History is littered with examples of how service identity diverted attention away from munitions

Friday, March 3rd, 2023

The Ukrainians’ success highlights weaknesses in the U.S. arsenal:

Production lines for weapons like the Javelin and the Stinger were all but shut down. The GLSDB received a hard pass from the U.S. military services. To launch the Harpoon from land, the Department of Defense had to draft a whole new emergency requirement.

As analysts Stacie Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser concluded, the U.S. has been underinvesting in many munitions, including “anti-ship and area-effects weapons,” and is “not buying enough of these weapons” or “stockpiling enough precision-guided munitions (PGMs) for a protracted war.”

Why doesn’t the U.S. focus more on munitions? A large factor is armed force service identity — or how the Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines and Space Force associate weapons with their organizations’ identity.

The Navy identity, for example, centers on tradition and independent command at sea with a focus on aircraft carriers and submarines. In contrast, the Air Force, a relatively young service, is insecure about its independence and therefore advocates technology that emphasizes strategic air power, including bombers and (more recently) fighters.

The Army is often a late adopter of technology, advocating for personnel-heavy doctrine and armored platforms like tanks. In general, these service identities create a bias towards platforms (tanks, planes, ships) over munitions (missiles, bombs, rockets).

History is littered with examples of how service identity diverted attention away from munitions — both unintentionally and intentionally. For example, despite a proven combat record during World War I, an interwar U.S. Navy de-prioritized torpedoes and decimated their industrial capacity to produce the munitions. When World War II began, the Navy had only a limited number of outdated systems available.
The Air Force also famously sabotaged cruise missile testing during the 1970s, fearful it would jeopardize the B-1.

The Liberty Lifter X-plane project aims to deliver a long-range, low-cost X-plane using a wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) ekranoplan-like concept

Tuesday, February 28th, 2023

Aurora Flight Sciences and General Atomics have been chosen to compete to design and possibly build the gigantic Liberty Lifter X-plane:

The Liberty Lifter X-plane project aims to deliver a long-range, low-cost X-plane using a wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) ekranoplan-like concept. Artwork released by DARPA shows that the Aurora Flight Sciences concept, which has not been seen before, resembles a more traditional flying boat. The concept features a single hull, high wing and eight turboprops for propulsion. It also looks somewhat similar to Boeing Phantom Works’ Pelican WIG concept from two decades ago.


General Atomics, on the other hand, has selected a twin-hull, mid-wing design – some concept images of which have previously been released by DARPA.


The planned Liberty Lifter X-plane will be similar in capacity, at least, to the C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft. The vehicle will also include the ability to takeoff and land in Sea State 4 – characterized by wind speeds of 11-16 knots with wave heights ranging from 3-5 feet – as well as perform “sustained on-water operation” up to Sea State 5. The vehicle will also need to be able to fly close to the water in ground effect, with the ability to fly out of ground effect at altitudes up to 10,000 feet above sea level at speeds faster than current sea lift platforms.


Having a strategic airlift capability that can service virtually any spot in the vast stretches of the Pacific could be a boon for U.S. and allied forces. Its low-altitude flight profile could also provide better survivability in a combat environment that can go from uncontested to contested without warning. In addition, it would not be vulnerable to submarine or traditional anti-ship missile attacks like normal logistics ships.

Accuracy is important for two reasons

Monday, February 27th, 2023

The M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) provided to Ukraine have decisively shaped the battlefield by engaging Russia’s logistics, command and control (C2) nodes, and troop concentrations:

This has prevented the RuAF from concentrating and massing artillery fire in a way that the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) could not match, disrupted RuAF attempts to concentrate forces for offensives, and made command of Russian units a risky endeavour.


The HIMARS and MLRS launchers are armed with six and twelve M31A1 220mm missiles respectively. The missile guidance kits enable them to strike within 15 m of a target, although US Army tests indicate that they can strike within 2 m. They have a range of 70 km and carry a 90 kg high explosive unitary warhead.


The range and accuracy of HIMARS and MLRS are critical to understanding their ability to shape the totality of the battlefield in Ukraine. The 70 km range of the rockets effectively places them beyond the reach of frontline Russian tube artillery systems and enables them to move on roads parallel to the frontline in response to identified targets. It also means that they are able to engage targets such as logistics and ammo dumps in Russia’s operational depth which are beyond the reach of Ukraine’s own conventional tube artillery.

Accuracy is important for two reasons. The first is that it reduces the number of rockets needed to achieve effects on targets, which is a critical consideration given that Ukraine and the West are facing constraints in their ability to meet the AFU’s demand for ammunition. The second is that it means vehicles can quickly relocate after firing and avoid counter-battery fire or attempts to locate them, which improves survivability — as evidenced by Russia’s difficulties in locating and destroying them.

However, this is likely due in part to Russia’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gap. A Russian commander has complained that the RuAF has limited abilities to locate and engage targets beyond the immediate frontline, which allows the MLRS and HIMARS launchers to operate with relative impunity. Furthermore, the Russian air force faces difficulties in operating in Ukraine’s operational depth — where the launchers are present — because it has found suppression of Ukraine’s air defences difficult. In short, the range of MLRS and HIMARS, combined with Russia’s inability to generate targeting information or fly sorties at appropriate altitudes in the areas where the launchers operate, has conferred survivability upon them and enabled them to continue impacting the Russian forces.

The range of the M30A1 missile would account for little without the software and ISR that are used to provide targeting data. From the available information, the AFU uses a variety of reconnaissance tools to locate and identify suitable Russian targets. An innovative method is the use of mobile phone software that enables Ukrainian citizens to report the location of Russian troops using an app. This information is often shared with artillery systems or through the chain of command using applications like Google Meets. It is then shared with a US base in Europe, where operators provide precise targeting data from satellites and other assets, as well as target mensuration, which is necessary for the launchers to conduct an engagement and to shorten the targeting chain. This is fed into the missiles and then they are launched — the whole process takes only a few seconds. The speed of targeting decisions, and in some cases the target location, is reliant upon the use of software, which provides rapid communication and data sharing between Ukrainian operators and US analysts.

