Saturday, March 31, 2012

Reading the Tea Leaves: A Foray into the Next War

It’s difficult not to pay attention to the saber rattling in the Middle East, not with gas prices approaching or exceeding $4.00 per gallon in most of the United States and a constant barrage of articles on the news wires like THIS, THIS , and THIS.  I’m neither a politician nor a diplomat, but I am a military analyst and weapons technology expert with a more than passing familiarity with the weapons and forces that will shape a potential conflict.  I’ll beg your indulgence while I engage in a bit of military futurism.
Setting the Stage
Let’s say we have three countries, Freedonia, Sylvania and Trentino.*  


Freedonia is a global superpower, with military forces and commitments spread around the world.  These forces are well equipped with modern weapons, electronics and communications.  Freedonia has a vital strategic interest in the part of the world (let’s call it the “Meso-Orientale”) where both Sylvania and Trentino are situated.  This strategic interest is due to the fact that a large portion of Freedonia’s energy supplies come from petroleum drilling in Meso-Orientalian countries.  Much of this petroleum is shipped in tankers through a narrow waterway off of Trentino’s southern coast.


Sylvania is a dominant regional power whose forces are at least as well equipped as those of Freedonia.  It is surrounded by states that are politically and, given its position as the world’s only Semitic state,  theologically hostile to it.  It has fought six wars with some or all of these states since its founding in the late 1940s, and faces an ongoing threat of terrorism from organizations claiming to represent an indigenous population group that, for various reasons, was displaced by Sylvania’s founding.  These groups are supplied and funded by Trentino, and regularly launch mortar and rocket attacks against Sylvanian cities.  To defend against these attacks, Sylvania has developed an indigenous integrated radar and interceptor rocket system called “Steel Roof.”  Sylvania is widely thought to be a nuclear power, but there has never been any objective confirmation or denial of this capability. 


Trentinan uranium enrichment facility, near Qom.
Trentino is a regional power.  For most of the 20th century, Trentino’s political orientation was western, and it was seen as a vital bulwark against communist expansion during the Cold War.  During the latter half of the century, Trentino received significant military and technical aid from both Freedonia and Sylvania.  In the late 1970s, Trentino’s monarchy was overthrown by a popular revolution organized around fundamentalist religious lines, and a “revolutionary” theocracy was established.  The new government was vehemently anti-western, and even held a number of Freedonian diplomats hostage for over 400 days.  Trentino’s revolutionary government is also opposed to the existence of the Sylvanian state, and regularly broadcasts speeches and platforms that both support anti-Sylvanian terrorism and urge that Sylvania be wiped off the face of the planet.  Trentino has been attempting to develop what it calls a “peaceful nuclear capability” since prior to the overthrow of the monarchy.  It is generally believed that Trentino’s nuclear ambitions are geared more toward the development of deliverable nuclear weapons and less toward providing electricity for its population.


Anti-Freedonian rally in Trentino
Recently, both Freedonian and Sylvanian intelligence services have reported that Trentino is rapidly approaching a nuclear threshold.  Economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations have been ineffective in deterring Trentinan nuclear development.  Additionally, it is believed that the downward spiral of the Trentinan economy may be forcing the government to accelerate the nuclear program as a means of distracting and placating a restive population.  The imminence of a nuclear capable Trentino is of great concern to Freedonia due to its energy interests in the region, but of existential concern to Sylvania, which Trentino has, many times, sworn to wipe from the face of the planet with “hellfire.”
As a result of these concerns, the Sylvanians are actively planning for a contingency operation in which the Sylvanian Air Force will destroy the dozen or so Trentinan nuclear facilities in a surprise precision attack. Meanwhile, the Freedonian administration, which is notably more distant in its relations with Sylvania than previous administrations, is both advising restraint and admonishing Sylvania as to the dire consequences of unilateral action.  However, the Sylvanian government remains adamant that its priority is to protect and preserve the Sylvanian state.   Trentino is making no effort to diminish tensions, in fact, quite the opposite.  The Trentinan government routinely threatens both Freedonia and Sylvania.  In fact, itwas recently discovered that Trentinan agents in Kush had been planning to bomba Sylvanian ship as it transited the Alexandria Canal.  


