Archive for the ‘National Security’ Category

50 Tons of Highly Enriched Uranium in 40 countries

August 4, 2008

According to presidential candidate Obama, 50 tons of loosely guarded highly enriched uranium (HEU) remains in 40 countries around the world and he wants to negotiate agreements to eliminate them in four years. A laudable goal, and how will we go about doing this? Will all these other countries willingly give up their HEU stocks? Will they decommission or convert their HEU-based operating reactors?

In this 1-page proposal, I explore how a single, fixed-price for HEU might solve the problem once and for all.


Fermi’s nobel lecture (1938)

June 3, 2008

The simplicity of Fermi’s nobel lecture (1938) is stunning — the implications of this work changed history forever. Other nobel lectures i’ve read go on and on — this lecture is only 8 pages. Fermi also cites and gives credit to a dozens of other researchers upon whose work his discoveries are based. He explains the discovery of radioactivity caused by neutron bombardment and study of interactions of “thermal” neutrons with all the elements, including uranium and thorium.

p. 415,

The small dimensions, the perfect steadiness and the utmost simplicity are, however, sometimes very useful features of the radon + beryllium sources.

His experiments involve neutron sources, paraffin wax, and spinning wheels, not complicated particle accelerators or machinery. Anyone with a freshman-level chemistry/physics knowledge should be able to understand the lecture, but even that is not absolutely needed.

US Continental Security

March 13, 2008

General Victor Renuart’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee is a fun read — as it ties together all aspects of “continental security” and puts them into perspective. He oversees both the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) which has been in existence since the Cold War to protect against airborne threats (missiles, airplanes, etc) and the US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) which was created in 2002 after the 9/11 attacks for all aspects of homeland security and incident repsonse. Some bits of trivia from the testimony… NORAD and USNORTHCOM monitor 12-20 potentially dangerous incidents everyday and there are over 17,000 manmade objects orbiting the earth in space and thousands more they cannot track.

Three important trends for homeland security emerge from his testimony:

  1.  Building up capability and preparation for WMD incident response is the #1 priority for USNORTHCOM – note this is not prevention. They prepare to deal with the 15 National Planning Scenarios.

  2. There is a long list of domestic incidents that USNORTHCOM has responded last year (Katrina, California wildfires, drug smuggling, etc.

  3. Working in conjunction with both state/local governments and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the USNORTHCOM will be relied upon for delivering and coordinating all domestic disaster response for major natural incidents, man-made accidents, and hostile attacks – they are in charge of the national guard and will call on the Army/Marines as necessary. This includes Army’s CBRNE. (The letters CBRNE stand for the five mission elements of the 20th Support Command: chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-yield explosives.)

Trust, nation-building, and development

January 22, 2008

The article “How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social – Not Electronic” is very longwinded but informative in the end. The wars of Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate that using network-centric warfare, the US military has demonstrated its mastery/superiority of identifying and destroying targets anywhere on earth and invading nations using conventional means with both small numbers of troops and minimal troop losses compared to earlier wars. As the battlefield shifts from invasion to nation building, it looks like the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan are forcing the military to learn a completely modern version of fighting Internet-enabled insurgencies amidst civilian populations (COIN/HTT) – a capability it lacked going into Iraq, and one of the reasons GHW Bush apparently stopped short of removing Saddam in 1991. The next war of preemption whenever it happens may turn out a lot different if the Pentagon plans ahead.

Blaming the protracted war in Iraq to insufficient troop numbers or technology is a bit simplistic. A recent documentary “No End In Sight” was filmed pre-surge and so it did not incorporate the progress/changes as a result of Patreus’ new strategy. However it points out that post-invasion planning for Europe during WWII began two years before the invasion, and in case of Iraq the DoD planning apparatus for post-invasion was almost nonexistent even though DoD was placed in charge – excluding the State Department. This wired article doesn’t quite address the strategic planning failures at the pentagon pre-invasion that might have contributed to some of the Iraqi security problems we see today. The piece “Who Lost Iraq?” in Foreign Affairs tries to expose that more clearly.

