Let’s talk about bombs for a minute

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

Let’s talk about bombs for a minute, Greg Ellifritz suggests:

This week, a Utah high school student was arrested after he attempted to detonate a large backpack bomb in his school. Luckily, the bomb malfunctioned and the school was evacuated before anyone was hurt.

Those of you who have taken my “Response to a Terrorist Bombing” class might remember how I discussed that in worldwide terrorist events, the trend is moving more and more towards combining bombs and guns in the attack.

If you find yourself in the middle of a mass shooting, you must be prepared for the coming bomb blasts. If you survive a bomb blast, you must be looking out for people with guns shooting up the evacuation site. That’s simply the reality of modern terrorist attacks worldwide.

This particular incident had only a bombing component (likely because it was committed by a lone high school student without any true support of a terrorist network). I predict we will see more and more of these as well.

After the Las Vegas concert shooting and the Florida school shooting, people are becoming more conscious of the potential carnage that can be inflicted by a deranged gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a lot of ammunition. There are currently multiple social and political pressures being applied to limit the purchase and/or possession of these rifles. While I don’t personally think that tactic will be effective at reducing mass casualties in a terrorist attack, I believe it will become harder and harder to legally acquire semi-automatic rifles in the future.

What will the terrorist resort to if he can’t get a rifle and lots of ammo? You guessed it…bombs. Look at terrorist attacks worldwide. In countries with very strict gun control, we see terrorists use bombs more often. Bombs are easy to make and can cause massive casualties if placed in the right location at the right time. Bombs also bring a disproportionate amount of media attention, which is exactly what the killers and terrorists crave.

If you predict that semi-automatic rifles will become harder to legally acquire in the future, then you have to be prepared for more terrorist bombing incidents.

Be careful what you wish for.

Two sweeping moral visions of guns

Monday, February 19th, 2018

Ross Douthat notes that mass shootings aren’t leading to legislative action, because we have a chasm between two sweeping moral visions of guns that is too wide to be bridged by incrementalism:

The anti-gun moral vision regards America’s relationship to gun ownership as a kind of collective moral madness, a love affair with violence, a sickness unto death. Liberals increasingly write about gun ownership the way social conservatives write about abortion and euthanasia — it’s a culture of death, a Moloch devouring our children, a blood sacrifice to selfish individualism.

The pro-gun moral vision, meanwhile, links arms and the citizen, treating self-defense as an essential civic good, a means of maintaining Americans as free people rather than wards (or prisoners) of the state.

The pro-gun vision is linked, of course, to practical concerns — support for gun ownership is higher in rural areas where the police are far away. But it’s essentially a moral-political picture in which the fullness of citizenship includes the capacity to protect and defend, to step in when the state fails and resist when it imposes illegitimately.

If you asked me to defend only one of these moral pictures I would defend the pro-gun vision. I am not a gun owner but I can imagine many situations and political dispensations in which a morally responsible citizen should own a weapon; I have encountered many communities where “gun culture” seems healthy and responsible rather than a bloodthirsty cult. And the claim, often urged on anti-abortion writers like myself, that guns and abortion should both be opposed on “life” grounds seems like a category error, since every abortion kills but guns sit harmless in millions of households and many deter violence or turn back evil men.

Naturally the New York Times includes a photo of “high-capacity clips” to adorn the article. (They are regular-capacity AR magazines.)

Douthat is not a gun guy, but he takes a stab at gun regulations that would not apply to every gun owner, but instead would be imposed on the young and removed with age:

Let 18-year-olds own hunting rifles. Make revolvers available at 21. Semiautomatic pistols, at 25. And semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 could be sold to 30-year-olds but no one younger.

Again, he’s not a gun guy, and he doesn’t seem aware that standard practice already works a bit like this, with long guns (rifles and shotguns) available at 18 and handguns at 21. The legal right to carry a handgun (concealed) generally requires a more thorough background check and a modicum of “training” — you have to sit through a class and not scare the instructor too badly when you go to shoot your gun at the range. Simply requiring paperwork seems to weed out most irresponsible people.

Of course, a system designed to keep guns away from criminals and ordinary hotheads might do very little to keep guns away from quiet loners with a nihilistic obsession.

It also sows doubt

Saturday, February 10th, 2018

Something changed in the Middle East last December, when Israel declared its first squadron of F-35s operational:

Numerically, the change seemed minor. The Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) 140 (“Golden Eagle”) Squadron has just nine F-35I Adir aircraft, scheduled to grow to fifty over the next three years. That’s a small number compared to the roughly 300 F-15s, F-15Es and F-16s currently operated by the IAF.

But the significance of Israel’s F-35s is more than numbers. First, there is the simple qualitative advantage. [...] The F-35 is superior to Iran’s collection of F-14, MiG-29s, and F-4 Phantoms, Syria’s MiG-29s and Egypt’s F-16s.


