Category Archives: War

A Hypersonic Death: The Race to Develop Hypersonic Weapons

For decades, the U.S. military—and its adversaries—have coveted missiles that travel at hypersonic speed, generally defined as Mach 5 (5 times the speed of sound) or greater . Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) meet that definition when they re-enter the atmosphere from space. But because they arc along a predictable ballistic path, like a bullet, they lack the element of surprise. In contrast, hypersonic weapons such as China’s waverider maneuver aerodynamically, enabling them to dodge defenses and keep an adversary guessing about the target.

The US Department of Defense (DOD) is leading a new charge, pouring more than $1 billion annually into hypersonic research. Competition from ambitious programs in China and Russia is a key motivator. Although hype and secrecy muddy the picture, all three nations appear to have made substantial progress in overcoming key obstacles, such as protecting hypersonic craft from savage frictional heating. Russia recently unveiled a weapon called the Kinzhal, said to reach Mach 10 under its own power, and another called Avangard that is boosted by a rocket to an astonishing Mach 27. China showed off a rocket-boosted hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) of its own, the Dongfeng-17, in a recent military parade. The United States, meanwhile, is testing several hypersonic weapons. “It’s a race to the Moon sort of thing,” says Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “National pride is at stake.”

China’s military sees hypersonic weapons (as well as cyberwarfare and electromagnetic pulse strikes) as an “assassin’s mace”: a folklore term for a weapon that gives an advantage against a better-armed foe. If tensions were to spike over Taiwan or the South China Sea, for instance, China might be tempted to launch preemptive strikes with conventional hypersonic weapons that could cripple U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean.For now, maneuverability at hypersonic speeds makes the weapons nearly impossible to shoot down—unstoppable…

At hypersonic speeds,  “You’re flying under extraordinary conditions”—extreme velocities, forces, and temperatures.  At hypersonic  speeds “temperatures start to get high enough to worry about… A vehicle’s survival requires resilient superalloys and ultra–high-temperature ceramics. And perhaps novel coolants…

Other nations are chasing the trio of leaders—or teaming up with them. Australia is collaborating with the United States on a Mach 8 HGV, and India with Russia on a Mach 7 Hypersonic Cruise Missile (HCM). France intends to field an HCM by 2022, and Japan is aiming for an HGV in 2026.

THE United States is largely defenseless against such weapons, at least for now, in part because it can’t track them…To remedy that shortcoming, the Pentagon plans to launch hundreds of small satellites with sensors capable of tracking heat sources an order of magnitude cooler than rocket boosters. The full Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor network could be up and running by 2030, he adds. (The satellites would also be used to help guide U.S. hypersonic weapons.)  Once you have such sensors, “we can find a way to build the interceptors…Interceptors could destroy a hypersonic vehicle either by colliding with it or by detonating a warhead nearby. But Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is also exploring using directed energy: lasers, neutral particle beams, and microwaves or radio waves.

Richard StoneJan, National pride is at stake.’ Russia, China, United States race to build hypersonic weapons, Science, Jan 10, 2020

Algorithms as Weapons –Tracking,Targeting Nuclear Weapons

 
New and unproved technologies—this time computer systems capable of performing superhuman tasks using machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI)—threaten to destabilise the global “strategic balance”, by seeming to offer ways to launch a knockout blow against a nuclear-armed adversary, without triggering an all-out war.

A report issued in November by America’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a body created by Congress and chaired by Eric Schmidt, a former boss of Google, and Robert Work, who was deputy defence secretary from 2014-17, ponders how AI systems may reshape global balances of power, as dramatically as electricity changed warfare and society in the 19th century. Notably, it focuses on the ability of AI to “find the needle in the haystack”, by spotting patterns and anomalies in vast pools of data…In a military context, it may one day find the stealthiest nuclear-armed submarines, wherever they lurk. The commission is blunt. Nuclear deterrence could be undermined if AI-equipped systems succeed in tracking and targeting previously invulnerable military assets. That in turn could increase incentives for states, in a crisis, to launch a devastating pre-emptive strike. China’s rise as an AI power represents the most complex strategic challenge that America faces, the commission adds, because the two rivals’ tech sectors are so entangled by commercial, academic and investment ties.

