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.

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.”

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.

Just don’t be confident and wrong

Monday, July 1st, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonAt any given production meeting, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), whether at Tesla or SpaceX, there is a nontrivial chance that Musk will intone, like a mantra, what he calls “the algorithm”:

Question every requirement. Each should come with the name of the person who made it. You should never accept that a requirement came from a department, such as from “the legal department” or “the safety department.” You need to know the name of the real person who made that requirement. Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.

Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.

Simplify and optimize. This should come after step two. A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist.

Accelerate cycle time. Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.

Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and the bugs were shaken out.

The algorithm has some corollaries:

All technical managers must have hands-on experience. For example, managers of software teams must spend at least 20% of their time coding. Solar roof managers must spend time on the roofs doing installations. Otherwise, they are like a cavalry leader who can’t ride a horse or a general who can’t use a sword.

Comradery is dangerous. It makes it hard for people to challenge each other’s work. There is a tendency to not want to throw a colleague under the bus. That needs to be avoided.

It’s OK to be wrong. Just don’t be confident and wrong.

Never ask your troops to do something you’re not willing to do.

Whenever there are problems to solve, don’t just meet with your managers. Do a skip level, where you meet with the level right below your managers.

When hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. Attitude changes require a brain transplant.

A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle.

The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.

It produces enough glare inside the eye so that it is impossible to see far enough ahead to drive safely

Thursday, June 27th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingLaser dazzlers or “ocular interrupters”, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), are a good fit with drone capabilities:

They were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan as non-lethal weapons, especially for dealing with drivers. Shining the brilliant green light on a car windscreen signaled to a driver approaching a checkpoint that they need to stop; and when you cannot see, you cannot drive. It does not cause flash blindness, but produces enough glare inside the eye so that it is impossible to see far enough ahead to drive safely. The exact effect depends on conditions, but typically a driver would only be able to progress at 20 mph at best. The dazzling laser also prevents the target from effectively aiming a weapon at the source.

The GLARE MOUT made by B E Meyers has been used extensively by US forces in Iraq and elsewhere. It weighs under ten ounces and is normally clipped on the underside of a rifle; effective range is four hundred meters at night and perhaps half that in daytime, even though the output is barely one-eighth of a watt. Aiming it is as simple as pointing a flashlight, and it would be simple enough to link it to a drone’s camera.


Drones with laser dazzlers could close a road by dazzling drivers, or spread havoc by flying down a freeway and dazzling at random.

Tasers are also a good fit:

Modern Taser-type weapons require very little power. Early Tasers used several AA batteries, but the latest versions only need a couple of lithium batteries to give repeated five-second shocks. A drone equipped with this type of weapon can disable a human target for as long as necessary, for example to keep them out of action while the rest of the swarm completes an attack.

One soldier compares it to firing a bullet through a car

Thursday, June 20th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David Hambling A hand grenade will do little damage to a vehicle protected by an inch of steel plate, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), but high precision and intelligent targeting make an effective substitute for brute force:

In the 1991 Gulf War, laser-guided Mk 82 bombs weighing five hundred pounds were used for “tank plinking” attacks against individual Iraqi tanks. Unlike in previous wars when dozens of bombs were needed to guarantee a hit on such a small target, laser guidance meant that a pilot could score four kills with four bombs. The bombs were accurate enough, and a bomb of this size was overkill even against heavily-armored Russian-made T-72 battle tank.

In the 2003 war in Iraq, the Hellfire missile weighing a fifth as much proved just as efficient at destroying tanks. Laser guidance meant that every shot was likely to find its mark.


The T-72 has frontal armor more than eighteen inches thick, and the Hellfire can punch through it. But tank armor is not distributed evenly.


The AT4’s warhead weighs just under a pound, and it is capable of penetrating an impressive fifteen inches of armor compared to three inches for the original bazooka. This is still not enough to take a T-72 head on — tank armor is specifically intended to defeat this sort of threat — but it means the soldier can tackle anything else on the battlefield.


From above, the T-72 is a much easier prospect. The large, flat surface of the top of the tank has comparatively thin armor; if it was as thick as the front, the tank would be too heavy to move. The top armor on the T-72 is around two inches thick, and there are spots where it is even weaker.

While a small charge can breach the armor, the damage it does — the “behind armor effect” — is limited. One soldier compares it to firing a bullet through a car — alarming for the people inside but not likely to cause real damage. The high-speed jet of metal will injure anyone it hits and may set off fuel or explosives, but in a vehicle the size of the T-72, most shots will do little harm. That happens when the shot placement is more or less random, as it is likely to be in battle using an unguided weapon like the AT-4, often at long range against a target that may be moving. In practice it usually takes multiple hits from this sort of weapon to stop a tank.


Current guided weapons sense a target and tend to aim approximately at its center of mass. (A major exception is heat-seeking missiles, which home in on hot exhaust pipes). As we have seen, a small drone has enough computing power to do something much more sophisticated.

