Saturday, September 7, 2013

Destroying Syrian Chemical Stockpiles Won't be Easy

This article originally appeared in The Daily Beast on 6 September 2013.

It is now clear that the Syrian government used sarin nerve gas to attack suspected rebel forces in Damascus on August 21. There is no doubt that the “red line” was breached. With the American public delivering a clear consensus against committing ground forces, the Obama administration will almost certainly limit any intervention to remote attacks. In the best circumstances, destroying chemical weapons is a dangerous and intensive task, but trying to destroy them from the air without spreading their deadly agents makes it even more difficult.

Drawing from my experience serving 9 years in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense (CBRND) for the U.S. Army, here is a rundown of the options available for destroying chemical weapons with a look at the feasibility of different methods and the complications that each entails.

An air campaign could focus on eliminating chemical munitions, military chemical units, chemical weapons production facilities, any or all of the above. The first step is to identify the targets and fix their locations. Since the first mentions of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in July 2012, U.S. intelligence has been tracking the movements of Syria’s chemical assets. There is a ready supply of human intelligence from rebel forces and refugees, a steady stream of signals intercepts from Syrian government forces, and near constant visual surveillance using aerial imagery platforms. Social media and news reports from inside Syria also provide open-source intelligence.

Syria is reported to have one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world. Locating all of these munitions, even with the best intelligence available, will not be easy. Syria is also known to store chemical agents in“binary” form, where two components of the chemical agent are stored separately and only mixed before being loaded into munitions. This makes transport safer and simpler but can vastly expand the number of targets that need to be located and destroyed and makes them easier to conceal.

Syria’s chemical weapons-production facilities are reported to be located near major cities such as Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs, while munitions are stored at as many as 50 different sites. As the U.S. prepares for an attack, the regime is likely spreading munitions across cities throughout the country, making detection more difficult, necessitating more strikes, and increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties.

Some intelligence reports indicate that the Assad regime lacks the ability to produce certain necessary precursor ingredients, but Syria stockpiled chemicals from European suppliers before export controls became effective. It also doesn’t take much to create many of the chemical agents used; they can be produced by anyone with an advanced chemistry degree given a moderately equipped refinement facility. Targeting Syria’s production facilities is possible, but will be difficult. Tracking movements of Syrian military chemical units and weapons platforms capable of firing chemical munitions would be an easier task.

The hardest part comes after the munitions are located. Once the targets are acquired they must be destroyed without releasing the deadly chemical agents— it’s possible but a bit like bombing a paint factory at long range and expecting not to have any splatter.

Syrian chemical units and their launchers can be targeted using airstrikes, drones, or cruise missiles launched from naval vessels. However, given the likelihood that the Syrians have intentionally moved these weapons systems into populated areas, even precise strikes on them could lead to civilian casualties. On a larger scale, there is also the danger that an attack on launchers loaded with chemical munitions could spread toxic substances as far as Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan or into the Mediterranean Sea.

America must face the possibility that in carrying out attacks to prevent the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons it risks unleashing those deadly agents on a civilian population.

Other than weapon systems and facilities, Syrian soldiers working in chemical units are another likely target for attack. The troops in these units are usually outfitted in identifiable protective gear for their own safety, a clear indicator of the presence of chemical agents and their impending use. But attacking these soldiers presents a similar set of problems—their likely proximity to chemical weapons means that targeting them risks hitting the munitions they are guarding or operating and releasing them into nearby populations.

The care America takes in eliminating its own chemical weapons reflects how dangerous the process is, even when it’s done in a safe and controlled environment. Since 1986, the protocol has been to incinerate the agent at temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit or to neutralize it using hot water and a caustic compound. After the destructive phase, the next step involves extensive monitoring and testing of air, water, and soil to ensure no residual release.

Simply dropping a conventional bomb on an ammo dump is not a solution. Besides the initial deadly effect of dispersing chemical agents, their release into air, soil, and water can have severe health effects for years down the road.

A chemical rocket or artillery round does not explode like conventional munitions. They contain a propellant to get the munitions on target and only enough explosive to rupture the round and release their agent, either bursting in the air above a target or upon hitting the ground. This is why there were several rockets found semi-intact after the August 21 attack on Ghutah which were subsequently sampled by U.N. investigators.

