Nike’s Revenge: The Return of Urban Missile Defense

News last week that the US is contemplating area cruise missile defense – around US cities – against Russian missiles, no less – was enough to fill me with a certain sort of  glee.

Given the problems we’ve had with defending against ballistic missiles and their far more predictable (and detectable) trajectories, the technological barriers to implementing an effective urban cruise missile defense are likely to be high. (On the other hand, if the Russian ICBM threat is as overhyped as State is playing it, then we’ve got some breathing room to develop such a system.) Of course, this wouldn’t be our first iteration of urban aerial defense.

Nike Hercules missiles on alert, 1970s.

The Nike program from the early Cold War was the US attempt to thwart Soviet nuclear attacks by shooting down bombers (at first, with Nike Ajax), and eventually expanding to target ballistic missiles (Nike Hercules/Zeus). Surface-to-air missiles versus aircraft, essentially. By the 1970s, the threat of a massive, overwhelming ICBM salvo led some missiles had begun to be armed with nuclear warheads, most notably those of the separate SENTINEL/SAFEGUARD program with its 5 megaton W71. But the last of the Nike sites was decommissioned in 1974, and Safeguard only lasted a few months before being shut down in 1975. An excellent overview of all this has been published, of course, as an Osprey book.

Raytheon/Kongsberg HAWK-AMRAAM mobile launcher.

The proposed system is a little different – new active electronically-scanned area (AESA) radars would enable F-16s to shoot down the cruise missiles, rather than relying on a ground-based interceptor. The fighters would be networked with some sort of barrage balloon-type airships carrying sensors, as well as radars and sensors at sea (too bad Washington must bid adieu to USS Barry – would that it might gain a second life from this effort). However, Raytheon is considering land-based versions of both the SM-6 and the AMRAAM, which would require some degree of construction for basing.

What’s most interesting to me is where exactly such systems might be deployed. In addition to the major SAC bases, various Nike anti-air batteries defended major industrial and population centers.

Nike sites in the continental United States

Reading a list of the 40″defense areas” from the 1950s is like a snapshot of US heavy industry at its peak: Hartford, Bridgeport, Chicago-Gary, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Niagara Falls-Buffalo, Cincinnati-Dayton, Providence, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee (among others) were all deserving of their own ring of air defenses. But what would the map look like now?

It’s both a rhetorical and a practical question. The importance of place has changed, and in some ways the country as a whole is more sprawling than it was during the Cold War. More places to defend but also more targets for an enemy. As the JCS Vice Chairman Sandy Winnefeld is quoted, “we probably couldn’t protect the entire place from cruise missile attack unless we want to break the bank. But there are important areas in this country we need to make sure are defended from that kind of attack.” One can already imagine the hearings and horsetrading that would accompany any discussion of which cities are worthy of protection – picture the East Coast interceptor site debate multiplied a hundredfold.

Hopefully SM or AAMRAAM is a part of it, but if the new system of sensors and radars is indeed confined to mobile platforms – fighters, ships, balloons – we’ll be deprived of Nike’s wonderful legacy of ruins. Only one Nike site, that of Fort Barry in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Recreation Area, has been preserved and is open to the public. Others make for a nice, if haunting walk. Others have found new purpose – it was only in recent years that I learned Drumlin Farm, a wildlife sanctuary run by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and frequent field trip destination as a kid, was once home to  the control site of Launcher B-73 and its Ajax and later Hercules missiles.

Radar dome of Nike site Mike near Eielson AFB, AK.

Without the permanent physical infrastructure of a Nike-type program, our cruise missile defense initiative will be sorely lacking any vestiges for future generations to explore. Although how ironic is it that one of the better reasons to support a missile defense initiative is in anticipation of its eventual decommissioning? At any rate, it’s likely that any modern system would leave a smaller footprint than Nike, with presumably fewer control sites having command of multiple, if not all launch sites in a given area.

The land-based component might never be constructed. But at least with balloons in the skies overhead, we all might wake up one morning and wonder if we’ve been transported to some kind of alternate reality.

“Manhatan” (as it appeared on Fringe).

Preparedness

In the wake of absolutely historic, devastating flooding of New York and its infrastructure in particular, it’s worth revisiting a piece from the New York Times: “Hurricanes on the Hudson.” A report released by the Army Corps of Engineers, it explores the potential impacts of a Category 4 hurricane on the city of New York.