At Mach 5 and beyond, things heat up pretty fast

Sunday, February 19th, 2023

The U.S. might be slipping behind Russia, or even China, in the race to develop hypersonic missiles, but that might be because the U.S. military has its sights set on a bigger prize, a hypersonic bomber:

Meet the Air Force’s secret hypersonic bomber: the Expendable Hypersonic Multi-mission ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and Strike program, a.k.a. Project Mayhem.

The mighty bomber would have a few advantages over its missile-based adversaries, but the big one would be usability. Where missiles like the Kinzhal, Zircon, and China’s Dongfeng-17 are expensive (around $100 million) one-shots, a hypersonic plane traveling in excess of Mach 5 — Project Mayhem would reportedly travel Mach 10 — could be refueled and used again, and again, and again.

The idea of a hypersonic plane dates back to the Space Race, culminating in the North American X-15A-2 record-breaking Mach 6.7 flight in 1967. Further aerospace advancements created mechanical wonders like the supersonic SR-71. Project Mayhem would likely use a multi-cycle propulsion system, employing a jet engine to reach Mach 3 before transitioning to an air-breathing scramjet for hypersonic speeds. But designing a reusable plane at such speeds comes with serious limitations.

At Mach 5 and beyond, things heat up pretty fast thanks to friction and air resistance, so any plane hoping to go that fast and survive the experience would need to be cloaked in advanced materials that haven’t even been invented yet. None of this even touches on the fact that maneuverability at such speeds will also be a gargantuan engineering undertaking, and that combining a traditional jet engine with a scramjet has never been successfully accomplished.

Because of this unique operating environment and the necessity of precision-sensitive design, Project Mayhem is turning to model-based engineering (MBE) to digitally construct every system on the hypothetical plane.

Directed Energy (DE) already plays important military roles in counter-air defense, target identification, tracking, counter intelligence search & reconnaissance (ISR), and electronic warfare (EW)

Tuesday, February 14th, 2023

Directed Energy Futures 2060 describes the advances we can expect to see over the next few decades:

Directed Energy (DE) is defined for military applications as the ability to project electromagnetic energy either broadly to provide information probing of the battlespace, or in a focused manner sufficient to produce a defensive or offensive effect at militarily relevant distances within the battlespace. The military significance of Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) has long been recognized for ability to engage at the speed of light, propagating vast distances with precision. Other benefits include potentially deep magazines, meaning the capability to fire many shots without need to physically rearm the weapon, and low cost per shot. DE can also actively probe targets and threats, i.e. laser pointers (commonly called designators), laser and radiofrequency (RF) tracking, also called radar. The final benefit worth mentioning, is the ability to cause scalable and flexible effects, to include destructive, damaging, disruptive, non-lethal, deceptive, and unattributable effects.

Today in the early 2020s, world-wide DE already plays important military roles in counter-air defense, target identification, tracking, counter intelligence search & reconnaissance (ISR), and electronic warfare (EW). U.S. military thinking on electromagnetic spectrum operations defines DE in the context of electronic attack systems designed to disrupt or degrade an adversary’s signals, deliver communications supporting cyperspace operations, or disable and destroy targets susceptible to high-energy electromagnetic radiation (U.S. Joint Chiefs’ of Staff 2020). Today there are historical definitions that delineate DE and EW weapons which are otherwise similar in function and form. Because the historical definitions are unlikely to be important 40 years in the future, in this report we considered DE and EW weapons to be synonymous, especially with respect to applications of information superiority that reply upon electromagnetic spectrum superiority to accomplish military missions.


Although today high-energy laser equipment is proliferated worldwide, the ability to create laser effects at vast ranges, for military purposes, is still limited. Today, for reasons that we will explain further, it
is thought that two of the most militarily relevant use cases for high-energy laser weapons are i.) high- altitude (greater than 30,000 ft.) operations where the stand-off range between shooter and target is up to hundreds of kilometers, or ii.) ground- or sea-based defensive purposes.


To understand the future technical trends in lasers system development, one must consider the drivers behind laser technology in the last 40 years. Technical trends over the next 40 years will be driven by both military and commercial interests, in addition to the lessons learned from previous laser weapon programs. Some of the lessons learned from the U.S. Airborne Laser Program, which began about 40 years ago and used gas and chemical laser architectures, were i.) the logistical footprint of a laser can create operational challenges; ii.) maximum powers in the range of Megawatts can be attained; and iii.) control of the beam is vitally important and nontrivial to achieve with highly accurate pointing. The challenges of beam control include propagation of light through potentially turbulent atmospheres, compensation of mechanical jitter from the host platform (in this case, the airplane), and C4ISR integration. Today the U.S. Air Force continues development of a high energy laser on a tactical airborne platform (Insinna 2020).

The U.S. DE community has made significant progress toward addressing the lessons learned from
early programs. Presently, the U.S. and Allied DE community uses a solid state and fiber optic laser architecture both because they learned the lessons about the logistical footprint of laser systems, and due to the industrial development and commercialization of fiber-optics and other solid-state laser technology. In fact, commercial development has revolutionized laser technology over the past 40 years. Solid state and fiber-optical approaches eliminate the need for large volumes of toxic chemicals in DE systems. Furthermore, fiber lasers can be combined to produce hundreds of kilowatts of power, with good beam quality (Anderson 2015), and have proven relevant in tactically suitable payload sizes, weights, and powers (SWAP).


Conservatively, following trends of the past 40 years of development up until now, in the future, solid- state and fiber laser technology can be projected to achieve extremely high energy levels in the range of Megawatts over a second, high enough to reduce timelines for laser engagement to less than 1s at tactical ranges by 2060. Optimistically, 100’s of Megawatt solid state laser systems could be possible. This technical trend is bolstered by current research in laser power scaling (Sherman 2019), to reduce dwell times and/or increase range of effects. For laser weapon technologies, these advancements represent an inflection point as they reduce the timescales of engagements significantly, enabling vital missions.

