The final version of the code allowed the drone to best its human rivals 60% of the time

Thursday, August 31st, 2023

Researchers in Switzerland unveiled a quadcopter drone equipped with an AI brain that beat its human rival in 15 out of 25 races:

“This is the first time that an AI has challenged and beaten human champions in a real-world competitive sport,” says Elia Kaufmann, an autonomy engineer at Skydio, a drone company based out of Redwood City, California, who worked on the drone while at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.


Kaufmann taught the drone what racing gates looked like by hand-identifying the fabric gates in tens of thousands of images — a technique known as “supervised learning.” The team also used more conventional code to help the drone triangulate its position and orientation based on visual cues from its cameras.

But the real secret to the drone’s success came from a relatively new technique known as “reinforcement learning.” The team put the drone’s control code into a virtual version of the race course and sent it around and around in virtual space for the equivalent of 23 days (one hour of computing time). The code kept practicing until it learned the best route.


The final version of the code allowed the drone to best its human rivals 60% of the time.

The drone has plenty of limitations. It only works for the specific course it’s been trained on and in a specific environment. Moving the course from inside to outdoors, for example, would throw the drone off due to changes in lighting. And the slightest things can send it spinning. For example, if a rival accidentally bumps it, “it has no idea how to handle this and crashes,” says Bauersfeld.

In street warfare the Germans forfeited all their advantages in mobile tactics

Wednesday, August 30th, 2023

The Stalingrad campaign, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II), is one of the most poignant examples ever recorded of a ruler engineering his own destruction:

When the army chief of staff, Franz Halder, protested the self-defeating operations, Hitler removed him. Only in the late stages when the German 6th Army had been isolated and a quarter of a million men were about to be lost was Erich von Manstein able to induce Hitler to grant just enough leeway to keep the entire southern wing of the German army from being destroyed as well.

After Stalingrad, Germany surrendered the initiative in Russia. Hitler never could summon enough strength thereafter to alter the balance of power against him. Despite heroic efforts by his soldiers, he had doomed himself to the slow, inevitable destruction of his army and his regime.

Two elements of the 1942 campaign stand out. First, Hitler committed the oldest and most obvious mistake in warfare: he neglected the principle of concentration and split his efforts between capturing Stalingrad on the Volga River and seizing the oil fields of the Caucasus.


This brought on the second element of the campaign: Hitler, instead of being satisfied with an advance to the Volga and interdicting traffic on the river, which had been his stated aim, insisted on 6th Army capturing the city itself. This forced it to concentrate in the built-up area at the end of an extremely deep salient, offering the Russians an invitation to lock 6th Army in place by launching a street-by-street urban battle.


Yet Hitler refused to allow 6th Army to withdraw, and — because he had committed his other forces to the Caucasus — had insufficient troops to strengthen either flank of the salient.


At every stage Hitler made disastrous decisions — dividing his army in the first place, insisting on seizure of Stalingrad, refusing to allow 6th Army to retreat, failing to go all out to save the army once it had been surrounded, and refusing to heed evidence that the Russians were about to isolate the two army groups in the far south.


The German army in the east (Ostheer) came out of the winter of 1941–1942 with 2.4 million men on the front, counting replacements, more than 600,000 fewer than had started the campaign in June 1941. The situation was worst among infantrymen, whose numbers had fallen 50 percent in the south and 65 percent in the center and north. This weaker army had to defend a line that, since Hitler prohibited straightening out loops and protuberances, wove in and out for 2,800 miles from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

The quantity of German weapons was declining as well. Tank production was below 600 units a month. When Halder told Hitler Soviet tank manufacture was more than three times as great, Hitler slammed the table and said it was impossible. “He would not believe what he did not want to believe,” Halder wrote in his diary.

At least the Mark IV tanks had been rearmed with long-barreled high-velocity 75-millimeter guns and could meet the Soviet T-34s on better terms. But nearly a third of the artillery pieces were old French cannons, the number of combat-ready aircraft had fallen to half what it had been in June 1941, while shortages of fuel and ammunition were great and growing.


Hitler now made an irretrievable error. He had concluded, because of the initial success of the offensive, that Soviet strength had been broken, and diverted Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army south to help Kleist’s 1st Panzer Army cross the lower Don to open a path to the Caucasus.

“It could have taken Stalingrad without a fight at the end of July,” Kleist said after the war. “I did not need its aid, and it merely congested the roads I was using. When it turned north again, a fortnight later, the Russians had gathered sufficient forces at Stalingrad to check it.”

Panzer leader Friedrich-Wilhelm von Mellenthin voiced the opinion of nearly all senior officers in this campaign. When Stalingrad was not taken in the first rush, it should have been shielded with defensive troops and not attacked directly.

