National Security

Tomorrow's Weapons Today

Five weapons to watch in 2013.

Here at Killer Apps we are always on the lookout for new, um, killer apps, and this year we saw a lot. Here's a list of five of the most interesting weapons that came to our attention in 2012. These systems either were invented in the last year or achieved a significant milestone on the road to becoming operational weapons. Look out, 2013.

Printed Guns

First up: the printed gun. While today's 3D printers can only print guns capable of firing six shots before they fall apart, who knows there this technology will be in five or 10 years and what it will mean for worldwide conflict if anyone can print an assault rifle. As we reported recently, the U.S. military is already looking at 3D printing as a way of reducing the amount of gear carried by troops. While some 3D printer manufacturers are cracking down on customers who try to build weapons with its devices, the cat is already out of the bag. Gun enthusiasts have already set up an alternate website hosting instructions -- blueprints? -- for making guns via 3D printers.

Wikimedia Commons

Killer Drone Boats

Next is the U.S. Navy's remote-controlled, missile-firing boat, formally known as the unmanned surface vehicle precision engagement module (USV-PEM). Right now, the system is made up of a 36-foot speedboat with night vision and infrared cameras and armed with a .50 caliber machine gun or six Israeli-made Spike missiles. In late October, the USV-PEM -- a collaborative venture between the U.S. and Israel -- successfully fired six Spikes. The unmanned boat is piloted by a crew sitting in a control station that's either ashore or on a mothership. The craft is pretty much designed to defeat swarms of small, explosives-laden speedboats attempting to overwhelm the limited defenses that large ships have against such vessels. Keep in mind that U.S. Navy planners are worried that Iran would use such "swarming" tactics against the sea service in any conflict in the Gulf.

U.S. Navy

The nEUROn stealth UAV

We've been hearing plenty about stealth UAVs over the last two years. As military planners around the world realize that today's crop of small, slow, propeller-powered drones will last about as long as a Cessna in a high-end war, they are scrambling to develop a generation of fighter-sized, unmanned stealth jets. France recently joined the U.S. as the second nation to fly a full-size stealth UAV when its nEUROn took to the skies on Dec. 1. The Dassault-made drone is designed to carry sensors and weapons and, interestingly, it has twin-wheeled nose landing gear, a feature usually found on carrier-based aircraft (ground-based jets usually have only one wheel on the nose gear). The nEUROn will soon be joined by the BAE Systems-made Taranis and possibly the Russia's MiG SKAT (seriously).

Dassault Aviation

Killer Robot Cars

Not content to just develop sea-borne armed drones, Israel has been quietly fielding a fleet of ground-based killer robots. The Guardium is an armored desert buggy (we say it looks like a juiced out Smart Car) equipped with a number of sensors and weapons. The little cars can patrol autonomously, use their sensors to automatically identify threats, and, as the Israel Defense Force says, "use various forceful methods to eliminate" those threats. That's right, the Guardiums (Guardia?), which are prowling Israel's border with Gaza, can operate on their own, albeit with human oversight. The robots can "react to unscheduled events, in line with a set of guidelines specifically programmed for the site characteristics and security routines," according to their manufacturer, G-NUIS Unmanned Ground Systems. (This is exactly the kind of unmanned weapon that Human Rights Watch is getting extremely concerned with.) While the U.S. military is conducting very limited tests of unmanned jeeps to haul supplies for troops on patrol in Afghanistan, the Guardium may well be the world's first operational armed ground drone.

Israel Defense Forces

CHAMP, the flying blackout

Finally, let's look at the Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP), or what we like to call Boeing's flying blackout. The missile is designed to fly over a target -- be it a building or a neighborhood -- and rather than blow it to smithereens it temporarily knocks out all electronics nearby.  Boeing and the U.S. Air Force test flew CHAMP in October over the Utah desert. The missile flew an hour-long circuit over a building filled with computers. Their screens all went black as CHAMP flew over while emitting a blast of high-power microwaves. You can imagine how useful such a weapon would be in taking out an enemy's air defense radars, communications systems, or anything else requiring power. It will be interesting to see whether the Air Force continues to invest in CHAMP given that its capabilities seem to mimic what we're constantly being told can be accomplished with a keystrokes by a skilled cyberwarrior operating from the comfort of the NSA's Maryland headquarters.


The List

The 10 Worst Predictions for 2012

Who got it wrong this year?

