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June 1 2013

June 3, 2013



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Iranian Hackers Launching Cyber-Attacks on U.S. Energy Firms: Report

By Brian Prince | Posted 2013-05-27


Iranian hackers have amped up a campaign of cyber-attacks against America’s energy industry, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

Citing current and former U.S. officials speaking under the blanket of anonymity, the Journal reported that Iranian hackers accessed control system software that could have allowed them to manipulate oil or gas pipelines. The attacks raise the stakes in cyber-space between the U.S. and Iran, which has been accused by U.S. officials of being behind a spate of distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS) against U.S. banks stretching back to 2012.

“This is representative of stepped-up cyber activity by the Iranian regime. The more they do this, the more our concerns grow,” a source told the Journal. “What they have done so far has certainly been noticed, and they should be cautious.”

Alireza Miryousefi, Iran’s spokesperson at the United Nations, denied any connection between hackers and the regime in an interview with the Journal.

The officials who spoke to The Wall Street Journal did not name any of the energy companies targeted in the attacks. But two former officials said oil and gas companies located along the Canadian border were among those hit.

Word of the attacks comes a week after Charles Edwards, deputy inspector general at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told members of a Senate subcommittee that industrial control systems were increasingly coming under attack in cyber-space in ways that could potentially cause “large-scale power outages or man-made environmental disasters.”

Securing these systems is complicated, as many are more interconnected with the Internet than people realize, explained Tom Cross, director of security research at network security vendor Lancope.

“It is also difficult to fix security flaws with these systems because they aren’t designed to be patched and restarted frequently,” he said.

“It is extremely important,” he continued, “that operators of industrial control networks monitor those networks with systems that can identify anomalous activity that might be associated with an attack. Because of the relatively homogenous nature of network activity on many control systems networks, anomaly detection can be can be a powerful tool in an environment where other kinds of security approaches fall flat.”

Much of the talk about improving the security of critical infrastructure companies has focused on information sharing between the government and private sector. Improving communication between government and business figured prominently in the executive order on cyber-security that President Barack Obama issued in February. However, many officials and security experts have said that the order does not undo the need for legislation.

“The increases in cyber-assaults on our energy systems from Iranian-backed hackers are another signal to the government and the industry that measures must be taken to fortify the security of our critical infrastructure,” said Lila Kee, chief product and marketing officer at GlobalSign and a North American Energy Standards Board (NAESB) board member.

“However, there is a fine line between cyber-security regulation and voluntary standards,” she said. “Regulations cannot be so rigid so as to prevent protection from today’s evolving advanced persistent threats, and voluntary standards cannot be so loose so as to provide no purpose. In today’s modern world of malware, solutions must be fluid and scalable to battle aggressive cyber-attacks.”


Report: Chinese Hackers Accessed U.S. Weapon Designs

By Chloe Albanesius

May 28, 2013 12:40pm EST

Chinese hackers have accessed designs for U.S. advanced weapons systems, according to a new report from the Washington Post.

That includes everything from an Army system that can shoot down ballistic missiles to the $1.4 trillion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (pictured), which was hacked in the past, the Post said.

The revelation was included in a report from the Defense Science Board, a committee of experts who advise the Defense Department on scientific and technical matters related to defense systems. The board released a public version of its report in January, with sensitive information removed. The Washington Post recently obtained the full version of that report, which included a list of compromised weapons designs.

The board did not come out and say that China stole U.S. designs, but officials told the Post that it speaks to China’s increasing push to access defense-related data from the U.S.

The report is the latest in a string of cyber attacks reportedly perpetrated by Chinese hackers. In a report released earlier this month, the DOD said the People’s Liberation Army was collecting information from U.S. diplomatic, economic, and defense sectors in order to gain insight into how the U.S. views China, among other things. “In 2012, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military,” the DOD said.

In April, meanwhile, Verizon said in its annual Data Breach Investigations Report that approximately 96 percent of the 2012 cyber-espionage cases traced to China.

A month earlier, President Obama’s national security advisor urged the Chinese to stop hacking U.S. targets and “establish acceptable norms of behavior” for cyberspace. In a speech to The Asia Society, Tom Donilon said cyber-security issues had “become a key point of concern and discussion with China at all levels of our governments.”

Thus far, China has denied any wrongdoing and said accusations of hacking U.S. targets are unprofessional. Officials also accused the U.S. government of doing the same thing to Chinese targets. In conjuction with Israel, the U.S. was said to be behind the spread of the Stuxnet virus in Iran.

According to the Post, President Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping next month in California, where cyber attacks will be on the agenda.

In addition to defense targets, Chinese hackers have been accused of attacking U.S. media outlets like the New York Times, as well as private companies like Google.

The Defense Science Board report, meanwhile, comes amidst a report from the Australian Broadcasting Corp., which claims that hackers targeted government agencies and major corporations in the country. The “digital trail leads to China,” ABC said, though it’s unclear if the hackers are working for the Chinese government. As noted by USA Today, Australian officials have declined to comment on whether the hacks are linked to China.


Preventing a U.S.-China Cyberwar

NY Times


Published: May 25, 2013


When President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China have their first meeting next month in California, addressing the issue of China’s cyberattacks on American institutions will be an important priority. Both nations need to take steps to avoid drifting into an all-out cyberwar.

Despite Beijing’s denials, there is little doubt that Chinese hackers have taken aim at a range of government and private systems in the United States, including the power grid and telecommunications networks. In February, a report by the computer security firm Mandiant detailed how hackers working for the People’s Liberation Army of China had gained access to data from American companies and government agencies. Earlier this month, a Pentagon report explicitly accused the Chinese military of the attacks.

With the evidence of their activities mounting, Chinese hackers went silent for three months, but, they now seem to have resumed their attacks. A report last week by the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property, a private group led by two former Obama administration officials — Dennis Blair, who was the director of intelligence, and Jon Huntsman Jr., an ambassador to China — said that hacking costs the American economy more than $300 billion a year and that China was responsible for 70 percent of the theft of corporate intellectual property and trade secrets.

While there are concerns about military-related incursions, the focus of most public discussion surrounds hacking into business and industry. The commission’s report spoke of the risk of “stifling innovation” in America and elsewhere if hackers in China are able to steal blueprints and negotiation strategies. The Chinese complain that they, too, have suffered cyberattacks. That could offer some basis for cooperating with Washington on norms of behavior. China recently agreed to an Obama administration proposal to create a working group on cyberissues.

The commission said the American response was “utterly inadequate” and proposed stronger ways to deter Chinese hacking, like possibly allowing companies to retaliate against attackers with their own counterstrikes.

But before adopting punitive measures, the two nations need to try working together. For example, the EastWest Institute, an independent research group, is working with representatives of many governments, including China and the United States, to develop ground rules for protecting the digital infrastructure. The group’s detailed proposal on fighting spam — which carries malware used by hackers — is worth considering by President Obama and President Xi.



China Doesn’t Care if Its ‘Digitalized’ Military Cyberwar Drill Scares You


By Alexander Abad-Santos

May 29, 2013


In the face of fears from President Obama to the Pentagon and across the globe about the increasing military might behind Chinese hacking, China’s state news agency announced Wednesday that the nation’s People’s Liberation Army “will conduct an exercise next month to test new types of combat forces including units using digital technology amid efforts to adjust to informationalized war.” You know, right after Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are meeting about the state of, among other things, a cyberwar going on underneath their noses.

The new report from Xinhua news agency adds that the drill, taking place on a large military training field and not some underground hack-a-thon bunker, “will be the first time a PLA exercise has focused on combat forces including digitalized units, special operations forces, army aviation and electronic counter forces.” The terms “digitalized unit” and “electronic counter forces” don’t make it at all clear what China’s military has planned, but then again, no country is ever going to reveal its full cyberwarfare capabilities in detail — and it’s not like it’s the first time the Chinese have tested the military reaches of their digital warfare capabilities. Indeed, the U.S. was game to play along on more than one occasion. Last year it was reported that the U.S. and China had secretly engaged in at least two cyber war games in 2011, “designed to help prevent a sudden military escalation between the two superpowers if either felt they were being targeted,” as ZDNet’s Emil Potralinski reported. “In the first, both sides had to describe what they would do if they were attacked by a sophisticated computer virus, such as Stuxnet. In the second, they had to describe their reaction if the attack was known to have been launched from the other side.”


China Is Winning the Cyber War Because They Hacked U.S. Plans for Real War

by Alexander Abad-Santos

May 28, 2013

Ballistic-missile defenses, joint-strike fighters, Black Hawks, and more — Chinese hackers have their hands on plans for these and more of the Pentagon’s most sophisticated weapons systems, just the latest sign that the culture of hacking in China continues to put America on the defensive ahead of a tense meeting between President Obama and Xi Jinping, a summit bound to be tense with cyberwarfare diplomacy.

The Washington Post‘s Ellen Nakashima reports in Tuesday’s paper that Chinese cyberthieves have “compromised” mockups that form the “backbone” of some of the U.S. military’s most important and high-tech defense technology, and that it could signal a copycat advancement of China’s arms, while aiming to “weaken the U.S. military advantage” down the road. The Chinese government, as usual with these attacks — even when they seem connected directly to the People’s Liberation Army — are distancing themselves from the pervasive, and this time very internationally unsound, hacking. “The Defense Science Board, a senior advisory group made up of government and civilian experts, did not accuse the Chinese of stealing the designs. But senior military and industry officials with knowledge of the breaches said the vast majority were part of a widening Chinese campaign of espionage against U.S. defense contractors and government agencies,” the Post reports.

The new breach comes as a newly disclosed part of a classified Defense Science Board report. Back in January, the board released a public version of the report, warning of possible attacks on U.S. defense systems as well as the Defense Department’s lack of preparation and protection. And if you look back in 2005, the same group warned U.S. defense officials against buying microchips from China because of trojan horses and spyware — advice the Pentagon eventually took, cutting off Chinese supply in 2011. But in just the last few months, Chinese hackers have gotten to major U.S. news organizations and government agencies. How have the Pentagon’s own cybersecurity experts been so far ahead of the Pentagon’s actual cybersecurity if China is stealing our war plans — or at least our warplanes? And is there any way to stop it?

Read more on The Atlantic Wire



Government Executive Nuclear Arsenal Subject to Pentagon Cuts, But New Subs May Escape Ax

By Elaine M. Grossman

May 24, 2013


The U.S. nuclear arsenal might be subject to cutbacks by a major budget review under way at the Defense Department, despite enjoying relative protection this year from largely across-the-board sequester spending reductions, a senior Defense official said on Thursday.

“Every part of the program, including nuclear weapons, is being addressed,” the official said in an interview, referring to the ongoing Strategic Choices and Management Review led by Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

The budget scrub is to advise Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary, by late this month on how best to apportion $500 billion in congressionally mandated funding reductions over the next decade. If President Obama can convince lawmakers to repeal the 2011 Budget Control Act, lesser but still-substantial cuts would likely be taken in 2014 and beyond.

The senior official — who requested anonymity in this article to address politically and diplomatically sensitive topics — appeared to suggest, though, that the Pentagon intends to keep ballistic missile-armed submarines relatively safe from the cost-cutting ax.

The big-ticket item coming down the pike for modernizing the Navy’s aging “boomer” submarines and their Trident D-5 ballistic missiles is the estimated $90 billion Ohio-class replacement vessel, also dubbed “SSBN(X).”

“For SSBN(X), I don’t see viable alternatives to going forward with the program,” said the Defense leader, noting the Pentagon had already “made some significant adjustments” to program costs by delaying fielding of the first vessel by two years to 2031. “It’s the most important element — it’s the central element — of our triad.”

That could leave the other two legs of the nuclear delivery arsenal — Air Force bomber aircraft and ICBMs — on the hot seat for reductions.

