Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mystery booms rock Tucson - video

CIA officer who leaked covert officer's name begins prison term

BBC: A former CIA officer sentenced to 30 months in prison has told the BBC he has made peace with his decision to leak a covert officer's name.

John Kiriakou says he believes the case was about larger human rights issues.

He is the first person convicted of identifying a covert agent in 27 years.

Defence lawyers argued that Kiriakou's actions - giving a journalist the name of a former CIA officer alleged to have taken part in waterboarding - were those of a whistleblower.

Kiriakou, 48, is set to begin the prison term on Thursday.Dropped charges

"I feel oddly optimistic about the coming two years," he told the BBC in an interview. "I feel very much at peace with my decision to go public on the torture issue."

Kiriakou, a CIA officer from 1990-2004, led an operation that captured Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaeda financier.
Continue reading the main story
“Start Quote

The justice department has made me a hero in the human rights community. I intend to use this notoriety”John Kiriakou

Zubaydah was allegedly subjected to waterboarding - simulated drowning - 83 times during interrogation.

The investigation into Kiriakou's leak began after lawyers for suspected terrorists filed a legal brief that included details not provided by the government.

FBI investigators followed the trail back to Kiriakou and arrested him in January 2012, according to court records.

Prosecutors said that in 2008 the former officer leaked the name of a covert operative to a journalist, who subsequently disclosed it to a researcher working for the lawyer of a Guantanamo detainee.

When asked why he decided to leak the name, he told the BBC: "my case was not about leaking - my case was about torture."

"This is a case about civil liberties and human rights," he said. "Somebody needs to take a stand. I am very proud to have had a role in that."

Kiriakou pleaded guilty in October to disclosing classified information identifying a covert agent. A deal with prosecutors limited his sentence to 30 months. Several other charges were dropped.

"It was a crime," he said. "I had no intent to violate the law. I think it was my whistle-blowing that led to this sentence."

Prosecutors argued Kiriakou was merely seeking to increase his fame and public stature by trading on his insider knowledge. He later worked as a consultant for a US news network and published a book about his time at the CIA.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

CBS: Stuxnet roots go back to Bush administration

Updated at 11:22 a.m. ET
The sophisticated cyberweapon which targeted an Iranian nuclear plant is older than previously believed, an anti-virus firm said Tuesday, peeling back another layer of mystery on a series of attacks attributed to U.S. and Israeli intelligence.
The Stuxnet worm, aimed at the centrifuges in Iran's Natanz plant, transformed the cybersecurity field because it was the first known computer attack specifically designed to cause physical damage. The precise origins of the worm remain unclear, but until now the earliest samples of Stuxnet had been dated to 2009.
Security experts generally agree that Stuxnet was an attempt to sabotage Iran's uranium enrichment centrifuges, which can be used to make fuel for reactors or weapons-usable material for atomic bombs. Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

s "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft reported last year, Stuxnet was incredibly complicated and sophisticated, beyond the cutting edge. By the time it was first detected in June 2010, it had been out in the wild for a year without drawing anyone's attention, and seemed to spread by way of USB thumb drives, not over the Internet.
By the fall of 2010, the consensus was that Iran's top secret uranium enrichment plant at Natanz was the target and that Stuxnet was a carefully constructed weapon designed to be carried into the plant on a corrupted laptop or thumb drive, then infect the system, disguise its presence, move through the network, changing computer code and subtly alter the speed of the centrifuges without the Iranians ever noticing, Kroft reported.
"Stuxnet's entire purpose is to control centrifuges," Liam O Murchu, an operations manager for Symantec, told Kroft. "To make centrifuges speed up past what they're meant to spin at and to damage them. Certainly it would damage the uranium enrichment facility and they would need to be replaced."
Last June, The New York Times traced the origins of the top-secret program back to 2006.
In a new report issued late Tuesday, Symantec Corp. pushed that timeline further back, saying it had found a primitive version of Stuxnet circulating online in 2007 and that elements of the program had been in place as far back as 2005.
One independent expert who examined the report said it showed that the worm's creators were particularly far-sighted.
"What it looks like is that somebody's been thinking about this for a long, long time — the better part of a decade," said Alan Woodward, a computer science professor at the University of Surrey. "It really points to a very clever bunch of people behind all of this."
he Times reported that President George W. Bush ordered the deployment of Stuxnet against Iran in a bid to put the brakes on its atomic energy program, detailing how the worm tampered with the operation of Natanz's centrifuge machines to send them spinning out of control.
President Obama, who succeeded Bush shortly after the first attacks, expanded the campaign, the report said.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Iran claims to have downed another drone

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard said Saturday that it had captured a foreign unmanned aircraft during a military exercise in southern Iran.

Gen. Hamid Sarkheili, a spokesman for the military exercise, said the Guard's electronic warfare unit spotted signals indicating that foreign drones were trying to enter Iranian airspace. Sarkheili said Guard experts took control of one drone's navigation system and brought it down near the city of Sirjan where the military drills began on Saturday.

"While probing signals in the area, we spotted foreign and enemy drones which attempted to enter the area of the war game," the official IRNA news agency quoted the general as saying. "We were able to get one enemy drone to land."

Sarkheili did not say whether the drone was American.

In Washington, a CIA spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

Iran has claimed to have captured several U.S. drones, including an advanced RQ-170 Sentinel CIA spy drone in December 2011 and at least three ScanEagle aircraft.

State TV said the Guard's military exercise, code-named Great Prophet-8, involved ground forces of the Guard, Iran's most powerful military force. State TV showed tanks and artillery attacking hypothetical enemy positions. He said various systems, including unmanned planes that operate like suicide bombers, were tested.

