A Toxic Hypothesis

December 3rd, 2006

gulfsyndrome.jpgThere’s a good article in today’s Washington Post discussing the continuing debate over Gulf War syndrome:  

Fifteen years after the end of the 1991 war with Iraq, a Texas researcher is in line to get as much as $75 million in federal funding to press his studies of “Gulf War syndrome,” even though most other scientists long ago discounted his theories.

Epidemiologist Robert W. Haley has been trying for 10 years to prove that thousands of Persian Gulf War troops were poisoned by a combination of nerve gas, pesticides, insect repellents and a nerve-gas antidote. With the help of $16 million in past funding obtained by his backers in Congress and the Pentagon, Haley has argued that his “toxicity hypothesis” is the best explanation for the constellation of physical complaints that many veterans reported after returning from the Gulf.

Haley and his supporters, who also include a powerful cluster of veterans and government advisers, are undeterred by the scientific consensus against him. 

Let’s see here. Scientist from a state with a powerful congressional delegation gets millions of dollars to continue funding on a project that other scientists say is ill-founded. Sound familiar?

This is not say, however, that the Gulf War Syndrome debate is cut and dried (few issues are when they relate to epidemiology), and the article has this somewhat misleading statement:

The ground war lasted four days and resulted in 147 battlefield deaths, but almost 199,000 of the 698,000 people who were deployed have since qualified for some degree of service-related disability. Of those, 3,317 people are disabled by “undiagnosed conditions.”

Of course, a large number of the veterans were in the Gulf for several months prior to and after the ground war. Moreover, the fact that this scientist’s work is criticized by his peers doesn’t discount the existence of illnesses related to service in the region. The issue, however, is how funding is provided.

Congress, and congressional oversight, can play a wonderfully constructive role in ensuring that research is carried out in areas where the executive branch may have little interest in publicizing results (like illnesses related to previous military conflicts). The issue this article rightfully points out is whether Congress is the right institution to cherry pick specific scientific studies.

Rolling Stone Meets A Star Warrior

November 27th, 2006


There’s a great article in a recent issue of Rolling Stone: it features legendary Star Warrior, Lowell Wood. The article has the priceless title, “Can Dr. Evil Save the World,” and details plans by Wood to solve the global warming problem using geo-engineering.You can read an excerpt here, but unfortunately, the full article is only available in hard copy. For fans (like myself) of Bill Broad’s classic book, Star Warriors, this article provides a fascinating insight into how Wood’s interests have progressed since the 1980s, when he was a key figure in the Strategic Defense Initiative and space-based missile defense.

Wood’s solution to global warming goes something like this:

Wood’s proposal was not technologically complex. It’s based on the idea, well-proven by atmospheric scientists, that volcano eruptions alter the climate for months by loading the skies with tiny particles that act as mini-reflectors, shading out sunlight and cooling the Earth. Why not apply the same principles to saving the Arctic? Getting the particles into the stratosphere wouldn’t be a problem — you could generate them easily enough by burning sulfur, then dumping the particles out of high-flying 747s, spraying them into the sky with long hoses or even shooting them up there with naval artillery. They’d be invisible to the naked eye, Wood argued, and harmless to the environment. Depending on the number of particles you injected, you could not only stabilize Greenland’s polar ice — you could actually grow it. Results would be quick: If you started spraying particles into the stratosphere tomorrow, you’d see changes in the ice within a few months. And if it worked over the Arctic, it would be simple enough to expand the program to encompass the rest of the planet. In effect, you could create a global thermostat, one that people could dial up or down to suit their needs (or the needs of polar bears).

Like most of the issues Wood takes on (i.e. space-based missile defense, electromagnetic pulse, cold fusion etc.), the idea is fascinating, if a bit daunting. In either case, the article is a good read.

War as a Business

November 20th, 2006

dollars1.jpgLong before I ever thought to write a book on the hafnium bomb, I actually had plans for a book about foreign military sales. In fact, when I left government to return to journalism, it was with the express intention of writing an entire book about the sale of F-16 fighters to foreign countries. It was going to be called “Dogfight.” I’m sure it would have had all of three readers with interests as wonky as mine, so it’s a good thing it never got much beyond the chapter outline stage.

Okay, so it may not be deserving of an entire book, but the sale of major U.S. weapons to foreign countries is one of those areas that screams out for greater attention. For example, my story this week in Aviation Week & Space Technology covers something that seems to get only cursory treatment in the press: the doubling of foreign military sales this past year.

Foreign military sales hit $21 billion this year — about twice that of previous years, and second only to 1993, when post-Gulf War sales helped boost arms exports to over $30 billion (not including direct commercial sales). There are some caveats to these numbers, as the story point out, but it’s still significant how the global war on terror seems to have benefited defense exports. Those against arms sales will argue these exports are destabilizing, and those for such exports will say they benefit U.S. national security. Whatever the case, the numbers alone tell a fascinating story.

