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The most practical lesson I learned at Generation Prague was to never show up 25 minutes early to a State Department event, as doors typically open 25 minutes after they are scheduled to do so.  My fellow compatriots and I endured 50 minutes of a coffee-less morning until finally, at 8:25, we were processed through security.  Thankfully, the conference inside made the wait worth it.

The list of speakers included Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), Chief of the UN Joint Mission in Syria Sigrid Kaag, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs Andrew Weber, former Lieutenant General and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Director Frank Klotz, Under Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, and STRATCOM commander Admiral Cecil Haney.

Aside from a few technical difficulties (such as Lieutenant General Klotz’s microphone not functioning until midway through his speech), the conference went off without a hitch.  It focused on innovation in national security, primarily via the application of technology and youth engagement using social media. Senator Murphy delivered a keynote address in which he emphasized the non-traditional nature of 21st century national security threats.  He argued that nuclear weapons overall have become a liability, due to the rapidly diminishing value of nuclear deterrence.  Cyber threats and small-scale crises neither require nor can be remedied by the blunt force a nuclear solution entails.  Additionally, the traditional concepts of deterrence theory cannot be as readily applied due to the rise of non-state actors, and the increasingly blurred distinction between sovereign nations, proxy organizations, and terrorist groups (e.g. ISIS).  Even when deterrence applies, such as with great powers like the Russian Federation, the cold war era approach to deterrence are no longer effective in areas like Eastern Europe, due to the shift away from traditional ground forces and greater reliance on quasi-covert operations.  Nevertheless, stated Senator Murphy, the threat of United States use of military force must be seen as a credible.

One of the main foreign policy events the conference focused on heavily was the Syrian Chemical Weapons situation. Sigrid Kaag, the head of the UN Joint Mission in Syria, discussed the immense physical, political, and financial obstacles her team encountered during the weapons removal program.  Through her description and the comments of various other speakers, one could detect the consensus that the Syrian Chemical Weapons crisis was being viewed and marketed as an overwhelming victory for the United Nations and the State Department.  The oft-repeated narrative stated that the Join Mission represented a paragon of international cooperation, with ships from a wide variety of nations working tirelessly in tandem to remove chemical agents from Syrian borders for their destruction offshore, despite escalating tensions between the United States and its allies and the Russian Federation due to the Ukrainian crisis.  Despite different approaches, the great powers had come together on this one issue to rid the region of chemical arms, using a little bit of Russian arm-twisting and United States military potential to ensure the compliance of the Assad regime.

The conference also addressed the twin-pronged threat of bioweapons and infectious diseases and pandemics.  Assistant Secretary of Defense Weber heavily emphasized the broad and varied nature of biological threats (making nonproliferation and security efforts focused on biological weaponry extremely difficult).  Biosecurity, more so than any other type of WMD nonproliferation effort, requires international cooperation, due to the ease of producing and distributing biological agents as demonstrated by the 2001 Anthrax Attacks in the United States.  Most importantly, bioweapons only represent half of the threat in biological security, with the destructive ability of naturally occurring pathogens and drug-resistant viruses and bacteria posing a grave threat to peace and stability.  Without international communication, Assistant Secretary Weber argued, containing and responding to biological threats is next to impossible.  Border security becomes much less relevant because of the disparate methods of transmission a virus or bacterium can utilize.  International collaboration becomes the only way to stand a chance against biological threats.

General Frank Klotz shifted the focus of discussion back to technological application, speaking on the role of technology in updating and increasing the effectiveness of existing nuclear technologies, and discussing his experiences at the NNSA.  Technological innovation helps increase the lifespan of older systems, allowing the United States to update existing nuclear infrastructure and improve monitoring capabilities instead of testing new devices and delivery systems.

The penultimate speaker of the conference, Under Secretary of State Gottemoeller, was (in this intern’s humble opinion) the highlight of the conference.  She synthesized the primary points of the prior speakers, and argued that the need to focus on WMD’s is even more critical after the end of the Cold War.  “The Cold War is over,” she stated, “but the ash and trash of the Cold War is still with us.”  Agreeing with Assistant Secretary Weber, Under Secretary Gottemoeller emphasized the benefits of international collaboration, decrying the attempts of various elected officials to disengage from the Russian Federation, despite its policy differences with the United States.  She also specifically identified Asian proliferation as a potential problem in the immediate future, and reiterated General Klotz’s point regarding the need for updated monitoring capabilities.  As Congressional disengagement from the nuclear issue increases, Under Secretary Gottemoeller argued for the importance of social media engagement, both domestically and internationally, to ensure that the United States remains active in preventing WMD proliferation of all types.  Such social media efforts could help renew political interest in an issue that has fallen out of favor on the national stage.  Overall, Under Secretary Gottemoeller tried to make clear the increasing, rather than decreasing, role nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons will have on world affairs in the immediate future.

Admiral Haney finished out the event by focusing on the need to redefine deterrence in the modern world.  Proper application of technology and intelligence, rather than the numerical amount of warheads in the US arsenal, are vital to an effective US deterrence strategy.  As the threat of nuclear war declines, he commented, the threat of the use of a nuclear devise increases.  Nonproliferation and deterrence, therefore, remain just as relevant in the 21st century.


Jeffrey has penned an outstanding column “The Sources of Putin’s Conduct.” Jeffrey artfully—in his wonderfully irreverent style—painted a picture of Vladimir Vladimirovich’s motives. His diagnoses of Homo Sovieticus narcissism and endemic Russian paranoia hit the right points, from the Long Telegram to Putin’s time in Germany.  I give Jeffrey an “A” for his answer to the second “eternal Russian question”—Who is to blame? Putin is, of course.  But on the first eternal question—What must be done?—I do not agree with him.

As a long-time student of Russia, the only firm conclusion I ever developed was that Russia is a place of extremes.  When I first went to Russia many years ago, Russians could not show you their own borders on a map.  A friend tells a story of getting lost outside St. Petersburg.  When finding the map they used led them into a field with no road, an old Russian gentlemen explained “maps are meant to confuse German tank formations, not find your way around.” The single greatest problem facing modern Russia is its failure to develop a politically active, stable middle class.  Putin skillfully used the greed of the oligarchs of the 1990s to install himself and the siloviki (almost literally, “the powerfuls,” i.e., state security services) in their place.  He killed, imprisoned and exiled the oligarchs, retaking their assets for the state.  He created a place wherein if you want to be political so long as your politics are Putin’s you are largely left alone. Challenge Putin, and you will find yourself indefinitely detained in Russia’s other modern failure, its kangaroo courts, complete with corrupt judges and absurd laws. Russian life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come from the state, not any organic, rational concept of liberty such as in Europe or the United States.  Russia has become a retrograde society, and Putin is fighting the creation of a stable, politically independent middle class.  Such people are harder to control and they see little threat in a neighboring country’s economic and individual liberty, let alone NATO.  For these reasons, Russia has not just closed its Window on the West, it has bricked it over, opting for post-modern imperialist nationalism (“sovereign democracy,” in the lingua franca).

Jeffrey turns to arms control as means to deal with the modern gilded Russian two-headed eagle (borrowed from Byzantium after the fall of Constantinople in 1453). Of course he would—that’s his expertise. Jeffrey is certainly right that in the Soviet past, we used arms control as means to open a closed society.  But The Center (the cryptic Russian term for where the Big Brain that runs Russia lives, at Lubyanka) now feels no desire to revisit Geneva for talks on new nuclear weapons reductions.  Jeffrey’s discussion of the “dual-track” policy that lead to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is correct, but I disagree with its applicability to today.  Even if Russia has time-warped itself into the Russian Empire Prime or Soviet Union, Part II, there is not a sufficient case for an arms control deal to be made with Putin, or how it would fix our present problems in Crimea or even deal with Russian fears.  Jeffrey notes the role arms control negotiations and treaties played, but he left out that the dual track meant deploying more nuclear weapons, not reducing them, first.  Currently, nobody in Europe, apart from Russia (allegedly), seems ready to do the former and the United States still maintains an official postion of the latter.  The fear and lamentation over a return to the Cold War is understandable, but, yet again, Moscow seems prepared to do its worst.

