Category Archives: War

The Giant Nuclear Graveyard in the Arctic

The Nuclear Waste in Saida Bay, Russia, is financed by Germany as part of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Italy has paid for the floating dock that brings the nuclear reactor-compartments from the waters to the site. Reactor compartments from submarines and icebreakers will have to be stored for onshore for many decades before the radioactivity have come down to levels acceptable for cutting the reactors’ metal up and pack it for final geological disposal.

These giant containers contain parts of nuclear reactors in order to avoid leakages to the Arctic environment. Image Thomas Nilsen

The process of scrapping the 120 nuclear-powered submarines that sailed out from bases on the Kola Peninsula during the Cold War started in the early 1990 and has technically and economically been supported by a wide range of countries, including Norway and the European Union. Ballistic missile submarines scrapped at yards in Severodvinsk in the 1990s were paid by the United States Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program.

Excerpts from Kola Peninsula to get radioactive waste from southern Russia, The Barents Observer, May 2021

The Killing Fad: Agile Drones

Drones built in Turkey with affordable digital technology wrecked tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as air-defense systems, of Russian protégés in battles waged in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. These drones point to future warfare being shaped as much by cheap but effective fighting vehicles as expensive ones with the most advanced technology. China, too, has become a leading war drone exporter to the Middle East and Africa. Iran-linked groups in Iraq and Yemen used drones to attack Saudi Arabia. At least 10 countries, from Nigeria to the United Arab Emirates, have used drones purchased from China to kill adversaries, defense analysts say.

Flying alone or in a group, these drones can surprise troops and disable poorly concealed or lightly defended armored vehicles, a job often assigned to expensive warplanes. The drones can stay quietly aloft for 24 hours, finding gaps in air-defense systems and helping target strikes by warplanes and artillery, as well as firing their own missiles. Militaries, including the U.S., are upgrading air-defense systems to catch up with the advances, seeking methods to eliminate low-budget drones without firing missiles that cost more than their targets. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is also developing Skyborg and Valkyrie, lower-cost autonomous aircraft that are part of an innovation program

Israel and the U.S. have long used high-end drones in counterterrorism operations to target prominent enemies. But the countries have hesitated to sell their top models, even to allies, for fear of proliferation…Technological advances and global competitors have produced inexpensive alternatives.

The standard-bearer of the latest armed-drone revolution emerged last year on the battlefields around Turkey, the Bayraktar TB2. Compared with the American MQ-9, the TB2 is lightly armed, with four laser-guided missiles. Its radio-controlled apparatus limits its basic range to around 200 miles, roughly a fifth of the ground the MQ-9 can cover. Yet it is utilitarian, and reliable—qualities reminiscent of the Soviet Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle that changed warfare in the 20th century. A set of six Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground units, and other essential operations equipment costs tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions for the MQ-9…

Ukraine signed a deal in January 2019 to buy TB2 drones from Turkey, receiving at least six so far, and Kyiv is in talks for joint production. A Ukrainian company is manufacturing engines for the latest Baykar drone, a larger model with a heavier payload than the TB2. The country hopes the drones will discourage a repeat of the Kremlin’s 2014 invasions. …Turkey’s drone sales have riled Moscow. …

The TB2 was born of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with available models from the U.S. and Israel, and the country’s desire for systems under its control to fight the PKK, a Kurdish militant group….Azerbaijan, geographically and culturally close to Turkey, procured a set of TB2 drones last year. The country had lost control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia in a war that ended in a 1994 cease-fire. Rising petroleum wealth had bolstered Azerbaijan’s military in the years since. The TB2s, as well as Israeli-made drones, helped Azerbaijan overwhelm Armenian forces. Attacks were recorded for videos and posted online by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry….

The Azerbaijan victory caught the attention of Turkey’s suppliers. Some companies and countries, including Canada, halted export of components used in the TB2. [Too little too late?]

Excerpt from James Marson and Brett Forrest, Armed Low-Cost Drones, Made by Turkey, Reshape Battlefields and Geopolitics, WSJ, June 4, 2021

UFOs: Aliens or Just Enemies?

A forthcoming U.S. intelligence report contains no evidence that unexplained objects moving through the skies and witnessed by U.S. Navy pilots are alien spacecraft, but offers no conclusive explanation for the mysterious sightings, according to people familiar with its contents. The report, due to be delivered to Congress on June 25, 2021, appears unlikely to quell a debate over what the Pentagon calls “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” which pilots have observed moving at hypersonic speeds and conducting maneuvers that would be impossible using known technology.

