Brandon Friedman wants you to know that just because coffee has the reputation of being the military’s beverage of choice, tea isn’t reserved for Brits in silly hats enjoying crumpets. For Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, their wars have centered mostly around having tea. After all, foreign fighters and tribal leaders hold court over tea, not coffee. Friedman thought it was strange that tea isn’t more associated with the military experience. He founded Rakkasan Tea Company with that in mind.
Friedman was commissioned as an Army infantry officer in 2000 and was assigned to the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division — known as the “Rakkasans,” the old Japanese word for “parachute.” By March, 2002, he and his unit were in an air assault into Afghanistan’s Shah-e-Kot Valley as part of Operation Anaconda. In 2003, he was part of the initial invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and eventually became part of the force that held Tal Afar and Mosul.
By 2004, he was out of the Army and taking his career in a different direction. His now-business partner in Rakkasan Tea was then-Pfc. Terrence “TK” Kamauf, whom Friedman met in his unit. Kamauf was a machine gunner then, but stayed in long after Friedman left. Kamauf went on to become a Green Beret and was in another six or seven years. Now, the two import tea together.
Friedman’s partner in Rakkasan Tea, Terrence “TK” Kamauf (left), in Iraq.
(Courtesy of Brandon Friedman)
But Friedman’s love for the leaf began in Iraq. As many veterans can attest, all business was conducted over tea. It was an introduction to what Friedman calls the “social experience of tea.”
“It’s hard to find that in the U.S. because this is such a coffee country and coffee is really a solitary drink,” He says. “Tea brings people together and we think the U.S. is ready for that. I know we won’t convert everyone, but the veteran community should certainly give tea a serious look.”
Friedman with his platoon of Rakkasans in Iraq.
But where Rakkasan Tea Company gets its tea is central to its ongoing mission. The company imports solely from post-conflict countries as a way to promote peace and economic development.
“As a veteran-owned and veteran-staffed company, we understand what conflict does to communities,” Friedman says. “And we want to get as many veterans into this business as we can. So, we often describe our mission as being one that helps communities recover from war at home AND abroad.”
Rakkasan Tea comes from places like Nepal, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Laos. With the exception of Sri Lanka, these are difficult to find on American shelves. The tea imported from Laos is significant because it comes from one of the areas most devastated by American bombing during the Vietnam War — more ordnance was dropped on Laos than in the entirety of Europe during World War II.
One of Rakkasan Tea Company’s Vietnamese tea pickers.
(Courtesy of Brandon Friedman)
The latest effort in Laos centers on small farms in the mountainous Xiengkhouang Province and on the Bolaven Plateau in southern Champasak Province. The teas come from some of the oldest trees in the world and you won’t find this quality at Starbucks or Whole Foods.
To Friedman, tea is like wine: its character, flavor, and aroma are all greatly influenced by its environment. That might be why he sells tea both by the type of tea and its place of origin.
“Rainfall, altitude, soil content, processing techniques, and more all factor into the taste and quality,” Friedman says. “So when we say we have premium tea grown in Rwanda’s volcanic soil or tea grown on northern Vietnam’s 400-year-old tea trees, that’s of interest to tea enthusiasts. Because it’s really good.”
He wants you to know how good it is and he wants you to be a repeat customer. He obsesses over the returns from his customers. Their feedback really does have an influence on the direction of the company.
“First, I hope we’re living up to the Rakkasan ideal of honor, justice, and commitment,” he says. “But meeting people who enjoy our product is best part of doing this.”
Most of the news about combat trauma and PTS(D) is bad. Those of us who slogged through nasty deployments are often seen as ticking time bombs. Civilians tend to throw out a “Thank you for your service!” before scurrying away.
Mattis knows that the public emphasizes the negative experiences. Many people are tempted to think of combat vets as broken or suffering. What they ignore, he says, is that we come back stronger than when we left. We are challenged by war, forced to grow and adapt, and return as a more kick-ass version of ourselves.
Combat vets are survivors. The mindset and skills we pick up in war are incredibly valuable no matter what we choose to do after taking off the uniform.
Badass skill #1: We are better able to multitask, especially in chaotic environments.
This is a no-brainer. It’s the foundation of every infantryman’s “shoot, move, communicate” skillset. Where else are you expected to maintain awareness of your environment while simultaneously communicating with other units and assets in an area?