The CIA learned what the Soviets could and could not see on their radars

Tuesday, June 18th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenAfter Gary Powers’ U-2 got shot down, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the CIA and the Air Force were anxious to get its Mach-3 replacement flying:

At Lockheed, each Mach 3 aircraft was literally being hand forged, part by part, one airplane at a time. The production of the aircraft, according to Richard Bissell, “spawned its own industrial base. Special tools had to be developed, along with new paints, chemicals, wires, oils, engines, fuel, even special titanium screws. By the time Lockheed finished building the A-12, they themselves had developed and manufactured thirteen million different parts.” It was the titanium that first held everything up. Titanium was the only metal strong enough to handle the kind of heat the Mach 3 aircraft would have to endure: 500-to 600-degree temperatures on the fuselage’s skin and nearly 1,000 degrees in places close to the engines. This meant the titanium alloy had to be pure; nearly 95 percent of what Lockheed initially received had to be rejected. Titanium was also critically sensitive to the chemical chlorine, a fact Lockheed engineers did not realize at first. During the summer, when chlorine levels in the Burbank water system were elevated to fight algae, inside the Skunk Works, airplane pieces started to mysteriously corrode. Eventually, the problem was discovered, and the entire Skunk Works crew had to switch over to distilled water. Next it was discovered that titanium was also sensitive to cadmium, which was what most of Lockheed’s tools were plated with. Hundreds of toolboxes had to be reconfigured, thousands of tools tossed out. The next problem was power related. Wind-tunnel testing in Burbank was draining too much electricity off the local grid. If a reporter found out about the electricity drain, it could lead to unwanted questions. NASA offered Kelly Johnson an alternative wind-tunnel test facility up in Northern California, near the Mojave, which was where Lockheed engineers ended up—performing their tests late at night under cover of darkness. The complicated nature of all things Oxcart pushed the new spy plane further and further behind the schedule.


Russia was spending billions of rubles on surface-to-air missile technology and the CIA soon learned that the Oxcart’s new nemesis was a system called Tall King. Getting hard data on Tall King’s exact capabilities before the Oxcart went anywhere near it was now a top priority for the CIA.


In 1960, “there were many CIA officers who thought ELINT was a dirty word,” recalls Gene Poteat, the engineer in charge of Project Palladium, which originated with the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence.


“We needed to know the sensitivity of Soviet radar receivers and the proficiency of its operators,” Poteat explains. With Khrushchev using Cuba as a military base in the Western Hemisphere, the CIA saw an opportunity. “When the Soviets moved into Cuba with their missiles and associated radar, we were presented with a golden opportunity to measure the system sensitivity of the SA-2 aircraft missile radar,” says Poteat.


Thornton “T.D.” Barnes was a CIA asset at an age when most men hadn’t graduated from college yet. Married at seventeen to his high-school sweetheart, Doris, Barnes became a self-taught electronics wizard, buying broken television sets, fixing them up, and reselling them for five times the amount. In doing so, he went from bitter poverty—raised on a Texas Panhandle ranch with no electricity or running water—to buying his new bride a dream home before he was old enough to vote. Barnes credited his mother for his becoming one of the CIA’s most important radar countermeasure experts. “My mom saw an article on radar in Life magazine when I was no more than nine or ten. She said I should write a school report on the subject and so I did. That’s when I got bit with the radar bug.”

At age seventeen, Barnes lied about his age to join the National Guard so he could go fight in Korea. He dreamed of one day being an Army officer. Two years later he was deployed to the 38th Parallel to defend the region alongside a British and a Turkish infantry company. It was in Korea that Barnes began his intelligence career at the bottom of the chain of command. “I was the guy who sat on the top of the hill and looked for enemy soldiers. If I saw ’em coming, it was my job to radio the information back to base,” Barnes recalls. He loved the Army. The things he learned there stayed with him all his life: “Never waste a moment. Shine your boots when you’re sitting on the pot. Always go to funerals. Look out for your men.” Once, in Korea, a wounded soldier was rushed onto the base. Barnes overheard that the man needed to be driven to the hospital, but because gas was scarce, all vehicles had to be signed out by a superior. With no superior around, Barnes worried the man might die if he didn’t get help fast, so he signed his superior’s name on the order. “I was willing to take the demerit,” Barnes explains. His actions caught the attention of the highest-ranking officer on the base, Major General Carl Jark, and later earned him a meritorious award. When the war was over General Jark pointed Barnes in the direction of radar and electronics. “He suggested I go to Fort Bliss and get myself an education there,” Barnes explains. So T.D. and Doris Barnes headed to Texas. There, Barnes’s whole world would change. And it didn’t take long for his exceptional talents to come to the attention of the CIA.

Barnes loved learning. At Fort Bliss, he attended classes for Nike Ajax and Nike Hercules missile school by day and classes at Texas Western University by night for the next fifty-four months. These were the missiles that had been developed a decade earlier by the Paperclip scientists, born originally of the German V-2 rocket. At Fort Bliss, Barnes read technical papers authored by former Nazi scientists. Sometimes the Paperclip scientists taught class. “No one really thought of them as former Nazis,” says Barnes. “They were the experts. They worked for us now and we learned from them.” By early 1960, Barnes was a bona fide missile expert. Sometimes, when a missile misfired over at the White Sands Missile Range, it was T.D. Barnes who was dispatched to disarm the missile sitting on the test stand. “I’d march up to the missile, take off the panel, and disconnect the wires from the igniter,” Barnes recalls. “When you are young, it doesn’t occur to you how dangerous something is.” Between the academics and the hands-on experience, Barnes developed an unusual aptitude in an esoteric field that the CIA was just getting involved in: ELINT. Which was how at the age of twenty-three, T. D. Barnes was recruited by the CIA to participate in a top secret game of chicken with the Russians that was part of Project Palladium. Although Barnes didn’t know it then, the work he was doing was for the electronic countermeasure systems that would later be installed on the A-12 Oxcart and on the ground at Area 51.


The plan was for the airplane to fly right up to the edge of Cuban airspace but not into it. Moments before the airplane crossed into Cuban airspace, the pilot would quickly turn around and head home. By then, the Russian radar experts working the Cuban radar sites would have turned on their systems to track the U.S. airplane. Russian MiG fighter jets would be sent aloft to respond. The job of Project Palladium was to gather the electronic intelligence being sent out by the radar stations and the MiGs.