Former President Barack Obama acknowledged in May 2021 that the U.S. government has no explanation for the strange objects. “What is true, and I’m actually being serious here, is that there is footage and records of objects in the skies that we don’t know exactly what they are,” Mr. Obama told CBS. “We can’t explain how they move, their trajectory,” he said. The draft report, the people familiar with it said, finds no evidence that the objects are alien spacecraft, but also no firm proof that they are not.

The New York Times, which first reported the study’s contents, said that it concludes that the most of the incidents didn’t originate from any advanced U.S. technology programs that might have been unknown to the pilots who witnessed them. One possibility officials have debated is that the craft are the result of secret research programs by a foreign adversary, such as Russia or China, both of which are believed to have experimented with hypersonic craft, which can travel more than five times the speed of sound.  The Pentagon last summer revived a small, secretive unit, called the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, to study the encounters.

Excerpts from Gordon Lubold and Nancy A. Youssef, U.S. UFO Report Doesn’t Explain Mystery Sightings but Finds No Sign of Aliens, WSJ, June 5, 2021

Smart Weapons Who Make Many Mistakes: AI in War

Autonomous weapon systems rely on artificial intelligence (AI), which in turn relies on data collected from those systems’ surroundings. When these data are good—plentiful, reliable and similar to the data on which the system’s algorithm was trained—AI can excel. But in many circumstances data are incomplete, ambiguous or overwhelming. Consider the difference between radiology, in which algorithms outperform human beings in analysing x-ray images, and self-driving cars, which still struggle to make sense of a cacophonous stream of disparate inputs from the outside world. On the battlefield, that problem is multiplied.

“Conflict environments are harsh, dynamic and adversarial,” says UNDIR. Dust, smoke and vibration can obscure or damage the cameras, radars and other sensors that capture data in the first place. Even a speck of dust on a sensor might, in a particular light, mislead an algorithm into classifying a civilian object as a military one, says Arthur Holland Michel, the report’s author. Moreover, enemies constantly attempt to fool those sensors through camouflage, concealment and trickery. Pedestrians have no reason to bamboozle self-driving cars, whereas soldiers work hard to blend into foliage. And a mixture of civilian and military objects—evident on the ground in Gaza in recent weeks—could produce a flood of confusing data.

The biggest problem is that algorithms trained on limited data samples would encounter a much wider range of inputs in a war zone. In the same way that recognition software trained largely on white faces struggles to recognise black ones, an autonomous weapon fed with examples of Russian military uniforms will be less reliable against Chinese ones. 

Despite these limitations, the technology is already trickling onto the battlefield. In its war with Armenia last year, Azerbaijan unleashed Israeli-made loitering munitions theoretically capable of choosing their own targets. Ziyan, a Chinese company, boasts that its Blowfish a3, a gun-toting helicopter drone, “autonomously performs…complex combat missions” including “targeted precision strikes”. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says that many of today’s remote-controlled weapons could be turned into autonomous ones with little more than a software upgrade or a change of doctrine….

On May 12th, 2021, the ICRD published a new and nuanced position on the matter, recommending new rules to regulate autonomous weapons, including a prohibition on those that are “unpredictable”, and also a blanket ban on any such weapon that has human beings as its targets. These things will be debated in December 2021 at the five-yearly review conference of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, originally established in 1980 to ban landmines and other “inhumane” arms. Government experts will meet thrice over the summer and autumn, under un auspices, to lay the groundwork. 

Yet powerful states remain wary of ceding an advantage to rivals. In March, 2021 a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence established by America’s Congress predicted that autonomous weapons would eventually be “capable of levels of performance, speed and discrimination that exceed human capabilities”. A worldwide prohibition on their development and use would be “neither feasible nor currently in the interests of the United States,” it concluded—in part, it argued, because Russia and China would probably cheat. 