Badass skill #2: We have higher tolerances for stress.
There are a lot of people who think they lead stressful lives. Traffic, emails, complaining kids; all these things can seem like stress until you deploy for 7 to 12 months at a time. We may get annoyed by life, sure, but who doesn’t? The difference is that combat vets function better when things get really nasty, not collapse under the strain.
Badass skill #3: We aren’t intimidated by difficult work.
It’s hard to find something more challenging than combat. There is the grueling months of the work-up, the separation from friends and family, and then the slow and steady grind of the actual deployment. Many of us repeat this cycle again, and again, and again. After that you can be pretty confident that life isn’t going to throw anything at you that you can’t handle.
Badass skill #4: We can adapt to new tools and technologies.
Despite what a lot of people think about military technology, we get to use some pretty cool stuff. More than that, the gear is constantly changing, sometimes even during deployment. We have to be adaptable – willing to learn on the fly. Quick on-the-job training is incredibly valuable for many jobs.
William Treseder served in the Marines between 2001 and 2011. He now writes regularly on military topics, and has been featured in TIME, Foreign Policy, and Boston Review.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth — the largest and most powerful carrier the Royal Navy has ever built — set sail on June 26 for the first time.
With a price tag of about $3.8 billion, it’s also Britain’s most expensive ship ever built. Still, the juice might be worth the squeeze.
“I think there are very few capabilities, by any country, that are as symbolic as a carrier strike capability,” commanding officer Captain Jerry Kyd told reporters on June 26. “These are visible symbols of power and power projection.”
Manned by a crew of 1,000 sailors, the ship is 919-feet long, weighs 65,000 tons, and can hold 40 jets.
The USO is bringing back its viral social media challenge again this year with 2018’s #Flex4Forces campaign. Running from now until Independence Day, using the hashtag #Flex4Forces will help bring awareness to the USO and its continued contributions to the troops.
The challenge is simple: Snap a photo or video of yourself flexing, post it on any social media platform, and be sure to caption it with #Flex4Forces. Next, tag four of your friends (or celebrities) to flex next and keep the challenge going. Finally, you can donate $4 at USO.org/Flex.
The USO debuted the challenge last year to overwhelming success. Troops, veterans, civilians, companies, communities, sports teams, and more joined in on the fun. Chris Pratt, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Tim McGraw, and many more celebrities also helped spread the challenge.
USO CEO and President J.D. Crouch II said,
“At the USO, we believe service members should feel connected and supported, no matter where they serve, and Flex4Forces encourages Americans to recognize the service of the one percent who protect and defend our nation. This campaign is a simple way to bring the American people closer to service members and to show them our strong support.”
It’s all in good fun and it’s the perfect way to mix both the military’s love of the USO and love of showing off that deployment body. Even if you’re not as jacked as Dwayne Johnson, you can still join in. At the end of the day, it’s not really about gloating — it’s about sharing the goodwill that the USO has shown to our troops over the decades.
Credible sources have confirmed that it’s all over. The Apocalypse is nigh. The End Times are upon us. The trouble started when Army Chief of Staff Mark A. Milley announced that soldiers at Fort Hood were going to be allowed to roll their sleeves for a 10-day trial period. But rolled up sleeves would be a grave mistake. While the Army publically stated in 2005 that it was getting rid of rolled sleeves to prevent sunburn and insect bites, it’s widely known that the real reason was to keep the world from going all topsy-turvy.
Here are 5 things to look forward to if this dreadful uniform change is allowed to stand:
1. Privates will lead sergeants
The first consequence will be a complete breakdown in the natural order of military bases, and privates will begin leading sergeants instead of vice versa. This will be truly disastrous since modern privates typically can’t read paper maps and will likely rule by committee. The E-4 Mafia has signaled that it would be willing to work with privates if they usurped the NCOs.
2. Civilians will become colonels
Since the NCO corps will be busy fighting against these challenges from bare-forearmed privates, there will be no one to prevent officers from promoting their golf buddies into the Army. Expect a surge of “lateral entry” officers into ranks as high as colonel or general.
