the four contenders, Boeing’s Phantom Swift is currently the only one to have been built (as a 17% scale model) and flown…While DARPA did not specify whether the aircraft be manned or unmanned, all of the entrants have opted for unmanned.

Excerpt from DARPA to progress VTOL X-Plane as Boeing reveals Phantom Swift details,  IHS Jane’s International Defence Review, June 25, 2014

Tar Sands from Canada to Europe

Canada and the US have threatened to pull out of TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] trade talks unless the EU ignores the massive emissions of oil from tar sands – and the EU is collapsing under the pressure…For five long years the federal government and the oil industry have lobbied against the European Union labeling oilsands (also called tar sands) bitumen as ‘dirty oil’ in its Fuel Quality Directive (FQD).  A new report [authored by environmental groups] reveals the how recent involvement of the US in the lobby offensive to keep the EU market open for bitumen exports has tipped the scales in favour of oilsands proponents….

The report shows the EU Fuel Quality Directive, a piece of legislation designed to reduce global warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU’s transportation sector, is unlikely to acknowledge fuels from different sources of oil – conventional oil, oilsands, oil shale – have different carbon footprints.  All oil is the same – no matter how great the disparity in emissions  Instead all oils will more than likely be treated as having the same GHG emissions intensity ‘value’ in the Directive. This is exactly what Canada, the oil industry and now the US have been pushing for…

The EU has not fallen for the federal government’s argument that bitumen produces only marginally more GHG emissions than conventional oil in extraction, processing, and use.  A European Commission study found bitumen’s carbon footprint is between 12% – 40% higher than conventional oil as so much of the bitumen produced from the tar sands is burnt to fuel the energy-intensive extraction process.  The report reveals trade, not science, is the cause of the EU backing off from implementing the Fuel Quality Directive as it was originally meant to be implemented.

The US in some ways has been more open [than Canada] about its lobbying against the Fuel Quality Directive.  US Trade Representative Michael Froman confirmed he “raised these issues [of the FQD implementation] with senior Commission officials on several occasions, including in the context of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships (TTIP).” The TTIP is the highly controversial trade agreement between the US and the EU currently under negotiation.  European Commission documents obtained by Friends of the Earth Europe reveal the US trade missions has “substantive concerns” with the Fuel Quality Directive singling out fuels produced from bitumen as having a higher carbon footprint than conventional oil.    Like Canada and the oil industry, the US wants all oil – regardless of GHG emissions – to be treated the same as conventional oil in the Directive…Recently eleven members of US Congress sent a letter to the US trade mission expressing their concerns “that official US trade negotiations could undercut the EU’s commendable efforts to reduce carbon pollution.”

Excerpts, Derek LeahyIgnore tar sands emissions! EU buckles under US, Canada pressure in TTIP talks, Ecologist, July 23, 2014

New Long Range Anti-Ship Missile

From the DARPA website: Current surface-launched, anti-ship missiles face a challenge penetrating sophisticated enemy air defense systems from long range. As a result, warfighters may require multiple missile launches and overhead targeting assets to engage specific enemy warships from beyond the reach of counter-fire systems.  To overcome these challenges, the joint DARPA – Navy Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) program is investing in advanced technologies to provide a leap ahead in U.S. surface warfare capability. The LRASM program aims to reduce dependence on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, network links, and GPS navigation in electronic warfare environments. Autonomous guidance algorithms should allow the LRASM to use less-precise target cueing data to pinpoint specific targets in the contested domain. The program also focuses on innovative terminal survivability approaches and precision lethality in the face of advanced counter measures…

Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control (LMMFC) Strike Weapons, Orlando, Fla., is the performer for the demonstration of the LRASM weapon, and BAE Systems, Information and Electronic Systems Integration, Nashua, NH, is the performer for the design and delivery of onboard sensor systems. In July 2, 2014 Lockheed Martin Corporation, Orlando, Florida, was awarded a contract for an amount not to exceed $200,000,000 for the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile Accelerated Acquisition program. he Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Arlington, Virginia, is the contracting activity (HR0011-14-C-0079).

