Tell us a little about your background, from your service in the Navy to your career as a Private Investigator and finally to hosting Mysteries Decoded.
I graduated from high school in a town with one stoplight and really wanted to get out and see the world! The Navy recruiter was the first to call me and try to pitch the military. I told him he was wasting his breath and that I wanted to enlist…I might have been the easiest recruit he ever enlisted! I served in the Navy for five years and deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and then separated honorably to attend college.
In 2014, after working in the entertainment industry for a few years, I went to Private Investigation school and opened my own company this year. The show came about because they were looking for a Private Investigator who ideally understood the world of television…and bam! Here we are. It’s a rare opportunity to be able to combine my two careers.
How did you feel about looking into a military establishment (Area 51)? Where is the boundary between military secrets and the people’s right to know? Or maybe even in this case, military secrets and Planet Earth’s right to know?
Area 51 was admittedly a difficult episode for me. My co-host on the show, Ryan, is a UFOlogist and a journalist without a military background (although very appreciative of veterans and their service). He heavily advocates for transparency. I understand the importance of keeping certain things under wraps for national security purposes.
There were also a few issues brought up in the context of the show that I was quiet about. I came across a few things during my service that are not common knowledge and it’s not my place to put them out for everyone to know. With that being said, if it is something outside of what I experienced while in the service, it’s fair game.
Area 51 is getting a lot of attention right now with the upcoming “raid” — what do you think people will learn if/when they show up to Groom Lake?
Honestly, I think most people will just chalk it up as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Most people are not planning to raid. I fear for those who do intend on crossing that gate because it’s undeniable the military is prepared. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and unfortunately, if necessary, lethal methods as well.
To be fair, people have been warned to not cross into the base. I hope everything stays calm and people abide by the law, but my feeling is you’ll always have a few people who either don’t understand the consequences or don’t care.
What is something you learned when shooting this episode?
I learned a lot more about Bob Lazar, the whistleblower who claims to have worked at S-4. When I first read his claims and his background, I was inclined to dismiss him. The more I learned and the deeper I dug, I realized there was much more going on than most people knew. He is perplexing and his story is one of a kind.
Mysteries Decoded | Cases And Cover-Ups Trailer | CW Seed
Mysteries Decoded | Cases And Cover-Ups Trailer | CW Seed
You’ve been investigating a lot of mysteries for this show. Have any of them given you second thoughts? What are some of the biggest insights you’ve gleaned?
I went into Lizzie Borden based off the research I conducted believing she did kill her parents and through the investigation, came to the conclusion it absolutely was her. In my opinion, it is the oldest documented case of affluenza. She killed her parents and moved to an estate in a more upscale part of town. The only thing that did surprise me was the paranormal things we experienced while in the house. I was not a huge believer in that, but there were too many things that happened for me to look the other way or explain it away — as much as I wanted to.
An upcoming episode, The Bermuda Triangle, was fascinating for me. I loved the scientific aspect of it. We spoke to physicists, Navy officials, historians, pilots, you name it. What we uncovered made me understand why certain things may have happened there. Other things, however, still remain a mystery. It was fascinating delving into the science behind the disappearance of ships and aircraft.
Often times with a few of these cases, someone coming forward could have led to an earlier resolution. I see this in day-to-day life as well and especially in my practice. It takes courage to be transparent and do the right thing, but too many people don’t want to get involved. Definitely come forward, whether it’s something that would shed more light on a subject, or in other scenarios — help right a wrong.
One last questions: are there aliens at Area 51?
I don’t believe there are aliens walking around at the base, no. But have they ever been here? Not sure. Are their bodies at Area 51? Can’t say that either. But I think it’s pretty odd to believe we are the only intelligent beings that exist in the universe…there are a septillion planets. Statistically, the odds are not that we are alone… 🙂
Typically, every single day of the work week, service members come together and stand quietly in organized columns, called a ‘formation.’
At these formations, service members are accounted for and various information is passed along.
Sounds easy and quick enough, right? You’d be wrong.
It’s no secret that nobody wants to attend these.
Most service members do not like standing at the position of attention for extended periods, waiting for the higher-ups to get their sh*t together. So, things tend to go south quickly for various reasons.
1. Someone shows up wearing the wrong uniform or cover
Some people don’t pay attention well enough, show up in the wrong uniform, and, unsurprisingly, stick out like a sore thumb. Some do it on purpose, though, when they are about to get out of the military.
2. That time everyone laughed because someone farted
As immature as it sounds, it’s incredibly difficult not to smirk or even laugh when somebody rips a loud one. Farts plus formation always equals funny. Sometimes, you just need something hilarious to get through a boring formation.
3. When someone locks their knees and passes out
This happens more often than you think, especially at various military ceremonies. Don’t forget to bend your knees and wiggle your toes to keep the blood flowing.
4. We sometimes forget the difference between left and right.
We start marching with our left foot and we align with the troop to our left-hand side. Sometimes, however, troops mindlessly mix up which foot or hand is actually their left one.
The buzz of the crowd had Sgt. 1st Class Michael Vaccaro on edge. Then a loud bang made him look around nervously.
He knew the noise came from a Zamboni machine, yet its exhaust made him think of the aftermath of a roadside bomb.
All his stress melted away immediately, however, as soon as he stepped out onto the ice.
“When I’m on the ice, no matter what happened before, everything dissipates,” he said. “It’s like a fresh start.”
Former Army Spc. Matt Holben, Capital Beltway Warriors assistant team captain and defensive player, hits the puck up ice during a holiday exhibition game with a Congressional Hockey Challenge team at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, Dec. 16, 2018.
(Photo by EJ Hersom)
Vaccaro is one of the co-founders of the Capital Beltway Warriors, a hockey team of veterans with disabilities founded two years ago.
Veterans on the team open up to each other and talk about how they cope with injuries, stress and other issues, said retired Maj. David Dixon, another co-founder of the team.
“It’s like a giant support group,” he said, “or therapy on ice, as we like to call it.”
Many of the players have some level of post-traumatic stress disorder from service in Iraq, Afghanistan or other hot spots, Dixon said. He personally survived four deployments to Iraq, where he was shot in the back and shaken up by three different improvised explosive devices.
Retired Maj. David Dixon, president and executive director of the Capital Beltway Warriors, makes game notes while coaching players between periods during a holiday exhibition game with a Congressional hockey challenge team at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, Dec. 16, 2018.
(Photo by EJ Hersom)
Dixon and a number of the other veterans also coach youth hockey teams and a few of them help with a local blind hockey team, the Washington Wheelers.