3. Russia will transform back into the Soviet Union
With the U.S. Army wrestling to re-establish some semblance of order in the “Rolled Sleeves” world, Russian President Vladimir Putin will no longer have to fear reprisals from the West if he goes too far. He will quickly send forces into the rest of Ukraine as well as NATO states bordering Russia.
Once he has reclaimed enough territory, he will declare the rebirth of the Soviet Union and grow a new, Stalin-esque mustache.
4. Blood will no longer make the green grass grow
Perhaps the most damaging result of the Army abandoning its extended sleeves policy will be the fact that it will change basic organic chemistry and stop the growth of grass watered with blood. Water will have to be piped or trucked in to keep plant life going.
This will be an especially big problem for desert bases like Fort Hood that have limited access to water.
5. Actually, it’s going to be fine
Look, besides the annoying fact that the modern uniform has little sleeves for pens and big velcro patches that make the uniform hard to roll, this isn’t a big deal. Soldiers will wear more sunscreen and bug spray again, and everyone can go back to work. Congrats, Fort Hood. And thank you, Dailey and Milley, for trusting soldiers to remain professionals even with rolled sleeves.
It’s a video game series beloved by troops deployed to recent battlefields and has become as common in squad bays as dip and energy drinks.
And now thanks to efforts by its designer, Activision, the non-profit that bears its name has broken its own record, placing more than 25,000 unemployed, post-9/11 vets in good jobs two years ahead of schedule.
Established in 2009 by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, the Call of Duty Endowment has pledged more than $18 million to businesses and other service groups to help them place post-9/11 veterans in high-quality careers with a solid understanding of the benefits former servicemembers bring to the table.
The Call of Duty Endowment set a goal of placing 25,000 vets in partner companies by 2018. But after reaching that bar in 2016, the non-profit announced it will double the goal by 2019.
“The Endowment’s efforts have had a direct and positive impact on the lives of so many who have given so much,” said Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision Blizzard and Co-Founder of the endowment. “With U.S. veteran unemployment rates still well above the national average, we are committed to continuing our efforts and have established a new, ambitious goal to secure employment for 50,000 veterans by 2019.”
According to a statement, the Call of Duty Endowment uses a “performance-driven approach” to vetting potential partners and after earning a grant, the endowment works with grantees and employers to “provide an array of advice and support aimed at maximizing their impact.”
The non-profit says the average cost to put a veteran on the payroll of its company partners is less than $600, compared to $3,000 for government-assisted employment services for vets.
“Finding quality, meaningful employment is essential for a veteran to successfully transition back to civilian life,” said former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James L. Jones, Co-Chairman of the endowment. “The Call of Duty Endowment is truly making a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of military veterans and their families.”
The endowment has already donated $18 million to get vets back to work and boasts an average $50,000 starting salary with 94 percent placed in full-time jobs.
“Twenty-five thousand veterans is equivalent to every individual recruited by the U.S. Navy in 2015, and we’ve achieved this goal by applying common sense business practices to philanthropy,” said Dan Goldenberg, Executive Director of the endowment. “We’re grateful for the support from Activision Blizzard, our partners and the gaming community, and are proud of what our grantees have achieved in such a short period of time.”
The debut novel from the National Book Award-winning author of Redeployment, Missionaries might be the perfect novel of all time. Phil Klay’s Missionaries examines the globalization of violence through four characters with interlocking stories and the harsh conflicts that define their lives.
Klay is an Iraq War veteran and the author of a short story collection, Redeployment, about the military’s misadventures in both Iraq and Afghanistan. After its publication, Redeployment was listed as one of the best books of 2014. Klay has now realigned his sites to examine not just the conquests of the Middle East and Central Asia but also unpacks the global conflicts one step further and attempts to provide readers with a complex and thought-provoking argument about American foreign policy over since the beginning of the Global War on Terror.
The basic plot is this: a group of Columbian soldiers prepares to raid a drug lord’s safe house along the Venezuelan border. The soldiers are watching him with an American-made drone and are planning to strike using military tactics taught to them by American soldiers, soldiers who’ve perfected their counter-insurgent skills while on deployment in Iraq.
