They have nothing to do with cover and evacuate

Wednesday, July 17th, 2024

Surprise, Kill, Vanish by Annie JacobsenIn Surprise, Kill, Vanish, Annie Jacobsen notes that the U.S. Secret Service was stunned by the assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan:

That a singleton like Hinckley could unleash this kind of lethality made clear what the consequences could be in the event of an orchestrated attack by a Black September–type terrorist organization. The general feeling at the Secret Service, says Merletti, was, “We need to rethink our protection philosophy.”


A covert paramilitary unit called the Counter Assault Team (CAT) would now shadow the president twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. “They have nothing to do with cover and evacuate,” Merletti says of the CAT team. “They’re not stepping into the line of fire. Their job is shooting. They are shooters.” CAT members would be unconventional-warfare experts, capable of repelling a coordinated multi-shooter attack with crippling aggression, determination, and speed. The new philosophy was not simply to defend against an assassin but to have a guerrilla warfare corps of the Secret Service always there, anticipating an attack, as if the president were forever in a hostile environment. As if they were all behind enemy lines.


“We trained with Delta Force, British SAS, Navy SEALs,” recalls Merletti. “When it came to shooting, we were right there with them all, standing shoulder to shoulder.” At their classified training facility in Beltsville, Maryland, Counter Assault Team members shot close to a thousand rounds a month just to stay sharp.

Our scientists would need to know what to look for

Tuesday, July 16th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenJames Killian was the 10th president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from 1948 until 1959, and Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board under John F. Kennedy, where, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), he organized, oversaw, and then tried to cover up the facts regarding two of the most dangerous weapons tests in the history of the nuclear bomb:

Two thermonuclear devices, called Teak and Orange, each an astonishingly powerful 3.8 megatons, were exploded in the Earth’s upper atmosphere at Johnston Atoll, 750 miles west of Hawaii. Teak went off at 252,000 feet, or 50 miles, and Orange went off at 141,000 feet, 28 miles, which is exactly where the ozone layer lies. In hindsight, it was a ludicrous idea. “The impetus for these tests was derived from the uncertainty in U.S. capability to discern Soviet high-altitude nuclear detonation,” read one classified report. Killian was in charge of the tests, and his rationale for authorizing them was that if sometime in the future the Soviets were to detonate a high-altitude nuclear bomb, our scientists would need to know what to look for.

Instead of being difficult to detect, a nuclear bomb exploding in the ozone layer was instantly obvious in horrific and catastrophic ways. The fireballs produced by both Teak and Orange burned the retinas of any living thing that had been looking up at the sky without goggles within a 225-mile radius of the blast, including hundreds of monkeys and rabbits that Killian authorized to be flown in airplanes nearby. The animals’ heads had been locked in gadgets that forced them to witness the megaton blast. From Guam to Wake Island to Maui, the natural blue sky changed to a red, white, and gray, creating an aurora 2,100 miles along the geomagnetic meridian. Radio communication throughout a swath of the Pacific region went dead.

“We almost blew a hole in the ozone layer,” explains Al O’Donnell, the EG&G weapons test engineer who in the twelve years since Crossroads had wired over one hundred nuclear bombs, including Teak and Orange. O’Donnell was standing on Johnston Island, 720 miles southwest of Honolulu, on August 1, 1958, when the Teak bomb went off. Due to a “program failure” on the Redstone missile system (which carried the warhead to its target), the rocket went straight up and detonated directly above where O’Donnell and the rest of the arming and firing party were working. The bomb was supposed to have detonated twenty-six miles to the south. In a sanitized film record of the event, men in flip-flops and shorts can be seen ducking for cover as a phenomenal fireball consumes the sky overhead. “It was scary,” O’Donnell sighs, remembering the catastrophic event as an old man, half a century later. There is a hint of resignation in his voice when he says, “But we were all used to it by then. The bombs had become too big.” In Teak’s first ten milliseconds, its fireball grew ten miles wide—enough yield to obliterate Manhattan. At H + 1 second, the fireball was more than forty miles wide, which could have taken out all five boroughs of New York City.


Killian’s high-altitude nuclear tests did not stop there. Two weeks later, another ultrasecret nuclear weapons project called Operation Argus commenced. Killian’s nuclear bomb tests had now expanded to include outer space.


On August 27, August 30, and September 6, 1958, three nuclear warheads were launched from X-17 rockets from the deck of the USS Norton Sound as the warship floated off the coast of South Africa in the South Atlantic Ocean. Up went the missiles and the warheads until they exploded approximately three hundred miles into space. This “scientific experiment” was the brainchild of a Greek elevator operator turned physicist, Nicholas Christofilos. Christofilos convinced Killian that a nuclear explosion occurring above the Earth’s atmosphere—but within the Earth’s magnetic field—might produce an electronic pulse that could hypothetically damage the arming devices on Soviet ICBM warheads trying to make their way into the United States. While the phenomenon did occur in minutiae, meaning the arming devices registered “feeling” the pulse from the nuclear blast, Christofilos was wrong about the possibility that this would actually stop incoming enemy nuclear missiles in their tracks.


On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the largest, most powerful nuclear weapon the world had ever known. Called the Tsar Bomba, the hydrogen bomb had an unbelievable yield of fifty megatons, roughly ten times the amount of all the explosives used in seven years of war during World War II, including both nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tsar Bomba, detonated over northern Russia, flattened entire villages in surrounding areas and broke windows a thousand miles away in Finland. Anyone within a four-hundred-mile radius who was staring at the blast would have gone blind. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told the United Nations Assembly that the purpose of the test was to “show somebody Kuzka’s mother”—to show somebody who’s boss.