The service intends to field 80 to 100 new, conventionally armed Long-Range Strike bombers after 2020 that would later be certified for delivering nuclear weapons – though some pundits wonder if the new aircraft might remain conventional-only forever.

The Air Force insists that the bomber must be made dual-capable to help retain flexibility and redundancy in U.S. atomic forces. However, service Secretary Michael Donley acknowledged early this year that sequestration could endanger the timing or details of plans for the new airplane.

After 2030, the Air Force also plans to field a new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent to replace today’s 450 Minuteman 3 ICBMs. Here, too, the Pentagon is eyeing the potential for cutbacks, in the form of a life-extended or upgraded version of the Minuteman 3 rather than a new-design ballistic missile.

For both the ICBM and bomber legs of the triad, “we’re looking at how do we sustain that capability and how do we do it at a reasonable cost, including both the delivery systems and the associated warheads and bombs,” the senior Defense official told Global Security Newswire.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Donley said plans for the future ICBM could be at greater risk than for the next-generation bomber aircraft.

“I think [the spending review] has a little bit more effect on the ICBM side of the force structure, because on the bomber side we already know that we’re going ahead with the Long-Range Strike,” he told reporters. By contrast, the service is just beginning to weigh how it might replace the Minuteman 3.

Some defense analysts also see the Navy preparing its own “Plan B” for modernizing the nuclear-armed submarines.

The service is developing new strike capacity for its Virginia-class fast attack submarines that could allow the boats to launch ballistic missiles. To date the focus appears to be solely on adding conventionally armed weapons to the submersibles.

However, the “Virginia Payload Module” proposals to modify the current submarine design with a nearly 94-foot center section for ballistic-missile launch tubes appear strikingly similar to an alternative the Navy earlier dismissed for replacing the nuclear-armed Ohio-class submarines.

Some analysts argue the Navy should transition its atomic missiles to a smaller vessel such as the attack submarines at a time when traditional Cold War nuclear threats are receding. The Navy, though, said several years ago that the “humpback” center compartment required for the Virginia-class submarines to carry Trident ballistic missiles would reduce the vessels’ speed, maneuverability and stealth.

No total program cost has been estimated for the proposed Virginia modification, but Navy budget documents show a price tag of nearly $800 million between 2013 and 2018 alone.

In terms of the size of the nuclear force, some Republicans on Capitol Hill have warned Obama against taking unilateral reductions below levels agreed by the Washington and Moscow in the New START accord, which allows each side 1,550 fielded strategic warheads and 700 fielded delivery vehicles.

They have also threatened to block implementation of the 2011 treaty if the administration does not make good on plans to modernize today’s nuclear warheads and delivery systems.

The senior Defense official this week said the Pentagon’s budget review — nicknamed the “Skimmer” in keeping with its acronym — would not itself address the policy option of nuclear reductions below New START levels.

However, the new assessment is being carried out in the “context” of “existing and pending policy guidance,” the official said in the Pentagon interview.

“Pending” policy guidance would include a document currently sitting at the Oval Office for approval: The so-called “NPR Implementation Study,” which is believed to recommend changes to nuclear doctrine and targeting that could form the basis for a smaller nuclear arsenal numbering1,100 or fewer warheads.

“The conclusions are with the president,” the senior official said of the implementing study, which was based on findings published in the Pentagon-led 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. “And when he says he has no more questions, and he signs, then we’re done.”

Donley said Obama will make a significant determination in summer 2014 regarding exactly how the New START reductions will be taken.


“The department and the nation’s way forward on this still is dependent on some national-level decisions that the president plans, as I understand, to make next year,” he said at the press briefing.

The bomber, said the outgoing Air Force secretary, “is really independent, in some respects, from the nuclear decisions that are still pending,” because it also has a crucial conventional-attack role.

Meanwhile, plans for a new-design replacement for nuclear-armed submarines appear here to stay.

“As we look at the budgetary and fiscal environment that we’re going to have for the next decade-plus, the department’s going to have to make hard choices,” the senior Defense official said on Thursday. “Sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent is a critical mission. Sustaining the sea-based element … with the follow-on to Ohio-class is critical for that.”

The official acknowledged there is “still a significant cost” to plans for developing and buying 12 SSBN(X) vessels, despite the planned two-year delay in introducing them into the fleet.

Can the nation afford to build ballistic missile capability into two different families of submarines — the Virginia class and the Ohio-class replacement — during a time of fiscal austerity?

The senior official sounded slightly less committed when it came to the possible introduction of big conventionally tipped missiles for the Virginia attack submarines.

“Preserving our capability as a nation to undertake non-nuclear strikes is also critically important, both for operational capabilities and indeed as we think about our strategy over time to sustain advantage” over possible adversaries, the official said. “Sustaining, if not increasing, our non-nuclear strike capacity even in a time of budgetary austerity is something that the Department needs to at least tee up … for this and future secretaries.”

Donley said the ongoing review could result in dusting off some previously jettisoned defense procurement alternatives in the interest of curbing spending.

“There are ways to address different aspects of the nuclear enterprise and how to modernize it and how much and on what schedule,” he said on Friday. “We have lots of options for that. There are many programs involved.”


Federal worker has 61 years of federal service and no plans to retire

By Joe Davidson,

May 24, 2013 01:45 AM EDT

The Washington Post

It takes a special kind of person to really appreciate the Consumer Price Index.

The CPI measures inflation, and lots of folks pay attention to it when the number (a 0.4 percent decrease in April) is released each month.

But for Ed Pratt, the index is more than a stat. He talks about it like a proud daddy, perhaps a proud granddaddy, given his age.

Pratt didn’t invent the CPI and he is far from the only one involved in producing the report. But with 57 years of service with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which issues the data, he has a right to feel a deep sense of satisfaction with his work on a key economic indicator. The importance of the work is demonstrated by the locked doors that block his section of offices in a building across from Union Station.

“I like to see the CPI come out every month. I’m very proud of that, being part of that,” said Pratt, a BLS supervisory IT specialist.

He helps process data on the prices of the many items collected by about 400 people from stores across the nation. The items fall into 200 categories of goods and services, from haircuts and funerals to
T-shirts, beer and chicken.

One of the things Pratt likes most about his job is the people he works with, his colleagues.

But when you get to be 80 years old, many of your old friends aren’t around anymore.

“Most of the people I used to work with here are gone,” said Pratt, who started with BLS in 1956. “My friendship that I used to have with a lot of people . . . we used to go to ball games and stuff like that, they’re gone. So working takes up that for me.”

Including four years in the military, Pratt has 61 years of federal service.

He’s seen a lot during that time.

When the native Washingtonian started with the agency, Dwight Eisenhower was president and no one had a computer, much less one in their pockets. Now a Fort Washington resident, the big ‘Skins fan is married with three children and three grandkids.

Pratt’s importance as a civil servant goes beyond the product he helps produce each month. His personal impact, the encouragement he gives co-workers, means more than he probably knows.

Stephan Gilbert was a government contractor when he started working with Pratt years ago. It was then that Pratt told Gilbert: “You will be somebody someday.”

Gilbert is now Pratt’s boss and gives Pratt credit for that early encouragement.

“He may not understand the power of that one statement he made to me many years ago,” Gilbert said. Pratt’s comment was “very motivational and that’s what he still does today.”

Whenever there is a problem, Gilbert said, Pratt’s response is to find a way to get it done “and he always delivers.”

When Pratt started at the agency as a messenger, “BLS was mostly clerical,” he said. “All the processing of the statistical data was done by clerks.” By 1961, the agency was using big computers with punch cards, and when he became a computer operator in 1965 the machines were “big, clumsy looking, tape drives. They took up a lot of space and they needed a lot of air conditioning.”

Segregation was still practiced in the nation’s capital in the 1950s, but Pratt said he didn’t experience that in the federal workplace.

“There was discrimination, yes,” he said, seemingly not eager to elaborate. He recalled having to take a test in order to be a computer operator when he moved from the clerical unit, a requirement apparently not placed on white colleagues.

“All I want to say about that,” he added, is “maybe everyone who switched didn’t have to take the test.”

Now Pratt is a GS-14, near the top of the General Schedule grades for federal employees. He has his own office, though they should give him one with a window.

“I have a job I really like,” he said. “The Bureau is a good place to work. The people are good. . . . I like making sure that index comes out every month.”

He’s planning to do that for untold months to come.

“If my health holds up,” he said, “I don’t plan to retire.”

‘Encouraged’ by appointment

President Obama’s choice of Katherine Archuleta as director of the Office of Personnel Management would make her the first Hispanic to hold that position.

“We’re encouraged,” said Gilbert Sandate, chairman of the Coalition for Fairness for Hispanics in Government. “It’s about time there’s been a Hispanic named to that post.”

Archuleta, who must be confirmed by the Senate, was national political director of the Obama campaign and former Labor secretary Hilda Solis’s chief of staff.

It’s not clear how much she knows about federal personnel issues.

One issue she will face is the under-representation of Latino’s in the federal workforce. OPM data indicate the overall federal employment of Hispanics dropped from fiscal year 2008 to 2012, when Latinos were just 3.2 percent of the Senior Executive Service.

“This is not something that can be tackled and resolved easily,” Sandate said. “She certainly has her work cut out for her.”

Eric Yoder contributed to this report. Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at


Obama’s drone rules provide limits, ambiguity

May 24


AP White House Correspondent


WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama left plenty of ambiguity in new policy guidelines that he says will restrict how and when the U.S. can launch targeted drone strikes, leaving himself significant power over how and when the weapons can be deployed.

National security experts say it’s imperative to leave some room in the guidelines, given the evolving fight against terrorism. But civil rights advocates argue too little has been revealed about the program to ensure its legality, even as the president takes steps to remove some of the secrecy.

“Obama said that there would be more limits on targeted killings, a step in the right direction,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “But a mere promise that the US will work within established guidelines that remain secret provides little confidence that the U.S. is complying with international law.”

An unclassified version of the newly established drone guidelines was made public Thursday in conjunction with Obama’s wide-ranging address on U.S. counterterrorism policies. Congress’ Intelligence committees and the Capitol Hill leadership have been briefed on the more detailed, classified policies, but because those documents are secret, there’s no way to know how much more clarity they provide.

The president has already been using some of the guidelines to determine when to launch drone strikes, administration officials said. Codifying the strictest standards, they argue, will ultimately reduce the number of approved attacks.

Among the newly public rules is a preference for capturing suspects instead of killing them, which gives the U.S. an opportunity to gather intelligence and disrupt terrorist plots. The guidelines also state that a target must pose a continuing and imminent threat to the U.S.

However, the public guidelines don’t spell out how the U.S. determines whether capture is feasible, nor does it define what constitutes an imminent threat.

Former State Department official James Andrew Lewis said Obama must retain some flexibility, given the fluid threats facing the U.S.

“The use of force and engagement of force always require a degree of discretion,” said Lewis, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We don’t want to change that.”

The guidelines also mandate that the U.S. have “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed in a strike. Civilian deaths, particularly in Pakistan, have angered local populations and contributed to a rise in anti-American sentiments in the volatile region.

Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who has filed many court cases on behalf of drone victims’ families, said that while he appreciated Obama’s concern about civilian casualties, he wasn’t confident the new guidelines would change U.S. actions.

“The problem remains the same because there is no transparency and accountability for the CIA because it will remain inside the system and not be visible to outsiders,” he said.

Obama, in his most expansive discussion of the drone program, said in his speech Thursday to the National Defense University that he is haunted by the unintentional deaths. But he argued that targeted strikes result in fewer civilian deaths than indiscriminate bombing campaigns.

“By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life,” Obama said.

Administration officials said the new guidelines are applicable regardless of whether the target is a foreigner or U.S. citizen.

