In retrospect, it should come as no surprise that this story did not immediately appear on our radar: Last week, Aviation Week reported that the classified RQ-180 stealth drone has begun test flights at Area 51.
The unmanned airplane, built by Northrup Grumman, is meant to replace the piloted SR-71 Blackbird, a super-fast Cold War spy plane that was retired in 1998.
Aviation Week cited unnamed "defense and intelligence officials":
"Neither the Air Force nor Northrop Grumman would speak about the classified airplane. When queried about the project, Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy said, 'The Air Force does not discuss this program.'"
"The RQ-180 carries radio-frequency sensors such as active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and passive electronic surveillance measures, according to one defense official. It could also be capable of electronic attack missions."
"This aircraft's design is key for the shift of Air Force ISR assets away from 'permissive' environments—such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where Northrop Grumman's non-stealthy Global Hawk and General Atomics' Reaper operate—and toward operations in 'contested' or 'denied' airspace. The new UAS underpins the Air Force's determination to retire a version of the RQ-4B Global Hawk after 2014, despite congressional resistance. The RQ-180 eclipses the smaller, less stealthy and shorter-range RQ-170 Sentinel."
"If the previous patterns for secret ISR aircraft operations are followed, the new UAV will be jointly controlled by the Air Force and the CIA, with the program managed by the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office and flight operations sustained by the Air Force. This arrangement has been used for the RQ-170, which is operated by the Air Force's 30th Reconnaissance Sqdn., according to a fact sheet the Air Force released after one of the aircraft turned up in Iran."
Defensetech quoting an unnamed news report says: "Northrop recently disclosed that an unnamed aircraft program entered early production — several years after reporting a $2 billion backlog increase in the unit that develops cutting-edge weapons programs."
U.S. Naval Institute News notes that while there's no confirmation, "there have been rumblings that some sort of stealthy new ISR aircraft had been in development at Air Force's classified flight test facility at Groom Lake, Nevada, since at least 2010. But the details of exactly what the program entails has always been murky—save for the fact that it had been described by some as a 'stealthy Global Hawk' equivalent."
USIN says that the RQ-180 is being described as about the size of the Global Hawk "but with long spindly wings designed for extreme efficiency at high altitudes. In was also known that the aircraft was designed to have 'wide-band' stealth that could operate against high and low frequency radars."
UAS Vision, which describes itself as "a global forum for the unmanned aircraft systems community," speculates that, "The RQ-180 could use a medium-bypass-ratio engine ... [that] probably has more power than the Global Hawk's 7,600-lb.-thrust Rolls-Royce AE3007H, to provide better altitude performance and electrical power for payload growth."
"Operationally, the RQ-180's range could be extended by inflight refueling, though it is unclear whether the UAS takes advantage of this technology."
North Korea announced Friday that Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of leader Kim Jong Un and formerly the second most powerful man in the country, has been executed after being found guilty of treason by a military tribunal.
"The accused Jang brought together undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crime as attempting to overthrow the state," North Korea's official KCNA news agency said.
North Korean media called Jang, who had been helping Kim consolidate power in the wake of his father's death two years ago, "worse than a dog."
The news comes just days after Jang was dramatically and unceremoniously removed by armed guards from a Communist Party meeting in the capital, Pyongyang.
Reports first surfaced early this month that Jang was suddenly on the outs and that two of his top aides had been executed. Earlier this week, he was accused in state media of womanizing, drug abuse, being "affected by the capitalist lifestyle," pretending to "uphold the party and leader," and for "dreaming different dreams."
As NPR's Krishnadev Calamur has reported: "Jang, until recently, was seen as close to Kim Jong Un and was seen in many photographs with his nephew."
Jang was reportedly a supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms, and he was also a key liaison to Beijing, one of North Korea's few allies.
Back in 2010, NPR's Mike Shuster reported that then-leader Kim Jong Il had elevated Jang to the No. 2 spot in the government.
And, as NPR's Louisa Lim reported last year, Jang had been dispatched to China to win an agreement for two new special economic zones between the two countries, only to return home empty-handed.
