Thursday, December 20, 2012

Military & Aerospace Electronics gives unmanned vehicle technology the attention it deserves

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 20 Dec. 2012. The growing importance of unmanned vehicles stands as a testament to the evolution of military technology, and that's the reason that Military & Aerospace Electronics is introducing an unmanned vehicles section in the monthly print magazine, and a companion monthly e-newsletter that goes to subscribers on the third Tuesday of every month.

Unmanned vehicles, which operate on and below the oceans, in the air, in space, and on the ground, enable fundamental improvements in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and are poised to take center stage as front-line weapon systems that help keep humans out of harm's way.

It stands to reason that Military & Aerospace Electronics should be paying unmanned vehicles the kind of attention that this new technology deserves. You can view our inaugural Unmanned Vehicles eNewsletter online at

When we look at military history, we can point to a handful of technological breakthroughs over the past 5,000 years that transformed warfare, and gave almost an overwhelming advantage to the forces that had these new technologies.

These breakthroughs include the chariot, which for the first time gave speed and mobility to fighting forces and laid the groundwork for the cavalry (chariots also set the standard gauge for modern railroads, but that's another story).

Sailing ships brought warfare to the oceans. The cannon rendered castles and fortresses obsolete. The machine gun neutralized the infantry and cavalry charge. The submarine to this day remains the only true stealth technology. Paratroopers and helicopter air assault forces did for 20th century warfare what the chariot gave to the ancient world. The aircraft carrier defined the notion of power projection, and the atom bomb remains the most powerful weapon known to man.

These technological breakthroughs initially made their users invincible. It took time, espionage, innovation, and a lot of clever thinking to come up with ways to defeat these technologies. For a good long time, each one was king of the battlefield.

So against this sweep of history, how might unmanned vehicles fit in? Are they as transformative as the chariot, the cannon, the aircraft carrier, or the atom bomb? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Time will tell the true advantages of the unmanned vehicle.

In history, cataclysmic battles and events clearly demonstrated the might of history's military breakthroughs. The 1274 BC Battle of Kadesh between the Egyptian and Hittite empires in modern-day Syria was the chariot's finest hour. The Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453 was perhaps the first devastating use of the cannon. The Battle of Midway in 1942 made the aircraft carrier king of the seas, and Hiroshima in 1945 ushered in the nuclear age.

Have we seen a Kadesh, Constantinople, Midway, or Hiroshima involving unmanned vehicles? Not yet, and perhaps not ever. Still, it's hard to argue that unmanned vehicles represent a transformative technology that can't be ignored.

The intelligence-gathering value of unmanned vehicles is well demonstrated. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can remain on station over areas of interest sometimes for days at a time, making them one of the most valuable persistent-surveillance platforms available.

The real combat value of the unmanned vehicle today is far more political than it is military. Unmanned vehicles help keep humans out of harm's way. As a result, battlefield casualties can be reduced, and UAVs cut down on the possibility that a human aircraft pilot will be shot down, taken captive, and remain in the headlines for months, if not years.

As a weapons platform, the UAV with its light missile armament has killed terrorist leaders and taken out attacking forces in the Middle East. As an air-to-air fighter, however, UAVs have yet to demonstrate their prowess in combat. Most of today's UAVs are relatively slow and clumsy, and make easy targets.

Still, the Northrop Grumman X-47 prototype unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) is in advanced tests from aircraft carriers, so its proving day may be close at hand.

So, unmanned vehicles are of growing importance to the U.S. military, and they are to us, too. Subscribe to the monthly Unmanned Vehicles eNewsletter online at The link should be effective shortly after the first of the year.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The decline of the laptop

Laptops used to be the best way to have portable computing. They could be made light, rugged, and powerful and were used everywhere. Now, all you see are tablets and smart phones, and there's good reason for that.

Tablets and smart phones are easy to use, with touch screens being one of the simplest user interfaces imaginable. The rise of small processors has also made tablets and phones more attractive, while making laptops seem cumbersome in comparison. The only time a laptop seems appropriate for portable computing at this point is if you're running very demanding applications, or absolutely need a keyboard (though giving a tablet a keyboard is as simple as docking it).

Even in the world of business, where typing is common, the laptop almost seems archaic. They are typically heavy and awkward to carry, and absolutely can't be used while moving about. In the military, where the front lines have no real need to type, and maintenance workers still value portability over performance, the laptop has completely fallen out of favor. Being outmatched by desktops in performance (and made obsolete much quicker), and overshadowed by tablets and smart phones in portability and usability, the laptop seems to be fading into obscurity.

While the laptop will probably have a niche for journalists (we type on the go quite a bit) and a few other industries, it looks as if it will fade away in the military market. Maybe thin clients and cloud computing in general could revive it, but even in the consumer market laptops have become less and less popular. The endless rows of laptops at electronics stores have gone and been replaced by smart phones and tablets on display.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

U.S. anti-submarine capability is eroding, and it may be too late to turn it around

Posted by John Keller

Here's a not-so-comforting thought. The U.S. Navy's anti-submarine warfare (ASW) skills are getting rusty during the same period that quiet submarine technology in China and Iran is improving at a noticeable rate.

I wish that were the only bad news on the submarine warfare front, but it isn't. We have U.S. ASW capability going backward, submarine capability of U.S. strategic adversaries going forward, and U.S. Navy capability as a whole in decline, according to a top Navy official.

"We're long past the point of doing more with less," says Under Secretary of the Navy, Robert Work. "We are going to be doing less with less in the future."

Work was quoted in an AOL blog by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. headlined U.S. Military Will Have To Do 'Less With Less': Hill Must Vote On Money.

