May 312012
 

This Rock Could Spy on You for Decades

 

WIRED

By Noah Shachtman

May 29, 2012

 

 

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A Lockheed Martin “unattended ground sensor,” or UGS, disguised as a rock.

Photo: Lockheed Martin

 


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A soldier attaches an unattended sensor to the side of a mock building.

Photo: U.S. Army

 


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A Textron “MicroObserver” UGS, buried in the ground.

Photo: Textron

 


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A smaller model of the “MicroObserver” UGS.

Photo: Textron

 


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A soldier emplaces an older UGS.

Photo: BAE Systems

 


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Northrop Grumman’s “Scorpion” suite of unattended sensors.

Photo: Northrop Grumman


***  Lockheed promotion video ***

A Lockheed promotion video for its unattended sensor network.

 


 

America is supposed to wind down its war in Afghanistan by 2014. But U.S. forces may continue to track Afghans for years after the conflict is officially done. Palm-sized sensors, developed for the American military, will remain littered across the Afghan countryside — detecting anyone who moves nearby and reporting their locations back to a remote headquarters. Some of these surveillance tools could be buried in the ground, all-but-unnoticeable by passersby. Others might be disguised as rocks, with wafer-sized, solar-rechargeable batteries that could enable the sensors’ operation for perhaps as long as two decades, if their makers are to be believed.

Traditionally, when armies clash, they leave behind a horrific legacy: leftover mines which can blow civilians apart long after the shooting war is over. These “unattended ground sensors,” or UGSs, won’t do that kind of damage. But they could give the Pentagon an enduring ability to monitor a one-time battlefield long, long after regular American forces are supposed to have returned home.

“Were going to leave behind a lot of special operators in Afghanistan. And they need the kind of capability that’s easy to put out so they can monitor a village without a lot of overt U.S.-made material on pathways and roadways,” says Matt Plyburn, an executive at Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor.

 

 

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Members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit clandestinely monitor signals in a 2010 field test.

Photo: USMC

 

The U.S. military has used unattended ground sensors in one form or another since 1966, when American forces dropped acoustic monitors on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Tens of thousands of UGSs have been emplaced around Afghanistan and Iraq, forming electronic perimeters around combat outposts and keeping tabs on remote locations. It’s a way to monitor the largest possible area with the smallest number of troops.

“You use them to cover up your dead space — the areas you’re concerned about but can’t cover with other ISR [intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance] assets,” says Lt. Col. Matt Russell, an Army program manager overseeing the deployment of unattended sensors.

But earlier UGSs — even ones of the recent past — were relatively large and clunky, prone to false alarms, and had lifespans measurable in days or weeks. “What we found in the field was significant under-usage,” Russell tells Danger Room. Plans to incorporate them into every combat brigade fizzled as the Army’s proposed $200 billion revamp, Future Combat Systems, went south.

The new models are dramatically smaller and consume far less power, enabling them to operate for months — maybe even years — at a time with only the slimmest chance of being detected. Lockheed calls them “field and forget” systems for “persistent surveillance.”

And they won’t just be used overseas. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol today employs more than 7,500 UGSs on the Mexican border to spot illegal migrants. Defense contractors believe one of the biggest markets for the next generation of the sensors will be here at home.

“They could be used for border security or even around corporate headquarters,” Plyburn tells Danger Room.

 

In early 2011, commanders in Afghanistan issued an “urgent operational needs statement” for better sensors. In response, the Army shipped a new line of about 1,500 “expendable” UGSs to the warzone. The size of a few stacked hockey pucks with a four-inch antenna, these sensors are easily hidden, and can “pick up wheels or footprints” for up to three months at a time, Russell says. It’s a perfect surveillance tool for the remote valleys of eastern Afghanistan.

Soon, when one of the sensors picks up a signal, it’ll queue a spy blimp to focus in on the spot. “That’s a capability coming to a theater near you soon,” he adds.

Even more sophisticated are the UGSs being tested northeast of Norfolk, Virginia, at a Lockheed proving ground. Arrays of up to 50 palm-sized acoustic and seismic sensors form a mesh network. When one sensor detects a person or a vehicle passing by, it uses unlicensed radio frequency bands to pass an alert from one node to the next. The alert finally hits a communications gateway, which can send the signal via satellite, tactical radio network, or Wi-Fi to a command and control center. That signal can tip off additional sensors — or it can send a Twitter-like message to an intelligence officer’s phone or tablet.

When they’re not picking up signals or passing along messages, the sensors are all-but-shut-down, barely consuming any power. That allows them to last for weeks, buried underground. Or the sensors can be encased in hollow “rocks” equipped with miniature solar panels. A quick recharge from the sun will allow the sensor to “get through the night anywhere on Earth that U.S. forces operate,” says Plyburn.

