Archive for the ‘space’ Category

I’m not quite as sceptical as some about this. However, it’s not clear to me how this differs from the sort of thing UNOSAT does all the time – here’s their analysis of imagery over Abyei, the key border area between North and South Sudan. Actually it looks like the “Enough Project” is going to be using UNOSAT imagery itself, going by UNOSAT’s own website.

If you follow the link you’ll see that they have more than reasonable capability (50cm resolution) and that they routinely observe the presence of refugees/displaced persons and returnees, construction, and the like. There’s obvious relevance to an effort to monitor potential conflict along the border, especially as oil prospecting is an issue. You can’t easily hide oil exploration from a satellite that can resolve objects 50cm across.

However, the downside is that the UNOSAT report is comparing images over a two-year period. I would suspect that they will need much more frequent passes to be operationally responsive, which is where the costs get interesting.

Also, I’ve just been over to the website and it’s a bit of an unstructured clickaround. What I’ve always liked about MySociety sites is that they all have a function – FixMyStreet reports things in your street that need fixing, WDTK issues Freedom of Information Act requests, TWFY looks up information on MPs, TheStraightChoice logged what candidates promised and said about each other during their campaigns. DemocracyClub, for example, worked because as soon as you logged in it gave you something to do and some feedback about doing it, and then it hassled you to do something more. It had structure.

Notoriously, if you don’t give volunteers something to do as soon as they show up, they’ll wander off. It is nowhere easier to wander off than on the Internet. And so there’s a button to twitbookspace it and a donation link. There isn’t, however, a to-do list or, say, a list of pairs of images that need comparing.

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Did you know the UK briefly had an independent imagery satellite between 2005-2009? You do now, and so do I thanks to Think Defence. Sample pix are here.

The satellite was designed to return its data directly to a mobile ground station immediately after collecting an image, allowing far more timely delivery of the information which it collects than standard satellites. The system was specifically designed to meet operational timescales, whether for disaster relief, news-gathering, or other applications where speed of response is vital….TopSat weighs just 120 kg, but carries an optical camera capable of delivering panchromatic images with a spatial resolution at nadir of 2.8 metres covering a 17×17 km area, and simultaneous three-band multi-spectral images, (red, green, blue), with a resolution of 5.6 metres. This is thought to represent the best resolution per mass of any satellite launched to date. This camera is integrated with an agile micro-satellite platform to permit pitch compensation manoeuvres, allowing imaging of low illumination scenes.

It would fit on one of these among other things.

This is one of the most interesting stories in the Wikileaks cable dump. The Saudis use the existence of the French national imagery satellite capability, and David Ignatius’s column in the Washington Post, to resist efforts by the Americans to stop them using US arms and satellite data provided for use on Al-Qa’ida for other goals of foreign policy, notably trying to encroach on Yemeni territory. Of course, the UK isn’t allowed to do that.

So someone’s trying to raise $150,000 to buy a satellite from the bankruptcy of TerreStar, in order to “Connect Everyone”. I admire the aim, but I’m concerned that this is going to be a round of forgetting that a lot of perfectly good GSM operators are doing just that. Also, I can’t find any reference to what they intend to use for the customer-premises equipment except that “we’re building an open source low cost modem”, which would be better if it came with a link to the source repo, right, or at least some requirements documentation? I’m also a little concerned that the team includes this guy:

Fabian is a NYC based Swiss wanna-be-entrepreneur who spends all his time trying to make meaningful connections between ourselves and business.

(and I chose charitably) but not anyone whose potted bio mentions being an RF engineer.

Actually, I think that it would be more worthwhile to start off with the low-cost open source satellite radio, as this may be the difficult bit and would be highly reuseable in other projects. A lot of Indian or African GSM people would find a cheap satellite radio very useful for their backhaul requirements. Depending on the spec it could be used with things like the amateur radio AMSATs, the transponders on the ISS, and the spare US Navy FLTSATCOMs. USRP is way too expensive at the moment (they cost more than a cheap netbook) so that one’s out.

There are a few details of the latest of Germany’s synthetic-aperture radar imaging satellites at the German version of ScienceBlogs, on the occasion of the latest one being launched on a Russian Dnepr rocket. Tories should be delighted, it’s a PFI. Specifically, the German government contributes the bulk of the cost through its space agency, and the rest is essentially vendor-financed by Astrium, the manufacturers. In return, Astrium gets to sell imagery for commercial users through one of its subsidiaries. Apparently they reckon that the data will be especially heavily marketed to the “defence and security sector”.

