President Trump, you have a golden opportunity to employ the qualities your supporters believe you have to challenge the Pentagon and the defense aerospace industry to do something that hasn’t been done for many decades: Provide just what the US needs to defend itself on time and at a reasonable cost. The F-35 is a mess and you know it, Mr. President. So does Mad Dog. The F-35 has taken far too long to develop, as costs and serious doubts about its capabilities mount. Meanwhile, the US military air fleet ages, and costs to maintain it and keep it combat ready increase. The F-35 has its defenders but, honestly, those defenders are people with a vested interest in keeping the program going — either military pilots who fear that without that plane, they’ll have no ride at all, or people who have been intimately involved in developing and overseeing the program through its long and tortured history.
“Here’s how to do it. First, tell the Pentagon to define a short, clear set of specifications. I can give you one as an example they can start from. Tell them to do this in 90 days. They can do it — there are really smart people who have been thinking about this a lot for a long time.”
The basic problem with the F-35 is grounded in its fundamental conception: A common airframe that serves all three of the US flying services — Air Force, Navy and Marines. The US faced a “smart” solution to fighter procurement like this once before in notoriously “smart” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s plan to develop a common Air Force and Navy fighter program in the 1960s. The two services knew that their needs were very different then and successfully fought that proposal. By the 1990s, when the F-35 program had its inception, they’d apparently forgotten all that.
“Absolutely no representatives from any contractor who wants to participate in the project should be allowed to participate in drafting these specification. You define the first and most important specification: Each aircraft is to cost no more than $60 million. Yes, you read that right. $60 million. It can be done. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t.”
But I won’t rehash that history here. Instead, let me propose a straightforward solution. Don’t totally cancel the program. The F-35 does have some good characteristics and all three services and our allies who have committed to the program should take some of them. The F-35B, with its short take-off and vertical landing capabilities is the only possible near-term or even intermediate-term solution for the Marines’ need to replace the rapidly-aging Harrier upon which they depend. The stealth but especially the incredible smarts built into the basic design of the F-35 can and should be used by the Air Force and Navy in strike missions for which those qualities make it a superior weapon.
You will be told that reducing the numbers of F-35s we buy will increase their unit cost. That is true to some extent, but at some point we have to cut our losses and do what’s best for the overall, long-term defense budget and the nation’s defense.
Both the Air Force and the Navy need a “backbone” warplane that is a fighter first, but that can do a decent job in the strike role and do it in significant numbers (which means at a reasonable cost). (They also need a backbone generally when it comes to the defense contractors. Give it to them.) Both services did a good job in procuring such planes during the era of the “teen series” fighters: The F-16 for the Air Force, and the F-18 for the Navy.
Here’s how to do it. First, tell the Pentagon to define a short, clear set of specifications. I can give you one as an example they can start from. Tell them to do this in 90 days. They can do it — there are really smart people who have been thinking about this a lot for a long time. Absolutely no representatives from any contractor who wants to participate in the project should be allowed to participate in drafting these specifications. You define the first and most important specification: Each aircraft is to cost no more than $60 million. Yes, you read that right. $60 million. It can be done. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t.
Second, allow any contractor who wants to participate two years to build a flying prototype at their own expense. Two years. And the contractors pay for it. It can be done. Modern rapid prototyping, materials and computer design make this possible. Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t. Read the rest of this entry »
Today’s South China Morning Post:
The US has adopted the so-called “One China” policy since 1972 after the Richard Nixon-Mao meetings and in 1978 President Jimmy Carter formally recognised Beijing as the sole government of China, with the US embassy closing in Taipei the year after.
“The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions,” said Evan Medeiros, former Asia director at the White House national security council.
“Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.”
Tsai has refused to accept the concept of “One China,” prompting Beijing to cut off all official communication with the island’s new government.
I can’t claim to be even close to an “expert” on most things, but on this I am probably closer to an expert than 99.999% of the people who will read about this in the news in the US, so I’ll spew some quick thoughts. Taken by itself Trump’s call to Taiwan’s president is pretty much like spraying a stream of lighter fluid on an open flame. I think from Trump’s side, there are two possible interpretations of this: 1) he didn’t know what this would mean to Beijing or 2) he had an idea that it would be hugely inflammatory and did it more or less intentionally. If it’s the former, then it is a perfect example of the kind of thing people opposed to him were saying before the election: “Do you want a crazy guy who tweets crazy stuff in the middle of the night to have access to nuclear weapons?” If it’s the latter, then it may well be an example of what we’ve seen from Trump on more than one occasion: staking out an aggressive opening position from which he can then make concessions to end up “winning” (so much you’ll get tired of all the winning).”
I suspect (but only suspect) that it’s the latter. The problem is that, in the US political sphere, Trump has had success after success applying this strategy to people who are playing a different kind of game from him. By breaking the rules of a very constrained style of political rhetoric, he has consistently outflanked his political opponents: He starts out seeming unreasonable because he says things he’s “not supposed to say,” then retreats to a reasonable middle ground and ends up looking good, especially to people who rebel against the constraints on political speech that have become commonplace in our culture.
In the context of relations with Beijing, he’s dealing with a completely different set of rhetorical and political rules. The tenor of political rhetoric in China would make the most U.S.-nationalist opinion journalism found on Breitbart (much less Fox) look like a gentle essay at Vox or Salon on the contributions of transgender people of color to visual culture. Jingoistic nationalism in China has already been ramped up to “11.” Nationalism is the primary — at times only — foundation of the Communist Party’s legitimacy. Over the last ten years every kind of “China watcher” — from people like me to academics to professional diplomats — have noted how the Party has encouraged an increasingly virulent and aggressive tone of nationalist language in both official media and in the carefully-curated and censored world of Chinese public online society. At times this has seemed to get a bit out of control from the Party’s point of view, and they’ve had to throttle it back. But one interesting thing is that the quasi-official army of online “activists” the Party uses in their media management actually tend to have better tools for accessing news outside the Great Firewall than the average Chinese internet user. They tend to have better and more functional VPNs and often will see news stories from otherwise censored foreign media outlets that “normal” internet users won’t see. So it’s likely that, even if the Party wanted to let this particular story go, it will leak into the mainstream of Chinese political discussion. It will be interesting to see if this is how it gets out into the Chinese internet, or if the Party doesn’t even try to control this story.
In any case, Beijing has been playing Trump’s game all along. One of the ways they have learned to intimidate their neighbors in East and Southeast Asia is to have a minor diplomatic incident “go wild” in the environment of nationalist discussion on the Chinese internet, and then basically face off some smaller regional country by taking the position that, unless concessions are made, “things could get out of control.” On a strictly legal basis, their territorial claims in the South China Sea are wildly overstated — again, as an opening position from which they can make “compromises” so that other countries can feel like they avoided a catastrophe by little by little ceding their rights. Of course, against “reasonable” opponents who mistake words and moral posturing for actions, but whose overall behavior signals that they will never risk a real fight, this has proved to be a very effective strategy. (Not naming names here.)
In purely game-theoretic terms, we don’t know how things will develop when both sides are playing the same strategy. Read the rest of this entry »
Here’s a clue: The history of the 100 years before 1949 is taught in mainland Chinese schools with the explicit curriculum title of “The Century of Humiliation.” I have described how China’s history over the time since the 1840s is perceived as a comic book story of a superhero who was transformed into a weakling by the villain, but has now regained his superpowers. EVERYTHING is perceived as “getting even.”