Friday, February 22, 2013

F-35s grounded due to cracked engine blades

(Reuters) - The Pentagon on Friday suspended the flights of all 51 F-35 fighter planes after a routine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade in the jet engine of an F-35 test aircraft in California.

It was the second grounding of the warplane in two months and marked another setback for the $396 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the Pentagon's biggest weapons program. The program has already been restructured three times in recent years and may face further cutbacks if Congress does not avert major budget reductions due to take effect on March 1.

The F-35 program office said it was too early to know if this was a fleet-wide issue, but it was suspending all flights until an investigation was completed. A total of 51 F-35 jets were affected, including 17 that are being used for testing and 34 in use for training in Florida and Arizona.

It said it was working closely with Pratt & Whitney, the United Technologies Corp unit that builds the engine, and Lockheed Martin Corp, the prime contractor for the radar-evading warplane, to ensure the integrity of the engine and return the F-35 fleet to flight as soon as possible.

The Pentagon's F-35 program office began notifying the chiefs of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps late on Thursday about the engine issue and decision to ground the planes, said Kyra Hawn, a spokeswoman for the program office.

She said that a routine inspection at Edwards Air Force Base in California on February 19 revealed a crack on a low pressure turbine blade that is part of the F-35's F135 engine. The blade was on an F-35 A-model, or Air Force variant, which takes off and lands from conventional runways.

Pratt spokesman Matthew said the inspection showed "an indication of a crack" on the third stage low pressure turbine airfoil. He said the company was working closely with the Pentagon, Lockheed and the military services to get the planes flying again.

Engineering teams are removing the turbine blade from the plane and plan to ship it to Pratt's engine facility in Middletown, Connecticut, for more thorough evaluation and root cause analysis, according to the Pentagon and Pratt.

Hawn said an initial analysis was expected next week.

Sandia airborne pods seek to trace nuclear bomb’s origins

Modular units crossing “Valley of Death” for Air Force use
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If a nuclear device were to unexpectedly detonate anywhere on Earth, the ensuing effort to find out who made the weapon probably would be led by aircraft rapidly collecting airborne radioactive particles for  analysis.
Sandia National Laboratories researchers prepare pods that, airborne, will track radiation to its source and analyze particulates and gases to identify a nuclear bomb's origins. (Photo by Randy Montoya). Click on the thumbnail for a high-resolution image.
Relatively inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — equipped with radiation sensors and specialized debris-samplers — could fly right down the throat of telltale radiation over a broad range of altitudes without exposing a human crew to hazards.
A Sandia National Laboratories-developed airborne particulate-collection system demonstrated those kinds of capabilities in the blue skies above Grand Forks Air Force Basein Grand Forks, N.D., in late September. Dubbed “Harvester” for obvious reasons, the system “tasted” the atmosphere with two particulate sampling pods. A third pod would provide directional guidance for a real event by following the trail of gamma radiation.
The three pods, with additional hardware, software and ground-control equipment, are expected take their place on aircraft in the Air Force’s investigatory arsenal in the next few years.
When they do so, they will have traversed the infamous technological “Valley of Death,” in which many promising researched and developed ideas die before reaching production.
The successful Grand Forks demonstration was part of a formal Department of Defense (DoD) Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) that mated the Harvester modular pods to the long wings of a Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection-provided MQ-9 Reaper UAV. (The Reaper is a more powerful cousin of the better-known Predator.)
A researcher checks air flow in the Harvester particulate sampling pod. (Photo by Randy Montoya.) Click on the thumbnail for a high -resolution image.
While the tests did not include any radioisotope releases, the pods were able to collect and identify naturally occurring radioisotopes of lead and bismuth produced from the radioactive decay of atmospheric radon. In addition, radioactive beryllium-7 produced from cosmic ray-induced break-up (spallation) of naturally occurring carbon-14, also showed up on the filters, providing a uniform measure for debris distribution.
The modular pods eliminate the need for costly, permanent aircraft modifications that would limit the number of aircraft platforms on which Harvester can be flown.
“There’s a high likelihood the Air Force will make Harvester operational in 2014 to augment its current manned aircraft collection capability,” said Sandia project lead Joe Sanders. “For maximum responsiveness, we continually engaged with the Air Force to address its technological and operational needs throughout the project.”
The Harvester’s Directional Gamma Radiation Sensor (DGRS) helps guide the aircraft toward the radioactive plume using four large sodium iodide radiation detectors and a complex processing algorithm. The Harvester equipment operator informs the pilot, located far away in a UAV ground control station, to fly toward the plume’s “hot spot.”
“The operator will see a vector that shows peak plume intensity up and to the right, let’s say,” Sanders said. “It’s the equivalent of a guide saying, ‘You’re getting warmer.’”
Air passes through the samplers, each about the size of a small snowmobile, as the Reaper cruises at 200 mph. This rams particles into filter paper like light hitting a photographic plate, causing the particles to stick to the filter fibers. A separate radiation sensor analyzes the filter in real time to estimate the type and quantity of radioactive particles collected. More extensive examination of the filters occurs after the aircraft has landed.
The radiation sensor (smaller pod) and Harvester sampling pods ready for a UAV test flight at a U.S. air base. (Photo by Joe Sanders) Click on the thumbnail for a high-resolution image.
Because gas analysis can complement particle analysis, Sandia is developing a third type of pod called the Whole Air Sampling Pod (WASP) to demonstrate the feasibility of collecting multiple, large-volume air samples that can be analyzed for radioactive gases. Radioxenons, radioisotopes of the noble gas xenon, if detected, can provide a tell-tale indication of a nuclear detonation.
“While not small, the 9-foot-long, 650-pound WASP is designed to be compatible with an MQ-9 Reaper UAV,” Sanders said. “WASP has not yet been flight-tested but has performed well in the laboratory, and the DoD’s interest in modular gas sampling is growing. We look forward to demonstrating the WASP technology, and expect that it will also cross the Valley of Death.”
Harvester was developed by Sandia with support from the Albuquerque office of National Technical Systems, an international engineering firm. The early research and development phase was funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Nonproliferation Research and Development. The later development and qualification phase was funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Rapid Fielding Office as part of the JCTD.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multi-program laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.
Sandia news media contact:  Neal Singer,,  (505) 845-7078

