Monthly Archives: January 2021

A Worldwide Web that Kills with Success

Doubts are growing about the satellites, warships and other big pieces of hardware involved in the command and control of America’s military might. For the past couple of decades the country’s generals and admirals have focused their attention on defeating various forms of irregular warfare. For this, these castles in the sky and at sea have worked well. In the meantime, however, America’s rivals have been upgrading their regular forces—including weapons that can destroy such nodes of power. Both China and Russia have successfully blown up orbiting satellites. And both have developed, or are developing, sophisticated long-range anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.

As a result, America is trying to devise a different approach to C2, as command and control is known in military jargon. The Department of Defense has dubbed this idea “Joint All-Domain Command and Control”, or JADC2. It aims to eliminate vulnerable nodes in the system (e.g., satellites) by multiplying the number of peer-to-peer data links that connect pieces of military hardware directly to one another, rather than via a control center that might be eliminated by a single, well-aimed missile.

The goal, officials say, is to create a network that links “every sensor and every shooter”. When complete, this will encompass sensors as small as soldiers’ night-vision gear and sonar buoys drifting at sea, and shooters as potent as ground-based artillery and aerial drones armed with Hellfire missiles.

One likely beneficiary of the jadc2 approach is Anduril Industries, a Californian firm…Its products include small spy helicopter drones; radar, infrared and optical systems constructed as solar-powered towers; and paperback-sized ground sensors that can be disguised as rocks

Sensors come in still-more-diverse forms than Anduril’s, though. An autonomous doglike robot made by Ghost Robotics of Philadelphia offers a hint of things to come. In addition to infrared and video systems, this quadruped, dubbed v60 q-ugv, can be equipped with acoustic sensors (to recognise, among other things, animal and human footsteps), a millimetre-wave scanner (to see through walls) and “sniffers” that identify radiation, chemicals and electromagnetic signals. Thanks to navigation systems developed for self-driving cars, v60 q-ugv can scamper across rough terrain, climb stairs and hide from people. In a test by the air force this robot was able to spot a mobile missile launcher and pass its location on directly to an artillery team…

Applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) to more C2 processes should cut the time required to hit a target. In a demonstration in September 2020, army artillery controlled by AI and fed instructions by air-force sensors shot down a cruise missile in a response described as “blistering”…

There are, however, numerous obstacles to the success of all this. For a start, developing unhackable software for the purpose will be hard. Legions of machines containing proprietary and classified technologies, new and old, will have to be connected seamlessly, often without adding antennae or other equipment that would spoil their stealthiness…America’s technologists must, then, link the country’s military equipment into a “kill web” so robust that attempts to cripple it will amount to “trying to pop a balloon with one finger”, as Timothy Grayson, head of strategic technologies at DARPA, the defense department’s main research agency, puts it…

Excerpts from The future of armed conflict: Warfare’s worldwide web, Economist,  Jan. 9, 2021

How Germany and China Saved the World from Fossil Fuels

In 2020, 132bn watts of new solar generating capacity were installed around the world; in many places solar panels are now by far the cheapest way to produce electricity. This transformation… was the result of a decisive shift in German government policy happening to coincide with China becoming the dominant force in global manufacturing.

By 2012 Germany had paid out more than €200bn in subsidies for solar energy production. It had also changed the world. Between 2004 and 2010 the global market for solar panels grew 30-fold as investors in Germany and the other countries which followed its lead piled in… By 2012 the price of a panel was a sixth what it had been in 2004, and it has gone on falling ever since… In sunny places new solar-power installations are significantly cheaper than generating electricity from fossil fuels. Installed capacity is now 776gw, more than 100 times what it was in 2004.

That does not mean Germany got exactly what it wanted. Solar power is not the decentralised, communal source of self-sufficient energy the Greens dreamed of; its provision is dominated by large industrial installations. And the panels on those installations are not made by the German companies the Social Democrats wanted to support: Chinese manufacturers trounced them…But they do provide the world with a zero-carbon energy source cheaper than fossil fuels, and there is room for many more of them…

The industry boasts no giants comparable to those in aircraft manufacture or pharmaceuticals, let alone computing; no solar company has a market capitalization of more than $10bn, and no solar CEO is in danger of being recognized on the street. It is a commodity business in which the commodity’s price moves in only one direction and everyone works on very thin margins. Good for the planet—but hardly a gold mine. 