The fundamental problem confronting us today is that a better reason for arms control than reductions or disarmament is needed.  As Stephen Hadley noted during Senate hearings on the New START Treaty in 2010, “you just can’t keep reducing by a third every ten years.”  Jeffrey knows, as well, that past reductions were the coins used to purchase the verification and access we used to open up a closed society.  Sadly, we lost more verification capability in New START than we gained, and the only real reductions were those the United States will make, even though, on balance, as James Schlesinger also said of New START in 2010, we were “obligated” to ratify it.

If we seek to reduce the risk of major war in Europe, or anywhere else, weapons like submarine-launched cruise missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles and other nuclear weapon-delivery platforms—none of which are truly covered by any treaty—are the sources of risk.  Non-deployed nuclear warheads are not a military threat.  Neither Russia nor the United States really wants to negotiate lower limits on these or other items before we know what the future holds.  That was why former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said he liked the New START Treaty.  It gave us seven years to see how things work out before we had to meet its central limits—he did not say that if Russia was already lower, then we should just go ahead and act like its 2018 (the year in which both countries must have not more than 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed missiles and heavy-bomber weapons).  It’s a good thing, too, because Putin is acting like it’s 1853 in Crimea.  Accelerating reductions wouldn’t fix anything and is not required.

We are not relying “on nuclear weapons to prevent Moscow from sending Spetsnaz special forces posing as concerned citizens and biker gangs to stir up Russian-speakers in the Baltics or to dig trenches in Donetsk” as Jeffrey states (out of context, that looks worse than it was in the piece).  We’re doing worse:  The United States has for far too long not sold enough tactical air platforms and air defense weapons in Europe to newer NATO Members.  Initially, there might have been no reason for it.  Russia was conventionally weak and did not threaten its neighbors.  And while I fully support President Obama’s European Reassurance Initiative, I know that the Administration stood in the way of a large number of arms sales to certain countries in Europe so as not to offend Moscow.  The Administration did little to prevent French and German arms sales to Russia, as well.

Russian conventional forces performed with a high degree of effectiveness in the Crimean invasion and occupation, successfully setting the conditions needed for Russian annexation.  Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis noted that Russia “played their hand of cards with finesse.”   This “finesse” included the use and manipulation of both diplomatic and military means and rapid isolation and termination of Ukrainian command and control with advanced, coordinated and effective electronic warfare.  All this while Russia simultaneously carried out “snap” conventional forces exercises, on land and at sea, around Ukraine, and a major exercise of all three legs of Russia’s nuclear triad.   Russia’s conventional presence now massed could, in as little as 12 hours, move against Ukraine.   As NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, USAF, noted in April, “This is a combined-arms army, with all of the pieces necessary should there be a choice to make an incursion into Ukraine…supported by fixed-wing aircraft…rotary aircraft…all of the logistics required in order to successfully make an incursion if they needed.”   This force—and Russia’s use of it—led one observer to note “the old tired excuse that Russia must rely on nuclear weapons because its conventional forces are weak and broken is now demonstrably absurd.”

(An aside to Paris and Berlin:  This nonsense and this other nonsense really makes one want some Freedom fries with some Freedom dressing.  Guys, we’ll buy your “hospital ship” and as for the other stuff, Berlin appears to be waking up.  But heck, maybe Moscow didn’t want to play Die Wacht am Rhein while the Preobrazhensky honor guards march during the annual Victory Day Parade?)

Nuclear weapons do not “make it much harder for NATO to work together.”  NATO’s nuclear sharing is a marvel of modern military alliance management.  Or it was, until certain folks started to mess it up in 2009.  It’s one that our allies in Asia might someday try to replicate, too.  We would look like complete fools today had Obama agreed to remove U.S. non-strategic weapons from Europe in 2009.  Jeffrey’s description, and others, of current NATO nuclear sharing is dead wrong.  These weapons are not “politically divisive”—the only reason they were was because of a disarmament movement that tried unilaterally to get rid of them in the last decade.  And it failed.  It tried hard to find a way to replace the nuclear guarantee of Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, but never found one.  It is a good thing that is the case, today, after Crimea.

What I might propose is that we study the past a bit more to better understand our present.  An excellent series of declassified documents over at the National Security Archive describe ABLE ARCHER and the 1983 nuclear war scare in Europe that was “the last paroxysm” of the Cold War.  What the record shows is that Moscow liked to make NATO nukes into a divisive issue.  I dislike arms control advocates who now use many of the same Soviet arguments to divide allied opinion in NATO over nuclear weapons.  Jeffrey is certainly not guilty of any Soviet sympathy, but I caution him and others to be more careful and recall more of the past when reforming or recasting the single most successful military alliance in history.  ABLE ARCHER’s history also shows us where we, and NATO, were dead wrong when it came to Soviet nuclear war plans.  Alarmingly those plans, now Russian, have unlikely gotten better with age.

Arms control aims to reduce the risk of use nuclear weapons, but it does not proscribe it.  The best task of arms control has been to detect the signals of intention in order to reduce the risk of nuclear war—not to end all wars or to get rid of all nuclear weapons.  We will do better to start from this premise when dealing with Putin than not.  If you offer Putin more disarmament, you will likely see only more Russian revanchism.


This is a guest post on behalf of ACW reader and occasional contributor Chris Camp.

The first Atomic bombs, Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, hold an outsized place in our perceptions of what a nuclear weapon should be.  Certainly they were notable as the first bombs, the only ones used in anger, and the most famous devices in a subject shrouded in secrecy, but times have moved on while perceptions largely have not.  When we talk about cars people don’t think of the Benz Patent-Motorwagen, when we discuss airplanes the Wright Flyer isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, yet when you mention an atomic bomb odds are that one of the WWII devices is what people will think of.

This perception came up on Arms Control Wonk in an article on the 1973 Yom Kippur war by Avner Cohen in which he states:

[I]t is plausible that on the eve of the 1973 War Israel had a small nuclear inventory of weapons, say, between ten to twenty first-generation fission (PU) weapons (roughly, Nagasaki-type). One could speculate further that most of the inventory was in the form of aerial bombs (probably configured for the Mirage) and some were early prototypes of missile warheads for the Jericho I (which in October 1973 was apparently not yet operational).

This led to a discussion on what the Israeli arsenal might have actually looked like and whether a “Nagasaki type” bomb was in fact a reasonable assumption for a fledgling nuclear weapons state in 1973.

The bombs used by the United States in World War two were very much a product of their times and the environment in which they were created.  They were not the best design Los Alamos could produce, even when they were built, but they were the quickest ones that could be gotten out the door.  The “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima was officially designated a Mark 1 bomb and the Nagasaki bomb, while not having an official designation, can be thought of as a Mark 3 prototype (The Mark 2 was a plutonium gun design that turned out to be unfeasible due to pre-detonation of plutonium 240).  I say prototype because the production Mark 3 that formed the basis of the first US stockpile had several improvements over the actual wartime weapons.  Both the Mark 1 and Mark 3 were complex, dangerous and wasteful designs that were largely obsolete before they were ever used, but were products of the state of both the weaponeers art and also of American nuclear industry at the time.  To put it another way, they were products of the circumstances in which they were created, and those circumstances would not apply to any nation building a bomb since then.

I’m going to talk primarily about the Mark 3 prototype designs used at Trinity and Nagasaki since the Mark 1 was literally a one-off device which has never been replicated, though many of the points apply to it as well.

The Fat Man device was 60 inches in diameter, 128 inches long, and weighed 10,300 lbs.  It used about 6 kilograms of plutonium in the form of a three piece sphere (Two hemispheres and a sort of wedge shaped equitorial piece) with a spherical cavity about half an inch in diameter in the center for a Polonium – Beryllium initiator.  Surrounding the plutonium was a two part sphere of natural uranium tamper, and then around that was layers of different types of explosives totaling about 18 inches thick.  The outermost layer of explosives was covered in an array of 32 detonators which were hooked to a firing mechanism called an X-unit which set them all off with great precision.  The fusing was accomplished by four radar fuses, called “Archies” which were modified prototype tail warning radars for fighter aircraft.  The whole device was powered by lead acid batteries which lasted 2 days on a full charge, and the entire bomb had to be disassembled to charge or replace them.  The casing was made from 3/8” thick steel and accounted for almost half the weight of the finished bomb.  At the back was a large boxy, high drag tail which was necessary because the ballistic shape of the bomb was massively unstable and it tended to tumble so much while falling that the radar fuses couldn’t see the ground.  Finally there was a set of 4 impact fuses on the nose which were meant more to destroy the bomb if the radar fuses failed and it hit the ground rather than to cause an actual nuclear detonation.  Once assembled, the Mark 3 prototypes were very dangerous and almost certainly would have suffered a low order nuclear detonation in the event of an aircraft crash.  Assembling the bombs took a crew of 50 people close to 18 hours and once assembled the bomb had to be dropped within 48 hours or the batteries would die and the entire device would have to be disassembled.  The bomb makers art has come a long way since the dark days of 1945 and many of these advances would be incorporated by any nation building a bomb for the first time.  Here are some of those advances and how they apply to the nature of a first device.