Westerners who don’t specialize in the world I now inhabit can’t imagine the absolutely rabid nationalism that is the mainstream default in China’s public discourse and, increasingly in private sentiment — especially among educated people. Basically the default level of nationalism makes Donald Trump look like Noam Chomsky … I am seriously not kidding.
This will be perceived as an “insult to the Chinese people.” Period. The legal and factual merits of the case will NOT be discussed in official media on the mainland (there is no other kind). Anyone who raises any kind of protest against that view online will be bullied and condemned as a traitor and agent of US imperialism.
There is ZERO chance of China accepting this. It will be lovingly placed into the treasure chest of grievances against the world (and especially the U.S.), to be taken out and paraded around on a regular basis — whenever Xi gets some bad economic news (which is all the time now).
Drudge leads with this today:
Which links to this article at the Washington Free Beacon. Basically, a Chinese official spokesman said that the US shouldn’t do anything to upset the world economic order, presumably referring to the general Chinese position that the U.S. raising tariffs as a response to China’s devaluation of the yuan would be a Bad Thing — without naming Trump as the source of this proposal. Big surprise. China’s in a very tight spot — a very, very tight spot.
Beijing has been running the money printing presses on overdrive for months, trying to pump liquidity into an economy that is turning to thick sludge while, at the same time it’s been springing leaks left and right in terms of capital flight. In other words, the brilliant minds who make Chinese economic policy (once so beloved by Paul Krugman and the other geniuses at the New York Times) have had to ditch their grand plan to rebalance the Chinese economy from one premised on producing cheap exports to one based on internal demand and services. This is what they’d like to be doing, by their own admission. But the boat not only won’t steer, it’s sinking.
To the extent there is any demand out there at all for Chinese exports (and, compared to just a year ago, there’s not much), continuing on the course of being an export manufacturer is the only thing that can generate foreign exchange right now and for the foreseeable future. If the Trumpocalypse were to occur and he were actually able to do the Smoot-Hawley thing, it would be a torpedo below the waterline for the Chinese economy.
So Beijing is basically saying “Hey, we’re both in the same sh!tstorm — you sink me and we both go down!” They’re probably right. But just in case we don’t get the message, there’s this: Another Piece of the Puzzle: China Builds New Radar Facilities in the Spratley Islands.
‘None of these people have any incentive to undertake the job of decreasing the complexity of the tax system.’
primatologist writes: If most people in the US knew the truth about the tax system in their country, there would be blood in the streets. Most individuals file a very simple federal income tax return – perhaps they take a few deductions for their mortgage interest, medical costs and the like. But this annual experience for the vast majority of Americans gives them a very skewed view of the great mass of the US tax system – it is the tiniest visible sign of an enormous tumor that grows beneath the surface, invisible to most US citizens and tax payers.
“This is how it works: To escape the high tax rates on business activities in the US, armies of lobbyists work ceaselessly to insert arcane, narrow exceptions and exemptions into federal and state tax laws at the legislative level. The exceptions and exemptions are as narrow as possible and often use very convoluted and technical language. The use of opaque language is intentional: it helps legislators avoid the kind of political trouble that comes from handing out tax exemptions.”
Two facts that are rarely discussed by the US media and which never come to the attention of the majority of US individual taxpayers illustrate this: The US has by far the highest corporate income tax rate of any developed country (and among the highest marginal tax rates for individuals who live in high tax states), and the US has an incredibly large and complex structure of tax laws. While most US taxpayers don’t know about the relatively high rates of US taxation, the crucial reality of the US tax system that is hidden from almost everyone is the insane complexity of the US tax code that applies to investment and business activities.
“Why uncertainty? Because as the tax laws and regulations become more and more complex, and the language in which they are expressed becomes more and more divorced from normal usage, only very intelligent people who spend all their time doing nothing but learning and manipulating tax language can even begin to know what the laws and rules mean.”
This is how it works: To escape the high tax rates on business activities in the US, armies of lobbyists work ceaselessly to insert arcane, narrow exceptions and exemptions into federal and state tax laws at the legislative level. The exceptions and exemptions are as narrow as possible and often use very convoluted and technical language.
The use of opaque language is intentional: it helps legislators avoid the kind of political trouble that comes from handing out tax exemptions. (There is also the factor that legislators all play the game of “I’ll vote for your campaign contributor’s tax exemption if you’ll vote for mine.”) Tax authorities (that’s the IRS for the federal government, but it happens at the state and local level, too, in high-tax states and cities) create voluminous regulations to implement these tax laws. Lobbyists also work to influence that process, as well as returning to the legislature to create exceptions to the exceptions to the exceptions created in the regulations.
“Trying to undo the complexity of the tax code would reveal all this incredible responsive complexity: And it would cause massive economic losses. Trillions and trillions of dollars worth of value is invested in ways that are structured in response to the complexity of our tax laws. Without those giant stacks of tax rules and exceptions and exceptions to exceptions, etc., those investment and business operations structures would not make sense legally or economically.”
Meanwhile, “tax planning” to take advantage of this constantly growing and increasingly complex web of laws and regulations becomes a bigger and bigger part of how businesses structure their enterprises and investments. “Tax planning” is carried out by armies of accountants and lawyers and consultants, all of whom are handsomely paid to do work that contributes nothing to economic growth or prosperity.
[Also see – Nobody Knows How Many Federal Agencies Exist]
The work of the “tax planning” professionals becomes more and more complex and incomprehensible to those outside their fraternity, as it is essentially the incantation of linguistic “magic spells” that have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual business enterprise, and everything to do with fitting into the ever-more-convoluted language of the tax codes. More and more layers of complexity are added, each with additional cost and uncertainty.
“The same process applies to entirely domestic business. Entrepreneurs and investors spend huge amounts of money on lawyers, accountants and consultants to create complex – and completely unnecessary – corporate and operational structures aimed solely at taking advantages of complex tax benefits.”
Why uncertainty? Because as the tax laws and regulations become more and more complex, and the language in which they are expressed becomes more and more divorced from normal usage, only very intelligent people who spend all their time doing nothing but learning and manipulating tax language can even begin to know what the laws and rules mean.
“One consequence of this process that everyone who is involved in international business knows very well is that no one wants to do business in the United States if they can help it.“
And they won’t all agree – until a very clear case is litigated to conclusion in a court or the IRS issues a “clarification,” it’s all just educated guesses. By the time a term comes to have well-understood meaning, the exceptions to the rules that use that term – using new words that were intentionally difficult to understand in the first place – have to be interpreted and clarified.
“And here’s the real horror: No one outside the fraternity of tax regulators, lobbyists, tax lawyers, accountants and consultants really perceives how enormous the structure of tax complexity is. Investors and entrepreneurs learn no more than they have to – just what they have to know to do the specific deal they’re working on or carry out their own narrow business operations.”
This process has been going on for well over a hundred years with no let up. In fact, the scale and complexity of the tax codes continues to grow exponentially, as the feedback process of high tax rates leading to exceptions leading to exceptions to exceptions continues ad infinitum.
“Unwinding all that complexity would wipe out huge swathes of the US economy – and create a whole new set of winners and losers that has nothing to do with the underlying matter of actually creating real value in the real world.”
