Wednesday, December 24, 2014

It's Christmas Eve, babe...

... and as we all know, there is really only one place to be.

It has been a big year for the Blog family, and despite a lot of unpleasant news around the world, I feel like 2014 is ending on a good note. So, yeah: Happy Christmas (or whatever holiday you may celebrate), wherever you are. May your cars be big as bars, and your rivers be gold.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

To the stars, through a̶d̶v̶e̶r̶s̶i̶t̶y̶ budget cuts

A few hours from now, NASA is about to send a brand-new manned spacecraft called Orion into orbit. It's the first time this has happened since 1981, when NASA did this:

I remember watching this with my parents, excited but not fully realizing what a big deal it was (more specifically, I remember holding a plastic model with the vertical stabilizer broken off, sitting on the edge of my parents' bed in front of the TV). I was too young to feel nervous for the two guys strapped into Columbia's cockpit or to feel like there was even any chance of failure. The whole experience got me hooked on space, rockets, and space rockets--much in the same way, I'm sure, that others were mesmerized by Apollo 11.

Over the years, Space Shuttle launches became almost routine, but its first flight was a big moment for NASA. It was, essentially, a brand-new concept. And it was, literally, a manned test flight of a vehicle's maiden trip into space, something the organization had never done before and has never done since.

Indeed, Orion will carry all kinds of things--including a rubber ducky from Sesame Street and a T. rex fossil--but no astronauts. It will blast into high Earth orbit, circle the planet a couple of times, and splash down. The whole exercise will only last a few hours, but it's a huge deal because it marks the first tiny steps of much longer journeys. NASA has its sights set on a manned asteroid landing, and of course eventually Mars.

Neat, right? Everyone these days is focused on space as a source of resources, and that's important. It would be nice to be able to build things without destroying our planet looking for the raw materials. But it's much more important for us as a species to keep exploring, keep looking for questions to answer. Some of what we find might be practically useful, like new technology or materials. Other stuff might be bigger picture, like discovering extraterrestrial organisms. But regardless, it's not healthy for humans to just look around at where we are, shrug, and say, "eh--good enough."

(Orion is also a nice distraction from the awfulness of Ferguson, New York and Cleveland. And I don't just mean the killings or grand jury decisions--the way some have responded to the protests is beyond disheartening.)

So here's to a successful test flight. I hope by the time astronauts are using the craft, perhaps five years from now, Earth will be a better place than it is now, and we'll be well on our way to a new chapter of space exploration... and the Littlest Blog will get to watch astronauts walking on Mars.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Halloween is just around the corner, so it's time to look at a terrifying video. I call it "Day of the Looping J-31." Catchy, right?

(hat tip to Alert 5)

But let's be real. Like any horror movie, if you think about it too much, it stops being scary. The J-31 arrived in Zhuhai today, ostensibly in preparation for the airshow there, which starts on Nov. 11. The maneuver above, a half-Cuban 8, isn't particulalry arduous. It does not show off speed, maneuverability, and certainly not stealth--not that the Chinese military would be eager to put any of those things on display.

What I'm trying to say here is that the J-31 has been flying for a while now, but there remains no confirmable indication that, other than looking awesome, it or the larger J-20 can match or exceed the capabilities of other operational stealth aircraft. (Of which, to be fair, there are just two: the F-22 and F-35, with the retired F-117 flying around Nevada for who knows what reason).

What is "under the hood," specifically, remains questionable. Chinese engine technology is no great shakes, hindering not just military programs, but its commercial aviation industry. Less-obvious systems like low-probability-of-intercept radar, which allows a stealthy aircraft to track targets without its radar emissions giving away its position, are also tricky to develop. Without them or a robust airborne warning and control network, which China does not substantially have, a stealth aircraft's air-to-air capabilities are severely limited.

In the end, this video should be taken solely for what it is: neat footage of a neat-looking plane. It's not a milestone, and it's certainly not an indication of a closing technological gap... even with Jason Voorhees in the cockpit.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Shades of 1985

It's been a busy month. Mrs. Blog and I now have Little Blog; Hong Kong is (extremely politely) demonstrating in favor of full democracy; and of course the Royals are in the World Series.

