Now that I am all settled in at my new office in Liberty Lake, Wa., having made the trek from the Military & Aerospace Electronics home base in southern N.H., I am looking to get out and visit with area businesses in the military and aerospace market. I am in the perfect place to do so, in fact.
Technology firms, prime contractors, subcontractors, systems integrators, and military organizations and bases abound in this area. Defense and, particularly, aerospace technologies, solutions, deployments, and programs constitute a major part of the state's economy.
Liberty Lake is just a short drive from Spokane, where Fairchild Air Force Base resides (see photo at right), as well as a brief jaunt to Seattle, Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, British Colombia; and virtually all of Idaho. I am a short drive to these locales, and a brief flight from points north (Canada...), south (California...), and Midwest (Colorado, Arizona...)--and everything in between.
In short, I am an active member of the Washington mil-aero market and business community and I invite you to drop me a line or give me a call. Update me on your technologies and products, programs and contract awards, and more. Invite me to tour your facility, interview your executives and program managers, and witness your systems, solutions, and innovations first hand.
I am Military & Aerospace Electronics West Coast-based roving reporter, and I am always looking for the latest market news. If you have something to say, post a comment or email me at Courtney@pennwell.com.
The gist was I believe robots are, and will be, valuable tools for military planners. Professor Sharkey, on the other hand, says not so fast; we need to take a closer look at the human issues of deploying military robotic technology before we go much farther down this road.
This morning I received a long and very thoughtful response from Professor Sharkey to my blog item. We still disagree on a variety of issues, but that's beside the point of today's blog. Today I'd simply like to share Professor Sharkey's thoughts with you, and let his points speak for themselves.
You make some valid points here John but I think that you have slanted my line of reasoning a little in the wrong direction. I will make my main case again here.
I do not have a problem with "a man in the loop" robots. It is dumb autonomous robots that I am concerned about. I am not politically active and I am not anti military. Laying my cards face up on the table, my position is simply that it is the duty and moral responsibility of all citizens to protect innocent people everywhere, regardless of creed, race, or nationality. All innocents have a right to protection.
There are many breaches of this right that fall outside of my remit. I concern myself solely with new weapons that are being constructed using research from my own field of enquiry.
My concerns arise from my knowledge of the limitations of artificial intelligence and robotics. I am clearly not calling for a ban on all robots as I have worked in the field for nearly 30 years.
I don't blame you for not believing me about the use of fully autonomous battle robots. I found it hard to believe myself until I read the plans and talked to military officers about them. Just Google search for military roadmaps to help you get up to speed on this issue. Read the roadmaps for Air Force, Army, and Navy published in 2005 or the December, 2007 Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2032 (large .pdf) and you might begin to see my concerns.
In a book entitled Autonomous Vehicles in Support of Naval Operations published by The National Academies Press in 2005, a Naval committee wrote that, "The Navy and Marine Corps should aggressively exploit the considerable warfighting benefits offered by autonomous vehicles (AVs) by acquiring operational experience with current systems and using lessons learned from that experience to develop future AV technologies, operational requirements, and systems concepts."
The signs are there that such plans are falling into place. On the ground, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., ran a successful Grand Robotics challenge for four years in an autonomous vehicle race across the Mojave Desert. In 2007 it changed to an urban challenge where autonomous vehicles navigated around a mock city environment. You don't have to be too clever to see where this is going. In February this year DARPA showed off their "Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle and Perceptor Integration System" otherwise knows as the Crusher. This a 6.5 ton robot truck, nine feet wide with no room for passengers or a steering wheel, which travels at 26 miles per hour. Stephen Welby, director of DARPA Tactical Technology office said, "This vehicle can go into places where, if you were following in a Humvee, you'd come out with spinal injuries," Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute is reported to have received $35 million over four years to deliver this project. Admittedly it is a just a demonstration project at present.
Last month BAE Systems tested software for a squadron of planes that could select their own targets and decide among themselves which target each should acquire. Again a demonstrations system but the signs are there.
There are a number of good military reasons for such a move. Teleoperated systems are expensive to manufacture and require many support personnel to run them. One of the main goals of the Future Combat Systems project is to use robots as a force multiplier so that one soldier on the battlefield can be a nexus for initiating a large-scale robot attack from the ground and from the air.
Clearly, one soldier cannot operate several robots alone. Autonomous systems have the advantage of being able to make decisions in nanoseconds while humans need a minimum of hundreds of milliseconds.
FCS spending is going to be in the order of $230 billion, with spending on unmanned systems expected to exceed $24 billion ($4 billion up to 2010).
