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.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

It's Christmas Eve, babe

And, once again, I hope none of you, Dear Readers of the Blog, are in the drunk tank.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all, whether you're dashing through the smog of China or frolicking in a the wintry wasteland wonderland of the Midwest or basking in California sunshine... and of course anywhere in between.