Polling suggests the American people broadly support the use of drones to target suspected terrorists in foreign countries, though support drops somewhat if the suspect is a U.S. citizen. A Gallup poll in March found 65 percent of Americans favor using drone strikes in other countries against suspected terrorists, while only 41 percent favored the use of drone strikes overseas against U.S. citizens who are suspected terrorists.

Despite the public support, Obama has come under increased pressure from an unusual coalition of members of Congress of both parties who have pressed for greater transparency and oversight of the drone program.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who serves on the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, said he would review the guidelines to ensure they keep “with our values as a nation” but indicated lawmakers may ask for additional overtures.

“I commend the president for his effort to define the boundaries of U.S. counterterrorism operations and for stating a commitment to increased accountability,” Udall said. “While this is helpful and important, more needs to be done.”

Relevant congressional committees are already notified when drone strikes occur. But it’s unclear how the administration, under Obama’s new transparency pledge, will handle public notifications, particularly when Americans are killed.

The public only knew about the deaths of three Americans by drone strikes through media reports and the fourth when Attorney General Eric Holder disclosed it in a letter to Congress on the eve of the speech.

Under current policy, the official U.S. figures of number of strikes and estimated deaths remain classified.

According to the New America Foundation which maintains a database of the strikes, the CIA and the military have carried out an estimated 416 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, resulting in 3,364 estimated deaths, including militants and civilians. The Associated Press also has reported a drone strike in Somalia in 2012 that killed one.

The think tank compiles its numbers by combining reports in major news media that rely on local officials and eyewitness accounts.

Strikes in Pakistan spiked in 2010 under Obama to 122, but the number has dropped to 12 so far this year. Strikes were originally carried out with permission of the Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf, though subsequent Pakistani governments have demanded strikes cease.

The CIA and the military have carried out some 69 strikes in Yemen, with the Yemeni government’s permission.


Drones: The future of disaster response

May 23rd, 2013

01:29 PM ET

By Heather Kelly, CNN


First responders to Monday’s massive tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, were greeted with a blighted expanse of destroyed homes, blocked roads, downed power lines and a limited window of time to unearth survivors before the sun set.

Navigating the area on foot or by car was a challenge because of the debris. News and law-enforcement helicopters filled the air above, but while they gathered useful information for rescue crews, the noise they created was drowning out cries for help from trapped survivors.

The entire area was declared a no-fly zone.

But one airborne technology will soon make responding to these kinds disasters easier: unmanned automated vehicles (UAVs), more commonly called drones. These portable, affordable aircraft can launch quickly in dangerous situations, locate survivors and send data about their whereabouts to responders on the ground.

There is a lot of excitement about drones in the public-safety world, and they are very close to being used in the field after natural disasters. However, they still face lengthy regulatory hurdles, privacy concerns, and a public image problem inherited from their armed, military cousins.

Still, the UAV industry and emergency responders are preparing for the day when they can launch drones after tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and any other disaster.

“The public just isn’t really in the habit of depending on them,” said James Stuckey, CEO of Fireflight, an Oklahoma-based drone company. “When they start, they won’t be able to do without them.”


Drone power

The benefits of drones in an emergency are reach, speed, safety and cost. When there is no power, a UAV can fly through the dark and live-stream night-vision footage to people on the ground, its paths automatically programmed so it doesn’t miss a spot. A mounted infrared camera can pick up on heat signatures of bodies, pinpointing the locations of survivors so rescuers know where to go.

Unlike manned helicopters, drones create very little sound and can even be outfitted with advanced listening devices to pick up hard-to-hear audio. They can go into dangerous situations that would pose a risk to pilots or responders on foot. While helicopter propellers can stir up debris and dust, UAVs weigh as little as three pounds and don’t disturb what’s on the ground, even when they’re hovering just 10 feet above it.

Fireflight’s unmanned aerial vehicles were designed to be used in wildfires. They’re outfitted with infrared cameras that can see through smoke.

Prices for commercial UAVs range from $15,000 to $50,000 – a fraction of what a helicopter costs. They can fit in the trunk of a car and be up in the air in no time.

“It’s usually 45 minutes to an hour after you arrive on scene on an incident before you get real information,” said Fireflight’s Stuckey, a veteran firefighter of 27 years. “We can have [a UAV] up in the air in three minutes.”


Roadblocks to use

The American Red Cross of Central Oklahoma was considering using Fireflight’s UAVs immediately after the tornado, but didn’t because of the no-fly zone, according to Steve Klapp, the regional disaster assessment manager.

The Red Cross chapter has used UAVs in tests before, such as in a disaster-assessment exercise in March. On Wednesday it considered using the aircraft to gather boundary data at the tornado scene, but Klapp said he would probably end up getting the information from other sources this time.

“We’re definitely planning to use them more in the future,” said Klapp. “It’s a question of the right situation.”

The Oklahoma National Guard is also on the ground in Moore and has trained with drones for use in Afghanistan, but said it did not deploy any in the disaster area.

The main delay, according to Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a non-profit trade association for drone companies, is that the Federal Aviation Administration is very restrictive about who can fly a drone and how they can fly it. Congress has given the FAA until 2015 to come up with rules for flying UAVs in U.S. airspace, including safety regulations, how pilots need to be trained, how an aircraft is certified, and the process for notifying local air-traffic controllers.

Until those regulations are in place, any civilian or military organization that wants to fly drones above 400 feet needs to get a special waiver from the agency. This is a lengthy process that can take one or more years, according to Gielow, although the FAA claims to have shaved it down to an average of 60 days.

There is an exception for emergencies, which would expedite the application process, but it does not appear to be wildly used for disasters.


A life saver

Disaster response is just one use for drones by public safety agencies, which the AUVSI predicts will account for 10% of the future drone industry. Stuckey created Fireflight’s unmanned aircraft specifically to help fire departments gather information during Oklahoma’s wildfire seasons, the last three of which have been especially vicious.

Thermal-imaging cameras can be used to see through smoke, and the UAVs can go into areas that would be too dangerous for manned aircraft.

One of the first reported cases of a drone saving someone’s life occurred three weeks ago. A man was driving along a highway at night in Canada when his vehicle rolled of the road, knocking him unconscious. It was dark, with near-freezing temperatures, and emergency workers were unable to locate the car and injured driver, even with night-vision goggles and a helicopter.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police deployed an unmanned aircraft with an infrared camera, which picked up on the man’s heat signature.

And the types of tools that can be attached to a UAV are growing beyond cameras and weapons. New equipment allows drones to hear gunshots, detect chemical levels, track RFID tags, and measure radiation.


Privacy concerns

The most controversial domestic use is by law enforcement agencies interested in using drones for surveillance and to fight crime, a prospect that has privacy advocates and other citizens on edge. According to Gielow, only three law-enforcement agencies currently have approval to fly drones in the U.S.: The Mesa County Sheriffs office in Colorado, the Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department in North Dakota, and the Arlington Police Department in Texas.

Privacy advocates fear the drones could be used for surveillance of anyone. The UAVs track people with the same advanced software being used in regular surveillance cameras.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been pushing the FAA to release details on all the public-safety agencies, military and security organizations and other groups that have been given permits to fly drones in U.S. airspace. The civil liberties group has even plotted all the known drone programs on an interactive map.

People in the drone industry don’t think a blanket ban on UAVs is the answer to privacy concerns.


“The issue should not be focused on how you take that picture,” said Gielow. “You can get the same thing from a manned helicopter, satellite, security camera or smartphone.”

Instead, Gielow thinks people should focus on how the government uses and stores images of citizens, not the tools used to capture them.


A booming industry

Many other government agencies are already testing out drones. NASA is using them to monitor hurricanes, NOAA employs them in the Arctic to monitor wildlife and the USGS is using them for mapping and environmental studies.

While public safety and the military get the most attention for drone use, the biggest market for UAVs will actually be agriculture, according to the AUVSI. Up to 80% of drones will be used on farms, where they will track cattle, check on the health and hydration of crops, and even dispense pesticides.

The UAV industry is set to break open in the coming year. According to the AUVSI, the drone industry will create 70,000 jobs and have an economic impact of $13.6 billion in its first three years once the FAA establishes regulations.

Meanwhile, the aerospace industry is getting ready for the potentially lucrative drone age. Twenty-six states, including Oklahoma, are currently competing for six coveted FAA contracts for UAV test sites that will be used to collect more information about how to regulate the technology. The winning states will be announced later this year.

Silicon Valley also is paying attention. Earlier this month, a startup called Airware that’s developed an open operating system for UAVs raised $10.7 million in investment funding. Most of Airware’s customers are in countries like Japan and France, where the technology is more widely used.



Next year’s Winter Olympics are being held in just about the most unsafe place they could be

By Josh Meyer    @JoshMeyerDC    May 24, 2013    



With nine months to go before the 2014 Winter Olympics, the biennial sport of Olympics-bashing has begun in earnest. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is being criticized for cost overruns and the other usual problems. And as always, the host country, this time Russia, is taking heat for cronyism, corruption, environmental concerns and construction delays.

But this time there is another, bigger set of worries. At several recent gatherings around the world, experts have wrung their hands publicly about how the XXII Winter Games pose the biggest security threat of any games in memory.

The Olympics, which will run from February 7th to the 23rd, are going to be held right in the middle of one of the world’s hottest conflict zones, the North Caucasus. Sochi, the host city, is a lovely resort town on Russia’s Black Sea coast. But the region around it is a cauldron of ethnic hatred and anti-Russian separatist movements. And then there is all of the organized crime, Islamist militancy and terrorism.

Some experts have been warning about security risks ever since the IOC picked Sochi in 2007 over bids from Austria and South Korea. But recent developments have alarmed Caucasus watchers. The two Boston Marathon bombers had ties to the region, and one of them spent six months last year in the Russian republic of Dagestan, where a virulent Islamist insurgency has been gaining strength. And a spat between Washington and Moscow, which this month accused a US diplomat of recruiting spies, has threatened to undermine what little counter-terrorism cooperation the two countries had.

“Unfortunately, security and the Caucasus do not go together. You might say the two words are a contradiction in terms,” Thomas De Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Georgian Parliament in a speech last month. Last week, Paul Goble, a former CIA and State Department expert on the Caucasus who now runs the blog Window on Eurasia, spoke at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, warning that a confluence of events have made the Sochi Olympics a “disaster” in the making.

“In recent months it has become increasingly clear that Sochi is very much the wrong place for holding a winter Olympic games,” Goble told the crowd, which included officials from the State Department, FBI and the US military’s Central Command. He told Quartz: “The Sochi Olympics are being staged in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and by the wrong people. In terms of security, it is one of the least secure places on earth. It would be like holding the games in Beirut.”

The potential for turmoil is virtually limitless. Southern Russia teems with ethnic groups that suffered massacres and exiles at Russia’s hands in the 19th century, and still chafe at the often repressive regime in Moscow. One of those groups, the Circassians, marks the games as the 150th anniversary of an alleged genocide. Chechnya, whose people were exiled en masse under Stalin, spent much of the last two decades as a battleground between separatist rebels and Russian forces. And neighboring Georgia is still smarting from Russia’s military invasion, which occurred during the 2008 Olympics.

There are fears that Islamist groups from nearby Chechnya and Dagestan could be plotting attacks already—on the Olympics, or elsewhere while Moscow’s security forces focus on the games. Such fears intensified last month when the Tsarnaev brothers—of ethnic Chechen origin—detonated home-made bombs at the Boston Marathon. Fighting between Russian forces and various militant groups has killed thousands in recent years, including a handful of guerillas in Dagestan in early May.