Excerpt from How governments spurred the rise of solar power, Economist Technology Quarterly, Jan 9, 2021 

The Geo-Economics of Rare Earth Minerals

Greenland is rich in rare-earth minerals, and the superpowers want them…These 17 elements are used in  all things electronic. The renewable-energy revolution will also rely on them for power storage and transmission. On the darker side, weapons—including nuclear ones—need them too.

A new open-pit mine at the top of Kuannersuit, a cloud-rimmed mountain near the settlement of Narsaq in the south of Greenland may be rich in rare earth. So believes Greenland Minerals, an Australia-based company, which has been angling for the excavation rights for the past decade.

Greenland’s environment ministry has given a tentative go-ahead. A majority of parliamentarians have already declared themselves in favor of digging. In early February 2020, the townsfolk of Narsaq will hear representations from the island’s government. In Greenland, Urani Naamik (“No to Uranium”), a community lobby, has strong support. Nobody wants (mildly) radioactive dust, an inevitable by-product of mining. Many worry about the waste—a sludge of chemicals and discarded rock fragments—that mining would leave on top of the mountain.

The bigger long-term issue is who gets the mine’s spoils. Shenghe, a Chinese conglomerate, is the largest shareholder in Greenland Minerals. The Danish government, in a frenzy of Atlanticism, earlier managed to stop Chinese companies from investing in the expansion of two airports on the island. Will it preserve Greenland’s rare earths for NATO?

Cloud mining: In search of Greenland’s rare earths, Economist, Jan. 16, 2021, at 41

De-Junking the Space and Saving the Commons

The part of space nearest Earth, known technically as low-Earth orbit, is getting cluttered. Some of the objects up there are working satellites. Some are satellites that have stopped working. Some are stages of the rockets which put those satellites into orbit. And a lot are debris left over from explosions and collisions between larger objects.

The risk of such collisions is increasing, for two reasons. First, the number of satellites being launched is rising. Second, collisions themselves beget collisions. The fragments they create add to the number of orbiting objects. At the moment, more than 20,000 such objects are being tracked, but there may be as many as 1million bigger than 1cm across. In the long term, this accumulation of junk may lead to a chain reaction, known as Kessler syndrome, that would make some low-Earth orbits unusable. Even in the short term it puts lots of expensive hardware at risk. So plans are being laid to send up special craft to “deorbit” redundant satellites and rocket stages. Given the current situation, this is a good, if expensive, idea. But a better one for the future would be to build deorbiting into the life-cycles of satellites and rocket stages from the beginning.

There are several ways of doing this. One is a “launch tax”. But that would load costs onto the satellite industry…A second idea is a space-going “bottle deposit” scheme. Satellite owners would pay an agreed sum into an escrow account that was redeemable when they deorbited their property. If they did not do so, enterprising salvagers could try to do it for them, and claim the deposit if successful. This has the virtue of encouraging built-in deorbiting capability….

The best idea, though, is to attack the problem at its roots. The littering of space is an example of the “tragedy of the commons”, in which no charge is made for the use of a resource that is owned collectively. So why not charge the beneficiaries for the right to put something into orbit and keep it there? The longer an object stays up, the more the satellite owner pays. The more popular (and hence crowded) the orbit chosen, the more expensive it would be to add a satellite to it.

That raises the question of who would do the charging. The Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, assigns responsibility and liability for objects in orbit to the country which launches them, and entreats signatories to avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.  It would make sense for countries with space-launch capability, and thus an interest in keeping space clean, to hammer out a new and specific agreement. A well-crafted treaty would clean up space, cause it to be used more efficiently, and raise some useful revenue from a resource currently exploited for nothing.

To deal with non-participants acting as free-riders, participants might agree to make pariahs of firms that tried to take advantage in this way… Other natural commons, notably the oceans and the atmosphere, have suffered, and still suffer, from a lack of sensible arrangements for their joint exploitation. It is not too late to stop outer space being added to that list.