X-37 B Robot shuttle settles in to orbit

The U.S. Air Force's mysterious X-37B space plane is quietly chalking up mileage in space more than two months after its latest launch into orbit.
The robotic X-37B space plane soared into orbit atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 11. The mini-shuttle's mission is known as Orbital Test Vehicle-3 (OTV-3), since it is the third classified mission under the Air Force's X-37B program.
How long OTV-3 will remain in Earth orbit is unknown. The hush-hush space plane mission is officially on Air Force space tracking books as USA-240.
The current flight underway has attained one known major milestone — that of reusability.
This same vehicle was flown on the maiden voyage in the X-37B program back in 2010. That OTV-1 mission lasted nearly 225 days in orbit and then zoomed back to Earth on autopilot over the Pacific Ocean, gliding down onto a specially prepared runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The OTV-2 mission, which used a different X-37B vehicle, also made a Vandenberg touchdown on June 16 of last year after remaining in orbit for 469 days, more than doubling its sister ship’s stay.
There's a possibility that OTV-3 may not land in Vandenberg. There have been discussions about bringing the space plane down at the space shuttle landing strip at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, next door to Cape Canaveral, as a possible cost-cutting measure.
"The possibility of using the former shuttle infrastructure for future X-37B landing operations is still being investigated," Badger said.
Space test platform
The X-37B looks a bit like a miniature space shuttle. The vehicle is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed.
Only two X-37B space planes have been constructed for the Air Force by Boeing Government Space Systems, officials say. Flights of the space plane are conducted under the auspices of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.
According to an Air Force fact sheet, the Rapid Capabilities Office is working on the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle "to demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the United States Air Force."
Mission control is handled by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, 21st Space Wing, of the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Obama announces drones deployed to West Africa

WASHINGTON POST: By Craig Whitlock, Friday, February 22, 10:18 AM

President Obama announced Friday that about 100 U.S. troops have been deployed to the West African country of Niger, where defense officials said they are setting up a drone base to spy on al-Qaeda fighters in the Sahara.

In a letter to Congress, Obama said about 40 U.S. military personnel arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number of troops based there to “approximately” 100. He said the troops, who are armed for self-protection, would support a French-led military operation in neighboring Mali, where al-Qaeda fighters and other militants have carved out a refuge in a remote territory the size of Texas.

The drone base in Niger marks the opening of another far-flung U.S. military operation against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, in addition to ongoing combat missions in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The CIA is also conducting airstrikes against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan and Yemen.

Senior U.S. officials have said for months that they would not put U.S. military “boots on the ground” in Mali, an impoverished nation that has been mired chaos since March when a U.S.-trained Malian army captain took power in a coup. But U.S. troops are becoming increasingly involved in the conflict from the skies and the rear echelons, where they are supporting the French and African militaries seeking to stabilize the region.

Obama did not explicitly reveal the drone base in his letter to Congress, but he said the U.S. troops in Niger would “provide support for intelligence collection” and share intelligence with French forces in Mali.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide further details about military operations, said the 40 troops who arrived in Niger Wednesday were almost all Air Force personnel and that their mission is to support drone flights.

The official said drone operations were “imminent,” but declined to say whether unmanned Predator aircraft had already arrived in Niger or how many would be deployed there. The drones will be based initially in the capital, Niamey, but military officials would like to move them eventually to the northern city of Agadez, which is closer to parts of northern Mali where al-Qaeda cells have taken root.

“That’s a better location for the mission, but it’s not feasible at this point,” the official said, adding that Agadez is a more remote city “with logistical challenges.”

The introduction of Predators to Niger fills a gap in the Pentagon’s military capabilities over the Sahara, which remains beyond the reach of its drone bases in East Africa and southern Europe.

The U.S. military has been flying a handful of small turboprop surveillance planes over northern Mali and West Africa for years, but the PC-12 aircraft are limited in range and lack the sophisticated sensors that Predators carry.

U.S. military contractors have been flying PC-12 surveillance aircraft from Agadez for several months. But those planes do not carry military markings and only require a handful of people to operate.

In contrast, Predators need ground crews to launch and recover the drones as well as to repair and maintain them. Those crews, in turn, require armed personnel for protection.

The U.S. defense official said it is likely that more U.S. troops will deploy to Niger, but declined to be specific. "I think it’s safe to say the number will probably grow.”

The Predators in Niger will only conduct surveillance, not airstrikes, the official said. “This is purely an intelligence gathering mission,” he said. Other officials said the Obama administration had not ruled out arming the Predators with missiles in the future.

Information collected from reconnaissance missions will be shared with the French and other African militaries so they can attack al-Qaeda targets, officials said.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Pentagon to furlough 800k

The Washington Post:
The Defense Department officially notified its 800,000 civilian employees on Wednesday that they are likely to be placed on periods of unpaid leave, as the Obama administration scrambled to deal with congressionally mandated budget cuts set to kick in next week.

