Archive for the ‘special relationships’ Category

It looks like Daniel Davies’ plan to classify the world into people who file their accounts with Companies House on time, and people who don’t, may be less eccentric than it seems. News International missed, and asked for an extension. Obviously a dodgy lot of bastards. Anyway, check this quote out.

Coincidentally, News International’s company secretary of many years standing, Mrs Carla Stone, has resigned. A filing to Companies House, dated yesterday, stated that her appointment had been terminated. However, I understand that she left the company in February and her formal employment contract ends later this month.

Stone, a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries, held 212 company directorships in all, almost all of which are subsidiaries of News International and related companies.

You’ve got to like the “coincidentally”, which I take to mean “it is no such thing but we’ve not finished the story yet”. Anyway. The dump of directorships is here, providing an interesting insight into the structure of News International. Am I right in thinking that “Deptford Cargo Handling Services Ltd.” will be the company that owned the Wapping site?

Meanwhile, a colleague of mine asked me an Android question, which I misunderstood as being a question about USSD (you know – like *#06# to get your mobile phone IMEI number, but also including things like *21*some-phone-number# to divert all your calls). As a result, I ended up over here and learned that the network password “tends to be 1919″, which is very interesting in context and might explain a lot. Bonus: this ETSI pdf actually contains something which is otherwise quite annoying to find, a complete and categorised list of the code numbers.

Well, speak of the devil. Peter Foster makes his appearance in the Murdoch scandal and fingers the Sun directly.

He said he then received an email from a Dublin-based private investigator calling himself ”Autarch”, who told Mr Foster he tapped into his mother’s phone in December 2002.

That month, The Sun published the ”Foster tapes”, which featured transcripts of Mr Foster talking about selling the story of his links with Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie. Yesterday, Mr Foster said he had since had a Skype conversation with the investigator in Dublin, in which Autarch described how he tapped into Mr Foster’s mother’s phone.

”He said she was using an analogue telephone which they were able to intercept,” Mr Foster said. Autarch said he discussed the hacking with Sun journalists.

However, this story – at least this version of it – probably isn’t true. It is true that the first-generation analogue mobile phone systems like TACS in the UK and AMPS in the States were unencrypted over the air, and therefore could be trivially intercepted using a scanner. (They were also frequency-division duplex, so you needed to monitor two frequencies at once in order to capture both parties to the call.) It is also true that they were displaced by GSM very quickly indeed, compared to the length of time it is expected to take for the GSM networks to be replaced. In the UK, the last TACS network (O2’s) shut down in December 2000. It took a while longer in the Republic of Ireland, but it was all over by the end of 2001.

So Foster is bullshitting…which wouldn’t be a surprise. Or is he? TACS wasn’t the only analogue system out there. There were also a lot of cordless phones about using a different radio standard. Even the more modern DECT phones are notorious for generating masses of radio noise in the 2.4GHz band where your WiFi lives. It may well be the case that “Autarch” was referring to an analogue cordless phone. Because a lot of these were installed by individual people who bought them off the shelf, there was no guarantee that they would be replaced with newer devices. (Readers of Richard Aldrich’s history of GCHQ will note that his take on the “Squidgygate” tape is that it was probably a cordless intercept.)

This would have required a measure of physical surveillance, but then again so would an attempt to intercept mobile traffic over-the-air as opposed to interfering with voicemail or the lawful intercept system.

The Daily Beast has a further story, which points out that the then editor David Yelland apologised after being censured by the Press Complaints Commission (no wonder he didn’t go further in the Murdoch empire) and makes the point that such an interception was a crime in both the UK and Ireland at the time. They also quote Foster as follows:

According to Foster, the investigator told him that, for four days at the height of Cheriegate, he had been sitting with another detective outside Foster’s mother’s flat in the Dublin suburbs, intercepting and recording the calls to her cordless landline

The Sun hardly made any effort to conceal this – they published what purports to be a transcript, as such.

I thought it might be interesting to establish some timeline information about News International e-mail disclosures and deletions, in the light of this piece in the Torygraph. As we know, the Telegraph is now opposed to the Osborne/Gove Murdoch group in the Tories, so it has no reason to carry water for Murdoch.