In failures of postwar planning, the root issue is local institutions and (absence of) social capital needed to build them. There is a book (2006) called “Nation Building beyond Iraq and Afghanistan”. I read the introductory chapter by Fukuyama “Nation Building and the Failure of Institutional Memory” (pages 1-18) which explains how politics between the defense/state departments got in the way of post-war planning, and it tends to corroborate the picture painted by interviews in the documentary “No End In Sight.”

“the frequency and intensity of US and international nation-building have increased since the end of the Cold War…there has been roughly one new nation building intervention every two years since the end of the Cold War… What is remarkable is how little institutional learning there has been over time; the same lessons about pitfalls and limitations of nation-building seemingly have to be relearned with each new involvement. This became painfully evident after the American occupation and reconstruction of Iraq after April 2003.”

“Nation-building encompasses two different types of activities, reconstruction and development. Although the distinction between the two is often blurred, it was always present to nation-builders and earlier generations dealing with post-conflict situations. The official title of the World Bank is, after all, the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development, and most of its activities fell under the first heading. Reconstruction refers to the restoration of war-torn or damaged societies to their preconflict situation. Development, however, refers to the creation of new institutions and the promotion of sustained economic growth, events that transform the society open-endedly into something that it has not been previously… Development, however, is much more problematic, both conceptually and as a matter of pragmatic policy. The development phase by contrast requires the eventual weaning of local actors and institutions from dependence on outside aid… it is seldom the case that local institutions are actually strong enough to do all the things they are intended to do.”

After reading Fukuyama’s book “Trust” (1996) where he explains the role of social capital in the world’s economies (in addition to intellectual capital, financial capital, or natural resources), the lack of social capital in these nation-building efforts explains why completely new local institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan take decades to gel and become productive.

Why call it intelligence?

December 27, 2007

What have people been saying about the latest national intellgence estimate (NIE) on Iran?

  • Stupid Intelligence on Iran, By JAMES SCHLESINGER, December 19, 2007; Page A21, Wall Street Journal — Mr. Schlesinger is a former secretary of defense, secretary of energy and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Misreading the Iran Report: Why Spying and Policymaking Don’t Mix, By Henry A. Kissinger, Thursday, December 13, 2007; A35, The Washington Post — “In short, if my analysis is correct, we could be witnessing not a halt of the Iranian weapons program — as the NIE asserts — but a subtle, ultimately more dangerous, version of it that will phase in the warhead when fissile material production has matured.”
  • The Flaws In the Iran Report, By John R. Bolton, Thursday, December 6, 2007; Page A29, The Washington Post

The real news is that these kinds of doubts are nothing new. With the this many former US officials criticizing the latest NIE (Bolton, Kissigner, and now Schlesinger), I can’t help but recall the numerous times during the past 50 years that US intelligence community (IC) was off by +/- five years in predicting the timing of when foreign countries achieve nuclear capability. The NIEs provide a false sense of security in nuclear weapons issues because they are not good predictors — it’s extremely foolhardy to be making critical policy decisions that hinge upon NIEs or IC judgments/guesses. (there is a saying — you can’t prove you don’t have a sister.) see “The intelligence community fails” pages 13-16 of

I suggest we rename the NIE to the “Natoinal Speculation Estimate.” Policy makers in congress and the white house can’t simply insulate themselves by relying on a national estimate like this. Instead, congress and the white house need to be immerse themselves in the details, incorporate the raw data into their thinking, and then go with their gut — just like a judge or jury does in a courtroom — because they are 100% responsibile for the future of the nation.

Also see “A Look Back Reveals Forward Thinking” that examines the predictions in the recently declassified 1974 national intelligence estimate “Prospects for Further Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”

“A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”

October 5, 2007

On January 4, 2007 I stopped at Pete’s coffee on Market Street to get my morning espresso on my daily bike ride, a bit chilly but nothing unusual otherwise. After I sat down I noticed an old gentleman carefully cutting out a newspaper article and putting it in his pocket, as though he was holding something very dear to him–it happened to be,

A World Free of Nuclear Weapons

By George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn

January 4, 2007; Page A15; Wall Street Journal

Being one of those “I have a dream” kind of ideas, this seemed so far out of left field and most unbelievable until you saw the names of the authors who proposed it–then it was almost certainly unbelievable. It turns out they were bringing back to life a vision that Reagan had discussed with Gorbachev to end the Cold War. This is interesting considering the US has spent some $5.5 trillion dollars on its nuclear arsenal from 1940-1996 according to a report by the Brookings Institution. In the Fall of 2006, I had seen Shultz talk about this concept as part of a Roundtable discussion at Stanford University but back then I didn’t realize to what extent this was being floated as a concrete proposal.