Some Chinese officials sound gung-ho about AI as a path to prosperity and development, with few qualms about privacy or lost jobs. Still, other Chinese fret about AI that might put winning a war ahead of global stability, like some game-playing doomsday machine. Chinese officials have studied initiatives such as the “Digital Geneva Convention” drafted by Microsoft, a technology giant. This would require states to forswear cyber-attacks on such critical infrastructure as power grids, hospitals and international financial systems.  AI would make it easier to locate and exploit vulnerabilities in these…

One obstacle is physical. Warheads or missile defences can be counted by weapons inspectors. In contrast, rival powers cannot safely show off their most potent algorithms, or even describe AI capabilities in a verifiable way….Westerners worry especially about so-called “black box” algorithms, powerful systems that generate seemingly accurate results but whose reasoning is a mystery even to their designers.

Excerpts from Chaguan: The Digital Divide, Economist, Jan 18, 2019

Making Friends with Radioactive Waste: the Nuclear Dump of Moscow

Russian environmental activists and residents are sounding the alarm (in December 2019) over government plans to build a motorway near a Soviet-era radioactive waste site in southeast Moscow that they fear could spew dangerous particles into the air.  The 34-km (21-mile) road, which city authorities say is safe and will help ease traffic, is set to pass the Moscow Polymetal Plant and a fenced-off site where it disposed of radioactive substances decades ago.  Vasily Desyatkov, a senior city construction official, said surface and underground tests carried out where the foundations of the road were due to be laid had turned back normal readings that show there is no risk.

But that has not placated activists who have led a series of protests in recent months.  “It could lead to the release of radionuclides contained in the soil which will be dispersed with the dust. They will be spread everywhere – on people’s feet, car wheels, anything,” said Igor, a protester.

The site, the Moscow Polymetals Plant’s slag heap, is Just 13 kilometers from the Kremlin and steps from Kolomenskoye Park, a popular spot for Muscovites to ski in winter and picnic in summer, the Moskvorechye-Saburovo hill is the most contaminated of the bunch, according to Radon, a government agency tasked with locating and clearing radioactive waste. A legacy of a rushed Soviet effort to begin nuclear research as the race to build an atomic bomb gained steam in the 1930s, the hill is one of many contaminated sites across Russia …

Moskvorechye-Saburovo District Moscow

It contains tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste left over after the extraction of thorium and uranium from ore. The factory ceased production of metals in 1996 for “environmental reasons,” according to its website — it now produces weapons and military equipment — and the dump is now a hill half a kilometer wide sloping down to the banks of the Moscow River.  City officials had been considering a full-scale clean-up for years, but never rubber-stamped a plan due to the risky location of the site near a source of water for Moscow’s southern suburbs. 

“Operations in such an environment are a serious engineering challenge — one incautious step, and radioactive soil gets into the river,” said Alexander Barinov, Radon’s chief engineer for Moscow…. “Full decontamination by removing all of the radioactive waste is simply impossible,” he added, noting that Radon every year conducts “a kind of therapy” to ensure the site’s safety — in short, dumping dirt on top of the waste to keep it buried after topsoil runoff each spring. 

Excerpts from Russians protest over plans to build road near Soviet-era radioactive waste site, Reuters, Dec. 10, 2019; Will a Road Through a Nuclear Dumping Ground Result in ‘Moscow’s Chernobyl’?, Moscow Times, July 16, 2019

Sea Turtle Trapped in Floating Cocaine Bales

Some Things Are Always the Same: Drug Trafficking from Netherlands to East Africa

Having fallen during the global financial crisis, production of hard drugs is now as high as it has ever been… In the rich world, too, drug use is climbing again… And in countries from eastern Europe to Asia, demand for recreational drugs is growing with incomes.  Most of these drugs have to be smuggled from places such as Afghanistan and Colombia to users, mostly in America and Europe.