Missionaries starts slowly with a familiar scenario – a journalist living in wartime Afghanistan, Lisette, can’t seem to get it together to file her news briefs on time. She’s had enough of the war, the sand, the loss. Lisette manages to leave Kabul, texts with an old boyfriend, a soldier turned contractor, and attempts to regain a footing in the world. She asks the old boyfriend if there are any wars in the world that America is winning, and the soldier-turned-contractor replies with a one-word answer, “Columbia.”
This is where the novel truly begins and where Klay’s masterful deft and skill with words truly begins to shine. Klay has a serious knack for setting scenes, providing meaningful irony, and showcasing deep human empathy. He does all of this so covertly that the weaving of the stories presented in Missionaries feels as much like it’s unfolding naturally as if the story simply has to be told.
The novel spans three decades, examining the lives of Young Abel, whose family is slaughtered in a Columbian village but who manages to rise in the ranks under his brutal boss, Jefferson; Juan Pablo, a colonel in the Columbian military whose daughter Valencia confront Jefferson; two American soldiers Mason and Diego, groomed to fight at the frontlines and who know how to adapt to a war whose core central mission is foggy at best; and Lisette, the reporter who brings everyone together.
Without a doubt, Abel is the central core of Missionaries. He struggles to be the force of good in the face of Jefferson’s brutal savagery and spends much of the novel feeling doomed – in part because Jefferson’s charisma is so electric. Brutal warlord Jefferson is at once both kind and sadistic. Abel struggles with his loyalty to Jefferson throughout the novel, wrestling with his own motivations.
The lurid appeal of this delayed universe is similar to Cormac McCarthy in its bleakness. But Klay isn’t just attempting to unravel the void of morality. He’s trying to unpack the violence in Columbia and relate it directly to the fiasco that has been Afghanistan, and he’s able to do that because of his own experiences in combat.
Klay’s sentences are meaty, compact, and rich. Dazzling details seem to exist in both the myopic and the overly dilated sense, allowing Klay the ability to zoom in on this world that he’s created or pan back when needed.
And underneath it all, Klay’s book serves as a reminder that war and idealism ultimately create who we are – both on the field and once home again. Missionaries is an excellent example of what can follow a great debut collection. It is intricate, ambitious, and converges in the way real life often does. The ceaseless engine that drives the novel forward is the same engine that’s pushing more troops forward – American foreign policy. Missionaries attempts to understand why. It’s both horrifying and refreshing and forces its reader to reflect on our own national policies and the implications of American power abroad.
The United States Marine Corps has, arguably, the best heavy-lift transport helicopter in the world in the Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion. However, the chopper, which entered service in 1981, is getting kind of old. So, the Marines and Sikorsky have teamed up to put the Super Stallion on a regimen of aeronautical steroids.
Here’s what they did:
The cabin of the new CH-53K King Stallion is almost 18 inches wider than that of the CH-53E. Marines are trained to make the most out of what they have, which means that extra 1.5 feet will go a long way. The most obvious effect of this latest round of upgrades to the CH-53 is the amount of cargo it can haul: 39,903 pounds, according to Lockheed handout. This adds almost 4,000lbs of lift capability to the aircraft.
Three external cargo hooks help the CH-53K haul almost 40,000 pounds of gear.
The CH-53K is also faster. It has a top speed of at least 170 knots, a significant upgrade to the 150 knots of the CH-53E. But how is this possible? The CH-53K is built primarily out of composites metals, which are much lighter than the materials used in previous iterations of the chopper. By weighing less, the CH-53K doesn’t have to work as hard to haul itself around, allowing it to distributed more lift. The CH-53K also replaces the three T64 engines of the CH-53E with T408 engines. The result is about 22,000 horsepower for the new King Stallion, as opposed to the 13,200 of the CH-53E.
In addition, the CH-53K also features numerous other improvements, including fly-by-wire flight controls, composite rotor blades with swept anhedral tips, a low-maintenance rotorhead, an improved external cargo handling system (with three hooks), and a “glass” cockpit (replacing dials and gauges with multi-function displays). The chopper can still carry as many as 55 troops.
A head-on view of the CH-53K in flight – it comes in about 18 inches wider than the CH-53E, but a little space can mean a lot.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Molly Hampton)
The CH-53K is also in contention to replace Luftwaffe CH-53s currently in service. Israeli Defense Forces are also looking into this heavy-lift helicopter. Believe it or not, this bigger Stallion will still fit inside a C-17 Globemaster III transport plane, but can also self-deploy to operating locations and operate off ships.
