Sunday, August 31, 2014

August 31 2014. As death approaches—at quite astonishing speed—do I understand the meaning of all this any more than I used to?

I think essentially the meaning of life is probably the journey and not really any one thing or an outcome or a result. I think it's kinda the process and I think that if you can find happiness in the process then maybe that's it.

Charisma Carpenter

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.

Albert Camus

Only an artist can interpret the meaning of life.


The short answer to my own question is “No.” I don’t understand the meaning of life at all. In fact, if I have learned nothing else, it is that that the more I know, the less I understand. And these days, I know a great deal. I have spent my life learning so have reached a stage of truly impressive ignorance. I increase it by the day. I am ever in pursuit of knowledge. I have become a positive paragon of ignorance.

It seems rather unfair of life to reward all this endeavor by death—but I’m not sure fairness features much in the scheme of things. If anything does, it is almost certainly humor. If nothing else, the gods certainly have a sense of irony. I tend to share it. Life is vastly entertaining. It is also short. The gods either have a limited attention span or limited bladders.

Between a moody, violent, and unpredictable mother, boarding school at the age of five, years of bullying, and much else that was unpleasant and emotionally destructive—including never-to-be-underestimated Catholic guilt—I had a pretty traumatic upbringing and long regarded happiness as fiction. But then I discovered writing and have learned that not only is happiness very real—but it is available here and now if your don’t mind shedding blood for a few decades.

Downright instant satisfaction in the scheme of things.

The thing that has surprised me most is the ability of happiness to increase over time. You think you have hit a hundred percent and that life is as good as it gets—but then, at least as far as writing is concerned, it gets better and better and better. It is, so to speak, mathematically illogical. Or maybe relative. I’ll check with Einstein when we meet up.

Then again, the whole pleasure and purpose of death is to change the ground rules—or else it is just a potty break for the divine.

I confess I’m curious. Almost eager.

Just not quite that eager.





Saturday, August 30, 2014

August 2014. I have learned from experience that if I get a writing idea, I should progress it immediately (if remotely possible). That works—and works well. The bad news is that it wreaks havoc with whatever else I’m supposed to be doing. Deep down, I suspect my inner voice is saying: “A writer has only one mission in this life—and that is to write.”


You would think by now—at the age of 70—I would have worked out how to work to best advantage. As befits an experienced professional, I would have a practiced routine which I would follow religiously. It would probably contain an eccentric element or two to give it color. I would obsess about pencils like Steinbeck, or write on index cards like Nabokov, or write standing up like Hemingway said he did (though most photos show him sitting down).

Damn it! I would do something different—stand on my head or practice pistol shooting for half an hour (something I used to do daily) but then set to work with absolute focus. I would be in the zone. I would laugh at distraction.

The reality is that I’m still working out how to work—and how to fit in what needs to be done.

To be fair, I probably would have a fairly standard routine if what I had to do had remained much as it was when I started full time back in 1986 (after numerous false starts). But back in those days, household chores apart, all I really had to do was write. There was no internet in general use. There was no e-mail. There was no blogging. And, all in all, life was a great deal simpler.

Further, the sales and marketing aspects of book publishing were left to one’s agent and publisher. A real writer didn’t have to soil either his hands or his mind with such crass commercialism. He could focus entirely on being creative (brilliantly creative, of course).

Whether the agent and publisher served the writer’s best interests is another matter entirely. Mostly, they did not. Change in the book business was both necessary and long overdue. But flawed though the structure of traditional publishing was, it at least had the merit of allowing the writer to concentrate on his primary mission.

But the gods don’t like us to have such relatively stress free lives, so they came up with all kinds of good and interesting things which could—and would—overload the writer and distract him from what he was meant to to. Then having set all of this in motion, they laughed like drains and settled down to watch. They chuckle a great deal. Our struggles, as we try and cope with the impossible, are hugely entertaining.

Back in July 2010, somewhat late in the proceedings, I finally accepted that writing was no longer just about writing and set to work to try and reorganize my working day so I would be two to three times as productive—and thus able to do the myriad of other things a writer is supposed to do today—in addition to writing.

More than four years later, I certainly have had some successes (and a few colossal failures—one of which eventually turned into a success) but the supreme irony is that primarily the  successes have had to do with writing—and the research that supports it.  I focus faster and with even more intensity. My endurance has improved. I can find the right word with greater facility. I have learned to write screenplays. I can now blog at speed with relative ease—and enjoy a process I used to hate.. I have become significantly better at using the internet for research—and my data handling is superior. But where other matters are concerned, my progress is more modest.

I do have a much greater understanding of—and feeling for—social media in general, though regard much of it with deep skepticism.  As for Facebook, in particular, I feel it is best approached with a very long spoon (and have yet to find one long enough). I do rather like LinkedIn. It’s mission—business  networking—seems more clear-cut, and I prefer the way it is organized.

I have yet to succeed in keeping e-mail under control. As fast as I manage to master one area, another seems to flood my Inbox. I feel like King Canute endeavoring to order the sea around. Though I love e-mail because it is a writer’s medium and links me directly with my readers and friends (often one and the same), it is a time thief—and remorseless.

I have made huge progress in terms of understanding economics in general—and the U.S. economy in particular—and I write about such matters regularly—but the practical purpose of all this escapes me. I am supposed to be a thriller writer. But practicality was never my strong suit.

I can report similar progress re military matters—to which I continue to give a great deal of attention—but here I can at least argue that such an interest is directly relevant to my books and my writing

I have yet to become comfortable with website building and maintenance—though I am determined to do so.

Am I yet fully comfortable with that basic tool of the modern writer—the computer? ‘Fully’ would be a stretch. Where computers are concerned, I am a bear of little brain—and even less natural aptitude.  But, I persevere—and they fascinate me. I lack adequate expertise, but I’m comfortable with them. 

But, in truth, mostly, I write. It is joy through effort. It is the best of things .

I’m far from sure that I’m cut out to lead a balanced life.

I can hear the gods chuckling. They seem to agree.

August 30 2014. Hypersonic missiles—HGVs—are potentially game-changing weapons.Should we be concerned? We probably should. Should we panic? Way too exhausting. As snipers like to say (if you plan to flee): “You’ll just die tired.”

Hypersonic = 5.00-10.00 Mach. Roughly 3,840 to 7,680 mph.

High hypersonic = 10.00 to 15.00 Mach. Roughly 7,680-16,250 mph.