The downside is that autonomous robots that are allowed to make decisions about whom to kill falls foul of the fundamental ethical precepts of a just war under jus in bello as enshrined in the Geneva and Hague conventions and the various protocols set up to protect innocent civilians, wounded soldiers, the sick, the mentally ill, and captives.
There is no way for a robot or artificial intelligence system to determine the difference between a combatant and an innocent civilian. There are no visual or sensing systems up to that challenge. The Laws of War provide no clear definition of a civilian that can be used by a machine. The 1944 Geneva Convention requires the use of common sense while the 1977 Protocol 1 (Article 50) essentially defines a civilian in the negative sense as someone who is not a combatant. Even if there were a clear definition, and even if sensing were possible, human judgment is required to identify the infinite number of circumstances where lethal force is inappropriate. Just think of a child forced to carry an empty rifle.
The Laws of War also require that lethal force be proportionate to military advantage. Again, there is neither sensing capability that would allow a robot such a determination, nor is there any known metric to objectively measure needless, superfluous, or disproportionate suffering. This requires human judgment. Yes, humans do make errors and can behave unethically, but they can be held accountable. Who is to be held responsible for the lethal mishaps of a robot? Certainly not the machine itself. There is a long causal chain associated with robots: the manufacturer, the programmer, the designer, the Department of Defense, the generals or admirals in charge of the operation, and the operator.
This is where your analogy with gun control breaks down. If someone kills an innocent with a gun, the shooter is responsible for the crime. The gun does not decide whom to kill. If criminals decided to put guns on robots that wandered around shooting innocent people, do you thing that the good citizens should also put guns on robots to go around shooting innocent people? It does not make sense.
The military forces in the civilized world do not want to kill civilians. There are strong legal procedures in the United States and JAG [the military's Judge Advocate General] has to validate all new weapons. My worry is that there will be a gradual sleep walk into the use of autonomous weapons like the ones that I mentioned. I want us to step back and make the policies rather than let the policies make themselves.
I take you point (and greater expertise than mine) about the slowness of politics and the UN. But we must try. There are no current international guidelines or even discussions about the uses of autonomous robots in warfare. These are needed urgently. The present machines could be little more than heavily armed mobile mines and we have already seen the damage that land mines have caused to children at play. Imagine the potential devastation of heavily armed robots in a deep mission out of radio communication. The only humane recourse of action is to severely restrict or ban the deployment of these new weapons until it can be demonstrated that they can pass an "innocents discrimination test" in real life circumstances.
I am pleased that you have allowed this opportunity to debate the issues and put my viewpoint forward.
Laser links: the foundation of future broadband tactical networking Posted by John Keller
ORLANDO, Fla. -- I think it's obvious that laser crosslinks represent the future of military tactical networking on land, at sea, and in the air. Laser communications are fast, difficult to detect or intercept, and represent bandwidth broad enough to handle the demands of image-intensive real-time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Laser communications, moreover, are not limited by the factors that burden RF-based wireless networking: limited bandwidth, dwindling spectrum, and relatively easy detection. RF tactical networking also must conceal itself from would-be jammers and eavesdroppers by technically demanding means of encryption, frequency hopping, and spread-spectrum transmissions.
Let's face it, however, laser communications are difficult. This technology can be limited by smoke, dust, and clouds. Perhaps more importantly, its laser beams can be attenuated and distorted by atmospheric disturbances. Aircraft have been particularly difficult because their motion makes it difficult to keep a laser beam focused and on target.
Many of these problems may be on the way to solution, however, with a company called AOptix Technologies Inc. in Campbell, Calif., which has come up with an adaptive optics system called R3.1 Skyball that can compensate for atmospheric distortion and aircraft motion such that high-speed laser networking on land, at sea, and in the air suddenly becomes feasible.
AOptix is demonstrating the Skyball system this week at the SPIE Defense & Security conference and trade show in Orlando, Fla.
Short range, AOptix experts have tested the system sending data at 800 gigabits per second. At long range, they have demonstrated the system at distances as far as 93 miles (150 kilometers) at 40 gigabits per second.
Think of it; 40 gigabits per second is faster than many of your laptop computers typically can access the Internet wirelessly. What would 800 gigabits per second networking aircraft, ships, and ground stations bring to the table? The U.S. military is pursuing a concept called network-centric warfare. Well, this could be one of the keys.
AOptix officials point out the possibility of moving massive amounts of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance data nearly in real time from platforms like manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as satellites, to tactical command centers.
These command centers, in turn, could quickly process this data, synthesize it into valuable information, and send it back out in real time via laser links to soldiers, sailors, and airmen on the front lines.
