Friday, May 09, 2014

Are All of China's "Secret Weapons" Just as Fragile as they Seem?

This week, CNN reported that the People’s Liberation Army in China has been using trained macaques as part of its defensive strategy.

These clever primates guard the safety of Chinese Pilots by warding off swarms of birds that threaten planes in mid-flight. The birds could be sucked into plane engines, destroying life and (very expensive) property. The macaques climb up trees where the birds nest, scaring them off, and leave behind a scent that discourages them from returning. 

 "The monkeys are loyal bodyguards who defend the safety of our comrades."

"The monkeys are loyal bodyguards who defend the safety of our comrades," a Chinese news source reported a PLA officer as saying.

The clever primates are being trained and used at air force base in northern China whose location was not disclosed, but which happens to sit along a major migratory route for birds heading south from the Gobi Desert. PLA officers have been joking that they have a new “secret weapon,” controllable with a whistle. 

CNN reports that, in the past, the PLA have employed several different strategies to remove the nests including shooting them out of the treetops, using long bamboo poles to knock them out of trees, and having soldiers climb the trees to remove them. None of these options have been very humanitarian, or very effective due to the birds’ tendency to return and the time-consuming task of removing them. However, when the task is carried out by monkeys, the birds do not return.

 When the nests of birds are discovered on tree tops, the monkey army is deployed to remove them.

But the real story here has much larger implications. If unpredictable swarms birds are all it takes to endanger Chinese military technology, and trained macaques are all it takes to bring down those birds, is this not exposing certain technological weaknesses in Chinese military capability? Why not use swarms of birds to take out China’s air forces on the battlefield? Perhaps the suggestion is ridiculous, but the rabbit hole could go much deeper. Just how strong are those turbine engines? We shouldn’t rule anything out when dealing with China. They certainly haven’t, as evidenced by their using little furry friends to fix this problem.

From the Baltic to the Black - “We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water, and more readiness on the land”

Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin said “We will choke them all.  What are you afraid of?” during a RIA Novosti interview when questioned about the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe.  

 Choke is an interesting verb in this case because it highlights the need for a reassessment of basing and troop levels in EUCOM and the role of strategic ground power in the European theater.  To choke requires the use of hands, or possibly feet and legs if you have a black belt in Judo – like President Putin.  Ground power does what air and sea power have been unable to do, and that is the ability to contain by providing a physical barrier through existence instead of a threat of violence.  Air and sea power require a decision on the part of the coercer to follow through with their threat of violent reprisal.  Ground power, on the other hand, leaves no question of violent action because to violate the boundaries established by ground power requires physically moving the deterring force off the piece of land it occupies.  The United States should vigorously pursue new basing opportunities in Eastern Europe to strengthen NATO resolve against Russian territorial expansionism in the former Soviet sphere.

Since the beginning of February, 2014, NATO has maintained a naval force in the Black, Aegean, and Baltic Seas.  Initially the Black Sea forces were stationed to provide additional security for the Winter Olympics at Sochi, and since then have conducted a series of naval war game exercises.  The presence of missile destroyers and frigates did not halt Russian aggression.  Similarly, several wings of NATO aircraft have been forward deployed to former Warsaw Pact countries.  These aircraft have conducted combat air patrols over the Baltic States, along with AWACS missions over Polish and Romanian airspace to monitor the situation as it develops in the east.  In response the Russian air forces have brazenly defied allied posturing by buzzing US warships, and even going so far as to fly two TU-95 Bears over Dutch airspace.  Though it is not uncommon for Russian aircraft to occasionally enter NATO member countries’ airspace, during such heightened tensions it seems rather suspect.

