By Chris Gaylord
Last night, the military officially entered the age of airborne laser weapons. A large laser mounted to the front of a modified 747 jet successfully detected and shot down a ballistic missile while both were in mid-flight.
The airborne laser program – part Star Wars (the sci-fi flick) and part Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative) – has taken years of work and billions of dollars it get here. But the Pentagon can now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station.
“While ballistic missiles like the one [the Airborne Laser Testbed] destroyed move at speeds of about 4,000 miles per hour, they are no match for a super-heated, high-energy laser beam racing towards it at 670 million mph,” says defense contractor Northrop Grumman in a release after announcing the successful test Friday.
Thursday night, a test missile fired from an “at-sea mobile launch platform” – likely a ship or submarine. The 747 detected the liquid-fueled missile and fired three different beams. The first, a low-energy laser, allowed the system to track the missile. Its second blast monitored the atmosphere between the aircraft and the target to better hone the final stage.
Once the system has locked on, it powers up what Boeing calls “the most powerful mobile laser device in the world.” The third stage actually involves six laser modules, each the size of a sport-utility vehicle, that fire in unison through a telescope-like lens located at the front of the 747. “When fired through a window in the aircraft’s nose turret, it produces enough energy in a 5-second burst to power a typical household for more than one hour,” says the US Air Force.
The beam cannot slice through a missile, lightsaber-style, but rather heats up pressurized portions of weapons, rupturing them. In Thursday’s test, the airborne laser disabled the test missile two minutes after it launched.
In a massive collaboration, Northrop Grumman constructed the megawatt-class high-energy laser, Lockheed Martin designed the firing system, and Boeing tied everything together with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
The military has been tinkering with “megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser beam” weapons since 1996. But the Pentagon isn’t happy with the price tag. Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the original order for a second airborne laser system, but held onto the original aircraft for further experiments.
While yesterday’s success encourages missile-shield proponents, the system still needs lots of tuning. A second trial Thursday night hit its target, but stopped firing before crippling the weapon.
Russia returned to the global stage Friday as a first-rank military and technological power by launching a ‘fifth generation’ fighter plane, with futuristic characteristics of stealth, sustained supersonic cruise, and integrated weapons.
By Fred Weir
Vladimir Putin is jubilant, the Russian aviation industry is filled with pride, and even normally skeptical military experts say they’re truly impressed by reports Friday that Russia has successfully test-flown the first prototype of a “fifth generation” fighter plane.
They all may have good reasons to cheer. Building such a plane is so expensive, complex, and technologically sophisticated that, until now, only the United States has been able to field an operational version of one: the F-22 Raptor.
According to news reports, Russia’s venerable Sukhoi company – maker of many famous Soviet warplanes – sent the V-tailed, swept-wing Sukhoi T-50 on its maiden flight for 47 minutes Friday near Komsomolsk-na-Amur in Russia’s far east (see video here) and it exceeded all expectations.
“We started flight tests of the fifth-generation aircraft today,” Sukhoi CEO Mikhail Pogosyan told Russian news agencies. “I am strongly convinced that this project will excel its Western rivals in cost-effectiveness and these planes will constitute the backbone of the Russian Air Force for the next few decades.”
A fighter of the “fifth generation” should have futuristic characteristics of stealth, sustained supersonic cruise, multi-role capabilities, integrated weapons and navigation systems that are controlled by artificial intelligence, over-the-horizon radar visibility and other cutting-edge wizardry.
Experts say that the mere fact that Russia can put one into the air announces its return to the global stage as a first-rank military and technological power.
“This is an epic event, because it’s the first time in post-Soviet history that [the Russian military industry] has been able to create something brand new,” Alexander Khramchikhin, an expert with the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, says in a telephone interview.
“Everything we produced after the USSR’s collapse was based on Soviet designs; nobody thought we could make anything so technologically complicated as this. But now, strange as it may seem, this shows Russia’s level is very high.”
Kremlin leaders have been promising to build this new aircraft for years as part of a broader effort to re-arm and modernize Russia’s crumbling Soviet-era armed forces. Though Russia handily won its brief 2008 war with neighboring Georgia, the conflict revealed massive shortcomings in its military machine, including disastrously poor air support for ground forces and almost nonexistent aerial reconnaissance capability.
Prime Minister Putin praised the T-50′s first flight as a “big step” in restoring Russia’s traditional place as a global military power, and pledged that the air force will start receiving production models of the plane in about three years.
As Russia’s president, Putin launched a sweeping, $200-billion rearmament program that aims to introduce new generations of nuclear submarines, intercontinental missiles, tanks, and aircraft carriers for the armed forces within the next five years.
Experts say the T-50 fighter, which has been developed in partnership with Russia’s leading arms client India, will also go far toward restoring the tattered reputation of Russia’s military-industrial complex as a leading supplier of weaponry in global markets.
“This is really good advertising; it shows buyers of Russian-made hardware that we can produce the most modern weapons and also improve them,” says Vitaly Shlykov, a former Soviet war planner who now works as a civilian adviser to the Russian Defense Ministry.
“We invested a lot in this plane, and the fact that we can fly it has a big psychological impact,” he says. “It has a huge symbolic meaning for Russia itself.”
But skeptics say we’d best wait for more details about the top-secret plane of which we have seen, so far, only a few superficial images.
“We see the plane has some external characteristics that are new, but we have no way of knowing whether it actually possesses the technological features that would make it a fighter of the fifth generation,” says Alexander Golts, military expert for the independent Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an online news magazine.