Plyburn claims that the sensor’s battery, about the size of a postage stamp, has been able to go through 80,000 recharges, compared to a few hundred cycles for a typical lithium-ion battery. Even if he’s off by a factor of 10, the sensor’s battery could keep the machine operational for nearly twenty-two years.

Russell is skeptical of these assertions of longevity. “I’m sure there are a lot of claims by contractors,” he says. “My experience is: the longer the lifespan, the bigger the battery.”

Nor does Lockheed currently have a contract with Defense Department to mass-produce the sensors. But Plyburn says there has been interest around the armed forces, especially since the system is relatively cheap. Plyburn says each sensor could cost as little as $1,000 each — practically expendable for a military paying $80,000 for a single guided artillery round.

Lockheed isn’t the only company claiming that its sensors can operate for years on end. U.S. Special Operations Command has handed out at least $12 million in UGS contracts to tiny Camgian Microsystems, based out of Starksville, Mississippi. Company CEO Gary Butler, who spent years developing ultra-low power integrated circuits for Darpa, was awarded in March a patent for such a next-gen unattended sensor suite.

Rather than relaying alerts from node to node, each of Butler’s sensors is designed to send signals directly to a satellite — speeding up notifications, and cutting down on power consumed. Rather than a simple acoustic or seismic detector, the sensor relies a steerable, phased-array radar and moving-target indicator algorithms. That could give it a much greater ability to detect people and vehicles on the run. High-powered solar cells provide will enable up to “500,000 recharge cycles” could give the sensor a “10-20 year life,” according to the patent.

Butler won’t say how U.S. special operators are using his research, if at all. But when I ask him about the possibility of leaving UGS networks behind after American troops have officially left, Butler calls that “plausible. Very Plausible.”

Camgian’s patent claims that the sensor’s ease-of-use and small size means it “is easily emplaced in difficult areas, using airborne assets such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.” Edward Carapezza, who has been overseeing UGS research for more than two decades, says drones are already dropping unattended sensors into hostile locations.

“In certain areas, we certainly are using unmanned vehicles and unattended sensors together,” says Carapezza, who now works at the defense contractor General Atomics. He declined to name where these operations were being conducted. He simply gave the rationale for the missions. “Instead of sending patrols of our guys in, we send in drones and unattended sensors — dropping arrays, locating bad guys, and then putting weapons on target.”

The “MicroObserver” UGS from defense contractor Textron has been in the field since 2008. The U.S. Army is currently using the sensors in Afghanistan. “Another customer — we’re not allowed to say who or where — used it as part of a comprehensive border security program in a Middle Eastern country,” says Patty Shafer, a Textron executive.

Textron’s seismic sensors come in two varieties. The smaller, three inch-long model, weighing 1.4 pounds, will last about a month. The bigger system, a 4.4 pound spike, can be buried in the ground and gather intelligence for more than two years. It can detect and characterize people from 100 meters away, and vehicles from three times that distance, Shafer says. A conformal antenna allows it to communicate with a gateway five kilometers away.

Northrop Grumman employs a family of sensors for its Scorpion surveillance network.

“Seismic sensors work well detecting vehicles on bumpy roads, but lose range as the road becomes smoother, or the vehicle lighter. Typically, magnetic sensors sense only large vehicles at fairly short distances. The range of acoustic sensors depends upon environmental conditions such as humidity and surroundings. Most sense engine exhaust noise or other periodic pulse trains and measure the period to determine numbers of cylinders and classify the source,” explains a Northrop presentation to an academic conference on unattended sensors.

The Army has purchased over a thousand of the original versions, with an average of four sensors, each. The vast majority have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. Another 20 Scorpion II systems were recently bought by the Army Research Lab. The sensors can today spot people from 800 meters away, and vehicles from 2,100 meters. The sensors’ batteries wear out after a month.

These might have been eye-popping results, not long ago. But the U.S. military now has plans to keep its network of tiny, hidden spies going for much longer than that.

 

Direct Link:  http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/05/spy-rock/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+C2C-InTheNews+%28Feed+-+Coast+to+Coast+-+In+the+News%29&pid=1213&viewall=true

Feb 272012
 

Afghanistan rioters injure 7 U.S. soldiers

Crowds in Kunduz province angry over Koran burnings throw grenades. At Jalalabad airport, a car bomb kills up to nine Afghan civilians and security personnel.

Los Angeles Times
By Aimal Yaqubi
February 26, 2012
Afghan President Hamid Karzai addresses journalists

 

The scope of the protests over the burning of Korans at a U.S. base appeared to be narrowing after President Hamid Karzai went on national television and appealed for calm. (S. Sabawoon, European Pressphoto Agency / February 26, 2012)

 

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan —
Afghans rioting over the burning of Korans at a U.S. military installation hurled grenades at an American base in northern Afghanistan on Sunday, injuring at least seven American soldiers, Afghan officials said. Early Monday, a car bomb exploded outside the main airport in eastern Afghanistan, killing up to nine people, according to provincial police.