You can smoke a cigar next to it as you weld it

Monday, July 15th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonFalcon 9 rockets could make Musk money, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), but it would take a BFR to make human life multiplanetary:

The Starship system would have a first-stage booster and a second-stage spacecraft that together stacked to be 390 feet high, 50 percent taller than the Falcon 9 and thirty feet taller than the Saturn V rocket that was used in NASA’s Apollo program in the 1970s. Outfitted with thirty-three booster engines, it would be capable of launching more than a hundred tons of payload into orbit, four times more than the Falcon 9. And someday it would be able to carry a hundred passengers to Mars.

The Starship was originally going to be made of carbon fiber, but it was hard to work with:

Musk knew that the early Atlas rockets, which in the early 1960s boosted the first four Americans into orbit, had been made of stainless steel, and he had decided to use that material for the body of the Cybertruck. At the end of his walk around the facility, he got very quiet and stared at the ships coming into the port. “Guys, we’ve got to change course,” he said. “We are never going to build rockets fast enough with this process. What about going with stainless steel?”


“Run the numbers.” When they did so, they determined that steel could, in fact, turn out to be lighter in the conditions that Starship would face. At very cold temperatures, the strength of stainless steel increases by 50 percent, which meant it would be stronger when holding the supercooled liquid oxygen fuel.

In addition, the high melting point of stainless steel would eliminate the need for a heat shield on Starship’s space-facing side, reducing the overall weight of the rocket. A final advantage was that it was simple to weld together pieces of stainless steel. The aluminum-lithium of the Falcon 9 required a process called stir welding that needed to be done in a pristine environment. But stainless steel could be welded in big tents or even outdoors, making it easier to do in Texas or Florida, near the launch sites. “With stainless steel, you can smoke a cigar next to it as you weld it,” Musk says.

It was in the Directors’ interests for Napoleon to go to Egypt

Sunday, July 14th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsAfter his victories in Italy, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), Napoleon turned his attention to England:

Napoleon visited Boulogne, Dunkirk, Calais, Ostend, Brussels and Douai over two weeks in February to evaluate the chances of a successful invasion, interviewing sailors, pilots, smugglers and fishermen, sometimes until midnight. ‘It’s too hazardous,’ he concluded. ‘I will not attempt it.’ His report to the Directory on February 23, 1798 was unequivocal:

Whatever efforts we make, we shall not for some years gain naval supremacy. To invade England without that supremacy is the most daring and difficult task ever undertaken… If, having regard to the present organization of our navy, it seems impossible to gain the necessary promptness of execution, then we must really give up the expedition against England — be satisfied with keeping up the pretence of it — and concentrate all our attention and resources on the Rhine, in order to try to deprive England of Hanover…or else undertake an eastern expedition which would menace her trade with the Indies. And if none of these three operations is practicable, I see nothing else for it but to conclude peace.


It was in the Directors’ interests for Napoleon to go to Egypt. He might conquer it for France or — just as welcome — return after a defeat with his reputation satisfyingly tarnished.

For Napoleon it represented an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of both his greatest heroes, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and he did not rule out the possibility of using Egypt as a stepping-stone to India.

Nearly all of the major, durable powers fell into one of two categories

Friday, July 12th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanBefore 1400, Peter Zeihan explains in The Accidental Superpower, true ocean transport was a rare thing:

In this era nearly all of the major, durable powers fell into one of two categories. The first were powers with navigable rivers that could easily extend their cultural reach up and down the river valley, enrich themselves with local trade, and use the resources of their larger footprint to protect themselves from — or force themselves upon — rivals. The second were powers that lived on seas sufficiently enclosed that they were difficult to get lost within. These seas didn’t work quite as well as rivers, but they certainly blunted the dangers of the open ocean and allowed for regional transport and trade. France, Poland, Russia, and a few of the Chinese empires fell into the first category, while the Swedes, Danes, Phoenicians, and Japanese fell into the second.


The Ottoman Empire originated on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, a nearly enclosed sea small enough that it functioned as a river in terms of facilitating cultural unification, but large enough that it allowed for a reasonable volume of regional trade. And Marmara didn’t exist in isolation. To its northeast was the Black Sea, while to its southeast lay the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean — all three enclosed bodies of water that the Ottomans were able to use their naval acumen to dominate. Emptying into the western Black Sea was the Danube, by far Europe’s largest river, which allowed the Ottomans to expand as far north into Europe as Vienna. By the measures of the day, the Ottomans had within easy reach more useful land, river, and sea than any other power — and nearly more than all of their European rivals combined.

And then there was trade. From their home base at the supremely well-positioned Istanbul, the Ottomans dominated all land and sea trade between Europe and Asia and from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

The largest and most lucrative of those trade routes was the famous Silk Road, the source of all spices that made it to Europe. Pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cumin, and saffron might seem like minor luxuries today, but their only sources were in South and Southeast Asia. Between the unreliable nature of ocean transport and the yet-to-be-mapped African continent, there was no reliable all-water route. The only way to access Asian spices was for the Silk Road to traverse China, Central Asia, Persia, and ultimately Ottoman-controlled lands. Between the hundreds of middlemen, the sheer distances involved, and the hefty tax the Islamic Ottomans placed on spice transfers to Christian Europe, upper-class Europeans often spent as much on spices as they did on food.


In 1529, they laid siege to Vienna at the head of the Danube valley. Had they won they would have been able to pour an empire’s worth of resources through the gap between the Alps and Carpathians onto the North European Plain, a wide highway within which the Turks would have faced no barriers to conquest.

But they failed — because the world had changed.

A handful of key technologies made all the difference:

  • Compass
  • Cross-staff
  • Carvel
  • Gunport

Nearly all of these technologies, Zeihan notes, were developed, refined, and operationalized by two countries that had almost nothing to do with the Ottomans:

Europe’s westernmost peninsula is Iberia. At the time of the Ottoman rise, the peoples of Iberia, the Portuguese and Spanish, had very little going for them. Nearly alone among the major European regions, Iberia has no rivers of meaningful length and only very narrow coastal strips, forcing most of its people to live in a series of elevated valleys. Unsurprisingly, in the 1300s Iberia was Europe’s poorest region. It also didn’t help that the two had borne the brunt of the Arab invasion, being occupied by the Moors for nearly seven centuries.