Then there is the stealth factor. It has been almost thirty-six years since Israel last conducted a major air campaign against an opponent possessing a respectable air force. Now the IAF spends its time conducting pinprick raids with a few aircraft against a Hezbollah arms convoy here, a Hamas weapons dump there. Even a handful of stealth jets will enable Israel to conduct sneak raids over Syria—or even Iran.


Israel’s F-35s add uncertainty to the mix. That Israeli aircraft could reach Iran, and routinely strike Hezbollah and Syria, is no secret. But Iran now has to wonder whether Israeli F-35s can stealthily penetrate Iranian defenses (and note that the Israeli specially modified F-35I has extra fuel capacity).

Whether or not the aircraft can successfully accomplish this doesn’t matter in this context. It’s only whether Iran believes it can, and whether this will affect Tehran’s actions.

An Israeli F-35 doesn’t just carry bombs. It also sows doubt.

Private gun ownership in Kenya

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Alan Kasujja of the BBC World Service visited a gun range near Nairobi, Kenya to interview Anthony Wahome, chair of the [Kenyan] National Gun Owners Association and a former police officer, about private gun ownership.

Two things stood out. First, there are roughly 10,000 legally owned firearms in Kenya, versus 700,000 not-so-legally owned firearms. He points out that most of those are in the semi-arid regions, where cattle rustling is a problem. Second, he was at a shooting competition when news started coming in that the Westgate mall was under attack. They stopped the competition and decided to go to the mall to help. I was wondering why armed citizens were at the mall in shooting vests covered in IDPA patches. (The Kenyan police and military are not held in high esteem, by the way.)

Doc, how do I know where I should shoot?

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

James Williams, M.D. was teaching a class with Mas Ayoob, when one of the students, a probation and parole officer, asked, “Doc, how do I know where I should shoot?

“It’s easy,” I replied glibly. “Go to med school, do a residency in critical care, practice in ICUs and ERs for about 20 years, and you’ll know exactly where to shoot the bad guy.”

Williams went on to design his “tactical anatomy” courses to answer that question less glibly:

Any hunter knows that to harvest a deer for your family’s winter meat you have to kill it cleanly. We train new hunters about deer anatomy, and teach them to place their bullets in the vital organs. Because if you shoot the deer any old place, it is likely to run off, wounded. It may well die, but if it is able to run a mile into the woods, its death will be a tragic waste. So we learn as hunters to stop the animal where we shoot it, by shooting it in the vital organs.

Now, lion hunters face a different problem than deer hunters. A wounded lion won’t just crawl off into the brush and die; it will turn on you and attack. In this case, the hunter’s need to stop the animal in its tracks isn’t just because he fears losing the meat; he fears losing his own life to the slashing fangs and ripping claws of a 400-pound killing machine!

The defensive shooter is more like a lion hunter than a deer hunter, because the consequences of failing to stop a violent felon are akin to those of failing to stop a charging lion. We don’t want the attacking lion or felon to stop hurting us eventually; we want him to stop hurting us now.

So if you are faced with a violent, attacking, predatory felon, how do you make sure you stop him before he can cause you grave bodily harm, or even death?

The simple answer is that you have to shoot him where it counts. And the common ideas of where it counts are often wrong.

B27 Police Qualification Target Overlaid with Anatomical Structures

To incapacitate a human being — to make him incapable of violent action — by gunshot wound (GSW) your bullets have to do serious damage to his vital organs. In my very extensive experience (and this is backed up by the medical literature, by the way) there are only two reliable ways to incapacitate a man by gunshot: either shut down the Central Nervous System (CNS, brain and high spinal cord), or shut off the supply of oxygen to the CNS.


The only two reliable target zones, then, are: first, the CNS itself, and second, the pumping system that supplies oxygen to the CNS, the heart and the plexus of Great Vessels above the heart.

Funnily enough, these are the same anatomic targets the hunter uses, whether deer or lion.

The signal was designed to exploit the difference

Sunday, December 17th, 2017

How does a Taser work?

When you pull the trigger of a Taser gun, a blast of compressed nitrogen launches its two barbed darts at 55 meters per second, less than a fifth the speed of a bullet from a typical pistol. Each projectile, which weighs 1.6 grams, has a 9-millimeter-long tip to penetrate clothing and the insulating outer layer of skin. Two whisper-thin wires trail behind for up to 9 meters, forming an electrical connection to the gun.

Because the barbs get stuck in clothing and fail to reach the skin about 30 percent of the time, the gun is designed to generate a brief arcing pulse, which ionizes the intervening air to establish a conductive path for the electricity. The arcing phase has an open-circuit peak voltage of 50,000 volts; that is, the voltage is 50 kilovolts only until the arc appears or until the barbs make contact with conductive flesh, which in the worst conditions offers around 400 ohms of resistance.

