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Uncertain futures


Saturday, September 29, 2001

Warplane of the hour?

V-22 tilt-rotor plane

This weird-looking aircraft is the V-22 Osprey. It might have been designed for conditions in Afghanistan. It's a cross between a helicopter and a transport plane. Two oversized propellers on the wings can be tilted to give either vertical or forward thrust, allowing it to take off and land almost anywhere.

It should be less vulnerable to ground fire than a normal helicopter because it can go twice as fast. It can also carry about three times the payload - whether troops, equipment or food. And it also has far greater range - five times more according to an article in this months Marine Corps Gazette.

This would give the US many more options on where to position base areas - very useful politically as well as militarily in the present climate.

But there's a problem with the Osprey. Does it work yet? This is always a difficult call to make when introducing any radical new technology, but it's even harder in this case as lives are at stake.

There are at least eight Osprey's available for service, but two others crashed last year in separate incidents - killing 23 Marines. So US politicians and military commanders would be taking a clear risk deploying the machines.

On the other hand, not deploying the Osprey may also entail risk to any US forces going into Afghanistan, because the Mujahideen have shown that they are able to deal with conventional helicopters.

Thursday, September 27, 2001

Fuel-free aircraft One way of making aircraft safer is to leave the fuel on the ground. Power is then beamed up using a microwave or light laser. This is at best a long-term possibility for passenger aircraft, but decades of research have already been done, and models are now flying.

Several microwave-powered remotely-piloted airplanes have been developed at the University of Toronto. The latest has a 12 metre wingspan. In these aircraft the microwave power is used to drive a conventional propeller.

A more radical but difficult approach is to use the beam itself for propulsion. Engineers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in up-state New York focus the beam onto air inside the engine, causing it to explode and produce thrust. This is has the potential to eventually lift vehicles all the way into orbit. Videos of their flying-saucer-like craft under test.

Meanwhile, satirical web site The Onion is offering some relief from the gloom, with safety tips like flights should taxi to their destinations. Warning: this site might offend.

Wednesday, September 26, 2001

Unintended consequences in Afghanistan

One of the difficulties in ending terrorism is that the major powers will first have to stop supporting terrorists (or 'freedom fighters') against each other.

A revealing interview in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur back in January 1998 makes it clear how deep a change in mindset will be required.

In it, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, says:

- that the CIA started encouraging the Mujahideen in Afganistan before the Russians invaded
- that this secret operation was an excellent idea, luring the Russians into the Afghan trap
- that having the Taliban in Afghanistan was a price worth paying for having the Soviet empire collapse

Because the interview, by Vincent Jauvert, is in French I translate some of it below.

Nouvel Observateur:
The former director of the CIA Robert Gates says in his memoirs that America started to help the Afghan Mujahideen six months before the Soviet intervention. At the time, you were president Carter's national security adviser and therefore played a key role in this affair. Can you confirm it?

Yes. According to the official version of history, the CIA assistance to the Mujahideen began during 1980, i.e. after the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, kept secret until now, is very different: it was July 3, 1979 when President Carter signed the first directive on the clandestine assistance to opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on that day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would bring about a military intervention by the Soviets.

Nouvel Observateur:
Yet in spite of this risk, you were in favour of this covert action. Perhaps you even wished for Soviet entry into the war and were looking to provoke it?

It is not completely that. We did not push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Nouvel Observateur: Do you not regret anything today?

Brzezinski: Regret what? This secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of luring the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to president Carter, in substance: "We now have the opportunity to give the USSR its war of Vietnam". In fact, Moscow had to conduct an unbearable war for almost ten years, a conflict which led to the demoralization and finally the break up of the Soviet empire.

Nouvel Observateur:
Do you not regret having supported Islamic fundamentalism, having given weapons and advice to future terrorists?

Brzezinski: What is most important from the point of view of the history of the world? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few excited Muslims [quelques excités islamistes] or the liberation of Central Europe and end of the cold war?

Nouvel Observateur: But it is often said that Islamic fundamentalism represents a world threat today.

Brzezinski: What foolishness!

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