Excerpt from Decluttering Low-Earth Orbit: New Brooms Needed, Economist, Jan. 16, 2020

Tactical Nuclear Warhead to Respond ‘in Kind’ to Attack: W76-2

The US Navy has now deployed the new W76-2 low-yield Trident submarine warhead. The first ballistic missile submarine scheduled to deploy with the new warhead was the USS Tennessee (SSBN-734)…The W76-2 warhead was first announced in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) unveiled in February 2018. There, it was described as a capability to “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities,” a reference to Russia. The justification voiced by the administration was that the United States did not have a “prompt” and useable nuclear capability that could counter – and thus deter – Russian use of its own tactical nuclear capabilities…

We estimate that one or two of the 20 missiles on the USS Tennessee and subsequent subs will be armed with the W76-2, either singly or carrying multiple warheads. Each W76-2 is estimated to have an explosive yield of about five kilotons.* The remaining 18 missiles on each submarine like the Tennessee carry either the 90-kiloton W76-1 or the 455-kiloton W88. Each missile can carry up to eight warheads under current loading configurations…

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has further explained that the “W76-2 will allow for tailored deterrence in the face of evolving threats” and gives the US “an assured ability to respond in kind to a low-yield nuclear attack.”

Excerpt from William M. Arkin and Hans M. Kristensen, US Deploys New Low-Yield Nuclear Submarine Warhead, FAS, Jan. 29, 2020

*The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons.

Are Hypersonic Weapons Hyped Propaganda?

The United States, Russia, and China are developing an array of hypersonic weapons—maneuverable vehicles that carry warheads through the atmosphere at more than five times the speed of sound. The countries and their defense agencies, such as DARPA, claim that these weapons outperform existing missiles in terms of delivery time and evasion of early warning systems. New research, however, shows that these weapons travel intercontinental distances more slowly than comparable ballistic missiles flying depressed trajectories, and that they remain visible to existing space-based
sensors for the majority of flight. Fundamental physical limitations imposed by low-altitude atmospheric flight render hypersonic missiles an evolutionary—not revolutionary— development relative to established ballistic missile technologies.

Misperceptions of hypersonic weapon performance have arisen from social processes by which the organizations developing these weapons construct erroneous technical facts favoring continued investment in such weapons.

Excerpt from from Cameron L. Tracy and David Wright, Modeling the Performance of Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles, SCIENCE & GLOBAL SECURITY, 2021

Above-the-Speed-of Sound: US Hypersonic Weapons

From the DARPA Website: DARPA’s Operational Fires (OpFires) program, which is developing a ground-launched intermediate-range hypersonic weapons system, is advancing to a new phase. This new phase involves full-scale missile fabrication, assembly, and flight testing from a launch vehicle. It will be  be produced by Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control…OpFires aims to demonstrate a novel system enabling hypersonic boost glide weapons to rapidly and precisely hit critical, time-sensitive targets while penetrating modern enemy air defenses. 

DARPA’s Operational Fires Ground-Launched Hypersonics Program Enters New Phase, Jan. 11, 2021

The Perils of Inhaling Lead Dust: Zambia

Kabwe,  in Zambia,  sprung up around a mine founded in 1904 by the Rhodesian Broken Hill Development Company, a British colonial firm. For decades miners crushed and burnt ore to extract lead. That metal made Kabwe but it also devastated it. To this day lead particles blow across town, making their way into houses and bloodstreams.

Scientists generally consider soil hazardous if it has more than 400mg of lead per kilogram. In three townships near the old mine the soil contains six, eight and 15 times that amount, according to analysis in 2014 by Pure Earth, an environmental ngo. “Kabwe is the most toxic place I’ve ever been to,” says Richard Fuller, its president…

The pollution in Kabwe is a scandal. Yet responsibility for it has long been contested, and that is set to continue. In October 2020, Mbuyisa Moleele Attorneys, a South African law firm, with help from Leigh Day, a British one, announced a class-action lawsuit against a subsidiary of Anglo American on behalf of potentially more than 100,000 children and women of reproductive age in Kabwe. It is targeting Anglo because it was affiliated to the mine from the 1920s until shortly after Zambia’s mines were nationalised in 1970. The suit claims that most of the pollution stems from the period when the mine was under the de facto control of Anglo, which allegedly did not do enough to stop the harm. Anglo rejects the claims, arguing that its involvement ended five decades ago and that, before then, it was neither the operator nor a majority shareholder in the mine and thus not responsible.

The case may take years. The lawyers for the plaintiffs must first convince a South African court to take it on. Only then may it proceed to a trial. Meanwhile children in Kabwe will keep on playing in the dust.