“By concentrating his offensive on a great city and resorting to siege warfare,” Mellenthin wrote, “Hitler was playing into the hands of the Russian command. In street warfare the Germans forfeited all their advantages in mobile tactics, while the inadequately trained but supremely dogged Russian infantry were able to exact a heavy toll.”


In his original plan, Hitler intended four armies to press into the Caucasus, while one went toward Stalingrad. Now three armies marched on Stalingrad — an objective of infinitely less importance than the oil fields — while two armies drove into the Caucasus.

This was lunacy to every professional soldier, and Halder protested to Hitler. But the Fuehrer paid no attention, and also ignored evidence of powerful Soviet formations to the east of the Volga and in the Caucasus.


General Gustav von Wietersheim, commanding 14th Motorized Corps, watched his strength decline. He recommended that 6th Army be withdrawn to the west bank of the Don, forty-five miles away. The only result was that Hitler removed him because he was “too pessimistic.”

As the German offensives stumbled to a halt, radical changes in leadership came about. On September 10 Hitler relieved List, because his army group had not captured the whole Caucasus. He did not name a successor, and commanded the army group himself in his spare time from supreme headquarters.

Hitler’s long conflict with Halder came to a head. Hitler reproached Halder and the army general staff, calling them cowards and lacking drive. When Halder presented proof of new Soviet formations totaling 1.5 million men north of Stalingrad and half a million in the southern Caucasus, Hitler advanced on him, foaming at the mouth, crying out that he forbade such “idiotic chatter” in his presence.

Halder, who looked and acted like a prim schoolmaster, persisted in explaining what would happen when the new Russian reserve armies attacked the overextended flanks that ran out from the Stalingrad salient. On September 24, Hitler dismissed him.

Hitler said arguments with Halder had cost him half his nervous energy. The army, he said, no longer required technical proficiency. What was needed was the “glow of National Socialist conviction.” He couldn’t expect that from officers of the old German army.

The new chief of staff was Lieutenant General Kurt Zeitzler, a tank expert and man of action. Zeitzler soon took note of the cliques and intrigue in Hitler’s headquarters, became excessively cautious, and did nothing to challenge Hitler’s decision to keep 6th Army at Stalingrad.

Yet, as Field Marshal Manstein wrote: “A far-sighted leader would have realized from the start that to mass the whole of the German assault forces in and around Stalingrad without adequate flank protection placed them in mortal danger of being enveloped as soon as the enemy broke through the adjacent fronts.”

A drone in the air has a more accurate picture of the direction and strength of the wind

Tuesday, August 29th, 2023

Andrei Bogdanov, CEO of Barcelona-based drone company UAVHE, is not developing his Baduga flying rifle for the military:

The problem Bogdanov is trying to solve is the control of feral pigs. The Twitterverse mocked an American user who suggested that he needed an assault weapon to prevent his yard being invaded by “30-50 feral hogs” in 2019. But controlling these animals, which cause an estimated $1.5 bn in damage in the US alone each year, is a major challenge.

Hunters usually only kill a few in a pack, causing the rest to scatter. In Spain where Bogdanov is based, hunters shoot some 400,000 wild pigs every year, but this is not enough to stop the population rising.


Bogdanov, has developed Baduga, a hunting rifle mounted on a small drone. A smart suspension system keeps the weapon’s center of gravity below the point of attachment, and gyro-stabilization ensures that the barrel remains stable regardless of wind or motion. The sights, including a multispectral camera able to see in the dark, are mounted on the barrel.

Bogdanov says that the firing platform is effectively decoupled and independent from the drone, firing as easily as it would from a tripod. The system automatically compensates for recoil, and has a magazine of 60 rounds. A further development may see automated in-flight magazine changing.

Early versions of the design employed off-the-shelf gyros, the latest iteration is custom-built for this application and weighs around 4 kilos, with the rifle adding a similar weight. The platform is a standard heavy commercial drone, similar to those which carry movie cameras and survey instruments.


Bogdanov says his setup achieves an accuracy of better than 0.1 minutes of arc, so the limitation is the accuracy of the rifle and ammunition.


“Unlike ground shooters, a drone in the air has a more accurate picture of the direction and strength of the wind over the altitude spectrum — it is easily calculated from the drift of the aircraft relative to the ground,” says Bogdanov.


So why not go down the obvious route and develop this specifically as a weapon system for the defense sector?

“Despite a common myth, developments for the military do not bring in a lot of money,” says Bogdanov. “We have shown it many times, but so far the matter has not gone further than talks and interest from military customers connected with it.”

The tools of the academic-reactor designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser

Monday, August 28th, 2023

In 1953, then-Captain Hyman Rickover explained the difference between an academic reactor and a practical reactor:

An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics:

  1. It is simple.
  2. It is small.
  3. It is cheap.
  4. It is light.
  5. It can be built very quickly.
  6. It is very flexible in purpose (“omnibus reactor”)
  7. Very little development is required. It will use mostly “off-the-shelf” components.
  8. The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

On the other hand, a practical reactor plant can be distinguished by the following characteristics:

  1. It is being built now.
  2. It is behind schedule.
  3. It is requiring an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. Corrosion, in particular, is a problem.
  4. It is very expensive.
  5. It takes a long time to build because of the engineering development problems.
  6. It is large.
  7. It is heavy.
  8. It is complicated.