Excerpt from Autonomous weapons: The fog of war may confound weapons that think for themselves, Economist, May 29, 2021

The Most Radioactive Sea on Earth and How to Save it

No other places in the world’s oceans have more radioactive and nuclear waste than the Kara Sea. The reactors from the submarines K-11, K-19, and K-140, plus the entire submarine K-27 and spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the Lenin-icebreaker have to be lifted from the seafloor and secured. While mentality in Soviet times was «out of sight, out of mind», the Kara Sea seemed logical. Ice-covered most of the year, and no commercial activities. That is changing now with rapidly retreating sea ice, drilling for oil-, and gas and increased shipping.

The submarine reactors dumped in shallow bays east of the closed-off military archipelago of Novaya Zemlya… had experienced accidents and posed a radiation threat at the navy yards where people were working.  Dumping the reactors in shallow waters, someplace at only 50 meters, meant they could be lifted one day when technology allowed.

A worst-case scenario would be a failed lifting attempt, causing criticality in the uranium fuel, again triggering an explosion with following radiation contamination of Arctic waters.  

A Russian-Norwegian expedition to the K-27 submarine in Stepovogo bay in 2012 took samples for studying possible radioactive leakages. Now, the Bellona group, an environmental NGOs, calls  an expedition in 2021  to thoroughly study the strength of the hull and look for technical options on how to lift the heavy submarine and reactor compartments. A previous study report made for Rosatom and the European Commission roughly estimated the costs of lifting all six objects, bringing them safely to a yard for decommissioning, and securing the reactors for long-term storage.

The estimated price-tag for all six is €278 million, of which the K-159 in the Barents Sea is the most expensive with a cost of €57.5 million. Unlike the submarines and reactors that are dumped in relatively shallow waters in the Kara Sea, the K-159 is at about 200 meters depth, and thus will be more difficult to lift.

Excerpt from Tackling dumped nuclear waste gets priority in Russia’s Arctic Council leadership in 2021, BarentsObserver, May 23, 2021

Nuclear Nightmare Coming Back to Haunt Us: Nuclear Waste Dumped at Sea

A stock control inspection has revealed that about 2,800 barrels of radioactive waste partly originating from the healthcare and defense industries may have been handled carelessly, Swedish Television reported. The barrels are reportedly located on the floor of the Baltic Sea 100 kilometres north of Stockholm in Forsmark, where one of Sweden’s seven nuclear plants is situated. The barrels, dating from the 1970s and 1980s, are said to be of no danger at the moment but may pose a risk in the future if not taken care of and repositioned properly.

The government will now have to make decisions on the financial costs of inspecting and restoring the waste and how it will be handled in the future…

 Pekka Vanttinen, 2,800 radioactive waste barrels found near Baltic Sea, stored carelessly, EURACTIV.com, May 18, 2021

A War Like No Other: the Covert Invasion of Iran

Within hours of Iran proudly announcing the launch of its latest centrifuges, on April 10, 2021, a power blackout damaged some of the precious machines at its site in Natanz…One thing reports seem to agree on is that an “incident” affected the power distribution network at Natanz.

Natanz is critical to Iran’s nuclear program. The heavily secured site is protected by anti-aircraft guns and has two large centrifuge halls buried more than 50 feet underground to protect them from airstrikes. Despite the conflicting reports, it appears the facility’s main power distribution equipment — Natanz has its own grid — was taken out with explosives. Backup emergency electricity also was taken down, and power cut out across the multibuilding compound, Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told Iran’s state-run TV.

A blackout may not sound that serious, but it can be at an enrichment plant. Centrifuges are slender machines linked up in what are called cascades which enrich uranium gas by spinning it at incredibly high speeds using rotors. The stress on the advanced materials involved is intense and the process is technically immensely challenging. A small problem can send a centrifuge spinning out of control, with parts smashing into each other and damaging a whole cascade.

The question is: what caused the blackout – a cyber-attack or a physical act of sabotage, like a bomb?

Israel has a long history of sabotaging nuclear facilities in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, both through cyber means — including the sophisticated Stuxnet attack against Iran, which Israel conducted with U.S. and Dutch intelligence agencies — and with conventional bombs and explosives. Israel is also reportedly behind a number of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and officials over the last decade. The Stuxnet attack was particularly significant because it launched the era of cyberwarfare, as it was the first cyberattack known to use a digital weapon that could leap into the physical realm to cause actual destruction of equipment. The highly skilled covert operation was conducted in lieu of a kinetic attack to avoid attribution and an escalation in hostilities with Iran; it remained undetected for three years..

