Archive for February, 2008
Continuing our Weekend of Defence Procurement, we’ve bashed the FRES vehicle program enough in the past. Costed at £14bn, meant to deliver a C-130 portable, RPG-tough, wheeled vehicle capable of carrying something equivalent to a tank main gun and providing reconnaissance, big gun, infantry, and utility variants, it’s so far failed to deliver anything at all and its aims are now down to a vehicle that doesn’t fit in a C-130 but might in an Airbus A400M, if they existed, and doesn’t do recce although that’s the first priority. Among other things, they managed to spend more money on “concept work” than Lord “Virus” Drayson did on several hundred actual real armoured vehicles with tracks and guns and radios an stuff.
At the moment, the smart money is on the French NEXTER vehicle – the even smarter money is on the project getting axed, but who expects the MOD to do anything smart? – which is amusing, because the UK was part of the development process 10 years ago but walked out to do FRES. It now looks as if the French aren’t over keen on NEXTER, either. My new favourite blog (FR) sez the French Army just ordered up 180 Vikings, lightweight, articulated tracked vehicles from Sweden. The Royal Marines have used them for years, but they have really come into their own after Drayson bought a wedge of them for Afghanistan; now the French are doing the same.
John Reid. Thank God we managed to avoid the nightmare; Prime Minister Reid. That really worried me in 2006-2007; Chris Lightfoot and I were planning to start a dedicated anti-Reid website at one point.
Anyway, Reid has been personally fingered by the coroner’s inquest into the death of RHA Captain James Philippson, as the Grauniad reports. Philippson was killed in Afghanistan in the bloody summer of 2006, taking part in a mission to recover a crashed drone. (I thought the point of drones was that they were expendable.) It turns out that his unit had not received their night vision goggles, Minimi light machine guns, M203 grenade launchers, combat body armour, or ballistic matting for their vehicles when they went into action. According to the Army inquiry, whose papers were produced in court:
“Critically,” it said, “the secretary of state, [then John Reid] had delayed announcing the Helmand deployment because he wanted to ensure that the campaign could be won, that the 3,150 manning cap was not exceeded, and that Britain’s Nato allies were also contributing.” The board’s report continues: “The immediate consequence was that the two-month delay effectively froze the [urgent operational requirement] process and resulted in the [Helmand Task Force] deploying without much of the mission essential equipment that it had requested.”
Having buggered about endlessly – first trying to send two battalions from 16AAB without their fire support (and what a disaster that would have been – one battalion plus with all the air support, logistics, sappers and artillery 16AAB, the RAF, and the Americans could muster came close to being overrun) and then sending the support and only one battalion – Reid’s managerialist crappery sporked the UOR process, under which urgently required equipment is obtained. No machine guns for you!
But what I want to know is this; Minimis and M203s are not new equipment in the British Army. Special Forces have had them for years; so have the Marines, and more have been issued for practically every major operation since 1991. Now, when 16AAB, 3 Cdo and 7th Armoured went to Iraq in 2003, the Army issued UORs for just these weapons and these articles of kit. We well know that the extra armour plates showed up too late for some men; however, the guns were indeed delivered on time, and the plates did eventually arrive.
So, if 16AAB got a boatload of shiny new guns, armour an stuff in 2003….what happened to them between returning to the UK in the autumn of 2003 and deploying to Afghanistan in 2006? It wouldn’t be the first time that equipment procured under a UOR was sold off as surplus in order to satisfy the MOD’s weird accounting procedures (the work of G. Brown) and then a second UOR generated to replace it a year or so down the track. Any information will be treated in the strictest confidence.
I promised more serious content; here goes.
Right, everyone is vexed about the RUSI report (PDF download) that was recently published under the names of Gwyn Prins (a minor hero of this blog’s, for his The Heart of War: Power, Conflict, and Obligation in the 21st Century) and the Marquess of Salisbury (no less, who hasn’t written anything I’m aware of).
