TSA – 20% Effective

A new report concerning undercover checks of security at U.S. airports reveals that the screening methods used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) failed to uncover threats up to 80% of the time.  This is actually a step up from checks run two years ago which revealed a 95% failure rate.  Even with this “improvement,” the end result is still concerning.

The House Committee on Homeland Security has called on David Pekoske, the Administrator of the TSA, to fix these problems, focusing on installing new scanning equipment in the country’s airports.

However, new equipment seems unlikely to fix the systemic issues with U.S. airport security.  While Americans seem fixated on preventing the tools for attacks from getting through security (this fixation flows into other areas of life, such as gun control), other countries focus more on people as potential threats.

The gold standard for airport security is generally considered to be Israel.  There they employ a “concentric security” methodology where checks begin as people enter airport property and continue until they’re on the plane.  As a person enters into a closer “ring” of the airport, the checks become more extensive.  These checks include scanning, but the focus is more on talking with people, interviewing them, and gauging their potential threat level.  Thus, situations which seem common in the U.S. (e.g. a 90-year-old grandmother being hassled about having a bottle of water in her luggage) are less likely to occur in Israel due to their focus on the human threat.

The Israeli method is used, at least in part, in other parts of the world, such as Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.  There, the interview method is used and can be quite extensive.  Passengers are separated from one another and asked questions such as their origin and destination of travel, purpose of their travel, why they chose to go to their destination, as well as additional questions as the security agent works to gauge the threat level posed by the passenger.

These Israeli-type security methods also help to guard against attacks outside the “secure area” of the airport.  Tempting targets for attackers are the security line itself and the departure and arrival areas as masses of people are confined in a relatively small space.  A suicide bomber blew himself up in such an area in Moscow’s domestic Domodedovo Airport in 2011, and another did the same in Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in 2016.

Present U.S. security checks and the planned addition of more and better scanners do little to prevent or deter such attacks and, apparently, do little to actually detect the types of physical threats which they are meant to detect.  What the TSA and Congress need is a paradigm shift in how airport security is handled in the U.S. and a focus on the human threat.




Robots Invading Retail (and everything else)

Walmart is beginning a 50 store trial of robots from Bossa Nova Robotics.  Next month these robots will be employed to check stock levels and identify misplaced items on the shelves.  This information will then be used by human employees to go fix the issues found by the robots.  The intent is to use the robots to perform time-consuming mundane tasks so that humans can perform the higher-value tasks.

This sort of human-robotic (or artificial intelligence/AI) interaction is likely to increase in all areas of life.  Already, AI has permeated our smart phones and even homes as we use it to answer questions, perform searches, and control smart devices.  As robotic technology increases, we can expect that this AI will become increasingly mobile and self-sufficient, no longer relying on us to place it in a spot in our homes or run an app on our phones, but rather able to roam our homes and workplaces, performing tasks either we’d prefer not to or – more likely – businesses would prefer not to pay humans to perform.

AI and robots are therefore likely to impact many areas of our lives.  Robots have been used in manufacturing for many years (and helped to increase the competitiveness of the U.S. in this area).  AI is making inroads in the financial industry to analyze data as well as in the news industry to write articles.  Autonomous drones have been used in warfare and for delivery of goods.

The future increasingly looks like it will be filled with AI in various forms: apps, cloud-based services, robots, and drones.  The intent is to have these augment human capabilities and serve at the behest of humans.  Some, like Elon Musk, are already raising alarms.  Others are embracing this future, while some are struggling with what all this means.  Whatever happens, we will most likely “live in interesting times.”

Air Force Prepping for 24-Hour Ready Alert

The U.S. Air Force is putting in place preparations to resume 24 hour ready alerts for its B-52 bomber fleet, if ordered.  The 24 hour alerts were ceased in 1991 following the end of the Cold War.  However, with rising threats from North Korea and increasing tension with Russia and Iran, the Air Force is preparing for the possibility that it will again have nuclear bombers continually on alert.

Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, home of the 2nd Bomb Wing and its B-52H bombers, is receiving renovations to enable 24 hour operation.  The crew quarters meant to house crews on alert near their planes is receiving 100 beds, along with recreation equipment.  Storage facilities to house new nuclear cruise missiles are also planned.

