Sunday, July 29, 2012

Syrian Chemical Weapons: What They Are, How They May Be Used

This article originally appeared on PolicyMic on 25 July 2012.

On July 23, the Syrian Foreign Ministry informed the press that the regime of Bashar al-Assad would not use chemical weapons against the Syrian people. A spokesman stated, “Those weapons will only be used in the case of exterior aggression.” Syria has never officially acknowledged it has chemical weapons and spent the next day denying it - despite it being well-known among intelligence agencies and confirmed by the Syrian opposition. Chemical weapons in the Middle East are in the headlines again. So just what are these chemical weapons and how could they be used?

Syria is alleged to have Sarin and/or VX nerve agents. Roughly speaking, nerve agents kill by causing uncontrollable expansion and contraction of muscles in the limbs and organs of the body. When muscles contract, they do so because signals are relayed through nerve cells by a messenger substance, acetylcholine. To stop the contractions, the enzyme acetylcholinesterase dissolves the messenger substance. Nerve agents such as Sarin and VX block the enzyme and the messenger substance continues to be sent. This means that the muscles of the body continue to contract uncontrollably, eventually destroying organs and causing death. Depending upon exposure amount and time, it can cause death within minutes or days.

Sarin is a G-Series nerve agent. The G series was discovered by a German chemist developing pesticides in the 1930’s. The Nazis refrained from using nerve agents because they falsely believed the allies possessed them as well. Only after the war did America, Britain, and Russia learn of them. G-Series agents are ‘non-persistent,’ meaning that once they are deployed, they only remain effective for a short period of time and become inert generally within a day. They are often watery or gaseous in consistency and harmful upon inhalation or skin contact.

VX is a V-Series nerve agent. It was developed in the 1950’s by British scientists and later shared with America. ‘Persistent’ V-Series agents may remain effective for a few days or up to a month. In moderate temperatures with little rain or wind, they can last as long as five weeks. V-Series agents are thicker and oily in consistency and evaporate less quickly. Skin contact and vapor inhalation are both lethal.

Chemical weapons, fortunately rarely deployed, are an effective weapon for reasons other than their lethality. Persistent chemical weapons can be used to deny access to an area for a period of time. Gassing strategic passes, cities, or ports can deny an enemy access to them or cause them to avoid them. Non-persistent agents can be used to cover a retreat, interrupt rear-area supply bases or routes, or cause enemy casualties in preparation for an assault. Even trained militaries equipped with chemical agent protective clothing and equipment experience significant slowing of operations when forced to operate in a chemical environment. Chemical weapons can be deployed in a number of ways, including aircraft spray, artillery, missiles, and mines.

Chemical agents are among the most lethal weapons known to man. They are cheaper and easier to develop than nuclear weapons and more controllable than biological weapons. The possibility of Syria deploying nerve agents against a ground invasion is a serious threat that shows the desperation of the regime. It presses home the point that ground action there would be a much more serious proposition than many are inclined to believe.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

New START: Less is More

This post appeared in The Truman Doctrine on 23 July 2012.

When it comes to bombs, the conventional Cold War arms-race wisdom was “The more, the better.”

When it comes to nuclear weapons, this thinking produces diminishing returns. President Obama, along with President Reagan, understood this. There are some, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who still argue that reducing America’s nuclear arsenal threatens our national security. Romney still names Russia as America’s greatest foe. In 2011, GOP Senators held out as long as they could against ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia on this thought-basis. But there is such a thing as enough nukes and the benefits of bilateral nuclear arms reductions to our national security outweigh any cost.

How many nuclear weapons does America need? Let’s do the quick devil’s arithmetic. Nagasaki, Japan had a population of roughly 240,000, (think Madison, Wisconsin) in 1945. It was destroyed by the ‘Fat Man’ device with an estimated yield of 20 kilotons of TNT. It destroyed virtually all buildings, caused 3rd degree burns to tissue, and immediate death from radiation within four kilometers of the epicenter. The deadly effects spread as far as twelve square kilometers.