“Giving back to the community often gives them a sense of purpose,” Dixon said of the veterans, adding that it helps minimize depression and PTSD.
Dixon puts in more than 20 volunteer hours a week managing the Capital Beltway Warriors as president and executive director of the team. He helps solicit sponsors, run meetings, apply for grants, recruit players and schedule games.
“In a sick kind of way, I enjoy all the hard work,” he said. “You go from commanding troops to working in a cubicle,” he said about retiring from the Army and beginning a civilian job.
He explained that managing the hockey team gives him a renewed sense of purpose.
“You find that niche in life that gives you purpose and whether it has a monetary award or not, that’s what you’re supposed to do,” he said.
He helps make the games special for the warriors with lights, music, an announcer and filling the stands with veterans. Local chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion in northern Virginia help bring veterans from retirement homes to the games, Dixon said.
Vaccaro also spends several hours per week helping the Capital Beltway Warriors and other veteran hockey teams. He spends a week every year helping run the USA Hockey camp in Buffalo, New York, where they select the national sled hockey team.
He serves as a referee for blind hockey and sled hockey. He helps stand up other Warrior division hockey teams. In November, he spent a few days in Philadelphia helping the Flyers start a warrior team.
“This is my therapy,” he said of the volunteer work. “This is what keeps me going.”
Former Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joey Martell, Capital Beltway Warriors team captain, takes a shot during a holiday exhibition game with a Congressional hockey challenge team at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, Dec. 16, 2018.
(Photo by EJ Hersom)
Spreading the word
Just over two years ago, Vaccaro met up with Dixon who was interested in starting a Warrior hockey team in Virginia.
They met in the Pentagon food court in December 2016. “We sat down and started sketching stuff out on napkins,” Dixon said.
They laid out plans for a team that would play in rinks across Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland.
They found players by word of mouth. They showed up at “stick and shoot” sessions and asked if anyone was a military veteran with a disability rating.
Now they have 76 veterans with disabilities on the team and they play other warrior clubs. A game in Ashburn Dec. 22, 2018, pitted the USA Warriors from Maryland against the Capital Beltway Warriors. The teams also play in annual tournaments.
There are now 16 warrior teams across the United States. The minimum requirement to play on one of the teams is a 10 percent VA disability. Some of the players are 100 percent disabled and play with prosthetics.
Some of the veterans, like Vaccaro, have been playing hockey since they were 3 years old. Dixon, however, did not pick up the sport until he was 40.
Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Michael Vaccaro serves as referee for the charity exhibition game between the Capital Beltway Warriors and a Congressional hockey challenge team at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, Dec. 16, 2018.
(Photo by EJ Hersom)
In 2006 and 2007, Vaccaro was an advisor to an Iraqi Army unit in Ramadi. He and two Marines were on patrol when they were pinned down by machine-gun fire. Then an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade.
“It hit the wall in front of me and knocked me back. Next thing I remember, I heard this really loud ringing in my ears and there was a Marine dragging me back into the courtyard. They were calling for air support.
“We finished the patrol,” Vaccaro said, explaining aerial medical evacuation was not available. A doctor patched him up, and a couple of days later, he was back out on patrol.
After his tour in Iraq, he came back to Virginia, where he had been a reservist with the 80th Training Division. But he had PTSD issues. He decided to go to Liberia in western Africa as a contractor to help put about 2,000 Liberian soldiers through basic training.
“I thought that would help, but I just ended up coming back with the same issues,” he said. “That’s another thing: You can’t hide from this.
“Everybody handles PTSD in a different way. I tried the group therapy stuff and it just didn’t work.”
He received treatment and medication from Veterans Affairs, but the issues persisted. When he smelled fresh bread, for instance, it reminded him of the flatbread Iraqi soldiers baked every morning.
“That’s a good smell,” he said. But then his mind would continue to remember until he imagined the smell of an IED.
“You’ve got to face your fears. You’ve got to face your issues,” he said. “I was trying to hide from it and hockey has helped me open up and talk about it.”
About 10 years ago, he became involved in the first-of-its-kind USA Warrior hockey team stood up by a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland.
“When I’m on the ice, things slow down; things are different,” Vaccaro said.
Both he and his family noticed the difference in him after playing hockey.
“It really helped me,” he said. “The first thing I said to myself when I started realizing that is, ‘I’ve got to get other veterans involved in this.'”
So he became the national representative for USA Hockey in its Warrior division to help stand up teams. He does that in his spare time when he is not working as a civilian employee for the Army Corps of Engineers or on duty as an Army Reserve NCO.
David Dixon, coach of the Capital Beltway Warriors, provides tactical advice to players between periods during a holiday exhibition game with a Congressional hockey challenge team at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, Dec. 16, 2018.
(Gary Sheftick, Army News Service)
Dixon was coaching little league baseball when he was approached by his son’s hockey coach, Bobby Hill.
“He said he really liked the way I worked with the kids and he could use my help on the ice coaching,” Dixon recalled.
Dixon told him he did not skate, but Hill said he could take care of that. He got Dixon out on the ice and taught him the basics of hockey.
Dixon went to adult learn-to-play sessions Wednesday evenings at Ashburn Ice House. He participated in adult pick-up games after helping coach his son’s youth team.
He eventually took over as head coach of the Ashburn “Honey Badgers” peewee hockey team.
In the meantime, however, he heard of the USA Warriors hockey team and the effects it was having on disabled veterans in Maryland. He thought it would be great to bring the same benefits to veterans in northern Virginia.
Matt Holben (No. 19) of the Capital Beltway Warriors, and Joey Martell (No. 21) take the puck down ice with three members of a Congressional hockey challenge team not far behind, during an exhibition game Dec. 16, 2018 at MedStar Capitals Iceplex.
(Gary Sheftick, Army News Service)
The warrior hockey program aims to provide purpose, education and camaraderie that veterans miss after they separate from the service, Dixon said.
The team creates an environment that in some ways simulates being back around a military unit, said Matt Holben, alternate team captain for the Capital Beltway Warriors.
“It feels good, because you’re back with the guys, you’re back with the unit,” he said.
“We’ve got members with both physical and mental disability,” he added. “It’s hard for them to share their story, but when you talk to them, it’s just that little bit of relief they get when they’re in the locker room and on the team.”
“We’re helping each other,” Vaccaro said. “And half of the guys don’t even realize we’re helping each other, but that’s what we’re doing.”
The help is not limited to the rink either, Dixon said.