The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. David Goldfein, visited Barksdale and commented on the preparations:

This is yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared…  I look at it more as not planning for any specific event, but more for the reality of the global situation we find ourselves in and how we ensure we’re prepared going forward.

Gen. Goldfein also clarified that the decision to resume 24 hour operation had not yet been made; these preparations are simply meant to ensure the Air Force is ready to implement that order, if it comes.  The decision would be made by the heads of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Gen. John Hyten, and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), Gen. Lori Robinson.  STRATCOM has responsibility for American nuclear weapons, and NORTHCOM is responsible for the defense of North America.

The Air Force is attempting to beef up its capabilities due to its role in the American “nuclear triad.”  The United States, among other countries, relies on land, sea, and air based nuclear weapons as a deterrent against attacks by ensuring that it could respond if attacked first (so-called second strike capability).  Thus, the “triad:” the U.S. operates Minuteman ICBMs from land-based silos, deploys Trident SLBMs on ballistic missile submarines (the Ohio class), and has airborne bombs and cruise missiles able to be carried by B-52 and B-2 bombers.  Since 1991, as noted, the “air” portion of the American triad has been neglected, so the Air Force is working to correct that, or at least signal to other nations that it is able to do so.

This may, in fact, be the main point of these statements and exercises: show hostile countries that the United States is ready and able to defend itself against their attacks.  As North Korea’s Kim Jong-un continues to make noise about attacking the continental United States, the U.S. is signaling that it is able to respond to any attack.

The Real Russian Story

Since the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, the media has been pushing a narrative that Russia either influenced the election in Trump’s favor or somehow colluded with him or his campaign.

However, there is a much more real, complex, and interesting “Russian Story” which is beginning to bubble to the surface.  The clues have been there for years, and some have begun to see them.

To get a picture of the real “Russian Story,” first consider Russia’s state interests:

  • Secure and maintain access to uranium for civil and military projects.
  • Grow the influence of Russia’s state nuclear company, Rosatom.
  • Protect Russia’s carbon-based fuel exports.  Oil and gas sales make up 16% of Russia’s GDP, 70% of exports, and over half of revenues to the federal budget.
  • Increase Russia’s foreign influence and power

Now, keeping these interests in mind, look back on Russian activities the past ten years or so:

  • Russia began building nuclear reactors in Iran
  • Rosatom (Russia’s state nuclear company) purchased Uranium One, a Canadian mining company, in 2013, securing access to, and control of, additional nuclear material
  • Russia allegedly funds anti-fracking and anti-pipeline groups operating in the United States.  This ensures that the U.S. does not produce more oil and gas and thereby protect’s Russia’s own exports.

Instrumental to these Russian goals and activities was the purchase of Uranium One by Rosatom and the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015.  As mentioned above, the Uranium One deal helped secure Russian access to uranium.  The Iran deal ensured that the planned Russian building of nuclear reactors in Iran could go ahead, all under the guise of ensuring that Iran does not use nuclear materials for weapons.  In addition, the Obama administration’s blocking of the Keystone XL Pipeline and opposition to coal and fracking served to further Russia’s economic interests (whether intended by the Obama administration or not).  Therefore, in the end, Russia was the real beneficiary of these staples of the Obama administration.

How did the Uranium One deal come to be?  First, since the Uranium One company had mines in the United States, its purchase had to be approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.  This approval came unanimously in 2010.  Among the members of the Committee at the time were Hillary Clinton (then Secretary of State) and Eric Holder (then Attorney General).  It is worth noting as well that Robert Mueller, currently leading the investigation of Russia’s interference of the U.S. election as special counsel, was then the head of the FBI, reporting to Holder.

These circumstances make what has now been revealed more interesting, for there is evidence that prior to the Uranium One deal being approved, the FBI uncovered evidence of Russian meddling, but didn’t report it for years.  According to The Hill:

Before the Obama administration approved a controversial deal in 2010 giving Moscow control of a large swath of American uranium, the FBI had gathered substantial evidence that Russian nuclear industry officials were engaged in bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering designed to grow Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business inside the United States… They also obtained an eyewitness account — backed by documents — indicating Russian nuclear officials had routed millions of dollars to the U.S. designed to benefit former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation during the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton served on a government body that provided a favorable decision to Moscow…

Thus, the Uranium One deal strengthened Russia’s position (it gave it access to 20% of the U.S.’ uranium) and was important enough for Russia to engage in whatever tactics necessary to get it approved.