Back in the mid-Nineties, I was invited to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to attend a supergun shoot. The supergun in question was hydrogen powered—and fired a projectile at hypersonic speeds. Hydrogen—the lightest element on the periodic table—in  concentration, as I’m sure you know, explodes (something of an understatement).

It’s ferociously powerful stuff—but its only byproduct is water. H20 is no more than hydrogen combined with oxygen. We drink it, bathe in it, and as W.C. Fields so memorably commented: “Fish fuck in it.”   

If you are around when hydrogen explodes, you will tend to view any further developments from a molecular perspective.

Let me stress the word ‘super.’ This gun was huge. You could exercise-albeit modestly—to advantage just by walking its length. It was half a football field long. It did not look space age and cool. It had an industrial look.

The thing did not point up into the sky. The idea was to test the concept—to see if the projectile could achieve escape velocity—before bombarding space (and, for instance, accidentally knocking out a Chinese satellite.)

What is escape velocity? It is the speed needed to break free from the gravitational attraction of a massive body without further propulsion. Where Earth is concerned, it is approximately 25,000 mph. That is easier to achieve than it sounds because air resistance and gravity  both decrease as you pull away. Atmosphere decreases exponentially. Space is generally considered to start 62 miles (330,000 feet) up at what is known as the Karman line. Step over that line, and you are no longer a high flyer. You are an astronaut.

The main object of the exercise was to measure the projectile’s speed. It was actually fired into the hillside where it vaporized. Nada tangible was left.

Kinetic energy doesn’t need explosives to be destructive. Given enough speed—you end up with nothing you can see. Vaporization is as close as it gets to oblivion.

This was my first encounter with a hypersonic projectile. It was a pre-cursor to the hypersonic missiles now being tested

Why was I invited? Because I had initiated research into superguns in general for my book, THE DEVIL’S FOOTPRINT. The work was actually carried out by my son, Christian O’Reilly(now a successful playwright)—and for a time, we had become rather more expert on the subject than the CIA (according to Livermore). As a consequence when Livermore were tasked with advising on the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s supergun, they contacted us for help—which we gave.

My reward was the invitation—and the shoot was nothing if not spectacular. At the time, I was still living in Ireland so I had come 6,000 miles for the occasion. It was worth it. Nuclear labs are full of exceedingly bright people doing frighteningly dangerous things. My exposure to Livermore—I made multiple visits—was to lead to a major thriller, SATAN’S SMILE, which will be published shortly. In it, I cover nuclear terrorism and serial killing. What do you do if an enemy like ISIS gains access to all that plutonium—and isn’t afraid to die? It seems to me that it is an entirely credible possibility.

The eventual goal of the Livermore supergun was to shoot supplies into space at a much lower cost than by rocket (which is disgustingly expensive at around $10,000 a pound). It is an interesting project that has never acquired adequate traction as yet—but it is technically feasible. And yes, I did become heavily involved with it for a while. I tend to be fascinated by truly innovative projects. Better yet if they are at the cutting edge of impossible.

Incidentally, Dr. Gerald Bull—the man most associated with modern superguns—operated a program, HARP, where a projectile (a Martlet) reached an altitude of 155 miles, a truly astonishing achievement—and he was using gunpowder as the propellant.

HARP, though successful, was closed down due to lack of funding.  The U.S. Air Force decided to back rockets. Though they are of debatable reliability, there is more money to be made out of rockets. Besides, they had Vernher Von Braun, one of the principle German rocket scientists during WW II, to give a head start.

Later in his career, Bull became the man behind Project Babylon—Saddam Hussein's supergun program.

Bull was assassinated outside his apartment in Brussels in March 1990. The Israelis are generally considered to have been responsible—but there were other candidates.

Back to hypersonic missiles.

Rockets propel them into space—and gravity is sufficient for the return. The types currently being developed—principally by the U.S. and the Chinese—are known as HGVs (Hypersonic Glide Vehicles) because when they re-enter the earth’s atmosphere  they glide towards their targets at hypersonic speeds. However, it isn’t just speed that makes them hard to hit. They can also be maneuvered aerodynamically which means their flight paths are not predictable (unlike conventional ballistic missiles)—which makes them very tricky to locate and destroy.

An HGV allows you to hit any target in the world in less than an hour—and is near impossible to intercept with current technology.

The U.S. Navy is particularly concerned about HGVs because its aircraft carriers are obvious targets and are known to be the focus of particular Chinese interest. Aircraft carriers are traditionally how we project power—and they would certainly be deployed if Taiwan, for instance, was threatened.

A U.S. HGV test was aborted in August 2014 and a Chinese test failed earlier in the year. Nonetheless, despites these failures, is is generally accepted that HGVs will become operational relatively soon.

They can be equipped with either nuclear or conventional warheads. However, even without a warhead, a missile travelling at hypersonic speed would be exceedingly destructive as a consequence of its kinetic energy alone.

Even non-nuclear HGVs—if made and used in volume (something within Chinese capabilities) could be a serious threat to U.S. military dominance.




Friday, August 29, 2014

August 29 2014. What every writer needs: “The courage to write badly.”

I hate first drafts, and it never gets easier. People always wonder what kind of superhero power they'd like to have. I wanted the ability for someone to just open up my brain and take out the entire first draft and lay it down in front of me so I can just focus on the second, third and fourth drafts.

Judy Blume

Generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with originating ideas (executing them is another matter—that’s when I shed blood, to paraphrase Hemingway). Still, I’m always on the lookout for ways to enhance my creativity—and it was in that spirit that I read a post on by Herbert Lui headed: 6 Unorthodox Ways to Spark Your Creativity. Worth reading. The following is an extract.


The higher your expectations, the more difficult it is to get started. Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott once wrote: “People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think… that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.”

Everyone writes terrible first drafts. It’s practically inevitable for the majority of writers, designers, and other creatives. On the PLOS Blog, author Josh Shenk wrote, “When I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy, I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly.”

Consider the related concept of the minimum viable product, which entrepreneurs use to gain customer feedback and improve their products. Minimum viable products are the entrepreneurial version of crappy first drafts—the real improvements come later on (e.g., the story of how Instagram emerged from Burbn).


We run into creative blocks during most projects. It can be tempting to avoid the problem in front of us and indulge in distractions, but that only means we’ll remain stuck. Conversely, movement—in any direction—builds momentum for future progress.

Author Fred Waitzkin explained his solution to creative roadblocks in an interview with Tim Ferriss: “I have a couple of friends [who] I rely upon. I listen closely to what they think. I’ve done this many times. My wife Bonnie has helped me many times like this. Here is the curious thing: Often her advice or the idea of a friend isn’t what I end up doing. But listening to the ideas engenders a new idea. The whole point is that you have to get moving. Movement begets movement. You need to get unstuck.”