I'm still figuring the first two out, but I have some experience with the third one. I was in grade school when the Royals played the Cardinals in 1985. At the time I didn't realize it would be the last time in a long time they would even get into the playoffs.

The aftermath looked a bit like this.

Now, 29 years later, they're back. My perspective this time around is a little different because instead of being a kid surrounded by revelry in my hometown, I'm an adult surrounded by a near-total lack of interest in baseball, 7,500 miles away from home.

My memories are a little sepia-toned, as childhood recollections tend to be. My classmates and I (and our teachers, who were no doubt more interested) watched one of the day games in the cafeteria. There was a parade on TV. George Brett was king of the universe.

I have less personal experience with this team--although I did get to a game last year!--and it's much harder to watch them play live, but it's still cool. They have a great story, of a good regular season and a sparkling (undefeated until today's game against the Giants, booooo) postseason. The style of baseball they play is genuinely interesting, with lots of incremental moves to gain advantage, and disruptive speed. Their bullpen is outstanding. Come to think of it, it's kind of like watching "Major League."

Anyway. Scenes like this are amazing to see, even from afar...

... and I hope that despite the lackluster Game 1, there will be more to come. After all, way back in 1985, when the Earth was still cooling, Kansas City lost its first game against the Cardinals.

And we all know how that turned out.

Monday, September 29, 2014

There's something happening here....

Wow, it's been like an entire month since I wrote about police responding to mass protests. But this time the dateline is not in my home state. It's where I live--right here, right now, in Hong Kong.

You have probably read by now that Hong Kongers are rallying in support of democracy. There are several different groups, from students to unions to activists.  All have more or less one goal, which is for the people of Hong Kong to be able to choose the candidates they vote for, and then vote for them. Simple enough. And that's the background.

Student actions started last week. Then yesterday the other groups got involved, and things got big. On Sunday morning there were a few hundred students surrounded by police:

Small. (photo SCMP)

By midnight Sunday, some of the city's busiest commercial districts were completely shut down by protesters:


Overnight the protests spread to other busy areas, including Mong Kok, which isn't even on Hong Kong Island:


But another thing happened overnight too. The Hong Kong police tried to "handle the situation." I put that in irony quotes because, basically, nothing was handled. Not well, anyway.

Their first move was to basically keep people from joining the protesters already in place. That worked well at first but created a new problem as more and more supporters showed up: essentially, another front. Sometime in late afternoon, a sort of critical mass occurred and those crowds spilled out into some of Hong Kong's busiest roads, blocking them completely during rush hour. That meant the police were now surrounded.

So they pulled back. But they did so in such a way that they were left with protesters on two sides--again! The crowds continued to grow in Admiralty (near Central, which was supposed to be the epicenter for the protests). And at some point the sheer number of people seemed threatening, and the cops lobbed tear gas into the crowd after hours of occasional pepper spray:

That cleared things out. But only for 30 minutes or so, during which the police did... nothing. The net result? Protesters were angrier, more determined to stay, and gathering support from around the city. That's when the shock troops showed up. Carrying shotguns, shields and tear gas launchers, they plowed into the crowd behind a wall of gas:

And then? Then they stopped. And became surrounded AGAIN when the protesters returned. No amount of police escalation cleared the area or provoked the protesters to become violent. And that, it seems, is where the police ran out of ideas. Because today that same area looks like this:

Still occupied.

Both the police and the government have lost control of the situation. On the one hand, it's good that the police did not use any more violence than gas or pepper spray, for the most part. No horses. No stun batons. No pain rays or armored vehicles. So in that regard they're ahead of the game of certain Missouri cities that will remain unnamed. And it's also good that the protesters are making their point in a very strong, very peaceful way. With China's national day coming up on Oct. 1--and tons of mainland tourists bound for Hong Kong--they have definitely caught Beijing's attention.