The Turks found themselves forced to divert massive resources from their Danube campaigns to an increasingly failed effort to defend their Mediterranean assets (most notably the Egyptian breadbasket).


Until Portugal’s arrival in South Asia, local oceanic shipping — including the maritime arms of the spice trade that the Ottomans controlled — was purely coastal, sailing with the monsoonal winds: east in May–June and west in August. Winds offshore may have blown year round, but they were erratic and local ships couldn’t reliably navigate or survive the turbulence. The Portuguese deepwater craft, in contrast, found navigating the Indian Ocean to be child’s play. Portuguese vessels were able to eviscerate the Ottoman connections to the Asian spice world, and then directly occupy key spice production locations, via its ships redirecting the trade in its entirety to Lisbon. Even with the military cost of maintaining a transcontinental empire and the twenty-two-thousand-mile round trips factored in, the price of spices in Portugal dropped by 90 percent. The Silk Road and its Ottoman terminus lost cohesion, and the robust income stream that had helped make the Ottoman Empire the big kid on the block simply stopped, all because of the ambitions of a country less than one-twelfth its size.

Shooting down a $1,000 drone with a $5,000 missile is not a winning strategy

Thursday, July 11th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David Hambling In November 1973, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), the USAF shot down a hapless drone with a carbon-dioxide gas dynamic laser:

Mobile laser weapons are currently in the range of tens of kilowatts. Unlike earlier lasers powered by chemical reactions, they are electric, so can keep firing for as long as they have power, giving them an effectively unlimited magazine. They are not powerful enough to burn through armor but are capable of destroying missiles or small drones.

The great thing about lasers versus small drones is that the cost-per-shot is so low. Shooting down a $1,000 drone with a $5,000 missile is not a winning strategy. A $1 burst of precisely-guided laser energy makes much more sense. Also, the laser does not have a limited ammunition supply, but can keep firing as long as the generator has fuel. In principle, it can keep firing for as long as the drones keep coming, though lasers still tend to overheat after a while.


Even if it does not destroy the drone outright or cause it to crash, the laser will burn out optics and damage sensitive control surfaces or other components.


Although the laser may have a range of a mile or more, as soon as it is spotted or starts firing, the drone swarm is likely to drop low and hug the ground for cover, limiting the laser’s effective range to a few hundred yards at best.


If it starts at a few hundred meters, it will be less than ten seconds before the drones are at point-blank range.


High-energy lasers operate on a single wavelength, so anything that reflects or absorbs that particular wavelength may reduce its effectiveness. The laser defense may be defeated by something as simple a mirrored nosecone, although this is not nearly as easy as it sounds. The reflective surface has to be tailored to the type of laser it is facing.


Laser protection does not need to be absolute. Protection that means that each drone takes several seconds rather than one second to destroy will guarantee success for the swarm.

Raiders of the Lost Anachronism

Wednesday, July 10th, 2024

I recently re-watched Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time in decades, and I noticed that the film takes place in 1936 — which got me thinking about the year and what didn’t fit.

Fortunately Indy is approached by Army Intelligence, not the CIA, which didn’t exist yet, or its predecessor, the OSS, which was still a few years off, too.

What stood out though was the firearms. I couldn’t have told you what model of revolver Indy carried — apparently it was a Smith & Wesson M1917 — but it looked appropriate.

I couldn’t have told you what model of semiautomatic Indy carried, either. In fact, I didn’t remember him even carrying one, but it looked appropriate, too. It turns out the semiautomatic he used at the bar in Nepal was a Browning Hi-Power — introduced in 1935, and not comercially available for sale in the United States until decades later. This makes sense when you realize that Indy was originally envisioned as carrying a Colt 1911, and the Hi-Power is its rather similar successor — and the prop-masters found it more reliable with 9-mm blanks than the 1911 with .45 blanks.

Then the Gestapo agent pulls out his Walther P38, which, of course, was introduced in 1938. I would expect all the Nazis in a Hollywood film to be armed with the iconic Luger P08, and many are. If you pay attention, you can also catch an iconic Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” in the bar scene.

But what caught my attention was the German submachine guns. There’s a lot of fully automatic fire in the movie, and the German soldiers and Nepalese and Arab henchmen are all using MP40s, which, of course, were introduced in 1940. The MP40 did have a predecessor though, the MP38, introduced in 1938.

Apparently the German soldiers are mostly armed with the brand new Mauser Karabiner 98k bolt-action carbine, rather than the established Gewehr 98s rifle, but that’s a minor quibble.

It’s odd that large numbers of Germans are openly operating in Egypt in 1936, and its downright odd that they have a one-of-a-kind flying wing to transport the Ark:

The Flying Wing was designed for Raiders of the Lost Ark by production designer Norman Reynolds. It was inspired by the Horten Ho 229, a prototype German fighter/bomber that never entered production during World War II, and modeled after a Horten VII by the German brothers Reimar and Walter Horten. It was built in 1944 as a test bed for a bigger jet propelled Horten IX.

The design of the aircraft is similar to the Junkers G 38 that came out in the late 1920′s, particularly with regard to the landing gear, general shape and appearance. It was a flying wing based on Prof. Junkers’ own patent that predated Jack Northrop’s theories that the Horton Brothers used for their Ho 229.

The elaborate prop was built in England by Vickers Aircraft Company and painted at EMI Elstree Studios in London, before being disassembled and sent in parts to Tunisia, then rebuilt on location for filming.

After the Flying Wing was destroyed in the film in 1981, the remains sat quietly in the Tunisian desert, where parts of it was salvaged by prop collectors.

Indiana Jones with Panzerfaust
Perhaps the most anachronistic bit of military hardware though is the shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon Indy threatens to use against the Ark. The film prop is a Chinese Type 56 copy of the Soviet RPG-2, outfitted with a shoulder grip similar to an M9 Bazooka’s. The German Panzerfaust didn’t enter service until 1943. The American bazooka combined two cutting-edge innovations, shaped charges and rockets, and got shipped to our Soviet allies. Captured models inspired the German Panzerfaust and Panzerschreck.