Once a sufficient amount of laser energy is created, the next challenge for laser weapons lies in the ability to propagate laser energy kilometers or farther distances, through the atmosphere, to targets at range. Trends in technology development over the next 40 years will be driven by solving such challenges. The challenge includes both tracking of moving targets at high levels of accuracy from moving platforms, and
being able to control the beam both accurately and precisely. Today, lasers weapons are powerful enough for missions against soft targets such as UASs (88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs 2020, Chuter 2019) and demonstrations of counter-missile applications (88th Base Wing Public Affairs 2019). State-of-the-art beam pointing from stabilized gimbal mounts permit hundreds of nanoradian precision pointing from stationary and slowly moving platforms, while tracking fast moving objects (Kwee 2007). Microradian accuracy is currently possible on large airborne platforms. In the future, by 2060, higher pointing accuracy, approaching 100s of nanoradians, could optimistically be possible on fast moving platforms.

Invention of solutions to technical challenges will drive future trends. For example, propagating laser energy through the atmosphere, becomes challenging in poor weather or turbulence. Turbulence causes both beam wander and brightness fluctuations in
high energy lasers. Weather deleteriously effects all weapons, but poses particular problems for all optical and infrared sensors, many of which provide cues and tracking for command and control of weapon systems. Inventions over the next 40 years may prove the ability to overcome weather effects. As an example, current research focuses on ultra-short pulse lasers that promise to burn holes through fog (Rudenko 2020).
A technology that today compensates for the deleterious effects of atmospheric turbulence is adaptive optics, invented and developed nearly 40 years ago (Fugate 1991). Sophisticated adaptive optical systems can today compensate for moderate levels of turbulence and atmospheric distortions. Conceivable improvements in the engineering of optical systems, even in the most pessimistic case for technology advancement, will further improve efficiency in ability to put up to Megawatts of continuous wave laser energy on target at tactically relevant distances. Gigawatts or 100s of Megawatts of laser energy propagated at tactically relevant and longer distances, would be an optimistic technical outcome by 2060. In the atmosphere, power levels greater than a few Gigawatts would undoubtedly suffer from self-focusing effects (Nibbering, et al. 1997). U.S. DoD and Allied military utility studies have been conducted, and will continue to be conducted, to objectively determine, in conjunction with kinetic and cyber weaponry, to what degree of effectiveness DE capabilities can achieve destructive effects for specific missions and scenarios that include weather.

An easy way to avoid the issues of weather and atmospheric propagation is to deploy DEWs at high altitudes, where the earth’s atmosphere is thinner. For this reason and others, high altitude military applications of DEWs will remain important concepts into the future.
Future trends in DEW technology will follow mission needs. The “holy grail” from a military utility perspective is a DE weapon system effective enough, favorable from a SWAP perspective, and affordable enough to provide a nuclear/missile umbrella. Although a concept often associated with science fiction, in fact ground and ship-based DE defense systems effectively act like point-localized force fields against small and relatively soft targets today. Airborne and space-based DE platforms could achieve a greater area defense and multipoint defenses, for a broader coverage missile umbrella. However, these concepts require significant technical advancement by 2060 to achieve the full range of power contemplated.

Albeit significant technical advancements are required in power, and range of power specifically, in the most optimistic case it should be physically possible to design a mission relevant concept of operations that permits nanoradian beam-control accuracy while tracking missiles up to hypersonic speeds, with a fast enough command and control loop and Megawatts of laser power (for more reading on this concept see Sec 2.5 and Appendix A: Vignette 1 and Vignette 3). By 2060 a sufficiently large fleet or constellation of high-altitude DEW systems could provide a missile defense umbrella, as part of a layered defense system, if such concepts prove affordable and necessary.

DARPA Selects Aurora Flight Sciences for Phase 2 of Active Flow Control X-Plane

Monday, February 13th, 2023

DARPA has selected Aurora Flight Sciences to move into the detailed design phase of the Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors (CRANE) program:

This follows successful completion of the project’s Phase 1 preliminary design, which resulted in an innovative testbed aircraft that used active flow control (AFC) to generate control forces in a wind tunnel test. Phase 2 will focus on detailed design and development of flight software and controls, culminating in a critical design review of an X-plane demonstrator that can fly without traditional moving flight controls on the exterior of the wings and tail.

The contract includes a Phase 3 option in which DARPA intends to fly a 7,000-pound X-plane that addresses the two primary technical hurdles of incorporation of AFC into a full-scale aircraft and reliance on it for controlled flight. Unique features of the demonstrator aircraft will include modular wing configurations that enable future integration of advanced technologies for flight testing either by DARPA or potential transition partners.

“Over the past several decades, the active flow control community has made significant advancements that enable the integration of active flow control technologies into advanced aircraft. We are confident about completing the design and flight test of a demonstration aircraft with AFC as the primary design consideration,” said the CRANE Program Manager Richard Wlezien. “With a modular wing section and modular AFC effectors, the CRANE X-plane has the potential to live on as a national test asset long after the CRANE program has concluded.”

The AFC suite of technologies enables multiple opportunities for aircraft performance improvements, such as elimination of moving control surfaces, drag reduction and high angle of attack flight, thicker wings for structural efficiency and increased fuel capacity, and simplified high-lift systems.

There are few details available now about how CRANE will stay stable in the air, Elizabeth Howell at Space.com notes, but a 2021 presentation by Alexander “Xander” Walan, program manager of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, provides some hints:

Active flow control (AFC) uses a variety of methods such as jets of air or even electric discharges to shape or sculpt the flow of air over the aircraft, the presentation notes. DARPA seeks to use commercial parts where possible to provide affordable alternatives and to “fully explore the AFC trade space,” meaning to seek technologies that could provide viable alternatives.

Hermeus designed, built, and tested Chimera in 21 months for $18 million

Sunday, February 12th, 2023

Hermeus, a startup developing hypersonic aircraft, demonstrated turbojet-to-ramjet transition within its Chimera engine:

Chimera is a turbine-based combined cycle engine (TBCC) — which basically means it’s a hybrid between a turbojet and a ramjet. The ability to switch between these two modes allows Hermeus’ first aircraft, Quarterhorse, to take off from a regular runway and then accelerate up to high-Mach speeds.