Levitated pits.  The biggest improvement in weapons efficiency came from a concept that was well understood at Los Alamos before the war ended, but didn’t make it into the wartime bombs.  This was the concept of a “Levitated” pit that greatly increases compression and therefore efficiency.  The levitation concept as it applies to nuclear weapons is a bit unintuitive, so let me use an analogy pioneered by Hans Bethe after the war.  When you go to hammer a nail do you put the hammer on the nail and push, or does it work better to swing the hammer and get some momentum going before you hit the nail?  The Mark 3 design was the equivalent of putting the hammer on the nail and pushing.  All of the components of the core were in physical contact and there was no room for the implosion to build up momentum before it hit the core.  In a levitated pit design there is an air gap between the uranium tamper and the plutonium pit which gives the tamper room to accelerate and build up momentum before striking and compressing the pit.  Not only does it allow more energy to be delivered to the pit, it also tends to smooth out irregularities in the shock wave, both leading to increased efficiency.  The first levitated pit design, the Mark 4, had the pit suspended on wires inside the tamper, but later designs used a stand made of thin aluminum to support the pit.  To visualize this, think of the plutonium core as the ice cream on an ice cream cone, except the cone is upside down and the ice cream sits on the pointy end.

Explosives.  The Mark 3 prototypes used an outer fast-burning layer of Composition B high explosive over a middle layer of slow burning Barotol and then another layer of Comp B.  There were 32 of these “explosive lenses” and the whole system was designed to create a perfectly spherical shock wave that would evenly compress the core allowing the fission reaction to take place.  One early avenue of post war research was into more efficient high explosives which could generate more compression with less weight and bulk.  Modern high performance explosives can deliver greater performance in a layer only 1-2 inches thick and weighing on the order of tens of pounds.  In addition, Insensitive High Explosives (IHE) have been developed which are much more difficult to detonate accidentally, making for much safer bombs in the event of an aircraft crash.  IHEs are used in most US nuclear and conventional aircraft bombs, and the guidance given to crash rescue crews is that even if the bomb is fully engulfed in fire, it is safe to attempt to extinguish the fire for 10 minutes before there is a chance of detonation.

Another improvement to weapons design that came about in the late 1940s was increasing the number of detonators which led to a smoother shock wave and more efficient detonation.  This was one of the strategies used during the design of the Mark 5 bomb which was the first of the “small” nuclear weapons (only 39 inches diameter and 3200 lbs) designed for use by tactical aircraft.  In order to compensate for the efficiency lost by using less explosives, Los Alamos increased the number of detonators, first to 60 and then to 92 (32+60).  This allowed for a bomb that produced about the same yield in a smaller size than it’s contemporary 60 inch brother, the Mark 4.

Initiators. The early nuclear weapons used Polonium – Beryllium (Po-Be) initiators at the center of the core to produce a burst of neutrons to get the fission chain reaction going once the core had been compressed by the high explosives.  These initiators were small spheres a little less than half an inch in diameter that rested at the very center of the core.  When hit by the shock wave they were squeezed, which mixed the two materials and produced neutrons.  This system worked fairly reliably, but had several significant drawbacks.  The biggest one is that polonium has a half life of only 138 days and so in order to maintain a stockpile of initiators you must have a continuously functioning nuclear reactor to keep making more material.  This was an immense headache in the early post war years when the Hanford production reactors were encountering numerous technical difficulties.  At one point it was planned to shut one of the three reactors down completely and run the other two at reduced capacity so that even if they wore out and could no longer produce plutonium for new bombs, there would be at least one available to produce polonium to keep the existing arsenal operational.  Polonium initiators are also difficult, dangerous, and expensive to build as the element is extremely toxic.

The other downside to Po-Be initiators is that they “fire” when they are squeezed, which is not the same as being when the core reaches maximum compression, typically a few milliseconds later.  The premature burst of neutrons tends to cause a little bit of pre-detonation and reduces efficiency of the whole system.  It’s a marginal loss, but one that becomes critical when someone starts designing weapons with very tight tolerances, such as thermonuclear triggers.

The solution to the initiator problem came in the 1950s in the form of solid state neutron generators which were basically portable (sort of) linear accelerators.  The first ones were far too large to be incorporated into a deliverable bomb, but eventually they shrank down to about the size of a fist.  In addition to being safe, cheap, and easy to build and store, these new neutron sources could be precisely timed to fire at peak compression of the core, reducing pre-detonation and increasing efficiency.  Finally, because they could now be located outside the core they made storage assembly and maintenance of the bombs much simpler.  This technology is also used in the oil field industry for well logging and so is readily understood and available for any nation building a bomb.

Delivery systems and casings. The Mark 3 bomb was 60 inches in diameter and 128 inches long because that’s how big the bomb bay on a B-29 was.  The delivery system dictated the upper bound on the size of the finished weapon.  Likewise, delivery systems have always driven weapons design.  Any nation seeking to design a nuclear weapon will need to think about how they plan to deliver it, and, to put it simply, not many nations bother with strategic bombers anymore.  Only the US B-52 and the Russian TU-95 strategic bombers can carry a weapon the size and weight of a Mark 3 type device, and both of them were designed in the 1950s to do exactly that.  No nation is going to build a bomb they can’t deliver, and no one builds an aircraft that can deliver a bomb of this size.

Finally, there is the story of the casings on the Mark 1 and 3 weapons.  Both weapons were built with 3/8” thick steel casings weighing over two tons each.  The reason for this is that the bombs themselves were designed to be armored so as to survive flak and machine gun bullet impacts during the ride to the target.  In both cases this armor accounted for around half of the total weight of the weapons.  Nearly all post war designs dispensed with this armored casing design and instead use lightweight aluminum or steel casings optimized for aerodynamic efficiency.  I’ve always wondered if the Air Force requested this “feature” on the early bombs or if it was something that the Los Alamos came up with on their own.  Certainly by the late 1940s the Air Force had decided that it was unnecessary and asked that it be removed from future weapons.

Given all the reasons why an initial capability would look different from what it did in 1945, can we extrapolate what it might look like?  In the same conversation on Israel in 1973 that led to this piece, John Schilling posited that something similar to a US Mark 12 was a good guess.  The Mark 12, introduced in 1954, utilized most of the improvements I’ve mentioned. It was a 22-inch diameter, 1200 lb bomb which used a 92 point detonation system around a levitated core, producing a 12-14 kiloton yield, and could be carried by tactical aircraft at supersonic speeds.  This was one of the last pure fission weapons developed before the widespread adoption of thermonuclear designs.  Something on this order is certainly a reasonable guess as to what a first bomb might look like.  Such a device is also in the size and weight range for carriage by a missile warhead.

While it’s hard to say what the first weapon from a newly minted nuclear weapons state might look like, we can be pretty sure that it won’t look like the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War Two.  Just as technology has advanced in every other field, so it has in the art of nuclear weapons.  What hasn’t advanced is how many people think of these weapons, and this antiquated thinking clouds the conversation of weapons in the 21st century.


This is a guest post on behalf of ACW reader and occasional contributor Chris Camp.

Everyone knows that there are basically two paths to a bomb, right?

You either build a bunch of centrifuges and enrich uranium to 93% or you build a few reactors and extract plutonium from the spent fuel.  If you’re old enough, you might also mention gaseous diffusion as an alternative to centrifuges, but once again pretty much no one does that anymore.  This common understanding has led to certain materials and technologies being watched very carefully to detect proliferation.  For example, fluorine compatible seals, special bearings, and maraging steel tubes all point to centrifuges, while someone attempting to obtain ultra high purity graphite and Tributyl-phosphate points to a plutonium program.  All of these items have other uses of course, but they serve as “tripwires” for potential proliferation.