In early April, the Sylvanian government is advised by its intelligence agencies, and very likely, those of regional allies, that left unhindered, Trentino will be able to build a nuclear weapon within three months.  Faced with this stark reality, the Sylvanian government reluctantly authorizes the strike.  

Day 1

As darkness falls on April 24th, Sylvanian aircraft take to the skies.  These, however, are not the F-16 and F-15 fighters that will bear the brunt of the fight, but Eitan, Harpy and Harop Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).
The Eitan, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV serves as a reconnaissance platform, providing real-time feedback to Sylvanian strike controllers as to the state and condition of Trentinan defenses.  However, a number of the Eitans have been modified to carry electronic warfare payloads.  These payloads give the Trentinans tremendous capabilities, from mimicking a maintenance cell phone signal that puts a cell network out of action by commanding it to “sleep” to jammers that interfere with first responder emergency frequencies and signal generators that at one moment will spoof the  Trentinan air defense radars so that at first they see a perfectly clear sky and at the next moment see a sky filled with many hundreds of aircraft.

Harpy UCAV
The Harpy and Harop are stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) designed to quietly loiter around the battlespace until air defense radars begin emitting their search and tracking signals. Once Trentinan radars light up, the UCAVs dive into them and detonate their integral warhead, effectively suppressing Trentino’s ability to engage Sylvanian strike aircraft.
Harop UCAV
The UAVs are followed a few hours later by waves of Sylvanian F-16  and F-15 aircraft.  Some are carrying precision guided penetrator munitions designed to burrow dozens of feet into reinforced concrete before detonating.  Others are carrying Runway Attack Munitons (RAM) which release dozens of penetrating submunitions that crater a runway, rendering it useless, or the Modular Stand-Off Vehicle (MSOV), a precision guided, missile shaped gliding  vehicle that can be programmed to fly over an air base and dispense homing bomblets intended to destroy aircraft on the ground.

