How an unproven, widely mocked technology scared the Soviets into ending the Cold War. ... For decades, Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—an ambitious ground- and space-based “shield” to protect the United States from nuclear ballistic missiles—has been mocked and criticized. First proposed by the president in 1983, it was immediately dubbed “Star Wars” by the mainstream media and dismissed as unscientific, infeasible and even counter-productive. The Union of Concerned Scientists, 100,000 members strong, was fierce in its opposition. The Arms Control Association declared that SDI would end arms control, while some Soviets felt SDI would end the world. Domestic critics became furious, and the Kremlin went ballistic. But while Reagan’s critics might not have taken his pet technology seriously, the Russians certainly did. Even though SDI was decades away from being implemented, if not beyond the reach of technology altogether, the threat the shield presented—along with Reagan’s dogged commitment to it—was enough to scare Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev into reforms that would eventually bring down the Soviet Union. In short: “Star Wars” never worked as Reagan wished. It worked even better. And I should know, because I saw it happen.
Why isn't the rest of Asia afraid of China? … Are tensions high in Asia? It certainly appears so. Over the last few months, North Korea has tested missiles and threatened the United States with nuclear war. China spars regularly with Japan over ownership of a group of disputed islands, and with several Southeast Asian countries over other sparsely inhabited rocks in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the United States is in the midst of a well-publicized "pivot" to East Asia, and continues to beef up its military deployments to the region. … Yet as of 2012, military expenditures in East and Southeast Asia are at the lowest they've been in 25 years -- and very likely the lowest they've been in 50 years (although data before 1988 is questionable). While it's too early to factor in recent tensions, as China's rise has reshaped the region over the past two decades, East and Southeast Asian states don't seem to have reacted by building up their own militaries. If there's an arms race in the region, it's a contest with just one participant: China.
Fourteen years later, the drone is the quintessential weapon of the American military, which now boasts roughly a thousand Predator pilots. At any given moment, scores of them sit in darkened trailers around the country, staring at the bright infrared camera feeds from drones that might be flying over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, or Somalia. Between August 2014 and August 2015, a single Predator squadron—the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Nevada—flew 4,300 sorties and dropped 1,000 warheads on ISIS targets. By enabling the White House to intervene without committing troops to battle, the drone has transformed US foreign policy. ... The Predator as we know it—with its capacity to be piloted from thousands of miles away and its complement of Hellfire missiles—wasn’t developed with the expectation that entire wars might one day be fought by pilots sitting in trailers. As a matter of fact, most military planners at the time regarded the Predator as pretty much a technological dead end. ... The lethal Predator wasn’t a production vehicle. It was a hot rod, built for one all-out race against the clock. Of course, in those months before September 11, 2001, none of its designers knew the nature of the clock they were racing against. And most Americans have no idea quite how close they came to beating it.
His customers include the Defense Department and various spy agencies. He has about 200 people on the payroll, most of whom go to work every day in places where they could very well get shot or blown up--Iraq, Afghanistan, Ghana, Djibouti, Somalia, and Libya, to name a few. They guard buildings, protect VIPs, train foreign soldiers, and do a lot of office work, too: "Our specialty," says Patriot Group COO Rob Whitfield, "is providing sometimes common services in real crappy places." ... As a veteran, Craddock knows about war--what it is to confront bad guys face-to-face, to lose a friend in combat, to endure long separations from family, and then to wonder, once you're out, whether you'll ever again do anything as focused, as intense, as in-your-face important as what you did in uniform. As an entrepreneur, he also knows about business--what it is to risk everything on a proposal that goes nowhere, to be cut off by your banker, to drain your 401(k)--and ultimately what it feels like to succeed in a notoriously corrupt industry that's closely regulated, intensely scrutinized, rife with unsavory characters ("Some of the folks who work for us--I wouldn't want to be on their bad side, consistently"), and beholden like no other to the fickle winds of geopolitics. ... Total Defense Department spending on contractors--including those supplying weapons and R&D as well as services--peaked at $412 billion annually, and is down more than 30 percent since 2009. Among the factors: troop drawdowns, shrinking budgets, and a deteriorating business climate marked by intense congressional scrutiny, stricter oversight in the field, and heightened public distrust. ... Ironically, as spending drops, the relative importance of the private sector grows. Contractors deliver continuing access to talented people the military can't otherwise retain and instant access to short-term skills.
The conversion of crop dusters into light attack aircraft had long been part of Prince’s vision for defeating terrorists and insurgencies in Africa and the Middle East. In Prince’s view, these single-engine fixed-wing planes, retrofitted for war zones, would revolutionize the way small wars were fought. They would also turn a substantial profit. The Thrush in Airborne’s hangar, one of two crop dusters he intended to weaponize, was Prince’s initial step in achieving what one colleague called his “obsession” with building his own private air force. ... The story of how Prince secretly plotted to transform the two aircraft for his arsenal of mercenary services is based on interviews with nearly a dozen people who have worked with Prince over the years, including current and former business partners, as well as internal documents, memos, and emails. Over a two-year period, Prince exploited front companies and cutouts, hidden corporate ownership, a meeting with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout’s weapons supplier, and at least one civil war in an effort to manufacture and ultimately sell his customized armed counterinsurgency aircraft. If he succeeded, Prince would possess two prototypes that would lay the foundation for a low-cost, high-powered air force capable of generating healthy profits while fulfilling his dream of privatized warfare.
This is the story of the first 15 years of how we have dealt with that newfound fear—how we have confronted, sometimes heroically and sometimes irrationally, the mechanics, the politics, and the psychic challenges of the September 12 era. ... Have we succeeded in toughening up what overnight became known as “homeland security”? Absolutely. But not without a series of extravagant boondoggles along the way. ... Are we safer? Yes, we’re safer from the kind of orchestrated attack that shocked us on that September morning. It’s harder for terrorists to get into the country, and harder for them to pull off something spectacular if they do. But we have not plugged some of the most threatening security gaps. Worse, as the Orlando massacre reminded us, the world has become more populated by those who want to exploit those gaps, including those living among us—and who, in the United States, can easily obtain military-grade weapons. They are not deterred by the prospect of their own death, and they are happy to commit acts less ambitious than those of 9/11. That makes their attacks much harder to detect in advance. Our defenses are far stronger, but what we have to defend against has outpaced our progress. ... Have we adjusted, politically and emotionally, so that we can make rational decisions as a government and as a people to deal with the ongoing threat? Not yet. In a bitterly divided democracy, where attention spans are short and civic engagement is low and the potential for oversimplification and governing-by-headlines is high, that is hardly a surprise.
The ambition to create the version of the F-35 that I watched on the tarmac at Patuxent River—one that can make short takeoffs and vertical landings—was what got the fighter jet’s development under way in the 1980s. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the Pentagon’s tech arm, began working at the Marine Corps’ behest on an improved version of the Harrier, a crash-prone vertical-landing jet of British design. According to a Pentagon history of the F-35, Darpa quietly sought assistance from a research and development arm of Lockheed Martin known as the Skunk Works. By the early 1990s, the Darpa-Skunk Works collaboration had produced preliminary concepts, and the Marine Corps began pressing Congress for funding. The Air Force and Navy insisted that they, too, needed stealthy, supersonic fighters to replace aging Cold War-era models. Out of this clamoring grew a consensus that the only way to afford thousands of cutting-edge fighters was to build a basic model that could be customized for each service. ... The degree of commonality among the three versions of the F-35—the shared features—turned out to be not the anticipated 70 percent but a mere 25 percent, meaning that hoped-for economies of scale never materialized. A pattern of continual reengineering resulted in billions of dollars in cost overruns and yearslong delays.