Nuclear Waste in South Korea: the Gyeongju facility

South Korea’s first facility dedicated solely to storing radioactive waste will soon go into full operation, the facility’s state-run operators said in July 2014…The 1.56 trillion won (US$1.53 billion) facility in Gyeongju, 370 kilometers south of Seoul, was completed at the end of June 2014 seven years after construction began in 2007, according to the Korea Radioactive Waste Agency (KORAD)…The facility was completed more than 19 years after the government launched the project to build the country’s first-ever nuclear repository.

The government originally sought to build a nuclear repository for both high- and low-level radioactive waste, including spent nuclear fuel, in the coastal city of Buan, 280 kilometers southwest of Seoul. The plan was scrapped in 2004 after weeks of violent protests in the city that left hundreds of people injured.  The facility was changed as a storage unit for only low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste, such as gloves, goggles and other equipment exposed to radiation at nuclear power plants.

Gyeongju volunteered to host the facility, but only after the government agreed to keep high-level radioactive waste, such as spent nuclear fuel, out of the city…Currently, the Gyeongju facility consists of six underground silos that can hold up to 100,000 barrels of radioactive waste and an examination facility that holds about 4,500 barrels of such waste waiting to be moved to the silos.

Already, South Korea has about 100,000 barrels of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste from the past 36 years, since the country began commercial operations at its first nuclear reactor in 1978, according to KORAD.  The country operates 23 nuclear reactors, generating about 30 percent of its total electricity supplies and 2,300 barrels of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste each year.

A second-phase construction program is already underway to add an additional 125,000-barrel holding unit to the Gyeongju facility, which is designed to take in 800,000 barrels of nuclear waste over the next 60 years before it is completely sealed off.  A KORAD official said it takes about 300 years for low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste to be neutralized.

South Korea is now beginning to discuss how it will manage spent nuclear fuel, but many say that determining where the high-level nuclear waste will be stored is the most crucial task.

Excerpts from S. Korea completes construction of first nuclear waste repository,Yonhap News Agency, July 12, 2014

Oil Shale: Costs and Benefits

[A] second shale revolution is in prospect, in which cleaner and more efficient ways are being found to squeeze the oil and gas out of the stone. The Jordanian government said on June 12th that it had reached agreement with Enefit, an Estonian company, and its partners on a $2.1 billion contract to build a 540MW shale-fuelled power station. Frustratingly for Jordan, as it eyes its rich, oil-drenched Gulf neighbours, the country sits on the world’s fifth-largest oil-shale reserves but has to import 97% of its energy needs.

In Australia, Queensland Energy Resources, another oil-shale company, has just applied for permission to upgrade its demonstration plant to a commercial scale. Production is expected to start in 2018. Questerre Energy, a Canadian company, also said recently that it would start work on a commercial demonstration project, in Utah in the United States.

In all these projects, the shale is “cooked” cheaply, cleanly and productively in oxygen-free retorts to separate much of the oil and gas. In Enefit’s process the remaining solid is burned to raise steam, which drives a generator. So the process produces electricity, natural gas (a big plus in Estonia, a country otherwise dependent on Russian supplies) and synthetic crude, which can be used to make diesel and aviation fuel. The leftover ash can be used to make cement. Enefit’s chief executive, Sandor Liive, says his plants, the first of which started production in December 2012, should be profitable so long as oil prices stay above $75 a barrel (North Sea Brent oil was around $113 this week).

Although the new methods of exploiting the rock are cleaner than old ones, environmentalists still have plenty to worry about. Oil shale varies hugely in quality. Estonia’s is clean, Jordan’s has a high sulphur content, Utah’s is laden with arsenic. Like opencast coal mining, digging up oil shale scars the landscape. Enefit has solved that in green-minded Estonia, by landscaping and replacing the topsoil. Other countries may be less choosy.

