Daily Archives: August 3, 2007

Rifle Toting Robots See Action in Iraq

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National Defense | August 2007 Issue

By Stew Magnuson

Rifle Toting RobotThe U.S. Army quietly entered a new era earlier this summer when it sent the first armed ground robots into action in Iraq.

So far, the robot army’s entrance into the war has been a trickle rather than an invasion.

Only three of the special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system (SWORDS) have been deployed so far.

The Army has authorized the purchase of 80 more robots — which are being touted as a potentially life-saving technology — but acquisition officials have not come forth with the funding.

“As [soldiers] use them and like them, I’ve heard positive feedback, they want 20 more immediately. It’s a shame we can’t get them to them,” Michael Zecca, SWORDS program manager, told National Defense.

The three robots, which tote M249 rifles and are remotely controlled by a soldier through a terminal, have been in Iraq since April and are with the 3rd Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade.

After three years of development at the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., the robots were formally approved for combat use in June. Their exact whereabouts and missions are classified, but Zecca could confirm that they have been used in reconnaissance tasks and street patrols.

He did not know of any incidents of the weapon being fired so far.

SWORDS is designed to take on “high risk combat missions,” according to an Army statement. A specialist controlling the robot could send it into a potentially dangerous situation, such as a narrow street infested with snipers, seek targets and take them out before a foot patrol follows.

“Anytime you utilize technology to take a U.S. service member out of harm’s way, it is worth every penny,” said John Saitta, a consultant with Smart Business Advisory and Consulting and a major in the Marine Corps reserves, who has been trained as a weapons and tactic instructor.

“These armed robots can be used as a force multiplier to augment an already significant force in the battle space,” he added.

The 80 robots approved under an urgent materiel release, a mechanism designed to speed potentially life-saving technologies to the battlefield, are being held up “due to limited funding in fiscal years 2006-2007,” said Lt. Col. William Wiggins, a spokesman for the office of the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.

“While SWORDS is currently not a program of record, the Army has initiated a memorandum of agreement between ARDEC and Robotic System-Joint Project Office to expedite establishing a funded program to meet Army needs,” Wiggins said in a written statement.

Obama Follows the Neocon Mass Murder Script

kurtnimmo.com | Aug 1, 2007

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by Kurt Nimmo

It is a race to see who can kill more people. “As President, Barack Obama would order attacks on terrorist camps in Pakistan even if its president, Gen. Pervais Musharraf, refused to give permission and would link American aid on Pakistan’s progress in rooting out its terrorist havens,” writes Marc Ambinder for Atlantic Online. “That stance, one part of the multifacted counterrorrism strategy Obama unveils this morning, is tougher than the more considered approach of the Bush Administration, which has generally avoided antagonizing its ally in public.” In other words, Obama’s selection strategy consists of outdoing the neocons and he really harbors no reservations when it comes to mass murder and adding to the horrific total exacted in human life (nearly a million Iraqis) since the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

“I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans,” declared Obama. “They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”

Indeed, there are “terrorists holed up in those mountains,” never mind the United States set-up this enclave. “Ironically, rather than arresting Al Qaeda ‘foreign fighters’ who were combating alongside the Taliban [in Afghanistan], the US military actually facilitated their evacuation in military planes to Northwestern Pakistan,” notes Michel Chossudovsky, who cites Seymour Hersh:

The Bush Administration ordered US Central Command to set up a special air corridor to help insure the safety of the Pakistani rescue flights from Kunduz to the northwest corner of Pakistan …

[Pakistan President] Musharraf won American support for the airlift by warning that the humiliation of losing hundreds—and perhaps thousands—of Pakistani Army men and intelligence operatives would jeopardize his political survival. “Clearly, there is a great willingness to help Musharraf,” an American intelligence official told me [Seymour Hersh]. A CIA analyst said that it was his understanding that the decision to permit the airlift was made by the White House and was indeed driven by a desire to protect the Pakistani leader. The airlift ‘made sense at the time,’ the CIA. analyst said. ‘Many of the people they spirited away were the Taliban leadership’—who Pakistan hoped could play a role in a postwar Afghan government. According to this person, “Musharraf wanted to have these people to put another card on the table” in future political negotiations. “We were supposed to have access to them,’ he said, but ‘it didn’t happen,’’ and the rescued Taliban remain unavailable to American intelligence.

According to a former high-level American defense official, the airlift was approved because of representations by the Pakistanis that “there were guys—intelligence agents and underground guys—who needed to get out.

