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Killer police robots are not a big deal

Last July, Dallas police killed a suspected gunman with an Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV). By any conceivable stretch of the imagination, this was a “good kill.” The gunman had murdered 5 policemen, threatened to kill more with hidden bombs, and refused to give up even after hours of negotiations. A credible threat against civilians had been made. The threat had to be neutralized in a timely fashion. Using an UGV reduced the danger to officers, and protected civilians at the same time.

We are not sure what kind of robot was used, but it was probably one designed to detect Improvised Explosive Devices (IED). Ironically, the robot, which was most likely designed to counter explosive devices, killed the gunman by detonating a bomb (a pound of C4 explosives).

Sources claim that the UGV was a Remotec Andros F-5 model (some say it was a MARCbot, but this appears to be speculation). We do know that the UGV was remotely controlled. Both the MARCbot and the Andros F-5 have been used in overseas combat operations.

The tactic of jury rigging an explosive device to a UGV in order to perform a kinetic action is not a new one. The Brookings Institution reported in the “Military Robots and the Laws of War” that soldiers would strap Claymore anti-personnel mines to UGVs in attempts to kill insurgents.

Some are alarmed that police used military equipment and tactics on American soil. Many feel that the whole “killer robot” scenario was just plain ominous. The following quotes are typical.

“The ‘targeted killing’ of a suspect on ‘U.S. soil,’ as opposed to extraterritorial declared or undeclared war zones, where this operation also has clear precedents too, has captivated the attention of scholars and the public. … the event raises many issues about the rules of engagement and the constitutional rights of a suspect—issues that obviously the Dallas police completely skirted, and do not seem too willing to discuss in the aftermath.” Javier Arbona, Assistant Professor, University of California at Davis in American Studies and Design, UC Davis

“As with other game-changing technologies, police robotics—especially as weapons—could change the character of law enforcement in society.”  Patrick Li, Director of the Ethics & Emerging Sciences Group and a philosophy professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, IEEE Spectrum

“…placing a bomb on a police robot with the intention to kill a suspect—if that is, in fact, what happened—would represent a major shift in policing tactics….It now appears that a tactic of war deployed on foreign soil is being used on the streets of American cities. There are still a lot of moving pieces and things to sort together in the aftermath of the police shootings in Dallas. But one thing is clear: the rules of police engagement might have just changed forever.” Daniel Rivero, Fusion

As evidenced by the above quotes, legal experts and ethicists are anxious over the use of a “killer robot.” You know who didn’t seem concerned? Police.

 “Admittedly, I’ve never heard of that tactic being used before in civilian law enforcement, but it makes sense. You’ve got to look at the facts, the totality of the circumstances. You’ve got officers killed, civilians in jeopardy, and an active shooter scenarios. You know that you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to neutralize that threat. So whether you do it with a sniper getting a shot through the window or a robot carrying an explosive device? It’s legally the same.” Dan Montgomery, former police chief, Time

I called AMREL’s Director of Public Safety Programs, William Leist, to ask his opinion. A former Assistant Chief California Highway Patrol, he has many years of police experience. He fell into the camp of no big deal.

 “Deadly force is deadly force. Whether we use a bomb, a vehicle or a firearm, if the situation is such that deadly force is authorized, lawful, and necessary, the mechanism really shouldn’t matter.”

I am inclined to strongly agree with Bill Leist (and not just because he works with AMREL in supplying rugged computers and biometric devices to law enforcement). The use of a UGV in this particular instance isn’t really a game changer, as some experts are maintaining.

However, let’s be devil’s advocate and point to potential problems. There is an old saying, “good cases make bad laws” In other words, a specific high-profile instance may not be the best guide for similar circumstances in the future. Just because the use of a UGV in Dallas was a lethal operation that even Gandhi would have approved doesn’t mean that there isn’t potential for abuse.

The adoption of new technologies does not always lead to expected results. Police have expanded an application of another new technology, UGVs, beyond the original purpose. Granted, this new application is justifiable in this instance, but are we in a position to predict future consequences?

Police are being overwhelmed with technology. Law enforcement officer are dealing with a multitude of biometric devices, communication technologies, non-lethal weapons, biometric equipment, and a wide variety of computer platforms. In many departments, training has not kept up with the needs. Should there be certain minimal standards for operators of UGVs? Who sets them?

Suppose something goes wrong and a civilian gets hurt. The police will say that it’s not their fault, because the UGV malfunctioned. The manufacturer will say their UGVs are not designed for lethal operations, so it isn’t their responsibility. Granted, almost all police actions have liability issues. However, unmanned technologies pose liability problems that are beyond traditional concerns, and are major factors in slowing their adoption.

What about visibility? Whether a shooting is justified or not may depend on what a policeman sees or what he thinks he sees. Remote-controlled unmanned systems, who operators may have limited visibility, may present new problems.

Using lethal force with an UGV does not herald a new era of law enforcement. The adoption of this new technology is unlikely to fundamentally alter the current legal dynamics surrounding the use of police force. However, they may present new complications and challenges.

 

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What does the US military think of the Chinese army?

This post originally appeared on Quora as an an answer to the question, “What do members of the United States military think of the Chinese army?