Later in March 2007, I got to see Shultz, Perrry, and Sid Drell explain their vision in person in San Francisco at a panel discussion organized by the World Affairs Council–here are my notes:

  • sid drell was one of the founding members of JASON.
    • during the cold war, he got a letter from andre sakarov (Russian physicist) saying that nuclear weapons pose an “existential threat to humanity,” and ending this threat must be their highest focus.
    • 10 steps outlined in their essay “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons”,
    • Nuclear fuel production = nuclear weapon capability, no two ways about it.
  • Perry classified the risk of nuclear detonation into three categories
    1. miscalculation whose risk has gone to zero (with soviet union, others)
    2. accidental, which still exists. US/Russia are on 15 minute readiness status. ballistic missiles finish the job in half an hour. he shared two stories of near-accidental launches during which he was personally involved
      • Cuban missile crisis. he used to consult for DoD on missiles. one day in 1962 he was called in by his stanford classmate who was deputy CIA director on for an urgent assignment. turned out to be examining photos of soviet missiles in cuba. he dy director would report that to the president every morning. every day during the crisis, he thought that was going to be his last day.
      • as undersecretary of defense, he was woken up by a general who said he saw 200 soviet missiles approaching and had 15 minute window to respond (retaliate). turned out to be false alarm.
      • in both cases, perry attributes the turnaround to good luck rather than good management
    3. nuclear terrorism by non-state actors (Al Qaeda). not as bad as a US-Soviet exchange. he cannot backup of his estimates, but quotes Allison as saying there is a 50/50 chance by the end of the decade.
    4. North Korea is motivated by deterrence, prestige, and economic reasons when seeking nuclear weapons. when perry went to North Korea, he didn’t see anyone from the military. as the top ranked official in the DoD, he asked to meet with NK’s top ranked military officers. the general who came out said he didn’t want to meet. perry asked why they wanted nuclear weapons. the general said they don’t want to be vulnerable to being attacked like in Belgrade (Yugoslavia), and if there were ever a nuclear weapon exploded in Pyongyang, Perry could expect to see one in Palo Alto. So deterrence is a major consideration in NK’s calculus, apart from the economic benefits (i.e. extortion) they are deriving.
    5. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, Egypt, Jordan will certainly follow suit. Israel likely to do a preemptive attack. economic sanctions may convince Iran not to get them. Iran should be offered supply of nuclear fuel to avoid having to build their own fuel production cycle. This will clarify their full intentions (“smoke them out”). Russian and US can offer the fuel, under the authority of the IAEA which is internationally controlled.
    6. what are the uses of nuclear weapons,
      • only use is for preventing MAD with other nations
      • tactical nuclear weapons and bunker busters do not provide enough tactical advantage to justify the risks, as determined by Congress
  • Shultz brings up the historical precedent of how the constitution said “all men are created equal” but it was only centuries later that this vision was fully realized with women and minorities. similarly, he views “world free of nuclear weapons” as an “ought” that we can shoot for and eventually achieve.
    1. when asked what was the most significant turning point during the cold war, Gorbachev told Shultz that it was the Reykjavik meetings where both US/Soviet sides sat down and talked about all the issues.
    2. Reagan
      • called for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. He thought mutually assured destruction (MAD) was inhumane.
      • suggested eliminating long range ballistic missiles and relying solely on strategic bombers which can be called back.
      • Gorbachev asked Reagan why they needed strategic defense—he replied that there could be some other nation (besides Russia) that threatens the US with missiles

Then in April I went to a talk by the world’s most famous historian of nuclear weapons, Richard Rhodes also at Stanford where I learnt a few more things…

