Archive for October, 2010

AFRICA: Rats That Detect Landmines

The Real Rat Patrol

Last Father’s Day my wife and son gave me a rat, actually a bunch of rats. In lieu of a tie or DVD, they made a donation in my name to an outfit in Africa that trains rats to sniff out land mines – and tuberculosis (more on that later).

Started by Belgian Bart Weetjens, APOPO is a registered Belgian charity based in Tanzania. Weetjens says he got the idea for explosives-detecting rats from a Scientific American article about gerbils’ sensing ability.

Not these guys ...

The rodents APOPO uses are not just any rats but cat-sized Giant African Pouch Rats (Cricetomys gambianus). Like dogs the rats are trained to detect the explosives vapors emanating from landmines – even if they’re buried. And like dogs, the rats are given a food treat as a reward.

Unlike dogs, the rats are small (15 inches, three pounds), easily transportable and cheap. It costs about $2,000 to train a rat compared to $10,000 for a mine-sniffing dog. Rats are more resistant to tropical diseases. They also don’t imprint on humans like dogs do, so one handler can deal with many rats and a ran will tolerate several handlers or trainers.

Between 1999 and 2008, there were 73,576 casualties in 119 countries caused by landmines, improvised explosive devices or munitions left over from previous conflicts, according to Landmine Monitor. The group’s report says 17,867 of those people were killed and 51,711 were injured. The status of the remaining 3,998 is unknown.

Most of APOPO’s rats — known as HeroRATs — work in neighboring Mozambique where years of civil war have left thousands of landmines dotting the landscape, making some land inaccessible for agriculture and other forms of development. APOPO and the HeroRAT team have helped to return more than 1.7 million square meters of land to the population in Mozambique since the start of operations in the late 1990s.

So far in 2010, the rats have found 596 mines, 308 unexploded ordnance, and 6,205 small arms and ammunition. The group aims to make Mozambique’s Gaza Province landmine safe by 2014.

...but this little guy. (Photo: APOPO)

Mine-sniffing rats are also being trained by police in Colombia the most heavily mined country in Latin America. And honey bees are being studied by  the University of Montana and the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico as land mine detectors.

The APOPO rats’ sensitivity is not limited to explosives. They can detect tuberculosis in the saliva submitted for testing by patients – and they can screen patients faster than a human technician in a lab. So far this year, the rats have identified more than 1,438 people with TB that were originally missed in hospital testing.

For those too young – or too old for that matter – to know the 1960s television series, “The Rat Patrol,” click here for some cultural intel (for a lengthier  discourse of the show’s canon — pun intended),  see the Wikipedia entry.


October 14, 2010 at 12:01 am 1 comment

NEWS: Afghanistan (UPDATED), Pakistan and the Arctic

AFGHANISTAN: Was it Friendly Fire or Taliban?

A British aid worker held hostage by the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan was killed during a rescue attempt, according to the British Foreign Office.

UK Foreign Office

Initially officials said 36-year-old Linda Norgrove was slain by her captors before the pre-dawn rescue mission could reach her. But British Prime Minister David Cameron says today (Oct. 11)  the U.S. military informed him that Norgrove may have been killed by a rescuers’ grenade. The incident is under review.

Norgove worked for Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), an employee-owned private development concern based in Bethesda, Maryland. She played a senior management role in a program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, that sought to create jobs and improve local Afghan economies. Norgrove was kidnapped Sept. 26 in Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan with three Afghan co-workers who were later released.

PAKISTAN: Border Crossing to Afghanistan Reopening

Pakistani authorities have reopened a crucial border crossing with Afghanistan this week, allowing truck convoys to resume shipping supplies to NATO troops through the Khyber Pass. More than 150 tanker trucks were set afire and destroyed as they stacked up near border towns after Pakistan closed the transit point.

The shutdown came in the wake of a border incursion by NATO helicopters pursuing insurgents that fired on coalition troops in Afghanistan. The choppers mistakenly fired on a Pakistani border outpost, killing at least two soldiers and wounding others. The U.S. and NATO apologized for the incident but the border stayed closed for more than 10 days.


Photo by Anthony Maw via Wikipedia


Meanwhile, a Pakistani TV station says government officials in Islamabad are considering imposing a tax on trucks carrying NATO supplies, the Pakistani newspaper, the Daily Times reported Sunday (Oct. 10).

PAKISTAN: Musharraf Wants to Come Back

Former Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf says he wants to come back from exile in Britain and is hinting broadly that he plans to run for office in the country’s next presidential contest. Speaking on ABC’ Sunday morning talk show, “This Week,” the former Pakistani army commander and president refuted criticisms that the government in Islamabad isn’t doing enough to fight terrorists and insurgents in border regions.