Perhaps Russian counter-terrorism official Oleg Nechiporenko summed it up best back in May 2010, in response to a car bombing in nearby Stavropol. The blast killed seven and wounded 40 others, and suspects included local mafia groups, separatists, Islamist militants, or even fighters from the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia. “The region is such a muddied and bloodied aquarium of conflict that to pick out any one fish is impossible,” Nechiporenko said.


Commission on AF structure to meet

Posted 5/24/2013

5/24/2013 – WASHINGTON (AFNS) — The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force will hold its first public hearing Tuesday, June 4th, 2013 in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

President Obama and the chairmen and ranking members of both Armed Services Committees recently appointed eight members to serve on the Commission. The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act directed the establishment of this commission.

The Honorable Dennis M. McCarthy, Marine Corps Lieutenant General, (Ret) is the Commission’s chairman and the Honorable Erin Conaton is the vice chair. The other Commission members are: F. Whitten Peters; Les Brownlee; Air Force General, (Ret) Raymond Johns, Jr.; Lieutenant General, Air National Guard (Ret) Harry M. “Bud” Wyatt, III, Dr. Janine Davidson; and Dr. Margaret Harrell.

Dr. James A. Blackwell has been appointed Executive Director. The Department of Defense sponsor is Mr. Michael L. Rhodes. Director of Administration and Management.

The Commission will conduct a comprehensive study of Air Force’s structure to determine if and how the structure should be modified to best fill current and future mission requirements with available resources. The first public hearing will be June 4th, 2013 in the Rayburn House Office Building. The Commission’s report to the President and Congress is due February 1, 2014.

The Commission will consider whether the Air Force:

– Meets current and anticipated requirements of the combatant commands;

– Achieves an appropriate balance between the regular and reserve components, taking advantage of the unique strengths and capabilities of each;

– Ensures that the regular and reserve components have the capacity to support current and future homeland defense and disaster assistance missions in the United States;

– Provides a sufficient numbers of regular members to provide a base of trained personnel from which reserve components could be recruited;

– Maintains a peacetime rotation force to support operational tempo goals of 1:2 for regular members and 1:5 for reserve members

– Maximizes and appropriately balances affordability, efficiency, effectiveness, capability, and readiness.

For more information about the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, contact


Obamacare Unveiled as California, New York Lead U.S.

By Alex Nussbaum – May 28, 2013 9:49 AM ET .


Amid the periodic repeal votes in Congress and activist campaigns on both sides of the debate, states from New York to California are striving to meet an Oct. 1 deadline to implement the heart of the health-care law, the online insurance “exchanges” meant to enroll millions of Americans.

The law has already had a major impact on U.S. health care since its passage in 2010. Millions of young adults up to age 26 have received coverage under their parents’ policies, seniors are receiving expanded drug coverage and hospitals are experimenting with incentive programs designed to improve care and cut costs. Yet the success of Obamacare will ultimately rest on how well it delivers on its promise to extend coverage to the 49 million Americans who currently don’t have health insurance. With the deadline just four months off, the prognosis is mixed.

“It is going to be a slow start,” said Ana Gupte, a Dowling & Partners insurance analyst in Farmington, Connecticut. “I don’t think the exchanges are fully ready to take in large numbers overnight. This is not going to be ‘Turn this on and everybody’s in the exchange tomorrow.'”

Even those states most on target have had to scale back consumer-friendly offerings in their effort to meet the deadline. Others are giving up running their own markets. New Mexico and Idaho this month said they would cede control of parts of their exchanges to the federal government.


Too Complex

States are rushing to solve technical hurdles even as they scrap features deemed too complex to set up by the deadline, said Jon Kingsdale, a Boston-based consultant advising exchanges. That risks making it harder for people to sign up. California, for one, won’t directly enroll poor Americans in Medicaid, the joint federal-state health program. New York and 10 other states have put off plans to negotiate lower premiums with insurers.

Some exchanges “are going to barely make it,” said Kingsdale, former director of the Massachusetts exchange that became a model for President Barack Obama’s overhaul.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia are building their own exchanges, which will offer health plans for small businesses and people not insured through work. The other states will become partners with the federal government or leave the job entirely to the Obama administration. By law, the markets must open in October to sell coverage that starts in January.


Simple Goal

The idea behind the new system is simple: Offer one-stop shopping and aid, making insurance easy and affordable.

In theory, people will go to one of the websites and key in basic information about income, family and employment. They can determine eligibility for government programs like Medicaid or for federal subsidies for private insurance. Those not covered by public programs will see a menu of private options selected by each state.

Consumers can then enroll in a plan and use the exchanges to pay premiums. In some states, such as New York, a separate exchange will cater to small-business employees.

While the goal is simple, the implementation is anything but. States need to set up powerful computer systems that can loop in insurers in real-time while sharing data with the Internal Revenue Service, state tax offices, Medicaid and Medicare and other agencies in order to verify customer information. Once technical hurdles are cleared, state governments will need to get the word out to millions of people that they’re now eligible for insurance.


Herculean Task

“It’s been a Herculean task,” said Ben Nelson, executive director at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and a former U.S. senator from Nebraska who voted for the law. “There’s so much diversity between the states. Getting that all sorted out has been a major effort.”


Some states look like they’ll be ready. New York hired contractors to prepare its exchange more than a year ago and has 80 staff members dedicated to the effort. It plans to spend $27 million next year training brokers and community groups to guide people through the health-care law’s new insurance options.

The state is also working with an advertising firm to reach the 2.6 million uninsured New Yorkers and has been modeling the law’s effects on premiums for those who already have insurance. When ready, its website and call center will offer help in more than a dozen languages.


Lot of Passion

“We have been working hard at this for two years now,” the exchange’s deputy director, Danielle Holahan, said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of passion about what we’re doing and what we’re going to be able to accomplish.”

California last week said it had chosen WellPoint Inc. (WLP) and a dozen other insurers to offer plans in its new system. Individuals can expect to pay as much as 29 percent less than what small businesses now pay for coverage, said Peter Lee, the exchange’s executive director, declaring victory over the “doom-and-gloom estimates” of the health-law’s critics.

Some 5.3 million Californians will be eligible to purchase coverage and about half may be eligible for the subsidies.

The exchanges are expected to attract about 7 million people next year, rising to 24 million by 2023, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. Yet that number has been steadily reduced from 34 million in 2011, as states opt out of parts of the health overhaul and the Obama administration eases penalties for people who don’t buy coverage.


WellPoint, Aetna

Insurers from WellPoint (WLP) to Aetna Inc (AET)., consequently, have been cutting their projections for new business. The stakes for the industry are high: The exchanges represent a potential windfall of $205 billion a year in added sales by 2021, according to an October report from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.

WellPoint, the biggest U.S. carrier for those buying their own coverage, rose 1.5 percent to $78.17 at 9:39 a.m. New York time. The Indianapolis-based insurer gained 26 percent for the year through May 24. Aetna, based in Hartford, Connecticut, increased 1.3 percent to $60.06 and had advanced 28 percent this year.

While some states will offer “robust” exchanges, “a goodly number will have to make some tough decisions about what they can get done and what will have to wait for version 2.0 or 2015 or beyond,” said Kingsdale, the Boston consultant.

In California, “I expect them to be up and running, but with a lot of glitches,” said Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit. “The websites will be a little funky, and it will be hard for people to get through. The gears won’t all be oiled yet.”


Dropping Plans

California, Colorado and Vermont are dropping plans for exchanges that directly enroll people in private insurance or public programs like Medicaid, according to data gathered by the National Academy for State Health Policy, a Washington-based research group.


Instead, shoppers will be told what they’re eligible for and transferred to an insurer website or call-in line — or simply told to make the connection on their own. In California, Colorado and Utah, customers will be handed off to private insurers to pay their premiums, adding another step to the process, according to the National Academy.

“That’s a hand-off where somebody could potentially get lost,” Kingsdale, a partner at Wakely Consulting Group, said in a telephone interview. “You’re dealing mostly with the uninsured, who are hard to find and easy to lose.”


Putting Off

States are also putting off plans that could have squeezed insurer profits, bowing to pressure from the industry and the calendar. Maryland, Washington state and the District of Columbia won’t require carriers to standardize deductibles and copays, a step New York and other states are taking to help consumers compare plans.

California is one of only five states that is negotiating with insurers to lower premiums, according to the National Academy. Elsewhere, including in states such as Texas and Florida that will rely on a federal exchange, insurance companies won’t face that kind of pressure.

Some states are also forgoing online tools that would let shoppers filter health plans by provider-network or customer-satisfaction scores. For now, the preference is for “bare-bones” approaches, said Heather Howard, program director at the State Health Reform Assistance Network, a Princeton, New Jersey-based group advising 11 exchanges.

For insurance companies, the initial enthusiasm over a surge in business from the exchanges has dimmed somewhat. Growth is looking “much slower” than many had anticipated, WellPoint Chief Executive Officer Joseph Swedish told investors at a May 20 investors conference in New York.

Aetna (AET), the third-biggest health insurer by sales, has cut its projections for the markets next year, CEO Mark Bertolini told analysts on an April 30 conference call.

“This is a two-year ramp to get the individual exchanges up to a level where customers are going to feel appropriate signing up,” Bertolini said. “I think people are going to take a wait-and-see attitude.”

US Military’s Secretive Robot Space Plane Mission Passes 5-Month Mark

by Leonard David,’s Space Insider Columnist

Date: 28 May 2013 Time: 07:00 AM ET


The U.S. Air Force’s robotic X-37B space plane has quietly passed the five-month mark on its latest secret mission in Earth orbit.

The unmanned X-37B spacecraft launched into space atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 11, 2012, kicking off a mission whose objectives and payloads are classified.

The winged craft is known as Orbital Test Vehicle-3 (OTV-3), since it is conducting the third mission of the Air Force’s X-37B program.

Watch and wait

What OTV-3 is up to on its confidential cruise remains unknown. However, a network of vigilant skywatchers is monitoring the mission as it progresses.

“It’s certainly important not to forget about these programs,” said Ted Molczan of Toronto, a leader in the worldwide community of satellite trackers. “Careful observation over a long time may provide the clues to finally solve the mystery.”

Molczan said that, even then, he suspects that any breakthrough in knowledge regarding X-37B’s orbital missions will more likely result from leaks by insiders to journalists.

“Hobbyist observations can provide corroboration and some interesting, even useful details, but seldom are sufficient to expose the big picture…especially with new programs,” he told “With X-37B, we can only watch and wait.


Mission speculation

Satellite watchers did note that in early March, OTV-3 propelled itself upward 29 miles (46 kilometers) to raise its orbit to 248 miles (399 km). The craft’s inclination remained at 43.5 degrees.

“As with the previous missions, a nearly constant altitude is maintained by means of periodic engine firings,” Molczan said. “Unlike those missions, the precision and frequency with which its ground tracks repeat are not as strongly indicative of an imaging reconnaissance mission. I find the information inconclusive, but a remote sensing expert might well see something in the data that I cannot.”.

Asked to comment on the current flight, X-37B officials said they would not discuss the mission as it is conducting an ongoing operation.


On autopilot

Whatever observations OTV-3 is making in orbit, the X-37B space plane has already chalked up one programmatic milestone — that of reusability.

This same vehicle was flown on the X-37B program’s maiden voyage back in 2010. That OTV-1 mission lasted nearly 225 days in orbit, gliding back to Earth on autopilot over the Pacific Ocean and touching down at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The OTV-2 mission, which used a different X-37B craft, was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in March 2011. That craft conducted on-orbit experiments for 469 days — more than doubling its sister ship’s space stay — and also made a Vandenberg landing.

There has been some talk that OTV-3 may not land at Vandenberg. The Air Force is considering bringing the craft down at the space shuttle landing strip at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, next door to Cape Canaveral.

Making use of former space shuttle infrastructure is viewed as a possible cost-cutting measure for the program, officials have said.


