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  • Steps Toward an “Active Shield”?

    Posted by Jay Manifold on December 6th, 2003 (All posts by )

    So, okay, suppose the bad guys start using these. What do we do about it?
    To explain a bit further — if I were a Bad Guy™, here’s how I’d do it: develop a design optimized for range, payload, and accuracy, deprioritizing things like speed and small size; conduct a few test flights of > 5000 km; set up numerous (10+) manufacturing facilities in northern South America, each of which included only one person who added the payloads to the finished airplanes; set up many more (100+) launch sites in the same general area; begin launching the airplanes around the clock, but concentrated to arrive at their targets (mostly bridges and busy stretches of urban highways) near the morning and evening rush hours. Ramp the launch rate up to 100 per day or more. If possible, add terminal guidance systems to the airplanes just good enough to pick out the largest vehicle on the bridge or highway they’re flying over and aim for it.
    Each plane carries a kilo of explosive, sufficient to demolish any non-armored vehicle and, in heavy traffic, cause a massive pileup. Some of the trucks are bound to have hazardous cargoes (typo in article — it’s I-29, not “I-20”), resulting in high death tolls. Imagine ten of those every day for a month, in cities all over the country. Highways closed — sealed off — for half a day at a time. For every incident, tens of thousands of people unable to get to work — unable to get home — unable to get to day care, hospitals, you name it. Imagine the downward economic spiral, the public panic, the hysteria and scapegoating, the growing despair.
    This does not happen now only because massive nuisance attacks and (relatively) low body counts do not give the Bad Guys™ enough thrills. But suppose they become about 5% more rational and start working on ways to really hurt us. Then what?

    My stock answer is that we get nanotech and build an active shield defense. And we will, but we’re not there yet. Besides, that’s a little bit like saying we’ll just scale up a bottle rocket to get a moon rocket. Some steps are missing.
    I’d be delusional if I said I know what the missing steps are. But I’ve got a couple of ideas, and what’s blogging for if not to share half-formed ideas with total strangers?

    1. So, OK, I’m lazing around the in-laws’ house over T-day weekend and watching The Life of Mammals, and Attenborough is talking about bats, specifically vast colonies of them that live in caves in Texas (not to mention the Congress Avenue Bridge crowd, which has to be seen to be believed). Since said in-laws’ house is in central Texas, I perked up a bit at the local-chiroptera-makes-good angle.
      These critters show up on radar:
      In the spring of 1995, “bats aloft” came to full boil when the U.S. Weather Service’s new Doppler radar was turned on at New Braunfels, Texas, only a few miles from Bracken Cave. Every night the Doppler radar detects the huge numbers of free-tailed bats that come out of Bracken Cave and other major roosts. It documents their dispersal over the Texas landscape, and it plots the altitudes and directions from which they return every morning.
      The McCracken study also mentions another method of detection:
      This summer, working with John Westbrook and his colleagues from the USDA, we placed radio microphones on weather balloons that floated freely with the moths. The radio microphones recorded bat orientation calls as high as 3,900 feet (1,200 m) and feeding buzzes at 2,400 feet (750 m), proving that free-tailed bats are indeed flying and feeding at the same altitudes and locations as the moth migrations.
      But the analogy I’m drawing here isn’t between the bats and the Model Airplanes From Hell. It’s between their prey — on the order of a million kilograms of corn earworm moths, “the number-one agricultural pest in America,” every night — and the MAFH.
      We need the mechanical equivalent of Mexican free-tailed bats. And it doesn’t need to be nearly as capable as the MAFH. The historical analogy would be to the galleons of the Spanish Armada, which had to be general-purpose assault vessels, versus Drake’s galleons, which only had to be able to stop the Spanish ones. The mechanical Mexican free-tailed bats (MMFTBs) wouldn’t have to carry any armament at all; they would be purely kinetic-kill weapons, destroying their opponents by ramming them in midair.

    2. Not only that, the MMFTBs could get their target area assignments from a decentralized network of amateurs. The Feds could just dump the raw Doppler radar (or weather-balloon microphone) data out there and let anybody use it. Via Virginia, I wandered into the MIT Technology Review weblog and found this post, which in turn points to this Fast Company article, from which I excerpt:
      Rob McEwen, chairman and CEO of Goldcorp Inc., based in Toronto … triggered [a] gold rush by issuing an extraordinary challenge to the world’s geologists: We’ll show you all of our data on the Red Lake [Ontario] mine online if you tell us where we’re likely to find the next 6 million ounces of gold. The prize: a total of $575,000, with a top award of $105,000.
      From concentrations of MAFH, the amateur network could begin tracking them back to their points of origin — though of course the final identification of launch areas would, in my scenario, require operations overseas, in other nations, with all the complications that implies. But at least we’d be able to make the things crash in the middle of nowhere without killing anybody.

    “A pack, not a herd.”


    12 Responses to “Steps Toward an “Active Shield”?”

    1. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      Your description of the Micro-Drones of Death is interesting. It’d make a big news splash, that’s for sure. But any R&D lab worth their paychecks could design a system to defeat something like that in pretty short order. Phased-array radar linked to ground based lasers oughta do the trick pretty handily. It’d probably cook a quite a few birds too. PETA types would go absolutely apoplectic, but that’s the breaks.

      Thing is, it would never come to that. J-STARS or AWACS could track them from their points of origin. It would then devolve into a classic counter-insurgency operation.