“At the time, ECM [electronic countermeasure] and ECCM [electronic counter-countermeasure] technology were still new to both the plane and the missile. We’d transmit a Doppler signal from a radar simulator which told their MiG pilots that a missile had locked on them. When the Soviet pilots engaged their ECM against us, my job was to sit there and watch how our missile’s ECCM responded. If the Soviet signal jammed our missile and made it drift off target, I’d tweak my missile’s ECCM electronics to determine what would override a Soviet ECM signal.”


“Inside the airplane, we’d record the frequencies to be replayed back at Fort Bliss for training and design. Once we got what we wanted we hauled ass out of the area to avoid actual contact with Soviet planes.”


Back at Fort Bliss, Barnes and the others would interpret what NSA had captured from the Soviet/Cuban ECM transmissions that they had recorded during the flight. In listening to the decrypted Soviet responses to the antagonistic moves, the CIA learned what the Soviets could and could not see on their radars. This technology became a major component in further developing stealth technology and electronic countermeasures and was why Barnes was later placed by the CIA to work at Area 51.

If conventional thinking makes your mission impossible, then unconventional thinking is necessary

Monday, June 17th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson Musk calculated that on a good day he made a hundred command decisions as he walked the floor of his Tesla factory, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

“At least twenty percent are going to be wrong, and we’re going to alter them later,” he said. “But if I don’t make decisions, we die.”

One day Lars Moravy, a valued top executive, was working at Tesla’s executive headquarters a few miles away in Palo Alto. He got an urgent call from Omead Afshar asking him to come to the factory. There he found Musk sitting cross-legged underneath the elevated conveyor moving car bodies down the line. Again he was struck by the number of bolts that had been specified. “Why are there six here?” he asked, pointing.

“To make it stable in a crash,” Moravy replied.

“No, the main crash load would come through this rail,” Musk explained. He had visualized where all the pressure points would be and started rattling off the tolerance numbers at each spot. Moravy sent it back to the engineers to be redesigned and tested.

At another of the stations, the partially completed auto bodies were bolted to a skid that moved them through the final assembly process. The robotic arms tightening the bolts were, Musk thought, moving too slowly. “Even I could do it faster,” he said. He told the workers to see what the settings were for the bolt drivers. But nobody knew how to open the control console. “Okay,” he said, “I’m just going to just stand here until we find someone who can bring up that console.” Finally a technician was found who knew how to access the robot’s controls. Musk discovered that the robot was set to 20 percent of its maximum speed and that the default settings instructed the arm to turn the bolt backward twice before spinning it forward to tighten. “Factory settings are always idiotic,” he said. So he quickly rewrote the code to delete the backward turns. Then he set the speed to 100 percent capacity. That started to strip the threads, so he dialed it back to 70 percent. It worked fine and cut the time it took to bolt the cars to the skids by more than half.

One part of the painting process, an electrocoat bath, involved dipping the shell of the car into a tank. Areas of the car shell have small holes so that the cavities will drain after the dipping. These holes are then plugged with patches made of synthetic rubber, known as butyl patches. “Why are we applying these?” Musk asked one of the line managers, who replied that it had been specified by the vehicle structures department. So Musk summoned the head of that department. “What the hell are these for?” he demanded. “They’re slowing the whole damn line.” He was told that in a flood, if the water is higher than the floorboards, the butyl patches help prevent the floor from getting too wet. “That’s insane,” Musk responded. “Once in ten years there will be such a flood. When it happens, the floor mats can get wet.” The patches were deleted.

The production lines often halted when safety sensors were triggered. Musk decided they were too sensitive, tripping when there was no real problem. He tested some of them to see if something small like a piece of paper falling past the sensor could trigger a stoppage. This led to a crusade to weed out sensors in both Tesla cars and SpaceX rockets. “Unless a sensor is absolutely needed to start an engine or safely stop an engine before it explodes, it must be deleted,” he wrote in an email to SpaceX engineers. “Going forward, anyone who puts a sensor (or anything) on the engine that isn’t obviously critical will be asked to leave.”


Near the end of the final assembly line were robotic arms trying to adjust the little seals around the windows. They were having a hard time. One day, after standing silently in front of the balky robotics for a few minutes, Musk tried doing the task with his own hands. It was easy for a human. He issued an order, similar to the one he had given in Nevada. “You have seventy-two hours to remove every unnecessary machine,” he declared.

The robot removal started grimly. People had a lot vested in the machines. But then it became like a game. Musk started walking down the conveyor line, wielding a can of orange spray paint. “Go or stay?” he would ask Nick Kalayjian, his vice president for engineering, or others. If the answer was “go,” the piece would be marked with an orange X, and workers would tear it off the line. “Soon he was laughing, like with childlike humor,” Kalayjian says.


“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he tweeted. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”

After the de-automation and other improvements, the juiced-up Fremont plant was churning out thirty-five hundred Model 3 sedans per week by late May 2018.


At a meeting at the Fremont factory on May 22, he recounted a story about World War II. When the government needed to rush the making of bombers, it set up production lines in the parking lots of the aerospace companies in California.


There was a provision in the Fremont zoning code for something called “a temporary vehicle repair facility.” It was intended to allow gas stations to set up tents where they could change tires or mufflers. But the regulations did not specify a maximum size. “Get one of those permits and start building a huge tent,” he told Guillen. “We’ll have to pay a fine later.”

That afternoon, Tesla workers began clearing away the rubble that covered an old parking lot behind the factory. There was not time to pave over the cracked concrete, so they simply paved a long strip and began erecting a tent around it.