“It’s great that it took off. Hurray. But I want to know a lot more about it.”
Iraqi militants who are Iranian government slaves are intercepting sensitive video feeds from US predator drones using $26 off-the-shelf software, and the same technique leaves feeds from most military aircraft vulnerable to snooping, according to published reports.
To access the feeds, the militants have been using SkyGrabber, a publicly available program that pulls movies and music off satellites and sells for $26.
That’s one of the lessons that might be drawn from revelations that Iraqi insurgents have intercepted video feeds transmitted by US drone aircraft, using software and hardware available to virtually any technically-adept teenager in the world.
Today, general military cyber war is in its infancy, noted General C. Robert Kehler, commander of US Air Force Space Command, in an address on the subject in September.
It is about where military air power was at the beginning of the last century, said Gen. Kehler – the biplane level of development.
“So we know that this will evolve,” said Kehler, referring to the offensive and defensive sides of confrontation with bits and bytes.
By itself, the breach of the drone video stream does not appear to have been particularly threatening. Insurgents merely tapped into an unencrypted data transmission that provided them with pictures of what the drone was looking at. It was not information detailed enough to provide the insurgents with tactical intelligence. It was not something that would have allowed them to take control of the aircraft, any more than intercepting a police call on a radio scanner allows the listener to drive a police car.
The transmission was open because the Pentagon in essence has not yet bothered to encrypt it.
“This is a vulnerability that they’ve known about for decades,” says John Pike, a security analyst and president of GlobalSecurity.org.
In some ways, another type of cyber attack that occurred this week might be more threatening to US national security. The Twitter outage caused by a group calling itself the “Iranian Cyber Army” may, or may not, have been directed by the Iranian government.
But whoever was behind it, is just the sort of denial of service blow that could wreak havoc with military systems, or government services, or sectors of the economy, if properly carried out.
“Dealing with a deliberate denial of service attack designed to disrupt the on-line economy – I don’t think we’re set to deal with that,” says Pike.
This is as much a concern for the Pentagon as is the operational cyber security of weapons. It is a technique adversary nations have already used against each other, said Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy Air Force chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance earlier this year.
“This denial of service strategy was recently applied by North Korea, and Russia used it in the cyber isolation of Georgia,” said Gen. Deptula in an address to the Air Force Association.
Meanwhile, one of the lessons of the stolen drone video feed is that different systems have different vulnerabilities, and all need to be addressed to secure US military operations, according to US officials.
“Every airman is a defender. That’s the mindset you have to have,” said Gen. Kehler in his address to AFA. “When you log onto your computer, when you pick up your handheld device, when you get on your cell phone, et cetera, you are entering a combat zone and you need to behave accordingly.”
This year’s drill, dubbed “Peace Mission 2009,” was being conducted in Russia’s far eastern city of Khabarovsk, Xinhua reported. Part of it will also be held in China’s Taonan tactical training base bordering Russia’s Far Eastern region.
The drill comes in the wake of deadly riots between Muslim Uighurs and the dominant Han Chinese in Urumqi, capital of China’s northwest Xinjiang-Uighur province near Afghanistan and Pakistan.
More than 190 people died in the riots, the worst ethnic violence since the Communists took power in China in 1949. Chinese authorities have blamed the violence on Muslim Uighur separatist groups overseas.
The drill also marks the growing ties between the two powers.
The start of the drill was jointly announced by the Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army, and his Russian counterpart Nikolai Makarov, Xinhua reported.
About 1,300 army and air force personnel from each side were taking part in the exercise. There will also be 22 Russian aircraft, including Su-27 fighters, Su-24 and Su-25 attacker aircraft, and several helicopters, the news agency said. China will send more than 40 aircraft, including attackers, fighter-bombers, armed helicopters and transporters, as well as surface-to-air missile defense system and radar teams.
Similar exercises were held in 2005 and 2007
‘We are already building practically as many ships as we did in Soviet times’
Russian Navy cruiser
Russia’s one-dominant navy is being returned to power, and it already has been successful in taking over Georgia’s Black Sea port of Poti,” according to a report from Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.
Officials say the navy is being refurbished and expanded and will be used to respond to what Russians perceive as growing threats to their security interests.
“We are already building practically as many ships as we did in Soviet times,” First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said during a recent visit to Severodvinsk. “The problem now is not lack of money, but how to optimize production so that the navy can get new ships three, not five, years after laying them down.”
The nation’s economy has improved because of the rise in the price of oil, so there has been a significant increase in defense spending to include more ships under construction as well as a plan to refit some older ships.
Moscow already has in place a recently approved rearmament program that runs through 2015. Now for the first time in Soviet and Russian history, development of the navy will almost equal the increase in strategic nuclear forces. The program covering the period until 2015 is expected to replace 45 percent of the navy inventory.
Russia intends to bolster its four fleets and one flotilla of the Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol, Ukraine; the Russian Northern Fleet headquartered at Severomorsk, Russia; the Pacific Fleet headquartered in Vladivostok, Russia; the Baltic Fleet headquartered in Kaliningrad, Russia; and the Caspian Flotilla headquartered in Astrakhan, Russia. The improvements are to be used to guard Russia’s interests.
“We’ll do all we can to build up our presence where Russia has strategic interests,” Russian Navy Commander Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky recently said.
With greater Black Sea access, Russia will have more opportunity to use the ports as bases from which to project power into the Mediterranean and then on to the Atlantic.
Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin is the premium, online intelligence news source edited and published by the founder of WND.