No Americans were killed or injured in the blast on the outskirts of Jalalabad, whose airport also is home to a Western military base, an official with the international coalition said. The dead were Afghan civilians and security personnel, said police spokesman Hazrat Mohammad Zamari.

The grenade attack Sunday in Kunduz province, in the country’s north, came on the sixth day of protests over Korans being sent, apparently by accident, to the trash incinerator at a base north of the Afghan capital. The violence has left nearly 40 people dead, including four American service members, but the scope of the protests appeared to be narrowing after President Hamid Karzai went on national television and appealed for calm.

Officials in Kunduz province blamed “agitators” sheltering among the crowd of protesters for the grenade attack in the Imam Sahib district. In the past, insurgents have used large-scale demonstrations to slip gunmen into crowds.

Meanwhile, the Afghan Interior Ministry acknowledged Sunday that one of its workers was the key suspect in the deaths of two American military officers who were gunned down at their desks in a tightly guarded command-and-control center a day earlier.

That attack on Saturday prompted the commander of the NATO force in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. John R. Allen, to take the unprecedented step of immediately pulling Western military advisors out of Afghan government ministries. The incident called into question Western willingness to continue training and advising Afghan troops and government bodies amid an unrelenting spate of turncoat shootings.

The suspect remained at large, the ministry said in a statement, adding that “serious efforts by Afghan security forces are underway to capture him.”

For the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, the attack was particularly worrisome because it involved an individual with access to highly sensitive information. Afghan officials said the suspect was a 25-year-old intelligence officer who had obtained the code needed to enter the restricted area where the two U.S. officers were working. Officials said the two were shot in the back of the head.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Sunday in a television interview that the outbreak of violence and the resulting American deaths should not lead to any precipitous decisions about the pace of the drawdown of Western troops.

“This is not the time to decide that we’re done here,” the ambassador told CNN.

“We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation in which Al Qaeda is not coming back.”

Yaqubi is a special correspondent.

Jan 282012
 
The New York Times
North Arabian Sea Journal
By C. J. CHIVERS
January 25, 2012

 

 

Potent Sting Is Prepared in the Belly of a Warship

ABOARD THE U.S.S. JOHN C. STENNIS, in the North Arabian Sea — Depending on who describes it, a nuclear aircraft carrier can be any number of things: an instrument of national will, a nemesis to be threatened and watched, a fast-moving and wide-ranging city at sea.

When you are aboard one, though, a carrier is an immense warren of spaces and passageways between bulkheads, each with a purpose. There are galleys and offices, stores and workshops, clinics and weight rooms, a barber shop, a recycling center, machine rooms, nuclear reactors and more.

And here was the room that gives the ship its sting: the primary bomb-assembly magazine.

Read the full article at… Direct Link:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/world/middleeast/on-aircraft-carrier-stennis-sailors-9-decks-down-build-the-bombs.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha22

Jan 142012
 

 

Video Inflames a Delicate Moment for U.S. in Afghanistan

The New York Times
By GRAHAM BOWLEY and MATTHEW ROSENBERG
January 12, 2012

KABUL, Afghanistan —

A video showing four United States Marines urinating on three dead Taliban fighters provoked anger and condemnation on Thursday in Afghanistan and around the world, raising fears in Washington that the images could incite anti-American sentiment at a particularly delicate moment in the decade-old Afghan war.

A still image from a video posted online that appeared to show Marines urinating on dead bodies.

The Obama administration is struggling to keep the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, on its side as it carefully tries to open talks with the Taliban. Yet the video showing such a desecration — a possible war crime — is likely to weaken the American position with both. The Taliban and Mr. Karzai each pointed to the images as evidence of American brutality, a message with broad appeal in Afghanistan, where word of the video was slowly spreading on Thursday.

Reporting was contributed by Elisabeth Bumiller and John H. Cushman Jr. from Washington; Sangar Rahimi, Sharifullah Sahak and Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul; an employee of The New York Times from Kandahar, Afghanistan; and J. David Goodman from New York.

Jan 032012
 

The Next War

Panetta to Offer Strategy for Cutting Military Budget

The New York Times
By ELISABETH BUMILLER and THOM SHANKER
 January 2, 2012

WASHINGTON —

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is set this week to reveal his strategy that will guide the Pentagon in cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from its budget, and with it the Obama administration’s vision of the military that the United States needs to meet 21st-century threats, according to senior officials.

The Next War

Balancing Needs and Costs

This is the third article in a series that is examining the American military and the decisions confronting it in a new age of austerity.

In a shift of doctrine driven by fiscal reality and a deal last summer that kept the United States from defaulting on its debts, Mr. Panetta is expected to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military — and in so doing make it clear that the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at once.

Read the full article at… Direct Link:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/us/pentagon-to-present-vision-of-reduced-military.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha2