The first nuclear detonation. Berlyn Brixner/Wikimedia photo

When Earth Dreamed of Nuking the Moon

America and Russia both planned to stake their claim on the moon by blowing up a little piece of it

In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into low earth orbit. It was the planet’s first artificial satellite—and much to the apprehension of the Pentagon and U.S. policymakers, it belonged to the commies. The Space Race had begun and America was losing.

The decades that followed were a parade of Cold War paranoia, technological innovation and bizarre military strategies. Both the East and West wanted to make sure the world knew who was the top superpower. But how?

Being the first to the moon was the top prize. In the early days of the Space Race, both countries thought the best way to prove they’d been to the moon was to nuke it.

Today it seems ridiculous that anyone would try to nuke the moon, but the political and cultural tensions of the 1950s made desperate plans seems sensible. In 1958, the Armour Research Foundation—the precursor to the Illinois Institute of Technology—developed a plan with guidance from the Air Force.

Designated Project A119 or “A Study of Lunar Research Flights,” the ARF’s inquiry looked into the possible effects of a nuclear detonation on the lunar surface between 1949 and 1962. Partly, the studies were a response to growing concern over atmospheric effects of nuclear testing—but not merely.

“I was told the Air Force was very interested in the possibility of a surprise demonstration explosion, with all its obvious implications for public relations and the Cold War,” Leonard Reiffel, the director of the project, wrote in Nature.

It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on Earth,” Reiffell told the The Observer. “The U.S. was lagging behind in the Space Race.”

The explosion would also tell scientists and the military a lot about the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in space. In a declassified report about the project written by Reiffel in 1959, he claimed that “certain military objectives would be served since information would be supplied concerning the environment of space, concerning detection of nuclear device testing in space and concerning the capability of nuclear weapons for space warfare.”

Soviet headgear. Adam Jones/ Flickr photo

Lunar mutual annihilation

A lot of those Cold War plans are still classified—including A119—and the reason we know about it is because of Carl Sagan.

In 1959, Sagan was a young grad student with his sights set on the University of California, Berkeley. As part of his application for a scholarship to UC’s Miller Institute, Sagan divulged some of the work he had done for the ARF, including reports he’d written titled Possible Contribution of Lunar Nuclear Weapons Detonations to the Solution of Some Problems in Planetary Astronomy and Radiological Contamination of the Moon by Nuclear Weapons Detonations.

The revelation that the popular cosmologist and science writer was willing to brag about his work on classified projects to help him get a scholarship caused a minor stir when it was discovered by biographers after his death in 1996. The Pentagon has yet to comment on the old Cold War moon nuking plans and many of the reports written at the time have since been destroyed.

The project, thankfully, never got off the ground, and America decided that putting a man on the moon was better than blowing it up.

In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara talked about sitting down with his chiefs to discuss the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited above-ground nuclear testing.

They said, “The Soviets will cheat.” I said, “How will they cheat?” You won’t believe this, but they said, “They’ll test them behind the moon.” I said, “You’re out of your minds.” I said, “That’s absurd.”

But it wasn’t totally absurd. America wasn’t the only country that once thought exploding the surface of the moon was a realistic idea. High on the success of Sputnik, two Russian scientists — Sergei Pavlovich Korolev and Mstislav Vsyevolodovich Keldysh — proposed a series of projects in 1958 that would take the Kremlin all the way to the moon and let the world know they’d been there.

It was designated the “E Project,” and it involved a number of steps. E-1 called for getting a spacecraft to the moon. E-2 and E-3 involved orbiting around the moon and taking pictures of its surface. E-4 was when things got weird. It involved detonating a small nuclear charge on the lunar surface.

Famed Russian rocket engineer Boris Chertok spoke with Reuters in 1999 about the E-4 project:

In 1958 there was a plan to send an atomic bomb to the moon, so that astronomers across the world could photograph its explosion on film. That way no one would have doubted that the Soviet Union was capable of landing on the surface of the moon. But the idea was rejected as physicists decided the flash would be so short lived because of the lack of an atmosphere on the moon that it might not register on film.