On the other hand... they have definitely caught Beijing's attention. And that's a problem because the central government really has no good options. If they accede to the protesters' demands, they lose power. If they send in the army, they ruin Hong Kong forever.

I'm not sure what will happen next, but it's pretty plain that the status quo won't prevail. Or, to paraphrase Buffalo Springfield during a turbulent time in my home country: there's something important going on, but what it will mean in the long run... well... that ain't exactly clear.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Blasts from the past

Hey, gang--long time, no see. It's not that I've been ignoring you, it's that life has been a little busy lately (and will soon get busier). But that's the usual blogger excuse. Let's talk about something more interesting, like... rockets.

There has been lots of space in the news lately. NASA's next-generation Orion spacecraft hit some milestones. Boeing was chosen as the lead contractor for a "space taxi" into Earth's orbit. Blue Origin is pitching new engines to use instead of the Russian-made RD-180s. And of course the Maven probe to study Mars' atmosphere arrived safely.

So it's fun to think that all this does indeed point to a real renewal of interest in deep space exploration. Indeed, in the next five or so years, the Orion capsule is planned to be on a spin outside Earth's orbit, just to see what she can do. It will be launched on top of the (unimaginatively named) Space Launch System, which bears some resemblance to the Apollo program's mighty Saturn V:

Tall. White. Rocket-like. Yep, fits the profile.

It should work well! But there were times before we figured out the whole rocketry thing that some really epic plans were on the drawing board. I've written a little about the U.S. proposals for nuclear rockets; here is an fascinating look at Russian plans along the same lines:
By the end of 1967, the Kremlin gave the green light to Vladimir Chelomei to work on the preliminary design of the UR-700 rocket as a backup to the troubled N1. Unlike the N1, Chelomei's rocket would be assembled out of components built in Moscow and transportable by rail. Even more importantly, it would use just 12 engines on its three stages, instead of 42 on the boosters stages of the N1. Finally, the UR-700 could launch 151 tons of payload versus 97 tons carried by the N1 and 127 tons delivered by the American Saturn-5.

In parallel with the development of the UR-700, Chelomei's engineers drafted a much bigger follow-on vehicle, which would be equipped with nuclear engines. (658) Known as Skhema "A" (Configuration "A") engine would feature the solid core nuclear reactor and enable the UR-700 to deliver as much as 250 tons into the Earth orbit. In a more distance future, a nuclear engine with liquid core reactor known as Skhema "B" (Configuration "B") would be developed, followed by an engine with a gaseous core reactor dubbed Skhema "V" (Configuration "V").
In the end, it lost out to the impressive but poorly built N1, which literally never got off the ground. And that was that for Soviet moonshot hopes.

These days everyone seems focused on getting back to the moon, or even Mars, which is great. Rocket technology has become more efficient and reliable in the decades since Apollo, but the basic physics (fuel, oxidizer, ignition) remain little changed. Because of the relative danger of getting a nuclear rocket into space--even using chemical engines--projects like the UR-700 are not likely to be revived. But it's always fascinating to see what technological solutions smart people come up with to solve problems like this... even if they don't always work out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ferguson didn't have to be Ferguson

I worked for a few years as a reporter in Chicago. In stints as the night cops guy and on general assignment, I covered more than a few of what the police department called "police-involved shootings." In layman's terms, that meant an officer had shot someone.

The narrative was often the same, and the key bit recited in roughly identical terms each time: "... and the officer, in fear for his life, fired [insert number here] times, fatally wounding the suspect." That was important because officers were not allowed to use deadly force unless they were in fear for their lives or those of others.

I won't go into how tough it is to report these stories. The police and coroner often control most of the relevant information, and witnesses implicating an officer in wrongdoing seldom have any evidence like photos or video. Former colleagues did an excellent job laying out exactly how dangerous this was in this story.

What I want to discuss, though, is how none of those situations--and some of them were horrific--led to the kinds of scenes we're seeing in Ferguson, Mo., right now.

