Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Never saw it coming

The Sage Corporation has developed a way to mount and fire a .50 caliber sniper rifle from a UAV. By exploiting altitude and sophisticated sensors, the system claims it can deliver fire more accurately than a human sniper out to a 1,500 meters. That's about a mile. The question that occurs is why on earth an aircraft should be used to carry around a rifle.

John Robb calls it "cloud power", in which rifle-toting UAVs become yet another of the millions of sensors out there detecting, detecting, and detecting. However that may be, the immediate impetus of airborne sniping is simpler. It reduces collateral damage.

Since the Second World War much of the cost and sophistication of weapons development has gone into making weapons less lethal but more precise. Designer nuclear weapons with variable effects. Conventional warheads that can be set to stun. Concrete bombs. Precision ordnance that can go through a window. And now a sniping system that can orbit unseen in the sky.

The beau ideal of modern warfare is to wage it without anyone noticing. To make combat disappear from the front pages. In that perfect future no body bags will home; no pictures of devastated enemy cities will be flashed onscreen. Just happy smiling faces all around. This should suit the peace lobby just fine; and this is important because combat is now largely -- though not entirely -- about politics. You "fight to the election". The modern battlefield not only includes the media, it is in the media.

The good news is that anything that tends to reduce collateral damage in warfare is objectively positive. World War 2 was the "Good War" as long as you didn't have to live through it as a civilian in London, Warsaw, Manila, Tokyo or Dresden. Then it was very bad indeed.

But the bad news, I think, is that it increases the distance between the policy decision and the deed; between acts and the moral responsibility for acts. Old time warfare had the property of seriously affecting everything. Societies approached it with an almost religious dread; a dread which endowed it with an awful solemnity because you bet the farm on it. In contrast, Bill Clinton loved cruise missiles because it provided him with a means to blow things up without actually going to war. Sort of like smoking without inhaling.

There's a dread, which some poets were alive to, of the dehumanizing quality of being absolved from consequences. Whether it was that of Daisy and Tom retreating into their "vast carelessness" while Gatsby dealt with things; or of the Love Generation putting away their protest placards and sipping their wine while the victims of the Year Zero perished out of sight. Maybe Bill didn't see a problem; but I am not persuaded there is nothing at the bottom of the abyss.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.


Blogger dla said...

Well Wretchard, all that you said may be true, but I think that putting a precision gun on an orbiting platform has a simpler motive - it's just better.

Cheaper kinetic energy weapon @$3/shot versus $20K per Hellfire. Technology is cheaper than sniper training.

Better engagement - better engagement angles for faster, more surgical kills.

Lower exposure - UAV is smaller than a C130, or Apache and is pilotless.

6/04/2008 01:30:00 PM  
Blogger Fred said...

But, what if the enemy is in cover and underneath something? Can't see it from above, therefore can't kill it. There is still something to be said for boots on the ground, human snipers.

6/04/2008 01:43:00 PM  
Blogger johnclubvec said...

There is another angle here, and it may be the original motive: proportionality. As in, 'Just War Theory'. As in, 'the Christian West.' As in, didn't happen nowhere else, baby. Ironic that it might be cheaper in some cases, or that President Clinton loved it for other reasons, etc. But the original motive does seem to be, well, love of neighbor, even when you're trying to kill.

6/04/2008 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

While I find the question of how this would work interesting... The more important question is who should be the target. If we put one of those over Tehran, or Quo, could we get rid of our problem by cutting off the head of the snake.

As I understand it, the "rules of war" preclude us from targeting a nation's leadership. It's time we had the discussion on this issue.

6/04/2008 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Altitude extends the range of a projectile. The higher the firing platform, all other things being equal, the longer the range.

With a sufficiently long ranged weapon, a quiet platform and the ability to spot fall of shot (which the system has) the possibility of firing multiple shots appears. This multiplies the problems of the security team because it negates much of the security advance. You can identify and close off all firing positions with line of sight from buildings and towers within 1,000 yards of a speech, for example. But how do you deal with a UAV?