It’s also interesting that Iraq is contributing almost a $1 billion a year to that total.

Risky Business: DARPA Chief in Newest Issue of Mag

November 10th, 2006

dti_cover.jpgYes, it’s been a few weeks since the last posting on this site. I’ve been out of town for over a month, but I’ll take a moment from the road to point out the newest issue of the magazine I run, Defense Technology International.

There are a few great articles in this issue, including from new staff writer, David Axe, who went on patrol with British forces in Iraq, and Michael Dumiak, a frequent contributor in Berlin, who travelled along the outermost boundaries of the European Union to look at efforts to secure the borders.

Perhaps the most surprising contribution in this issue is our Q&A. A month or two ago, the managing editor suggested we interview someone at DARPA, the Pentagon agency dedicated to the far-out and occasionally fringey realms of technology. This sent me into a fit of giggles, since I figured that after publishing a book on DARPA’s forays into the zany hafnium bomb, we’d be the last publication on earth to get access to anyone at the agency.

But what do you know, I was wrong (not the first time, either). Not only did DARPA agree to an interview, the director himself sat down with the managing editor, Glenn Goodman. So, I give credit to Tony Tether for being a good sport (and of course to Glenn, who did the interview). The full interview is available in a plain text format on the magazine’s website, while you can view the published version by clicking on the magazine graphic.

No, I’m afraid the interview doesn’t cover hafnium bombs, antimatter weapons, or even DARPA’s alleged new-found interest in zero-point energy. I figured Glenn should pose the questions he thought were most relevant, although I suggested a few of the questions on the Walrus airship, cognitive computing, and other areas frequently covered by Defense Technology International.

Okay, so I admit I came up with the title: Risky Business.

All the news that’s fit to print, and perhaps some that isn’t

October 25th, 2006

The Pentagon every morning puts out the Early Bird, a daily clipping service that compiles about 50 articles, allowing those in the Defense Dept. and military community to read media coverage of its activities.

Whatever one feels about the accuracy of the media, it’s important that those in the military and defense community not live in a bubble. As the Pentagon itself states, the Early Bird aims “to represent how the public, Congress and the press see military and defense programs and issues.”

Interestingly, the Early Bird this morning led with something that wasn’t even published. The top of the Early Bird is an unpublished letter, written by a Pentagon spokesperson, in response to a New York Times editorial criticizing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s handling of troop levels. The Times declined to publish the letter, or a correction, the appended note in the Early Bird says.

Anyhow, since most of the world doesn’t even have access to the Early Bird, I’m doing the Pentagon a favor here by reproducing their unpublished letter below.

October 24, 2006

Letter To The New York Times

To the Editor:

The New York Times has once again repeated a popular myth to mislead its readers about Secretary Rumsfeld. We ask for an immediate correction.

Today’s editorial claims: “There have never been enough troops, the result of Mr. Rumsfeld’s negligent decision to use Iraq as a proving ground for his pet military theories, rather than listen to his generals.” Whether or not the Times believes there were enough troops in Iraq, the claim that any troop level in Iraq is the result of Secretary Rumsfeld “not listening to his generals” is demonstrably untrue.

Generals involved in troop level decisions have been abundantly clear on this matter:

*General Tommy Franks, Commander, U.S. Central Command during the opening of Operation Iraqi Freedom: “Don Rumsfeld was a hard task master — but he never tried to control the tactics of our war-fight [Franks, “American Soldier, ” pg 313]

Rather than advancing Secretary Rumsfeld’s alleged “pet theories,” General Franks wrote that he based his troop level recommendations on the following: “Building up a Desert Storm-size force in Kuwait would have taken months of effort - very visible effort - and would have sacrificed the crucial element of operational surprise we now enjoyed. . . . And if operational surprise had been sacrificed, I suspected that the Iraqis would have repositioned their Republican Guard and regular army units, making for an attrition slugfest that would cost thousands of lives.”

On page 333 of his memoirs, General Franks added: “As I concluded my summary of the existing 1003 plan, I noted that we’d trimmed planned force levels from 500,000 troops to around 400,000. But even that was still way too large, I told the Secretary.” General Franks also notes on a number of occasions that rather than “rejecting” military advice, Secretary Rumsfeld repeatedly listened to commanders’ advice in designing a plan for Iraq.