In one specific case, I went out ot cover the non-fatal shooting of a kid who police shot in the street near Cabrini-Green, back when it was still in the twilight days of being a housing project. He had been carrying a toy gun and lived in the neighborhood. The community was, as you might imagine, furious; demands for justice and answers were being shouted from the sidewalks within hours of the shooting.

After talking to the boy's relatives at the hospital where he was being operated on, I went back to the neighborhood, where a protest was taking shape. It was pretty big, a few hundred people. There were signs, megaphones, shouted slogans. Again, most of it was about justice. But there was some general "cops are pigs!" sentiment too.

They marched around the neighborhood. There were plenty of police on hand, lining the streets and standing by their squad cars. I think a few rocks were thrown; I know (because I heard) some coarse comments about cops' mothers shouted.

But it never escalated. I got home at 2 or 3 am, having dictated a story from a pool car. The story wasn't about a riot. It was about a shooting of an unarmed kid that stirred up a neighborhood.

That's just one example. The Chicago police shot people in worse parts of town--places that often were torn apart by violence without any instigation at all. But I can't remember any instance turning into a Ferguson-type situation.

The aforementioned situation.

I wish I could put my finger on exactly why. I think there are several factors.

For all its faults (and some are quite serious), the Chicago Police Department understood the law, the media and the nuances of dealing with various communities. So you didn't see reporters or anyone else arrested just for "being there" or taking pictures, for instance.

And the only time I can remember seeing cops in riot gear was during anti-Iraq war street protests downtown. Even then, their presence was mostly passive and certainly didn't involve rubber bullets, tear gas or beanbag shotgun rounds... at least to my memory.

So rather than rush in and try to intimidate or control unhappy people with an overwhelming show of force--an act that, rightly or wrongly, makes most people feel like they are combatants rather than citizens--police keep acting like police. The same people that most residents see every day in their neighborhoods. It's an important psychological distinction, thinking cops are there to maintain order rather than simply to fight. Because fight is exactly what some people then show up to do.

There is a separate, but related and serious issue of police departments chowing down on surplus military gear from the U.S. presence in the Middle East; this piece gives a tremendous rundown.

In the end, I don't know what the precisely right response in Ferguson would have been. I suspect that more transparency into the shooting investigation and much less militarized police presence (and now the National Guard, whee!) would have been great first steps.

Unfortunately, now that we're at this point, I don't know where you go. I guess the good news is, it can't get any worse. But in my more-or-less direct experience, it didn't have to be like this at all.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Moon shot

There doesn't seem to be much to celebrate in the news the last few weeks. Tragedy, death, mayhem--almost every day, a full house of unhappy tidings.

But right around this time, 45 years ago, some remarkable stuff happened. Stuff worth celebrating. Mankind took a few minutes off from doing dumb and destructive things, and landed on the moon.

I've written about this before. But there's a picture I wanted to point out:

Flying high. Really high.

At first glance, it's just cool in the way that nearly all space pictures are cool. There's a spaceship! And planets! Awesome!

But there's actually something really remarkable about this shot, taken by astronaut Michael Collins in the Apollo command module. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat... they are cluttered with selfies. Taking a picture of yourself is common and expected.

But Collins' picture? There's a good chance it is the world's first (and only) everyone-elsie. That's right. That single frame, with the lunar lander and the Earth, contained what at that time was every single person on Earth, living or dead.

The only person not pictured was Michael Collins, the photographer.

It's a photo that literally puts everything in perspective. And maybe embracing that perspective, one optimistically hopes, would lead to more news of the inspiring kind.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Color it... stealthy

Well, well, well. Japan's long-discussed stealth fighter program has stepped into the spotlight. A technology demonstrator, the Mitsubishi ATD-X, is no longer just a rendering. It's real, and it has a fantastic paint job:

Red-tailed and radar evasive. (photo from

The plane looks to be about the size of an F-16, and it bears repeating that this isn't a production model--it is for testing technology. In this case, radar-evading technology. The hope is that it is the first step of a home-grown Japanese stealth fighter, tentatively designated the F-3.