31st September 2004 – According to News International Chief Information Officer Paul Cheesborough, NI archived e-mail up to this date was deleted.

2005 – NI solicitor Julian Pike will later say that e-mail exists up to 2005. See 23rd March 2011.

Kickoff – 2006. 1st police inquiry into Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman. Police raid Wapping, only search Goodman’s desk, by agreement with NI management.

29th November 2006 – Goodman and Mulcaire convicted.

“Early” 2007 – 2,500 e-mails disclosed to Harbottle & Lewis in parallel litigation (Goodman’s employment tribunal).

29th May, 2007 – Harbottle & Lewis write to NI, saying they reviewed them and found nothing.

31st September 2007 – E-mail from before this date was meant to be deleted (see January, 2011). NI operates a policy of flushing e-mail every three years, clearly.

December, 2007 – James Murdoch becomes the boss.

2008 – First civil litigation against NI, NI becomes bound to preserve evidence.

April, 2008 – James Murdoch authorises Gordon Taylor’s payoff.

November, 2009 – E-Mail Deletion Policy announced internally.

eliminate in a consistent manner across News International (subject to compliance with legal and regulatory requirements) emails that could be unhelpful in the context of future litigation in which an NI company is a defendant

November, 2009 – reports of frequent outages in the e-mail archive system.

January, 2010 – It is decided to destroy all archive e-mail before this point.

April, 2010 – HCL deletes three data sets. One is a public folder on a production (rather than archive) server “owned by a user who no longer needed the emails”.

May, 2010 – NI exec demands to know if e-mails destroyed.

May, 2010 – 200,000 delivery status notification messages deleted, plus 21,000 messages in an outbox, during recovery from system failure.

June, 2010 – NI solicitor, Julian Pike, will claim, falsely, that all e-mail before this point has been destroyed. See December 2010.

29th July, 2010 – “How come we still haven’t done the e-mail policy?” i.e. the deletion has not yet happened.

July 2010 – William Lewis joins NI.

4th August, 2010 – “Everyone needs to know e-mail before January 2010 will not be kept” i.e. still not deleted.

6th September, 2010 – Sienna Miller’s lawyers demand that e-mail be preserved.

9th September, 2010 – IT employee says “there is a senior management requirement to delete this data as quickly as possible but it need to be done in commercial boundaries”. i.e. data still there, and contractual issues with the IT outsourcers holding up the process.

September, 2010 – unspecified deletions of “historic” e-mail in connection with system stability problem.

October 2010 – News International papers move. Hard disk drives in NI workstations (not just the NOTW) are replaced and destroyed, but serverside e-mail is backed up at least in part.

December, 2010 – NOTW Scottish Editor Bob Bird tells Sheridan trial that the archived e-mail has been lost en route to HCL in Mumbai. This is entirely false.

December, 2010 – Julian Pike, solicitor for NI from Farrar & Co., tells the High Court that no e-mail exists beyond six months ago. This is also false.

January, 2011 – Paul Cheesbrough, News International IT chief, says archived e-mail back to 31st September 2007 has been destroyed. This is false.

January, 2011 – HCL are asked to destroy a particular database, refer NI to system vendor.

January, 2011 – NI executives demand destruction of 500GB of e-mail held at Essential Computing, Bristol. See 8th July 2011.

January 7th, 2011 – Miller’s lawyers release information about their case to NI in discovery.

January 12th, 2011 – NI managers order a halt to deletion, and give instructions to preserve e-mail.

Later in January, 2011 – 3 e-mails given to police. New police inquiry begins.

February, 2011 – some e-mail is lost in a software upgrade.

March 23, 2011 – “Don’t tell him!” Pike apologises to the High Court, admits that no e-mail has gone missing in India, admits that archives exist back to 2005. Pike blames Tom Crone, who claims that he was misled by another, unnamed NI executive.

June, 2011 – Information Commissioner abandons inquiry into e-mails disappearing from NI. NI had claimed that the data had disappeared en route to India.

July, 2011 – (i.e. in full crisis mode) an NI exec travels to “the company storage facility” and removes 6 boxes of unspecified records regarding themselves (possibly same person who spoke to Crone).

7th July, 2011 – Evening Strangler first reports NI bribes to police.

