31 December 2009

For all you New Year's Eve revelers...

The Wall Street Journal has the lowdown on what is, by far, the best application of mobile internet technology: portable blood alcohol content calculator.

Indeed, the most obvious use of this new application would best be used to reduce the likelihood and severity of drunk texts, particularly the likelihood of one accidentally sexually soliciting one's male friends, battalion commander's driver, complete strangers, you name it. (Don't ask where I came up with this example) It might also have the added benefit of keeping drunk drivers off the street. The WSJ reports:

DENVER -- Heather Poli wasn't quite sure how to react when her friend's cellphone informed her she was drunk.

The 27-year-old ad-agency worker had been at a bar here with her buddies. It was late; she was about to catch a ride home. Then a friend pulled out an iPhone, and the gang took turns entering their weights and what they had imbibed into an app called R-U-Buzzed?

Bing! Up popped estimates of their blood-alcohol content. Ms. Poli's designated driver turned out to be hammered. Ms. Poli wanted to take the wheel herself, but to her indignation, the phone told her no: "I got the big red 'Don't even think about driving' result." Her hangover the next day confirmed the phone's assessment, she says ruefully. "But at the time, it was very surprising." Still, she obeyed the phone and called a cab.


Of course, a cell phone-based BAC calculator isn't 100% accurate. Then again, neither are most hand-held breathalysers. The WSJ article mentions a small, portable chemical breathalyser which one can attach to a keychain. Last year, these things were given out by the thousands by the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, and we soon found out just how inaccurate they were--Soldiers were arrested for DUI even after the keychain breathalysers mistakenly indicated they were sober. Their best use was--and I know this through personal experience--in drinking games, a la the Tucker Max Sushi Pants Story. Don't believe me? Quoth the Journal:


Pocket breath-analysis devices, some so small they fit on keychains, have been sold for some time, for as little as $15, though experts warn that they aren't always accurate. There are also several online blood-alcohol calculators. Colorado officials hope that bringing the issue to the iPhone will make it even easier -- and more socially acceptable -- for young adults to keep tabs on their intoxication.

But some have found another use: "It could definitely become a drinking game," says Brad Brown, a 23-year-old bank teller.

Mr. Brown pulled out the app at a recent party and started punching in each drink as he downed it: One shot of vodka. Two. Three. A mixed drink. A beer. It became a challenge, he says, to watch the blood-alcohol content climb and see when he could tip the color bar from gray to yellow to red. He didn't drive home that night, but he credits his common sense, not the app. "It's just a cool thing to mess around with," he says. "It gives you another excuse to drink."



So drink responsibly this New Year's Eve. For those so inclined, you can follow my Blood Alcohol Content and Twitpics on Twitter. God help us all...

Psychic Prediction for 2010

Well, the day is upon us when many predict what will happen over the next year. Looking back at last year's predictions, there were many which were outrageously incorrect. I guess I could make predictions regarding turmoil in Iran, stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the state of the economy. Problem is, I'd probably be wrong.

But there is one safe bet for 2010. The Chicago Cubs will not win the World Series. I think this is a safe bet.

30 December 2009

Upstate NY 10-Day Forecast

I shouldn't be surprised:

Dec. 31: Snow Shower
Jan 1: Snow
Jan 2: Snow
Jan 3: Snow Shower
Jan 4: Snow Shower
Jan 5: Few Snow Showers
Jan 6: Few Snow Showers
Jan 7: Snow Shower
Jan 8: Snow Shower

Air Assault in Paktika Province, Afghanistan

Thanks to The Thunder Run for the link to these great pictures of CH-47 Chinook helicopters and UH-60 Black Hawks from the 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade (home stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia) conducting an air assault into Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan.

I'm not certain if these pictures are from the same mission, but ISAF Media on Flickr also has some great air assault pictures from Paktika province as well.



I can guarantee that this will never happen...

...because it makes too much damn sense.

Boss Mongo came up with a modest proposal for our various law enforcement and intelligence agencies in order to help keep known terrorists out of the US. Unlike other "modest proposals", this isn't sarcastic or over-the-top in the least...it's simple, it doesn't violate anyone's rights, it's unobtrusive, and it's cheap. Which leads me to believe that it won't happen...

Mongo notes that the would-be underwear bomber, named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has an Arabic-based name which, when transcribed into a Latin-based alphabet ("Romanized"), results in all sorts of possible spellings. As Mongo points out, this is the case with many Arabic names (look at the 37 possible spellings of Qadaffi's name). It would be relatively simple for someone to fabricate numerous forms of identification based on multiple spellings, greatly complicating searches for a known terrorist's name in databases.

Mongo's ingenious--and relatively simple--solution involves some knowledge of basic Arabic, and permits one to easily search for multiple spellings for one Arabic-based name. TSA take note: this is a far better security precaution than banning bathroom breaks and Amazon Kindles in the last hour of the flight.

29 December 2009

Army Aviation Video of the Day

(H/T Jamie McIntyre's Line of Departure)

Great video of an American AH-64 Apache helicopter engaging Taliban insurgents after an attack on an ISAF base in Afghanistan. I particularly like how the pilot of the aircraft ensures that the insurgents are well clear of civilians and villages before engaging. Great example of Army Aviation attack assets in a counterinsurgency environment....