Runway Attack Munition
 Some aircraft are fitted entirely with air-to-air missiles, intended to counter any Trentinan aircraft that get off the ground.
Before the Sylvanian aircraft enter Trentinian airspace, Sylvanian cyberwarfare experts – the country’s militarized hackers – launch a pair of devastating cyberattacks.  The first introduces a virus into the Trentinan electrical grid, which has been left connected to the Internet.  Minutes after virus is loosed, power plants in Trentino’s cities begin to malfunction, and the country is plunged into darkness.  Backup power systems come online, but these do the Trentinans no good as the second half of the Sylvanian cyber attack, a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack of enormous proportions, hits.  All Trentinan command and control nodes that rely on the Internet are suddenly unable to function.
Sylvanian F-15I Raam
The Eitans enter first, broadcasting signals that convince the Trentinan air defense systems that all is well, despite frantic calls from the national command.   When the Harops and Harpys are in position, the Eitans switch signals, convincing the Trentinan air defense radars that the sky is full of attackers.  One by one, Trentinan radars power up, searching the sky for likely targets for Trentino’s S-200 and S-400 Surface to Air Missiles (SAM)….and, one by one, the Sylvanian Harops and Harpys destroy the radars.
Trentinan S-400 SAM Launcher and Radar
Moments later, the first Sylvanian strike aircraft scream into the dark Trentinan sky.   Groups peel off in search of individual targets.  Some head toward Trentinan nuclear sites, some toward Trentinan airfields and some toward other targets. Within an hour, the nuclear sites are little more than smoking ruins and the majority of the Trentinan Air Force has been destroyed on the ground.  Thirty minutes later, the Sylvanian pilots are streaking for home.  It has been a complete and total victory.  Later estimates will determine that the that the Trentinan nuclear program has been set back by four to five years, and that it will be the better part of a year before Trentino has meaningful air defenses.  It has not, however, been a bloodless victory.   Nearly 20% of the attacking Sylvanian aircraft have fallen to Trentinan gun and missile systems that were not suppressed by the initial attacks against the air defense grid.
The returning Sylvanian pilots are greeted as heroes.
Day 2
GBU-28 Penetrator Bomb
By the end of the day, Trentinan repair crews have restored power to critical command and control infrastructure.  The damage assessment is ongoing, but it is worse than the Trentinans expected.  Burying the nuclear sites failed to provide adequate protection against the Sylvanian GBU-28 and GBU-37 penetrator bombs.  Both they and the Trentinan long range missile sites are complete losses.  Worse, almost all the modern aircraft Trentino possessed were destroyed on the ground, with the exception of an F-14A Tomcat and a MiG-29C that were blown out of the sky by a Sylvanian F-15I .
Trentinan F-14A Tomcat Fighter and Aircrew
SS Oceania
Trentinan Moudge Class Frigate Jamaran
The Trentinan government is, not surprisingly, furious.  It blames not only Sylvania, but the west in general and Freedonia in particular.  In retaliatory action, the Trentinan Navy is ordered to close the Straits of Dalat, a narrow, 21 mile wide waterway through which much of the world’s crude oil flows.  Trentinan Houdong and Kaman class missile boats and  Moudge class frigates take to the waves.  A standoff occurs between the SS Oceania, a Freedonian flagged TI class supertanker and the Moudge class frigate Jamaran.  The Oceania refuses to heave to, even after the Jamaran fires a burst of 40mm shells across her bow.  The Jamaran’s captain calls for instructions and is told to sink the Oceania.   Obeying orders, the Jamaran looses a pair of C-802/Noor anti-shipping missiles into the Oceania.  The Oceania’s double hull keeps her afloat, but the flames and pillar of smoke from the burning tanker can be seen for many miles.
Shipping companies order their ships to observe the Trentinan blockade.
Overnight, the price of gasoline spikes forty cents.