When you’re stuck, a simple solution is to talk out your problems with a friend. You don’t have to take any advice—but listening to ideas and responses could spark new ones of your own.


Our memories are hardly reliable sources for inspiration. We end up tainting them with cognitive biases. We also don’t notice and recognize patterns until we go back and examine them in detail.

Author and former marketer Jack Cheng created his first novel from a concept he wrote down in a journal. In an interview with One Skinnyj, he said: “I’m a big proponent of journaling, because it builds self-awareness, which is always the first step to improvement… I believe we all have a natural understanding of the appropriate timing for ourselves, but the problem for most of us is that it’s buried under layers of false expectations and misplaced obligations. Honest journaling helps you face your own fear and neglect.”


The unlikely combination of neuroscience and architecture is linked to a process known as neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells. This reaction is accelerated by physical environments.

If you find yourself making breakthroughs in new settings, you’re in good company. “Early in his career, when he was still struggling to find a cure for polio, Jonas Salk retreated to Umbria, Italy, to the monastery at the Basilica of Assisi,” wrote Pacific Standard columnist Emily Badger. “Salk would insist, for the rest of his life, that something about this place—the design and the environment in which he found himself—helped to clear his obstructed mind, inspiring the solution that led to his famous polio vaccine.”

Do I believe that all first drafts are terrible? No, I don’t—or even close. However, I have yet to write a first draft that could not be improved fairly significantly. As a consequence, re-writing is a necessary discipline for most of us.

It is one I have learned to enjoy. I like the challenge, and the sense of being stretched intellectually. I didn’t feel that way at the beginning,

These blogs are not re-written—which I regret—but time does not permit it. They are normally left overnight, re-read, and the most egregious errors corrected—and then up they go. For practical reasons, I blog on the basis that, “the  best is the enemy of the good.”

My books—on the other hand—go through multiple drafts. How many is multiple? Enough to make you go pale. Actually, the number is somewhat misleading because I change the number even if I make fairly minor revisions—just so I know which draft is which. But one manuscript has gone through well over 20 drafts—and I still haven’t finished the process.

Dozens of drafts have a tendency to test the most resolute.

Re-reading—as if out-loud—plays an important role in re-writing. If a passage doesn’t have a rhythm, the chances are there is something wrong with it. I don’t literally read out-loud, but I hear the result in my mind as if I was. Let me add that I don’t normally read that way (too slow), but when I am re-writing I find it’s a technique that works for me—and I will re-read a passage again and again, if necessary. Sometimes, I’ll know there is a problem, but, initially, be unable to pinpoint it.

All it takes is work.

How do I know when a book is as good as I can make it? I really don’t—because there are always passages I feel fairly sure I could do better. Instead, I tend to focus on what I perceive are weaknesses—and try and eliminate them completely, either by cutting or re-writing. The end result  is always something of a compromise—but, hopefully, a highly readable compromise. In the end, I rely on my inner voice. When it says, “You’re done,” I pay attention.

How long should a book take? It depends upon the book. I try and write a non-fiction first draft in three or four months, but it could well take longer. Overall, I tend to believe in the aphorism that “a book takes as long as it takes.” If it’s a good book, the time taken is always worth it—even if years are involved.

Worth it in a financial sense? No necessarily—though it can be. No, I mean worth it in the sense of creative satisfaction—of that deep and powerful feeling you get when have done something that is creatively worthwhile, and as good as you can make it. It may or may not be the best book in the world—the odds are somewhat stacked against you—but it is your book, and that is very special.

Traditional publishers like authors to turn out a book a year like clockwork. Well, we aren’t clocks. Even writers are human (though some may doubt it)—and we have lives to lead; we have good times and bad times; we get ill—and so on.

So far, I have written ten books. I would like to write another ten before departing this life—but who knows. It seems unlikely, but it is important to set the bar high—and where writing is concerned, I have become both faster and more confident. Also, not all those books will be big thrillers. Some will be short. Some won’t be thrillers. But, writing is a voyage of exploration into the unknown, and rarely works out quite as planned. That is part of its attraction.

If you want an easy, predictable, and secure life, positively don’t become a writer.

And yet.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

August 28 2014. A discipline, a reflex, and a pleasure, the practice of writing every day makes the process into a good habit, improves your actual writing, sharpens up your mind—and does wonderful things for the morale. It enables me to snap right into the zone—full focus on demand. It also constitutes a formidable amount of sustained effort—because it is an unremitting challenge. How long can I keep going in such an intensive way? I’ll let you know.

As I sit down to write this, I am in the midst of a streak. I have written every day for the last 373 consecutive days. That consecutive day streak is part of a larger streak that began in late February 2013. Since then, I have written 516 out of the last 518 days. The last day on which I managed no writing was July 21, 2013 (the day I traveled home from the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in Laramie, Wyoming, in case you’re wondering).

Jamie Todd Rubin

I find it hard to over-stress the value of writing every day in terms of improving your writing and generally keep your brain sharp. Whether it is socially acceptable is another matter. For instance, should you write while on vacation? After all, the whole idea of a vacation is to have a break from your normal work. That way, you regain perspective and return to work much refreshed.

Vacations are a fine and necessary thing—and I believe absolutely in the European habit of taking about five weeks off a year (not that I practice it, unfortunately). However, where I am concerned, I have become a complete convert to the notion of writing every day regardless—providing your partner, or whoever you are with, doesn’t threaten to shoot you (which they probably will).

It’s my experience that people—even loved ones—can become quite jealous of writing time. It suggests that you prefer writing time to time spent with them.

Well, no matter how much you love them, you probably do—though ‘prefer’ is not something you should admit to. It’s more tactful to say that you simply need a couple of hours of uninterrupted writing time every day—and with luck, and if you are a good diplomat—you may just get away with it.

When I say ‘every day’ I don’t mean five days a week with the weekend off. I mean seven days a week, week-in, week-out, month-in, month-out, year-in, year-out. No excuses.

I have now reached the stage where I don’t feel right until I have written something. In fact, I normally start writing before I have the first mug of tea of the day—and that tea may wait for a couple of hours. It may wait a great deal longer.

Here is the weird thing: Where exercise, for instance, is concerned, some days I just don’t feel like it. I may exercise anyway, but it will take a real mental effort.

Where writing is concerned, I always feel like it—regardless of how I feel otherwise.