The Soviets, of course, sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. The American Apollo program followed, securing major PR and technological victories. And despite the nuclear sabre rattling, no lunar landscapes were harmed.

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Next Story — Underwater Archaeologists Are Exploring an Undisturbed World War II Battlefield
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Photo via Vice Motherboard

Underwater Archaeologists Are Exploring an Undisturbed World War II Battlefield

North Carolina’s coast offers up war wrecks


Two years ago, archaeologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, discovered something incredible at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Just off the coast of North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras, a sunken German U-boat had been silently resting since the end of World War II.

What NOAA scientists found that day was an underwater graveyard created by the “Battle of the Atlantic,” or the longest military campaign of World War II. The six year battle began in 1939, when war was waged between Allied merchant and supply ships, and Germany’s submarines and destroyers.

Now the agency has announced it will visit Cape Hatteras once again, in a research expedition aimed at virtually recreating the underwater graveyard. NOAA scientists will be descending in manned submersibles to collect bathymetric data, using robots and advanced remote sensing technology.

The crew of U-576 at watch in the conning tower. The Ed Caram Collection photo

With the help of University of North Carolina’s Coastal Studies Institute, the agency should be able to generate three-dimensional models of the battlefield.

“This discovery is the only known location in U.S. waters that contains archaeologically preserved remains of a convoy battle where both sides are so close together,” Joe Hoyt, the mission’s chief scientist and archaeologist at the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said in a statement. “By studying this site for the first time, we hope to learn more about the battle, as well as the natural habitats surrounding the shipwrecks.”

Sonar image of U-576 wreck site. NOAA/SRI image

Winston Churchill, British prime minister during World War II, described the Battle of the Atlantic as a turning point in the war. “Everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome,” Churchill explained.

German forces hoped to intercept the rations and military supplies being shipped from North America to Britain. Had they succeeded in cutting off Britain’s lifeline over the Atlantic, perhaps the war might have ended differently.

The wreckage will be explored using a Triton submersible, enabling research and exploration up to 1,000 feet. GlobalSubDive photo

On July 15, 1942 near North Carolina, the German U-boat U-576 succeeded in destroying the American merchant tanker SS Bluefields. Within minutes, however, U.S. Navy forces overtook U-576. Today the submarines lies interred just 240 yards from Bluefields.

The mission expands on NOAA’s Graveyard of the Atlantic project, which explores shipwrecks from World War I, World War II and the Civil War off of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Archaeologists will be visiting the site through Sept. 6, and their findings will help to inform whether additional environmental protections are needed in the historic area.

“The significance of these sites cannot be overstated,” David Alberg, a superintendent at the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said in a statement.

This area off North Carolina is the best representation of a World War II battlefield off the U.S. East Coast.” “Now, working with our partners, we have an opportunity to study it, characterize it, and, like other historic battlefields in this country, hopefully protect it.”

This story originally appeared at

Next Story — The U.S. Army Lost Track of $6.5 Trillion
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Unauditable. David B. Gleason photo via Wikimedia commons

The U.S. Army Lost Track of $6.5 Trillion

Cooked books and old problems


By congressional mandate, the Pentagon needs to be ready for an audit of its finances by Sept. 30, 2017. If what’s going on at the U.S. Army is any indication — and it is — then next fall’s audit will be a shit-show of broken promises, cooked books and bizarre accounting.

The Army made headlines in mid-August 2016 when a Defense Department Inspector General report landed with a heavy thud. The 75-page report detailed all the ways the Army screwed up its accounting of the Army General Fund in 2015.

According to the report, Army bookkeepers screwed up the budget to the tune of … $6.5 trillion dollars.

Yes, trillion.