When researchers with the National Weather Service, working with the Army Corps, applied the [“SLOSH”] model to New York City they discovered, to their great surprise, that the slope of the sea bed and the shape of the New York Bight, where the coasts of New York and New Jersey meet, could amplify a surge to a depth far greater than if the same surge had occurred elsewhere…

To reinforce its observations, the corps doctored photographs to show flood waters submerging the doors to the South Ferry subway station and the World Trade Center, and the entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel

For anyone familiar with city landmarks, the report makes good, if macabre, reading. The peak storm surge at the Lincoln Tunnel would top 28 feet. Kennedy Airport would be submerged. Even a category 1 hurricane would flood the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the PATH tunnels at Exchange Place and Hoboken Station in New Jersey, and launch water into the city’s subways through vents at 14th Street in Manhattan and at Montague and Joralemon Streets in Brooklyn, and many other points. [emphasis mine]

And now I direct you to a recap of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Tunnels under the East River were all flooded and pumping had begun at some of them. Mr. Lhota said that flooding was “literally up to the ceiling” at the South Street subway station in Lower Manhattan. Long Island Railroad remained closed due to flooding on the tracks. Two Metro-North lines north of 59th Street continued to be without power, and Mr. Lhota estimated that there were at least 100 trees downed on the tracks. Staten Island ferry and railway service were also still suspended. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie said there was “major damage on each and every one of New Jersey’s rail lines.” New Jersey Transit and PATH service remained suspended.

By now you’ve also all seen the video of South Ferry-Whitehall station, and the photos of Ground Zero and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel:

But back to that report: it was released by the ACE in 1995. By the time the perfectly thinkable happened, predictions of it were nothing new. We have the technology and the ingenuity to anticipate catastrophe. We’ve been red-teaming for years (perhaps not taken seriously enough), and our brightest minds have also met with commercial success in thinking the (formerly) unthinkable. But all the creativity and brilliance and conclusions are meaningless unless they result in action. The Corps of Engineers got it right in 1995; New York did some to prepare, but could have and perhaps should have done more.

Obviously there was no way for the MTA to prevent this from happening. Hurricanes happen, floods happen, and by all accounts Joe Lhota has done a masterful job preparing for and now recovering from the storm (I shudder at the thought of WMATA here in DC struggling to cope with a disaster of similar scope. That disaster has also been anticipated). But there are ways to mitigate it. In this case, solutions range from the macro – i.e., constructing New York’s own version of the Thames flood barrier – to the micro, e.g., waterproofing switches and as much of the sensitive equipment in the East River tubes as possible. Of course, these cost vast amounts of money and most of the time they’ll not be necessary or used – until they’re both.

The problem here is again, for all our planning, building resilience into a system and planning for the worst are completely at odds with an efficient system. Resilience, after all, is the opposite of efficiency. All too often, we find ourselves proscribing solutions – and frequent good solutions at that – only to take no action for fear of the cost or the political will necessary or the “what’s-the-point” strain of defeatism. As Adam Serwer wrote today, there’s no benefit in disaster prevention – politicians’ time to shine is in disaster relief. But somehow we’ve got to overcome our total lack of foresight and find a way to adequately prepare for future catastrophic events.

That goes double for non-natural disasters. The danger in preparing for outlandish ideas is that preventing them would require too much in the way of singular assets dedicated to a niche capability. The constant array of new security theater measures that always seem to be deployed in a wake of a new air travel-based attack vector are proof alone of a) our adversaries’ own ingenuity, and b) the futility of locking the barn door after the horse is out. But if a threat is too remote to have a dedicated counter-team, then we can at least mitigate its potential impacts. Passive measures – building hardening qualities into landscape design, redundant lines and connections (applicable to any sort of network), a general mindset of resilience – these are what we’re missing. New York will rebuild and move on, the subways will be repaired, and the Great American Metropolis will sort itself out as it always does. But we can do it faster, and we can do it better.

On Chicago

The Chicago skyline, as viewed from Wrigley Field looking south, April 5, 2011. Photo by the author.

I meant this to be a stand-alone post on Chicago, but life circumstances will also turn this into a farewell to that most quintessentially American city. Things have necessitated a homecoming, but I see it as being for the best.

Yes, I have now departed Chicago and returned home to Boston for now. Career-wise this is almost certainly the right move; the kind of work I want to do is based pretty much entirely on the East Coast, and now I’m that much closer to potential employers, etc. But I got a pretty awesome trip out of it, somehow accidentally theming it around baseball. Did you know that for some games tickets to Wrigley Field are as little as $8?

And then our road trip route took us past Jacobs Field in Cleveland, past the sign for Cooperstown (sadly, summer hours had not yet begun), and home to Boston, where Sunday night I was able to watch at Fenway as the Red Sox won their first (and to-date, only) series of the year. Against the Yankees, no less. But I digress.