Downright creepy (in a nice sort of way)!



August 27 2014. Favorite dead generals. I have favorite live ones too.

“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn't even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”


INTELLECTUALLY. Intellectually, I don’t think we should make as much of the military as we do. Currently, something like 75 percent of the American public have confidence in the military—whereas the figure for Congress is well under 10 percent (depending on the poll). That spread seems a little extreme to me.

Incidentally, artists—which I guess includes writers—come in at 30 percent. Frankly, I’m not quite sure whether that says more about artists or the American public.

Given the importance of artists in terms of our contribution to the quality of American life—we entertain, inform, distract, and comfort—it strikes me we are getting something of a raw deal.  But, I digress.

Here I am not suggesting we raise the number for Congress—I haven’t yet gone insane—more that I think the figure for the military is way too high.  I’d be happier to see the public supportive, but questioning. The issues involved, and the scale of money, require adult supervision. It is rarely in evidence.

THE MICC. Breaking things and killing people should not be held in such high regard—especially when you appreciate the level of corruption within the MICC (Military Industrial Congressional Complex)—and the prevalence of careerism that is the curse of the officer corps.

CAREERISM. What is careerism? It is a culture of seeking personal advantage ahead of the mission. It is the practice of becoming a sycophant to some more senior officer with the notion that if you are amenable to his every whim, you too—in turn—will ride on his coat-tails and get promoted. It is the antithesis of what is needed—an independent and creative cast of mission oriented mind. It breeds bureaucratic mice, and not good generals. It foments indecisiveness because to make a decision is to run the risk of being wrong—with consequences to your career. It is one of the reasons why the procurement of new weapons and equipment takes so long and costs so much. It leads to micromanaging. It negatively affects our performance in the field. It is commonplace.

CLUBABLE BUT MEDIOCRE. A consequence of this is that a great many generals—scarcely a surprise given that they have primarily toadied themselves to a star—are mediocre. They are mostly agreeable, clubbable, people—but they suck. You don’t believe me? Consider what happened after we conquered Iraq in 2003 (after an armored invasion against a weak enemy conducted at the pace of a slow stroll).

It took us literally years—and  countless dead and injured—before we even understood the kind of war we were in, yet alone evolved a winning strategy—and even then—did we win? And at what cost? And last I checked the fat lady hasn’t finished singing. That increasingly well known aria—ISIS—seems likely to drag on a bit.

EMOTIONALLY. Emotionally, I am a lost cause. Having all kinds of military traditions and connections—ancestors, relations, training, and experience—and having read tales of high adventure from an early age, my heart—and my respect—will always be with the warrior. And I don’t think I will change in the time I have left. The warrior means the fighting soldier—regardless of rank.  It even includes a few generals—though not many. Do not confuse the fighting soldier—though most Americans do—with the massive overhead that is the Pentagon and the MICC. Fighting soldiers have to do with combat. The Pentagon and the MICC have to do with politics, money, and a great deal of corruption.

Army generals come in different shapes and sizes.

  • BG. One star – Brigadier General.
  • MG. Two Stars – Major General
  • LTG. Three Stars – Lieutenant General
  • GEN. Four Stars – General

When I talk about generals, I am generally (no pun intended) speaking about generals in command of something significant—and typically a combat command at that.. Typically, that will mean command of a division upwards. A division consists of 10,000-15,000 soldiers and is, effect, a self contained army in that it has all the components of a modern army within a single command. These include infantry, armor, artillery, air support, engineers, logistics, and so on. The nature of divisions vary. A heavy division is tank oriented. A light division is infantry oriented. Today a division is organized into brigade combat teams which are, in effect, miniature divisions.

Interestingly, A BCT is roughly the same size as a Roman legion—4,000 to 5,000 soldiers. The optimum size of a fighting unit has remained remarkably consistent over the millennia. A BCT is normally commanded by a colonel. It probably should a general’s command. Or a tribune’s.

WHAT CONSTUTES A GREAT GENERAL? A great  combat general is part thinker, part scholar, part visionary, part administrator, part logistician, part politician, part fighter, part intelligence operative, part combat commander—and all leader. Great generals are rare—and invaluable. It took Lincoln several years to come up with Grant.  The British suffered appallingly from a lack of good generals in WW I. We haven’t done so well since 2001 with Dave Petraeus being a notable exception. Both Stan McCrystal and  William H. McRaven were also exceptionally able. I’m sure I have missed a few others. HR McMaster certain comes to mind.

EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE. The one quality that seems to distinguish all great generals is what I tend to think of as ‘emotional resilience.’ Regardless of how bad things seem to look, they keep their cool. It’s an invaluable attribute—and one I admire greatly.

My favorite dead generals are:

  • Julius Caesar
  • The Duke of Wellington
  • Ulysses S. Grant
  • Major General Robert T.Frederick
  • General Elwood Qesada



 Julius Caesar was notoriously camera-shy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

August 26 2014. Cloth armor? Tank versus anti-tank—where are we heading with all this? Is the tank finished?

If the tanks succeed, then victory follows.

Heinz Guderian

I don't think you can in any way export culture with guns or tanks.

Bernardo Bertolucci

DARPA will be trialling Amsafe's fiber-based armor for the US military


Developed by UK firm Amsafe, Tarian cloth is capable of repelling armor-piercing anti-tank warheads by creating a ‘cushion’ between the vehicle’s exterior and typical armor plating, thereby triggering the explosive early and dispersing the force of the blast across the existing armor.

Traditional slat or metal-bar protection has a similar effect and through it is relatively light in comparison to the primary armor-plating of a vehicle, still has a detrimental effect on mobility and load-capacity. Being 50% lighter than aluminum cage armor and 85% lighter than steel cage options, Tarian (Welsh for "shield") reduces the chance of overloading the vehicle and means that more equipment can be carried and further precautions taken to ensure the safety of the passengers.

See the full report at

The question of how best to fight is one I give considerable thought to. Tanks have been much on my mind recently (for the normal reasons where I am concerned—a book, and because I’m just plain interested).

The range, lethality and accuracy of modern anti-tank missiles is such that more than a few believe the day of the tank—even main battle tanks—is over. That impression will be re-enforced if you actually see such a missile in action. That seemingly indestructible bemoth is literally blown apart, as like as not the heavy turret (over 20 tons) is flung into the air as if weightless,  and what is left is engulfed in a fireball.

Tankers call such a hit a ‘catastrophic kill.’ It is well named.