Simply put, this could put us well on the way to the ultimate goal of getting the warfighter the information he needs, just when he wants it. Terrestrial laser communications links. Sounds like the future to me.
¶ 3/18/2008 07:10:00 PM1 Comments
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Think you have an ITAR issue? Protect yourself, experts say Posted by John Keller
Component suppliers who even suspect that their products might be designed into military systems need to take steps to protect themselves from potential violations of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). If they don't, they risk serious trouble.
I'm not talking about just fines; I'm talking about losing your company. The bottom line is protecting yourself. This is risky -- to the point that in extreme circumstances you could be working at Wendy's the next day, warns Dean Young, facilities security officer for Celestica Aerospace Technologies in Austin, Texas.
Component suppliers should be on guard for ITAR issues, particularly if they are doing business with the large prime defense contractors. Most of these large companies have ITAR organizations in place to help their suppliers navigate often-treacherous ITAR waters, but sometimes problems can occur, experts admit.
Prime defense contractors are very sensitive about releasing details about whose products they are using, and in which applications -- sometimes to the degree that individual engineers or program managers inside these companies might be reluctant to tell even the suppliers of the components where these devices are going.
If this happens, push back and get enough information to protect yourself, panelists told MAEF attendees. Don't accept "we're not telling," or "mind your own business," from customers -- ever.
If that kind of thing happens, such as if a person at a prime contract is being difficult or is overly concealing information, "I would like to know about it," says Karen Jones, director of export import operations at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson, Ariz.
In addition to Young and Jones, other panelists were Kay Georgi, partner at the law firm of Arent Fox LLP in Washington, and Lawrence Fink, director of corporate export administration at Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in San Diego.
Component suppliers need to get smart about ITAR guidelines; they need to get smart fast before they get into trouble. It can be a matter of protecting yourself, your family, and your company.
It may even involve the potential of walking away from revenue if a supplier simply cannot get the information he needs to protect himself, experts say.
At the same time, suppliers should be as tactful and as partnering as possible when they approach their prime-contractor customers so they don't risk killing their business or relationships.
For more information, panelists recommend a pamphlet on Project Shield America from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's investigative bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Washington.
Project Shield America is an industry outreach program to prevent the illegal export of sensitive U.S. munitions and strategic technology to terrorists, criminal organizations, and foreign adversaries.
Military radio communications designers need to build a better mouse trap Posted by John Keller
SAN DIEGO -- Military radio designers need to give more thought to how they blend RF and microwave components with digital circuitry in new generations of software-defined radio, says one of the Pentagon's top communications executives.
The problem revolves around radio designs that tightly couple the RF section and digital sections. This can slow down design and production, and create huge headaches when it comes to technology insertion and systems upgrades, says Dr. Ron Jost, the DOD's deputy assistant secretary of defense for C3.
"Please don't tightly couple the RF to the digital sections in the radio," Jost said today in a keynote address at the Military & Aerospace Electronics Forum (MAEF) conference and trade show in San Diego. "The RF won't change much; it's the digital that will change."
In the interests of full disclosure, I need to point out that the MAEF is sponsored by Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine.
Jost told MAEF attendees that digital circuitry goes obsolete very quickly -- as often as once a year -- and tightly coupling the RF to digital often is problematic.
Instead, Jost suggests that radio designers create more modular communications architectures where digital circuitry easily can be swapped out as it goes obsolete, but that leaves the longer-lasting RF and microwave sections alone.
Radio designs are not the only problems facing the Pentagon's communications planners, Jost points out. Senior Defense Department planers are well along in network management, yet what they need now is spectrum management. He's asking for the defense industry's help to do this.
"We are going to put together a complete spectrum-management tool and network-management tool for the Department of Defense, and we need your guys's help," Jost told MAEF attendees this morning. "The warfighter can't do it with what we're giving him today."
¶ 3/11/2008 03:34:00 PM0 Comments
Monday, March 10, 2008
Now it's not just talk: VPX embedded computing starts racking up design wins Posted by John Keller
For more than a year now we've been hearing about the latest flavor of VME embedded computing. The newest incarnation is called VPX, and relies on a variety of high-speed serial fabric networking approaches, rather than the traditional parallel VME databus.
Until now, VPX, formerly known as VITA-46, largely has been a technology in search of an application. It had been criticized for being a bleeding-edge technology that had more industry enthusiasm than real markets, and some in the embedded computing industry thought it might never really take off.
That was then, this is now.
VPX is starting to rack up what many believe will be a long string of design wins. This technology is no longer just marketing talk; it's a validated technology with real military customers.
Just today, Curtiss-Wright Embedded Computing in Leesburg, Va., announced that it is providing VPX-based radar signal processing for the U.S. Marine Corps Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR) program. Other design-ins are expected to be announced soon.