In two weeks, they were able to complete a tented facility that was 1,000 feet long and 150 feet wide, big enough to accommodate a makeshift assembly line. Instead of robots, there were humans at each station.

One problem was that they did not have a conveyor belt to move the unfinished cars through the tent. All they had was an old system for moving parts, but it was not powerful enough to move car bodies. “So we put it on a slight slope, and gravity meant it had enough power to move the cars at the right speed,” Musk says.


“If conventional thinking makes your mission impossible,” Musk told him, “then unconventional thinking is necessary.”


June 30, the deadline Musk had promised for reaching the goal of five thousand cars per week, was a Saturday, and when Musk woke up on the conference room couch that morning and looked at the monitors, he realized they would succeed. He worked for a few hours on the paint line, then rushed from the factory, still wearing protective sleeves, to his airplane to make it to Spain in time to be the best man at Kimbal’s wedding in a medieval Catalonian village.

As the pressure in the tank reached 6,500 psi, there was a sudden roar

Wednesday, June 12th, 2024

Back in 2016, a 3-foot scale model of OceanGate’s Cyclops 2 submersible underwent high-pressure testing:

Engineers carefully lowered the Cyclops 2 model into the testing tank nose-first, like a bomb being loaded into a silo, and then screwed on the tank’s 3,600-pound lid. Then they began pumping in water, increasing the pressure to mimic a submersible’s dive. If you’re hanging out at sea level, the weight of the atmosphere above you exerts 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi). The deeper you go, the stronger that pressure; at the Titanic’s depth, the pressure is about 6,500 psi. Soon, the pressure gauge on UW’s test tank read 1,000 psi, and it kept ticking up—2,000 psi, 5,000 psi. At about the 73-minute mark, as the pressure in the tank reached 6,500 psi, there was a sudden roar and the tank shuddered violently.

“I felt it in my body,” an OceanGate employee wrote in an email later that night. “The building rocked, and my ears rang for a long time.”

“Scared the shit out of everyone,” he added.

The model had imploded thousands of meters short of the safety margin OceanGate had designed for.

In the high-stakes, high-cost world of crewed submersibles, most engineering teams would have gone back to the drawing board, or at least ordered more models to test. Rush’s company didn’t do either of those things. Instead, within months, OceanGate began building a full-scale Cyclops 2 based on the imploded model.

This design, later renamed Titan, made it down to the Titanic in 2021:

It even returned to the site for expeditions the next two years. But nearly one year ago, on June 18, 2023, Titan dove to the infamous wreck and imploded, instantly killing all five people onboard, including Rush himself.

Flying at seventy thousand feet meant the sky above him was pitch-black

Tuesday, June 11th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenWhile the US was developing its aerial reconnaissance technology, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the Russians were developing their surface-to-air-missile technology:

It was sweltering hot in the ancient city of Peshawar, Pakistan, and Powers had spent the night on a cot in an aircraft hangar inside the CIA’s secret facility there.


The Agency had never attempted to fly all the way across the Soviet Union before, from the southern border near Pakistan to the northern border near the Arctic Circle. From there, Powers would fly his U-2 to a secret CIA base in Norway and land. No Agency pilot had ever taken off and landed at two different bases in a U-2.

This overflight was particularly important to the CIA. Powers would gather valuable photographic information on two key sites. The first was the Tyuratam Cosmodrome, the Soviets’ busiest missile launch base. Tyuratam was Russia’s Cape Canaveral, the place from where Sputnik had been launched. For years the CIA was aware of only one launchpad at Tyuratam. Now there were rumored to be two, and a U-2 overflight in April revealed preparations for an upcoming launch—of what exactly, the CIA wanted to know. After Tyuratam, Powers would fly across Siberia and head up to a facility at Plesetsk, 186 miles south of the city of Archangelsk, in the Arctic Circle. Plesetsk was alleged to be the Soviet’s newest missile-launch facility. Powers’s flight would cover a record 3,800 miles, 2,900 of which would be inside the Soviet Union. He would spend nine nerve-racking hours over enemy territory.


The reverse would have been unthinkable. Imagine a Russian spy plane flying unmolested over the entire United States, from the East Coast to the West, snapping photographs that could provide details at two-and-a-half-foot increments from seventy thousand feet up.


Mother Nature always had the final say. For Powers, a slight wind change meant the schedule for his mission flight that morning was disrupted yet again. Not enough to cancel the mission, but enough so that his navigational maps had to be quickly corrected. The waiting was agonizing. It was also necessary. If his photographic targets were covered in clouds, images from the U-2’s camera would be useless. The navigators needed to calculate when and if the weather would clear.

As Powers sat waiting it out, his commanding officer, Colonel Shelton, crossed the cement floor and indicated he wanted to speak with him.

Colonel Shelton extended his hand and opened his palm. At the center was a large silver coin. “Do you want the silver dollar?” the colonel asked Powers. What Shelton was offering was no ordinary American coin. It was a CIA suicide gadget, designed to conceal a tiny poison pin hidden inside. The pin, which the pilot could find in his pocket by rubbing a finger gently around the coin’s edge, was coated with a sticky brown substance called curare, the paralytic poison found in lethal Amazonian blowpipes. One prick of the poison pin and a pilot would be dead in seconds.

Gary Powers was one of the Agency’s most accomplished U-2 pilots. He had flown a total of twenty-seven missions, including ones over China. He had once suffered a potentially fatal flameout over the Soviet Union and managed to survive. On many occasions he had been offered the suicide pill, and on each previous mission he had said no. But on May 1, 1960, Powers unexpectedly accepted the pin from Colonel Shelton, then slid it into the pocket of his flight suit. Later, Powers would wonder if he’d had a premonition of what was to come.