Destruction is total. Or such is the theory. It may, indeed, be the practice—Soviet tanks have a poor track record—but Western tanks have proven to be impressively survivable.



By Western tanks, I mean the U.S.M1A2 Abrams, the British Challenger 2, the German Leopard 2, the French Leclerc 2, and the Israeli Merkava.4

How can this be?

  • SUPERIOR COMPOSITE ARMOR. Back in the Sixties, the British originated Chobham armor—a matrix of high hardness steel and ceramics (and possibly other materials).  Boron carbide is one such ceramic. The exact nature of such armor is classified. It has proved to be effective against both shaped charges and kinetic energy penetrators. It continues to evolve.
  • PASSIVE UP-ARMORING. This takes various forms. Typically it consists of additional armor in the form of  tiles. This allows some advantage to be taken of the very latest developments. The downside is that it adds weight. Tracked vehicles are normally better at handling such increased weight because they dissipate it.
  • SLAT ARMOR. Typically this is a metal cage which causes RPGs, in particular, to pre-ignite thus causing the hollow charge to be ineffective. Such armor adds weight.
  • ACTIVE UP-ARMORING. Explosive reactive armor has high brisance (explodes very fast) and disrupts the effect of the incoming projectile. It is effective but can only deal with one hit in the same place. Modern missiles increasingly use tandem warheads
  • ACTIVE DEFENSE. These anti-missile protection systems are relatively new and are becoming increasingly effective.  The Israeli Trophy system—which uses a shotgun-like blast—has been proven in combat and works well. It can be defeated by using missiles with a decoy incorporated but they are not yet in general use.
  • INCREASINGLY ACCURATE & EFFECTIVE FIREPOWER—outranging and otherwise outgunning the enemy. Vastly improved 24 hour capable sighting systems combined with laser range-finding make first shot kills at extreme ranges increasingly possible.
  • IMPROVED SITUATIONAL AWARENESS. Improved situational awareness. Traditionally, a buttoned-down tank has left both driver and commander with very restricted vision. Miniature high resolution cameras linked to internal monitors now make 360 degree vision possible.
  • CONCEALABILITY. A variety of techniques is now being used to minimize detectability. These include improved camouflage, methods that minimize a tank’s heat signature, and methods which make a tank look like something else.
  • IMPROVED TRACKS. Tracks offer excellent performance, both on and off rods, but traditionally have worn out quickly—sometime in only a few hundred miles. Wear tends to be surface dependent.  New track design is increasing track durability to several thousand miles though it remains less than desirable. Rubber tracks offer numerous advantages though are not yet strong enough for full weight main battle tanks.
  • TACTICS. How tanks are fought makes a great difference to survivability. For instance, single tanks are more vulnerable than when mutually supporting.  Terrain makes a great difference.
  • COMMAND OF THE AIR. The U.S. in particular, the the West in general, have a huge advantage in this regard. Thanks to increasingly accurate PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions)tanks are extremely vulnerable to air attack even whole moving.
  • COMBINED ARMS SUPPORT. Infantry and artillery support contribute greatly to tank survivability.

The weaknesses of main battle tanks are:

  • SIZE & WEIGHT.  Main battle tanks have a very high degree of mobility in terms of ground surfaces, but their size and weight mean that they cannot fit through narrow streets and they are far too heavy for many bridges.
  • FUEL CONSUMPTION/LOGISTICAL SUPPORT.  This is the Achilles Heel of the M1A2 Abrams in particular. An Abrams doesn’t operate on a miles per gallon basis—it is more gallons per mile. Also, an Abrams burns fuel whether moving or not. In effect—very roughly—an  Abrams requires 300 gallons every 24 hours—which means a considerable logistics tail of highly vulnerable fuel trucks. Such a truck is typically a HEMTT (see photo below). In a combat environment where there is not frontline as such, having near invulnerable armor so dependent on unarmored trucks strikes me as something of a paradox. A HEMTT (Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck) holds 5,000 gallons.

  • DEPLOYABILITY.  Israel has the debatable advantage of not having to deploy any substantial distance because its enemies are on its immediate borders. Where the U.S. is concerned, it is faced with the issue of needing to deploy globally—and, at times, to landlocked nations at that. For instance Los Angeles to Kabul, Afghanistan is 7,689 miles. This raises all kinds of issues.
  • MAINTENANCE. Tanks are relatively high maintenance—with tracks being a particular problem.
  • VULNERABILITY IN AN URBAN ENVIRONMENT. Such terrain offers numerous locations for infantry, equipped with anti-tank weapons, to conceal themselves. A partial solution is for tanks to be supported by infantry. Despite the risks, if fought with care, tanks—used in a combined arms role, and supported by air—are still highly effective in urban terrain.

 My thoughts on all this.

  • TANKS HAVE A FUTURE. Main battle tanks are very far from finished. In fact, they are crucial in many situations from conventional battle to urban combat.
  • IMPROVED SURVIVABILITY. Active defense looks like making properly supported tanks extremely survivable. It may also mean a high degree of survivability with less armor thus resulting in a highly survivable but lighter tank (except in the case of IEDs or mines).
  • MORE TANK TRACK RESEARCH REQUIRED. There is a need to further improve tank tracks and to research variations (such as splitting each track into two).
  • FUEL CONSUMPTION A MAJOR PROBLEM. The fuel consumption of the Abrams is a critical weakness. We could cut it in half if we switched to a diesel engine. We should look seriously at hybrid electric. A lighter tank with rubber tracks would help.
  • ROAD BOUND. Main battle tanks are still too road-bound. Though tanks themselves have excellent off-road performance, their logistical support does not. Wheels, all too often, can not follow tracks. Given that tanks need to be re-fueled daily—or more often—that is a most unsatisfactory situation.
  • LOG SUPPORT NEEDS TO KEEP UP WITH TANKS. Logistical support needs to be able to maneuver at the same speed and over the same terrain as the tanks. That should be blindingly obvious. Currently, that is not the situation.
  • MID-WEIGHT TANK. There is a real need for a lighter, rotary aircraft transportable, tank (ideally which would be air-droppable as well)—and for a rotary aircraft which can lift 20-35 tons and transport it a reasonable distance.. In effect, such a weapons system would enable the Air-Mech-Strike concept. That would:
    • Largely eliminate the IED problem. Ambushing predictable road bound convoys is relatively easy. Trying to anticipate a unit maneuvering off road is a problem of a different order of magnitude. 
    • Stop us being so road bound and predicable.
    • Give us the elements of surprise and retaining the initiative.
    • Hugely increase our speed of maneuver.
    • Minimize the track wear issue.
    • Lessen the logistical support issue.