Now imagine you are some terror chief or the other. A trip to your swimming pool in a walled compound turns you into fish in a barrel.

But here we come to one of those strange circumstances where politics intersects warfare. Targeted assassinations are supposed to be bad and killing strangers is OK. One of those leftovers from the Geneva Convention days when impersonal armies clashed on the field. Today none of America's enemies wear a uniform. And so the UAV sniping platform becomes, as it were, the perfect technical answer to a politically insoluble problem.

But typically, we solve the problem by making its solution undetectable. The greatest moral indictment that I can lay on Western civilization is that it has refused to amend Geneva, paying lip service instead and expecting the problem to "go away". Move on indeed.

6/04/2008 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger toadold said...

A UAV with a Maser Gun
A nice neat kill, OH what fun!
The brain is gently cooked 'til it can't think of stuff.
Was it a stroke or a secret snuff?

6/04/2008 03:00:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

So in order to access the danger you have to ask yourself--what is the polar opposite of nuking hiroshima & nagasaki.

maybe uav's with sniper scopes run by an international body--flying over wyoming to make a secret hit.

back in the 90's lots of folks had visions of black helicopters. That was my idea of unsettling.

Wretchard's idea of unsettling was to see the phillipine terrorist videotaped at night in infra red on the beach before he was killed.

Neither McCain or Obama will halt the drift of power to unaccountable international institutions.

If the drift is to be stopped it has to happen further down the pecking order by many people.

6/04/2008 03:31:00 PM  
Blogger Benj said...

Forgive me for being a bit uncharitable Wretchard but your high modernist sign-off reminded me of your expression of disdain for Marx. Marx (whom you deride - "something gloomy, musty and cockroachy about his ideas") was positively cheery compared with T.S. Eliot - great poet and great hater of America. Born in St. Louis - headed for the U.K. to escape our mongrel American culture - all those jews and blacks mixing it up and mucking up the pure Anglo strains. Talk about the "Shadow"! Eliot appreciated "Great Gatsby" but his own politics were close to that character Tom Buchanan you cite (who loved the scientific racist tracts of his times...) Eliot was a genius (despite his politics). Marx was too - though he was way wrong about much that matters (as many big thinkers are). Occurs to me that in this case (as in the case of Obama's "Dreams"?) it might help if you read what a "somebody" wrote before you piss on his/her paltry achievements and direct your Club away from what suprises (good and bad!) might be found in works they haven't read.

"It's pretty darned useless as economics and survives largely in sociology and philosophy."

Marx offered a critique of the economism of "economic" theory. That his theory survives "largely in sociology and philosophy" means it remains true to his, ah, original intent.

You're right that readers won't find stock tips in Marx. Then again the Old Moor wasn't out to be Lawrence fuggin' Kudlow...

"Karl Marx's reputation will diminish in retrospect, just as Mao's did. "

Nobody reads "The Little Red Book" now (thank God). But, ah, Marx came one hundred years BEFORE Mao, no? There's a lot more life in him than the mass murderer on his shoulder. Your comparison actually underscorse Marx's (relative) staying power.

"A lot of the power of Marxist thinking comes, I believe, from the circumstance that it sounds profound."

Isn't that a false (and slippery) sentence? - You begin by acknowledging there's "power" in "Marxist thinking" but then quickly walk back from that to the disdainful concluding phrase "sounds profound." If there's "power in the thinking" that's because Marx made arguments (as well as some extraodinary apt projections) that deserve to be addressed if not embraced. But Wretch - it seems like you don't know enough to address those arguments so you're content to lie on him - "sounds profound." That's not an honorable approach to intellectual history/disagreements.

"game theory, choice, algorithms, stepwise refinement, undecidability, halting, economy of force, price"

I don't know jack about all that. And I may be MUCH more ignorant than most of your (stepwise?) readers. On the other foot, perhaps I'm not all alone in wondering (in my dimness) how "halting" offers a "way out of tight physical and intellectual spots." BTW - Not much of a dialectician myself, but are you sure "algorithms" have entirely displaced Hegel's and Marx's old method...

