Category Archives: Analysis

Security Scholars on the issues we’re researching and debating

Its Dangerous To Go Alone- Take This:

Michael McCloud puts together a quick and straightforward discussion of navigating the maze that is USAJOBS.

Tackling USAJOBS

” Evans charges that navigating the seeming labyrinth of the USAJobs website is something akin to having to scale the slopes of Mount Everest. Actually, it’s not as hard as some may claim.”

I’m No Andy Marshall, But I’ve Tackled USAJobs




Nork Cyberterror Power

Apparently I have been wrong.

For some time I have been downplaying the dangers posed by both sabre-rattling from the North Koreans and those from cyber”terrorism”. After recent events I feel that I should apologize to my students and colleagues. I lumped both of these into a larger pool of inflated threats that were not of great significance to real questions of international power.  It appears that I was wrong. There seems to be serious power in cyber attacks from North Korea:

These hackers have made me want to see James Franco in a movie. YOU MONSTERS!


What happened? Some hackers attacked Sony. It may be Norks spurred on because of the slight to the dear leader in a stoner comedy. Some of the threats sound like normal Nork sabre-rattling. (I can’t really do justice to this. Check ArmsControlWonk on twitter for the good stuff). Then Sony pulled the film from theatres.

Alex Proud has a nice rundown here on why we should care.

Looking beyond New START

While Matt Kroenig writes that increasing our arsenal is the solution to an uncertain future- history seems to be moving in the other direction.  The idea that Reagan spent the Soviets into ruin is questionable (see atomic audit) but we might have the chance to do the opposite now – we need to cut budgets we could slash our nuclear spending and leave the Ruskies holding a very expensive bag. (zero sum power?) I think we’ve seen that economic stability and growth are a ‘weapon’ we actually get to use in international politics while our aging nuclear weapons are the opposite.

I think it was Jeff Lewis that told me that “Unilateral Disarmament” is one of the phrases to avoid at all costs. That said, Thomas Schelling keeps saying that if you want to make a credible deterrent threat you should threaten with conventional weapons. They are the weapons that you are actually going to use. It turns out that what will realistically happen is correlated closely with credibility. When the Hawks talk about updating the arsenal (see b-61) two subjects not mentioned are utility of nuclear for almost all missions and credibility of nuclear for almost all missions.

If the U.S. is serious about diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in the world, one way is to diminish the number and type of weapons that we field. The PNI’s were a success. It is possible to lead and allow the international community to follow. It is time to look beyond the cuts required under New START. This may mean getting a head start on the Russians- and given the current geopolitical situation we might imagine nuclear cuts taking a back seat.

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

Cold War hangover

As we near the Winter Olympics we can expect that Russia is going to be in the news a good bit- even beyond their take on equal rights or this guy cropping up. I have been putting off a post about the strategic relationship with Russia for a while.  The subject is large and calls for more energy than I can really devote. (Which is an indicator of importance and thus the need to cover…)

More than twenty years after the Cold War the dangerous relationship between Russia and the U.S. can seem passé. Nevertheless any discussion of serious potential threats which does not include Russia paints an incomplete picture.  Russia still has the third largest defense budget in the world. They are a world power with serious influence on Europe and Asia. Perhaps more importantly they have 1480 nuclear warheads deployed on 492 delivery vehicles*.

Russian Missiles

Two points about this:
One, if you are concerned about sliding into inadvertent nuclear exchanges on a large scale- the U.S. and Russia should be pretty high on your list of worries. If only because of their numbers and postures. Professionalism, policies, diplomacy and safeguards have thus far prevented disaster, but this doesn’t mean that an unlucky number will never come up. The Russians are still (ostensibly) taking nuclear deterrence seriously: here here and here. There is plenty that can go wrong. Arms Control Wonk did a nice piece: here. (Without even going into the Dead Hand…) There is still plenty of danger in having nuclear armed adversaries with missiles prepared to fire on one another.

Two, don’t antagonize the Russians. The U.S. Russian strategic relationship is dicey enough without throwing missile defense into the mix. Talking to the Russians about this is much better than telling them about it. The risk of provoking dangerous behavior in a crisis exists now I am not sure how that balances against defenses to stop some amorphous threat which may exist later. I’ll go on more about the madness of missile defense another time, but for now- why poke the bear for a system that works in neither theory nor practice? Moving interceptor sites east or west will not suffice- Russia is big and the world is round.

