Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Jared Serbu report that the Department of Veterans Affairs says it is determined to eliminate the backlog of nearly 630,000 disability claims and says the number will be down to zero by 2015, even though the current backlog includes 30,000 more cases than it did a year ago. "There are many people, including myself, who are losing patience as we continue to hear the same excuses from VA about increased workload and increased complexity of claims," says Rep. Jeff Miller, the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Members of Congress have zeroed in on figures that appear to show that despite an influx of new claims adjudication personnel, the number of cases handled per full-time equivalent staff member is declining. "The data I have says that in 1997, we were doing 136 claims per field employee. Today that number is 73," says Rep. Kevin McCarthy. The VA's Allison Hickey says the VA is now taking major steps it's never taken before to speed up the claims process and that technology will be a major contributor to changing the trajectory of the backlog. VA is currently in the process of deploying its Veterans Benefits Management System to its field offices throughout the country.that will allow all new claims be processed electronically. "[Veterans] can, today, go online and submit a claim in an interface that's a lot like TurboTax," says Hickey. "They can upload their own medical evidence, and it goes directly into our paperless IT system." In addition the Pentagon has agreed for the first time to provide VA with a verified, complete package of medical records when a service member is discharged from one of the military services. "They're certifying to me that they have all the service member's medical evidence in that one record so that I'm not doing what I'm doing now, which is exhaustively going out and searching for records that we don't own and never owned in the beginning.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Mike Hoffman reports that Syria’s Assad regime has accused the rebels of launching a chemical weapons attack in Aleppo that killed 25 people — an accusation the rebel fighters have strongly rebuked. A Reuters photographer said victims he had visited in Aleppo hospitals were suffering breathing problems and that people had said they could smell chlorine after the attack. The Russian foreign ministry says it has enough information to confirm the rebels launched a chemical attack while US government leaders say they have not found any evidence of a chemical attack and White House spokesman Jay Carney says the accusations made by Assad could be an attempt to cover up his own potential attacks. “We’ve seen reports from the Assad regime alleging that the opposition has been responsible for use. Let me just say that we have no reason to believe these allegations represent anything more than the regime’s continued attempts to discredit the legitimate opposition and distract from its own atrocities committed against the Syrian people,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “We don’t have any evidence to substantiate the regime’s charge that the opposition even has CW (chemical weapons) capability.” President Obama has said the “red line” to which the US would send forces to Syria would be the use of chemical weapons. However, it was assumed the Assad regime would be the ones using their chemical weapons stockpile, not the rebels."
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, writes that although we have been bombarded with tales of woe about the potentially devastating impacts of cutting the Pentagon budget 8% under the sequester, examples of egregious waste and misplaced spending priorities at the Pentagon abound and one need look no further than the department's largest weapons program, the F-35 combat aircraft which has just been grounded again after a routine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade in the jet engine of an F-35 test aircraft in California. Even before it has moved into full-scale production, the plane has already increased in price by 75%, and it has so far failed to meet basic performance standards. By the Pentagon's own admission, building and operating three versions of the F-35 — one for the Air Force, one for the Navy and one for the Marines — will cost more than $1.4 trillion over its lifetime, making it the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken. And in an era in which aerial combat is of diminishing importance and upgraded versions of current generation US aircraft can more than do the job, it is not at all clear that we need to purchase more than 2,400 of these planes. Cutting the two most expensive versions of the F-35 will save over $60 billion in the next decade. But some say the F-35 program is too big to kill. The F-35 funnels business to a global network of contractors that includes Northrop Grumman and Kongsberg Gruppen ASA of Norway. It counts 1,300 suppliers in 45 states supporting 133,000 jobs — and more in nine other countries, according to Lockheed. “It’s got a lot of political protection,” says Winslow Wheeler, a director at the Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information in Washington. “In that environment, very, very few members of Congress are willing to say this is an unaffordable dog and we need to get rid of it.”"