While everyone knows the standard routes to the bomb, history is littered with other paths that have been tried and either rejected or overtaken by more efficient systems.    However, like the title says, just because these technologies are antiquated doesn’t mean they don’t work and couldn’t pop up again in someone’s nuclear program.

Let’s start with the one that a lot of people know I’m going to mention because it’s been actually used by an aspiring nuclear weapons state.  When UN inspectors arrived in Iraq in 1991 after the first Gulf War they were surprised to find Calutrons (or Baghdadtrons as the Iraqis called them) operating to produce enriched uranium.   A Calutron is basically a circular particle accelerator in which atoms of a material are accelerated by magnets.  In the case of uranium, the lighter U235 turns more sharply around the corners than the heavier U238 allowing separation and enrichment. This technology was used by the US during the Manhattan project to produce the final weapons grade material used in the Little Boy bomb, but was quickly scrapped when the gaseous diffusion technology came on line.  An interesting historical tidbit is that the windings on the magnets were made of silver from the US treasury since copper was in such short supply.  For an in-depth discussion of Calutron technology and the Iraqi program in particular see

The other uranium enrichment technology to come out of the Manhattan Project was gaseous thermal diffusion.  In this method three pipes of different materials are placed one inside the other in concentric fashion.  Steam at 545 degrees F and 100 psi flowed through the innermost pipe, uranium hexafloride gas in the middle pipe and water at 155 degrees F through the outermost pipe.  The heavier U238 tends to flow towards the cold pipe and downwards towards the bottom of the annular space while the lighter U235 tends to flow upwards along the hot pipe.  The separation efficiency wasn’t great, from natural uranium at 0.7% U235 the thermal diffusion plant increases enrichment to about 0.9%.  This slightly enriched uranium was fed into the gaseous diffusion plant which took it up to about 23% enrichment and that product was then fed to the calutrons which took it to a final 90% U235 material which was used in the Little Boy bomb.  The thermal diffusion plant, code named S-50, at Oak Ridge wasn’t planned for and came about as a result of difficulties with the gaseous diffusion plant, code named K-25.  The K-25 plant was an enormous undertaking, and for many years was the largest building in the world.  Due to problems with the diffusion membranes the plant wasn’t ready on time, but it’s massive powerhouse was, and so as an interim measure the S-50 plant was built to make the most of the limited functioning of K-25.  Once the gaseous diffusion plant got it’s bugs worked out it replaced both thermal and electromagnetic separation technologies and was the exclusive means of enriching uranium for many years.  One place where thermal separation did find ongoing use is in the separation of tritium from deuterium after it has been irradiated in a reactor.

Ok, on the topic of uranium, everyone knows that it has two isotopes, U235 and U238, but only the first one is usable in bombs, right?  Actually, no.  On both counts.  Uranium actually has a number of isotopes, and two of them, U235 and U233 are effective for bomb cores (U238 is also used in weapons, and forms the third stage of a classic three stage thermonuclear weapon, producing as much as half the yield, but that’s for another article).  U233 has a half-life of a bit over 159,000 years and so all of the natural isotope has decayed from the earth’s crust.  However, it can be bred in a reactor from the element thorium which is approximately four times as abundant as Uranium.  During the 1950s the US had not yet found domestic sources of uranium and so extensive work was done on the thorium fuel cycle and U233 weapons before uranium reserves were discovered in the southwest.  Approximately 2 tons of U233 were produced and a bomb partially fueled by U233 was tested during the TEAPOT MET shot at the Nevada Test Site on April 15, 1955.  The MET stood for Military Effects Test and was designed to measure blast and radiation effects of a standard sized weapon.  The Department of Defense agreed to the test of the U233 device on the condition that it would produce the same yield as the standard plutonium bomb to within 10%.   Los Alamos promised that it would, but instead of the anticipated 33kt, the MET shot only produced 22kt which invalidated most of the measurements DOD was trying to accomplish.  Oops.

Uranium 233 is actually a better material for nuclear cores than U235 from a physics perspective, but it has one major drawback.  U233 is almost always contaminated with small amounts of U232 which is a gamma emitter and therefore more dangerous to handle and easier to detect than U235 or plutonium cores.  Several attempts at a thorium to U233 breeder reactor have been built, but as yet the technology has not caught on.  India, which is very poor in domestic uranium sources has been the leader in thorium fuel cycle technology, but so far it has not shown commercial success.

Another historical footnote that could pop up again is the hydride bomb.  The idea here is that instead of using uranium or plutonium metal in the core you instead use uranium hydride.  The hydrogen atoms will tend to slow down the neutrons flying about inside the core and theoretically reduce the amount of fissile material needed in the bomb and it’s size.  The idea came out of Los Alamos during the late 1940s, but the tradeoff in lower efficiency was felt to outweigh any advantage and the idea was shelved One man who was not ready to give up on hydride was Edward Teller and when he left Los Alamos to found the competing Lawrence Livermore lab he took the concept with him.  LLNLs first two devices were both hydride bombs.  Unfortunately, both these devices fizzled, the first of them not producing enough energy to destroy the tower it sat on.  The second test produced an underwhelming 200-ton yield.  However, it should be kept in mind that both devices were pushing the lower boundary of fissionable material that would still form a critical mass.

The final technology that could pop up again someday is the early plutonium reprocessing chemistry.  While most of you are probably familiar with the PUREX (PlUtonium URanium EXtraction) used today, there were several systems that preceded it.  The process that produced the early plutonium bombs used bismuth phosphate to extract the uranium and plutonium from the dissolved fuel rods.  This was replaced in 1952 by the REDOX (REDuction / OXidation) process which used methyl isobutyl ketone as a solvent.  Both processes have their disadvantages (explosive ones in the case of REDOX) they share an advantage in that they don’t use Tributyl phosphate which is internationally regulated.

It’s been said that the stone age didn’t end for a lack of stones, and likewise the technologies I’ve mentioned above weren’t discarded because they don’t work.  In most cases something better came along and replaced them.  As the Baghdadtrons demonstrated they can pop up at any time if we forget to look for them!


Harry here.  It’s official, I will be in DC (in the flesh!) between July 9th and 19th!  I plan on attending the Generation Prague conference, along with several other Think Tank and State Dept hosted events.

However, events don’t take up the whole day.  Therefore, I would be more than willing to meet any individuals who are in the DC area during my stay there.  If you would like to contact me directly, or email Jeffrey at jeffrey AT

[Folks, please take some time to meet Harry if you can.  He's done such a great job writing "For Your Reading Pleasure" and is eager to learn about our field. -- Jeffrey]


Finally, the long awaited return!

In the Middle East, the arms control community has been fixated on only chemical and nuclear arms proliferation, and reasonably so, concerning the Asad regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons and nuclear talks with the Rouhani regime in Iran.  Therefore, the ISIL invasion of Iraq has not been analyzed heavily from a proliferation perspective, as ISIL has no access to chemical weapons as of yet.  However, the ISIL invasion has created an environment conducive to small arms proliferation, and as such should be addressed by the arms control and nonproliferation community.

Nayla Razzouk – Bloomberg | It seems that, finally, Iraqi governmental forces are striking back successfully against the ISIL (or ISIS, depends what you call the organization).  279 militants were killed, according to the Iraqi government.

Elise Foley – Huffington Post | Lindsey Graham strongly recommends collaboration with Iran against ISIL forces.  Iraqi officials have already stated that they would consider accepting Iranian help.  As US Marines and warships are redeployed to the area, cooperation with Iran is becoming more of a possibility.  Rouhani himself has also alluded to bolstering the al-Maliki regime.  One of Rouhani’s senior advisers recently stated that only the US and Iran can stabilize the region. Could cooperation, along with continuing nuclear talks, lead to a moderate thaw in relations over the next few months?  Could a show of force help Obama restore some of his eroded foreign policy credibility?  And could the US end up alienating a Wahhabi Sunni Saudi Arabia with actions against the Sunni ISIL?

Robin Wright – The New Yorker | Mr. Wright argues that Iran and the US are merely allies of convenience, placed in similarly poor situations as their previous involvement strategies crumble before the ISIL.  However, Aki Peritz of Newsweek’s The Daily Beast contends that Iran has received the short end of the bargain.