This week, Congress has been pondering yet another deal with a deadline. Congressional leaders have agreed to a bipartisan budget that would set spending levels for the next two years, and if it passes, as expected, it would mark the first bipartisan budget deal since 2011. News of the deal comes again at the last minute, just as Congress begins packing its bags to adjourn for the holidays.
For many, though, several questions may remain. Why do our elected officials spend so much time hammering out these deals? Why do they seem so tortured? And why does everything have to be done at the eleventh hour?
One answer, surprisingly, may have its roots in mathematics. Author Tim Harford argues that some of the most puzzling (or alarming) negotiating tactics we see from our elected leaders come straight from game theory. And on All Things Considered, he suggests a book to walk us through it.
This Week's Must Read
At times like these, I like to pick up The Strategy of Conflict, by the economist Thomas Schelling. Schelling has lived one of those remarkable 20th century lives: At first a trade negotiator in the wake of WWII; then, one of the most influential military strategists of the Cold War — and eventually, in his 80s, a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
The Strategy of Conflict is a perfect accompaniment to the sequester negotiations. It's a book that uses game theory — initially a highly mathematical tool — in a very human way to understand the strange moves and counter-moves that take place in any struggle for power.
Schelling's focus was war — or as an earlier strategist put it, "the continuation of politics by other means." But Schelling took that famous aphorism and turned it into a fully-fledged theory. Schelling showed that there isn't such a big difference between a political argument and a Cold War standoff. For that matter, he showed that there are important similarities between a suicide bomber and an errant toddler. Henry Kissinger took him seriously — and so did Stanley Kubrick, who turned to Schelling for ideas when developing Dr. Strangelove.
Schelling's ideas can seem cold, but they comfort me: they remind me of three things. First, that sometimes extreme and insane positions are taken for tactical reasons, not because people really are extreme or insane. Second, that even in the most bitter dispute, there is often room to stand together on common ground. And third, that despite the suspicion and the destructive forces at their command, the U.S. and the Soviet Union found ways to get along together. We don't always have to like each other to get things done.
Tim Harford is the author of The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, to be released on January 16.
Hurricane Sandy last year did more harm to coastal cities and homes than any hurricane in U.S. history, except Katrina. Most of that damage has been repaired. But there's other damage that people can't see to the underwater coastline, known as the shore face.
Apparently, Long Island's shore face did remarkably well against the storm of the 21st century.
The shore face is the underwater slope that runs up to the shore. It's shape influences how fast and high water moves onto land. Sandy pushed water up the shore face and into towns and bays. When the water retreated, it sucked all sorts of urban junk back out to sea.
Last January, just months after the storm, NPR joined a crew of scientists on an ice-bedecked research boat to survey the damage to the shore. Shivering inside her car, Beth Christensen from Adelphi University showed me a map of what areas got flooded onshore. The map was dotted with hot spots. "This is a power plant," she said, pointing to the map. "This is a sewage treatment plant; here's another sewage treatment; another sewage treatment plant. Here's runoff coming in from the streets through all of those creeks.
"So all of that [material] combined ends up in those sediments," she explained — sediments now lying somewhere offshore.
Onboard the boat that day was John Goff, from the University of Texas at Austin. He was there to scan the sea floor with radar. In addition to finding polluted sediments, Goff wanted to see if parts of the shore face had been washed away; such damage can spell trouble. The shape of the shore face influences how vulnerable the land is to erosion from waves.
"We're going to expect more storms in the future," Goff says, "so understanding the impact of these storms is really important."
The Texas group bills itself as a "rapid response" team — ocean scientists who swoop in after storms to study the damage to shorelines. After Hurricane Ike in Texas in 2008, Goff found that the storm surge had actually remodeled the shore face, moving huge amounts of sand out to sea.
Not so with Sandy. Now, Goff and his team have results.
"What we found was quite different, and yes it did surprise us," Goff says. The sea floor off Long Island, Goff discovered, has rows of sand ridges — underwater sand dunes up to ten feet high that run parallel to shore for as far as a half-mile.
"I think of these ridges as kind of cushioning the blow," Goff says. "After the hurricane, they were still there. We didn't really see any massive, destructive erosion of the shore face."
