U.S. military operations now increasingly begin and end at sea — aboard a growing fleet of vessels that the Pentagon has specifically outfitted as floating command facilities, barracks and launch pads.
The daring U.S. commando raid into Libya to capture Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the Benghazi terror suspect, opened a window into Washington’s new approach to war and counterterrorism. The Navy warship New York was central to the military’s mission in seizing Khatallah and transporting him to the United States for trial.
New York and other “sea bases,” as the military calls them, are more mobile, better defended and potentially cheaper than long-term U.S. facilities built on foreign soil. These ships sail and anchor in international waters, so they offer legal and diplomatic advantages over former land bases.
Some sea-base ships are high-profile military projects costing billions of dollars. Others are civilian vessels that the Defense Department quietly charters, modifies and staffs with non-military crews to function as secretive special operations bases on classified missions.
The capture of Khatallah demonstrates what this could look like. When U.S. Special Operations Forces seized him on June 15, the commandos and an accompanying FBI team reportedly traveled by car and then boat todeliver the suspected terrorist to the New York, waiting off the Libyan coast. The 690-foot vessel, which has steel salvaged from the World Trade Center forged into its bow, then set course for the United States.
Its two-week trans-Atlantic crossing gave FBI agents time to question Khatallah and to read him his rights before they handed him over to law-enforcement officials in the United States. He pleaded not guilty to one count of providing material support to terrorists in federal court in Washington on June 28.
Staging aboard New York allowed the Pentagon to avoid complicated legal entanglements. Transporting Khatallah by air from Libya or a nearby country would have required the host government’s approval, as well as approval from all the countries that the plane flew over. Libyan officials objected to the Khatallah raid, but they could not interfere since the suspect was aboardNew York by the time the news broke.
The technologically advanced New York is an ideal sea base. The ship is large and flexible, with an expansive flight deck for launching and landing helicopters, and facilities for handling a wide range of boats. It boasts a wide range of sophisticated communications equipment including radios, encrypted satellite phones and encrypted Internet — plus plenty of living space for commandos and law-enforcement agents. Not to mention rooms that can double as jail cells.
New York is not alone. The Pentagon is designing many new ships that include plenty of flexible spaces, multiple ways of getting on board and off and flexible systems that can handle lots of different tasks. Just like land bases — except movable.
Counting older ships and those still under construction, the military has scores of large vessels that can serve as sea bases, each housing potentially hundreds of military personnel, all their gear and their boats and helicopters.
The biggest and most sophisticated sea-base ships are about to enter service. One is Cragside, a 633-foot merchant vessel that the Navy leased in late 2013 from civilian shipper Maersk Lines for an initial $73 million, covering modification costs and the first year’s rental fee. Additional years are roughly $5 million annually. The military has been tight-lipped about the vessel’s modifications and missions, but it’s apparent that it’s a sea base for Special Operations Forces — like those who captured Khatallah.
The Navy’s official list of requirements for Cragside included secure communications facilities that are specially shielded to prevent electronic eavesdropping, an armory for storing weapons, a gym and accommodations for up to 200 troops plus compatibility with the Navy SEALs’ jet skis andmost of the major helicopter types that Special Operations uses.
Cragside could have all the amenities of a land base — but with the added advantages of mobility, secrecy and legal cover. Sailing from hot spot to hot spot, the ship could quickly put commandos within striking distance of any coastal country, operating literally below the radar.
Cragside could deploy for its first missions late this year, joining the scores of floating prisons, hospitals, supply bases and drone- and helicopter-launch pads that comprise America’s growing sea-base fleet.
They are the mobile infrastructure for a new American way of war — one that avoids the complications of foreign land bases.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ultimately accelerated development of sea bases. Washington and its allies built sprawling, fortified ground bases to sustain the years-long occupations in the two countries. But the bases were expensive, vulnerable to attack and fueled strong resentment in local populations.
“Getting basing rights is tough,” said Lieutenant General Kenneth J. Glueck Jr., head of the Marine Corps’ weapons development command. “We’ve been kicked out of a lot of places.”