The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency has conducted extensive research into anti-chemical strike options. One weapon they have studied is the non-explosive CBU-107 “PAW” which releases 3,700 extremely dense metal rods into a high-altitude free fall that acts like thousands of daggers, penetrating and shredding a target without the use of explosives. This weapon is less likely to cause an explosion at production facilities but it will rupture munitions, releasing their chemical agents and making casualties of anyone in the vicinity.

Thermobaric explosive weapons, like the BLU-119/B “CrashPad” are another option. Thermobaric explosives, essentially the most powerful non-nuclear devices in the U.S. arsenal, work by sucking in all the oxygen in the blast radius and using it to fuel an intense, high-velocity explosion reaching over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. In theory, such devices have the potential to suck in and incinerate chemical agents, however, no conclusive testing of such devices on live chemical agents has yet been conducted.

While they may have a better chance of destroying chemical munitions without releasing their agents, the blast and heat generated by thermobaric weapons are intensely deadly. Structures near the blast will be destroyed and persons not killed by the initial explosion or flying debris will suffer lethal damage to internal organs caused by the pressure wave it creates. The effect of their use in a populated urban area would cause casualties comparable to a small nuclear explosion or a chemical attack. Using a nonexplosive penetrator or a thermobaric device in a city such as Damascus could cause more civilian casualties than the regime’s attack on Ghutah, which is just the reason Assad’s forces are likely relocating their chemical assets closer to urban centers.

The ability to safely destroy large stocks of chemical agents with airstrikes is still unconfirmed, though it is theoretically possible. Testing that method now requires accepting that even relative success may mean killing thousands of the very Syrian civilians we would be acting to protect. As the American people and Congress consider the proposals for action made by the president and his cabinet they should be aware of the chances for success, the risks, and the potential cost in lives.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why Chemical Weapons are a 'Red Line' the World Must Enforce

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 4 September 2013.

Echoing President Barack Obama's remarks of a year ago, US Secretary of State John Kerry has called the use of chemical weapons a "red line for the world", asserting that evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt the Assad regime used Sarin nerve gas against its own people. Failing to act now would push that red line back and send a message that the use of chemical weapons will be frowned upon, but that nothing will result other than stern international admonitions.

This would reverse the tide that has been rolling back the use of chemical warfare for the last 25 years. Chemical weapons are a world red line, and action is necessary to protect hard-won international progress against chemical weapons proliferation.

The long war against chemical weapons use

The first world war was the first occasion on which chemical weapons were used on a large scale in war. The results of these attacks, mostly on British and German soldiers, were so horrendous that a prohibition of their use was included in the 1925 Geneva Protocol – subsequently ratified by 138 nations. This was the first formal recognition that the use of chemical weapons is a red line for the world community.

The US and USSR took another step against chemical weapons by agreeing to cease production and set up an inspection regime in the1989 Wyoming Agreement. Then, in 1993, the world again pushed forward the red line to halt the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The rest of the world has kept these agreements, and the reduction of chemical weapons has progressed steadily ever since. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the enforcement agency of the CWC, has reported that 72% of the world's declared stockpiles have been eliminated, as of 2011. The rest are scheduled to decommissioned within the next few years. These are mostly located in Libya and Iraq, but crucially, they are secured and will be eliminated with co-operation from other CWC signatory states. The US has eliminated 90% of its chemical weapons and Russia over 60%.

There are reports of chemical weapons use by Russia, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Saddam Hussein notoriously used chemical weapons against Kurds around Halabja, and during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. However, there have now been no proven lethal chemical attacks in 25 years. Worldwide, the use of chemical weapons in war has virtually ceased since the 1993 adoption of the CWC.

Only Syria has continually chosen to ignore the world's red line on chemical weapons; it is one of only seven nations in the world that refuses to ratify the CWC. (It is joined only by Angola, North Korea, Egypt, and South Sudan; Israel and Burma/Myanmar have signed the CWC, but not ratified it.) At a time when the rest of the world was eliminating chemical weapons, Syria was actively stockpiling precursor chemicals and building what has become one of the largest chemical weapons arsenals in the world.