The cost and speed at which the Hermeus team achieved this milestone is notable. Hermeus designed, built, and tested Chimera in 21 months for $18 million.

“This achievement is a major technical milestone for Hermeus,” said CEO AJ Piplica. “But more than that, it’s a proof point that demonstrates how our small team can rapidly design, build, and test hardware with budgets significantly smaller than industry peers.”

The testing took place at the Notre Dame Turbomachinery Laboratory which provides heated air to simulate high-Mach temperatures and pressures.


At low speeds Chimera is in turbojet mode — just like any jet aircraft. But as the temperature and the speed of the incoming air increase, turbojets hit their performance limit. This happens at around Mach 2.


At around Mach 3, Chimera begins to bypass the incoming air around the turbojet and the ramjet takes over completely.

A ramjet is a simple propulsion system which “rams” the incoming high-pressure air to create compression. Fuel is mixed with this compressed air and ignited for thrust. Ramjets are optimal between Mach 3 and Mach 5.

Having to extend the lifespan of older planes consumes money that could be used to acquire new aircraft

Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

Years of delays, cost overruns, and technical glitches with the F-35 have put the Pentagon in a dilemma:

If F-35s aren’t fit to fly in sufficient numbers, then older aircraft such as the F-16 must be kept in service to fill the gap. In turn, having to extend the lifespan of older planes consumes money that could be used to acquire new aircraft and results in aging warplanes that may not be capable of fulfilling their missions on the current battlefield.


The aircraft has been plagued by a seemingly endless series of bugs, including problems with its stealth coating, sustained supersonic flight, helmet-mounted display, excessive vibration from its cannon, and even vulnerability to being hit by lightning.

The military and Lockheed Martin have resolved some of those problems, but the cumulative effect of the delays is that the Air Force has had to shelve plans for the F-35 to replace the F-16, which now will keep flying until the 2040s.


The remarkable longevity of some aircraft — such as the 71-year-old B-52 bomber or the 41-year-old A-10 — tends to obscure the difficulty of keeping old warplanes flying. Production lines are usually shut down, and the original manufacturers of components and spare parts have long ceased production. In some cases, they are no longer in business.

An FGC-9 with a craft-produced, ECM-rifled barrel exhibited impressive accuracy

Thursday, January 19th, 2023

The FGC-9 stands out from previous 3D-printed firearms designs, in part because it was specifically designed to circumvent European gun regulations:

Thus, unlike its predecessors, the FGC-9 does not require the use of any commercially produced firearm parts. Instead, it can be produced using only unregulated commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components. For example, instead of an industrially produced firearms barrel, the FGC-9 uses a piece of a pre-hardened 16 mm O.D. hydraulic tubing. The construction files for the FGC-9 also include instructions on how to rifle the hydraulic tubing using electrochemical machining (ECM). The FGC-9 uses a hammer-fired blowback self-loading action, firing from the closed-bolt position. The gun uses a commercially available AR-15 trigger group. In the United States, these components are unregulated. In the European Union and other countries—such as Australia—the FGC-9 can also be built with a slightly modified trigger group used by ‘airsoft’ toys of the same general design. This design choice provides a robust alternative to a regulated component, but also means that the FGC-9 design only offers semi-automatic fire, unless modified. The FGC-9 Mk II files also include a printable AR-15 fire-control group, which may be what was used in this case, as airsoft and ‘gel blaster’ toys are also regulated in Western Australia.


In tests performed by ARES, an FGC-9 with a craft-produced, ECM-rifled barrel exhibited impressive accuracy: the firearm shot groups of 60 mm at 23 meters, with no signs of tumbling or unstable flight. Further, in forensic tests with FCG-9 models seized in Europe, the guns generally exhibited good durability. One example, described as not being particularly well built, was able to fire more than 2,000 rounds without a catastrophic failure—albeit with deteriorating accuracy. The cost of producing an FGC-9 can be very low, and even with a rifled barrel and the purchase of commercial components, the total price for all parts, materials, and tools to produce such a firearm is typically less than $1,000 USD. As more firearms are made, the cost per firearm decreases significantly. In a 2021 case in Finland, investigators uncovered a production facility geared up to produce multiple FGC-9 carbines. In this case, the criminal group operating the facility had purchased numerous Creality Ender 3 printers—each sold online for around $200. In recent months, complete FGC-9 firearms have been offered for sale for between approximately 1,500 and 3,500 USD (equivalent), mostly via Telegram groups.

The group was elitist, but it was also meritocratic

Tuesday, January 10th, 2023

Sputnik’s success created an overwhelming sense of fear that permeated all levels of U.S. society, including the scientific establishment:

As John Wheeler, a theoretical physicist who popularized the term “black hole” would later tell an interviewer: “It is hard to reconstruct now the sense of doom when we were on the ground and Sputnik was up in the sky.”

Back on the ground, the event spurred a mobilization of American scientists unseen since the war. Six weeks after the launch of Sputnik, President Dwight Eisenhower revived the President’s Scientific Advisory Council (PSAC). It was a group of 16 scientists who reported directly to him, granting them an unprecedented amount of influence and power. Twelve weeks after Sputnik, the Department of Defense launched the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), which was later responsible for the development of the internet. Fifteen months after Sputnik, the Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering (ODDRE) was launched to oversee all defense research. A 36-year-old physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, Herb York, was named head of the Office of the ODDRE. There, he reported directly to the president and was given total authority over all defense research spending.

It was the beginning of a war for technological supremacy. Everyone involved understood that in the nuclear age, the stakes were existential.

It was not the first time the U.S. government had mobilized the country’s leading scientists. World War II had come to be known as “the physicists’ war.” It was physicists who developed proximity bombs and the radar systems that rendered previously invisible enemy ships and planes visible, enabling them to be targeted and destroyed, and it was physicists who developed the atomic bombs that ended the war. The prestige conferred by their success during the war positioned physicists at the top of the scientific hierarchy. With the members of the Manhattan Project now aging, getting the smartest young physicists to work on military problems was of intense interest to York and the ODDRE.

