Monday, 16 May 2011

Technology.... Yech!

Sometimes technology can seem like a very, very bad thing. OK, I'm grumpy today, but there's a reason for this.

I'm a journalist, I occasionally need to record interviews with important people and this often happens over the phone. Once upon a time telephone handsets would allow you to attach a mike which would pick up the sound so you could record to a cassette player or note taker. Not any more - nothing you can buy has a mike-friendly handset. This wasn't a problem while I was using an old phone/fax with a built-in micro-cassette recorder as its answering system. But that died after a long, purposeful life and the new machine has a handset that isn't microphone friendly.

So I decided to get the Skype add-on that records conversations - easy! And it works, except that you need to call the interviewee on the Skype phone so that you can activate the recorder. People can't call you, which is a minor inconvenience, sometimes. Skype records the conversation as a sound file which you can play back on all sorts of machines - very useful.

Today I was supposed to interview a cabinet minister, so I checked the Skype set up a good three quarters of an hour before hand, including the Skype headphone. This all worked fine. I rang the minister at the appointed time, and the d**n thing refused to b****y well work!

After several attempts and a great deal of very bad language I called him on my normal land line, put him on speaker phone and recorded the interview that way with my little digital recorder. It worked, and I was able to save the interview as an MP.3 file which i could then send to my transcriber (an angel of a woman named Miki - details available on request to bona fide transcription clients)...

I've lost some more hair this afternoon...

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Tanker troubles

I'm looking at photos on the Flight Global web site of a British A330-200 Voyager tanker doing ground receiver clearance testing with a RAF Tornado GR.4 at Boscombe Down. Craig Hoyle's story says the RAF aircraft should be operational in November. Meanwhile, Australia's KC-30A variant of the same aircraft - identical, except for the in-flight refuelling boom - hasn't been handed over yet in spite of the fact it has been in flight test for years and supposedly has achieved European civil and Spanish military type certification.

The cause of the delay in the Australian program is attributed by officialdom to certification and paper work issues. Sounds about right - apparently the Spanish military certification process hasn't been too crash-hot, but Australian officialdom is fast becoming a by-word for mind-buggeringly slow processes and pigheaded adherence to process, with scant regard for outcomes.

If the Brits get their tankers into operational service before we do I shall spit.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Sanity, please!

Here in Australia the defence community is awaiting an edict from the Department of Defence on whether and under what circumstances ADF and Defence employees may partake of corporate hospitality from the defence industry.

This follows a celebrated memo from the head of the Defence Materiel Organisation, Dr Steve Gumley, a few days before the Avalon air show reminding his staff of their "obligations". This was widely interpreted as a ban on accepting corporate hospitality during the show and caused widespread anger and disgust.

There are very few occasions on which corporate hospitality is extended on any significant scale - traditionally, events such as air shows have been the vehicle for this type of activity and its value is immense. Sitting down with somebody outside the office environment and talking freely but informally about issues and problems of mutual concern is a vital part of the defence (indeed, any) business environment. Typically, it's the industry which has the resources to provide this informal environment and the obligations it brings are mostly well understood by all concerned.

There's every reason to want to ensure the probity of relations between contractors and those who spend public money. But Gumley's memo (which I haven't seen, by the way) and the much-anticipated edict seem to be a heavy-handed and counter-productive response to a problem which doesn't exist.

Putting the relationship between Defence and Industry onto such a formal basis that people can't even sit down to share a cup of coffee or a meal as part of the process of building a respectful business relationship is just stupid.

I can't blame Gumley for this - I'm sure his orders come from much higher up, and they may be intended primarily to cause some pain and embarrassment to a Defence Department leadership which Defence Minister Stephen Smith feels isn't serving him properly.

But it creates the mistaken impression that there is an issue that needs tackling. Nothing could be further from the truth. Australia's defence procurement system is highly regarded around the world for its probity and integrity. Pointless measures of the type we're currently awaiting are an insult to the men and women who try to serve this country and their various employers honourably and with integrity.

Bye bye, Bin Laden

So Osama Bin Laden is dead at last. That's good news, but there's been a lot of commentary and criticism of the US government and President Obama for approving what some describe as a simple revenge killing.

The commentariat line is that Bin laden should have been captured alive, with the approval and assistance of Pakistan, and brought back to the US, or The Hague, to face trial and give an account of himself.

Sorry, but that was never going to happen.

Let's try to work out what would have happened if somebody had tried to do that. First, Bin Laden would have been alerted by the Pakistani intelligence services and their Al-Quaida sympathisers. He would have moved and gone to ground somewhere else, concealed by duplicitous government organisation who would continue to have made it as difficult as possible to track him down, and quite impossible to extradite him. At least that's what probably would have happened, based on what happened before.

So, there was no point in asking Pakistan for help. And asking Pakistan's permission to enter its air space with a commando snatch squad would be out of the question for the same reason. It wouldn't take much warning for somebody like Bin Laden to disappear once again, especially if he had ISI resources behind him (including almost any form of transport considered necessary at the time).

Okay - the US acts alone. Logical call. What does the snatch squad do when it enters the compound where Bin Laden was holed up? That depends on the reception it receives. Satellite and UAV surveillance probably established how many people there were in the compound, but probably wouldn't provide details of the internal layout and where individuals might be located and weapons might be stored.

Military operations are routinely blighted by the Fog of War and Murphy's Law. Complexity in the plan ('unnecessary complexity' is a tautology in this context) makes the planners and operators hostages to fortune, so I suspect the plan was probably to fight through the building until Bin Laden was found and identified, and then take him alive only if he showed signs of wanting to come quietly.

The element of surprise would be lost even before the first SEAL commandos' feet touched the ground in the compound. At the very least they would expect to have to fight their way into the building, and then overcome at least some resistance in tracking down Bin Laden before trying to overcome him - assuming, of course, he wasn't armed and preparing to fight it out. If it had been possible to overcome Bin Laden, how would he have been transferred to the waiting helicopter? And what if somebody inside the compound had continued to resist, or somebody outside the compound had decided to join in the fight on behalf of Bin Laden? And if he had been extradited alive what would have been the response from his lieutenants?

Based on what we know, the risks facing the men who entered Bin Laden's compound were scary enough already; trying to capture him alive would have compounded them beyond the point where you could reasonably expect even a volunteer to carry out your orders.

Naturally, Bin Laden didn't come quietly. By all accounts he ran, accompanied by his wife. We can't know what was in the mind of the SEAL team member who killed Bin Laden but unless he had very specific orders to the contrary, killing Bin Laden may have been the safe, default option in the circumstances that commando faced.

Could the US have done anything else, or done anything differently? I don't think so. For the first time in years it knew where Bin Laden was hiding out, suspected that he was being protected (unofficially) by a government organisation in Pakistan, couldn't guarantee it would ever get a better opportunity - and, most importantly, couldn't be seen to be allowing somebody like Bin Laden to get away with what he achieved on 9/11.

The message is clear - mess with the US and, rough or not, justice will be done, eventually. And the majority of Americans, and I daresay Europeans and Australians, would feel that justice has been served to the extent that circumstances allowed

The fact that the US never gave up the search, and was willing to take the chances it did to get rid of Bin Laden, sends a powerful message. It may not deter all would-be attackers but will surely deter many, and give pause to the remainder.