The main argument against a medium-weight tank is survivability. Simply put, a 70 ton main battle tank can take more punishment than a 35 ton tank because the heavier tank carries more armor. Though that is true, I have to wonder whether we are devoting enough attention to the advantages of a smaller rubber tracked lighter-weight tank in terms of operational effectiveness. I don’t believe we have..

  • HEAVY LIFT ROTARY AIRCRAFT.  Up until recently, virtually all helicopters had either one large rotor (and a tail rotor) or two counter-rotating rotors (like the Army’s CH-47 Chinook).


Neither of these approaches—though they have served us well over the decades—have handled heavy lift too well. They just can’t displace the volume of air required. A solution—which has already been well demonstrated in model rotary aircraft—would seem to be at hand. That involves using multiple lightweight ducted  fan rotors—powered via electricity from an on-board generator—as many as you need to give the required life. Several such developments—such as the VV-Plane (see photo below) are in the pipeline.

A hybrid VTOL cargo plane concept by 4x4 Aviation is intended to carry truck-sized loads a...



  • AIRSHIPS. These constitute something of a wild card as far as heavy lift is concerned—but they do remain a possibility. One design, currently being progressed, will lift 150 tons. The sheer bulk of the airships required to land a credible military unit remains an issue. Many of their other problems have already been solved.




DARPA (who do a great deal of good work, in my opinion) have launched a new program to try and develop a successor to the tank that will be as effective, but less reliant, on armor—and altogether more agile. It is called Ground X-Vehicle Technology (GXV-T).

GXV-T aims to replace reliance on armor with a mix of technologies (Image: DARPA)

"GXV-T’s goal is not just to improve or replace one particular vehicle – it’s about breaking the ‘more armor’ paradigm and revolutionizing protection for all armored fighting vehicles," says Kevin Massey, DARPA program manager. "Inspired by how X-plane programs have improved aircraft capabilities over the past 60 years, we plan to pursue groundbreaking fundamental research and development to help make future armored fighting vehicles significantly more mobile, effective, safe and affordable."

GXV-T is intended to pursue technologies that move away from armor with the goal of making tanks 50 percent smaller, needing crews half the present size, able to move at double the present speed, make them capable of operating over 95 percent of the terrain, and make them harder to detect and engage. What this amounts to is finding ways to build tanks that can barrel around the battlefield like off-road rally cars, can dodge incoming fire rather than standing and taking it, reposition its armor to its most effective angle, provide the crews with full situational awareness similar to that afforded fighter pilots, and make them stealthy against both infrared and electromagnetic detection.

GXV-T aims to make tanks half as heavy and twice as fast (Image: DARPA)

The only thing that disturbs me about the GVX-T program is that its graphic—see above—features wheels and not tracks. Since tracks are superior in just about every way for armored vehicles I just hope they are merely making the point that they have an open mind—and will pick the superior result (as demonstrated by testing)—or we’ll be repeating General Shinseki’s error all over again. 

If there is fresh data supporting the merits of wheels—and there could be—let us see it, and be influenced accordingly.

UNMANNED TANKS.  One subject I have not dealt with adequately in this piece is the issue of unmanned tanks—or armored robots equipped with heavy caliber weapons that have similar functionality to a tank.

Lets call them UTANKs.

Given the array of unmanned vehicles already being used in the battlespace—whether aerial or ground—UTANKs would appear inevitable though whether an unmanned tank would have the tactical flexibility of a manned vehicle at this stage is a moot point. A well trained tank crew is faster than most of us would probably appreciate, and prodigiously flexible. They not only operate their tank under any and all conditions (terrain, weather, visibility, and combat against a wide variety of threats), but they do a great deal of the routine maintenance of it as well.

Above all, they have a higher level of situational awareness than may be possible remotely. But given the speed at which technology is progressing that is very far from a static situation. Alternatively, it may be worthwhile to sacrifice some degree of situational awareness to prevent casualties, or to obtain other advantages (such as fuel economy to reduce the logistic burden).

An unmanned tank (UTANK) would free designers from the host of constraints than a manned vehicle imposes. It could be significantly smaller and lighter—thus making it more air mobile—and could even be much more lightly armored on the grounds that a degree of disposability would be cost effective. It could also use very different weapons while retaining broadly similar offensive capabilities—or there could be different UTANKs with complementary capabilities.

We may start by deploying UTANKs controlled by manned main battle tanks much as UAVs controlled by Apache AH-64 Longbow attack helicopters are beginning to be used. However, carrying that thought further, there is no reason why UTANKs have to be controlled from the ground. Given the U.S. command of the air, they might best be controlled from an aircraft—if not from thousands of miles away the way drones such as the Predator and Reaper are controlled now. This will further blur the distinction between ground and air where combat is concerned, and raises serious issues concerning the desirability of having separate armed services—or, at least, foster closer integration (something urgently required and long overdue).

Boeing Unmanned Combat Aircraft Makes Aviation HistoryIt is interesting to note the progress being made with unmanned bombers. The Boeing X-45A J-CAS demonstrator has already been tested dropping a guided 250 pound bomb from 35,000 feet with all operations being formed autonomously (under human operator supervision). Multiple vehicle flights are about to be tested—and a much larger version of the aircraft, the X-45C, is due by 2016.

The J-CAS (Joint Unmanned Combat Air System) program is yet another innovative DARPA initiative—and it is already clear that the unmanned bomber has arrived.

The UTANK cannot be long behind it. At some stage UTANKs are likely to replace main battle tanks—though quite when is far from clear.


Monday, August 25, 2014

August 2014. I first visited the U.S. in the early Seventies—over 40 years ago. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was the start of a period of transition for the American Business Model. The competitive free market model was about to head–slowly but surely—towards monopoly. As of 2014, it is well on its way. So much for the Anti-Trust laws. Hello price increases.

Cable companies aren't bad because they're parts of unwieldy media conglomerates. They're bad because they're monopolies (even where they are no longer legally exclusive) and because the government policies that made them monopolies rewarded lobbying over customer service.

Virginia Postrel

How come there's only one Monopolies Commission?

Nigel Rees

When I was a kid growing up in Ireland and the UK, phone calls were so expensive there, they were less than common. Local calls were not so pricey, but long distance was another matter. A long distance call was an investment decision.

Do I exaggerate? Probably. But my general point is that back in the day, the cost of a phone call was vastly cheaper in the U.S. Indeed there was a rumor that local calls in America were even free. Good grief! What an extraordinary and rather marvelous idea. But a myth, of course (only it wasn’t)!