Physicists saw the post-Sputnik era as an opportunity to do well for themselves. Many academic physicists more than doubled their salaries working on consulting projects for the DOD during the summer. A source of frustration to the physicists was that these consulting projects were awarded through defense contractors, who were making twice as much as the physicists themselves. A few physicists based at the University of California Berkeley decided to cut out the middleman and form a company they named Theoretical Physics Incorporated.

Word of the nascent company spread quickly. The U.S.’s elite physics community consisted of a small group of people who all went to the same small number of graduate programs and were faculty members at the same small number of universities. These ties were tightened during the war, when many of those physicists worked closely together on the Manhattan Project and at MIT’s Rad Lab.

Charles Townes, a Columbia University physics professor who would later win a Nobel Prize for his role in inventing the laser, was working for the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) at the time and reached out to York when he learned of the proposed company. York knew many of the physicists personally and immediately approved $250,000 of funding for the group. Townes met with the founders of the company in Los Alamos, where they were working on nuclear-rocket research. Appealing to their patriotism, he convinced them to make their project a department of IDA.

A short while later the group met in Washington D.C., where they fleshed out their new organization. They came up with a list of the top people they would like to work with and invited them to Washington for a presentation. Around 80 percent of the people invited joined the group; they were all friends of the founders, and they were all high-level physicists. Seven of the first members, or roughly one-third of its initial membership, would go on to win the Nobel Prize. Other members, such as Freeman Dyson, who published foundational work on quantum field theory, were some of the most renowned physicists to never receive the Nobel.

The newly formed group was dubbed “Project Sunrise” by ARPA, but the group’s members disliked the name. The wife of one of the founders proposed the name JASON, after the Greek mythological hero who led the Argonauts on a quest for the golden fleece. The name stuck and JASON was founded in December 1959, with its members being dubbed “Jasons.”

The key to the JASON program was that it formalized a unique social fabric that already existed among elite U.S. physicists. The group was elitist, but it was also meritocratic. As a small, tight-knit community, many of the scientists who became involved in JASON had worked together before. It was a peer network that maintained strict standards for performance. With permission to select their own members, the Jasons were able to draw from those who they knew were able to meet the expectations of the group.

This expectation superseded existing credentials; Freeman Dyson never earned a PhD, but he possessed an exceptionally creative mind. Dyson became known for his involvement with Project Orion, which aimed to develop a starship design that would be powered through a series of atomic bombs, as well as his Dyson Sphere concept, a hypothetical megastructure that completely envelops a star and captures its energy.

Another Jason was Nick Christofilos, an engineer who developed particle accelerator concepts in his spare time when he wasn’t working at an elevator maintenance business in Greece. Christofilos wrote to physicists in the U.S. about his ideas, but was initially ignored. But he was later offered a job at an American research laboratory when physicists found that some of the ideas in his letters pre-dated recent advances in particle accelerator design. Dyson’s and Christofilios’s lack of formal qualifications would preclude an academic research career today, but the scientific community at the time was far more open-minded.

JASON was founded near the peak of what became known as the military-industrial complex. When President Eisenhower coined this term during his farewell address in 1961, military spending accounted for nine percent of the U.S. economy and 52 percent of the federal budget; 44 percent of the defense budget was being spent on weapons systems.

But the post-Sputnik era entailed a golden age for scientific funding as well. Federal money going into basic research tripled from 1960 to 1968, and research spending more than doubled overall. Meanwhile, the number of doctorates awarded in physics doubled. Again, meritocratic elitism dominated: over half of the funding went to 21 universities, and these universities awarded half of the doctorates.

With a seemingly unlimited budget, the U.S. military leadership had started getting some wild ideas. One general insisted a moon base would be required to gain the ultimate high ground. Project Iceworm proposed to build a network of mobile nuclear missile launchers under the Greenland ice sheet. The U.S. Air Force sought a nuclear-powered supersonic bomber under Project WS-125 that could take off from U.S. soil and drop hydrogen bombs anywhere in the world. There were many similar ideas and each military branch produced analyses showing that not only were the proposed weapons technically feasible, but they were also essential to winning a war against the Soviet Union.

Prior to joining the Jasons, some of its scientists had made radical political statements that could make them vulnerable to having their analysis discredited. Fortunately, JASON’s patrons were willing to take a risk and overlook political offenses in order to ensure that the right people were included in the group. Foreseeing the potential political trap, Townes proposed a group of senior scientific advisers, about 75 percent of whom were well-known conservative hawks. Among this group was Edward Teller, known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb.” This senior layer could act as a political shield of sorts in case opponents attempted to politically tarnish JASON members.

Every spring, the Jasons would meet in Washington D.C. to receive classified briefings about the most important problems facing the U.S. military, then decide for themselves what they wanted to study. JASON’s mandate was to prevent “technological surprise,” but no one at the Pentagon presumed to tell them how to do it.

In July, the group would reconvene for a six-week “study session,” initially alternating yearly between the east and west coasts. Members later recalled these as idyllic times for the Jasons, with the group becoming like an extended family. The Jasons rented homes near each other. Wives became friends, children grew up like cousins, and the community put on backyard plays at an annual Fourth of July party. But however idyllic their off hours, the physicists’ workday revolved around contemplating the end of the world. Questions concerning fighting and winning a nuclear war were paramount. The ideas the Jasons were studying approached the level of what had previously been science fiction.

Some of the first JASON studies focused on ARPA’s Defender missile defense program. Their analysis furthered ideas involving the detection of incoming nuclear attacks through the infrared signature of missiles, applied newly-discovered astronomical techniques to distinguish between nuclear-armed missiles and decoys, and worked on the concept of shooting what were essentially directed lightning bolts through the atmosphere to destroy incoming nuclear missiles.

The lightning bolt idea, known today as directed energy weapons, came from Christofilos, who was described by an ARPA historian as mesmerizing JASON physicists with the “kind of ideas that nobody else had.” Some of his other projects included a fusion machine called Astron, a high-altitude nuclear explosion test codenamed Operation Argus that was dubbed the “greatest scientific experiment ever conducted,” and explorations of a potential U.S. “space fleet.”