Chinese company doesn't operate the Panama Canal ... just both ends of it Posted by John Keller
I must correct a mistake I made in a blog entry earlier this week entitled Back to the jungle: would U.S. intervene if war comes to South America? In this blog I stated that Panama Canal operations are managed by a company with close ties to the Chinese government. This is an error, which Teresa Arosemena, international communications manager for the Panama Canal Authority, pointed out to me this week in a very polite e-mail.
It is the Panamanian government, through the Panama Canal Authority, that operates the Panama Canal, not a company with ties to the Chinese government, and I sincerely regret the error.
My reason for bringing up the issue of Panama Canal operations revolves around military tensions on the Colombia/Venezuela border, which could lead to a war in close proximity to the Panama Canal -- a strategically important asset to the United States and other Western powers -- as I pointed out in the blog.
More to the point, I mused in the blog whether a Colombia-Venezuela war could drag the United States and China into confrontation in the region. The U.S. is a staunch ally of Colombia, while China is allied with Venezuela. Concerning the Canal, China has interests there, too.
I bring up these facts out of concern for the potential disruption of Panama Canal traffic should the U.S. or its allies come into military confrontation with China. How likely is this? I couldn't say, but it would be exceedingly easy for Chinese agents working through Hutchison Whampoa to halt, slow, or otherwise disrupt Panama Canal shipping traffic if it came to that. The potential is there.
The Panama Canal is of the utmost strategic importance to the United States, as it enables the U.S. Navy to transfer its forces rapidly between the Pacific and Atlantic theaters. The potential for Canal disruption is of dire concern to U.S. military authorities.
It was never my intention to link the Panama Canal Authority with the government of China. I believe no link exists. Hutchison Whampoa operates other port facilities in the Western Hemisphere, in addition to Panama.
I retain my concern, however, that a Chinese company effectively controls the entrances and exits of the Panama Canal at a time when U.S. and Chinese national interests could come into conflict just a couple of hundred miles away.
¶ 3/06/2008 02:59:00 PM2 Comments
"What is the deal with COTS components in mil-aero embedded software?" Sorry to wax nostalgic there, with my spot-on impression of Jerry Seinfeld ... My likely feeble attempt at humor aside, I do have a valid question or two about the use of open-source code and software components in military and aerospace applications.
I talk to a great deal of industry pundits, and conflicting viewpoints abound with regard to commercial components (including open-source code and Java, C, and C++ programming languages, as examples) in mil-aero software solutions.
Some say the use of Java and open source in mil-aero applications is widespread. Others say both are not accepted in mil-aero projects. Some say no open source code, especially of questionable origin, should be used in mil-aero. Open source proponents profess the time and cost savings, the expanded feature sets, and the community of thousands upon thousands of developers and programmers constantly working on and improving software components. Some believe Ada is the only way to go, others rely on Java and look forward to the upcoming release of a secure version.
Find me a safe harbor from 'forward-looking statements' ... please! Posted by John Keller
My wife, a wise woman, warned me that at around age 50 I would look around at the world I inhabit and find an alien landscape. Well, I'm nearly 49, and I barely recognize anything.
I remember television in a major metropolitan area with only seven channels. I remember conducting business without cell phones, personal computers, or the Internet. Most notably I remember news announcements without "safe harbor statements" and "forward-looking statements."
I know the lawyers have taken over pretty much everything, but I think the lunatics are running the asylum, and have been doing so for much longer than I have taken notice of it.
I've been looking at press announcements almost every day of the nearly 27 years that I've been a professional news reporter. Add in my years as a high school and college journalist and ... I don't even want to think about it. New stuff creeps in over time that I barely notice, but I've reached my limit.
I'm routinely getting news announcements these days in which more than half the text is the so-called "safe harbor statements" and "forward-looking statements." I just got one yesterday that was 335 words long. Often my entire news stories contain fewer words than that.
In other words, it's like a lot of things these days designed to stave-off lawsuits -- like warning people that coffee is hot, high-calorie foods can make you fat, and cigarettes can kill you. Is this news to anyone?
Well, the 335-word forward-looking statement I got yesterday has three core points. I hope you're sitting down because these are Earth-shattering revelations:
1) some of the things we say here are not necessarily historical facts; 2) some of the things we say here are guesses that might not turn out like we think they will; and 3) business is risky; real-life can sometimes get in the way.
I, for one, am shocked ... SHOCKED ... to hear that guesswork and risk are part of doing business. I never would have known, had this forward-looking statement neglected to tell me so.
Seriously, though, is all this really necessary? Please, find me a safe harbor from all these forward-looking statements.