With access to increased uranium reserves secured, how was Russia to benefit?  One way was to grow another country’s nuclear program, providing equipment and services to do so.  Iran was a convenient place for Russia to do this; it was estranged from the West, embroiled in sanctions, and a traditional ally of Russia.  However, Russia needed international acceptance of Iran’s nuclear program to pull this off.

This necessary acceptance came with the Obama administration’s 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, which provided international approval of Iran’s civilian nuclear program.  Russia could then continue with its plans to build additional reactors in Iran while supplying engineers, equipment, and uranium for them.  Thus, both the Uranium One deal and the Iran Deal assisted Russia’s long-term goals.

Now, allegations have been made that not only did the FBI know about attempts by Russia to secure the approval of the Uranium One deal, but that they threatened a witness to prevent him from testifying before Congress.

From the Daily Wire:

Victoria Toensing, the attorney for an FBI confidential witness, alleged that the Obama Department of Justice blocked her client from informing Congress that Russian executives told him how they facilitated the Obama administration’s 2010 approval of the Uranium One deal and transferred millions of dollars in Russian nuclear funds to an entity assisting Bill Clinton’s foundation…. Bill Clinton accepted $500,000 in Russian speaking fees in 2010, as The New York Times reported in 2015; Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million to the Clinton Foundation.

With all these facts in mind, the conventional narrative that “Russia influenced the U.S. election to help Trump” not only begins to look inane, but also like a useful cover for the actions of the Obama administration and the Clinton State Department in assisting Russia in its commercial enterprises.  And the person investigating the alleged Russian election interference is Robert Mueller, head of the FBI at the time in which the Uranium One deal was approved and during which Russian influence was discovered but not reported.

Trump Wanted More Nukes

A report has now come out that during President Trump’s meeting with military officials on July 20th, he expressed a desire to increase the size of the United States’ nuclear arsenal.  He was being briefed on military readiness and was shown a slide depicting the decreasing number of American nuclear weapons when he said he would like to increase the stockpile to its peak levels in the 1960s.

Trump’s comments apparently unnerved some officials who were present and may be the reason that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “moron.”  They fear that an increase in the size of the American nuclear arsenal would cause a new nuclear arms race and violate treaties to which the U.S. is a signatory.

These treaties include the following:

  • Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT): This treaty calls for good faith efforts on the part of recognized nuclear states (U.S, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France) to decrease their nuclear stockpiles.
  • New START: This treaty is between the U.S. and Russia and limits deployed warheads to 1,550, deployed delivery vehicles (sea-based, land-based, and air-based) to 700, and the total of deployed and non-deployed delivery vehicles to 800.  It took effect in 2011 with a deadline of February 2015 for compliance.
  • Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: This bans ground-launched intermediate range (500 to 5,500 kilometers) ballistic and cruise missiles.

Currently, the United States has about 4,000 nuclear weapons, but – as can be gleaned by the above treaties (particularly New START) – most of these are not deployed.  These non-deployed weapons/warheads are classed as “inactive” (capable of being put in service between 6 and 24 months) and “extended hedge” (capable of being put in service between 24 to 60 months.”  For deployed weapons and delivery systems, the U.S. has nearly 1,400 warheads, 700 delivery vehicles, and 800 deployed/non-deployed delivery vehicles (this is in compliance with New START).

Nuclear weapons treaties such as New START and the ones which proceeded it (SALT, START, SORT, etc…) are a convenient way for the signatories to get rid of old weapons and modernize its arsenal.  Since both sides, U.S. and Russia, commit to force reductions, then the less-desirable weapons can be culled from the arsenal.

However, many of the U.S.’ weapons and delivery systems were designed in the 1960’s and 1970’s and have not been sufficiently modernized since that time.  There are also shortages in technical know-how by American engineers regarding nuclear weapon design.  President Trump’s call for an increase in the number of weapons could be better channeled into modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal to make it safer and more efficient.


Musk Announces SpaceX’s Plans for Making Life Multiplanetary

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, gave a presentation last Friday at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia titled “Making Life Multiplanetary.”