The Jasons’ analysis on the effects of nuclear explosions in the upper atmosphere, water, and underground, as well as methods of detecting these explosions, was credited with being critical to the U.S. government’s decision to sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. Because of their analysis, the U.S. government felt confident it could verify treaty compliance; the treaty resulted in a large decline in the concentration of radioactive particles in the atmosphere.

The success of JASON over its first five years increased its influence within the U.S. military and spurred attempts by U.S. allies to copy the program. Britain tried for years to create a version of JASON, even enlisting the help of JASON’s leadership. But the effort failed: British physicists simply did not seem to desire involvement. Earlier attempts by British leaders like Winston Churchill to create a British MIT had run into the same problems.

The difference was not ability, but culture. American physicists did not have a disdain for the applied sciences, unlike their European peers. They were comfortable working as advisors on military projects and were employed by institutions that were dependent on DOD funding. Over 20 percent of Caltech’s budget in 1964 came from the DOD, and it was only the 15th largest recipient of funding; MIT was first and received twelve times as much money. The U.S. military and scientific elite were enmeshed in a way that had no parallel in the rest of the world then or now.

As it turned and ran the ice axe fell out of his head

Friday, January 6th, 2023

Clint Adams was mountain goat hunting on Alaska’s Baranof Island in October with his friend, Matt Ericksen, his girlfriend, Melody Orozco, and their guide, when he heard the guide yell three words that nobody ever wants to hear in bear country:

“Oh, fuck. Run!”

By the time Adams realized what was happening, his guide was already running past him and reaching for the .375 H&H bolt-action rifle that was slung over his shoulder. Adams’ own rifle was strapped to his pack, and the only weapon at hand was the ice axe he’d been using to claw his way up the mountain. When the big boar chased after the guide and passed within arm’s reach of Adams, he took the ice axe and swung with both hands, burying the pointy end in the bear’s skull just behind its ear.


Adams then watched as the bear tackled the guide from behind, and the two rolled down to a flat spot below. The guide was on his back trying to shoulder the rifle as the eight- to nine-foot boar reared back on its hind legs. That’s when Adams saw that the axe was still lodged in the bear’s head.

Adams is 6’6” and weighs 285 pounds.

The impaled bear then reared up over the guide, who shouldered his rifle and fired a shot straight up into the air. Adams says he distinctly remembers seeing the muzzle blast ruffle the bear’s fur. The shot spooked the bear just enough for it to step back and hesitate. At this point, Ericksen drew the .357 revolver strapped to his chest and fired three shots at the bear through the brush.

The boar charged the guide again, and the guide leveled his rifle and shot a second time. Ericksen fired two more rounds from his pistol. Adams says they still don’t know if any of those shots even hit the bear, but they all kept screaming and eventually the bear ran off. They never saw the bear again, and although the guide reported the incident, Adams has no idea if the bear died or not. He did, however, get his ice axe back.

“After that second shot [from the guide], the bear looped down and got level with me about 30 yards away,” Adams says. “We’re making a ton of noise at that point, and it bluff charged once or twice. It took two steps forward, two steps back, and as it turned and ran the ice axe fell out of his head.”


Adams also says the whole experience opened his eyes to how gunshots help stop a charging bear. He says that because they were in dense brush in tight quarters, bear spray would have been useless, and he thinks that the muzzle blast from the guide’s rifle might have deterred the bear even more than the bullet.

“This might sound silly, but after going through that and seeing how the bear responded, I honestly would feel the most safe from a charging bear with a foghorn in my hand,” Adams says. “When I saw that .375 go off, it was not only the sound, but more so it was the air that hit the bear in the face. It was just amazing how that bear reacted when it got hit with the muzzle blast.”

He adds that, in his opinion, if you’re going to carry a pistol in bear country—which, of course, you should—your best would be to carry a 10mm Glock with a 19-round magazine and “make as many bangs as you can.”

Posturing is an important part of fighting. With that in mind, a compensated pistol might be especially effective.

Speaking of Glocks and bears:

Sam Kezar reckons he’d be either dead or disfigured if he hadn’t spent all summer fast-drawing his Glock. He bases that conclusion on a sobering calculus of time and distance—the two seconds required for a Wyoming grizzly bear to cover 20 yards—and the fact that Kezar somehow managed to get off seven shots from his 10mm in that span of time as he was staring terror in the face. As the bear was closing fast, and he was backpedaling into the unknown.

Boucicaut’s Workout du Jour

Friday, December 23rd, 2022

Jean le Maingre, called Boucicaut, (1366-1421) was a French knight known for his rigorous physical training:

And now he began to test himself by jumping onto a courser in full armor. At other times he would run or hike for a long way on foot, to train himself not to get out of breath and to endure long efforts. At other times he would strike with an axe or hammer for a long time to be able to hold out well in armor, and so his arms and hands would endure striking for a long time, and train himself to nimbly lift his arms. By these means he trained himself so well that at that time you couldn’t find another gentleman in equal physical condition. He would do a somersault armed in all his armor except his bascinet, and dance armed in a mail shirt…

When he was at his lodgings he would never ceased to test himself with the other squires at throwing the lance or other tests of war.

I was reminded of this when Ben Espen recently shared this video, demonstrating that plate armor was not especially cumbersome:

Security kept the crowd at least 200 feet from the front of the aircraft

Wednesday, December 14th, 2022

Security was tight when the US Air Force unveiled its new B-21 Raider stealth bomber on December 2, after what happened when the B-2 stealth bomber was revealed:

On November 22, 1988, as armed guards patrolled the tarmac and a Huey helicopter circled overhead, the world got a chance to see the B-2 Spirit — the predecessor of the B-21 in look and function — at the same Palmdale facility.

As with the B-21, spectators were kept at a distance, and only the front of the B-2 could be seen. That was frustrating for those who wanted to see the rear of the B-2, especially the distinctive trailing edges and engine exhausts of the tailless flying-wing bomber, which would give clues to the aircraft’s capabilities and its stealthiness.


The [Aviation Week] team considered several ideas, including flying a hot-air balloon over the B-2, which was dropped for safety reasons. Eventually they noticed that FAA’s notice to airmen — an alert known as a NOTAM — didn’t restrict flights in the area that were above 1,000 feet.