Day 3
FNS Ticonderoga Class Cruiser Cold Harbor
Trentinan C-802/Noor Missile
In response to the Trentinan closure of the Straits of Dalat, the Freedonian administration orders the Freedonian Navy’s 11th Fleet to reopen the waterway and maintain freedom of the seas.  A Freedonian Ticonderoga class guided missile cruiser, the FNS Cold Harbor is dispatched to escort stranded tankers through the strait.  As it approaches, it is hailed by a Trentinan frigate.  The Trentinans inform the Cold Harbor that the strait is closed, and that she is to turn around or be fired up.  The Cold Harbor continues her approach.  The Trentinan frigate fires a Noor missile at the Cold Harbor, which the Cold Harbor’s Phalanx Close In Weapon Systems (CIWS) blow into shrapnel.  The Cold Harbor continues to sail into the strait.  Suddenly, the ship’s radars and early warning systems begin to blare.  Incoming missiles.  Dozens of them have been launched from Trentinan shore sites and are streaking toward the ship at nearly the speed of sound.  The ship’s defenses are simply saturated, and no fewer than eleven C-802 and C-803 missiles strike her.  The Cold Harbor sinks within an hour.  The Trentinan government declares the action an act of Freedonian aggression, and moves mechanized formations of the Trentinan Army toward its western border, within striking distance of the major petroleum producing nations of the Meso-Orientale. 
Trentinan Zulfiqar-1 Main Battle Tank
The Trentinan Army is large, comprising some 850,000 men under arms.  These are divided into five corps level regional commands which can call upon four armored divisions, six mechanized infantry divisions, one special forces division, two commando divisions and an airborne division.  It fields some 1,600 main battle tanks including indigenous designs like the Zulfiqar  and Mobarez as well as foreign vehicles such as the T-72, T-62, M60A1, Chieftain, Type 59 and M48 Patton.  The diversity of equipment creates logistics problems, and many formations are formidable on paper, but lack necessary spares and ammunition supplies, rendering them significantly less combat effective.
Day 4
Freedonian Seawolf Class Attack Submarine
The Freedonian national command authority reacts swiftly to the crisis.  Within an hour of the Cold Harbor’s sinking Freedonian reconnaissance UAVs are in the air over the Gulf of Dalat, pinpointing the location and status of every Trentinan naval vessel.  Additional reconnaissance assets patrol the skies over western Trentino, identifying and locating the positions taken up by Trentinan ground forces.  The Freedonian Navy orders additional Virginia, Seawolf and Los Angeles class attack submarines as well Ohio class cruise missile submarines to take up positions in the Gulf.  As the attack submarines arrive in the Gulf, they begin to silently locate and shadow Trentinan Kilo class and Nahang class submarines as well as Trentinan surface ships.  The Freedonian Air Force scrambles squadrons of B-52, B-1 and B-2 long range strategic bombers, and puts tactical fighter squadrons forward deployed in the Meso-Orientale on alert.  Two additional Nimitz class aircraft carrier strike groups are ordered to the region.
Day 5
Tanker ships remain bottled up in the Gulf of Dalat, and the global economic impacts are both swift and severe.  The Freedonian national average price for a gallon of unleaded regular gasoline jumps to $5.75.  Similar impacts are felt in the surging economies of the People’s Sinosian Hegemony and Hindustan as well as in Europe and South America. 
Trentinan Submarine Yunes 903
Freedonian Tomahawk Cruise Missile
In the pre-dawn hours, the Freedonian naval and air assault begins.  The Freedonian attack submarines Alaska, Oregon and Tigershark fire Mk. 48 Advanced Capability (ADCAP) torpedoes that strike and sink the Trentinan submarines Tareq 901, Noor 902, Yunes 903 and Nahang.  Simultaneously, Freedonian cruise missile submarines and guided missile destroyers and cruisers launch salvoes of Tomahawk cruise missiles against Trentinan Navy command and control facilities, remaining air defense systems and ships in port.  Particularly hard hit are vessels and storage facilities believed to support the Trentinan Navy’s mine warfare capability.  Freedonian strategic bombers begin to pound both Trentinan ground forces deployed along the country’s western border and long range ballistic missile sites.  The missiles are followed by waves of Freedonian strike aircraft launched from aircraft carriers and missile armed UAVs.  Other aircraft employ precision guided bombs to disable and sink Trentinan ships patrolling the Gulf, while the Freedonian submarines continue to hunt and sink the Trentinan Navy.
Within eight hours of the assault’s start, the Trentinan Navy effectively ceases to exist. 
Day 6
Trentinan Shahab-3 Missile
A desperate Trentinan government authorizes ballistic missile strikes against both Sylvania and Freedonian allies in the Meso-Orientale.  Four Shahab-3 missiles are launched; two targeted at Sylvania’s economic capital, Tel Aviv, and one each at Riyadh, capital of Hejaz, an oil producing desert kingdom and a Freedonian ally, and the other at Manama, capital of Dhahani, an emirate where the Freedonian 11th Fleet is based.  The Trentinan missiles are engaged by Standard SM-3 air defense missiles fired from Freedonian cruisers and destroyers in the Gulf, and three are destroyed.  The fourth missile eludes the Freedonian ballistic missile defenses and begins its descent toward Tel Aviv.  As the missile heads toward the city, the Sylvanian Steel Roof system begins to track it.  An enagagement solution is automatically calculated, and as the Trentinan missile comes within range, a salvo of Steel Roof interceptor missiles are loosed at the incoming projectile.  The Trentinan missile is destroyed at a height of 45,000 feet over a sparsely populated area.  There are no casualties.
Sylvanian Steel Roof Missile Launch
The Freedonian government, fearful of the potential diplomatic repercussions resulting in further Sylvanian actions, steps up the air campaign against Trentinan missile sites and command and control facilities.  In twenty two hours of continuous air activity, and estimated 2,200 Trentinan armored vehicles and artillery pieces have been destroyed, and military casualties are estimated in the tens of thousands.  Trentinan offensive capabilities are effectively eliminated.
Day 7
With the destruction of the Trentinan naval threat, Freedonian naval vessels, as well as those of Freedonian allies including the United Monarchy, Oceania, Teutonia and Hollandia begin escorting tankers in and out of the Gulf.  Freedonian air assets begin enforcing a no-fly zone over Trentino.  Gas prices in Freedonia, which spiked at $7.15 per gallon in parts of California and New York are slowly declining.  Additional Freedonian forces are sent to the Gulf region, but no additional threats are anticipated from Trentino in the near future.   The longer term impacts to the Freedonian, and global, economies are significant.  Capital that would have otherwise been available for business expansion and development is reallocated to basic operating expenses, and the economic recovery, fueled by job creation, is stalled. The unemployment rate, which had fallen to 8.3%, spikes to nearly 10% in the wake of the oil crisis.  Families across the income spectrum are impacted as the price of any goods that are transported, from paper to milk to clothes to vegetables rise by double digit percentages.  The grim, austere economic conditions are reflected politically, and in the presidential election, the incumbent party is soundly defeated by an angry public.
Fascinating as the match-up of military hardware and forces may be, it’s important to look at the root cause of the issues in the Middle East.  The Middle East matters, but why? It’s not because the world has a burning desire to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, or because the majority of the planet cares deeply about urban development in Dubai.  It’s because the world remains dependent on fossil fuels in general and petroleum products in particular, of which there are huge reserves in the Middle East.  As a result, blood and treasure are spilled wantonly by powers in both hemispheres seeking to either create stability in or exert control over the Middle East’s oil fields, and the region assumes a disproportionate importance on the global stage. 
The most effective response to instability in the region is to deprive it of importance.  Realization of this goal depends on the achievement of energy independence.  Remove energy dependency and the strategic rationale for defending the region disappears, as does a major bone of contention between the developed and the developing world.  The result of that disappearance is an abnormal condition called “peace.”  Despite this, no American administration in the last half century has made energy independence an overriding national priority.