Well, you could say that again. Of course, much of the point of all this fancydan financing is to reduce the upfront cost of having an indigenous satellite capability (Tories – they’re the same the world over…). The real question isn’t that you can buy the imagery later in the day, but rather whether you get to choose what the satellite is looking at within a reasonably short time scale.

This post at Small Wars Journal basically confirms what Ahmed Rashid says about the expansion of ISAF and the deployment of the British army to Helmand, and goes further – the US had essentially withdrawn their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets from southern Afghanistan and sent them all to Iraq in 2002, there was next to no information available about the situation during the planning leading up to the summer of 2006, and in fact a half-admitted goal of sending the Paras up the Helmand valley was simply to find out what was out there. There are similarities with the Black Watch’s trip to Camp Dogwood in 2004.

There’s a rather good map in Antonio Giustozzi’s Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop that shows the main infiltration route from Pakistan, northwestwards through Zabul province, following the Ghilzais’ territory all the way to the area of Musa Qala and then bursting out in several directions towards Kandahar and down the Helmand river. And that’s what they found.

This presentation is good on the development of the British campaign; whereas once John Reid hoped they might not fire a shot in anger, people now refer to the Paras’ tour in 2006 as the break-in battle.

I’ve finally got around to reading Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban and Descent into Chaos. They are as good as everyone says. Specifically, there are perhaps three things that set Rashid apart as a writer on Central Asia. (His contacts book is outstanding, but then, he’s not the only one.)

First of all, he writes about Central Asia, rather than about American politics as expressed through the foreign-policy establishment. He writes about Central Asia in the sense that he places the complex regional politics, the competition for power among Pakistan, Iran, and Russia, at the centre of the story. In fact, you could make a case that the Taliban as a phenomenon is almost irrelevant; if it didn’t exist, and the political situation was otherwise unchanged, something else would be playing the role of Durrani Pashtun caucus, drugs logistical system, sink for Saudi malcontents, and Pakistani proxy.

He also writes about Central Asia in the sense that he emphasises the intelligent agency of the regional powers, the Afghans of all allegiances, the Pakistani political parties, and the intelligence agencies. This implies taking a very calm view of the actual extent to which the Americans ever controlled anything in the area – in fact, one of his key points is that the current chaos is largely due to the absence of a US policy in the 1990s, and in many ways, its continued absence up to 2005 and even now.

Rashid also provides an interesting view of Taliban sociology – his version of them is essentially another of the child-soldier and refugee camp movements of the 90s, strongly mutually similar across an arc of suffering from Afghanistan to Liberia. He suggests that their ideology is more of a substitute for Islam and for Afghan culture than anything else – a cut-down set of tropes for people brutally removed from the real things.

Of course, there are certain functions that any good tyranny needs to fulfil. You have to have outward signs, so that it is possible to enforce conformity and identify a hated target-group; it may actually be better if they are content-free, so as not to limit flexibility. You have to have exemplary violence, and again, it may help if it isn’t actually directed towards victory. Eliminating people for no reason is the ultimate costly signal that anyone could be a target. No tyranny can function without denunciation – arguably, it’s more important than all the other functions. And you need the possibility of competitive observance, in order to get individual initiative on your side. “Working towards the Führer” is the classic example. This may actually be a more useful view of the Talibs of the 90s – a sort of minimal dictatorship.

Finally, he provides an integrated systems view of the politics, economics, and societies involved. The creation of the Taliban, in his view, involved many overlaid political networks, those of the Pakistani trucking industry and its partners in organised crime, those of the Sindhi feudal landlords who were frequently investors in the trucking and smuggling business and also powers in the PPP, the Saudi-financed system through which international jihadis were recruited, fetched to the training camps, supplied, and sent out as cannon fodder to pursue Pakistani aspirations in central Asia, and the ISI.

From a purely Anglo-British point of view, it’s worth noting that he is very hard on the Americans about the intelligence picture available to the NATO powers in 2005 when Rumsfeld finally dropped his opposition to ISAF deploying outside Kabul. He strongly supports the line that, having maintained practically no presence there and diverted their satellite and other reconnaissance resources to Iraq, the Americans let 16th Air Assault Brigade deploy into a zone of the unknown, which in the way of these things turned out to be full of the enemy. If true, this is the second occasion on which they’ve welshed on the agreement under which the UK doesn’t operate its own imagery satellites. Rashid argues that there was a vital window of opportunity to get a broad-based political settlement in 2002-2003, which the Cheney administration squandered in the interests of invading Iraq and pleasing the ISI/Saudi intelligence services.