Low-cost operations

Just prior to the inaugural flight of the X-37B program in 2010, Gary Payton, then Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, underscored some of its goals.

In a briefing to reporters, Payton flagged the hope for low-cost operations and maintenance (O&M) of the craft.

“Once we get the bird back, see what it really takes to turn this bird around and get it ready to go fly again, to learn payload change-out on the ground, to learn how much it really costs to do this turn-around on the ground with these new technologies on the X-37 itself,” Payton said.


Top priority

Payton said the top priority is demonstrating the vehicle itself with its autonomous flight-control systems, new generation of silica tiles and a wealth of other new technologies that are on the order of one generation beyond NASA’s now-retired space shuttle program.

“Unlike the shuttle, it does not have a fuel-cell power system. It’s got solar arrays plus lithium ion batteries, whereas the shuttle has hydrogen/oxygen fuel cells. So there are some differences,” Payton said.

Purportedly, there are only two X-37B space planes that have been built for the Air Force by Boeing Government Space Systems. But Payton told that it’s possible the fleet could grow, depending on the success of the first two vehicles, the cost of operations and maintenance and the ease of turnaround between missions.

“Admittedly, these birds don’t carry our biggest satellites…but again, they can do a very good job on our smaller satellites,” Payton said. “And if they are low-cost O&M, from an O&M perspective, they could be a big part of our future.”


Mission control

The X-37B looks a bit like a miniature space shuttle. The vehicle is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide.

Flights of the spacecraft are conducted under the auspices of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, an organization that performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.

Mission control for OTV flights is handled by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado. This unit is billed as the Air Force Space Command’s premier organization for space-based demonstrations, pathfinders and experiment testing.

An organizational restructuring in April of this year kept the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron under the Air Force Space Command, but it was transferred to the 50th Operations Group at Schriever.

A scan of Air Force historical records may yield clues about how OTV missions could help support some of the squadron’s duties.

The 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron is identified as one of two Deep Space Tracking System squadrons located throughout the world. These groups are asked to keep sensor eyes on objects orbiting high above Earth, with agencies using this information for everything from collision avoidance to intelligence-gathering purposes.


Robotics revolution

The X-37B is part of a larger trend in which scientists and governments are increasingly relying on robots to explore and observe our planet, experts say.

“The robotics revolution is not just limited to the atmosphere. We’re seeing unmanned systems take on more and more roles from the heights of space to the depths of the sea,” said Peter Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“Indeed, there is such a long history of unmanned systems in space that it is a domain where we are growing comfortable asking questions about the need for a human’s role… basically we are okay asking, ‘Why do I need a human pilot for that?’ in regards to spacecraft but not yet comfortable asking the same question about planes,” Singer said.

Singer told that the X-37B is also important strategically, “in that it gives the U.S. military more flexibility in our space operations in terms of both launch and surveillance. It fills an interesting gap between what traditional spy planes and spy satellites can do.”

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is former director of research for the National Commission on Space and is co-author of Buzz Aldrin’s new book “Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration” published by National Geographic. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on



Why China Wants to Be More Like America

By Rick Newman | The Exchange

May 28, 2013

China’s Communist leaders like to point out that American-style democracy is chaotic, and that western capitalism causes manic booms and busts. Yet they’re borrowing heavily from the American playbook as they remake China’s huge, state-dominated economy.

China recently announced a series of reforms meant to speed the transition from a fast-growing yet still-spottily developing nation to a wealthier and more mature economic powerhouse. Among other things, new policies are meant to scale back Beijing’s role in the economy, open state-run industries such as finance and energy to more private businesses, and provide more ways for foreign investors to participate in the Chinese economy. Eventually, market forces would set interest and exchange rates, which are now controlled by the government.

China has tried before to liberalize its economy, with varying degrees of success. It has clearly become integral to the global supply chain, making it the world’s leading producer of many goods. Virtually every big multinational company has operations in China, with some of them earning impressive profits there.

But China still remains handicapped by shortcomings more typical of a banana republic. “There’s no guarantee China is truly going to become a developed economy along the lines of South Korea or Japan,” says Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at forecasting firm IHS Global Insight. “For China to continue to evolve, they’ve got to make some major changes and become a freer, more market-based economy.”


The government’s role

The Chinese government’s role in the economy makes Washington look like a laissez-faire paradise. It controls banks, railroads, oil companies and many other conglomerates, using those companies to advance what it feels are national priorities. By managing a quasi-capitalist economy more closely than other governments, Communist party leaders are able to harness wealth creation for political purposes.

But state-run capitalism can also cause major disconnects between supply and demand, along with other distortions that undermine the whole economy. China, for instance, lacks many of the legal protections consumers and businesses have long demanded in the West. Theft of intellectual property is rampant, which makes many western companies reluctant to develop new technology or do proprietary research in China. That’s why the nation is considered far better at stealing other people’s ideas than generating its own.

Corruption within the ruling Communist party is widespread, leading to deep distrust of the government. Choking industrial pollution is the dirty little secret of a muscular manufacturing sector. Wrenching poverty is common in the countryside, where pre-industrial subsistence farming still sustains millions.


An exaggerated ‘might’

outsiders see those problems, however, which might explain why Americans have an exaggerated sense of China’s economic might. In polling by Pew Research, 42 percent of Americans said China is the world’s leading economic power, compared with only 36 percent who said the United States is. Yet China’s GDP per capita is just $9,100, which ranks 122d in the world. U.S. GDP per capita is $49,800, tops among large countries (unless you include Norway and Switzerland). The size of China’s economy could eclipse that of the United States in a few years, yet even then China would be nowhere near as rich as America.

China’s leaders realize that, which is why there’s an aggressive new push to embrace reforms Western experts have been advocating for years. Some economists argue that China is heading for an economic phenomenon called the “middle-income trap,” in which fast-growing economies suddenly stagnate, unable to evolve beyond a seemingly fixed level of prosperity. China may be encountering that now. After several overheated years when China’s GDP grew by more than 10 percent per year, growth has fallen back to less than 8 percent. Some economists think it will fall further as efforts that worked economic miracles before – such as massive government-financed infrastructure projects — enter a phase of diminishing returns.

Annual income growth, meanwhile, peaked at nearly 23 percent in 2008 but has since drifted down to about 17 percent, according to World Bank data. Even with several years of fast-rising incomes in China, American workers remain far better off. Income per capita is nearly $49,000 in the United States, compared with about $5,000 in China.

It’s well understood that to become more prosperous and evade the middle-income trap, China has to rely less on exports — consumption by other countries — and more on consumption by its own middle class. It must also unleash more entrepreneurs driven by the profit motive, while cracking down on cronyism and bureaucratic corruption. Yet a vast network of party mandarins will no doubt try to undercut reforms, since they profit handsomely from the status quo. In that regard, China already resembles America, where politicians often stand in the way of what’s best for the country.


Gloomier PC forecast means more trouble for Windows

But Microsoft has plenty of ‘cards to play’ to maintain overall revenue, says analyst

Gregg Keizer

May 28, 2013 (Computerworld)


IDC today drastically lowered its forecast for PC shipments in 2013, a prediction that if accurate means more bad news for Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system.

“Lower PC sales are certainly not a positive for Microsoft,” said Loren Loverde, an analyst at IDC who heads the research firm’s PC tracking data group. “This will have a direct impact on Microsoft.”

IDC, which earlier this year had assembled a rosier forecast, predicting that shipments would slightly increase in the second half of 2013 to end the year down only 1.3% compared to 2012, revised its estimates today.

According to the new forecast, PC shipments will decline 7.8% in 2013, drop another 1.2% in 2014, and along with the 4% decrease already posted for 2012, create an unprecedented three-year contraction. Not until 2015 will the industry show shipment gains, when the market expands by an estimated 1.4%.

Even in 2017, as far out as IDC looks into the crystal ball, the PC shipment total of 333 million will still remain below 2012’s 349 million and 2011’s peak of 363 million.

Because Windows revenue usually stays in sync with PC shipments, the sharp downturn in the latter will certainly be reflected in Microsoft’s financials, agreed Loverde.

Microsoft has already taken a beating over Windows 8, not because of falling revenue in the division — in the first quarter, income after adjustments was flat even as PC shipments plummeted 14% — but because the upgrade did not boost hardware sales, as has been past habit.

Other IDC analysts, in fact, have blamed Windows 8’s lukewarm reception for a big part of the PC industry’s malaise.

Loverde backed off that today, saying that Windows 8 was only one of several contributing factors IDC had taken into account when it released its Q1 estimates.

The revised, and much gloomier, forecast, was prompted not only by those factors — Windows 8’s performance, economic uncertainties, lack of compelling hardware that took advantage of the touch-enabled OS — but also by the realization that the shift toward mobile would be more substantial than expected.

“There’s a fundamental shift under way in how people are computing,” Loverde asserted. “Computing is much more mobile, people’s priorities are shifting, and that trend doesn’t seem to be turning anytime soon.”

While PCs aren’t going away — something Loverde stressed even as IDC predicted a plunge in shipments this year — tasks that now are considered core to computing, including social network interactions, photograph taking and sharing, and email can be accomplished on non-PC devices like smartphones and tablets.

In other words, IDC sees the PC’s chief chores shrinking in number, resulting in fewer purchases by consumers and corporations as users and businesses stretch out replacement cycles or in some cases, simply swear off PCs.

“[People] are putting a premium on access from a variety of smaller devices with longer battery life, an instant-on function, and intuitive touch-centric interfaces,” added Loverde in a statement that accompanied the revised forecast. “These users have not necessarily given up on PCs as a platform for computing when a more robust environment is needed, but this takes a smaller share of computing time, and users are making do with older systems.”

That’s not good for Microsoft. Although the Redmond, Wash. developer continues to push its way into tablets — through its own Surface devices and those by its OEM partners — the bulk of Windows revenue still comes from equipping desktop and notebook PCs with licenses.

An 8% drop in PC shipments during 2013 would, assuming Windows sales mimic that exactly, mean a $1.4 billion hit to Microsoft’s revenue for the calendar year. (For the calendar year 2012, Windows revenue contracted by about 5% from the year before, closely matching the 4% decline in PC shipments pegged by IDC.)

But a knock that hard is unlikely, Loverde suggested. “Microsoft has a number of cards to play,” he said, pointing out the growing revenue of its Server and Tools division, an expectation that sales of Windows 8-powered and Office-equipped “slate”-style tablets will increase, and that Office will not mirror Windows’ decline, as three of those cards.

“This shift [in computing] will not undermine the Office franchise,” Loverde said, citing Microsoft’s ability, if it wanted, to monetize Office online and expand the suite’s footprint on tablets. Most analysts believe Microsoft could, for example, reap significant revenue by releasing Office for Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS, or by tying tablet editions on those platforms to its Office 365 subscription programs.

“We’ve taken expectations down,” said Loverde. “It is a bit sobering. We look at technology as a growth area, and so we think PC [sales] should continue to grow. But this is a major disruption, and a complete change of the landscape.”


Protect American IP by deploying malware to lock hackers, pirates out of PCs?

By Darlene Storm

May 28, 2013 3:11 PM EDT

Chinese government hackers were accused of compromising critical weapon systems, but were also accused of 50 – 80% of intellectual property theft. In fact, the “Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property” suggested “not yet legal” actions such as deploying malware on the offender’s computer, locking down or destroying computers with illegal copies, and even “photographing the hacker using his own system’s camera.” Although stopping other countries from stealing American trade secrets sounds like a good idea, these aggressive tactics could also go after American file-sharing computers with pirated content.

