TIME Terrorism

MH17 Ukraine Crash: Russian Roulette Revisited

298 Crew And Passengers Perish On Flight MH17 After Suspected Missile Attack In Ukraine
Bodies of those aboard MH17 alongside a road in eastern Ukraine on Sunday. Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

Putin's foot-dragging turning the horrible vile

General Secretary Yuri Andropov’s Soviet Union played Russian roulette in the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 1983, when an Su-15 interceptor shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing all 269 aboard. He died six months later, and his Soviet Union died six years after him, dragged into history, in part, by the horror the shootdown represented, and what it told the rest of the world about the trigger-puller.

Three decades later, Russian president Vladimir Putin seems to be playing the same dangerous game, as pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine apparently used an SA-11 missile system to blast Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from the skies, killing all 298 on board an Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur trip.

That was bad enough. It got worse over the weekend as intelligence surfaced suggesting that the SA-11 wasn’t one that the separatists had captured from Ukraine’s arsenal last month. Instead, SA-11 launchers, and perhaps their operators, appear to have been “on loan” from Russian military units just across the border.

As world outrage at Putin continued to rise Sunday, the Russian leader seemed content to play another round of Russian roulette. But his actions make clear that he added a second bullet to his revolver’s cylinder before spinning it anew.

Within hours of the shootdown, U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence sources believe that three SA-11 units were moved from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine across the border onto Russian soil. Meanwhile, some of the dead—including nearly 200 Dutch citizens, but no Russians or Ukrainians—continued to rot in the wheat and sunflower fields. Drunken separatists, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, have been loading other bodies onto trucks. Putin, by all accounts, is taking pains to ensure that any investigation into who shot down the Boeing 777 won’t get to the scene in a major way until the trail has grown cold.

KAL 007 contributed to the end of the Soviet Union, highlighting its bloodlust as well as its moral bankruptcy. Its denials and obfuscations—first the Soviets denied shooting it down, then they defended it because they deemed KAL 007 to be a spy plane—generated disbelief in many corners of the globe. President Reagan declared it “an act of barbarism,” and Soviet hammer-and-sickle flags were burned. Andropov & Co. barred search vessels from the area.

“Andropov, notwithstanding whatever he actually may have believed about Soviet responsibility, was forced onto the defensive and evidently felt compelled to justify the USSR’s actions at all costs,” the CIA’s official recounting of the episode said. “The US follow-on campaign at the UN and in other channels to embarrass and isolate the USSR in the international community undoubtedly contributed to Moscow’s penchant to see an anti-Soviet plot. In the Soviet view, a campaign of this scope and magnitude that just happened to dovetail with the Reagan administration’s moral critique of the USSR must have been more than simply a chance opportunity seized by Washington in the heat of the moment. President Reagan’s decision to use the KAL 007 shootdown to persuade Congress to support his requests for increased defense spending and the new MX missile pointed in the same direction, in Moscow’s view.”

RUSSIA-USSR-COMMUNISM-KGB-DISSIDENTS-ANDROPOV
Visitors view an exhibition dedicated to the former Communist leader and KGB head, Yuri Andropov, in Moscow, on July 6, 2014. Nostalgic about the might of vanished Soviet empire, Russia marked the 100th anniversary of Andropov’s birth with exhibitions and television films glorifying the Soviet leader who was in charge when his nation’s military shot down KAL 007 in 1983. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP / Getty Images

But don’t look for a quick change in Putin’s attitude. Frank Carlucci, who served Reagan as defense secretary and national security adviser, recalled riding in the back seat of a car through Ukraine with Soviet defense minister Dmitri Yazov after the KAL 007 shootdown:

All of a sudden Yazov turned to me and said, `Why did you send that Korean airliner to spy on us?’ I said, `Jesus, I didn’t. We didn’t send an airliner to spy on you. Why the hell did you shoot it down? It was a stupid thing to do. You know we don’t use airliners to spy. We can get all the spying we need from satellites.’ He said, `Yes. That’s why I don’t understand why you sent the airliner to spy on us.’ It was one of these circular arguments.

The KAL 007 shootdown, piled atop the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the declaration of martial law in Soviet-puppet Poland, and Reagan’s increased defense spending topped with his “Star Wars” missile-defense program, cleared the way for the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, the vanguard of a new class of Soviet leader who presided over the end of the Soviet Union.