The tools of the academic-reactor designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed. If the practical-reactor designer errs, he wears the mistake around his neck; it cannot be erased. Everyone can see it.

The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of “mere technical details.” The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details. Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow. Their solutions require man power, time, and money.

Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decisions without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of reactor technology and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side. For a large part those involved with the academic reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen. Since they are innocently unaware of the real but hidden difficulties of their plans, they speak with great facility and confidence. Those involved with practical reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.

(Hat tip to Jason Crawford.)

He was President of the Society for the Suppression of Useless Knowledge, and for the Completer Obliteration of the Past

Sunday, August 27th, 2023

Jason Crawford recently read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), and it’s not really about Butlerian Jihad:

It is best known for its warning that machines will out-evolve humans, but rather than dystopian sci-fi, it’s actually political satire. His commentary on the universities is amazingly not dated at all, here’s a taste:

When I talked about originality and genius to some gentlemen whom I met at a supper party given by Mr. Thims in my honour, and said that original thought ought to be encouraged, I had to eat my words at once. Their view evidently was that genius was like offences—needs must that it come, but woe unto that man through whom it comes. A man’s business, they hold, is to think as his neighbours do, for Heaven help him if he thinks good what they count bad. And really it is hard to see how the Erewhonian theory differs from our own, for the word “idiot” only means a person who forms his opinions for himself.

The venerable Professor of Worldly Wisdom, a man verging on eighty but still hale, spoke to me very seriously on this subject in consequence of the few words that I had imprudently let fall in defence of genius. He was one of those who carried most weight in the university, and had the reputation of having done more perhaps than any other living man to suppress any kind of originality.

“It is not our business,” he said, “to help students to think for themselves. Surely this is the very last thing which one who wishes them well should encourage them to do. Our duty is to ensure that they shall think as we do, or at any rate, as we hold it expedient to say we do.” In some respects, however, he was thought to hold somewhat radical opinions, for he was President of the Society for the Suppression of Useless Knowledge, and for the Completer Obliteration of the Past.

Deterrence is a game where a big enough mistake kills hundreds of millions if not billions of people

Saturday, August 26th, 2023

Putin’s War in Ukraine is a fairly clear example of the stability-instability paradox:

In a pre-nuclear world, an intervention like this would have risked a direct, conventional response from NATO; at least at the moment it seems clear that the political will for such an intervention exists and is only really restrained by escalation concerns. Consequently, while in a pre-nuclear world invading Ukraine would pose the real risk of sparking an unwinnable conventional war with NATO, in a nuclear world, the Russian Federation can remain relatively sure that the war in Ukraine will remain ‘cabined’ to Ukraine. Moreover, the fact that Russia has nuclear weapons and Ukraine does not means that in the event that Ukraine wins, their ability to exploit that victory would be extremely limited; they could not, for instance, push deeply into Russian territory without triggering a potentially nuclear Russian response. The invasion thus seemed ‘safe.’

More broadly, I think Beaufre’s thinking is actually quite applicable here. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a classic interior maneuver and the Russian plan of operations follows Beaufre’s thinking closely: rapid advances with airborne, armor and mechanized forces to try to produce a coup de main that would topple the government and present its replacement as a fait accompli before the rest of the world could react. Clearly that’s not the only thing motivating the Russian operational concept – there seems to have been quite a lot of self-delusion and wishful thinking about how welcoming the Ukrainians would be. That said, it seems fairly clear that the Russian operational plan was designed to try to produce that fait accompli in just a few days, but of course the problem with such lightning advances is that should something go wrong, it is likely to go very wrong, with units spread out and often deep into enemy territory with fewer forces holding rear areas. By contrast, for instance, the United States, far more confident in its exterior maneuvers creating the window of freedom of action to intervene, was able to adopt a fairly methodical approach to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Which goes to the next point: Russian exterior maneuvers prior to the invasion were also fairly obvious. The Russian Federation, while building up claimed it had no plans to invade and used ‘exercises’ as a pretense in an effort, one assumes, to maximize confusion in the event and thus make unified action by the rest of the world more difficult. At the same time, Russia attempted to orchestrate a number of false-flag attacks and other fake ‘provocations’ in order to justify their intervention. What is also fairly obvious is that those exterior maneuvers failed, in particular because they lacked any kind of credibility. The smokescreen only works if a meaningful proportion of people believe it. The strategy NATO intelligence agencies took, of ‘calling’ Russia’s shots in advance robbed the strategy of much of its power. Again, the exterior maneuver is all about perception: Russia needed to create a ‘grey-zone’ of acceptability for what it was doing and largely failed.


