Poor Richard's On Fire

An almanac of sword missiles, sunk ships, and simulated explosions.

War is beat journalism, until it isn’t.

As I write this, the USS Bonhomme Richard remains on fire in San Diego harbor. The Bonhomme Richard, like every Wasp-class ship, is a small war in a floating package, designed to carry enough infantry, aircraft, and vehicles to contest and control a modest island.

It remains to be seen what caused the July 12 fire on the Bonhomme Richard. It is entirely possible that the fire itself cannot be put out before the ship is irreparably damaged. I have no special insight into the fire; dedicated reporters from publications that cover the Navy will get to the specifics faster than most.

When the story finally hits the tech press Monday morning, there will be a scramble following a salvo of PR emails. What special machine could have solved this, before it happened?

The tech angle, in a narrow sense, is that five years ago DARPA looked at humanoid robots that could operate in conditions, like a flooded nuclear reactor or a ship on fire, which are hostile to human life but full of corridors, tools, and equipment designed for human use. At the time, DARPA boasted that the Robotic Challenge helped “open a new era of partnership between robots and humans.”

If that feels oddly unspecific, that’s likely because the more specific a description of the challenge, the bleaker it gets. Between the launch and the conclusion of the competition, DARPA scaled down the challenges significantly. As robotics journalist Erik Sofge noted at the time, “the robot that racked up the most points, in the least amount of time, took nearly 45 minutes to complete a series of eight tasks that my kindergarten-age daughter could probably accomplish in 10 minutes.”

The robots needed to fight fires like that on the Bonhomme Richard do not yet exist. 

For all the money spent on defense, on everything from robotics challenges to industrial ship-building, the ships sometimes fail, and without widespread inquiry into making sure the conditions of failure are found and fixed, it is likely it will happen again.

The aftermath of such a disaster presents an opportunity to revisit the reason for the ship’s existence. Was the Bonhomme Richard fighting the wars it was meant to fight? Did its 22 years from commissioning to catastrophe justify its cost? What, exactly, should be the role of the US Navy in the world, and is it only to cross over into regular news coverage whenever there’s a specific tragedy?

Traditional journalism treats the present as accepted, understood, and normal, and describes news as deviation from these facts. A warship is normal, a fire on it an aberration. 

What I am hoping to do at Wars of Future Past is a kind of supplement to that journalism, a project I started in earnest with Tomorrow Wars in June 2019. As I said at the time, the goal of the newsletter is “to see futures already planned by the Pentagon, those anticipated by governments abroad, and realities improvised into being by nonstate actors out of hobbyist toys. There is no monopoly on the future.”

Telling that story means treating technology as neither inevitable nor incidental. Technology is a thing humans do, the technology of war is a thing humans do to each other. These machines, live and real in the present world, are inherited legacies, weapons built in anticipation of futures now past.

The Bonhomme Richard’s story, at least as a useful machine of war, is likely already over. It was built for a future of island campaigns and beach landings set against the backdrop of nuclear arsenals. That future, at least for the Bonhomme Richard, never came.

SWORD-MISSILES TO LIKESHARES

If there is a poster child for how war technology is covered without context, it is the R9X sword-missile. A modification of the hellfire anti-tank missile fired by Reaper drones at people, it is the spear-pointiest tip of the spear. A technological marvel, in the sense that “what if a missile, but swords?” is an innovation.

At Responsible Statecraft, I make the case that focusing on the missile as a technical marvel obscures the broader infrastructure of war that makes changing warheads in a targeted killing campaign possible. The real key to the sword missile is the 2001 AUMF, a global network of military bases, and the intelligence/communications infrastructure that match people to an obscure profile of acceptable targets. 

SILICON VALLEY OF DEATH

The sword missile was first conceived of in 2011 and used for violence in 2017. As Pentagon development cycles go, that’s on the faster side. In the time I’ve worked this beat, and especially in the two years I spent regularly hosting and attending panels on behalf of C4ISRNET, there was an enduring question as to why, exactly, the Pentagon couldn’t get new tech as fast and functional as that produced by the companies on the Pacific Coast.

The clearest answer yet comes from a database compiled by Tech Inquiry. Led by former Google research scientist Jack Poulson, the Inquiry’s report is a deep dive into just how entangled, exactly, the tech sector is with Pentagon contracts. As well reported by April Glaser at NBC News, the opacity of these contracts sits at odds with the culture and image of much of the workers who make the code actually contracted out. It is also, as Glaser highlights, baked into the origins of Silicon Valley, whose consumer electronics business is downstream from its Cold War-era role as a military avionics hub.

My contribution to this story is that, while Pentagon acquisition chiefs and Silicon Valley CEOs might like to point to culture as the division between them, the real culprit for slower military adoption of tech is the acquisition process.

As I write at Breaking Defense, navigating acquisitions and subcontracting is a skillset all its own, one fostered by how the military does business. It means any new tech gets filtered through either the giants with established Pentagon relationships, or through smaller firms that see the military as their first customer.

For workers, especially those interested in making sure their code does not end up in war machines, this is a useful point of friction.

FALLOUT TACTICS

Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the first nuclear weapon detonation. It also marks the first time people were ever exposed to the downwind effects of a nuclear blast.

For my part of the bumper crop of July atomic coverage (see below), I wrote about the Trump administration’s proposed restart of live nuclear detonations, something the United States has not done since 1992. I contend that the world is better served the more nuclear testing remains the domain of super-computers. Supercomputing grew up in the labs alongside live testing, and while the national labs may still mishandle plutonium, simulations allow nuclear design explorations without physical consequences for people near and far.

READING LIST: HOW TO COVER AN ATOMIC BOMB

Atomic anniversaries are weird rituals, but on the balance I think it’s better to have dedicated moments to talk about nuclear war, an ever-present threat that is never more than an hour away. Here are some of the broader pieces that, while not directly quoted in my recent work, have shaped my coverage.

For those looking to write about Trinity, and especially Trinity in light of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I cannot recommend enough historian Alex Wellerstein’s “What journalists should know about the atomic bombings,” especially before ever writing “Truman’s decision to drop the bomb” which as he documents well was not really a thing!

Much as the received history of nuclear weapons and tests confuses what the actual major decisions were, the present commentary on enterprise excludes vast swathes of people.

“In addition to diversifying the field and cultivating a work culture in which people of color can see themselves in positions of leadership and influence, it is vital to accept nuclear history and policy in its entirety, including the experiences of those who already sacrificed and continue to suffer,” write the authors of How Will We Save Ourselves?, an Essay on Racism and Accountability in the Nuclear Policy Field. “Doing so could lead to more effective and conscientious policies that force scholars and policymakers to confront the human cost against the value of the bomb.”

The humans who created the bomb brought with them their biases about race, and those biases are encoded into our nuclear infrastructure, from how uranium was mined to where nukes were tested to how nations envisioned their use, and actually used them. These are not just questions about the origins of a nuclear enterprise, but also present through its history. The authors of “How Will We Save Ourselves?” also note that a focus on the Trinity test obscures anniversary coverage of the July 16, 1979 Church Rock uranium spill.

The broader questions, of what it means to have nukes, and to shape the future of that arsenal, are often intentionally left out of the history of nuclear weaponry, and left as a technocratic affair. I think this is a mistake.


That’s all for this fortnight. Questions, comments, or reading recommendations, please, email my way. Thank you all for reading, I cannot tell you how much I missed writing newsletter like this.