“There is no mistaking that the rigid nature of the cuts forced upon this department, and their scale, will result in a serious erosion of readiness across the force,” Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta said to employees in a memo issued Wednesday.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry separately warned against “retreating” from global diplomacy, as he made the case in a speech at the University of Virginia for retaining or expanding the State Department’s budget and argued that the costs of pulling back from the world would be huge. “Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow,” he said to applause in his first address outside the department as secretary of state.

With nine days to go before $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts begin, some Democrats on Capitol Hill are calling on Republican leaders to reconvene the Houseimmediately and find a way to avert the spending reductions known as the “sequester.” Both the House and Senate are in recess this week.

“This is an unnecessary self-inflicted wound on the United States economy,” Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) said in a conference call with other House Democrats to highlight some of the fears and adverse affects of the sequester they’re hearing about back home. “Congress should come back to Washington to fix the problem.” Andrews’s district is home to several government contracting firms.

The Pentagon, faced with $46 billion in cuts, is required to notify Congress at least 45 days before furloughing employees, and officials told lawmakers Wednesday that the move is likely. Panetta said in his memo to the Pentagon’s workforce that affected employees would be notified of the terms of their leave at least 30 days before their furloughs begin. The Pentagon’s tentative plan is to put civilian employees on leave one day per week for 22 weeks.

Uniformed personnel are not subject to furloughs. Panetta held out hope in the memo that the cuts might be avoided. Even if a deal between the White House and Republicans doesn’t materialize by March 1, when the automatic cuts go into effect, the parties could in coming weeks reach an agreement that spares the Pentagon.

The move is part of a broader retrenchment of government spending devised by lawmakers in 2011, when they created a framework to reduce the nation’s deficit. The across-the-board cuts stipulated in the Budget Control Act were designed to seem so painful and foolish that their prospect, if nothing else, would force Republicans and Democrats to compromise on a measured approach to curtailing federal spending. So far, it has not.

As the deadline approaches, the White House and Republicans have accused each other of intransigence, with no sign that a breakthrough is imminent.

“If Congress allows this meat-cleaver approach to take place, it will jeopardize our military readiness,” President Obama said in a speech Tuesday morning. “It will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement Wednesday blaming the White House for not doing enough to nudge Senate Democrats toward a compromise.

“As the commander in chief, President Obama is ultimately responsible for our military readiness,” Boehner said. “So it’s fair to ask: what is he doing to stop [these cuts] that would ‘hollow out’ our Armed Forces?”

In Charlottesville, Kerry argued that America’s duties and ambitions overseas are too important to shortchange, even in a time of tight budgets. “In today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy,” he said.

If forced to pull back from the world by budget cuts, Kerry said, “the vacuum we would leave by retreating within ourselves will quickly be filled by those whose interests differ dramatically from our own.”

He called for heading off the March 1 automatic budget cuts that would force furloughs at the State Department, as well as the Pentagon and other federal agencies.

“My credibility as a diplomat working to help other countries create order is strongest when America at last puts its own fiscal house in order,” Kerry said. “Let’s reach a responsible agreement that prevents these senseless cuts. Let’s not lose this opportunity to politics.”

The budget request of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development for 2012 was $51.6 billion. Although Kerry didn’t make a direct comparison, the Pentagon spent an estimated $115 billion on the Afghanistan war in the same year.

Kerry embarks on his first foreign trip as secretary next week, a lengthy tour of European and Arab capitals that will largely focus on international proposals to end the grinding civil war in Syria.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Could Russian meteor could have been part of asteroid swarm?

(CBS News) It's possible the giant meteor that slammed into Russia Friday morning has something to do with the asteroid -- known as 2012 DA14 -- that's expected to soon fly by Earth, according one expert.

CBS News contributor Michio Kaku, a physics professor at the City University of New York, explained on "CBS This Morning" that, though based on video evidence the European Space Agency has not seen any direct relationship between the house-sized meteorite and the asteroid, "asteroids occur in swarms" so "it's very possible that there's a swarm of asteroids around DA14."

The DA14 -- an asteroid a half a football field across, traveling at a blistering 4.8 miles per second -- is expected to pass within just 17,200 miles of Earth on Friday, a record close encounter that will carry it well inside the orbits of communications satellites.

Faced with questions about the asteroid and safety on Earth, Kaku pointed to the moon's pockmarked look as a sign of what's spinning around in space: "The moon is pockmarked because there are a million objects of that size near the orbit of the planet Earth."

He added, "The Earth is moving in a cosmic shooting gallery."


NASA Scientists have determined the Russia meteor is not related to asteroid 2012 DA14 that paassed safely pass Earth today at a distance of more than 17,000 miles. Early assessments of the Russia meteor indicate it was about one-third the size of 2012 DA14 and traveling in a different direction.

Meanwhile in Russia ; )

Meteor hits Russia - injures hundreds

A meteor streaked across the sky above Russia's Ural Mountains on Friday morning, causing sharp explosions and injuring more than 500 people, many of them hurt by broken glass.

"There was panic. People had no idea what was happening. Everyone was going around to people's houses to check if they were OK," said Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, about 930 miles east of Moscow, the biggest city in the affected region.

"We saw a big burst of light then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud thundering sound," he told The Associated Press by telephone.

Another Chelyabinsk resident, Valya Kazakov, said some elderly women in his neighborhood started crying out that the world was ending.

Some meteorites -- fragments of the meteor -- fell in a reservoir outside the town of Cherbakul, the regional governor's office said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency. It was not immediately clear if any people were struck by fragments.