*and tactical, but that will have to live in another article.

Image from Aviation Forum.

The Nork Face

first off  I had people I know sharing this on social media. Seriously people, get your act together.

moving on-

It is time to dust off all your contacts with Kremlinologists. What is going on in North Korea and should we expect trouble on the nuclear front?
As GSN reported at the end of the year there is always concern when political volatility and nuclear arsenals are combined.  report here
“The unpredictability of the actions that we see coming out of North Korea … is very concerning to everyone,” said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking alongside Dempsey at the same press conference. “The reality of that uncertainty heightens the tensions.”

Given that U.S. top brass seemed concerned about these developments we wanted to look into this a little bit further. We’re lucky here at Sp403 to have the chance to talk to some North Korean experts. We sat down briefly with Dr. Han Park to ask about the purge and power in North Korea.  Dr. Park’s view is that this was not the result of a (much) larger struggle for power. It is possible for many of us in the West to underestimate the importance in North Korea of being part of Kim Il-sung’s blood line. According to Dr. Park Kim Jong Un does not have any real challengers to his grip on power in the country. Jang Sung Thaek could have caused trouble for the regime, but a direct challenge to Kim Jong Un is doubted.
If not a consolidation of power or a response to challenge – what is going on? It is possible that the purge came out of a fear (real or imagined) that there were political forces which would have preferred Kim Jong-nam in power. The purge may have been targeted to prevent any momentum in that direction.

Gi-Wook Shin and David Straub also wrote up a nice article on the purge and why, whatever the motivation, it has done even more damage to the country’s reputation and will create continued instability.  here 

It isn’t rare for the Norks to pursue cooperation while preparing to provoke. This could also be the result of incoherent strategy or factions moving in different directions see this for instance.  

Man, I wanted to work in a joke about Kim Jong Un and Purging …

EMP (ugh)

I don’t recall having worked on this here before. The Global Security Newswire  posted an article ‘Pentagon Studying How Satellites May Be Affected by Electromagnetic Pulse’ here. The study is to learn about how low earth orbit satellites could be impacted by and EMP. The article and, from the sound of it, the study are worthwhile and reasonable.

Operation Dominic Starfish-Prime nuclear test from plane.jpg
EMP doesn’t tend to bring out reasonable. See: ‘One Second After‘, or Heritage on the subject, or Newt.

on the other side of the ledger

The Atlantic has a very nice article about why things aren’t quite so scary. Arms control wonk has also taken this up a couple of times. here and here.

Two things are disturb me about EMP threat inflation. The first is that the studies thus far have a pretty wide range of possibilities from best to worst case. The Science doesn’t seem to support the hysteria.  Second is regarding the scenarios. The idea of terrorists carrying out such an attack is terribly far fetched.* Perhaps worse to me is the idea that without electricity the US would immediately revert to the dark ages or some post apocalyptic murder hellscape. While this fits nicely with some narrative that ‘everyone else is unprepared’  and ‘kids these days don’t know how to… like when I was a boy’ they are not so much supported by evidence.

These are fine for paperback fiction I am however discouraged when I hear lawmakers repeating these things.





*Unless this is some deep game to convince terrorist groups that they’d be much better off if they used the nuclear warhead and missile that they somehow acquired against the atmosphere than say a city…


I was reminded by this mornings news about tunneling machines in Seattle that Dennis Gormley mentioned their strategic importance. In what will be a recurring theme on Sp403 – the important technologies are rarely sexy. The addition of things like tunneling machines to control lists seems interesting to me. 

I thought someone should write a book about tunneling equipment* and international arms control. It would be on the wonk best seller list next to the  flow-forming lathes/tractor factory fiction. .. Then I found that at least someone had. I think there is still a good bit of room for research in this area.

there is room to put the importance of this technology into context for proliferation efforts: for instance




*Beware: searches about tunneling equipment quickly lead to tin-foil hat sites.

US Counter Terror in Africa: A Shift Away from Drones?

Last month the US military carried out two operations in Africa within a 24-hour time period. Both aimed to capture high-value leaders of terrorist organizations. One in Libya was successful while another in Somalia ended without a capture. Do these operations represent a change in strategy for the Obama administration away from targeted assassinations via drone to more discriminate capture missions?