Musk began by giving the reasons for SpaceX’s mission and his own interest in space, saying:

You want to be inspired by things.  You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great, and that’s what being a space-faring civlization is all about.  It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past.  And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.

In the nearly 45 minute talk, Musk reviewed the history of SpaceX and its progeny of existing launch vehicles, from the Falcon 1, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and the Dragon cargo/crew capsule.  He then proceeded to introduce the new vehicle which SpaceX is working on, called the “BFR,” which has been interpreted as “Big ‘Freaking’ Rocket” or “Big Falcon Rocket.”

SpaceX’s plan is to phase out its existing rockets and eventually go-forward with just the BFR as an all-purpose platform for cargo and crewed missions.  This will streamline development and maintenance for the company and reduce overall costs.  Musk said, “We want to make our current vehicles redundant.”  To that end, Musk stated that SpaceX plans to build up a stock of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to use for upcoming missions and then shift all resources to development of the BFR (he said that work has already begun).

The BFR consists of two stages: a first booster stage and an upper crew/cargo ship.  The booster stage has 31 of SpaceX’s Raptor engines, generating a combined liftoff thrust of 5400 tons to lift a vehicle weighing 4400 tons.

The upper ship consists of three sections: engine, propellant, and payload.  It is 48 meters long and 9 meters in diameter.

The engine area has a total of 6 engines, all of which can gimble to control thrust direction.  Four are vacuum engines and are situated around the circumference.  The inner two are sea-level engines used for landing; only one engine is actually required to allow for redundancy (Musk says that he wants to eliminate the “pucker factor” of landing).  On the outside of the engine area is a small delta wing with a split flap to control pitch and roll; this allows for stable landing with various atmospheric conditions and payloads.

The propellant area has tanks for liquid methane (CH4) and Oxygen (O2).

The payload area is meant for crew and/or cargo.  It has a pressurized volume of 825 square meters, which Musk notes is greater than an Airbus A380.  Musk gave details on what a Mars Transit Configuration might look like.  It would have 40 cabins (2 to 3 people per cabin for about 100 people on a flight to Mars), large common areas, entertainment areas, central storage, a galley/kitchen, and a solar storm shelter.

The BFR can lift 150 tons to low earth orbit (LEO).  The ship can also be refueled in orbit by another ship by mating the two at the rear, connecting the fill lines of both ships, accelerating in the direction of the ship which will be emptied, and then undocking and returning the emptied ship.  This would allow the refueled ship to cary 150 tons to Mars.

To reduce launch costs, Musk’s plan is for the entire BFR to be reusable.  He showed a slide comparing the carbo lift capacity of various rockets, with smallest on the left and greatest on the right.  The BFR has the greatest capacity, beating even the Saturn V’s 135 tons.  Then, he showed a followup slide which ordered the rockets based on launch cost, with lowest cost on the left and largest on the right.  The BFR was the lowest cost.

Again, Musk attributed this low launch cost to reusability, drawing an analogy with aircraft.  He said that you could buy a small turboprop for about $1 to $2 million and fly it to Australia, crashing it.  Or, you could charter an airliner for about $500 thousand.  The airliner is cheaper because it is designed to make the trip many times; the only marginal cost is fuel.  Similarly, the BFR is designed to be reused many times, with fuel being the major cost factor in launches.

Regarding lift capacity and cost, Musk also noted:

Often I’ll be told, “But, you would get more payload if you made it expendable.”  I say, “Yes, you could also get more payload from an aircraft if you got rid of the landing gear and the flaps, and just parachuted out when you got to your destination.  But, that would be crazy and you would sell zero aircraft.”

The target market of the BFR is satellite launches (due to its size, it can launch very large satellites or even multiple satellites at once), ISS servicing, Moon missions, and Mars missions.  Musk mentioned building a base on both the Moon and Mars.

Regarding Mars, his “aspirational” plan is to launch 2 cargo ships in 2022 to find water and place resources for the next mission.  Then, in 2024 he wants to launch 2 cargo ships and 2 crewed ships to begin building a base and to construct a propellant plant (to extract methane and oxygen from Mars).  Then, he wants to start building a city there, showing an artist’s rendition during his presentation.

Finally, Musk proposed the idea of using the BFR to travel to points on earth, taking off and landing vertically.  Any spot on Earth could be reached in under an hour, with most places only requiring 30 minutes of travel time.