The target’s body is never exposed to the 50 kV. The X26 — the model commonly used by police departments — delivers a peak voltage of 1200 V to the body. Once the barbs establish a circuit, the gun generates a series of 100-microsecond pulses at a rate of 19 per second. Each pulse carries 100 microcoulombs of charge, so the average current is 1.9 milliamperes. To force the muscles to contract without risking electrocution, the signal was designed to exploit the difference between heart muscle and skeletal muscle.

Skeletal muscle constitutes 40 percent of a typical person’s mass and is responsible for making your biceps flex, your fingers type, and your eyelids wink. It’s organized into bundles of single-cell fibers that stretch from tendons attached to your skeleton. When your brain orders a muscle to flex, an electrical impulse shoots down a motor nerve to its termination at the midpoint of a muscle fiber. There the electrical signal changes into a chemical one, and the nerve ending sprays a molecular transmitter, acetylcholine, onto the muscle. In the milliseconds before enzymes have a chance to chew it up, some of the acetylcholine binds with receptors, called gated-ion channels, on the surface of the muscle cell. When acetylcholine sticks to them, they open, allowing the sodium ions in the surrounding salty fluid to rush in.

The movement of those ions raises the cell’s internal voltage, opening nearby ion channels that are triggered by voltage instead of by acetylcholine. As a result, a wave of voltage rolls outward along the fiber toward both ends of the muscle, moving as fast as 5 meters per second. As the voltage pulse spreads, it kick-starts the molecular machinery that contracts the muscle fiber.

By directly jolting the motor nerves with electricity, a Taser can stimulate the muscle and get the same effect.

The force with which a skeletal muscle contracts depends on the frequency at which its nerve fires. The amount of contraction elicited is proportional to the stimulation rate, up to about 70 pulses per second. At that point, called tetanus, contractions can be dangerously strong. (The same thing happens in the disease tetanus, whose primary symptom, caused by the presence of a neurotoxin, is prolonged contraction of skeletal fibers.) The Taser, with its 19 pulses per second, operates far enough from the tetanus region so that the muscles contract continuously but without causing any major damage.

Heart muscle has a somewhat different physical and electrical structure. Instead of one long cell forming a fiber that stretches from tendon to tendon, heart muscle is composed of interconnected fibers made up of many cells. The cell-to-cell connections have a low resistance, so if an electrical impulse causes one heart cell to contract, its neighbors will quickly follow suit. With the help of some specialized conduction tissue, this arrangement makes the four chambers of the heart beat in harmony and pump blood efficiently. A big jolt of current at the right frequency can turn the coordinated pump into a quivering mass of muscle. That’s just what electrocution does: the burst of electricity causes the heart’s electrical activity to become chaotic, and it stops pumping adequately — a situation known as ventricular fibrillation.

The Taser takes advantage of two natural protections against electrocution that arise from the difference between skeletal and cardiac muscle. The first — anatomy — is so obvious that it is typically overlooked. The skeletal muscles are on the outer shell of the body; the heart is nestled farther inside. In your upper body, the skeletal muscles are arranged in bands surrounding your rib cage. Because of skeletal muscle fibers’ natural inclination to conduct low-frequency electricity along their length, a larger current injected into such a muscle tends to follow the grain around the chest rather than the smaller current that penetrates toward the heart.

The second protection results from the different timing requirements of the nerves that trigger muscle contractions and the heart’s intrinsic electronics. To lock up skeletal muscle without causing ventricular fibrillation, an electronic waveform has to have a specific configuration of pulse length and current.

The key metric that electrophysiologists use to describe the relationship between the effect of pulse length and current is chronaxie, a concept similar to what we engineers call the system time constant. Electrophysiologists figure out a nerve’s chronaxie by first finding the minimal amount of current that triggers a nerve cell using a long pulse. In successive tests, the pulse is shortened. A briefer pulse of the same current is less likely to trigger the nerve, so to get the attached muscle to contract, you have to up the amperage. The chronaxie is defined as the minimum stimulus length to trigger a cell at twice the current determined from that first very long pulse. Shorten the pulse below the chronaxie and it will take more current to have any effect. So the Taser should be designed to deliver pulses of a length just short of the chronaxie of skeletal muscle nerves but far shorter than the chronaxie of heart muscle nerves.

And that’s the case. To see just how different skeletal and heart muscles are, let’s look at what it takes to seriously upset a heart’s rhythm. Basically, there are two ways: by using a relatively high average current, or by zapping it with a small number of extremely high-current pulses.

In terms of average current, the 1.9 mA mentioned earlier is about 1 percent of what’s needed to cause the heart of the typical male to fibrillate. So the Taser’s average current is far from the danger zone for healthy human hearts.

As far as single-pulse current goes, the Taser is again in the clear. The heart’s chronaxie is about 3 milliseconds — that’s 30 times as long as the chronaxie of skeletal muscle nerves and the pulse lengths of a Taser. The single-pulse current required to electrocute someone by directly pulsing the most sensitive part of the heartbeat using 3-ms pulses is about 3 A. Because a Taser’s 100-ms pulses are such a small fraction of the heart’s chronaxie, it would take significantly higher current — on the order of 90 A — to electrocute someone using a Taser.

