Category Archives: News


All Things Nuclear – Insights on Science and Security

Eryn MacDonald provides a nice write-up on a troubling exercise. All Things Nuclear – Insights on Science and Security.

“The team failed the test when it was unable to retake the silo quickly enough to satisfy the requirements of the exercise. According to an internal Air Force review document obtained by the Associated Press, the security team did not take “all lawful actions necessary to immediately regain control of a nuclear weapon.” Because of the potentially huge consequences if a nuclear weapon were to fall into the wrong hands, this was, not surprisingly, labeled a “critical deficiency.” The officer in charge of the security forces was fired shortly after the failed exercise.”


The unexpected spark

“It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity is inherently dangerous. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.”





Global Security Newswire reports:
“The aircraft did not respond to multiple queries and warnings from Donald Cook, and the event ended without incident after approximately 90 minutes,” department spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren was quoted as saying in a Pentagon press story. “This provocative and unprofessional Russian action is inconsistent with international protocols and previous agreements on the professional interaction between our militaries.”



Black Widows and Olympic Terror

black widow
As Russia prepares to host the 2014 Olympic winter games, the country has been hit by several terrorist attacks killing 34 and wounding many more in the town of Volgograd just outside of the “Olympic Perimeter” surrounding Sochi, the site of the upcoming games. On January 19th Russian authorizes received a video containing a message from two young men (presumably the bombers) claiming that the bombings in Volgograd were just an example of what would follow in Sochi. Soon after BlogSochi reported Ruzanna Ibragimova was being sought by Russian authorities as a possible suspected suicide bomber. here  Global media outlets were alight with images of the young woman and the history surrounding Chechnya’s Black Widows.

black widow 2

Suspected suicide bomber Ruzanna Ibragimova. here.

The conflict between Russia and Chechnya dates back to the Caucasian War starting in the early 1800’s. While both sides of this conflict have sustained incredible damage from the ongoing conflict, the devastation to the caucus region has had severe economic and social repercussions that have left the region fractured and unstable. It is estimated that the Chechen rebels sustained a loss of two-thirds of their fighting forces during the first Chechen war, 500,000 displaced people, and around 30,000 civilian deaths.

As with many other secessionists movements, it is often the group vying for autonomy that is outnumbered and outgunned resulting in the adoption of “unorthodox” tactics.  For Chechnya, the significant loss of able-bodied men depleted the rebel’s access to traditional foot soldiers. Along with this loss to the traditional fighting forces, these deaths left a vast pool of individuals embittered and susceptible to recruitment into the various rebels groups.

Most notably, the female population, already vulnerable to the economic and social impact of a wartime environment, often suffered the loss of husbands and brothers to the fighting. It is from this pool of aggrieved that Chechen militants began recruiting and training female suicide bombers at the beginning of the millennium. These women are aptly referred to as the Black Widows, or Shahidka. The successful use of terrorism is often dependent on the ability to sensationalize the violent aftermath of this type of warfare. The use of young women as suicide bombers effectively enhances this impact across the board by further disabling the ability of these communities to rebuild and also attracting a wider global audience. The image of these young women enveloped in the hijab along with the rumor and rhetoric surrounding “Islamic terrorism” acts to heighten fear and expand the militant’s global audience.

From a policy perspective, it is not the use of females as human bombs but the expected outcome of the violence itself that we should be focusing on at this point. Putin is not one to back away from manipulating the terrorist threat to further strengthen Russian control over its outlying territories or former satellite countries. As for the Caucasus Emirates, their continued fight against Russian control of the caucuses is strengthened by the international hype surrounding the Volgograd bombings and the threat of violence during the games in Sochi. While the Russians have been claiming victory over the group following the alleged killing of the group’s founder and leader, Doku Umarov, Caucasus Emirates can only benefit from the heightened global attention centered on the region. 

– Sp403 contributor Jennifer Inglett

Close the Blast Doors!