Richard Rhodes (4/10/2007), Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), Stanford University

sigfried hecker introduced him—richard’s books teach physics better than most physics texts.

rhodes wrote the most famous books/histories on the US atomic programs called “the making of the atom bomb” and “the making of the hydrogen bomb.” in residence at stanford, rhodes is writing a new book (“arsenals of folly”) on the concept of nuclear abolition that was discussed by Reagan and gorbachev, digging into the motivations of the two leaders.

neils bohr said that the atom bomb puts us in a situation that cannot be resolved by war, requiring a concept of “common security.” it’s analogous to public health. Oppenheimer was a bohr protégé. Soon after the bomb was exploded, hope for international control failed and the strategy shifted to military containment. in the 1960s, the us put aside all priorities to build missiles, including going to the moon. $5 trillion spent on the nuclear arsenal. key political question, how to establish a world system of nuclear restraint?

neocons neglected détente with the soviet union as a fatal move. in 1985, the Cold War was never colder.

Gorbachev was a farmer, won awards, and rose in the ussr to become agricultural minister. He was determined to reduce the cost of defense in order to improve people’s lives. At some point during the cold war it was estimate that the USSR was spending 40-70% of their money on defense.

Reagan a former lifeguard from riverside, saved 70 people, and only wished they would thank him for it. before winning the election, he told one of his presidential campaign managers that his purpose was to end the cold war and eliminate nuclear weapons. only secretary Shultz took him seriously (who was in the audience).

edward teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, proposed the idea of strategic defense initiative (SDI, star wars), i.e. missile defense shield. it could provide an alternative to mutually assured destruction (MAD) and not require aiming nukes at other nations—which Reagan thought was inhuman. Reagan’s vision was to provide SDI to all nations in the world. reagan believed in “common security” as a blueprint for survival.

SDI was used by soviet hardliners to disallow key concessions that gorbachev wanted to make to end nuclear weapons.

“Just as there is no such thing as a machine that doesn’t fail, there isn’t a bomb that doesn’t go off.”

my question to rhodes: define nuclear abolition more precisely. 10,000 à 100 à 1 nuke is very quantifiable. What does 1 à 0 mean? How do you define it independent of time for a nation to assemble/manufacture a weapon or the time to deliver it to its target? Rhodes says the time to arm can be increased up to 3 months (how?), and by doing so the risk of nuclear war can be reduced since that leaves a lot of time to come to a negotiated or conventional military solution.

It would seem that grand visions like this can never happen because the world is a mean place, game theory and animosity rather than cooperation rules the planet. But there is a reason why this might be a good idea as far as self-preservation is concerned–accidents and nuclear terrorism. First, Perry has been pointing out how the risk of accidental launch or other accidents involving nuclear weapons is non-zero–making the benefits of deterrence less than the risk of accidents. The more countries who have nuclear weapons, the more weapons, the greater the risk there could be an accident somewhere. An accidental loss of accounting was just disclosed in the handling of the weapons by the US Air Force–first in 50 years.

Missteps in the Bunker

By Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 23, 2007; A01

Second, the more weapons there across many countries, the greater the risk they can fall into the hands of a non-state actor and become part of a nuclear terrorism plot. Almost all US presidential candidates have been outspoken about this threat. In particular, Guiliani has annouced that he wants nuclear detection systems deployed, both across the US border and within the interior.

Toward a Realistic Peace
Rudolph Giuliani
From Foreign Affairs, September/October 2007

An even greater danger is the possibility of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil with a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapon. Every effort must be made to improve our intelligence capabilities and technological capacities to prevent this. Constellations of satellites that can watch arms factories everywhere around the globe, day and night, above- and belowground, combined with more robust human intelligence, must be part of America’s arsenal. The laudable and effective Proliferation Security Initiative, a global effort to stop the shipment of weapons of mass destruction and related materials, should be expanded and strengthened. In particular, we must work to deter the development, transfer, or use of weapons of mass destruction. We must also develop the capability to prevent an attack — including a clandestine attack — by those who cannot be deterred. Rogue states must be prevented from handing nuclear materials to terrorist groups. Our enemies must know that they cannot murder our citizens with impunity and escape retaliation.We must also develop detection systems to identify nuclear material that is being imported into the United States or developed by operatives inside the country.