The organization maintained a public face, an overt identity at the Pentagon called the Office of Space Systems

Tuesday, July 9th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenAs President Kennedy’s new secretary of defense, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), Robert McNamara called for the Pentagon to assume control of all spy plane programs:

McNamara was at the top of the chain of command of all the armed services and believed his Air Force should be in charge of all U.S. assets with wings. The public had lost confidence in the CIA, McNamara told the president.


One plan was that the CIA might work in better partnership with the Air Force. President Kennedy liked that. On September 6, 1961, he created a protocol that required the CIA deputy director and the undersecretary of the Air Force to comanage all space reconnaissance and aerial espionage programs together as the National Reconnaissance Office, a classified agency within Robert McNamara’s Department of Defense. A central headquarters for NRO was established in Washington, a small office with a limited staff but with a number of empire-size egos vying for power and control. The organization maintained a public face, an overt identity at the Pentagon called the Office of Space Systems, but no one outside a select few knew of NRO’s existence until 1992.


“Because I was the person with a list of every employee at the area, it was my job to know not just who was who, but who was the boss of somebody’s boss. An individual person didn’t necessarily know much more about the person they worked for than their code name. And they almost certainly didn’t know who was working on the other side of the wall or in the next trailer over. Wayne Pendleton was the head of the radar group for a while. He was my go-to person for a lot of different groups. One day, Pendleton suddenly says, ‘I’m going to Washington, Jim.’ So I said, ‘What if I need you, what number should I call?’ And Pendleton laughed. He said, ‘You won’t need me because where I’m going doesn’t exist.’ Decades later I would learn that the place where Wayne was going when he left the Ranch was to a little office in Washington called NRO.”

That was the inspiration for Starlink

Monday, July 8th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonMusk realized that getting to Mars would cost serious money, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

“Internet revenue is about one trillion dollars a year,” he says. “If we can serve three percent, that’s $30 billion, which is more than NASA’s budget. That was the inspiration for Starlink, to fund getting to Mars.”


The plan was to send satellites into low-Earth orbit, about 340 miles high, so that the latency of the signals would not be as bad as systems that depended on geosynchronous satellites, which orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth. From their low altitude, Starlink’s beams cannot cover nearly as much ground, so many more are needed. Starlink’s goal was to eventually create a megaconstellation of forty thousand satellites.

In the midst of the hellacious summer of 2018, Musk was having a Spidey sense that something was amiss at Starlink. Its satellites were too big, expensive, and difficult to manufacture. In order to reach a profitable scale, they would have to be made at one-tenth the cost and ten times faster. But the Starlink team did not seem to feel much urgency, a cardinal sin for Musk.

So one Sunday night that June, without much warning, he flew to Seattle to fire the entire top Starlink team. He brought with him eight of his most senior SpaceX rocket engineers. None knew much about satellites, but they all knew how to solve engineering problems and apply Musk’s algorithm.


On a visit to Cornell in 2004, Musk sent a note to some engineering professors inviting them to bring one or two of their favorite students to lunch. “It was like, you know, do you want a free lunch on this rich guy?” Juncosa says. “Hell yeah, I’m into that for sure.” When Musk described what he was doing at SpaceX, Juncosa thought, “Man, this guy is crazy as hell, and I think he’s going to lose all his money, but he seems super smart and motivated and I like his style.” When Musk offered him a job, he accepted immediately.


When Juncosa took over at Starlink, he threw away the existing design and started back at a first-principles level, questioning every requirement based on fundamental physics. The goal was to make the simplest communications satellite possible, and later add bells and whistles.


For example, the satellite’s antennas were on a separate structure from the flight computer. The engineers had decreed that they be thermally isolated from one another. Juncosa kept asking why. When told that the antennas might overheat, Juncosa asked to see the test data. “By the time that I asked ‘Why?’ five times,” Juncosa says, “people were like, ‘Shit, maybe we should just make this one integrated component.’”

By the end of the design process, Juncosa had turned a rat’s nest into what was now a simple flat satellite. It had the potential to be an order of magnitude cheaper. More than twice as many could be packed into the nose cone of a Falcon 9, doubling the number each flight could deploy. “I was, like, pretty happy with it,” Juncosa says. “I’m sitting there thinking how clever I had been.”


“Why not release them all at once?” he asked. That initially struck Juncosa and the other engineers as crazy. They were afraid of collisions. But Musk said the motion of the spaceship would cause them to separate naturally. If they did happen to bump, it would be very slow and harmless. So they got rid of the connectors, saving a little bit of cost, complexity, and mass. “Life got way easier because we culled those parts,” Juncosa says. “I was too chicken to propose that, but Elon made us try it.”

Napoleon was a bona fide intellectual, and not just an intellectual among generals

Sunday, July 7th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon, while still “merely” a general, was elected a member of the Institut de France, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), then (as now) the foremost intellectual society in France:

Thereafter he often wore the dark-blue uniform of the Institut with its embroidered olive green and golden branches, attended science lectures there, and signed himself as ‘Member of the Institut, General-in-Chief of the Army of England’ in that order.


His proposers and supporters at the Institut undoubtedly thought it a boon to have the foremost general of the day as a member, but Napoleon was a bona fide intellectual, and not just an intellectual among generals. He had read and annotated many of the most profound books of the Western canon; was a connoisseur, critic and even amateur theorist of dramatic tragedy and music; championed science and socialized with astronomers; enjoyed conducting long theological discussions with bishops and cardinals; and he went nowhere without his large, well-thumbed travelling library. He was to impress Goethe with his views on the motives of Werther’s suicide and Berlioz with his knowledge of music. Later he would inaugurate the Institut d’Égypte and staff it with the greatest French savants of the day. Napoleon was admired by many of the leading European intellectuals and creative figures of the nineteenth century, including Goethe, Byron, Beethoven (at least initially), Carlyle and Hegel; he established the University of France on the soundest footing of its history.

The Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution deals with presidential succession and disability

Saturday, July 6th, 2024

The Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution deals with presidential succession and disability:

In 1841, William Henry Harrison died in office. It had previously been suggested that the vice president would become acting president upon the death of the president, but Vice President John Tyler asserted that he had succeeded to the presidency, instead of merely assuming its powers and duties; he also declined to acknowledge documents referring to him as acting president. Although Tyler felt his vice presidential oath obviated any need for the presidential oath, he was persuaded that being formally sworn in would resolve any doubts. Accordingly, he took the oath and title of “President,” without any qualifiers, moved into the White House and assumed full presidential powers. Though Tyler was sometimes derided as “His Accidency”, both houses of Congress adopted a resolution confirming that he was president. The “Tyler precedent” of succession was thus established, and subsequently Millard Fillmore (1850), Andrew Johnson (1865), Chester A. Arthur (1881), Theodore Roosevelt (1901), Calvin Coolidge (1923), Harry Truman (1945), and Lyndon B. Johnson (1963) were all deemed to have become president on the death of incumbent presidents.

In 1893, Grover Cleveland secretly had cancer surgery, after which he was incapacitated for a time and kept from public view.

Following Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919, no one officially assumed his powers and duties, in part because his condition was kept secret by his wife, Edith Wilson, and the White House physician, Cary T. Grayson. By the time Wilson’s condition became public knowledge, only a few months remained in his term and Congressional leaders were disinclined to press the issue.

Prior to 1967, the office of vice president had become vacant sixteen times when the vice president died, resigned, or succeeded to the presidency. The vacancy created when Andrew Johnson succeeded to the presidency upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was one of several that encompassed nearly the entire four-year term. In 1868, Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives and came one vote short of being removed from office by the Senate in his impeachment trial. Had Johnson been removed, President pro tempore Benjamin Wade would have become acting president in accordance with the Presidential Succession Act of 1792.

After several periods of incapacity due to severe health problems, President Dwight D. Eisenhower attempted to clarify procedures through a signed agreement with Vice President Richard Nixon, drafted by Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. However, this agreement did not have legal authority. Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in September 1955 and intestinal problems requiring emergency surgery in July 1956. Each time, until Eisenhower was able to resume his duties, Nixon presided over Cabinet meetings and, along with Eisenhower aides, kept the executive branch functioning and assured the public the situation was under control. However, Nixon refused to use the president’s office in the White House or sit in the president’s chair at Cabinet meetings.

The 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny and its 1954 film version influenced the drafters of the amendment. John D. Feerick told The Washington Post in 2018 that the film was a “live depiction” of the type of crisis that could arise “if a president ever faced questions about physical or mental inabilities but disagreed completely with the judgment”, which was not dealt with in the Constitution. Lawmakers and lawyers drafting the amendment wanted no such “Article 184 situation” as depicted in the film, in which the Vice President of the U.S. or others could topple the President by merely saying that the President was “disabled”.

Egypt became an easily conquerable breadbasket

Friday, July 5th, 2024

Accidental Superpower by Peter ZeihanThe Nile provided two things nearly unique on earth, Peter Zeihan explains in The Accidental Superpower:

The first was perfect agricultural inputs like reliable water and high-fertility soil. It wasn’t scant desert rainfall that gave rise to the mighty Nile, but instead the seasonal torrents from the Ethiopian highlands and overflow from the African Great Lakes. The seasonal floods washed down soil of fertility far higher than what could be obtained outside the river valley. The Nile was flush with water supplies every year in a cycle so reliable that true droughts were quite literally biblical events.

Perhaps more important was the second factor: The lower Nile was safe. One could stand on the ridges above the Nile floodplain at any point within a thousand miles of the sea, look east or west, and be met with the exact same view: an endless desert waste. With the technology of transport largely limited to what you could carry yourself, it was simply impossible for any hostile force to cross the desert.


Copper sounds like a small thing, but once humans figured out how to smelt and cast it, they replaced their wood and stone implements with metal, generating staggering improvements in the productivity of each worker — and each farmer.


By 3150 BC, a single government dominated all of the useful Nile territories between the Mediterranean coast and what is today the city of Aswan.


Local deserts insulated both Mesopotamia and the Indus from multiple directions, but not all directions. Their geographies were secure enough to spawn civilizations, but outside forces were still able to reach them, and so they never had the time to consolidate as Egypt did.


To the west, it is six hundred miles from the western edge of the Nile delta to where rain falls regularly enough to support a non-nomadic population (contemporary Benghazi, Libya).


The Sinai Peninsula is just as inhospitable as the Bible suggests, and the three hundred miles between the delta and the Jordan River valley have proven to be a formidable barrier right up to (and even into) contemporary times.

A southerly approach seems better, and indeed following the Nile is certainly a less painful affair than trudging through desert. But as one moves upriver south, the Nile valley narrows — to a steep canyon in places, complete with the occasional rapids (locally known as cataracts) — and it is a long, winding nine-hundred-mile route before you reach a geography and climate that can support a meaningful population (contemporary Khartoum, Sudan). Establishing multiple defensive positions along this route is quite easy.


Every patch of land within sight of the river is under cultivation, generating the most consistent food surpluses of any land throughout the history of not just the ancient world, but also the classical, medieval, and even early industrial worlds. This food surplus created the world’s densest population footprint for most of human history (the only exception being contemporary Bangladesh).


Second, by ancient standards the interior of Egypt was remarkably easy to get around in. From Aswan downriver, the valley is flat, in the dry season turning the river into a very slow-moving lake. The lack of elevation change results in a hazy, lazy downriver ride, while Egypt’s prevailing north-to-south winds allow for fairly reliable upriver sailing. The Nile could support riverine traffic in a way that the Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus — cursed with faster currents, less reliable seasonal flows and winds, and omnipresent sandbars — never could.