Some of the SP403 team had a chance to sit down with General Eugene Habiger  earlier this month. We had an  informative conversation about a number of subjects and greatly appreciate the General’s time.  One of the questions which received a cool response was regarding the current status of the Missile wings. In light of a series of embarrassing news stories including a top commander being sacked, and reports of readiness issues in the 341st and 91st missile wings, our colleague Josh Darnell asked if there was any reason to be concerned about problems with discipline and readiness among uniformed management of the nuclear arsenal. As mentioned, this was met with a curt dismissal. No, the General was not concerned about morale or readiness of the guardians of our nuclear arsenal*.

Fast-forward a couple of days…
It turns out that “left the barn door open” and “Asleep at the switch” have been pretty good descriptions for how the wielders of apocalyptic power have been doing business. You can read more about the issues here , here ,  and here. It appears that Josh knows a little about the service and his concern may be spot on.

So, where does this leave us? Well it is concerning that these incidents happen considering the level of potential consequence for failure in their business. It is also concerning that because of a mission which has been bypassed by history these service people may not feel that their service is important. Finally I’m a little worried at answers like those from Gen. Habiger. Something has to give- the people charged with this terrible responsibility should not also be consigned to an obsolete strategic role. It invites far too much danger to be brushed aside (half-a-dozen times in a row).

*(I’d just like to note that the entire conversation was extremely friendly and pleasant. We greatly value the General’s time and insights. )

Chinese Nuclear Renaissance

Anyone asking about why China is serious about developing (lots of) nuclear power may want to check the chinese weather (here)

Is the Chinese Nuclear power expansion real? Yes. Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk posted this update about China’s expanding centrifuge infrastructure. here. Now I am curious about the investment in centrifuges as a proven technology when something like AVLIS seems promising- but I can appreciate the safer bet. China has 17 nuclear power reactors currently operating, 30 currently under construction and planning to build more. The world nuclear association reports that China plans to increase nuclear capacity to at least 58 GWe by 2020 with greater expansion in the future. Perhaps Most notable is that China is steaming ahead with a nuclear renaissance including plans to export plants to UK and Pakistan.

As Germany backs away from nuclear power, Japan seems unsure post-Fukushima, and the US has issues getting nuclear power plants built- China is emerging as the the driver of nuclear power.



A couple of years ago Michael Krepon wrote a short article comparing the process of arms control to gardening. (here) In the face of frustrations -and sometimes glacial progress- it isn’t difficult to become discouraged about the prospects for arms control to actually make a difference. “Optimism and perseverance are keys to the twin enterprises of arms control and gardening.” A neat thing about spending time around farmers is that a different sense of time and control is imposed on them by the nature of their profession. There is an amount that can be done to make things grow- beyond that you have to wait and see.

I was reminded of all this by an article from NTI  reporting on the imminent signing of the Additional Protocols by Myanmar. (article here). This pretty big news both because it illustrates the significant shift in their place in the international community, and marks some progress for international arms control. Large shifts such as this seem to happen a little at a time for years and then all at once. A few years ago Burma would have been high on my list of countries of proliferation concern. Now…? I like Mr. Krepon’s call for optimism – gradual progress is progress.

(also I’ll be very interested to see what else we learn about the “box of bombs”- there are several articles on armscontrolwonk and other places discussing this-  here here here and here are a good start)

thanks to the Global Security Newswire.