The logic of deterrence — in particular the fact that it is both very high stakes and also based entirely on perception — explains why NATO and especially the United States took any direct military action off of the table quite loudly well before the conflict began. Saying that ‘all options are on the table’ — as the United States routinely does with Taiwan — would have been a fairly obvious bluff. When Putin called that obvious bluff, it would have damaged the credibility and thus the deterrence value of that same statement when applied to NATO members or Taiwan, weakening the effect of US deterrence, and thus potentially encouraging another state (like China) to try to call an American bluff elsewhere (essentially inviting a piecemeal maneuver). And of course the danger to that is two-fold: on the one hand if the United States and NATO folds, it calls into question even more of its security arrangements, but if it doesn’t fold, the result is likely to be a major war which in turn could (and frankly probably would) lead to an escalatory spiral ending in the use of nuclear weapons.

Remember: deterrence is a game where a big enough mistake kills hundreds of millions if not billions of people.


At the same time basically everything that NATO is doing in Ukraine can be understood as having a dual purpose: both attempting to degrade Russian military capabilities (by sinking the Russian economy and arming Ukraine) but also as an exterior maneuver designed to alter the freedom of action of other players in the system. Unable to directly act against Russia due to the concerns of deterrence and escalation, NATO is seeking to close the window of freedom of action tight enough that wars of conquest sit outside of it. It is doing this by rallying world opinion to the imposition of massive economic costs, in an effort to signal that wars of conquest will have such tremendous negative repercussions (even if they don’t trigger direct intervention) as to never be worth the cost.

Nuclear deterrence need not be the end of war by nuclear powers

Friday, August 25th, 2023

In An Introduction to Strategy (1965), French general André Beaufre describes the indirect strategy:

In essence, this sort of strategy is the answer to how two nuclear powers can still compete with each other without triggering a nuclear war. It is, “the art of making the best use of the limited area of freedom of action left us by the deterrent effect of the existence of nuclear weapons.”

When I explain this to my students, I explain it in a spatial metaphor. Imagine two countries (let’s use the USA and the USSR for simplicity), both with nuclear weapons. They each have ‘red lines’ where they would use nuclear weapons. Neither country wants a nuclear exchange, so they have to avoid crossing their opponent’s red lines which would trigger that. But below that threshold, you have a window of ‘freedom of action’ — a sort of ‘space’ (really a set of options) — where either power can engage in all sorts of activity, including military activity (typically against third parties, as directly attacking a nuclear power is almost always over the red line). Beaufre’s term for the things you do inside the window of freedom of action to gain direct advantages is ‘interior maneuvers.’ For instance supplying weapons to the Afghan mujaheddin in order to degrade Soviet control of Afghanistan — that’s an interior maneuver. Intervening militarily to topple a government that is aligned with your competitor but who they have no formal obligation to protect — that’s also an interior maneuver.

But those two powers can also engage in activity designed to alter the window itself, to give themselves more freedom of action or their opponents less. Remember that deterrence is all about perception, not hard and fast rules. If you can convince the world (and your opponent) that a third-country regime isn’t worth defending (because it is evil or a pariah state, etc.), you can potentially do more or more extensive interior maneuvers against it without nearing that red line. Alternately — especially in a democracy — if you can convince your own people that a third-country regime is noble and just, you can generate the political will to harden your red line, thus closing down some of the freedom of action of your opponent. This sort of thing is what Beaufre terms the ‘exterior maneuver’ — efforts made not to manipulate the direct theater of competition, but the freedom of action each side has to act in that theater. A broad range of activities fit here, as Beaufre notes — appeals to international law, propaganda with moral and humanitarian bent, threatened indirect intervention, economic retaliation (sanctions), and of course ultimately the threat of direct intervention.


All of which means that nuclear deterrence need not be the end of war by nuclear powers; indirect strategy exposes a gap in Brodie’s dictum that the only useful purpose a nuclear military can have is to avert wars.

One such method that Beaufre discusses is what he calls the ‘piecemeal maneuver,’ but is often in English referred to as ‘salami tactics’ — including in this absolutely hilarious bit from Yes, Prime Minister, which is also a surprisingly good explanation of the method. The idea is that to make gains while avoiding escalation, a state can break up the gains they would make into a series of smaller actions, each with its own exterior maneuver ‘cover,’ so that it doesn’t rise to the level of triggering nuclear escalation. Putting together several such maneuvers could allow a state to make those gains which had they all been attempted at once, certainly would have triggered such an escalation. Beaufre’s example, unsurprisingly, was Hitler’s piecemeal gains before his last ‘bite’ into Poland triggered WWII.

