19 May 2014

Ode to Big Bird, Part 2

Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Gangale

I was briefed into both the Byeman and Talent Keyhole control systems. There were a number of different security control systems in the "black world." Byeman was the system for spacecraft development, the engineering realm, whereas Talent Keyhole was the environment for the user community, the guys who analyzed the satellite data and developed intelligence products from it. So, one could be briefed into one system and not another, based on the need to know, and within each system, briefed into one "caveat" such as Gambit, but not another such as Hexagon.

The Hexagon vehicle that has been put on public display must be the "hangar queen," the qualification vehicle that was put through punishing vibro-acoustic and thermal-vacuum testing environments at factors above the expected launch and on-orbit environments to qualify the design. Since it was intended as a non-flight item, the idea was to "bend" the vehicle, i.e. stress it the point of being unreliable for flight, but that was OK as long as the qualification testing didn't "break" it, i.e cause a serious failure. The 20 flight vehicles were acceptance tested to expected vibro-acoustic and thermal-vacuum levels to catch workmanship defects. We called this "shake and bake."

It is reported that a film bucket from the first KH-9 Hexagon sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in spring 1972 after Air Force recovery aircraft failed to snag the bucket's parachute. My recollection is that another bucket went into the drink but was recovered shortly thereafter, and there may have been two such events. The buckets were equipped with "sea plugs" made of an alloy that would react with seawater and dissolve in about 24 hours, sinking the bucket; thus, if the Air Force couldn't find it by then, at least it wouldn't fall into the wrong hands.

Some of the recovered buckets were refurbished and flew two or three flights. These constituted the original fleet of reusable spacecraft, beating the Space Shuttle fleet to that distinction by a decade.

A lot of the Byeman names that one finds in open sources do not seem to have any reason to them. But with regard to Hexagon, my theory is that it suggests the shape of the cross section of the forward section: it is like a square with diagonal cuts across two adjacent corners, making six sides in all.

17 May 2014

China's Street Punk Diplomacy

Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Gangale and Marilyn Dudley-Flores

A recent op-ed in the Global Times begins, "Tensions are rising in the South China Sea as the US has intensified its intervention, and Vietnam and the Philippines are acting more ruthlessly. It's a similar case with Japan. Challenges from both areas constitute China's new diplomatic state."

Exactly what are these alleged ruthless acts on the part of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan? What is the nature of the alleged US intervention? The Global Times article goes on to say, "China is at a delicate point in its rising process… the uncertainty oozing from such a rise is discussed and even hyped up by the outside world. The US, as well as China's other neighboring countries have unprecedented ambitions to contain China's use of growing influence." This is rhetoric rather than analysis.

According to the realist theoretical perspective of international relations, conflict occurs when a rising, revisionist power challenges a status quo power with the aim of redefining the power relationship. The zero-sum game of relative gains is played again and again. Institutionalists, particularly G. John Ikenberry, point to the "stickiness" of international institutions established by the US and its allies since the end of the Second World War. As Nicolo Machiavelli wrote, "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new." Once established, and having proven useful over the course of decades in reducing transaction costs, whether diplomatic or economic, global institutions are not abandoned lightly.

The American-led post-Second World War and post-Cold War institutions have accommodated, even facilitated, China's economic rise, while quite candidly they have also sought to constrain its strategic choices. As on a fault line between tectonic plates, stress builds between the institutional stickiness that has locked in advantages for the status quo powers and the rising, revisionist power's ambition to change the power relationship to its advantage. The uncertainty is whether a Chinese "breakout" from the existing infrastructure of global institutions in favor of seeking to establish a new world order of its own design would be worth the cost.

Among the stress points on the strategic fault line between China and its neighbors are small, uninhabited and disputed islands situated among them.

The Global Times article opines that "it's a demanding and risky job to let other countries get used to China's rise and treat China as a major power." Does the Chinese leadership see this as their job? If so, trash-talking its neighboring states only makes what they may already perceive as a "demanding job" even tougher.

The article asserts that China "must strike a balance between securing its territorial waters and maintaining a vibrant growth trend." Pursuant to Article 2 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, "Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with this Convention." Is there really some threat to the security of China's territorial waters, or is the problem that China is seeking to establish an immoderate claim to waters that are well beyond the 12 nautical mile limit? For the Global Times to characterize the subject of the dispute as involving "territorial waters" bespeaks a definition of the term that is alien to international law.

The Global Times article observes that "China faces a dilemma with its growing power. On the one hand, it will be confronted by neighbors like Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, and other stakeholders like the US if it makes use of its power." There is no dark conspiracy here; rather, this is an instance of the classic "security dilemma" that every state has faced throughout history, not just China. The more powerful a state is, the more its neighbors tend perceive it as being a potential threat; thus they also seek to increase their power in pursuit of their own security, which makes the first state feel insecure despite its increased power. Subjecting those neighbors to verbal abuse and threats only exacerbates the dilemma. Why do Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan deserve to be characterized as "unscrupulous?" Are they not simply pursuing their national interests as other states do? The fact that national interests may conflict does not necessarily make the other side the "bad guy;" that's just life.

