Pilots Are Special and Should Be Treated That Way

In the Secretary Gates v. General Moseley spat, the general’s comments on a place for manned and unmanned platforms jumped out (emphasis mine):

Moseley said there is no intentional bias against unmanned aircraft in the Air Force. There is a place for both manned and unmanned, he said. “Secretary Wynne got tired of hearing me say this when we were beaten up about not going all unmanned.” The reality is that there are few instances when the use of unmanned aviation is imperative. “One is when you believe the threat is so terrible that you’ll lose the human,” he said. “I believe the Air Force has never found that threat. We will penetrate any threat. We haven’t found a place we won’t go. So I don’t buy that one.

The other is when human pilots are the limiting factor to the persistence of the machine. “I got that one,” said Moseley. “You leave the plane out there for 30 hours on a reconnaissance mission. That’s a valid one.”

Isn’t that backwards? In this era of declining budgets, a need for persistence (in general), and an almost total lack of contested airspace, isn’t the onus on the Air Force to prove a need for the use of human pilots? Why are we still considering manned aircraft the default, and only operating them remotely in particular circumstances?

I guess it seems as if there’s no overwhelming rationale for maintaining pilot primacy with the vast majority of missions. And I’m the first to admit I would try and have it both ways: if the airspace is too dangerous, then of course we’d want to minimize pilot risk and maximize unmanned platforms. If  airspace is uncontested, then it would seem that the skill and reaction time of a human pilot is unwarranted.

Obviously, manned flight isn’t going anywhere, but to declare the Air Force as essentially a force of human-piloted aircraft, except for a few instances, seems to be ignoring the larger trends and gains to be had from unmanned aviation.

(Original link h/t Rich Ganske).

Andrew Marshall on Learning Lessons

There seems to be a tendency for organizations to learn and to institutionalize, in one way or another, lessons from the past. The difficulty is that so often the lessons learned from the past are in fact unwarranted generalizations from some particular episode in the past, very often of a particularly pleasant or unpleasant sort. Moreover, there is a tendency to simplify decisionmaking by eliminating alternatives, alleging they are impossible or infeasible.

From “Problems of Estimating Military Power,” August 1966.

How does the rampant lunacy of reshaping the Middle East by force fit into this?

The Perils of Incrementalism

Where many wanted universal health care, the United States instead got a half-hearted attempt at health reform in the Affordable Care Act. Instead of any significant reduction in scope of the F-35 program, 550 other aircraft will be scrapped, 25,000 personnel RIFed, and a whopping four F-35s cut from the total order. Instead of wholesale change, we tinker around the edges with a broken system.

This is just the latest in a long string of “government failures” and the inadequacy of a 20th-century bureaucracy to cope with the challenges and tasks for a 21st-century nation. Federal Acquisition Regulations, the inability of Congress to do much of anything except let programs and infrastructure collapse (much less show up to work or let anyone else do so), the healthcare.gov debacle – these are truly examples of areas in need of much greater reform than additions and edits (and areas in which only the federal government has the scale and the purchasing power to effect change on a national scale). The “system,” such as it stands, is crying out for a full-on rewrite, for bold thinking, vision, and more than anything, action.

I often find Matt Yglesias insufferable, but he’s on point here:

For conservatives, the myriad problems consumers had using the federally run exchanges was just another reason to abandon the goal of universal health insurance. The website issues have been viewed optimistically—almost gleefully—since if the site is sufficiently terrible, it may be impossible for a critical mass of people to sign up and the program will have to be substantially scaled back. Conversely, progressives had been hoping to build a system that didn’t just meet some bare standard of functionality but actually persuaded people that a larger state role was a good idea. After all, the user experience of private health insurance is hardly the greatest thing in the world. Building a great healthcare.gov was supposed to be part of a campaign to persuade people that government should be involved in areas that are more contentious than garbage pickup.

This is, of course, the culmination of a decades-long quest to not just shrink the federal government to a size where it could be drowned in a bathtub. For the modern Republican Party, healthcare.gov proves that their attempts to render the government dysfunctional have rendered the government dysfunctional. Pure “government terraforming.”