If America wanted (to borrow a phrase from Iranian President Ahmadinejad) to literally wipe all 1.65 million square kilometers of Iran off the map, we would need over 137,000 ‘Fat Man’ devices. Using today’s nukes, we would need a little over 2,300. New START allows America and Russia to possess 1,550 strategic warheads apiece. That is still more than enough to destroy all population centers in any country in the world; enough to destroy every living thing in 1 million square kilometers.

America still maintains a very significant nuclear arsenal under New START. Other studies have shown that America needs as few as 300 nuclear weapons to maintain deterrence. What the U.S. gets in return from New START is a reduction in nuclear arms outside of its own borders. ‘Loose nukes’ provide many nightmare scenarios involving terrorist attacks in America, its overseas installations, and its allies. The U.S. has spent millions on programs to buy or secure foreign nuclear weapons and materials. The breakup of the USSR and breaches in the nuclear security of western countries by state-directed nuclear espionage programs have led to a doubling of the nuclear club. Iran appears to want to be the newest member.

As Iran’s struggle to get the bomb shows, it is difficult to start a nuclear program from scratch, especially after the cat is out of the bag about its existence. Iraq and Syria’s nascent nuclear programs were allegedly nipped in the bud by Israeli airstrikes. Iran has years of nuclear refinement ahead of it to produce a significant nuclear arsenal and it is facing stiff international diplomatic and economic resistance. It is far easier to piggyback or reverse engineer off of intelligence and materials from another existing nuclear state. Iran is receiving assistance from Russia and China. Once successful, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle, as North Korea and Pakistan show.

The United States and the Obama administration should continue to do all it can to reduce the amount of nuclear warheads, material, and knowledge in the world outside of its borders. New START does this while allowing America to maintain a more than sufficient nuclear deterrent of its own. Sometimes less is more.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The (pixelated) Things They Carried

This article appeared in The Guardian on 13 July 2012.

It is ironic that something that is supposed to keep one from being seen is so instantly recognizable and can be the subject of so much debate.

US Army camouflage uniforms are iconic and instant reminders of our history. There is the khaki and green of WWII; the olive drab of Korea and Vietnam; the woodland color of the Cold War and Balkans; the 'chocolate chip' pattern of the Gulf War; the desert pattern of Afghanistan and Iraq; and the grey pixel pattern of today. One knows instantly what war and what decades they're looking at. Soldiers young and old form lifelong attachments to the uniforms they served in.

After $5bn worth of testing and fielding and eight years of discussion and complaints from leaders in the field, the Army has decided to nix the pixels in the coming years in favor of a uniform similar to that currently worn in Afghanistan. As a veteran of combat in Iraq, I welcome the move. But one question that must be asked is if all this costly concern about camouflage really continues to be as relevant in modern combat.

The official nomenclature for the current color is "foliage". Supposedly it was chosen in an attempt to find an all-purpose uniform for any terrain. Though predominantly grey in appearance, when viewed in a woodline at a distance the colors take on a hue of green combined with the shadows in vegetation. The grey and khaki colors also compare with shades of grey and brown in urban terrain. The khaki color also melds with brown rock or sand. Both colors compare with the skyline when silhouetted against the horizon.

The palette was motivated by the historic military tactic that attacks take place in the early grey of dawn. At least those are the claims made to support the pattern. From my experience, I found the woodland and desert patterns more effective. The pixel grey doesn't work as effectively as the terrain-specific patterns. The success or failure of a mission and soldiers' lives often depend upon stealth and it is easily understood why one would rather have a pattern made specifically for the environment over one that is all-purpose. I know many soldiers and veterans who agree, though some may find the new pixel pattern effective enough. The Army's adoption in 2010 of a different brown and green non-pixel pattern called "MultiCam" for troops deployed to Afghanistan recognizes that there are shortcomings with the all-purpose grey pixel.

