Category Archives: War

A Botanical Treasure: Congo

Situated along the banks of the Congo River, the Yangambi Research Station was in its heyday a booming scientific hub, revered for its invaluable work in the Congo Basin throughout the midcentury.

It wasn’t to last. War, political instability and budget cuts were to hamper the center’s survival after Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) gained independence from its colonial ruler, Belgium, in 1960. The following decades would see skilled staff numbers dwindle, the jungle reclaim its buildings, and the center’s science work come to a stop.  But inside these crumbling walls lay a botanical treasure-trove. Yangambi’s herbarium holds Central Africa’s largest collection of dried plants. In fact, 15% of its 150,000 specimens are so rare, that they can only be found here….

Efforts from the Congolese Institute for Agronomy Research (INERA) could not keep the center running alone.   It was in 2017 that a ‘game changing’ opportunity arrived. INERA and the Meise Botanic Garden partnered with FORETS, a project coordinated by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)and financed by the European Union…Now, the herbarium has benefitted from a facelift – including a new roof, windows and doors, and a water cistern – soon its staff will be trained in modern preservation techniques and new technologies…Digitization of specimens will enable access to researchers around the world.

Excerpts from AHTZIRI GONZALEZ, Protecting Congo’s botanical treasures, CIFOR Press Release, Jan 11, 2019

Planting Electronics in Brains

 An implantable brain device that literally melts away at a pre-determined rate minimizes injury to tissue normally associated with standard electrode implantation, according to research led by a team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. …Thin, flexible neural electrode arrays with fully bioresorbable construction based on patterned silicon nanomembranes (Si NMs) as the conducting component.

“Dissolvable silicon electronics offer an unprecedented opportunity to implant advanced monitoring systems that eliminate the risks, cost, and discomfort associated with surgery to extract current devices used for post-operative monitoring,” said senior co-author Brian Litt, MD,….“This study tested the usefulness of temporary, dissolvable monitoring systems capable of providing continuous streams of data for guiding medical care over predetermined periods of time — from days to months — before dissolving.”

The device is made of layers of silicon and molybdenum that can measure physiological characteristics and dissolve at a known rate, as determined by its thickness. For example, the team used the device to record brain waves in rats under anesthesia, as well as voltage fluctuations between neurons (EEGs), and induced epileptic spikes in intact live tissue. A separate experiment demonstrated a complex, multiplexed array made from these materials that could map rat-whisker sensing capabilities at high resolution.

These electrophysiological signals were recorded from devices placed at the surface of the brain cortex (the outer layer of tissue) and the inner space between the scalp and skull. Chronic measurements were made over a 30-day period, while acute experiments demonstrated device operations over three to four hours.

The type of neurophysiologic features measured by the new device are commonly used for diagnosing and treating such disorders as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, depression, chronic pain, and conditions of the peripheral nervous system. “….

This work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Penn Medicine Neuroscience Center,  and others.

See Next-Gen Electrodes: Proof-of-Concept Animal Study Shows that Flexible, Dissolvable Silicon Electronic Device Holds Promise for Brain Monitoring , Press Release, May 5, 2016

See also Nature Materials

The US Military and the Peripheral Nervous System

How to Hide Nuclear Bombs in the Ocean: Nuclear Submarines

The INS Arihant’s India’s nuclear submarine inaugural voyage in November 2018 was a triumphal step forward in India’s long, often tortuous quest to deploy atomic weapons at sea…  Hiding missiles in the ocean solves these problems, giving India more confidence that its forces could survive a nuclear attack from China or Pakistan, and hit back.But managing such weapons is not easy. One difficulty is ensuring that a submarine can receive orders without giving away its location. India has been building low-frequency radio stations, which use large antennas to propel signals underwater, for this purpose. Yet these are also vulnerable to attack, which is why some nuclear-armed states use airborne transmitters as well.

A second hitch is that the k-15 missiles aboard the Arihant can only fly a puny 750km, which means that the submarine would have to park itself dangerously close to China’s coastline to have a hope of striking big cities. Longer-range missiles, which could be fired from the safety of Indian waters, are in the works. But bigger missiles, and more of them, necessitate a bigger hull. That, in turn, requires that the nuclear-powered subs be fitted with bigger reactors—a fiendish technical challenge.

A third problem is keeping the Arihant safe. Nuclear submarines can only do their job if they can slip silently out of port and into the oceans. They are typically chaperoned by leaner attack submarines. But admirals complain that the navy, whose share of the defence budget has dwindled to 15%, has just 13 of these. The delivery of new French attack subs has been delayed.