Police from Britain and the Netherlands have cracked down on shipments through the Caribbean, so traffickers are moving their product through west Africa instead. That means that the violence and corruption that has long afflicted Latin America is spreading….The increase in production of drugs “probably affects Africa more than anywhere else”, says Mark Shaw of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, a think-tank, because many African states are fragile. Smugglers easily bypass or co-opt their institutions and officials. Drug markets, like other forms of organised crime, thrive best in places where the governments cannot or will not resist them. Trafficking then makes weak, dirty institutions even weaker and dirtier.

Guinea-Bissau’s appeal is partly geographic. The country is a mere 3,000km from Brazil—about as close as Africa and South America get—and reachable by small aircraft fitted with fuel bladders. With over 80 islands, most uninhabited, it is easy to drop off drugs undetected, or to smuggle them in from boats. In the early days of the trade, when cocaine washed up on beaches, locals did not know what it was and used it as detergent or make-up. Now they know.  Guinea-Bissau’s politics are ideal for drug barons. Politicians need money and violence to gain and hold high office. Cocaine can pay for both.  Electoral campaigns involve hundreds of cars, huge wodges of cash and even helicopters, none of which is readily available in a poor country. 

Guinea-Bissau is not the only place in west Africa to be afflicted by cocaine. In February 2019,  nine tonnes were found in a ship in Cape Verde. In June police in Senegal seized 800kg hidden in cars on a boat from Brazil.  East Africa is plagued by heroin.

What are the consequences of the shift in smuggling routes? Drugs need not cause wars—if they did, the Netherlands, which produces much of the world’s ecstasy, would be a hellhole. But they do give people something to fight over, and bankroll armed groups that were already fighting for other reasons….Being a transit country has other downsides. Smugglers often pay their contacts in drugs to sell locally. The world’s second-biggest market for cocaine is Brazil, a major transit country. Heroin is a scourge in east Africa; crack cocaine bedevils west Africa….Mexico offers a glimpse of how drug-trafficking may further evolve. As demand in the United States has changed, due to the partial legalisation of cannabis and a surge in opioid use, traffickers have diversified. Tighter security on the border also favours heroin and fentanyl, which are less bulky. A truckload of marijuana is worth about $10m, says Everard Meade of the University of San Diego. $10m of cocaine would fill the boots of several cars. But $10m of heroin can be smuggled inside two briefcases.

So long as drugs are illegal, criminals will profit from them. Whatever the police do, cartels will adapt…In Britain some Colombians now run vertically integrated businesses—controlling supply at every level from production in the Amazon down to distribution in British cities… Italian traffickers have hired divers in Brazil to attach magnetic boxes filled with drugs to the bottom of ships, to be removed by a second set of divers when the ships arrive in Europe.

Excerpts from Drug Trafficking: Changing Gear, Economist, Nov. 23, 2019 

The Jihadist Mafia: Controlling the Gold of Sahel

Burkina Faso is struggling to contain a fast-growing jihadist insurgency. Along with Mali and Niger, it has become the main front line against terrorists in the Sahel, a dry strip of land that runs along the edge of the Sahara. This year alone the conflict has killed more than 1,600 people and forced half a million from their homes in Burkina Faso….A worrying new trend is a battle by jihadists and other armed groups to take control of the region’s gold rush.

Although gold has long been mined in the region…it has boomed in recent years with the discovery of shallow deposits that stretch from Sudan to Mauritania. International mining companies have invested as much as $5bn in west African production over the past decade, but the rush has also lured hundreds of thousands of unsophisticated “artisanal” miners. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO, reckons that more than 2m people are involved in small-scale mining in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. In total they dig up 40-95 tonnes of gold a year, worth some $1.9bn-4.5bn.

Artisanal Mining’s Claustrophobic Conditions

This rush—in a region where states are already weak and unable to provide security—has sucked in a variety of armed groups and jihadists, including the likes of Ansar Dine and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara…The jihadists probably have direct control of fewer than ten mines…But they have influence over many more. In some areas artisanal miners are forced to pay “taxes” to the jihadists. In others, such as Burkina Faso’s Soum province, the miners hire jihadists to provide security… Other armed groups such as ethnic militias are also in on the bonanza and collect cash to guard mines. International mining firms may also be funding the jihadists by paying ransoms for abducted employees or “protection” money to keep mining, according to a study published by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries.