Yet Putin’s hero isn’t Gorbachev, but Andropov. As the head of Russian intelligence, Putin “laid flowers on Andropov’s grave, and dedicated a plaque to his hero inside the Lubyanka, the KGB’s notorious Moscow headquarters,” Russia expert and columnist Anne Applebaum has written. “Later, as president, he ordered another plaque placed on the Moscow building where Andropov had lived and erected a statue to him in a St. Petersburg suburb. But Putin wanted to restore more than Andropov’s name. He also, it seems, wanted to restore the old KGB boss’s way of thinking.”

Since Thursday, to the shock of those who haven’t been paying attention before that sad day, he has been doing just that.

TIME Terrorism

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: A Working Theory of the Shootdown

A dangerous missile, and a dangerous lack of training on how to use it

+ READ ARTICLE

The U.S. military’s top commander in Europe spoke last month at the Pentagon of Russians training pro-Russian separatists from Ukraine. “What we see in training on the east side of the border is big equipment, tanks, APCs [armored personnel carriers], anti-aircraft capability,” Air Force General Philip Breedlove said, referring to the Russian side of the Russian-Ukrainian border. “And now we see those capabilities being used on the west side of the border”—inside Ukraine.

“Anti-aircraft capability”? Did that mean that Russian separatists inside eastern Ukraine had shot down a Ukrainian helicopter a week earlier, killing nine?

“It’s a very good likelihood,” Breedlove responded, “but we haven’t tied the string directly together yet.”

There’s also no hard proof yet that Russian separatists inside eastern Ukraine downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday, killing all 298 aboard. But there is a very good likelihood.

Russian and Ukrainian forces also have the kind of Buk missiles believed to have shot down MH17. A Russian press report said a Ukrainian Buk missile battery near Donetsk shot the airliner down. But the rebels have no air force, which makes one wonder what Ukrainian forces would have been aiming at (they have also failed to shoot at Russian aircraft that have crossed into Ukrainian airspace).

A pair of Russian batteries was just across the border. But it’s highly unlikely that a Russian unit went rogue.

Evidence is steadily mounting—training, equipment, purported post-shootdown telephone transcripts—that the separatists are responsible. While some elements may prove incorrect, the accumulating weight points at Russian separatists inside eastern Ukraine as the ones who fired the missile.

But that doesn’t absolve Moscow. If poorly-trained separatists fired the missile, it shows the dangerous game Russian president Vladimir Putin is playing. He and his nuclear-armed government have been fanning pro-Russian nationalistic fervor in eastern Ukraine, and providing them with weapons, intelligence and other support, U.S. officials say. Apparently, the rebels just got a little out of hand.

President Obama made clear Friday who he holds responsible, without saying so. “Over the last several weeks Russian-backed separatists have shot down a Ukrainian transport plane and a Ukrainian helicopter, and they claimed responsibility for shooting down a Ukrainian fighter jet,” he said. “Moreover, we know that these separatists have received a steady flow of support from Russia. This includes arms and training. It includes heavy weapons. And it includes anti-aircraft weapons.”

Pentagon officials believe MH17 was most likely shot down by a Buk Mk.2, which NATO calls an SA-11 Gadfly. Each SA-11 launch vehicle carries four 19-foot-long missiles atop a turntable that can hit targets at 60,000 feet. While the 35-year old design has been upgraded, it lacks some of the tracking capabilities of Russia’s newer systems.

“The SA-11, which is the one we believe was used to down Flight 17, is a sophisticated piece of technology,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. “It strains credulity to think that it could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance.”

Whoever was operating the missile mistakenly believed that what turned up on their radar screen was a Ukrainian plane, U.S. defense officials theorize. In the past week, four Ukrainian aircraft have been shot down, including an Antonov AN-26 cargo plane flying at 21,000 feet on Monday. In two of those cases, the Ukrainian government believes the missiles involved were fired from inside Russia.

Russian media reported in June that pro-Russian separatists captured at least one Buk missile system. “The Donetsk resistance fighters have captured an anti-aircraft military station,” a Russian television network said three weeks ago. “The skies above Donetsk will now be protected by the BUK surface-to-air missile complex,” said the headline on the channel’s website.

There are plenty of military veterans in the region capable of operating the Buk system, U.S. officials believe, although the shoot down may have exposed just how little they really understood. That flaw—and the fact that the doomed airliner appears to have strayed north of the standard air corridor and ended up flying right over rebel-held territory—seems to have made the shootdown possible.

“Some separatists have received some training in these vehicle-borne systems,” Kirby said. “There’s no question about that.”

Yet they may not have been trained sufficiently. “The flight was transmitting its assigned transponder code corresponding with its flight plan, and flight tracking data was publicly available on the internet,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council Friday. “There was nothing threatening or provocative about MH17.”