Meanwhile India’s nuclear arsenal is swelling. A recent report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a research organisation, estimates that it has 130-140 nuclear warheads, with enough fissile material for 60-70 more. The stockpile, though smaller than Pakistan’s and half the size of China’s, has roughly doubled since 2010. Many of the new warheads will go to sea. A second nuclear submarine, the Arighant, is nearing completion, and a third is in the works.

India’s Nuclear Submarines, Economist,  Nov. 17, 2018, at 44

How to Stop the Chemical Wars of the Future

Stark illustrations of the dangers from chemical weapons can be seen in attacks using toxic industrial chemicals and sarin against civilians and combatants in Syria and toxic industrial chemicals in Iraq, as well as more targeted assassination operations in Malaysia and the United Kingdom, employing VX and novichok nerve agents, respectively. . With the parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) convening a Review Conference to address such issues beginning 21 November 2018, we highlight important scientific aspects .

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a multilateral treaty in effect since 1997 that proscribes the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons “under any circumstances” and requires their destruction within a specified time period. The CWC allows the use of toxic chemicals for a range of industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical, or other peaceful purposes, including law enforcement, as long as the “types and quantities” of chemicals employed are “consistent with such purposes.” …The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is the implementing body of the CWC, comprises the 193 State Parties and a Technical Secretariat that provides technical assistance to States, routinely inspects relevant State and commercial industrial facilities, and monitors activities to ensure compliance. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for overseeing and facilitating the verified destruction of most of the declared chemical weapons stocks produced in the last century—to date totaling more than 96% (69,750 metric tons) of the declared stockpiles of chemical agents.

Although the CWC includes three schedules of toxic chemicals for the application of verification measures, the scope of the CWC is not constrained to these schedules but by its General Purpose Criterion (GPC), which prohibits misuse of toxic chemicals based on intent rather than on this limited list of chemicals.  [This GPC makes it possible to widen the authority of the OPCW. More, specifically issues to consider include]:

1) Riot control agents (RCAs). The CWC defines RCAs—such as tear gas and pepper spray—as “any chemical not listed” in one of its three schedules that can produce “rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”…However, a recurring concern documented by the medical community and human rights monitors has been the widespread misuse of RCAs by police and security forces in excessive quantities, including in hospitals, prisons, homes, and automobiles, where targeted individuals cannot disperse. In such situations, serious injury or death can result from toxic properties of chemicals or from asphyxiation… [It is important to clarify] the nature and scope of “law enforcement” activities and develop guidance as to “types and quantities” of RCAs that can legitimately be used in such circumstances

2) Delivery systems… capable of delivering far greater amounts of RCAs (and potentially other toxic chemicals) over wider areas or more extended distances than current standard law enforcement delivery mechanisms, such as handheld sprays, grenades, and single launched projectiles. Such new systems include large-capacity spraying devices, automatic grenade launchers, multibarrel projectile launchers, large-caliber RCA projectiles, and unmanned ground or aerial vehicles capable of carrying spraying devices or projectile launchers. ..

3) Incapacitating chemical agent (ICA) weapons. Although the CWC permits use of appropriate types and quantities of RCAs for law enforcement, certain countries have conducted research into weapons employing other distinct toxic chemicals, so-called ICAs. Not separately defined under the CWC, ICAs can be considered as a range of toxic chemicals—only one of which [3-quinuclidinyl benzilate (BZ) and two of its immediate precursors] is currently scheduled—including anesthetics and other pharmaceutical chemicals that are purportedly intended to act on the body’s core biochemical and physiological systems, notably the central nervous system (CNS), to cause prolonged but nonpermanent disability. Such CNS-acting chemicals can produce unconsciousness, sedation, hallucination, incoherence, disorientation, or paralysis…An aerosolized mixture of two anesthetics—carfentanil and remifentanil—employed by Russian security forces to end the Moscow theatre siege of October 2002 caused the deaths of 125 of the 900 hostages

Other chemical production facilities (OCPFs) are chemical plants that do not currently produce, but are capable of manufacturing, chemical warfare agents or precursors. At present, a small fraction of declared OCPFs are selected for verification by the OPCW; the Review Conference should consider authorizing a substantial increase in OCPF inspections per year. …Biological and biologically mediated processes for production of discrete organic chemicals  Some products and processes used by the biomanufacturing industry are as relevant to the CWC as those used by other OCPF facilities  The OPCW should  build on the considerable progress made toward developing a network of designated laboratories for the analysis of biomedical and biological samples. Advances in other fields could also facilitate more effective evidence collection, for example, exploring the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles to support reconnaissance, detection, and chain of custody.