Musk’s presentation elicited applause from the audience, with one member yelling “Good job, Elon!”  While Musk is involved in many other enterprises, it is obvious that SpaceX is where his passion lies.


TRAGEDY: 3 Green Berets Killed, 2 Wounded in Niger

While on a training mission in Niger with their local counterparts, a U.S. Army Special Forces (the “Green Berets”) unit from the 3rd Special Forces Group (Fort Bragg, NC) was ambushed on Wednesday.   The ambush occurred near the border with Mali, 120 miles north of Niamey, the capital of Niger.  The attack left three Green Berets dead and two wounded; in addition, five Nigerien soldiers were killed.  The U.S. soldiers were brought to Niamey for medical treatment and will be transferred to Germany for further care.   The names of the soldiers have not yet been released.

Niger is in north-central Africa and is bordered by Mali, Algeria, Libya, Chad, Nigeria, Benin, and Burkina Faso.  The Sahara Desert covers most of the country.  The United States has been providing counterterrorism training to Niger’s military.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but there are a number of militant Islamic and terrorist groups active in the area, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram.

While AQIM’s aim is to establish an Islamic caliphate in Algeria, it has supporters in Mali and has conducted raids into Niger.  Boko Haram (“Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad”) spans Niger, Chad, Nigeria, and Cameroon.  These groups, in addition to other Islamic terrorist organizations in the region such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, work together to advance their causes.  Interestingly, they – along with al Qaeda itself – also come into conflict with ISIS due to differences of opinion concerning tactics and leadership.

The United States military is very active in Africa in an effort to train local friendly governments to fight against these terrorist groups.  Special forces are typically tasked with these missions, as training is one of their core skills.  The U.S. is also constructing a large drone base at Agadez in central Niger to help with the region’s counter-terrorism fight.


Iraqi Kurds Vote Clearly for Independence

The Kurdish people in Iraq voted Monday on a referendum concerning independence from Iraq, with 92% voting to break away.  This sets the state for further discussions between Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurds, and Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister.

The Iraqi government, most regional powers, the United States, and the United Kingdom are not happy with the referendum and generally oppose Kurdish independence.   The Iraqi parliament has authorized the prime minister to use military force against the Kurds.  So far, Iraq does not seem willing to let the Kurds have their state.

This puts the United States in a tough position.  Israel and Russia supported the Kurdish referendum, the United States has partnered with the Kurds in the fight against ISIS, and the Kurds are more capable of defending their territory against ISIS than Iraqi forces theirs.  To deny the will of the Kurdish people will cause them to seek other partners (such as Russia) and could see yet another front open up in the war in Iraq.

The Kurds are the fourth largest nationality in the Middle East.  They speak Kurdish (which is related to the Iranian language group), trace their descent from the ancient Medes, and use a calendar whose starting date is set as 612 BC (when the Medes captured Nineveh of Assyria, which is near Mosul in northern Iraq).  However, the modern Kurds have never possessed their own nation state.  Instead, the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I left them dispersed within the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran.  Indeed, a significant portion of Turkish territory is occupied by Kurds (more background information here).

It is due to this large presence of Kurds in neighboring countries that these countries oppose independence for the Iraqi Kurds.  They fear that an independent Kurdistan would eventually cause the Kurdish population in their own countries to desire annexation by Kurdistan.

Currently, the Kurdistan Region in Iraq is autonomous, with its own parliament in the city of Erbil in the North.  It has a population of over 5 million, with a GDP of about $24 billion per year, and is considered fairly economically advanced and prosperous.

The Kurds have been in the forefront in the fight against ISIS with their military, the Peshmerga, consisting of 275,000 members and achieving much success in Iraq, while working in concert with Kurdish forces from neighboring countries.  They are armed with an assortment of weapons provided by various countries (including the United States), such as various small arms, tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and helicopters.

In 2014, the Peshmerga captured Kirkuk and its oil fields following the retreat of the Iraqi army in the face of ISIS’ advance.  Since then, the Kurds have been exporting the oil from Kirkuk and have built an oil pipeline to Turkey to assist with these exports.

Thus, the Kurds have been operating as a defacto state since the fall of Saddam Hussein and have now voted to try to make it official.  They can expect opposition in this cause, but presumably hope that they can eventually win support from the international community.