Pilots knew never to use their radio while flying over denied territory, but they listened carefully for click codes being sent to them. A single click meant proceed. Three clicks meant turn around and head back to base.


Powers settled in for what was supposed to be a total of thirteen hours of flying time.


In Moscow, two thousand miles away to the west, it was still dark outside when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev sat upright in bed, awakened by a ringing telephone. Defense minister Marshal Malinovsky was on the line. A high-flying aircraft had crossed the border over Afghanistan and was headed toward central Russia, Malinovsky said. Khrushchev became enraged. Today of all days. May 1 was Russia’s national holiday. The streets were festooned with banners and ribbons for the May Day parade. This could mean only one thing, Khrushchev later told his son, Sergei. Eisenhower was ridiculing him again. The Soviet premier’s Achilles’ heel was his lack of formal education; he’d dropped out of school to work in the coal mines after the fourth grade. With his poor reading and writing skills, Khrushchev hated feeling that a more educated world leader was trying to make him appear the fool.

The Americans were especially duplicitous regarding holidays, Khrushchev believed. Four years earlier, on the Fourth of July, the Americans had double-crossed him with their first overflight of the U-2. If that overflight was a kick in the ribs, today’s overflight was a sharp poke in the eye.


“In other words, at a time when a major parade aimed at demonstrating Soviet military prowess was about to begin, a not-yet-identified foreign aircraft was flying over the heart of the country and Soviet air defenses appeared unable to shoot it down.”

Not if Khrushchev had his way. “Shoot down the plane by whatever means,” he shouted back at his defense minister. All across the country, the Soviet Air Force went on alert. Generals scrambled their fighter jets to go after Powers. In Siberia, officers from Soviet Air Defense Forces were summoned to their command posts with orders to shoot down the American spy. It was a matter of national pride. The orders came from Nikita Khrushchev himself.


Flying at seventy thousand feet meant the sky above him was pitch-black. Under normal circumstances he would have used the stars to determine where on the globe he was, but today his celestial navigation computations were unreliable—they’d been laid out for a 6:00 a.m. departure, not a 6:26 a.m. one. And so, with only a compass and sextant to keep him on track, Powers flew on. Spotting a break in the clouds, he determined his location to be just southeast of the Aral Sea, high above present-day Uzbekistan. Thirty miles to the north lay Powers’s first target: the Tyuratam Cosmodrome.

Realizing he was slightly off course, Powers was correcting back when suddenly he spotted the condensation trail of a jet aircraft below him. “It was moving fast, at supersonic speed, paralleling my course, though in the opposite direction,” Powers explained in his memoir Operation Overflight, published in 1970. Five minutes passed and now he knew at least one MiG was on his tail. Then he spotted another aircraft flying in the same direction as he was. “I was sure now they were tracking me on radar, vectoring in and relaying my headings to the aircraft” below him. But the MiG was so far below his U-2, it did not pose a real threat. Protected by height, Powers flew on. He felt confident he was out of harm’s way.

First he passed over the Ural Mountains, once considered the natural boundary between the East and the West. He headed on toward Sverdlovsk, which was situated thirteen hundred miles inside Russia. Before the Communists took over, Sverdlovsk was called Yekaterinburg. It was there in 1918 that Czar Nicholas II and his family were lined up against a kitchen wall and shot. To the Communists, the city of Sverdlovsk played an important role in the Soviet military-industrial complex, a place where tanks and rockets were built. It was also home to the Soviets’ secret bioweapons program, which on the date of Powers’s flight was not yet known to the CIA.

Nearing Sverdlovsk, Powers made a ninety-degree turn. He headed toward what appeared to be an airfield not marked on his map. Suddenly, large thunderclouds appeared, obscuring his view. He switched his cameras on. Powers had no idea that he was about to photograph a secret facility called Kyshtym 40, which produced nuclear material and also assembled weapons. Kyshtym 40 was as valuable to Russia as Los Alamos and Sandia combined were to the Americans.

On the ground, a surface-to-air missile battalion tasked with guarding Kyshtym 40 had been tracking Powers’s flight. At exactly 8:53 local time, the air defense battalion commander there gave the official word. “Destroy target,” the commander said. A missile from an SA-2 fired into the air at Mach 3. Inside his airplane, Gary Powers was making notes for the official record—altitude, time, instrument readings—when he suddenly felt a dull thump. All around him, his plane became engulfed in a bright orange flash of light. “A violent movement shook the plane, flinging me all over the cockpit,” Powers later wrote. “I assumed both wings had come off. What was left of the plane began spinning, only upside down, the nose pointing upward toward the sky.” As the U-2 spun out of control, Powers’s pressure suit inflated, wedging him into the nose of the airplane. The U-2 was crashing. He needed to get out. Thrown forward as he was, if he pushed the button to engage the ejection seat, both of his legs would be severed. Powers struggled, impossibly, against g-forces. He needed to get out of the airplane and he needed to hit the button that would trigger an explosion to destroy the airplane once he was gone, but he was acutely aware that he couldn’t get out of the airplane without cutting off his own legs. For a man who rarely felt fear, Gary Powers was on the edge of panic.

Suddenly, out of the chaos, three words came to him: Stop and think. An old pilot friend had once said that if he ever got in a jam, all he had to remember was to “stop and think.” His thoughts traveled back to his old training days at Area 51, back when the U-2 didn’t have an ejection seat. Back when escaping from the U-2 was the pilot’s job, not a mechanical one. Reaching up, Powers unlocked the airplane canopy. It flew off and sailed into the darkness. Instantly, the centrifugal force of the spinning airplane sucked him out into the atmosphere. He was free at last; all he needed to do was deploy his parachute. Then, to his horror, he realized that he was still attached to the airplane by his oxygen hoses. Powers tried to think through his options, but the g-forces were too great. There was nothing he could do anymore. His fate was out of his hands. He blacked out.

