Category Archives: civilian casualties

Our Biggest Weakness: Weak Biodefenses + Malicious Viruses

The coronavirus that has killed over 180,000 people worldwide was not created with malice. Analysis of its genome suggests that, like many new pathogens, it originated by natural selection rather than human design. But …“Covid-19 has demonstrated the vulnerability of the US and global economy to biological threats, which exponentially increases the potential impact of an attack,” says Richard Pilch of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. In theory, bioweapons are banned. Most countries in the world are party to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1975, which outlaws making or stockpiling biological agents for anything other than peaceful purposes. But some countries probably make them secretly, or keep the option close at hand. America accuses North Korea of maintaining an offensive biological-weapons programme, and alleges that China, Iran and Russia dabble in dual-use biolgical research (for peaceful and military usage) research. Toxins like ricin have also been bought and sold on shady recesses of the internet known as the dark web.

Germ warfare briefly rose to prominence in September 2001, when letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed to American news organisations and senators, killing five people. That was a wake-up call. Public health became part of national security. BioWatch, a network of aerosol sensors, was installed in more than 30 cities across America. But in recent years threats from chemical weapons, like the sarin dropped by Syria’s air force and the Novichok smeared on door handles by Russian assassins, took priority.

Though the Trump administration published a national biodefence strategy in 2018, it shut down the National Security Council’s relevant directorate and proposed cuts to the laboratories that would test for biological threats. Funding for civilian biosecurity fell 27% between fiscal years 2015 and 2019, down to $1.61bn—less than was spent on buying Black Hawk helicopters.

Yet many pathogens used as weapons tend to differ from respiratory viruses in important ways. Those like anthrax, caused by bacteria which form rugged and sprayable spores, but do not spread from human to human, have the advantage of minimising the risk of rebound to the attacker. With the notable exception of smallpox—a highly contagious and lethal virus that was eradicated in 1979 but preserved by the Soviet Union for use against America (but not Europe), and now exists only in two laboratories, in America and Russia—most biological weapons would therefore have more localised effects than the new coronavirus.

Even so, the slow and stuttering response to the pandemic has exposed great weaknesses in how governments would cope…demonstrating that every part of public-health infrastructure is either broken or stretched to the max. The centrepiece of America’s biosurveillance programme, a network of laboratories designed for rapid testing, failed, says Mr Koblentz, while the national stockpile of face masks had not been substantially replenished in over a decade. Would-be attackers will take note.

In 2016 American intelligence agencies singled out genome editing as a national-security threat for the first time. Two years later a major study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine warned that synthetic biology, a potent set of methods for tinkering with or creating organisms, could, in time, be used to re-create viruses like smallpox or make existing pathogens more dangerous, such as resistant to antibiotics. In 2011 Dutch and Japanese scientists said that they had created a version of bird flu that could be transmitted between mammals by the respiratory route—an announcement that prompted the Netherlands to treat the relevant academic papers as sensitive goods subject to export controls.

In January 2020 Canadian scientists funded by an American biotech company used synthetic DNA from Germany to synthesise a microbe closely related to smallpox, indicating the ease with which it could be done. “If a potential bad actor pursues a weapons capability using sars-cov-2, the virus is now attainable in laboratories all around the world, and blueprints for assembling it from scratch have been published in the scientific literature.”

 The trouble is that biodefence has evolved slowly, says Dan Kaszeta, a former biological weapons adviser to the White House. Compact devices that can detect chemical threats and warn soldiers to don a gas mask have long been available. “That doesn’t exist for anthrax or any of the other aerosol pathogens,” says Mr Kaszeta. “Telling the difference between an anthrax spore and a bit of tree pollen is not something you can do in a couple of seconds.”

Excertps from Biodefence: Spore Wars, Economist, Apr. 25, at 19

Ethical Killing: Landmines

During the Gulf war of 1991, no fewer than 117,000 landmines were showered over Kuwait and Iraq by American planes. This barely dented the Pentagon’s vast stockpile of 19m. Just under a quarter of the devices scattered in the path of Saddam Hussein’s army were anti-personnel landmines (APLs), the sort that would soon be banned by the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention of 1997, widely known as the Ottawa treaty. The Ottawa treaty has 164 parties, all of which ban the production and use of APL (anti-vehicle mines, among others, are still allowed). America is not among them. When the treaty was finalised, America declined to join (other holdouts include China, Cuba, Iran, Russia and Syria).