The World Bank included Kabwe in a broader project it funded to clean up Zambian mines. The scheme, which ran from 2003-2011, had some successes. It dredged a toxic canal and buried some contaminated soil. But it did not treat the main source of the dust—the former mine and dumps—and it left roads unpaved and most houses untreated…Another clean-up funded by the bank was started in December 2016. But it, too, is struggling. Some children have been tested and have received therapy to reduce blood lead levels. But since little has been done about the lead in the environment there is a risk their levels will rise again. 

Excerpt from Mining’s Toxic Legacy: Lead Astray, Economist,  Dec. 12, 2020

How to Denude a Country: Military Invasions Dressed Up As Revolutions

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”said Winston Churchill…Deception is still practiced in war.

In its conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenia has bamboozled drones with dummy missiles. During a stand-off with India, China published images of missile launchers that, on closer inspection, turned out to be wobbly inflatables. Indian and Chinese forces alike covered equipment with multispectral nets, which block visible light and other electromagnetic emissions. Engineers keep working on new gadgets. BAE Systems, a defense firm, boasts that its Adaptiv camouflage—a set of thermoelectric tiles that change temperature to match their surroundings—amounts to a “cloak of invisibility”.

European and American military officials describe Russian and Chinese practices with a mixture of distaste and envy. Whereas America’s use of decoys “is currently at a low after two decades of neglect”, notes Walker Mills, an officer in the us Marine Corps, China has invested in them, including a 35kg tank that fits in a backpack and inflates in four minutes. One report by America’s army says that Chinese forces “have the highest fidelity decoys seen to date”.

The laws of armed conflict are fairly clear about battlefield deception. Whereas “perfidy” (such as faking surrender to lure an enemy into an ambush, or disguising a tank as a Red Cross ambulance) is forbidden, “ruses” like decoys, feints and ambushes are fair game. But other laws can be bent or bypassed. Russia snatched Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 by cleverly using unmarked personnel—the so-called little green men—and a synchronized blitz of disinformation. The entire campaign was a deception: an invasion masquerading as a nationalist uprising.

Western armies want to catch up, in some ways at least. “We’ll re-learn deception,” promises General David Berger, head of America’s Marine Corps, who is reforming his force to better evade Chinese sensors in the Pacific. But this cuts against the grain. “There’s a cultural problem here,” says a veteran cia officer who specialized in deception. “I do think you’ll find generals who would feel that it’s fundamentally not a very respectable activity.”

Excerpt from Military Deception: Bodyguard of Lies, Economist, Dec. 19, 2020

The Worst Cultural Calamity of 2020: Blowing Up the 46 000-Year-Old Caves at the Juukan Gorge

In May 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto blasted through two rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in Western Australia in order to mine iron ore. Evidence of human habitation there dates back tens of millennia.  Rio Tinto obtained permission to mine in the area in 2013, a right which was not affected by the discovery of ancient artefacts such as stone relics, faunal remains and human hair in one of the Juukan caves a year later…

Critics of Rio Tinto say there is abundant evidence that the company was aware of the site’s importance before the blasting. For example, the BBC reported that in the days running up to the caves’ destruction in May 2020, Rio Tinto hired lawyers in case opponents tried to seek injunctions to stop them.

Some 7,000 artefacts were discovered during the excavation of one of the Juukan sites.

Excerpt from MERRIT KENNEDY, A Mining Company Blew Up A 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site. Its CEO Is Resigning, NPR, Sept. 11, 2020

The Extra-Ordinary Killing of 2020

A satellite-controlled machine gun with “artificial intelligence” was used to kill in November 2020, Iran’s top nuclear scientist. According to Iran, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was driving on a highway outside Iran’s capital Tehran with a security detail of 11 guards on November 27, 2020 when the machine gun “zoomed in” on his face and fired 13 rounds. The machine gun was mounted on a Nissan pickup and focused only on Fakhrizadeh’s face in a way that his wife, despite being only 25 centimetres away, was not shot…According to Iran, the machine gun was being “controlled online” via a satellite and used an “advanced camera and artificial intelligence” to make the target.

Excerpt from Nuclear scientist killed by satellite-controlled machine gun that “zoomed in” on his face, Iran says, CBS News, Dec. 7, 2020