In general, I can’t escape the conclusion that Kashmir is still the issue.

I want one of these. There’s more here; the sheer coolth of a USB-based PCR analyser is hard to beat. Even if the potential for Wakefield-scale contamination fuckups is not to be denied.

In general, I’m trying to get up to speed on things biotech. it is true that, so far, cyberpunk has been a strategically undervalued source of science fiction, politics, and general weirdness – we keep thinking we’ve got to the end of computers and networks, only to find there’s more weird out there – compared to biology and nanotech, which has been a bit jam-tomorrow, always promising the revolution in five years’ time. I suspect this is changing, not least in the light of this and this.

That’s going to be quite a boat trip for one little robot, if not a giant step for mankind for quite a while. We might have to declare Titan a planetary nature reserve, if they don’t do it to us first.

mystery space rocket

Kursk

Kursk was a bit of a disappointment. A submarine control room as the setting of a play isn’t a bad idea – the movies worked that out many years ago – and putting it on as promenade theatre through the simulated sub is a cracking one. But, not quite.

It did remind me to check the (excellent) Wikipedia article on the loss of the Kursk, which answered my question. The problem is that the story doesn’t really provide for a good drama from the viewpoint of a British submarine; even if you accept they were present, had they decided to surface at once and steam up to the Pyotr Veliky, the best thing that could have happened would have been to launch the ineffectual Russian rescue attempt a few hours earlier, which would have changed nothing. Most of the dead were dead within seconds; the survivors survived for days, almost long enough for the eventual British and Norwegian rescue effort to save them.

This leaves the story as a pure sea-piece; the isolation of the submarine, the role of the captain, the character conflicts, navy culture, the details of control-room procedure. In fact, the set’s two-level structure, laid out around the central search periscope, isn’t all that far off the Navy’s original submarine simulator in design. In the original, the mockup control room was on the lower level, with the periscope rising through the ceiling into a room where the images required for the training scenarios were projected onto the walls.

You could make a case for secrecy being the main theme, but again, it doesn’t quite work. A minor note is that there’s a fair bit of Americo-scepticism about; the presence of two Los Angeles-class boats in the area is pointedly briefed as the American “threat”.

Seen as science-fiction, though, it holds up better. An SF writer, whose name I forget, once said that there weren’t any wars in his books because the universe was enemy enough.

OK, so it’s time for another chapter of the Strategic Defence Review as a Blog.

Chapter 2 begins as follows:

The use of force as an option is becoming more complicated. It is likely to become more difficult to use force in the way in which we have used it in the last two decades.

This is of course code for Iraq. The Iraq experience is a considerable theme through the chapter.

Many of our assumptions about joint working and expeditionary capabilities have been validated. But experience has shown that our operations have developed in more complex ways than we envisaged. We have sometimes underestimated the intricacy of working in multi-national operations and with non-military actors

To put it another way: We were right to expect we wouldn’t spend all our time in Germany. Further, we had to talk to the RAF. But one particular operation turned out to be much more complicated and much more serious than we allowed ourselves to imagine.

Looking ahead, The Future Character of Conflict will grow more complex. We are likely to face a range of simultaneous threats and adversaries in challenging operating areas – such as fighting in urban areas against enemies concealed amongst civilians. We are also likely to be subject to greater scrutiny from the media and public, both in the UK and overseas. Communications is now a key component of any campaign.

That seems to be communications as in “strategic communications” – PR, in other words. Nothing to do with being Better Off With Map And Nokia. Snark aside, again, this is the experience of Iraq glaring through.

Technological development, especially in the fields of cyberspace and space, may further change our understanding of conflict. It is likely to be more difficult to maintain our technological edge over some adversaries, or to bring that edge to bear on others, with a profound effect on the way we operate.

Anything electronic is now cheap, and the big power monopoly of satellite reconnaissance is breaking down.

There follows a list of operations and arguments that tend to support the 1998 SDR and the later New Chapter. They do not include Iraq, and only mention Afghanistan in passing on the grounds that we got there logistically, until we get to this paragraph:

Special Forces have demonstrated their value across a broad spectrum of activity, from operating alongside our conventional forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to capacity-building with partners or hostage rescue.

However, when we get on to the “lessons learned”, we get this:

Our assumption that we could “go first, go fast and go home” has proved false. We believed that we could deploy our forces for the most difficult early intervention stage of a conflict, and leave the subsequent stabilisation and development tasks to partners. But we have not been able – or wished – to disengage as we had planned. We have therefore further improved our ability to sustain deployed forces, including, for example, through additional procurement of strategic lift.