The military brass realized it could no longer expect easily available land bases in foreign countries. “Allies are going to want to train with us, but they’re not going to want us to build bases,” said General James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant. “Those days are gone.”
As U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down in 2009, the Pentagon began pouring more energy into the sea-basing concept.
Between 2001 and 2012, the Navy bought 14 Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships for roughly $500 million apiece. Each of the blocky, 690-foot-long vessels includes expansive flight decks and vast internal capacity — more than one million cubic feet of what the Navy calls “reconfigurable spaces.” These warehouse-style areas have moveable walls that can function as office cubicles for the military — on an industrial scale.
With a quick breakdown of interior walls, crews can turn the ships into huge floating storage facilities. Adding more walls transforms the vessels into virtual bases for potentially hundreds of U.S. troops, law-enforcement officials or aid workers.
Presaging New York‘s mission off Libya, in 2009 one Lewis and Clark-class cargo vessel served as a temporary floating prison for Somali pirates whom the Navy had captured in the Indian Ocean.
Counting cargo ships and amphibious assault ships with innate potential as sea bases, the Navy now has more than a hundred sea-basing vessels — and enough new and improved lighterage, the floating bridges that connect ships, to link together several at a time. The sailing branch is in the process of building as many as four huge new ships that could vastly expand U.S. sea-basing capacity in coming years.
Designated Mobile Landing Platforms, the roughly $500-million vessels are largely raw space, easily transformed for specific, temporary requirements. A flat, featureless deck stretches most of their 840-foot length. The ships can even partially submerge to allow boats to motor onto and off of the deck.
Some of the Navy’s most secretive sea bases are actually older ships that the sailing branch has modified. In early 2012, the sailing branch spent $60 million upgrading the 1960s-vintage amphibious ship Ponce — then due for decommissioning — into a permanent sea base.
The 570-foot Ponce was fitted out with better accommodations, catapult-launched surveillance drones and extra defensive weapons, including guns and an experimental laser cannon.
Today Ponce sails tight circles in the Persian Gulf close to Iran, staying in international waters to avoid diplomatic complications. It hosts divers and helicopters for hunting Iranian mines, analysts to monitor drone footage presumably of Iranian military activities and, reportedly, Nav y SEAL commandos on secret missions.
Ponce could remain in the Gulf for several more years, at which point the Navy plans to replace it with one of the new Mobile Landing Platforms.
The Navy has not said what it intends to do with Cragside, the new and secretive commercial ship that the sailing branch is modifying as a home for up to 200 Special Operations Forces. “We can’t provide details relating to the ship’s mission,” military spokesman Jim Marconi told Seapowermagazine.
But if in the near future the military needs to capture and transport another suspected terrorist like Khatallah, don’t be surprised if the operation begins and ends aboard Cragside or another high-tech sea base.
The Turing test is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. In the original illustrative example, a human judge engages in natural language conversations with a human and a machine designed to generate performance indistinguishable from that of a human being. All participants are separated from one another. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. The test does not check the ability to give the correct answer to questions; it checks how closely the answer resembles typical human answers. The conversation is limited to a text-only channel such as a computer keyboard and screen so that the result is not dependent on the machine’s ability to render words into audio.
The test was introduced by Alan Turing in his 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which opens with the words: “I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’” Because “thinking” is difficult to define, Turing chooses to “replace the question by another, which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words.” Turing’s new question is: “Are there imaginable digital computers which would do well in the imitation game?” This question, Turing believed, is one that can actually be answered. In the remainder of the paper, he argued against all the major objections to the proposition that “machines can think”.
In the years since 1950, the test has proven to be both highly influential and widely criticised, and it is an essential concept in the philosophy of artificial intelligence.
The U.S. government, an insider argues, is ill-equipped for a world of automated warfare.
Here’s one potential problem with that proposal—one that has very little to do with the law, and very much to do with technology: “The government has virtually no experts on the inside that understand autonomous robotic systems.”