The media discourse about it has been almost entirely devoted to this paragraph:
The United Kingdom presents itself as a target, as a fragmenting, post-Christian society, increasingly divided about interpretations of its history, about its national aims, its values and in its political identity. That fragmentation is worsened by the firm self-image of those
elements within it who refuse to integrate. This is a problem worsened by the lack of leadership from the majority which in mis-placed deference to ‘multi-culturalism’ failed to lay down the line to immigrant communities, thus under-cutting those within them trying to fight extremism. The country’s lack of self- confidence is in stark contrast to the implacability of its Islamist terrorist enemy, within and without.
This appears to be standard boilerplate Toryism/Decent Left stuff; I rather doubt that Islamists particularly care about anyone’s view of the Whig interpretation of history. Depending on partisan allegiance, this has either been read as being a sinister right-wing menace from “ranting old colonels” as the Grauniad‘s Joseph Harker put it (you haven’t read Rupert Smith’s book, have you?) or else as a roaring affirmation of everything good and true, as the Daily Mail put it, with the slight curiosity that most of the stuff they attribute to it doesn’t actually appear anywhere in the document. There is for example no reference to being a “soft touch” in the text, only one use of the word “immigrant”, and no suggestion of further restrictions on immigration. I have the strong impression that most of the journos responding to it have not read the document.
On substance, this point is of course silly; the common factor about British Islamist terrorists, as far as I can make out, is that they are members of my generation and therefore products of Ken Baker’s tenure as Education Secretary. “Our Island Story”, not multiculturalism, if the word still has any meaning other than the Orwellian one of “something not desirable”; Thatcher, not Wilson or Blair. I assume that this was Old Sarum’s contribution, as is the factless pabulum about “long established constitutional arrangements of the Queen in Parliament” and coded Euroscepticism. It’s quite clear, however, where Prins cuts in; there is a typically Prins emphasis on the intersection between traditional, big war strategy and human security issues, for example the politics of climate change, the weakening of both the Anglo-American and NATO alliances, relations with Russia, and world naval construction.
Further, the actual policy proposals the paper contains are almost comically modest compared to its tone and its reception; they want to set up two new committees, one a mixed committee of ministers and officials based in the Cabinet Office and serviced by the CabSec, and the other a committee of both houses of parliament. The first would be a sort of national security council, and the second an independent oversight committee of it. This is not terribly controversial, or dare I say it, terribly new.
Meanwhile, Mick DSM Smith reports on some more capability gaps; as Teh Defence Crisis rolls on, the carrier project is sliding right again, and all the four remaining T-22 frigates are to be mothballed, plus one T-23. According to our sources, the T-42 destroyers are “falling apart” and morale aboard ship is at rock bottom; I really have no idea why the T-42s are protected from cuts, as they are the only class of warship we have that was tested in combat and found wanting.
Regarding the carriers, we’re now getting to a point where the capability-gapping that was meant to make up the costs is committing us to going ahead; with fewer T-45 ships, no T-22 Block 3 ships, and fewer T-23 ships, and no air defence on the existing carriers, losing the new carriers will render most of the new amphibious ships useless. If the Government really wants to deliver them, it needs to start steelworking at Babcocks in Rosyth. Recap; the ships are to be built in four “superblocks” at Rosyth, BAE’s yards on the Clyde, and Vospers in Portsmouth, and then assembled in the drydock in Rosyth, the only one big enough. Once the Rosyth block is in the drydock, nothing else is going to use the drydock until it is either scrapped in place or the completed ship is floated-out. Some preparatory work was announced last week at a cost of £34m, but they have still not taken the vital step of actually checking the welding torch out of the locker and cracking on.