It's really tough to tell what the ATD-X is all about--beyond scale--based on the pictures. It has the familiar angles of a stealth fighter, designed to reflect radar energy away from the transmitter. It is probably just a single-seat aircraft; few fighter prototypes aren't. It probably also is not treated with any radar-absorbing material; there would be little point in doing so and then adding a glossy paint job on top of it. And based on the shape of the wings and fuselage, it's probably designed to be supersonic. You can't see the engine exhaust clearly, so it's impossible to see whether the nozzles are stealthy or even designed to vector thrust.

Regardless, this is a big deal for a bunch of reasons. But there are two big ones. The first is that depending on how fast things go, it would make Japan the second, third or fourth nation on the planet to produce its own stealth aircraft (behind the U.S. and potentially Russia and China).

And the second is that it would take away a potential market for the F-35. That would mean a bunch of money lost for Lockheed Martin, which is working hard to sell the fifth-generation fighter in Asia and Australia. Worst-case scenario for LockMart, Mitsubishi could produce an exportable fighter itself, pulling away even more customers--although this seems unlikely.

It's hard to say what capabilities the F-3 might have, or how they might stack up to whatever is flying in 2020 or beyond. The state of the art has not been static, and indeed it's worth remembering that the first prototype stealth fighter flew more than 30 years ago.

All the same, Japan has a capable industrial base and a deserved reputation for mastery of high technology. This is a big step for the country's aviation industry... and another neat-looking airframe for aviation dorks to watch develop.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy birthday, America

It's been 238 years, but you've aged well. And as always, the best way to celebrate is... Muppets.

Happy Independence Day!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

How to make a long flight... longer?

Mrs. Blog and I have been on quite a few trans-oceanic flights. When that's New York to London, not a huge deal. Read a book, watch a movie, eat whatever food-like substance is put on a tray in front of you, and boom: you're landing.

But Hong Kong to anywhere in the U.S. takes a little longer. Like 15 hours or so. The in-flight entertainment system becomes a necessity, because it's too loud to talk, too cramped to sleep well and often too bumpy for, say, a nice game of cribbage. And that system better have a wide variety of movies.

But British Airways has a different solution, suggesting variety might be overrated.

If you want, you can now watch a seven-hour, first-person, commentary-free film of a train ride from Bergen to Oslo. Here's an exciting preview:

... and by preview, I mean half of the actual film. Don't watch it if you want to avoid spoilers!

I guess it's the equivalent of white noise for your eyes. But there's something a little weird about trying to experience a train ride while you're actually on an airplane. And it doesn't do anything to make the food better.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"Wise man"? Really?

The idea that we, as human beings, are inherently rational (see the "sapiens" in homo sapiens) is being stretched to the breaking point lately for me. I say this because a sapient being--or a society of sapient beings--should be able to process tangible, real-world evidence, draw conclusions from it and plan future behavior based on those conclusions. That's how humans came to dominate the planet, after all.

But these days, that doesn't seem to be happening.

For instance, there are mountains of data showing that the Earth's climate is changing in direct correlation with the amount of carbon dioxide we're pumping into the atmosphere. And if that weren't tangible enough, there is also the small fact of Antarctic ice measurably and inexorably sliding into the ocean... which will raise sea levels by amounts ranging from problematic to catastrophic in the next hundred-plus years. Tangible. Real world.

But instead of guiding humanity to action, this stuff has become a political football. I can't think of another area of science that is so settled yet "debated" (note: those are irony quotes) so heavily along political lines. Look it it this way: denying manmade climate change puts you in roughly the same scientific sphere as believing vaccines cause autism and just a notch or two above denying evolution. Is that a good crowd to run with? Is that what we want to base policy on?

Here's another example: guns. I could go on at great length about this, but The Onion, as always, is able to wrap it up in a tight little satirical package:

No need for a caption.