The V-22 (Again)


The V-22 Osprey always brings up heated emotions from both its supporters and detractors. There are those that love it, claiming it's the herald of a new era of aviation. There are others who despise it, claiming it's little more than a multi-billion dollar death trap.

There's also a lot of misinformation spread by both camps, owing to the fact that each faction has elements within it with a financial incentive to either promote or derail the V-22 (just take a look at the comments in this particularly vicious thread at Tom Ricks' blog).

However, there are still quite a few credible independent sources out there, one of which is the US Naval Institute's blog, which called into question the V-22 Osprey's safety record. Foremost among the issues cited is the fact that the US Navy Safety Center claims that the V-22 has had no Class A accidents (one which causes over $1 million in damage or loss of life) since 2001, despite the fact that a Congressional service report found at least two such accidents since 2006, including an engine fire which resulted in $16 million in damages.

Now, there's a million ways to manipulate statistics, and I suspect that safety records can be no different. If anyone with more experience in V-22 Osprey safety reads this blog, I'd gladly appreciate their feedback.

The V-22--a hybrid between a helicopter and airplane--is one of those ideas like the battlecruiser. Sure, a hybrid solution looks great on paper, but the truth of the matter is, it tries to combine the strengths of each platform, but it winds up incorporating a lot of the drawbacks as well.

The V-22 has been performing "ring route" missions in Iraq relatively well--it can hit more locations in a day than a conventional helicopter, and can land at remote outposts. I wouldn't claim that it's a piece of junk. Nevertheless, was that capability really worth all the billions of dollars we put into it? Couldn't the Marines have gotten, maybe, a mix of several Chinook helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft?

Photo from USNI's blog.






28 December 2009

COIN Lessons from Jagged Alliance 2

It's kind of funny how many COIN lessons Jagged Alliance 2 contained. With the snow coming down today, I spent most of the day playing JA2.

Some actions I took in the game, and applicable COIN lessons.

1.) Despite the fact that I killed government forces and trained dozens of militia troops, I found that I still had to go on quests to help the oppressed people of the fictional nation in order to to gain valuable intelligence, get access to more weapons, or find caches of money. Granted, I spent much of that money at the whore house in the game, but I'd probably do that in real life too, if given the opportunity.

2.) The children of the local town were forced to work at a sweat shop, making clothing for a big-name celebrity. After liberating the town, I confronted the owner of the sweat shop. After my demands that she cease violating human rights were unsuccessful, I proceeded to shoot her. In front of the kids. The kiddies cheered, with one of them claiming that he wished he was old enough to shoot the bitch himself. Who knows, maybe there's a COIN lesson in this.

3.) The greatest concern for the local population was security. During combat, the scurry about, hoping not to be shot either by the government or by my insurgents. While the locals--save for a small, rich elite--had little love for the dictator, they needed some guarantee of security and success in order to trust my insurgent organization and aid the rebellion. Indeed, they were taking a great risk assisting me--should I fail, they would be labeled as collaborators and killed when my rebellion was crushed. Indeed, I needed to demonstrate to them that we were successful, and, by training local security forces, that I was here to stay.

4.) Even an all-powerful dictator has areas into which his or her power is minimal. In the game, there's a seedy city where the dictator has minimal presence. In Saddam-era Iraq, there was the Kurdistan region.


27 December 2009

COIN Game of the Day: Jagged Alliance 2

I wasted countless hours in college in the late 90s playing a game called "Jagged Alliance 2". It's really a bit of two games in one--a turn-based small-unit infantry tactical game, combined with a strategy aspect.

The plot of the game involves you, the player, as the head of a mercenary organization hired to lead a rebellion against an evil dictator. During the game, you need to gain the support of the population, many of whom run about the battlefield hoping to not be shot by either the insurgents or the government forces. As the insurgent, you need to undertake an "oil spot" campaign, gradually seizing terrain as you help the people of the fictional nation fight their dictator. Clearing, holding, and building upon your successes in the cities and villages, you must train militia fighters in the areas you seize in order to gradually control the entire country.

I just re-downloaded the game from Steam, and I've spent the past few hours amazed at how much population-centric COIN theory I found in this pre-9/11 video game.

Focus: Are there any other games which incorporate COIN theory?

26 December 2009

Just when you thought Holiday air travel couldn't get any worse...

...a terrorist with suspected links to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attempts to blow up an Airbus en route to Detroit, Michigan. And I thought being in Reagan International on the 23rd of December was bad...

One blog in particular has some great updates on this recent development. "Al-Sahwa" (Arabic for "The Awakening", in reference to the Awakening movements in Anbar Province in Iraq) is run by a number of Army captains who seem to spend their time blogging on counterinsurgency and national security issues due to extreme boredom in their captains career course (I deeply sympathize). On Christmas Day, no less, a poster by the name of Pat Ryan posted extensively on the recent happenings in the skies over Detroit:

It appears the the recent US-Yemeni operations targeting AQAP in various parts of Yemen have stirred up the hornet's nest...