8th July, 2011 – Key Guardian story. An NI executive, not named but apparently identified by police, demanded the destruction of 500GB of archive e-mail in January 2011, around the time of the resumed police inquiry. First mention of another IT outsourcing company, Essential Computing, in the UK.

Police believe they have identified the executive responsible by following an electronic audit trail. They have also attempted to retrieve the lost data. The Crown Prosecution Service is believed to have been asked whether the executive can be charged with perverting the course of justice.

At the heart of the affair is a data company, Essential Computing, based near Bristol. Staff there have been interviewed by Operation Weeting. One source speculated that this company had compelled NI to admit that the archive existed.

The Guardian understands that Essential Computing has co-operated with police and provided evidence about an alleged attempt by the NI executive to destroy part of the archive while they were working with it. This is said to have happened after the executive discovered that the company retained material of which NI was unaware.

This seems to be a critical moment

10th July, 2011 – William Lewis of NI discovers 2007 e-mail dump to Harbottle & Lewis, finds evidence. Only finds 300 out of 2,500 messages – rest still unaccounted for.

July, 2011 – Management & Standards Committee starts functioning with managers from News Corp outside the UK, cooperating with police.

July, 2011 – New York Post staffers ordered to preserve documents. Probably reflects News Corp strategic decision to cooperate

July, 2011 – some e-mail is deleted by HCL due to inconsistency between systems after a migration.

September 7th, 2011 – HCL representatives tell House of Commons that NI demanded deletion of e-mail on 9 occasions starting in April, 2010.

September 13th, 2011 – A large quantity of e-mail is discovered at News International.

October, 2011 – Computer forensics work begins on supposedly deleted e-mail archives.

December, 2011 – “Data Pool 3″ e-mail archive is successfully restored from backup.

Yesterday was Morgan Day, the 25th anniversary of Daniel Morgan’s murder. So, some Leveson blogging.

Way back way back when the MacPherson inquiry was big news, one of the things that was fairly well-known but not in the headlines was that it wasn’t just the racism – it was also the corruption. Specifically, suspect (and now convict) David Norris’s dad, Clifford Norris, was a gangster who was believed to be paying policemen involved in the case for protection. This recent piece in the Indy explains the whole thing in some detail. The key player was one John Davidson, a detective on the South-East Regional Crime Squad based in East Dulwich, who was apparently the point-of-contact between Norris and the Met, as well as being a major figure in a network of corrupt detectives. Anyway, you really ought to go and read the whole thing, as it covers how the Met hierarchy kept the explosive details about Davidson out of the inquiry.

Clearly, it was considered better to be institutionally racist than it was to be institutionally corrupt. And, if you think back to the original (and very controversial at the time) definition Sir William Macpherson used, I think it’s more than fair to describe the Met as being institutionally corrupt. As with racism, some elements of the force were especially bad and some were much better, but in general, the institution as a whole put up with the problem.

Now, something interesting. The officer who investigated Davidson, and who seems to have been very keen to prosecute him, was none other than John Yates, in a very different role to the one he played in the whole News International affair.

Then-Detective Superintendent John Yates, a senior CIB3 officer, targeted Davidson as one of 14 “core nominals” – detectives whose “criminality is extensive and, in essence, amounts to police officers operating as a professional organised crime syndicate”, he explained in the case file.

Yates wrote to his superiors in blunt terms in October that year about the evidence he had found against Davidson: “It is now apparent that during his time at East Dulwich Davidson developed a corrupt informant/handler relationship. Their main commodity was Class A drugs, predominantly cocaine, however, Davidson and his informant would deal in all aspects of criminality when the opportunities presented themselves.”

However, not very much of the information ever got to Macpherson, and Davidson was eventually allowed to take the traditional police escape hatch, retiring on grounds of ill-health and heading for the costas (he owns a bar on Menorca).

This is interesting, because I’m beginning to think that the response to Macpherson is a big part of the story. A really penetrating review of the Lawrence case would have turned up all sorts of dirt on the Met in South-East London, and specifically on the SERCS (which was already being investigated by Yates’ internal-affairs group). That in turn would have caused all kinds of inconvenience. As a result, it was necessary to push back on the whole project of reforming the Met.