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Reuters reports that pair of bulbous, helium-filled "aerostats" — each at 243 feet more than three quarters the length of a football field at will be moored to the ground and fly as high as 10,000 feet, as part of a high-tech shield designed to protect the Washington D.C. area from an air attack like the one that took place on September 11, 2001, when Al Qaeda militants hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757, and crashed it into the Pentagon. One of the aerostats carries a powerful long-range surveillance radar with a 360-degree look-around capability that can reach out to 340 miles. The other carries a radar used for targeting. Operating for up to 30 days at a time, JLENS is meant to give the military more time to detect and react to threats (PDF), including cruise missiles and manned and unmanned aircraft, compared with ground-based radar and is also designed to defend against tactical ballistic missiles, large caliber rockets and moving vehicles that could be used for attacks, including boats, cars and trucks. "We're trying to determine how the surveillance radar information from the JLENS platforms can be integrated with existing systems in the National Capital Region," says Michael Kucharek, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Washington is currently guarded by an air-defense system that includes Federal Aviation Administration radars and Department of Homeland Security helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft on alert at Reagan National Airport to intercept slow, low-flying aircraft."
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "If robots are ever really going to carry the equipment of US soldiers and Marines, they're going to have to act more like pack animals. Now Terri Moon Cronk reports that DARPA’s semiautonomous Legged Squad Support System — also known as the LS3 — will carry 400 pounds of warfighter equipment and walk 20 miles at a time also acting as an auxiliary power source for troops to recharge batteries for radios and handheld devices while on patrol. “It’s about solving a real military problem: the incredible load of equipment our soldiers and Marines carry in Afghanistan today,” says Army Lt. Col. Joseph K. Hitt, program manager in DARPA’s tactical technology office. The robot’s sensors allow it to navigate around obstacles at night, maneuver in urban settings, respond to voice commands, and gauge distances and directions. The LS3 can also distinguish different forms of vegetation when walking through fields and around bushes and avoid logs and rocks with intelligent foot placement on rough terrain (video). The robot's squad leader can issue 10 basic commands to tell the robot to do such things as stop, sit, follow him tightly, follow him on the corridor, and go to specific coordinates. Darpa figures that it's illogical to make a soldier hand over her rucksack to a robotic beast of burden if she's then got to be preoccupied with "joysticks and computer screens" to guide it forward. "That adds to the cognitive burden of the soldier," Hitt explains. "We need to make sure that the robot also is smart, like a trained animal.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Defense Tech reports that several F-16 engines weighing 3,700 pounds each have been stolen from a base in a central part of the country as Israeli officials played down the loss saying the engines were old or retired and likely stolen for scrap. US security and aviation experts contacted were not so dismissive of the missing engines and said that some countries would see value in having them and taking them apart. “They’re still more modern than anything in the Iranian air force inventory, and they would even be helpful to China in their jet engine development,” says Richard Aboulafia noting that modern technology engine design remains “a black art” and that competitors would love the opportunity to study them. This is not the first time jet engines have gone missing. In June 2011, Israel reported the loss of eight F-15 and F-16 fighter engines from a base at Tel Nof near Jerusalem when investigators found the engines had been taken away on large trucks, prompting speculation that the thieves had help from inside the base. In 2009, two F-5 engines were stolen from an airbase in Malaysia, tracked to Argentina and ultimately located in Uruguay."