Back from Barcelona, after a terribly intense 3GSM. This was my third, and the first in which I was actually participating rather than just reporting; I feel the need to decompress, my feet hurt, and I’m feeling the effects of eating breakfast at 5pm, covering every game in town, and finally dining (or rather lunching) in the lates. First, an amusing photo:
“White/Red Whine”, indeed. If they could actually serve you white or red whine, it would probably go something like “bloody conferences, full of idiots, run off your feet, fucking airports, sod Iberia…” Naturally, we all love it and wouldn’t miss it for the world, as J.K. Galbraith said about his academic colleagues and testifying to Senate committees. I’ve said before that Galbraith’s shades are everywhere in telecoms; not really capitalism but the daddy of all technostructures, a planned economy run by an engineer-bureaucratic complex.
3GSM is changing, a bit; there are a few cackling hackers around, and ridiculous hipster-dressed 16-stone US techbloggers ogling the shiny gadgets. Fortunately I don’t have to talk to these; there are rewards for specialising in core networks, where everyone is a Swedish suit, and this is one of them. Only the really serious few care, such as Zygmunt Lozinski, or my colleagues at Telco 2.0.
The Telco 2.0 board – Simon Torrance, Martin Geddes, Chris Barraclough
By the way, I learned this week that IBM management lets you off wearing a blue shirt if you’re in an immersive virtual environment; a detail worthy of the late Douglas Adams (who once addressed the conference, some years ago) or Charlie Stross. Speaking of Charlie, 3GSM always makes me feel like one of his characters – the European and Asian domination, the sci-fi gadgetry, the disorientation. And this week I ran into an actual implementation of one of the applications used in Halting State.
I’d dropped in to speak to Roger Quayle of NextWave (IPWireless as was); we discussed their big mobile-TV contract in the UK and also the single IP radio network they’ve done for the emergency services of New York City. The NYFD has a geographical database of architects’ plans for every building in town. Now, their commanders have the use of a touchscreen-covered table on which they can view the map, display the plans in 3D, and the location of their engines; as they sketch out a plan on it, the details are synchronised over the air with PDAs carried by the fire crews. If that’s not pretty close to CopSpace, I don’t know what is; and Nokia is doing most of the other features it had in the book. Quayle denies being inspired by SF; but the application was actually developed at Northrop-Grumman, so who knows?
Regarding Europeans and Asians, it struck me that the architectural language of the show was telling; some of the US companies seemed to be trying to hide from the future, retreating into banal shapes and pastel colours with an odd but significant desert-cam tinge. Nokia and Huawei, by contrast, chose to display themselves in what looked like Ballardian advertisements for modernity itself. Curiously, I notice, green-tech motifs have entered the visual language of boosterism; Huawei’s main ad motif is a gaggle of honking gurt wind turbines. (Contrastingly, IBM chose not to have a grand statement in ply and lighting; just dozens of engineers and some interesting projects.)
With all this, paranoia is inevitable. At the Intel WiMAX division’s party, German security men scoured the bushes with flashlights; the conference organisers warned everyone to remove their badges so as not to mark themselves out as potential marks. After all, not only did they show that the bearer was probably a foreigner with a laptop, but also which ones were the highest-value targets. They also, however, handed out delegate bags with huge ZTE logos, so every evening saw the spectacle of thousands of delegates removing their badges at the entrance to the metro and placing them…in the ZTE bags. It even got me; Huawei and Orange gave away hundreds of HSDPA USB modems, and trying mine out (I’ll report on using it under linux), suddenly a bug occurred; it went to full uplink capacity over 500KBits/s (great advert for Orange.es), although my own netstats showed no outgoing traffic. I thought, ah, they’ve handed these out, and now they’re uplinking the contents of everyone’s hard disk to some devilish spookfarm in their Shenzhen bunker!
Does it offend you, yeah? You think that was unsettling; nothing compared to strolling along the Avenida Reina Maria Cristina and hearing a familiar voice, looking up, and seeing the likeness of our MD at Telco 2.0, Chris Barraclough, twenty feet high, on a monster truck-mounted video screen and live television, speaking in a voice amplified like hell in stereo. Reality itself is too twisted, said Hunter S. Thompson, on a similar subject.