The World Will End in 2012 --The Mayans (But Not Really)

Let's get one thing clear: The ancient Mayans did not believe the world was going to end on Dec. 21, 2012, and it's not even certain the date had any significance for them. Some archeologists believe that Dec. 21 will mark the end of the "Great Cycle" of 13 baktuns, the 1,872,000-day periods that are the largest unit of time on the ancient Mayan calendar, which is no longer in use among the Mayans' descendents. Others believe it will be Dec. 23 or a different day entirely. So where did the idea that Dec. 21 = the apocalypse come from? Author Michael Coe first popularized the theory that the Mayans believed this date is when the world would end -- for what it's worth, he didn't actually believe they were right -- but later archeologists disputed his interpretation and recently discovered calendars that show dates thousands of years past 2012.

None of that has stopped a cottage industry of doomsday prophets from cashing in on the phenomenon, often connecting it to similarly crackpot ideas about solar flares, shifting global polarities, extraterrestrials, and the phantom planet Nibiru (and of course, that movie).

It's easy to laugh at the 2012ers, though the hysteria has had occasionally tragic consequences. An Ipsos poll conducted in 21 countries this year found that 8 percent of respondents were experiencing anxiety over the "prophesy." In Russia, there have been several documented cases of "collective mass hysteria" over the date, with worried citizens raiding stores to stock up for the apocalypse. In China, more than 1,000 members of a doomsday cult preparing for the apocalypse on Dec. 21 were arrested.

In any event, if you're reading this, it appears we made it.

The Romney Landslide --Dick Morris

"It will be the biggest surprise in recent American political history.… It will rekindle the whole question as to why the media played this race as a nail-biter where in fact I think Romney's going to win by quite a bit." --Nov. 4

Foreign Policy did a full list of bad election predictions here, but Dick Morris, the Fox News talking head and political consultant whose insights on voting behavior once guided President Bill Clinton's policy decisions, probably took the biggest hit to his reputation with his 325-electoral-votes-for-Romney call. Morris, who has since been put on probation at the conservative network, later said he had "mistakenly believed that the 2008 surge in black, Latino, and young voter turnout would recede in 2012 to 'normal' levels."

Of course, the famed polling guru could always have consulted some actual polls -- but that's not how you sell books.

One-Term Proposition --Barack Obama

"You know, I've got four years.… And, you know, a year from now I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress. But there's still going to be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition." --Feb. 1, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama underestimated either the patience of American voters or his own political skill in this response to a question from Matt Lauer on his economic plans, including buying toxic assets from banks and increasing stimulus spending. The quote became a favorite applause line for Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign. As Obama himself admits, his administration's efforts to help the United States recover from the Great Recession are certainly not "done" -- and the stimulus did not create nearly as many jobs as his economists projected -- yet he is decidedly now a two-term proposition.

The Fall of Putin --Masha Gessen

"With Russians taking to the streets to protest the recent flawed parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has suddenly ceased to be an inevitable leader. He may think that this spring he will be elected president -- the job he held from 2000 to 2008 -- and serve up to 12 more years in that office. But I, like many Russians, think the regime will fall before the March election or soon after." --Dec. 22, 2011

Masha Gessen, a Moscow-based journalist and author of this year's highly acclaimed The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, is normally an astute and clear-eyed observer of Russian politics, which made this overly rosy prediction about Russia's pre-election protests all the more surprising. Despite signs of growing opposition, Putin was easily reelected in March and has taken steps to even further limit the activities of government opponents. The unprecedentedly large street protests that greeted his reelection have now mostly fizzled, though in Russian politics, it's always wise to expect the unexpected.

Assad Is Cooked --The Economist

"Syria's President Bashar Assad is unlikely to last the year in office, as the Sunni majority, including senior military men and businessmen, decide that rule by the president's Alawite minority, which makes up about a tenth of the population, cannot be sustained." --Nov. 17, 2011

As usual, the venerable British weekly the Economist was more right than wrong in its "The World in 2012" projections written at the end of last year, but they misjudged one of the biggest political questions of the year: how long Syria's president could hang on. Most observers have been a bit more cautious, though in recent weeks, a number of prominent players, including Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have been predicting Assad's imminent fall. According to some media reports, the CIA believes Assad will fall in a matter of weeks. We'll see.