But while a complete Buk missile battery consists of three vehicles—one carrying the missiles, one for the radar that guides them, and one for the missile commander—the missile-launching vehicle does have its own radar and can launch missiles by itself. If that happened, its crew of three or four may have been unable to, or never trained in, reviewing the airliner’s transponder data declaring their target to be a civilian airliner.

“Its built-in radar is normally used to track the target being engaged, but can be operated in a target-detection mode, allowing it to autonomously engage targets that were present in the radar’s forward field of view,” says IHS Jane’s Missile & Rockets editor Doug Richardson. “Although it has its own Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, this is only able to establish whether the target being tracked is a friendly aircraft. It is the electronic equivalent of a sentry calling out ‘Who goes there?’ If there is no reply, all you know is that it is not one of your own side’s combat aircraft. It would not give you a warning that you were tracking an airliner.”

Or attacking one.

TIME Terrorism

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Fateful Errors, Fatal Decisions

Spectators watch a Russian "Buk" missile system being driven during the "Russia Arms Expo 2013" 9th international exhibition of arms, military equipment and ammunition, in the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil
Spectators watch a Russian "Buk" missile system being driven during the "Russia Arms Expo 2013" 9th international exhibition of arms, military equipment and ammunition, in the Urals city of Nizhny Tagil, Russia on Sept. 25, 2013. Sergei Karpukhin—Reuters

Common thread in shootdowns is multiple mistakes

It’s looking increasingly likely that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine Thursday by a Russian-built Buk missile, killing all 298 people on board. While that’s yet unconfirmed, U.S. officials, reviewing satellite data and other intelligence, believe a missile downed the airplane, and that pro-Russian separatists inside Ukraine are the most likely to have fired the killer shot.

We have seen this horror movie before.

It began with a Soviet warplane shooting down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983. The Soviets initially denied any involvement, but ultimately conceded one of its Su-15 interceptors had shot down the plane, killing all 269 aboard.

With KAL 007, errors piled atop one another to make a seeming impossibility distressingly real. KAL 007’s key error was an improper setting on its autopilot that caused it to stray off course and into Soviet airspace near the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Major Genadi Osipovich fired the R-8 missile that downed the plane without first telling his ground-based commanders that he saw the “two rows of windows” that indicated it was a Boeing 747. He compounded the plane’s error by not sharing that information. “I did not tell the ground that it was a Boeing-type plane,” he told a Russian reporter in 1991. “They did not ask me.”

Nearly five years later after the downing of KAL 007, the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian airliner flying across the Persian Gulf. The crew of the guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes incorrectly identified Iran Air Flight 655—an Airbus A300—for a much smaller Iranian-flown but U.S.-built F-14. The ship’s crew erred despite the fact that the plane was broadcasting its civilian identity and flying a regularly-scheduled flight on a regularly-scheduled route between the Iranian coastal city of Bandar Abbas and Dubai. All 290 aboard died in the July 3, 1988 shoot down shortly after takeoff for what was to have been a 28-minute flight.

Thursday’s shoot down, if that’s what it turns out to be, also had two key errors. The first was the decision to fly across eastern Ukraine, given the civil war roiling that part of the country. In recent days, Russian separatists have reportedly shot down four Ukrainian airplanes near the city of Donetsk. “The Donetsk resistance fighters have captured an anti-aircraft military station,” a Russian television network said three weeks ago. “The skies above Donetsk will now be protected by the BUK surface-to-air missile complex,” said the headline on the channel’s website. Following Thursday’s crash, many airlines changed flight routes to keep their aircraft away from Ukraine.

A total of 857 innocent people died in the three crashes.

How such accidents can be prevented depends on why they happened. If the Soviets truly believed KAL 007 was a spy plane masquerading as a civilian airliner, they still might have shot it down. The same series of mistakes made aboard the Vincennes might yield the same result today; no commander wants to be at the helm of the next USS Stark, which was attacked by Iraq in 1987, killing 37 sailors. And if Russian separatists fired the missile that downed MH17 thinking it was a Ukrainian aircraft, it’s tough to see how it might have been prevented.

Better training would help; more trust would help even more. Firing missiles is a lot like capital punishment. Mistakes can’t be undone.

What’s surprising about the tragedies (assuming Thursday’s was a shoot down) is that each was carried out by a military force—one in the air, one on the sea, and Thursday’s on land. While pro-Russia Ukrainian separatists may have downed MH17, it takes a fair amount of training—and a sophisticated missile system—to blow a commercial airliner flying at 33,000 feet out of the sky.

