The Stolen Soviet Tech in SOCOM’s New Missile
I walked into Dynetics’ Huntsville, Ala., offices this week expecting to chat with company executives about rocket engines. Instead we spent a lot of time talking about the latest manufacturing techniques, new spacecraft and the firm’s decades of work studying and reverse engineering enemy weapons, including Soviet ICBMs.
Do I have your attention now?
U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, has Dynetics building a new small bomb with technology copied from Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, called the Small Glide Munition. The technology is called grid fins, which are lattice-like structures that fold out from the bottom of a rocket, bomb, or missile and steer it toward a target.
“If we hadn’t been in the reverse engineering business, we wouldn’t have been able to exploit a particular technology,” said Steve Cook, the firm’s vice president of corporate development.
Unlike more common planar fins, the grid fins provide “huge control authority with very small amounts of energy and torque just because of the way aerodynamics work,” according to David King, Dynetics’ CEO.
The small 59-pound bomb with a 36-pound warhead fits inside a launch tube already used by the military making it easily carried by a number of aircraft, specifically C-130 gunships. SOCOM awarded Dynetics a $11.65 million contract in June for integration work.
While it hasn’t purchased it yet, the Air Force is looking for weapons that are more more reliable and can hit moving targets. Dynetics developed the Small Glide Munition on its own dime.
The company first used the grid fin technology on a 20,000-pound bomb called MOAB, short for Massive Ordnance Air Blast, but is more commonly called the “Mother of All Bombs.” Footage of the bomb in testing was released right before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
“They wanted [Iraqi soldiers] to lay down their arms, which they did,” Cook said. Added King: “We think it had a large effect on defections and white flags that came out of that war.”
MOAB’s grid fin technology has since been used into the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP, a 30,000-pound bunker-buster built by Boeing. Dynetics makes those grid fin tail kits too. The grid fins on the new SOCOM bombs are miniaturized versions of the large ones used on the MOAB and MOP.
A little bit of history: Dynetics has been studying, testing, and reverse engineering enemy weapons — mostly missiles and launchers — for the Defense Intelligence Agency for the past 35 years.
“That means getting hardware in here, reverse engineering that hardware down to the electronics and software level, understanding everything there is to know about it [and] building different representative models of those things,” Cook said.
The goal is help military pilots and others understand the weapons they could find themselves up against on the battlefield. “We help them figure out how to fly and engage those systems,” Cook said.
Now, the company is building simulators for the enemy weapons.
“That’s taken us into a whole different world,” King said. “We could go design fairly large systems and build them.”
The company would previously build components for larger defense contractor, but now it’s taking on larger projects of its own.
“We are about as diverse as any company you’ll ever find our size,” King said.
Welcome to the Defense One Global Business Brief by Marcus Weisgerber, your new weekly source for all things future-of-the-business-of-defense. We’re coming to you this week from the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama. Send your tips, comments, and random thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org, or hit me up on Twitter: @MarcusReports. You can check out the Global Business Brief archive here. And don’t forget to subscribe!
The Supercomputer That Can Spot Mobile Missiles
A few months ago, we told you how the Pentagon is looking to automate its search for enemy mobile missile launchers, the kind like North Korea tested earlier this year. Well, we found a small company here in Huntsville that has built a supercomputer that can tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.
You can teach the computer, made by Archarithms, what different types of vehicles look like by feeding it images. The company demoed how the deep learning machine works using a small drone with a camera mounted to its belly. The drone flew over models of pickup trucks and mobile missile launches, beaming the video into the supercomputer.
Red circles (signaling the bad guys) and other data popped up on a TV screen, when the drone flew over the missile launcher. It even differentiated between two identical pickup truck, one with a machine gun mounted in its bed and the other with nothing. It’s similar to how Facebook can tell (most of the time) which of your friends are in the pictures you post.
The learning machine is the type of technology the Pentagon is seeking for the “Third Offset,” an initiative to find game-changing tech for weapons of the future. In fact, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work expressed to me the need for this type deep learning machine for intel community when we chatted on a flight to Washington after the Reagan National Defense Forum last November.
Joel Hewlett, a systems engineer with company and brain behind the machine, first taught the computer how to play poker. At last year’s conference, they showed off that technology. One year later the computer knows far more than the difference between a flush and a full house.
The small drone with the tiny high-definition camera is only a small example of the sensors that could feed the machine info, Hewlett said. In addition to video feeds, from planes, satellites or wherever, the computer could get info from radars.
Company employees a see broad application for the technology beyond the military. They are teaching the machine to read license plates and identify the make and model of a cars. Unlike current sensors that only read license plates, the new tech could then help determine if a car has phony tags.
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Biden in Turkey Next Week
Clear defense industrial implications are at stake in Turkey, as we told you in the first edition of the Global Business Brief. Vice President Joe Biden heads to Ankara next week for meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. White House says they will “a range of issues of importance to both nations.”