* With apologies to the Marx Brothers.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why My Mother Wouldn’t Let Me Bake

I don’t want to alarm you, but there’s a bomb in your pantry, one that is likely to be powerful enough to destroy your home.  What’s worse is that it’s so well camouflaged that you’d never suspect its destructive properties until it was far too late.  Sure, the safety mechanism has to be removed, and it has to be properly armed and triggered, but make no mistake, it’s dangerous and lethal.

The bomb in your pantry
Let me stop you before you have your local explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) squad tear your kitchen apart, I suppose I should tell you that I’m talking about the five pound sack of flour you have in between the sugar and the baking powder.  

In its normal state – that is, tightly packed and sealed in the sack, the flour is completely inert.  No danger to anyone.  However, should the flour be forcefully expelled from the sack in such a way that it forms, for a brief time, a cloud of flour dust in your kitchen, the key ingredient for Aunt Faye’s strawberry shortcake transforms into a potentially lethal explosive.  All it takes is an ignition source, whether it be from an electrostatic discharge, friction, arcing from the wiring of a nearby appliance, hot appliance surfaces or fire from the burners on the stove, and you’d be lucky if all you had to do is remodel the kitchen.

The mechanism I’ve just described is a typical dust explosion.  A dust explosion is the rapid oxidation (think “burning” or “combustion”) of dust particles suspended in the air in an enclosed location.   Dust explosions occur due to the abnormally high surface area in relation to overall mass of particles suspended in a dust cloud.  Burning can only occur on the surface of a solid or a liquid, where it is free to react with atmospheric oxygen.  In the case of our five pound sack of flour, it has a surface area of about 2.2 square feet.  Disperse that flour into the air, and the dust particles (each with an approximate diameter of 50 micrometers) could have a surface area in excess of 34,000 square feet.  This huge increase in surface area allows the dispersed flour to burn much more rapidly, and the small size of the particles allows them to ignite with far less energy.
Washburn A Mill Explosion, May 2, 1878, Minneapolis, MN

When the mixture of flammable particles (the “fuel”) and air is ignited in a confined space, a tremendous overpressure is created, along with tremendous heat.  This overpressure, and the resulting blast and heat, is often enough to destroy a structure such as a house or a grain silo.