Freedberg wasn't finished there, however. "The capacity of the US and allied navies to hunt enemy submarines has suffered even as potential adversaries like China and Iran have built up their sub fleets," he blogged in a piece headlined Navy's Sub-Hunting Skills Declined While China, Iran Built More Submarines.

The subtle message here is that vital U.S. Navy ASW capability is eroding due to a longtime emphasis on counter insurgency, and with strong prospects for a dwindling future Navy budget, it might already be too late to turn around the ASW decline.


You can talk about stealth aircraft technology all you want, but there's really only one kind of military stealth vehicle on the planet, and that's the submarine.

Stealth aircraft might have low radar cross sections, but they still can be seen with the naked eye, and heard from long distances. Aircraft, no matter what their futuristic shapes, have a difficult time hiding from ever-more-sophisticated electro-optical sensors.

Land vehicles? They still have substantial infrared signatures, and they can be seen and heard just like aircraft. Surface ships? Please. Big metal objects against a cool, flat surface. Not much ability to hide there.

But submarines, they're a different story. It's true that ASW technology is advancing throughout the world, and today's advanced diesel-electric submarines are as close to silent as you can get.

The ocean, however, is a difficult and unpredictable environment in which to hunt submerged vessels. Water columns at different depths, water densities, and salinity levels often can be a difficult, if not impossible, barrier to even the most sophisticated sonar sensors.

Sophisticated U.S. submarines for decades have enjoyed the ability to hide from almost everyone. Today, however, it's getting tougher to do as adversaries make up technological ground quickly.

It wouldn't seem to be the most advantageous time to see U.S. ASW capability slipping, but there it is. Something else to think about as we careen ever-closer to that fiscal cliff.

Monday, December 10, 2012

As the DOD prepares itself for sequestration, communication is key

The Department of Defense has been instructed to pursue internal planning to meet budget cuts if sequestration goes into effect. While the DOD has been hoping that sequestration will be avoided, the Office of Management and Budget has forced the DOD to begin planning for $500 billion in potential cuts over the next ten years.

With the cuts coming ever closer, it's time for the DOD to look at what will happen when sequestration hits.

Right now, the DOD is examining the potential impacts of sequestration, and are creating a baseline for what needs to be planned against. During a Pentagon press availability, Dr. George Little, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said "We have a lot of internal constituencies to reach out to -- service members, their families and the civilian employees of the Department of Defense -- and we're talking active, Guard and Reserve. Three million people work inside this department. One out of 100 Americans work for the secretary of defense. That is a big number and it's a big communication challenge should sequestration take effect."

The problem is communicating with the millions of Americans whose jobs hang in the balance. When the cuts come, and they will be here in less than a month if they aren't stopped, everyone needs to be prepared. The DOD is just trying to figure out how to tell people bad news if Congress fails to stop sequestration.

Ultimately, the DOD needs to figure out what programs will be cut, and how sequestration will affect the U.S. military. While sequestration goes into effect on January 3 there will be a phased-in approach to dealing with it. Little said the DOD should have the first few months of 2013 to handle the issue. With that problem forestalled, the DOD is just trying to get a big enough bullhorn to distribute information to the masses of people who will be affected by the cuts.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Conspicuous gallantry: Doris Miller at Pearl Harbor was one of World War II's first heroes

Posted by John Keller

THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 7 Dec. 2012. Seventy-one years ago today, U.S. Navy Ship's Cook Third Class Doris Miller had finished serving breakfast to the crew of the battleship USS West Virginia moored along Ford Island at the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii.

As the African American native of Waco, Texas, was gathering laundry shortly before 8 a.m. that Sunday, the first of nine Japanese torpedoes hit the West Virginia, as that battleship and others moored along Battleship Row -- including the Arizona, the Pennsylvania, the Nevada, and the Oklahoma -- came under sustained air assault with bombs and torpedoes as the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor began on December 7, 1941, plunging the U.S. into World War II.

Miller was the West Virginia's main cook. At the time, the ship's mess and laundry were some of the only Navy jobs available to Black Americans. When the attack hit, Miller ran to his battle station at an antiaircraft battery magazine, but found a torpedo already had destroyed it.

Instead, he moved along to the intersection of two main ship's passageways where sailors tended to congregate. There he received orders to help move the ship's captain, Mervyn Sharp Bennion, who had been wounded on the bridge.

Then Miller moved along to the ship's conning tower where he helped load .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns. Without specific orders, Miller manned one of the machine guns and began firing at attacking Japanese aircraft.

Although never getting credit for shooting down any aircraft, Miller said later he thought he shot one down, and witnesses said he may have shot down as many as six. When he ran out of ammunition, Miller helped move the ship's mortally wounded captain away from fire and smoke.

After that, he helped move wounded sailors through oil and water to the quarterdeck, "unquestionably saving the lives of a number of people who might otherwise have been lost," according to the ship's after-action report. He abandoned ship only when the West Virginia sank at its moorings.

For his actions, Miller was recognized as one of the first heroes of World War II. In awarding Miller the Navy Cross, Adm. Chester Nimitz cited " ... distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard of his personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge, Miller despite enemy strafing and bombing, and in the face of serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety and later manned and operated a machine gun until ordered to leave the bridge.”

Miller later was promoted to Mess Attendant First Class, and reported onboard the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay, which was part of the U.S. attack on the Pacific island of Tarawa in November 1943. During the battle, a Japanese submarine-launched torpedo hit the Liscome Bay in the stern, detonating the ship's aircraft bomb magazine.

The explosion that resulted sank the escort carrier in minutes. Miller was not among the ship's 272 survivors. Later, a granite marker was dedicated at Moore High School in his hometown of Waco, Texas, to honor Miller.

Today is Pearl Harbor Day. Please take a moment to remember this pivotal day in American history.