Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


This is a guest post by Ariana Rowberry, Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow with the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Initiative, Brookings Institution.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is preparing for the arduous task of removing and destroying Syria’s chemical agents and infrastructure. This task faces numerous complications. The chemicals must be sealed and packaged, transported across insecure territory on questionable infrastructure, loaded on two cargo vessels, one belonging to Denmark and one to Norway, at the port of Latakia, which will then transport the chemicals to an Italian port, where they will be transferred to a cargo ship under control of the U.S. Navy.

Here, Syria’s estimated 500 tons of “priority 1” chemical agents—including mustard, VX, and sarin gas and their associated components—will be destroyed at sea, using a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, a technology that will dilute the chemical agents to a low-level toxicity. The process of hydrolysis has previously been used in the destruction of chemical agents; however, using such a mobile system at sea is unprecedented. The United Nations decision to destroy Syria’s most dangerous class of chemical agents at sea was made after no country volunteered to host their destruction.

What is a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System and how will it operate at sea?

Hydrolysis System (credit: US Army)

The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) was developed by the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) in conjunction with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Development for the system began last winter after senior officials within the Pentagon assembled a senior group to look at technologies that could be applied to Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile. Final testing for the system concluded this summer. A total of seven FHDS systems are expected to be developed. Currently, three units exist, two of which will be used in the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. One FDHS is roughly the size of two shipping containers.

The two FDHS will be placed on the motor vessel Cape Ray, a cargo ship that is part of the United States’ Maritime Administration’s ready reserve force. The ship has undergone special renovations at Norfolk, Virginia to host the FDHS capability. The FDHS systems will be placed below deck complete with carbon filters and an analytical laboratory. The FDHS is able to be deployed anywhere in the world within ten days and takes a crew of 15 individuals to operate. Around 100 people will be aboard the Cape Ray, comprised of civilians and contractors from the Department of Defense, in addition to members of the OPCW.

How does the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System Work?

The FDHS uses water, sodium hydroxide (NaOH), sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl) and heat to neutralize the chemicals with 99.9 percent effectiveness. The chemicals are broken down in a 2,200-gallon titanium reactor. The system has the capacity to destroy between 5 and 25 tons of chemical agent per day. Therefore, the FDHS has the potential capacity to destroy Syria’s priority 1 chemical agents within 45 to 90 days.

The waste resulting from the dilution of the chemicals will be stored on board the Cape Ray, assuaging environmental concerns that the effluent could be dumped into the sea. The FDHS generates between five and fourteen times the volume of chemical agent being destroyed. After the chemicals are diluted, the effluent can be commercially stored.

The FDHS is self-sufficient, complete with its own power generators, personnel decontamination station and chemical agent filtration system. The FDHS will only need the outside resources of water, reagents and fuel to operate.

Field Deployable Hydrolysis System Site Layout (credit: US Army)


A proven technology or cause for concern?

The international community considered alternative technologies to destroy Syria’s chemical agents, including incineration. However, the FDHS was ultimately selected, given the United States’ extensive experience destroying chemical agents through hydrolysis, including at the former chemical weapons sites at Newport, Indiana and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland during the 2000s. According to officials in the Department of Defense, the FDHS is a “proven technology.”  The only change is that this technology is now mobile.

However, some chemical weapons experts are expressing concern. Raymond Zilinskas, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies remarked that, “There’s no precedence. We’re all guessing. We’re all estimating.” Mr. Zilinskas also drew attention to the fact that no assessments of possible environmental impact are being conducted, as would be done if the chemicals were destroyed on land. Despite these concerns, it appears that, given the security and diplomatic complications, paired with a strict time frame for the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, the FDHS provides a relatively low-risk alternative for ridding Syria of its most dangerous chemical agents.


Remember that incident a few years ago at Minot Air Force Base, with nuclear warheads being transported by accident? Of course we do… discussed all over ACW (link, link and link).

The Air Force conducted the Commander Directed Report of Investigation, (prepared by Maj, Gen. Douglas Raaberg), looking into what happened and who was responsible. The report was not publicly available, but hey, that’s what FOIA is for. After a two year wait, and almost forgetting about it, I got a package in the mail yesterday. Cool. Somewhat redacted, but still cool.

