Monthly Archives: January 2015

Where the Money Goes: 2015 US Military Spending

Railgun. Image from wikipedia

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015 urged NATO allies to develop and make more innovative weapons, and said bold action was needed to stay ahead of rapid weapons development by China, Russia and other countries.  Work said the Pentagon has a new plan called “Defense Innovation Initiative” and a separate effort targeting longer-term projects to ensure that the United States continues to have a decisive competitive advantage against potential foes.

Work said concerns about advances by other countries were a key reason that the Pentagon’s fiscal 2016 budget plan to be delivered to Congress will exceed budget caps set by Congress and reverse five years of declines in U.S. military spending.   He said the budget would include “significant” investments in nuclear weapons, space control capabilities, advanced sensors, missile defense and cyber, as well as unmanned undersea vehicles, high-speed strike weapons, a new jet engine, high-energy lasers and rail gun technology…..Lockheed Martin Corp  and Boeing  and other key weapons makers have repeatedly urged the Pentagon to step up investments in key technologies….

Kendall said the department would also earmark funds for development and prototyping of a new “next-generation X-plane” that would eventually succeed the F-35 fighter jet, and a new engine.

Excerpts, ANDREA SHALAL, Pentagon official urges NATO to focus on innovative weapons. Jan 28, 2015

The Price of Dams: Vietnam

Ya Ly dam spillway,Vietnam

Hydropower has boomed in Vietnam over the past decade and now generates more than a third of the country’s electricity. In 2013 the National Assembly reported that 268 hydropower projects were up and running, with a further 205 projects expected to be generating by 2017. They are helping to meet a national demand for energy that the authorities forecast will treble between 2010 and 2020. Other power sources are less promising, at least in the short run. A plan to build several nuclear reactors by 2030 is behind schedule, for example. And Vietnam’s coal reserves, mostly in the north, are not easy to get at.

Yet the hydropower boom comes at a price. Rivers and old-growth forests have been ravaged, and tens of thousands of villagers, often from ethnic minorities, displaced. Many have been resettled on poor ground. Those who have stayed are at risk of flash floods caused by faulty dam technology and inadequate oversight. Green Innovation and Development Centre, an environmental group in the capital, Hanoi, says shoddy dam construction is the norm, and developers ignore the question of whether their projects could trigger earthquakes…

Many hydro-electric companies are owned by or affiliated with Electricity Vietnam (EVN), the loss-making state power monopoly. Because hydropower is Vietnam’s cheapest source of electricity, EVN resists investing in measures such as dam-safety assessments that would further erode its financial position. As it is, even though environmental-impact assessments for hydropower projects are required, they are never published, according to the United Nations Development Programme….. Hydropower companies want to keep their mountain reservoirs as full as possible in order to generate as much electricity as Vietnam’s rivers allow. But that narrow focus can deprive farmers of irrigation in the dry season. And when heavy rains come in the summer and autumn, floodwaters cascade over the dam walls with little or no warning.

Hydropower in Vietnam: Full to bursting, Economist, Jan.10, 2015, at 35

Like Wolves Like Drones: DARPA CODE

A drone from Fleet Composite Squadron (VC) 6 fires from the flight deck of USS Pearl Harbor (LSD 52) during UNITAS exercises. Image from wikipedia

Excerpts from the DARPA website

Most unmanned aerial systems (UAS) [i.e. drones] require constant control by a dedicated pilot and sensor operator as well as a large number of analysts, all via telemetry. These requirements severely limit the scalability and cost-effectiveness of UAS operations and pose operational challenges in dynamic, long-distance engagements with highly mobile targets in contested electromagnetic environments.  DARPA’s Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) program aims to overcome these challenges by developing algorithms and software,,,with the goal of improving U.S. forces’ ability to conduct operations in denied or contested airspace.

CODE intends to focus in….the capability for groups of UAS to work together under a single human commander’s supervision….. CODE’s envisioned improvements to collaborative autonomy would help transform UAS operations from requiring multiple people to operate each UAS to having one person who is able to command and control six or more unmanned vehicles simultaneously. Commanders could mix and match different systems with specific capabilities that suit individual missions instead of depending on a single UAS that integrates all needed capabilities but whose loss would be potentially catastrophic.

“Just as wolves hunt in coordinated packs with minimal communication, multiple CODE-enabled unmanned aircraft would collaborate to find, track, identify and engage targets, all under the command of a single human mission supervisor,” said Jean-Charles Ledé, DARPA program manager.

Excerpts from DARPA website

 

Space Ambition, China

china national space administration

After decades hiding deep in China’s interior, the country’s space-launch programme is preparing to go a bit more public. By the tourist town of Wenchang on the coast of the tropical island of Hainan, work is nearly complete on China’s fourth and most advanced launch facility…Secrecy remains ingrained—soldiers at a gate politely but firmly decline to say what they are guarding.

The decision to build the base on Hainan was made for technical reasons: its proximity to the equator, at a latitude of 19 degrees north, will allow rockets to take better advantage of the kick from the Earth’s rotation than is currently possible with launches from China’s other bases which were built far inland at a time of cold-war insecurity. That will allow a bigger payload for each unit of fuel—a boon for China’s space ambitions, which include taking a bigger share of the commercial satellite-launch market, putting an unmanned rover on Mars around 2020, completing a manned space station around 2022 and possibly putting a person on the moon in the coming decade, too. By 2030 China hopes to test what could be one of the world’s highest-capacity rockets, the Long March 9.have no explanation for the apparent delay. Secrecy is a difficult habit to shake off.

