January 31, 2013
“Disaggregation” is the word you want on your bingo card if you’re following the military satellite business these days. After spending decades focused on aggregation — that is, packing as many capabilities as they can onto one satellite to get the most bang for their buck in a single launch — the military is starting to think about reversing this trend. Disaggregation, then, is sending up less complex systems in smaller packages, but larger quantities. Threats of budget sequestration have allowed supporters, who argue this strategy will cut costs, to really turn up the volume.
Yesterday, the George C. Marshall Institute and the TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council held a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. as a way to turn an idea into a full-blown conversation. The U.S. Air Force has already decided that 2015 is the go or no-go time for disaggregating two important space missions: secure communications (which includes nuclear command and control) and weather forecasting. Representatives from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Horizons Strategy Group (a consultant on security technology) spoke on the panel, along with the former director of space policy at the National Security Council.
There are three primary arguments for disaggregation: resiliency, promoting “tech refresh,” and affordability. A constellation of disaggregated satellites would be more resilient because if one was destroyed (by an enemy or otherwise), it would only affect that one system; whereas destruction of one of the current, larger milsats would be a massive blow to a whole host of systems. It would promote a constant refreshing of technology because lead times (and lifetimes) would be much shorter. As Horizons CEO Josh Hartman noted, instead of a satellite taking eight years to build, with a lifetime of up to 25 years — which inevitably saddles users with decades-old tech — a move to small, simple satellites that take only a year or two to build would let designers and engineers stay more current. And the potentially lower cost, meaning lower risk, of these satellites would let the engineers “push the envelope” and take chances on new technology.
Affordability seems like the easiest point to make, and this is hardly the first time someone has argued for smaller, cheaper military satellites. But not everyone agrees. Lockheed’s Marc Berkowitz held the mild dissenter’s seat at the table: “The assertion that disaggregation will save taxpayer money needs to be proven. More platforms means more launches to get them to orbit.” And while losing one small satellite is better than losing one massive satellite, Berkowitz pointed out that enemies might consider the risk for retribution lower for taking one down. Furthermore, the biggest obstacle toward disaggregation right now is simply that there isn’t really a plan for the transition, nor many models that actually analyze the resilience and cost factors. Essentially, supporters are just going by their instincts that smaller and faster is by definition better.
Hartman from Horizons explained that there are steps the military can take now to test some of these theories, most of which involve taking a current spacecraft that needs upgrades or repairs, and instead of fixing it, disaggregating it into smaller replacement satellites. Between now and 2015 the Pentagon can work on creating reliable models, based on these kinds of experiments, before deciding that swarms of smallsats are the way to go.
July 27, 2012
Watching the Royal Navy’s HMS Ocean squeak past the Thames barrier to provide security for the Olympic Games got us wondering. What lies beneath London’s historic river?
You might be surprised: A Zeppelin from a 1916 bombing run. Two Hawker Hurricanes lost in 1940. A Junkers Ju 88 shot down in 1941. The remainder of two Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses that collided mid-air in 1944.
And that’s not all. As historian Peter Ackroyd writes in Thames: The Biography, “It was estimated, at the end of [World War II], that approximately 15,000 high-explosive bombs, 350 parachute mines, 550 flying bombs and 240 rockets had fallen upon the Thames and dockland in the course of 1,400 raids. It may have been surmised that to destroy the Thames was, essentially, to destroy England; but the river, and the country, somehow survived.”
The Zeppelin L-15 was one of five airships that raided the east and northeast coasts of England on April 1, 1916, killing 28 people and wounding 44. The L-15 was brought down at the mouth of the Thames: “the airship’s back had been broken by gunfire, her gondolas were riddled with shrapnel bullets,” reported the New York Times on April 2. “She came down like a sick bird, flopping at both ends as though they were wings,” said a sailor who watched the airship descend.
The Thames is just 215 miles long—by comparison, the Mississippi River meanders for almost 4,000 miles—and almost 100 aircraft were lost in the river during World War II alone. During the first few months of the war, more than 100 ships were sunk in the Thames Estuary, taken out by German magnetic mines.
It’s difficult to determine how much of this debris remains to be recovered. When approach channels were being dredged for London Gateway (a deep-sea container port that will open in 2013), marine archaeologists noted, “Although World War II took place only 70 years ago, records of the positions of aircraft lost at sea are often vague or incomplete.”
As recently as April, an unexploded 1,650-lb German mine was detonated in the Thames estuary, propelling water and ash nearly 400 feet into the air.