Currently, the plans are for this helicopter to reach initial operating capability in 2019. When it does, it’ll certainly give the Marines a huge boost.
The “Mileygate” witch hunts, the scandal over four instructor pilots and searches of their personal cell phones conducted with dubious legality, hit a new low. Despite no evidence of actual drug use, and each passing every drug test, three were stripped of their wings and given reprimands which will effectively end their careers. All because they were texting Miley Cyrus, JellyRoll, and other artists’ songs whose lyrics contain references to “molly,” slang for the club drug Ecstasy.
The text messages were originally found as the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) was looking into a case of an unprofessional relationship between another pilot and his student. One of the four pilots was ordered to give his cell phone up after being told OSI had a warrant for the phone, except the warrant was signed the day after the seizure. One pilot was refused a lawyer. Despite the ridiculous misunderstanding, the Air Force continued its persecution of the officers and is in full damage control mode. Lt. Col. Julie Huygen, chief of the military justice division, Air Force Legal Operations Agency, wants airmen to realize they are expected to abide by Air Force standards of professionalism at all times, even when they are off duty:
You must avoid offensive and/or inappropriate behavior on social networking platforms and through other forms of communication that could bring discredit upon on [sic] the Air Force or you as a member of the Air Force, or that would otherwise be harmful to good order and discipline, respect for authority, unit cohesion, morale, mission accomplishment, or the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force.
With Lt. Col. Huygen’s warning in mind, WATM felt it necessary to help the Air Force bring you a few examples of other lyrics airmen should be careful of texting to their friends.
“She a hot tamale when she pop a molly, it’s time to party, we party hard/Drink and smoke it, drink and smoke it, drink and smoke it, we high for sure”
Try to remember you and your friends are airmen in the world’s greatest air force and not Chief Keef, 50 Cent, and Wiz Khalifa.
“How dare you bring another chick in my bed / You lucky I’m doing my yoga or you might be dead.”
This Miley Cyrus lyric is problematic at best, as adultery is punishable for military members under Article 134 of the UCMJ. Also, the military looks down upon threats of violence off the battlefield.
“I’m tryna give Halle Berry a baby and no one can stop me.”
Drake threatening to force a baby on Halle Berry is not only prejudicial to good order and discipline, it’s also punishable under Article 120 of the UCMJ.
“Yeah I smoke pot, yeah I love peace, but I don’t give a f-ck, I ain’t no hippie.”
Miley strikes again.
“Loaded up the Smith with the hollow TIPS/It’s time to FLIP/And blast my way to the top ten LIST”
Big Pun can use hollow tip bullets, but under the Hague Convention of 1899, as a military member, you are forbidden.
“Put Molly all in her champagne/She ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that/She ain’t even know it.”
There’s so much wrong with this Rick Ross lyric, I don’t know where to begin. Mr. Ross, you need to attend SHARP training.
“A 50, 60 grand, prob’ a hundred grams though… I be smoking dope and you know Backwoods what I roll”
Fetty Wap can do a lot of things forbidden to U.S. military personnel.
“Let him hit it cause he slang cocaine/He toss my salad like his name Romaine”
Trading sexual favors for illegal drugs is forbidden under Article 112b and Articles 134-138 of the UCMJ. Even if it’s with Nicki Minaj.
“Coke on her back made a stripe like a zebra”
Kanye can say this because he’s not A1C West.
“MDMA got you feeling like a champion” Jay Z
“I’m used to Promethazine in two cups, I’m screwed up” – Lil Wayne
“Enough Oxycontin to send a f–king ox to rehab.” – Eminem
“It was 2006, I was working in hotel management,” Gina Elise says. “There were all these stories about the Veterans Administration struggling to treat returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. I wanted to do something to support them and to support the hospitals who treated them.”
Gina Elise is the founder of Pin-Ups for Vets, a non-profit whose mission is based on producing WWII-style pinup calendars to support hospitalized veterans and deployed troops. After four years, she quit her job at the hotel to work with veterans full time. She has produced nine annual calendars since, but her efforts don’t stop at just calendars. Elise and her unit of celebrities and women veterans are currently on a 50-state VA and military hospital tour. To date, the pinups visited 6,000 veterans at their bedside.
