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Mini-weapons sought by Pentagon for new era of warfare

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A sleek, delta-winged robotic jet took to the skies for the first time above the Mojave Desert at Edwards Air Force Base.

Boeing Co.’s experimental drone, dubbed Phantom Ray, flew to 7,500 feet and reached speeds of 205 mph in its first flight. The 17-minute flight took place April 27, but Boeing officials did not confirm details until Tuesday.


The Phantom Ray, which resembles a giant boomerang, is being developed by the Chicago company for a variety of missions. Its stealthy design could enable it to slip behind enemy lines to knock out radar installations, clearing the way for fighters and bombers.

Under mounting pressure to keep its massive budget in check, the Pentagon is looking to cheaper, smaller weapons to wage war in the 21st century.

A new generation of weaponry is being readied in clandestine laboratories across the nation that puts a priority on pintsized technology that would be more precise in warfare and less likely to cause civilian casualties. Increasingly, the Pentagon is being forced to discard expensive, hulking, Cold War-era armaments that exact a heavy toll on property and human lives.

At L-3 Interstate Electronics Corp. in Anaheim, technicians work in secure rooms developing a GPS guidance system for a 13-pound “smart bomb” that would be attached to small, low-flying drone.

Engineers in Simi Valley at AeroVironment Inc. are developing a mini-cruise missile designed to fit into a soldier’s rucksack, be fired from a mortar and scour the battlefield for enemy targets.

And in suburban Portland, Ore. Voxtel Inc. is concocting an invisible mist to be sprayed on enemy fighters and make them shine brightly in night-vision goggles.

These miniature weapons have one thing in common: They will be delivered with the help of small robotic planes. Drones have grown in importance as the Pentagon has seen them play a vital role in Iraq, Afghanistan and reportedly in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Now, engineers in Southern California and elsewhere are refining drone technology to deliver a powerful wallop with increasingly smaller robotic planes — many of which resemble model aircraft buzzing around local parks.

This work is aimed primarily at one buyer —the Pentagon, which is seeking a total of $671 billion for fiscal 2012. Of that, drones represent $4.8 billion, a small but growing segment of the defense budget — and that doesn’t include spending on robotic weapons technology in the classified portion of the budget.

This comes at a time when expensive weapons programs, like Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicles and Navy cruisers, are being eyed for trims.

Although some mini-weapons may resemble toys, they represent a new wave of sophisticated technology in modern warfare, which has forced the military and weapons-makers to think small. And they are just a few under development that have been disclosed.

“There are a lot of weapons in the military’s arsenal,” said Lt. Col. Brad Beach, an official who coordinates the Marines’ drone technology. “But what we don’t have is something small.”

The military is flush with multi-ton bunker-busting bombs designed to reduce fortified buildings into smoldering rubble.

But Marines on the front lines in Afghanistan say there is an urgent need for a weapon that is small and powerful enough to protect them from insurgents planting roadside bombs.

Marines already have small spy drones with high-powered cameras, but what they need is a way to destroy the enemies that their drones discover.

Looking to fill the need, the 13-pound “smart bomb” has been under development for three years. The 2-foot-long bomb is steered by a GPS-guided system made in Anaheim. The bomb is called Small Tactical Munition, or STM, and is under development by Raytheon Co.


“Soldiers are watching bad guys plant” roadside bombs and “can’t do anything about it,” said Cody Tretschok, who leads work on the program at Raytheon. “They have to call in an air strike, which can take 30 to 60 minutes. The time lapse is too great.”

The idea is that the small bomb could be slung under the spy plane’s wing, dropped to a specific point using GPS coordinates or a laser-guidance system, and blast apart “soft” targets, such as pickup trucks and individuals, located 15,000 feet below.

Raytheon does not yet have a contract for the bomb and is building it entirely with its own money.

“We’re proactively anticipating the military’s need,” said Tretschok, who is testing the technology at the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

In a similar fashion, drone-maker AeroVironment in Simi Valley didn’t wait for the government when it started to build its Switchblade mini-cruise missile to seek and destroy nearby targets.

The little missile, which looks less harmless than many Fourth of July fireworks, is fired from a mortar, unfolds its wings as it goes, and begins sending live video and GPS coordinates to the soldier who launched it.

The 2-foot-long battery-powered drone would be tipped with a tiny warhead and remotely operated from a handheld controller. It is being designed to fly above a warzone for at least five minutes for more than a mile at a time.

“This technology gives the war fighter the ability to pinpoint where and when he strikes,” said Steven Gitlin, an AeroVironment spokesman. “It’s all about precision.”

Critics say the technology may be too imprecise and hard to track, said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.

But the weapons have sophisticated internal guidance systems, which is key because much of today’s fighting takes place in crowded urban environments, such as targets located in or near population centers, he said.

“Weapons are sometimes only usable today if they’re small. The bottom line is: You’re not going to go around dropping 500-pound bombs everywhere,” O’Hanlon added. “Collateral damage is unacceptable in modern warfare.”

Knowing this, the military has embarked on using mini-drones for a “tagging, tracking and locating” initiative, which centers on secretly marking a target with invisible sprays and other identifiers so they don’t get lost in crowds.

Companies like Beaverton, Ore.-based Voxtel have benefited from the millions of dollars that the government is handing to contractors for research. The small 30-person company, which makes tagging products to prevent the counterfeiting of bank notes, lottery tickets and other items, now believes its microscopic nanocrystals — which become part of an invisible spray — may be are exactly what the military needs.

Tagging, tracking and locating “is a hot topic in government work,” said George Williams, company president. “It isn’t easy tracking somebody in a crowded urban environment like what is seen in today’s wars.”

Indeed. Earlier this year, the Air Force asked for proposals on developing a way to “tag” targets with “clouds” of unseen materials sprayed from quiet, low-flying drones.

In its request, the Air Force said “one method of distribution would be ‘crop-dusting’ from a sufficiently high altitude (to avoid detection) and letting the dust-cloud fall on a target or in front of it if it is moving.”

Other methods suggested to covertly mark the targets were to “pneumatically blow a cloud” or “burst above” them.

As the military moves into miniaturizing its weapon stockpile, contractors believe applications such as these may be crucial to the overall effort. “What we do is just one part of a complex system,” Voxtel President Williams said. “We play a small role.”

– William.Hennigan

Via L.A. Times

Bombers take bin Laden revenge in Pakistan

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Suicide bombers killed 80 people at a Pakistani paramilitary academy on Friday in revenge for the death of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. raid and militants in Pakistan vowed to carry out more attacks.

A member of the Pakistani parliament said Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, Pakistan’s spy chief, said he was “ready to resign” over the bin Laden affair that has embarrassed the nation. Pakistan’s opposition leader accused the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, spy agency of negligence and incompetence.

Followers of bin Laden have vowed revenge for the al Qaeda chief’s death and the Pakistani Taliban said Friday’s attack by two suicide bombers in the northwestern town of Charsadda was their first taste of vengeance.

“There will be more,” militant spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.

The bombers struck as recruits were going on leave and 65 of them were among the 80 dead. Pools of blood strewn with soldiers’ caps and shoes lay on the road outside the academy as the wounded, looking dazed with parts of their clothes ripped away by shrapnel, were loaded into trucks.

Pakistan’s military and government have drawn criticism at home, partly for not finding bin Laden but more for failing to detect or stop the U.S. raid on May 2 that killed him.

A senior Pakistani general also canceled a planned visit to the United States. Pakistan depends heavily on U.S. aid.

In addition, U.S. authorities in Pakistan interviewed three of bin Laden’s widows, detained by Pakistan in the compound after the U.S. raid, but gathered little new information, U.S. officials said in Washington.

Pakistan said it would repatriate the three widows and their children. One is from Yemen and the others from Saudi Arabia.

U.S. special forces killed bin Laden, the man behind the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, at a compound near Pakistan’s top military academy in the northern town of Abbottabad. Pakistan welcomed his death as a major step against militancy but called the secret U.S. raid a violation of its sovereignty.

Shahid Ali, 28, was on his way to his shop when the bombs went off in Charsadda. He tried to help survivors. “A young boy was lying near a wrecked van asked me to take him to hospital. I got help and we got him into a vehicle,” Ali said.


In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner condemned the attack, offered condolences to the families of the victims, and stressed the U.S. alliance with Pakistan.

“Terrorists have shown time and again that they are the true enemy … of the people and the government of Pakistan,” Toner said. “We respect the nation’s sacrifices in the fight against terrorism and will continue to stand with Pakistan in our joint struggle to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and allied terrorist organizations.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States would be “very vigilant” about revenge attacks.

Hours after the bombing, a U.S. drone aircraft fired missiles at a vehicle in North Waziristan on the Afghan border, killing five militants, Pakistani security officials said.

It was the fourth drone attack since bin Laden was killed, inflaming another sore issue between Pakistan and the United States. Pakistan officially objects to the attacks, saying they violate its sovereignty and feed public anger.

Military and intelligence chiefs gave parliament a closed-door briefing in which ISI chief Pasha told legislators he was ready to take responsibility for any criminal failing, Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan said.

“If any of our responsibility is determined and any gap identified, that our negligence was criminal negligence, and there was an intentional failure, then we are ready to face any consequences,” Awan told Express TV, citing Pasha.

Another member of parliament said Pasha told the assembly he did not want to “hang around” if parliament deems him responsible. “I am ready to resign,” Riaz Fatyana quoted the ISI chief as saying.

The spy chief also told parliament bin Laden had been isolated, Awan said. “We had already killed all his allies and so we had killed him even before he was dead. He was living like a dead man,” Awan quoted Pasha as saying.

The chairman of Pakistan’s joint chiefs of staff committee, General Khalid Shameem Wynne, canceled a five-day visit to the United States that had been set to begin on May 22.

“The visit could not be undertaken under existing circumstances,” a military official told Reuters.

He did not elaborate, but the decision to cancel the visit came as the Cabinet defense committee said it was reviewing cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism.

U.S. officials are sifting through what they describe as a treasure trove of intelligence material seized in the raid on bin Laden’s compound.

Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed on Friday that a stash of video pornography was found in the hideout there but said they did not know if bin Laden himself had acquired or viewed the material.

The White House also said President Barack Obama would lay out his vision for Middle East policy next Thursday, using bin Laden’s death as a chance to recast the U.S. response to political upheaval in the Arab world.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush, who spent years searching in vain for bin Laden, described for the first time the call he received from Obama informing him that U.S. forces had killed the al Qaeda leader.

Bush said he was eating souffles at a Dallas restaurant when he got word Obama was trying to reach him.

“I excused myself and went home to take the call,” Bush said. “Obama simply said, ‘Osama bin Laden is dead.'” After Obama described the U.S. raid and the decision he made to go ahead with the mission, Bush said he told Obama, “Good call.”

Via NewsDaily