¶ 3/04/2008 10:43:00 AM1 Comments
Monday, March 3, 2008
Back to the jungle: would U.S. intervene if war comes to South America? Posted by John Keller
Here's a potential new spin on Hillary Clinton and her red-phone television commercials. If there's a global emergency in the offing, it might not be in Central Asia, where everyone expects it to be. It could be right here in our own hemisphere.
Chavez, it seems, objects to Columbia's sending soldiers into neighboring Ecuador to fight guerilla soldiers hostile to the Columbian government. Chavez, moreover, is telling Columbia not to chase anti-Columbia guerrillas into Venezuela, warning that such an act would be "cause for war."
Let's remember that the Venezuela-Columbia border is just a thousand miles south of Miami, and less than 500 miles from the strategically important Panama Canal. Could the U.S. stand by if Columbia and Venezuela were to go to war? I think the answer is, probably not -- especially if such a war were to escalate quickly.
Columbia borders on Panama, and is only about 150 miles from the Panama Canal at its closest point. The Canal is one of the most strategically important places in the world. It is key to U.S. capability to move naval forces quickly between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
There is little doubt that the United States would intervene quickly in any conflict if U.S. access to the Canal were threatened. Chances of U.S. intervention lessen if the Canal is not part of the equation, yet Venezuela's oil reserves, which many consider to be a strategic asset, undoubtedly will play a role in U.S. decision making.
That's just what we would need -- an armed conflict in the tropical jungles of South America, just as the U.S. seems ready to start drawing down its military commitment in Iraq. It's interesting to glance at the world map and notice that northern Columbia and Venezuela are roughly at the same latitude as Vietnam.
Maybe this speculation is all for nothing; I hope it is. U.S. officials point out that Hugo Chavez is notorious for making wild threats. Perhaps he has no intention of going to war. If he does, though, it won't be pretty.
Now let's add another twist to the mix. Panama Canal operations are managed by a company with close ties to the Chinese government. China is an ally of Venezuela, and China is in desperate need of oil sources to maintain its rate of economic growth. Is it possible that an escalating war between Columbia and Venezuela might bring the U.S. and China into some form of conflict? I think I'd better quick speculating right here.
The accompanying photo is of U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jordan Mann, a Seabee assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 40, low-crawls through a pond during the endurance course at the Jungle Warfare Training Center at Camp Gonslaves, Okinawa, Japan. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class John P. Curtis.
¶ 3/03/2008 03:06:00 PM3 Comments
Saturday, March 1, 2008
Sorry, Boeing; European airframe to be new Air Force refueling tanker Posted by John Keller
I never thought I'd see it -- an airframe of European design as the primary airborne refueler for U.S. Air Force combat aircraft.
Still, that's exactly what we're about to see after Northrop Grumman Corp. won a potential $40 billion contract to build 179 KC-45A tankers to replace the venerable KC-135s that have been in service for decades. The contract starts with $1.5 billion for four aircraft.
This has to be a bitter pill for Boeing to swallow. Boeing HATES Airbus the way Hillary Clinton hates Barack Obama, only worse, and Boeing's hate has been finely aged over decades. During my days as a Washington reporter I remember the quickest way for me to tick-off a Boeing company spokesman was to ask a press conference question about "our friends at Airbus."
The KC-135 is based on the old Boeing 707 jetliner, while Northrop Grumman's KC-45A is based on the Airbus A330 airframe. Boeing's failed entry in the lucrative tanker sweepstakes was based on the company's 767 airframe.
The Air Force will continue to operate the larger KC-10 Extender airborne refueler, but remember, that airframe is not even a Boeing original. Even though Boeing controls this airframe, the KC-10 is based on the old DC-10 airliner, which was designed by McDonnell Douglas before Boeing acquired that company.
This contract award to Northrop Grumman and the Airbus-based new tanker certainly knocks Boeing down a peg at the same time Boeing had been riding high in its continuing competition with Airbus for worldwide commercial jet orders.
Boeing had been smart enough to read the writing on the wall that airlines throughout the world were shifting to small, fast, and fuel-efficient jetliners instead of the super-huge aircraft like Boeing's own 747.
As a result, Boeing looked to the 787 Dreamliner as its future commercial aircraft success, while Airbus was stuck in jumbo-jet mode with its A380 -- a behemoth that's behind schedule and that is forcing airport alterations around the world to accommodate its huge size; the thing is too big for many existing terminals.
Yet today's nose-thumbing belongs to Airbus and to Northrop Grumman. I can't wait to see what Boeing's response is going to be.
¶ 3/01/2008 12:59:00 AM3 Comments
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