Friday, November 8, 2013

Google Barges, the untold story

Google two days ago broke its official silence to put speculation to rest on its barge program.  It is a weasel worded statement so general it is useless and it even says things may change.  Here’s the money quote from Google in an article published by Tech Crunch
Google Barge … A floating data center? A wild party boat? A barge housing the last remaining dinosaur? Sadly, none of the above. Although it’s still early days and things may change, using the barge as an interactive space where people can learn about new technology we’re exploring.
Treasure Island CA Barge

 Earlier versions of the barge story were leaked by “authoritative” anonymous sources (supposedly from Google).  They described the barges as floating sales area for Google Glass, with a VIP suite atop.  But the story is breaking down.  It is breaking down because the lease for Hanger 3 on Treasure Island states it is to be used exclusively for “fabrication of a special event structure and art exhibit only and for no other purpose” according to the Tech Crunch article.  Google’s initial story didn’t fit that requirement. Sticking to the it could have jeopardized the lease and stopped the project cold.
Portland Maine Barge


At the heart of the controversy is the ineptness of the cover story, and the handling of the entire supposedly hush-hush project.  If you want to maintain a low profile, you don’t build a monstrous oddball structure next to a bridge within view of several hundred thousand people a day.  It all broke down when some folks wondered if a permit had been issued to moor in San Francisco Bay.  The barge owner, Buy and Large, did not have one.  At that point the story broke in the media and went viral.  The latest pronouncement dampens speculation, but leaves unanswered many others.

The first question is, is this a Google project or a government project using Google for cover?  Given the proclivity of this administration for ineptness, my vote goes to the government.  Cover stories for top secret marine projects are not new, and some have been tremendously successful as well as well hidden.  The most famous took place almost 40 years ago.  Then a ship ostensibly built by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes was to be used to search for and mine manganese nodules from the sea bottom over 3 miles deep. The ship, the Glomar Explorer set sail in 1974 amid a storm of controversy of who owned the sea bottom and who could mine it.  The UN got involved claiming the sea bottom outside nations’ 200 mile economic zone belonged to it.  It claimed it should have sole authority for licensing and royalties.  The noisier the controversy, the more it masked the true purpose – to raise and salvage a Soviet missile submarine from where it sank beneath 16,000 feet of water in the North Pacific in a project codenamed Azorian.
Let’s first look at the cast of characters for Google Barges:  There are 4 barges under construction.  They are registered to a Delaware corporation Buy and Large LLC, a shell corporation thought to be owned by Google.  Two of the barges are registered as passenger barges.  These are the two seen with superstructures made of modules/containers.  There are minor differences between the two.  The California barge appears to be made with a larger number of “containers” than its Maine counterpart.  The California barge has 12 “masts” installed where the Maine item does not.  The other two barges are registered as cargo barges, one at Treasure Island, just beginning alterations and the other located at New London, Connecticut.  The two passenger barges are 260 ft. long with a beam of 72 ft.  The two cargo barges are ten feet shorter and have the same beam.
April 2013 imagery showing the two Google barges and the Hughes Mining Barge HMB-1
Google Earth imagery gives a good look at the two California barges, plus a surprise pier mate.  Barge A is registered as a cargo barge.  There is no activity on it as of the April 16, 2013 imagery.  Barge B, a passenger barge, is in the very early stages of construction with painted outlines for positioning the modules. 
Barge C is one of the most unusual marine vessels ever conceived.  It is the HMB-1 (Hughes Mining Barge), a submersible floating drydock with a retractable roof.  It is no stranger to black ops.  It was designed to work with the Glomar Explorer in Project Azorian.  It covertly transferred the monstrous “claw” to the underbelly of the Glomar Explorer from a submerged position.  And it may have been intended as the covert receptacle for the Soviet sub once retrieved.  The claw is what clamped around the Soviet sub to raise it.  The sub however never made it to the US.  It fell from the “claw,” but only after much was retrieved from Soviet sub. In its second life HMB-1 covertly housed the highly classified experimental stealth ship, the Sea Shadow, designed and built by Lockheed in the 1980s.