"The idea of alienation is of course, not original to Marx."

You're right, of course (Funny how that's often a snotty phrase Wretch!). But Marx was the one who identified it as the foundational experience of dailiness among people who were forced to sell their labor power (as opposed to market or hand over the products they made or grew). That's why it's likely that Chinese workers who will have no use for Mao "On Contradiction" might just get something useful out of the Old Moor in the 21rst Century.

Comradeship/Conspiratorialism is the emotional juice of the Left; what really addresses "alienation", not the theories of old Karl.

Glad you blamed Lenin for the second C - but Marx deserves a good portion of the blame on that front too. Just as he deserves a lot of credit for upholding the value of comradeship and internationalism and, yup, Western humanism. I'm reminded of Marx’s line when he was asked as an elder: “What abides?” He was gazing out at the sea at the time and he took a sec before replying: “Struggle.” Sound profound?

6/04/2008 03:42:00 PM  
Blogger Insufficiently Sensitive said...

I'm reminded of Marx’s line when he was asked as an elder: “What abides?” He was gazing out at the sea at the time and he took a sec before replying: “Struggle.”

Want peace? Stop the struggle.

6/04/2008 04:24:00 PM  
Blogger Nickname unavailable said...

Wretchard said "But here we come to one of those strange circumstances where politics intersects warfare. Targeted assassinations are supposed to be bad and killing strangers is OK. One of those leftovers from the Geneva Convention days when impersonal armies clashed on the field. Today none of America's enemies wear a uniform. And so the UAV sniping platform becomes, as it were, the perfect technical answer to a politically insoluble problem."

I was thinking the same thing, except you said it much better.

But the truth is even if we could have taken out UBL on 9/12 that would not have been the end of his movement or the bigger Jihad movement. I still think it would have taken the kind of effort we've undertaken in the middle east these last years to reduce the threat posed by the radicals.

Now, not all problems are movements, some are just single people.

6/04/2008 04:35:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

I don't know about the moral distance. We had basically the same situation in Afghanistan, almost had crosshairs on Obama's head, but the Administration at the time lacked the stomach to pull the trigger. There is a good side to that. Wrong or right, they wring their hands when a bad thing needs to be done. True morality grows in free places.

The aspect of this that gives me a bad feeling is precisely the price. I have a bad feeling that we'll be selling this, like we sold stingers and rpgs, to people who will give it to people, and we will end up on the target side. Assassinations by the dozen -- too cheap to meter.

6/04/2008 05:06:00 PM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Eliot was a poet, not a man whose self proclaimed mission was not simply to understand history, but to change it. But then Marxism was always the science of making bad comparisons and never being aware of it.

6/04/2008 05:06:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

I'm thinking that cheap and terrible weapons have a capacity to change the world, taking power away from those who have it and giving it to those who aren't afraid to use it.

6/04/2008 05:14:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I never bought the argument in the early days that it would be better not to kill Obama and make a martyr out of him, but upon reading those articles about increasing Muslim alienation w/Al Qaeda, I had some second thoughts.
If he continues to garner more enmity, maybe he and Dr Z should be allowed to burn out unassisted?

6/04/2008 06:19:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Frank Gaffney shocked Hewitt recently by refering to Ambassador Christopher R. Hill as a "swine!"
Sam said...
" WASHINGTON, June 4 (Yonhap) -- North Korean officials likened their future status to that of the Israelis, who are "friends" with the United States despite having nuclear weapons, reinforcing their message that they are not willing to give up their atomic arsenal, a former U.S. envoy said Wednesday.

As Pritchard was meeting North Korean officials in Pyongyang, the White House announced that the North had helped Syria build a clandestine reactor.

North Korean officials denied the allegations, demanding that the U.S. present real proof.

"According to officials we were talking with, the example would be shipping documents," said Nicole Finnemann, a KEI staff member who accompanied Pritchard on the Pyongyang trip."