Bigger solutions sometimes are better solutions, and small plans do little to change an essentially broken system. What we have now is the result: a loss in faith that the government can do anything for anyone. Even among a younger, less rabidly anti-government generation, misguided dreams of a technological utopia separate from the clumsy hand of paternal governance abound. Who has faith in the US government to mail a social security check or help a city buy a single car for their subway?

The argument has often been among those who would seek to destroy domestic national governance that where federalism makes sense is in providing for the common defense and representing the collective states in foreign affairs. But now, of course, the government can’t even be trusted to do that. From a new Pew poll:

The most striking poll result is the share of Americans who believe that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” For the first time since Pew began asking in 1964, more than half of respondents say they agree with that statement, a staggeringly high 52 percent. That number has historically ranged between about 20 and 40 percent.
These poll numbers reflect American public attitudes that are widely and strongly enough held that they could indirectly steer the White House, thus affecting U.S. foreign policy and perhaps the world itself. Obama already ran into this problem, for example, with his plan this fall to launch limited strikes against Syria as punishment for its use of chemical weapons against civilians. Overwhelming public opposition and overwhelming Congressional opposition fed into one another, ultimately killing the plan. Even though the strikes would have been modest compared to almost every other U.S. military action of the last 10 years, they were opposed far more vociferously, and that mattered.

This isn’t to say that the President should have advocated for a full-scale invasion of Syria. But it does reflect that the government isn’t trusted by a majority of its own population to do much of anything abroad or at home.

And so it’s hard to not conclude that at least for now, the Do-Nothing Party is winning.

Man Tell Joke

I saw this a while back in LTC Robert Bateman’s excellent Esquire article on the Civil War. But I only just now decided it deserved to stand on its own. Without further ado…

You are standing there, as the superior officer, and you have one Marine Officer, one Army Officer, one Naval Officer, and one Air Force Officer. You peer down the street, point to a building in the distance, and say, simply, “Secure that building.”

The Marine officer takes his unit and places 1/3 of it in a support-by-fire position with a plethora of machineguns. He suppresses the building with concentrated machinegun fire while he brings in two F/A-18s to drops bombs on the building and uses his mortars to place smoke rounds between his assault element which is at 90-degrees from the support-by-fire element. The assault element Marines enter the building as the support element Marines shift their fires to close any escape routes. The assault element moves ever upward, clearing each room with a fragmentation grenade and a burst from an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon. Finally, they reach the top, clear the roof, and hoist an American flag. They call you on the radio and say, “The building is secured.”

In the same scenario, the Army officer raises his binoculars and sends out scouts. He determines that the building is actually empty. He then sends forward his whole unit. Upon arrival he sends 1/3 of his men outward, to secure the outer area. Then, for the next 24 hours, his men work like beavers on amphetamines. They fill and place sandbags in all of the windows, they reinforce vulnerable sections of the structure, they emplace triple-strand concertina barbed-wire well outside, and place directional command-detonated mines at the vulnerable points. They pre-register artillery concentrations on the possible routes to the building and call for pre-planned jet and helicopter support to the parts they think most vulnerable. At the end of 24 hours they can repel 400-800 enemy forces, and the commander calls you and says, “The building is secure.”

The naval officer, in the same scenario, walks down the quiet street to the building. He enters and goes to the top of the building. Then he methodically enters each room and office, spins the dials on any locks/safes that he finds, ensures all the computers are turned off, turns off the lights, and locks the door. He does this for every single room as he moves down through the structure. As he exits the front door he calls you from his Blackberry and reports, “The building is secure.”

The Air Force officer looks at you with mild disdain, as if to say, “Dude, can’t you do this yourself?” He shades his eyes and looks down the street towards the building. Then he opens his iPad 7.0 (not available to the public), and after he confirms the address he also finds he has a crappy connection by his standards (“Under 1GB/sec is sooo oughts.”) So he walks in the opposite direction to the nearest coffee house with free high-speed Wi-Fi, looks up the closest Real Estate agent, and commits to a 6-month rental with an option to buy. Then he sends you a text confirming informing you that, “The building is secure.”

No hard feelings, right, USAF?