Now Obama wants to bomb them. Of course, this is simply political grandstanding, as the president is not really the decider guy but rather a factotum who takes orders from on-high. If our rulers want to kill “al-Qaeda”—that is to say, dirt farmers and peasants in Pakistan’s Federal Administered Tribal Areas—that is precisely what will happen, no matter if the commander guy is a Republican neocon or a Democrat neolib.

“As President, I would make the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters, and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan,” said Obama, who is slated to be Hillary’s running mate, never mind all the hoopla and jive indicating otherwise. “The day the Clinton-Obama ticket is announced would really be one for the history books,” averred Anna Quindlen for Newsweek a few days ago.

Finally, as if to make sure the Pashtuns—in neocon-speak, Taliban militants—of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province are correctly singled out and targeted, we learn that an “Islamic alliance” in the province “bordering Afghanistan has proposed changing the region’s name to ‘Afghania’, a provincial minister said on Wednesday…. Pashtun nationalists have long demanded the old colonial name [created during the days of the British Raj in pre-partition India] be changed as it only indicates a geographical location rather than the ethnicity of its inhabitants, as in the other three Pakistan provinces—Punjab for Punjabis, Sindh for Sindhis and Baluchistan for Baluchis,” according to Reuters.

Marine guilty of Iraqi grandfather’s murder

Herald Sun | Aug 3, 2007

A US Marine squad leader who told his men “We just got away with murder” after they kidnapped and killed an Iraqi grandfather in Iraq last year has been found guilty of murder.

A military jury in a Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base courtroom, north of San Diego, found Sergeant Lawrence Hutchins III committed unpremeditated murder and larceny, made false official statements and participated in conspiracy to murder and commit other crimes in the killing.

He was found not guilty of charges of kidnapping, assault and housebreaking.

Witnesses said Hutchins led the unit in planning to kidnap and kill a terror suspect in the middle of the night. But when the unit could not find the suspect, they randomly killed Hashim Ibrahim Awad, 52, a father of 11 and grandfather of four who lived next door.

After Hutchins shot the man in the head, the squad then set a stolen AK-47 and shovel next to the corpse to suggest he was an insurgent planting a roadside bomb.

In an earlier trial, Petty Officer Melson Bacos said Hutchins’ anger over the release of a suspected “terrorist” from Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison prompted the murder of the man’s neighbour.

“He was just mad that they kept letting him go when he was a known terrorist, sir,” PO Bacos said.
The prosecutor in the case, Lieutentant Colonel John Baker, said in closing arguments that Hutchins masterminded “a cold and calculated plan … to take the law into his own hands”.

Hutchins is one of seven US Marines and one US sailor with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, charged in the April 26, 2006, killing of the Iraqi in Hamdania.

Five members of the squad, including the navy medic, pled guilty to lesser charges in connection with the shooting.

A military jury convicted a sixth member, team leader Corporal Trent Thomas, of conspiracy and kidnapping and sentenced him to reduction to private, forfeiture of all military pay and benefits and a bad-conduct discharge.

A separate military jury on Wednesday found Corporal Marshall Magincalda guilty of larceny and housebreaking as well as conspiracy to murder.

Minneapolis bridge was “structurally deficient” in 1990

It was rated 50 out of a 100 in terms of its structural stability in 2005Last I checked, 50 out of 100 still equals 50%. In other words, engineers knew AT LEAST 2 years ago that it was unsafe and they had to know there was a 50/50 chance that the bridge could fail at any moment, yet it was still certified for traffic. What the…!

I mean, if you knew a bridge was rated only 50% safe, would you want to drive over it?
PW

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This is the scene of the collapsed 35W bridge over the Mississippi River Thursday, Aug. 2, 2007, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

A 2005 federal inspection also rated the bridge structurally deficient, giving it a 50 on a scale of 100 for structural stability.

Associated Press | Aug 3, 2007

By SHARON COHEN and BRIAN BAKST

MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota officials were warned as early as 1990 that the bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River was “structurally deficient,” yet they relied on a strategy of patchwork fixes and stepped-up inspections.

“We thought we had done all we could,” state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan told reporters not far from the mangled remains of the span. “Obviously something went terribly wrong.”

Questions about the cause of the collapse and whether it could have been prevented arose Thursday as authorities shifted from rescue efforts to a grim recovery operation, searching for bodies that may be hidden beneath the river’s swirling currents.

The official death count from Wednesday’s rush-hour collapse stood at four, with another 79 injuries. But police said the death count would surely grow because bodies had been spotted in the water and as many as 30 people were still reported missing.

The Army Corps of Engineers lowered the river level a foot to help recovery efforts, said agency spokeswoman Shannon Bauer.