In this case, the real-world, tangible evidence is an ever-larger pile of deadly shootings. It doesn't get much more tangible than that. Yet the U.S. has done basically nothing additional to regulate the instruments of those shootings. To the contrary, public discourse becomes flooded with  sophistic arguments about how the shootings are caused by anything but firearms. (Quick side note here, touching on something that fascinates Friend of the Blog Pete: I do enjoy guns and military hardware. The technology behind them is brilliant and the tactics and strategy in their use on the battlefield is engrossing. Yet, barring a zombie apocalypse, there will never be a gun in my home.)

And so homo sapiens looks at his surroundings and shrugs, figuring it's easier to make up his own reality. This isn't the attitude that made our species strong. But it may be the attitude that lays it low.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A numbers game

A while ago, I wrote about a few "things"--mysteries and former mysteries--that were inspirational to a writer of speculative words like myself. One of those things was "numbers stations": radio channels that went on the air occasionally and broadcast a seemingly random series of numbers, letters or words. Although it is widely assumed the stations are for spies doing spy things, nothing has ever been definitively proven. Fascinating!

Today I came across an interesting post on Kotaku that seemed to push the numbers stations into the 21st Century.

Thousands and thousands of videos, uploaded nearly every day. Each one is the same, structure-wise: 10 slides of shapes, shown over 11 seconds, over various random tones. Nobody has a clue what the videos are supposed to be, much less who is uploading them or why.

Just today, the channel has uploaded over a dozen bizarre videos.

Here's the idea. If you're reaching out to your espionage buddies, using the Internet--and a public corner of it, no less--broadens the scope of transmission to, well, the entire world. Here's what the YouTube videos look like:

Sure, sure, sure. It could be a completely innocent series of videos with no deeper meaning. But that's boring. Instead, let's assume it is a series of coded messages about something super-secret, super-important and super-awesome in some way. If nothing else, it's a super-intriguing jumping-off point for a great story.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The right stuff

Like any era, the current one has plenty of grumbling about "those damn kids" and about how "men were men" back in the day. It's always been that way. And so it was when Bill Dana, one of the most accomplished test pilots in world history, died last week. A common reaction was that when men were men, you see, people flew by the seat of their pants and didn't care about no namby-pamby rules.

But that's not the way it was at all.

Flight testing has always pushed the limits, and always will. Sometimes it seems like programs took more risks back in the '50s, '60s and '70s, and I think that's true to a certain extent. There were definitely more risks, but that was largely a function of where technology and science stood.

For instance, we know much more about how extremely high Mach-number flight works, have much better computer systems, and have satellites that enable communications anywhere, anytime. The result? We didn't strap a man onto the top of an ICBM and send him hurtling downrange at Mach 20 in DARPA's Falcon program. That's good, because...

In short, we are pushing into more dangerous flight regimes than ever before, and can gather data without putting a person at risk. That's not a bad thing.

More to the point, though, guys like Dana didn't fly by the seat of their pants. He was an engineer with a master's degree who pushed aircraft as far as he could, and could analyze and explain what worked and what didn't.

Good flying leads to good photo ops (that's Dana in the foreground).

So what is the right stuff, which Tom Wolfe wrote about and Dana more or less embodied? It's knowing how to fly, sure. It's having the courage to push the aircraft. But it's also being smart enough to understand why it's happening (and why to follow the namby-pamby rules). And fortunately those qualities are still here in the 21st Century.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Return of the Triangle

One of the nice things about going on vacation is being disconnected from current events (even though the hotel Mrs. Blog and I stayed at helpfully provided a U.S.-focused photocopied summary of the day's news each morning). One of the bad things about that, though, is missing stuff like this:

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... kind of like a Dorito.

Yep. That's another picture of what appears to be the same aircraft photographed here. The picture above was taken in Kansas, by a guy whose name seems really familiar to me for some reason. The other pictures were taken in Texas.