I am not a member of the American armed forces, but I read Defense publications every day for my job. For my corporate blog, I rely on many of the same sources that the American military relies on for their information. My impression, as an outsider, is that the American military simultaneously regards the Chinese with two opposing attitudes, i.e. respect and contempt.

Why respect?

  1. The Chinese have a reputation for being clever, resourceful, and practical. Only a fool would underestimate them.
  2. As noted in other answers, not only is the Chinese military big (really big!), but so is their economy, which means, in theory, they can adequately support their armed forces.
  3. The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) could play a significant role in countering US Naval capabilities in the most likely theater of conflict, the South China Sea. The US Navy is adjusting its plans for technological development and acquisition to specifically deal with this threat.
  4. Chinese anti-satellite and cyber capabilities are genuine concerns.

Why contempt? This is a little trickier to answer, since the American Defense establishment is highly motivated to praise Chinese capabilities, i.e. nobody ever got more money from Congress by telling them the enemy’s military stinks. However, the contempt is real, at least for some members of the American military.

Here are my best guesses why there is contempt:

  1. There are reasons why the Chinese have an army of cyber thieves trying to steal from us, and we are not trying to steal from them. As good as Chinese technology is, it’s just not where it should be for a first-class power. Their technological base lacks the quality and depth that is needed. Whenever I read a Western Defense publication reporting on a Chinese announcement of their latest and greatest super weapon (usually a bad copy of outdated Soviet technology), one can practically see the snark dripping off the webpage. For example, Chinese lack the capability of making an engine suitable for a fifth-generation combat jet (my info may be out of date on this). This negative assessment of their technological capabilities may be incorrect, but at least some analysts hold it.
  2. The American military is a highly-trained professional force that can project power anywhere in the world. The Chinese military is a mostly uneducated and conscripted force designed primarily for domestic control. Basically, some Americans look at the Chinese the same way that the British regulars looked at the American colonial militias. Yeah, they’re good on their home turf, but in a proper fight on foreign soil? Forget about it.
  3. The Americans fight wars all the time. The Chinese do not. We know which of our stuff works and our officers are experienced in combat. The Chinese military has demonstrated great capabilities in scaring Filipino fishermen, but how would they perform in actual fight with a significant foe? No one really knows.

I want to make it clear that the above opinions do not necessarily reflect my own. I am merely reporting on what I have heard and read. For what it’s worth, I think the real wild card is the surreal level of Chinese corruption. Has it affected the ability of the Chinese military to project force? Again, no one really knows. Hopefully, we will never find out.

 

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Nine things you need to know about the Defense budget

Once again we stare into the opaque crystal ball that is Washington and try to divine the fate of this year’s Defense appropriation bill.

The good news, sort of Out of the 12 appropriation bills facing Congress, Defense is the one that will most likely pass in time for due date. That is the view of Saxby Chambliss, a Southern senator who sounds and looks just like an actor playing a Southern senator from a 1930’s movie. Speaking at a recent Bloomberg web conference, he sounded cautiously optimistic, noting that the Senate and House have already passed versions of Defense bill, ahead of where we were at last year.

On the other hand… The House and Senate bills are different. The House authorized $583 billion, while the Senate funded $602 billion (these amounts vary in news reports, and to a certain extent are subject to interpretation; the Defense budget in a tricky multi-factorial affair).

Significantly, the House wants to diminish the Overseas Contingency Operation (OCO) fund, which is a gimmick designed to circumvent sequestration. In fact they shifted funds over to the base budget in order to mitigate the Army and Marine’s planned drawdown (and increase military pay by 2.1%, not the proposed 1.8%). The President is not amused and has threatened a veto over this and other issues.

The other issues The Senate, led by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, has proposed that the position of Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (ALT) be eliminated. Responsibilities are to be divided between new Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, or USD(R&E), and the renamed Undersecretary of Management and Support, or USD(M&S).  Somehow, this bureaucratic reshuffle is supposed to make it easier for the military to adopt new technology.

Dear reader, does this make sense to you? I have been writing and reading about the acquisition for novel technology by the Department of Defense for several years now, and I can’t understand how this will help at all. If you have any ideas about this particular change, pro or con, please email me at editor@amrel.com. I need someone to explain this to me.

The administration doesn’t like these proposed changes, accuses Congress of “micromanaging,” and promises to veto these budgets. Other issues that the administration has with Congress’s Defense appropriation concern the proposed closing of Guantanamo, drafting of women, the role of readiness, and miscellaneous non-defense issues.

Don’t fear the veto The threat of the veto and the fight between the executive and legislative branches don’t overly concern Saxby Chambliss. This is par for the course, and even with a veto, there is more than enough time to pass the Defense bill.

Why are non-Defense issues significant in the Defense budget? One of the most interesting parts of the Bloomberg webinar was Saxby Chambliss’ description of the Congressional dynamics behind the Defense budget.