Northwest Airlines 253 (originating from Amsterdam) was the site today of a failed attempt to detonate some sort of Improvised Explosive Device (IED). The Wall Street Journal reports that after the plane landed in Detroit, TSA and FBI officials quickly took one individual into custody and were interviewing all passengers. Although full details are yet to emerge, initial reports say that the man had some sort of IED strapped to his leg and attempted to detonate the device in midair. The device malfunctioned and started a small fire.

According to the WSJ, the man told officials that he had been given the IED by an AQ (or AQ-affiliated) operative based in Yemen and was acting on their instructions. If true, this would show the ability of AQAP to extend their reach beyond the wider Arabian Peninsula into the West and the US specifically. It also clearly raises questions of physical security vulnerabilities on flights originating from international locations.
Obviously, this story is still unfolding, so details will likely be sketchy for the next few days. However, I found it interesting that Pat linked the AQAP-inspired attack over Detroit to a recent series of successful raids against AQAP in Yemen over the last week. On Thursday, 24 December, the Yemeni military launched a massive combined operaton on AQAP operatives, and are suspected of killing the top two AQAP leaders in Yemen, as well as Anwar al-Alwaki , a radical Muslim cleric who had regular e-mail contact with Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter. In total, the 24 December operation produced the following results, according to Saba News, the official Yemeni news organization (H/T Long War Journal and al-Sahwa):

Anti-terrorism troops launched in the early hours of Thursday [24 December 2009] air and ground raids against al-Qaeda hideouts and training sites in Abyan in the south and in Sana'a in the north killing and arresting about 51 al Qaeda suspects, including foreigners.

Between 24-30 plotters were killed and caught in Abyan in the south, four killed and four arrested in Arahab district north of the capital, and 13 were seized in the capital of Sana'a.

The 24 December attack comes shortly after an American cruise missile attack 17 December. This strike was directed against three separate targets in Yemen, and is suspected of killing over 120, according to Yemeni officials.

The correlation is disturbing, but the attacker's isolated actions, and the relative incompetence of the operation may be an indication of an AQAP organization on the ropes. Let's hope so. The links between recent American/Yemen success and this recent botched plot are better than the theory I had about a Christmas event having great psychological effect, although it's not entirely without precedent this holiday season, what with a Taliban video of PFC Bowe Bergdahl surfacing just yesterday.

Waq al-Waq, a blog specializing in the Iranian- and AQ-backed insurgency in Yemen, has been quiet over the last few days, but should have great information coming out of the area.

25 December 2009

A Question of Command--initial thoughts.

I need to caveat this by saying that I haven't made it all the way though Mark Moyar's "A Question of Command: Couterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq" (the link permits you to follow along at Google Books). However, I've jumped around from chapter to chapter in the book, and I have to say that although I like the premise of Mark Moyar's new book, it has some shortcomings in its execution.
In the first chapter of the book, Moyar asserts that there are ten leadership characteristics common to successful counterinsurgency leaders. Moyar goes on to state that it is leadership--not necessarily the tactics--which makes all the difference in counterinsurgency. Which, of course, is one of those "no-kidding" claims. As you read the narratives of ten different counterinsurgency campaigns, you realize that it takes leadership in order to decide which tactics to use in counterinsurgency. Indeed, viewed in this light, one might make the claim that leadership is critical in all forms of war--certainly a valid point, but one of those statements that nearly everyone in the military assumes is true.

Nevertheless, an examiation of leadership in COIN environments is a decent enough premise. Had the book simply provided leadership vignettes of, say, ten counterinsurgency leaders and discussed their adherence to or deviation from the ten leadership principles, it would have been excellent. Instead, we also see some half-hearted and ill-concieved bashing of the US Army's Counterinsurgency doctrine thrown about and not enough emphasis on actually examining the leadership attributes.

From pages two to three in this Google Books version, we see Moyar's assaulton straw-man versions of the two extremes of counterinsurgency: the population-centric or "velvet glove" approach (advocated by COINdinisas such as John Nagl) and the enemy-centric or "mailed fist" approach (advocated by COINtras such as Gian Gentile). Truth be told, few fall squarely into either camp. FM 3-24, the Army's official counterinsurgency manual, even notes that counterinsurgency is often a judicious use of both the velvet glove and the mailed fist, grossly dependent upon the situation. In an (albeit extreme) example, FM 3-24 notes that civil tasks, such as developing schools are irrelevant if guerrillas are are pouring through the perimeter of the FOB. It takes both approaches, dependent greatly upon the counterinsurgency environment.

So if this isn't a book on counterinsurgency per se, it must be a great book on leadership, right? Well, on that point, it seems to fail again. Reading through the chapter on leadership in the Civil War, we are treated to a few leadership vignettes. While I acknowledge that one can learn quite a bit from those who have failed in life, the characters Moyar selects for analysis are baffling.