Meteors typically cause sizeable sonic booms when they enter the atmosphere because they are traveling much faster than the speed of sound. Injuries on the scale reported Friday, however, are extraordinarily rare.

The Emergency Ministry said more than 500 people sought treatment after the blasts and that 34 of them were hospitalized. Many of the injuries were from glass broken by the explosions.

Kolesnikov also said about 6000 square feet of a roof at a zinc factory had collapsed. There was no immediate clarification of whether the collapse was caused by meteorites or by a shock wave from one of the explosions.

Reports conflicted on what exactly happened in the clear skies. A spokeswoman for the Emergency Ministry, Irina Rossius, told The Associated Press that there was a meteor shower, but another ministry spokeswoman, Elena Smirnikh, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying it was a single meteor.

Amateur video broadcast on Russian television showed an object speeding across the sky about 9:20 a.m. local time, leaving a thick white contrail and an intense flash.

Russian news reports noted that the meteor hit less than a day before the asteroid 2012 DA14 is to make the closest recorded pass of an asteroid -- about 17,150 miles.

But the European Space Agency, in a post on its Twitter account, said its experts had determined there was no connection.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Fish Food Express and other secret helicopters.

By Steve Douglass

What was once a top secret operation so sensitive only a handful were privy to, is now the stuff of action movies and best sellers. The story of the raid that ended Osama bin Laden’s reign of terror is now on the big screen. The movie Zero Dark Thirty is a box office and critical success. Books about the raid are best sellers, such as No Easy Day by Navy Seal - Mark Owen (AKA Matt Bassinette) and The Finish (The Killing of Osama Bin Laden) by Mark Bowden, each detailing from a slightly different perspective the hunt and final disposition of the most wanted man in the world.

The almost flawless execution of the bin Laden raid will be dissected and studied in war colleges for decades to come and SEAL Team 6 will become the stuff of legend, night-vision goggle wearing dispensers of retribution, enough to make any bin Laden wannabe think twice about moving into the top spot in al-Qaeda, plagued with spending sleepless nights listening for the sound of drones overhead.

But for every action-packed frame of the movies or every thrilling word written on every page of the true accounts, there’s something that’s been glossed over or only shown in shadow, much like the shark in Jaws, remaining an enigma until the very end.

In my opinion, the real star of the movie is mysterious, shrouded in secrecy and not at all talked about in Pentagon circles. It is about the only thing that in all the official documents that has purposely been kept vague and left up to speculation. It is the Pegasus in our almost mythic saga – the stealth helicopters.

I remember when the first photos of the tail section began showing up in my e-mail. Relatives, friends and fellow stealth hunters, passed them on to me almost simultaneously asking me, “What the heck is this thing?”

Over the next 48 hours more photos began making the rounds on the aviation sites and military discussion forums. Lacking in detail but tantalizing, I imported the photos into Photoshop and analyzed them in detail. Important clues to what type of helicopter the mystery aircraft was (and crashed and was partially destroyed by the SEAL team) became evident. It wasn’t your everyday military chopper.

This bird was special.

When higher resolution photos taken by journalists and the Pakistan military began showing up on the Internet, speculation among rotor-heads was that the almost undamaged tail section was possibly a hereto unknown stealth derivative of the ubiquitous UH 60 Black Hawk.

Although the SEALS had done considerable damage in their attempt to destroy the helicopter, some parts didn't melt. Confirmation came from close-up images of the main rotor assembly. They matched the Black Hawk and (or) a close relative.

Soon after, speculative illustrations began popping up on various aviation sites. Army aviation insiders leaked the names Stealth Hawk and MX-Silent Hawk to the inquiring press, and also hinting there were two and possibly three different stealth helicopters used on the raid, a troop transport , a gunship and a larger FARP (Forward Arming & Refueling Point) heavy lift helicopter. Aviation journalists were caught flat-footed having to scramble to dig out information on several secret stealth helicopter programs where none were known to exist.

But there was one other name for a stealth helicopter that was only fleeting mentioned in aviation discussion forums and may be the only true stealth helicopter, the s-called Jedi Ride AKA Ghost Hawk. More on that later.

In most accounts there were at least one other stealth Blackhawk used to ferry SEAL Team 6, plus speculation there were two modified MH-47 Chinooks standing by with extra fuel, ammunition and also carrying a stand-by Special Forces extraction team should the raid have gone sour.

Another source says there were also two special AH-1Z Cobra gunships held in reserve in a remote location if a prolonged firefight was to break out. The worst case scenario envisioned by the Pentagon was a cadre of bin Laden loyalists and Abbottabad citizens descending on the compound en masse, leading to an extended exit under heavy fire, evidence the echoes of Black Hawk Down still reverberating through the halls of power.

Once it was officially revealed that Chinooks were involved, speculation ran rampant that they must have been modified for stealth but I’ve learned first-hand that wasn’t the case.

About a year and a half after the raid one of the 160th SOARs’ MH-47s landed at my local airport to refuel. It ended up spending the night here. I photographed it that evening and noticed the crew was tying it down for the night and decided to be there first thing in the morning to shoot more dramatic shots of the Chinook at sunrise.

I couldn’t help but notice it wasn’t your normal work-a-day Chinook . It had a fresh paint job, deep black and dark grey, much like paint job on B-2. There was an antenna array sprouting from the fuselage plus a plethora of special imaging pods and sensors on the tail and chin. Asking around I learned that it was one of the 160th SOARs Night Stalker’s MH-47G models, fresh from refurbishment in Pennsylvania and on its way to Fort Irwin in California.