The U.S. and other nations have been worried for decades that portable, shoulder-fired missiles would end up in the hands of terrorists who would use them to down airliners. Surely, that remains a real concern. But sometimes, as we apparently learned again on Thursday, the wrong hands belong to bodies wearing military uniforms.

TIME Terrorism

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Protecting Airliners from Missile Attacks

A US Air Force officer climbs onto his B
U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes, like this one at a Russian air base in 2011, are protected by onboard jammers, a capability not on most civilian airliners. Dmitry Kostyukov—AFP/Getty Images

The hardware exists, but it's costly

Air Force One is protected by electronic jammers from most missiles, likely including the one that may have shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Russian-Ukrainian border Thursday.

Why aren’t commercial airliners protected, too?

This has been a debate ever since the development of small, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles like the U.S. Stinger nearly 35 years ago, and the resulting fears that such weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

It may cost the airline industry billions of dollars, but Pentagon officials spoke of the need for such defenses in 2002, after a pair of Russian-made shoulder-launched Strela-2 missiles narrowly missed an Israeli 757 as it took off from the Kenyan city of Mombassa with 271 aboard. MH17 may have been downed by a bigger, radar-guided missile, in which case defenses against shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles wouldn’t have worked.

But defeating missiles is a problem the Pentagon has been grappling with for some time: In 1999, the Defense Department told Congress the biggest threat to its cargo planes was shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles like the ones fired in Mombassa. In 2002, the Pentagon awarded a $23 million contract to outfit four Air Force C-17 cargo planes with sophisticated equipment to protect them from Stingers, SA-7s and other portable heat-seeking missiles favored by terrorists.

“That’s more than $5 million per plane,” an Air Force officer said at the time. “Once the first U.S. commercial airliner is shot down—and U.S. airlines rush to install these systems on their own planes—the price will drop to $2 million or $3 million per plane.”

Not exactly a bargain, but some U.S. defense officials have long believed that such systems will have to become standard equipment aboard U.S. airliners. That 2002 system was an updated version of the AN/AAQ-24 (V) Nemesis, which protects both big transports (apparently including Air Force One) and military helicopters. Built by the Northrop Grumman Corp., it is known as the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures — LAIRCM — system, and plans were to outfit the hundreds of cargo planes and tankers operated by the U.S. Air Force.

LAIRCM automatically detects, tracks and jams infrared missiles, sending a high-intensity laser beam into the missile’s seeker to disrupt its guidance system. No action is required by the crew. The pilot simply is informed that a threat missile was detected and jammed. “Inexpensive, yet lethal, surface-to-air missiles have proliferated around the globe and unfortunately are in the hands of our potential adversaries,” Arnold Welch, vice president for Infrared Countermeasures Programs at Northrop Grumman’s Defensive Systems Division in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, said at the time. “It is essential that our military pilots and air crews have this sophisticated type of protection in order to perform their missions and return safely.”

Early reports from Ukraine suggest the plane may have been downed by a tracked Russian-built Buk missile system. Flying at about 33,000 feet, the airliner was beyond the range of most man-portable missiles. The Buk missile uses radar to guide itself to its target, unlike the heat-seeking Stinger. Planes trying to elude radar-guided missiles can use various electronic jammers and disperse clouds of foil-like chaff to confuse the missile’s radar by confusing it with multiple targets.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Graphic
Source: FlightAware

The threat of SAM attacks on U.S. airliners was acknowledged in an FAA study in 1993, which noted that as passenger and baggage screening became more rigorous, the chances of missile strikes would rise. The U.S. government’s interest in the problem followed its decision to supply Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan—whose ranks included the late Osama bin Laden and many of his al-Qaeda lieutenants—with about 1,000 Stinger missiles in the 1980s. Pentagon officials credit the Stinger with downing about 250 Soviet aircraft.

The discovery of a Strela-2 (dubbed the SA-7 by NATO) missile tube near a Saudi military base used by U.S. warplanes in 2001 prompted the FBI to alert U.S. law-enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for any signs that terrorists were planning shoulder-fired missile attacks. While the missile found in Saudi Arabia remained in its tube, burn marks suggested a bungled effort to fire it, U.S. officials said. A Sudanese with possible al Qaeda links was arrested in connection with the missile.

“The FBI possesses no information indicating that al-Qaeda is planning to use ‘Stinger’ missiles or any type of MANPAD (MAN Portable Air Defense) weapons system against commercial aircraft in the United States,” the 2001 FBI warning said. “However, given al-Qaeda’s demonstrated objective to target the U.S. airline industry, its access to U.S. and Russian-made MANPAD systems, and recent apparent targeting of U.S.-led military forces in Saudi Arabia, law enforcement agencies in the United States should remain alert to potential use of MANPADs against U.S. aircraft.”