That’s $6.5 trillion in accounting mistakes for the year 2015 alone. That’s such a huge number that it doesn’t even make a lot of sense. The annual budget for the entire U.S. military in the past few years has been around half-a-trillion bucks.

How could the Army misplace, fudge, misappropriate or otherwise lose $6.5 trillion? It’s simple. Years of no oversight, bad accounting practices and crappy computer systems created this problem. And remember, this is just the Army and just its general fund.

This $6.5-trillion error is just the tip of the financial iceberg. It’s also business as usual for a military that’s consistently proved its both unwilling and fundamentally unable to maintain even the appearance of fiscal responsibility.

To understand this accounting mistake, it’s important to understand what it’s not. This trillion-dollar screw-up probably isn’t missing money, misappropriated funds or stolen taxpayer dollars. This is an accounting error caused by a combination of bad financial practices and computer errors. It is not a smoking gun proving the U.S. military is embezzling funds from the American public.

Let’s break down this complicated mess. The trillions in accounting errors are all journal vouchers. A journal voucher is a common accounting tool that helps financial institutions keep track of discrepancies in record-keeping. This is an oversimplification, but when money moves from one column to another, the journal voucher is a note that tells you why the cash moved.

Typically, journal vouchers come with a wealth of information including a detailed description of why the cash moved or was spent, including receipts and notes. But the Army didn’t have any of that for most of its journal vouchers and there’s a good reason — a computer accounting program automatically created most of the journal vouchers to help it make sense of the military’s messy books.

One of the biggest reasons Pentagon books are so hard to audit is that they’re a mess of legacy systems that don’t communicate with each other. The various branches of the American military kept their books in their own way for decades, often with no system for reconciling them. The Navy’s record-keeping systems aren’t compatible with the Marines, for example.

Worse, the various accounting methods of different departments within each branch often aren’t compatible. That’s part of what felled the Army here. Way back in 1991, the Pentagon’s inspector general called out the Army for its bad accounting practices and the Army promised it could do better, because it was developing new accounting software to help bring all the old legacy systems together, get all its different departments on the same page and clean up its fiscal mess.

So the Army rolled out the General Fund Enterprise Business System, a web-based accounting platform designed to integrate or absorb all those messy legacy systems and get the Army on track for the coming 2017 audit.

But something bad happened when the Army’s financial wizards fed millions of bits of information into GFEBS — the computer system designed to save them automatically generated trillions of dollars in journal vouchers to account for a budget, assets and spending it couldn’t reconcile.

That’s right, the Army’s new accounting software created most of the $6.5 trillion in journal vouchers. You can’t blame it, though. It was only following its programming.

U.S. Army financial training in progress. U.S. Army photo

The problems started as Army financial auditors prepared to put the info from its old legacy systems into the new GFEBS. According to the I.G. report, Army financial experts filtered 1.3 million documents into the computer systems to help reconcile its books. During that process, for some reason, one of the computer systems removed 16,513 of the files.

“[Army accountants] did not document or support why the [legacy computer system] removed at least 16,513 of 1.3 million feeder file records,” the report stated. Those missing files are probably a large part of why the GFEBS auto generated thousands of vouchers to account for trillions of dollars in unaccounted-for cash.

It gets worse. When a computer system auto-generates journal vouchers, Army accountants are supposed to go through the ledgers and manually account for the discrepancy. Which makes sense.

But they didn’t. The Army General Fund had 142,355 journal vouchers. The computer software created 137,618 of those and the Army accountants claimed they could explain only 3,468 of them.

But the I.G. dug into those supported journal vouchers and discovered something unpleasant — despite Army claims to the contrary, accountants couldn’t explain most of the journal vouchers they claimed they could explain. The I.G. pulled out 194 journal vouchers at random that the Army insisted it could explain — and found that 170 lacked any documentation whatsoever.