With the crisis in Ukraine continuing to unravel, many in the West are worried of further Russian backed aggression against the governments of other former Soviet states in Eastern Europe, especially in the weaker Baltic States.  Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all have sizable ethnic Russian populations.  The Russian delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission expressed concern in March that ethnic Russians were being persecuted.  This type of rhetoric when viewed in light of Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine should be taken with serious concern.  Fortunately for the Baltic States and Poland, their membership in NATO provides them with a security umbrella Ukraine was never afforded.  NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen pledged to step air patrols and boost its military presence along the alliance’s eastern border in Europe, citing Russia’s alleged involvement in the Ukrainian crisis.
The United States has taken the lead in deploying ground forces in the Eastern European theater by sending several airborne infantry units and some special operations forces there as well to conduct joint training exercises with the Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian armed forces.  Some 600 soldiers from the 173rd are deployed to the region train NATO forces, along with approximately 140 special operations forces from the 10th Special Forces Group according to the Pentagon.  While these troops are expected to be rotated out and replaced throughout the year, a more permanent solution to the problem of Russian aggression would be to base American troops in the Baltic, Polish, and possibly Romanian territories.  These decisions would of course be incumbent upon a desire on the part of host nations, and for now it the best course of action is to continue and increase the number and level of military training exercises in the NATO member states of Eastern Europe.  When asked if sending the airborne troops were simply symbolic, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said “Any time you put troops on the ground and doing exercises, in this case for a month at a time, it’s more than symbology,” he said. “The kind of work that we’re going to be doing is real infantry training. And that’s not insignificant.”


Navy's New LaWS System to Launch this Summer

As an aspiring diplomat, I usually try to keep weapons out of my usual discourse in favor of peace talks. However, I would like to register my extreme interest (I hesitate to say excitement) in the summer 2014 launch of the US Navy’s LaWS (Laser Weapon System).

My own experience with lasers is limited to Q-Branch’s 1995 Moonraker, and I haven’t been this excited about a laser since then.
I am the reigning champion in pressing Z to fry post-Soviet baddies.

Navy engineers at are putting finishing touches on the prototype, which will launch aboard the USS Ponce for at-sea testing in the Persian Gulf this summer. The launch was announced last year at the 2013 Sea-Air-Space Expo. The project is the fruit of the collaboration between the Office of Naval Research, Naval Sea Systems Command, Naval Research Lab, Naval Surface Warfare Center,  and others. 

Given that the US will likely increase naval capabilities in coming years, this new weapon system is the cutting edge. Such a weapon will be useful in combating asymmetrical air and sea attacks, including drones and small attack boats.  Furthermore, preliminary reviews report that the laser is affordable, precise and efficient at eliminating enemy threats.  The highly accurate targeting system and bottomless magazine are a plus, too.

Does China know about this?? I won’t tell them. I promise.

Interestingly, the laser will be controlled using an almost video-game-like hand-held device. Sailors will be able to adjust the laser's power from “Disable” to “Destroy”.
It’s like a stun-gun and bazooka all rolled into one. 

The Navy plans to continue developing these low-cost, high energy weapons into the next decade. I will be monitoring these developments closely, waiting for the handheld model so that I can reenact my Moonraker days (though hopefully not against Russian henchmen).

The Future of AFRICOM

The following is from

Personnel assigned to AFRICOM pose for a picture in front of a deep Afro-German jungle.

STUTTGART, GERMANY — A soldier assigned to Africa Command appeared extremely confused and angry after landing in Germany, which is apparently not Africa, or even in Africa, sources confirmed.  After his transport plane landed, Private First Class Eric Lynch could hardly contain his excitement after “receiving the posting of his dreams” at AFRICOM.

The newest combatant command, AFRICOM is responsible for the entire continent of Africa except Egypt.
Envisioning visits to exotic locales, Lynch dreamed of travelling from South Africa to the Sahara on myriad adventures, befriending local tribesmen, and collecting souvenirs that would be the envy of his peers the world over. “I thought maybe I might even write a book about my journeys when it was all over,” Lynch told reporters.
Unfortunately for Lynch, none of that would come to pass. The young soldier — who did absolutely no research into the command — was dismayed when the bus from the airport dropped him off at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, and the sergeant greeted him with, “welcome to AFRICOM!”

“It was such bullshit,” sobbed the grief stricken private. “If I wanted to go to Germany I would have asked for European Command. Who the hell put the AFRICOM headquarters in Germany? Probably the same dumbass that decided to put the 10th Mountain Division in a place with no fucking mountains.”