Congress has a lot of relatively new representatives who have no experience of the old days, when ideological and partisan opponents routinely worked together in a relatively non-contentious manner to pass bills. Besides Intelligence (which has its own problems), Defense is the only appropriation that is funded yearly as opposed to multi-yearly. It is one of the few times that congressmen from opposite sides of the aisle actually talk and work with each other. This is the new “normal.” As a result, a lot of non-Defense items (which get blocked in the polarized deadlocked Congress) get linked to the Defense budget.

I know what you did last session Another factor in the yearly Defense drama is the elimination of earmarks, and the severe limiting of riders. In the past, these “greased” the gears of the appropriation process. Now everything has to be fought out in the open, which is subjected to heightened scrutiny of the internet. It is common that when a proposal is first made by a representative in Congress, an immediate hostile reaction in social media follows in real time.

If you think things are bad now ….  An observation made at the Bloomberg webinar was that the current administration is avoiding critical decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan and is letting the clock run out. The next president will have some hard choices to face.

No Defense bill until November In spite of the Saxby Chambliss’ guarded optimism, the consensus of the Bloomberg webinar participants was that the Defense bill will probably not pass until the “lame duck” session after the election. Once the poll results are known for sure, the losing party will be more motivated to negotiate a compromise.

Watch for “continuing resolutions” One common “work around” when Congress gets paralyzed is the “continuing resolution.” This temporarily funds specific agencies and programs. If Congress goes this route, examine the length of the resolution carefully. It is a short or long term resolution? Will it kick the Defense budget mess over to the new Congress? Will it include the beleaguered OCO?

Of course, unexpected events, such as a new war, could significantly alter the dynamics of the appropriations process. Since AMREL supplies mission-critical rugged solutions to warfighters and other key defense personnel, we will keep a close eye on the fate of Defense funding. We will apprise you of future developments.

 

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Unmanned Indiana Jones [VIDEO]

AMREL is always on the lookout for new applications for Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV), since we are the premier supplier of Operator Control Units for them. Bomb detection, guard duty, and farming are well-known uses for UGVs. To this list, we can add unlocking the secrets of a lost civilization.

For over 100 years, archeologists have been exploring the ruins of Teotihuacan, a location outside of Mexico City. Famous for its huge pyramids, it once housed 100,000 to 200,000 people, making it one of the largest cities in the world at that time. Almost nothing is known about the original inhabitants or why they inexplicably disappeared.

After a heavy rainstorm, Sergio Gomez, an archeologist who has devoted his career to studying the Teotihuacan ruins, noticed a sinkhole at the base of one of the pyramids. In best Indiana Jones fashion, he lowered himself by rope into the mysterious hole. No word about whether he wore a fedora or carried a whip. Nor were there any reports of snakes or giant rolling stone balls.

tunnel

He descended approximately 45 feet into the dark, unknown, never-explored opening. Was he scared? According to him, he was terrified. However, at the end of descent, he discovered something that made the trip worthwhile; a man-made tunnel. Around 100 yards long, this underground passage eventually yielded 75,000 artifacts including seashells, animal bones, jewelry, pottery, rubber balls, obsidian knives, and green stone statuettes.

Excavation of the final end of the tunnel was critical. Located deep beneath the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, it was thought to hold vital information about the purpose of the tunnel, as well as pyramids themselves.

However, the tunnel narrowed significantly toward the end; no person could crawl through it. Using traditional mining techniques were out of the question, since they were too likely to damage the sensitive archaeological site.

Fortunately a university in Mexico City had a solution. Named for Aztec rain gods, Tlaloque and Tláloc II were two UGVs that had previously been used to explore Teotihuacan. A similar UGV had been used in an Egyptian tomb.

A 4×4 traction vehicle, Tlaloque 1 is only 20 cm in height, 30 cm wide, and 50 cm long. Located one at the back and one at the front, Its 2 remote-controlled camcorders can do 360 degree turns. It has its own lights and transmits images to an external computer monitor.

Tlaloque 1

The larger meter-length Tláloc II is equipped with heavy duty tires, designed to navigate wet, muddy soil. Its meter-length mechanical arms, can chew through earth and clear obstacles. Equipped with bright lights as well as video cameras, it stores images on an on-board hard drive. It uses a laser to scan the topography. Unlike Tlaloque 1, Tláloc II is remote controlled by wireless means and carries an independent “insect” robot that has an infrared camera. Both the Tláloc II and the “insect” robot can be seen in the video at the end of this post.

Tláloc II

Tláloc II and Tlaloque successfully transversed the 2,000 year old tunnel. Much to the archaeologists’ surprise, the UGVs didn’t discover a tomb at the end of the passageway, but instead a spacious cross-shaped chamber, with more jewelry and several statues. The purpose of the chambers is still being determined.

Although UGVs have been used before on archaeological digs, this is the first time robots have been instrumental in a major archaeological discovery.  I suspect it won’t be the last.

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Fixing a Failed Mobile Business Solution: Case Study

As discussed in Ten ways mobile business solutions succeed and fail, integrating mobility into an enterprise’s communication network can be a tricky affair. Many businesses hand out smartphones to their employees, and expect wonderful benefits to just automatically roll in. A more thought-out strategy usually yields better results.

Recently, I heard a case study in which an enterprise had a mobile strategy that not only wasn’t working, but also was negatively impacting their bottom line. How they successfully transformed their communication network from a minus to a plus says a lot about the use of mobile devices in enterprise solutions.