Early in the chapter on the Civil War, we are treated to a leadership vignette of Major General John Fremont, a section which covers some three pages (omitted in the Google Books version, although you can see bits of it here). Fremont did absolutely nothing during the Civil War, demanding that the people of Missouri build him a mansion, where he sat for the vast majority of his time in service. Fremont surrounded himself with sycophants and cronies, and embezzled gross amounts of money from the Union. Thank you, Mark Moyar, for letting us all know that staying in a mansion and embezzling tons of money is bad for counterinsurgency efforts. Seriously, how could one argue against this?

But let's move on to successful counterinsurgents. On page 23, we are treated to two successful counter-insurgents (according to Moyar): Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman. Obviously, we would do well to examine their methods and leadership style in full. Unfortunately, Grant and Sherman together get a grand total of one paragraph's worth of attention (bottom of page 23, top of page 24). It's hardly enough to draw a detailed character analysis of either of them, so we basically have to take Moyar's word for it when he says that Grant and Sherman "were endowed with some of the key counterinsurgency leadership attributes, such as initiative, dedication and organizational skill". How do they do this? This book is almost useless as a book on leadership unless we're provided with some explanation of the individual characters and how they display--or don't display--the ten leader attributes.

Seriously, I should have just opened the book to the prologue and read the ten counterinsurgency leadership attributes (Google Books omits #1 and #2, but you can read the rest here) and be done with it. Its use as a book on leadership and as a book on counterinsurgency is rather flawed. And I'm not the only one who thinks so, either. (Thread at SWJ)

Thoughts, reviews? I might need to read more of this in order to develop my opinion more fully--this post from Toby Bonthrone at Kings of War kind of sums up my attitude at this point:

There’s a good chance that people who read or hear of Moyar’s book won’t be able to get over their initial intuitive response: arguing that leadership is important to victory is like arguing that sex is important to procreation.

Similarly, the ten traits he identifies could come from any management book, because it is quite hard to argue that initiative, flexibility, etc. are less than vital in any human endeavour ranging from managing a multinational firm to getting laid (and who doesn’t believe they have most of those traits?).

Yet for that reason, one also can’t disagree with Moyar’s argument. It rings true down to the lowest levels. To more or less reiterate some of Moyar’s points and ultimately tie it in with the more standard COIN debate:


Additonal reviews are greatly welcome.


Charlie Simpson Ruined My Christmas :(

Many of you read a blog by "Charlie Simpson", a regular poster at Andrew Exum's Abu Muqawama, who is currently serving as a civilian advisor in southern Afghanistan. Today she reflected upon her experience of Christmas in Afghanistan. Please observe the sacrifice of our troops this holiday season and keep in mind that war is hell.

It isn’t Christmas here until you’ve seen a female British soldier in a slutty Santa costume, with a rifle slung down her back.

I love the British. Leave it to the country that gave us the Page 3 Girl, as well as Bernard Montgomery and his pragmatic attitudes towards sexual behavior to provide us with amusing innuendo this holiday season. Had this happened in the US military, you can rest assured that the moral outrage (and pregnancy scare) would begin 0.2 seconds after the discovery of Slutty Santa. But I digress.

After the awesome mental image of a British Slutty Santa with an SA80 assault rifle slung across her back--bringing back awesome memories of Sephira's IDF Girl of the Day--we then hear Charlie Simpson talk about the cute little bow in her hair, how she's dressed well in her warm North Face jacket, and so forth. After all, her family is reading this.

I was viewing the article in Google Reader and thought that I needed to simply go to her website directly in order to view the picture of the aforementioned Slutty Santa. To my dismay, there was no Slutty Santa picture.

The horror, the horror.

Seriously?! You've just given me hope that the magic of Christmas (with slutty outfits) can outdo the alcohol-fueled slutty-costume awesomeness that is Halloween. But alas, no Slutty Santa picture. Looks like I will have to provide this for you. (Ed note: I just now had to explain to my mom why I was Google Image-searching "Slutty Santa". Thanks Charlie Simpson!)

So, for all my fans with a Y-chromosome, I present to you the Slutty Santa of the season:



And for the rest of you, Merry Christmas from me:


PS--Charlie Simpson: in all seriousness, though, I love your blog. I especially empathize with your frustration at the incoherency of DOD computer systems. And people are amazed that insurgents in a 3rd World Country have a tech-savvy information operations campaign which outperforms that of the world's most Internet-savvy superpower.

24 December 2009

Merry Christmas from the USA

Follow Santa with NORAD

For decades, NORAD--North American Aerospace Defense*--has tracked Santa as he delivered presents all over the world. This year is no different--you can follow Santa at the official NORAD Tracks Santa website, as well as at Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr. Content is available in multiple languages, and is a great way to teach geography to kids.