One consequence of this process that everyone who is involved in international business knows very well is that NO ONE WANTS TO DO BUSINESS IN THE UNITED STATES IF THEY CAN HELP IT. This is the world I work in. In my professional world it is simply taken for granted that people with money to invest will do anything in their power to structure their business so that no possible argument can be made that they did business or invested in the US. Companies and wealthy individuals go to extreme lengths to avoid putting any kind of investment into the US if it is at all possible.
Does this mean that no one invests in US businesses? No. The US consumer market is too big, and innovation in the US is too valuable for that to be true. What it does mean, though is that below a certain very large scale, it just doesn’t pay. Even more important, it also means that every investment in the US is “taxed” in a way that does no one (outside of the business of avoiding tax) any good: Huge amounts of money are spent creating unnecessary complexity to minimize US taxation as much as possible: Extra layers of incorporation and complex accounting structures are created to do everything possible to minimize the amount of income earned in the US. All that time, effort and money spent avoiding US taxation adds to the cost of investment without creating one dime of revenue for the US government. Finally, foreign investors in the US do everything they can to get their money out of the US as quickly as possible: The more time an investment is exposed to US tax law, the larger the chance that some tax law magic spell will be countered by some other tax law magic spell and – BANG! – there go all the profits. Read the rest of this entry »
Three interesting stories from Parabolic Arc, a great site covering “New Space:”
Burt Rutan, arguably the greatest living aerospace engineer and designer of the SpaceShip One and SpaceShip Two vehicles, expresses the opinion that all the evidence is pointing to: The loss of the SpaceShip Two vehicle was due to pilot error. And here’s Bill Whittle, former aerospace journalist and now political commentator, on how things like this happen — and why they have to:
Elon Musk provides some new details on how SpaceX will recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. Spoiler: It’s amazingly cool.
NEW REACTIONLESS SPACE DRIVE?
Finally, here’s an article about something I’ve been hearing about for years: A physicist who seems to have developed a true “reactionless drive,” a staple of science fiction. It’s only at the miniature demonstrations stage but, as this longer article at Boing Boing describes, the theoretical foundation for the work seems sound. Well worth reading.
According to Aviation Week, the Chinese space launch industry appears to believe that its next generation of launchers will cost more to purchase than those already being provided by SpaceX.
In other words, a product designed and manufactured entirely in the USA can beat the Chinese, who have far lower labor costs. Way to go Elon — we love you!
Here’s what we know: On its first powered flight with a new motor, Virgin galactic’s Spaceship Two had a major engine failure that resulted in loss of the vehicle. Two test pilots, names still unknown, were onboard. One died. These are the only images I’ve been able to find:
There have definitely been those in the “NewSpace” community who have criticized Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for the way they’ve managed the development of this vehicle — pushing too fast in some areas, while making little progress in others. But it hurts to already see the kinds of criticisms begin that make me cringe: TIME already has an article up entitled “Enough With Amateur Hour Space Flight.”
Yeah — the Big Government way has done such a great job in the past: Two out of five of the space shuttle orbiters lost to preventable accidents (40% of the fleet, with a loss of 14 lives together) and the first version of the Apollo spacecraft killing three on the launch pad because it was an incinerator waiting to happen. Those are just some of the more egregious examples. There are plenty more.
It won’t surprise me if this kills Virgin Galactic. As a business and an engineering and project development enterprise, it is NOT the best of the “NewSpace” initiatives. Unfortunately, there will be plenty of idiots like the guy at TIME who will lump it all together and insist that NASA, that paragon of efficiency and safety, manage all US space activity.
The Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters had planned to have some kind of vote yesterday on how they would go forward. But they didn’t. From the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper:
Occupy Central protesters and observers yesterday backed an 11th-hour decision to scrap a poll on the way forward for the month-old sit-in, saying the move made it easier to enter into more talks with the government.
Protest leaders announced the U-turn hours before the electronic ballot was to start at 7pm and apologised for not having sufficiently discussed with demonstrators the poll’s methodology and objectives. But shelving it did not mean they had shifted their stance or intended to end the occupation, Federation of Students secretary general Alex Chow Yong-kang said.
Some protesters had said the poll was redundant. A huge banner that called for delaying the poll was hung from an Admiralty footbridge yesterday morning.
Occupy co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting said: “The public may feel there are problems with the movement’s organisation and leadership, and we admit that … I promise that in the future, we will give sufficient notice to and discuss with protesters before making a major formal decision.”
For me, the lesson in this story is that “democracy” is not a self-executing political panacea. Democracy has a value — a high value — as ONE element of a fair and well-ordered society. But democracy can only serve its proper function as a check on the tyranny of the state when it operates within a system of well-defined and transparent laws and institutions. It is not surprising to me that the vote called by the protesters did not happen. There was no framework of law and institutional operation within which it could happen.
The smartest lawyers and statesmen in the rebel colonies worked for many months to draft the Constitution of the United States before it was finally implemented. Doing this created the framework of laws and institutions in which democracy operated as only one dynamic part of a system that was crafted after extremely careful deliberation by some of the wisest men who have ever considered these issues. The Framers of the US Constitution did their work after putting in place a temporary structure — the Articles of Confederation — to ensure a stable environment for long enough to work out the permanent “political operating system” for their country. They did not do their work in the heated stress and passion of an armed rebellion against the Crown. They first made an imperfect compromise in the Articles of Confederation to buy themselves the time they knew it would take to work out a truly well-ordered system. My advice to the protesters: study history.
“For me, the lesson in this story is that “democracy” is not a self-executing political panacea. Democracy has a value — a high value — as ONE element of a fair and well-ordered society.”
The problem, of course, is that there is no time for study. The pro-democracy protesters have been improvising and responding to the largely pro-Beijing government’s actions from the beginning. They are working from a base that is fueled by legitimate passion for liberty and fear of tyranny, but without a well-established leadership operating within a widely-recognized and accepted organizational structure.
“But democracy can only serve its proper function as a check on the tyranny of the state when it operates within a system of well-defined and transparent laws and institutions.”
In any conflict, all things being equal, the side with the more easily achieved strategic goal and the larger number of tactical options will prevail. For better or worse, in this situation, the side with both of these advantages is the pro-establishment side. For the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government, the strategic “victory condition” is maintaining the status quo, and they have a broad range of tactical options along the spectrum of patiently waiting out the protesters on one end to forcefully removing them on the other. I fear the pro-democracy side may not really realize this or, if they do, can think of no tactical response other than “keep doing what we’re doing.” Without regard to the merits of either side’s goals, this makes the pro-democracy side’s strategic and tactical position very weak. Unless they realize this and adjust their strategy and tactics accordingly, the outcome for them does not look good.
“In any conflict, all things being equal, the side with the more easily achieved strategic goal and the larger number of tactical options will prevail. For better or worse, in this situation, the side with both of these advantages is the pro-establishment side.”
This grim picture is playing itself out in a situation where the largest number of the anti-establishment protesters are high school and college students, without strong and experienced leadership that has been tested over time, and without any organizational infrastructure to support the building of strategic or tactical consensus. Unless this situation changes, it looks increasingly unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will put itself into a situation where it can achieve a real “victory.” If their only tool is a “passion for democracy,” they cannot prevail.