 

The problem

A well-established Oil & Gas company had been using paper forms to collect and tabulate field data. This meant that:

  • Paper forms had to be filled out by hand in the field under less than ideal conditions.
  • The forms had to be transported by vehicle to the main office, often hours away.
  • Information in the form had to be reentered into a digital format at the office.

Transportation of forms and copying data took a great deal of time and man-hours. In fact, Canvas, a cloud-based software service and mobile app platform, estimates that for each individual paper-based form used, the company suffered an additional expense of $50,000 per year in costs associated with printing, shipping, data entry, filing, storage and mandatory destruction.

There were other problems besides. Customers were unable to receive critical information in real-time. Managers had to delay crucial decisions. Important photographs sometimes became separated from reports. Paper reports were lost, damaged, or even stolen while in transit or in the field.

The company decided to use smartphones to collect field data electronically. By transitioning away from paper forms, it was hoped that the company could save time and money.

Unfortunately, when remote workers initially used their smartphones, the results were less than ideal. Not all oil rigs and remote locations have Wi-Fi-and cellular coverage. This led field workers to believe that they could not completely end their reliance on paper forms.

The company’s original mobile strategy was to communicate data through text messages. Text messages were often copied from paper forms which were then sent to the main office, where the text messages were reentered into a database. This copying and recopying significantly increased the chances of error. Furthermore, the words in the texts were often abbreviated or misspelled, which made the data entry even more challenging.

The biggest single problem was that every text was sent as a group message. When workers returned from the field, they would have to scroll through hundreds of texts to find the one they wanted. Reports to clients and internal stakeholders were delayed by hours or even days.

 

The solution

Canvas worked with this Oil & Gas company to implement a successful mobile strategy.  Their solution featured digital forms that worked both off-line and on-line. This allowed workers to fill out forms on their smartphones while in the field, no matter what the coverage was. No more paper forms.

Migrating paper forms to the cloud (and local platforms) turned out to have a number of significant advantages, other than the obvious one of saving man-hours. Quality improved, because the forms used drop-down menus with fully written, correctly spelled words, rather than the previously utilized shortened text messages. Standardizing the data made analysis and sharing much easier. Clients were informed of the status of field locations in real time. People within the company got a searchable database which was linked to inventory control, catalogs, and other information management systems. In addition, time/GPS stamped photos and electronic signatures were easily linked to the forms.

Canvas specializes in this sort of form migration. They offered their client a choice of using user-friendly, web-based, build-your-own-app solutions, or simply buying one of the thousands of readymade apps that populate their store. They shepherded their client through the process in a matter of just a few weeks. What I found most remarkable is that they were able to implement this solution with virtually no IT support.

Fixing a poorly conceived solution is often harder than implementing an appropriate one in the first place. The fact that Canvas was able to do so in a short period of time with comparatively little resources speaks well of the flexibility and efficiency of their migration services.

 Any cloud-based solution that is used in a challenging environment works better on a rugged, reliable platform. AMREL and Canvas have teamed up to offer new, innovative solutions for business’ information management needs. Use our lightweight fully rugged tablets for remote evaluations, inspections, data collection, reporting, dispatching, invoicing and estimation. To watch a video about Canvas solutions, click here.

To learn how an AMREL Rugged Tablet/Canvas cloud-based solution can help your enterprise, contact Linda Talcott at (800) 882-6735 or lindat@amrel.com.

 

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The Failure of Forensic Fingerprints

On May 6, 2004, the FBI arrested Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield. A partial print found on a bag of detonators had conclusively linked him to the March 2004 Spanish terrorist bombings. Four separate fingerprint examiners positively identified the latent print as belonging to him.

All four examiners were wrong. In fact, three weeks before Mayfield was arrested Spanish officials had informed the FBI that they had matched the partial print to an Algerian man named Daoud Ouhnane. Still, the FBI believed their own experts and arrested Mayfield. Eventually, Mayfied sued for wrongful arrest and imprisonment, as well as civil rights violations, and won $2 million.

Clearly this was a freak occurrence that couldn’t possibly ever have happened again. Except it did. In connection with a 1994 murder, examiners had positively matched Beniah Dandridge’s fingerprints to ones found at the crime scene. In 2015 new examinations disputed the identification, and Dandridge was cleared of charges. He was released in 2015 after serving 20 years of a life sentence.

Although there is no empirical scientific proof of a fingerprint’s uniqueness to a given individual, no one really doubts this is true. The real problem is latent prints, i.e. those prints found on a crime scene, which are often smudged and partial.

The very first person who doubted the usefulness of latent fingerprints was the very first person in modern times who proposed using fingerprints to solve crimes, i.e. Henry Faulds, a Scottish doctor. He wrote:

“The least smudginess in the printing of them might easily veil important divergences … with appalling results…. (police were) “apt to misunderstand or overstrain, in their natural eagerness to secure convictions.”

Despite a century plus of use by the courts, Henry Faulds objections remain surprisingly sound. No empirical or established standards exist for matching latent prints.