The U.S. was synonymous with the low prices and excellent service that stem from a genuinely competitive free market economy in those days (although paradoxically the telephone system was effectively an AT&T monopoly—but a relatively benevolent one). Economics can be damnably confusing.

A couple of generations plus later, something of a role reversal has taken place. Whereas European markets have been opened up—thanks to the EU—and competition encouraged, there has been a disconcerting trend towards monopolization in the U.S.—or if not absolute monopolization, cartelization. More and more market sectors are dominated by fewer and fewer major corporations. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a sector where this has not happened. Agribusiness, Food, Insurance, Chemicals, the Media, Banking, Oil, Cable, Publishing, Airlines—they are all oligopolies now. There has been a massive concentration of corporate power—and the trend continues.

Do such concentrated corporations  collude to push prices up? Officially, no. That would be illegal. Unofficially, the effect is the same. Having only a few corporations own a market sector never serves the best interests of the consumer. Investment and service decline and prices go up. CEO pay goes up. Wages are forced down. It is the natural order of things.

Why does investment go down? Because, in a monopoly situation corporations don’t need to try as hard. They don’t need to innovate as much. They don’t need to look after customers as well. They don’t need to produce as efficiently. Instead they can use their resources on such things as share buybacks and higher dividends. These push the share prices up—which benefit CEOs and senior executives who are largely paid through share options.

Is that what is actually happening? Yes, it is. True, this underinvestment may harm the corporation long term (and adversely affect the overall economy immediately)—but such matters are scarcely the CEO’s concern.

But surely there are anti-trust laws against monopolies? Yes, there are—but they are not enforced. Corporate power is now more than sufficient to keep the Executive in check. After all, it is corporate money that got the party in question—whatever be its label—into office in the first place. Thanks to a series of decisions by the Supreme Court, economic power in the U.S. translates into political power virtually seamlessly. Dollar power dominates—and it pays off.

I was reminded how much things had changed by a story in the New York Times of August 23 2014 comparing two phone bills

  • The British cost—from Three UK, including tax—came to $67.97 a month at current exchange rates, for unlimited data.
  • The U.S. cost—from Verizon Wireless, including tax—came to $109.47 for a lower quantity of data—and could be a great deal more.

Factor in the cost of data, and the U.S. monthly cost is roughly twice that of the British.

The de facto monopolization of the U.S. economy—which is happening at a rapid rate—is a singularly disturbing trend—and makes a nonsense of the notion that this is a free market economy. Real competition is crucial to such a market.

Real competition is vanishing fast. Restraints of trade are commonplace—and it is especially concerning that monopolistic corporate power has captured both the legislature and the Supreme Court—not to mention state and local equivalents.

Where is this all going? Up to now price increases have been heavily constrained by the Great Recession and the slow pace of the recovery. However, as the economy appears to improve (an issue unto itself) it seems likely that there will be significant prices increases—without commensurate increases in earning power for most of us

Growth in GDP—when accompanied by price increases—could well leave you worse off. Yet this is the measurement our leaders use to monitor economic progress—and which our corporate owned media seem to accept without question..


August 25 2014. Werner Herzog on creativity is highly relevant to my world of writing

There is nothing wrong with hardships and obstacles, but everything wrong with not trying.

Werner Herzog

There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.

Susan Sontag

The problem isn’t coming up with ideas, it is how to contain the invasion. My ideas are like uninvited guests. They don’t knock on the door; they climb in through the windows like burglars who show up in the middle of the night and make a racket in the kitchen as they raid the fridge. I don’t sit and ponder which one I should deal with first. The one to be wrestled to the floor before all others is the one coming at me with the most vehemence. I have, over the years, developed methods to deal with the invaders as quickly and efficiently as possible, though the burglars never stop coming. You invite a handful of friends for dinner, but the door bursts open and a hundred people are pushing in. You might manage to get rid of them, but from around the corner another fifty appear almost immediately... Finishing a film is like having a great weight lifted from my shoulders. It’s relief, not necessarily happiness. But you relish dealing with these “burglars.” I am glad to be rid of them after making a film or writing a book. The ideas are uninvited guests, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome.

The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself. That’s all you need to make a feature film these days. Beware of useless, bottom-rung secretarial jobs in film-production companies. Instead, so long as you are able-bodied, head out to where the real world is. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or a warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film. Walk on foot, learn languages and a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema. Filmmaking – like great literature – must have experience of life at its foundation. Read Conrad or Hemingway and you can tell how much real life is in those books. A lot of what you see in my films isn’t invention; it’s very much life itself, my own life. If you have an image in your head, hold on to it because – as remote as it might seem – at some point you might be able to use it in a film. I have always sought to transform my own experiences and fantasies into cinema.

We can never know what truth really is. The best we can do is approximate... Truth can never be definitively captured or described, though the quest to find answers is what gives meaning to our existence.

A natural component of filmmaking is the struggle to find money. It has been an uphill battle my entire working life... If you want to make a film, go make it. I can’t tell you the number of times I have started shooting a film knowing I didn’t have the money to finish it. I meet people everywhere who complain about money; it’s the ingrained nature of too many filmmakers. But it should be clear to everyone that money has always had certain explicit qualities: it’s stupid and cowardly, slow and unimaginative. The circumstances of funding never just appear; you have to create them yourself, then manipulate them for your own ends. This is the very nature and daily toil of filmmaking. If your project has real substance, ultimately the money will follow you like a common cur in the street with its tail between its legs. There is a German proverb: “Der Teufel scheisst immer auf den grössten Haufen” [“The Devil always shits on the biggest heap”]. So start heaping and have faith. Every time you make a film you should be prepared to descend into Hell and wrestle it from the claws of the Devil himself. Prepare yourself: there is never a day without a sucker punch. At the same time, be pragmatic and learn how to develop an understanding of when to abandon an idea. Follow your dreams no matter what, but reconsider if they can’t be realized in certain situations. A project can become a cul-de-sac and your life might slip through your fingers in pursuit of something that can never be realized. Know when to walk away.

I find the notion of happiness rather strange... It has never been a goal of mine; I just don’t think in those terms... I try to give meaning to my existence through my work. That’s a simplified answer, but whether I’m happy or not really doesn’t count for much. I have always enjoyed my work. Maybe “enjoy” isn’t the right word; I love making films, and it means a lot to me that I can work in this profession. I am well aware of the many aspiring filmmakers out there with good ideas who never find a foothold. At the age of fourteen, once I realized filmmaking was an uninvited duty for me, I had no choice but to push on with my projects. Cinema has given me everything, but has also taken everything from me.