There is another part to the program that informs veterans of benefits available to them and helps with issues.
Anything from service dogs to getting help building a house, to loans, and more is available, Dixon said.
“We don’t do it all ourselves. We reach out to other veteran service organizations to get the help and education these guys need,” he said. “We have a whole network of VSOs that we can tap into.”
Vaccaro summed it up: “It’s veterans helping veterans.”
Dueling was still a big deal in mid-19th Century America. So much so, it actually decimated the U.S. Army’s officer corps. It seemed no one was immune, from President Jackson on down to the common man. One such common man was future President Abraham Lincoln. The young politician made the mistake of publicly denouncing an Illinois banker. The banker demanded satisfaction while Lincoln demanded the public challenge be fought with swords.
The whole row started with a public debate about banking in 1842. Lincoln was a young man at this time, a lawyer and member of the Illinois State Legislature. Even then, Lincoln’s rhetoric was formidable. His debating skills were feared by opponents, and as a lawyer, his closing arguments were near-perfect. The debate that got Lincoln into a duel was one about banking in Illinois with state auditor James Shields.
Lincoln criticized the closing of the bank and its refusal to accept its own issued currency. Farmers in Illinois now had worthless money while the bank would only accept gold and silver as payment on debts. In a letter to the Sangamo Journal newspaper, Lincoln wrote an editorial criticizing the bank, the Democratic Party, and personally insulting Shields. Shields demanded a retraction, and when he didn’t get one, he demanded a duel. Lincoln, the challenged, got to choose the weapon.
Honest Abe chose cavalry swords because he knew if he were to choose pistols, Shields would likely kill him. Lincoln, a very tall man by the standards of the day, was also very strong, so his reach and his power gave him the edge in a sword fight. Lincoln did not want to kill his opponent, instead intending to use his seven-inch advantage in height and reach to disarm the man.
When the time came, the two men met at Bloody Island, Mo. for the match. There, they received the swords and stood apart with a plank dividing them. Neither man could cross the wooden board. Instead of swinging at Shields, Lincoln lopped a branch off a nearby tree with a single blow. Shields understood the demonstration and called a truce.
In an interesting historical footnote, Shields would later lead Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley as a Brigadier and was the only General to defeat Stonewall Jackson in battle during the campaign. It cost him a lot – he was nearly killed in the process. Lincoln awarded his former rival a promotion to Major General for the action.
The United States sent its forces into Syria in 2014 to hasten the demise of ISIS. After the fall of the “caliphate” capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa three years later, the U.S. remained. It was determined to conduct operations that would bring the government forces of Bashar al-Asad to heel.
In 2018, U.S. forces and U.S.-backed militias from the Kurish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), controlled the Conoco gas field near the town of al-Tabiyeh in eastern Syria. The Americans and SDF were on the eastern side of the Euphrates River, while Syrian government troops and Russian mercenaries were on the other.
As far as the United States knew, there were no official Russian troops operating in this province. Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made certain of that using official channels to the Russian government, in place to prevent a clash between American and Russian troops. The Russians operating with Bashar al-Asad’s troops were military contractors hired by the Wagner Group.
Pro-Assad forces controlled the nearby major city of Deir-ez-Zor, which allowed them a staging area for nearby attacks and to easily cross the river.
The pro-government forces had begun massing in Deir-ez-Zor for days prior and the American-led Coalition could see every move they made, even if they didn’t know who exactly was making those moves. For all the Coalition forces knew, they could have been ISIS. That’s when a large force departed the city, headed for the headquarters of the U.S.-SDF forces at Khasham.
On Feb. 7, 2018, 500 pro-government Syrian troops, including Iranian-trained Shia militiamen, along with Russian military contractors began their attack on the SDF headquarters. The assault began with mortars and rockets, supported by Soviet-built T-72 and T-55 tanks. Unfortunately for the Syrians, the SDF base just happened to be filled with 40 American special operations forces. After calling to ensure no official Russian forces would be harmed in the making of their counterattack, the operators called down the thunder.
American Special Forces called in AC-130 “Spooky” Gunships, F-15E Strike Eagles, Reaper drones, Apache helicopters, F-22 Raptors and even B-52 Stratofortress bombers. If that wasn’t enough to kill everything coming at them, nearby Marine Corps artillery batteries got in on the action. The attack was turned away, decisively. The only questions that remained were how many were killed in the “fighting” and how was the Syrian government going to cover up this epic mistake?
Coalition forces took one casualty, an SDF fighter who was wounded. The United States estimated the Syrians lost 100 killed. The Syrian government says 55 were killed in the fighting with a further loss of 10 Russian mercenaries. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 68 Syrians dead. Russian media lamented the idea that Russian remains were “abandoned” on the battlefield.
“Write it on your forehead: 14 volunteers were killed in Syria. I’m fed up with you chewing snot and telling fairy tales in your petty articles. As for your speculations there, what you write about those f****** investigations – no one has abandoned anyone.”
Almost a year before America was attacked at Pearl Harbor and officially joined World war II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent his top aide to London to promise aid to Prime Minister Winston Churchill with a slightly amended Bible quote. This was the promise that would lead to the Lend-Lease Act, Destroyers for Bases, and other programs that would buy the British Empire time against the Third Reich.
Harry Lloyd Hopkins was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s closest aides, eventually becoming the Secretary of Commerce.
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Harry L. Hopkins was a social worker in New York in 1931 when Roosevelt, as the governor of New York, tapped him to run the New York State Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. From there, Hopkins grew professionally closer to the governor and then went with him to the federal level as the administrator of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.
By the time World War II broke out in 1939, Hopkins had been a trusted and capable entity for Roosevelt for eight years. So, despite being an economics guy, Roosevelt still leaned on him for foreign policy, as well.
By 1940 and 1941, Hopkins was being sent to London and Moscow to express support for the Allied Powers holding the line against Hitler. And, in January 1941, that was just Britain.
England was still reeling from the barely successful defense during the Battle of Britain where it staved off the air campaign and prevented a German cross-channel invasion but lost tens of thousands of British civilians and service members in the process.
That last bit, “Even to the end,” does not appear in the actual Bible quote, though the idea is similar. It’s from Ruth 1:16 which reads, “And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
In the Bible, this is followed by Ruth 1:17 which says, “Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”
So, yeah, “Even to the end,” is just a more succinct version of what Ruth was saying there.
British and U.S. sailors inspect depth charges on destroyers slated for trade to Britain in 1940.