When you factor in that the Taser barbs are likely to land in current-shunting skeletal muscle not near the heart, you wind up with a pretty large margin of safety.

The civilian version is apparently quite small — “close to a Glock 42,” according to one review.

The Stormtroopers’ normal human precision only seems inferior by comparison

Saturday, December 16th, 2017

Jonathan Jeckell busts the Stormtrooper marksmanship myth:

Clone Troopers used long rifles in their role as a mass land army during the Clone Wars, fighting engagements with the Droid Army in a variety of terrain that often called for heavy firepower and accurate long-range shots. But most Stormtroopers were issued pistols that fit their new role in short-range engagements, like fighting insurgents in cities or in the corridors onboard ships. Short weapons are handier than rifles for shock troops leading boarding parties fighting in confined spaces and also as lightweight sidearms for constabulary forces dealing with a few unruly civilians (or keeping the governor and other regional elites in line).

E-11 Blaster Rifle

The transition from rifles to pistols has a profound effect on the range and accuracy of engagements. A rifle provides a long foundation to support the weapon to control where it is pointed with many opportunities to brace it to keep it steady. A standing shooter has control of the weapon in at least three points across its length. The non-firing arm holds the end of the barrel, the butt of the weapon is planted firmly in the shooter’s armpit, and the firing hand holds the rifle in the middle. The shooter may also brace against a solid object, which substantially increases stability and the ability to accurately hold the weapon on target long enough to fire.

Pistols in contrast are held by one point (or two in the case of the long pistols used by Stormtroopers). The shooter’s body has many joints between the pistol and the ground, all of which continuously jostle despite efforts to hold them steady. The short barrel means that even the smallest movement results in larger deviations from the target as the shooter struggles with a single bracing point, trying to hold many levers (all the joints in your body) steady without jitter.

To illustrate the difference, the maximum effective range of the U.S. Army’s Beretta M9 9mm pistol is 50 meters, which means that the average person will hit 50% of the time at 50 meters. Meanwhile, the maximum effective range for the M4 Carbine is 500 meters—10 times further.

This becomes even more difficult when the shooter must react quickly and under extreme stress. Many shooters who excel on the range fail to hit what they are shooting at in combat unless they also train in realistic stressful quick-reaction scenarios. Police and the FBI maintain more useful statistics for pistol engagements because they are all studied in-depth afterwards. The FBI has found that pistol accuracy suffers when shooting in a real engagement. FBI data from 1989-1994 shows that the majority of engagements occurred within 6-10 feet (yes, feet). Less than 40% of the engagements were over 21 feet (7 meters). 60% of the engagements were within 0-21 feet, 30% from 21-45 feet, and 10% from 45-75 feet. None occurred beyond 75 feet. The average defender fires three rounds against a single assailant. The bad guys shooting at police hit their target just 14% of the time, and 95% of the police who achieve a 1st shot hit survive. This drops to 48% on the second shot. Law enforcement officers average 75-80% missed shots.

This means that Luke, Leia, and Han make some really unbelievable shots with pistols (and the scope doesn’t help). Chewbacca’s bow is held like a rifle, so his shots don’t stand out as much on the battlefield as being extraordinary. This makes the Stormtroopers’ normal human precision seem inferior in contrast. We know Luke is a Jedi, which can explain his extreme long-range accuracy with a blaster. We also know Leia has latent Force powers, which explains hers as well. Han may not be a Jedi, but he may have latent force-sensitivity despite his skepticism about the Jedi and the Force. Despite laughing off the Jedi, his piloting skill surpassed normal human capabilities like one, even though he always laughed off the Jedi.

I estimate the distance from Luke to these Stormtroopers to be at LEAST 150 meters, yet he shot two in quick succession here, then shot a foot-square door control before egressing from the fight. Leia and Han regularly made many such shots throughout the series.

The standard weapon of the Stormtroopers is the E-11 blaster rifle, which, despite its name, is rarely depicted with a stock. It was based on the British Sterling Mk IV submachine gun.

What’s odd, I pointed out to Jeckell, is that the professional soldiers aren’t decent with their primary arms, but the rebels are skilled with the Stormtroopers’ weapons. It’s clear Luke is an avid shooter (and pilot), as a country boy, but I wouldn’t expect him to be much of a pistol shot. I have no trouble imagining Han and Chewie as avid shooters, with their own weapons. I like the idea of Leia being plucky enough to get her hands dirty, but pistol-shooting is only intuitive out to five yards or so. It takes tremendous practice to master.