TIME Military

Lawyer: Bergdahl ‘Deeply Grateful’ to Obama

Bergdahl Being Treated At U.S. Military Hospital In Germany
Bowe Bergdahl, who was held by the Taliban for nearly five years before being released in May. U.S. Army / Getty Images

Army sergeant held by Taliban believes President’s decision “saved his life,” his attorney Eugene Fidell tells TIME

No one’s heard anything yet from Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the former prisoner-of-war freed in a May 31 swap for five Taliban leaders after nearly five years as a Taliban prisoner. He hasn’t spoken to the press—by all accounts, he hasn’t even spoken to his parents. But, in typical American fashion, he has retained—and spoken to—an attorney.

“Sergeant Bergdahl is deeply grateful to President Obama for having saved his life,” Eugene Fidell, retained a week ago by the soldier, told TIME on Wednesday.

Fidell has traveled to Texas—where Bergdahl has returned to active duty at a desk job in San Antonio following his “re-integration” back into the service—to discuss with his client the investigation into the circumstances leading up to Bergdahl’s abduction in 2009. The attorney declined to offer any insights into Bergdahl’s mood, legal defense, or relationship with his family. Bergdahl also has an Army lawyer.

Eugene Fidell Yale

But Fidell did suggest the case—now being investigated by a two-star Army major general—is more complicated than he originally thought. That’s saying something: Fidell is a prominent military-law expert who lectures at Yale Law School on the topic, and former president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

“Before I was in the case, I was skeptical that the investigation called for a major general,” Fidell says. “I thought that a talented lieutenant colonel would be more than enough horsepower—I thought it was overkill.” Army officials say Major General Kenneth Dahl has yet to interview Bergdahl.

Fidell said he has changed his mind as he has dived into the case. “Based on what I now know about the complexity of the issues, which are in a number of spheres that I’m not going to get into, I understand why the Army thought that a general officer should be involved,” Fidell adds. “I now understand why management thought that it was a good idea to have a two-star officer doing this investigation.”

The lawyer, who has taken the case pro bono—without pay—declined to discuss the specifics that led him to change his mind. But Bergdahl’s case is complex: according to the soldiers with whom he served, Bergdahl simply walked away from his combat outpost in June 2009 before being captured by the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Some of those troops have called Bergdahl a deserter, and alleged that fellow soldiers died hunting for him.

Questions also surround the Army’s decision to allow Bergdahl to enlist, two years after he washed out of Coast Guard boot camp after only 26 days. And lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized Obama for giving up five senior Taliban leaders for Bergdahl, now 28.

Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., told TIME on Tuesday that he doesn’t believe the swap was in the nation’s interest. “We were duty bound to bring him back, but I think we’re duty bound to bring him back in the right way,” said the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee. “What other opportunities were there for us to secure Sergeant Bergdahl’s release besides releasing these five high-ranking Taliban officials?…we did increase the risk to Americans and American interests by releasing these five.”

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said that Bergdahl is now free to come and go like any other soldier. “He’s free to leave base…he’s not under any particular restrictions,” Kirby said. “And I would remind you, he’s not been charged with anything.”

TIME Military

Building a Better Bullet

DARPA's Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) bullet may be precise, but its artist's rendering of the round is pretty vague.
DARPA's Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) bullet may be precise, but its artist's rendering of the round is pretty vague. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

The Pentagon wants the capability for its snipers, making their goal of "one shot, one kill" even more likely

Accuracy trumps terror every time. For good or for ill, that is why Israeli missiles have killed at least 160 Palestinians, while Palestinian rockets have killed zero Israelis. While killing innocents as well as terrorists, the Israeli strikes are precise. So is its Iron Dome anti-missile system, which appears to be doing a pretty good job destroying Palestinian rockets headed for Israeli population centers. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are left to launch unguided rockets, hoping to get lucky and kill Israelis.

Along the same lines, imagine if you could transform a dumb bullet into a guided missile?

That’s what the Pentagon did earlier this year, successfully firing .50-caliber bullets that steered themselves in mid-flight. It has just released a video trumpeting the tip-top targeting of its Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program.

“This video shows EXACTO rounds maneuvering in flight to hit targets that are offset from where the sniper rifle is aimed,” the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says. “EXACTO’s specially designed ammunition and real-time optical guidance system help track and direct projectiles to their targets by compensating for weather, wind, target movement and other factors that could impede successful hits.”