Landmines have a number of military uses. They are typically used to channel opposing armies away from particular areas and into others. A minefield can force an enemy to turn, which exposes their flank and makes them especially vulnerable, says Vincent Brooks, a retired general who commanded American forces in South Korea in 2016-18. They can also be used to “canalise” the enemy, channelling attackers into unfavourable terrain, where they may be more exposed to concentrated artillery fire. …But landmines are reviled weapons, and not without good reason. “They’re indiscriminate,”… Landmine casualties have fallen sharply over the years, but at least 2,000 people were killed or wounded by manufactured or improvised APLS in 2018, according to data collected by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a research group. Laying a mine can cost a few dollars; clearing one can require $1,000.

The Pentagon has an answer to this. It says that it only possesses, would only produce and would only use “non-persistent” landmines with the capacity to self-destruct or, failing that, to self-deactivate, with a battery losing its charge, within 30 days (some models can blow themselves up in as little as a few hours). It claims that such features are remarkably reliable. …“When the technology is brought into the battlefield, we see that the actual data doesn’t match with the promises,” says Erik Tollefsen, head of Weapons Contamination for the International Committee of the Red Cross. He says that impressive reliability rates are usually derived from tests in sterile conditions, and prove wildly exaggerated in practice. In 2002 a report by the Government Accountability Office, an agency that audits the federal government, noted that during the Gulf war one in 10,000 mines were expected to remain active, which would have produced 12 duds. The actual figure was almost 2,000.

Others argue that there are perfectly viable alternatives to APLs….In particular, remotely activated mines (rather than victim-activated ones) are allowed under the treaty if the person triggering the device has the would-be victim in sight, although this makes them harder to use at range and hostage to a breakdown of communications. In 2018 Finland—a late and reluctant signatory to Ottawa, given its long border with Russia—said it was developing a new, remote-controlled variety of anti-personnel “bounding” mine that leaps into the air and fires metal bullets downward.

Excerpts from Ethical Landmines: Watch Your Step, Economist, Feb. 15, 2020

A Hypersonic Death: The Race to Develop Hypersonic Weapons

For decades, the U.S. military—and its adversaries—have coveted missiles that travel at hypersonic speed, generally defined as Mach 5 (5 times the speed of sound) or greater . Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) meet that definition when they re-enter the atmosphere from space. But because they arc along a predictable ballistic path, like a bullet, they lack the element of surprise. In contrast, hypersonic weapons such as China’s waverider maneuver aerodynamically, enabling them to dodge defenses and keep an adversary guessing about the target.

The US Department of Defense (DOD) is leading a new charge, pouring more than $1 billion annually into hypersonic research. Competition from ambitious programs in China and Russia is a key motivator. Although hype and secrecy muddy the picture, all three nations appear to have made substantial progress in overcoming key obstacles, such as protecting hypersonic craft from savage frictional heating. Russia recently unveiled a weapon called the Kinzhal, said to reach Mach 10 under its own power, and another called Avangard that is boosted by a rocket to an astonishing Mach 27. China showed off a rocket-boosted hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) of its own, the Dongfeng-17, in a recent military parade. The United States, meanwhile, is testing several hypersonic weapons. “It’s a race to the Moon sort of thing,” says Iain Boyd, an aerospace engineer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “National pride is at stake.”

China’s military sees hypersonic weapons (as well as cyberwarfare and electromagnetic pulse strikes) as an “assassin’s mace”: a folklore term for a weapon that gives an advantage against a better-armed foe. If tensions were to spike over Taiwan or the South China Sea, for instance, China might be tempted to launch preemptive strikes with conventional hypersonic weapons that could cripple U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean.For now, maneuverability at hypersonic speeds makes the weapons nearly impossible to shoot down—unstoppable…

At hypersonic speeds,  “You’re flying under extraordinary conditions”—extreme velocities, forces, and temperatures.  At hypersonic  speeds “temperatures start to get high enough to worry about… A vehicle’s survival requires resilient superalloys and ultra–high-temperature ceramics. And perhaps novel coolants…

Other nations are chasing the trio of leaders—or teaming up with them. Australia is collaborating with the United States on a Mach 8 HGV, and India with Russia on a Mach 7 Hypersonic Cruise Missile (HCM). France intends to field an HCM by 2022, and Japan is aiming for an HGV in 2026.

