Archive for February, 2005

Back on Monday, 7th February I blogged on the suggestion that a jury-rigged SA-4 might have been responsible for the destruction of the RAF C-130K on election day in Iraq. We went into some detail about the SA-4 system and flagged the secondary optical guidance as a possible candidate. We can now say with confidence that this possibility was taken seriously enough by the powers-that-be that Russian experts, either from the manufacturer or from the Russian air defence forces, were summoned to take part in the accident investigation. Apparently they concluded that the aircraft had not been hit by such a rocket, but also that its use was a distinct possibility and that the insurgent video distributed after the incident might show a genuine launch.

Since then, the US Air Force has grounded its fleet of E-model Hercules (the oldest in service) for urgent investigation of possible fatigue cracking in the central wing section. The Ministry of Defence, however, has so far been at pains to deny that this might affect British aircraft, claiming that ours are “different”. The RAF operates two types of C-130 aircraft with two subtypes in each. The first are usually termed C-130Ks, but they are not equivalent to the US “K model”. The “K” in this case is a purely British designation not used by Lockheed-Martin – it refers to the fitment of British avionics and more powerful engines to a C-130E airframe (such beasts are known in the US as Super Es). The structure is the same. The same went for all the Hercules delivered to the Royal Australian, Canadian and New Zealand Air Forces at the same time. The others, for completeness, are new C-130Js – in this case the terminology is not anomalous, their structural integrity is unquestioned, and we can happily forget about them and save confusion. All post-1975 Hercules have either a new wing introduced that year or another introduced in 1983, fabricated from a different alloy.

But MOD press spokesmen have stated to several media organisations, including the Times, PA News and the Evening Standard, that the British aircraft were “different”, “completely different”, “built differently” and “used for strategic flying” – none of which is true. Strangely, early in the investigation, those same nameless spokesmen were happy for the readers of the Sun to see the headline “THE WING CAME OFF” over their breakfasts: was this leaked because they were still concerned that the aircraft had been shot down at the time, and wanted to give the impression of an accident? Now, though, they seem keen to deny the possibility of – an accident.

At the same time as the RAF, the South African Air Force also received C-130s shortly before the US cut off military aid to South Africa. They therefore received no manufacturer support until the 90s. The South Africans have now grounded seven out of nine aircraft all with the same wing.

The other distinction is between short-body and long-body aircraft. This distinction is important as the RAF only uses the “short” aircraft for the most demanding tactical flying. In British official terminology, the “short K” is a Hercules CMk1 and the long K a Hercules CMk3. This should tell us something at once; unsurprisingly the Mk. 1 is the first to enter British service in 1967 and hence the oldest. Now, the K’s are used for the mass of the RAF’s tactical transport – dropping parachutists and loads, flying in and out of very restricted airstrips, navigating at low level in darkness – and the Mk.1s for the heaviest of the lot, supporting British special forces. Only five of them exist, and hence they are worked hard. And they share a structure with the USAF C-130Es – so why has the MOD not taken the same precaution?

However, there are still further questions; the aircraft (XV179) that crashed in the rebel-haunted desert north of Baghdad had been modified in 2002 with the installation of a new, stronger outer wing section. So surely the problem doesn’t apply? Or did the fix shift the strain elsewhere? Or possibly hostile action really did play a part? The Special Forces support aircraft of 47 Squadron (one of which 179 was) are said to have often been overloaded for operational purposes, including operations Bleed and Dbamien in Afghanistan during the winter of 2001/2.


Over on the BNN, our dear colleague Richard North runs with a scare story regarding the European directive on compensation to air passengers in the event of delays. Apparently

“On the basis of what we know, however, the commission, despite its obsession for “consumer protection” should perhaps have named its new directive: “denied safety”.”