Nor are challenges to the legality and scientific basis of fingerprints limited to desperate defense attorneys. In 2007, a judge in Maryland judge ruled fingerprint evidence in a death penalty case was inadmissible, because it was “a subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to be infallible.”  In 2002, Judge Louis Pollack ruled that fingerprint identification was not a legitimate form of scientific evidence. He later reversed himself. Since 1999, nearly 40 judges have considered whether fingerprint evidence meets federal or state standards for the admissibility. All have ruled in favor of the status quo, but many think that the very existence of so many challenges is worrisome. Even the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has raised doubts and has called for vigorous scientific investigations.

In fact the NAS has conducted one study about the accuracy of latent fingerprint matching.  Excerpts from their conclusions:

“False positive errors (erroneous individualizations) were made at the rate of 0.1% and never by two examiners on the same comparison.

“The majority of examiners (85%) committed at least one false negative error, with individual examiner error rates varying substantially,

“This lack of consensus for comparison decisions has a potential impact on verification: Two examiners will sometimes reach different conclusions on a comparison.”

A 0.1% false positive error (claiming a match that does not exist) may not sound like much. However, consider thousands of fingerprints are processed every year.  If the above false positive rate is correct, it is safe to assume that at least some individuals will be erroneously matched.

It is extremely unlikely that the courts will discard over one hundred years of legal precedent and throw out fingerprinting altogether. However, we can expect more challenges in the future and a growing skepticism among both professionals and the public.

What should Law Enforcement Officers do?

  • Strictly enforce current standards regarding evidence collection and processing. This is just good police work, and will become more critical as legal and scientific challenges persist.
  • Currently only about half of fingerprint examiners have passed a proficiency exam by the International Association of Identification, the profession’s certifying organization. While there is no evidence that certified examiners are less prone to mistakes, it would be appropriate if all working examiners have passed the test, if nothing else, just to deflect attacks by attorneys.
  • Educate the public in general and jurors specifically. There has been growing apprehension about the “CIS effect,” i.e. the public having unrealistic expectations about forensic evidence. This had led to prosecutors explaining to jurors how the reality of forensics differs from fictionalize versions. With mounting criticism about fingerprints, prosecutors will again find themselves in the role of educators.
  • Change the standards of expert testimony. Currently, examiners are trained to testify only when they “’absolutely certain.” This is a highly unscientific standard, and examiners should be taught to state their opinions in the terms of probability. Of course, research has to be done to establish such probabilities; none exist now. There is no scientific research about the chances of two individuals exhibiting the same or similar ridge characteristics.

Although controversy has been so far limited to latent prints, it is reasonable to extrapolate from current trends challenges to verifications and enrollments as well. Police officers are already powerfully motivated to take good quality prints from enrollees. Access to the FBI’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) require print images that meet high quality (all AMREL handheld biometric devices meet FAP-45, an extremely stringent standard). Good quality sensors, especially Light Emitting Sensors (LES), require fewer retakes, and save time. In addition to these established reasons, high-quality fingerprint images also provide a credible defense against legal attacks.

In the long run, it is up to the court of science, not the court of law, to establish the true credibility of fingerprint evidence. In the meantime, law officers’ only option is to pursue their duties with excellence and the best equipment they can acquire.

 

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This Memorial Day, Let’s remember the Americans fighting ISIS

Memorial Day originally was called “Decoration Day.” It fixed a time for people to place flowers on the graves of those who fell in the Civil War. Now, on Memorial Day, we remind ourselves of the sacrifices of all veterans.

One person who did not need reminding of his sacrifice was Yale, a friend of my parents. After all, when he looked at the mirror every day, he saw an empty space where one of his arms used to be.

He lost his arm in the Spanish Civil War, while fighting in the Abraham Lincoln brigade, a collection of American volunteers. They were not the first Americans to seek combat overseas. From John Paul Jones serving in the Russian Navy to Ernest Hemingway driving ambulances in Italy before the US entry into World War I, Americans have participated in foreign wars.

Nor was Yale the last American volunteer. There are numerous reports about Western fighters who have volunteered to fight with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in their war against ISIS. Estimates of their numbers range from “scores” to 2,000. In addition to Americans, volunteers hail from Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, France, Canada, Israel, and the Netherlands.

Many are drawn by the justice of the Kurdish cause. Jason Matson, a former U.S. Army soldier, is typical.  “I’m not going back until the fight is finished and ISIS is crippled,” Matson told the Associated Press. “I decided that if my government wasn’t going to do anything to help this country, especially Kurdish people who stood by us for 10 years and helped us out while we were in this country, then I was going to do something.”

Some veterans see their Kurdish adventure as an opportunity for meaning in their life. They were disappointed with the inconclusive conclusions of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Returning to civilian life was alienating. The one thing they knew how to do – fight – was not valued by employers or their stateside community. At least with Kurds, they can put their training to good use.

The Kurds are ambivalent about these foreign volunteers. They want arms, night vision goggles, gas masks, artillery, and body armor, not people. Several have expressed astonishment that the volunteers did not bring their own weapons. Some leaders have publicly declared that they do not accept foreign volunteers, but since elements of the Kurdish armed forces are not subject to a central authority, these statements are dubious.