“Attitude is a huge part of recovery,” says Shannon Stacy, a former Marine Corps Flight Surgeon and the 2015 calendar’s Miss April. “I think its great that an organization like this can come in really make a difference in patients lives, on top of what the doctors and nurses do.” Stacy can appreciate how attitude affects recovery, as she is also currently an Emergency Medicine Physician.
“On the surface, we’re shooting a fun, artistic calendar,” Elise says. “Under that, we’re supporting a cause that should be important to all Americans: supporting our veterans.” Most importantly, Pin-Ups for Vets buys medical equipment for VA and military hospitals and sends morale-boosting care packages to deployed American troops around the world. So far, Pin-Ups for Vets donated more than $50,000 of state-of-the-art rehabilitation equipment to VA military hospitals nationwide.
“My grandfather was a World War II veteran,” Elise recalls. “They used to paint this art on the nose of planes to boost morale for the guys going into battle to remind them of what they were fighting for.”
“When you think about the fact these soldiers painted these women on the sides of aircraft, and it gave them the confidence to go fight,” says Jovane Henry, a former Marine Corps Photojournalist and 2015’s Miss July. “What’s more empowering than that? I think it’s great. It’s a continuation of service for me. Serving was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I’m happy to be able to continue that service through Pin-Ups for Vets.”
The spirit of Pin-Ups For Vets also promotes volunteerism at Veterans Hospitals, supports homeless Veterans in shelters, and boosts morale for military wives and female Veterans with makeovers and clothing.
The recent launch party for the 2015 calendar, the first to feature 12 veterans, was held at the American Legion in Hollywood (Post 43) and featured a burlesque show headlined by an all-veteran pinup revue. It was the first of its kind. Jennifer Campbell, who worked a .50 cal in a US Army transportation unit participated in the show, but saw it as a family event.
“It gave us a chance to jump into a different period of time,” Campbell recalls. “My great aunt was a WWII poster pin-up girl. It was fun seeing the transition from then to now.”
The burlesque troop, “The Dollface Dames,” performed a variety of numbers. It was a vintage burlesque show, true to its 1940’s heritage, complete with dancing, feather boas, hula-hoops, singing, even a shadow silhouette erotic dance.
“There’s no hard, fast rule that says I can’t be a hard-charging Marine and a lipstick-wearing pinup,” Henry states. “So I choose to be both.”
Is Russia really flying combat missions from the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov? That is a question percolating as recent satellite photos caught some of the planes that are known to operate from the carrier at a land base, as opposed to operating directly from the carrier.
That airbase, located near the coastal city of Latakia, has become Russia’s main center of operations during its intervention in Syria. Russia also has a naval facility in Tartus, roughly 45 miles to the south of Latakia, that has been used since 1971 under an agreement by the Soviet Union with the regime of Hafez al-Assad.
While it is not uncommon for carrier-based planes to operate from land bases (the n Cactus Air Force at Guadalcanal, which featured planes from the air groups of damaged carriers, is perhaps the most famous instance), this is a sign that Russia’s carrier is less than it seems. In essence, while the Russians are claiming that the Kuznetsov is carrying out a combat deployment and launching sorties, this ship really was more of a glorified aircraft ferry. This is the purported flagship of the Russian Navy.
The Kuznetsov displaces 61,000 tons, and usually carries 15 Su-33 Flankers, but is also capable of carrying up to 20 MiG-29s. One of the MiG-29s crashed earlier this month due to issues with the carrier’s arresting gear combined with an engine failure on the modern multi-role fighter.
The pilot ejected and was recovered, a very unexpected hiccup in Russia’s efforts to showcase the carrier, which has had a reputation for breaking down while on deployment. Since the crash, the MiG-29s have apparently been grounded.
Russia has used the conflict in Syria to test out new weapon systems like the Su-35 “Flanker E” and the SS-N-27 Sizzler. Russia also has deployed the S-400 surface-to-air missile system to defend its bases in Syria.
As the new Congress begins, it will soon discuss the comprehensive reports to the U.S. Senate on the disinformation campaign of half-truths, outright fabrications and misleading posts made by agents of the Russian government on social media in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.