For the first millennia and a half of Egyptian history, outsiders simply could not penetrate into the Egyptian core. Yet within the Nile valley, the Egyptian government had very little trouble moving manpower, resources, the tools of governance, and even giant blocks of stone around within its riverine-based system.


The pharaoh could — and often did — take a boat cruise down the river and visually inspect nearly all of his kingdom without setting foot on land. The current and accurate assessments enabled by such easy travel helped governmental policy to match and respond to reality — a concept that might not seem a major deal in a world of smart phones, but was revolutionary in the world before paper. Tax collection could reach every part of the valley, and such activity ensured that the government maintained a firm grip on every aspect of society. Food stores could be distributed quickly and easily to mitigate local famine; the population crashes and rebellions that plagued cultures well into the modern era were far less common in Egypt. Revolts could be quelled quickly because troops could be summoned with speed; fast military transport enabled the government to nip problems in the bud.


A grand canal dug from a western braid of the Nile allowed for the regulated flooding of the Faiyum Depression, bringing another five hundred square miles into Egypt’s green zone, but that is the only significant expansion of Egypt’s agricultural lands until the twentieth century, and even that expansion was only about twenty miles west of the riverbed itself.


As the Nile flows through the desert, Egypt — ancient or otherwise — lacks trees. What few were available for boat construction were largely reserved for ego projects ranging from royal barges to monument construction.


The sheer isolation limited Egyptian knowledge of the world. It was so thin its leaders were shocked when confronted with the fact that some rivers flowed south.


Every place that was within sight of the Nile was also a food-producing region, so there was never a pressing need to develop a nationwide food distribution system — that made the maritime transport system specifically, and transport in general, the province of the state. The military and the bureaucracy could move about (and did), but the common man could not (and did not), firmly entrenching the concept of central control.


Theirs was a geography destined not just to generate slavery, but slavery of the masses.


Developments in agriculture, transport, and education ended with unification. Instead of generating higher and higher food surpluses, or attempting either to advance their civilization or to expand it past the confines of the Nile, the Egyptians dedicated all spare labor to monument construction.


New technologies developed to deal with problems that Egypt was blissfully unaffected by. Writing led to literacy. Copper led to bronze. Spears led to swords. Domesticated animals led to chariots. All of these technologies that most people associate with ancient Egypt were not actually developed there, because in Egypt there was no pressure for development past their original technologies of irrigated agriculture, basic engineering, small boats, and hieroglyphics. Even the word “pharaoh” was an import.

In time two of these “new” technologies — the domesticated camel and a sailing ship that could transport meaningful volumes of cargo — proved Egypt’s undoing. Outsiders could use these techs to breach Egypt’s desert buffers, and when they did they discovered the civilization that all had assumed was mighty and impregnable was in reality languid and backward. They also discovered that Egypt’s slave-heavy population lacked motivation to fight for their country.


Instead of being the greatest of the civilizations, Egypt became an easily conquerable breadbasket for anyone seeking to rule the Mediterranean basin. Once the Nile was secured, the conquering power could redirect the population from pyramid building to food production. The excess food output could be diverted out of the Nile region to fuel the conquering power’s bid for Mediterranean control.

The Egyptians first lost their independence in 1620 BC to the Hyksos (commonly known in the West as natives of Canaan), and then were independent only intermittently until the Roman conquest in the first century BC.


And after the Roman conquest, they were not independent for a single day until the collapse of the European colonial era after World War II.

A small drone with an electric motor is invisible

Thursday, July 4th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingWhile a hovering drone a few tens of feet away is an easy target, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), one approaching at a hundred miles an hour is virtually impossible to hit:

Hunters have difficulty hitting flying geese at more than about eighty yards, even with the spread of shot from a shotgun. Hitting one with a rifle is harder and putting a bullet through the Kevlar wing of a drone may only make it wobble. Unlike a goose or an airplane with “wet wings” containing fuel, a drone can only be seriously damaged by hitting a vital part.

A lethal drone like Switchblade will cover that last eighty yards to the target in around two seconds and its body presents a target four inches across. It can fly at low altitude, putting it below the horizon and making it difficult to see against a cluttered background. It can attack in complete darkness, and as it was seen in the section on swarming hunters, drones will come in from several directions at once. Some may even come from vertically above the target.


Before [World War 2], it was estimated that [anti-aircraft] guns would score one hit for every two hundred rounds. In reality it took closer to twenty thousand. A shell takes ten seconds or more to reach its target at high altitude, in which time a WWII bomber will have travelled about fifty times its own length. The slightest mis-estimation of range or speed means the shell has no chance of hitting. Anti-aircraft batteries fired a curtain of shells into the path of oncoming bomber formations rather than aiming individually. The mass of shell bursts did at least act as a deterrent.


Air defenses rarely shot down attacking aircraft. Shells did not hit planes, but sprayed them with high-velocity shrapnel fragments. The shrapnel generally caused minor damage or injured crew members, but this could force an aircraft to abort its mission and send it limping home. It took a lucky hit, or the cumulative damage from several near-misses, to down a plane.

Air defenses rarely shot down attacking aircraft. Shells did not hit planes, but sprayed them with high-velocity shrapnel fragments. The shrapnel generally caused minor damage or injured crew members, but this could force an aircraft to abort its mission and send it limping home. It took a lucky hit, or the cumulative damage from several near-misses, to down a plane.


One approach was to make every fourth bullet from a machine gun a phosphorus tracer round that leaves a glowing trail. This showed the path of the bullets so the gunner could adjust his aim, directing the visible stream of bullets towards the target. Like the wall of shell bursts from larger guns, the stream of tracer was also a deterrent: it takes a steely nerve to deliberately fly into a hail of bullets.