Nearly two thousand miles away, at a National Security Agency listening post in Turkey, NSA operators eavesdropped on Soviet radar operators at Kyshtym 40 as operators there tried to shoot Gary Powers’s U-2 out of the sky. The NSA had participated in many U-2 missions before. It was their job to equip CIA planes with listening systems, special recorders that gathered electronic intelligence, or ELINT. The NSA operators knew something was wrong the moment they heard a Soviet MiG pilot, the one who was chasing Powers from below, talking to the missile operators at Kyshtym 40. “He’s turning left,” the MiG pilot said, helping the missile operator to target Powers’s exact location. Just a few moments later, NSA operators heard Kyshtym 40 say that Powers’s U-2 had disappeared from their radar screens.


“Bill Bailey did not come home” was how Richard Bissell learned of the incident, in code.


As Powers floated down toward Earth, he noticed a small car driving down a dirt road alongside him, as if following his course. Finally, he made contact with the ground. The car stopped and men were helping him. One assisted with his chute. Another man helped him to his feet. A third man reached over to Powers’s survival pack and took his pistol. A crowd of approximately fifty people had gathered around. The men motioned for Powers to follow them. They loaded him into the front seat of a truck and began driving.


With the U-2 spy plane and the SA-2 missile system, the Americans and the Soviets had been playing a game of cat and mouse: constant pursuit, near captures, and repeated escapes. Now that game was over. Powers, like the mouse, had been caught. But there was a second, even greater catastrophe in the works. When the White House staff learned Powers’s U-2 had been shot down, they assumed he was dead. This was an assumption based on CIA “facts.” Richard Bissell had personally assured the president that in the unlikely event that an SA-2 missile was able to reach a U-2 and shoot it down, the pilot would not survive. “We believed that if a U-2 was shot down over Soviet territory, all the Russians would have was the wreckage of an aircraft,” Bissell later explained. And so, believing Gary Powers was dead, the White House denied that the airplane was on any kind of espionage mission, in opposition to Khrushchev’s very public accusation. For five days, the White House claimed that Gary Powers had been gathering high-altitude weather data for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA.


The United States has been making a fool of Mother Russia, Khrushchev declared. The Americans had been sending spy planes over the Soviet Union for nearly four years. To underscore the significance of what had happened, Khrushchev gave a bold analogy. “Just imagine what would have happened had a Soviet aircraft appeared over New York, Chicago or Detroit? That would mean the outbreak of war!” Amid gasps of horror, Khrushchev explained how the Soviet Union had first used diplomatic channels to protest the spy flights. That he had called upon the U.N. Security Council to take action, but nothing was done. Just four days earlier, Khrushchev explained, on May 1, yet another illegal espionage mission had occurred. Only this time the Soviets had succeeded in shooting down the spy plane. The audience broke into wild cheers. Then came the heart of the matter in the form of a question. It was also Khrushchev’s bait. “Who sent this aircraft across the Soviet frontier?” he asked. “Was it the American Commander-in-Chief who, as everyone knows, is the president? Or was this aggressive act performed by Pentagon militarists without the president’s knowledge? If American military men can take such action on their own, the world should be greatly concerned.” By now, Khrushchev’s audience members were stomping their feet.


Khrushchev had laid a dangerous trap, one in which President Eisenhower got caught. The White House sent its press officer Walter Bonney to the press room to greet journalists and to tell the nation a lie. Gary Powers’s weather-sampling airplane was supposed to be flying over Turkey. Instead, it had gone astray. Two days later, on May 7, Khrushchev sprung his trap. “Comrades,” he told the parliament, who’d been gathered for a second revelatory speech. “I must let you in on a secret.” He smiled. “When I made my report two days ago I deliberately refrained from mentioning that we have the remains of the plane and we also have the pilot who is quite alive and kicking,” Khrushchev said. For the United States, it was a diplomatic disaster of the worst order.

The president was trapped. Were he to deny knowing what his “militarists” were up to, he would appear uninformed by his own military. Were he to admit that he had in fact personally authorized Powers’s flight, it would become clear he’d lied earlier when he claimed the downed airplane had been conducting weather research, not espionage. So despondent was the commander in chief about his untenable position that when he walked into the Oval Office two days later, he told his secretary Ann Whitman, “I would like to resign.” Spying on Russia and defying Soviet airspace was one thing; lying about it after being caught red-handed made the president look like a liar in the eyes of the world. In 1960, American presidents were expected to be truth tellers; there was no public precedent for lying.

Khrushchev demanded an apology from his nemesis. Eisenhower wouldn’t bow. Apologizing would only open Pandora’s box. There were too many overflights to make them transparent. There had been at least twenty-four U-2 flights over Russia and hundreds more bomber overflights by General LeMay. To reveal the dangerous game of cat and mouse that had been going on in secret—at a time when thermonuclear weapons on both sides were ready to fly—would likely shock and frighten people more than having a president who lied. A national poll revealed that more than half of adult Americans believed they were more likely to die in a thermonuclear war with the Russians than of old age. So Eisenhower made the decision to keep the focus on Gary Powers’s flight only and admit that he personally had authorized it. This was “the first time any nation had publicly admitted it was engaged in espionage,” noted Eisenhower’s lead U-2 photo interpreter at the time, Dino Brugioni.