At the start of May, Bloomberg reported that the Chinese hacked a national security contractor and stole military secrets. That “lengthy spying operation on QinetiQ jeopardized the company’s sensitive technology involving drones, satellites, the U.S. Army’s combat helicopter fleet, and military robotics, both already-deployed systems and those still in development.” A few days later, for the first time, the Pentagon officially pointed an accusatory finger at Chinese government and military for cyber-espionage [pdf]. Now, after obtaining a confidential copy of a Defense Science Board report for the Pentagon, the Washington Post reported that Chinese hackers compromised “more than two dozen major weapons systems” that are “critical to US missile defenses and combat aircraft ships.”

The Chinese infiltrated some of the “nation’s most sensitive advanced weapon systems,” and accessed designs for the advanced Patriot missile system known as PAC-3, F/A-18 fighter jet, the Black Hawk helicopter, the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is the “most expensive weapons system ever built.” The Pentagon is “frustrated by the scale of cybertheft from defense contractors.” In fact, an unnamed senior military official told the Post, “In many cases, they don’t know they’ve been hacked until the FBI comes knocking on their door. This is billions of dollars of combat advantage for China. They’ve just saved themselves 25 years of research and development. It’s nuts.”

The unclassified version, a report called “Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat” [pdf], said insidious cyber threats “threaten our national and economic security.” This sentiment was recently echoed by a report published by the National Bureau of Asian Research on behalf of the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property. The report accused the Chinese for 50 – 80% of intellectual property theft, also naming Russia and India as offenders, costing the US economy $300 billion a year. The authors wrote, “The sheer scale of cyberattacks on American companies, with corresponding economic interests at stake, causes the issue of IP to rise to a genuine national security concern.”

The US was said to lead the world as software manufacturers, but loses “tens of billions of dollars in revenue annually from counterfeiting just in China, where the problem is most rampant. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimated in 2011 that if intellectual property protection in China improved substantially, U.S. businesses could add 2.1 million jobs.”

Stopping Chinese hackers sounds good, but much of the IP theft occurs “the old-fashioned way” inside the US, the report added, “through copied or stolen hard drives, bribing or planting of employees, tapping of phones, pirating of software and the reverse engineering of products….While credible reports have emerged of Chinese army hackers raiding U.S. government and industry computers, the report said, ‘In reality, most IP theft is committed within American offices, factories, and even neighborhoods and homes’.” The commission recommended “water marking” or “beaconing” to allow companies to identify stolen files and to make those files inoperable through cyber means.

Turn your attention to Cyber Solutions [pdf] in chapter 13 and here is where it gets freaky. According to the report on the “Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property” [pdf]:

Additionally, software can be written that will allow only authorized users to open files containing valuable information. If an unauthorized person accesses the information, a range of actions might then occur. For example, the file could be rendered inaccessible and the unauthorized user’s computer could be locked down, with instructions on how to contact law enforcement to get the password needed to unlock the account. Such measures do not violate existing laws on the use of the Internet, yet they serve to blunt attacks and stabilize a cyber incident to provide both time and evidence for law enforcement to become involved. 

While not quite that aggressive, Microsoft takes such an approach to protecting its intellectual property when the company scans for pirated copies of its OS under the umbrella of Windows Genuine Advantage validation. Users who need to “activate Windows,” as well as software pirates and some legitimate “genuine” consumers will have an error on the bottom right of their screen, saying, “This copy of Windows is not genuine — You may be a victim of counterfeiting.”

But when Microsoft advocated mandatory PC scans and PC health certificates before a computer would be allowed an “unfettered” connection to the Internet, people were not cool with that kind of privacy invasion. Microsoft said such scans should not include “the enforcement of intellectual property rights or the creation of marketing profiles.” Yet even if pirated software did not contain malware, the health scans could notify users of other “problems or configuration issues” that could increase the risk of the computer becoming infected with malware.

So while stopping other countries from stealing American trade secrets sounds like a good idea, what if the commission’s other recommendations were applied to pirated software or other content on Americans’ computers? Even though it is “not permitted under US law,” the IP commission suggested that companies should be allowed “to take further steps, including:”

actively retrieving stolen information, altering it within the intruder’s networks, or even destroying the information within an unauthorized network. Additional measures go further, including photographing the hacker using his own system’s camera, implanting malware in the hacker’s network, or even physically disabling or destroying the hacker’s own computer or network. 

It sounds like something the MPAA and RIAA would love, making the Six Strikes Copyright Alert System, which is reportedly “damn hard to trigger,” look tame in comparison.



The Surprising New Domestic Drone Market: Agriculture

The future of unmanned aircraft in America may be as much about spraying as spying.

April 2, 2013

Jason Best


You’re probably already aware of the “coming of the drones.” While the U.S. government has had seemingly little compunction about unleashing a stealth fleet of unmanned aircraft in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s been reluctant to allow similar winged bots to take to the skies here. And while much attention of late has been given to how law enforcement agencies might use drones to fight crime (or invade privacy, depending on your point of view), what’s surprising is that, in the drone industry, the real money isn’t on the cops—but the crops.

“Agriculture is gonna be the big market,” Chris Mailey, a VP at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, tells Wired.

Even before the sequestration, the drone industry was preparing for stagnation in the military market, owing to the fact that the U.S. is finally winding down its wars overseas. Law enforcement on the homefront seemed like a natural market (and, in fact, some police drones are already hovering out there, like in Miami), but as Mailey argues in Wired, the market is fixed: there are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., a sizeable portion of which are facing budget cuts of their own.

So what about drones on the farm? Drone boosters (pause: with a phrase like that, it really does hit you that you’re living in the 21st century) enthuse about the range of cool things that drones can do that Old MacDonald could only ever dream about, like detecting fungal diseases in the field well before crops show signs of infection, and thus leading to earlier and more effective treatment.

As Fast Company reports, a Canadian company called CropCam is hawking a GPS-controlled glider plane equipped with a camera that will snap geotagged hi-res images of fields, giving farmers a birds-eye view of which crops are healthy and which need some TLC. Farm drones could also allow for targeted spraying, especially for specialty crops that are either too difficult or too dangerous to spray with manned aircraft. Researchers at the University of California, Davis are experimenting with farm drones for spraying grapes in Napa Valley; over in Japan, where farm drones have been in use since 1990, 30 percent of the country’s rice paddies are sprayed using unmanned aircraft.

How you feel about this probably has a lot to do with whether when you think of “the future” you think of The Jetsons or Bladerunner. And for those of us who happily load our grocery list onto our iPhones, but still like to think of our store-bought chickens as pecking contentedly about in the sunshine somewhere, it’s likely some combination of both.

These glowing reports on what drones might mean for U.S. agriculture typically refer to “farmers,” but let’s be real: If the industry doesn’t think drones are feasible for thousands of law enforcement agencies, small-town family farmers aren’t going to be sending them into the skies over their fields anytime soon.

If the farmer-drone boom does happen (starting in September 2015—but given the pace of the FAA thus far in creating regulations for commercial use of drones, even two-and-a-half years might be too optimistic), then the big boon is going to be for Big Ag.

Who would have thought that the image of a single-engine crop duster lazily buzzing through the blue summer skies would come to seem nostalgic?


How Will Drones Be Used on American Farms?

Soon, drones will fly over America’s Bread Basket. Some think they could reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizers.

May 27, 2013

Steve Holt


A while back, we reported on the odd new use for unmanned aircraft—or “drones”—in the fields of America’s farms. Drones are primarily known for their use overseas to target and kill suspected terrorists, but there’s an emerging domestic market for their use in America’s food-producing fields. When a report last month from the trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International stated the vast majority of drones in the United States will probably be used for agriculture, the media frenzy that followed may have left some observers with the wrong idea of what drone farming could entail.

For one, “you’re not going to see Predators flying across the heartland taking pictures of corn,” says Rory Paul, CEO of Volt Aerial Robotics and a leading voice in applying unmanned aerial vehicle technology to agriculture.

So what will they be doing? For answers, we asked a farmer who is already using a UAV in his fields in Idaho—in fact, he claims to be the nation’s first. Robert Blair runs the 1,500-acre Blair Three Canyon Farms in fertile north central Idaho, where he raises cows and grows winter wheat, spring wheat, malt barley, peas, lentils, chickpeas, and alfalfa. Blair regularly flies his homemade drone, which is about the size of a goose, over his fields to check on general plant health, damage from insects or other wildlife, or weeds. In an aerial photo of Blair’s pea field, taken by his UAV, one can see several clearings where an elk had helped itself to the crops.

Blair, who started flying his UAV on the farm in 2006, says a common misconception is that drones will replace farmers. A drone, he says, is merely another piece of technology that allows a farmer to reduce costs and be more efficient.

“UAVs can’t do anything on their own,” he says. “They are gathering data for me to make management decisions.”

The Federal Aviation Administration bans the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial purposes, but Blair says his use is within the law because he’s not charging people money to fly his drone. By 2015, the FAA has been ordered to have a plan in place to open up the skies to commercial drones, though Rory Paul—whose company makes and markets UAVs—says full legalization could be pushed back several more years.

When that happens, Paul envisions drones being a “permanent fixture” on farms, performing duties that lower farmers’ costs by streamlining their efforts. These include the use of unmanned aircraft for precision crop dusting, he says. Instead of blanketing an entire field with pesticides or fertilizers, a drone could target only the areas that need them, possibly reducing the amount of chemicals that are put on food in the fields.

“Chemical companies are going to hate us when this gets going,” he says.

Blair, on the other hand, says it’d be impractical for him to use the drone he owns to spray his fields because, at less than 10 pounds, it couldn’t lift enough pesticide or fertilizer.

“I would have to have a UAV the size of a Cessna or bigger to haul enough weight to do the job in a timely fashion,” he says. “It’d be like you going out in a garden to water all your plants with a squirt gun.”

With an increasing consumer demand for cheaper food, drones may be especially attractive to conventional farms that service large agribusiness companies or send their food overseas. But drones may also soon be used by watchdog groups to monitor animal cruelty on farms. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, announced last month that it will be purchasing one or more drones to stalk hunters, but says it “also intends to fly the drones over factory farms, popular fishing spots, and other venues where animals routinely suffer and die.”

Even further down the road, Paul sees another use for drones, albeit a rather bizarre one.

“I can see a future where farmers are using very small UAVs for the pollination of orchards,” Paul says. “There will be no more honey bees, so we’ll have to manufacture them in China.”



Owner of John Morrell Food Group sold to Chinese firm

By Michael Felberbaum

Dayton Daily News

AP Business Writer

Updated: 12:06 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, 2013


RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Chinese meat processor Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. has agreed to buy Smithfield Foods Inc. for approximately $4.72 billion in a deal that will take the world’s biggest pork producer private.

Smithfield Foods own the John Morrell Food Group, based in Springdale, near Cincinnati. John Morrell has roughly 525 employees in the Cincinnati area.

Hong Kong-based Shuanghui owns a variety of global businesses that include food, logistics and flavoring products and is China’s largest meat processing enterprise. Smithfield owns brands such as Armour, Farmland and its namesake.

Shareholders of Smithfield will receive $34 per share under terms of the deal announced Wednesday — a 31 percent premium to the Smithfield, Va., company’s closing stock price of $25.97 on Tuesday.

Both companies’ boards have unanimously approved the transaction, which still needs approval from Smithfield’s shareholders. The transaction may also be subject to review by the U.S.’s Committee on Foreign Investment.

The companies put the deal’s total value at about $7.1 billion, including debt. Smithfield Foods has about 138.8 million outstanding shares, according to FactSet. Smithfield’s stock will no longer be publicly traded once the deal closes.

Its shares surged $7.23, or 27.8 percent, to $33.20 in premarket trading Wednesday.

Shuanghui has 13 facilities that produce more than 2.7 million tons of meat per year. Under the agreement, there will be no closures at Smithfield’s facilities and locations, including its Smithfield, Va., headquarters, the companies said.