Flat Tops and Short Decks


Izumo’s commissioning on August 6, 2013

Japan unveiled its biggest warship since World War II on Tuesday, a $1.2 billion helicopter carrier aimed at defending territorial claims.

The move drew criticism from regional rival China, which accused its neighbor of “constant” military expansion.

The ceremony to showcase the 248-meter (810-feet) vessel came as Shinzo Abe’s conservative government, which took office last December, considers ditching the nation’s pacifist constitution and beefing up the military.

Japan plans to use the helicopter carrier, named Izumo and expected to go into service in 2015, to defend territorial claims following maritime skirmishes with China, which has demonstrated its own military ambitions in recent years.

This is via Nick Prime, who points out the theoretical possibility of fielding the F-35 on these. (Here’s another story).

Which, honestly, is what I thought was basically the only thing keeping the B variant alive. It’s not just the USMC that needs a VTOL-capable aircraft (or in the case of the JSF, “aircraft”), but a lot of our allies and partners in the region who have been investing in flattops like these (see: HMAS Canberra, ROKS Dokdo, etc.) with the possibility of flying such planes off of them. Even the Europeans are getting in on it – the French have a pretty good platform in the Mistral class, hence the brouhaha over the Russian acquisition of four of them.

And in that case, there had better be an aircraft that can use the short-decks. I mean, helicopters are great and all, but if we’re going to at least play bluewater navy and accept that power projection via the aircraft carrier is still a) relevant, and b) desirable, then doing it on the cheap is probably the best compromise. At this point you might as well assume that you’re going to lose them, so why not go for the more basic version? The Marines probably aren’t thrilled about a CAS aircraft that’s only 80% better than its predecessor (though certainly more than 80% more costly), but the key is that it’s not just for them. Our friends are getting in the game, and that’s not a bad thing.

Anyways, it is nice to see the JMSDF get a new flagship (that’s how they determine them, right? The biggest?). And one whose name has an interesting history, too.


UPDATE: Kyle Mizokami, as usual, has written excellent words on the Izumo. Short version: Japan’s going to have to go big or go home.

On Boston

What happened at the Boston Marathon is something I can’t even put up into words. The last thing anyone needs is another prognostication on the tactics or techniques or perpetrators. So I just have my thoughts.

I was born in Boston and lived there until my family moved out to Concord when I was six. Work and school called me away, but that siren song of Winthrop’s shining city on a hill has never diminished. I grew up attending the yearly reenactments of the Battles of Concord and Lexington, with local folk playing the roles of Redcoat and Patriot in full costume and with the one cannon still belonging to the Concord Battery firing away. One of my proudest days was getting to march as a flagbearer along with the Fenn School Marching Band in the annual parade. Patriots Day is the coming of Spring. It’s the earliest baseball game in all of MLB. It’s Marathon Monday, and despite the fact that records set there never seem to count for anything in the eyes of the IAAF, we all know that it’s the best and most important marathon in the world. Boston is the Hub of the Universe, and Patriots Day is our coming-out party every year. Growing up in that environment – steeped in history and patriotism and pride – means that to commit an act of terror on Patriots Day, of all days, is especially cruel. I fear it will never be the same.

I fear that Patriots Day, one of the brightest spots in the third week in April, a week otherwise marred by remembrances and anniversaries of Waco and Columbine and Virginia Tech and Oklahoma City and Hitler’s birthday and Tax Day, will join that long list as another sad anniversary.

So Monday hit me in a way 9/11 never did.

I don’t know if it’s just that I was too young or too geographically removed from New York and Washington to understand, but aside from a sort of numb feeling, it was like watching a disaster movie happen to someone else. Only the consequences were far too lasting. And in the years since, when has Boston been a target outside of Fringe episodes and the occasional police procedural? It’s unthinkable.

But at this point I think my generation is much more capable of realizing the impact of Monday’s terrorism, and is in more of a position to respond. I also think, and hope, that we’re better equipped to channel our emotions – our sadness and anger and need for vengeance and utter despair – into more productive avenues than we did in September of 2001. I understand the reaction we had then. I get how overwhelmed and powerless we must have felt then, because lord knows I feel it too. From removing trash cans from streets to invading unrelated countries, I hope that we’re ready to not repeat our mistakes. I think we’ve learned from them. I think we’ve spent the last ten years asking if there was anything we should have, or could have done differently. And I think that that, if anything, that could be the one silver lining in this cowardly act of terror.