Beaufre notes that for piecemeal maneuvers to be effective, they have to be presented as fait accompli — accomplished so quickly that anything but nuclear retaliation would arrive too late to do any good and of course nuclear retaliation would be pointless: who is going to destroy the world to save a country that was already lost? Thus Beaufre suggests that the piecemeal maneuver is best accomplished as a series of coups de main accomplished with fast-moving, armored, mechanized, and airborne forces seizing control of the target country or region before anyone really knows what is happening. The attacking power can then present the maneuver as fait accompli and thus the new status quo that everyone has to accommodate; if successful, they have not only made gains but also moved everyone’s red lines, creating more freedom of action for further piecemeal maneuvers.

Avoiding this problem is why NATO is structured the way it is: promising a maximum response for any violation, however slight, of the territory of any member. The idea is to render the entire bloc immune to piecemeal maneuvers by putting all of it behind the red line (or at least letting the USSR think it is all behind the red line). It is also why American forces are often forward deployed in effectively trivial numbers in key areas in the world in what are often referred to as ‘tripwire’ deployments. Those American forces, for instance, in Poland, the Baltics or on the Korean DMZ (and during the Cold War, in West Germany) were not there to win the war; their purpose was, in a brutal sense, to die in its opening moments and thus ensure that the United States was committed, whether it wanted to be or not. And the reason to do that is to signal to both enemies and allies that any incursion into allied territory, no matter how trivial, will cause American deaths and thus incur an American military response. In that way you can shift the red line all of the way forward, obliterating the area of freedom of action, but only for countries where such a commitment is credible (which is going to generally be a fairly small group).

If one side unilaterally disarmed, nuclear weapons would suddenly become useful

Thursday, August 24th, 2023

Nuclear deterrence can be an odd topic to discuss with people outside of the security studies space, Bret Devereaux notes:

As we’ll see, there is a certain inescapable logic to many of the conclusions of deterrence theory, but the conclusions themselves viewed without considering that logic seem absurd (and occasionally are, even with the logic). Nevertheless, outside of those security studies fields at the college level, we generally don’t teach nuclear deterrence theory in school and so while this is actually one of the most studied and theorized concepts in the modern world (note that this doesn’t mean the theory is necessarily correct, but it does mean that a lot of very smart and well informed people have been grappling with these ideas for a while now), in my experience there is a tendency by the general public to assume that they are the first to notice this or that absurd-seeming conclusion. Everyone has an opinion about nuclear weapons, but the gap between having an opinion and having an informed opinion is both massive and rarely spanned.

Or to put it very briefly: Dr. Strangelove is a great movie, but if you only have your deterrence theory from Dr. Strangelove, you are dangerously under-informed (though while we’re here it seems worth noting that the Soviet automated-launch doomsday device of the film mostly actually exists, as a system called Dead Hand in the West and Perimeter in Russia and still in use by Russia. Presumably, since Russian nuclear forces are currently on high alert, Perimeter is active, which should be a chilling thought. I am going to say this several times because it is a fundamental truth about nuclear weapons: if you aren’t at least a bit worried, you aren’t paying attention).

The atomic bomb allowed the US and its allies to maintain parity with the USSR while still demobilizing:

US airbases in Europe put much of the Soviet Union in range of American bombers which could carry nuclear weapons, which served to ‘balance’ the conventional disparity. It’s important to keep in mind also that nuclear weapons emerged in the context where ‘strategic’ urban bombing had been extensively normalized during the Second World War; the idea that the next major war would include the destruction of cities from the air wasn’t quite as shocking to them as it was to us — indeed, it was assumed. Consequently, planners in the US military went about planning how they would use nuclear weapons on the battlefield (and beyond it) should a war with a non-nuclear Soviet Union occur.

In 1946, three years before the USSR successfully tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949, Bernard Brodie published The Absolute Weapon, which set out the basic outlines of deterrence theory:

  1. The power of a nuclear bomb is such that any city can be destroyed by less than ten bombs.
  2. No adequate defense against the bomb exists and the possibilities of such are very unlikely.
  3. Nuclear weapons will motivate the development of newer, longer range and harder to stop delivery systems.
  4. Superiority in the air is not going to be enough to stop sufficient nuclear weapons getting through.
  5. Superiority in nuclear arms also cannot guarantee meaningful strategic superiority. It does not matter that you had more bombs if all of your cities are rubble.
  6. Within five to ten years (of 1946), other powers will have nuclear weapons. [Of course this happened in just three years.]

Brodie concludes:

Thus, the first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic bombs is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind. The writer in making that statement is not for the moment concerned about who will win the next war in which atomic bombs are used. Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.

By 1959, both the USA and the USSR had mounted nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which had effectively infinite range and were effectively impossible to intercept.

In The Delicate Balance of Terror (1958), Wohlstetter argued that deterrence was in fact fragile:

Any development which allowed one party to break the other’s nuclear strike capability (e.g. the ability to deliver your strike so powerfully that the enemy’s retaliation was impossible) would encourage that power to strike in the window of vulnerability.