In 1990, the federal government gave the I-35W bridge a rating of “structurally deficient,” citing significant corrosion in its bearings. The bridge is one of about 77,000 bridges in that category nationwide, 1,160 in Minnesota alone.

The designation means some portions of the bridge needed to be scheduled for repair or replacement, and it was on a schedule for inspection every two years.

Dorgan said the bearings could not have been repaired without jacking up the entire deck of the bridge. Because the bearings were not sliding, inspectors concluded the corrosion was not a major issue.

During the 1990s, later inspections found fatigue cracks and corrosion in the steel around the bridge’s joints. Those problems were repaired. Starting in 1993, the state said, the bridge was inspected annually instead of every other year.

A 2005 federal inspection also rated the bridge structurally deficient, giving it a 50 on a scale of 100 for structural stability.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said while the inspection didn’t indicate the bridge was at risk of failing, “if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty responded Thursday by ordering an immediate inspection of all bridges in the state with similar designs, but said the state was never warned that the bridge needed to be closed or immediately repaired.

“There was a view that the bridge was ultimately and eventually going to need to be replaced,” he said. “But it appears from the information that we have available that a timeline for that was not immediate or imminent, but more in the future.”

Federal officials alerted states to immediately inspect all bridges similar to the one that collapsed.

The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge was Minnesota’s busiest bridge, carrying 141,000 vehicles a day. It was in the midst of mostly repaving repairs when it buckled during the evening rush hour. Dozens of cars plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River, some falling on top one of another. A school bus sat on the angled concrete.

Engineers wondered whether heavy traffic might have contributed to the collapse. Studies of the bridge have raised concern about cracks caused by metal fatigue.

“I think everybody is looking at fatigue right now,” said Kent Harries, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Engineering. “This is an interstate bridge that sees a lot of truck traffic.”

After a study raised concern about cracks, the state was given two alternatives: Add steel plates to reinforce critical parts or conduct a thorough inspection of certain areas to see if there were additional cracks. They chose the inspection route, beginning that examination in May.

Dorgan said officials considered the cracks on parts of the bridge to be stable and not expanding.

When conducting inspections, Dorgan said, inspectors get within an arm’s length of various components of a bridge. If they spot cracks, that leads to more hands-on testing to determine the depth and extent of the fissures.

Although concern was raised about cracks, some experts theorized it’s no coincidence the collapse happened when workers and heavy equipment was on the bridge. The construction work involved resurfacing and maintenance on guardrails and lights, among other repairs.

“I would be stunned if this didn’t have something to do with the construction project,” said David Schulz, director of the Infrastrucure Tecchnology Institute at Northwestern University. “I think it’s a major factor.”

The collapsed bridge’s last full inspection was completed June 15, 2006. The report shows previous inspectors’ notations of fatigue cracks in the spans approaching the river, including one 4 feet long that was reinforced with bolted plates. A 1993 entry noted 3,000 feet of cracks in the surface of the bridge; they were later sealed.

That inspection and one a year earlier raised no immediate concerns about the bridge, which wasn’t a candidate for replacement until 2020.

In a 2001 report from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil Engineering, inspectors found some girders had become distorted. Engineers also saw evidence of fatigue on trusses and said the bridge might collapse if part of the truss gave way under the eight-lane freeway.

“A bridge of that vintage you always have to be concerned about that,” said Richard Sause, director of the Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems Center at Lehigh University. “In a steel bridge of that age, sure you’d be concerned about those kind of things and be diligent about looking after it. And it seems like they were.”

It takes time for a fatigue crack to develop, but a crack can then expand rapidly to become a fracture, said James Garrett, co-director of the Center for Sensed Critical Infrastructure Research at Carnegie Mellon University. “If you get a crack that goes undetected it would be something that appears to happen more rapidly.”

At the scene, about 15 divers and a dozen boats were in the water, but the search was proceeding slowly because of strong currents and low visibility. By mid-afternoon, they had located four submerged cars besides the dozen or so visible from the surface.

“We have a number of vehicles that are underneath big pieces of concrete, and we do know we have some people in those vehicles,” Police Chief Tim Dolan said. “We know we do have more casualties at the scene.”

Meanwhile, relatives who couldn’t find their loved ones at hospitals gathered in a hotel ballroom for any news, hoping for the best.

Ronald Engebretsen, 57, spent the day searching for his wife, Sherry. His daughter last heard from her when she left work Wednesday in downtown Minneapolis. Afterward, her cell phone picked up only with voice mail.