Goff says many coastal areas along the eastern and southern U.S. have these underwater sand ridges just offshore. That's going to be important because the sea level is rising. Over time, higher sea levels will eat away at the coastline, undercutting anything that's built there. And during storms, higher sea levels mean it's more likely that wind and waves will push water higher up, onto land. But Goff says these sand ridges seem to slow down erosion and perhaps prevent flooding. That's hopeful news for coastal cities faced with sea level rise.
The news on pollution isn't so good. There were toxic chemicals and metals in the mud at the bottom of estuaries and bays along Long Island. Sandy sucked a lot of that back out into the ocean where it got spread around. The team will continue to track that.
The researchers reported their findings Friday at a San Francisco meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
Activists from across the country are asking Georgia's governor to support an investigation into the death of Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old discovered dead in a high school gymnasium almost a year ago. His body was found in a rolled-up gym mat.
State investigators ruled out foul play, but Johnson's parents don't believe it.
For 11 months, his family has gathered on the street outside the county judicial complex in Valdosta, Ga. His family sits in folding chairs bundled with scarves and gloves against the brisk wind and chilly rain. Kendrick's mother, grandmother and his father, Kenneth Johnson, are here.
"A lot of people said, 'Keep pushing.' We know justice is coming. Sooner or later, it's coming," Johnson says.
They display poster-size photos of the teen. Before he died, Kendrick poses in his basketball uniform. An after picture shows a swollen mass of facial tissue that's barely recognizable.
"We just want the truth. We're gonna stay here until we get the truth of what happened to our son," Johnson says.
There are many questions about how the teen ended up inside a rolled-up mat in the gym at Lowndes High School in Valdosta. Kendrick was found with his head facing down inside the mat, his feet sticking out of the top. He disappeared one afternoon and students discovered his body the next morning.
"It's mind boggling that a child could go to a school and he should disappear during school hours while over 3,000 students were present, and nobody has come forward to say, 'This is what happened,' " says Chevene King, one of the family's attorneys.
At a rally at the Georgia Capitol this week, dozens of civil rights activists called for the governor to order a new investigation. The family has demanded a coroner's inquest for months.
County officials told the parents their son had gone into the mat looking for shoes that he stored there during gym class.
Kendrick Johnson was an athlete. He played football, basketball and ran track. His parents say he would have moved the mat to retrieve his shoes rather than dive into it.
And there are other questions.
The original autopsy said Johnson's death was accidental and the cause was "positional asphyxia." That means he suffocated because of how he was wedged inside the mat.
But the coroner said the crime scene was contaminated, and the Johnson family said the investigation was botched. His parents paid for the body to be exhumed for another autopsy. A private pathologist determined the cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the neck and that it was not accidental.
Kenneth Johnson also told the crowd in Atlanta that the private pathologist conducting the second autopsy found his son's internal organs and clothing were missing. "So I want the justice system to tell me: How is it that all of that going on with his body, someone is not charged with something?" Johnson said.
Video from dozens of cameras inside the school was released, but it didn't show much. Some of the images were blurry, especially from the camera that would have captured the area around the gym mats. Lawyers question whether the video was altered.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents the Johnsons, was also involved in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Crump calls the death "a murder mystery" and says further investigation is vital.
"I think it will publicly show that this was not an accident, that this was homicide. This was foul play," Crump says.
But the Georgia Bureau of Investigation says it stands behind the first autopsy. And the local sheriff says the original investigation was conducted properly. Even so, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia has decided to conduct a formal review, which the family welcomes.
Back in downtown Valdosta, lampposts are spun with garland, and holiday snowflakes and palm trees dot North Ashley Street. The playhouse is running a production of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Rev. Floyd Rose, pastor of Serenity Christian Church, is a longtime civil rights activist. His church has offered a $10,000 reward for information about Johnson's death. Rose says the family should stop protesting and wait for the U.S. attorney's report.
"Because we are all hurting and want to see some closure come to this," Rose says.
Others say they understand why the family keeps pushing.
Jeannie Gilson has three children. "They need to be given the answers. I mean, any mother would want to know what would happen to their child," Gilson says.
Johnson's parents say they won't quit seeking answers. Another rally is planned in Valdosta next month, exactly one year after their son's body was discovered.