*General George Casey, Commander of Multi-National Force - Iraq: “I just want to assure you and the American people that if we need more troops we’ll ask for them. Right now, we don’t.” [CBS News, June 27, 2005]

*General John Abizaid, Commander, U.S. Central Command: “… this notion that troop levels are static is not true, never has been true, and it won’t be true. We’ll ask for what we need when we need them.” [CNN, September 18, 2006]

*Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Pete Pace: “We have done more than honor the request of the commanders. . . . As Joint Chiefs, we have validated that; we have looked at that; we have analyzed it. We decided for ourselves, and I as an individual have agreed with the size force that’s there. So we should take on the responsibility that we own.” [Pace Confirmation Hearings, Transcript, July 10, 2005]

*Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers: “But in the plan going in there, the best military judgment, the judgment we got from academia, from anybody that wanted to make inputs to include the National Security Council was that we had the right number of troops. And so you can always look back and say, should we had something different? I personally don’t believe - we didn’t want to turn Iraq into a police state.” [ABC News, April 16, 2006]

These statements are not new, nor difficult to find in public sources. So the implication is that either the New York Times believes these generals are not being truthful, or that they are too intimidated to tell the truth. If the Times feels this way, way not say so? For our part, we vigorously dispute either assertion about these distinguished military leaders.

The Times claims to correct “all errors of fact.” Please correct this at once or provide us with demonstrable facts that support your assertion.


Dorrance Smith, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs

Editor’s Note:The New York Times has refused a DoD request for a correction.


Thanks, But No Thanks

October 25th, 2006

Sometime this year, the United States is expected to announce a site in Europe (likely Poland) where it will place 10 interceptors as part of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System, formerly known as national missile defense. One of the reasons for this location, according to U.S. officials, it to help protect our friends in Europe. So what do some of our European allies think of our benevolent offer?

Well, not much apparently. I sat through a briefing in Paris this week by Thales, the European defense giant, which described the need for Europeans (or at least France) to work toward their own national missile defense system. Why? Because there may be some conflicts where the United States doesn’t want to get involved, suggested the official. In other words, they don’t want to depend on us.

That’s not a surprise, though it evokes an interesting question: What would be the scenario under which France is targeted by a nuclear weapon, and the U.S. would prefer to sit it out?

French Nukes

October 23rd, 2006

I’m in Paris attending Euronaval, the rapidly growing defense and naval exhibition, so I’m going to focus on some European themes this week.

Let’s start with this article from Aviation Week on upgrades to the French nuclear deterrent, specifically the M51. I think it’s fascinating France.jpgthat France, not unlike the United States, is redefining how it looks at its nuclear arsenal. In particular, this notion of a “graduated deterrent” is likely to worry those who feel this makes nuclear weapons more likely to be used.

As the article reports:

Developed by EADS, the M51 will weigh half again as much as the existing M45, allowing it carry up to six warheads over an intercontinental range–classified, but in excess of 6,000-8,000 km.–with higher performance and safety margins. The M51 will be installed on second-generation Triomphant-class ballistic missile-carrying submarines, beginning with the fourth and final of the class, the Terrible, now under construction at the DCN shipyard in Cherbourg.

In addition to vastly increased throwweight and accuracy, the M51 and its aerial adjunct, the improved ASMPA nuclear cruise missile, will offer greater operational flexibility. This is in line with France’s changing nuclear doctrine–notably with respect to regional powers. In an address at the Ile Longue nuclear submarine base in Brittany on Jan. 19, President Jacques Chirac said France would reserve the right to strike strategic nerve centers with a graduated deterrent as a “final warning” to enemy aggression–a veiled reference to North Korea and Iran.

A graduated deterrent–for example, ICBMs equipped with less than a full complement of warheads configured to explode at high altitude–could use electromagnetic shock waves to knock out enemy electronics, minimizing collateral damage.

Chirac insisted that the principles underlying French nuclear doctrine have not changed: There is still no question of fielding battlefield nuclear weapons or authorizing preemptive strikes, despite pressure to do so (AW&ST June 6, 2005, p. 27). “But the manner in which these principles are implemented has changed and will continue to change to meet 21st century threats,” he said.

If only it were true

October 21st, 2006


Maxim magazine (Oh please don’t even ask why I was flipping through it) did a short write-up this month on, of all things, a heavy lift airship. The program, dubbed Walrus, is run by DARPA, the independent research arm of the Pentagon.

The headline in Maxim’s ”Alert! Science” column reads “Deadly Dirigible: Delivering Packages and War by 2010.” Huh? I sort of want to write to Maxim and say “Alert! Dead as Doornail.”

Defense Technology International reported several months ago that Congress had effectively killed Walrus this fiscal year by zeroing out its funds. A pig with wings has a better chance than Walrus of flying by 2010.

Should we say good riddance to Walrus as another example of a (possibly) stupid weapon?

Heck no. I admit it, I love airships. I think they’re wonderful. Walrus indeed may have been too ambitious in terms of its stated goals (”intended to carry a payload of more than 500 tons 12,000 nautical miles in less than seven days at a competitive cost,” according to DARPA), but advancing the state-of-the-art in airship technologies could spin off to the commercial sector, with longer-term applications for the military.

There were some quite serious cost, engineering, and materials issues involved in Walrus, but that’s what high-risk, high payoff is all about. Too bad Congress didn’t agree.