The next morning I shot photos of it on the ramp and found a crew member in the restaurant adjacent to the airport. I introduced myself, thanked him for his military service and bought him breakfast.

We talked as we ate, mostly about his helicopter. Since he was with the aviation unit that was instrumental in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice I couldn’t help but ask about the 160th SOARs role in the raid. I was surprised when he told me the very bird sitting on the ramp not 100 feet from the restaurant we were eating was a major player.

He said “Although I wasn’t on the raid, I know this was one of the FARP (Forward Air Refueling Point) Chinooks, flown to an LZ a few miles away from Abbottabad and was called in when one of the Black Hawks went down. “

Trying my best to look interested but in a matter-of-fact kind of way, I let him talk on without interruption. As much as I wanted to, I decided not to press (just yet) on any information on the stealth Black Hawks knowing even if he accidentally revealed some classified information he could be in big trouble.

“Really?” I replied. “That’s impressive.”I said trying to maintain my cool.

He went on, “Yeah – in fact, bin Laden’s body and the DevGru SEALs that killed him were ferried back to Jalalabad in this helicopter. It’s unofficially been nicknamed “The Fish Food Express.” Inside there’s a painted outline where his body lay. One of these days this bird will go on display, in a museum somewhere. “

“Can I see it?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“No.” he answered bluntly.

I didn’t press him for a look-see – but I did ask him for more info on the Chinook.

“They are very loud.” I matter-of-factly remarked, more than familiar with the heavy whump-whump-whump an MH-47 makes in flight. “How does one sneak up on anyone in a Chinook?” I asked.

“Actually – in the bin Laden raid the Chinooks landed in a ravine miles north of the target – in the middle of nowhere and just sat. The raiding party flew to the compound in Black Hawks. Trying to bring them in a Chinook would have been stupid. It would have alerted everyone.” He said.

“What about Pakistan’s radar? Wouldn’t it see the Chinooks and Black Hawks?” I asked trying my best to subtlety swing the conversation around naturally to – well - the stealth Black Hawks.

“Pak radar is spotty at best- especially in the mountainous regions. It’s all been electronically mapped. We know where the holes in the fence are.” He answered.

I began mulling it over in my mind. It made sense. The special MH-47 Chinooks are outfitted to fly either high above unfriendly fire or by using terrain following radar to fly NOE (nap of the earth) missions.

He was probably right about “mapping” Pakistani radar, The US Air Force are pros at that, either by sending up a E-8C Joint Stars or other ELINT ISR drones. Gaps in Pakistan’s radar coverage could be easily ascertained.

3-D radar data collected and processed on board an E-8C in near-real-time can be sent, uninterrupted, to many flying platforms, including Special Ops Army helicopters. An E-8C can exploit Pakistani radar data relevant to the mission including passing on UAV intelligence on evolving threats and or moving target data.

An E-8C was up the night of the bin Laden raid watching and listening for any response from the Pakistani military and did (as did an airborne E3 AWACS) detect Pakistan launching two F-16s but it was only after the raiders had long since cleared Pakistan’s’ airspace.

With as many non-stealthy aircraft in the air that night how was it that bin Laden and Pakistan was caught so flat footed? It’s understandable that the stealth Black Hawks and slightly stealthy CH-47Gs flying NOE could avoid detection, but surely the plethora of support aircraft such as the E-3 AWACS, Joint Stars, and fighter support could be seen by Pakistani radar? So how could have the raid been such a surprise?

Conditioning – just like Pavlov accomplished with his famous dog. Months prior to the raid the Pentagon began “routine” airborne patrols over Afghanistan. Day after day and night after night Pakistan radar controllers were treated to a dog and pony show of sorts.

It reminded me of an incident that happened in my own town, where every night a local pawn shop’s alarm was triggered at the same time, every night for about a month. At first the police arrived in mass with guns drawn hoping to catch a burglar maybe breaking in to snatch some pawned weapons, but every time they responded they encountered no one. The false alarms continued night after night and as a result the cops responded slower and slower with more important calls taking precedent over the “stupid alarm” that mysteriously went off every night precisely at 12:06 AM. One night I heard on my police scanner a responding officer radioing, “Tell the owner that we will not be responding to anymore calls until he gets the thing fixed properly!” The next morning the owner arrived to find his entire cache of guns cleaned out.

I imagine on the night the raid a lone Pakistani radar controller, much like a rent-a-cop or mall security guard, his feet propped up on the radar console, not really watching the scopes instead his attention drawn to a TV drama on a little black and white set in the corner. Unaware he had been totally conditioned to not giving a flip about the usual armada of American planes flying seemingly in aimless and pointless circles just off the Pakistan border.

Still, the Pentagon couldn’t hang this all important mission on the hopes an inattentive Pakistani radar controller would be distracted by infomercials. The stakes were incredibly high. Capturing and (or) killing bin Laden had been a top military priority since 9-11. Secondly, the U.S. had come close several times to cornering bin Laden but somehow he had managed to slip through the grasp of the US military presumably with the help of certain sympathetic members within the ISI (Pakistan’s premier intelligence organization) passing on inside information directly to al- Qaeda.

The CIA and Pentagon were painfully aware of the leaks ever since Tora Bora and (logically) knew for the raid to be successful the Pakistan government had to remain totally in the dark, all the more reason for possibly risking the exposure of the Army’s secret stealth helicopter contingency.

Soon after the raid amid assertions that Pakistan had to be aware bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, and the resulting embarrassment to the Pak military that the U.S. could violated and penetrate Pakistan’s airspace with apparent impunity, political ties have been strained to almost beyond repair.