Digging into the I.G. report provides some more answers. If this account cooking is malfeasance meant to hide shady transactions, it makes the architect look like a moron. Most of the financial inconsistencies come down to bad software and poor accounting procedures.

“For example, [Army accountants] processed a correcting [journal voucher] adjustment totaling $74.1 billion because [the Army comptroller] configured GFEBS to record transactions to the wrong general ledger accounts without providing the detailed transaction level documentation,” the I.G. report stated.

Bad computer-programming is not necessarily fiduciary malpractice, but it certainly opens the door for it.

In another error, the Army accounts created $8.3 million in vouchers because the old computer system incorrectly recorded annual funding as quarterly funding. Another computer error created a $9.5-billion voucher because it mislabeled an Army asset.

That these problems appear to be innocent accounting errors based on bad data and old computer systems doesn’t excuse the Army or the rest of the military. This $6.4 accounting screw-up is symptomatic of a broken system. The military has been financially sloppy for so long that a full accounting of its books could take decades.

The truth is that the Pentagon has no idea where its money goes — and every effort to clean up its financial problems exposes just how hopeless the situation is. “This report shows how despite years of talk about auditability the Pentagon’s books are still largely a mess,” Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight told War Is Boring.

“Financial management and accounting isn’t a priority,” she continued.

Smithberger is right. This is the same institution that can’t tell investigators what real estate it owns, routinely sneaks extra weapons into the budget and shovels cash into the never-ending money pit that is Afghanistan.

This $6.5 trillion is only the start. Remember, that’s just the Army’s General Fund and it’s only for one year. The coming audit in fall 2017 will, in all likelihood, reveal even greater fiduciary horrors.

Next Story — Somalia’s Digital Battleground
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Ugandan troops prepare to advance on the central Somali town of Buur-Hakba in 2013. AMISOM photo

Somalia’s Digital Battleground

Social media, money transfers and surveillance have defined the fight against terror in East Africa


In early August 2016, officials from U.S. Africa Command, the United Nations and the African Union Mission in Somalia — AMISOM — met in Djibouti for the fifth iteration of the East Africa Public Information Officer Conference.

Members of all three have been involved in efforts to defeat Islamist militant group Al Shabab as the international community tries to train the new Somali army to take the lead. This year’s conference highlighted social media’s role in that fight.

“Despite language barriers, a common regional challenge, AMISOM nations remain committed to winning the information war as social media use among East Africans continues to grow,” an AFRICOM press release stated.

Most Somalis still get their news from radio stations. But many radio journalists increasingly interact with both the government and Al Shabab online — and use social media to get official statements. And the use of cellphones and social media has seen a meteoric rise in Somalia, particularly among the country’s youth.

“What is communicated on social media is communicated directly by the radio station,” Ugandan army Capt. Jimmy Davis Omara said. “They don’t have editors to edit, so they find it easier to pick up information and read. If you can exploit that for radio, it would be an advantage.”

AFRICOM and AMISOM personnel at the East Africa Public Information Officer Conference on Aug. 3, 2016. U.S. Air Force photo

Al Shabab, like many jihadist groups, uses social media to send out messages to followers around the world.

The group has called upon members of the Somali diaspora to return to the country to fight first against the Ethiopian army and now against AMISOM and the new government. In particular, the group has tried to target alienated youths in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Group members and their sympathizers frequently post statements on social media taunting American and African officials’ own statements, often within minutes of official press releases or conferences.

The group also uses social media to highlight attacks. The group infamously live-tweeted its attack on Kenya’s Westgate Mall to a horrified international audience. However, while the group tried to use social media to take control of the narrative, several fake Al Shabab accounts also began tweeting out updates — several of which were false.

It showed that while social media can be a powerful tool for militants, it can also be a liability.

“The group’s use of social media has carried a major risk of losing control over messaging, as multiple sources within the movement send out their own tweets, Facebook messages and videos,” Somalia expert Ken Menkhaus wrote in The Brown Journal of World Affairs. “This has exposed the group to the danger of mixed messages, and has also meant that internal tensions and other ‘dirty laundry’ become aired in public.”