Foreign Jihadism in Syria – Small Arms Survey | A comprehensive overview of ISIL and its history.  The Economist provides some background of its own, and argues that ISIL’s goals indicate that it cannot be treated as a typical al-Qaeda cell.

Nicholas Blanford – CS Monitor | Mr. Blanford argues that, without the pressure of ISIL fighters in Syria to wear down the opposition, Asad (and Iran) will have to rely more heavily on Hezbollah.  How does this complicate chemical weapons removal operations?  Kingston Reif argues that the removal plan has proved effective, despite initial misgivings.  However, does such regional turmoil mean all bets are off?

Arms Transfers to Syria – SIPRI | SIPRI provides an (somewhat dated, as the SIPRI yearbook is annual) overview of small arms movements within Syria to both rebel groups and government-aligned forces.  With ISIL’s expansion, one wonders how much more freely small arms will flow into and out of the region.

After Qaddafi – Small Arms Survey | Small Arms Survey published a report on post-Qaddafi Libya’s armed groups, as well as small arms proliferation in the region.  Throughout the conflict, the country was flooded with small arms and heavier military equipment, such as ex-soviet tanks.  Those arms have reappeared throughout the Middle East, including Syria (where they were probably employed by ISIL fighters against anti-Asad forces).  The ISIL capture of a US arms cache in Mosul several days ago (which included high-tech attack helicopters and heavy battle tanks) could have the same effect as pouring kerosene on a campfire.

An unstable region stretching from Saudi Arabia to Iran, with religious tensions flaring up and a crumbling central government.  Close enough to a recipe for disaster.


Mathias Rust probably questioned his decision to fly again to Moscow.

In 1987, the then-19-year-old West German national breached the Soviet Union’s border in a rented single-engine Cessna, flew nearly 550 miles through what what supposed to be the country’s most heavily guarded airspace, and landed on a bridge near the Red Square.

Cover of Modern Trouble’s “Fly to Moskow,” dedicated to Rust and released in 1987.

After a show trial and a yearlong stint in prison, during which Reagan and Gorbachev inked the INF Treaty, Rust was released and allowed to go home.

It was now 2013. Rust had agreed to appear as a special guest on the talk show Pryamoi Efir, aired on one of Russia’s most widely-watched TV channels.

But, instead of being lauded as a daredevil hero that helped bring about the end of the Cold War, he had to endure a very public scolding and apologize for his actions. Worse still, he was forced to wrestle with a broad range of conspiracy theories about why his Cessna was able to proceed all the way to and land in the heart of Moscow.

The tone and substance of this conversation, parts of which I transcribe and summarize below for your reading pleasure, speak volumes about the ongoing attempts to question the legitimacy of Gorbachev’s leadership and, by extension, challenge the legitimacy of breakthrough security cooperation between Russia and the West that took place during the 1980s. This is both troubling and dangerous.

Before We Raise the Curtain

The hourlong show  “Mathias Rust-A Dove of Peace?” [watch in Russian] began with introductory remarks about the incident. Its young host then directed some questions to Rust. After that, he pretty much let his studio guests take over the conversation and the editorializing, save for a few commercial break transitions.

The text below is broken into several thematic Acts. The direct quotes are provided in quotation marks, as appropriate. However, because the key lines of argument were circular in nature, I summarized them together in Act 3 instead of providing a verbatim transcript. All of Rust’s remarks were dubbed by the show from German into Russian, so my translation is from that Russian.

Also, a small point of clarification before we begin: After Soviet air defense downed the KAL 007 flight in 1983, killing 260+ souls, an executive order changed procedures for engaging airspace intruders. Essentially, the decision to open fire now would have to be made on a much higher level. This, arguably, intended to protect the Soviet civilian and military leadership from dealing with the damaging political consequences of a similar incident (note, by the way, that Soviet air defense downed another KAL flight, the 902, in 1978). Thus, the counterfactual used in many of the emotional appeals below–if Soviet air defense had downed Rust’s Cessna in 1987, there would have been fewer negative consequences for the military–couldn’t be further from the truth.

And, finally, the disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this post are my own and not those of my employer or the University of Maryland, where I’m still a graduate student.

Act I: An “Alleged” Bridge of Peace

Host [to camera]: To talk to Gorbachev, [Rust] allegedly flew half the country without any obstacles and allegedly without being noticed. A lot of people didn’t believe this. Some said that this act was planned by secret services. But, if so, which [services]? … Some had benign explanations—Rust did the flight on a dare or even to get a girl.

Host: But behind the innocent humor lay a trauma for the Soviet military since General Secretary Gorbachev had used the incident as a pretense to fire 200 military officers including the [Soviet] Minister of Defense Sergey Sokolov and the head of [Soviet] Air Defense forces… Could it have been a coincidence that these were the individuals who were blocking the perestroika of the General Secretary?

Host: Today, Mathias Rust will look into the eyes of those whose lives he really turned upside down with his actions.

Host [to Rust]: Mathias Rust, in Russia again. Good evening!

Host: It’s been 26 years. It’s understandable that at that time you couldn’t talk about everything. But, now, tell us the truth… Why did you do this?

Rust: I used this flight to fight for peace. I wanted to create an imaginary bridge of peace. This was a time when the West was distrustful of Gorbachev’s peaceful initiatives. And I thought that I could intervene and also underscore that many people in Western Europe wanted peace as much as Gorbachev did at the time.

Host: I have a feeling that I’m taking this interview on the Red Square on May 28, 1987. Because this is exactly what you said when you were exiting your airplane back then.

Rust: That’s right. It’s been 26 years, and you can say that it feels that way.

Host: You were just 19 at the time. How did you decide to do this?

Rust: That was the reason exactly. I was very young. Now I probably would not have enough courage.

Host: How long did you prepare for this flight?

Rust: About six months… While I gathered all the maps, made the decision, and understood how best to fly to Moscow… in a theoretical sense, of course.

Host: If it took you six months, then you are contradicting what you had said previously. This was not done on a whim. Had you been to Moscow before?

Rust: I had not been to Moscow before. I became interested in politics when I was 15. I was so convinced that I was doing the right thing that I actually ended up going through with the flight.

Act II: We Value Human Life

An older, blond, and heavily made-up TV personality intervened with exasperation.

Older, blond, and heavily made-up TV personality: Did you realize that you could kill people… on the Red Square and during your flight?

Rust: Of course I had thought of this and all the risks related to this flight, and the risks this had for other people. But I had supposed that the risk was so small, that I could responsibly take it in order to build this bridge of peace.

An older, blond, and heavily made-up TV personality: What do you mean by small? If you had killed even one person, the risk you took would not have justified itself. Our peaceful-loving country did not touch you.

[The audience breaks into applause.]

Older, blond, and heavily made-up TV personality: Do you understand? It did not shoot down your aircraft… Because we value human life. And you… You flew…

Host [to Older, blond, and heavily made-up TV personality]: Admittedly, we had different ways of treating aircraft above our country…

Host [to Rust]: You said something amazing here. You were certain that the risk was small, but you were crossing one of the most heavily-guarded borders in the world, with one of the strongest air defense systems, and you say that the risk was small. What made you so be relaxed about this?

Rust: I think that this was idealism. I was young and, at 19, some things look much simpler.

 Act III: The Curious Case of the Missing Trolleybus Wires 

As if on cue, someone turned up the crazy dial. A series of “journalists and TV hosts,” “retired air defense officials,” “historians,” and “experts” went on the offensive. Rust was not a dove of peace, they claimed, he was just someone’s pawn. They peppered him with questions, let Rust attempt to answer them, and then offered their own speculations as final responses.

Why did you choose the Soviet holiday of Border Guard’s Day for the overflight? This choice had to have been deliberate.

Why were there professional cameras on the Red Square to film your landing? This was clearly staged.

Why was the overhead electrical wiring for trolleybuses removed from the bridge where you ultimately landed? The only explanation is that your landing was anticipated.

Were you aware that, prior to your flight, the Soviet the air defense field had not been updated for four straight days? It’s usually done on a daily basis. “The Soviet Union was expecting you with open arms.”

These were all coincidences, Rust maintained. I had no idea.

What was the speed of your Cessna? Your speed estimate is wrong. Take your cruising speed and the distance traveled, you should have been able to get to the Red Square in 4 hours.