In the triangular relationship between the police, the press, and the politicians, this could be understood as an attempt by the politicians, using the press, to impose change on the police. The police seem to have responded by upgrading the police-News International relationship in order to pressure the politicians. Hence the campaigns that so-and-so wasn’t “a copper’s copper”.

Interestingly, John Stevens seems to have been a special fascination for people like Alex Marunchak – News International kept spying on him after he was sent to Northern Ireland, and hired Philip Campbell Smith to target the only intelligence agent cooperating with the Stevens inquiry (who seems to have been Ian Hurst, to fill in the blank). Obviously, there was a direct journalistic interest in information about Freddie “Stakeknife” Scappaticci, but it’s always struck me as weird that Hurst was able to identify that it was Smith specifically who got into his computer. Perhaps he’s just good, or lucky, but I wonder whether the surveillance was meant to be discovered in the hope of intimidating him.

Making more of an effort on race didn’t challenge how the police ran their business, and indeed created new opportunities for promotion and budget acquisition. It seems depressingly clear that doing more on corruption would have meant changing how a great chunk of London was policed and offending all kinds of powerful interests. So that’s the one they picked. Getting there meant getting the support of News International to turn the politicians’ attention, which meant running up obligations that would be called in later.

A corrupt informant/handler relationship, you might call it. Of course, the police and the politicians were still operating in the transactional or bargaining mode I described as The Project 1.0. But what was going to change between the late 1990s corruption inquiry and the 2006-onwards phone-hacking inquiry was the level of ambition involved. Murdoch, and the recovering Tory party, were looking at The Project 2.0, integrating News International people into the government spin machine, Conservative Central Office, and into the police press office directly.

Well, that’s my mental model of the whole thing. It doesn’t cover the 80s origins of the whole thing – Daniel Morgan’s story, whatever it was, police-News International relations during Wapping (six months before the Morgan murder, and did you know the cop in charge was disgraced on theft charges?) – but for what it covers I think it’s pretty clear.

Quietly, the Eurofighter project seems to be running into trouble. First of all, Dassault got the Indian contract and the Indians claim that Rafale is dramatically cheaper. Further, they weren’t impressed by the amount of stuff that is planned to come in future upgrades, whose delivery is still not certain. These upgrades are becoming a problem, as the UK, Germany, and Italy aren’t in agreement about their schedule or about which ones they want. Also, a Swiss evaluation report was leaked that is extremely damning towards the Gripen and somewhat less so to Eurofighter.

This is going to have big consequences for European military-industrial politics. So is the latest wobble on F-35.

Think Defence has been having a very good discussion (practically a CT-style blog seminar) about the Falklands. Which reminds me…I note that Bob Howard has yet to visit, despite the eldritch conjunction of an implausibly massive geostrategic commitment, the deep links between right-wing political Catholicism and the sinister occult, the Antarctic (and you know what happens down there – giant mountains embedded in ancient ice, eccentric British scientists with hovercraft, Russians drilling into lakes sealed off from the world for millions of years), and, eh, a fast-growing economy based entirely on squid.

This Ha’aretz piece is interesting for the insight it gives into Israeli policy and especially into process, but also for a couple of other things. Notably, it’s remarkably frank about the Obama administration deliberately trying to stop Netanyahu going to war, and the role of dodgy casino guy Sheldon Adelson in both US and Israeli right-wing politics, and it provides the new information that the Americans have given up on the formal diplomatic channel and concentrated on influencing the Israeli military directly, on a brasshat to brasshat basis. The implied conclusion is that the IDF leadership are interested in external reality while Bibi is too busy being Winston Churchill, and further that they are interested in getting information from the Americans about what their own prime minister is thinking.

Also, Netanyahu considers himself an expert on US politics. The danger here is that the America he is an expert on may not be the same America everyone else is dealing with. If, as I suspect, he is getting a lot of his information from his Republican contacts, he’s living in an alternate universe. In so far as people like Sheldon Adelson are impressed by US politicians who know Bibi Netanyahu personally, his contacts are literally being paid to tell him what he wants to hear. It’s ironically similar to Bush before the Iraq war, just with the stove-pipe reversed.