The message could not have been more clear to England, and it wasn’t the only sign that Roosevelt stood with Britain. He gave a speech January 6 where he laid out the “Four Freedoms” as a democratic condemnation of the fascist powers. And, as he built support in Congress, he continued shipping as much military hardware over as he could excuse.
Though America was technically neutral in the conflict at that point, Roosevelt made plans to “loan” equipment to Britain, to rent it out, to trade it for bases, and more. These efforts sent 50 destroyers and thousands of vehicles and weapons across the Atlantic. U.S. ships, including the Coast Guard, assured the sovereignty of other neutral nations, mostly by searching out Nazis and arresting them in places like Greenland.
Of course, all this work raised the ire of the Axis Powers. Combined with an embargo that would starve Japan of oil, this led to an attack against America which, in line with Japan’s military history to that point, took the form of a surprise attack over the seas. And then America took the gloves off, focusing less on sermons at dinner parties and more on smacking the absolute sh-t out of Japanese and German forces.
The Navy is working hard to advance an emerging “ghost fleet” concept wherein multiple surface, air and undersea drones operate in a synchronized fashion to conduct a wide-range of combat missions without placing sailors and marines at risk.
“We want to have multiple systems teaming and working together, surface, air and undersea,” Capt. Jon Rucker, program manager, Unmanned Maritime Systems, PEO LCS, said at the recent Surface Navy Association.
Rucker explained that the Pentagon and Navy are advancing this drone-fleet concept help to search and destroy mines, swarm and attack enemies, deliver supplies and conduct intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions, among other things.
Swarms of small aerial drones, engineered with advanced computer algorithms, could coordinate with surface and undersea vehicles as part of an integrated mission, he explained.
As communications and networking technologies continue to evolve rapidly, drones will increasingly be able to function in a cross-domain capacity, meaning across air, sea, land and undersea operations.
Aerial swarms, for instance, could detect an enemy surface vessel and relay information to unmanned surface vessels or undersea drones to investigate or even attack. All of this could operate in a combat circumstance while needing little or no human intervention.
Rucker explained that the Navy, and its Office of Naval Research (ONR), has been working closely with the Pentagon’s once-secret Strategic Capabilities Office, or SCO, in an effort to fast-track this kind of technology into operational service.
The Strategic Capabilities Office is a special DoD-level effort to harness, leverage and integrate near-term emerging technology for faster delivery to combatant commanders at war.
Much of this involves merging new platforms, weapons and technologies with existing systems in a manner that both improves capability while circumventing a lengthy and often bureaucratic formal acquisition process, Dr. William Roper, SCO Director, told a small group of reporters last year.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has demonstrated technological advances in autonomy with groups of swarming Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV) designed to detect enemy ships, perform surveillance missions or even launch attacks, service officials said.
Algorithms governing autonomous maritime navigation have progressed to the point where USVs can more effectively “perceive” and respond to their surrounding environment while in transit, Robert Brizzolara, program manager, Sea Platforms and Weapons, ONR, recently told reporters.
During a recent “swarm” boat demonstration in the lower Chesapeake Bay, ONR-developed boats achieved a key milestone in the area of autonomous control.
“Unlike purely remote controlled boats, these boats are able to perceive their environment and plan their routes without human intervention. The role of the human is supervisory control,” Brizzolara said.
A human at a control station, using a low bandwidth connection, can perform command and control functions without needing to actually drive the vessels.
The demonstration used four USVs, working in tandem to perform a range of potential maritime combat operations. All four of the boats were able to see and sense a common picture for route planning, hazard avoidance and collision prevention, developers said.
“We are using a first-of-its-kind sophisticated perception engine which senses the presence of other vessels using a combination of sensors, radar, cameras and processing algorithms,” Brizzolara explained.
The ONR demonstration used 7-to-11 meter boats already in the Navy inventory as manned boats, and configured them with an autonomy “kit” enabling a range of unmanned mission possibilities.
The kits, called Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing, or CARACaS, are engineered to provide USVs with an ability to handle dynamic operational situations; this can include the execution of search patterns, harbor defenses, surveillance or even swarm boat attacks. Other possibilities among a wide range of uses include using autonomous USVs for supply and weapons transport, countermine operations, electronic warfare and amphibious operations.
The USVs are programmed with sensors linked to an established database of known threats such as enemy boats; they are also linked to one another with an ability to detect, track and trail “unknown” boats, Brizzolara said.
ONR is working closely with the Pentagon’s once-secret Strategic Capabilities Office, or SCO, in an effort to fast-track this technology into operational service.
The Strategic Capabilities Office is a special DoD-level effort to harness, leverage and integrate near-term emerging technology for faster delivery to combatant commanders at war. Much of this involves merging new platforms, weapons and technologies with existing systems in a manner that both improves capability while circumventing a lengthy and often bureaucratic formal acquisition process, Dr. William Roper, SCO Director, told a small group of reporters.
A key advantage of using remotely-controlled drone ships is that, quite naturally, they can save sailors and marines from being exposed to enemy fire during an attack operation. In fact, Roper maintained that USV autonomy brings the potential of substantially advancing amphibious warfare tactics.
“This can greatly help expeditionary logistics for a ship that is standing off from the shore. Instead of having to use an amphib manned by a lot of people – you have an unmanned supply boat,” Roper explained.
Fast-moving USVs could indeed lower risk and increase efficiency for a large number of missions, to include Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), countermine operations, search and rescue, electronic warfare, supply and weapons transport and amphibious assaults.
Higher tech enemy sensors and longer range surface and land-fired weapons have drastically increased the vulnerability of approaching amphibious assault operations, making them more susceptible to enemy fire; as a result, the Navy and Marines have been evolving amphibious tactics to include more dis-aggregated approaches designed to spread out an approaching force – making it more difficult for enemy weapons to attack an advancing assault.
For example, the Iwo Jima attack in the Pacific during WWII, an historic amphibious assault, involved a group of Marines approaching enemy shores in close proximity to one another; weapons, Marines, equipment and attacking infantry all came ashore in rapid succession.
Modern threats, are changing amphibious tactics to succeed against higher tech more lethal enemy weapons.
“Instead of having to land as a single unit, they can now break out. There is safety in numbers and they can redistribute,” Roper explained.
When it comes to offensive surface operations, unmanned boats could form a swarming of small attack craft designed to overwhelm and destroy enemy ships with gunfire, explosives or even small missiles.
Roper explained that this strategic and tactical trajectory is greatly enhanced by the possible use of USVs. The Navy’s current inventory includes ship-to-shore amphibious craft called Landing Craft Air Cushions, LCACs, and Landing Craft Utility Vehicles, LCUs; these platforms, now being upgraded by newer transport boats able to move faster and carry more payload (such as Abrams tanks), are manned and therefore involve the use of a crew.