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And yet, as high as the stakes were, the “stealth” Blackhawks used in the raid was not state of the art. In fact they were based on early 90s technology, a quick and dirty LO (low observable) retrofit stealth upgrade package based on first generation stealth and more akin to the F-117 than the F-22 – except for one exception, a recently invented infrared reflecting and radar scattering iridescent silver paint and stealth (electrical continuity)  gold (tinted) canopy film developed under the HAVE GLASS program.

Photos of the relatively intact tail-section that fell just outside the Abbottabad compound, attest to this fact. So far every Hollywood version of the stealthy helicopters used in the raid show them as painted flat black, like an F-117A despite photos of the debris showing (at least) the tail section being flat silver.

This radar, infrared and light scattering paint has recently been seen on the F-35, upgraded F-16s and test V-22 Ospreys at the Bell/Boeing/Textron plant in Amarillo. I photographed one of these Silver Thunder Chickens a few years ago on a rare instance when it was on the pad outside of the hangar just before a test flight.

Stealthier helicopters do exist, but their newest stealth technology was deemed by the President too secret to risk if per chance one should be shot down or crash.

Pentagon insiders refer to these cutting-edge stealth systems as “pearls too expensive to wear” and secretly grumble when they are denied using them. Military planners at the Pentagon envisioned a Black Hawk Down type scenario where armed citizens and tacit supporters of bin Laden in Abbottabad converging on the compound once they realized what was about to happen to the near-legendary leader of al Qaeda. As it would turn out, not using the more modern stealth helicopters was a good call for one did indeed crash.

There have been many educated guesses and illustrations generated by aviation enthusiasts on the internet purporting to show the look of the bin Laden raid choppers with most of these best guesses being based on the photos of the intact tail section and postulation drawn from early low-observable technology studies of the RAH-64 Comanche.

The RAH-64 Comanche was developed from the ground up as a light-attack stealth helicopter, incorporating a low-observable design (F-117-type faceting) skinned with composite radar-absorbing materials and wrapped around a diamond-shaped frame incorporating the latest (80s era) noise -dampening technology applied mostly to the rotor blades, engine and tail rotor.

Envisioned in the late 1980s, the Army wanted a fleet of hundreds of fast and stealthy armed scout helicopters able to penetrate Cold-War-era Soviet states and take out the main threat to NATO at the time, Russia’s overwhelmingly huge stockpile of tanks. But the Cold War ended and the RAH-64 became too heavy, burdened by delays and cost overruns and way too expensive. As a result it got the axe but not before the technology explored to develop stealth helicopter was quantified.

But then 9-11 happened and suddenly the CIA and the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (NSWDG) or DevGru (one of four secretive counter-terrorism strike forces) needed a stealthy troop transport to covertly insert SEAL teams into Pakistan and other terrorist harboring nations.

It wasn’t as simple as just dusting off the plans for the RAH-66 Comanche and going from there. Don’t forget, RAH-66 Comanche-tech was 80s stealth tech, designed to outwit Soviet radar systems.

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The Pentagon has made even larger strides in perfecting the latest generation of stealth technology with the development of the B-2, F-22 and F-35, however Army Special Ops had requirements for something a lot larger than the Comanche, preferably Black Hawk sized, marginally-stealthy given the radar environment and something that could be thrown together quick and dirty. This led to the fairly rough but capable stealth Black Hawks used in the bin Laden raid. This is apparent from photos of the crash debris.

Photos showing the main rotor blades being carted off by Pakistani military do not show any of the curved-sickle-like the Blue Edge type rotors being developed as an upgrade for EuroCopter or the all-composite (faceted-blade) rotors on the RAH-66 Comanche. In fact, they look like standard rotors from a UH-60 Black Hawk except they are slightly rounded and wider, most likely new wide-chord composite spar main rotor blades like the UH-60M.

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Some speculative artwork on internet forums shows standard four blade rotors being replaced with a five or six blade system which allows them to turn more slowly and thus more quietly, but the photos of the destroyed helicopter are not clear enough to count the number of blades on the hub. To this author it looks like a standard four blade rotor.

Then again, from all published accounts being quiet was not a mission breaker.

Yes, there was an attempt to silence the tail rotor with the strange “pie-plate” structure encompassing the five-blade tail rotor and although it is difficult to ascertain from the melted wreckage, the main rotor blades on the bin Laden raid helicopter do not look all that exotic and probably not designed to be very quiet.

A clue came from the book No Easy Day. CIA analysts (watching stealth RQ-170 Sentinel/GORGAN STARE image feeds of the Abbottabad compound) noticed whenever Pakistani military helicopters flew over (which they did frequently) no one, including “The Pacer (bin Laden himself) seemed to care enough to even look skyward, even out of curiosity.

That’s when it became evident that a helicopter, even a relatively noisy one could be sent in without alarming anyone in Abbottabad.

However, if you look at a current satellite image (on Google Maps) of the helicopter base at Jalalabad Airport, you’ll find a five- bladed silver helicopter tucked away by itself inside a fenced-in compound.

 Could this be a Silent Hawk the returning troops said sounded like a flying waterfall? The shadow of the tail rotor doesn't look right but then again it could be a different type of covert CIA helicopter.

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Interestingly enough, on the night of the raid, the special stealth helicopters were heard. A Pakistani IT consultant named Sohaib Athar an Abbottabad resident tweeted: “Go away helicopter - before I take out my giant swatter!” Athar had no idea what he was tweeting live about what could turn out to be the most infamous covert raid in military history.