By Thursday evening, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office announced that Sherry Engebretsen was confirmed dead. The other three were Julia Blackhawk, 32, of Savage; Patrick Holmes, 36, of Moundsview; and Artemio Trinidad-Mena, 29, of Minneapolis.

In brief telephone interview, Ronald Engebretsen said he and his family had huddled to try to come to grips with his wife’s death.

“She’s a great person. She’s a person of great conviction, great integrity, great honesty and great faith in her God,” he said. “We’re just hoping and praying here.”

Flying Saucers Go Into Production

Raw Story | Aug 3, 2007

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The M200G volantor: yours for under £45,000

A flying saucer that glides three metres off the ground and carries two passengers has gone into commerical production.

US company Moller International has begun to manufacture parts for its Jetsons-like personal flying pod, the M200G Volantor.

The M200G is the size of a small car and is designed to take off and land vertically.

Company founder Dr Moller calls the craft “the ultimate off-road vehicle” as it is able to travel over any surface.

“It’s not a hovercraft, although its operation is just as easy,” said the aeronautical engineering boffin.

“You can speed over rocks, swampland, fences, or log-infested waterways with ease because you’re not limited by the surface.”

The craft was inspired by The Jetsons

The flying saucer is designed to fly at an altitude of up to three metres, where it benefits from extra lift created by a cushion of air – known as ground effect.

This allows the M200G to glide over terrain at 50mph, powered by eight of the company’s Rotapower rotary engines.

Moller International has not arranged for training or licensing requirements to operate the vehicle.

But it is prepared to offer demonstration sessions at its California base once the vehicle is ready for market.

The company has said the price for its M200G could start as low as £44,340 depending on the number ordered.

UK expects expanded UN mandate in Iraq

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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been under pressure from the United States to expand the U.N.’s role in Iraq

Associated Press | Aug 2, 2007

By EDITH M. LEDERER

UNITED NATIONS – Britain said Thursday that it expects quick approval of a resolution that would expand the U.N. mandate in Iraq to promote political reconciliation, settle disputed internal boundaries, and plan for a national census.

“I think it will get voted early next week,” British Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said. “There’s no problem on it — it’s straight forward.”

Britain circulated the resolution, co-sponsored by the United States, to other Security Council members Wednesday and council experts, who went over the text, were expected to meet again Friday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has been under pressure from the United States to expand the U.N.’s role in Iraq and said in June he would consider it. But he cited deteriorating security in Iraq as an obstacle.

“We want the U.N. to play a more enhanced role with regard to internal reconciliation and regional cooperation,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Thursday. “I am pleased that a draft resolution embracing that idea is making progress in discussions among experts.”

“We believe that the U.N. can help Iraqis … come to an agreement on these big issues on which there are differences and that includes issues such as provincial boundaries that are in dispute,” he said.

Asked whether that included Kirkuk, the oil-rich city whose control is disputed by its Kurdish, Arab and ethnic Turkish populations, Khalilzad said Kirkuk’s future was “one of the big issues as well.”

The small U.N. Mission in Iraq has helped organize elections, promote a national dialogue, and develop institutions for representative government. Its current mandate expires Aug. 10.

The draft would extend the mission’s mandate for a year and authorize it to facilitate “regional dialogue, including on issues of border security, energy and refugees.”

The mission would also “advise, support and assist the people and government of Iraq on advancing an inclusive national dialogue and political reconciliation.”

The draft resolution would authorize the U.N. mission to help plan, fund and implement reintegration programs for former combatants, assist the return of refugees and displaced people, and promote economic reform and the development of an effective civil service and social services.

The U.N. mission would also promote human rights and judicial and legal reforms “in order to strengthen the rule of law” and to assist the government “on initial planning for a comprehensive census.”

Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan pulled all U.N. international staff out of Iraq in October 2003 after two bombings at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and a spate of attacks on humanitarian workers. The first bombing, on Aug. 19, 2003, killed the top U.N. envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 others.

In August 2004, Annan allowed a small U.N. contingent to return to Baghdad and imposed a ceiling of 35 international staffers, which has steadily increased but remains relatively low.

More than 70,000 bridges rated deficient

Associated Press | Aug 3, 2007

By H. JOSEF HEBERT and SHARON THEIMER

WASHINGTON – More than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient like the span that collapsed in Minneapolis, and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion.

That works out to at least $9.4 billion a year over 20 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The bridges carry an average of more than 300 million vehicles a day.

It is unclear how many of the spans pose actual safety risks. Federal officials alerted the states late Thursday to immediately inspect all bridges similar to the Mississippi River span that collapsed.