Excerpt from Space: Ready for launch,  Economist, Jan. 10, 2015, at 40

The Commercialization of Culture: Amazon Indigenous Peoples

desana on pinterest

[T]he Tupe reserve, home to 40 members of the Dessana tribe, and located 15 miles (24km) up the Rio Negro river from Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s vast Amazon region.The tribe originates from more than 600 miles further upstream, in remote north-western Brazil, but three decades ago nine members moved down river to Tupe, to be near Manaus, a modern city of two million people.  Eventually they chose to go into tourism, and commercialising their culture.

Yet while they continue to be successful in doing this, some commentators remain concerned that the Tupe villagers, and other such tribal groups which have gone into tourism, are at risk of being exploited.  Former farmersToday the residents of Tupe put on traditional music and dance performances for tourists and sell their homemade jewellery to visitors….

With most visitors paying a fixed fee of around £55 per person for a package tour, the problem for the tribal people – and authorities wishing to help project them – is that there is no industry-wide agreement on what share of the money the villagers should be paid.   Some of the 196 tourism agencies don’t pay the tribal groups at all, instead forcing them to rely on selling jewellery, with pieces typically retailing for between four reals ($1.50; £1) and 20 reals ($7.60; £5), or asking for donations….A Brazilian government agency, the National Indian Foundation, which aims to protect and further the needs of indigenous groups, is indeed now looking at whether such regulations should be enforced.In the meantime, to help tribal villages better handle business negotiations with tour firms, a non-government organisation called the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (ASF) runs entrepreneurial programmes for members of such communities.
Excerpt from  Donna Bowater, Helping Brazil’s tribal groups benefit more from tourism, BBC, Jan. 21, 2015

Who is Marsoc

Marine special operators conduct combat operations in eastern Afghanistan.  Image from wikipedia

The Marine Corps is close to completing a realignment of its elite Special Operations troops, sending some of them to the Middle East in January 2015.  Maj. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, the new commander of the Marine Corps’ Special Operations force said they will be spread across the Middle East and focused on training and coordinating with friendly governments to guard against insurgencies. Others already have been deployed to Africa and the Pacific….

The new deployment to the Middle East is part of a wider effort to “regionalize” Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC), the general said…The force’s three battalions have been reorganized regionally, with one each focusing on the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East…

MARSOC was first established in February 2006 at the order of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as the Iraq War raged and an increasing emphasis on Special Operations emerged….

The command was established by pulling Marines from the service’s highly trained Force Reconnaissance units, however, and first sent a Special Operations company to Afghanistan in 2007. The first deployment was mired in controversy after a convoy of Marines in Nangarhar province was ambushed in March 4, 2007, and a firefight led to the death of at least 10 Afghan civilians. Army commanders removed the unit from the battlefield, but top Marine Corps commanders ultimately found that no one involved should face criminal charges.  MARSOC eventually found its footing in Afghanistan. Deployed mostly to western and southern Afghanistan, the unit trained Afghan Local Police and other Afghan troops and engaged in combat regularly with the Taliban and other insurgent groups….

While much of the military shrinks after years of war in Afghanistan, MARSOC is still expanding. The organization is expected to eventually have about 2,500 troops, including 830 elite “critical skills operators,” …[Bu] roles that MARSOC trains for, but also are carried out by Navy SEALs, Force Reconnaissance Marines and other well-trained U.S. troops.

Excerpts from Dan Lamothe, Marine Corps realigns its Special Operations, sends elite troops to Middle East, Washington Post, Jan. 20. 2015

The Cost of Decommissioning Nuclear Reactors

Reactor pressure vessel transported from site for burial. Image from wikipedia

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said late in 2014  (pdf) that almost 200 of the 434 reactors in operation around the globe would be retired by 2040, and estimated the cost of decommissioning them at more than $100 billion.  But many experts view this figure as way too low, because it does not include the cost of nuclear waste disposal and long-term storage and because decommissioning costs – often a decade or more away – vary hugely per reactor and by country…. The IEA’s head of power generation analysis, Marco Baroni, said that even excluding waste disposal costs, the $100 billion estimate was indicative, and that the final cost could be as much as twice as high. He added that decommissioning costs per reactor can vary by a factor of four.Decommissioning costs vary according to reactor type and size, location, the proximity and availability of disposal facilities, the intended future use of the site, and the condition of the reactor at the time of decommissioning.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that the cost of decommissioning in the United States – which has some 100 reactors – ranges from $300 million to $400 million per reactor, but some reactors might cost much more.  France’s top public auditor and the nuclear safety authority estimate the country’s decommissioning costs at between 28 billion and 32 billion euros ($32-37 billion).  German utilities – such as E.ON, which last month said it would split in two, spinning off power plants to focus on renewable energy and power grids – have put aside 36 billion euros. .  Britain’s bill for decommissioning and waste disposal is now estimated at 110 billion pounds ($167 billion) over the next 100 years, double the 50 billion pound estimate made 10 years ago.  Japanese government estimates put the decommissioning cost of the country’s 48 reactors at around $30 billion, but this is seen as conservative. Russia has 33 reactors and costs are seen ranging from $500 million to $1 billion per reactor.

Excerpt, Global nuclear decommissioning cost seen underestimated, may spiral, Reuters, Jan, 19, 2014