All jokes aside, AFRICOM and US Army Africa will be called upon in the coming years to deter threats across the continent as African nations continue to struggle against internal and transnational threats that thrive in a weak security environment.  Unlike other combatant commands, AFRICOM - which has only one base on the continent at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti - has relatively few land, air, or naval assets to deploy across the continent.  Instead, its primary strategy is to build partner nation capacity.  To accomplish this mission, AFRICOM has partnered with the Department of State through the Africa Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA) program.  The initiative is designed to improve African militaries’ capabilities by providing selected training and equipment necessary for multinational peace support operations. U.S. Africa Command supports the ACOTA program by providing military mentors, trainers, and advisors at the request of State Department.

ACOTA provides a full range of peacekeeping training and instruction tailored to match a country’s needs and capabilities.  African soldiers are trained on a laundry list of soldiering skills including convoy escort procedures, refugee management, and small-unit command skills; overseeing exercises for battalion, brigade, and multinational force headquarters personnel; providing equipment to partner nations, including mine detectors, field medical equipment, uniforms, and water purification devices; conducting refresher training periodically to ensure that trained units maintain their capabilities; and training African trainers, who in turn train their own nation’s soldiers in peacekeeping skills.

Since 1997, the U.S. has provided training and non-lethal equipment to more than 215,000 peacekeepers from African partner militaries in 238 contingent units. ACOTA’s 25 partners include Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia.

Boko Haram, the Lord's Resistance Army, Al-Shabab, Ansar al-Sharia - these are just four of the dozens of tribal and sectarian militias that plague the continent.  Boko Haram has received much media coverage of late after kidnapping over 300 school girls to sell into slavery just in the last month.  The American response has been criticized by some media spokesmen for not being robust enough - sending coordination and intelligence analysis personnel rather than a whole brigade of Soldiers and Marines to beat through the bush looking for these kidnappers.  Political posturing aside, the talking heads may have struck upon greater insight than they realize.

As part of Operation Enduring Freedom - Horn of Africa, the United States established Combined Joint Task Force - Horn Of Africa (CJTF-HOA) in October, 2002.  The CJTF-HOA mission continues is to conduct operations in the Combined Joint Operations Area to enhance partner nation capacity, promote regional security and stability, dissuade conflict, and protect U.S. and coalition interests.  They hunt pirates and train Africans how to fight their own fights - and occasionally conduct a JSOC raid here or there to kill or capture members of Al-Qaeda and their affiliates.

In terms of success, CJTF-HOA has few rivals.  Data released by the Navy in 2012 showed 46 pirate attacks in the area that year, compared with 222 in all of 2011 and 239 in 2010. Nine of the piracy attempts in 2012 were successful, according to the data, compared with 34 successful attacks in all of 2011 and 68 in 2010.

United States Africa Command should be allowed to expand their foot print in terms of assistance and training programs such as ACOTA, while also being authorized to do direct action themselves in the form of a CJTF-HOA type task force based in friendly areas troubled by transnational crime and piracy - such as Nigeria and their experience with oil piracy and Boko Haram.  

Defeat Boko Haram with What They Fear Most

The Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram has been in the news consistently over the past week with their abduction of over 200 schoolgirls.  Students in the eastern town of Chibok, the girls were kidnapped in accordance with Boko Haram’s violent stance against Western education.  Many of the girls are Christian (though several are Muslim); Boko Haram had threatened to kidnap Christian women in retaliation for the arrest of members' wives by Nigerian government forces.

Additionally, and most disturbingly, it has been reported that the group intend to forcibly marry the girls and use them as sex slaves to swell their numbers. A relatively young group, Boko Haram was established in 2002 and began military operations in 2009 with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the Nigerian government to establish an Islamic state. Conflicting reports suggest, however, that Boko Haram really only wants to bargain the release of several of their officers and are acting out due to limited opportunities in their home regions of Northern Nigeria.
Over 50 of the girls have managed to escape, but hundreds more are in need of rescue. 

The Nigerian government has been slow to react with this huge latest offense from Boko Haram due to weak infrastructure and lack of trust between Abjua and local leaders. Abuja fears the stunt is a political trap, and in any case lack the security forces and equipment necessary to pursue the group and rescue the girls. 

Providing foreign assistance to Nigeria has been tricky in the past due to strong national pride and sense of sovereignty. It has also rejected the idea of establishing Africom in Abuja, preferring to fund its own security infrastructure including an as of yet unsuccessful drone program. Just this past week, the World Economic Forum was held in Abuja, and with increased international attention, Nigeria seems to have relented somewhat on this issue.

