Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Flexing muscles in the dark

That title is not as weird as it sounds. Let me explain.

So Russia recently invaded Crimea. We know this. We also know that there is a certain amount of diplomatic and strategic brinksmanship going on right now, as both the West (read: the U.S.) and Russia try to make sure there is no shooting but also no backing down.

There isn't much serious doubt that a conventional war--over Ukraine or anything else--between the U.S. and Russia would be bloody but that the outcome would eventually be a U.S. victory. The U.S. military simply has more hardware, better hardware and more resources for keeping it all working. (A nuclear war would, it goes without saying, be devastating for both sides in an "everyone on the whole planet loses" kind of way.)

The advantage the U.S. does not have, however, is much of a presence in Eastern Europe. If Russia moved into the rest of Ukraine, the Western response would necessarily be airpower-based and extremely violent, simply because it would need to buy time to get forces on the ground. That means there exists a plausible chance that the West would opt to do nothing, rather than potentially escalating the conflict.

So how do you deter an attack in that kind of situation? That's where the muscle flexing comes in.

Bill Sweetman, the ace aviation journalist at Aviation Week, reports that a large, manned, and heretofore unknown aircraft was spotted over Texas on March 10. It looked something like this:

The blurriness is not one of its stealth features.

You can read his analysis, but basically it looks different than a B-2, too big to be one of any known drone type, and fills an obvious gap in the U.S. arsenal.

Remarkably, the same guy who first posted the picture above, a well-regarded planespotter and blogger, did some interesting reporting on a bizarre weather event in New Mexico. Here's the nut graf, as we say in the industry:
Early in the evening on March 18th - something strange happened in New Mexico.

A mysterious jet of disturbed air erupted up into the atmosphere near the remote town of Carrizozo, New Mexico.  In minutes this jet of air morphed into a plume, so large it was seen by weather radars across two states and was automatically classified by weather computers as a storm.

But it wasn't a storm and in fact the radar return baffled meteorologists in both New Mexico & Texas because no precipitation had been forecast in the foreseeable future and at the time  the atmosphere was drier than baby powder due to a prolonged period of severe drought that had plagued the region all winter.
Aha, a mystery! I'll leave it to you to read his writeup of how he reported it out, but here is his conclusion:

The USAF has a Directed Energy Laboratory located on North Oscura Peak!  It is managed and headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base, 140 miles to the north in Albuquerque.

Although North Oscura Peak is known more for being a laser weapons laboratory it's quite possible much more exotic weapons are being tested there, running the gamut from microwave, particle beam and plasma weapons all capable of disrupting the atmosphere. They also agreed that SDI had not gone away but had gone black and billions had been pumped into developing exotic weaponry since the mid 1980s.

In May of 2003, an article in the New York Times reported that the facility is part of wide ranging efforts in developing weapons designed to destroy enemy satellites or incoming ICBMs. 

"The Air Force has pursued the secret research for several years but discussed it in new detail in its February budget request. The documents stated that for the 2007 fiscal year, starting in October, the research will seek to "demonstrate fully compensated laser propagation to low earth orbit satellites."

Seven years later, it's probably safe to say they’ve made some technical breakthroughs.
So within a couple of weeks, a ground-based directed-energy weapon--in nerd-speak, that means "science-fiction zap gun"--may have disabled a satellite target in a very conspicuous test, and a classified aircraft may have been spotted in daylight, at contrail altitude, over a populated area.

The explanations linked here could be wrong. The timing could be coincidence. And they could just represent serious, if accidental, lapses in secrecy.

Or it could be a shadowy show of strength.

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