In July 2012, an official Assad regime spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, declared it was Syrian government policy that chemical weapons would not be used against Syrians, but reserved the right to use them against any external forces. So, Assad could not even keep his own declared red line on chemical weapons use. Unleashing nerve gas on noncombatants in Damascus was a big step over the line.

What about other conflict-zone 'red lines'?

Throughout the last century, the world has borne witness to violence throughout the world, including violent political crackdowns, ethnic cleansing, religious conflict, assassinations and border wars. In virtually every one, international law, norms and values – "red lines", if you will – have been stretched or broken. Victims and refugees caught in these conflicts have repeatedly called for intervention by outside powers. Most of these calls have been made on the United States and other western powers.

Sometimes, we have answered; most often, we have not. So what makes this "red line" different and why should we act this time?

The world order has been in turmoil since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 upended the geopolitical bipolarity of the previous 50 years. Former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe and the Caucasus continue to struggle for their own identity and to remain independent. The Arab Spring uprisings are tearing apart the old political order in the Middle East, while the rise of China is making its Asian neighbours nervous and attracting American attention. South American nations continue their journey out of poverty and away from repressive regimes.

Meanwhile, the US is coming to the end of over a decade at war, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Finally, we have already witnessed over 100,000 deaths in Syria.

Not all of the benefits the world was promised when the US and its allies prevailed in the cold war anti-Communist struggle have materialised. In some parts of the world, things seem to be regressing, rather than improving. That is why it is important to preserve and jealously guard what progress has been made in working toward a more peaceful world – even if that means turning to military action against rogue states in order to do so. The steady worldwide reduction of chemical weapons is a prime example of that progress – one that we cannot allow to be eroded so easily.

A failure to act after the Assad regime has crossed that red line would be akin to the world retreating and setting a new, weaker standard without a fight. No state other than Syria has dared to cross the line of chemical weapons use in a quarter-century. If we do not act today, we have set a new world precedent that says the use of chemical weapons is frowned upon, but there will be no serious consequences. We should not retreat so easily without serious consideration of what we would be sacrificing for the future.

Until this moment, the world was on the cusp of eliminating one of the unholy trinity of weapons of mass destruction. Quietly, steadily, we had been approaching the point where we would one day be able to say we had eliminated chemical weapons.

This is progress toward a safer world we can only hope to achieve with nuclear or biological weapons. Worldwide, proliferation of nuclear weapons has increased. Since the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel have developed new nuclear weapons. Other states, such as Iran, may be trying to join the nuclear club. Meanwhile, the nature of biological weapons makes tracking or controlling them difficult and there is no major international agreement specifically to enforce their prohibition. Though it receives less attention, the Chemical Weapons Convention is a real success story in comparison.

Syria is the last country in the world with a large stockpile of chemical weapons that refuses to eliminate them. Now, the Assad regime has used them on its own people. And Syria has threatened to use them against any outside forces which threaten the Assad regime. No other country in the world has dared do that since 1988.

President Assad is the last major roadblock to achieving a world free from the horror of chemical weapons. That is why the world, led by the United States, must take action in Syria.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Military Teaches Soldiers Strength; the VA Teaches Veterans to Beg

This article originally appeared on The Daily Beast on 30 August 2013.

I come from a family of combat vets. We have all been fortunate enough to make it home, from WWII, Vietnam, and for me, Iraq. Military service is a family tradition, as is bitching about the VA. Dinner conversations include horror stories about wait times, neglect, and endless red tape. Often lost in the cycle of stories about VA screw-ups and VA reforms (inevitably followed by more stories of VA screw-ups) is the demoralizing affect that the process has on individuals by taking the very values the military teaches—integrity, hard work, accountability—and undermining them by making veterans act like beggars.

The term “red tape” in America actually derives from Civil War veterans’ records being bound together in the stuff. The story of veterans getting stiffed by the government is an American tradition going back at least 150 years. In the present day, while bill payments can be done online and any song ever recorded is instantly accessible, we are still using a paper-based VA system that has the upshot of being noncompatible with the Department of Defense system used for tracking active-duty soldiers.