LCACs require a crew of 13, and LCACs use a crew of 5. New high tech LCAC replacements, called Ship-to-Shore Connectors, are already being developed and delivered to the Navy by Textron.
The Navy and ONR are already immersed in the development of a variety of USVs, including a mine-detecting Unmanned Influence Sweep System, or UISS, for the Littoral Combat Ship. The UISS is carried by a Textron-developed Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle, or CUSV.
The CUSV, in development since before 2009, can travel for more than 20-hours carrying up to 4,000-pounds at speeds of up to 20-knots, Textron information states. Also, it is engineered to withstand waves up to 20-feet.
The UISS is engineered to find and detonate undersea mines in order to save sailors and manned vessels from a potentially deadly explosion.
The Navy’s UiSS will be towed behind the unmanned vehicle and will emit sounds and magnetic signatures that mimic a ship – setting off nearby mines that listen for passing ships, according to a report from the US Naval Institute.
Sub-Hunting Drone Ship
The Navy is also advancing its recently christened Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA, inspired submarine-hunting unmanned ship called Sea Hunter; the ship is built to travel up to 10,000 miles while using sonar and other sensors to locate enemy submarines. A high-frequency sonar will send acoustic “pings” into the ocean before analyzing the return signal to determine the shape, size, speed and characteristics of any undersea enemy activity.
The 135-ton ship is engineered to withstand rough seas up to Sea State 5 – or waves up to 6.5 feet.
The effort began in 2010 as an anti-submarine ship called “ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel,” or ACTUV. The Sea Hunter can be controlled by a human “tele-operator” able to maneuver the ship with a joystick. Also, it is possible the Sea Hunter could be armed with lethal weapons in the future, a scenario which current Pentagon doctrine says much hinge upon a human decision-maker in the role of command and control.
The Sea Hunter can be controlled by a human “tele-operator” able to maneuver the ship with a joystick. However, the progress of the platform’s technology, and the rapid advancements of algorithms enabling greater levels of autonomy, have inspired the Navy to begin thinking about additional missions for a drone that was initially conceived as a sub-hunting vessel.
“Right now, the sky is the limit, but, before we even get to that, we need to be able to have a more autonomous system that can steer and reposition itself,” Rucker said.
The ship is built to travel up to 10,000 miles while using sonar and other sensors to locate mines and even the quietest enemy submarines.
The Sea Hunter’s high-frequency sonar can send acoustic “pings” into the ocean before analyzing the return signal to determine the shape, size, speed and characteristics of any undersea enemy activity.
The 135-ton ship is engineered to withstand rough seas up to Sea State 5 – or waves up to 13 feet.
The 132-foot drone uses advanced hydro-acoustics, pattern recognition and algorithms for unmanned navigation to locate and shadow diesel-electric enemy submarines.
The idea is to track them, if necessary, over a period of months so they are compelled to stay away from strategically vital areas.
As technology evolves, the Navy plan is to rapidly migrate the system from something that is tele-operated to something that can increasingly perform a wider range of functions without needing human intervention.
“We are not yet at the point where we don’t have an operator supervising it,” Rucker explained.
Progress with the Sea Hunter will also involve replacing a turret on top of the drone with a range of sensors for ISR, surface-oriented technologies, weapons and electronic warfare systems, Rucker said.
“It will have an ability to work with the surface force, do command and control and go investigate,” Rucker added.
If the Sea Hunter is both more autonomous and armed with lethal weapons in the future, it will be engineered to align with current Pentagon doctrine which says any use of lethal force must hinge upon a human decision-maker in the role of command and control.
The Pentagon’s research arm is also extending testing of its sub-hunting drone able to travel autonomously for up to 90 days using sensors and sonar technology to search for enemy submarines and other airborne and undersea threats such as mines.
Navy Unmanned Surface Vehicle Master Plan
Meanwhile, the Navy is also developing refueling Unmanned Surface Vehicles that are launched and recovered from a host ship. A refueling and data transfer system that is remote from the host ship and proximate to the USV operating area will allow a substantially greater fraction of a Navy USVs’ endurance to be spent on performing the mission rather than on non-mission activities associated with refueling, including transiting to and from the host ship and being deployed and recovered on the host ship.
This effort, asking industry to design, build, test and demonstrate a prototype USV to be called Offboard Refueling and Data Transfer System, or ORADTS. It will be designed to be more rugged and survivable than existing USVs and travel at longer ranges to extend mission possibilities.
“The ORADTS design must improve on previous designs by providing a more robust system that enhances system usability in higher sea states, reliability, and maintainability for implementation in Navy operations,” a Navy Broad Area Announcement states.
This initiative represents a portion of the execution or operational manifestation of a 2007 service roadmap called “The Navy Unmanned Surface Vehicle Master Plan,” which calls for the eventual combat deployment of a broad range of USVs to include ships for countermine missions, surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, Special Operations support and electronic warfare, among other things.
Plans for USVs include a small “X-class” of boats, a 7-meter “Harbor Class,” a “Snorkeler-Class” and an 11-meter “Fleet-Class” boat, the master plan states.
The currently-sought after ORADTS refueling USV is slated to be a larger “Fleet-Class” USV.
“It is approximately 38.5 ft in length, 10.5 ft beam and full load displacement 21,400 lbs. It can carry between 400 and 650 gallons of diesel fuel marine (DFM) and uses fuel at a rate between 25 and 40 gallons/hr.,” Navy documents describe.
The refueling port of the USV is located on the starboard side of the craft, above the waterline, about midship. There will be up to 2 terabytes of data to be offloaded from the USV, per refueling iteration, the documents add.
There aren’t many bucket list destinations in Afghanistan, but before 2001, there were at least two man-made wonders that were revered around the world.
Built in Bamyan around the 2nd century, they were some of the largest standing Buddha carvings in the world. The Buddhist Kingdom in the “Graveyard of Empires” withstood many attacks. That was until Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban in 1996.
The region was a part of the Buddhist Kushan Empire. The Bamyan region was directly on the Silk Road and was a hub for Buddhism, with tens of thousands of monks worship at the site.
The valley was home to several monasteries. The intricate cave system throughout the cliffs were beautifully decorated and painted.
Many kingdoms seized control of the region, but it was the Huns who decimated the local population — but left the statues. The Mughal Empire would be the first to attack the statues in the 18th century. Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and Persian King Nader Afshar would both order attacks to destroy the statues.