Why did it take you 6 hours and 15 minutes instead of 4 hours to get to Moscow? You had to have landed your aircraft on Soviet territory to refuel.

At this point, Rust insisted that the “experts” were overstating the speed of the Cessna and that, instead of landing to hide from the interceptors, he descended and continued toward Moscow. There, he circled for an hour looking for a place to land.

Where did the atomic bomb sticker on your aircraft’s tail, visible in the Red Square images, come from? The pilots of the interceptors that were scrambled to identify you were certain that this sticker was not there at the time.

Where did you put on your orange jumpsuit? You had to have put it on when you landed to refuel and hide from the interceptors.

Rust denied all of these claims, explaining that the sticker was there before and that he had a lot of clothing, including the orange jumpsuit, on in order to stay warm during the flight.

Act IV: Just a Boy and His Plane?

As per the host’s hints at the beginning of the show, the key argument eventually emerged. Studio guests coalesced around the claim that the success of Rust’s flight was the result of a conspiracy between Gorbachev and intelligence services—either Soviet or Western. One of the guests, former Soviet ministry of defense official and failed nationalist presidential candidate Leonid Ivashov, articulated this explicitly.

Ivashov: I have no doubt that this was a special operation.

Host: If this was an operation, then who carried it out? With what aim?

Ivashov: [...] Rust here maintains that he was just a boy and he was flying. You know, I was chief of the general affairs department in the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Defense. And we looked at all the maps. First, he had a deep and precise knowledge of all radar coverage and he flew accurately through the zones which were not visible to radar.

Rust: I didn’t plan this. I didn’t know this. It just happened this way and that’s why my flight was so successful.

[The audience boos.]

Ivashov: Second, the aircraft he chose was a Cessna, the reflection from which is identical to flocks of birds.

At a later point in the show, however, the host and most of the studio guests agreed the air defense radar tracked Rust during his whole flight and the air defense forces scrambled interceptors. But now, they posited that Rust was successful because high-level air defense officials did not give a command to open fire. Instead, they said  “this is a flock of birds, don’t shoot it down.” Nevertheless, Ivashov returned to his argument about Gorbachev a little later…

Ivashov: I don’t have questions for Mr. Rust. He was used and mostly kept in the dark. But we feature him as the main perpetrator. This is not so. Let me give you two facts.

Ivashov: First, in March 1987, Mr. Gorbachev calls Minister of Defense Sokolov and asks for a brief on the air defense system, its European part. The Marshal goes to Gorbachev, and, upon his return, we realize that he doesn’t have a classified air defense map with him. So I go and tell [Sokolov] that he didn’t return this map. He says that [Gorbachev] asked to leave this map. I call Gorbachev’s assistant and ask him for some verification in writing. [...] And then I come to them the next day, and they search everything and can’t find it. We wait for Gorbachev and ask him [...], and he says, “what, do you think I carry it with me?” We couldn’t find this map for months, until the State Committee on the State of Emergency [aka, the coup against Gorbachev].

Ivashov: Second, when Gorbachev got into arms reductions and disarmament, he had a strong military opposition, with Marshal Sokolov at its helm. [...] So, he had to cleanse the military.

Act V: Pensioners Storm the “Bridge of Peace”

Another line of attack followed. Supported by the host and several “experts,” a retired air defense officer “went in for the kill.”

Retired air defense officer: How would you look in the faces of the people who, as a result of your actions, died from a heart attack, were demoted in rank, went to prison, lost their pensions? […] If you could look in their eyes, the eyes of their wives and children, and all of the people who you harmed with your dove’s flight.

Rust: I wasn’t the one making these decisions. Gorbachev made these decisions, and then he used my flight to remove individuals that were against him.

[The audience boos.]

“Journalist and tv host”: How can you sleep at night for these 26 years? There are people who were imprisoned because they saved your life. If they had shot you down, you would probably not be sitting here today and these people would be alive and not have been imprisoned.

The Grand Finale

Eventually, after 20 more minutes of “surround bollocking,” it was all over. The show cut to Rust’s admission of guilt and apology at his 1987 trial. Rust again was asked to apologize for his actions. He complied and said that he was sorry.

In a move that added a layer or absurdity to an already surreal hour of prime time television, the young talk show host closed with the following:

Host: This was a time when new wars were beginning to occur, information wars. Their tell tale sign is when the truth is mixed with lies… Maybe the main conclusion from this whole story for us today is that information wars did not end [with the end of the Cold War]. Today, they are going strong. The only way to survive through them is to have the ability to tell the truth from lies. And we should learn to do that.

And so, there you have it. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about 1987 Soviet paranoia–and its recent revival–but were afraid to ask. And, if you wish, a palate cleanser with some facts is available here.

A Concluding Note: Like Synthpop, Rust Has Come Back in Style

In 1987, several West Germans known as Modern Trouble released a synthpop “anthem” titled “Fly to Moscow.” Inspired by Rust’s flight, the single featured a dedication to Marshal Sokolov. Looking back, these lyrics still offer a decent summary of the incident.

Modern rebel Mr. Rust
Showed the world Moscow or bust
Flying in Red Baron’s shoes
Zig-zag course that leaves no clues
Kremlin says this can’t be true
Heads will roll ’cause this won’t do
Reuters, Tass, and CBS
Said this story was the best

However, the song itself, as well as the accompanying instrumental Air Defense Mix were pretty terrible. This is despite the fact that 1987 was still a relatively good year for synthpop.

Today, like synthpop, the story of Mathias Rust has come back in style. But instead of listening to good (or even decent) synthpop of both yesterday and today, and learning the right lessons from the Rust incident, some prefer to live in an alternative reality and listen to replays of Modern Trouble. And, that’s more than just shameful… It’s a sin.



Saudi Arabia made headlines recently, after it publicly paraded two DF-3s for the first time. The Kingdom secretly purchased these missiles from China in 1987, but has hitherto opted not to show them off in public. The consensus is that the Kingdom’s public display was intended to signal to Washington its current discomfort with the way the US has handled Syria, the Arab Spring, and the Iranian nuclear issue. In addition, the unveiling of the DF-3 also appears aimed at sending a message to Tehran about Riyadh’s capability to strike targets inside the Islamic Republic.

The Saudi decision, while interesting for Riyadhologists, is simply a reminder of the growing prevalence of ballistic and cruise missiles in the region. The concurrent  spread of these two systems will have important implications for Gulfee, Iranian, and US security interests moving forward. The DF-3 parade came on the heels of a missile defense conference in Abu Dhabi. At the conference, Frank Rose, US deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, indicated the United States’ intent to bolster the GCC’s missile defense capabilities. The Gulf States have assiduously worked – with US backing –  to augment their missile defense capabilities since the early 1990s. However, all of the efforts to convince the the GCC to cooperate closely on defense issues have failed.

The development of a regional missile defense system, therefore, is sure to run into problems. Nevertheless, the Gulf States have shown a sustained interest in further developing their anti-missile capabilities. And, as Rose indicated, the US continues to hammer away at the idea of using missile defenses to try and unify the GCC states – good luck.

The Kingdom, for example, first purchased 761 PAC-2 GEMS from the United States in 1992. And in 1993, the Saudis doubled down and ordered another 629 PAC-2s (The systems have since been upgraded). Moreover, in November 2012, Qatar requested “11 Patriot Configuration-3 modernized fire units, 11 AN/MPQ-65 radar sets, 11 AN/MSQ-132 engagement control systems, 30 antenna mast groups, 44 M902 launching stations, and 246 Patriot MIM-104E guidance-enhanced missile-TBM (GEM-T) with canisters.”

Qatar’s request moved in tandem with that of Kuwait’s. In July 2012, the Kuwaitis requested “60 PAC-3 missiles, 4 Patriot radars, 4 engagement control stations, 20 launching stations, 2 information coordination centrals and 10 electric power plants.” The missile defense systems are likely to complement the AN/FPS-132 Block 5 Early Warning Radar, which was deployed in Qatar in 2013, and will cover Iran, as well as provide the U.S. – and Doha – with increased space surveillance capabilities. The tiny Gulf Emirate has also purchased two AN/TPY-2 radars, as part of THAAD batteries. The UAE has also purchased the TPY-2 for its planned THAAD system.