EXCLUSIVE: Hong Kong Democracy Demonstrations, Day 17 — The Empire (sort of) Strikes Back (Hong Kong Style)Posted: October 13, 2014
Starting this morning, Hong Kong police executed an operation to clear street barricades on Queensway Road and other major arteries in Hong Kong. It’s unclear to me how the clearing has gone in Causeway Bay and on Nathan Road on the Kowloon side. But in the Admiralty district immediately in front of my office, I’ve been taking periodic trips downstairs to see and photograph the police work methodically all morning and into the afternoon to push protesters back out of the road and systematically dismantle and clear the barricades they had built.
I saw NO violence. The vast majority of the police wore empty holsters — only very senior officers carried their sidearms. No riot weapons (shotguns, tear gas grenade launchers) were evident, but other riot gear was visible — small clear plastic shields and helmets (although none of the police were wearing helmets).
A few students were standing on the sidelines weeping, while others had pulled back to the barricades that protected the approaches to the main protest site in front of the government offices, a block away. Police were making no attempt to clear those barriers. During one phase of the clearing, the police formed a cordon to allow protesters to retrieve their tents and other personal items from the underpass where they’d been camping.
At one key point along Queensway, students were sitting in the streets leading to the main road. A line of police standing at the edge of Queensway faced off against this group to keep the students from moving back into the main road. As of now (1:30 PM Hong Kong time) that is the only large group of police still present on the main road. I suspect this may stay this way to keep the protesters from trying to re-block Queensway.
All of this was done in what I think of as “Hong Kong style:” Compared to anywhere else in the world (including definitely anywhere else in China), everyone was incredibly polite on both sides, there were a minimum of raised voices, and the police force was professional and outright courteous to the protesters and curious passersby and people who work in the area who had to navigate the work of barricade clearing that was underway all along the road. I saw no arrests and have heard of none. I spoke with one police officer who told me that no arrests were planned. The entire operation was very well organized and executed in a very efficient manner — typical Hong Kong.
Now the big question is how the pro-democracy demonstrators will react. Over the last week or so, they have proved themselves to be a largely leaderless movement. Will they try to move back onto the main roads and block them again? If they do, I fear they may lose significant popular support — and that the police response might not be so polite next time.
About an hour and half ago a group opposed to the pro-democracy protesters made a concerted attempt to take down the barricades on Queensway Boulevard near where I work. Hearing the commotion, I headed down and snapped some pics. After about a tense hour, the “Antis” backed down and left in groups of ten or twelve.
The talks between protest leaders and government representatives didn’t happen — the students backed out when they felt the agenda for the first meeting was to be too limited. They called for a surge in attendance at the main blockaded site in front of the government office last night, and thousands showed up. Today, I walked down to the site in the early afternoon. I sensed a relaxed atmosphere among the demonstrators, and more signs that they’re committed to the long haul, including setting up a “study hall” for kids to keep up with the school work they are missing. Also, both Asian and Western comics and cartoons are making their way into more and more of the new posters that constantly pop up around the site. Some of the images below are very clever adaptations of the iconography of American comics — something that would give hardliners in Beijing (is there any other kind now?) serious heartache if they got the jokes.
There is little true “news” from Hong Kong about the pro-democracy demonstrations. The students and others in the pro-democracy movement are being urged by supporters to get better organized before talks with the government begin tomorrow. Meanwhile, various reports have appeared in world media to the effect that there is effectively no support for the Hong Kong democracy movement on the mainland. I think these are accurate. The vast majority of Chinese have no idea what’s going on in Hong Kong other than what is spoon-fed to them by the party-approved media, and a common view of Hongkongers on the mainland is that they are “ungrateful,” unpatriotic and too influenced by Western ideas and media.
My personal opinion is that the demonstrators need to declare a tactical victory, raise the road blockades and think very hard about organizing for the long game — the very, very long game.
Meanwhile, two new signs at the blockade outside my office:
I’ve been busy with work-work and only have time for a quick update and some pics from a lunchtime walk down to the main protest site in front of the government offices. (…and no time to do translations; if you don’t read Chinese, just make something up . . .) The weather has FINALLY begun to change from broiling summer heat and humidity to the golden “Autumn” Hong Kong experiences — clear skies, relatively dry air and temperatures that would be normal in San Diego. This has taken some heat (literally) off the protesters who continue to hold their ground. Local news is reporting that “leaders” of the student movement and representatives of the government have agreed to begin talks on Friday aimed at ending the standoff. It’s hard to see what could come of them but my personal opinion is that pressure is mounting on the protesters from fear that the barricaded roads may be alienating more and more Hongkongers — especially in Kowloon on the other side of the harbor.
Last night the local press was full of reports of scuffles and fights breaking out between demonstrators and groups of men — civilians, not police — who were confronting them in the blockade of Nathan Road on the Kowloon side of the harbour. This neighborhood is far more “blue collar” than the posh areas on the island (where I live) that have been blocked. Some of those attacking the students have been confirmed to be men with “triad” backgrounds. The triads are Hong Kong organized crime gangs that are the analog of the Japanese yakuza or the US mafia. The demonstrators believe the triads have been hired by Beijing’s secret police to create provocations and bad press — to give the impression of popular opposition to the student movement. Police finally stepped in and calmed things down, but the pro-Beijing commenters are out in force on Hong Kong news websites citing the incidents as evidence of popular, grassroots opposition to the street blockades.
A Saturday stroll through the Central/Admiralty barricades to the blockaded government complex revealed significantly reinforced barriers across the roads, and a still impressive number of protesters in front of the main government building. Periodic rain squalls and a week on the streets haven’t undermined what looks like a committed core of activists who seem to give no indication of abandoning their blockades of main roads in Hong Kong.
A noon-time walk through the Central/Admiralty demonstration site in front of the main government offices revealed that the end of the National Day holiday and periodic drenching rain had thinned the crowd somewhat, but that there were still more than enough demonstrators to hold the blockade. Local news sources report that there are some talks going on through intermediaries, but there seems to be no possibility that CY Leung (the Beijing-approved Hong Kong head of government) will resign as the protesters have demanded, nor that Beijing will modify its ruling that candidates for chief executive elections to be held in 2017 will have to be nominated by a body that Beijing will control. At this point it is hard to see how the demonstrators can stand down without seeming to have been defeated. Yet it also seems that many in the city are tiring of the disruptions caused by the barricades across three key roadways in a place where limited space means that there are few, if any, alternative routes.
The leading English language paper in Hong Kong is reporting that “leaders” of the student demonstrators have set a deadline of tomorrow for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (basically, the governor), C.Y. Leung, to resign. If he doesn’t, they say they’ll start to “occupy” government buildings:
I assume that if this happens, things may well turn ugly again, as they did on the first night when riot police fired tear gas into the crowd and sprayed the students with pepper spray.
But tonight, in the middle of the two-day National Day holiday (ironically, celebrating the 65th anniverary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China), the crowds at the Central/Admiralty district site swelled and an almost carnival-like atmosphere prevailed:
At noon today I walked through the site of the demonstrations and street blockades in front of the central government offices. There were slightly fewer people there than at the same time yesterday, but they seemed better organized and definitely better provisioned. Below are some of the signs I encountered.