That’s according to Missy Cummings, a professor of engineering at Duke, an expert on drones and other robots, and a former fighter pilot. Cummings came to that conclusion—one that means, she says, that “the United States government is in serious trouble”—while advising the government in, among other things, its development of a $100 million robotic helicopter program.
"The one thing that I realized while I was on the inside," she said, during a talk at the Aspen Ideas Festival, is essentially that "the defense industry really cannot get the people that it needs for the robotics programs it would like to have." The U.S. not only doesn’t know about robotics … it doesn’t know, in the words of another former member of the military, what it doesn’t know. It doesn’t fully understand how to test robots, Cummings says. It doesn’t fully know how to regulate them.
Take drones. There are currently six sites, scattered around the country, that the FAA has established as testing areas for unmanned autonomous vehicles. But the agency, Cummings argues, likely won’t be able to hire the people they’re going to need to run these programs. It’s a systemic problem, and one that begins with the education system. “Our country,” Cummings says, “simply is not putting out enough” people—engineers, roboticists, software engineers—who have expertise in robotics. The government, in the military and beyond, isn’t doing enough to incentivize or compensate technologists. ”And the ones that we do train,” Cummings adds, “are going to private companies like Google or Apple.”
That means, among other things, a government that is ill-equipped when it comes to the work of regulation and oversight. Whether private industry’s current hegemony over robotics is a generally good or bad thing is debatable, Cummings allows, ”but I think it’s certainly a problem when our government cannot assess whether or not technology is decent—or even ready to be deployed.”
Which leads to another reason to think that “the United States government is in serious trouble.” While the U.S. is lagging in when it comes to robotics’ human resources, Cummings says, other countries are quickly catching up. They’re developing their own expertise with automated technologies—including, alarmingly, automated weaponry. Drones, for better or for worse, are “are a true democratization of technology,” Cummings says; they put significant amounts of power in the hands not just of states, but of individuals and other extra-state actors. And if the U.S. is ill-equipped, systemically, to deal with warfare that is newly democratized and newly weaponized … ”it’s my prediction,” Cummings says, “that we’re about to have our you-know-whats handed to us on a platter.”
An unidentified man in a black suit tried to commit suicide by setting himself on fire in front of hundreds of people on a bridge near the south exit of JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo on Sunday afternoon.
Police said the man, who appeared to be in his 60s, was seriously injured but is expected to survive. He was being treated at a nearby hospital, a police spokesman told The Japan Times later in the day.
Just after midday, the man climbed on top of the girders of a white bridge used by pedestrians to cross busy Koshu Kaido Avenue and stayed there for more than an hour, using a loud speaker to address a rapidly growing crowd of onlookers on the bridge and the street below, witnesses said.
Some people tweeted that the man was denouncing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to reinterpret the war-renouncing Constitution so Japan can legally engage in collective self-defense.
Officials contacted at Shinjuku’s main police station said they could not confirm what the man said.
When police officers and firefighters tried to persuade the man to come down, he poured a liquid, likely gasoline, over his body and set himself on fire, a security guard who witnessed the incident told The Japan Times.
“He was engulfed in flames. Firefighters immediately doused him with water and the man fell” from the girders, said the guard, who only identified himself by his family name of Yamashiro.
Online video of the incident shows the burning man standing as he pours something over his head and back, and then crouching down. A firefighter then climbs a ladder to pull him down, spreading bigger flames.
After the fire was extinguished, the man was taken off the bridge and down to the road, which links the station’s south entrance to a shopping area on the other side. Several police officers then wrapped him in a blue plastic sheet and carried him away, Yamashiro said.
Crowds of pedestrians near the station — one of the busiest areas in downtown Tokyo — gawked as the situation developed.
“Everybody who happened to be there stopped to watch what was happening. The moment the man set himself on fire, the audience burst into screams, and we were all left in total shock,” said Yuto Ishida, 19-year-old college student who witnessed the fire.
The man appeared to be carrying a big bottle, and Ishida said he first thought he was merely drunk.