Aviation Week editor Michael Dornheim and photographer Bill Hartenstein flew a rented Cessna 172 to Palmdale Airport the weekend before the B-2 was unveiled.

“Dornheim performed several circuits and touch-and-gos to allay any potential suspicions from air traffic control, while Hartenstein tried out various telephoto lenses to guarantee he would have the best images of the day,” Aviation Week senior editor Guy Norris wrote this month.

When the big day came, security kept the crowd at least 200 feet from the front of the aircraft, while the low-flying Huey helicopter kept a watchful eye for intruders. But the Cessna circled overhead, unnoticed, as Hartenstein took photo after photo.

When the plane landed, Dornheim and Hartenstein “were just giddy,” Scott said. “They hadn’t got hollered at in any way by ATC [air traffic control] and I told them I hadn’t noticed anyone even looking up!”

The team then raced to meet Thanksgiving week deadlines. Hartenstein’s film was dispatched on an overnight FedEx flight to New York and emerged in the pages of Aviation Week as a beautiful, full-color photo of the B-2 — its trailing edges and exhausts fully visible.

Distance is the primary challenge the US military faces in East Asia

Tuesday, December 13th, 2022

The US is rapidly compensating for the short range of its fighter aircraft, Austin Vernon explains:

China’s response [to the US] is to invest in weapons that keep American planes and ships from getting close to the Chinese mainland. Their strategy is known as anti-access area denial (A2AD). The technological change driving this strategy is cheaper sensors that enable missiles to hit planes and ships hundreds of miles away. Munition effectiveness and logistics intensity dramatically improve. The strategy has an asymmetric advantage since missiles are cheaper than platforms like aircraft carriers.


Distance is the primary challenge the US military faces in East Asia. The military designed our weapons and supply lines for Europe, where distances are tiny and basing options are numerous. The root cause of the current distress is that carrier strike groups are vulnerable to mass missile attacks and must operate further away from the battle space, causing fighters to lose effectiveness. The two most critical impacted missions are destroying enemy warships and contesting airspace. China can’t invade most of our allies without ships, and ceding the air makes it difficult to kill their ships.

America needs weapons to cover for the deficiency of existing platforms. Opportunities include longer-range missiles, adapting platforms that can operate without carriers, and thwarting missile attacks.


Long-range stealth bombers are essential for projecting power in East Asia since basing options might be limited, and stealth will be critical to maintaining survivability without persistent fighter cover. The Air Force has gone to great lengths to keep its newest stealth bomber, the B-21, on time and budget. The Air Force Rapid Capability Office manages the program instead of using the traditional procurement process. The project has kept requirements constant, and the design has advanced technology but nothing bleeding edge. For example, the B-21 uses the same engine as the F-35 to save development time and reduce costs. Northrop Grumman also designed the plane to minimize maintenance and sustainment costs. Typically the Air Force and Congress are cutting plane orders due to budget overruns at this point in the process. They are looking at increasing planned B-21 numbers instead. The public rollout happened in December 2022.

It is hard to overstate how important having hundreds of these bombers will be to US power projection in East Asia because they make any Chinese target vulnerable to attack even if carrier aircraft are ineffective.


Unpowered munitions like gravity bombs and artillery shells are taking a back seat to missiles and rockets as range becomes critical for platform survival. But classical cruise missiles are too expensive for everyday usage. The US and other nations are striving for cheap missiles.

The Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMRLS) rocket that fires from HIMARS and the M270 is a perfect example of the shift. It can hit critical targets far behind enemy lines that are too dangerous for aircraft or too far for tube artillery. Each round costs ~$100,000 – a bargain compared to most cruise missiles that cost millions. The warhead (90 kg) and range (80 km) are smaller than cruise missiles, but the rocket can destroy an ammo depot, troop concentrations, or a headquarters.

Suicide drones or “loitering munitions” are another variation of cheap missiles. The Iranian Shahed-136 costs $20,000-$50,000 and has a 1000+ km range. It sacrifices speed (120 km/h), payload (40 kg), and survivability to achieve cost and range goals. Other drones, like the American Switchblade, serve as squad weapons that improve on mortars.

The Air Force “Gray Wolf” program’s goal was a $100,000 subsonic cruise missile with a 400 km range and a 230 kg warhead. It successfully tested a low-cost engine, and other programs absorbed the follow-on phases. The engine is the Kratos TDI-J85 which can meet the program goals while costing less than $40,000. Kratos already has multiple customers using it for drones and missiles.

Notably, Boeing wants to use the TDI-J85 engine to power its 230 kg JDAM bomb, giving it a 370 km to 750 km range (depending on configuration). The US could lob more QUICKSINK-equipped JDAM cruise missiles in an engagement than the Chinese Navy has vertical launch tubes — all for less than the cost of a frigate. The munition would be 1/10 the price of a Harpoon Block II anti-ship missile with double the range.


A quirk of the US military is that the Army is responsible for most ground-based missile defense, even on Air Force bases, leading to incentive mismatches. The Navy, which faces an existential threat in anti-ship missiles, has had an automated battle management system in AEGIS for forty years. The Army is trying to field a similar protocol with its Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) to manage air defense radars and weapons.


It isn’t hard to shoot down low-end suicide drones, but it can be expensive. Saudi Arabia regularly shoots down Iranian Shaheds with million-dollar air defense missiles. Classic anti-aircraft guns with modern fire control have proven effective in Ukraine, and bullets are much cheaper than drones. Vehicles like the German Gephard are great when defending a wide area because the drones are so slow that vehicles can redeploy to shoot them down.

In East Asia, the US will be defending relatively small positions. One or two Centurion Counter Rocket Artillery Rocket (C-RAM) Gatling guns could probably defend Andersen Air Force Base on Guam.


Ballistic missiles are a top threat to carriers and US bases in the region. Base hardening, more ammo for existing anti-ballistic missile systems, denying the Chinese intel on ship and aircraft positions, and gaining early warning of Chinese strikes are critical to defending against these weapons.