I call it “Day 1.5” because what’s really happened here is that student protests grew beyond anyone’s anticipation last night. The student pro-democracy movement has had a completely different dynamic and wasn’t formally allied with the “official” Occupy Central movement or any of the political actors who are known under the general rubric of “Pan-Democrats.” The students crowded too close to a couple of major government facilities last night and the police fired tear gas into them. This brought out lots of Hongkongers in support who hadn’t been participating before, and forced the hand of the “adults” in Occupy and the Pan-Democrats to move up their plans for demonstrations on October 1 and 2 — the Chinese National Day holidays.
At noon I took a different route around the western edge of the barricaded area, and ended up getting a much better view from above of the main body of the demonstrators directly in front of the central government office. On the way there, I paid a visit to the People Liberation Army’s main barracks on Hong Kong island — which just happens to be a block away from where the demonstrators are blocking access to the central government building.
Also, a note about “Occupy Central” — one of the organizing groups. The choice of the “Occupy” name is unfortunate, because the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has very little in common with the unfocused and disorganized “Occupy Wall Street” thing and its mutant progeny in various Western cities. The Hong Kong “Occupy” group is not a vague anti-corporate, leftist gesture, as Occupy Wall Street was. The issues here are real and focused — rule of law and actual democracy (not some vague invocation of “the 99%”).
Support for things like water and basic shelter (umbrellas) seemed ad hoc, but also seemed to be building up.
I could not get down to the scene of the action last night, but this morning I walked down to where things had been rocking nearest to my home — the area right between the Central and Admiralty districts. Here are some pics taken within the last couple of hours:
And it was their first attempt — beating the less than 50% success rate of all Mars missions to date. Read all about it here.
What is red, is a planet and is the focus of my orbit? pic.twitter.com/HDRWjOcPus
— ISRO’s Mars Orbiter (@MarsOrbiter) September 24, 2014
— NASA (@NASA) September 24, 2014
I’ve been trying to read as much as time allows of the left’s reaction to the President’s recent speech in which he unleashed at least a couple of the dogs of war. Here’s something from this morning’s sampling:
The Chinese central government today announced regulations that would gut Hong Kong’s evolution to real democratic election of the city’s chief executive. In essence, Beijing imposed rules that would ensure that only it’s hand-picked candidates would be allowed to run for the city’s top government post. I attended the beginning of the rally in the park in front of the city’s main government offices today. Here are some pictures:
- Hong Kong Pro-Government Activists Rally Against Occupy Protest (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- A showdown is looming in Hong Kong, with China threatening to send in its army (chinadailymail.com)
- Beijing Gets Ugly in Hong Kong (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- Beijing: China Legislature Rules No Open Nominations for Hong Kong Leader (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- CHINA’S Ticking Clock: Critical Hong Kong Vote Ruling by Beijing Coming Soon (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Showdown: China Warns Against ‘Foreign Meddling’ (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
- ‘Insufficiency of Mutual Trust’: Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protesters to Get Pro Bono Aid (punditfromanotherplanet.com)
(My apologies for the poor photography — my Hong Kong cell phone has a decidedly inferior camera, and the rally really only got under way after dark.)
Police presence was heavy in the city during the day, with large foot patrols moving around. Interestingly, although Hong Kong’s police usually carry revolvers (.380s – I asked), most cops I saw today had empty holsters on their belts. Read the rest of this entry »
When Apple announced the iPhone 4S on October 4, 2011, the headlines were not about its speedy A5 chip or improved camera. Instead they focused on an unusual new feature: an intelligent assistant, dubbed Siri. At first Siri, endowed with a female voice, seemed almost human in the way she understood what you said to her and responded, an advance in artificial intelligence that seemed to place us on a fast track to the Singularity. She was brilliant at fulfilling certain requests, like “Can you set the alarm for 6:30?” or “Call Diane’s mobile phone.” And she had a personality: If you asked her if there was a God, she would demur with deft wisdom. “My policy is the separation of spirit and silicon,” she’d say.
He envisions someone unsteadily holding a phone to his mouth outside a dive bar at 2 am and saying, “I’m drunk.” Without any elaboration, Viv would contact the user’s preferred car service, dispatch it to the address where he’s half passed out, and direct the driver to take him home. No further consciousness required.
Over the next few months, however, Siri’s limitations became apparent. Ask her to book a plane trip and she would point to travel websites—but she wouldn’t give flight options, let alone secure you a seat. Ask her to buy a copy of Lee Child’s new book and she would draw a blank, despite the fact that Apple sells it. Though Apple has since extended Siri’s powers—to make an OpenTable restaurant reservation, for example—she still can’t do something as simple as booking a table on the next available night in your schedule. She knows how to check your calendar and she knows how to use OpenTable. But putting those things together is, at the moment, beyond her.
Now a small team of engineers at a stealth startup called Viv Labs claims to be on the verge of realizing an advanced form of AI that removes those limitations. Whereas Siri can only perform tasks that Apple engineers explicitly implement, this new program, they say, will be able to teach itself, giving it almost limitless capabilities. In time, they assert, their creation will be able to use your personal preferences and a near-infinite web of connections to answer almost any query and perform almost any function.
“Siri is chapter one of a much longer, bigger story,” says Dag Kittlaus, one of Viv’s cofounders. He should know. Before working on Viv, he helped create Siri. So did his fellow cofounders, Adam Cheyer and Chris Brigham.
“Intelligence becomes a utility,” Kittlaus says. “Boy, wouldn’t it be nice if you could talk to everything, and it knew you, and it knew everything about you, and it could do everything?”
For the past two years, the team has been working on Viv Labs’ product—also named Viv, after the Latin root meaning live. Their project has been draped in secrecy, but the few outsiders who have gotten a look speak about it in rapturous terms. “The vision is very significant,” says Oren Etzioni, a renowned AI expert who heads the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. “If this team is successful, we are looking at the future of intelligent agents and a multibillion-dollar industry.”
Read the rest at WIRED.
Beijing’s recent efforts to tighten control over the Internet have so far included a crackdown on online rumors given partial credit for prompting a mass exodus from microblogging platform Sina Weibo to private messaging services, a subsequent crackdown on Tencent’s instant messaging app WeChat (and month-long renewal), and an ongoing anti-vulgarity drive. Yesterday, China’s State Internet Information Office (SIIO) announced new rules for users of instant messaging platforms. The China Copyright and Media blog has translated the new regulations in full. From Xinhua:
The Chinese government has passed a regulation that will require users of instant messaging services to use real names when registering in an effort to hold users responsible for content.
[…] Targeting China’s 5.8 million public accounts on subscription-based mobile apps such as Tencent’s mobile text and voice messaging service WeChat, the new regulation will take immediate effect.
Registrants of public accounts are obliged to register with real names and reviewed by service providers before being qualified to release information.
“A few people are using the platforms to disseminate information related to terrorism, violence and pornography as well as slander and rumors,” said Jiang Jun, spokesman of the SIIO. “Such behaviors have raised bitter feelings among netizens.” [Source]
Read more at China Digital Times.
EXCLUSIVE: A few days ago, The Butcher posted a link to a good article about the origins of “the Hong Kong Miracle” – a term that is justifiably used to describe Hong Kong as a near “capitalist paradise” of very limited government intervention into all aspects of the lives of its citizens, very low apparent taxation and nearly wide-open individualism and personal opportunity. I’ve seen pieces like this before and hopefully, people will be writing them in the future (and not discussions about how China “killed the goose that laid the golden eggs”).