P.S. Of course, in tempering my own enthusiasm, I have to remind myself that a colleague at Aviation Week has a cool poster on his wall — it’s an old defense company promotion depeciting airships that would haul fighter aircraft around the world, like an aircraft carrier in the skies. The poster is from World War II.

New Media, Old Tricks

October 19th, 2006

anon.jpgNow, this is hilarious. There’s a press release out today claiming “new media,” aka blogs, helped kill the sale of EADS-CASA aircraft to bad old Venezuela. Why does this matter? Because European defense giant EADS is pitted against two other teams for the Pentagon’s multibillion Joint Cargo Aircraft program, anything that undermines EADS, and EADS-CASA aircraft could help sway the competition.

With that in mind, here’s the fascinating press release issued yesterday by Michael Waller, Phd. of Institute of World Politics.

Bloggers have been credited with stopping the sale of European-made military aircraft to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

After Spain brokered the deal with Chavez last year, bloggers targeted the state-owned aircraft company, EADS-CASA, for violating the U.S. arms embargo against Venezuela. This week, online activists generated hundreds of letters and calls into key congressional offices to demand that EADS-CASA be disqualified from U.S. contracts.

The effort followed questions that were raised about the deal by U.S. Senators in a letter to President Bush. Today, Spain announced that the sale was off. “This is another example of the New Media’s impact on international politics,” says J. Michael Waller, Annenberg Professor of International Communication at the Institute of World Politics in Washington.

“Outside the blogosphere, this issue was off the radar screen. Bloggers publicized that EADS-CASA is lobbying Congress to buy its CN-235 and C-295 military planes while it was defying U.S. national security interests to sell the same planes to Chavez,” according to Waller. His blog, http://www.venezuelastan.com/, reports on the issue. Other blogs include http://www.casacrash.com/ and the website http://www.securethehomeland.org/. Alerting activists through ads on the conservative website http://www.townhall.com/, SecureTheHomeland allows users to send messages directly to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R- Va.). The site also directs messages to Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who has been pushing the EADS-CASA deal. A former Shelby aide is an EADS lobbyist.

There’s nothing that remarkable about Michael Waller or his Venezuela-bashing blog (other than a link to this anti-EADS paraphernalia, which he claims “someone” alerted him to). And frankly, Venezuela has a lot to be bashed for lately.

So what doesn’t sound right here? Well, for starters, the other blog Waller refers to, http://www.casacrash.com/ covers only one issue, EADS-CASA, and it’s registered through a proxy (so is the website http://www.securethehomeland.org/). That doesn’t sound very much like new media to me. It sounds a lot like PR.

I’d looooove to see a bit of disclosure behind the EADS-bashing blog (and website).

Everyone Needs a Friend

October 18th, 2006

As the Pentagon faces the most daunting budget battle of the past decade, analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute is throwing his support behind the tilt-rotor aircraft, a military program that proves not just cats have nine lives. Thompson put out this brief earlier this month on the V-22 Osprey:

However, there is at least one new military system about to enter the force that is relevant right now, and badly needed in places like Iraq. That is the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey, the world’s first operational tilt-rotor aircraft. v22.jpgA tilt-rotor combines the vertical agility of helicopters with the speed and range of fixed-wing planes, providing unique versatility. It not only can land anywhere — on mountains, in jungles, on storm-tossed ships — but it can get to such places even when they are far, far away, because the Osprey has a range of over a thousand miles. In other words, you can fly a V-22 from Washington to New Orleans without stopping for fuel, not a mission you’d want to attempt with a regular helicopter. A fixed-wing airplane can make that trip also, but if the runways in the Big Easy are flooded, it can’t land. A V–22 can make the trip and land, wherever there is a dry spot of ground.

I just love the imagery in this brief (”on mountains, in jungles, on storm-tossed ships”). Not a lot of that in Iraq, but that’s why they call it poetic license. There’s also the far-fetched thought of the V-22 being dispatched to help flood victims in New Orleans, which I guess would be FEMA’s equivalent of “let them eat cake.”

Don’t get me wrong, now that the V-22 is up and flying, sending it to Iraq seems like a fine idea (after 20 years and billions of dollars, many would like to see the V-22 somewhere that doesn’t involve a visit by a congressional delegation). Plans are underway to send it to Iraq next year, which is an appropriate complement to how far the once troubled aircraft has come since teetering on the brink of cancellation.

The Osprey needs to prove not just that it can fly safely, which indeed it appears to have demonstrated in testing and evaluation, but that it can be useful under realistic conditions. Iraq is a good place to start.

P.S. A tiny little fact that most news stories quoting Lexington analysts on procurement issues fail to point out: Lexington Institute has acknowledged receiving funding from defense companies, including Boeing, part of the V-22 Bell Boeing team.