Cross-posted from Dispatches From the Edge.
Each year the column Dispatches From The Edge awards news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are 2010’s winners.
The Harry Potter Award to the British technology company ATSC Ltd for its invention of a “wand” that, according to the company, detects explosives, drugs, and human remains for up to six miles by air and three fifths of a mile by land. The ADE 651 sells for $16,000 a unit.
The only problem is that it doesn’t work, which users might have figured out by reading the manual: the device has no batteries or internal parts. It is powered by “static electricity” generated by the holder walking in place. A wand-like antenna then points to the drugs, bodies, or explosives.
This past January ATSC Ltd was charged with fraud and banned by the British government. One ATSC source told the New York Times, “Everyone at ATSC knew that there was nothing inside the ADE 651,” and that the units cost only $250 to make.
But the wand was widely used in Iraq. Ammar Tuma, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, bitterly attacked the company for causing “grave and massive losses of the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians, by the hundreds and the thousands, from attacks we thought we were immune to because we have this device.” The Iraqi Ministry of the Interior purchased 800 ADE 651s at a cost of $85 million.
The managing director of ATSC, Jim McCormack, staunchly defended the wand, which he claims the company has sold to 20 countries. He did admit, “one of the problems is that the machine looks primitive,” and said the company was turning out an upgraded model “that has flashing lights.”
Runner-up for this award was the British firm, Global Technology Ltd, which sold $10 million worth of very similar wand—the GT 200—to Mexico. The unit retails for $20,000 apiece. In one demonstration the GT 200 detected drugs in a Volkswagen sedan. After thoroughly searching the car, authorities turned up a bottle of Tylenol (suggesting that one should switch to Advil). Human Rights Watch says it is “troubled” by the use of the wand, which is widely used in Thailand and Mexico. “If people are actually being arrested and charged solely on the basis of its readings, that would be outrageous,” the group said in a press release.
A Mexican interior official defended the GT-200, however, claiming that it “works with molecules.” Hard to argue with science.
The Golden Lemon Award goes to the Conservative government of Canada for shelling out $8.5 billion to buy 65 Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters. According to Defense Minister Peter MacKay, “This multi-role stealth fighter will help the Canadian forces defend the sovereignty of Canadian airspace.” Exactly whom that airspace is being defended from is not clear.
The contract also includes a $6.6 billion maintenance agreement, which is a good thing because the F-35 has a number of “problems.” For instance, its engine shoots out sparks, and no one can figure out why. It is generally thought a bad idea for an engine to do that. There are several different types of F-35, and the vertical lift version of the aircraft doesn’t work very well. It seems the fan that cools the engine, doesn’t, and the panels that open for the vertical thrust, don’t. Also switches, valves and power systems are considered “unreliable.”
The F-35 is looking more and more like the old F-105 Thunderchief, a fighter-bomber used extensively at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Pilots nicknamed it the “Thud” (the sound the plane made when it hit the ground after failing to clear a runway, a rather common occurrence). One pilot said it had all the agility of a “flying brick,” thus its other nickname: the “lead sled.”
The U.S. is spending $382 billion to buy 2,457 F-35s, although the price tag keeps going up as more and more “problems” develop. Maintenance and spare parts for the aircraft will run several hundred billion extra.
One normally thinks of Canadians as sensible, but the country’s Conservative government is apparently as thickheaded as our own. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently had a summit meeting on the Arctic and didn’t invite the Inuit (whom most Americans call Eskimos).
Well, the F-35 may not fly very well, but it works just fine for Lockheed Martin: second quarter profits saw a jump from $727 million to $731 million over last year, and revenues rose to $11.44 billion, 3 percent over last year.
The Panjandrum Award to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. For those unfamiliar with the “Great Panjandrum,” it was an enormous rocket-propelled explosive wheel developed by Great Britain for breaching the Atlantic Wall that Nazi Germany had built on the French coast to defend against amphibious invasions. Tested on a Devon beach, it roared ashore, turned smartly to port, and thundered into a bevy of admirals and generals, scattering them hither and yon. Thus “Panjandrum” became a metaphor for really silly military ideas.
And there is not a whole lot sillier idea than the one to deploy M1-Abrams tanks in southern Afghanistan. The M1 is a 68-ton behemoth, powered by a jet engine (miles per gallon is not its strong point). Since Afghanistan has virtually no roads and a good deal of the terrain is vertical—at least the part where the insurgents are ensconced—how the M1 is going to get around is not obvious.