Meanwhile, Reuters has a nice Factbox on its site with a time line of the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

ARCTIC: Russia planning year-long Polar Expedition

Fifteen Russian scientists are ready to start a year-long study of polar ice fields from a large drifting ice floe. The Russians have begun aerial reconnaissance to determine the best place to base the SP-38 drifting station. Using high resolution photos from U.S. and European satellites, the Russians are surveying the area by helicopter to find a suitable place to set up their base, according to RiaNovosti.


Two Russian nuclear icebreakers. Photo by Maarten via Wikipedia


The purpose of the expedition is to explore the sea bed in the Arctic in order to find Russia’s undersea outer shelf border.

October 11, 2010 at 12:47 am Leave a comment

FRIDAY FOTO (Oct. 8, 2010)

When the Horizon’s Not Horizontal

(Ministry of Defence photo. Crown copyright)

Here’s an inside look at a Royal Navy Lynx helicopter on counter-narcotics patrol in the Caribbean. The chopper, part of Commando Helicopter Force, flew from the amphibious assault ship, HMS Ocean, during an anti-drug deployment this summer.

The Lynx helos, equipped with surface search radars, have a top speed of 150 mph (40 km/h) and a range of over 300 miles (480 kilometers) making them able to cover vast areas of the sea.

It’s been a busy year for the “Mighty O,” the largest warship in the Royal Navy. In February and March the big ship’s helos, landing craft and Royal Marines and sailors participated in a multi-nation cold weather exercise, Cold Response, in the Arctic waters off Norway.

The HMS Ocean left homeport Plymouth in June for a multi-mission deployment. First stop was a large amphibious exercise as part of Britain’s Auriga naval task group off the coast of North Carolina with the U.S. Navy’s USS Kearsarge amphibious group and the U.S. 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

August saw the Mighty O in the Caribbean region providing direct assistance to the U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force based in Key West, Fla. That was followed by a three-day joint exercise with the Brazilian Navy and Marines followed by participation in a UK trade and industry exhibition in Rio de Janeiro in September.

This month the HMS Ocean is in West African waters. First stop, Lagos, Nigeria for a training and diplomatic mission coinciding with celebrations of Nigeria’s 50th anniversary of independence (from the British Empire). After maritime security operations in the Gulf of Guinea, HMS Ocean will return to the UK later this year.

October 8, 2010 at 10:21 am Leave a comment

NEWS: Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan

PAKISTAN: Relations Remain Strained

Is the U.S.-Pakistani alliance against insurgents going up in smoke? Pakistani officials, outraged by a U.S. Helicopter incursion into their airspace that left two border guards dead, have closed a crucial crossing point into Afghanistan.



CIA World Factbook

Despite U.S. Apologies, the Pakistanis are still miffed and the key border crossing for NATO’s overland supply lines remains closed. Meanwhile, Taliban militants have burned more than 100 fuel tanker trucks in the past week. And thousands of other trucks remain idle – and vulnerable – waiting for the main crossing to reopen, reports the Voice of America.

According to the Pentagon:

A joint report released yesterday (Oct. 6) by International Security Assistance Force and Pakistani military officials said two coalition helicopters passed into Pakistani airspace several times Sept. 30 and later fired on a building identified as a Pakistani border outpost in response to shots fired from the post.

The assessment team considered it most likely that the Pakistani troops had fired in an attempt to warn the helicopters of their presence, the report said. Following the engagement, it was discovered that members of the Pakistan Frontier Scouts had been killed or wounded.

IRAQ: A Civilian Answers the Call to Duty


Barbara Eberly (right) with her daughter.


Counter insurgency experts have been saying for years now that there needs to be more non-military government representatives in Iraq and Afghanistan to help with reconstructing civil society through agricultural, economic and law enforcement assistance.

While more needs to be done in those areas, the Defense Department’s Civilian Expeditionary Workforce program trains and equips civilians to deploy overseas in support of military members and missions worldwide.

Now Barbara Eberly, a 58-year-old Defense Department civilian, has volunteered to deploy to Iraq as part of that program. The Armed Forces Press Service says Eberly, a mobilization planning specialist for Defense Logistics Agency Distribution in New Cumberland, Pa., is now working with the 199th Garrison Command public works department at Camp Victory.

AFGHANISTAN: Ninth Year of War Ends

The war in Afghanistan entered its 10th year on Oct. 7.  ABC reports there is uncertainty over whether the U.S. strategy in the war ravaged country is working.