Supercavitating ammunition won’t skip

Friday, October 20th, 2017

DSG Technology has a new line of supercavitating ammunition, Cav-X, which won’t skip off the surface when shot into water — and which will penetrate another 60 meters, in the case of its .50-caliber round:

There is little that’s quiet about a firearm with a silencer

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

The Washington Post is willing to print a fact-checker column noting that there is little that’s quiet about a firearm with a silencer, unless one also thinks a jackhammer is quiet:

The Environmental Protection Agency developed the noise-reduction rating (NRR), which explains how much a product might reduce noise in decibels. The decibel scale is logarithmic, rather than linear, so a difference of a few decibels is important.

Of course, different ear protection has different ratings. We found that the range for ear plugs ranged from 22 to 33 NRR, over-the-ear muffs between 22 and 31 NRR and suppressors were also in 30 NRR range, although some may go higher.

(In all likelihood, the level of noise reduction is overestimated, especially for ear plugs because tests are done in a laboratory setting and people using them often do not achieve the proper fit. 3M advises cutting the NRR by more than half to reflect this problem, so 29 NRR would translate to 11 NRR.)

Katie Peters, a spokeswoman for ARS, supplied an article that stated: “The average suppression level, according to independent tests done on a variety of commercially available suppressors, is around 30 dB, which is around the same reduction level of typical ear protection gear often used when firing guns.”

If that’s the case, we’re not sure why the group would say that ear plugs protect hearing “better” than suppressors.” It seems the answer is that they are about the same, give or take two or three decibels. And if that’s the case, ARS is especially wrong to claim that legislation to make it easier to buy such devices “does nothing to protect hearing.”

Peters acknowledged that gun enthusiasts recommend that even with suppressors, other hearing protection is necessary. Hearing damage begins to occur at about 85 decibels, about the sound of a hairdryer.

This gets us to the other issue — whether a suppressor makes it “quiet,” as Gillibrand tweeted, and harder for law enforcement officials to detect, as she and ARS suggested.

A 30-decibel reduction in theory means an AR-15 rifle would have a noise equivalent of 132 decibels. That is considered equivalent to a gunshot or a jackhammer. A .22-caliber pistol would be 116 decibels, which is louder than a 100-watt car stereo. In all likelihood, the noise level is actually higher.

Maybe we should call them mufflers?

Just three percent of adults own half of America’s guns

Tuesday, October 10th, 2017

The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog notes that just three percent of adults own half of America’s guns but has the sense to note that this is the same pattern we see everywhere.

It’s frankly terrifying that so many guns are concentrated in the hands of collectors who have no interest in killing anyone.

We can’t shoot down North Korea’s missiles

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017

The number one reason we don’t shoot down North Korea’s missiles is that we cannot:

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told his nation after last week’s test, “We didn’t intercept it because no damage to Japanese territory was expected.”

That is half true. The missile did not pose a serious threat. It flew over the Japanese island of Hokkaido, landing 3700 km (2300 miles) from its launch point near North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang.

The key word here is “over.” Like way over. Like 770 kilometers (475 miles) over Japan at the apogee of its flight path. Neither Japan nor the United States could have intercepted the missile. None of the theater ballistic missile defense weapons in existence can reach that high. It is hundreds of kilometers too high for the Aegis interceptors deployed on Navy ships off Japan. Even higher for the THAAD systems in South Korea and Guam. Way too high for the Patriot systems in Japan, which engage largely within the atmosphere.

All of these are basically designed to hit a missile in the post-mid-course or terminal phase, when it is on its way down, coming more or less straight at the defending system. Patriot is meant to protect relatively small areas such as ports or air bases; THAAD defends a larger area; the advanced Aegis system theoretically could defend thousands of square kilometers.

But could we intercept before the missile climbed that high? There is almost no chance of hitting a North Korean missile on its way up unless an Aegis ship was deployed very close to the launch point, perhaps in North Korean waters. Even then, it would have to chase the missile, a race it is unlikely to win. In the only one or two minutes of warning time any system would have, the probability of a successful engagement drops close to zero.


If North Korea cooperated and shot their new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, at the United States with adequate warning so that we could prepare, and if the warhead looked pretty much like we expect it to look, and if they only shot one, and if they did not try to spoof the defense with decoys that looked like the warhead, or block the defense with low-power jammers, or hide the warhead in a cloud of chaff, or blind the defense by attacking the vulnerable radars, then, maybe this is true. The United States might have a 50-50 chance of hitting such a missile. If we had time to fire four or five interceptors, then the odds could go up.

But North Korea is unlikely to cooperate. It will do everything possible to suppress the defenses. The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate of the Ballistic Threat to the United States noted that any country capable of testing a long-range ballistic missile would “rely initially on readily available technology – including separating RVs [reentry vehicles], spin-stabilized RVs, RV reorientation, radar absorbing material, booster fragmentation, low-power jammers, chaff, and simple (balloon) decoys – to develop penetration aids and countermeasures.”

Our anti-missile systems have never been realistically tested against any of these simple countermeasures.