There are already indications that Cyber Command conducted operations against Russian disinformation on social media, including warning specific Russians not to interfere with the 2018 elections. However, low-level cyberwarfare is not necessarily the best way. European countries, especially the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have confronted Russian disinformation campaigns for decades. Their experience may offer useful lessons as the U.S. joins the battle.
The Baltic Sea region of northern Europe. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are in light green in the center, west of Russia in blue.
Beginning in 1940 and continuing until they declared independence in the early 1990s, the Baltic countries were subjected to systematic Russian gaslighting designed to make people doubt their national history, culture and economic development.
The Soviets rewrote history books to falsely emphasize Russian protection of the Baltic people from invading hordes in the Middle Ages, and to convey the impression that the cultural evolution of the three countries was enabled by their allegiance and close ties to Russia. Even their national anthems were rewritten to pay homage to Soviet influence.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic countries, the Russian Federation has continued to deliver disinformation to the region, making extensive use of Russian-language social media. Some themes characterize the Baltic people as ungrateful for Soviet investment and aid after World War II. Another common message criticizes Baltic historians for “falsification of history” when really they are describing the real nature of the Soviet occupation.
A massive Russian attack
After independence, and as the internet grew, Estonia led the way in applying technology to accelerate economic development. The country created systems for a wide range of government and commercial services, including voting, banking and filing tax returns electronically. Today, Estonia’s innovative e-residency system is being adopted in many other countries.
These advances made the Baltics a prime target for cyberattacks. In the spring of 2007, the Russians struck. When Estonia moved a monument memorializing Soviet soldiers from downtown Tallinn, the country’s capital, to a military cemetery a couple of miles away, it provoked the ire of ethnic Russians living in Estonia as well as the Russian government.
The relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn sparked a Russian cyberattack on Estonia in 2007.
(Photo by Keith Ruffles)
For three weeks, Estonian government, financial and media computer systems were bombarded with enormous amounts of internet traffic in a “distributed denial of service” attack. In these situations, an attacker sends overwhelming amounts of data to the targeted internet servers, clogging them up with traffic and either slowing them down or knocking them offline entirely. Despite concerns about the first “cyber war,” however, these attacks resulted in little damage. Although Estonia was cut off from the global internet temporarily, the country’s economy suffered no lasting harm.
These attacks could have severely damaged the country’s financial system or power grid. But Estonia was prepared. The country’s history with Russian disinformation had led Estonia to expect Russian attacks on computer and information systems. In anticipation, the government spearheaded partnerships with banks, internet service providers and other organizations to coordinate responses to cyberattacks. In 2006, Estonia was one of the first countries to create a Computer Emergency Response Team to manage security incidents.
The Baltic response
After the 2007 attack, the Baltic countries upped their game even more. For example, Estonia created the Cyber Defense League, an army of volunteer specialists in information technology. These experts focus onsharing threat information, preparing society for responding to cyber incidents and participating in international cyber defense activities.
Internationally, Estonia gained approval in 2008 to establish NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn. Its comprehensive research into global cyber activities helps identify best practices in cyber defense and training for NATO members.
In 2014, Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia, became home to another NATO organization combating Russian influence, the Strategic Communications Center of Excellence. It publishes reports on Russian disinformation activities, such as the May 2018 study of the “Virtual Russian World in the Baltics.” That report analyzes Russian social media activities targeting Baltic nations with a “toxic mix of disinformation and propaganda.” It also provides insight into identifying and detecting Russian disinformation campaigns.
The Baltic countries also rely on a European Union agency formed in 2015 to combat Russian disinformation campaigns directed against the EU. The agency identifies disinformation efforts and publicizes accurate information that the Russians are seeking to undermine. A new effort will issue rapid alerts to the public when potential disinformation is directed against the 2019 European Parliament elections.
Will the ‘Baltic model’ work in the US?
Because of their political acknowledgment of threats and actions taken by their governments to fight disinformation, a 2018 study rated Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the three European Union members best at responding to Russian disinformation.
A similar approach may work in the U.S., though it would require far more collaboration than has existed so far. But backed by the new government motivation to strike back when provoked, the methods used in the Baltic states and across Europe could provide a powerful new deterrent against Russian influence in the West.