“As part of my study, I’ve come to realize that there is a somewhat hidden key to the magic of Hong Kong’s economic, social and political success story.”
As an on-again, off-again resident of Hong Kong (“on” right now and for the next few months), I’m an avid reader of Chinese history in general, and Hong Kong history in particular. Last year I began the grueling process of becoming admitted as a lawyer (solicitor) in Hong Kong, taking the very difficult test administered to foreign lawyers from other Anglosphere jurisdictions as a gateway to that honor. (I’m nearing the end of that long journey now – in two weeks I’ll be in court here for my formal admission before a Chinese judge wearing the white wig and crimson robes that English judges have been wearing for over three hundred years, a wonderfully rich experience of the cultural melting pot that is Hong Kong.)
“And it behooves people who support the political philosophy (free-market capitalism and political liberty) underlying Hong Kong’s wonderfully free and open society to be aware of this key.”
As part of my study, I’ve come to realize that there is a somewhat hidden key to the magic of Hong Kong’s economic, social and political success story. And it behooves people who support the political philosophy (free-market capitalism and political liberty) underlying Hong Kong’s wonderfully free and open society to be aware of this key. Because, while I am as libertarian as they come, there IS a functioning government here that provides essential public goods. The seven million people who live and work here depend on the fantastically well-built and well-maintained physical and social infrastructure: Massive public works (like the great new airport – no one misses the dangerous approach to good old Kai Tak, huge bridges and tunnels), a clean, efficient mass-transit system, pretty darned good public schools, a semi-public health-care system, adequate police and an amazingly open and un-corrupted legal system.
[Also see: The Man Behind the Hong Kong Miracle]
The mystery comes from looking at all of these great elements of the public sphere in Hong Kong, and comparing it with the tax regime. The highest marginal income tax rate here is 18% (only the very highest earners pay this, and most of them figure out a way to avoid the highest rate), there is no capital gains tax, and there are very few other explicit taxes of any kind. Although most government services have associated user fees in the form of some kind of “stamp duty” (an Anglicism Americans understand as a tax), these stamp duties are fairly low – and would come nowhere near raising enough revenue to support the public sector. Likewise, while there are fees for riding on the MTR (the integrated mass transit system that includes subways, above-ground trains, buses, trolleys and ferries) and some tolls (for instance on the main tunnel linking Hong Kong Island with Kowloon and the mainland side), these charges again can’t raise enough revenue to support their overall function, much less the massive improvements in Hong Kong’s physical infrastructure I’ve personally seen in the 35 years since I first came here. Read the rest of this entry »
Lan Kwai Fong hardware store . . . Sunday morning
From the Pacific Daily Times:
DEVELOPING… It’s now happening in Hong Kong. Unarmed protesters overran security and occupied another legislature, this time over construction projects and what is reported to be something like “crony capitalism”. Here is a link to a video from Apple Daily and another link to an article from Taiwan’s Sunflower Facebook Page.
As a sometime resident of Hong Kong, I read this news with mixed feelings. At one level, I can see this as a completely legitimate response to the domination of the legislature by what Americans would call “crony capitalist” interests. (See the weird “functional constituency” element of the current legislative election process.)
On another level, though, I’m very afraid of the backlash from Beijing. Coming just two days after the 25th anniversary of the TianAnMen massacre, the CCP will view this event with the greatest displeasure. Democracy in Hong Kong is very fragile, and is seen by reformers in China as a bellweather of how reform might work there. Unruly popular demonstraations are perceived by the Party as the absolute worst threat to its monopoly on political power. Hong Kongers and those who wish them well hold their breath . . .
Wondering how nutritious that food is, if that plant needs water, or just what that misplaced pill is? Well, the makers of SCiO claim that their device is able to tell you all of those things, plus a lot more. To use it, you just scan the item in question for one or two seconds, then check the readout on a Bluetooth 4.0-linked smartphone.
SCiO is actually a miniature spectroscope. Like the bigger, more expensive laboratory-grade models it’s based on, it works by shining near-infrared light on materials, exciting their molecules in the process. By analyzing the light that’s reflected off those vibrating molecules, it’s reportedly possible to identify them by their unique optical signature, and thus determine the chemical composition of the material.
In the case of SCiO, an accompanying iOS or Android app sends its readings to the cloud, where algorithms process the data in real time. The results should appear on the phone’s screen within a matter of seconds.
I’ve been a black aircraft enthusiast all my life (and that goes back to the days when the SR-71 was still “secret”). Sweetman is one of the best aerospace/defense/mil-tech journalists around, although he’s been accused of being willing to run with a story a little too soon. I personally feel like he does sometimes report on rumors and informed speculation, but is careful to identify them as such.
At least as far as the available information on this one goes, I feel like this is a solid lead. The photos do not look photoshopped at all (there is a history of shopped pics among back plane chasers), and the aircraft does fit into a niche that many have wondered about — the US lacks a large, high-altitude, stealthy ISR platform and, as Sweetman points out, sat photos of Groom Lake (Area 51) show way more capability than can be accounted for with known programs.
So I put this one in the “definitely possible, maybe even probable” category.
The current proposed defense budget from the Obama administration would mothball the US fleets of venerable A-10 close air support (CAS) aircraft and the even more venerable U2 spyplanes (of Francis Gary Powers fame).
Miltech fans like me become attached to quirky planes like these, whose specialized missions lead to extreme designs (in the case of the A-10, basically a flying tank, and for the U2, an elegant jet-powered sailplane). Both aircraft have survived multiple attempts to kill them in the past, and both have proven their worth over and over again in surprising ways. Like the ancient B-52, that has been reborn over and over again to carry out missions it was never conceived for, these two aircraft have proven the value of a design that does one thing very well but isn’t all things to all people for all missions. Hated by the bean-counters and mega-defense contractors because they are such sturdy hedgehogs of the air, these old soldiers stand their ground in one corner of “mission space” against all comers. In this they are the opposite of what Defense Secretary Hagel says will replace the A-10, the gold-plated Swiss-Army-Knife F-35, which tries to do everything for everyone everywhere and, in doing so, does nothing extremely well.
Both the Warthog and the Dragon Lady have very vocal fans in and out of Congress. Time will tell whether they finally fall to the dreams of the budgeteers and bloated defense contractors.
I came across this last night:
In mid-2015, the asteroid probe Dawn is scheduled to establish orbit around Ceres, the only dwarf planet in the inner Solar System, as well as the largest asteroid, to begin roughly six months of close-up observation. The level of interest in this mission has significantly increased with the detection by the ESA’s Herschel space observatory of plumes of water vapor being exuded from Ceres’ surface from a pair of local sources.
It turns out that Ceres may have more water than all the fresh water on Earth. If that’s true, it may well be the the best place to actually create a robust human presence off Earth (after a real foothold is established on Earth’s moon). Some people might think that water would be useful on Mars, but why put it at the bottom of a gravity well one-third as deep as Earth’s?
Now the only question is: Who’s going to grab this uniquely valuable spot?
The behavior of the North Koreans in the last few weeks may well be explainable if we think about our experience with and knowledge of China. Reading the news this morning, three closely connected thoughts that have been floating around in my head finally came into focus.