Netanyahu's October Surprise --Alon Ben-David and others

"[Benjamin Netanyahu] is determined to attack Iran before the U.S. elections.… I doubt Obama could say anything that would convince Netanyahu to delay a possible attack." --Aug. 20, 2012

This year, the Israeli media was rife with speculation that Israel would launch an attack on Iran before the U.S. elections. Alon Ben-David, the well-connected defense correspondent for Israel's Channel 10, made his prediction based on conversations with high-ranking military officers. Commentators Nahum Barnea and Simon Shiffer joined in, predicting in the paper Yedioth Ahronoth, "Insofar as it depends on Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, an Israeli military strike on the nuclear facilities in Iran will take place in these coming autumn months, before the U.S. elections in November." An article in the newspaper Maariv said that Sept. 25 -- Yom Kippur eve -- was the crucial decision date. In the United States, Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson predicted in a widely panned article for Newsweek that Obama would launch a U.S. strike on Iran in order to boost his reelection chances. Tensions are still high, but the election came and went without any moves from Tel Aviv -- or Washington.

We've Solved the Greece Problem --Angela Merkel

"We Europeans showed that we are able to reach the correct conclusions. We found agreement on a complete package." --Oct. 27, 2011

It's a well-rehearsed ritual at this point. European leaders meet to discuss measures needed to bail out Greece and preserve the eurozone, announce that they have finally reached a breakthrough, and then several months later are at it again. Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel's assurances that European leaders had finally turned the page after reaching an agreement to reduce Greece's debt in the fall of 2011, the continent is still at odds over how much aid to extend to Greece. Germany was dragged into supporting a bailout for Greece and other aid-stricken countries by European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi this fall, but it's still very much touch-and-go. The chancellor recently griped, "In all my life I have never thought so much about Greece."

And the Nobel Will Go to … --Kristian Berg Harpviken

"Harpviken's favourite for 2012 is Gene Sharp, who has been a main analyst and inspirator on non-violent action, which has proven its strength in numerous uprisings over the past couple of years. The second favourite is Memorial, the Russian organization focusing on human rights, democracy, and reconciliation through historical documentation, alongside founding member Svetlana Gannushkina. Third on Harpviken's list is Echo of Moscow, an independent media house, and its editor, Aleksei Venediktov. A fourth possible outcome in 2013, suggests Harpviken, is a shared prize to Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Mohamed Sa'ad Abubakar, both of Nigeria, for their contribution to interreligious dialogue. A fifth possible winner, within the always controversial peacemakers category, is Myanmar's President Thein Sein" --Peace Research Institute Oslo's website, October 2012

Every year, Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a Norwegian think tank, gets major media attention -- yes, from us too -- for his "speculations" about who will win the Nobel Peace Prize. And every year they are wrong. Only one of his shortlisters -- Al Gore in 2007 -- has ever taken home the prize. But Harpviken keeps soldiering on. This year's winner, the European Union, wasn't mentioned at all in Harpviken's list of dozens of potential winners. Interestingly, the Irish betting side Paddy Power did list it as a potential winner. Chalk one up for the wisdom of the crowd.

The Olympics Will Be a Disaster --Der Spiegel

"London and the Olympic Games are clearly not made for each other. Visitors will need determination and, most of all, patience to reach the venues at all. And, for the locals, it all can't end soon enough." --July 17, 2012

The German weekly Der Spiegel wasn't alone in suspecting that Britain's economic woes, security concerns, labor unrest, and poor infrastructure would turn the London Games into "one big, soggy mess." In the run-up to the Olympics, everyone from novelist Nick Hornby to the New York Times to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was questioning whether London was really up for it. Comedian Russell Brand summed up the feelings of many of his compatriots when he predicted that, compared with the impressive Beijing Games, London 2012 would be a "right balls up."

Of course, by nearly any standards, the London Games were a smashing success. They were the most watched event in TV history, the facilities held up, security concerns proved overblown, and the home team took home a record number of medals.

London followed the Beijing Games and South Africa's World Cup as events that were widely expected to be disasters but turned out just fine. Maybe we can cut Brazil some slack this time?

The Coming Collapse of China (Redux) --Gordon Chang

"Not long ago, everything was going well for the mandarins in Beijing. Now, nothing is. So, yes, my prediction was wrong. Instead of 2011, the mighty Communist Party of China will fall in 2012. Bet on it." --Dec. 29, 2011

Author and commentator Gordon Chang made the list last year for his 2001 book, The Coming Collapse of China, which predicted that Communist Party rule would fall in 2011. Chang acknowledged that he had jumped the gun, but in an article for Foreign Policy, he simply moved his prediction forward one year. Nevertheless, despite a year of transition, scandal, and uncertainty, the mandarins in Beijing are still there.

Steve Bronstein/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images