The Pentagon wants the capability for its snipers, making their goal of “one shot, one kill” even more likely. The April 21 test by DARPA contractor Teledyne Scientific & Imaging shows the new bullet homing in on its target by riding a laser beam aimed by the sniper team at the desired target. Vanes on its body—and an onboard optical receiver—allow it to maneuver in mid-flight.

The highly-classified EXACTO program began six years ago. “The ability to more accurately prosecute targets at significantly longer range would provide a dramatic new capability to the U.S. military,” DARPA’S original program description said. “The use of an actively controlled bullet will make it possible to counter environmental effects such as crosswinds and air density, and prosecute both stationary and moving targets while enhancing shooter covertness.”

Such a weapon, DARPA said when it launched the program, could employ “fire and forget” technologies including “fin-stabilized projectiles, spin-stabilized projectiles, internal and/or external aero-actuation control methods, projectile guidance technologies, tamper proofing, small stable power supplies, and advanced sighting, optical resolution and clarity technologies.”

The Pentagon wants the new gun to be no heavier than the combined 46-lb. weight of the current $11,500 M107 sniper rifle and all its associated gear (including ammo, tripod, scope and slide rules for target calculations).

Military sharpshooters require extensive and expensive training—all of which could be reduced with a better gun. Snipers “are unable to take a shot the vast majority of the time” because of wind or other weather factors, and a lack of confidence in their ability to hit the target or flee if detected, DARPA has said.

Then-Army Captain Keith Bell, former commander of the Army sniper school at Fort Benning, Ga., told TIME five years ago that he couldn’t wait to get his hands on the new bullet. “The EXACTO would be revolutionary,” he said from Mosul, Iraq. “It will more than double our range and probably more than double our accuracy.”

Current sniper rifles can regularly hit trucks at 2,000 meters, but not bad guys. (The record kill is 2,430 meters, just over 1.5 miles. It was charted by Canadian army corporal Rob Furlong against a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-kot valley during Operation Anaconda in March 2002—but his first two shots missed.) “There’s no limit as far as I can see so long as the bullet’s stable—I think 2,000 or 2,500 meters is very attainable,” Bell said. “Right now, anything past around 800 meters is an extremely tough shot.”

TIME Pentagon

U.S. Stepping Up Scrutiny of China’s Military Moves

Uotsuri Island
This is one of the disputed Senkaku islands, controlled by Japan but sought by China. The U.S. has a treaty obligation to Japan to defend the islands. Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

Seeks status quo in region without “containing” Beijing

Sometimes, the delicacies of diplomacies require lying. Or, as the foreign-service set puts it, diplomacy.

“Let me emphasize to you today: the U.S. does not seek to contain China,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday at the two-day China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing.

That was hard to square with the headline atop a story in Thursday’s Financial Times newspaper: Pentagon plans new tactics to deter China in South China Sea. U.S. officials say increased air and sea patrols in the region should be expected as part of President Obama’s “pivot” to the Pacific.

Neither Washington nor Beijing can get all it wants.

“The U.S. has carved out a limited number of steps that it is willing to take to signal the Chinese that the U.S. has an interest in preventing coercion, and in trying to compel a peaceful resolution of disputes,” says Bonnie Glaser, a Chinese military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The U.S. wants to keep playing the key cop in the western Pacific, a beat it has sailed since World War II. It wants to preserve the status quo. Many nations in the region appreciate the U.S. military presence, given their bloody histories with the Middle Kingdom.

But China has made clear it has expansionist aims, as its economy grows and it seeks small islands, reefs and atolls long claimed by Japan, the Philippines and other neighbors. Any one of these claims could spark shooting that could trigger war.

Thomas P.M. Barnett, a former Pentagon official and now the chief analyst at the private Wikistrat intelligence firm, says the U.S. needs to raise the price for such Chinese mischief. “Every great power goes through its reckless `teenage years,’” he says. “Beijing will persist in these 19th century behaviors for some time, but it needs to be educated—as unimperiously as possible—that such tactics come with great costs in the 21st-century interdependencies that define globalization.”

The Obama Administration has been making that clear. “In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Singapore in May. “It has restricted access to Scarborough Reef, put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal, begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations, and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands…we firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert those claims.”

Yet despite Kerry’s claim that “the U.S. does not seek to contain China,” the U.S. has made clear it is willing to go to war to keep China from gaining control of what Japan calls the Senkaku islands, known in China as the Diaoyus. The stakes, in terms of geography, could hardly be smaller: the Senkakus consist of five uninhabited islets and three barren reefs in the East China Sea. But they’re surrounded by waters rich in fish, natural gas and oil.