A Series of Mistakes

First, there was a scheduling mistake. Basically, someone updated the real schedule which details the missile pylons to be transported, but that update never made it into the hands of people doing the work, who mostly use “working slides” (power point printouts? cliff notes??) rather than the official and more complicated schedule to guide their tasks. So, they moved two missile pylons listed on the old schedule, one of which was armed with nuclear warheads. This was only the first mistake. There were at least three other points at which the mix up should have been identified.

Normally, the handling team goes into the shelter where pylons are stored, and at that point does Missile Safe Status Checks, which include verifying the payload of each missile by shining a flashlight into a small window in the casing and reading the inside label. Some of the testimony referenced in the report suggests that no one was seen carrying a flashlight, which would make verifying the payload through that little window impossible.

Also, the report notes that no one seemed to notice that one pylon was marked with placards indicating its readiness for movement and the other was not. Granted, these placards are two 8.5 × 11 signs, but still—obvious difference (the report writes: “inexplicable,” “baffling”). It’s not all flashlights and signs though. The crew is monitored by the Munitions Control Center, which is supposed to verify pylons before movement using a software-tracking program that identifies nuclear vs. inert payloads. Apparently the person who was supposed to do this was simply not trained to use the program, and so didn’t.

And on and on. Payload checks are supposed to be performed by the team that opens the storage, the team that tows the pylons to the aircraft, and then the flight crew. The report details how at each step someone didn’t check. The flight crew did a spot check, but only on one of the pylons and, by chance, not the nuclear one.

Nuclear Skills

The end of the report picks up on a more general point, that because of a shifting focus to conventional weaponry, nuclear skill sets have faded:

The calculus has changed. There has been a fundamental shift over the past three years to nearly conversional-only operations. Much of it has been by design. [redacted] The Advanced Cruise Missiles from Minot and the remaining Air Launched Cruise Missiles in their inventory are scheduled for further demilitarization, destruction, or departure. [redacted]


To emphasize, the nuclear skill sets have not been exercised. They are atrophied. It was evident in the testimony of every operations group member we interviewed. When referring to the tactical ferry program they believe it is a, “Depot Maintenance input that only requires three (3) crewmembers … we’re only ferrying ‘carcasses’ from point A to point B!”

The discussion of the changes in training of the air crews is pretty interesting, but I am not sure what to make of several mentions of “touching” the nuclear weapons…

the Barksdale AFB crew that flew the Advanced Cruise Missiles from Minot AFB have never physically touched a real missile… their fingers have never put an imprint on an actual advanced or air launched missile… neither the experienced instructor pilot, radar navigator or inexperienced copilot. [ellipses as in report]


The most recent Distinguished Graduate from weapon school, the instructor pilot on ‘Doom 99’ which transported the nuclear warheads aboard her B-52, did not receive specific nuclear weapons instruction in Class 07-A. Again, she admitted she had never physically touched a nuclear weapon.

I kind of follow the professional culture or education argument being made, but it also sounds a bit like, well, you have to get to second base with a missile or something in order to really understand what you are doing.


The report provides detailed suggestions for each step in the process, from how to achieve better nuclear-related training for wing leaders, to better labeling of pylons, to revisions in assignments and procedures.

One recommendation suggesting that nuclear unit be stored separately from nuclear-inert units caught my attention because it’s a concern that seemed to come up frequently in press accounts of this incident. The recommendation came with this note:

The Air Force permits mixed storage on nuclear and nuclear-inert weapons. This was even done in Strategic Air Command day. SAC regularly mixed loads in storage in preparation for testing, training, and tactical ferry missions. Previously, SAC regulations and now AFI 21-204 does permit mixed storage as long as the unit “delineates” the separate loads.

There were actually three official reports prepared about this incident: this one by Maj. Gen. Raaberg, a blue-ribbon panel led by Maj. Gen. Polly Peyer, and a Defense Science Board (DSB) review led by Gen. Larry Welch. The last one was publicly released, and there is an executive summary of the blue ribbon panel. A number of the key points and recommendations are similar in all three reports, so here I’ve just highlighted a pieces that I found interesting in the Raaberg report.

Final thought: Getting documents in the mail is fun. I am thinking of more things to FOIA because, well, dissertations take a while, so I have that kind of time. Suggestions always welcome.

Jane Vaynman contributed this guest post.


If a nuclear bomb were to go off in a U.S. city, how long would it take to get info on what kind it was and where it came from?

Los Angeles Times had an article about nuclear forensics and government teams who are working on detection. I appreciate the attempt to make it sound cool…elite teams with radiation-detecting helicopters!