Note to self; charter Ilyushin-76, sell arms to both sides, make a fortune. Relatedly, over at my new favourite blog, they’re discussing driving 400 kilometres a day across the savannah in your Land Cruiser and a mystery delivery in a whole Antonov-124…or possibly even an An-225? It’s not impossible; there is chatter that President Deby’s forces got arms from Israel, and look who was in town on the 2nd of February, the day the rebels hit the bright lights. Fascinatingly, the crews of his Mi-24 HIND gunships included both Ukrainians and people described as “Mexicans”; Mexico has never operated this aircraft.
Update: As Freightdog points out in comments, it’s unrealistic to imagine that the only An-225 would have gone there if only for insurance reasons.
So Gates has been doing the rounds of EU capitals, looking for more troops (and money) for Afghanistan. He didn’t get very far; although Germany did agree to find half a battalion of light infantry as a quick-reaction force for the northern zone, this just relieves a Norwegian force that is currently doing the job. A lot of people are vexed. Canada is threatening to leave unless other NATO states put in more men; the British Army is putting in a ton of resources in the next roulement, with the result that the 16th Air Assault Brigade in Helmand will be rather bigger than the Division in Iraq.
But there are very good reasons why most NATO members are not willing to put in more troops or more money. Looking at it as if it was a business, Gates has been passing the hat round his shareholders in NATO asking them to put up more capital; their decision to answer or not depends on their estimate of the risk of losing it and the possible returns from it. You would want to have some influence on his plans for the future; you certainly wouldn’t sign any cheques without seeing the plan first.
That is precisely what Secretary Gates wants, though; I have yet to see any answers to these questions. What is NATO’s strategy in Afghanistan – what are we trying to achieve? What is our operational plan – how are we trying to do it? How long will we keep trying? And who is in charge? Consider this; despite the expansion in ISAF’s area of responsibility to all of Afghanistan, there is still an independent US command of division strength operating in the country, supposedly “fighting terrorists”. Although they haven’t caught one for years, they are manoeuvring, fighting, and killing people, in the middle of ISAF’s battlefield.
Further, if (as seems to be the case) Afghanistan is considered a case of counter-insurgency, the first damn principle in the Big Book of Bandit Extermination is that you need an integrated civilian-military plan and an integrated command structure. We have; no plan or command structure for the international civilian effort, two command structures for the international military effort, an Afghan civilian command structure, and an Afghan military command structure. The British government doesn’t seem to be sure whether it is faced with a question of foreign relations, of third-world development, or of war.
I’m not sure I want to buy it. Then you have to consider the Pakistan dimension; the road goes to Karachi, after all. This is just a great big unquantifiable risk. And there is good reason to think that you might end up another tragic victim of common sense; Jamie Kenny may think these guys were trying to set up a “third force” as in The Quiet American, but he’s missing a much closer analogy. One of the best tricks in the Big Book of Bandits is recruiting from the other side – the analogy here is a firqat:
One step which had a major impact on the uprising was the announcement of an amnesty for surrendered fighters, and aid in defending their communities from rebels. The surrendered rebels formed Firqat irregular units, trained by teams from the British Special Air Service Regiment. Eighteen Firqat units, numbering about 100 each, were eventually formed. They usually gave themselves names with connections to Islam, such as the Firqat Salahadin. These irregular groups played a major part in denying local support to the rebels.
The first serious step in re-establishing the Sultan’s authority on the Jebel took place in October 1971, when Operation Jaguar which involved five Firqat units and a Squadron of the SAS was mounted. After hard fighting, the SAS and Firqats secured an enclave on the eastern Jebel Samhan from which they could expand. In a major hearts and minds operation, recaptured areas of the Jebel received aid in the form of clinics, schools, roads and newly dug wells….