On May 15, 2018, under a sunny sky, Russian President Vladimir Putin drove a bright-orange truck in a convoy of construction vehicles for the opening of the Kerch Strait Bridge from Russia to Crimea. At 11 miles long, it is now the longest bridge in Europe or Russia.
As Putin drove across the bridge, something weird happened. The satellite navigation systems in the control rooms of more than 24 ships anchored nearby suddenly started displaying false information about their location. Their GPS systems told their captains they were anchored more than 65 kilometers away — on land, at the Anapa Airport.
This was not a random glitch, according to the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a security think tank known as C4ADS. It was a deliberate plan to make it difficult for anyone nearby to track or navigate around the presence of Putin, it said.
‘All critical national infrastructures rely on GNSS to some extent’ — and the Russians have started hacking it
Putin driving two construction workers across the Kerch Strait Bridge.
GNSS comprises the constellation of international satellites that orbit Earth. The US’s Global Positioning System, China’s BeiDou, Russia’s Glonass, and Europe’s Galileo program are all part of GNSS.
Your phone, law enforcement, shipping, airlines, and power stations — anything dependent on GPS time and location synchronization — are all vulnerable to GNSS hacking. A 2017 report commissioned by the UK Space Agency said that “all critical national infrastructures rely on GNSS to some extent, with Communications, Emergency Services, Finance, and Transport identified as particularly intensive users.” An attack that disabled GNSS in Britain would cost about £1 billion every day the system was down, the report said.
The jamming, blocking, or spoofing of GNSS signals by the Russian government is “more indiscriminate and persistent, larger in scope, and more geographically diverse than previous public reporting suggested,” said a recent Weekly Intelligence Summary from Digital Shadows, a cybersecurity-monitoring service.
This diagram shows GPS signals for a ship jumping between the accurate location at sea and a false location at a nearby airport.
Nearly 10,000 incidents of ships being sent bad location data
The C4ADS study found that:
1,311 civilian ships have been affected.
9,883 incidents were reported or detected.
Until the past couple of years, C4ADS thought the Russians used GNSS jamming or spoofing mostly to disguise Putin’s whereabouts.
For instance, a large area over Cape Idokopas, near Gelendzhik on the Black Sea coast of Russia, appears to be within a permanent GNSS-spoofing zone. The cape, believed to be Putin’s summer home, or dacha, contains a vast and lavish private residence — “a large Italianate palace, several helicopter pads, an amphitheatre, and a small port,” C4ADS said. It is the only private home in Russia that enjoys the same level of airspace protection and GNSS interference as the Kremlin.
C4ADS thinks Putin’s summer home is protected by a permanent GNSS-spoofing zone.
‘Russian forces had developed mobile GNSS jamming units to provide protection for the Russian president’
“The geographical placement of the spoofing incidents closely aligns with places where Vladimir Putin was making overseas and domestic visits, suggesting that Russian forces had developed mobile GNSS jamming units to provide protection for the Russian president,” Digital Shadows said. “The incidents also align with the locations of Russian military and government resources. Although in some areas the motive was likely to restrict access to or obstruct foreign military.”
Ships sailing near Gelendzhik have reported receiving bogus navigation data on their satellite systems.
“In June 2017, the captain of the merchant vessel Atria provided direct evidence of GNSS spoofing activities off the coast of Gelendzhik, Russia, when the vessel’s on-board navigation systems indicated it was located in the middle of the Gelendzhik Airport, about 20km away. More than two dozen other vessels reported similar disruptions in the region on that day,” C4ADS said.
An million superyacht was sent off course by a device the size of a briefcase
Most of the incidents were recorded in Crimea, the Black Sea, Syria, and Russia.
Perhaps more disturbingly, GNSS-spoofing equipment is available to almost anyone for just a few hundred dollars.
“In the summer of 2013, a research team from The University of Texas at Austin successfully hijacked the GPS navigation systems onboard an million superyacht using a ,000 device the size of a small briefcase,” C4ADS said. “The experimental attack forced the ship’s navigation systems to relay false positioning information to the vessel’s captain, who subsequently made slight course corrections to keep the ship seemingly on track.”
Since then, the cost of a GNSS-spoofing device has fallen to about 0, C4ADS said, and some people have used them to cheat at “Pokémon Go.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.