Terror! Evil Eurocrats bring jets crashing on your head! What he seems to mean with this is that perhaps, if they have to pay more compo to passengers if the flight doesn’t leave, airlines might decide to fly when it would be safer not to. This is a serious charge; he gives in evidence the recent diversion to Manchester of a BA Boeing 747 that suffered an engine failure on take-off from Los Angeles and continued on three engines, alleging that the decision to continue was taken for commercial reasons. This is an even more serious charge, and one which is not sustained by evidence.

It is actually not that uncommon for 4-engined commercial aircraft to continue to destination after an engine failure. Except in the case of a common mode failure (that is, one that might affect other engines), which it wasn’t, there is no reason why a second failure would be any more likely after the first. As the 747 can operate on 3 engines and land on 2, as long as the aircraft remains within reasonable range of diversion airfields there is little to worry about. In fact, it basically becomes a 767 or 777 for planning purposes. (In fact worse; 777s are permitted to operate up to 3 hours away from diversions, with two engines to start with.) The problem is, though, that flying at lower altitude with greater drag and perhaps on a longer route means using more fuel; this is what led to the diversion to Manchester, as well as the fact they were unable to get a more efficient flight level from Air Traffic Control part way across the Atlantic.

Quoting a report in the Times, he claims that a return to LAX would have cost some £100,000 in compensation. He does not make clear if this was in addition to the pre-directive cost, whether it is over and above the costs of the unscheduled landing or including them, or what the extra cost of making repairs at LAX rather than at BA’s maintenance base would be. In the print edition, the story is accompanied by a photo showing a 747 apparently resting on its belly – this is either an unrelated photograph, or one taken from a misleading angle as this did not happen. It seems clear that the Times decided to take this as an anti-EU hit piece and hang the facts. And so did our man.

Via Nadhezhda’s, news arrives that the US Department of Homeland Security have picked a chappy called D. Reed Freedman to sit on their “Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee”. Freedman’s other job is as Chief Privacy Officer of Claria Inc, the company that gave the world Gator, one of the net’s worst spyware infections. As far as malware goes it’s a beast – you can catch it by clicking a popup once or using some shareware, and it does not appear under its real name in your program list so as to make it harder to remove. It pukes adverts at you, but there’s worse – one of the best ways to catch it is to download a program that offers to remember your online passwords.

The kicker is, though, that it sends back information about the websites you visit to a server in some distant light industrial facility. (And the passwords? They ain’t telling.) By November 2003, they had already accumulated the world’s seventh biggest database – some 12.1 terabytes of mass surveillance of the unwitting. Now, if anyone can tell me what the job of “Chief Privacy Officer” to these scum entails, I’d be glad to hear it. Surely the only way of protecting their victims’ privacy would be to drag those servers out and hurl them off a motorway bridge, before collecting up the smashed hard disks and jumping on the bits?

Now, I’m not going to jump to conclusions about exactly why the DHS want to know this fellow, but I am going to put a question. If you wanted advice on electronic privacy, would you ask a spammer? I mean, are these people physically capable of doing anything without being evil and stupid and depraved? On this evidence you could set Republicans to pass a bill granting free ponies to little girls and they’d find a way to turn it into some kind of Orwellian horror show. I just can’t see what’s conservative about this.

Speaking of DHS, I notice someone there’s developing an interest in Viktor Bout. They searched Google for “victor bout richard chichakli” and ended up here; they returned six times and read pretty much the lot. Not just that, but our old friend’s been back, and someone in France searched for “An12 msn 4341803”, an aircraft we’ve had dealings with before. Stand by for action on the Bout front.

What Would Hunter Do?

Another day, another sign that Dr. Duke really is in charge: The Washington Post reports on efforts by the Pentagon to overturn the principle of chief of mission authority, under which the US Ambassador in a given country can permit or refuse the admission of other US government employees to that country. Specifically, they want to deploy special forces without telling the State Department first. (You know, when you find it necessary to deceive other bits of your own government as a matter of course, it’s not a good thing.)