I think this is important. Going first, going fast, and going home was very close to the early Rumsfeld view – airpower, strategic mobility, force protection, and an almost neurotic self-assertion towards allies. It’s rather what the European Council on Foreign Relations says here; Europe was meant to do the boring stuff. It reminds me of the old line about “America cooks and Europe washes up”. Well, if you never wash up, eventually you get typhoid. The reference to additional lift was the decision to lease, at vast cost, and eventually buy the RAF some C-17 transports – a sort of shadow of the concurrent procurement train crash around the Future Strategic Transport Aircraft.

The international and national policy and legal framework is having an increasing impact on our operations. Defence continues to make an important contribution to tackling terrorism overseas, following the lines set out in the SDR New Chapter in 2002. The role of Defence in working with other departments to tackle the drivers of terrorism, and to build security capacity, is crucial – although the scope for conducting overseas counterterrorism operations is narrower than envisaged in 2002.

Indeed – 2002, and the spirit of 2002, are a long time ago, and:

In many cases, our operations have developed in much more complex and dynamic ways than we envisaged and planned for, and we have not been able to adapt as rapidly as we would have liked.

Indeed.

In particular, in our focus on our geographical area of responsibility, for example in Basra, we may have placed insufficient emphasis on the multi-national operational level. In the later stages of operations in Iraq, the full integration of UK staff into US and coalition headquarters significantly improved the coordination of our contribution. We are taking that lesson forward in Afghanistan.

To put it another way: We thought we could ignore what was going on in Baghdad, Anbar, and Multinational Division South-Centre, and just crack on in Basra without rocking the boat. But it’s impossible to divide the problems of war, whether between land, sea, and air or between geographies within the same theatre. When they wanted war elsewhere, we opted out of the big decisions and lost the ability to say no effectively.

Our deployment of formed headquarters and formations for limited periods has not reflected the need for “campaign continuity”. We have now extended the tour lengths for key headquarters personnel and are looking at options that would ensure greater continuity throughout the headquarters. We are clear that we need to go further to produce better campaign continuity.

This was a problem for the Americans in Vietnam and also for the British Army in various counterinsurgencies. It’s probably common to all armies involved in a long war that isn’t utterly central to their worldview, because it’s driven by career structures. To be a general, you must have a general’s command, and why would you be a general if not to command? Further, what they usually command is a formation, and formations usually rotate. Ad-hoc geographical or functional commands are against the bureaucratic structures involved – perhaps it’s because of this that they are always necessary.

We have found it challenging to identify and rapidly implement lessons in doctrine. This is inherently difficult, but in some areas we have already moved a long way. The Army recently issued a new Counter-Insurgency Doctrine, and we now have a dedicated training facility for counter-insurgency in the UK.

Well, they’re right, really.

Often, innovation within the operation has minimised the adverse impact of these weaknesses. In our current operations, we have incorporated those insights into our strategic policy. Our Afghanistan/ Pakistan Strategy, and General McChrystal’s strategy, are based on a clear understanding of the challenges we face, a long-term vision founded on integrated political, development and military action and an overarching regional approach. Our Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) procedures are delivering the equipment our forces need as the requirements evolve. The Government has approved over £5.5 billion of UORs in Afghanistan since the operation began.

To put it another way – we muddled through, sort of. The reference to UORs corroborates this – part of the reason why the armed forces don’t buy all they need through UORs is that they go around much of the procurement process, in order to be urgent. This means, of course, that they may end up paying more, or getting less. On the other hand, the very fact that they needed to raise £5.5 billion worth of them for Afghanistan – that’s as much as the carriers – suggests that the normal procurement process is dysfunctional.

What about the future? It’s likely to be:

* Contested – access and freedom of manoeuvre – even as we attempt to deploy into the regional theatre – will have to be fought for;
* Congested – we are likely to be unavoidably drawn into urban areas, the littoral and lower airspace;
* Cluttered – we will find it difficult to discriminate between a mass of ambiguous targets – friendly forces, other international actors such as non-governmental organisations or development agencies, media representatives, local civilians and our adversaries;
* Connected – key lines of communication, including critical military infrastructure, maritime chokepoints and computer networks, will be vulnerable to attack and disruption; and
* Constrained – legal and social changes will place additional limits on our actions.

This is true, but hardly original. This is a good book.

Our preferred way of warfare – concentrating force, bringing technology to bear and seeking rapid defeat of our adversaries – may not be as effective as it has been in the past.