However, I was astonished by this quote:

While the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy is operating in the Straits of Hormuz, just as the Pacific Fleet was anchored at its home base near Honolulu on the fateful morning of December 7, 1941, the two instances are not really comparable.

Well, no, they’re not, are they? Some tabloid journalists keep a few paragraphs of general-purposes “sexy” in a file they can drop into a story as required and just change a couple of parameters to fit. This sounds like the same thing, but with Churchill!

Meanwhile, Colin Kahl, and this. It does look like there’s a coordinated push-back against the bullshit, which is good news for those of us who remember 2002. The US Navy bombs Iran…with love. Of a purely Platonic form between comrades of the sea. Oops. while also bringing the carrier back.

US policy does look like it’s trying to achieve three goals – 1) no war with Iran, 2) reassure the GCC countries (so they don’t start one), 3) restrain the Israelis (without pressing so hard they freak and start one). These are partly contradictory, but then what isn’t? Certainly, the combination of being ostentatiously nice to Iranian sailors while also sailing a giant carrier up and down the Gulf does fit the needs of 1) and 2).

So, why did we get here? Back in the mists of time, in the US Bell System, there used to be something called a Business Office, by contrast to a Central Office (i.e. what we call a BT Local Exchange in the UK), whose features and functions were set down in numerous Bell System Practice documents. Basically, it was a site where the phone company took calls from the public, either for its own account or on behalf of a third party. Its practices were defined by Bell System standardisation, and its industrial relations were defined by the agreement between AT&T and the unions, which specified the pay and conditions for the various trades and workplace types inside the monster telco. If something was a Business Office according to the book, the union agreement covering those offices would apply.

In the Reaganite 80s, after the Bell System was broken up, someone realised that it would be possible to get rid of the union rules if they could re-define the site as something else. Not only could they change the rules, but they could move the site physically to a right-to-work state or even outside the USA. This is, it turns out, the origin of the phrase “call centre”.

In the UK, of course, call centres proliferated in parallel with utility privatisation and financial deregulation. A major element in the business case for privatisation was getting rid of all those electricity showrooms and BT local offices and centralising customer service functions into `all centres. At the same time, of course, privatisation created the demand for customer service in that it was suddenly possible to change provider and therefore to generate a shit-load of admin. Banks were keen to get rid of their branches and to serve the hugely expanding credit card market. At another level, IT helpdesks made their appearance.

On the other hand, hard though it is to imagine it now, there was a broader vision of technology that expected it all to be provided centrally – in the cloud, if you will – down phone lines controlled by your favourite telco, or by the French Government, or perhaps Rupert Murdoch. This is one of the futures that didn’t happen, of course, because PCs and the web happened instead, but you can bet I spent a lot of time listening to people as late as the mid-2000s still talking about multimedia services (and there are those who argue this is what stiffed Symbian). But we do get a sneak-preview of the digital future that Serious People wanted us to have, every time we have to ring the call centre. In many ways, call centres are the Anti-Web.

In Britain, starting in the 1990s, they were also part of the package of urban regeneration in the North. Along with your iconic eurobox apartments and AutoCAD-shaped arts centre, yup, you could expect to find a couple of gigantic decorated sheds full of striplighting and the precariat. Hey, he’s like a stocky, Yorkshire Owen Hatherley. After all, it was fairly widely accepted that even if you pressed the button marked Arts and the money rolled in, there was a limit to the supply of yuppies and there had to be some jobs in there as well.

You would be amazed at the degree of boosterism certain Yorkshire councils developed on this score, although you didn’t need top futurist Popcorn Whatsname to work out that booming submarine cable capacity would pretty quickly make offshoring an option. Still, if Bradford didn’t make half-arsed attempts to jump on every bandwagon going, leaving it cluttered with vaguely Sicilian failed boondoggles, it wouldn’t be Bradford.

Anyway, I think I’ve made a case that this is an institution whose history has been pathological right from the start. It embodies a fantasy of managing a service industry in the way the US automakers were doing at the same time – and failing, catastrophically.

What is it that makes call centres so uniquely awful as social institutions? This is something I’ve often touched on at Telco 2.0, and also something that’s been unusually salient in my life recently – I moved house, and therefore had to interact with getting on for a dozen of the things, several repeatedly. (Vodafone and Thames Water were the best, npower and Virgin Media the worst.) But this isn’t just going to be a consumer whine. In an economy that is over 70% services, the combination of service design, technology, and social relations that makes these things so awful is something we need to understand.