The Dukery kicks in half-way down page one:

” In one instance, U.S. commanders tried to dispatch Special Forces soldiers into Pakistan without gaining ambassadorial approval but were rebuffed by the State Department, said two sources familiar with the event. The soldiers eventually entered Pakistan with proper clearance but were ordered out again by the ambassador for what was described as reckless behavior. “We had SF [Special Forces] guys in civilian clothes running around a hotel with grenades in their pockets,” said one source involved in the incident, who opposes the Pentagon plan.

Other officials cited another case to illustrate their concern. In the past year, they said, a group of Delta Force soldiers left a bar at night in a Latin American country and shot an alleged assailant but did not inform the U.S. Embassy for several days.”

Damn, you can almost smell the sunglasses. No wonder, then, that there’s been another rash of reports about Pakistani/Afghan frontier incidents and even suggestions that US-supported forces operating on the North-West Frontier might be fired on by the official Pakistani military. Enough snark. (Link). Soj remains the best source for this stuff, pointing out that these incidents are getting more frequent and dangerous.

Some time ago, I described the situation with regard to the dollar and central bank reserves in terms of metastability, the idea of a position that is both very stable in the short term and also subject to a radical flip triggered by comparatively small events. I think I also linked this up in another post with the idea of a Nash equilibrium, the situation where a small number of actors have arrived at the strategy that minimises their losses relative to each other and therefore have no incentive to change. Econoblogger Brad Setser today links to a column in the FT concurring with this, and also to a rather funnier version of it here.

There’s also a good paper on the same theme by Setser. As they point out, “social peace in China is at the expense of political peace in the US”: with the monster trade deficit in the US matching the monster trade surplus in China, the currency market intervention is basically keeping Chinese industry running at full capacity and hence, presumably, keeping the streets quiet. In a sense, it’s also cushioning the impact of recession in the US by keeping imported consumer goods cheap, but only up to the bang, of course.

Now, I’m mildly sceptical of grand predictions for the Chinese economy; there have been a lot of disappointments back to Lord Macartney, and I really wonder if the social structure can stand the strain of really huge inequality. When we speak of the Chinese economic boom, we mean the boom in the cities of eastern China. The countryside is still full of a majority of peasants so poor they sell their blood to eople who give them AIDS. And the simultaneous dismantling of the communist economy brings up more problems – most of the world thinks a welfare state of some form is needed for a socially stable capitalism. China has dismantled the famous iron rice bowl, but what if anything is replacing it? What about the environmental strain? Or the dodgy banking sector? I mentioned AIDS, and that’s a really big problem too; one that’s only being addressed now after years of denial.

All these problems look a lot better if the economy is clattering along nicely. Everyone likes having a trade surplus (although, of course, it’s impossible for all to have one – like the class where all the kids are above average). High employment growth soaks up the migration from the land, buoyant tax revenues pay for the infrastructure, and the accounts look OK. But, as J.K. Galbraith put it, there’s no audit like a recession. The cost of keeping down the renminbi against the dollar is showing up in that the process of intervention is driving rapid growth in the Chinese money supply. It’s also helping Chinese banks lend cheaply, and hence making it easier to fund projects that perhaps might be better left. Investment is approaching 45% of Chinese GDP. That’s a lot of capacity being built; it’s obviously going to be a key problem how it stays utilised. Roubini and Setser point out that maintaining the dollar-renminbi peg at current rates is a proxy for this, as it requires ever-growing exports. Their numbers suggest that, to satisfy this condition, Chinese exports to the US would have to exceed US imports of petroleum within four years, which would take them to 20% of Chinese GDP. I don’t know about you, but this sounds to me like a bubble.

Is a hybrid Communist politics/Texan economics polity best placed to handle these social strains if there’s a sharp downturn?