      Interesting plot for a book or movie though. I can just see the Hollywood pacificists vying for the juicy and glamorous roles of hard-as-nails, take-no-prisoners special forces types now….LOL

    2. Jay Manifold Says:

      I’m not sure how much good ground-based lasers would be against aircraft flying only a few tens of meters off the ground. Nor is the historical record of drug interdiction operations directed against small aircraft one that inspires confidence. Indeed, the major weakness in my scenario is the presumption that counter-terror operations in, say, Colombia, have much chance of obtaining any local cooperation. A domestic focus, combined with decentralization, is key.

    3. Lex Says:

      Fortunately, so far, (1) the enemies we face are too damn stupid to do something like this, and (2) the people who are smart enough would probably rather use MAFHs to smuggle cocaine and make some money rather than raise Hell and attract attention to themselves. It seems to me that an operation of this size is beyond even al Qaeda’s capability and even imagination. Some dumbshit blowing himself and a bunch of women and children to bits with an SUV full of dynamite is more their speed at this point.

      Also, if someone with a country of his own were found out to be behind it, we’d retaliate massively, of course.

      I think Jay is right that a decentralized approach to defense would be most effective — use a swarm to thwart a swarm.

      And, it occurs to me that if there is anybody around who could make good use of (non-terrorist) swarms of MAFHs for some military purpose, it is the good old USA.

    4. James R. Rummel Says:

      “So, okay, suppose the bad guys start using these. What do we do about it?”

      C’mon, guys. It’s a freakin’ model airplane, not the V-2!

      What would we do? We’d shoot it down! If it flies more than 50 meters off of the ground we could chop it up with a light machine gun on a pintle mount easy enough. If it’s 50 meters or less I could knock it down with my shotgun.

      Bring ’em on! If the government puts a $100 USD bounty on them I’d be able to buy a new car in a few weeks. All I would have to do would be to hang around interstate intersections, the places that the toy airplanes are programmed to attack.

      Heck, the only places that such a method of attack could possibly do any damage after the first surprise would be California, Maryland, Illinois and New York. The places with the greatest gun control would be doomed, the rest of us would get some good target practice.


    5. toad Says:

      Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s I believe, the US was having a problem with low flying drug planes from Mexico. They used radar and other sensor equipment loaded blimps,aerostats, and various military aircraft on loan to solve the problem. Also current radar can pickup very small flying objects. From what I hear they “filter” out the smaller stuff, birds especially, to avoid over “cluter” on the screens. Also if these ‘models’ fly over water they are going to show up on infra-red like turds on a bed sheet.

    6. Jay Manifold Says:

      Ground fire works if it’s daylight, with no fog or other obscuring elements (smoke, dust, etc), and you’re right under the target aircraft. Otherwise it doesn’t. Low altitude greatly limits visibility — something flying over at 20 meters (the altitude of a cruise missile over level ground) and 22 meters per second (the average speed of the Atlantic-crossing model airplane) would be more than 5 degrees above the horizon for, at most, 21 seconds as seen from any given point; and such points would be less than 500 meters apart, suggesting the density of pickets needed around major cities. A ring of such pickets three deep at an average radius of 100 km from the center of a major metropolitan area would require 1,000 persons on duty at all times. The actual number of people involved, due to shifts, logistical support, etc, would be at least 10 times this, for every city being protected. And some planes would still get through.

      Nonetheless, something like this would be the stopgap response until we could fully automate the detection and shootdown. Far better that it be decentralized and spontaneously organized than that we sit around waiting for the Department of Homeland Security to save us. Aerostats and military aircraft do not have a good track record in drug interdiction; they work only insofar as their targets are manned and thereby frightened into using other routes (source). Detection is often defeated by bad weather, and IR will not work through clouds.

    7. Vic Says:

      I’d hate to be an ultralight aircraft operator in that world :)


    8. Vic Says:

      … “There I was, minding my own business, when all of a sudden I was pummeled by a flock of flying bowling pins!

      Damn you, pack, not a herd!”


    9. Trent Telenko Says:

      I saw this concept in a late 1980’s sci-fi novel with 21st century Afghans using them to attack a 21st century Soviet Union.

    10. Jay Manifold Says:

      The next original idea I have will probably be my first, but I didn’t consciously lift this one from someplace else. Did the novel include Mechanical Mexican Free-Tailed Bats of Vengeance?

    11. OldFan Says:

      Against a de-centralized attack,
      NO centralized defense is feasible, so your choices are:
      a) Go over to the OFFENSIVE.
      b) Learn to IGNORE these minor attacks.
      b) Mount a De-centralized DEFENSE.

      Option A: Heavily subsidize key component [propulsion seems to be the best choice] maufacturer. Under guise of effective product support and marketing, create database of customers. Analyze using known terrorist profile. Decisive covert offensive action [the fatal kind] against the identified networks.

      Option B: Learn to live with minor hits like these. We blithely endure 50K/yr automobile fatalities and 35K/yr deaths to Influenza!

      Option C: Vast proliferation of small arms among population & increase in interest in skeet shooting lead to VERY unfriendly envronment for ALL small aircraft.

    12. Fred Says:


      Uh guys. Can you say msassive radar effort over the south american lauch areas. Followed up by forward basing of attack helicopters and local and US forces kicking around.

      You might get off a wave of these things, but thereafter you face a lot of local hostility and people offering bounties on your head all over South America. As simple as they are these things require certain sorts of materials and parts. The problem would soon abate to tolerably low levels.