Why does NORAD track Santa? Wiki has a brief history:

In 1955, a Colorado Springs-based Sears store ran an advertisement encouraging children to call Santa Claus on a special telephone hotline. Due to a printing error, the phone number that was printed was the hotline for the Director of Operations at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). Colonel Harry Shoup took the first Santa call on Christmas Eve of 1955 from a six-year old boy who began reciting his Christmas list. Shoup didn't find the call funny, but after asking the mother of the second caller what was happening, then realizing the mistake that occurred, he instructed his staff to give Santa's position to any child who called in.[1][dead link] [2][dead link] [3][4]

Three years later, the governments of the United States and Canada combined their respective national domestic air defenses into the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), but the tradition continued.[3] Now major media outlets as well as children call in to inquire on Santa's location. NORAD relies on volunteers to help make Santa tracking possible.[2] Many employees atCheyenne Mountain and Peterson Air Force Base spend part of their Christmas Eve with their families and friends at NORAD's Santa Tracking Operations Center in order to answer phones and provide Santa updates to thousands of callers[5][dead link] [6]. About 800 service members and their families volunteer, and shift run from 2 a.m. MST December 24 to 2 a.m. Christmas morning.[6]

In 1997, Canadian Major Jamie Robertson took over the program and expanded it to the Web where corporation-donated services have given the tradition global accessibility.[5] In 2004, NORAD received more than 35,000 e-mails, 55,000 calls and 912 million hits on the Santa-tracking website from 181 countries. In 2005, more than 500 volunteers answered questions.[7][dead link] In 2006 half a million calls and over 12,500 e-mails were handled from 210 territories.[3] The site now gets well over 1 billion hits.

The fictional background storyline has changed with the world political situation: during the Cold War when the tracking team provided updates via radio announcements, only North America was mentioned and Santa's approach was described in tense terms with interceptor aircraft scrambled to shoot down the "bogie."[8][9] Only at the last minute would the pilot realize whom he was engaging[10]. Now the Web shows that as Santa approaches Newfoundland in Canada, a flight of Canadian Air Force fighters (CF-18 Hornets as of 2006) rendezvous with him to provide an honour guard and ensure that he has no difficulty with the various Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) he must enter flying through Canada.[11]


The 2005 Christmas season marked the fiftieth anniversary of NORAD's annual tracking of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. The following year, NORAD Tracks Santa began using Microsoft Virtual Earth-style maps that instantly provide Santa's current location. In 2007, NORAD Tracks Santa used Google Earth to track Santa Clausin 3-D.[2] They displayed Santa's location at 5 minute updates.


*--formerly Continental Air Defense (CONAD), as well as North American Radar and Air Defense (NORAD)

Video from NORAD Tracks Santa 2008:


23 December 2009

Deployed and Pregnant--Update

Quick update--I had the opportunity to guest-blog over at Tom Ricks' The Best Defense yesterday regarding the latest news of potential courts-martial for female Soldiers who become pregnant while deployed. I appreciate all who took the time to weigh in on the issue. The fact that it's only gotten five replies is probably due to the lull in posting around Christmas, but it also has the added benefit of not attracting the required the trolls who might turn it into misogynist bash-fest.

I'd like to take some time to consolidate some comments I received.

Kayla Williams (author of "Love My Rifle More Than You") brought up an interesting counter-point to the sexual assault argument I mentioned:

There is only one thing that bothered me about your post: "3.) If a female is facing court-martial for pregnancy, might she cry 'rape'?"

For all women there is a significant stigma about coming forward about sexual assault. This is particularly true in the military, which has a very poor record of successfully prosecuting perpetrators. Sadly, my fear is that the point you raise could actually have the opposite effect of your concern: fear that this will be the response and they will not be believed may further inhibit women from coming forward if they have been raped.

Interesting point. I think there's truth to both sides of the argument, to be perfectly honest.

Next good point came from a poster known as TTC, who weighed in on the legal aspects of the ban.

The word "court-martial" is a red herring.


Every lawful order can be enforced with a court-martial, but few are. Almost all violations of GO1 (pornography, alcohol, etc.) are punished with, at most, non-judicial punishment (and Art 15). Even if a violation of GO1 made it to a court-martial, the punishment would be laughably minute.

The more I read about the policy, the more I realize the legal aspects of it. The media has used the term "court-martial" quite a bit, I think due to relative ignorance of the entire ins-and-outs of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. To be certain, pregnancy appears to fall under General Order #1, which bans--as TTC mentions--porn and alcohol. Violating any general order opens one's self to the possibility of court-martial, although it will probably go to the Article 15 level--meaning letters of reprimand, loss of rank and pay. Indeed, even punishment might be a bit of an idle threat, based on some of the convictions we've seen so far.

Further comments? Head over to Tom Ricks' blog and comment...

19 December 2009

The Phantom Menace: Attack of the Drone Watchers

Many milbloggers have been as shocked as I have been regarding the revelation that insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have the ability to view the live video footage from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) which patrol the skies of Iraq, Afghanistan, and hot spots all over the world.

(Editor's Note: Many use the word "Predator" and "Predator drone" to refer to virtually any model of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. It's unknown whether or not the video feed from other UAV models, such as Hunters, Global Hawks, Ravens, etc. can also be received by insurgent groups)


Update: 12/21/09--Apparently, there are some limitations in the ability to intercept these feeds, the New York Times reports. Much of the data compromised occurred when troops with older-model computers attempted to view the video feeds directly. Newer laptops seem to make up for this. Additionally, the article reports that insurgents are only able to get video feeds from UAVs which are within a relatively close range--not from all over the theater, as I initially feared. Nevertheless, check the CBS news video (later in the post) regarding the British engineer who viewed footage all the way from Kosovo.

