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26 September 2008

Commercializing clandestine insertion

The flight over the English Channel by personal jet wing was a sight to behold, and warms our futurist’s hearts. We cannot help but contemplate the uses to which such a technology might be put, especially given the historic resonance of the channel crossing for the earliest members of the community.

The night run into France from 1944 until Normandy carried 523 members of the Jedburgh, Operational Group, SO paramilitary and radio operator sections. In addition, some 5,000 containers of supplies and ammunition would be dropped each month to support these men. By the end of the operation, 18 would be dead, 17 missing or taken prisoner, and 51 wounded or injured.

The ten minute flight would no doubt have been far different if it required navigation by instrument alone in unknown weather, into the teeth of prepared defenses, which at the time consisted of up to 40 Fliegerabwehrkanone AA guns per battery, guided by searchlights and radar units. We have no doubt that a low level flight path and the limited radar cross section of the small personal unit would have helped to limit the enemy’s engagement window, but it certainly puts the concept in an entirely different light. Of course, the jet engine had yet to be perfected – and could never have been so miniaturized; making such thoughts nothing more than idle divergence (as opposed to the more respectable counterfactual analysis).

Today, the same insertion faces a far more robust threat environment. No doubt those four 200lb thrust engines generate quite the infrared signature. We would not wish to be on the receiving end of even a SA-7 MANPAD shot, let alone something more sophisticated than the Strela.

The Swiss exercise also reminds us that most of the significant innovation we have recently seen in these areas have emerged from the private sector. One has only to look to the supply drops being executed in Afghanistan by Blackwater, which happen to also offer significant cost savings over classic Air Force profiles.

We still eagerly await smartwheel equipped all terrain remote supply pods (first predicted by jester Bruce Sterling). But then again, we also have been waiting for cost effective cargo carrying cruise missile for quite some time longer, with little result – although the concept of UAV cargo drop payloads may at last bring that concept to reality. Again, these are commercial innovations from far outside of the classic defense and intelligence space, proof that the kind of creativity needed for these operations will rarely be found in career civil service.

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