Much of my thinking on Chicago as a city is reflected perfectly in a post from my old professor, Fredric Smoler:

It was thus a hyper-modern and ultra-American city, more modern and in a sense more American than New York, which predated the Republic. The quintessential American architectural form, the skyscraper, was invented here, and approaching the city from its airport the spires rise above the plain like Oz. L. Frank Baum had lived in Chicago, and I think it shows…

A fantasy of Chicago made a vast impression on people like Bertholt Brecht, for whom it symbolized immensely violent capitalist energies. Chicago no longer seems to evoke that intense energy in the minds of foreigners, or for that matter for too many Americans, and we seem to have also lost the once more varied sense of its history as well… Continue reading

Megalopolis

Last week I had the pleasure of attending another Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs event specifically for Young Professionals. In this case it was a conversation between all-around-urban-intellectual Greg Lindsay and architect Jeanne Gang on nothing less critical than “The Future of Cities.”

Lindsay just cowrote the book Aerotropolis: How We’ll Live Next with John Karsada, which at its most basic is about the coming airport-centric design and planning that will determine the future of cities and the course of twenty-first century urbanism. But even that mouthful of a description doesn’t really do the book justice. Reading Geoff Manaugh’s interview of Lindsay (and also, Lindsay’s of Manaugh), puts the book in a new light and raises a whole variety of additional interpretations to Aerotropolis‘ main theories.

The talk, however, did not focus solely on Lindsay’s book. After a rather stilted introduction from a local Boeing representative, Lindsay launched into a brief overview of the cities of the future. In the next twenty years more “urban fabric” will be created than in the entire rest of human history. And none of them will look like Chicago. They will be born into nowhere, separated from their surrounding regions. Continue reading

Satellite Past

Historic Aerials is an site I just learned about. Think a historical Google Maps. It’s a tremendous database of historical aerial photography, and potentially very useful for understanding how we got to just where we are. Post-Soviet development in the Moscow area? The growth and spread of Rio’s favelas? The fortification of borders, be they US-Mexican or Israeli-Palestinian? It’s an endlessly powerful and fascinating tool. I can’t wait to see Geoff Manaugh‘s take on it.

It’s certainly an interesting link, and it’s one I considered posting to say, Twitter. To truly understand it, though, you have to see for yourself. For example, here’s Boston’s waterfront pre-Big Dig, in 1971:

And today:

You’ll certainly find something to explore.

Via Beyond DC.

The Fires: A Review

Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx.

Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments’ resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head. Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O’Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide.

Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which (unbeknown to me) had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate. Coupled with Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and  Lindsay’s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey.

Of course, there’s far more than even that to the story. Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative. There’s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEX), an eight-lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area. The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND’s pioneering quantitative research. Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment. He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center’s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes.

It’s hard to do The Fires justice. It is so far-reaching – but never over-reaching – that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again. But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down. From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this. There’s no single explanation; there are six or seven. It’s an impressive feat.

While this book certainly is a “commercial” history (i.e. no footnotes), it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page-number/quote-fragment system (on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method). Much of Flood’s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first-hand perspective of the events he’s covering. The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject. And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own.

If it’s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas. I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don’t already have it. The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.

Buy The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities at Amazon.com.

Death from Above

At a recent conference in Beit Hatotchan on urban warfare, Major General Sami Turgeman of the Israeli 36th Armored Division announced findings from Operation Cast Lead in 2008.-9 One of them struck me as rather surprising, considering other counterinsurgency/military operations – that “the Air Force is more accurate in urban warfare.”

Now granted, that is in comparison with Israeli armor, but nevertheless it rings a bit hollow. Even with air strikes in at historical highs in October, it was deemed necessary to deploy tanks to southwest Afghanistan. Tankers were naturally thrilled, and one wrote of the new firepower available to bring to bear:

Currently, most American military vehicles are equipped with remote optics systems,  which are useful for urban fire fights at short ranges but do not offer the depth necessary to fight effectively in southwestern Afghanistan. However, tanks offer optics systems that dwarf the traditional capabilities of an infantry carrier…and, oh yeah, these days each tank can acquire targets clearly in excess of four times as far.

So perhaps it’s not a zero-sum case of tanks or planes, but rather using both in areas of relative superiority. Still, returning to the IAF, Gen. Turgeman “explained that the solution for urban warfare is stronger cooperation between air and ground forces.”