There’s too much to say, too much to feel, even a couple days removed from the bombing. And really, there’s only so much I can say. For everything else you should read this piece by Caitlin Fitzgerald, a true Bostonian if ever there was one and who says all the things I can’t find the words for.

I’m not a praying man, but I pray for Boston just the same. And I’ve never been more glad to be going home for the weekend.

The Means of Consumption

PC sales are down. Way, way down.

What’s to blame? Zero Hedge says that in addition to lackluster sales and poor reception for Windows *, we are, after all, still in a pretty severely depressed economy and that there’s just no end-user demand for new OSes or new computers in general. None of which is wrong. Windows 8, in particular, severly hamstrings Windows as an operating system, forcing it to suffer from the same limitations as a phone (which is just silly, especially when Windows 7 was a solid OS).

But the comments point out that we’ve really reached a point in modern computing power where most people just don’t need it. The rise of mobile and tablet devices has only compounded that. If the average person uses a machine just to tweet or surf the internet or check email or even just watch a movie, what’s the point of having several cubic powers worth of CPUs and RAM capacity greater than that of hard drives less than a decade ago? The smaller devices speak to that and obviate a need for real “computing” devices.

But two comments in particular caught my eye. The first:

[M]ost people don’t do physics simulations, train neural nets, backtest stock trading strategies and so on.

In tight times – why upgrade something that’s already better than most need?  Even I still use some  2 core relative clunkers (that were the hottest thing going when bought).  Because they do their job and are dead-reliable.

And the second:

[E]very manuf [sic] caught the disease it seems.  They don’t give a shit about their installed base, only new sales, and are just slavishly following the migration of most people to crap mobiles – crap if you need any real computing power and flexibility and multi-tasking.

I recently got a Nexus 10 – it’s cute, sometimes handy and so on.  But solve any real problem on it?  You must be joking, it’s just not there.  It’s great for consuming content, sucks for creating anything real – it’s a toy that probably does match the mainstream mentality – the “average guy” who half of people are even dumber than.  That ain’t me.  I’m a maker…I need real tools.

This is just the digital embodiment of a long-time trend. We don’t shape our environments how we used to – we don’t create; we only consume. We refine what exists without thinking bigger. And the sad part about something like the news about PC sales, which could conceivably serve as a wakeup call, is that it won’t matter. If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s that Windows 7 was fine and why should we bother iterating new versions. But the lesson is that there is at least some segment of humanity that’s trying to create and only needs the proper tools to do it. Possessing the means of consumption allows one only to consume (the Apple model); if we can repopularize “dual-use” technologies that don’t restrict content distribution but also enable its creation, well, now we might see innovation for all the right reasons.

Across the Ether

Forgive the indulgence while I briefly divert along a Geoff Manaugh-type tangent.

The Singapore strategy was employed by the United Kingdom as its dominant  in the interwar years, up until about 1941…when Singapore fell. Of course, the origins of the Singapore strategy arose as a counter to the Japanese and US Navies, the Royal Navy’s original nemesis of the German High Seas Fleet having been scuttled at Scapa Flow.

More importantly, though, was the later role that ghostly, sunken fleet would play: a source for “low-background steel.”

3D model of the wreck of the Kronprinz Wilhelm at Scapa Flow.

Now, the very concept of low-background steel is one that makes me shudder with excitement. Low-background steel is a necessary component in certain devices, particularly medical equipment and Geiger counters. The latter is of prime interest: nuclear explosions from 1944 onwards raised the worldwide level of background radiation to the point where obtaining a proper control requires quite literally salvaging the past.*

Every ounce of steel that has been produced in the postwar error has been irrevocably contaminated by a natural sin of background radiation levels and radionuclides. Humankind changed the entirety of the natural world. It’s kind of a mind-boggling idea.