Smithfield’s existing management team will remain in place and Shuanghui also will honor the collective bargaining agreements in place with Smithfield workers. The company has about 46,000 employees.

“This transaction preserves the same old Smithfield, only with more opportunities and new markets and new frontiers,” Smithfield CEO Larry Pope said in a conference call. “This is not a strategy to import Chinese pork into the United States … this is exporting America to the world.”

With China and U.S. being “the most important markets,” Zhijun Yang, managing director of Shuanghui, said in a conference call with investors, “together we can be a global leader in animal protein. … no other combination has such a great opportunity.”

In recent months, Continental Grain Co., one of Smithfield’s largest shareholders, has been pushing Smithfield to consider splitting itself up, saying it was time for the company to “get serious about creating shareholder value.” Following a March letter from Continental Grain, Smithfield said it would review the suggestions “in due course.” Representatives from Continental Grain did not immediately comment on the deal announced Wednesday.

In its most recent quarter, in March reported its net income rose more than 3 percent, helped by gains in hog production, its international business and its packaged meats such as deli meats, bacon, sausage, and hot dogs — a large growth area for the company.

Still pork producers like Smithfield have been caught in a tug of war with consumers. The company needs to raise prices to offset rising commodity costs, namely the corn it uses for feed. But consumers are still extremely sensitive to price changes in the current economy. By raising prices, Smithfield risks cutting into its sales should consumers cut back or buy cheaper meats, such as chicken.


3D-Printed Bioresorbable Splint Saves Baby’s Life

Posted in Implants & Prosthetics, Medical, News, MDB on Monday, May 27 2013


Ever since he was six weeks old, an Ohio infant with a condition called tracheobronchomalacia would stop breathing because part of his windpipe carrying air to his left lung would collapse, requiring emergency assistance. But, thanks to a team of doctors and engineers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who created a new, bioresorbable device called a tracheal splint, using a 3D printer, Kaiba is now breathing freely, his life spared.

Contacted by the child’s doctor, Glenn Green, MD, associate professor of pediatric otolaryngology at the University of Michigan and his colleague, Scott Hollister, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering and associate professor of surgery at U-M, obtained emergency clearance from the FDA to create and implant a tracheal splint for Kaiba made of a biopolymer called polycaprolactone.

On February 9, 2012, the specially-designed splint was implanted in Kaiba at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. The splint was sewn around his airway to expand the bronchus and give it a skeleton to aid proper growth. The doctors say that within three years, the splint will be reabsorbed by the body. Kaiba was off ventilator support 21 days after the procedure, and has not had breathing trouble since then.

Green and Hollister were able to make the custom-designed, custom-fabricated device using high-resolution imaging and computer-aided design. The device was created directly from a CT scan of Kaiba’s trachea/bronchus, integrating an image-based computer model with laser-based 3D printing to produce the splint.

“The image-based design and 3-D biomaterial printing process we used for Kaiba can be adapted to build and reconstruct a number of tissue structures. We’ve used the process to build and test patient-specific ear and nose structures. Scott has also used the method with other collaborators to rebuild bone structures in pre-clinical models,” said Green.



Defense Contractors Vastly Outnumber Troops in Afghanistan

By Bob Brewin

May 30, 2013


For every U.S. service member serving in Afghanistan, there are 1.6 Defense contractors on the ground (and on the payroll) in supporting roles. Contractors make up 62 percent of the force there — 108,000 versus 65,700 troops, watchdog agency reports reveal.

The Congressional Research Service, in a May 17 report obtained by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, said that the Pentagon spent $159.6 billion on contractor support in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2007 through 2012. A Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday said the Pentagon spent a total of $195 billion on contract services in 2010, double what it spent in 2001. Spending on contract services declined to $174 billion in 2012, GAO said.

Both reports faulted the Pentagon for its inability to provide accurate data on the total number of contractors employed by the Defense Department and the missions those contractors perform.

“Current databases are not sufficiently customized to track important contract data. Even when information is tracked, questions remain as to the reliability of the information,” CRS reported.

One problem is the military services use different methodologies to track contractors. “DOD components used various methods and data sources, including their inventories of contracted services, to estimate contractor [full time equivalents] for budget submissions,” GAO said.

Its analysis found that “the contractor FTE estimates have significant limitations and do not accurately reflect the number of contractors providing services to DOD.” Those limitations included estimating techniques based on potentially inaccurate inventory data, GAO said.

Contract personnel provide a wide range of services, including transportation, construction and base support functions as well as intelligence analysis and private security.

CRS noted that by using contractors on an as-needed basis, the Pentagon can save money and free uniformed personnel to focus on combat operations. The department also can use contractors with specialized skills, such as linguists or weapons maintenance experts, to quickly support specific battlefield needs.

But CRS noted that many analysts believe contractors undermined the military’s credibility and effectiveness in both Iraq and Afghanistan and it criticized Defense for poor planning in how it uses contractors in operational support roles.

“The ineffective use of contractors can prevent troops from receiving what they need, when they need it, and can lead to the wasteful spending of billions of dollars,” CRS said.

GAO said the Pentagon needs to develop a “strategic human capital management” plan that determines the appropriate mix of military, civilian, and contractor workforces and the functions of each.

In a response to the GAO report, Rick Robbins, the department’s director of force manning and requirements, said Defense officials recognized that the contractor FTE information provided in the department’s 2013 and 2014 budget submissions had significant limitations.

He said a reliable, current inventory of contractor FTEs is a fundamental building block for developing future contractor FTE estimates and noted that the department has initiated efforts to improve inventory data by collecting it directly from contractors, using the Army’s Contractor Manpower Reporting Application as a model.


Air Force boosts cyber mission capabilities


May. 29, 2013 – 06:00AM |

By Oriana Pawlyk and USA TODAY


The Pentagon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on building cyber capabilities, an effort that has gained urgency as China, Russia, North Korea and other nations have been using cyberspace to attack adversaries or steal secrets.

And while other areas of the Defense Department’s budget are targeted for cutbacks, the military is increasing its budget for cyberwarfare and expanding offensive capabilities, making cyber careers among the hottest in the Air Force.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. New jobs. The Air Force expects to add more than 1,000 cyber jobs between 2014 and 2016, although the final number has not been approved, said Gen. William Shelton, commander, Air Force Space Command, in an email to Air Force Times. About 80 percent will be airmen and the rest civilian.

2. The teams. Each of the services has a cyber force that falls under U.S. Cyber Command, which plans to field 100 teams by 2016, divided into three categories: defending military networks, damaging the capabilities of enemy networks and helping to defend the nation’s infrastructure.

“The Joint Staff, U.S. Cyber Command and the services are currently developing an implementation plan to include sourcing and training this new cyber workforce,” Shelton said.

3. On offense. Next year, the Air Force plans to spend $14 million to research and develop offensive cyber capabilities, budget documents show, while it plans to devote about $5.8 million to research for cyber defense. The Air Force has been developing systems designed for the “exfiltration of information while operating within adversary information systems,” according to budget documents. The Air Force declined to release details on the program, saying it was classified.

Overall, the Defense Department plans to increase its cyber operations budget to $4.7 billion, up from $3.9 billion this year. Much of that additional money is going into the development of offensive capabilities, usually referred to as computer network attacks, according to budget documents.

4. Cyber weapons designated. To make sure the Air Force can secure the money it needs for its cyber mission, the service designated six capabilities as weapons, underscoring the importance of making them available to combatant commanders, Shelton said. The weapons are: cyberspace defense, cyberspace defense analysis, cyberspace vulnerability assessment/hunter, cyberspace command and control mission system, cybersecurity and control system, and intranet control.

5. Secret rules. The Pentagon is nearing completion of a revised set of “rules of engagement” that will help field commanders determine how and when to use the cyber capabilities. The rules will be kept secret.



FY15 Guidance Takes Sequester Into Account

Defense News

May. 30, 2013 – 09:51PM |



WASHINGTON — After years of not preparing for mandated sequestration spending cuts, the Pentagon is now incorporating different levels of budget reductions in its future planning.

US Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in a May 29 memo to senior defense officials, told the services to prepare for three different scenarios for fiscal 2015: one that reflects President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal, a second that is 5 percent less and a third that is 10 percent less.

“[W]e do need to develop options in the event that fiscal realities differ from the funding level in the President’s budget,” Carter said.

The 10 percent cut would reflect the impact of full sequestration, which is roughly a $500 billion reduction over a 10-year period beginning in 2013., while the 5 percent reduction reflects roughly half.

In April, the Pentagon sent Congress a budget proposal for fiscal 2014 that was $52 billion above the sequestration spending cap. At the time, Pentagon officials said the White House had not directed them to plan for sequestration.

Now the services are being asked “to develop options” for reductions to the 2014 budget proposal as well.

The first is a 10 percent across-the-board cut and the second is a 10 percent reduction to DoD’s $527 billion requested top line that allows flexibility to move money around accounts.

Carter also told officials that DoD might have to prepare for a 5 percent budget cut in 2014.

For the past two months, DoD has been conducting the Strategic Choices Management Review (SCMR), which was designed to factor in defensewide budget cuts at three levels — $100 billion, $300 billion and $500 billion — over the next decade. The review has been proceeding on schedule.

The SCMR project is designed to look at ways to modify DoD’s military strategy to accommodate various levels of budget cuts.

As DoD looks to make these types of budget cuts, four Washington think tanks — the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Center for New American Security (CNAS) and American Enterprise Institute (AEI) — have recommended areas to cut, while looking to maintain DoD’s existing military strategy.

Using a scoring tool developed by CSBA, teams from each think tank made trade-offs among different capabilities to meet spending targets.

To achieve similar budget cut levels described in Carter’s memo, each team called for large-scale personnel cuts to meet spending caps at the half and full sequestration levels.

Under full sequestration, each team made significant cuts to readiness; under half sequestration, all of the teams restored or significantly reduced those cuts.

Each team supported reductions in the military’s air capabilities, specifically calling for broad reductions of non-stealthy fighter and attack aircraft. Aside from AEI, the other three think tanks called for plus-ups of stealthy unmanned aircraft.

Under full sequestration, three of the four think tanks called for reductions to the Air Force’s bomber inventory. But three of four also said that could allow a plus-up for a new stealthy bomber.

All recommended cuts to the Navy’s fleet of carriers, cruisers and destroyers under full sequestration.

CNAS, CSIS and CSBA also called for increasing spending on space and cyber activities. ■


Strategic Choices Exercise Outbrief

May 29, 2013 • By Todd Harrison, Jim Thomas, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew F. Krepinevich, Eric Lindsey, Evan B. Montgomery, and Zack CooperStudies

As the Pentagon nears completion of its ongoing Strategic Choices and Management Review, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments conducted an external Strategic Choices Exercise with teams of experts from three other prominent think-tanks—CSIS, AEI and CNAS–to inform public debate.

Each team was asked to develop a defense strategy and rebalance DoD’s portfolio of capabilities in a reduced budget environment.  Using CSBA’s rebalancing tool and methodology, the teams chose from several hundred pre-costed options to add or cut from the projected defense program over the next ten years, including major units of force structure, end strength, bases, readiness, civilian personnel, weapon systems, and modernization programs.  Each team had to weigh its decisions within the context of both Budget Control Act (BCA)-level cuts in defense spending and a lower reduction of half the BCA cut. Each team’s cuts and adds had to be consistent with the budget-level options considered by the Strategic Choices and Management Review that the Pentagon is wrapping up this week. The exercise was timed to inform the thinking on the way defense resources are allocated in light of declining budgets.

On May 29, 2013, CSBA hosted an outbrief, where all four teams presented their strategies, outlined how they approached their strategic choices, and where they chose to take risk.  Following the team presentations, Todd Harrison presented his comparison of choices across all teams.