Khrushchev could play the game too. And he did so by making a dangerous, offensive move. By the summer of 1960, he had authorized a Soviet military base to be set up in Cuba. The island, just ninety miles off the coast of Florida, was in America’s backyard. Khrushchev’s plan was to put nuclear warheads in striking distance of Washington, DC. In this way, Soviet missiles could be launched from Havana and obliterate the nation’s capital in just twenty-five minutes’ time. Khrushchev was showing Eisenhower that he could play cat and mouse too.


Powers was sentenced to ten years in prison. President Eisenhower was judged to be a “follower of Hitler,” the lowest insult in the Russian lexicon. Hitler had double-crossed Khrushchev’s predecessor, Joseph Stalin, in 1941, and the result of that double cross was twenty million Russians dead. In comparing Eisenhower to Hitler, Khrushchev was sending a clear message: diplomacy was off the table. The upcoming east-west summit in Paris was canceled.

Step one should be to question the requirements

Monday, June 10th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonReaching five thousand cars per week would be a huge challenge for Tesla, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon):

By the end of 2017, Tesla was making cars at only half that rate. Musk decided he had to move himself, literally, to the factory floors and lead an all-in surge. It was a tactic — personally surging into the breach 24/7 with an all-hands-on-deck cadre of fellow fanatics — that came to define the maniacal intensity that he demanded at his companies.

He began with the Gigafactory in Nevada, where Tesla made batteries. The person who designed the line there told Musk that making five thousand battery packs a week was insane. At most they could make eighteen hundred. “If you’re right, Tesla is dead,” Musk told him. “We either have five thousand cars a week or we can’t cover our costs.” Building more lines would take another year, the executive said. Musk moved him out and brought in a new captain, Brian Dow, who had the gung-ho mentality Musk liked.


At one point Musk noticed that the assembly line was being slowed at a station where strips of fiberglass were glued to the battery packs by an expensive but slow robot. The robot’s suction cups kept dropping the strip and it applied too much glue. “I realized that the first error was trying to automate the process, which was my fault because I pushed for a lot of automation,” he says.

After much frustration, Musk finally asked a basic question: “What the hell are these strips for?” He was trying to visualize why fiberglass pieces were needed between the battery and the floor pan. The engineering team told him that it had been specified by the noise reduction team to cut down on vibration. So he called the noise reduction team, which told him that the specification came from the engineering team to reduce the risk of fire. “It was like being in a Dilbert cartoon,” Musk says. So he ordered them to record the sound inside a car without the fiberglass and then with the fiberglass. “See if you can tell the difference,” he told them. They couldn’t.

“Step one should be to question the requirements,” he says. “Make them less wrong and dumb, because all requirements are somewhat wrong and dumb. And then delete, delete, delete.”

The same approach worked even on the smallest details. For example, when the battery packs were completed in Nevada, little plastic caps were put on the prongs that would plug it into the car. When the battery got to the Fremont car-assembly factory, the plastic caps were removed and discarded. Sometimes, they would run out of caps in Nevada and have to hold up shipment of the batteries. When Musk asked why the caps existed, he was told they had been specified to make sure the pins did not get bent. “Who specified that requirement?” he asked. The factory team scrambled to find out, but they weren’t able to come up with a name. “So delete them,” Musk said. They did, and it turned out they never had a problem with bent pins.


At 10 p.m. one Saturday, he became angry about a robotic arm that installed a cooling tube into a battery. The robot’s alignment was off, which was holding up the process. A young manufacturing engineer named Gage Coffin was summoned. He was excited about the chance to meet Musk. He had been working for Tesla for two years and had spent the previous eleven months living out of a suitcase and working seven days a week at the factory. It was his first full-time job, and he loved it. When he arrived, Musk barked, “Hey, this doesn’t line up. Did you do this?” Coffin responded haltingly by asking Musk what he was referring to. The coding? The design? The tooling? Musk kept asking, “Did you fucking do this?” Coffin, flummoxed and frightened, kept fumbling to figure out the question. That made Musk even more combative. “You’re an idiot,” he said. “Get the hell out and don’t come back.” His project manager pulled him aside a few minutes later and told him that Musk had ordered him fired. He received his termination papers that Monday. “My manager was fired a week after me, and his manager the week after that,” Coffin says. “At least Elon knew their names.”

“When Elon gets upset, he lashes out, often at junior people,” says Jon McNeill. “Gage’s story was fairly typical of his behavior where he just couldn’t really process his frustration in a productive way.” JB Straubel, Musk’s kinder and gentler cofounder, cringed at Musk’s behavior. “In retrospect it may seem like great war stories,” he says, “but in the middle of it, it was absolutely horrific. He was making us fire people who had been personal friends for a very long time, which was super painful.”


One night, Musk was walking through the Nevada battery pack factory with his posse — Afshar, Antonio Gracias, and Tim Watkins — and they noticed a delay at a workstation where a robotic arm was sticking cells to a tube. The machine had a problem gripping the material and getting aligned. Watkins and Gracias went over to a table and tried to do the process by hand. They could do it more reliably. They called Musk over and calculated how many humans it would take to get rid of the machine. Workers were hired to replace the robot, and the assembly line moved more quickly.

Musk flipped from being an apostle of automation to a new mission he pursued with similar zeal: find any part of the line where there was a holdup and see if de-automation would make it go faster.


“We put a hole in the side of the building just to remove all that equipment,” Musk says.


Always wait until the end of designing a process — after you have questioned all the requirements and deleted unnecessary parts — before you introduce automation.

Body armor and sandbags offer no protection from this sort of damage

Thursday, June 6th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingConventional explosives, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), are composed of large molecules that break down and release energy:

Those bonds are unstable, and when they are broken, the explosive detonates with a velocity of more than eight thousand meters a second.