Bases in Okinawa would be under constant threat from cruise missiles, but only China’s priciest ballistic missiles can reach Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base. Airfields are notoriously hard to take offline. Munitions designed to crater runways only keep a base offline for a few hours. The US has made recent improvements at Andersen AFB, like armoring fuel lines, adding a hardened maintenance hanger, and making fuel bladders available to replace damaged storage tanks.

The worst-case scenario is a surprise attack that kills personnel and destroys aircraft on the ground. The Air Force plans to use smaller dispersal bases to keep the Chinese guessing where the planes are. Investments in better dispersal options and more base hardening (like aircraft shelters for bases on Okinawa) would be beneficial. It would be a win if the Chinese waste their limited amounts of $10-$20 million ballistic missiles to crater a few runways.

The Chinese will find it harder to target Navy ships since they move. Even the fanciest missile is useless if you can’t find the carriers. If a conflict does escalate to space, China will quickly lose its ability to spot the US fleet with satellites. The Navy would expend incredible effort to splash any drones or submarines trying to break into the Pacific to find strike groups. Our carriers could have more freedom of movement than assumed.

The US has invested heavily in ballistic missile defense over the last few decades. There is typically a battery of THAAD missile interceptors deployed in Guam. And the Navy can fire SM-3 and SM-6 missiles at incoming threats. The record for these systems in testing and limited combat use is exemplary, with 90%+ success rates. They are also cheaper than the high-end Chinese missiles they counter. The only issue is that there might not be enough missiles in the theater to counter saturation attacks. Manufacturing more missiles and keeping an adequate number of AEGIS-guided missile ships in East Asia is critical. A credible active defense would force the Chinese to shoot their most valuable missiles in wasteful barrages that drain their missile inventory.


The AIM-260 air-to-air missile is a fast-track program nearing completion. It nearly doubles the range of the mainstay AIM-120 and is ~20% faster. That allows it to exceed the performance of the Chinese J-15 air-to-air missiles and gives our fighters extra legs. Low-rate production could already be underway.

Having more missiles in the air to handle Chinese mass attacks is also critical. An idea floated by the Pentagon and analysts is to equip bombers with long-range air-to-air missiles, allowing them to act like a missile magazine to support frontline fighters.

The AGM-88 HARM missile is the primary weapon for US aircraft to counter surface-to-air missile batteries. It homes in on their radar signals and forces the enemy to turn off their radar and move or eat a missile. A new extended-range version is faster and can go up to 300 km, allowing US fighters and bombers to counter longer-range surface-to-air missiles.


Cargo planes loaded with thousands of missiles or QUICKSINK JDAMs free up bombers to hit challenging targets like command and control bunkers or hardened bases and let tankers focus on getting the maximum amount of fighters into the battle to clear the skies.


Drones can absorb some fighter roles and make them more productive. But the current crop of inexpensive drones that highlight conflicts in Ukraine or Armenia are poorly suited for the Indo-Pacific theater. Most US bases are thousands of kilometers from Taiwan, eliminating smaller drones and quadcopters. Slow drones like TB-2 or Predator are not survivable in contested airspace. Drones must be expendable or much more capable to add value to US power projection.

One example is the RQ-180. The Air Force has never acknowledged its existence, but the rumors and evidence are strong that it exists. It replaces the Global Hawk in the high altitude, theater-wide surveillance mission. The Global Hawk has close to zero survivability and can’t function against near-peer threats. The RQ-180 is a flying wing like the B-2 and is stealthy, allowing it to operate in contested airspace. It likely costs hundreds of millions per copy, but small drones can’t replace it.

The Scan Eagle and its successor, the RQ-21 Blackjack, are current “attritable” surveillance drones. They are capable aircraft with high-end sensors, the ability to laser designate targets, and 16 hours of loiter time. The Navy and Marines have hundreds but want to replace them. Newer drones in this class have vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability, allowing them to ditch expensive launching/landing systems. Software flies the drones and soldiers only input waypoints. The competition is fierce, with AeroEnvironment’s Jump 20 and Shield AI’s V-Bat as examples. These drones are more capable than the RQ-21 at a fraction of the acquisition and operating cost, costing less than $1 million per unit even at low rate production. A limitation is they can’t stray more than ~150 km from the base station. Some obvious solutions are to use StarLink, drone relays, or autonomous software that can broadcast findings over the tactical data net. Much of the cost is in sensors, less expensive ones would make the drones more expendable. Production could ramp up fast because scrappy companies are the prime contractors.


Tankers and aerial refueling are the backbones of the US Air Force’s power projection, especially in East Asia. They are nearly as critical for the Navy. Tanker vulnerability is one reason why 24/7 combat air patrols over Taiwan from bases or carriers further than Guam are challenging. Fueling the patrols would stretch the tanker force thin while exposing them to Chinese attack. The Chinese Air Force could “lose the battle, but win the war” by bull rushing the few fighters on station, running them out of missiles, then splashing the string of valuable tankers leading back to US bases.

Castle design assumes the enemy will reach the walls

Thursday, December 1st, 2022

The battlements along the top of a castle wall were designed to allow a small number of defenders to exchange fire effectively with a large number of attackers, and in so doing to keep those attackers from being able to “set up shop” beneath the walls:

The goal is to prevent the enemy operating safely at the wall’s base, not to prohibit approaches to the wall. These defenses simply aren’t designed to support that much fire, which makes sense: castle garrisons were generally quite small, often dozens or a few hundred men. While Hollywood loves sieges where all of the walls of the castle are lined with soldiers multiple ranks deep, more often the problem for the defender was having enough soldiers just to watch the whole perimeter around the clock (recall the above example at Antioch: Bohemond only needs one traitor to access Antioch because one of its defensive towers was regularly defended by only one guy at night). It is actually not hard to see that merely by looking at the battlements: notice in the images here so far often how spaced out the merlons of the crenellation are. The idea here isn’t maximizing fire for a given length of wall but protecting a relatively small number of combatants on the wall. As we’ll see, that is a significant design choice: castle design assumes the enemy will reach the walls and aims to prevent escalade once they are there; later in this series we’ll see defenses designed to prohibit effective approach itself.