The Chinese claim Japan stole the islands from them in 1895, based on ancient texts and maps suggesting the islands were theirs; Japan says they were unclaimed by any nation when it took them over. Nationalists in each country insist they belong to their side. Tensions over the islands’ fate have been steadily rising, and spiked in 2012 after Japan’s government bought three of the islands from a Japanese family.

U.S. officials repeatedly stress they have no opinion on the islands’ “ultimate sovereignty.” China is well aware of such American ambiguity. But Hagel said last fall the U.S. is willing to go to war to preserve Tokyo’s control over them: “Since they are under Japan’s administrative control, they fall under United States treaty obligations to Japan.”

Given that U.S. pledge, it may be easier to understand Beijing’s leeriness toward Kerry’s claim the U.S. doesn’t seek to contain China.

TIME Pentagon

U.S. Military Sends Scouting Party Into the Twitterverse

The Twitter Inc. logo is shown with the U.S. flag during the company's IPO on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in New York
Lucas Jackson—Reuters

Pentagon wants to learn how to mold social media to prevent “adverse outcomes”

The first warriors fought on the ground. Then, someone hollowed out a log and naval warfare began. Aircraft came next, followed by space—and now, cyberspace. So it should come as no surprise that the exploding corner of cyberspace—social media—is the next battleground.

The fog of war now includes rolling clouds of Tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram photos that the Pentagon wants to filter, track and exploit. Enveloping the globe, from friends and foes alike, the torrent of data can serve as an early-warning system of trouble brewing—or a leading indicator of imminent action by a potential troublemaker.

That’s why the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency has spent three years and $35 million, plumbing pixels as part of its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program. Makes sense that DARPA’s in charge: the agency basically invented the Internet. “Events of strategic as well as tactical importance to our Armed Forces are increasingly taking place in social media space,” DARPA says. “We must, therefore, be aware of these events as they are happening and be in a position to defend ourselves within that space against adverse outcomes.”

Britain’s Guardian newspaper suggested Tuesday that the program might be connected to papers leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showing “that US and British intelligence agencies have been deeply engaged in planning ways to covertly use social media for purposes of propaganda and deception.”

But Peter W. Singer, a strategist with the independent New America Foundation, sees it more as Defense Department due diligence. It appears to be “a fairly transparent effort, all done in the open, following academic research standards, aiming to understand critical changes in the social, and therefore, emerging battlefield, environment,” Singer says of DARPA’s efforts. “I am not deeply troubled by this—indeed, I would be troubled if we weren’t doing this kind of research to better understand the changing world around us.”

DARPA says researchers have to take steps to ensure that “no personally identifiable information for U.S. participants was collected, stored or created in contravention to federal privacy laws, regulations or DoD policies.” It issued a statement Wednesday declaring it was not involved in the recent Cornell University study of Facebook users, and that the work it has funded “has focused on public Twitter streams visible and accessible to everybody.”

The program’s aims, according to DARPA:

  • Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation.
  • Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities.
  • Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.
  • Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.

The goal is to win without firing a shot. The agency cited, without elaboration, an incident that it said occurred solely on social media as an example of what it wants to do:

Rumors about the location of a certain individual began to spread in social media space and calls for storming the rumored location reached a fever pitch. By chance, responsible authorities were monitoring the social media, detected the crisis building, sent out effective messaging to dispel the rumors and averted a physical attack on the rumored location. This was one of the first incidents where a crisis was (1) formed (2) observed and understood in a timely fashion and (3) diffused by timely action, entirely within the social media space.

DARPA’s lengthy research roster (at least those publicly available; there’s no link to IBM’s Early Warning Signals of System Change from Expert Communication Networks, for example) doesn’t detail anything about waging war. It’s all about tapping into those who use social media, how to figure out who their leaders are, and perhaps sway their thinking. Academics and computer scientists, working for major universities and outfits like SentiMetrix (which says its “sentiment engine has been proven to work in predicting election outcomes, conflicts, and stock price fluctuations”) have written more than 100 papers on a wide range of topics:

Cues to Deception in Social Media Communications

Well-crafted deceptive messaging is difficult to detect, a difficulty compounded by the fact that people are generally naïve believers of information that they receive. Through studying modern forms of communication, as that found in social media, we can, though, begin to develop an understanding of how users’ expectations lead them to detect deception and how deception strategies are exhibited through linguistic cues.