Low explosives deflagrate

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

High explosive detonate, while low explosives deflagrate:

Low explosives are compounds where the rate of decomposition proceeds through the material at less than the speed of sound. The decomposition is propagated by a flame front (deflagration) which travels much more slowly through the explosive material than a shock wave of a high explosive. Under normal conditions, low explosives undergo deflagration at rates that vary from a few centimetres per second to approximately 400 metres per second.


Low explosives are normally employed as propellants. Included in this group are petroleum products such as propane and gasoline, gunpowder (both black and smokeless), and light pyrotechnics, such as flares and fireworks.


High explosives (HE) are explosive materials that detonate, meaning that the explosive shock front passes through the material at a supersonic speed. High explosives detonate with explosive velocity ranging from 3 to 9 km/s. For instance, TNT has a detonation (burn) rate of approximately 5.8 km/s (19,000 feet per second),

Detonation has an interesting etymology:

Detonation (from Latin detonare, meaning “to thunder down”) is a type of combustion involving a supersonic exothermic front accelerating through a medium that eventually drives a shock front propagating directly in front of it.


In classical Latin, detonare means “to stop thundering”, as in weather. The modern meaning developed later.

Hitting a bullet with a bullet

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

Hitting a bullet with a bullet is far from easy, as the history of ballistic missile defense has demonstrated, but the US had some success in the Gulf War:

The Gulf War story is overwhelmingly one of Coalition military and technological success, with one notable exception: the campaign against Iraqi tactical ballistic missiles. Initially this aspect of the war looked to be a lopsided contest pitting Iraq’s outdated missiles against the Coalition’s overwhelmingly superior technology and complete air dominance. But this is not how events unfolded. Despite using nearly every type aircraft in the Coalition’s considerable air fleet against the Scuds, in the words of one participant and student of this campaign, there was “scant evidence of success.” The Iraqis effectively used their Scuds to frustrate the Coalition, seize the initiative, and to apply great political and psychological pressure that had the potential to unravel the alliance. In this way, the Scud campaign was the high point for the Iraqis and low point for the Coalition airmen.

From the outset the reader should realize that the Gulf War was neither the first nor the largest ballistic missile war. These distinctions belong to the German V-2 missile campaign that rained destruction on Allied cities during World War II. The V-weapons campaign was much larger in numbers and much more destructive, albeit shorter in range, than the Iraqi missile offensive. However both campaigns had similar limitations (poor accuracy and small conventional warheads) and were mainly political and psychological in their intent and impact. Forty-five years separated the two operations, but the severe problems, frustrations, and failures experienced by the Allies while defending against German missiles, despite expending tremendous resources, were similar to those encountered by Coalition airmen during the Gulf War. One major difference between the two campaigns was that in the more recent war is that the defenders had an active ground-based defense.

Scud is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) code word for a Soviet surface-to-surface ballistic missile that evolved from the German V-2. It is little improved over the German missile, primarily having a longer range, somewhat better accuracy, but carrying a smaller payload. The Soviets tested the Scud A in April 1953 and deployed it in 1955. Scud B was an improved version that extended the missile’s range from 180km to 300km, and enhanced its accuracy from 4,000 to 1,000 meters CEP but carried only half the 989kg warhead of the “A.” ” It was first launched in 1957. A key feature of this type missile was its mobility, made possible by its wheeled chassis that served as a transporter, erector, and launcher (TEL). In 1961 the Soviets began exporting the Scud A to their Warsaw allies and then in 1973 shipped the first Scud B to Egypt, and later to a number of other middle east countries, including Iraq.


Casualties were far lower than estimated. The Israelis suffered only two direct deaths from the Scuds, and another eleven indirectly, four from heart attacks and seven 95 suffocating in their gas masks. In addition, probably 12 Saudis were killed and 121 wounded. There were also American casualties. On 26 February a Scud hit a Dhahran warehouse being used as a billet by about 127 American troops, killing 28 and wounding 97 others. This one Scud accounted for 21 percent of the US personnel killed during the Q7 war, and 40 percent of the wounded. A number of factors explain this incident. Apparently one Patriot battery was shut down for maintenance and another had cumulative computer timing problems. Another factor was just plain bad luck. The Scud warhead not only hit the warehouse, but unlike so many others, it remained intact, and detonated. Conversely, one Scud impacted in Al Jubail Harbor about 130 yards from the USS Tarawa and seven other ships moored next to a pier that was heavily laden with 5,000 tons of artillery ammunition. The missile’s warhead did not explode. These are the fortunes of war. Thus, the overall death rate was less than one killed per missile fired.

The Scuds lacked numbers, warhead size, and accuracy to be militarily significant. But General Norman Schwarzkopf’s continued restatement of these facts not only missed the point, it was politically dangerous. The general’s words indicated to the Israelis a lack of America’s concern, and encouraged Israeli counteraction. Scuds had a great psychological and political impact, especially as they were coupled with the threat of poison gas. The Israelis were not about to stand by as Iraqi missiles showered their cities with death and destruction. If they intervened, however, the carefully constructed Coalition could quickly unravel, which, of course, was what the Iraqis intended.100 In sharp contrast to the field commander, the top American leadership, specifically Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman, General Colin Powell, saw keeping Israel out of the war as the number one priority and the Scuds as the number one problem.

