the Vision Thing

We’ve heard much about various politicians’ “Vision of America” – come next November, we’ll find out what the voters see.

First, let’s dispense with the discussion about whether or not this election will be a referendum on President Obama. All presidential elections (and not a few off-year ones) are referenda on the sitting president. If voters think he’s doing a good job, he’ll be re-elected (or supported); if not, he won’t. It’s not rocket science.

President Obama will try to make the election about the Republican candidate – whoever gets the nomination will be the devil incarnate – rather than his record, which is tainted by the legacy of his absentee-landlordship over a dysfunctional Democratic Congress’s spending like drunken Greeks. The Republican will try to make the election about that record. The undercurrent of this cycle will be about government’s role in American society.

This is a national argument that we’ve had since the Founding, albeit taking different masks at different times. Both conservatives and liberals favor a strong national government – the conservatives for presenting a dependable national face to the world, and the liberals for the sculpting of domestic society. It’s Hamilton versus Jefferson.

The problem with highly polarized eras is that this becomes an either/or question rather than one of where to strike the balance. Obviously, government has a place in shaping society – law enforcement, poverty relief, and so on – and equally obviously, government has a responsibility to protect its territory, citizenry and interests. Unfortunately, the 2012 elections will be portrayed as the evil, child-eating Republicans against the oblivious, frenzy-spending Democrats, when the real question is whether we want a nation that trusts its people or one that trusts its politicians.

The idea of market-republicanism is that the people, in the aggregate, make better decisions – the averaging of 300 million self-interested individuals tends to be more solution-oriented than the averaging of 535 self-interested politicians. Politicians, of course, tend to disagree. Both Democrats and Republicans favor increasing their personal power and, taken times 535 means larger government – for no higher purpose than cumulative self-aggrandizement.

That would be annoying enough except the consequences are more important than just that. More government means less left over for investment in problem-solving and wealth-creation, which is what raises standards of living for everyone. Government doesn’t make anything, so whatever it gives to someone, it must first take from someone else. Government doesn’t create wealth, it consumes it. Government is hopelessly inefficient at actually doing anything – it’s a deliberative body, not a particularly good administrative one.

A large part of the problem is that Congress isn’t about solving problems, it’s about how best to use problems to advance an existing agenda. Both parties do this. Individuals tend to solve the actual problem at hand. I don’t know how anyone can look at the current condition of America at home and abroad, and conclude that incumbents deserve to have their power increased.

Of all the monies collected to help the poor, 70% is absorbed by the numerous bureaucracies set up to “help the poor.” By far the biggest beneficiaries of such funds are the middle-class bureaucrats assigned to administer those funds.

Iran’s New Toy

An hour after Iranian state television aired images purporting to show off a captured LockheedMartin RQ-170 Sentinel, General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force’s top uniformed officer, raised the specter of a foreign power copying the stealthy jet’s top-secret technology.

The RQ-170 is a flying wing UAV containing many features familiar to those conversant in stealth design – e.g., notched landing gear doors, sharp leading edges and a curved wing planform – has a 43-foot wingspan and is powered by a General Electric TF34 non-afterburning turbofan. A streamlined blister atop each wing carries datalink communications gear, and a ventral streamlined blister along the centerline contains sensors. The New York Times has reported that the Sentinel, in addition to its imaging equipment, is “almost certainly” equipped with communications intercept equipment as well as highly sensitive sensors capable of detecting very small amounts of radioactive isotopes and chemicals (gas chromatograph on a chip) which may indicate the existence of nuclear weapons facilities. The RQ-170 is also known to carry an excellent synthetic-aperture side-looking radar, used for detailed mapping.

The available reports don’t shed much light on how the Iranians came into possession of the drone. At first, they claim to have shot it down, then they said that they hacked the system and redirected it to land in Iran. Both are highly unlikely. The chronology suggests a glitch – probably software – that resulted in an “undefined” situation (as far as the operating system was concerned).

US military officials in Afghanistan announced that they had lost contact with a UAV operating over western Afghanistan. The next day, Iran claimed that they had shot down an “American spy drone” and had the wreckage. The New York Times reported that the missing drone was an RQ-170, a sophisticated stealth platform with advanced sensors. Iran then said that they had hacked into the UAV’s operating system and redirected it to land in eastern Iran. And then they showed what appeared to be an in-tact RQ-170 on state-run television. The airframe showed light damage consistent with a wheels-up landing.

A couple of things of interest here: the Sentinel is programmed to, upon losing contact with its controller, re-trace its flight path and land itself at the airstrip where it began its journey. So a controlled descent and landing is within the platform’s capabilities. The operating system and associated software is double-encrypted, and would be very difficult for anyone without specific decryption algorithms to “redirect” a Sentinel to an alternative landing site. The RQ-170 communicates with its controller via line-of-sight SATCOM datalink network, again, extremely difficult to breach. Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute [Arlington VA], noted that engine or navigational malfunction could be ruled out because of the in-tact nature of the sample shown on Iranian TV.

I think an unforeseen set of circumstances caused the Sentinel to deviate from its “return and recover” routine, and sent it looking for a flat place to land. Subsequently, the Iranians found the platform (it would have been noticeable during its descent and approach) sitting where it landed and shut down. The light damage a result of an unimproved landing site.

I’m not that worried about any stealth technology that could be compromised by examining the aircraft – the materials, coatings and architecture of minimal radar-cross-section design are in the public domain – but I am concerned about what sensors are on-board and what condition they’re in. Chinese and Russian engineers are en route to examine the Sentinel.

President Obama requested that Iran return the UAV, but that request has been rejected. My thought was they might take a page out of our book: Major Viktor Belenko, a Soviet MiG-25 pilot, defected to the West by flying his Foxbat into Japan in 1976. The Kremlin insisted that we give their MiG back, which CIA did in a series of crates and boxes after the aircraft was completely dissembled and examined. The Chinese will try to buy the RQ-170 in-tact, which cash-strapped Iran may well permit. This would be the worst-case scenario, from our standpoint.

Among PRC, Russia and Iran – our chief geopolitical adversaries – PRC can get the most value from this artifact. They have the assets and talent to decrypt the operating system (thus learning much about how we automate the flight regime of our UAVs); they can move ahead of Russian stealth methodology by studying the internal construction and materials of the Sentinel; the Chinese covet our miniaturized synthetic-aperture radars (if one was on-board this RQ-170), and the firmware of how we integrate the various sensors into meaningful data packets. And PRC can afford to develop a platform based on a reversed engineered Sentinel, which would tax the Russian defense budget, and is utterly beyond Iranian resources, capabilities and talent.

However this incident ends, it’s not the end of the world – even though the F-117’s technology is now in the public domain, it remains virtually invisible to air defense radars – but it is a set-back. We loose an advantage we have enjoyed for several years, as the rest of the world moves closer to our state-of-the-art in operational low-observable technologies, and that ratchets up the risk for any given stealth mission while proliferating the ability for stealth being used against us.

See Dave Majumdar, Iran’s captured RQ-170: How bad is the damage?, in Air Force Times, December 9 2011.

Scott Shane and David E Sanger,“Drone Crash in Iran Reveals Secret US Surveillance Effort, in The New York Times, December 7 2011.

The mathematics of radar evasion are widely known, and much was learned by our adversaries from the F-117A Nighthawk shot down over Serbia during our aerial campaign during the Bosnian war.

We have since acquired three examples of MiG-25s which are operated by the Air Force’s “Aggressor Wing” at Nellis AFB [NV].

Which, of course, means that our encryption/decryption algorithms are now compromised and must be ground-up re-written.