This puts another twist in the Nash problem; the longer it goes on, the worse it gets – but this is also an incentive for those with most to lose to keep it going. Setser points out that this means the smaller players become crucial – having not gone as far down the road, they have more to save. And they aren’t that small; totting up Taiwan, South Korea, India and Russia’s reserves comes to more than China’s. Two of these have already shown signs of edging towards the door. Another crucial point emerges with regard to oil. Setser and Roubini state that oil exporters have less of an incentive to not sell dollars because they don’t compete with Chinese industry. The other point, of course, is that they have a lot of dollars coming in at the moment – the high oil price makes this a very hot issue. They could well be the first to jump ship.

BTW, read the damn thing. It’s only 55 pages. You will be scared. Very scared.

Broom of Anger suggests an interesting interpretation of the political crisis in Northern Ireland: is the mammoth follow-the-money investigation part of a tactic by the Sinn Fein leadership to finally end the IRA? Specifically, it’s suggested that the Irish government’s Criminal Assets Bureau, established after the great corruption scandals of the 80s, has been passed information on the IRA’s finances and business interests as a means of getting rid of potential opposition.

Although it’s not said, such opposition would presumably be opposition to an “act of completion” like the official “stand-down” or demobilisation of the Provisionals. BOA suggests that this would lead to a collapse of Sinn Fein itself and that “this would suit the governments”. I doubt it; the peace process is structured around formally realist negotiation between defined blocks. Chaos would only suit “the governments” if they really wanted a return to war – six weeks before the general election? That ain’t realistic, either in the IR theory sense or the ordinary sense.

Interestingly, of course, (and as BOA points out up-blog) one of the implications is a much bigger role for the Irish Republic in the whole political structure. I’ve often thought that the endgame in Ireland will be a virtual united Ireland; rather like the idea of “meeting up again in Europe”. That, of course, relies on acts of non-stupidity by all sides. One wonders what Adams’s appearance at an IRA rally with men in camo uniforms and black berets meant – a finely tuned countermessage to balance the finance investigation? Or conflicted panic?

Steve Gilliard on Dr. Gonzo, blogging, journalism and the economics of bad writing. Then, read the comments too. It’s bloody brilliant. And it also leads on nicely to an interesting new project: the Blogger News Network at The plan is to build a big-media style site fed by a, well, news network, of, well, bloggers. Looking at the staff they have already gathered, it would seem to be a wonderfully disputatious and noisy outfit. There’s me, and there’s Richard North. There’s some guy raving about Howard Dean “insulting blacks and Republicans”, and there’s someone editorialising that America is becoming a fascist state. This could either be great, or like the Guardian opinion page edited by Hunter S. Thompson’s ghost, with contributors paid in crack cocaine.

It’s certainly going to be interesting, especially when the site gets more interactivity. (No comments/reviewing or RSS at the moment, but I’m sure that will change.)

After the FAZ, it’s the turn of the London Evening Standard to reverse the attribution on Dr. Thompson’s obituary of Nixon. What is it with these people? Here’s the link to their story. Scroll down a little, and it’s cock-up ahoy in paragraph 11:

“At the height of the Watergate scandal he was described by President Nixon as representing “that dark, venal, and incurably violent side of the American character”.

To go round it once again, no, he was not! President Nixon was described at the height of the Watergate scandal as representing that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that every other country on earth has learnt to fear and hate, by Hunter S. Thompson – not the other way around.

Now, having seen this twice today, I began to worry that in fact it was me who was twisted and that everyone else was right – hell, that would be normal – but a few web searches show that no-one before Thompson’s death seems to have mentioned Nixon saying it. You would have thought it would be a memorable utterance for a serving President and one to go in the Nixon canon along with “my dog, Checkers”, “inoperative statement”, “pathetic helpless giant”, “silent majority”, “secret plan to end the war in Vietnam” and the rest. But no. No trace. No electronic trace at least. So I think it’s fair to say that the general scholarly consensus on the authorship of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail can rest intact.