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "William J. Broad writes that a plan now before Congress would create a national park to protect the aging remnants of the atomic bomb project from World War II, including hundreds of buildings and artifacts scattered across New Mexico, Washington and Tennessee — among them the rustic Los Alamos home of Dr. Oppenheimer and his wife, Kitty, and a large Quonset hut, also in New Mexico, where scientists assembled components for the plutonium bomb dropped on Japan. “It’s a way to help educate the next generation,” says Cynthia C. Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, a private group in Washington that helped develop the preservation plan. “This is a major chapter of American and world history. We should preserve what’s left.” Critics have faulted the plan as celebrating a weapon of mass destruction, and have argued that the government should avoid that kind of advocacy. "At a time when we should be organizing the world toward abolishing nuclear weapons before they abolish us, we are instead indulging in admiration at our cleverness as a species," says Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich. Historians and federal agencies reply that preservation does not imply moral endorsement, and that the remains of so monumental a project should be saved as a way to encourage comprehension and public discussion. A park would be a commemoration, not a celebration, says Heather McClenahan, director of the Los Alamos Historical Society pointing out there are national parks commemorating slavery, Civil War battles and American Indian massacres. "It's a chance to say, 'Why did we do this? What were the good things that happened? What were the bad? How do we learn lessons from the past? How do we not ever have to use an atomic bomb in warfare again?' ""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "Sarah Tory writes that the fighting between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza strip is the latest round of violence in a region that has been torn apart by a decades-old conflict but the debut of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense shield has added a new element to the conflict, one that military officials are calling a “game-changer.” Israeli officials are claiming that the shield is destroying 90 percent of missiles and rockets it aims at that have been fired into southern Israel by Hamas. This level of success is unprecedented compared with older missile defense systems such as the American-made Patriot model used during the 1991 Gulf War. The missile-defense system can detect rocket launches and then determine the projectiles’ flight paths and only intercepts rocket or artillery shells if they are headed for populated areas or sensitive targets; the others it allows to land. It takes a lot of raw computing power to rapidly build a ballistic profile of a fast-incoming projectile, make a series of quick decisions concerning potential lethality, and launch a countermeasure capable of intercepting said projectile in-flight and one reason Iron Dome is showing a much more robust capability than the Patriot system did in the early 1990s is simply that its battle control hardware and software are several generations more advanced than those early interceptor systems. "Israeli officials point out that Iron Dome saves money despite the fact that the interceptors cost up to $100,000 each," writes Tory. "The cost of rebuilding a neighborhood destroyed by a rocket attack—not to mention people wounded and lives lost—would be far greater than the cost of the interceptor." Most important, the system buys Israel time, allowing it to plan out an appropriate response without the political pressure that would be generated by hundreds of potential deaths."
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "CBS reports that seven active duty members of SEAL Team Six, best known for killing Osama bin Laden, have been disciplined for revealing secrets working as paid consultants on a video game, "Medal of Honor: Warfighter." The game does not recreate the bin Laden raid, but it does portray realistic missions, such as an attack on a pirates' den in Somalia. Electronic Arts boasts that real commandos, both active duty and retired, help make its games as realistic as possible. EA says "Medal of Honor Warfighter" was "written by actual U.S. Tier 1 Operators while deployed overseas," and that it "features a dotted line to real world events and provides players a view into globally recognized threats and situations letting them experience the action as it might have unfolded." It is unclear what secrets members of SEAL Team Six gave away, but while serving as consultants for the game, they used classified material which had been given to them by the Navy and also violated the unwritten code that SEALs are silent warriors who shun the spotlight. "We do not tolerate deviations from the policies that govern who we are and what we do as Sailors in the United States Navy," says Deputy Commander of Naval Special Warfare, Rear Admiral Garry Bonelli. "The non-judicial punishment decisions made today send a clear message throughout our Force that we are and will be held to a high standard of accountability.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: PBS reports on a proposal of arm Syrian rebels with a force equalizer to make a decisive blow against Bashar al-Assad’s ruling regime — an idea that has so far failed to take hold inside the Obama administration because of serious concerns about flooding a troubled region with dangerous weapons that someday might fall into the wrong hands an be used against the US or its allies. Could sophisticated weapons, such as anti-aircraft missile systems, be outfitted with mechanisms that would disable them if they fell into the wrong hands? According to military analyst Anthony Cordesman the US could modify Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and anti-tank weapons with batteries that cease functioning in a few weeks or months or the weapons could be built to require authentication codes before they are enabled to work. “I think it would be relatively decisive,” says Cordesman. “You could probably quickly develop a device which would inactivate the weapon through two sources: one is a limited-life power supply; and the other is a fail-safe mechanism that would make it inactive or would require a code to activate it.” Another idea is to install GPS-disabling devices so that Stinger missiles only worked in a designated geographic area, such as only in Syria. Such weapons, it is believed, might tip the balance in favor of the rebels in the same way that Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, provided by the United States to the Afghan Mujahedeen, helped expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Cordesman stressed that this type of weapon would have to be thoroughly tested to make sure the controls work and could not be undone. “You could not transfer these types of weapons without these types of protections. You simply have no way to know where they would end up, how they would be transferred, what would happen to them.”