It stands to reason although the Blackhawks used in the bin Laden although stealthy probably weren’t that exotic looking. They were probably more akin to Shadow Spear (MH-60M Blackhawks) retrofitted with limited stealth modifications, closer in looks to the illustrations released by the Chinese.

Besides, Pakistan let the Chinese inspect the wreckage up close and in person so it stands to reason (China now the undisputed champion of reverse engineering) could logically figure out what the rest of the helicopter looked like.

In Zero Dark Thirty the stealth helicopters are pointed-nosed, angular, mysteriously black, buzzing menacing, slab-sided harbingers of death, wrapped in serrated fang-like tiles, the perfect mount for the horsemen of bin Laden’s personal apocalypse.

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In the real world, the raiding party flew in, well - a kluge – a quick and dirty (and especially) expendable early solution for penetrating a third world country airspace with limited radar technology. Still very cool but nothing like what’s (reportedly) being used to ferry covert CIA and Israeli Mossad saboteurs and secret agents into Iran to subvert their nuclear weapons program.

Those are the true stealth helicopters, honed, refined and based on the latest-generation stealth technology, yet still wrapped around a tested and tried existing helicopter program.

The Ghost Hawk is possibly based on the Sikorsky S-76D, and a little known NEST (Nuclear Emergency Support Team) program requiring a stealthy helicopter to get teams into nuclear Iran or North Korea.

Conventional Army Black Hawks are clunky conglomeration of add-ons and upgrades, bolted on weapons sensors, tanks and pylons hanging off the aircraft like carry-on luggage, the antithesis of stealth

The S-76D is a medium-sized commercial utility helicopter (a close relative sharing many parts and systems of the Black Hawk) except faster, sleeker and designed with retractable landing gear making it a much easier planform to adapt for stealth.

Look at an F-22 or F-35. There are no rails, racks, drop tanks or weapons mounted on the outside. Everything is carried internally. Such was the same with the RAH-66 Comanche prototypes.

A true stealth helicopter would be as least as be as sleek as a Raptor, quiet, quick, silver and deadly, near zero infrared and electromagnetic emissions, essentially a Jedi ride.

As a result of the success of the bin Laden raid, stealth capabilities have taken center stage in the design of  the future replacement of the now aging Black Hawk. Concepts show sleek - self contained designs, engineered for speed and stealth, but the final designs are still years out.

Until then (the still unacknowledged) Ghost Hawk will be the covert stealth insertion platform of choice.

As much as I want to see the bin Laden raid choppers, they are old school stealth. The Ghost Hawk, that’s the secret helicopter I want to see.

(C) Steve Douglass

Monday, February 11, 2013

Breaking North Korea conducts nuke test

North Korea is believed to have conducted a nuclear test on Tuesday morning. Seismic activity was detected in North Korea this evening that the United States Geological Survey registered as a 5.1 magnitude earthquake.

Here’s the USGS report on the incident.

The site of the detected earthquake is near the site of North Korea’s previous tests. As the Korean peninsula is not prone to seismic activity, this is highly likely to indicate a nuclear test, says the Korean Yonhap news agency,

A test was expected earlier on Monday night by Korea’s Yonhap news agency, which noted that North Korea had moved people and equipment away from its test site on Monday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un had been expected to carry out its third nuclear test this week, which corresponds with the celebration of the Lunar New Year as well as the February 16th birthday of North Korea’s late dictator Kim Jong-il.

The North Korean test comes at a complicated time for the region and the U.S., nicely summed up by Andrew Natsios in U.S. News & World Report:

The man who shot bin Laden says he's been abandoned by US Government

The U.S. Navy SEAL who shot and killed Osama bin Laden is speaking out for the first time since the May 1, 2011, raid on the al-Qaida leader's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
In an interview with Esquire, the former SEAL—identified as "The Shooter" due to what the magazine described as "safety" reasons—said he's been largely abandoned by the U.S. government since leaving the military last fall.
He told Esquire he decided to speak out to both correct the record of the bin Laden mission and to put a spotlight on how some of the U.S. military's highly trained and accomplished soldiers are treated by the government once they return to civilian life.
Despite killing the world's most-wanted terrorist, he said, he was not given a pension, health care or protection for himself or his family.
"[SEAL command] told me they could get me a job driving a beer truck in Milwaukee," he told Esquire.
Plus, he said, "my health care for me and my family stopped. I asked if there was some transition from my Tricare to Blue Cross Blue Shield. They said no. You're out of the service, your coverage is over. Thanks for your 16 years. Go f--- yourself."
The problem seems to be that "The Shooter" left the military well before the 20-year requirement for retirement benefits.
The U.S. Navy SEAL who shot and killed Osama bin Laden is speaking out for the first time since the May 1, 2011, raid on the al-Qaida leader's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
In an interview with Esquire, the former SEAL—identified as "The Shooter" due to what the magazine described as "safety" reasons—said he's been largely abandoned by the U.S. government since leaving the military last fall.
He told Esquire he decided to speak out to both correct the record of the bin Laden mission and to put a spotlight on how some of the U.S. military's highly trained and accomplished soldiers are treated by the government once they return to civilian life.
Despite killing the world's most-wanted terrorist, he said, he was not given a pension, health care or protection for himself or his family.
"[SEAL command] told me they could get me a job driving a beer truck in Milwaukee," he told Esquire.
Plus, he said, "my health care for me and my family stopped. I asked if there was some transition from my Tricare to Blue Cross Blue Shield. They said no. You're out of the service, your coverage is over. Thanks for your 16 years. Go f--- yourself."
The problem seems to be that "The Shooter" left the military well before the 20-year requirement for retirement benefits.


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