Another sign of hope emerged this week when presidential hopeful Obama annouced that he endorses the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Obama Calls for nuclear free world, October 2, 2007, by Lynn Sweet, Sun-Times Columnist

It’s time to junk nuclear weapons, by Ivo Dalder and John Holum, The Boston Globe, October 5, 2007

update: see new op-ed on Jan 15, 2008 “Toward a Nuclear-Free World”. many people continue oppose the drastic changes suggested by this disarmament concept. but besides Shultz, perry, Kissinger, and Nunn, it seems this is also gaining momentum among several current and retired diplomatic and military leaders who are free to speak their mind… Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Beckett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madeleine Albright, Richard V. Allen, James A. Baker III, Samuel R. Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, Warren Christopher, William Cohen, Lawrence Eagleburger, Melvin Laird, Anthony Lake, Robert McFarlane, Robert McNamara and Colin Powell. General John Abizaid, Graham Allison, Brooke Anderson, Martin Anderson, Steve Andreasen, Mike Armacost, Bruce Blair, Matt Bunn, Ashton Carter, Sidney Drell, General Vladimir Dvorkin, Bob Einhorn, Mark Fitzpatrick, James Goodby, Rose Gottemoeller, Tom Graham, David Hamburg, Siegfried Hecker, Tom Henriksen, David Holloway, Raymond Jeanloz, Ray Juzaitis, Max Kampelman, Jack Matlock, Michael McFaul, John McLaughlin, Don Oberdorfer, Pavel Podvig, William Potter, Richard Rhodes, Joan Rohlfing, Harry Rowen, Scott Sagan, Roald Sagdeev, Abe Sofaer, Richard Solomon, and Philip Zelikow.

from the 1950s space-race to microchips, the Internet, and GPS

October 1, 2007

short commentary today giving credit to scientists and engineers in the 1950s space race and high-energy physics experiments for pushing the envelope by leading the demand for faster computers (microchips and parallel computing), faster and more reliable networks (Internet), better communication protocols (HTTP/WWW), weather forecasts, satellite location and mapping (GPS), and many other innovations we take for granted.

One Giant Leap


October 1, 2007; Page A23; Wall Street Journal

Pief Panofsky: a great, great guy

September 30, 2007

I feel pretty fortunate to have known Pief — a larger-than-life Stanford physicist — whom I came across through my studies in nuclear detection. Just last week I was actively debating muon detection techniques with with him and others before I found out he passed away suddenly on Monday. To me, he will remain one of the best examples of someone who puts objectivity, physics, and principles first — politics second. In spite of or even because this he accomplished so darn much in his lifetime.

The lectures at Pief Panofsky’s memorial last Friday by the former directors of SLAC, the former Stanford President, and Sid Drell were inspiring, humorous, and impressive — well summarized by this article in the San Jose Mercury News. He has a forthcoming book called that he wanted to live to see published called Panofsky on Physics, Politics, and Peace: Pief Remembers. Also see this piece in the Washington Post which mentiones his nonproliferation contributions.

A few things the article did not mention. Sid Drell described Panofsky commitment to principle and the substance of his lecture is essentially contained in this article from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Panofsky had made the proposal for SLAC to the federal government for $160+ million in 1960s dollars. When it came time to approval, the government was insisting on a clause whereby the the DoD would be given rights to perform any experiment as they deem necessary since it was federally funded–many other universities agreed to such clauses. With the support of Stanford and risking the entire project proposal that he had worked on for over four years, Panofsky pushed back and said that he would agree to these experiments provided there was mutual understanding about the experiment between Stanford and the government.

Panofsky also had created a unique system of “bottoms up” innovation at SLAC described by one of the Nobel prize winners who spoke there. Without approval required, people at the lab could get $10-20K to perform experiments. Then if those went well, the next level of managers could get ~$100K for more elaborate experiments also without approval of the lab directors. Larger experiments would require funding from funding agencies of course, but this system allowed a flexibility of experimentation — which is being threatened by recent funding crunches from federal grant agencies who want to know how money is being used for each experiment.