Perseverance has kept me going over the years. Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work. The sheer toil can be healthy and exhilarating.

Although for many years I lived hand to mouth – sometimes in semi-poverty – I have lived like a rich man ever since I started making films. Throughout my life I have been able to do what I truly love, which is more valuable than any cash you could throw at me.

For more on Werner Herzog, see the fuller piece by Maria Popova on that consistently excellent website 



Sunday, August 24, 2014

August 24 2014. Ghost—a case study of how the Pentagon is so often indifferent to the very innovations it is supposed to encourage. Fortunately, the story is not over yet.

The Pentagon can't even audit its own books. It doesn't even know where its money is going. And we refuse to have the tough forces go on the Pentagon so that at least they are efficient with the money they're spending.

Tom Coburn

Spending should be transparent. All spending by the Pentagon should be online. Every check. Exceptions should be made for legitimate national security issues. But military and civilian pay and retirement benefits are not state secrets. This has already been done in many state governments.

Grover Norquist


Ghost Protocol

The Pentagon’s weapons buying system is notoriously flawed. In truth, much else about the Department of Defense is screwed up as well—the place cannot even be audited, and hasn’t been for decades (which is against the law). But, for the moment, let me focus on one issue. That is the ridiculous situation that unless a service issues a requirement, you cannot do business with it.

But what if the service does not know it has a requirement because what is proposed is so innovative? There is the rub.

The Ghost is a privately developed, stealthy, stable, hydroplane—which  which is propelled by two 62 long tubular foils each housing a 2,000 horsepower gas turbine engine driving two propellers (making four in all). It’s the brainchild of self-made millionaire, and inventor, Gregory Sancoff.

In case you missed the point, ‘stealthy’—in this context—means it won’t show up on an enemy’s radar.  Unless seen with the Mark I eyeball (a British Army expression) it will be invisible.

Big sea. Little boat. Little, invisible, very fast, unusually stable boat. Minimal drag means fuel efficient. Stable means good weapons platform and vastly less fatigue. Pirate un-friendly. Highly automated so easy and inexpensive to operate. Ideal for littoral (coastal) operations—the Navy’s more recent area of concern (Appreciate that traditionally, the U.S.Navy, with its aircraft carrier groups has been deep-water focused) . Minimal crew required. Scalable if you want a bigger invisible boat—or, perhaps, a ship.

By Pentagon standards, developed for ridiculously little money at quite extraordinary speed—and, so far—without government funding.

The propellers are in the front—so, in effect, the Ghost is pulled through the water.  Why did no one think of that before?

Supercavitation—creating bubbles which offer little resistance—minimizes drag. This is what Wiki says about it.

An object (black) encounters a liquid (blue) at high speed. The fluid pressure behind the object is lowered below the vapor pressure of the liquid, forming a bubble of vapor (a cavity) that encompasses the object.

Supercavitation is the use of cavitation effects to create a bubble of gas inside a liquid large enough to encompass an object travelling through the liquid, greatly reducing the skin friction drag on the object and enabling achievement of very high speeds. Current applications are mainly limited to projectiles or very fast torpedoes, and some propellers, but in principle the technique could be extended to include entire vehicles.

Among other benefits, the phenomenon makes craft more fuel-efficient and more stable for shooting at targets. The Russian military, Sancoff learned, had built a supercavitating rocket-powered torpedo, which traveled at 200 knots, roughly four times as fast as American weapons. But the torpedo was difficult to steer. The problem, he realized, was that the propellers were pushing from the back, rather than pulling from the front. “If you push a pencil across a table, it’s very hard to keep it going straight,” Sancoff explains. “If you pull the pencil, it’s easy.”

The following is an extract from the Business Week story.

Matte gray, with the chiseled angles of a Nighthawk stealth aircraft,Ghost doesn’t look like a boat. Its 38-foot main hull is designed to travel above the water’s surface, propped up by two narrow struts, both 12 feet long and razor-sharp at the front so they can cut through ocean debris. Underwater, each strut is attached to a 62-foot-long tube that contains a gas turbine engine. Hinges allow the struts to move up and down like wings. While parked, or traveling through shallow waters, they can be extended to the side. In deeper waters, at speeds of eight knots or higher, they can rotate downward to lift the hull into the air, eliminating the jarring impact of waves.

Four propellers positioned at the front of the tubes are powered by the two 2,000-horsepower engines. They pull the craft and, with the help of air funneling down through the struts, create a gas bubble around each tube—an effect known as supercavitation that can reduce drag by a factor of 900. In short, Ghost makes a bubble and flies through it.

“It’s such a smooth ride, you can sit there and drink your coffee going through six-foot swells,” says Gregory Sancoff on a recent trip to the hangar. A self-made millionaire who started a string of medical technology companies, he’s looking up at Ghost, grinning. This is his baby. Sancoff came up with its design, leased the ramshackle hangar, and built the vessel entirely on spec. His 18-person startup, Juliet Marine Systems, has invested $15 million in the project.

Ghost, Sancoff says, could be used as a kind of “attack helicopter of the sea”—conducting coastal defense and anti-terrorism missions and protecting massive naval vessels from swarm attacks by armed speedboats. Built from aluminum and stainless steel, the vessel is nonmagnetic and difficult to target using sonar. “We came up with the name Ghost because the boat is intended to have no radar signature at all,” says Sancoff. “With Ghost, you can get into denied-access ocean areas and loiter for 30 days with the fuel on board. You can listen to cell phone conversations, you can monitor what’s going on, you can launch operations and leave, and no one knows you’re there.” He adds, “That’s not something the government can do right now.”

In the face of budget cuts, Defense officials have asked companies to fund more of their own research, which is why Juliet Marine personnel are surprised they haven’t garnered more interest. Juliet Marine hopes things will change if the craft breaks the commercial SWATH speed record of 31 knots. So far, Ghost’s top speed is 29 knots, but Curcio says 50 knots is within reach, roughly the speed of Mark V boats, a formerly popular mode of transport for Navy SEALs that was discontinued in 2012.

I’ll be surprised if the Ghost doesn’t achieve more than 50 knots. Given minimal drag, fuel consumption—relative to the speed—should also be low.

What is the significance of supercavitation on a larger scale? 

Hot-rodding aircraft carriers? Super-fast oil tankers? Bubble, bubble, boil, and trouble! The implications of that boggles (bubbles?) the mind.