Most of that data is highly encrypted, and it has been critical to guiding attacks on the insurgents, often with missiles fired from the drones themselves or from helicopters...They said the vulnerable transmissions occurred when troops with older laptops or handheld controllers sought a direct feed from Predators and smaller surveillance drones, as well as from some conventionally piloted aircraft equipped for surveillance.

Direct video feeds to the troops have proliferated as the military tries to rush the latest intelligence to even the smallest units in the field, and they are expected to play an important role in Afghanistan.

But military officials added that the insurgents would need to be positioned close to the American troops to intercept the feeds.

They said the newest laptops received encrypted signals, just like all the major command centers that receive the main feeds from the largest drones. They said those transmissions had not been compromised.

The officials said they had also been adding encryption, which scrambles the video signal, and taking other steps to reduce the vulnerability of some of the older systems. “But that is a major undertaking, considering that we have hundreds of U.A.V.’s and hundreds more ground stations,” one official said.


Back to the original post:

A few points regarding this issue, and some great links and quotes from around the blogosphere and the mainstream media.

The first comes from Shaun Baker, an instructor at the US Naval Academy, who runs the blog Themistocles' Shade (with the URL "SonofNeocles.blogspot.com"--excellent). Shaun agrees with my not-so-creative title from a few days ago ("This is not Good"), but suggests that this issue may have a bit of a silver lining. Shaun proposes a few ingenious solutions including a modern-day version of Operation Fortitude, the grand deception plan launched by the US, Britain and Canada prior to the invasion of Normandy.

Build into the drones one or more bogus video streams, that creates some combination of unencrypted or encrypted data streams, all of which are available to the enemy, some showing terrain that the drone is not flying over, others being bona-fide video of terrain being traversed. The enemy becomes confused, the information useless.

This is a pretty interesting idea for areas like Iraq and Afghanistan, where insurgents are already well aware that American UAVs are overhead. Indeed, it would be interesting to see what sort of a deception campaign we could wage with false video footage.

On the other hand, one of the reasons that UAVs have become so popular (or unpopular if your name is Kilcullen or Exum) is because they can be easily launched in secret over countries in which we have little military presence at all, due to the fact that there's little liability in the event of a crash. Indeed, armed UAVs have killed al Qaeda operatives in Yemen in 2002. To have the people of Yemen, Somalia or any other potential hot spot pick up video from a UAV means that they then know for certain that the US is watching.

On to another great milblog, Building Peace. BP is written by a C-17 pilot and Olmsted Scholar studying in Amman, Jordan (who just recently had a new daughter). The author of Building Peace goes by the handle of "Reach 364". Reach writes:

This is what modern war is becoming. Just like in the business world (as I discussed in my review of Cory Doctorow's "Makes" this morning), the winners will be those who can innovate faster than their rivals.

How should we respond when the bad guys get inside our networks? I don't know anything about UAV data transmissions, but I think we should pay attention to the battles over hardware and Digital Rights Management (DRM) that some corporations are waging with their customers.

The WRONG answer is to spend millions of dollars and years of time creating a platform that is supposedly uncrackable, then sit back and congratulate ourselves. In a few weeks or months,
some 17 year old kid in his garage will crack it... just as they've cracked iPhones, Playstations, X-Boxes, cell phones, and now Nooks. We also don't want to lock down data so tight that it hurts our "customers": the people who use the technology. The music industry just about destroyed itself by suing, alienating, and enraging its customers instead of adapting to a totally new kind of market. Electronic Arts created a DRM system for its game "Spore" that was so invasive, customers savaged the game in reviews and ran it into the ground. And oh, by the way, the pirates still cracked the DRM in a few days.

The better answer is to realize that we're in a long term competition with multiple players. Every move we make will result in a countermove. We are in a long-term competition of innovation and adaption. We should expect the cracks, adapt, and coolly play our next move.

There isn't much I can say about this except for two things. 1.) If you build it, someone will hack it, if only just for the sheer pleasure of claiming they hacked it. 2.) Reach makes the point that we need to be more innovative and quick as an organization than small networks of insurgents. If I can paraphrase this one--we need to observe, orient, decide and act faster than our enemies. (Your moment of John Boyd for the day)

Tom Ricks--you all know Tom Ricks--covered this story on Thursday and Friday. These posts are notable not only because Tom provides us with some great links to mainstream news sources, but also because he contributed to the number of people coming to this blog looking for Megan Fox pics some tenfold. (If that were possible)

Anyway, Tom provides a link to a CBS News article which is chock-full of forehead-slapping moments:

The Pentagon conceded later Thursday that militants in both Iraq and Afghanistan were known to have pirated the unprotected video feeds. Military officials insist, however, there's no indication that insurgents in either theater have ever been able to hack into the systems controlling the aircraft, or alter the video being fed.