Like Brodie, Wohlstetter concluded that the only way to avoid being the victim of a nuclear first strike (that having the enemy hit you with their nukes) was being able to credibly deliver a second strike.


This is the logic behind the otherwise preposterously large nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Russian Federation (inherited from the USSR). In order to sustain your nuclear deterrent, you need more weapons than you would need in the event because you are planning for scenarios in which some large number of weapons are lost in the enemy’s first strike. At the same time, as you overbuild nuclear weapons to counter this, you both look more like you are planning a first strike and your opponent has to estimate that a larger portion of their nuclear arsenal may be destroyed in that (theoretical) first strike, which means they too need more missile[…]

If one side unilaterally disarmed, nuclear weapons would suddenly become useful — if only one side has them, well, they are the “absolute” weapon, able to make up for essentially any deficiency in conventional strength — and once useful, they would be used. Humanity has never once developed a useful weapon they would not use in extremis; and war is the land of in extremis.


Because different kinds of systems would have different survivability capabilities, it also led to procurement focused on a nuclear ‘triad’ with nuclear systems split between land-based ICBMs in hardened silos, forward-deployed long-range bombers operating from bases in Europe and nuclear-armed missiles launched from submarines which could lurk off an enemy coast undetected. The idea here is that with a triad it would be impossible for an enemy to assure themselves that they could neutralize all of these systems, which assures the second strike, which assures the destruction, which deters the nuclear war you don’t want to have in the first place.

Hitler had to decide between two alternatives

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2023

With America’s entry into the war, Hitler had to decide between continuing the attack on the Soviet Union or going on the defensive there, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II), and keeping American and British forces away from the continent of Europe:

For Admiral Erich Raeder, the choice was easy. On February 13, 1942, he proposed that Germany’s primary military tasks should be for Rommel to drive through Egypt to the Middle East, while the army in Russia did only two things: capture Murmansk and close that ice-free port to Allied convoys, and drive into the Caucasus to seize Soviet oil wells. After that the way would be clear to cross into Iran, close off that supply line to Russia, and join up with Rommel. Meanwhile, German war production should be shifted over predominately to the navy and air force to build more submarines and other vessels and aircraft to interdict the flow of supplies from America.

Hitler made it clear that he wanted first to destroy the Red Army and eliminate its sources of strength:

After that, other courses might be followed. But for now, the Ostheer — or army in the east — was to receive priority, and the German economy was to be directed at rearming this army, not at building a great U-boat fleet and air force, and not at reinforcing Rommel.

Weak states come to depend on strong states and, in the process, become client states

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2023

French President Emmanuel Macron has been attempting a large-scale “reset” or “refoundation” of relations with Africa and has explained that “there is no longer a French policy for Africa”:

In August 2020, the military of Mali overthrew the government in a coup d’etat. Since then, in quick succession, four of Mali’s regional neighbors have experienced coup attempts, including successful ones in Guinea and Burkina Faso. The Central African Republic, meanwhile, has become a client state of Russia.2 This unprecedented wave of coups is a consequence of decisions made in Paris to pull back long-standing French troop deployments in French-speaking Africa.

The French military has been actively deployed to West Africa since January 2013, when an offensive was launched to defeat armed separatists in northern Mali who threatened to overthrow the government. Initially successful, the deployment was formalized as Operation Barkhane in 2014 and expanded to neighboring countries, including Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad. At its peak, Operation Barkhane involved 5500 French soldiers. A United Nations follow-on peacekeeping mission involved about 15,000 UN peacekeepers, including over one thousand German soldiers.

In early 2020, the French government loosened its commitment to military involvement in the region. French President Emmanuel Macron, newly elected in 2017, was unwilling to send more French troops to Africa to bring an end to the ongoing insurgencies, which had multiplied rather than subsided. Macron believed that France’s relationship to Africa needed a “reset” or “refoundation” from its colonial past and, as part of that, France should allow African countries to solve their own problems. French military intervention, therefore, would be scaled back.


Although formal French colonialism ended in the decades after World War II, France nevertheless maintained a notable sphere of influence in its former African colonies, especially in West Africa. This informal empire was maintained through elite social and business ties with France, as well as through the large-scale involvement of the French military, which was deliberately designed to be capable of rapid intervention in Africa.


Weak states that cannot suppress insurgencies or alleviate privation on their own necessarily come to depend on strong states and, in the process, become client states. If France will not provide this support, perhaps the U.S. or Russia will.

Throw on a brace for support, though, and suddenly the high-aspect ratio concept becomes plausible

Monday, August 21st, 2023

A truss-braced wing can be much thinner and narrower than usual:

By making the wings longer and narrower, and thus higher in aspect ratio, the wing tip vortices generated by the wing are weakened. This reduces drag on the plane, and quite significantly so.