THE United States is largely defenseless against such weapons, at least for now, in part because it can’t track them…To remedy that shortcoming, the Pentagon plans to launch hundreds of small satellites with sensors capable of tracking heat sources an order of magnitude cooler than rocket boosters. The full Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor network could be up and running by 2030, he adds. (The satellites would also be used to help guide U.S. hypersonic weapons.)  Once you have such sensors, “we can find a way to build the interceptors…Interceptors could destroy a hypersonic vehicle either by colliding with it or by detonating a warhead nearby. But Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is also exploring using directed energy: lasers, neutral particle beams, and microwaves or radio waves.

Richard StoneJan, National pride is at stake.’ Russia, China, United States race to build hypersonic weapons, Science, Jan 10, 2020

The Nightmare: Sabotaging 20 Million Nuclear Shipments

Nuclear and other radioactive material is hardest to protect when it is transported from point A to point B — more than half of the incidents of theft of radioactive material reported to the IAEA between 1993 and 2019 occurred while it was in transport.

Around 20 million shipments of nuclear and other radioactive material are regularly transported within countries and across borders each year. These materials are used in industry, agriculture and medicine, as well as in education. Some of them are also radioactive sources that are no longer useful, known as disused sources.

The aim of nuclear security during transport is to ensure that the material is secured throughout and that it is not used for criminal or malicious purposes. While the level of security differs depending on the sensitivity of the material, the fundamental elements of secure transport include physical protection, administrative measures, training and protection of information about the transport routes and schedule. In some cases, escort personnel may also need to be armed

“During conversion of our research reactor from high enriched to low enriched uranium fuel, we had to transport highly radioactive spent reactor fuel from the site to the airport to be sent back to the original manufacturer, and we had to transport the new low enriched uranium fuel from the airport to the facility,” said Yusuf A. Ahmed, Director of the Centre for Energy Research and Training in Nigeria, who was involved in the conversion project. “Although the transport time is only a few hours, there is a lot that can happen during that time, from simple traffic accidents to malicious interventions and sabotage of shipments.”

While only around 30 countries use nuclear power and therefore have significant amounts of nuclear materials to transport, almost all countries use radioactive sources.

Excerpts from Inna Pletukhin, A Moving Target: Nuclear Security During Transport, IAEA Bulletin, Jan. 24, 2020

Rivers of Crude Oil: the poisoned land of Iraq

A biological remediation pilot project seeking to enhance nature’s own ability to clear up oil spills in Iraq’s conflict-affected areas has been launched in Kirkuk, Iraq…This UNEP initiative seeks to harness naturally occurring soil bacteria as a powerful natural ally to decontaminate poisoned land.  Over three years ago in summer 2016, the residents of Qayyarah—a small town of around 25,000 people, some 60 km south of Mosul—were caught in the line of fire as so-called Islamic State fighters torched nineteen nearby oil wells. So thick were the clouds of smoke, that people could not distinguish day from night for weeks in what infamously came to be known as the “Daesh winter”.  Rivers of crude oil flowed through Qayyarah’s streets and into seasonal wadis as oil wells spewed tens of thousands of barrels of oil relentlessly for months. The specter of an even worse environmental catastrophe was heightened as the oil slick migrated to less than three kilometers from the Tigris River, Iraq’s water lifeline.

Following an epic battle to control the oil fires that took nearly a year, North Oil Company, which manages the oil fields of northern Iraq, is currently collecting an estimated 20,000 tonnes of remaining oil waste in Qayyarah into around a dozen large pits.  Progress, however, has been slow and pools of heavy viscous oil remain on the doorsteps of entire neighborhoods and households, who complain about the impacts of noxious fumes on their children’s health.

“In some places, the layer of heavy oil is two to three meters thick, and long stretches of wadi channels are now effectively tarmac roads on which cars can be driven,” observed Mohammed Dawood, head of Qayarrah oil refinery’s environmental unit. Furthermore, Environment Ministry officials expressed concern that exceptionally heavy rains and flash floods of the 2018/19 winter season washed out oil from the holding pits into the Tigris River.