The first thesis is that North Korean institutions are like Chinese institutions we got to know when we first started working with large state-owned enterprises, only a LOT, LOT worse, in terms of a) their lack of knowledge and understanding of the outside world and b) their internal, institutional inability to accommodate realities (especially realities that arise from cultural differences of those outside the DPRK with whom they are dealing) that conflict with policies and edicts promulgated by those in authority.
The second thesis is that “juche” — the bizarre Nork ideology — is an extreme and pathological admixture of traditional “Sinitic” cultural elements (especially Confucianism) and “modern” nationalism. From the Chinese/Confucian substrate comes reliance on strict hierarchical structures of authority. From nationalism comes extreme chauvinism ramped up to hyper-paranoid levels.
If you combine these two elements with the fact that the Norks have a new leader that doesn’t have enough internal political capital to do ANYTHING that is inconsistent with these fundamental elements of North Korean society and polity, the result is a kind of rigidity that is basically inconceivable outside of their world. No one can say ANYTHING that is inconsistent with the established line. And the established line is a militaristic chauvinism that would make Hitler blush.
The last thing I’ve been thinking about is also based on my knowledge and experience of the Sinitic world: FACE (“mian”). Think about how Japanese military and political figures before 1945 REGULARLY killed themselves rather than come to terms with failure or embarrassment. When that was going on, Japan had been “open” to the West for decades. North Korea has NEVER been open to the outside world. Korea was a backwater that the Western imperial powers had completely ignored when the Japanese came in and took the peninsula over in the 1920s. For the northern part of Korea, the ONLY experience they’ve ever had of the outside world was the most rapacious and extreme form of Japanese militarism and imperialism. They went straight from that to the Kim dynasty. North Koreans have never been exposed to any form of culture other than the most extreme and brutalized forms of pride/shame-based “face culture.” To say that for North Koreans, “failure is not an option” is an understatement of gargantuan proportions. The concept of dying — at one’s own hands, if necessary — rather than come to terms with failure — as failure is defined by the bizarre world in which they live — is FUNDAMENTAL in Nork culture.
… just some cheery thoughts for a Monday morning.
A few days ago I posted about my own personal early exposure to missile defense, and how that technology is now on the verge of bringing about a truly revolutionary change at almost every level of tactics, strategy and foreign policy. Thinking about that has led me again to some on-going musings about the impact that other, related technologies may well have on military and foreign policy over the next few years and decades.
The military use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), called “drones” in the popular press, has become a commonplace in the news. By and large, what reporters are covering is the use of the General Atomics (I just love that name) Predator and Reaper UAVs. Occasionally a reporter will take note of the larger Global Hawk intelligence platform. Every once in a while, you’ll come across a report that seems to be aware that these specific systems are part of a larger trend. On rare occasions, you see a reporter or commentator make the point that the use of UAVs seems to represent a qualitative change in military and foreign affairs.
But you may have to be a regular reader of publicly-available mil-tech geek material to realize that work proceeds at a furious pace on a pervasive suite of technologies that go beyond the Predator. And you have to squint just a little bit to see out to a horizon where warfare and conflict among states and others with access to these new technologies may create a military, diplomatic and geopolitical world that would look very, very different from the one we’ve known since the birth of “industrial warfare” in the US Civil War and World War I.
Looking back, the primitive liquid fuel rockets developed by civilian German and American pioneers in the inter-war years gave rise to Hitler’s V-2 “wonder-weapon.” Work with gyroscopes and analog electronics provided the guidance for that rocket. But the V-2 was merely prologue to the nuclear-tipped ICBM that completely changed the global military balance and, likewise, the Predator is only a foreshadowing of what lies not far ahead. Now, digital micro-electronics, and early artificial intelligence and robotics technology have given birth to the aerial “drones” that are making appearances over battlefields (declared and otherwise) and in popular news media. Beyond that is something that will seem very different from today’s battlefields.
Here is the promise of what is currently in development: As military robots become smaller, more capable and more autonomous, the kinds of “sensor fusion” being developed for the F-35 and other command, control, communication and intelligence applications (again, the “3CI” acronym) point toward unprecedented and qualitatively more acute penetration of the “fog of war.” Smaller, far more capable military robots will exist pervasively throughout the “battle space,” the information they collect will be of much greater quality, and that information will be made available to other robots, commanders and other humans on the battlefield and beyond in a more usable fashion. These military robots will shift seamlessly along a spectrum from 3CI at one end to actual attack and defense at the other; i.e. many of the very same robotic platforms that collect and share intelligence will also carry or be weapons of extreme precision. The evolution of the Predator from pure intelligence-gathering to the Reaper weapons platform presages the kind of highly flexible military robots that lie just over the horizon.
With these trends in mind, it isn’t hard to imagine a battlefield that is dominated by pervasive robots — a “bot cloud” that identifies and tracks threats, and then can respond and become a “bot swarm” in the blink of an eye aimed at destroying those threats. One reaction to this vision that I see from time to time is a fear that this robotic battlefield threatens some kind of “Terminator” nightmare. There is one such piece in the Washington Post just this last weekend. For some reason — perhaps because I’ve been steeped in military technology my whole life — I don’t harbor these kinds of fears. Every new kind of weapon presents novel threats and ethical challenges to those who would wield them. I actually think that the possibility of warfare with more precise and more intelligent weapons promises a more humane, not a less humane future: one with less collateral damage to civilians, and one in which the aims of warfare can be achieved with the application of less, not more, violence.
Instead, I’m concerned about the headlong rush into the promised future of robotic warfare for a different reason: the potential fragility of the command and control of the “battlefield bot cloud.” All of the wonderful sensor fusion we are promised, and the processing taking place within the individual elements of this battle bot cloud depend on electromagnetic radiation and electronic processes. And therein lies the problem. High-energy radiation can cause computer chips to go gaga, and the streams of communicated bits the robots must share over radio waves are subject to increasingly sophisticated jamming and spoofing. (The ignominious end of a stealthy RQ-170 intelligence UAV in Iran last year may have been due to jamming and spoofing.)
Jamming and spoofing are as old as warfare. Going back to the days of Sun-Tzu, combatants have laid down smoke screens and sent out false signals to confuse their enemies. Someday, robotic combatants may have the autonomy and ingenuity that have always served as countermeasures to overcome these things. But even that, as impressive as it will be, isn’t the best “solution” to the problem. Creating military robots that can act on their own when confused by enemy jamming and spoofing only gets you back to where you were before — admittedly with a saving of human life, but still without the coordination that makes the battle-bot cloud such a formidable concept.
In many ways, my concerns about the fragility of the battle-bot cloud are the same as the concerns I have about the civilian cloud and the Internet itself: These wonderful technologies depend on a connectivity that is easier to disrupt than many want to believe. The constant struggle between security systems and the assaults on our computers, smart phones and networks that have become a part of our daily life are a pale shadow of what all-out cyber-war would look like. The simple fact is that the Internet could be basically wiped out in any real cyber-war. Even short of a total Internet melt-down, the operation of big chunks of our civilian infrastructure could be brought to a grinding halt, both in the ethereal world of communication and data, and in the “real” world of actual machines with which we interact all the time. Basic industrial processes, banking, retail sales, inventory and logistics … all are now utterly dependent on reliable flow through the Internet. All are at great risk.