the rundown

the internet is a crazy place-
here is your Syria-cocktail-party briefing-

  • Max Fisher of the Washington Post ‘9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask‘. just read it.
  • Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks. excerpts: ” the President asked all of us on his national security team to consult with the leaders of Congress as well, including the leadership of the Congressional national security committees.” ” we know that the Assad regime has the largest chemical weapons program in the entire Middle East. We know that the regime has used those weapons multiple times this year and has used them on a smaller scale, but still it has used them against its own people, including not very far from where last Wednesday’s attack happened. We know that the regime was specifically determined to rid the Damascus suburbs of the opposition, and it was frustrated that it hadn’t succeeded in doing so. We know that for three days before the attack the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons personnel were on the ground in the area making preparations. And we know that the Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons. We know that these were specific instructions. We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.” “The United States Government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children. Even the first responders, the doctors, nurses, and medics who tried to save them, they became victims themselves. We saw them gasping for air, terrified that their own lives were in danger. This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.”
  • Article 36 has a good bit here on Syria and global norms about specific weapons types.
  • A brief on Chemical Weapons from Dana Liebelson here. :”What is a chemical weapon? Experts generally categorize chemical weapons based on their biological effects. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, chemical weapons include nerve agents, choking agents, blister agents such as mustard gas, blood agents, chemicals that cause psychotic disorders, and riot-control agents, such as tear gas. Also included are defoliants such as Agent Orange, which was used by the United States in Vietnam.” “Which chemical agent was used in Syria? Sarin, allegedly. When absorbed through the skin, sarin attacks the nervous system and can kill a person in 5 to 10 minutes. It was developed in 1938 in Nazi Germany and was allegedly tested on people in concentration camps. Sarin was the gas used a deadly 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway by an extremist cult. (See timeline below.)”  She winds the article up with a nice timeline regarding the use of chemical weapons.
  • James Traub weighs some of the costs and benefits to airstrikes in humanitarian situations here. “The alternative is not war or even an open-ended commitment. Instead of a punitive action designed to make a point about American resolve, the United States, acting with European and Middle Eastern allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, could reduce the Syrian regime’s capacity to perpetrate mayhem through a much more robust campaign of stand-off strikes on Syrian artillery and airfields, military and intelligence facilities, Assad’s palace, and other key sites. At the same time, they could step up the pace of training and arming the opposition while continuing to pursue the possibility, however remote, of a diplomatic settlement to the conflict.”

syriaForMax (2)

So much deterrence…

” if you have to carry through on your coercive threat deterrence by definition has failed.

 Sara Bjerg Moller  posted a rant  discussion over on regarding the distinction between deterrence and compellence.  here.  Specifically if (and when) the US responds to Syrian chemical weapons use; will it be a deterrent act (against future use of chemical weapons by Syria and others) or a compellent act (forcing Syria to cease using chemical weapons). Moller makes an excellent point that everyone might benefit from another reading of our Schelling. I’m still working on a paper discussing why deterrence failed in this case and what we can learn from it. I have to agree with Moller’s initial thought – and would like to add that actions such as the forthcoming attacks are not a one-off.  They should be understood in the context of what they are responding to as well as how they change future events.

Thanks Mr. Willingham for the heads-up.

From the Foreign Policy Morning Brief:

  • Pakistan accused India of firing shells across the Line of Control, the disputed border in Kashmir, amid heightened tensions between the two countries along the frontier.

while there has been debate about the Spread of Nuclear Weapons there should be no doubt that border clashes between states each armed with several hundred nuclear weapons are dangerous situations. I tend to focus on the  US/Russian dyad because of the size of their arsenals and launch postures of their ICBM’s – but– India/Pakistan may be the most dangerous relationship in the world when it comes to the likelihood that deterrence will fail. Just because a nuclear exchange would probably be disastrous for both countries* does not mean that a conflict could not spiral out of control. Instances of shelling across the border are the kinds of things that could precipitate such a conflict.

* see water

357_tibet.w.chi.riversindia pakistan water2

the Unexpected in International Relations


Occasionally when I talk to people about studying nuclear weapons policy I’ll mention the idea that two states might slide into a conflict that neither intended. This sometimes provokes strange looks because the idea that states could both ‘accidentally’ end up in a war is strange. But nevertheless the Unexpected can play a major role in strategy and diplomacy. I’m reminded of this as the President has cancelled a meeting with Vladimir Putin in response to Russia’s offer of asylum to E. Snowden. Now it may be that this was just one pasty I.T. guy too far and that this is the just another symptom of a larger rift between Russia and the US. Okay- but please don’t tell me that at the beginning of the year you had money on a naive nerd causing a diplomatic row between the states with the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. In The limits of Safety Scott Sagan discusses how unexpected interactions in complex systems can create completely unanticipated failures. It is worth remembering that unexpected situations on the world stage can and do occur and that what is ‘unthinkable’ today may occur despite being the least desirable outcome for all the parties involved.