A large share of the fighting in Iraq took place in urban terrain in territory the enemy knew much better and where all US movements issued from large fortified camps and bases. A force that rides around in Humvees, Bradleys, and Abrams tanks sometimes accompanied by attack helicopters isn't exactly hiding. Even in Afghanistan, where the fighting is in much more rural and remote terrain, the battle consists of trying to draw the enemy out of hiding among the local populace to be engaged. They usually know where our troops are well before we know where they are.

Camouflage, of course, is an important constant for the Army in the modern era. The 20th century saw the end to the old days of pitched battles between armies in colorful and often heavy wool uniforms. As science has progressed, so has the study of camouflage. Simply put, the job of a camo pattern is to break up the recognizable outline of the head, shoulders, torso, and legs of the human form. Solid green, tan, or white uniforms help soldiers blend in with terrain colors. Woodland and desert patterns mimic the shapes of features of the terrain and their shadows as well as their colors. Pixel patterns, rather than being color or shape focused, rely on the confusing effect they have on human eyesight. At a distance, the pixels simply become blotches of color. At least that is the argument made in their favor.

The problem with grading the effectiveness of camouflage patterns comes with finding the proper method to conduct the analysis. Scientific methods rely on the mechanics of how the human eye works, but this may produce a different result than sticking guys in the woods and trying to find them. The field method of testing is closer to the reality of the battlefield and fits with the Army's "train as you fight" mantra. However, the science of sight seems to have won out with the grey pixel pattern. This also seems to be in keeping with the current trend toward a tech-heavy "modern" Army.

The all-purpose grey pixel uniform allowed units to automatically reorder replacement uniforms for soldiers after a field-life of six months. In 2003, my unit had to make due with only two sets of desert uniforms because they couldn't be produced and fielded fast enough to meet the demand. They were also quickly and poorly made and didn't stand up to the rigors of daily wear. By the time we returned from Iraq in 2004 some of our desert uniforms were threadbare and almost white in color, not to mention all the grease, dirt, and blood stains one picks up in combat. We would sweat so much in the desert heat that it would leave behind white rings of salt. Early on we all looked like old washer women, scrubbing uniforms with bars of soap in buckets and hanging them on windows to dry because we only had two of them.

As the US disengages militarily from Iraq and Afghanistan, new possible enemies and conflicts present new challenges. America is engaging foes largely from the air using drone strikes in places like Yemen and Pakistan. Future conflicts with possible foes in Asia may likely require greater control of the seas. Foes with modern military equipment have the capability to identify and engage targets in much the same way the US military does, using thermal imaging and night vision capable devices and weaponry. These technological capabilities may render even an excellent physical camouflage system irrelevant.

The Army is often slow to accept to change. But sometimes changes may not be for the better, as the grey pixel uniform saga has shown.

VCS: Protect Veterans at Work

Veterans for Common Sense Stands with the United Steelworkers to protect Veterans Rights at Work

Veterans for Common Sense supports veterans and service members at every phase of their service and lives. VCS stands with the United Steelworkers in their efforts to protect its veteran members. The men and women who serve America in uniform have a tough enough mission without having to worry about losing their jobs when they get home. They swear an oath to protect and defend America and they make many sacrifices to uphold that oath. In return, America is bound by law and by conscience to take care of our troops when they return. However, existing law is clearly insufficient.

It is vital to our national security, national public interest, and required by law that veterans and service members be allowed time to access necessary service-related care and necessary time to drill or deploy without having to worry about being punished at work or losing their job because of it. This is a relatively small sacrifice required of employers on behalf of those who have sacrificed much for the country.

Unfortunately, some companies are not upholding their end. Veterans and Guard or Reserve members are losing their jobs or are put under pressure at work because they seek time to receive service-related care or to serve military deployments. This happens despite the Soldiers and Sailors Employment Act requiring employers to hold a service member’s job when they deploy and to give them time to fulfill military obligations.