Excerpts from Gordon Corera, Iran nuclear attack: Mystery surrounds nuclear sabotage at Natanz, BBC, Apr. 12, 2021, Kim Zetter, Israel may have Destroyed Iran Centrifuges Simply by Cutting Power, Intercept, Apr. 13, 2021

Nuking Tahiti: the Moruroa Files

From 1966 to 1974, France blew up 41 nuclear weapons in above-ground tests in French Polynesia, the collection of 118 islands and atolls that is part of France. The French government has long contended that the testing was done safely. But a new analysis of hundreds of documents declassified in 2013 suggests the tests exposed 90% of the 125,000 people living in French Polynesia to radioactive fallout—roughly 10

The findings come from a 2-year collaboration, dubbed the Moruroa Files, between Disclose, a French nonprofit that supports investigative journalism; Interprt, a collective of researchers, architects, and spatial designers affiliated with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who focus on environmental issues; and the Science & Global Security program at Princeton. The findings were presented on 9 March on the project’s website, in a book, and in a technical paper posted to the arXiv preprint server.

The abandoned testing facility at the Moruroa Atoll. The atoll is at the risk of collapsing due to nuclear blasts

Declassified documents suggest actual exposures were between two and 20 times higher than France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) estimates… Reasons for the discrepancies vary from test to test, he says. For example, CEA acknowledged that the first test, dubbed Aldébaran, exposed residents of the Gambier Islands to relatively high levels of fallout. But actual exposures were likely higher still… Although CEA noted that contaminated rainwater fell on the island, he says, it failed to consider that many residents likely drank the contaminated water, collected in household cisterns, for days.

Most important, the documents suggest a single test in 1974, called Centaure, exposed the entire population of Tahiti—87,500 people at the time—to fallout. French authorities set off a relatively tiny atom bomb with an explosive yield equal to 4 kilotons of TNT, and weather forecasts predicted that winds should carry fallout to the north. Instead, the wind blew to the west, carrying the plume directly over Tahiti. A new simulation based on data in the documents shows how the plume of radiation wafted over the island. CEA estimated that people on the island received a dose of about 0.6 mSv.  However, Phillipe and colleagues argue that CEA underestimated the total amount of radiation that accumulated on the ground over several days, didn’t account for radiation lingering in vegetables consumed later…

The new analysis moves the vast majority of French Polynesians past the exposure threshold to qualify for compensation. Philippe and Schoenberger would like to see France do away with the exposure standard and compensate anyone who lived through the tests and developed a qualifying cancer. “Our hope is to demonstrate that this kind of threshold can be prejudicial to claimants just because of the difficulties of proving exposure,” Schoenberger says.

Philippe estimates that, assuming a cancer rate of 0.2% per year, roughly 10,000 cancer patients or their families would qualify retroactively and that compensating them would cost about €700 million. Future cancers would cost about €24 million per year, he estimates. However, Hughes says it remains to be seen whether the French government will even acknowledge the analysis. “My fear is that they will simply ignore it,” Hughes says.

The declassified documents also show the French government routinely failed to warn Polynesians about the radiation risks, Philippe says. In the Centaure test, authorities could have warned Tahitians about the approaching fallout 2 days in advance, but did not. Ironically, Philippe notes, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries were monitoring the tests remotely. “Everybody knew what was going on,” he says, “except the Polynesians.”

Excerpt from Adrian Cho, France grossly underestimated radioactive fallout from atom bomb tests, study finds, Science, Mar. 11, 2021

It’s Easy: How to Make a Radioactive Dirty Bomb

A truck carrying highly radioactive materials has been stolen by armed criminals in central Mexico the Independent reported on April 12, 2012. The Mexican government is now warning that anybody who comes in close contact with its deadly payload could be risking their lives. The individuals got away with an industrial inspection equipment truck during an armed heist on April 11, 2021 in the town of Teoloyucan. Included in the bounty is a QSA Delta 800 gamma ray projector that holds radioactive iridium-192, selenium-75 and ytterbium-169 isotopes — a highly unusual bounty for any hijacker.

It’s still unclear why they targeted the truck in question, but during a previous robbery involving radioactive waste, Mexican authorities feared the ingredients may be used to build a dirty bomb. Contact with the contents of the truck, authorities emphasized, can be fatal. “At 10am today, there was a robbery of radiographic equipment reported,” reads a warning issued by the National Commission for Nuclear Security and Safeguarding, as quoted by the Independent. “If the radioactive material is extracted from the container, is moved, or makes direct contact with any persons handling it, permanent injury can occur in minutes.” “In case of making direct contact with the source over the course of hours or days, the effects can prove fatal,” the warning reads. Even just being 30 meters away could cause radiation poisoning, according to the Commission.