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "The Telegraph reports that Kim Chol, vice minister of the army, was forced to stand on a spot that had been zeroed in for a mortar round and "obliterated" on the orders to leave "no trace of him behind, down to his hair," given by Kim Jong-un who assumed the leadership after the death of his father in December. The execution followed the North Korean regime's decision to order its 25 million population to abstain from pleasurable activities – including drinking alcohol — in honor of Kim Jong-il. According to South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Kim Chol was one of those who failed to resist the chance of having a drink and while he was the most senior official reported to have been arrested and executed, the South Korea newspaper reports that a number of other generals were shot after being found guilty of drinking and being involved in sex scandals. "It seems that the purges will continue for the time being, as Kim Jong-un is tightening his grip on power,’ says South Korean lawmaker Yoon Sang-hyun."
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "The Atlantic reports that experts in genetics and microbiology are convinced we may be only a few years away from the development of advanced, genetic bio-weapons able to target a single human being based on their DNA. The authors paint a scenario of the development of a virus that causes only mild flu in the general population but when the virus crosses paths with cells containing a very specific DNA sequence, the sequence would act as a molecular key to unlock secondary functions that would trigger a fast-acting neuro-destructive disease that produces memory loss and, eventually, death. The requisite equipment including gene sequencers, micro-array scanners, and mass spectrometers now cost over $1 million but on eBay, it can be had for as little as $10,000. According to Ronald Kessler, the author of the 2009 book In the President’s Secret Service, Navy stewards gather bedsheets, drinking glasses, and other objects the president has touched—they are later sanitized or destroyed—in an effort to keep would-be malefactors from obtaining his genetic material. However no amount of Secret Service vigilance can ever fully secure the president’s DNA, because an entire genetic blueprint can now be produced from the information within just a single cell. How to protect the President? The authors propose open-sourcing the president’s genetic information to a select group of security-cleared researchers who could follow in the footsteps of the computer sciences, where “red-team exercises,” are extremely common practices so a similar testing environment could be developed for biological war games. "Advances in biotechnology are radically changing the scientific landscape. We are entering a world where imagination is the only brake on biology," write the authors. "In light of this coming synbio revolution, a wider-ranging relationship between scientists and security organizations—one defined by open exchange, continual collaboration, and crowd-sourced defenses—may prove the only way to protect the president.""
Hugh Pickens writes writes: "The Christian Science Monitor reports that over 200 million pounds of unexploded bombs dumped in the Gulf of Mexico by the US government after World War Two pose a significant risk to offshore drilling. The US designated disposal areas for unexploded ordnance, known as UXO, off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico but nearly 70 years after the areas were created, no one knows exactly how much was dumped, or where the weapons are, or whether they present a danger to humans or marine life. "These bombs are a threat today and no one knows how to deal with the situation," says William Bryant, a Texas A&M University professor of oceanography. "If chemical agents are leaking from some of them, that's a real problem. If many of them are still capable of exploding, that's another big problem." As technological advances allow oil companies to push deeper into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, these forgotten hazards pose a threat as the industry picks up the pace of offshore drilling. Last year, BP shut its key Forties crude pipeline in the North Sea for five days while it removed a 13-foot unexploded German mine found resting next to the pipeline that transports up to 40 percent of the UK's oil production and in 2001, BP and Shell found the wreckage of the U-166, a German World War II submarine, 45 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River during an underwater survey for a pipeline needed to transport natural gas to shore. Bryant says he has come across 500-pound bombs about 60 miles off the Texas coast and other ordnance 100 miles offshore, outside designated zones and at least one Gulf pipeline was laid across a chemical weapon dump site south of the mouth of the Mississippi River. "We would like to do a survey to be able to say if (this material) is harmful or not," says Bryant. "The condition of these barrels is deteriorating, so does it affect anything or not? We ought to know.""