For a glider, which has no forward propulsion of its own, minimizing drag is a must. Hence, high aspect ratio wings are very useful. Similarly, the high-flying U2 spy plane had excellent range because its high aspect ratio wings were very efficient. Both of these types of planes have fairly limited payload requirements, and are specialized enough that high aspect ratio wings can work as-is.

Airliners have other concerns that make high aspect ratio wings impractical. They must carry huge payloads in order to make lots of money per flight from paying passengers. It would be great to have high aspect ratio wings on airliners, as the efficiency would slash fuel bills significantly. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to make them strong enough for such heavy-duty purposes. There simply isn’t room for the structure and material required.

Instead, where a glider might have an AR of 30 or more, an airliner will feature wings with an AR closer to 7 to 10. High-end gliders achieve lift-to-drag ratios of over 50. Airliners do much poorer in this regard. The original Boeing 747 achieved a L/D ratio of 15.3, for example. Decades of development have seen today’s modern airliners push that number closer to 20, like the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 777.

Throw on a brace for support, though, and suddenly the high-aspect ratio concept becomes plausible.


The current concept in development is called the Boeing Transonic Truss-Braced Wing, or TTBW, with a full-scale demonstrator expected to fly in 2028. It’s also been designated as the X-66A within US aviation circles. In development since 2010, the concept involves a plane with an ultra-thin, high aspect ratio wing, supported by a truss underneath. The demonstrator is being built on a shortened airframe from a McDonnell Douglas MD-90, and will be tested at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center. The concept is intended to suit either 130-160 passengers, or 180-210 passengers, depending on the exact configuration Boeing lands on.

The demonstrator is on the scale of single-aisle aircraft, albeit with a far larger wingspan, at 51 meters. This is still far narrower than dual-aisle aircraft like the 747, at 68 meters, but much greater than a single-aisle Boeing 737 MAX at 36 meters. To accommodate this extra width in existing narrowbody facilities, Boeing may explore the use of folding wingtips. These have already been used successfully on the Boeing 777X, to ensure the wider-than-usual type could access as many airports as possible. Thus far, the concept is primarily being considered a proposition for smaller narrowbody, single-aisle airliners.

Wind tunnel tests have suggested that the higher-efficiency design could reduce fuel burn by up to 10%, based on the gains from the wings alone.

Each pixel in the experiment was labeled with three thermal physics attributes

Sunday, August 20th, 2023

Researchers at Purdue have developed HADAR, or heat-assisted detection and ranging:

Because thermal waves constantly scatter, infrared cameras capture “ghostlike” images with no depth or texture:

For their experiment, the researchers chose an outdoor space in a marshy area, far from roads and urban illumination. They collected thermal images in the infrared spectrum across almost 100 different frequencies. And just as each pixel in RGB images is encoded by three visible frequencies (R for red, G for green, B for blue), each pixel in the experiment was labeled with three thermal physics attributes, TeX—temperature (T), material fingerprint or emissivity (e), and texture or surface geometry (X). “T and e are reasonably well understood, but the crucial insight about texture is actually in X,” says Jacob. “X is really the many little suns in your scene that’s illuminating your specific area of interest.”

The researchers fed all the collected TeX information into a machine-learning algorithm to generate images with depth and texture. They used what they call TeX decomposition to untangle temperature and emissivity, and recover texture from the heat signal. The decluttered T, e, and X attributes were then used to resolve colors in terms of hue, saturation, and brightness in the same way humans see color. “At nighttime, in pitch darkness, our accuracy was the same when we came back in the daytime and did the ranging and detection with RGB cameras,” Jacob says.

The biggest advantage of HADAR is that it is passive, Jacob adds. “Which means you don’t have to illuminate the scene with a laser, sound waves, or electromagnetic waves. Also, in active approaches like lidar, sonar, or radar, if there are many agents in the scene, there can be a lot of crosstalk between them.”

As a new technology, HADAR is in a fairly nascent stage, Jacob says. At present, data collection requires almost a minute. By comparison, an autonomous vehicle driving at night, for example, would need to image its surroundings in milliseconds. Also, the cameras required for data collection are bulky, pricey, and power hungry: “Great for a scientific demonstration, but not really for kind of widespread adoption,” according to Jacob. The researchers are currently working on these problems, and Jacob predicts another few years of research will be directed to address them.

Their electronic warfare systems weren’t very agile, they weren’t very fast, and they weren’t very numerous

Saturday, August 19th, 2023

In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, experts were surprised at how poorly the Russian army’s electronic warfare units performed:

Expecting a walkover, Moscow may have thought they wouldn’t need to fully deploy electronic warfare systems. But Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, a US think tank, says another problem was that electronic warfare units couldn’t keep up with the rest of the troops.