Members of the Commission for National Civil Protection (CNPC) have been dispatched across the central region of Mexico. Authorities have not ruled out the possibility that the truck may now be in Mexico City….This is not the first time radioactive material has been stolen in Mexico.

Excerpt ‘Extremely dangerous’ radioactive material stolen in Mexico truck hijacking, Independent, Apr. 12, 2021

The Nightmare of Keeping the Lights On

Some 330 million Americans rely on the nation’s critical infrastructure to keep the country humming. Disruptions to electrical grids, communications systems, and supply chains can be catastrophic, yet all of these are vulnerable to cyberattack. According to the government’s 2019 World Wide Threats Hearing, certain adversaries are capable of launching cyberattacks that can disrupt the nation’s critical infrastructure – including electrical distribution networks.

In recognition of the disruptions cyberattacks can cause, DARPA in 2016 established the Rapid Attack Detection, Isolation and Characterization Systems (RADICS) program. The goal of RADICS has been to enable black-start recovery during a cyberattack. Black start is the process of restoring power to an electric substation or part of the grid that has experienced a total or partial shutdown without relying on an external power transmission network to get things back online…

“Cyberattacks on the grid can essentially do two things – make the grid not tell you the truth, and make the grid operate in an unexpected way,” said Walter Weiss, the program manager responsible for RADICS. “For example, the grid could show you that a substation has power when in reality it does not. This could unintentionally prevent power restoration to an entire area since no one thinks there is a need to bring power back online. The technologies developed under RADICS help provide ground truth around grid status, giving responders the ability to quickly detect anomalies and then chart a path towards recovery.”…

 The RADICS testbed is comprised of miniaturized substations that were designed to operate as they do in the real world, but with safeguards to protect the system and those operating the substations. The substations are connected via power lines, forming a multi-utility crank path. With a crank path, power is generated to black start one utility that then powers the next utility and the next until the grid is fully restored.

DARPA substation, Plum island NY

Technologies to Rapidly Restore the Electrical Grid after Cyberattack Come Online, DARPA Website, Feb. 23, 2021

Hearing the Naked Truth: Earth Observation

In the middle of last year, Ecuadorians watched with concern as 340 foreign boats, most of them Chinese, fished just outside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around their country’s westernmost province, the Galapagos Islands. The law of the sea requires such vessels to carry GPS-based automatic identification systems (AIS) that broadcast where they are, and to keep those systems switched on. Some boats, however, failed to comply. There were more than 550 instances of vessels not transmitting their locations for over a day. This regular radio silence stoked fears that the boats concerned were sneaking into Ecuador’s waters to plunder its fish.

Both local officials and China’s ambassador to Ecuador denied this, and said all the boats were sticking to the rules. In October 2020, however, HawkEye 360, a satellite operator based in Virginia, announced it had detected vessels inside Ecuador’s EEZ on 14 occasions when the boats in question were not transmitting AIS. HawkEye’s satellites could pinpoint these renegades by listening for faint signals emanating from their navigation radars and radio communications.

HawkEye’s satellites are so-called smallsats, about the size of a large microwave oven. They are therefore cheap to build and launch. HawkEye deployed its first cluster, of three of them, in 2018. They are now in an orbit that takes them over both of Earth’s poles. This means that, as the planet revolves beneath them, every point on its surface can be monitored at regular intervals…Unlike spy satellites fitted with optical cameras, RF satellites can see through clouds. Their receivers are not sensitive enough to detect standard mobile phones. But they can pick up satellite phones, walkie-talkies and all manner of radar. And, while vessels can and do illicitly disable their AIS, switching off their communications gear and the radar they use for navigation and collision-avoidance is another matter entirely. “Even pirates don’t turn those things off,” says John Beckner, boss of Horizon Technologies….