The Americans and other Westerners are also ambivalent. Accustomed to a highly educated professional military force, American veterans look askance at the young poorly trained Kurdish fighters. “There are 17-year-olds with no proper training who have seen their friends being killed. They think everyone is Isis – it sometimes feels like a school trip with guns,” said one Westerner.  A former US Marine explained “For a militia in the Middle East it’s up to standards, for most Americans I’ve met it’s insanity.”

There are other areas of contention. Some Westerners have been put off by ethnic hostility expressed by Kurds toward the Arabs. One Westerner was disciplined about challenging the practice of discarding first-aid kits. Some have criticized the Kurdish leadership for their inflexibility in adopting new methods. There has been a loss of confidence in the competence of their Kurdish commanders. One American explained his decision to leave the fight, by declaring “I realized that if I stayed I would die and I didn’t come here to die.”

Some elements of the Kurdish armed forces have been reluctant to put Americans on the front-lines, which have disappointed adventure-seeking volunteers. Others recognize veterans as a resource and put them to work training young fighters.

Still others view the foreigners as a public relations opportunity. Foreign volunteers are interviewed by the world press and lionized in social media. The Lions of Rojava are especially known for their skillful use of branded images and media outreach. Canadian Dillon Hillier is sometimes cited as an example of a foreign soldier whose fame has been leveraged for publicity by the Kurdish forces.

Social media is a significant element in this fight. Just as Vietnam was the television war, the battle against ISIS is the Facebook war. Both sides aggressively recruit and lobby through Facebook and other social media.

Unfortunately, some pro-Kurdish Facebook pages are a bit suspect. For groups raising funds, there is no way of verifying their legitimacy.

While social media is undoubtedly valuable, it is the call of war that attracts young men. Kevin Williamson, a US Army veteran, who intends to join the Kurdish forces, explained, “Do I think there’s other ways to help, other than picking up a rifle and going overseas? Yeah, there’s multiple ways. People can help fundraise, people can write their congressmen … But my specific skill set? You know, I’m not really that great with anything other than being a soldier.”

Good luck, Kevin. I hope no one will be putting flowers on your grave for a long, long time.

 

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Winners & Losers in the Defense Budget

A recent blog post described the phenomenon of the “Bow Wave” and its importance to Defense spending priorities. AMREL takes its responsibility of supplying mobile computing solutions to warfighters seriously, so we keep a close eye on how Defense allocates its resources.

Under the “Bow Wave’s” influence, who are the winners and losers? Take a look at what the well-respected experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) are predicting to be the top acquisition programs.

Defense 2

Defense Modernization Plans through 2020

A cursory analysis reveals that the Air Force, specifically aircraft acquisition (even more specifically the F-35) is the big “Bow Wave” winner.

“The Air Force is the largest contributor to the overall modernization Bow Wave. … funding for Air Force major acquisition programs is projected to grow by 73 percent in real terms from FY 2015 to its projected peak in FY 2023. This growth is driven primarily by aircraft programs. The Air Force’s three largest programs in terms of funding are the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), and KC- 46A aerial refueling tanker.”

Defense Modernization Plans through 2020

In spite of the presence of some big-ticket seafaring items on the above chart, the CSIS claims that the Navy and Marines do not much to look forward to in their future, at least according to a strict “Bow Wave’ analysis. However, I have doubts this will prove to be true. For one thing, they have plans:

“The Navy has been able to modernize by incorporating economically efficient capabilities, but much remains to be done. The sea service is making significant investments in aviation, he (Adm. Mulloy) noted, but it needs the RAQ-25 unmanned aerial vehicle quickly. Other critical capabilities include the SM-6, the LRASM, the HVP and maritime TACTOM.”

Signal

If things heat up in the South China Sea, I suspect the Navy won’t have any problems getting funding.

The CSIS analysis says that the Army will be another big winner.

“The Army’s budget for major acquisition programs is projected to increase 28 percent in real terms from FY 2015 to the peak in FY 2022. The Army’s plans indicate a significant Bow Wave in funding for ground systems…

“… the Army plans to ramp up funding for five major vehicle programs over the next five years… The largest of these programs is the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), a replacement for the Humvee. The program plans to reach full rate production of 2,200 vehicles per year by FY 2040. The Army is also developing the Armored Multi- Purpose Vehicle (AMPV), with low rate production planned to begin in FY 2020 and a total planned procurement of 2,897 vehicles. Programs are also planned to replace the Paladin self-propelled Howitzer, to upgrade Abrams tanks, and to modernize the fleet of Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. Together these programs will increase funding for the Army’s major ground systems nearly threefold between FY 2015 an FY 2021.

“The Army has several modernization programs for communications systems planned as well. The Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) plans to continue fielding Increment 2 capabilities… The Army also plans to ramp up production of two variants of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS): the Handheld, Manpack, and Small Form Fit (HMS radio and the Airborne, Maritime, and Fixed (AMF) radio. Having already experienced cost overruns, schedule slips, and many program changes, these three major Army communications programs are poised to more than double in funding between FY 2015 and FY 2021.”