Is that our preferred way of warfare? I think this might need a debate. It sounds a lot like a classic statement of the American way of war, which may be the problem. Of course, nobody wants to disperse force, fail to use technology to best advantage, and seek endless, inconclusive struggle – but if Rupert Smith is right and struggle tends to be endless and inconclusive, and technology less decisive than expected, perhaps this should have some bearing on our preferences.

And here comes the dread word: “cyber”.

Cyber Space, in particular, poses serious and complex challenges for UK security and for the Armed Forces’ operations. Our increasing dependence on cyber capabilities creates opportunities but also serious vulnerabilities. Cyber attacks are already an important element of the security environment and are growing in seriousness and frequency. The most sophisticated threat is from established and capable states but cyber eliminates the importance of distance, is low cost and is anonymous in nature, making it an important domain, not just for hostile states, but terrorists, and criminals alike. Cyber space is critical to much of our military effort here and overseas and to our national infrastructure.

Note that the most sophisticated threat comes from states – not the main or the most serious threat. Of course, if the feared attack involves an electron microscope or a quantum computer, a state is the most likely attacker. But it’s in the very nature of information security that the great overwhelming majority of threats come from a huge diversity of tiny actors, and they are just as capable of doing serious damage as anyone else.

Further, defence against these threats tends to be the same – basically, sensible network management. The good news here is that there is no talk of giant firewalls or of “cyberdeterrence” – just of sensible security precautions. Further, the realities of the threat environment are taken seriously. No Dr. Evil plots here, nor cold war fantasies, just a space rather like the sea. The upshot of this is that the UK has far greater interests in keeping the infrastructure up, working, and open to all than it could possibly have in disrupting it. Very like the sea.

The National Security Strategy also set out the increasing challenges we face in Space. The Armed Forces’ dependence on space has grown rapidly over recent years. Access to space-derived information is now critical to our ability to conduct operations. This makes us vulnerable. The development of offensive counter-space capabilities is a particular concern. But, given our reliance on assets we do not control, there is also a risk of loss of access in periods of high demand – such as during large-scale operations or in the event of a sudden reduction in existing capacity. A continued close relationship with the US underpins our access to space capabilities. But we intend to look closely at how we contribute to allied programmes or develop national capabilities.

This is probably the most significant paragraph in the chapter. After 1971, the UK hasn’t tried to maintain its own reconnaissance satellite capability, nor has it participated in multilateral projects. It is thought, although as with everything between the UK and the USA, it is not written down in anything subject to ratification, that there is an understanding that the USA would share its overhead imagery with the UK. We know that this was turned down at least once during the Falklands War.

Tellingly, during the Iraq war, European countries fell in three groups. Those who had their own imagery – France and Germany. They didn’t participate at all. Those who got such a capability after the spring of 2003 – Spain and Italy. They left early. Those who had nothing at all – everyone else, basically. The outlier is Turkey, which didn’t have such a capability (although they did have representatives at the EU Satellite Centre) but didn’t get involved. Then, the Turks probably had good human sources in Iraq. They’ve since ordered a high-resolution photographic satellite from Telespazio of Italy.

Exactly what the US chose to share with us out of the wealth of imagery its national technical means, as they say, produced remains one of the great questions about the UK’s involvement in Iraq.

Research and development investment in defence technology in emerging nations has been increasing significantly over the past decade. Some key equipment produced by these countries is already as capable as equivalent equipment produced by the UK and our key allies and partners.

Civil investment in research and development, both nationally and globally, is now much larger than equivalent defence spending. Much of this research is developing technology – for example in communications, materials or biomedical science – which could be used in a military or wider security context. But the Ministry of Defence and our international partners in defence can expect to have less visibility of and expertise in such cutting edge technology than we have had in the past.

Loss of our technological edge in significant areas of military capability would have a profound effect on the way we operate.

This is the Arduino question; the proliferation of what used to be technology confined to the superpowers, or as Phil Hunt put it, what happens when a Congolese workshop with a RepRap can make a surface to air missile? Arguably, the key point here is that there is nothing we can do about it except for getting more like that ourselves – which comes back to the procurement economy.

As Kings of War’s David Betz says, this is an argument for general-purpose forces more than anything else. He also quotes the Navy as follows:

* Firstly, what do you want to defend and what are the Standing Commitments for Defence?
* Secondly, we need to have a clear idea about what we as a country would aspire to do on our own.
* Third, where the UK is operating as a coalition member, how do we want to influence our partners?