Afghan King Abdur Rahman Khan ordered the destruction of the faces and many of the cave oil paintings. This is how they remained for centuries. Although Islam became the dominant religion, most Afghan people loved the statues — not because of faith, but because they were iconic.
Then the Taliban took over and declared them idols.
Mirza Hussain was from the town of Bamyan and a prisoner of the Taliban at the time. He told the BBC of how they captured him.
They forced him at gun point to plant explosives in both of the Buddhas for three days straight. The statues were destroyed in March 2001 — leaving nothing but craters where they once stood.
The Taliban used the caves for arms and munitions until troops from the United States, New Zealand, and Afghanistan retook control in 2003.
Talks continue years later whether they should rebuild the statues using fragments of the old ones, to use holograms to project them as they were, or to leave them as a brutal reminder of the horrors of the Taliban regime.
When President Donald Trump threatened to send missiles at Syria — despite Russia’s promises to counterattack— all eyes turned toward the US Navy’s sole destroyer in the region. But that may have been a trick.
Pundits openly scoffed at Trump’s announcement early April 2018, of the US’s intention to strike, especially considering his criticism of President Barack Obama for similarly telegraphing US military plans, but the actual strike appeared successful.
In April 2017, two US Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean steamed into the region, let off 59 cruise missiles in response to gas attacks by the Syrian government, and left unpunished and unpursued.
But this time, with the US considering its response to another attack against civilians blamed on the Syrian government, Russian officials threatened to shoot down US missiles, and potentially the ships that launched them, if they attacked Syria. A retired Russian admiral spoke candidly about sinking the USS Donald Cook, the only destroyer in the region.
When the strike happened April 14, 2018, local time, the Cook didn’t fire a shot, and a source told Bloomberg News it was a trick.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Edward Guttierrez III)
Instead, a US submarine, the USS John Warner, fired missiles while submerged in the eastern Mediterranean, presenting a much more difficult target than a destroyer on the surface. Elsewhere, a French frigate let off three missiles.
But the bulk of the firing came from somewhere else entirely: the Red Sea.
Near Egypt, the USS Monterey, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser, fired 30 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the USS Laboon, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, shot seven, accounting for about a third of the 105 missiles the US said were fired.
Combined with an air assault from a US B-1B Lancer bomber and UK and French fighter jets, the attack ended up looking considerably different from 2017’s punitive strike.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Peter Reft)
Photos from the morning of the attack show Syrian air defenses firing missile interceptors on unguided trajectories, suggesting they did not target or intercept incoming missiles.
“No Syrian weapon had any effect on anything we did,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters of the strike on April 14, 2018, calling the strike “precise, overwhelming, and effective.”
Syria said it shot down 71 missiles, but no evidence has surfaced to back up that claim. The US previously acknowledged that one of the Tomahawks used in last year’s attack failed to reach its target because of an error with the missile.
Medics and corpsman can be trained in a variety of ways. They can operate on troops in cut suits, a fake abdomen and torso filled with simulated organs. They can practice on medical dummies. They can even work in hospitals on real civilian patients. But one of the most realistic training programs for medics is the most controversial, operating on live animals intentionally injured for training.
PETA has been fighting against this training practice for years. The program is referred to by a few names with “live tissue training” being one of the most popular. In live tissue trauma training, or LTTT, animals are given surgical levels of anesthesia before an instructor inflicts trauma on them — everything from broken bones to puncture wounds. In the most intense classes, the animals may be shot or burned.
The medic or corpsman then has to save the animal’s life. As they do so, the instructor can continue injuring the “patient,” forcing the student to continuously decide what to treat first and how to save the animal. LTTT can go on for hours while the animal sleeps.
Then, when the training is complete, the animal is euthanized without ever re-gaining consciousness.
Live tissue training has been restricted for many training programs and legislation has been re-introduced to halt LTTT within the next five years. PETA and others who protest the training method point to the cruelty of killing and injuring animals for the purposes of training.
The program has plenty of advocates in Special operations. Jim Hanson, a former Special Forces soldier, wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Times in 2010 supporting the practice by saying it is the only training that provides “the visceral reaction each medic must face when a life is in danger.”
Glen Doherty, a former Navy SEAL who was killed in the Benghazi, Libya attack in 2012, once wrote an opinion piece supporting animal training that said, “You can simulate performing a surgical crycothyrotomy on a mannequin a dozen times, but until you’ve cut through living tissue on a creature whose life is depending on your timely and successful procedure to survive, you’ve never really done it.”
In this video, medics operate on a goat while training on surgical procedures. Surgical live tissue training has been discontinued, and monkeys were no longer used for chemical casualty management training starting in 2012. In 2017, it was announced that LTTT would be drastically scaled back in favor of more humane methods.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard Hunter was accompanying a 50-man joint Special Forces team as they moved forward in Taliban-ridden Kunduz Province on Nov. 2, 2016.
As they snaked through an alleyway during the night mission in search of a high-value target in Boz Qandahari village, the U.S.-Afghan team came upon a barrier, “a large metal fence, that blocked the way, and it wasn’t supposed to be there,” according to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.
That’s when the first enemy grenade was launched, and bullets started to spray during the ambush, said Wilson, who presented the Air Force Cross — second only to the Medal of Honor for valor in combat — to Hunter, a combat controller, on October 17 for his steadfast decisions and courage during the U.S. Army-led mission in Afghanistan.
Wilson said Hunter, assigned to 23rd Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron, kept his position, never faltering as he called in “danger-close” airstrikes from AC-130 Spooky gunships and AH-64 Apache helicopters within 20 meters of their position.
Danger-close refers to strikes coming within 100 meters of friendly personnel. The firefight lasted for eight hours.
“What was truly extraordinary as I reviewed this story was the amazing precision and professionalism of the team,” she said, speaking before the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron; Air Force Special Operations Command commander Lt. Gen. Brad Webb; and the AFSOC community at Hurlburt Field, Florida.
Hunter managed to position himself between the insurgents and his team, “shielding the wounded with his body, while providing suppressive fire with his rifle,” according to the citation.
After clearing the compound, and taking cover with a few team members, Hunter exposed himself to gunfire again as he heard calls for help in the distance, “dragging a wounded teammate 30 meters to safety,” the citation states.
For the next four hours, the airstrikes kept coming from the AC-130 “Spooky 43” gunship crew and the helicopters, including multiple 105mm rounds within as little as 13 meters from his location.