In the case of Libya the US Intel community has a significant ground presence and a friendlier environment than Yemen and Pakistan. CIA and Delta Force operators were able to zero in on the target and snatch him without a shot being fired. The whole operation went down without a hitch, although there seems to be some confusion over whether or not the Libyan government gave its consent to the operation. The significance of this raid on larger US CT strategy seems minor considering that the groundwork to prosecute Anas al-Libi, a suspect in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies, had already been laid. Prosecuting terrorists as criminals in court harkens back to how the US fought terrorism pre-9/11. (Fighting terrorism was once a matter for the Justice Department, with Defense only assisting when needed. Oh how things have changed!).

The strategy behind the operation in Somalia is a little tougher to figure out. We know that SEALs arrived via assault craft near Baraawe, a seaside town in the south of the country. The target was supposedly Abdulkadir Mohamed Abdulkadir, an al-Shaabab leader who likely took a role in planning the Westgate mall attacks in neighboring Kenya. The SEALs quickly became engaged in a firefight and withdraw with the help of light air support. Reports seem to point that once the SEALs lost the element of surprise, and realized they could not easily capture their target, they choose to withdraw. It appears the military showed great restraint during the operation, being careful not to cause collateral damage or risk friendly casualties.

Why wasn’t a drone or some other airstrike used in place of a capture raid or after the SEALs left? The US has undertaken a smattering of operations in Somalia over the last ten years. These include a few air strikes in Mogadishu during the Ethiopian-led overthrown of the Islamic Courts Union from 2006-2009, a helicopter strike near Baraawe that killed al-Shabaab militants in 2009, and a SEAL operation that rescued two American hostages in 2012. But overall the US has avoided the large-scale drone campaigns we have seen in Yemen and Pakistan.

Perhaps the US has high hopes that Somalia is turning the corner from a failed state, and that a softer CT strategy would prevent the type of drone backlash that has weakened the governments in Pakistan and Yemen. While the ‘soft target’ Westgate mall attacks in Kenya look bad, it may be a sign that al-Shaabab finds attacks within its own state harder to carry out or less productive. Could al-Shaabab be in its death throes? Or does the US lack information on the organization, making a high value capture all the more important?

Perhaps as the US pivots more resources to Africa the drone strikes will increase, but it will be interesting to see if the US decides to try a more COIN-friendly strategy in Somalia, one that could assist the semi-functioning government and lead to greater stability in a country ravaged by nearly 25 years of civil war.

-Sp403 contributor Andrew Tyndall

Women and International Conflict

UNIFIL Malaysian women peacekeepers in Lebanon UNPhoto Pasqual Gorriz(Photo from: Soroptimist International)

One of the unfortunate aspects of scholarship regarding security policy is that we tend not to be the most diverse group. As such, important perspectives are sometimes missed. Luckily for Sp403 we get to work with some outstanding scholars like Jennifer Inglett. She is currently working on (among other things) the participation of women in conflict and shared some thoughts:

Women provide a necessary component to the longevity and efficiency of an insurgency, revolution, or terror campaign. Once recruited, they bring with them a vast network of contacts, supporters, and possible recruits through family ties. As we have seen in Sri Lanka, Chechnya, and Ireland active violence by terrorist organizations is not restricted to the arena of men. This trend in female extremism seems to have taken root in even the most fundamentalist organizations whose religious and cultural foundations traditionally restricted female participation to the benign support function of caretaker. While the use of females as suicide bombers puts the US security forces at a tactical disadvantage- mainly due to the need of the armed forces to maintain legitimacy in eyes of societies that from day one viewed their presence with deep rooted suspicion- do these “Jihad Janes” have any other impact on either the organization’s operations or effectiveness? How do the societies in which these organizations are embedded react to the recruitment of women?

            While the use of females as a tactical tool, particularly by the underdog, is not new, the twisted feminist inside reacts to Al Qaeda’s call for women in a smug fashion; however, the historian quickly reasserts the reality of the tactical use of the female fighter. Their participation, while lauded as an unfortunate necessity at the time and many male fighters will view these women with respect during conflict, the conclusion of the conflict is quickly followed by the retrenchment of patriarchal traditional practices that can sometimes be more fervent and salient than prior to conflict.  I would argue that the use of females in combatant roles prolongs the life of terror organizations and the duration of conflict that they are associated with. If this holds true, then counterterrorism agencies and state policies should shift their focus to proactive agendas that decrease the incentive for female participation.  

Further reading here and here.