Some of the world’s biggest energy firms have also experimented with mining and processing oil shale, only to give up, after finding that it took so much energy that the sums did not add up. However, Shell says it is making progress with a new method it is trying, also in Jordan, in which the shale is heated underground with an electric current to extract the oil.

These rival technologies have yet to prove their reliability at large scale—and they are far from cheap. Mr Liive reckons it will cost $100m to get a pilot project going in Utah (where his firm has bought a disused oil-shale mine), and another $300m to reach a commercial scale. A fall in the oil price could doom the industry, as happened in the 1980s when a lot of shale mines went out of business…America this week loosened its ban on crude exports. If the second shale revolution succeeds, it will have a lot more oil to sell.

Oil shale: Flaming rocks, Economist, June  28, 2014, at 58

Drone Missile Defense

The best time to shoot down a hostile missile is straight after take-off. During this initial “boost phase” it moves more slowly, is easier to spot (because its exhaust plumes are so hot) and presents a bigger target (having not yet ditched its first-stage fuel tanks). A bonus is that the debris may come crashing down on the country that launched it—your enemy—rather than you. But the main advantage of “boost-phase missile defence” is that your military does not have to deal with decoys.   A missile that has breached the atmosphere and begun its midcourse glide can throw off lots of decoys. In the vacuum of space, tinfoil balloons, or clouds of aluminium strips known as chaff, will keep pace with the missile that released them. Not even the American military can distinguish sophisticated decoys from a warhead (though it might manage with crude ones designed by Iran or North Korea, say).

The downside, though, [of a boost-phase missile defense] is that requires speed. Interceptors (anti-missile missiles) fired from sea or land will probably be too late. Ronald Reagan’s proposed solution was “Star Wars”: armed satellites orbiting above hostile nations’ launchpads. It cost a packet, didn’t work and was scrapped in the 1990s. But some experts say the moment has arrived for a sequel: high-altitude drones. North Korea’s arsenal of ballistic missiles could probably be countered if as few as three drones were suitably stationed at all times, says Dale Tietz, a former Star Wars analyst. An American Global Hawk drone, which can fly uninterrupted for 30 hours, held 18km above nearby international waters could probably carry several interceptors fast enough to shoot down missiles heading north towards America, he says. It could be alerted to launches by infrared-sensing satellites already in orbit.

Protecting Israel and Europe from Iranian missiles would be harder. Iran is bigger than North Korea, so interceptors would need to be faster (and therefore larger) to reach deep inside its territory. The Pentagon has started to research drone-missile defence, but should be spending more, says David Trachtenberg, a former deputy assistant defence secretary, because the payoff could be “tremendous”. Such an approach would fail against really big countries like China and Russia (which in any case can launch missiles from undetectable submarines). In one sense this is a plus: what does not work against a country cannot antagonise it. Congress would oppose any system that would spur an arms race, says Kingston Reif of the Centre for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a think-tank.

Supporters of drone-missile defence note that America’s existing system, which aims to shoot down hostile intercontinental ballistic missiles with interceptors fired from Alaska and California, has failed every big test since 2008. Sceptics retort that although American drones are stealthy—dozens went undetected over Pakistan during the hunt for Osama bin Laden—better radar and anti-aircraft batteries could render them vulnerable or force them to patrol too far from their intended targets. If North Korea were to develop faster missiles this problem would be compounded, says David Montague, a former head of the missiles division at Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin), a defence firm.

Two years ago a report by the National Research Council advised the Pentagon to give up the attempt to design a boost-phase missile system. The challenge of keeping interceptors close enough to enemy launchpads is “pretty much insurmountable”, says Mr Montague, who was one of the authors. Which camp will prevail is not yet clear. But if the current system fails its next test, probably this summer, the debate will heat up further.

Missile defence: Star Wars 2: attack of the drones, Economist,  May 17, 2014, at 29