While oil production restarted in Qayyarah immediately after the conflict ended in June 2017, reaching currently an estimated 40,000 barrels per day, little has been done to clean up the conflict’s toxic aftermath… The UN Environment Programme in collaboration with the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq delivered a four-day hands-on training workshop on remediation of oil spills by the use of bacteria  in September 2019. “By adding nutrients from manure, bulking agents like wood chips and water, we are simply creating the ideal conditions for bacteria to thrive and speeding up the natural process of breaking down the oil,”

Excerpts from  Microbes offer hope of cleaning up Iraq conflict’s pollution legacy, UNEP Press Release, Oct. 23, 2019

How to Shh! a Nuclear Accident: the explosion of a nuclear-powered cruise missile on August 8, 2019, Russia

Two days after the explosion of a suspected nuclear-powered cruise missile undergoing testing on Aug. 8, 2010 near Nyonoksa Russia, two monitoring stations nearest the site of the accident stopped transmitting data, Lassina Zerbo, who heads the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, told The Wall Street Journal.  The Russian monitoring stations, called Dubna and Kirov after the places where they are located, were contacted immediately about the data disruptionl, and Russian officials responded that they were experiencing “communication & network issues.”

The missile test, on a platform in Dvinsk Bay on the White Sea in northwest Russia, has been the subject of considerable speculation. President Trump has said it involved an advanced nuclear-powered cruise missile, which has been dubbed Skyfall by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and which Russia calls Burevestnik.

The manned monitoring stations are part of an international network of hundreds of stations set up to verify compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear weapons tests globally. Participating nations are responsible for running the stations…The stations are designed to monitor everything from seismic shifts to sound waves for signs of nuclear activity. The two stations that went silent in Russia are designed to measure radioactive particles in the atmosphere…Arms-control experts said the monitoring problem appears to be a Russian effort to conceal information about the accident and not an effort to hide evidence of a prohibited nuclear weapons test.

Excerpts from Russian Nuclear Monitoring Stations Went Silent After Missile Blast, WSJ, Aug. 19, 2019

How to Prepare for Deadly Flu and Nuclear Fallout

Breakthroughs in the science of programmable gene expression inspired DARPA to establish the PReemptive Expression of Protective Alleles and Response Elements (PREPARE) program with the goal of delivering powerful new defenses against public health and national security threats. DARPA has now selected five teams to develop a range of new medical interventions that temporarily and reversibly modulate the expression of protective genes to guard against acute threats from influenza and ionizing radiation, which could be encountered naturally, occupationally, or through a national security event.

The program builds from the understanding that the human body has innate defenses against many types of health threats, but that the body does not always activate these defenses quickly or robustly enough to block the worst damage. To augment existing physiological responses, PREPARE technologies would provide a programmable capability to up- or down-regulate gene expression on demand, providing timely, scalable defenses that are proportional to anticipated threats. Service members and first responders could administer these interventions prior to threat exposure or therapeutically after exposure to mitigate the risk of harm or death.

Influenza: “Researchers working within the PREPARE program seek to improve rates of survival and recovery in catastrophic scenarios for which reliable and scalable countermeasures don’t currently exist,” said Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the PREPARE program manager….Three PREPARE teams are pursuing multi-pronged approaches to influenza defense and treatment that use programmable gene modulators to boost the human body’s natural defenses against influenza and also weaken the virus’ ability to cause harm by directly neutralizing the viral genomes. If successful, their approaches would potentially protect against virtually all influenza strains — regardless of whether a virus is newly emergent or has developed drug resistance — and would provide near instantaneous immunity, in contrast to traditional vaccines. Additionally, the teams are designing their countermeasures so that they are simple to deliver — for example, as intranasal sprays — reducing the logistical challenge of protecting large numbers of people.A team led by DNARx LLC, under principal investigator Dr. Robert Debs, aims to develop a new DNA-encoded gene therapy that helps patients fight influenza by boosting the natural immune response and other protective functions of their nasal passages and lungs.

Radiation Hazard Symbol

Ionizing Gamma Radiation: Other PREPARE teams are pursuing treatments to protect the body from the effects of ionizing gamma radiation. In humans, radiation poisoning primarily affects stem cells in the blood and gut, yet existing treatments only help to regenerate blood cells, and only with limited effect. There is no possibility for prophylactic administration of these drugs, and most must be delivered immediately following radiation exposure to provide any benefit. There are no existing medical countermeasures for radiation damage to the gut
A team led by the University of California, San Francisco, under principal investigator Dr. Jonathan Weissman, also aims to develop gene therapies to enhance resilience against ionizing radiation. The team’s approach should result in an intravenous or orally available treatment that activates innate defenses in gut and blood stem cells for a period of several weeks.

A Dose of Inner Strength to Survive and Recover from Potentially Lethal Health Threats
New tools for programmable modulation of gene expression could yield enhanced resilience against influenza and ionizing radiation for service members and first responders, DARPA Press Release, June 27, 2019