The New York Times reports extensively on the Iraqi insurgent campaign against Baghdad’s infrastructure, specifically oil refining, electricity production and water supply. According to the Iraqi oil minister:

” “There is an organization, sort of a command-room operation,” Thamir Ghadhban, the Iraqi oil minister, said Thursday in an interview. In his area of responsibility, Mr. Ghadhban said, “the scheme of the saboteurs is to isolate Baghdad from the sources of crude oil and oil products.”

“And they have succeeded to a great extent,” he said.

Mr. Ghadhban supported his assertions with a map showing that in November, December and January, in widely scattered attacks, insurgents simultaneously struck all three crude oil pipelines feeding the Doura fuel refinery in Baghdad. The refinery is the nation’s largest producer of gasoline, kerosene and other refined products. During that period, more than 20 attacks occurred on a set of huge pipelines carrying things like oil, kerosene, gasoline and other fuels to Baghdad from oil fields and refineries in the north. In contrast, in the same region, the map shows an economically crucial crude oil pipeline – one that carries oil for export – was not attacked even once.

The map was prepared by his ministry by cataloging the exact coordinates, dates and nature of the attacks and combining that information with a detailed schematic of the web of pipelines, fuel depots, roads and refineries in and around Baghdad.

Those attacks caused widespread disruptions, including severe gasoline shortages. And Mr. Ghadhban said that when he tried to make up for the shortages by trucking the fuel in with tankers, saboteurs went after the fuel convoys and the bridges that they crossed to reach Baghdad.”

Apparently, the campaign is now so well-organised that the targeting seems to take account of information as deep as the government’s holdings of spare parts. Attacks on oil exports have apparently been canned in favour of a strategy of denying fuel to Baghdad, rather along the lines our dear colleague John Robb speaks of.

What could be the aim? Robb argues that it is to render the maintenance of the city itself increasingly costly and difficult. Presumably this would be intended to keep Iraq ungovernable with the pay-off that, were an insurgent-supported government to emerge, the squeeze could be lifted at once thus offering the public an immediate reward. But this also involves possibly undermining support for the insurgency among Baghdadis: choking off the city’s energy sources is about the most indiscriminate weapon possible. Robb also used the term “controlled chaos” with regard to the use of “loyalists” in Iraq, as we discussed this weekend, and I think this is actually more like it. If they have the subtlety to control their campaign with regard to holdings of spares, then they also have the subtlety to control it according to political events and to geography/demography. Perhaps the aim is a sort of economic ethnic cleansing: if the shutdowns bear more heavily on the poor, and the poor of Baghdad are disproportionately Shia, this could be an effort to drive them out to the south.

The Chalabi Files

Abu Aardvark brings up the old question of the Iraqi secret police files that somehow wandered into the possession of Ahmed Chalabi after the fall of Baghdad. It was widely accepted that ownership of the papers might be a potent source of political pull, permitting blackmail of almost anyone. The Aardvark points out that they have disappeared, strangely enough, from the political stage.

This brings up a couple of questions: for a start, with the orgy of coalition-making (always the most evil and twisted form of politics, its crack cocaine) now bubbling in Baghdad, you’d have thought Chalabi would be pulling out all the blackmail he could. But so far, nothing. Curious. And then, there’s the international issue. So far, the various Oil-for-Food scandals have all been based on documents allegedly issuing fromm exactly those files. This is why so many of the allegations, like those against George Galloway, end up being taken back or ripped to shreds by libel lawyers.

Now, back when Chalabi fell out with the Americans, you may recall that auditors were commissioned to investigate the allegations of fraud. They had a problem, though, because Chalabi and his organisation wouldn’t let them see the documents. Not just that, but a computer belonging to the auditors was mysteriously hacked and wiped on the same day as the US raid on Chalabi’s house. (Rant here) So – either Ahmed Chalabi is indeed using the documents, frenziedly blackmailing his way back up the tree, or perhaps we don’t hear of them because he’s discovered that, in fact, they are much less useful than he thought, or possibly discreditable to his good self. Question for extra points: what would Hunter have made of Chalabi?