In a separate cost estimate, the Federal Highway Administration has said addressing the backlog of needed bridge repairs would take at least $55 billion. That was five years ago, with expectations of more deficiencies to come.

It is money that Congress, the federal government and the states have so far been unable or unwilling to spend.

“We’re not doing what the engineers are saying we need to be doing,” said Gregory Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance, an advocacy group representing a wide range of motorists.

“Unfortunately when you consistently underinvest in roads and bridges … this is the dangerous consequence,” Cohen said of Wednesday’s deadly Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minneapolis. He said engineers have estimated $75 billion a year is needed just to keep highways and bridges from further deterioration, but that only around $60 billion a year is being provided.

At least 73,533 of 607,363 bridges in the nation, or about 12 percent, were classified as “structurally deficient,” including some built as recently as the early 1990s, according to 2006 statistics from the Federal Highway Administration.

The federal government provides 80 percent of the money for construction, repair and maintenance of the so-called federal-aid highway system including Interstate highways and bridges. But states set priorities and handle construction and maintenance contracts.

A bridge is typically judged structurally deficient if heavy trucks are banned from it or there are other weight restrictions, if it needs immediate work to stay open or if it is closed. In any case, such a bridge is considered in need of considerable maintenance, rehabilitation or even replacement.

Congressional leaders say the number of bridges in need of repair is too high and the funding too low.

There is crumbling infrastructure all over the country, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who heads the Senate panel that controls transportation spending, said the Bush administration has threatened vetoes when Democrats try to increase such spending.

White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel, accusing the Democrats of using the bridge collapse for partisan purposes, said Bush had increased funding for federal highways by about 30 percent during his administration. The president had threatened to veto legislation not over highway funding but because of billions of dollars in excess funding in other areas, Stanzel said.

Democrats were not alone in calling for more bridge funding.

“People think they’re saving money by not investing in infrastructure, and the result is you have catastrophes like this,” said Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., a member of the House transportation committee.

The federal government is now providing about $40 billion a year to improve and expand the nation’s highways and bridges.

The main source of revenue for roads and bridges, the federal highway trust fund, is failing to keep up with spending demand. The 18.3 cents a gallon in federal taxes hasn’t changed since 1993, and the demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles could affect fuel consumption.

Funding isn’t the only issue getting attention after the Minnesota collapse.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in an interview with The Associated Press that she had asked her department’s inspector general to evaluate the agency’s overall bridge inspections.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, most bridges in the U.S. Highway Bridge Inventory — 83 percent — are inspected every two years. About 12 percent, those in bad shape, are inspected annually, and 5 percent, those in very good shape, every four years.

The Department of Transportation’s inspector general last year criticized the Highway Administration’s oversight of interstate bridges. The March 2006 report said investigators found incorrect or outdated maximum weight calculations and weight limit postings in the National Bridge Inventory and in states’ bridge databases and said the problems could pose safety hazards. The Highway Administration agreed that improvements in its oversight of state bridge inspections and data were needed.

Incorrect load ratings could endanger bridges by allowing heavier vehicles to cross than should, and could affect whether a bridge is properly identified as structurally deficient in the first place, the inspector general said.

The audit didn’t identify any Minnesota bridges or mention the state beyond noting that 3 percent of its bridges were structurally deficient, placing it at the low end among states. It said those bridges were crossed by an average of 30,000 to 40,000 vehicles a day, putting it 13th among the states.

An analysis of 2006 Federal Highway Administration data found that Minnesota bridges were generally in better shape than those in other states. Only about 6 percent of the state’s 20,000 bridges were listed as being structurally deficient. In Oklahoma, nearly 27 percent of bridges were cited by the federal government as being structurally deficient, the highest percentage among the states.

Among counties with more than 100 bridges, the problem appears to be most significant in the Midwest. In Nemaha County in southeastern Nebraska, about 58 percent of 194 bridges are structurally deficient. More than 55 percent of neighboring Pawnee County’s 188 bridges are in the same shape. Of the 10 worst-off counties with significant numbers of bridges, seven are in Oklahoma or Nebraska.

On the other end of the scale, at least 10 counties with a significant number of bridges have none that are structurally deficient, according to the latest government statistics. A half-dozen of those are in Texas.

Several governors on Wednesday ordered state transportation officials to inspect particular bridges or review their inspection procedures.

Beyond Minnesota, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven said his state doesn’t have any bridges similar to the Minneapolis bridge but he had asked state officials to review inspection procedures. Presidential hopeful and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson ordered an inspection of several steel-truss bridges in the state. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano directed state transportation officials to conduct a statewide review, starting with highly traveled bridges in urban areas.