“Russian systems are large unwieldy, vehicle-borne systems that are designed to be on the defensive,” he says. “And as a result, their electronic warfare systems weren’t very agile, they weren’t very fast and they weren’t very numerous.”

But Russia has learned from its mistakes, he says. Instead of using large equipment that can be easily spotted and destroyed, it is now increasingly relying on smaller, more mobile devices.

Bryan Clark says Russia has managed to deploy hundreds of mobile electronic warfare units along the front line in an attempt to slow down Ukraine’s counter-offensive. These range from GPS jammers to systems that suppress radar and prevent US aircraft identifying targets for Ukraine to attack.

Russian systems such as Zhitel and Pole-21 are proving to be particularly effective to jam GPS and other satellite links. They can disable drones that direct artillery fire and carry out kamikaze attacks on Russian troops.

Many of the sophisticated weapons provided to Ukraine by Nato countries are vulnerable to such jamming too because they use a GPS signal for navigation.

“Zhitel can jam a GPS signal within 30km of the jammer,” says Mr Clark. “For weapons like [US-made] JDAM bombs, which use just a GPS receiver to guide it to the target, that’s sufficient to lose its geolocation and go off target.”

The same applies to the guided rockets fired by the Himars multiple rocket system, which made a big contribution to Ukraine’s successful offensives last autumn.

Oh, yes, we’re expecting Dmitri! Send him on up!

Friday, August 18th, 2023

I was watching Declassified — Season 3, Episode 5, “The Spy Game: Russian Espionage” — on Max, when it explained how the Russians took advantage of the US State Department’s naïve openness right after the fall of the Soviet Union.

State decided to allow Russians in, unescorted, to the building, so one Russian intelligence operative would come into the lobby and wait in one of the lounges outside the security checkpoint. Later, another intelligence operative would come in and present himself to the receptionist with a phone extension to call to confirm that he was welcome to come through.

That phone extension belonged to the phone in the waiting area lounge. “Oh, yes, we’re expecting Dmitri! Send him on up!”

When contemporaries describe Gagosian, they tend to summon carnivore analogies

Thursday, August 17th, 2023

Patrick Radden Keefe channels Tom Wolfe as he explains how Larry Gagosian reshaped the art world:

It was the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend on Further Lane, the best street in Amagansett, the best town in the Hamptons, and the art dealer Larry Gagosian was bumming around his eleven-thousand-square-foot modernist beach mansion, looking pretty relaxed for a man who, the next day, would host a party for a hundred and forty people. A pair of French bulldogs, Baby and Humphrey, waddled about, and Gagosian’s butler, Eddie, a slim man with a ponytail and an air of informal professionalism, handed him a sparkling water. Gagosian sat down on a leather sofa in the living room, his back to the ocean view, and faced a life-size Charles Ray sculpture of a male nude, in reflective steel, and a Damien Hirst grand piano (bright pink with blue butterflies) that he’d picked up at a benefit auction some years back, for four hundred and fifty thousand dollars. On a coffee table before him was a ceramic Yoshitomo Nara ashtray the size of a Frisbee, decorated with a picture of a little girl smoking and the words “too young to die.”

Gagosian is not a household name for most Americans, but among the famous and the wealthy — and particularly among the very wealthy — he is a figure of colossal repute. He is dubious of art dealers who refer to themselves as “gallerists,” which he regards as a pretentious euphemism that obscures the mercantile essence of the occupation. He has always favored a certain macho bluntness, and calls himself a dealer without apology. With nineteen galleries that bear his name, from New York to London to Athens to Hong Kong, generating more than a billion dollars in annual revenue, Gagosian may well be the biggest art dealer in the history of the world. He represents more than a hundred artists, living and dead, including many of the most celebrated and lucrative: Jenny Saville, Anselm Kiefer, Cy Twombly, Donald Judd. The business — which he owns without a partner or a shareholder or a spouse or children or anyone, really, to answer to — controls more than two hundred thousand square feet of prime real estate. All told, Gagosian has more exhibition space than most museums, and he shuttles among his outposts on his sixty-million-dollar Bombardier Global 7500 private jet. He’s been known to observe, with the satisfaction of Alexander the Great, “The sun never sets on my gallery.”


When contemporaries describe Gagosian, they tend to summon carnivore analogies: a tiger, a shark, a snake. His own publicist once described him as “a real killer.”

The languid calm that he exuded on the eve of the Amagansett party was that of a predator between meals. At seventy-eight, he remains tall and broad-shouldered, with a full head of white hair that he keeps trimmed close to the scalp, like a beaver pelt. Gagosian has blue eyes, which often flash with mirth — he has a quick, salty sense of humor — but they can just as suddenly go blank if he feels threatened or wants to be inscrutable. In conversation, these abrupt transitions from easy bonhomie to enigmatic hostility and back again can be jarring.

(Hat tip to Byrne Hobart.)