However, one U.S. Marine officer told the Washington Post, “The tanks bring awe, shock and firepower. It’s pretty significant.” Right. Show the Wogs a tank and they will be begging for mercy.
Except the Taliban are quite familiar with tanks. The initial Soviet invasion included 1,800 of them, many of them T-72s. The T-72 is admittedly smaller than the Abrams—41 1/2 tons vs. 68 tons—but the former actually packed a bigger gun. The M1 sports a 120mm gun, the T-72 a 125 mm gun. T-72 carcasses are scattered all over Afghanistan, and the Taliban even managed to capture some of them.
Tanks are effective against stationary targets and other tanks. The Taliban don’t have tanks, and they don’t stick around when one shows up. But shocked and awed by their appearance? Don’t these people read history? Try “The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan,” by Lester Grau.
The George Orwell Award to the U.S. Defense Department for dropping the name of “Psychological Operations”—“Psyops” for short—because the “term can sound ominous.” Instead Psyops will now be known as Military Information Support Operation, or MISO, which sounds like a Japanese soup.
Some military contractors, however, apparently didn’t get the memo about using names and acronyms that sound “ominous.” Northrop Grumman just successfully tested a radar system that will be attached to Predator and Reaper armed drones to allow the killer robots to “detect individuals walking over a wide area” and track vehicles, watercraft, people, and animals, as well as “stationary targets of interest.” Given that the drones pack Hellfire missiles and 500 lb. bombs, you really don’t want to be “interesting” when they are around.
The news system is called the “Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar” or “Vader” for short. Sound of heavy breathing are not included in the basic package.
The Rudyard Kipling Award to the Pentagon and its program to train officers for extended service in Afghanistan. For those unclear on this award, a few lines from Kipling’s poem, “Arithmetic on the Frontier” about Britain’s unsuccessful effort to subdue Afghanistan, and how one adds up the cost of occupation:
A scrimmage in a Border Station–
A canter down some dark defile—
Two thousand pounds of education
Drop to a ten-rupee jezail*—
It appears some officers read Kipling. In spite of a high profile push by the Defense Department to recruit officers to serve in Afghanistan, the program is less than half filled, according to Pentagon officials.
*A jezail is a cheap, muzzle-loading rifle that took a heavy toll on British troops during their 19th century invasions of Afghanistan.
The Barn Door Award to the Department of Defense (yes, yes they do win a lot, but then they excel at winning awards) for telling employees and contractors not to read Wiki Leak documents online, because they are “classified.” Just close your eyes?
The Air Force went one step further and barred personnel from using computers where the documents were online, thus underlining conventional wisdom in Washington: the Army is slow, the Marines are dumb, the Navy lies, and the Air Force is evil.
The Mary Wollingstonecraft Shelly Award (the author of Frankenstein) goes to the University of California at Berkeley, MIT, and Cornell University for using Defense Department money to turn the beetle, Mecynorrhina torquata, into a cyborg. The beetle is fitted with an electronic backpack attached to the animal’s wing muscles, allowing scientists to control the beetle’s flight path.
The idea is to use the little beastie (actually, as beetles go, kind of a big beastie) to crawl or fly into areas where the “enemy” is. Once the “enemy” is identified, the military can target the area with bombs, rockets or artillery. This is a tad rough on the beetles.
According to researchers Michael Maharbiz and Hirotake Sato, the long-term goal is to “introduce synthetic interfaces and control loops” into other animals. “Working out the details in insects first will help us avoid mistakes and false starts in higher organisms, such as rats, mice, and ultimately people. And it allows us to postpone many of the deeper ethical questions about free will, among other things, that would become more pressing if this work took place on vertebrates.”
The Michele Bachmann Award to Australian legislator Bob Katter for sounding the alarm about a serious threat facing his constituents: “We have terrible problems with deadly flying foxes. They are going to kill more people than the Taipan snake in Australia.”
The flying fox is the world’s largest bat, also called the “fruit bat.” It has broad, flat molars and feeds on soft fruit, from which it extracts juice. By all accounts they are gentle and intelligent and don’t attack humans. The Taipan snake, which can grow up to 12 feet, is considered the most venomous land snake in the world. However, the animal is shy and rarely bites people.
It is comforting to know that there are other legislators in the world just as wacko as U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), who recently suggested that legislators “slit their wrists in a blood pact” to block health reform and said that people had to be “armed and dangerous” to block efforts to mitigate global warming.
You can read more of Conn Hallinan’s writings at Dispatches From the Edge.