Now, Jeffrey has written about what he calls the Saudi’s strategic dyad. While the long-range ballistic missiles get most of the attention, I think the more important issue vis-a-vis the Kingdom’s missile plans is its interest in precision strike. And, to be frank, I think the Saudis have fallen behind the Emiratis in this regard. The UAE, in my opinion, is a much better model for the future of Gulf defense. (Let the jokes start now about the Saudi Air Force.)

The UAE is working to pair missile defenses with a professional air force that is equipped with precision strike weapons. Thus, like the Saudis, the Emiratis purchased the Storm Shadow cruise missile. In tandem, the Emiratis are investing in drones and satellite reconnaissance.  (To be fair, the Saudis are also interested in drones.) The evidence suggests that the UAE is keen on developing the capability to launch precision strikes against regional targets. And, once the first shot is fired, the UAE appears intent on pairing its offensive capabilities with missile defense.

So, while the Saudis may have the capability to use ballistic missiles, I think the more interesting trend is the growing capability by regional states to use precision strike to hit command and control centers, Iranian mobile ballistic missile launchers, and leadership bunkers. And, should the two sides start shooting at each other, the complete saturation of the region with ballistic missile defenses could help to degrade Iran’s retaliatory capabilities. In other words, the UAE – and to a lesser extent, the other GCC states – are working to pair offensive and defensive missiles.

The Iranians completely understand this new dynamic. In every meeting or conference I have attended with Iranians in recent years, their main complaint is that the United States is unnecessarily militarizing the region. They argue that massive arms sales to the GCC states erodes regional trust and increases tension. (Obviously they leave out the part about the nuclear weapons program.) However, they also note that the best way for them to respond is to increase the capabilities of their ballistic missiles. Absent the capability of its geriatric air force to penetrate Gulfee airspace, Iran has little choice but to increase its reliance on asymmetric tactics. Thus, I suspect that Iran believes that it can simply saturate the GCC’s missile defenses with waves of ballistic missiles. (This is why Iran will never agree to put its missiles on the table during the current P5+1 talks.)

And when Iran does this, the GCC states decide to purchase more missile defenses. Washington appears to have decided that missile defense can be used to reassure the Gulf states about the US commitment to honor their bilateral security obligations, while also helping to protect oil and military facilities in the region. In turn, this suggests a continued build up of offensive and defensive missile systems in the region, as well as a continued US role moving forward. Yet in doing so, Iran will be forced to bolster its ballistic missile capabilities to overcome increased GCC capabilities.

The current dynamics, therefore, suggest that the region is mired in a conventional missile race. Thus, the recent Saudi decision to show off its small missile arsenal may simply be the beginning of what I suspect will be a future filled with many more missile displays in military parades.



In the inaugural Arms Control Wonk Podcast, Jeffrey and I discuss the alleged “circumventions” of the INF Treaty, the situation in Ukraine, NATO’s security commitments to the Baltic States, and the nuclear weapons related issues associated with the renewal of East-West tensions.


On 6 April 2014, Seymour Hersh published “The Red Line and the Rat Line” in the London Review of Books. The piece builds on his previous article, “Whose Sarin?,” which calls into question the White House’s framing of the 21 August 2013 chemical weapons attack in the Damascus neighborhood of Ghouta. The latest article accuses Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan of working with the rebels to stage the 21 August attack to trip President Barack Obama’s “red line,” so as to trigger a US military strike on Bashar al Assad’s forces. Blogger Eliot Higgins has already written a scathing rebuttal of the piece, that you can read here.

Higgins forcefully argues that the volcano rockets used in the 21 August attack is a clear indication of regime culpability. In September 2013, Dr. Igor Sutyagin, a research fellow at RUSI in London, used open source analysis to confirm that the rockets in question are still in service with the Russian Navy and have likely been exported to Syria. Uzi Rubin, the first Director of Israel Missile Defense Organization, argues, “The ‘330 mm’ rockets discovered in Zamalka and Ein Tarma were not improvised, jury rigged devices that could be casually made in any workshop; rather, they were part of a well designed range of weapon systems contrived to fulfill Syrian Army’s operational needs.” And finally, Dan Kaszeta, a former US Army officer and consultant based in London, has estimated that the perpetrator of the attack would have needed an industrial facility to produce the amount of Sarin used.

Hersh, on the other hand, argues that Erdogan commissioned Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkey’s intelligence organization (MIT), to provide the rebels with “the training in producing the sarin [sic] and handling it.” Hersh’s scenario suggests that Fidan oversaw an effort to illegally produce, or perhaps procure, the distinct volcano rockets that were used in the attack. Second, Turkish intelligence helped the rebels produce a ton of Sarin in what, according to Kaszeta, must have been a very large facility on the Turkish border, or inside Syria in rebel held territory. Third, MIT, working with its proxies, was then able to smuggle 12 volcano rockets into regime held territory in Damascus – why regime held territory?

Well, according to Rubin’s analysis, the White House statements about the 21 August attack, and Human Rights Watch, the rockets were launched from inside a regime controlled military base. Hersh disputes the range estimates in “Whose Sarin?,” but the assumptions from which his piece is derived, places him in the minority of experts, rather than with the majority of missile and chemical experts who have studied the event.

The fourth assumption is that MIT also convinced the rebels to follow-up the attack with a sustained artillery bombardment. And finally, MIT was able to fool the US IC, which, according to the New York Times, relied on “human, signals and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open-source reporting” before placing the blame for the 21 August attack on Bashar al Assad. And finally, Hersh asserts that the Turks, which had heretofore been so secretive about this plan, made the silly mistake of celebrating the strike in such a way, so as to tip-off the United States’ previously “in the dark” intelligence community.

While I could go on, the current list of materials supporting the White House’s portrayal of events is robust. Instead, this piece will outline Turkey’s approach to the Syrian conflict to answer: “Would Turkey make the political decision to launch a false flag chemical weapons attack to trip the United States’ red-line?” My intent is to augment the already robust technical literature with political analysis.

Turkey’s Syria Policy

 At the outset of the Syrian crisis, Ankara prioritized diplomacy over military action. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sought to convince Syrian President Bashar al Assad to make top down cosmetic democratic reforms to appease the growing anti-government protest movement. Yet, after repeated trips to Damascus, Turkey gave up on Assad in August 2011. In turn, Turkey adopted a three-pronged policy of conventional deterrence, border defense, and, by August 2011, outright regime change brought about by external intervention via support for proxy groups.

Turkey partnered with Qatar — and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia — to arm the Syrian rebels.[1] The formula was simple. The two would work together to organize the Syrian opposition, while also cooperating closely on the transfer of arms to proxies. Qatar provided the networks and funding. And, Turkey facilitated the transfer of weapons via Ankara Esenboga airport. The weapons were then distributed to proxies via Turkish and Arab middlemen, who operate on the border with impunity. (This operation has been marred with numerous screw-ups that have allowed for journalists to document the movement of weaponry. I will discuss this below.)

Turkey partnered with Qatar because the leadership in both countries were deeply disturbed at the images of human suffering in Syria and have become wedded to a policy removing Bashar al Assad, through a combination of military pressure designed to make Assad realize that he cannot win, and diplomatic initiative to force him to relinquish power.

While Turkey has geopolitical reasons to support certain rebel groups (particularly those who are in opposition to the Kurdish PYD), the Turkish leadership’s desire to prevent more bloodshed is an aspect of Ankara’s Syria policy that most analysts often overlook. Erdogan, for example, often cries when speaking about the subject of Syria during television broadcasts and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s voice noticeably changes when he speaks about the issue in public. The Syria conflict is not simply some horrible manifestation of the “great game in the Levant,” but rather a humanitarian tragedy that resonates deeply with Turkey’s religiously conservative leadership.

Thus, in order to believe Hersh’s recounting of events, one would have to assume that MIT was able to produce Sarin (no easy feat), manufacture/procure Russian origin rockets, modify them to look like the volcano rockets already in use with Assad’s forces, and then smuggle them into Damascus – and, in addition, Prime Minister Erdogan would have had to authorize the attack, and thereby sign off on the killing of hundreds of Syrians.