“Doesn’t an insurgent fear, more than the sound of a jet fighter, the sound of an AC-130 gunship?” Wilson said.
In all, 1,787 munitions rained down on the enemy’s position, which included 31 “danger-close” engagements, the citation said. More than 50 lives were saved, and 27 Taliban fighters were killed.
“Every [Joint Terminal Attack Controller], aircraft commander and ground force commander knows the risk of a danger-close mission,” Wilson said.
“But 31 without a single fratricide [by friendly fire] on the ground is just astounding,” she said.
“Thanks to [Staff] Sgt. Hunter, and his efforts to always be closest to the enemy, to put himself in the rear when everyone else got out of the way. To make sure his team was safe. He risked his own life and put himself in position to maintain tally on the target,” Wilson said.
The secretary honored two Army Green Beretskilled in action that day: Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Gloyer and Maj. Andrew Byers. Byers was posthumously awarded the Silver Star in February.
“Special operations is a force that we call when we really need the absolute best,” Wilson said.
She added, “There’s no better friend — and no worse enemy — than the United States special operations forces.”
The world’s vast oceans and seas offer seemingly endless spaces in which adversaries of the United States can maneuver undetected. The U.S. military deploys networks of manned and unmanned platforms and sensors to monitor adversary activity, but the scale of the task is daunting and hardware alone cannot meet every need in the dynamic marine environment. Sea life, however, offers a potential new advantage. Marine organisms are highly attuned to their surroundings — their survival depends on it — and a new program out of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office aims to tap into their natural sensing capabilities to detect and signal when activities of interest occur in strategic waters such as straits and littoral regions.
The Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program, led by program manager Lori Adornato, will study natural and modified organisms to determine which ones could best support sensor systems that detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles. PALS will investigate marine organisms’ responses to the presence of such vehicles, and characterize the resulting signals or behaviors so they can be captured, interpreted, and relayed by a network of hardware devices.
“The U.S. Navy’s current approach to detecting and monitoring underwater vehicles is hardware-centric and resource intensive. As a result, the capability is mostly used at the tactical level to protect high-value assets like aircraft carriers, and less so at the broader strategic level,” Adornato said. “If we can tap into the innate sensing capabilities of living organisms that are ubiquitous in the oceans, we can extend our ability to track adversary activity and do so discreetly, on a persistent basis, and with enough precision to characterize the size and type of adversary vehicles.”
Beyond sheer ubiquity, sensor systems built around living organisms would offer a number of advantages over hardware alone. Sea life adapts and responds to its environment, and it self-replicates and self-sustains. Evolution has given marine organisms the ability to sense stimuli across domains — tactile, electrical, acoustic, magnetic, chemical, and optical. Even extreme low light is not an obstacle to organisms that have evolved to hunt and evade in the dark.
However, evaluating the sensing capabilities of sea life is only one of the challenges for PALS researchers. Performer teams supporting DARPA will also have to develop hardware, software, and algorithms to translate organism behavior into actionable information and then communicate it to end users. Deployed hardware systems operating at a standoff distance of up to 500 meters must collect signals of interest from relevant species, process and distill them, and then relay them to remote end users. The complete sensing systems must also discriminate between target vehicles and other sources of stimuli, such as debris and other marine organisms, to limit the number of false positives.
Adornato is aiming to demonstrate the approach and its advantages in realistic environments to convey military utility.
“Our ideal scenario for PALS is to leverage a wide range of native marine organisms, with no need to train, house, or modify them in any way, which would open up this type of sensing to many locations,” Adornato said.
DARPA favors proposals that employ natural organisms, but proposers are able to suggest modifications. To the extent researchers do propose solutions that would tune organisms’ reporting mechanisms, the proposers will be responsible for developing appropriate environmental safeguards to support future deployment. However, at no point in the PALS program will DARPA test modified organisms outside of contained, biosecure facilities.
DARPA anticipates that PALS will be a four-year, fundamental research program requiring contributions in the areas of biology, chemistry, physics, machine learning, analytics, oceanography, mechanical and electrical engineering, and weak signals detection.
Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.
Of all the world’s commodities, petroleum best epitomizes the geopolitical consequences of natural resources. Countries that were fortunate to possess large reserves of hydrocarbons found themselves with incredible wealth and in control of a powerful driver of economic development. Countries that were unable to produce enough oil and gas for their needs found themselves vulnerable to supply disruptions and at a major geopolitical disadvantage.
The oil and gas industry had a significant Achilles heel, however. Oil and gas development had significant up-front development costs but, in many cases, relatively low operating costs. Once a well was brought into production, the cost of keeping it operating was relatively low, even if the revenue was insufficient to amortize the development cost. The result was that, historically, the oil and gas industry has been subject to volatile swings in pricing.
In 1919, the Texas Railroad Commission (TRC) was charged with setting production levels among Texas oil producers in order to control the supply and stabilize prices. From 1930 through 1960, the TRC was largely responsible for setting the price of oil worldwide.
In 1960, a group of oil-producing countries, led by Saudi Arabia, adopted the TRC model and formed the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to regulate oil production and stabilize prices. OPEC did not eliminate oil price volatility, but its willingness to regulate its production levels helped moderate some of the pricing instability. Between 2000 and 2020, average yearly oil prices varied from a low of .99 per barrel in 2001, to a high of 2.58 per barrel in 2011. The average price in 2019 was .92 per barrel. Currently, average oil prices are approximately per barrel.
Canada, Russia, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States, all significant oil producers, were among the oil-producing countries that did not join OPEC. The U.S., a major producer, began to import oil in 1959. Although the U.S. still imports oil, it has been a net exporter of both refined petroleum products and crude oil since November 2019.
OPEC’s share of the global oil market peaked at slightly more than 50% in 1973. In 2019, it was approximately 30%. Energy conservation; new discoveries; improvements in drilling and production technology; and, most significantly, the development of horizontal drilling to open “tight” oil- and gas-bearing formations and the development of the Canadian tar sands, have all cut into OPEC’s market share. In addition, Asia, principally China, India and Japan, have now become the main market for OPEC’s exports.
In 2017, Russia, along with 10 other non-OPEC oil-producing countries, agreed to coordinate production cuts with the group in order to stabilize prices. The countries were referred to as the “Vienna Group” and the arrangement as OPEC+. The agreement represented a strategic alignment of Saudi Arabia and Russia to rationalize prices. It lasted through March 2020.
