Electronic Agent Orange?

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Those of you of a certain vintage will recall how the U.S. military dumped dioxin-laced Agent Orange defoliant all over Vietnam in hopes of an instant autumn — stripping leaves from the jungle so the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese couldn’t hide. But the cost of chemical defoliation was so high, and so tragic, that an electronic version has a certain appeal.

You may recall Agent Orange’s true legacy:

— The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has estimated that 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides, resulting in 400,000 people being killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects

— In the U.S., Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs have decided the following medical conditions are eligible for VA benefits if the person suffering from them served in Vietnam, due to Agent Orange’s suspected role in causing them:

prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, multiple myeloma, type II diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, soft tissue sarcoma, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, peripheral neuropathy, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, B cell leukemias, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease, and spina bifida in children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange.

So the notion of an unmanned aircraft that can electronically see through foliage is pretty cool. That’s what TRACER — the Tactical Reconnaissance and Counter-Concealment-Enabled Radar — is supposed to do when affixed to a drone. TRACER’s low-frequency radar allows “detection through dense forest canopy and even below ground,” manufacturer Lockheed-Martin says. They even have a name for it — FOPEN, for “foliage penetration.” Lockheed says “this penetrating detection capability on a persistent surveillance platform provides commanders at all levels with actionable intelligence in a tactical, useful timeline.”

The radar doesn’t provide a video-like picture, but rather imagery that analysts have to examine and interpret. Lockheed perfected the radar under a $40 million Army contract, but won’t say how much it’s going to try to sell the units for, assuming it finds a buyer.