Unlike other aircraft, the kamikazes were not deterred by slight damage. Machines guns and 20mm and 40mm cannon consistently failed to prevent a kamikaze from hitting his target. Only the big five-inch naval guns could destroy a plane with one hit.


One analyst calculates that, because they scored so many hits compared to the casualties suffered, kamikaze attacks cost the Japanese fewer planes per hit than other types of attack.


Admiral Halsey’s solution to the kamikazes was an intensive program of air strikes on their airfields. Navy carrier air wings and Army Air Force B-29s destroyed large numbers of kamikazes on the ground, ending a threat that could not be stopped by anti-aircraft guns.


The guided missile was the air-defense equivalent of the smart bomb. Instead of firing thousands of rounds and hoping for a lucky hit, a single projectile homed in on the target and guaranteed a shoot-down. Heat-seeking missiles were effective at close range, while bigger and heavier missiles with radar guidance took over at longer ranges.

In the 1960s, the US foot soldier had his personal air defense in the form of the Redeye missile. This was a portable heat-seeking missile that could take out a fast jet two miles away, an almost impossible feat even for a quadruple heavy-machine gun that had to be carried on a truck. The main problem with early versions of the Redeye was that it was purely a “revenge weapon” – it could only lock on to a jet’s exhaust from behind, so you couldn’t shoot down a plane until it had already flown over and bombed you.

In the same period, protection from heavy bombers was provided by the Nike Hercules. This missile stood forty feet high and flew at Mach 3 and had a range of eighty miles. While the Redeye carried two pounds of explosive, Nike Hercules was armed with a twenty-kiloton atomic warhead capable of bringing down a whole formation of bombers in one go.


The plan was to take the existing M48 Patton tank and fit it with a new turret armed with a pair of WWII-era 40mm guns. Manual aiming was not enough; it would be guided by the radar from an F-16 aircraft with a new computerized fire-control system. On paper, the Sergeant York looked like a sound proposition.

The result was a billion-dollar fiasco. The Patton tank chassis were worn out, giving up after three hundred miles of road tests instead of the four thousand planned. The 40mm guns had been stored badly and were in poor shape. The biggest defect was the radar; designed for air-to-air combat in the open sky, it could not deal with all the clutter at ground level. It was easily confused by things like waving trees, which it mistook for helicopters.


The modern Stinger looks a lot like the 1960s Redeye, and the Patriot missile looks like a smaller version of the old Nike. Rather than being bigger and more powerful, they are smarter and more agile. As with bombs, intelligence trumps brute force.

Modern missiles can spot targets faster and shrug off the clutter that confused Sergeant York. They are highly resistant to jamming and deception. They are harder to avoid in the dance of death known as the “terminal engagement phase,” when planes maneuver wildly in a desperate attempt to get away as the missile closes in.

Air defense has become a duel between radar operators and “defense suppression” aircraft equipped with electronic warfare pods, decoys, and missiles that home in on radar emissions. The attackers attempt to blind, confuse, or evade the defenses and get close enough to launch their missiles. A radar signal is like a searchlight on a dark night, advertising its position over a wide area. Radar operators respond by only turning their radar on at intervals, and by moving position when possible. It is a duel whose outcome is largely determined by who has the best technology.

The current refinement of the Patriot missile is state of the art. This is several generations on from the missile that was hailed (inaccurately) as the Scud-buster of the 1991 Gulf War. The fifteen hundred pound missile travels at almost a mile per second and can destroy an aircraft anywhere from treetop height to eighty thousand feet, at a range of a hundred miles away. Costing somewhere over a million dollars per shot, the Patriot is an effective weapon against a whole range of targets. A battery of Patriots can defend against attack helicopters like the Hind, strike aircraft, heavy bombers, and is now effective against Scuds and other ballistic missiles.

The recent focus has been on tweaking Patriot for missile defense because shooting down aircraft simply is not an issue. US air superiority in recent conflicts means that nobody has been in a position to bomb US forces. According to the USAF’s 2014 Posture Statement:

“Since April of 1953, roughly seven million American service members have deployed to combat and contingency operations all over the world. Thousands of them have died as they fought. Not a single one was killed by an enemy aircraft. We intend to keep it that way.”


The sharp end of a Patriot missile battery comprises four launch vehicles, each with four missiles ready to fire. In principle, a Patriot battery can take on sixteen aircraft at a time (of four times that number with new, miniature PAC-3 missiles). While two or more missiles may sometimes be launched on different trajectories at a difficult target, the battery might take out sixteen Reapers in a matter of seconds.

Whether Patriot could even hit small drones is another question entirely.


It is hard to image a three-quarter ton missile engaging a four-pound drone. And even if every missile worked perfectly, the seventeenth drone would get through — along with all those following.

Patriot missile batteries rely on radar, which is vulnerable; one hit could put the whole battery out of action. The drones might target the launch vehicles and personnel. Systems like the Patriot are not armored against attack, and the M983 trucks that transport the Patriot are as vulnerable as any other truck. Missiles are explosive targets full of flammable rocket fuel.


Nor can the problem be solved by issuing Stingers to every soldier; at over $38,000 a shot, they are too expensive to be bought in such volumes. Worse, missiles like the Stinger are heat-seekers that depend on the target having a hot engine. A small drone with an electric motor is invisible.


The USAF’s F-22A Raptor is arguably the best fighter in the world, but its six radar-guided AMRAAM missiles and two infrared Sidewinders will not dent a swarm, even if they were able to lock on. The Raptor’s 20mm cannon makes little difference. The rotary cannon has a high rate of fire to ensure a good chance of a hit, and the entire magazine is expended by six one-second bursts.


Against most opponents, air supremacy means destroying enemy air fields so their aircraft cannot take off or land. This was the answer to the kamikaze threat.


Small drones do not need a runway, air base, or hangars.