There are an unbelievable number of problems facing aviation as used in urban warfare, be it counterinsurgency or conventional operations. Israel has begun to slightly shift the focus of even their conventional ops to a more population-centric (read: media-friendly) approach, but more air power is absolutely not the way to go about it. Even discriminate aerial bombing and air strikes pose a great risk of collateral damage, and most definitely does not look good on camera.

This is, of course, what I wrote my dissertation about, albeit in the case of Aden (I’ve been holding off on reprinting the whole article here while I try to get it published). But here’s a relevant passage:

While the RAF enjoyed great success up-country in the Aden Protectorate, both independent and in support of ground operations by both the FRA and the British Army, that success was useless when compared with the insurgency’s shift to urban centers, and when the political situation of Aden is taken into account. Both in terms of the use of airpower and the overall relevance of it, politics are hugely important. The potential fallout from misapplied air strikes and civilian casualties was and remains immense, as Britain learned to its detriment. Furthermore, even if airpower is used responsibly and with minimal collateral damage – such as during the Harib raid – interpretation is everything, and when Yemen claimed 25 civilian casualties resulting from the raid, Britain could neither prove nor disprove the figure, despite the near-certainty of its untruth. Obviously, the use of airpower both before and during the insurgency had to rely on precise targeting and weapons systems to avoid further alienating the local population and inflaming world opinion, but regardless of the truth, it was all too often that Britain found its reputation in tatters due to an air attack of any kind.

So while the Israeli Air Force may indeed have improved its relative accuracy, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Air power, however skillfully employed, does not win hearts and minds.

H.U.D. not C.H.U.D.

In Las Vegas, they’ve gone underground.

Not in the “off-the-grid” sense, nor in any kind of futuristic post-apocalyptic-themed bunker casino (an idea that I have just now patented), but in an actual we’ve-lost-our-homes-and-live-in-a-tunnel way.

An entrance to the tunnels underneath Las Vegas, Nevada.

The population is estimated to be over 1,000. People who have lost their homes and their livelihoods have instead converted the tunnels – both flooded and dry – into their homes, milk crates to keep their things out of the water. The furniture all comes second-hand; they look for new things at night, to avoid unwanted attention – “it’s kind of embarrassing”.

Steven and Kathryn's 400 sq. ft. "bungalow," deep beneath Las Vegas.

There’s a shadow economy at work here, beyond the obvious gray market in housing. For one of the underground dwellers, his source of income is credit hustling for left behind slot chips and jackpots (he claims to have once found $997).  It’s scraps from above, the remnants of a once proud civilization, that sustain this particular mode of urban life. And all the while, one can’t help but channel Taibbi:

With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country-and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

It’s an unintentional hackerspace – a separation from everyday life borne of necessity, not desire – but nevertheless it achieves some sort of independence.

Can this be taken further? Can our underground and derelict spaces be reused for isolated groups and others who just want to be left alone? Are subterranean environments appropriate for sustained living? Let’s see how long these tunnel folks can go unmolested by the law first.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the “House of Contamination” art exhibit accidentally mocks this way of living.

An aerial shot of a room in the “House of Contamination” installation.

A “life-size maquette of a cultural centre that facilitates cross-fertilisation between the arts?” No, an all-too real representation of modern low living. Perhaps if “House of Contamination” was trying to make a larger socio-economic point. But it appears to just be ‘slumming it’. Read some damn Scalzi.

 

Cities Under Siege: A Review

It took far too long, but I finally got around to reading Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege.  In the end, I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.

Graham’s book is sweeping in its generalizations, its implications, and its conclusions. It broadly traces the rise of the city in military and popular conception as a hotbed of vice and perversion, as a target for military operations, and as an increasingly oppressed environment for its citizens. Cities Under Siege is split into sections covering such phenomenon of urban militarization as the rise of the SUV (“Car Wars”), autonomous drones and robot warfare (“Robowar Dreams”), the destruction and replanning of cities (“Lessons in Urbicide”), recreated urban training centers (“Theme Park Archipelago”) and the nexus of the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network.” It’s a mouthful, as is much of this book.

Continue reading

Size Matters

It’s really difficult to envision just how massive Chinese cities are. From Chinfographics comes this chart of the 60 largest with a population of over 1 million (and including some in Taiwan). Alongside for comparison are other famous world cities – but as you may notice, the population counts there look a bit large. They’re using the metropolitan area population, so New York gets 21.3 million instead of the usual 8.3 million, Boston gets 5.2 million instead of the usual .5-1.3 million, et cetera.

But it is rather mind-blowing just how enormous China is.

Via Slate.