That possibility, that a foreign entity such as China or Russia might hijack the video transmission and manipulate it to confuse American battlefield commanders, was at the heart of the 2004 discussion among officers working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
reports The Journal.

One American officer, who The Journal says is familiar with the talks that took place in 2004, told the paper: "The fear was a commander looking on a feed, seeing nothing, and then having an enemy tank brigade come roaring into your command post."

According to the paper's sources, senior commanders largely dismissed the concerns as they were too preoccupied with the more material threats of the day; IEDs and insurgent attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. The enemies in those countries were not considered technically advanced enough to downlink the unencrypted video themselves.

Okay, while I admit that it's great that the video from UAVs wasn't altered in any way, nor were the vehicles themselves taken over (although, with unencrypted data-links, who is to say this isn't a distinct possibility), this is still bad. Why? Because the enemy knows what you are looking at, what you care about, and most importantly, how well you can see it. They can figure out what areas the drones fly over most often, how often they do so, and what they look at. Most importantly, though, they can figure out exactly what the UAVs can see, which is of huge value to insurgent groups. Says New York Times reporter David Rohde, who was held for seven months by the Taliban:

It was March 25, and for months the drones had been a terrifying presence. Remotely piloted, propeller-driven airplanes, they could easily be heard as they circled overhead for hours. To the naked eye, they were small dots in the sky. But their missiles had a range of several miles. We knew we could be immolated without warning.

Our guards believed the drones were targeting me. United States officials wanted to kill me, they said, because my death would eliminate the enormous leverage and credibility they believed a single American prisoner gave the Haqqanis, the Taliban faction that was holding us. Whenever a drone appeared, I was ordered to stay inside. The guards believed that its surveillance cameras could recognize my face from thousands of feet above. [emphasis added]

Wouldn't it be beneficial to confirm or deny the myth?

Next up is John Robb of Global Guerrillas, who writes:

This event isn't an aberration. It is an inevitable development, one that will only occur more and more often. Why? Military cycles of development and deployment take decades due to the dominance of a lethargic, bureaucratic, and bloated military industrial complex. Agility isn't in the DNA of the systemnor will it ever be (my recent experience with a breakthrough and inexpensive information warfare system my team built, is yet another example of how FAIL the military acquisition system is).

In contrast, vast quantities of cheap/open/easy technologies (commercial and open source) are undergoing rapid rates of improvement. Combined withtinkering networks that can repurpose them to a plethora of unintended needs (like warfare), this development path becomes an inexorable force. The delta (a deficit from the perspective of the status quo, an advantage for revisionists) between the formal and the informal will only increase as early stage networks that focus specifically on weapons/warfare quickly become larger, richer, etc. (this will happen as they are combined with the economic systems of more complex tribal/community "Darknets").


Next we have CourtneyMe109, or "The Great Satan's Girlfriend", who says in her post, "Hacked":

Instead of freaking out and surrendering to Taliban (since AFPAK is about to get fully crunk and see a massive rise in warrantless, attorney - client privilge free 'Drones Gone Wild!"), this may actually be an opportunity:

If "Pretty much anyone could intercept the feeds of the drones" then perhaps pretty much everyone intercepting those signals could end up on the rec'ving end of a drone's business end. Turning those searchers into targets - for surveillance, intell or righteous kills or maybe even a surprise visit from an airborne Miranda team (Why not? HUMINT needs refreshing too!)

While the last paragraph certainly sounds tempting, it's not realistic. Viewing the video from a UAV feed on SkyGrabber isn't active intelligence gathering--it's passive. If insurgents were actively hacking the signals, then there is a possibility they might be tracked through IPs and the like. However, insurgents are simply listening to the signals that UAVs are already broadcasting. The only equipment insurgents apparently need to view UAV feeds are apparently SkyGrabber (which costs $26, and can probably be pirated for free), a computer, and a satellite dish, the latter of which can be found on countless houses throughout Iraq. This equipment is normally used to download and store footage of movies and soccer matches broadcast on the airwaves throughout Iraq--the same airwaves that are apparently used for Predator feeds.

Now, granted, downloading movies and soccer matches are probably illegal activities in and of themselves, but in order to track down those who use SkyGrabber to look at Predator feeds, the US military will have to get entangled in the entire video pirating industry of Iraq. Those of you who have ever been to the "video market" on any Forward Operating Base know exactly how pervasive that particular industry is in Iraq...

But the most telling remarks came from those who felt that the hubris and ethnocentrism prevented the US military from recognizing that insurgents who lived in 3rd world countries might someday figure out how to capture unsecured video feeds from the UAVs--even though the issue was known as early as Allied Force in 1999. Moreover, a British engineer stumbled across the signals as early as 2002 while scanning satellite signals on his home computer. Although many have commented on how pervasive the problem was, a poster on Tom Ricks' blog says it best in a reply with the tagline, "Amazingly, insurgents not thought to be capable of pirating TV".