In January, Carey Salt Company, a subsidiary of Compass Minerals International, Inc., fired employee Derrick Forestier, a Bronze Star recipient, who retired a Sergeant First-Class after 24 years in the U.S Army; including three combat tours in five deployments. Forestier sought time off from work to receive required medical treatment at a VA facility for a service-connected issue, a condition the company was notified of before hiring him. Based on the information the United Steelworkers have been provided, the United Steelworkers believe that Forestier was fired because the company believed Forestier’s absences to attend his VA appointments created work place problems. The United Steelworkers have taken up the fight in Louisiana, where Forestier was employed, and are investigating whether there are other cases of mistreatment of veterans by this company in other locations. VCS is happy to join this fight alongside the United Steelworkers to ensure that our veterans can pursue the life they want once they take off the uniform, without sacrificing their health and well-being.

Veterans for Common Sense is proud to stand with the United Steelworkers to protect veterans’ rights at work. To that end VCS supports Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) who is sponsoring the Wounded Veteran Job Security Act to protect Veterans from losing their jobs for seeking treatment for service-related conditions. Doggett said: “No veteran should have to stand in front of their employer after suffering an injury while serving the red, white and blue and be given a pink slip. Workers and Veterans like Derrick Forestier, an Army Sergeant First Class who served 24 years on active duty, including three combat tours of duty and five deployments, should not be forced to choose between keeping a job and receiving the Veteran’s benefits he rightfully earned.”

Those who serve or have served America in the military have a hard enough job and they have sacrificed much for the country. It is not too much to ask an employer that they be given time off to continue to serve or to seek necessary treatment for conditions resulting from their service. We have to protect those who serve if we expect them to protect us when the nation requires it. Support the troops is not just a slogan, this is the right thing to do for our brave men and women.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Belief in 'American Exceptionalism' is No Basis for National Security Policy

This article originally appeared on The Truman Doctrine on 2 July 2012.

As American power grew over the last century, our strategic goals were often defined by who our opponents were. We’ve defeated competitors over the last hundred years and have emerged at the top of a heap where it is no longer clear how threatening our opponents are.

Neocons continue to seek enemies to confront. The far left argue we only have ‘manufactured’ enemies. Despite America’s ascent over the last century, many argue America is now in decline. In response, many other Americans have rejected this idea and come to accept as an article of faith ‘American exceptionalism’: that we are preordained to succeed because our system or people are superior. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has essentially adopted it as part of his platform.

It is false and dangerous to assume American success was and is a foregone conclusion. It ignores the hard work, hazards, and sacrifice successful national security policy requires.

Victory was far from certain in both World Wars and the Cold War, though in retrospect as the subject of intense academic study it becomes easily seen as such. Those who fought and lived through these conflicts, especially on the frontlines, certainly didn’t see it that way. America’s modern conflicts fought thousands of miles away by an all-volunteer military make that easy to forget.

Belief in ‘exceptionalism’ reflects the fact that security today is considered by some to be an issue of political belief rather than realism, pragmatism, or experience. It reflects an attitude that national security is a worldview to be projected upon others, not actions based upon an evaluation and understanding of the situation as it exists.It is the modern-day equivalent of ‘manifest destiny’ of the 19th century in that it smooths over the rough spots in favor of those that put America in a more favorable light and adds a sense of inevitability.

But those who believe too sincerely in their own infallibility plant the seeds of their own downfall. The problem is compounded when politicians, most of whom personally lack national security experience, take political positions on national security issues to a politically divided American electorate, most of whom also lack real security experience.

This lack of experience, the intense politicization of national security, and its inclusion in mainstream media banter has caused much international difficulty and division in America. The national security views espoused by Romney campaign advisors John Bolton, Max Boot, and Eliot Cohen are recent and obvious examples. It used to be a maxim that politics stopped at the water’s edge, but this is arguably not true anymore.

America needs leadership with real, practical, personal national security experience. National security policy should be based upon facts and strategic considerations, not politics or beliefs. ‘American exceptionalism’ is a nice idea, but it is dangerous to allow it to have an outsized influence on our strategic thinking.

Victory is never assured; it requires hard work and sacrifice. The American men and women who fight our wars know this lesson better than anyone.