The Language that Gets People to Give: Phrases that Predict Success on Kickstarter

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter—where entrepreneurs and artists look to the internet for funding—have quickly risen to prominence. However, we know very little about the factors driving the “crowd” to take projects to their funding goal. In this paper we explore the factors which lead to successfully funding a crowdfunding project. We study a corpus of 45K crowdfunded projects, analyzing 9M phrases and 59 other variables commonly present on crowdfunding sites. The language used in the project has surprising predictive power— accounting for 58.56% of the variance around successful funding.

Understanding Individual’s Personal Values from Social Media Word Use

The theory of values posits that each person has a set of values, or desirable and trans-situational goals, that motivate their actions. The Basic Human Values, a motivational construct that captures people’s values, have been shown to influence a wide range of human behaviors. In this work, we analyze people’s values and their word use on Reddit, an online social news sharing community. Through conducting surveys and analyzing text contributions of 799 Reddit users, we identify and interpret categories of words that are indicative of user’s value orientations.

The Digital Evolution of Occupy Wall Street

We examine the temporal evolution of digital communication activity relating to the American anti-capitalist movement Occupy Wall Street. Using a high-volume sample from the microblogging site Twitter, we investigate changes in Occupy participant engagement, interests, and social connectivity over a fifteen month period…the Occupy movement tended to elicit participation from a set of highly interconnected users with pre-existing interests in domestic politics and foreign social movements. These users, while highly vocal in the months immediately following the birth of the movement, appear to have lost interest in Occupy related communication over the remainder of the study period.

A Computational Approach to Politeness with Application to Social Factors

We use our framework to study the relationship between politeness and social power, showing that polite Wikipedia editors are more likely to achieve high status through elections, but, once elevated, they become less polite.

If it seems difficult to discern a pattern here, that’s because the agency engages in basic research. It only builds the tools that others will use to build the next war (or disinformation) machine. There’s no telling which of these reports—if any—contains a glimmer of military utility. The only way to find out is to continue such research until it yields a breakthrough, or until the Pentagon goes broke.

 

TIME Pentagon

The $100 Billion Helicopter Dogfight

The AVX entry in the Pentagon's $100 billion chopper competition. AVX

The original story of David and Goliath took place on the ground, and involved five smooth stones. But there’s a new airborne version of that ancient Biblical tale involving a pair of Davids battling three Goliaths—and a chance to land up to $100 billion in Pentagon business.

It’s all because the Army is looking to revamp its helicopter fleet over the coming decades, replacing thousands of its trusted UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache choppers with something that can fly heavier, faster and further: the trifecta of flight. The industry heavyweights—Bell Helicopter and a Boeing-Sikorsky team—are in the running.

But so are two pipsqueaks: AVX Aircraft and Karem Aircraft.

While Karem is offering a tilt-rotor design like the Bell-Boeing V-22 now being flown by the Marines, AVX’s entry is what’s called a compound coaxial helicopter. It has a pair of rotors spinning in opposite directions atop its carbon-fiber fuselage to lift it, and two ducted-fans at its rear end to push it.

The Army wants its next-gen chopper to be able to fly 265 mph (426 kph), 50% faster than a Black Hawk, and to travel 2,100 miles (3,400 km) from California to Hawaii on its own. And to be able to make that flight autonomously—with no pilot at the controls.

Both of the rotorcraft whippersnappers are run by aircraft heavyweights: AVX’s come from Bell, while Abe Karem is the engineer responsible for the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, being built by another company.

These small bidders consist only of a relative handful of engineers and have no experience producing manned aircraft. But they seem to think of themselves more as designers and integrators who would buy the components they need from others, and perhaps team with a major partner for final assembly.

The U.S. military has upgraded its existing helicopter fleet for decades, but there is only so much improvement that can be bolted onto Reagan-era airframes. “We’ve never had the opportunity to start over fresh across [the Department of Defense] to bring a new fleet to bear that takes innovation into account,” the Army’s Dan Bailey said at a Tuesday briefing on the program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Army wants to buy up to 4,000 of the choppers beginning in the mid-2030s. It plans to narrow the four contenders down to perhaps two in about a month. If the Army scratches AVX and/or Karem from the program, they could team up with—or be bought by—one of the winners.

“It is thrilling to see how new ideas broad by a startup aircraft company, few people ever heard before, will stack-up against the arrogance of the U.S. defense establishment,” DefenceTalk.com said of AVX. “Competition cleans out inefficiency and incompetence, and the U.S. defense establishment is in need of it.”

There’s betting inside defense circles that the upstarts have scant chance against the combined clout and experience of Bell, Boeing and Sikorsky.

Of course, that’s how Chrysler, Ford and General Motors felt about newcomer Tesla, before Consumer Reports rated its battery-powered Model S the best car of the year in February.

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