What they both have in common is a pretty clear "pure delta" shape--in other words, a plane that is basically a flying triangle. As far as I know there is no aircraft in the U.S. inventory shaped like that. Even the fanciest new drones--the X-47B, the RQ-170 and the RQ-180, for instance--do not have smooth trailing edges. Neither does the B-2:

Sawtoothed, not smooth.

So this once again appears to be a photograph of a large-ish aircraft of unknown purpose flying at high altitude (as indicated by the contrails) and below the speed of sound (as indicated by the lack of anyone hearing a sonic boom). This is almost certainly a brand-new program, and its flights over populated areas are almost certainly not mistakes.

Interesting side note: More than 20 years ago, the Navy was on the verge of acquiring a stealthy attack aircraft called the A-12 Avenger II. The program was canceled for costing too much and delivering, well, nothing. But guess what the nickname for the Avenger was? The Flying Dorito.

It never flew. But it did look like a snack chip.

Looks a lot like what's in the Texas and Kansas photos, doesn't it? But by all accounts, the program was a dog and, quite literally, never got off the ground. The similarities are probably coincidental.

My guess is that the pictures show the long-planned Long-Range Strike Bomber. But given the frequency of these sightings, it's only a matter of time before we find out for sure.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Can tractor beams be far behind?

Just a quick post in the vein of  “science fiction got it right for once.” Laser weapons are on the cusp of being reality, for better or worse. Now, it seems, so are electromagnetic rail guns—(that’s Science Language for “gun what uses magnets to shoot real fast.”)

You might recall the U.S. military rail gun project; I could have sworn I wrote about it here, but apparently not. You might also recall the Guass Rifle from Battletech, if you are a huge dork.
The Navy will fire its electromagnetic railgun from a joint high speed vessel in 2016 as part of a broader effort to develop the long-range, high-energy weapon, service officials said.
The weapon will be placed on display this summer aboard the USNS Millinocket, a Navy JHSV which entered service in March. Following the display, the railgun will then be demonstrated on the same ship in 2016.

"We want to get this out on a ship and understand what lessons there are to learn," said Adm. Bryant Fuller, Chief Navy Engineer.
Mounting this thing on a ship is a big step toward making it operational. It could have a huge impact for the Navy, giving it a “deep magazine” (that’s Military Language for “lots of bullets”) and a much lower cost-to-big-explosion ratio. It’s basically using a bullet going at Ludicrous Speed to create damage without any explosives at all.
The railgun uses electrical energy to create a magnetic field and propel a 23-pound kinetic energy projectile at Mach 7.5 toward a wide range of targets, such as enemy vehicles, or cruise and ballistic missiles.

Due to its ability to reach speeds of up to 5,600 miles per hour, the hypervelocity projectile is engineered as a kinetic energy warhead, meaning no explosives are necessary, said Fuller and Klunder. 

"You have 23 pounds going Mach 7, you don't necessarily need an explosive detonation to create damage," Fuller said.

However, different combinations of high-tech materials called energetics could be used to increase lethality or impact.
And if that doesn’t sound impressive enough, here’s video that shows earlier testing of the two competing designs:

So although the basic idea of a fighting vessel remains similar to what it has always been, a floaty thing that holds sailors and guns, the nature of how it can perform in combat continues to evolve. And that apparently means becoming closer and closer to something William Gibson would have dreamed up.

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.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

My birthday is coming up

Hey, aviation fans. I know you have missed your fix of wing-related dorkery lately. My most recent scribbling, on China's efforts to improve its J-20 stealth fighter, is living here.

But there is something more pressing to discuss. And that's what I'd like for my birthday. Or Christmas. Really, the occasion isn't important. Here's where you can find it: eBay.

Strategic nuclear bombers don't come up for auction often.

That's right. A TU-95 Bear, with a starting bid of only $3 million. My favorite part is that the buyer is responsible for pickup or shipping. It's in Ukraine, which might make that a bit tricky at the moment, but sure--I'd be happy to fly it home.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Switzerland's rules of warfare (and everything else)

Mrs. Blog has a saying about the Swiss: They make the Germans look like Jamaicans. In other words, they are, shall we say, a bit strict about following the rules.