Although the Israelis rejected American aid before the shooting started, the first Scud impact changed everything. The Israelis quickly requested both American Patriot missile assistance and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) codes to allow their aircraft to strike Iraqi targets without tangling with Coalition aircraft. The US quickly agreed to the first, but refused the second. However, the decision makers realized that the Scud menace had to be contained to keep the Israelis out of the conflict. One important element in this effort was the Army’s Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM).


The Army’s Patriot surface-to-air missile formed the last line of active defense against the Scuds. The US was able to airlift 32 Patriot missiles to Israel within 17 hours and get them operational within three days. Patriot deployment to the Gulf eventually consisted of seven batteries to Israel, 21 to Saudi Arabia, and four to Turkey.

Crucial to the active BMD was early warning provided by strategic satellites. Although American Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites were designed to give warning of ICBM launches, they demonstrated the ability to track the lower flying, cooler, short range, tactical ballistic missiles, as demonstrated against hundreds of tactical ballistic missiles during their tests and in two Mid-Eastern wars.111 Before the shooting started in the Gulf War, two young captains at Strategic Air Command (SAC), John Rittinghouse and J.D. Broyles, worked out a system that coordinated information from the satellites, routed it through three widely located headquarters (SAC, Space Command, and Central Command), and passed it along to the user in the field. While the satellite did not precisely indicate either the location of launch or anticipated point of impact, it did give general information. The bottleneck was the communications, nevertheless, the juryrigged system gave a few minutes’ warning to both the defending Patriot crews and people in the target area. During the war, the satellites detected all 88 launches.

One of the main controversies of the war centered on the effectiveness of the Patriot against the Scud, or more precisely, how many Patriots hit Scuds. Of the 88 Scuds launched, 53 flew within the area of Patriot coverage. The defenders engaged most of these, 46 to 52 according to secondary accounts, with 158 Patriot missiles. Schwarzkopf initially claimed 100 percent Patriot success. After the war the manufacturer boasted of 89 percent success over Saudi Arabia and 44 percent over Israel, then in December 1991 the Army asserted 80 percent and 50 percent success, respectively. The next April the official success claims were further reduced to 70 and 40 percent in the two areas.


This misses the main point: regardless of the exact interception figures, Patriots proved very effective. Just as the Scuds were primarily a psychological weapon, so too were the Patriots. They provided great theater, with live videos of fiery launches, smoke trails, and aerial fireworks made more vivid with a dark, night background that had a positive impact on civilians and decision makers in the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. (There is no indication that any Iraqis saw this very visible performance, and if so, what impact it had on them.) The situation was manageable for the defenders as long as the Scud attacks were limited in number, inaccurate, and killed few people. Missile warning protected civilians from death and injury, while active missile defenses bolstered morale. The Patriots were an important factor in keeping Israel out of the war.

The most formidable of twenty-first century weapons

Monday, August 21st, 2017

A new study from RAND examines Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014 and shares some lessons learned in Gaza:

For starters, smart weapons are no panacea. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attempted to destroy Hamas rocket launchers and tunnels with airpower alone (surprising in light of the failure of such an approach in the 2006 Lebanon War). Lack of success meant ground troops had to be sent in.

The failure of airpower meant the revival of artillery. The IDF barely used artillery in 2009, but used lots of big guns in 2014. “On a technical and tactical level, the IDF’s use of artillery support was impressive,” RAND noted. “It increased its use of precision artillery from earlier campaigns and reduced the minimum safe distances for providing fire support. Artillery fire often proved quicker and more responsive than other means of firepower, such as CAS [close air support].”

Armor also proved its worth in Gaza. “Before Protective Edge, the IDF invested in intelligence and airpower, often at the expense of particularly heavy armor,” RAND found. Or as Israeli sources told RAND, “Half a year before, they closed the Namer [a tank converted into a troop carrier] and we said it was a mistake; and immediately after, they reopened the project. You need protection. Mobility is protection.”

In turn, armor needs active protection systems. “there was near-universal consensus among IDF officers and outside analysts interviewed for this report that vehicles equipped with the Trophy system stood a better chance of surviving not only RPG fire, but also the Kornet ATGM [anti-tank guided missile],” RAND found. “Indeed, according to some accounts, there were at least 15 instances of active protection systems intercepting Kornet-style missiles.” Another unexpected benefit was that the sensors on the Trophy also proved useful in detecting the location of hostile fire.