July 24, 2012
While the world’s Olympic athletes prepare for combat in the sports arena, the British Army is preparing to handle more serious attacks, in part by placing missiles on London rooftops.
Fred Wigg Tower isn’t among London’s 20 tallest buildings. In fact, at just 17 stories, it’s barely 155 feet tall. (In contrast, London’s tallest, the Shard, is more than 1,000 feet.) But what the East London public housing project lacks in height, it makes up for with location, location, location: The building has one of the best vantage points across London’s Olympic Park.
The tower, which hosted a rooftop battery of missiles during a test deployment in early May, is one of six sites chosen to have rooftop surface-to-air missiles during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games; it’s the first time that missile batteries have been positioned inside London since World War II.
The tenants of Fred Wigg tower block went to court to stop the missiles being placed on their rooftop, arguing that the installation would make their building a target for terrorist attacks. (They lost their court case.) Says David Enright, the residents’ lawyer, in this video from July 10, “The clear implication is that the Ministry of Defence now has the power to militarize the private homes of any person in Britain, so long as they can demonstrate that there is, in their view, a matter of national security in play.”
Not everyone is dismayed by the thought of missiles dotting London’s landscape. The Telegraph reported that one Duncan Simpson posted video of himself at the controls of an anti-aircraft missile launcher on his Facebook page. “After a couple of points this evening the army kindly allowed my friend and I to have a play with their weapons of mass destruction up on Blackheath [south east London],” he wrote. The Rapier surface-to-air missile, with a range of five miles, is capable of shooting down a 747 passenger jet.
November 7, 2011
For 30 seconds beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, November 9, every television and radio station in every U.S. state and a few of its territories, both broadcast and cable, will offer different programming than usual. Wednesday’s message will be continuous whether by audio, video, or digital stream: This is a Test.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has assured the public that “it’s not pass or fail.” It’s simply the first nationwide trial of the emergency alert system (EAS).
That system has been tested on a local basis every week for the last 15 years, when EAS replaced the emergency broadcast system. But it’s never been tested simultaneously from shore to shore. For one thing, it takes a lot of coordination: from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service. Weather alerts, unsurprisingly, have comprised most of the genuine, local uses of EAS.
But EAS’s roots are not in storm warnings. Sixty years ago, a national system, CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), was established in case of an air raid during the Cold War. Before CONELRAD, urgent news arrived by telephone or teletype machine to radio stations and fledgling TV networks, where a bulletin was typed in haste and handed to an announcer to read breathlessly on air. In March 1951, an FCC study recommended to President Harry Truman that “basic key stations” of the air defense command (ADC) and select radio stations reserve a special phone circuit and radio frequency to ensure a uniform and sober distribution.
On December 10, 1951, CONELRAD went live on two positions of the AM dial, 640 and 1240 kHz. It was tested nationally for the first time in the wee hours of September 16, 1953. By the summer of 1956, nationwide tests ran as long as 15 minutes and included a selection of tunes by the Air Force Symphony Orchestra. Almost from the start, though, the system gave false alarms from poorly wired connections or even lightning. Once a station on the CONELRAD circuit began transmitting, all other radio stations were to power down.
Commercial radio stations were often based in the center of cities, with their broadcast towers sitting atop the tallest available structures, making a natural bulls-eye for an enemy bomber to home in on its signal. To prevent such radio range finding, all stations other than the ring of CONELRAD transmitters were to temporarily cease broadcasting. Only brief bursts of emergency instructions were issued to prevent enemies homing in on the CONELRAD sites, which were nonetheless set well away from population centers.
Until 1963, the FCC required all radios sold in the U.S. to carry a mark reminding listeners where to tune in for civil defense instructions. Under CONELRAD, the small triangular CD or civil defense mark was also sold in a kit to glue onto the dials of older radios. When the national test transmits this week, we’ll see how that old technique compares to today’s digital reach.
January 25, 2010
Boeing has released this video of a test conducted at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Alabama last September, during which the ground-based Laser Avenger weapon blew up 50 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) of the kind used against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mounted on an armored vehicle, the Laser Avenger already has shown that it can shoot down unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Pentagon is also making headway on its long-proposed Airborne Laser. On January 10, the Missile Defense Agency successfully fired a high-energy laser (below) from a modified Boeing 747-400 freighter against an instrumented rocket launched from San Nicolas Island in California. The laser acquired and tracked the target, but didn’t destroy it. That next step in the research program may happen as early as this week.