NK Compares Itself to Israel

6/04/2008 06:36:00 PM  
Blogger Benj said...

Doug -"I never bought the argument in the early days that it would be better not to kill Obama and make a martyr out of him," - I freaked for a sec when I read that. You meant Osama I'm SURE!
Never been all that big on Freud (and I though Olberman was gonzo re Hillary's misspeaking) but still... Only you know if you need to do some re-calibrating. -

PS Wretch - Eliot was a little more concerned about trying to change History than you might think - Course he was chiefly interested in going backward...Ever read his appreciation of the music hall singer Marie Lloyd? Great essay - just sad he could only appreciate people's culture in the UK not back here in the USA.

6/04/2008 06:40:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Perhaps I also have a brain tumor:
Ted was the first (and most hilarious) to do it.

6/04/2008 06:44:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

Back in the mid-80’s a movie came out, “Real Genius” about some kids at a college in California who invent a way to produce a high power laser. Then they discover that the laser is going to be mounted on a B-1 bomber and used for precise targeting of individuals, the test target consisting of a dummy sitting in a remote controlled limo as part of a robot motorcade. In other words, an assassinate a Bin Laden type of scenario.

And the students are horrified at what they have done. They reprogram the laser to fill their hated professor’s house with popcorn.

I wonder at what point it became a Bad Thing to bump off a Bad Guy. It sounds great to me. And unlike Clinton’s firing off cruise missiles it might actually do some good. Probably kill fewer innocent people too, as opposed to: “We’ll teach those Africans to think they can work mopping floors at an aspirin factory on the graveyard shift!”

And, by the way, the USAF currently is working on such a laser and they probably are indeed going to mount it on a B-1.

6/04/2008 06:54:00 PM  
Blogger Nortius Maximus said...

A technical point: I seem to recall that issue .50 BMG weapons and ammo are not considered accurate enough for anti-personnel use out to those distances. That's why such rifles are classed as "anti-materiel". I also question just how well windage and other factors can actually be handled (literally) on-the-fly.

6/04/2008 08:08:00 PM  
Blogger Cedarford said...

When Bush 1st ran for office, he declared the pracice of sending 35 3-million dollar cruise missiles through empty tents a waste.

That was before he learned he could borrow unlimited sums from China and pass the costs of tax cuts for the rich and extraordinary defense outlays for needlessly exorbitant weapons systems and for billionaire contractors and employees costing between 450,000 and 89,000 a year in pay to get Burger King supplies in for 30K a year soldiers.

Now we have a fleet costing 17 million a day in extra ops costs on station because the Navy wants to have carrier aviation going on 650 mile flights to provide air cover for 3 Marine squads instead of having a one-million dollar artillery system ready to do the same job because "The Admirals worked it out with the Generals". The AF comes up with an 80 million dollar ICBM missile that will launch a conventional warhead on a nuclear bomb trajectory - simply to deliver 1500 pounds of "ultra-precision" warhead on a single house to mimimize "innocent enemy civilian casualties" and act fast...

We were shooting .50 cal bullets out of WWI biplanes, lots of them. Now we want to mount a .50 cal rifle in a Predator system that costs 12 million a year in capital budget, mntc, broadband comm net, and ops personnel costs? A 12 million dollar bullet just so "we might get a bad guy by surprise sometime and spare any "innocent civilians"?

One thing these 450K - 80 million a shot precision, golly gee weapons systems do, as the hapless Israelis learned when the world piled on them for using non-precision ordinance on Hez - is create the expectation that a nation that has precision capacity is morally obligated to use it in any setting, regardless of cost.

It was once acceptable to all to drop 30 dumb iron bombs costing 480 dollars each on an enemy concentration near civilians. But now the expectation is to launch one 80K JDAM or one 20K Hellfire and limit enemy civilian deaths at a cost of only taking out a few "high priority" enemy combatants.

If we go to one bullet, perfectly delivered on just one enemy soldier by a multimillion dollar remote system - the expectation of human rights groups, media, lawyers will be that with that capacity, any killing of civilians is unacceptable.

Which will take use of weapons like JDAMs and Hellfires into territory where lawyers then start "inquiries" of commanders that decide to use a Hellfire to blow up a terrorist in a car with his innocent jihadi wives and children, or house with the same family AND 4-5 of his top lieutenants - instead of using that one 12 million dollar "magic bullet" that doesn't ever endanger any enemy civilian and takes out 1 enemy per mission.

6/04/2008 08:08:00 PM  
Blogger Big D said...

I don't know why they don't bring this up in the pdf, but there's no reason you couldn't replace the .50 with a light cannon, such as the 25mm cannon/grenade launcher hybrids currently being experimented with.

In addition, there's no reason why such software couldn't be used to adjust the fire from AC-130s, as well.

6/04/2008 08:30:00 PM  
Blogger jj mollo said...


I think you have the cost analysis wrong. A lot of this system is a one time only investment. Much of the rest of it will be subject to Moore's Law, ending up in someone's pocket. The high-powered knowledge workers are only part of the system because it's new and because we have turned target selection into a bureaucratic function.

A better measure of the power of this system is kills per attempt, not how much it costs to send up a biplane and spray out a bunch of lead. Effectiveness is the key. And any truly effective system actually provides the greatest benefit by changing the rules. If we are effective against snipers, for instance, we will rarely have to shoot them because they won't be there to shoot.

6/05/2008 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Cedarford said...

jj mollo - And any truly effective system actually provides the greatest benefit by changing the rules.

Except my point was that sometimes the changes to the rules perversely benefit the enemy. As the Israelis learned - new precision weapons systems were used against them by their Hez and Hamas enemies (and all the international law in warfare lawyers) to claim that any civilian deaths along with the target's attendent armed fighters were avoidable atrocities because the Israelis should use only expensive precision weapons to kill one fighter at a time to avoid "any civilian deaths".

Proudly touting how your mega-expensive new precision weapons golly gee whiz system will avoid "collateral damage" then forms the expectation that - having that capacity - you have just advanced yourself out of the ability to kill large numbers of the enemy with artillery, cluster bombs, dumb iron bombs dropped in number, mortars, rockets. While of course the enemy, which lacks the multimillion dollar "kill one enemy at a time only" miraculous high tech - is free to use the old, proven weapons of wiping out an enemy force.

If wizard multimillion dollar single bullet delivery systems that "spare any civilian or family of terrorists or the #2-13 subleaders or fighters so multimillion dollar "quests" can be undertaken to find and shoot one enemy leader - you have made warfare enormously more expensive and ineffective. Again, the Israelis have discovered that targeted assassinations of "Mr. Big" only open the door for an endless stream of untouched aspiring "Mr Bigs" to take over the vacant leadership slot - until a more cunning, smarter, and discrete leader is almost impossible for their new superwhamadyne 3-million dollar guided missile or 12 million dollar single bullet firing plane to find and hit.

A better measure of the power of this system is kills per attempt, not how much it costs to send up a biplane and spray out a bunch of lead. Effectiveness is the key.

Indeed. And rather than play terrorist "whack a mole" with replacable leaders with one hugely expensive .50 cal bullet or 3 million dollar cruise missile or the 80-million dollar AF "precision-guided" conventionally armed ICBM designed to take out one terrorist safehouse while assuring "no civilians outside the target house get killed - it is better to hit the enemy broadly.
Even killing a certain amout of civilians is a good thing if they realize there is an element of risk that non-precision weapons will take out the missile battery two houses over and supporting such fighters might get them killed as well. If the enemy civilians know they have no risk for cheering on the warriors - no adverse consequences - they will feel more at ease encouraging wars and terrorists serving their "causes".

In that context, a WWI biplane is more "effective" by wiping out a slew of enemy and a few civilians with 800 .50 cals strafed into an enemy concentration than a "one-shot" plane costing 90 times as much in constant dollars is 100 years later.

