28 October 2005

Death Rays And Tennis Balls

By Rusty Rockets

"You now have five seconds to comply�"

"Three� two� one�"

"You are now in direct violation of penal code 1-13, section 9. I am now authorized to use necessary physical force."

It's always brown-trousers time around Robocop's ED-209, but what about the tongue-in-cheek predictions that the movie made all the way back in 1986? There's been plenty of speculation in regard to U.S. weapons technology in popular culture, but the truth is much harder to get at.

It's rare that you'll hear anything about the actual deals between weapons developers and government, because nowadays it's all done under the cloak of "national security." But despite only being thrown a morsel or two of information, business and investigative journalist Christopher Byron and blogger Troy Ellis have been observing the movements of government weapons contractors for a while now, and they have played an active role in getting government and weapons contractor dealings out into the public domain.

Ionatron is one defense contractor that's been under the spotlight recently. They've sparked the imaginations of Star Trek fans, Internet junkies and geekophiles by winning the bid to develop "direct energy" weapons, which are set to become the new cool toys for government and private security. "Ionatron's directed-energy weapons work like "man-made lightning" to disable people or vehicles that threaten our security," says one of the blurbs on Ionatron's website. The technology used is referred to as LIPC (Laser-Induced Plasma Channel), and while they spend some time promoting the non-lethal versions, "there are also lethal versions available."

The Ionatron website is an interesting read for science and sci-fi buffs, complete with a 30-second promo video of tanks, helicopters and amphibious vehicles overlaid with what look like Star Wars CGI lasers being shot from them. They also have a number of scientific papers, dating from 1971 - 2001, that track the historical development of the energy weapons currently in production. One paper released in 2000, entitled High-voltage electrical discharges induced by an ultrashort-pulse UV laser system, explains how the proposed directed energy beams may work. "The concept is to use a laser to ionize a path between two biased electrodes such that the minimum field for breakdown is reduced and a discharge is created," say the paper's authors Patrick Rambo, Jens Schwarz and Jean-Claude Diels.

In a nutshell, they are trying to guide and trigger a laser-induced electrical discharge so that it gets from A to B in a straight line, and in an energy efficient manner. The authors add that: "The sum total of these studies will facilitate improvements in laser-induced long gap discharge work� leading to a discharge over tens of meters."

While the science and application of such devices are in equal parts both disturbing and exciting, the manufacture of the "directed energy" weapons themselves is not journalist Christopher Byron's main gripe. The much bigger worry is the secrecy in which these deals between governments, their clandestine agencies and weapons contractors take place. Byron found that the Ionatron contract "received a hearty thumbs-up - along with a personally penciled-in defense spending supplemental budget authorization of $18 million - from chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Thad Cochran. And naturally, in a grand gesture to symbiosis, Ionatron made a campaign donation to Cochran. Byron says that nearly all news media organizations have been so starry-eyed at the idea of a fully functioning death-star� err� ray-gun, that they have completely missed the bigger picture.

The bigger picture, as it turns out, has been made crystal clear for inventor Philip French, who has just had the "national security" card played on him. French and his partners came up with a design for a coupling device, called the Crater Coupler, that was inspired by the "S" shape that runs along the outside of a tennis ball. It seemed that French and his team were on to a winner when Lucent Technologies - formerly known as the Bell Labs research center, but still connected to AT&T - made them an offer that they couldn't, and didn't, refuse. Lucent wanted the coupler designed so that it could be used to connect two underwater fiber-optic cables. As it happened, the contract was with a U.S. government agency that, Lucent told French, would have to remain nameless. After a year of R&D, the coupler passed its tests and Lucent promised that they would license French's patent. Unfortunately for French and his team of inventors, Lucent then pulled rank and told them that they were under no obligation to do anything (like licensing the patent, or paying them), because the whole project was classified under "military secret stuff," said French.

The coupling device is rumored to be part of a U.S. intelligence organization's plans for intercepting the communications carried by undersea cables. Apparently, information relayed via satellite is too easy to intercept, so many countries have begun using underwater fiber-optic cables instead. By developing French's Crater Coupler, U.S. intelligence agencies can get back to their old wire-tapping roots, only this time they're tapping undersea fiber-optic cables.

Lucent made an offer of $100,000 to French and his partners for their efforts, but French didn't end up receiving a dime from Lucent. French says that his partners rejected the offer from Lucent, prompting him to propose that his partners buy him out at one third of the $100,000 and with a 10 percent discount or $30,000 - which is exactly what eventuated; minus a small amount due to expenses the team accrued during their enterprise together. French's former partners, now incorporated as Crater Corporation, decided to take their case to court. However, after Crater Corporation's lawyers were finally in a position to go to trial the government appealed to an old and controversial English law called the "State Secrets Privilege," and Crater Corporation's case was thrown out. "The plaintiff's discovery in this case could be expected to cause extremely grave damage to national security. Accordingly, I formally invoke the military and state secrets privilege," the then Secretary of the Navy, Richard J. Danzig, said during the court proceedings. Reflecting on the whole affair, French bitterly told one interviewer from Wired that: "If it had been war time, World War II, I'd have given it to them. But they're hiding behind some friggin' law, basically to screw somebody."

If something as seemingly innocuous as a coupling device can be acquisitioned by the authorities and its patent licensing rights dismissed with no questions asked, you might ask how many other scientists have been subjected to the same treatment. The fate of French's coupling device is an example of the pitfalls that may trap unwary inventors in the future. "The whole affair is already fading to black behind a false scrim of national security," lamented Byron. Maybe when ED-209 blasted the hapless corporate executive in the boardroom he wasn't malfunctioning at all.