Defense Modernization Plans through 2020

Then there are the non-service specific programs that can be expected to be well-funded. For example, cyber security will be favored in the budget process.

“Cyber right now is the cat’s meow—a notion sure to keep funding flowing for technological solutions, at least in the near term, to counter the emerging threats, according to Col. Gary Salmans, USAF, senior materiel leader of the Cryptologic and Cyber Systems Division within the Air Force Materiel Command.”

Signal

“President Barack Obama championed cybersecurity efforts Tuesday in seeking $19 billion for the cause as part of his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal. …The budget proposal for FY17, which begins October 1, is a 35 percent increase over the current fiscal year.”

Signal

Everybody loves SOCOM, so expect them to be eating steak, not hamburger. Space is being heavily militarized, so that’s another market Defense vendors should consider.

“In its enduring space race to narrow the materializing gap between the United States and peer competitors, the Air Force’s fiscal year 2017 budget emphasizes sustaining mission capabilities and improving space resilience by investing in command and control programs, situational awareness technologies, expendable launch systems and satellite communications.”

Signal

“U.S. officials to make recent bold leaps in their approaches, including establishing the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center and making the Air Force secretary the principal DoD space adviser. With a goal to shift the Air Force’s space culture to one of warfighting, the center and the service secretary’s office will oversee a five-year, $5 billion budget increase for industry and allies to test new capabilities.”

Signal

 If I wanted to pick the fattest single Defense target, I would say it was retrofitting.

“Upgrades and retrofits of existing programs appear to give the greatest number of opportunities for COTS systems. These are often replacing proprietary systems for more open standards that are ultimately easier and cheaper to maintain going forward.”

Robert Day, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Lynx Software Technologies,  Military Embedded Systems

The military can’t afford new stuff, so they want to make the old stuff last longer. At AMREL, we are very excited about this opportunity.  Our platform flexibility, extensive technical support, and customization capabilities make us a very good fit for this. In fact, many of the programs favored by the “Bow Wave” (communication, vehicles, SOCOM, etc.) present excellent opportunities for us and our partners.

For over 30 years, AMREL has been proud to provide mobile computer solutions for American Defense needs. Whatever requirements arise, you can be sure that we will be there to meet them.

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Game of Phones: Will Apple sue the FBI?

Does the FBI have to tell Apple how it cracked the iPhone? The answer is not straightforward, and is illustrative of the many problems surrounding encryption.

 

The many discontents of encryption

Encryption is a very important security measure and it is also a real pain. For one thing, once encrypted, devices have a shorter battery life, and transmit data at a slower speed. In order to encrypt a device, valuable real estate can be taken up by the security hardware. At AMREL, we are familiar with this challenge, because our customization services are often asked to add Trusted Platform Modules (TPM) to our computer platforms.

In addition, high-security encrypted devices create bizarre unforeseen consequences. Soldiers are sometimes ordered to use systems for which that they are not cleared. Repairmen often lack clearance, so a broken encrypted device must be disposed rather than fixed.

 

Apple vs. FBI

In the latest round of “Game of Phones,” another unforeseen consequence appears possible. After months of applying legal pressure to Apple, is it the FBI who will ironically be forced to yield up their secrets? Will they be forced to tell Apple how they did their hack?

How did the FBI crack the iPhone in the first place?  Rumors have been circulating that the Israeli company Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization cracked the iPhone used in the San Bernardino terrorist shootings. That the FBI had to use an outside contractor to crack the iPhone is plausible. For one thing, there is a reason that the phrases “FBI” and “leading-edge technological capabilities” rarely appear together.

That an Israeli company did the hack is also believable, for that country has earned a reputation for expertise in encryption. Israel has developed these skills because its computer networks are under constant attacks. In addition, it has the highest number of programmers per capita of any country in the world. There is even a highly developed ancient tradition of cryptology and secret codes within Jewish mysticism.

Still any rumor in the Middle East has to be greeted with skepticism. I have met hackers who have valued reputation over the risk of legal retribution by falsely claiming exploits. The Cellebrite rumor appears to have some credibility. Around the time of the hack, it is a matter of official record that the FBI paid over $200,000 to this company.  A lot of people seem to believe this rumor, because the shares of its parent company, Japan’s Sun Corporation, have risen 40% since March 2.

 

Our lips are sealed

The fact that it is likely that a private corporation was the one to hack the iPhone is significant in the issue of who tells what to whom. Supposedly, the government is bound to inform companies of vulnerabilities in their encrypted systems, as determined by something called the “Vulnerabilities Equities Process” (VEP).

The VEP was developed in a thoroughly transparent process and actively shared with the public by the administration. Just kidding. Everything about the VEP is opaque. The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) had to sue under the Freedom Information Act to get a highly redacted version of the VEP, which can be viewed here.  The EFF is not impressed with this document. Judging by information about government actions as revealed by the Snowden leaks, the EFF has dubbed the VEP as “…so much vaporware.”

 

The weird world of administrative law

Or is it? Just how meaningful is the VEP?  IF Apple could persuade a court that according to VEP, the government has to reveal the vulnerabilities of their encryption, would the administration have to follow their own rules? The VEP belongs to that surreal realm of “administrative law.”  Congress didn’t pass it. By and large, it’s not determined by court rulings or precedent. It’s just something that a bunch of administrative agencies made up.

I called a lawyer who has more than fifty years of experience of using the law to annoy the government. I asked, “Do government agencies have to follow their own made-up rules?” Her answer was a definitive, absolute, unqualified “Maybe.” In addition, she said that whatever decision is made by the courts, it will be “political.”

 

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing”

It is extremely unlikely a court will determine if the VEP applies or not. The fact that a private party (Cellebrite) probably hacked the iPhone is significant, because the VEP does not apply to private parties. The VEP only applies to vulnerabilities discovered directly by government agencies themselves.

Furthermore, according to the Washington Post, “FBI Director James B. Comey has said that the solution works only on iPhone 5Cs running the iOS 9 operating system — what he calls a ‘narrow slice’ of phones. Apple said last week that it would not sue the government to gain access to the solution.”

So after months of the FBI pressuring Apple to hack its own iPhone, it withdraws from the case, and says never mind. After months of declaring that the iPhone hack will endanger all iPhones, Apple has similarly dismissed its efforts to force the FBI to reveal its secrets. Some have suggested that the “narrow slice” description is accurate and Apple is not truly worried about the security of its future platforms.

The one thing that is clear from all this brouhaha is that our legal structure is completely inadequate for dealing with issues raised by new technologies. In the original court case, the FBI sued Apple on the basis of a law written in 1789.

In the meantime, I have a sinking feeling that the privacy of the average user was not a great concern in this latest round of legal wrangling. As Elliot Hannon wrote in Slate, “We’re all digital piñatas really.”

 

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“Bow Wave” is Critical to Defense Budgets

At AMREL we play close attention to pressures placed on the Department of Defense (DoD) budgets. We strive to respond to ever changing needs of our clients and market forces.

How are things going for the DoD? If you listen to the leadership, not so good.

“Every single time I stand on stage, I tell people the budget is getting worse and worse, and I’ve always proven to be correct,” said Tony Montemarano, executive deputy director (Defnse Information Systems Agency) … “there are a lot of legacy programs … that now will lose funding.” Signal

“Adm. Mulloy cited an old saying about Navy chiefs squeezing nickels ‘until the buffalo squeaks,’ advising chiefs today to watch their spares closely…” Signal

“The Navy continues to postpone much needed repairs and upgrades for the majority of our infrastructure,” said Admiral Michelle Howard, vice chief of naval operations. “We are still paying down the readiness debt we accrued over the last decade, but more slowly than we would prefer and at continued risk to our shore infrastructure.” VOA

The above represents just a small sample of the grumblings emanating from our military leadership. Complaints about budgetary limitations are ringing across the land. A half-trillion dollar Defense budget is just not enough.

 

Defense budget

What’s going on here? Is this just business as usual? After all, no officer ever advanced his career by loudly proclaiming his command had too much money. Let’s look at the Defense budget:

Defense 1

DoD Budget Request 2017

The budget for 2017 is $521.7 billion, which is down from previous requests (2013 was $525. 4 billion). As can be seen from the above chart, procurement funding has decreased, while funding for research has increased. Of course, this doesn’t include the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, which has been slashed. Supposedly OCO doesn’t affect base expenses and is used only for actual war operations.

Could these relatively modest decreases be responsible for the economic squeeze that Defense is so vigilantly complaining about?

 

War is bad for living things and new acquisitions

During the Iraqi and Afghanistan campaigns, the DoD had to divert funding from upgrades, maintenance, readiness, and acquisitions to pay for the land wars. Furthermore, the money spent the land wars did not contribute to DoD’s assets or goals. Equipment was scraped, abandoned, or given away.

“For the most part, war-related acquisition funding was not used to modernize and recapitalize the inventory of equipment.”

Defense Modernization Plans through 2020

Bow Wave

As a result of this diversion, the programs for new acquisitions were stalled and goals became delayed to an unknown time. This created the phenomenon known as “Bow Wave.”  Think of the bow of a ship pushing into the ocean. The wave it creates is constantly moving forward. The defense community uses this as a metaphor for the current state of funding. A “Bow Wave” in defense parlance, is the delay into the indefinite future of major expenses. It’s sort of like a balloon payment at the end of a mortgage.

The “Bow Wave” is expected to suck all available funding, causing non-prioritized projects to suffer. As a result, the brass is scrambling to declare that their individual programs are overwhelmingly important, while the other guys’ pet projects are just waste.

In the big fight about defining what is and what is not waste, we could simply build the kind of military we need and get rid of everything else. One small problem with that way of thinking; take a look at DoD’s goals as outlined in the DoD Budget Request 2017.

“Funds a joint force with the capacity and capability to:

– Defend the homeland

– Respond to five challenges

o Russia

o China

o North Korea

o Iran

o Global counter-terrorism”

As you might expect, the forces required to deter Russia are quite a bit different from those that would engage China and so on. No one really knows what war we are going to fight next.

How is the “Bow Wave” going to affect defense-spending priorities?  A future blog post will discuss winners and losers in upcoming Defense budgets.