So why, in a blog about weapons and their uses in storylines and plots, am I telling you about flour? 

Mainly because the behavior of clouds of flour when ignited has been the principle behind the development of an entire class of weapon systems.  These systems, called thermobaric weapons, exploit the peculiar nature of the blast waves caused by fuel-air explosions to cause significantly more damage than conventional weapons using condensed explosives.

Thermobaric weapons get their name from the Greek words for "hot" (thermos)and "pressure" (baros).  Typically, they consist of a container packed with a powder or liquid fuel.  Materials chosen for the fuels are selected on the basis of the degree of heat given off when they burn (their “exothermicity”), with hotter fuels being better for the purpose.  Fuels range from powdered metals, such as magnesium or aluminum to boron, silicon, titanium, magnesium, zirconium, carbon or hydrocarbons such as ethylene oxide or propylene oxide.   In the center of the fuel mixture is a bursting charge, usually composed of a conventional explosive that disperses and ignites the fuel.

Courtesy of the BBC
At the time of detonation, the bursting charge disperses the fuel into an optimized vapor density and then ignites it.  Things start to happen rapidly at this point.  When a thermobaric weapon is detonated in a confined space, such as a house, a cave or a bunker, a series of shock waves that interact with each other are created.  These shock waves increase the duration of the fireball to between 10 and 50 milliseconds.  As the combustion gasses begin to cool, pressure drops sharply and a partial vacuum is created which is powerful enough to cause severe injury and structural damage.

How devastating is a thermobaric weapon?  The overpressure within the detonation can be within the order of 400 pounds per square inch (psi), and the temperature of the fireball may range from 4,500° to 5,500° Fahrenheit, followed by an expanding blast wave moving at more than two miles per second.  The effect is magnified between two and nine times when the weapon is detonated within a structure, cave or bunker as opposed to open space.  Those near the point of detonation are simply vaporized, and  injuries suffered by those further away from the epicenter include burst eardrums, crushed inner ear organs, severe concussions, ruptured lungs and internal organs and blindness.  This is in addition to severe burn injuries caused by the fireball.  Thermobaric weapons are a very effective, very nasty piece of kit.

Russian RPO-A Thermobaric Rocket Launcher
While the most famous thermobaric munitions are massive, air delivered bombs weighing many thousands of pounds, the technology is not limited by size.  Characteristics of thermobaric munitions that lend themselves nicely to plotlines and stories include small size, portability and proliferation.  Thermobaric munitions entered widespread use with the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s.  The RPO-A rocket launcher is about three feet long, and when loaded with the “Bumblebee” rocket, weighs only 24 pounds.  The more modern (circa 2004) RSgH-1, which weighs about 17 pounds including launcher and rocket, is a thermobaric variant of the RPG-27, with a blast effect equivalent to thirteen pounds of TNT.

XM1060 40mm Thermobaric Grenade
The United States has fielded a number of weapons based on thermobaric technology, including the fist sized XM1060 40mm Thermobaric Grenade, the 17 pound Shoulder Launched Mulipurpose Assault Weapon – Novel Explosive (SMAW-NE; a derivation of the Israeli B-300 system), and the AGM-114N version of the 106 pound Hellfire guided missile.  The AGM-114N uses a layer of fluoridated aluminum layered between the outer casing and a conventional PBXN-112 explosive.
SMAW-NE Thermobaric Rocket Launcher
Flour, a fine mist of kerosene or finely powdered metals – all of them can be used by your characters, good and bad, to devastating effect, especially in scenes where transporting a large amount of conventional explosive is impractical or impossible.
Of course, I’d always thought that mom didn’t want to let me bake because she was concerned about my ability to create a mess in the kitchen.  Apparently, she was more worried about my ability to make a mess and destroy the house in the process!
My mom is a very wise woman.  You never know what danger lurks behind household staples...