Sounds like a plan, as they say. However, this inevitably involves an acceptance that the rebels exist, which seems to be the problem. We therefore have, instead, a strategy based on trying to spread soldiers as thinly as possible and using masses of firepower to save them when it goes wrong; elsewhere, some national contingents are trying not to draw attention to themselves, and the US Ambassador wants to gas the country’s main crop.
I think I’ll buy that ostrich farm.
Well, I didn’t get up in time to watch the lost spy satellite hurtling across the southwestern sky; it didn’t matter as it was ten-tenths overcast. But about 1940 on the 21st? If the skies are clear, I’ll be out there; it should reach its maximum altitude at 78 degrees over the horizon, coming from the southwest, on a line from Auriga to Mars.
And what will we think of?
So what about those submarine cables then? There has been a mass of blogfroth about this, but I’m quite surprised by the degree of mis- or possibly dis-information that is circulating. For a start, Iran is not without Internet connectivity, whatever this webpage says. It shouldn’t be this difficult; after all, the route to anywhere on the Internet is public information, because that’s how it works. If you’re familiar with Internet routing, you might want to skip the next paragraph…or three.
OK, so we all remember what the Internet is, right? A set of diverse interconnected computer networks, using various standard protocols to make it all work. The two we need to think about here are the Internet Protocol (IP) and the Border Gateway Protocol, BGP. IP specifies how Internet traffic is broken down into packets – discrete messages – and how these are routed between the networks. Routers receive packets and forward them to routers nearer their destination, usually preferring the shortest path. This routing is stateless – each packet is treated as if it was the first – and nondeterministic, so all the packets in one session of some higher-level protocol could theoretically take different routes to their goal. This is why the Internet is capable of routing around a cable break.
But where does the router get its information from? How does it know which of the routers it can see is nearest to an arbitrary destination? Well, it looks this information up in a list, called a routing table; but where does it get the list from? This is where you need BGP, and specifically External BGP or eBGP. Remember that the Internet is all about the relationship between autonomous but interconnected networks; BGP deals with how the router at the point of interconnection between two networks behaves. It announces to everyone it can hear which blocks of IP addresses are behind it, and they announce to it which blocks they have a route for. And this happens further down the track; a third network beyond the second will be informed that you are there.
The effect is to distribute around the Internet a complete routing table. It can and always does contain multiple routes to many networks; this is OK. Various rules exist for choosing one of multiple routes, and network engineers spend a lot of time tweaking them to get things *just right*. Three things are not OK – you must never announce someone else’s route unless they announce it to you, you must never announce an address that isn’t globally unique, and a route must never form a loop. Announcements, once made, can either be withdrawn, or they can expire after a pre-set period of time.
OK, techie readers can start reading again. With this in mind, you should know that any router that has a full routing table knows where everyone else is and who’s reachable; if someone loses all connectivity, the Internet will know at the latest when the announcement expires and they disappear. So, if you’re as smart as the people at Renesys, you know that Iran is not disconnected from the Internet because they’re still sending BGP announcements to the world. In fact, Iran wasn’t in the top 10 countries by lost networks. Neither did Stanford’s Confluence project notice anything.
But but but but! Wasn’t it the USS Jimmy Carter? The special submarine that can go down and fiddle with them? Eh? Eh?
Well, the Carter is a very special boat; but one thing she is not is a time machine, so there was no way she could have cut two cables off Alexandria and then another in the Strait of Hormuz in two days. Or perhaps she is? Powered by the Holly Hop Drive, like enough. Or…was it Al-Qa’ida? Or the Russians? Or the Chinese? Or the Canadian Menace?
Unlikely; think of the co-ordination implied by getting ships to the right places unnoticed. And it wouldn’t be enough just to randomly drop the hook – the chances of nailing all three seem pathetic without using divers. And here we are parting company with the realities of conspiracy. Further, various governments have or could get the capability to fiddle with cables, probably by chartering a cable ship; realistically, though, doing more than one at a time would have been tough as there are only a very few cable ships in the world. (Here’s FLAG’s estimated times to repair; note that they have to wait for one ship to finish another job.)