In a bit of patriotic pandering, the Global Times article claims that "China also bears pressure from the inside, which simply calls for a rough stand against provocations from Vietnam and the Philippines." One type of pressure that China bears from the inside is the growing problem of Uighur separatism and its increasingly violent expression. That appears to be the imminent threat to China's territorial integrity, not Vietnam, the Philippines, or Japan.

Another fine nationalist flourish: "As long as the Chinese government is confident, the whole community will stay united." Big deal. Is it not true that as long as the Nazi government was confident, the German community stayed united? This only speaks to the vulnerability of a population to manipulative propaganda from its government. This is not the mark of a great nation, it can be the folly of any nation, and it is quite often the folly of a nation that is struggling against its own inferiority complex to convince itself that it is a great nation. Frankly, China's trash-talking imbues it with all the greatness of a pubescent street punk.

If "China's diplomatic risks are rising," is this perhaps due to China's increasingly risky behavior? "The South China Sea disputes should be settled in a peaceful manner, but that doesn't mean China can't resort to non-peaceful measures in the face of provocation from Vietnam and the Philippines." Such accusations and veiled threats can only increase anxieties in the region and make more acute China's security dilemma. This is a losing strategy. Most bizarre is the assertion that "many people believe that a forced war would convince some countries of China's sincerely peaceful intentions." When has war ever convinced anyone of "sincerely peaceful intentions?" For that matter, what is a "forced war" versus and unforced one? Isn't war a choice, as Clausewitz said, "the extension of policy by other means?"

It is indeed "highly likely that China's strategy would face more uncertainties" if the dispute over the small islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea turned violent. That uncertainty exemplifies the security dilemma. As with tic-tac-toe or global thermonuclear war, the only way to win the game is not to play. For this reason, states have increasingly turned to building collective security institutions, to instituting transparency and confidence-building measures, and to peacefully settling disputes. Talk of "resort to non-peaceful measures" pushes China toward a self-fulfilling prophesy of war.

This crucial time in China's rise and the tensions in the South China Sea are not independent, coincidental events; there is causal linkage that is explained by the security dilemma. The entrepreneurial acumen of the Chinese people will be best showcased by reaching a settlement that satisfies the interests of all concerned parties. Diplomacy is not much different from business; it is all about the art of the deal. And, in contrast to the "security dilemma," a game that no one can win, the well-crafted deal is one in which everyone wins something.

Alternatively, let us consider that at the heart of all of this sound and fury is China's presumption to have a legitimate claim to areas of the South China Sea, and also in the East China Sea, that are well beyond the 12 nautical mile limit of territorial waters. If China believes that it has a solid legal case, what would it have to fear from taking the case to the International Court of Justice?

Twenty-five centuries ago, Sun Tzu wrote: "One who knows when he can fight, and when he cannot fight, will be victorious." The implication is that one can be victorious without fighting; however, a strategist may not cover himself in glory if he gains victory without giving battle, thus he may be forgotten by history. So why not prepare that knock-out legal case that will win without fighting? The problem is that all leaders want to be remembered by history; perhaps, more than anything, this explains the frequency of wars.

Ode to Big Bird, Part 1

Copyright © 2014 by Thomas Gangale

I recently saw that the KH-8 Gambit and KH-9 Hexagon reconnaissance satellite programs were declassified in 2011. I just happened to stumble over these on the Internet, and it was a tremendous surprise. I worked on these programs at Lockheed/Sunnyvale from 1982 to the end of both programs in 1984 and 1986, respectively. After all the years of keeping the secret, it is a strange feeling to see the words Gambit, Hexagon, and Byeman in open sources. These were words that we were not even supposed to speak outside of certain rooms and buildings that constituted the "black world," almost as if these existed in a separate dimension from the "white world." Of course, the word "Byeman" has been known to the "white world" since the Dalton Lee/Christopher Boyce case, "The Falcon and the Snowman." The names "Gambit" and "Hexagon" were out there too; still, we were never to give them attribution.

Although there have been accurate drawings of Gambit in the open sources for years, I never saw anything close to the real Hexagon configuration until now. Yeah, secrets can be kept. The thousands of people who worked on these programs did observe the code of silence, what in Italian is called "omertá." That word comes to mind because being briefed into the Byeman information control system was an experience that had the feel of becoming a "made guy." I was "introduced" to some people whom I had never met, which is what one expects when being introduced to someone, but I was also "introduced" to some guys whom I had worked with for a year without knowing that they were "made guys."

I remember two things being said that day. One was, "Welcome to the REAL space program." Another was when I was escorted to the clean room and saw the Hexagon (no. 18) for the first time, I asked, "Does this have something to do with Big Bird?" The reply was, "THIS IS Big Bird."

Not long after that day, the guy whom I was being brought in to replace (he was in the chute for another assignment) told me an anecdote that describes well the feeling that I think most of us "made guys" had. A rabbi who was an avid golfer wanted to spend a holy day on the course when it wouldn't be very crowded. He figured, who's to know? Everyone else in the tribe will be home observing the holy day. One the first hole, he drives a hole-in-one, and he is ecstatic. It happens again on the second hole… and on the third. An angel says to God, "Look, I don't mean to tell you your business, but I couldn't help noticing that this schmuck is shooting the game of his life. Shouldn't you be punishing him?" And God said, "You think I'm not? Who's he going to tell?"