Many have compared the hubris of American planners--and their disbelief of the ingenuity of insurgents--to characters active in the Pacific Theater of WW2 circa 1941. On one hand, Tom Ricks makes the point that America's failure to modify UAVs to transmit secure messages is similar to the Japanese Navy's confidence in the security of their coding machines. Michael Collins Dunn of MEI Editor's Blog makes comparisons to the British attitudes towards the Japanese at the start of the latter's campaign in Southeast Asia. I found more similarities to the attitudes of the US Navy towards the Japanese Navy in December 1941. Indeed, so greatly did the US underestimate the capabilities of the Japanese Navy that many American sailors (according to the great book, Why Air Forces Fail) felt that, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, that the Germans--not the Japanese--were responsible for the attack. Yes, much like Bluto Blutarski, many Americans felt that the Germans actually did bomb Pearl Harbor...


Focus: While some are quick to dismiss the video feeds as useless, I feel that major intelligence could have been leaked to insurgents. Thoughts? I need comments and page views, so please don't hesitate to leave them...



17 December 2009

The Blogger Blackout

A number of my fellow milbloggers (as well as the Military Times) have picked up on the story of Master Sgt. CJ Grisham, the operator of the blog"A Soldier's Perspective". Grisham had operated his blog for six years, but under increasing scrutiny from his chain of command, he has ceased all posting.

In response, a number of blogs have taken part in a stand-down day in support of Master Sgt. Grisham--including prominent blogs such as BlackFive and cartoon sites, such as Private Murphy.

While the story is complex, and contains a lot of he said/she said, I'd like to draw attention to a few aspects of the story that I found fascinating.

The first point I'd like to highlight is that Grisham went on a tirade against his school board as a result of a school uniform policy which was implemented without the input of the parents. The school discovered his rant and contacted his chain of command.

The question is why does Grisham's chain of command need to be at all concerned with Internet drama?

Let me share a story from my time as a company commander to put this in perspective.

On one summer Friday in Upstate New York, I sat in my chair and looked at the clock. Work was slow, the sun was shining, and my open-topped Jeep was beckoning. It was one of those days when you look around and notice that offices had largely emptied out for some reason or another.

As I tried to find an excuse to leave work and enjoy a drive through Sackets Harbor, I received a phone call from my legal department:

"Excuse me, but do you have a Soldier by the name of [redacted]--someone that might go by the screen name of IllJim69?"

Instantly I knew that I wouldn't be going home early that day.

I walked into the legal department and was handed a stack of printouts from an Internet message board. As I read through the forum posts, I noted that my Soldier, IllJim69, was engaged in ruthless Internet debate with some self-proclaimed White Trash Aphrodite who had, much to the dismay of mankind, found a way to breed in large and irresponsible numbers.

This being the Internet, IllJim69 began to mercilessly insult the aforementioned White Trash Aphrodite. Having been a moderator on my college message board, I was used to seeing nearly every thread dissolve into name-calling, Godwin's Law and the like. This is pretty much what the Internet is for.

Unfortunately for IllJim69, the White Trash Aphrodite was so offended by his rhetoric that she searched through his profile, where he had a picture of himself in uniform, posing with his sports car (complete with a license plate number). She was able to get in touch with the base's Criminal Investigation Department, who then handed the issue off to me.

Never underestimate the determination of a crazy, jobless, irrational woman on the Internet, I guess.

This was a waste of time. Clearly, had IllJim69 been a civilian, no one would have cared one bit. But of course, since he was a Soldier, he fell victim to the childish "I'm going to tell your commander and get you in trouble" mentality which nearly every commander has had to deal with at some time or another. Whether it be angry ex-girlfriends, jilted lovers or outraged drivers, some people in the civilian world love to call commanders to deal with asinine personal issues.

It seems that our dear Grisham fell victim to this mentality with regards to the school board. Cry me a river--in 2009, anyone can weigh in on an issue on an internet message board. So long as it wasn't libel or slander, he should be left alone in cases like this. (There are other posts worth mentioning, for certain, but the issues with the school board should be left alone)

Issue number two comes from a point which Thunder Run made:

Milblogs are facing an increasingly hostile environment from within the military. While senior leadership has embraced blogging and social media, many field grade officers and senior NCOs do not embrace the concept. From general apathy in not wanting to deal with the issue to outright hostility to it, many commands are not only failing to support such activities, but are aggressively acting against active duty milbloggers, milspouses, and others. The number of such incidents appears to be growing, with milbloggers receiving reprimands, verbal and written, not only for their activities but those of spouses and supporters.


Indeed. While many senior leaders embrace blogging (even the official US Army website actually linked to this blog today), I suspect that many leaders feel that it is far more simple to outright ban blogs than it is to take the risk with operational security, or the potential offense a blog post might stir up. Indeed, it takes less time to ban a blog than it does to review each post--consequently, many milbloggers have circumvented the military's official policies on blogging.


While I will participate in the blogger blackout for a day or two--I have to show solidarity with my fellow milbloggers--I have to wonder what this will accomplish. It only hurts the milblogging community to remain silent...it has no effect on those who, out of web ignorance, shun blogs altogether.


Nevertheless, in support of my fellow milblogger, and out of concern that I'm falling behind on Christmas shopping, I'm going to take a day or two away from blogging. For those of you going on vacation soon, have a Merry Christmas: