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BMD

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Speed Kills: The danger of rushing weapons into production

The Pentagon is on speed, and has been for years. Its rush to accelerate assembly lines has led to escalating costs, blown schedules and weapons unable to perform as advertised. That’s the bottom line in the Government Accountability Office’s 18th annual report into how the U.S. Department of Defense buys its weapons.

The average cost of major Pentagon weapons has jumped by 54% since they began. That $628 billion overrun is largely “unrelated to the increase in quantities purchased,” the GAO says. And they are assigned to fighting forces more than two years late. “DOD continues to look for ways to deliver systems as fast as possible,” the congressional watchdog agency says. “Until DOD can reconcile gaps in the ambitious schedules that programs promise with the incomplete knowledge they have attained, its ability to accelerate the speed at which it delivers capabilities remains in jeopardy.”

Congress and the Pentagon have teamed up to speed up slo-mo military procurement (the Air Force has been trying for nearly 20 years to replace its aging aerial tankers; the Army has taken just as long seeking a Bradley Fighting Vehicle replacement). But such efforts tend to fail because the U.S. military is rarely interested in good-enough. It wants top-flight programs like the F-35 fighter and the Zumwalt-class destroyer, which it then sabotages by rushing them into production before the blueprints are dry.

Why the rush? The haste seems particularly vexing, given that the U.S. has been mired in wars against insurgents and second-tier opponents since 9/11 (Afghanistan, lost; Iraq, tie). Toss in Vietnam (lost), or Korea (tie), if you want to get all historical about it. For those keeping score at home, that works out to a 0-2-2 record. (And when you’re a superpower, a tie counts as a loss.)

But the Pentagon is forever telling lawmakers, salivating over the prospect of well-paying defense-plant jobs in their districts, that they must fund such sophisticated gold-plated silver bullets now: “We have to put the pedal to the metal and pay the piper because who knows when [INSERT CURRENT TOP PROSPECTIVE FOE HERE] is going to strike!”

Yesterday it was the Soviet Union, today it’s China, and who knows who it will be tomorrow. It’s the closest thing yet to a perpetual-commotion machine that humans have invented.
 

RISING SUN

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U.S. Tests ‘Game Changing’ StormBreaker Bomb
Raytheon this week announced that an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet had successfully launched its StormBreaker smart glide bomb for the first time. The Super Hornet and F-15E Eagle will carry the weapon when it becomes fully operational later this year, with integration with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter expected soon.

A bomb test with an explosion


Test of GBU-53 multi-mode warhead

Raytheon
The GBU-53/B StormBreaker is far more capable than existing smart bombs, thanks to an advanced millimeter wave radar seeker combined with an infrared sensor. It can copy existing weapons like the JDAM, which hits pre-programmed GPS coordinates, or Paveway, which homes in on a target designated with a laser spot. But what makes it special is a new mode in which StormBreaker glides up to 45 miles to the target area, then finds and attacks targets without human assistance. It can hit moving vehicles such as tanks, even in bad weather, smoke or total darkness. StormBreaker was previously known as the SDB II, or Small Diameter Bomb II.

"We call SDB II a game changer because the weapon doesn't just hit GPS coordinates; it finds and engages targets," Mike Jarrett, Raytheon Air Warfare Systems vice president, stated in a 2018 press release. The weapon has been under development since 2010.

StormBreaker is small – just under 250 pounds – so large numbers can be packed on to an aircraft. An F-15E will be able to carry 28 StormBreakers, and an F-35 up to 24. Future plans call for it to be deployed on the B-52, B-1B and B-2 bombers which carry much larger bombloads – the B-1B can carry 96 of the similar-sized SDB-1.

The name and the concept behind StormBreaker are reminiscent of DARPA’s 1980’s Assault Breaker, which aimed to annihilate Soviet armor formations with a rain of ‘brilliant’ anti-tank munitions. These were envisioned to be smarter than smart bombs, being able to scan the battlefield and find Russian tanks on their own. The technology was not mature enough for Assault Breaker, but 30 years on, a small number of aircraft dropping StormBreakers could wipe out battalion-sized tank units from outside the range of air defenses.

StormBreaker’s sensor combination and smart algorithms can analyze and classify a range of target vehicles, picking out the highest priority target. The weapon maintains communication with the launch aircraft and can be retargeted in flight. The warhead was redesigned during development to provide a combination of blast, fragmentation and armor-piercing effects making it deadly to tanks, buildings, and people.

A winged glide bomb


Raytheon's GBU-53/B StormBreaker

Raytheon
Hitting large number of targets simultaneously is a challenge, as there is a risk that every StormBreaker in the area will home in on the same prominent high-value target, leaving all other targets unharmed. Things may move too fast, and bandwidth may not be sufficient, for human operators to control many weapons at once. The Air Force's Golden Horde program aims to overcome this by ‘networked collaborative autonomy’ – combining multiple weapons like StormBreaker into a single entity or swarm in flight. This swarm can follow an attack plan known as a Playbook and react to new targets or threats.

While StormBreaker might be used like any other smart bomb against insurgents – singly and under direct guidance – in more desperate situations, such as a conflict with a peer or near-peer, commanders may resort to the automated mode. Mark Gubrud, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control says such highly automated weapon system brings new dangers.

“Having a weapon system that you believe can ingress to denied territory and carry out a search-and-destroy mission may incline you to attempt such a mission with a risk of error and escalation,” says Gubrud.

Thus, an attempt to quickly stem what might look like a surprise attack with a rain of StormBreakers might backfire and lead to a full-scale conflict which neither side wants. When one button push can have that sort effect, commanders may need to exercise caution.

StormBreaker could be a tremendously powerful capability when fielded in large numbers; a swarm of them might even count as a WMD. But until its strengths and weaknesses are fully established it should not be treated as a silver bullet to vanquish all opposition.
 
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RISING SUN

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Two submarines share dry dock for simultaneous inactivations
Two elderly Los Angeles-class submarines headed for decommissioning — USS Olympia (SSN 717), commissioned in 1984, and USS Louisville (SSN 724), commissioned in 1986, – both entered Dry Dock 5 at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility yesterday.

The two submarines are to be inactivated simultaneously. According to Cmdr. Jack Tappe, project superintendent, this brings both challenges and benefits.

“Most project teams have only one ship complement or crew to synchronize with,” said Tappe. “Our folks have had to coordinate communications and planning across two very different crews, and they have done this very well. Fortunately for us we have the benefit of having some very experienced folks on the Project Team.”

Tappe said the coordination among the project team and the leadership and crews of Olympia and Louisville has been very successful thus far.

“I am extremely proud of our ships’ crews and project team,” said Tappe. “I have never been with a team that has been able to pull two projects to the left by a month and dock early, even during our time of resource shortage and COVID-19 response. This win is due to the hard work and dedication of our friends in the shops and tech codes helping us out.”

Leaders from both ships agreed that efficient communications among all the stakeholders will be key to the continued success of the concurrent inactivation process.

“Transparency and good communications, early and often, are the key to this,” said Louisville’s Commanding Officer Cmdr. Chris Brown. “The inactivation is a team sport, so we’re working hand-in-hand with the project to make sure that all questions are answered in advance so that as we approach each milestone we’re ready to go.”

Olympia’s Commanding Officer Cmdr. Jim Steffen agreed.

“The key to a successful project is communication,” Steffen said. “We’ve already started off on the right foot with the project team. We’re fully integrated, and our goal is to keep communicating not just what’s happening today, but also what’s happening next week. If we can keep that up, this is going to be a smooth project.”

“I think the biggest part is understanding we are one team,” said Olympia’s Chief of the Boat Master Chief Arturo Plasencia. “As long as we’re moving in one direction toward one common goal; that will be the key to success here. We can help the shipyard with any manning shortfalls, and the shipyard can help us by providing us with various skills we don’t necessarily hold onboard, and teaching our Sailors some of those skills.”

Tappe said executing concurrent inactivations is more cost and time efficient than inactivating the ships one at a time.

“We save an enormous amount of time and money by conducting a dual inactivation,” Tappe said. “A single project team is deactivating two submarines at the same time. That is a significant cost savings in the way of personnel. Additionally, the team has identified key individuals to cover two submarines versus having one individual for each submarine.”

“We have one Chief Refueling Engineer responsible for defueling both submarines,” Tappe continued. “We can also surge the workforce between both submarines if necessary, so we have scheduled similar work within weeks of each other to maximize efficiency. By doing this we can also have one ship’s crew watch the other during their evolution, so they can learn from that evolution in as near real-time as possible before they begin their evolution.”

Passing lessons learned from one part of the team to the other, and to ship’s force, may also help streamline operations.

“I’m excited we’re going to run both projects concurrently,” Brown said. “Lessons learned from one unit can be immediately passed to the next. That way we’re able to minimize any delays and accelerate the timelines as we learn each new lesson.”

According to Tappe, capturing lessons learned in real time will assist not only with the concurrent inactivations, it can help future inactivation teams.

“We are hot washing many evolutions once they are completed instead of waiting for the end of availability,” Tappe said. “Our Risk Manager, Roxanne Minder, has been a key player in assisting with gathering the lessons learned from previous inactivation availabilities and documenting all our own lessons learned. We should have a significant amount of detail to turn over to the next SSN-688 inactivation team.”

“The crew will be involved in all aspects of the inactivation,” said Brown. “We’ve had many opportunities to expand their role. With COVID-19 mitigations, we were actually able to get them more involved than they would have been, to keep us on track.”
 
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RISING SUN

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This Is Our First Look At Boeing's MQ-25 Tanker Drone Carrying A Refueling Pod
We now have our first look at Boeing's MQ-25 carrier-based tanker drone test article, also known as T1, carrying a Cobham buddy refueling store under its wing. Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, Tweeted pictures of T1 after a recent tour of MidAmerica Airport, where work on and various testing of the unmanned demonstrator have been going on for more than a year now.

Duckworth said she had visited Boeing's facilities at MidAmerica last week as part of a larger visit. The airport, which is adjacent to Scott Air Force Base, is situated in the southwestern end of Illinois, approximately 18 miles east of St. Louis in neighboring Missouri. Boeing moved T1, which also carries the U.S. civil registration code N234MQ, there in April 2019 and that's where it took its first flight five months later.


Office of Senator Tammy Duckworth
Senator Tammy Duckworth, in the wheelchair at center, along with others in front of T1 at Boeing's facility at MidAmerica Airport in July 2020.


Office of Senator Tammy Duckworth
"Last week I visited @MAAirport, where I met with local officials and viewed the Navy’s new MQ-25 unmanned aircraft system," Duckworth wrote on Twitter in addition to posting the pictures. "MidAmerica Airport is an important driver of our state's economy, and I’ll keep working to make sure it has the federal support it needs."

Senator Duckworth is a U.S. Army veteran and former Lieutenant Colonel who lost both her legs when a rocket-propelled grenade hit her UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during a mission in Iraq in 2004. She was a member of the House of Representatives from Illinois between 2013 and 2017 before winning her current Senate seat. She is now a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, among other assignments, and is a contender to be Joe Biden's running mate in this year's presidential election.

As noted, Boeing has been working on the T1 demonstrator at MidAmerica since 2019. The company had won the Navy competition to design and build the MQ-25 Stingray tanker drone the year before. The ability to carry the Cobham buddy refueling pod, which the service's F/A-18E/F Super Hornets carry when acting as carrier-based tankers now, was a key requirement for what had become known as the Unmanned Carrier Aviation (UCA) program. This was an outgrowth of the abortive Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS), a saga you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece.

The T1 test article is a modified version of the design that Boeing submitted to the UCLASS program. The company is now under contract to deliver four more refined Engineering Development Model (EDM) prototypes, the first of which it is scheduled to deliver to the Navy next year. The plan is to have the remaining three finished by 2024.

Boeing has said it hopes to get T1 onto the deck of a Navy aircraft carrier sometime in the future to begin conducting various deck handling tests. However, actual carrier-based flight testing, which will use the EDM prototypes, isn't scheduled to begin until 2022.

The MQ-25 could offer revolutionary benefits for the Navy's carrier air wings, fundamentally altering how they operate in the future. It will also relieve the service's F/A-18E/F Super Hornets from having to fly in the tanker role, freeing them up for other missions and otherwise reducing the strain on that fleet.

The Stingrays, or follow-on variants or derivatives thereof, could eventually take on other missions, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well. The Navy continues to say that it believes its carrier air wings will continue to evolve to contain a mix of manned and unmanned platforms.
The picture that Senator Duckworth shared shows that, at least right now, Boeing continues to conduct work that supports the development of the MQ-25 in its initial tanker role.
 
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RISING SUN

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CIA Reveals Details Of Bird-Like 1970s Stealth Drone — With Planned Nuclear Propulsion
The CIA’s Project Aquiline was a drone with a ten-foot wingspan which would carry out spy missions deep into the Soviet Union. The CIA has declassified a new stash of documents about the project from the early 1970s, revealing among other things, plans to fit nuclear propulsion and have it operating out of the celebrated Area 51.


Small birdlike drone
Small birdlike drone


The CIA’s Project Aquiline strategic spy drone
CIA Archive

Project Aquiline never became operational, for reasons which we will explore. But, as the CIA notes in a preface to the new release, “the concept proved invaluable as a forerunner to today’s multi-capability UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles].”

The project originated in the 1960s. After the shooting down of Gary Powers U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, manned flights were becoming politically too risky. Satellites could peer over the Iron Curtain, but only provided grainy long-range photographs. What was needed was a small, unmanned aircraft for strategic reconnaissance from close-up.

The solution was a propeller-driven drone disguised as a soaring bird. From a distance, it was indistinguishable from an ordinary vulture of buzzard.


Bird-like drone
Bird-like drone


Bird-like Aquiline drone prototype by McDonnell [+]
CIA Archive

“It is small, flies low and slow, having small visual, acoustic, and radar observables; can outfox defenses rather than overpower them,” according to a 1968 CIA briefing included in the latest trove.

The hardware was built by McDonnell Douglas, with at least five prototype drones being built and tested.

Being inexpensive, ‘inoffensive’ and unmanned, Aquiline was seen as being more politically palatable than manned aircraft and would not provoke the same reaction as a potentially armed warplane flying over another country. Its stealthy approach means it “would penetrate with relative impunity thousands of miles into denied areas such as the Soviet Union, Red China, Cuba, etc.”

Project Aquiline was intended to carry a variety of payloads for up-close reconnaissance of sensitive sites. As well as photographic and infra-red cameras, it could be fitted with gear for electronic intelligence – picking up details of radio and radar emissions, for example locating air-defense radar – and communications intelligence, eavesdropping on Russian radio traffic. Data would be sent back to a central controller via a relay aircraft, now revealed to be a C-47. The drone would be recovered mid-air by helicopter, a technique already in use by then in Firebee drone operations over Vietnam.

Intriguingly, the documents also reveal Aquiline drop off payloads or ‘emplace devices’ for intelligence gathering, returning later to pick up information, and support ‘in -place agents.’ This suggests an 007-like operation in which an operative arrives in the country as an ordinary traveler carrying nothing suspicious, and the drone covertly drops off a cache of espionage gear and lethal gadgets. Sean Connery’s Bond would have loved it.

The technical specifications of the Aquiline drone are largely redacted or not included in the documents supplied. One document indicates that it would carry out operations at ranges of up to 1200 miles. Navigation would be an issue in pre-GPS days; one suggestion was that Aquiline would follow roads, rails, or power lines to find remote spots.

A detailed Concept of Operations shows how an Aquiline mission would be executed. The drone unit would be based at Area 51, with mobile teams with the drones and radio control units flown out to operating locations, USAF bases or Navy aircraft carriers, as needed. Each mission would be carried out along a pre-planned and rehearsed route. Special measures were taken to provide weather information along the planned route from the Air Force’s Global Weather Central and to provide physical security for the classified equipment and personnel.

Text of document on drone operations
Text of document on drone operations


‘Concept of Operations’ document from the CIA
CIA Archive

The biggest bombshell in the new documents is the revelation of plans to upgrade it with an atomic power plant. The original had a 3.5 horsepower engine originally developed for a chainsaw, which the CIA planned to replace with something more futuristic: “It is anticipated that the first R&D flight tests of a vehicle system combining a radioisotope propulsion system will begin in fiscal year 1973. On paper this vehicle system would have an altitude capability of [redacted] and a flight endurance of 50 days or approximately [redacted].” (My emphasis)

Another briefing statement claims that “in its advanced form” Aquiline will be able to operate over targets for 120 days, strongly suggesting a nuclear power source.

The atomic-powered drone was expected to be in operational use in 1974. While NASA still uses radioisotope power sources to power space probes and planetary rovers, they are generally considered too hazardous for use on Earth. The report glosses this over: “It will have vast utility for over-water applications; its radiation hazards will be so low as to permit consideration of its use for over—land missions.”

Exactly what the Soviets would have made of a crashed CIA drone leaking radioactive material over the Motherland is something we fortunately will never know. The Aquiline project was terminated before it became operational.

According to Lt Col John H. “Hank” Meierdierck, who headed the project, the issue was with contractors McDonnell Douglas. Meierdierck claims in his autobiography that, given an $11m budget, the contractors quoted a price of $110m. Rather than negotiating, McDonnell Douglas argued it out. Meierdierck says he complained about “exaggerations, padded costs for items and… brazen lies,” and recommended that rather than paying the extortionate cost, the project be terminated. Which it duly was.

Project Aquiline may have been ahead of its time. It certainly was not the end of bird-like drones. The Prioria Maveric used by U.S. Special Forces has the silhouette of a soaring bird. And a bird-like spy drone, widely assumed to be American, was recovered in Pakistan in 2011. Russia recently unveiled a spy drone disguised as an owl and Chinese security forces reportedly use pigeon-like drones with flapping wings to spy on its citizens.

As for the CIA – who also developed a prototype, laser-guided dragonfly drone at the same time as Aquiline – it is unlikely that they abandoned the idea entirely. A “miniature surreptitious aircraft vehicle system” is too useful a tool, and too cool a concept, to ignore. But we may will not find out about the CIA’s current spy drone technology until they declassify it in another fifty years.
 

BMD

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The Minuteman III replacement team must transition 20 launch facilities -- each loaded with an in-silo missile and deployed with a legacy reentry vehicle and warhead -- to achieve initial operational capability on the new intercontinental ballistic missile system in fiscal year 2029