For example, why does E.ON (the electricity company, a branch of the German utility Rhein-Westfälische Elektrizitätswerke) want you to tell their IVR what class you are before they do anything else? This may sound paranoid, but when I called them, the first question I had to answer was whether I owned my home or was a tenant. What on earth did they want to know that for?

Call centres provide a horrible experience to the user. They are famously awful workplaces. And they are also hideously inefficient – some sites experience levels of failure demand, that is to say calls generated due to a prior failure to serve, over 50% of the total inbound calls. Manufacturing industry has long recognised that rework is the greatest enemy of productivity, taking up disproportionate amounts of time and resources and inevitably never quite fixing the problems.

So why are they so awful? Well, I’ll get to that in the next post. Before we can answer that, we need to think about how they are so awful. I’ve made a list of anti-patterns – common or standard practices that embody error – that make me angry.

Our first anti-pattern is queueing. Call centres essentially all work on the basis of oversubscription and queueing. On the assumption that some percentage of calls will go away, they save on staff by queueing calls. This is not the only way to deal with peaks in demand, though – for example, rather than holding calls, there is no good technical reason why you couldn’t instead have a call-back architecture, scheduling a call back sometime in the future.

Waiting on hold is interesting because it represents an imposition on the user – because telephony is a hot medium in McLuhan’s terminology, your attention is demanded while you sit pointlessly in the queue. In essence, you’re providing unpaid labour. Worse, companies are always tempted to impose on you while you wait – playing music on hold (does anybody actually like this?), or worse, nagging you about using the web site. We will see later on that this is especially pointless and stupid.

And the existence of the queue is important in the social relations of the workplace. If there are people queueing, it is obviously essential to get to them as soon as possible, which means there is a permanent pressure to speed up the line. Many centres use the queue as an operational KPI. It is also quality-destroying, in that both workers and managers’ attention is always focused on the next call and how to get off the current call in order to get after the queue.

A related issue is polling. That is to say, repeatedly checking on something, rather than being informed pro-actively when it changes. This is of course implicit in the queueing model. It represents a waste of time for everyone involved.

Repetition is one of the most annoying of the anti-patterns, and it is caused by statelessness. It is always assumed that this interaction has never happened before, will never happen again, and is purely atomised. They don’t know what happened in the last call, or even earlier in the call if it has been transferred. As a result, you have to provide your mother’s maiden name and your account number, again, and they have to retype it, again. The decontextualised nature of interaction with a call centre is one of the worst things about it.

Pretty much every phone system these days uses SIP internally, so there is no excuse for not setting a header with a unique identifier that could be used to look up data in all the systems involved, and indeed given out as a ticket number to the user in case they need to call again, or – why not – used to share the record of the call.

That point leads us to another very important one. Assymetric legibility characterises call centres, and it’s dreadful. Within, management tries to maintain a panopticon glare at the staff. Without, the user faces an unmapped territory, in which the paths are deliberately obscure, and the details the centre holds on you are kept secret. Call centres know a lot about you, but won’t say; their managers endlessly spy on the galley slaves; you’re not allowed to know how the system works.

So no wonder we get failure demand, in which people keep coming back because it was so awful last time. A few companies get this, and use first-call resolution (the percentage of cases that are closed first time) as a KPI rather than call rates, but you’d be surprised. Obviously, first-call resolution has a whole string of social implications – it requires re-skilling of the workforce and devolution of authority to them. No wonder it’s rare.

Now, while we were in the queue, the robot voice kept telling us to bugger off and try the Web site. But this is futile. Inappropriate automation and human/machine confusion bedevil call centres. If you could solve your problem by filling in a web form, you probably would have done. The fact you’re in the queue is evidence that your request is complicated, that something has gone wrong, or generally that human intervention is required.

However, exactly this flexibility and devolution of authority is what call centres try to design out of their processes and impose on their employees. The product is not valued, therefore it is awful. The job is not valued by the employer, and therefore, it is awful. And, I would add, it is not valued by society at large and therefore, nobody cares.