The recent turn against terrorism by citizenry in many Muslim countries has many reasons, but nothing to do with this or that "Mr. Big Leader" being martyred by a hugh tech toy.

1. Finding out that conflict with America has made life more miserable for the average person. War is not as "safe" as they thought it would be with their initial misbegotten expectation that war would not impact any civilians....

2. That whole village generations of happy civilian young men who volunteered to be low-level fighters have been wiped out by cluster bombs, Bradleys using frag shells, and Apache gunships. "Don't go. AQ will just use you as cannon-fodder!"

3. AQ's ruling methods, deliberate butchery.


6/05/2008 02:28:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

More learned folks than I may already be aware that a weapon was developed starting in the 1970's that fires three rounds in a burst, using cartridges with no metal casing, just a rectangular block of propellant and binder which vaporizes with the propellant.

Look up the H&K Gewehr-11, with caseless ammunition.

With the weapon at the appropriate setting, the second round and third round are each in turn pushed into the chamber and sent hurtling toward the target before the weapon has had time to recoil. Along with the unique feed & rotating breech mechanism, this results in a controlled dispersion of trajectories over a small angle meant to optimize the probability of a hit on the target.

Another words, all three of the rounds are travelling on almost identical paths, separated only by a few milliseconds. The rate of fire for this sort of burst is described as "greater than 2000 rounds per minute."

The H&K G-11 project was scrapped, despite its performance, because of excessive strains on the German government's budget following re-unification, and the challenge of getting NATO to make a radical conversion (standardization in NATO is a big problem!)

Maybe this concept could be applied to a Predator-mounted sniper weapon. The .50 caliber weapon has good range, and a sufficiently high initial velocity that wind and gravity deflection don't affect the round as much as they would a 7.62 mm slug. It would be interesting to see if the rotating breech and caseless cartridge could be scaled up to a larger caliber.

In the VietNam war, phantom jets were initially deployed without any gun, only missile systems. they suffered a lot of nasty surprises until someone decided to improvise with an external pod-mounted 20mm cannon.

Yankee ingenuity, we calls it.

6/05/2008 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

It is true --- we must resist feeling any obligation to live up to the absurd and intentionally perverse demands of idiots who insist we must at all times be able to "shoot the gun out of the bad guy's hand" --- disarm without wounding.

What a crock of steaming dung!

6/05/2008 03:43:00 PM  
Blogger Mad Fiddler said...

Of course, what we need to develop is a miniature guided missile the size of a .50 caliber slug, which has every evil doer's personal data etched on a memory chip, with interviews from Imams who trained the evil-doers, job history, most recent safe house address, plus all associates and their cousins, wives, lovers, pets, and in-force insurance policy numbers and beneficiaries. Plus software to integrate and extrapolate both the current location, and whether the targeted evil-doer is likely to flinch at the last second, spoiling the shot.

The slug must be able to calculate optimum trajectory, generate progress reports, and if the mission is jeopardized by policy changes en route, reverse course and return to the barrel of the gun for further instructions.

And it must not be so costly as to interfere with a national health care single-carrier program.

6/05/2008 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger Mannning said...

One version of the B-25 in WWII had a 75 mm cannon mounted in the nose. It was effective, too. But, it was said that the B-25, when trying to aim accurately at a low speed, damn near fell out of the sky when that cannon went off.

Scale it down to Predator, and I wonder...

6/07/2008 12:33:00 PM  
Blogger M. Simon said...

Tax cuts for the rich increased government revenue. They also jump started a stagnant economy.

Above a certain tax rate (economists think it is about 20%) increases in rates do not increase revenue they just strangle the economy.

So, in order to punish the rich the rest of us will have to suffer more. It is only fair.

6/09/2008 01:27:00 PM  
Blogger Mannning said...

The latest version of a zero recoil, high rate of fire weapon is called Metal Storm, and it is fearsome indeed. I believe the reference site is It could be fitted to Predator easily.

6/09/2008 06:50:00 PM  

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