Internal disputes between senior group leaders have indeed spilled online, most embarrassingly in March 2012. Militant Omar Hammami — known for his jihadist rap persona and previously a star member of Al Shabab — released a video in which he told viewers he feared for his life after threats from other Al Shabab leaders. He later died in a bloody 2013 purge.

The internet and cellphones have also proved a liability in other ways for the group. Counterterror officials can exploit them to track militants — and then target them with commandos and drones. Al Shabaab leaders told their fighters to stop using smart phones in 2013.

Cellphones and the internet are also popular among Somalis who oppose Al Shabab and relay information to AMISOM and international counterterror officials. In January 2014, fearing local spies, Al Shabab issued an edict on Facebook banning mobile and fiber-optic internet access in areas it controls.

The area Al Shabab occupies has shrunk in recent years as AMISOM has driven the militants from major cities. The group remains dangerous, however. The militants occasionally manage to launch bloody surprise attacks on A.U. and Somali troops, as well as occasional assaults in neighboring Kenya.

Deeq Ahmed Shire on his phone at a street tea shop in downtown Mogadishu. AMISOM photo

Despite the danger, Mogadishu is more stable than it has been in many years. As ports and markets reopen, many younger Somalis have been documenting the changes with their camera phones and posting the images on social media.

Somalis have also embraced technology for business. After years of war, there are few banks in the country — but businesses and communities continue to rebuild. Digital money transfers on mobile phones have become an increasingly popular way of doing business for many Somalis.

The Somali diaspora has driven this trend, with many of the more successful Somali emigrants wiring money to relatives at home and helping them to start businesses of their own.

In 2010 Al Shabab banned mobile phone money transfers, calling them “un-Islamic.” The ban likely had less to do with religion than with finances. The group couldn’t tax digital transactions or shake down locals for cash they didn’t actually have on them.

Al Shabab — which has also banned dancing, television, cinema and soccer — is infamously averse to things it can’t directly control. In 2014, the group threatened tech and telecommunications companies across Somalia.

But Al Shabab isn’t the only institution leery of online financial transactions. In February 2015, the U.S. Department of Treasury pressured the California-based U.S. Merchants Bank to cease processing remittance payments to Somalia, on grounds that these payments might fund terrorism.

“This change prohibits Somalis living, working or going to school in the United States from sending desperately needed funds to their families in the beleaguered and troubled East African country,” former Green Beret Derek Gannon wrote in an op-ed for the military news website SOFREP criticizing the policy.

However, if the past decades of war, famine and strife have demonstrated anything, it’s that Somalis are resourceful and resilient. For better or worse — and terror, counterterror and reconstruction — they’ve embraced the information age.

Next Story — Iran Teases a New Tank, But Where Did It Come From?
Currently Reading - Iran Teases a New Tank, But Where Did It Come From?

Iran’s new tank doing donuts. Iran T.V. capture

Iran Teases a New Tank, But Where Did It Come From?

The armored beast looks like a Russian T-90MS — but be skeptical


In March, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan — Iran’s defense minister — claimed that a new, unseen Iranian tank called the Karrar “is one of the most advanced tanks in the world.”

He further suggested that the “tank [is] 100 percent Iranian made and it can even be superior than [the] T-90 in some degrees.”

Then in August, a tank with a close resemblance to the Russian-made T-90MS appeared on Iranian television. It flew a green, white and red Iranian flag from the turret … while spinning donuts.

It’s impossible to draw any conclusions about the new tank based on a grainy split second of video footage. It could be the Karrar — but even that raises more questions. A “Karrar” might be the Iranian name for a T-90MS, a locally-produced copy or just a cosmetic upgrade of the T-72.

Or something else entirely.