For the moment much of Burkina Faso’s artisanal production is sneaked into Togo… Togo does not produce much gold domestically but it sent more than 12 tonnes of gold to Dubai in 2016. Gold is also taken out of the Sahel through major airports in hand luggage. 

The resource curse: How west Africa’s gold rush is funding jihadists, Economist, Nov. 16, 2019

Assassinations and Top Secret Chemicals: the case of Novichok Nerve Agent

In 2018, one of the Novichok nerve agents was used in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy on U.K. soil—spurring the United States and allies to lift the veil of secrecy and mount a drive to outlaw the obscure class of nerve agents, concocted in a Soviet weapons lab during the height of the Cold War. Now, their effort to amend the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is about to pay off.

On 9 October, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that administers the treaty, reviewed a revised proposal from Russia that would bring Novichoks under the treaty’s verification regime, along with a class of potential weapons known as carbamates. If the Russian proposal and a similar one from the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands are approved at a treaty review meeting in December 2019.

The newfound glasnost on Novichoks, also known as fourth-generation nerve agents, should spur research on their mechanism of action and on countermeasures and treatments.   Chemical weapons experts had been whispering about Novichoks for decades.   Treaty nations have long resisted adding Novichoks to the CWC’s so-called Schedule 1 list of chemical weapons, which compels signatories to declare and destroy any stockpiles. “People were worried about a Pandora’s box,” fearing such a listing would force them to regulate ingredients of the weapons, Koblentz says. That could hamper the chemical industry and might clue in enemies on how to cook them up. (Who has the agents now is anyone’s guess.) Indeed, the U.S. government for years classified the Novichok agents as top secret. “There was a desire among Western countries to keep the information as limited as possible to avoid proliferation issues,” Koblentz says.

The 2018 assassination attempt against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, U.K., thrust the Novichok agents into the spotlight. The botched attack gravely sickened Skripal, his daughter Yulia, two police officers who investigated the crime scene, and a couple—Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess—who a few months later happened on a perfume bottle containing the agent. After long hospitalizations, the Skripals, the officers, and Rowley recovered; Sturgess died. The United Kingdom charged two Russian men, reportedly military intelligence officers, as the alleged assailants, and obtained a European warrant for their arrest; they remain at large in Russia.

Excerpts from Richard Stone, Obscure Cold War nerve agents set to be banned, Science, Oct. 25, 2019

How to Engineer Bacteria to Search for Underground Chemical Weapons: DARPA

U.S. military researchers asked in 2019 two companies to develop new kinds of biological sensors that can detect underground disturbances or the presence of buried chemicals or weapons.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., are looking to Raytheon BBN Technologies, and Signature Science, for the BioReporters for Subterranean Surveillance program.  This project seeks to use indigenous and engineered organisms to sense changes of interest to military commanders in natural and built environments. Raytheon BBN and Signature Science won separate $1.6 million contracts for the Subterranean Surveillance progam.

The two companies will perform laboratory research and proof-of-concept demonstrations of biological sensing systems in well- controlled field tests that take advantage of recent advances in microbial science and synthetic biology to develop biological sensors, signal transducers, and reporters that can reveal subterranean phenomena at a distance.  Bio Reporters should be able to sense a phenomenon at least one meter below the surface, propagate a signal to the surface within seven days, and be continuously detectable on the surface at a distance of 10 meters over the subsequent seven days.

DARPA researchers want Raytheon BBN and Signature Science experts to take advantage of the extensive biological networks that exist underground to monitor large areas to increase the military’s ability to detect subterranean events without the need for precise coordinates.

Excerpts from John Keller, Researchers eye new biological sensors to to detect underground objects like buried chemicals and weapons, https://www.militaryaerospace.com,  Nov. 6, 2019

In more detail  Signature Science and its partner, the Texas A&M University Center for Phage Technology, aim to leverage modern and synthetic phage biology and the straightforward molecular genetics of the harmless soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis to generate a new platform to recognize and report on specific chemical threats underground. The Spore-Phage Amplified Detection (SPADe) method, potentially extensible to explosives, radiation or physical disturbance sensing, seeks to substantially advance currently used techniques which rely heavily on manual soil testing.