About every three days, unknown to most Americans, an elite team of federal scientists hits the streets in the fight against nuclear terrorism.

An independent study (led by Michael May at Stanford) on forensics and policy approaches should be out next month. Jay C. Davis, a retired weapons scientist working on the forensics study, gives some goals for a forensics time:

Davis said it was hoped that nuclear forensics could determine the size of a detonation within one hour; the sophistication of the bomb design within six hours; how the fuel was enriched within 72 hours; and the peculiar details of national design — “Does this look like a Russian, a Chinese or a Pakistani device, or something we have never seen before?” — within a week.

It’s a pretty good article with some interesting details on how detections teams would work after locating a nuclear device.

(Also, despite all my hopes, I have not in fact moved a tropical island without internet. I am just in grad school. Happy Hour deserves a break from the books however, so hope to see you at Big Hunt on Wednesday!)


After looking at low-res blurs for years, now you can count the cars in the Dimona parking lot. Granted they were probably there a year or two ago, but this is still cool. The latest update of Google Earth has some fun new images of Israeli sites.

To find the nuclear reactor, search for the Negev Nuclear Research Center in Google Earth. It should be a pretty clear image with a marker for the wikipedia entry.

The San Francisco Chronicle has more info on Israeli military sites you can now find on Google Earth. As to be expected, Israeli officials are not commenting.

According to Israeli experts, the photographs in question are a year or two years old, and clearly show the layout of top-secret buildings. The photograph of the nuclear plant at Dimona shows the approach roads, internal walkways and individual buildings in a facility that is off-limits and hidden behind electric fences with large warnings signs and a complex array of cameras and other security devices.

The images also include Camp Rabin, the heavily guarded defense headquarters in central Tel Aviv that is surrounded by anti-terrorist blockades, a high wall and buildings with bomb-proof windows. It contains the underground bunker from which Israel’s top generals command their military campaigns, as well as the offices of the prime minister, defense minister and Shin Bet secret service.

Moreover, the alleged Mossad headquarters, whose location is a highly protected secret, was identified and labeled by a Google Earth user.

Update: As related wonkporn, here is a video which appears to have been made by an Israeli TV channel (alas no date or any other real details) on the facilities at Dimona, based on information Mordechai Vanunu leaked to British press. The background music is my favorite part.

Jeffrey adds: Here is the .kmz file.


A few weeks ago I blogged about Russia’s “Father of All Bombs,” a fuel-air bomb they claimed to be the world’s largest non-nuclear weapon.

Did the Russians really drop the bomb off a Tu-160 bomber or was the drop a hoax?

David Axe at Wired has some interesting speculations.


Jeffrey will be participating in an event tomorrow at the New America Foundation. He and Gary Samore, Vice President and Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, will be speaking about Iran’s nuclear program.

More details here, and the basics below.

Countering a Nuclear-Armed Iran

Thursday, September 27, 2007
3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

New America Foundation
1630 Connecticut Ave, NW, 7th Floor
Washington, DC

Featured Speakers:
Gary Samore, Council on Foreign Relations
Jeffrey Lewis, New America Foundation

RSVP to with name, affiliation, contact info.


Wolfgang Panofsky, director emeritus at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, died of a heart attack on Monday evening. He was 88.

There is much to be said about Dr. Panofsky’s contributions, from his pioneering research at Los Alamos, Stanford, and Berkeley, as well as his contributions to the policy debate on proliferation and nuclear security. I’m sure many of ACW readers may have personal recollections of his life or his work, which I invite you to share.

A few years ago I watched Dr. Panofsky lead a panel in a National Academies Symposium, marking the 60th Anniversary of Trinity. NAS hosted an incredible group of speakers, all of whom were there at Trinity. Dr. Panofsky’s closing comments still stand out in my mind:

Throughout human history proliferation of any new technology for either peace or war – be it fire, gun powder, steel fabrication, electronics, or whatever – has never been stopped, but in response to Trinity we must stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But how can we accomplish this? Treaties and other international agreements have been very successful in slowing proliferation, but in the long run each sovereign state on this globe must be persuaded that its National Security is better served without possessing nuclear weapons than with them. It also requires each state now possessing nuclear weapons to examine critically whether their stockpiles of these weapons and of the critical materials to make them are truly consistent with their National Security – not to meet short range contingencies but to serve the long range true security of the nation.

-W.K.H. Panofsky, prepared remarks for Academies Symposium 60th Anniversary of Trinity, July 15, 2005.