Erdogan is a rough and tumble dude, but the assertion that the Turkish Prime Minister would agree to such an attack belies any real understanding of Turkey’s Syrian policy. To be sure, Erdogan did support US military intervention, but Ankara has been vocal proponent of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) since the early 1990s. In fact, Davutoglu, in his book Strategic Depth, lamented the fact that Turkey played such a limited role in the NATO air campaign over Bosnia and argued that in future situations, Ankara should, in conjunction with an international coalition, play a larger military role in protecting civilians. Thus, the Syria policy was not a dramatic policy shift, but rather a continuation of a near two decades old approach to international politics. In fact, Ankara’s embrace of the doctrine – particularly in Muslim majority areas – is a potential trouble spot for US-Turkish relations moving forward.

The False Flag Tape: Hersh Misses the Point

 As more evidence of his central assertion, Hersh points to a leaked audiotape of a meeting attended by Hakan Fidan, Ahmet Davutoglu, Undersecretary of Foreign Ministry Feridun Sinirlioglu, and General Yasar Guler. The tape is hard to follow – even for native Turkish speakers – but includes a general discussion on Turkey’s options vis-à-vis a military operation to rescue some 20 Turkish soldiers, who are tasked with guarding the tomb of Suleyman Shah – the burial place of the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The tomb is a small enclave of Turkish territory on the banks of the Euphrates River some 20 miles from the Turkish border town of Kargamis. The tomb has recently come under threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and Turkish leaders have pledged to defend it, should ISIS attack the tomb.

In the leaked recording, Davutoglu and Fidan discuss options to create Casus Belli to attack the site. While Fidan does flippantly raise the possibility of staging a false flag attack to justify an attack, Davutoglu responds with a theoretical discussion about how Turkey would go about notifying the United Nations, the Syrian embassy, and its allies/partners after an attack. Davutoglu appears to agree with keeping “all options the table,” but reiterates that Ankara must take steps to justify such an attack using international law. At this point, Sinirlioglu jumps in to the conversation to argue that the international law issue won’t be a problem because the group they would be targeting is Al Qaeda – and nobody likes al Qaeda, or will condemn Turkey for attacking it. At this point, the conversation devolves into what I believe to be is  a haphazard recounting of the ways in which Ankara used to insert special forces and heavy equipment into Northern Iraq to combat the PKK and a general lamenting at the way in which the political opposition has politicized national security decisions. (If only Turkey could go back to the good old days, where national security issues are simply under the purview of the regime elites is the clear sub-text to the conversation.)

The conversation is a damning portrayal of the relative disorganization of Turkey’s Syria policy and, contrary to Hersh’s contention, portrays a bureaucracy that is out of options, rather than scheming to manipulate the course of the Syrian civil war. In fact, the most revealing part of the tape is Guler’s contention that even if Turkey were to train 1,000 men to fight in Syria, they would first need to ensure that they had 6 months of ammunition, or otherwise risk the fighters returning after 2 months of fighting. At one point, Davutoglu notes that Qatar is desperate to buy more ammo for cash, but are waiting for the “minister’s command.” Most assume that the minister is Erdogan, but no one really knows for certain. The conversation suggests that Turkey has not even stockpiled six-months of ammunition for its preferred proxies and that efforts to do so are marred with bureaucratic delays.

Does this sound like a government actively plotting to force US action with a false flag chemical attack? To be fair, the Ghouta attack took place seven months before the tape was allegedly recorded. However, it seems unlikely that the MIT’s organizational ability in terms of policy making would have deteriorated so radically in such a short space of time.

In actuality, the tape underscores continuity in Turkish security politics – namely that Ankara favors intervention – and may even conduct a very small and isolated raid on its own – but it will take every effort to ensure that its actions are in line with international law and norms. A false flag chemical weapons attack is so out of character with Turkish history, it shifts the burden of proof to the accuser. And, in the case of Hersh, the claims fall far short of passing that test.

The Adana Incident: An Operational Miscue, or a Reflection of Turkey’s CBR Preparedness?

 In May 2013, Turkish police raided safe houses in Istanbul, Mersin, Adana and Hatay. In Adana, the Turkish press initially reported that members of Jabhat al-Nusra were in possession of 2 kg (4.5 pounds) of Sarin. The indictment alleged that the men arrested were in possession of chemical precursors that could be used to make Sarin. The pro-government press subsequently reported that the men were in possession of anti-freeze. To be fair, the incident remains murky, but the facts don’t support Hersh’s insinuation that the men were part of the much larger plot to use chemical weapons to trip the US red line.

Turkey’s chemical, biological, radiological (CBR) units are trained in Adapazari – a city some 2 hours drive away from Istanbul. In every Turkish military unit, there is a trained CBR team. However, the general state of the country’s CBR preparedness is poor. The Turkish military’s equipment is old and outdated, with many of the gas masks and protective suits having long expired. To augment these capabilities, the Turkish General Staff elevated the importance of increasing Ankara’s passive defense in a Defense White Paper written and released in 2000. However, as of September 2013, Turkey’s civilian procurement agency still had not prioritized the acquisition of updated chemical weapons equipment. According to Burak Bekdil:

Analysts say all Turkey has are mostly expired gas masks supplied several years ago by the United States, and even if Turkey acquired new masks, these can protect only some Turkish military units — not civilians — near the Syrian border. They fear any chemical attack from Syria would result in heavy losses.

So, if one assumes that Turkey uses US equipment (an absolute certainty) that has expired, one can then piece together the origins of the Adana incident. According to Kaszeta, “By far the most prolific cheap test method for chemical warfare agents is M8 test paper, 1960s vintage litmus-style paper that changes color.  This is very cheap <$2 a booklet.  Notorious for false positives, including a false color change for ethylene glycol (i.e antifreeze) that looks like a G-series nerve agent (i.e. Sarin/GB).” (See this document for more information about the M8 test paper.)

While the details remain murky, I assume that the gendarmerie was responsible for the raid. The gendarmerie in Turkey is a branch of the armed forces that police rural areas outside of the jurisdiction of the regular police. Thus, if one assumes that the gendarmerie are using outdated equipment like US origin M8 test paper from the 1960s, then one can easily explain why initial tests may have suggested the presence of Sarin.

To be sure, something happened in Adana. However, more recent reports of similar incidents suggest that the city is a transit point for the shipment of conventional weapons to Syrian rebels operating over the border, rather than the operational hub of a chemical weapons production center. In January 2014, for example, the gendarmerie stopped trucks driven by a local NGO (The NGO has reported links to numerous “bad guys” and appear to be a key player in MIT’s gun running funny business) – who were being flanked by MIT driven Audi A-3s (a very conspicuous choice in a place like Adana) – and detected explosives.

The gendarmerie stopped the vehicle and proceeded to arrest the drivers, over the objection of the Audi driving MIT agents. This then prompted the governor of Adana, Huseyin Avni Cos, the provincial police chief, and MIT’s regional director to directly intervene, in order to allow for the trucks to continue in to Syria. Why do we care? Well it points to two general themes that are apparent in the audiotape, but are ignored in Hersh’s story: 1) Turkey’s Syria policy is highly compartmentalized. It is so compartmentalized that even the gendarmerie – who Hersh allege are part of the conspiracy to produce Sarin – are not kept up to date about the comings and goings of weapons bound for Syria; 2) That MIT’s operations are relatively well understood in Turkey and have been thoroughly documented by Turkish and foreign journalists. In turn, this suggests that MIT – which has had its trucks stopped on multiple occasions – succeeded in the very complicated task of producing Sarin, but failed to keep its rather mundane gun running operation under wraps. Frankly, Hersh’s claims make absolutely no sense, when put in the larger context of what is actually happening in Turkey.

The Bottom Line 

Hersh is wrong. In addition to the numerous technical reasons that point to serious analytical flaws, the situation on the ground in Turkey does not support the article’s central arguments. While I heard some very wild conspiracy theories when I lived in Turkey, Hersh’s latest tops them all.

[1] Based on my own research, I’ve been able to piece together this very simple list (open to additions/corrections):

1) Turkey border, Qatari purchased arms with Turkish assistance and transport

2) Turkey border, private Gulf donors working with groups like Ahrar al Sham

3) Turkey border, Saudi money providing safe houses for foreigners wishing to join jihad

4) Turkey border, logistical supplies coming in from a whole host of countries, mostly European union (France)

5) Iraq border, Kuwaiti money and Saudi money in particular funding sectarian division and militias

6) Jordan border, Saudi bought arms, movements of Saudi and US trained rebel forces, cash, logistical supplies

7) Lebanese border, mostly shut but leaky in the top northern part and away from Shia areas in the Beqaa Valley