However, neither smart weapons nor artillery can stop that most formidable of twenty-first century weapons: lawfare, or the use of international law and public opinion to stymie an adversary’s superior firepower. Under intense media scrutiny, the IDF grappled with how to destroy rocket launchers that Hamas had emplaced in densely populated civilian areas. To its credit, Israel tried a variety of means to avoid civilian casualties, including calling residents on their phones to evacuate, social media and the memorable “door knocker” inert bombs landing on roofs as a signal to get out of the target zone. Lawyers even reviewed targeting decisions, and yet Israeli still suffered a public relations disaster, including public and UN accusations of war crimes. Now the IDF General Staff is adding a lawfare section. “For better or worse, lawfare is here to stay, and the IDF — like all Western militaries — will have to wrestle with its implications in any future operation,” RAND concludes.

It just has to bring the detonator

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Back before GPS was ubiquitous, a couple decades ago, I thought it would lend itself all too well to sabotage or terrorism. Imagine sending out a fleet of miniature, autonomous Hindenburgs to burn down a dozen targets on a windless night, or dropping lawn darts from the sky.

The Russians figured this out, it would appear:

A precision attack does not need to deliver a massive warhead: it just has to ‘bring the detonator’ to a vulnerable target.

The Ukrainian SBU – the equivalent of the FBI – now believe that the destruction of a giant arms depot at Balakliya in eastern Ukraine in March was carried out by a small drone. The spectacular explosion and fire destroyed some seventy thousand tons of munitions with damage estimated at a billion dollars, though only one person was killed. This destruction is a graphic illustration of the threat posed by small drones, as many other high-value targets may be equally vulnerable.

Balakliya was said to be the largest ammunition dump in the world. Photographs of the site show wooden boxes of ammunition left in the open, making it a tempting target for an aerial saboteur. Several similar strikes have been carried out in Ukraine.

“This form of anti-materiel attack—though on a lesser scale—has already taken place at least two times in South-East Ukraine by Russian-linked forces utilizing weaponized UAS dropping incendiary bomblets,” says Robert Bunker, Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College.

On 29th October 2015, the ammunition depot at Svatovo was hit. Some three thousand tons of ammunition went up, and 1,700 homes were damaged nearby.

This year, on the night of 17th February, an ammunition warehouse in Zaporozhye region was set on fire causing a series of explosions. The same tactics were used the next night at a storage site near Grodovka village in the Donetsk region, but this time the fires were put out. On 14th March a drone attacked another Ukrainian military facility near Donestsk, making three separate sorties and dropping two grenades each time according to Ukrainian military officials.

There had been a previous drone attack at Balakliya in December 2015, when small drones dropped at least fourteen grenades. The grenades started fires in the open storage areas, but the Ukrainian soldiers, showing considerable bravery, put out the fires. On that occasion one of the devices was recovered intact, and was identified as a Russian ZMG-1 mine grenade.

The ZMG-1 is a thermite charge, a specialist tool used for demolition by Russian special forces, which resembles the U.S. AN-M14 grenade. Grenades of this type burn rather than exploding, and are placed rather than thrown, as they must be in contact with the target. They are filled with a mixture of metal and metal oxide which react to produce extreme temperatures – something over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The AN-M14 can melt through a steel plate half an inch thick and is typically used to disable artillery. The ZMG-1 appears to have similar capability. The Ukrainian SBU have previously captured ZMG-1s in caches associated with Russian separatist groups, so they have such weapons, and ammunition dumps are a prime target.

“A weapons depot is such a good target for drones because incendiary device dropped from the drone only needs to act as fuse, using the materiel on the ground for the actual explosion,” says Ulrike Franke, a drone expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This echoes the warning by T X Hammes of the Center for Strategic Research about a type of attack he calls ‘bringing the detonator’. Where there is a suitably vulnerable target, even a drone with a small warhead can do tremendous damage. It does not need to carry the explosive, because explosive is already there, it is just a matter of setting it off. This does not just mean ammunition dumps.

“Other infrastructure sites that would be particularly vulnerable to this form of attack would be those storing highly flammable substances such as fuel — especially aviation fuel,” says Bunker. “Commercial aircraft parked at an airport laden with fuel in their wing storage cells would also be very susceptible.”

Hammes also mentions parked aircraft as a target. Sites storing quantities of liquified natural gas or petrochemicals, fuel depots and similar locations could be similarly susceptible to such attacks. Storage tanks of other dangerous chemicals might not explodes and burn, but if ruptured they could still have catastrophic effects. Th accidental release of methyl isocyanate gas from a plant on Bhopal in 1984 caused over three thousand deaths. Any risk of a similar incident is likely to result in the evacuation of a wide area as a minimum, even if there are no casualties.

Small drones are readily available over the internet. Unlike earlier generations of radio-controlled aircraft, they are easy to use, and a beginner can fly one out of the box. Grenades of the sort dropped by drones in Iraq and Syria may be hard to acquire outside of a war zone, but thermite is another matter. It is easy to make, and can be legally purchased in the US, UK and elsewhere. Terrorists may have trouble making their own explosives, and often get caught in the process, but they can acquire thermite without attracting attention.