Panofsky’s last published article, “Nuclear Insecurity,” appears in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs. Additionally, his autobiography Panofsky on Physics, Politics, and Peace: Pief Remembers will be out in mid October.


Earlier this week, AP reported that Russia tested a conventional bomb, which Russian television described as the “world’s most powerful non-nuclear air-delivered bomb.”

The TV station highlighted the importance of this weapon. In other words, our bomb is bigger than your bomb.

Channel One television said the new weapon, nicknamed the “dad of all bombs” is four times more powerful than the U.S. “mother of all bombs.”


The U.S. Massive Ordnance Air Blast, nicknamed the Mother Of All Bombs, is a large-yield satellite-guided, air-delivered bomb described as the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in history.

Channel One said that while the Russian bomb contains 7.8 tons of high explosives compared to more than 8 tons of explosives in the U.S. bomb, it’s four times more powerful because it uses a new, highly efficient type of explosives that the report didn’t identify.

So, why does one need a bomb so big? A bomb that Col.-Gen. Alexander Rukshin, a deputy chief of the Russian military’s General Staff said “is comparable to a nuclear weapon in its efficiency and capability.”

To get the terrorists of course.

Rukshin said the new bomb would allow the military to “protect the nation’s security and confront international terrorism in any situation and any region.”

What is this all about? I am not sure yet. But “showing off” seems to be a topic in Russia news lately. Flexing some muscles, first literally, and now with really big fireballs.


On August 30, the first time since 1968, a U.S. bomber transported missiles armed with six nuclear warheads. By accident.

The story is front page, but here is the more detailed version at Military Times.

The article quotes Hans Kristensen and Phil Coyle on a very important point. This mixup would not be an easy mistake to make, which means security measures were seriously overlooked.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said a host of security checks and warning signs must have been passed over, or completely ignored, for the warheads to have been unknowingly loaded onto the B-52.

ACMs are specifically designed to carry a W80-1 nuclear warhead with a yield of 5 to 150 kilotons and delivered by B-52 strategic bombers.

“It’s not like they had nuclear ACMs and conventional ACMs right next to each other and they just happened to load one with a nuclear warhead,” Kristensen said.

The Defense Department uses a computerized tracking program to keep tabs on each one of its nuclear warheads, he said. For the six warheads to make it onto the B-52, each one would have had to be signed out of its storage bunker and transported to the bomber. Diligent safety protocols would then have had to been ignored to load the warheads onto the plane, Kristensen said.

All ACMs loaded with a nuclear warhead have distinct red signs distinguishing them from ACMs without a nuclear yield, he said. ACMs with nuclear warheads also weigh significantly more than missiles without them.

“I just can’t imagine how all of this happened,” said Philip Coyle, a senior adviser on nuclear weapons at the Center for Defense Information. “The procedures are so rigid; this is the last thing that’s supposed to happen.”

The warheads could not have been detonated, either on purpose or in the event of an accident. Yet the fact that they were missing for 3 and a half hours -the mistake was only noticed when the plane landed – is very distrubing.

Are accidents with nuclear weapons rare? Is 10 rare? 20?

Here are the well known mishaps, involving test launches, mistaken simulations, and even a bear. There are more details and analysis in Scott Sagan’s The Limits of Safety.


We don’t get many feel good stories on a nonproliferation blog.

This Washington Post piece is pretty close though. Next up, Nunn and Lugar superhero suits. Capes of course, but minus latex.

PODOLSK, Russia, Aug. 29 — Heavily guarded trucks rolled up to the Luch nuclear institute here on Tuesday night and unloaded five green reinforced containers holding a total of 21 pounds of uranium, about a third of it highly enriched, which had been quietly removed from a research reactor in Otwock, Poland.


On Wednesday, as workers prepared to open the casks from Poland, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) got a firsthand look on a visit to Luch at the struggle to locate the fissile material and keep it from falling into the wrong hands, a program that they created more than 15 years ago and now faces new challenges.


Later Wednesday, Nunn and Lugar witnessed the burn-off of a solid-fuel second-stage engine from an SS-25 intercontinental ballistic missile at a site northeast of Moscow. The burn is part of Russia’s effort to destroy the missiles in keeping with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Along with U.S. Ambassador William J. Burns, Nunn and Lugar were invited to press a large red button on a boxy panel in a control room to start the burn. They then watched on closed-circuit television as the engine roared for two minutes 15 seconds.