What also intrigues me is that thought that a century from now our materials might be useful for similar reasons, as a sort of living archeological project or time capsule that doesn’t just reveal something about the past, but is a necessity; The only available option in the absence of time travel.

We live inside our own time capsules. The coveted “prewar” buildings in New York and Providence and Boston abound, particularly in the latter two, in which close to 40% of their housing stock was built before 1940. Could that too have some relevance to future researchers and laboratory scientists? Housing patterns and living arrangements before the advent of doormen and glass-and-steel constructs? And seeing the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, of sunken cars and drowned tunnels, one wonders if someday the subways and highways of New York might become their own aquatic monument to the past. The DC Metro, “America’s Subway,” submerged beneath the waves.

It is, of course, difficult to hear about low-background steel without thinking of the Fallout 3 series’ “pre-war artifacts.” In that universe, the Great War is when everything changed and hundreds of millions perished in a nuclear holocaust. But a player can still find mementos of a lost era. Pre-war money, steak, and soda can all be picked up – and in the case of the latter, consumed. Even the aesthetic of that bygone age – a heavily saccharine version of a 1950s idyll – remains a coveted item in the form of furniture for your house.

Perhaps, if there’s a unifying theme across all these disparate threads, it’s that war and conflict and destruction serve as a natural line of demarcation, and once crossed, nothing will ever be the same again. What reserve fleets and low-background steel and prewar buildings and all the rest offer us is a tenuous link with that past, and a means of making it tangible. It’s comforting to think that maybe no era is truly lost forever.

*It should be noted that since the advent of the Partial Test-Ban Treaty background levels have dropped worldwide. But they still remain significantly higher than pre-war levels.

Third Time’s a Charm, and By “a Charm” I Mean Exactly the Same

DPRK test, actual scale (Not actually) [image: Petey Santeeny]

Following the other night’s North Korean nuclear test, there was definitely enough anxiety to keep observers and analysts up for hours. But there are a couple factors at play allowing me to sleep pretty soundly. Hopefully they’ll help you do the same!

The first is the relatively small yield – yes, it’s larger than the first two tests, but that really doesn’t mean anything. A 10 kiloton (or 6-7 kt or 15 kt) nuclear weapon is nothing to sneer at, but as the world saw with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a weapon of that kind isn’t much more effective than conventional explosives. The firebombings of Tokyo did more damage and took more lives than either nuclear blast in World War II.

They’ve also talked about switching their nuclear fuel from plutonium to highly-enriched uranium, which is weird and kind of a step back. The United States used to use HEU but once we perfected plutonium processing techniques we stuck with that. It’s a much more effective fuel for a multi-stage thermonuclear explosion, and it’s a little weird for anyone to change from plutonium. If true, it could indicate a processing and/or supply issue, but that would be a good sign; it would means that they’re having trouble sourcing fissile material. So they may not even have the raw materials necessary to build many bombs.

The other part is a little up in the air and I’ve heard competing claims, but nothing I’ve read so far confirms (despite Pyongyang’s claims) that North Korea has successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon – which would be a prerequisite for mounting it onto an ICBM. It’s one of the most difficult steps in the technological scale of nuclear science and requires increasing reaction efficiency. The small gain in yield this test provided makes me think that they definitely haven’t reached that step yet. I’m also not positive on the physics – and it might just be a coincidental concurrence rather than cause – but I believe the only miniaturized, i.e., ICBM warheads in existence are thermonuclear, and a failure to demonstrate that technology definitely means something.

So, in short, I’m not worried yet. They can’t build very many bombs; the bombs they can build aren’t especially powerful; they have no missile with the range to reach the United States and even if they did they haven’t miniaturized a warhead sufficiently to mount on it; and their only means of delivering one of the few extant bombs is by bomber, which exist in low numbers and also don’t have the range to hit the US, much less reach here undetected. So we’re all safe over here for the foreseeable future.

I don’t know that this really changes anything strategically even in the region. We’ve known, the South Koreans have known, and the Japanese have known; it’s common knowledge that North Korea has some nuclear weapons. And that hasn’t led to regional proliferation or a move to oust the Kim regime or anything like that. I don’t see “just another test” making a dramatic difference on that front. Dr. Farley probably says it best: “Last night, North Korea expended a significant fraction of its fissile material to achieve nearly nothing, beyond possibly the irritation of Beijing and the strengthening of right-wingers in Japan and the United States.”