While the networks of communication upon which the military battle-bot cloud depends are already (mainly) much more robust than the civilian Internet, weapons designed to attack those networks and the processors and sensors they connect will also be more capable than the ones that could bring the civilian Internet to a halt. The mother of all network and processor disruptors, of course, is the EMP-inducing nuke blast. But you can be sure that America’s potential adversaries are hard at work on creating such havoc for military systems on a more focused and less catastrophic level. As are we.
We already deploy “hardened” chips and fiber optic networks that are more or less impervious to electromagnetic jamming. But the benefits of a truly pervasive battle-bot cloud can only be achieved if those robots can range freely, untethered by fiber optic cables. Is there a solution to the fragility of the battle-bot cloud?
I can imagine some directions that will have to be explored. Laser communication has to be one. But this solution is limited to line-of-sight. By itself, this isn’t as much of a limitation as it might seem. An advanced battle-bot cloud could create and maintain laser networks on the fly. When it is finally fully implemented, the F-35 points the way toward how this would work: Each aircraft is designed to act as a network node for all others, sharing the communication load on a flexible basis. It isn’t hard to imagine just a few steps beyond this, where each sensing and weapon node is festooned with laser transmitters and receivers.
But if such a counter-countermeasure is implemented, then we will come around in a full, ironic circle: The Fog of War will once again be a real thing. Not only will adversaries blanket the battlefield with beams and broadcast waves of shrieking radio-frequency jamming, but they will also literally seek to impose a shroud of real fog — clouds of smoke and dust to interrupt the flickering network of laser light by which military robots communicate with each other and their human commanders. If this happens, somewhere, Sun-Tzu will be smiling.
I can’t remember where, but in one of the good number of articles that have appeared in the last few days extolling the success of Israel’s Iron Dome short-range missile interceptor system, I saw someone make a comment to the effect that, somewhere, Ronald Reagan was smiling. I know the feeling.
I became aware of what would eventually become Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“SDI”) in the late 1970s from an article in Aviation Week and Space Technology (known by military tech geeks like me as “AvWeek” or, more cynically, “AvLeak“). I was an undergraduate college student studying Chinese in a program that had been famous (or to some, infamous) as a conveyor belt feeding young recruits into the State Department and various intelligence agencies. I was also the son of an aerospace engineer that had been raised reading my dad’s week-old copies of AvWeek throughout the 1960s — a kid who had followed the space program the way other kids followed professional football, and who knew the names and biographies of astronauts and cosmonauts the way other kids knew the backgrounds of their favorite quarterbacks and wide receivers. And I was just as interested in military aerospace technology: By the time I was eight or nine years old, I could instantly recognize every military aircraft and missile on both sides of the Cold War.
So I was electrified by the article in AvWeek that described the basic outline of ballistic missile defense as it was being conceived in the late 1970s: swiftly developing sensor and computing technology (“command, control, communications and intelligence” or “3CI technology,” as it was known) was making it possible to begin to think about actual systems that could change the balance of terror that had been in place since the development of nuclear-tipped ICBMs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The implications were enormous and obvious, even to me. I knew that the technical challenges would be great and that it would take years to bring effective ballistic missile defense to the level of practical utility. But the payoff seemed well worth the effort to me.
Not long after I read that article in AvWeek, a senior academic and “policy wonk” specializing in Soviet history and affairs spoke at a seminar at my school. After the seminar, the participants made themselves available to the eager young students in attendance. I approached this fellow and excitedly asked him whether he’d seen the article in Aviation Week and, if so, what he thought about it. He hadn’t, so I told him about it — in hindsight, I’m sure I seemed like a feverish young idiot. “A fantasy … science fiction,” he responded, when I had finished describing the idea of space-based interceptors that was the centerpiece of the ideas the article had contained.
Crestfallen and embarrassed, I withdrew. Months passed, and any chance that I might have had a career in government straight out of school fell victim to the fact that I graduated when Jimmy Carter was president. It’s a long story of interest only to me, but my trajectory toward government service was derailed when I encountered a defense and intelligence establishment under Carter that was not, shall I say, welcoming to my ideas and values.
But I didn’t forget the idea of ballistic missile defense. Reagan became president. By then, the path of my life had moved on, and I watched the changes in defense policy as only an interested outside observer. Once again, I was thrilled to the core when Reagan announced that his administration would pursue what he called SDI as a basic strategic policy. Naturally, the more “realistic” mainstream media — who despised Reagan and characterized him as an idiot — lambasted the idea. “Star Wars,” they called it. Although there was a critique of SDI worth considering — that it was destabilizing and could actually increase the chance of nuclear war — the more common criticism one heard was that it wasn’t technologically feasible. In between was an idea that, while SDI might work, it was uneconomical, since it would always cost more to intercept and destroy an incoming warhead than it would to build another attacking missile. But Reagan and his administration ignored the critics and poured enormous resources into a project that, in hindsight, may turn out to have been as important as the Manhattan Project.
A few months after Reagan’s famous SDI speech, I was watching one of the Sunday afternoon talking-head shows and who should I see but the academic I’d buttonholed after the seminar some years before. He had just returned to academia after having served for a couple of years in the Reagan administration. And what was the subject of discussion? Why, ballistic missile defense! This fellow was being confronted by critics of the SDI program, who were liberally (pun intended) using the pejorative “Star Wars” term to label SDI as “fantasy” and “science fiction.” Imagine my pleasure when the response came that, in fact, the basic concept was technically feasible and that it was worth pursuing. I couldn’t help but think that the fellow I’d confronted some years before had had the chance to see the same technical studies Reagan had, and had concluded that the goal of intercepting ballistic missiles and their warheads — “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” as it was said — was not only achievable but that the result of that achievement would be a change in the military balance that would free us from the terrible prospect of nuclear Armageddon.
That was thirty years ago. During that thirty years, the people who have been working on missile defense have made amazing progress. The basic missile defense 3CI technology that has been painstakingly developed over the last three decades is what has made Iron Dome possible. As more than a few people have pointed out since Hamas has started firing volleys of rockets from Gaza, Iron Dome’s success has actually made it possible for Israel to forego a ground invasion — at least for now. Were it not for the successful interception of the vast majority of Hamas’ rockets, Israel would have had no choice but to send hundreds of tanks and tens of thousands of troops into the rat’s nest of Gaza to hunt out the rocket launching and storehouse sites on a retail level. Some of the same 3CI technology that was pushed forward by SDI has also enabled the drones that attack Hamas’ launching sites to identify, target and destroy them within minutes or even seconds of each launch.
I’m reminded of a scene in the old BBC Masterpiece Theater series about Henry Tudor, The Six Wives of Henry VIII. I can’t find a citation, but I think it’s a dinner scene at the Boleyn house, when Henry is becoming infatuated with Anne. The subject of conversation is the relatively new technology of infantry firearms and the impact it may have on the role of the traditional English bowman in warfare. As I recall it, Henry holds forth in response that while guns have their place, nothing will ever supplant the longbowman as the foundation of England’s military power on land.
Whether that conversation ever really took place or not, soon thereafter, the firearm indeed replaced the longbow, and gunpowder artillery became the “King of Battle.” That King, and it’s offspring, the ballistic missile (short, medium and long range), have reigned supreme for almost five centuries. Now, even the doubters who sneered at Ronald Regan’s “Star Wars fantasy” can see that the long rule of the ballistic weapon may well be coming to an end.