By contrast, thermobarics do not explode at all; technically, they just burn very fast. Some types have their own oxidizer, but some simply react with oxygen in the air. In its simplest form, enhanced blast can be achieved simply by adding finely powdered metal such as aluminum to an explosive charge. More sophisticated versions consist of nothing but powdered metal and oxidizer; the explosive is released into a cloud, which is then set off with devastating effects.

Thermobarics are typically several times as powerful as TNT by weight because the oxidation reaction is more energetic than the breakdown of an explosive molecule. However, what is more surprising is that thermobarics are so far more destructive than condensed explosives with the same power. This is because the blast from an expanding thermobaric fireball goes on for longer than a normal blast. It still only lasts a matter of milliseconds, but the increased duration makes it more effective at bringing down walls.


Known as the SMAW-NE (for Novel Explosive) , the new warhead contains four pounds of a mixture known as PBXIH-135, which combines a standard plastic explosive (PBX – Plastic Bonded eXplosive) with a precisely calibrated amount of finely powdered aluminum.


One limitation was that the new SMAW round was far more effective inside a building than in the open air. Marines started using a two-stage approach: firing one of the old high-explosive SMAW rounds to make a hole in a wall, then firing a thermobaric round through the hole into the interior.


You might survive a blast of forty pounds per square inch from a condensed explosive, but just ten pounds per square inch for a few milliseconds longer from a thermobaric blast will pulverize your lungs. Body armor and sandbags offer no protection from this sort of damage.


In particular, the technology for producing nanoscale particles of aluminum, and storing them safely, has progressed


Unclassified results from one Canadian research group suggest that it should be feasible to make warheads around five times as powerful as existing munitions without changing the ingredients.

The satellite-guided bombs range as far as 40 miles

Wednesday, June 5th, 2024

The Russian air force lobs as many as 3,000 glide bombs at Ukraine each month:

The satellite-guided bombs range as far as 40 miles, meaning Russian fighter-bombers — Sukhoi Su-30s, Su-34s and Su-35s — can release their bombs from beyond the reach of all but the best, and rarest, Ukrainian air defenses.

The 1,100- and 2,200-pound KAB glide bombs are a “miracle weapon” for the Russians, the Ukrainian Deep State analysis group noted. And the Ukrainians have “practically no countermeasures.”


To that end, the Ukrainian air force is transforming its 40 or 50 surviving Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters, and possibly also its dozens of remaining Sukhoi Su-27 fighters, into precision glide bombersr — by arming them with American-made Small Diameter Bombs hanging on improvised pylons.


No one outside of the Pentagon and the Ukrainian air force knew the Ukrainians had the 290-pound SDBs — which range 69 miles under satellite guidance on pop-out wings — until photos appeared online late last month depicting a MiG-29 with six of the diminutive bombs under its wings.


Last year, American, French and Ukrainian technicians worked together to arm Ukrainian MiG-29s and Su-27s with the U.S.-made Joint Direct Attack Munition-Extended Range glide bomb and the French-made Armement Air-Sol Modulaire glide bomb. The JDAM-ER and AASM both weigh around 500 pounds.

The SDB has the advantage of being smaller — and may also boast greater range than either the JDAM-ER and AASM, both of which range around 40 miles under the best conditions. A single MiG or Sukhoi armed with SDSs could strike six targets in a single sortie, and do it from farther away — thus reducing the risk from Russian air defenses.

Equally importantly, the SDB costs just $40,000 per bomb. That’s around the same cost as a JDAM-ER, but a fifth the cost of an AASM.

The Russians took great delight in rubbing what they learned in the face of the State Department

Tuesday, June 4th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenWhile developing the A-12 Oxcart, which would evolve into the SR-71, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), the CIA feared the Russians were watching from space:

Across the world, at NII-88, Sergei Korolev had designed a Soviet spy satellite called Object D, but the CIA did not know what exactly it was capable of. Also under way was a follow-on espionage platform called Zenit, a modified version of the Vostok spacecraft that had been equipped with cameras to photograph American military installations from space. The Russians took great delight in rubbing what they learned in the face of the State Department. Once, using diplomatic channels, they passed a simple sketch of the exact shape of Lockheed’s top secret airplane to the CIA, whose employees were baffled as to how the enemy could have known such a thing, in view of the fact that operations personnel had been very careful to avoid the orbiting Soviet snoopers. Was there a double agent among them? The CIA, ever paranoid about KGB infiltration, worried in private that there could be a spy inside Area 51. Lovick finally figured it out: the Russians were using infrared satellites. In the desert heat, which could reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, the mock-up of the aircraft left a heat signature as it sat on the tarmac while technicians were waiting to hoist it up on the test pole. The sketch reflected that.

The peak efficiency of a new weapon system is only about 2 weeks before countermeasures emerge

Thursday, May 30th, 2024

Precision systems that rely on GPS — such as Excalibur and GMLRS, which can be fired from US-provided M777 howitzers and HIMARS, respectively — are seeing shockingly decreased accuracy because of jamming:

Daniel Patt, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote in a statement to Congress in March that the 155mm GPS-guided Excalibur artillery shell “had a 70% efficiency rate hitting targets when first used in Ukraine” but that “after six weeks, efficiency declined to only 6% as the Russians adapted their electronic warfare systems to counter it.”

Patt added that “the peak efficiency of a new weapon system is only about 2 weeks before countermeasures emerge.” That’s valuable information for the US as it prepares for future fights.


Earlier this week, the US Air Force announced a contract for add-on seekers for its extended-range JDAMs, the goal being to improve the JDAM to resist electronic jamming and instead lock onto the source of the jamming, targeting it.