Yeah, great job there, Pyongyang.

The Challenge

Originally meant for a Facebook post but it soon spiraled out of control. The subject is a piece by Jason Pontin in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Review: “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems.”

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”

Since Apollo 17‘s flight in 1972, no humans have been back to the moon, or gone anywhere beyond low Earth orbit. No one has traveled faster than the crew of Apollo 10. (Since the last flight of the supersonic Concorde in 2003, civilian travel has become slower.) Blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated, too, as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

Not to say that the article is entirely pessimistic for the future. In a lot of cases it’s not so much a question of know-how as it is mere willpower.

I’ve written about this before (the common thread through all writing on this seems to be the Concorde.  Humans could once buy a ticket to travel faster than the speed of sound. Those days now lie behind us).

And we’re running out of steam, too. Consider the troubled F-35 acquisition program (I hate holding up acquisitions as an example of anything, but…here I am). It’s not even as advanced as the F-22. Yet we still don’t have a combat-ready B variant (the Marine Corps has stood up an all F-35B squadron consisting of exactly three aircraft). And of course, our most advanced aircraft, the F-22 and B-2, were meant to be procured in far greater numbers but went into the “death spiral” of rising cost and declining orders.

This is not a problem unique to “legacy” industries. Even the hyped new media and tech sectors are seeing their own trivialization. As a Businessweek article pointed out, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” As Jeff Hammerbacher says, this does indeed suck.

I don’t know what the solution is, but this is hardly a matter of perception. There’s an explanation as to why we no longer live in an age of optimism with the stars as the limit and a sense of awe and wonder at what tomorrow might bring. We’re stuck in a quagmire with little consequential technological progress, no political progress at all, and a generational rift that could just as easily be a referendum on moving into the 21st century. Other than Los Angeles, who’s building an urban heavy rail line? Who’s developing a faster way to travel? A better way to compute? A food replicator? A way to make money while also enhancing the common good?

The closest we’re getting right now is 3-D printing, and I have very high hopes for the field. Should it really reach its true potential, global supply chains will be completely disrupted (and for the better). But it’ll have to go beyond mere plastics. And other than that, what’s on the horizon? What about today, other than the tiny details, has changed in the last 30 years? What in that time has changed for the better?

I recently read Charles Stross’s Halting State, which deserves a more comprehensive treatment at some point, but which also has the following passage:

“Imagine you were a time-traveller from the 1980s, say 1984, and you stepped out of your TARDIS right here, outside, uh, West Port Books.” (Which tells you where you are.) “Looking around, what would you see that tells you you’re not in Thatcherland anymore?”

“You’re playing a game, right?”

“If you want it to be a game, it’s a game.” Actually it’s not a game, it’s a stratagem, but let’s hope she doesn’t spot it.

“Okay.” She points at the office building opposite. “But that…okay, the lights are modern, and there are the flat screens inside the window. Does that help?”

“A little.” Traffic lights change: Cars drive past. “Look at the cars. They’re a little bit different, more melted-looking, and some of them don’t have drivers. But most of the buildings—they’re the same as they’ve ever been. The people, they’re the same. Okay, so fashions change a little. But how’d you tell you weren’t in 1988? As opposed to ’98? Or ’08? Or today?”

“I don’t—” She blinks rapidly, then something clicks: “The mobile phones! Everyone’s got them, and they’re a lot smaller, right?”

“I picked 1984 for a reason. They didn’t have mobies then—they were just coming in. No Internet, except a few university research departments. No cable TV, no laptops, no websites, no games—”

“Didn’t they have Space Invaders?”

You feel like kicking yourself. “I guess. But apart from that…everything out here on the street looks the same, near enough, but it doesn’t work the same.”

Humanity possesses boundless reserves of optimism just waiting for the right conditions to be unleashed. But I fear we’re a long way away from that. We currently live in an age of in-between, a mere interlude of history, with our small times and small men and small problems. What’s next?