But but but but but! Isn’t it incredibly unlikely for something like this to happen? Well, it doesn’t happen every day, put it like that. It does happen every day on land, though; people are always putting pneumatic drills and diggers and stuff through telecoms equipment. Anyway, this is a logical fallacy; it’s like the smartarse who claims they carry a bomb every time they get on a plane, because the chance of there being two bombs is tiny. You can’t add up independent probabilities; damage to a cable off Alexandria doesn’t somehow protect cables elsewhere.
Further, when was the last time four major submarine cables were severed? Well, not much more than a year ago, after an earthquake in the Taiwan Strait; it took weeks to fix. So what is going on?
The short answer is Lord Fisher’s; five strategic keys lock up the world, Dover, Gibraltar, Suez, Singapore, and Cape Town. He was of course talking ships, but the same geography and economics work for cables; it’s actually easier to lay cable at sea (no land to buy; no backhoes; no interfering nosey parkers), so cables go there. Once you’re at sea, of course, the geography will tend to make you follow the shipping routes like it makes the ships follow them. And the markets are cities, which are very often ports – so you’ve got to go to the same places. All of which means that cables pile up in exactly the same places where the ships do, which also tend to be shallow.
Hence both FLAG and SEA-ME-WE3 and 4 follow the old imperial seaway down the Mediterranean, over the Suez isthmus, down the Red Sea, and across the Indian Ocean via Bombay, Colombo, the Malacca Strait (or across the isthmus at Penang for FLAG), into Singapore and Hong Kong. Neal Stephenson wrote wonderfully about the building of FLAG for Wired; all fifty-six pages of it are here, and his remarks on the British Empire, submarine cables, and the role of Kew Gardens as part of the infrastructure of national power are probably unimprovable. Everyone links to that one, though; not so many to Rudyard Kipling’s poem about telecoms infrastructure.
SAT3-WASC-SAFE takes the clipper route down the Atlantic, swings round the Cape, and ends up in Singapore as well. Literally dozens of cables run through the narrow seas around Western Europe; another mass of ’em leave the western UK and Brittany, and head through the South-Western Approaches on the great circle route to North America. Southern Cross takes the same route as the 1920s British Cable from Canada to New Zealand, in order to link Australia and New Zealand with, well, everyone else.
The Guardian atoned for writing a really awful article – they confused routers with DNS servers, and appeared ignorant of the existence of national roots or of the huge developments since the 1990s in DNS resilience (F-Root is actually 40-odd physical machines using anycasting, under which any one of them responds to requests for f.root-servers.net and the first to answer handles the query) – by paying the money to the good folks at Telegeography to use their fantastic cable maps. These are one of those things that usually I can enjoy because it’s my job and you can’t, but the Grauniad has made the map publically available: and here it is. Get the picture, as they say. If you still think this is Teh War With Iran, by the way, you might want to check out this map from TAE.
However, that map is like the Tube map; it links the landing stations, but doesn’t show exact routes, which are tightly held information. But this blog gives you more; here’s a chart (PDF) of the cables in the South-West Approaches prepared for fishermen, in a hopeless bid to keep them from dragging nets across the wires. You’ll notice that there are a hell of a lot, they cross each other frequently, and they often get broken and repaired. You’ll also notice that the realities of geography don’t change – the Soviet General Staff used to call them the permanently operating factors.
Update Update: Earl Zmijewski at Renesys blogs further and more.
I’m going to start with a word of caution: this will be the most technical of our discussions so far.
You say that like it’s a bad thing. Seriously, the Renesys team rarely update their blog, but when they do every bit is choice. Read the whole thing. Me, I reckon the squid are building an internetwork down there and they’re doing an experiment on ours to find out how it works.