Stealth ship Sea Shadow docking in HMB-1
So why was the HMB-1 at Treasure Island at the same time the Google Barges?  Good question!  It may be coincidental, but it makes you wonder.  Here’s the story:  It was purchased by Bay Ship and Yacht Corporation of Alameda last April (2012) as part of a deal to scrap the Sea Shadow inside.  The Hughes barge has been refurbished and made operational at Treasure Island and then transferred in June 2013 to Bay Ship’s yard in Alameda.  Sounds good?  Well chew on this little factoid:  The Google barges have a length and beam of 260 ft. x 72ft. which conveniently fits the 280 ft. x 76 ft. well dimensions of the HMB-1.  Could there be a connection?  Your guess.
It is difficult to conceive the barges as a Google project.  The story keeps changing.  And the multi-billion high-tech firm simply wouldn’t use a rusting barge to do high tech research or operate a training center.  It doesn’t fit its image.  More likely it is some government project to be kept under wraps until later. 
What is the project?  Island Turtle doesn’t know?  Several come to mind.  But none fit conclusively.  I’ll review three of them, but it is more likely some other project we simply don’t know about.  Here are some thoughts with pros and cons.
1.  A mobile command center for Homeland Security in the event of a WMD (terrorist or missile) attack on a coastal city.

Pros:  Homeland Security is awash in money and taking its job seriously.  It conducts communications and civil unrest exercises with local police in major urban areas.  Miami and Chicago are two recent examples.  Some of its mobile communications equipment is awesome (see photo).  Being able to cruise up to the shore of a paralyzed city and disgorge vehicles would be an asset if roads were jammed.
Cons:  While potential prime east coast targets are fairly closely spaced, Boston to Washington,  the major cities on the west coast are widely spaced.  It would take several days to move a barge from San Francisco to San Diego.  Heavy winter storms could halt movement.

2.  A floating mobile ballistic missile defense system.
Pros:  The Air Force Mid-Course Ground Based Interceptor system is in trouble.  The updated version scheduled for production has had multiple failures.  The US Navy’s Aegis/Standard Missile has had an excellent track record and newer versions will have a capability to intercept ICBMs such as those North Korea and Iran are developing.  A barge borne version using off the shelf vertical launch hardware would add mobility to the system and hinder accurate targeting of them.  Such a system would keep  navy missile armed destroyers and cruisers from being tied down with defensive work.  Several studies have recommended missile defense armed barges be used in Europe by Europeans for the same reasons.  Barges are much cheaper.
Cons:  The square footage of the barge superstructures is far in excess of the needs for a launch crew.  And despite their mobility, barges are easy to spot with satellites.  Security for a floating barge is more difficult than for a land based version.
3.  A floating replacement for the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Pros:  The Bangor newspaper said the Portland Maine barge looks like a prison.  It does.  The small window slits are large enough to admit light, but small enough to prevent escape if the glass is broken or forced out.  Escape would be difficult in the cold waters of San Francisco Bay where “escape proof” Alcatraz is located.  Maine waters provide similar protections.  The New London newspaper, The Day ran a story that gives a glimpse into future plans for the east coast barge:

“Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound took part in a conference call on July 1 with a naval architect, a marine transportation company and Michael Tierney, of Google Glass, to review the plans.  The purpose of the vessel is not described in the [FOIA] documents, but they reveal a plan to operate the vessel in various ports, the first being New York Harbor."

Editor’s note:  The last sentence of the quote above has been edited out of The Day story.  It was found here, quoting the original version.
Cons:  Would Google lend its name in any way to a prison ship?  I think not.

Would floating prison ships allow the administration to bypass federal law forbidding the use of federal funds transfer of prisoners from Guantanamo to the US by shortstopping them to barges just offshore, but in international waters? 
At some point we will know the answer, but number 3 makes the most sense now.