Hanfstaengl composed both Brownshirt and Hitler Youth marches patterned after his Harvard football songs

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2024

In his recent Revisionist History podcast on Hitler’s Olympics, Malcolm Gladwell focuses on American journalist Dorothy Thompson, but he also mentions an unusual character nicknamed Putzi:

Hanfstaengl, nicknamed “Putzi”, was born in Munich, Bavaria, Germany, the son of a German art publisher, Edgar Hanfstaengl, and an American mother. He spent most of his early years in Germany and later moved to the United States. His mother was Katharine Wilhelmina Heine, daughter of Wilhelm Heine, a cousin of American Civil War Union Army general John Sedgwick. His godfather was Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.


He attended Harvard College and became acquainted with Walter Lippmann and John Reed. A gifted pianist, he composed several songs for Harvard’s football team. He graduated in 1909.

He moved to New York City, where he took over the management of the American branch of his father’s business, the Franz Hanfstaengl Fine Arts Publishing House. Many mornings he would practice on the piano at the Harvard Club of New York City, where he became acquainted with both Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt. Among his circle of acquaintances were the newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, author Djuna Barnes, to whom he was engaged, and actor Charlie Chaplin.

At the outbreak of World War I, he asked the German military attaché in New York City, Franz von Papen, to smuggle him back to Germany. Slightly baffled by the proposal, the attaché refused, and Hanfstaengl remained in the U.S. during the war. After 1917, the American branch of the family business was confiscated as enemy property.


A fellow member of the Harvard’s Hasty Pudding club who worked at the U.S. Embassy asked Hanfstaengl to assist a military attaché sent to observe the political scene in Munich. Just before returning to Berlin, the attaché, Captain Truman Smith, suggested that Hanfstaengl go to a Nazi rally as a favor and report his impressions of Hitler. Hanfstaengl was so fascinated by Hitler that he soon became one of his most intimate followers, although he did not formally join the Nazi Party until 1931. “What Hitler was able to do to a crowd in 2½ hours will never be repeated in 10,000 years,” Hanfstaengl said. “Because of his miraculous throat construction, he was able to create a rhapsody of hysteria. In time, he became the living unknown soldier of Germany.”

Hanfstaengl introduced himself to Hitler after the speech and began a close friendship and political association that would last through the 1920s and early 1930s. After participating in the failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, Hanfstaengl briefly fled to Austria, while the injured Hitler sought refuge in Hanfstaengl’s home in Uffing, outside of Munich.


Hanfstaengl composed both Brownshirt and Hitler Youth marches patterned after his Harvard football songs and, he later claimed, devised the chant “Sieg Heil”.

From seventy thousand feet in the air, the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs looked flat and lovely

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2024

Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen After Gary Powers was shot down, President Eisenhower had promised the world there would be no spy missions over Russia, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), but that promise did not include Soviet proxies:

In his new position as deputy director of plans, Bissell had used the U-2 to gather intelligence before. Its photographs had been helpful in planning paramilitary operations in Laos and the Dominican Republic. And in Cuba, overhead photographs taken by the Agency’s U-2s revealed important details regarding the terrain just up the beach from the Bay of Pigs beach. Photo interpreters determined that the swampland in the area would be hard to run in unless the commandos familiarized themselves with preexisting trails. As for the water landing itself, from seventy thousand feet in the air, the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs looked flat and lovely. But because cameras could not photograph what lay underwater, Bissell had no idea that just beneath the surface of the sea there was a deadly coral reef that would later greatly impede the water landing by commandos.


When the Bay of Pigs operation was over, more than one hundred CIA-trained, anti-Castro Cuban exiles were killed on approach or left to die on the beachhead at the Bay of Pigs. Those that lived to surrender were imprisoned and later ransomed back to the United States. When the story became public, so did brigade commander Pepe San Roman’s last words before his capture: “Must have air support in the next few hours or we will be wiped out. Under heavy attacks by MiG jets and heavy tanks.” Pepe San Roman begged Richard Bissell for help. “All groups demoralized… They consider themselves deceived.”


There was plenty of blame to go around but almost all of it fell at the feet of the CIA. In the years since, it has become clear that equal blame should be imputed to the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and President Kennedy. Shortly before he died, Richard Bissell blamed the mission’s failure on his old rival General Curtis LeMay. Bissell lamented that if LeMay had provided adequate air cover as he had promised, the mission would most likely have been a success. The Pentagon has historically attributed LeMay’s failure to send B-26 bombers to the Bay of Pigs to a “time zone confusion.” Bissell saw the mix-up as personal, believing that LeMay had been motivated by revenge. That he’d harbored a grudge against Bissell for the U-2 and Area 51. Whatever the reason, more than three hundred people were dead and 1,189 anti-Castro guerrillas, left high and dry, had been imprisoned. The rivalry between Bissell and LeMay was over, and the Bay of Pigs would force Richard Bissell to leave government service in February of 1962.

There were many government backlashes as a result of the fiasco. One has been kept secret until now, namely that President Kennedy sent the CIA’s inspector general at the time, Lyman B. Kirkpatrick Jr., out to Area 51 to write up a report on the base. More specifically, the president wanted to assess what other Richard Bissell disasters in the making might be coming down the pipeline at Area 51.

Adding friction to an already charged situation was the fact that by some accounts, Kirkpatrick held a grudge. Before the Bay of Pigs, Richard Bissell was in line to succeed Allen Dulles as director of the CIA, and eight years earlier, Lyman Kirkpatrick had worn those coveted shoes. But like Bissell, Kirkpatrick was cut down in his prime. Kirkpatrick’s loss came not by his own actions but by a tragic blow beyond his control. On an Agency mission to Asia in 1952, Lyman Kirkpatrick contracted polio and became paralyzed from the waist down. Confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, Kirkpatrick was relegated to the role of second-tier bureaucrat.

In a world of gentlemen spy craft and high-technology espionage, bureaucracy was considered glorified janitorial work. But when Kirkpatrick was dispatched to Area 51 by JFK, the fate and future of the secret base Richard Bissell had built in the Nevada desert lay in Lyman Kirkpatrick’s hands.