This can apply to little things, like not winding through the entire rope maze to get to the counter when there is no one else in line. (NEIN! VERBOTEN!) Annnnd... it can apply to big things. Like intercepting a highjacked airliner.

No Swiss fighter jets were scrambled Monday when an Ethiopian Airlines co-pilot hijacked his own plane and forced it to land in Geneva, because it happened outside business hours, the Swiss air force said.

Yeah, you read that right. The Swiss Air Force is only available, it turns out, from 8 a.m. to noon, and then from 1:30 to 5 p.m.

"You have reached the Swiss Air Force. For interceptions, press 1...."

They are also closed on the weekends, according to a spokesman. Rules are rules:

"Switzerland cannot intervene because its airbases are closed at night and on the weekend," he said, adding: "It's a question of budget and staffing."

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the hijacking. But if you're planning to start a war in Europe, please take note: Switzerland will simply not respond to your aggression if you try to pull anything outside business hours. Iesen Sie die Zeichen, for crying out loud!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Rollin' (20-sided) bones with Ice-T

In my youth, I dabbled in role-playing games. I'd like to pretend they were edgy or hip somehow, but... nope. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was one of them. Mechwarrior was another. I have no explanation other than that sentient mutant animals and giant war robots are awesome.


When some Friends of the Blog and I would get together to play these, it would often involve tons of soda, pizza and of course a soundtrack. Believe it or not, that soundtrack often involved Ice-T, pre-CSI but post-Body Count.

Which is why the fact that Ice-T is apparently narrating a Dungeons & Dragons audiobook even more hysterical than it already sounds. In Ice's (WARNING! STRONG LANGUAGE!) words:
“They were talking about ‘pegasuses’ and ‘pegasi.’ That’s horses with wings,” he continues. “This motherfucker got a sword that talks to him… Motherfuckers live in places that don’t exist, and it comes with a map. My God.”
Yep, sounds about right. I have a trip to the United States of Awesome coming up this year... maybe I'll download this one for the road. Because I'm 100 percent positive that the inter-dimensional gateway between South Central ("where the Bloods and the Crips play") and... whatever land the D&D book is set in is indeed magical.

*if you got this inside joke, you probably still own some Battletech technical readouts.
Hat tip to Friend of the Blog Sid for pointing out this incredible collision of worlds.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A (very) fast note about hypersonic testing

As noted in the New York Times, China has apparently tested a hypersonic glide vehicle. Another story, in the Washington Free Beacon, is more detailed but also a little confused about some things, like stating that hypersonic speeds meant more precise targeting. (A follow-up story had much better context.)

A few things to note here. Without any details about the Chinese test other than the implication that the vehicle traveled about Mach 10, or 10 times the speed of sound, it's difficult to determine exactly how big of a leap forward this is. For instance, simply launching an uncontrolled glider from atop a ballistic missile is trivial in terms of weapons science; it's just a projectile that travels farther downrange because it generates some lift.

Controlling it is much more difficult, as the U.S. knows from its mostly unsuccessful Hypersonic Technology Vehicle tests. And those tests occurred about Mach 20, aka ludicrous speed, which is obviously a much more challenging flight regime.

It apparently looks worse in person.

But this technology, if it is developed successfully, engenders all kinds of cliches: game changer, checkmate, silver bullet. It means the country that possesses it can essentially conduct a conventional bombing raid on a target anywhere in the world in a matter of 10 to 15 minutes, no airfield or aircraft carrier necessary.

For a country that is already a global power, like Russia or the United States, which occasionally have the need to blow up some remote place, it makes a modicum of sense. For China, the capability is a little more puzzling. Targets far enough away to require this kind of a strike are in places that can punch back--and punch hard. And to date, most of China's weapons development has been devoted to securing the region around it. It is hard to see  how this would be a priority, unless China has much bigger (and I would argue, totally unrealistic) plans than simply dominating Asia.