(photo by Sgt. Christopher R. Rye, USMC)



October 7, 2010 at 11:57 pm Leave a comment

LATIN AMERICA: Seeing Drug Wars as Insurgencies

Not Just a Gringo Problem

Customs and Border Protection photo

In the Sept. 24 Friday Foto we we wrote U.S. Marines doing some exchange training with the Kaibiles, tough-as-nails, jungle warfare experts in the Guatemalan Army.

At the time we mentioned the Kaibiles were no strangers to controversy – with unorthodox (some would say borderline sadistic) training methods and a brutal past in Guatemala’s decades-long civil war.

Now a recent study by a Washington think tank notes that some former members of the Kaibiles have been working as enforcers (read: killers) for a Mexican drug gang, Los Zetas. The report, issued by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) also notes that Guatemala “has become a haven for various drug trafficking organizations” including the Zetas, who set up a training camp in the untamed part of northern Guatemala that borders Mexico.

Zetas increasingly recruit ex-Kaibiles, the special operations division of the Guatemalan army,” says the report: Crime Wars: Gangs, Cartels and U.S. National Security, which likens the narcotics-fueled violence and corruption in Latin America to a “criminal insurgency.”

In addition to Guatemala, Mexican drug gangs – like the Gulf Cartel, the Sinaloa Federation and the Beltran Leyva Organization – are dealing directly with cocaine producers in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. Meanwhile, the Colombian leftist rebels, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), are financing their 40-year war against the government in Bogota with drug money and using Venezuela as a narcotics shipping point, the report says.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese-based terror group, have both made business inroads – legal and illegal – into Latin America, according to experts cited in the report.

Written by Robert Killebrew, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and Jennifer Bernal, a CNAS researcher, the report says interlocking narcotics cartels operate within 14 sovereign nations in the Americas and pose a threat to civil society in those countries.“It’s not just a Gringo problem,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings institution fellow and expert on military conflict and illegal economies. She spoke at a panel discussion of the report’s findings last week.

But the report says the insurgency should not be viewed as an attempt to take over any government – but rather a drive to destabilize it and destroy its credibility with its citizens – making it easier to do business.Since the cartels’ survival depends on controlling regions where governmental control is non-existent and populations may be impoverished and alienated,” the report says successful strategies “are fundamentally counterinsurgency strategies developed by the concerned states themselves and supported by the U.S.”

The risk to the U.S. doesn’t stop at the Mexican border, the reports says, noting Mexican drug cartels operate “branch offices” in more than 230 U.S. and Canadian cities. The Salvadoran gang, MS-13, operates in 30 U.S. States.


Mexican Drug Gang operations in the U.S. (Center for a New American Security)


Whatever national strategy is developed to counter the cartel insurgency, the focus must ultimately include supporting local police departments and the cop on the beat, who confronts the gangs every day,” the report declared.

Unlike Mexico or Colombia, where thousands have been killed in open warfare between drug gangs and the government, there is no counter insurgency role within U.S. borders for the U.S. military, says Killebrew, a former Special Forces officer and Airborne commander.

He says the U.S. Defense Department can support and train militaries and law enforcement agencies in other countries – but must maintain a small footprint. It’s better for the U.S. to train locals in intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance than to do it for them, he adds.

We have to help people help themselves … the further in the background we can be, the better off we all are going to be,” Killebrew says.

October 6, 2010 at 11:28 pm 1 comment

FRIDAY FOTO (Oct. 1, 2010) Updated

End of the Road

(Defense Dep. photo by Benjamin Faske)

Who are these people and why are they running and shouting? This week’s FRIDAY FOTO shows two military policemen from Fort Richardson, Alaska being cheered on as they run toward the finish line of the 13-mile road march, the final event in the 14th Annual Military Police Warfighter Challenge.

The challenge, held last month at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., brings together MP units from throughout the Army to determine who is the best in their field.  The four-day event includes 11 grueling challenges ranging from marksmanship and a team obstacle course to a lengthy written exam and the final endurance march. All crammed in to 72 hours. Get the details here.

The winning team from the 385th MP Battalion from Fort Stewart, Georgia consisted of Staff Sgt. Adam Norton and Specialists Gene Thompson and Joseph Kajer.  “It’s a test of endurance, physically and mentally, so it’s a huge accomplishment just to finish,” said Regimental Command Sgt. Major Charles Kirkland of the Army’s Military Police School.

Of the 36 teams that competed, only 22 finished intact. Eight finished a man short and five had to drop out.

To see a slide show of the competition, click here.

For additional photos on Facebook, click here.

To view a three-minute-video, click here (turn down the volume, the soundtrack music is kinda LOUD.)

October 1, 2010 at 11:03 am Leave a comment

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