However, defeating Boko Haram will not come from external powers. Many people in Nigeria’s north feel marginalized in Nigerian society and excluded from wealth and opportunity. Congress for Progressive Change Secretary Bubu Galadima spoke with BBC News: “If people feel they are being denied anything or an injustice is being meted out to them then there is a likelihood that they will take the law into their own hands and help themselves." Perhaps the best way to approach the problem is not with tanks, guns or drones... but to build societal infrastructure from the bottom up. The Nigerian government could start to provide better opportunities for the youth of Northern Nigeria… including education. This could stop the cycle for the future. But for now, #bringbackourgirls.

"What are you doing? Those are dead batteries."

After 13 years of continuous ground operations overseas, the dismounted Infantryman continues to be overburdened while conducting modern combat operations.  Soldiers and Marine carry approximately 100lbs of equipment during a typical 72-hour mission.  This is over double the weight his father carried during Vietnam, and almost triple what his grandfather carried during Korea and World War Two.  Where does all this weight come from?  Is it poor unit discipline?  Are Infantrymen taking too much gear into operations?  No the fault lies with the design of modern mission essential equipment that simply weighs too much.

The U.S. Army, recognizing the detriment to Soldier readiness and combat effectiveness has set out to significantly lighten the load of the Infantryman.  Fortunately, the second decade of the 21st century has been an exciting time for those concerned with the development of energy and materials technologies.  One in particular, the development microbatteries utilizing “Interdigitated Three-Dimensional Bicontinuous Nanoporous Electrodes” at the University of Illinois, will provide the means for greatly reducing the burden on the modern Infantryman.  Shown below is a team of Army Infantrymen in Afghanistan - half of the weight of the radio carried by the kneeling Soldier is in the battery.

The project, supported through funding from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, the The Department of Energy, The National Science Foundation and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, will facilitate the development of dramatically longer lasting and smaller batteries as well as improved communications and computing technologies.   Though the current design is too costly to be economical, and scientists at the University of Illinois are striving to develop production methods that can be scaled up for commercial production

  Shown above is a General Dynamics PRC-155 man-pack radio.

 The problem of most modern combat support technologies, such as GPS, laser designators, and man-pack radio systems, is that they require large amounts of power and energy.  So far, this has been solved through conventional Lithium-ion batteries, but even the best designs require trade-offs between power and energy density.  Recharge times are slow, as rapid recharge of conventional Li-ion batteries reduces their overall life span.  This is where the University of Illinois’ battery, with a higher power density than a super-capacitor, and but the same energy density as current lithium-ion batteries, could make its most noticeable impact.  This new battery is rechargeable and can be charged in 1/1,000 the time needed for conventional Li-ion batteries.  It also has a power density approximately 30 times that of Li-ion batteries.  The graph below shows the University of Illinois battery (A123) in comparison to current forms of batteries and supercapacitors.

The high performance is due to the battery’s internal three-dimensional nanostructure. All batteries have some form of two main components, an anode and a cathode.  The University of Illinois team under Prof. William King built upon a fast-charging cathode design created by Prof. Paul Braun’s group, also of the University of Illinois.  King’s team developed a matching anode and then developed a way to integrate the two components at the microscopic scale.  The scientists created a lattice of tiny polystyrene spheres, filled the space in and around the structure with metal, then dissolved the spheres to leave a three-dimensional metal scaffold onto which a nickel-tin alloy was added to form the anode and a mineral called manganese oxyhydroxide to form the cathode.  A good representation of this concept is shown here below.

This greatly increase energy and power density means that an Infantryman will soon be required to carry batteries weighing 1/30th the weight of the previous generation model, without the need for replacements.  Knowing the Army and Marine Corps, Infantrymen will carry a back up - just in case.  Still, that alone drops the weight by 14 lbs.  The secondary effect is that convoys will no longer be required to haul pallets of batteries from one FOB to another - endangering themselves along the way.  Perhaps the best quality is their rapid recharge times.  As Infantryman begin to field solar electric generators, these batteries will be an ideal partner technology - requiring seconds to charge instead of hours.