So, there’s the how. Now for the why.

Is there a drone bubble? It’s not clear whether this is more like the .com bubble, when a lot of useful stuff was built but a couple of years too early, or more like the housing bubble, when a lot of stuff was built in the wrong places to the wrong standards at the wrong prices and will probably never be worth much. It’s the nature of a bubble, of course, that it’s precisely at the top of the bubble that the commitment to it is greatest.

One of the things the RQ-170 incident tells us about is some of the operational limitations of the drones. Typically, they are piloted in the cruise from locations that may be a long way off, using satellite communication links, but when they land, they do so under local control via line-of-sight radio link from their base. This allows us to set some bounds on how much of a problem link latency really is, which will take us circling back to John Robb’s South Korean gamers.

Gamers are famous for being obsessed with ping-times – the measurement of round-trip latency on the Internet – because it’s really, really annoying to see the other guy on your screen, go to zap’em, and get zapped yourself because it took longer for your zap to cross the Internet than theirs. Typically you can expect 40 or so milliseconds nationally, 60-80 inter-continentally…or several hundred if a satellite or an old-school cellular operator with a hierarchical network architecture is involved. A sat hop is always clearly identifiable in traceroute output because latency goes to several hundred ms, and there’s a great RIPE NCC paper on using the variations in latency over a year to identify the satellite’s geosynchronous (rather than geostationary) orbit as the slant-range changes.

On the other hand, roundtrip latency across an airfield circuit a couple of miles wide will be negligible. So we can conclude that tolerable latency for manoeuvring, as opposed to cruising, is very little. Now, check out this post on David Cenciotti’s blog from January 2010. Some of the Israeli air force’s F-15s have received a new communications radio suite specifically for controlling UAVs.

You might now be able to guess why even drone pilots are going through basic flight training. Also, this post of Cenciotti’s describes the causes of six recent hull losses, all of which are classic airmanship accidents – the sort of thing pilot training is designed to teach you to avoid.

That said, why did all those drones get built? The original, 1980s UAV concepts were usually about the fact that there was no pilot and therefore the craft could be treated as expendable, usually in order to gain intelligence on the (presumably) Soviet enemy’s air defences by acting as a ferret aircraft, forcing them to switch on the radars so the drone could identify them. But that’s not what they’ve been doing all these years.

The main reason for using them has been that they are lightweight and have long endurance. This is obviously important from an intelligence gathering perspective, whether you’re thinking of over-watching road convoys or of assassinating suspected terrorists (and there are strong arguments against that, as Joshua Foust points out). In fact, long endurance and good sensors are so important that there are even so-called manned drones – diesel-engined, piloted light aircraft stuffed with sensors, with the special feature that they fly with intelligence specialists aboard and provide a much faster turn-around of information for the army.

Their limitations – restricted manoeuvre, limited speed and payload, and high dependence on communications infrastructure – haven’t really been important because they have been operating in places and against enemies who don’t have an air force or ground-based air defences and don’t have an electronic warfare capability either. Where the enemy have had man-portable SAMs available, as sometimes in Iraq, they have chosen to save them for transport aircraft and the chance of killing Americans, which makes sense if anti-aircraft weapons are scarce (and surely, the fact of their scarcity has to be one of the major unreported news stories of the decade).

But then, the war in Iraq is meant to be over even if the drones are still landing in Kurdistan, and the US may be on its way to a “pre-1990″ military posture in the Gulf. This week’s strategic fashion is “Air-Sea Battle” and the Pacific, and nobody expects anything but the most hostile possible environment in the air and in the electromagnetic spectrum. And the RQ-170 incident is surely a straw in the wind. Also, the Bush wars were fought in an environment of huge airfields in the desert, and the ASB planners expect that the capacity of US bases in Japan and Guam and the decks of aircraft carriers will be their key logistical constraint. (The Russians aren’t betting everything on them either.)

I think, therefore, it’s fair to suggest that a lot of big drones are going to end up in the AMARC stockpile. After the Americans’ last major counter-insurgency, of course, that’s what happened. The low-tech ones are likely to keep proliferating, though, whether as part of the Royal Engineers’ route clearance system or annoying the hell out of Japanese whalers or even playing with lego.





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