URLs for Briefing Slides (PDF):

Introduction and
Exercise Overview
, Todd Harrison, CSBA

Presentations of Rebalancing Strategies and Team Approaches:

       Comparison of Choices, Todd Harrison, CSBA




SoftBank’s bid for Sprint clears security review

The Hill

By Brendan Sasso – 05/29/13 10:23 AM ET

An interagency committee has determined that SoftBank’s proposed purchase of Sprint would not jeopardize national security, the companies announced on Wednesday.

To allay security concerns, SoftBank, a Japanese company, agreed to give the U.S. government veto power over the appointment of one Sprint board member, who would oversee national security issues for the company. The government would also be able to review and approve contracts with certain network equipment makers.

The deal must still receive approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is considering whether the purchase would be in the public’s interest. Sprint’s shareholders are scheduled to vote on whether to accept SoftBank’s offer on June 12.

The national security review was led by the Treasury Department and also included the Justice Department, the Homeland Security Department and other agencies. The interagency committee, called CFIUS, must approve all purchases of U.S. businesses by foreign companies.

Dish Network is pushing a competing offer for Sprint and has been drumming up fears that SoftBank could expose Sprint’s networks to hackers.

Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) sent letters to regulators last week raising security concerns about the SoftBank deal.

McCain noted that Sprint owns the rights to large swathes of airwaves and has numerous contracts with government agencies.

“I have real concerns that this deal, if approved, could make American industry and government agencies far more susceptible to cyberattacks from China and the People’s Liberation Army, already the number one source of electronic espionage against American interest,” Schumer wrote.

The fears stem from the fact that in many countries, SoftBank relies on telecommunications equipment produced by Chinese firms such as Huawei and ZTE. Because of those companies’ ties to the Chinese government, the House Intelligence Committee determined in a report last year that they pose a threat to U.S. national security.

The congressional investigators feared Huawei and ZTE could build back doors into their equipment, allowing the Chinese government to spy on the communications of U.S. companies and people.

In addition to giving the U.S. government oversight power over certain network equipment vendors, SoftBank has said it will strip out Huawei’s equipment from Clearwire—a wireless network operator that Sprint is trying to buy.

Dish has also raised alarms about SoftBank’s ties to UTStarcom, a company that admitted to bribing Chinese officials for telecommunications contracts. Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank, was chairman of the board of UTStarcom from 1995 until 2003.

“The settlement documents do not name, implicate, or otherwise relate to SoftBank or Mr. Son, and are legally and factually irrelevant to this proceeding,” SoftBank wrote in a recent filing with the FCC.


Medicare on track for insolvency in 2026; Social Security in 2033

By Erik Wasson and Sam Baker – 05/31/13 01:12 PM ET

The Hill

Medicare will reach insolvency by 2026 while Social Security’s two trust funds will become insolvent by 2033, the program’s trustees reported Friday.

Unless Congress acts, Social Security will no longer be able to pay full benefits to retirees after 2033. Only three-quarters of benefits will be delivered after the projected insolvency date. 

The trust fund that pays disability benefits through Social Security is headed for insolvency in 2016 and will only be able to pay out 80 percent of benefits after that date, the trustees found.

Medicare’s trust fund will become insolvent in 2026 — two years later than previously estimated. By that date, the fund that covers Medicare’s hospital benefit will begin to spend more money than it takes in.

The additional two years of Medicare solvency projected this year were due to lower-than-expected spending. The insolvency date for Social Security is unchanged from last year.

The annual reports are likely to put the focus back on the troubled entitlement programs and could give impetus to address them in a debt deal this fall.

“Lawmakers should address the financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare as soon as possible,” the trustees report said. “Taking action sooner rather than later will leave more options and more time available to phase in changes to that the public has adequate time to prepare.”

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) office said the report means action needs to be taken immediately to fix the entitlement programs.

“Today’s report is yet another reminder that Medicare and Social Security are in great danger. We need to protect and strengthen these critical programs. And we must take action now, so we can keep our promises to current seniors and future retirees,” Ryan spokesman William Allison said Friday.

The trustees report was signed by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris, Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin, Treasury Secretary Jack Law and public trustees Charles Blahous and Robert Reischauer.

The trustees had previously said that President Obama’s healthcare law extended the life of the Medicare trust fund — a finding that Lew and Sebelius were quick to highlight on Friday.

“The Medicare report demonstrates, once again, the importance of the Affordable Care Act, which has strengthened Medicare’s finances by reining in healthcare costs,” Lew said.

Medicare Trustee Reischauer said the recession and sluggish economy played a part in the spending slowdown for Medicare, but said the healthcare law also deserved credit.

“Because of the restraints in the Affordable Care Act and the structural reforms the act is encouraging, there’s reason, I think, to be optimistic,” Reischauer said.

The fight over reforming Social Security flared in April when Obama included significant benefit cuts in his 2014 budget. He proposed changing the way inflation is calculated in order to reduce federal deficits by $340 billion over 10 years. 

By adopting the so-called chained consumer price index, the budget would have the effect of reducing annual Social Security benefit increases for seniors, while extending the life of the program by two years, according to administration officials.

Lew argued that fixing both entitlements programs is a high priority for Obama and said he is “hopeful” that a deal with Congress can be found.

“I think our challenge will be to find a path to have this conversation in a bipartisan way and I remain hopeful that we will do that,” Lew said.

“There is time, but it is not free to wait.”

The White House has been hosting private dinners with Republican senators an effort to lay the groundwork for a compromise on entitlements, but senators recently told The Hill they were frustrated at the pace of dealmaking.

Obama’s proposal for Social Security was opposed by seniors advocates like the AARP, while deficit hawks said it did not go far enough.

Seniors groups want to lift the cap on payroll taxes to increase funding for Social Security, as workers currently do not pay the payroll taxes on income over $113,700. Administration officials on Friday said eliminating the cap would solve 70 to 80 percent of the program’s shortfall.

Some advocates are also pushing a consumer price index adjustment that would tend to increase Social Security benefits. 

AARP used the release of Friday’s trustee report to attack Obama’s inflation proposal.

“Too many politicians in Washington talk about changes to Social Security without considering the impact in income security such changes will have on real people. One example of this is the so-called ‘chained CPI’ — a fancy Washington term that really means cutting Social Security and veterans’ benefits,” AARP Vice President Nancy LeaMond said.

“With their report today, the Social Security Trustees draw renewed attention to the long-term financial challenges facing this vital retirement security program. While not in crisis, Social Security will require modest changes to ensure current and future generations will receive the benefits they’ve earned.”

While some Republicans have called for an increase in the retirement age or means-testing of Social Security benefits, the last three budgets passed by the GOP-controlled House have been silent about how to fix the program.
Some Republicans, including Ryan (Wis.), praised Obama for offering the chained CPI proposal, but others like campaign chairman Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.) slammed Obama for hurting seniors. Walden was later rebuked by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for his comments.

Deficit hawks are pushing for lower retirement benefits and higher insurance premiums for seniors in a “grand bargain” on the deficit.

Advocates for seniors are fighting those proposals, and say tax increases are what’s needed to shore up the programs. They also argue that the pressing disability fund problems can be solved by a transfer of funds from the retirement trust fund, something Congress has authorized in the past.

Rasmussen Reports

What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls

Bottom of Form

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Health care and housing are hotter topics for many Americans these days than the growing controversies surrounding the Obama administration.

Amid increasing news reports of potential big insurance rate hikes, Scott Rasmussen’s latest weekly newspaper column contends that consumers are set to repeal a large part of President Obama’s health care law. “Advocates of the plan dramatically misread the public mood. Only 28% of voters believe the top priority should be guaranteeing comprehensive insurance coverage for all workers. Sixty-six percent (66%) think it’s more important to let workers pick their own mix of insurance coverage and take-home pay.

If they had the choice, 59% would opt for less expensive insurance and a bigger paycheck.

As the countdown continues to full implementation of the health care law next year, voters are still evenly divided over whether they want their governor to help make the law a reality in their state

On the housing front, 60% now say their home is worth more than what they owe on their mortgage. That matches the most upbeat assessment since the Wall Street meltdown in 2008. Thirty-five percent (35%) think their house’s value will go up over the next year, a huge improvement from over a year ago.

Thirty-three percent (33%) of Americans say now is a good time for someone to sell a house where they live. That, too, is a four-year high.

More Americans than ever (70%) also believe that homeowners who can’t afford their mortgage payments should downsize rather than receive assistance from the government.

At the same time, the Rasmussen Consumer and Investor Indexes which measure daily confidence continue to run at or near their highest levels since before the Wall Street collapse in 2008.

But most voters don’t approve of the Justice Department’s investigation of news reporters, and a plurality (42%) now thinks the department’s boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, should resign.

The positive economic news may help explain why the president’s overall job approval ratings haven’t suffered despite the continuing media focus on the Internal Revenue Service, Justice Department and Benghazi controversies.

Still, just 37% of voters rate Obama’s handling of economic issues as good or excellent, while 45% view his performance in this area as poor. Meanwhile, views of the president’s handling of national security issues have slipped to levels not seen since before the killing of Osama bin Laden two years ago. Just 40% now give the president good or excellent ratings for his handling of national security, while 39% rate his performance as poor.

The president made headlines recently with a national security speech promising to close the prison camp for terrorists at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba and to restrict the government’s use of armed drones. Voters are closely divided over whether the Guantanamo prison should be closed, and just 27% agree with bringing some of those inmates to the United States to make closing the camp possible.

Voters are now more supportive of using unmanned drones to kill U.S. citizens overseas who pose a terrorist threat. A surprising 36% favor their use against terrorist threats in this country.

Democrats’ efforts to strengthen gun control laws also may not have had the political impact they’d hoped for: Voters now trust Republicans more than the president’s party on the gun control issue.  Just 41% trust Democrats more. In March, Democrats had a five point advantage on the issue.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a lawsuit challenging the University of Texas’ use of race as a factor in admissions.  Just 25%of Americans favor such a policy. That’s consistent with a larger perspective that students should be judged on their own merits. Just 30% believe it is okay for schools to give preferences to the children of donors.

Only 23% believe that, in reality, elite schools only accept the most qualified students. Seventy-one percent (71%) believe that accepting only the most qualified students for admission is better than giving preference to alumni families.

Most voters don’t believe they are getting a good return on current education spending, and just 34% think more money will enhance student performance.

Voters generally believe tax increases hurt the economy, but they’re still slightly more inclined to vote for a candidate who would raise taxes only on the wealthy over one who would oppose all tax increases.

Democrats have regained the lead on the Generic Congressional Ballot. For the last six weeks, the gap between the two parties has been two points or less.

In other surveys last week:

— For the third week in a row, 30% of voters say the country is heading in the right direction. That’s nearly identical to attitudes a year ago.

— Seventy-three percent (73%) of working Americans generally look forward to going to work.

— Sixty-five percent (65%) of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Boy Scouts of America, down from 73% a year ago.

— With the trial in the sensational Trayvon Martin case just two weeks away, interest in the case is way down. A plurality of Americans have no opinion as to whether the man who shot the Florida teen last year should be found guilty of murder.

— Just 17% of Americans favor making it easier for the FBI to wiretap Internet communications such as instant messages, Facebook chats and e-mails.

New York City voters still approve of the job Mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing but are almost evenly divided when it comes to the “stop and frisk” policing policy he endorses.

— Thirty-one percent (31%) of Americans rank Memorial Day as one of the nation’s most important holidays, and 41% planned to do something last Monday to honor those who sacrificed their lives for this country.

— Seventy-one percent (71%) of Americans think Memorial Day means summer has arrived.

— Fifty-four percent (54%) of Americans say they or a family member has taken a vacation on a cruise ship. But 45% are less likely to take a vacation on one of these ships now, given all the problems they’ve been having.


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