Russia’s T-90MS is a modern machine which can easily take on the best tanks in service around the world. It represents an evolutionary — not revolutionary — design philosophy. To simplify, the T-90 family combines the older T-72’s chassis with the T-80’s turret.

There are several reasons why the T-90 borrows from both tanks. The T-80 is plagued by troublesome turbine engines the Russians have since moved away from. But the main reason is to combine the strengths of both platforms.

The T-90 also comes with important upgrades such as active protection systems designed to throw off incoming anti-tank weapons.

And the T-90 is tough. In a rare glimpse of the machine in combat in February, an American-made TOW anti-tank missile fired by rebel fighters hit a Syrian T-90 but appeared to only cause minor damage.

The tank spotted doing donuts on Iranian T.V. certainly looks like a T-90MS. There are several clues including the turret’s shape, the slat armor covering the engine and especially the jagged, teeth-like skirting and explosive-reactive armor plating above the tracks.

However, there are several differences, as the blog Below the Turret Ring observed. The Iranian tank has a visible sleeve at the base of the turret, no additional rearward fuel barrels — as on the T-90MS — and it has a larger machine gun mounted on the top.

A camouflaged Russian T-90MS in June 2012. Vitaly V. Kuzmin photo via Wikimedia

These are fairly minor modifications visible in a low-quality video, but the differences could be enough to indicate a second possibility. The tank might be an Iranian copy. Whether Tehran built it from scratch or cobbled it together from existing tanks, we don’t know.

However, it’s doubtful Iran can build a T-90 to the same specifications as the Russian version, and there is no evidence Tehran has a licensing arrangement with Russia for technical assistance regarding the T-90, although there has been chatter in the press about making such a deal since December.

Iran and Russia can make individual arms deals despite a U.N. arms embargo “on a case-by-case basis,” The Diplomat noted when news of a potential deal arose. Iranian officials have since walked back reports they may buy or seek technical assistance from Uralvagonzavod, the Russian company which manufactures the T-90.

“We were once interested in buying the Russian tanks,” Brig. Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, the Iranian army’s ground forces chief, told the Fars News Agency in February. “But since we can manufacture similar models within the country and we plan to do so in the near future, the deal is now off.”

According to Fars, Pourdastan claimed that Iran has the “technological know-how to produce new generation battle tanks and advanced military hardware.”

Another possibility? The tank is not a T-90 at all, but an attempt to dress-up one of Iran’s existing T-72s so it looks like one. If so, the tank may lack important countermeasures — such as anti-missile dazzlers — and modernized fire-control systems that make the T-90 what it is.

This would not be an unusual move on Tehran’s part. The Iranian military often exaggerates its capabilities for propaganda purposes. And lacking access to research, parts and supplies from abroad, Iranian engineers rely on creativity and engineering ingenuity to make up for shortcomings whenever possible.

In April, Iran revealed a new tank named the Tiam. But it’s not really new. The Tiam’s chassis is from an M47 — a 1950s design supplied by the United States during the reign of the Shah — and the turret is from a Chinese Type 59/69.

Another Iranian design, the Zulfiqar, is likely a jumbled-together combination of parts from the M48, M60 and T-72; the latter which comprise the bulk of Iran’s tank force. Iran has even dressed up some of its Zulfiqars to resemble the U.S. Abrams tank.

Suffice to say, it doesn’t make for a convincing lookalike.

Tehran has not produced any of these locally-made hybrids in appreciable numbers. What it can do is build limited numbers of tanks based on older foreign designs, and on a relatively small scale.

Which means there’s good reason to doubt Iran’s claims that the Karrar is equal to or better than the T-90. And to unravel more clues as to its origins, we’ll have to wait.

Perhaps not for long. In September, Tehran will celebrate the annual Sacred Defense Week commemorating the end of the Iran-Iraq War — a time when military watchers watch closely for reveals of new hardware like the Iranian Batmobile. Let’s see if the Karrar turns up.

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