One of the immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic was a sharp drop of approximately one to two million barrels per day (BOPD) in world demand for petroleum. In early March, OPEC agreed to extend its current cutbacks of 2.1 million BOPD and to reduce production by an additional 1.5 BOPD to a total of 3.6 million BOPD.
OPEC requested that Russia and the other 10 oil-producing countries in the OPEC+ group decrease their production by an additional 500,000 BOPD. Russia refused to accept the additional production cuts, arguing that any production cutbacks would simply be made up by American shale oil producers.
In retaliation, Saudi Arabia declared that it would flood world oil markets in a quest to regain lost market share and indirectly punish Russia for its unwillingness to cooperate.
Within a matter of days, world oil prices cratered by approximately 60%. The collapse of oil prices, coupled with rising anxiety over the economic consequences of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, triggered widespread economic turmoil and a marked decline in financial markets.
U.S. Strategic Interests and OPEC
The governments of both Russia and Saudi Arabia are heavily dependent on petroleum exports to fund the bulk of their expenditures. In Riyadh’s case, oil exports supply 70% of its revenues; in Moscow’s case, the number is approximately 46%. Both countries have sovereign funds designed to cover shortfalls in government revenues from falling oil prices. Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund had 0 billion in assets, while Russia’s National Wealth Fund had approximately 4 billion at the end of 2019.
The Trump administration was quick to characterize the Saudi and Russian decisions to increase oil production as a thinly veiled attack on American shale oil producers. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that 7.7 million BOPD, or about 2.81 billion barrels, of crude oil were produced from tight oil formations in the United States in 2019. This was equal to about 63% of total U.S. crude oil production last year.
This was not the first time that Saudi Arabia had tried to use low prices to force the producers of the more expensive shale oil out of the market. In response, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would buy up to 77 million barrels of oil from American producers for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Funding for these purchases was not, however, included in the recently passed 2020 Cares Act. In the meantime, the TRC announced that it would consider limiting Texas oil production to stabilize prices. Texas represents 40% of U.S. oil production.
Pundits were quick to take positions on which country, Saudi Arabia or Russia, would be able to hold out the longest in the ensuing price war. Meanwhile, television commentators pointed out that lower gasoline prices represented a boon for American consumers.
The more germane questions, however, are where does the U.S. interest lie? Is the U.S. better off from lower or higher petroleum prices? What are the consequences of lower oil prices on America’s strategic interests around the world?
From the 1960s through 2013, the U.S. was the largest net importer of petroleum in the world. Lower petroleum prices were in America’s interest as they decreased the balance of payments deficit created by oil imports and represented savings to American households. Today, gasoline costs represent around 2% of average household income. So even significant reductions in gasoline prices are not going to represent a major change in a family’s income — certainly not in respect to the current economic turmoil.
Moreover, given that the U.S. is now a net exporter of oil and natural gas, lower prices reduce its export earnings. Additionally, over the last two decades, the U.S. shale oil industry has emerged as an important driver of economic development and a source of high-paying blue-collar jobs. On balance, the U.S. economy would be better off if prices returned to their -to- pre-crash levels than if they continue at their current depressed levels.
From Washington’s standpoint, the strategic implications of low oil prices around the world are mixed. On the one hand, low oil prices are a significant constraint on the Russian government and on the Kremlin’s ability to fund the expansion and modernization of Russian military forces. Russia needs oil prices at around a barrel or higher to balance its budget, and closer to to finance the more ambitious social and military programs that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to implement.
On the other hand, low oil prices threaten to destabilize countries that are American allies and to create new areas of regional instability or aggravate existing ones. This is particularly true of the Gulf region, but also of countries such as Nigeria and Mexico. Roughly one-third of Mexico’s federal budget comes from oil exports.
The average cost of producing a barrel of oil in the world is around . It’s a difficult number to pin down because operating costs are typically in local currency and are affected by exchange rates, as well as each country’s relative market share. Costs per country, however, can vary dramatically.
The U.K., whose North Sea oil fields are mature and declining, has a production cost of per barrel. Norway, whose oil fields are in a similar position, has an operating cost of .10 per barrel. On average, the amortization of capital costs typically represents about 50% of operating costs. Direct production, overhead, taxes and transportation costs represent the other half.
The U.S., where oil shale production represents two-thirds of output, has an equally high cost at .20. Brazil and Canada, whose new oil production is particularly capital intensive, have costs of .80 per barrel and per barrel, respectively. Russia’s average production cost is around .20, although the cost of new production, especially in its Arctic oil fields, is much higher.
At the other extreme, Saudi Arabia has a production cost of .90 per barrel, while Kuwait has the lowest production cost at .50. Across OPEC, the average production cost is probably between and per barrel. That means, at current prices, most OPEC producers’ costs exceed revenues after they factor in capital costs.
Only Iraq, Iran and the UAE have costs comparable to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. In short, current oil prices are unsustainable long term. Even those countries that can produce oil profitably at these levels cannot produce enough to make up in volume the revenues they need to fund government expenditures. In the short term, prices may drop even lower but, in the long term, low prices are both unsustainable and extremely destabilizing politically.
The trends that produced the current instability in petroleum markets are not new. They have been in process for some time. The COVID-19 pandemic simply accelerated those trends and brought them to a culmination faster and more dramatically than would otherwise have been the case. Ironically, instead of dealing with the consequence of “peak oil” and skyrocketing prices, today we are dealing with too much production capacity and insufficient demand.
For much of its existence, OPEC has been an American nemesis, a position underscored in 1973 when the Arab members of OPEC (OAPEC) embargoed oil shipments to the U.S. in response to American aid to Israel. Historically, as a net consumer of oil, the U.S. wanted lower prices, while producers wanted higher prices. Today, however, it’s a different world, one in which the interests of OPEC and the U.S. are more closely aligned.
Prices in the to range are sufficient to keep the U.S. shale oil industry economic and afford OPEC members a basis of financial stability. It’s also in Russia’s interest, as it stabilizes the Kremlin’s finances, even if it falls short of Moscow’s more ambitious goals. In the meantime, the U.S. petroleum industry will continue to innovate and to bring down its shale oil production costs, while continuing to expand its liquefied natural gas export capability. Moreover, the U.S. would likely get Canada, Brazil, the U.K. and Norway to participate, even if unofficially, in such an arrangement. The Alberta provincial government is already limiting oil production.
In light of the financial repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. and the global economy, stabilizing the oil market and a key American industrial sector would be a first step in repairing the economic damage. It’s time for Washington to make a deal with OPEC and Russia to stabilize the oil market, even if that means the U.S. must agree to some production cuts or export curtailment to ensure price stability.