Excerpts from  Michael Crowley at al., Preventing Chemical Weapons as Sciences Converge, Science, Nov. 16, 2018

The Sanctions Busters: Germany and France

The steps by Europe’s most powerful countries are part of their campaign to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal after President Trump withdrew the U.S. in May. Their goal is to help European companies continue some business activity with Iran despite sweeping new U.S. sanctions on the country and any company that does business with it.

France or Germany will host the corporation that would handle the payments channel, the diplomats said. If France hosts it, a German official will head the corporation and vice versa. Both countries will help fund the corporation.  The payments channel, known as a special purpose vehicle, or SPV, would use a system of credits to facilitate compensation for goods traded between Iran and Europe—allowing some trade to proceed without the need for European commercial banks to make or receive payments to Iran.

U.S. pressure on Austria and Luxembourg recently prompted those countries to reject European Union requests to host it, raising the prospect that the initiative might collapse, the diplomats said.  The company would be owned directly by participating European governments—an arrangement intended to dissuade the U.S. from directly targeting it with sanctions, diplomats said.

Laurence Norman , France and Germany Step In to Circumvent Iran Sanctions, WSJ, Nov. 26, 2018

Killing Machines: Tiny Spy Satellites

As long as we’ve been launching spy satellites into space, we’ve been trying to find ways to hide them from the enemy. Now, thanks to the small satellite revolution—and a growing amount of space junk—America has a new way to mask its spying in orbit…

The National Reconnaissance Office, the operator of many of the U.S.’s spy sats, refused to answer any questions about ways to hide small satellites in orbit.  In 2014, Russia launched a trio of communications satellites. Like any other launch, spent stages and space debris were left behind in space. Air Force Space Command dutifully catalogued them, including a nondescript piece of debris called Object 2014-28E.  Nondescript until it started to move around in space, that is. One thing about orbits; they are supposed to be predictable. When something moves in an unexpected way, the debris is not debris but a spacecraft. And this object was flying close to the spent stages, maneuvering to get closer.  This fueled speculation that the object could be a prototype kamikaze-style sat killer. Other less frantic speculation postulated that it could be used to examine other sats in orbit, either Russia’s or those operated by geopolitical foes. Either way, the lesson was learned…

Modern tracking radar is supposed to map space junk better than ever before. But small spy satellites that will hide in the cloud of space debris may go undetected, even by the most sophisticated new radar or Earth-based electronic signals snooping.

Excerpts from Joe Pappalardo, Space Junk Could Provide a Perfect Hiding Spot for Tiny Spy Satellites, Popular Mechanics, Nov. 30, 2018

Killing US Enemies: Covert Operations

The U.S. has some of the best special operations units in the world, but they can’t do everything on their own. The American military relies on allied special operators from places like Britain, Iraq, and Israel to collect intelligence and kill enemy insurgents and soldiers. Here are 6 of those special operations commands.

1. SAS and SBS (UK)
These could obviously be two separate entries, but we’re combining them here because they’re both British units that often operate side-by-side with U.S. forces, just with different missions and pedigrees. The Special Air Service (SAS) pulls from the British Army and focuses on counter-terrorism and reconnaissance. The Special Boat Service (SBS) does maritime counter-terrorism and amphibious warfare (but will absolutely stack bodies on land, too).

2. Sayeret Matkal (Israel)
Israel’s Sayeret Matkal has generated rumors and conjecture for decades, and it’s easy to see why when you look at their few public successes…. The commandos in the unit are skilled in deception, direct action, and intelligence gathering…One of their most public recent successes came when they led a daring mission to install listening devices in ISIS buildings, learning of a plan to hide bombs in the battery wells of laptops.

3. French Special Operations Command
French special operations units are even more close-mouthed than the overall specops community…

4. Kommando Spezialkräfte (Germany)
The commandos have reportedly deployed to Syria in recent years to fight ISIS.

5. Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service

6. Afghan National Army Commando Corps
It’s even capable of the rapid nighttime raids that U.S. forces became famous for when they were in the lead in that country…Afghanistan also has the Ktah Khas, a counter-terrorism unit known for daring raids like their 2016 rescue of 59 prisoners in a Taliban hideout.

Logan Nye, We Are The Mighty: 6 foreign special operations units the US relies on to collect intelligence and kill enemy insurgents, Business Insider, Nov. 30, 2018