Veterans are proud characters, used to standing on their own feet. And while self-sufficiency is a central part of the military ethos, reintegrating into civilian life can be difficult and require some assistance, particularly for those with injuries and mental traumas incurred during their service.

Only 0.5 percent of Americans have served in the post-9/11 era, compared with 9 percent during the height of WWII. The burden of fighting for the country continues to fall on the shoulders of the few. When veterans have to fight for the benefits they are owed, it alienates them even further from the rest of the country that did not serve.

Following multiple tours, veterans can come home and feel isolated in their own communities. It’s difficult enough discussing their time overseas with friends and neighbors; most are in no rush to introduce a new uncomfortable topic: problems with the VA over disability ratings and payment. The outcome is that they become further estranged and often bitter both toward the government that fails to honor its commitments and the civilian population that has not fought harder to force the issue.

How can insurance companies and banks—also large organizations processing thousands of compensation claims daily—succeed in processing within reasonable time frames but the VA cannot? The answer, simply, is a lack of political will and accountability.

The VA once had to close a facility because the huge number of files piled up made the building structurally unsound and unsafe to work in. Recent congressional testimony revealed that the Baltimore VA office was late on 81 percent of its claims, though speed may not be the answer, given the additional revelation that errors were made in 26 percent of claims processed by that office.

Asking for help is hard enough; making vets act like supplicants with their hands out is an insult.
As soldiers, veterans were used to counting on the government. Paychecks came on time and family health care was readily available. Everything they needed to do their job was made available—if not immediately and in perfect order, at least predictably and with a system of accountability for when things went wrong. Imagine the position of a veteran who leaves that sort of environment, finds that the benefits promised as job payment are suddenly unavailable, that the government reneged on its word and the only option for recourse involves automated systems and faceless bureaucrats.

It often goes like this: You visit a VA facility, file a claim, and wait months for an acknowledgment by mail. You submit relevant medical evidence, service records, and statements supporting your claim and wait months for another acknowledgment. Repeat this process several more times as you’re asked for additional evidence.

Your claim file may be shuffled between different VA facilities in different cities or it may be lost completely—keep in mind that none of this is digitized. The VA and the post office: the last two true paper pushers left in America.

Meanwhile, your life goes on. Your service-related injuries may become worse. The VA can’t cope with changes in contact details or conditions, so God forbid you move or have a new development not documented in the papers you submitted months ago. After dealing with all of this, often the VA will reject the claim outright and the process begins again with an appeal. Even if it is approved there may be an unexplained delay or error in receiving payment.

You are not entitled to be kept informed about the progress of your claim; calling their office won’t help. You may write to the VA, but you will either receive no reply or an automated response. You may try to use the VA’s eBenefits online system to check your status and submit evidence, but it is never updated. You will find, if you were told something in a previous communication with the VA, that it may be wholly untrue but there is no special effort made by the VA to correct mistakes.

The VA, despite repeated claims of its reform, remains mysterious to those who depend on it and the process can makes veterans feel small and powerless. For many the idea of asking for help is hard enough, but making them feel as if they are supplicants, with their hands out for a favor, is an insult. Add to this the thinly veiled accusations by some that the system is filled with false claims and veterans are “freeloaders” and the insult becomes unbearable.

Now, in the wake of Congress’s self-imposed sequestration, some think-tankers, career civil servants, and congressional staffers on both sides of the political spectrum are pushing for trimming veterans’ and military benefits. Veterans’ benefits have been spared from sequestration directly but are being eyed indirectly by bean counters who seem unbothered by asking vets to sacrifice even more for their country.

Veterans’ benefits are not over-generous entitlements. Entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are open to every citizen who pays into them, and even some who do not, and troops pay these taxes like everyone else. Veterans’ benefits such as VA health care are earned through years of service and designed to care and compensate for injuries and losses incurred while serving. These benefits are not a luxury or the thanks of a grateful nation; they are part of a service contract.

Being a veteran in America has never been an easy road. We win the wars but come home to see our own battles lost every time. From the red tape of the Civil War, the WWI veterans’ bonus march, Agent Orange in Vietnam, and the newest generation’s continuing fight against post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, unemployment, homelessness, and suicide, justice for American veterans is slow to come. It’s an American tradition overdue for change.