RF data are also cheap to collect. Satellites fitted with robotic high-resolution cameras are costly. Flying microwave ovens that capture and timestamp radio signals are not. America’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), one of that country’s numerous spying operations, is a big user of RF intelligence. It employs HawkEye’s data to find guerrilla camps and mobile missile-launchers, and to track both conventional warships and unconventional ones, like the weaponised speedboats sometimes deployed by Iran. Robert Cardillo, a former director of the agency who now advises HawkEye, says dozens of navies, Russia’s included, spoof AIS signals to make warships appear to be in places which they are not. RF intelligence is not fooled by this. Mr Cardillo says, too, that the tininess of RF satellites makes them hard for an enemy to destroy.

Beside matters military, the NGA also uses RFdata to unearth illicit economic activity—of which unauthorised fishing is merely one instance. Outright piracy is another. And the technique also works on land. In 2019, for example, it led to the discovery of an illegal gold mine being run by a Chinese company in a jungle in Gabon. And in 2020 the managers of Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo began using HawkEye data to spot elephant poachers and dispatch rangers to deal with them…

Horizon also plans to compile a library of unique radar-pulse “fingerprints” of the world’s vessels, for the tiny differences in componentry that exist even between examples of the same make and model of equipment mean that signals can often be linked to a specific device. It will thus be able to determine not merely that a vessel of some sort is in a certain place, but which vessel it is, and where else it has been…

Excerpt from Espionage: Ears in the Sky, Economist, Mar. 20, 2021

Shallow Your Tongue: The Giddy Western Plutocracy of Hong Kong

You might think the death of liberalism in Asia’s financial center, Hong Kong, which hosts $10trn of cross-border investments, would trigger panic, capital flight and a business exodus. Instead Hong Kong is enjoying a financial boom. Share offerings have soared as China’s leading companies list there. Western firms are in the thick of it: the top underwriters are Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs. In 2020, the value of us dollar payments cleared in Hong Kong, a hub for the world’s reserve currency, hit a record $11trn.

The same pattern of political oppression and commercial effervescence is to be found on the mainland…Yet when they talk to shareholders about China, global firms gloss over this brutal reality: “Very happy,” says Siemens; “Phenomenal,” reckons Apple; and “Remarkable,” says Starbucks…Tougher policing does not affect Westerners, says a mainland financier. His foreign clients in Hong Kong laugh about the anxious memos they receive from bosses at home, asking about political developments. “It doesn’t really affect their life, right? They’re not going on the street to try to demonstrate against the government.”

Mainland China attracted $163bn of fresh multinational investment in 2020, more than any other country. It is opening the mainland capital markets to foreigners, who have invested $900bn, in a landmark shift for global finance.

Moreover, the pull China exerts is no longer just a matter of size—although, with 18% of world GDP, it has that too. The country is also where firms discover consumer trends and innovations. It is increasingly where commodity prices and the cost of capital are set, and is becoming a source of regulations. Business is betting that, in Hong Kong and the mainland, China’s… government is capable of self-restraint in the commercial sphere, providing contractual certainty, despite the lack of fully independent courts and free speech. Though China’s best-known tycoon, Jack Ma, has fallen from political favor, foreign investors’ stakes in his empire are still worth over $500bn.

Excerpts from Dealing with China, The Way its Going to Be, Economist, Mar 20, 2021 

The Horrors of Bombing: 50 Years After

 In Cambodia, however, fertile land often signifies danger rather than abundance. When America dropped an estimated 1.8m tonnes of explosives on the country during the Vietnam war, those falling on hard ground generally detonated, whereas many landing on softer earth did not. No one knows how many bombs remain in rich soil. But a paper by four academics at Ohio State University who studied satellite images and reports by landmine-removal groups from a single village, found that perhaps half of the munitions have not exploded.

These wartime remnants have given the United States’ bombing campaign of 1965-73—which ostensibly targeted Viet Cong supply lines, but caused perhaps 150,000 deaths—an enduringly lethal legacy. Since 1979, unexploded ordnance has killed at least 19,000 people in Cambodia (though some may have been blown up by landmines from subsequent wars, rather than by American bombs). Cambodia now has the world’s highest rate of amputees.

A recent study by Erin Lin shows that America’s bombardment injured not just Cambodia’s people but its economy as well. She first interviewed farmers in the country, who said they thought that richer, darker soil presented an unusually high risk of hidden ordnance—especially in heavily bombed areas. They work in constant fear of explosions. Some said that they only planted crops in parts of their farms that they were confident contained no bombs, or that they used hand tools instead of machines to reduce the risk of detonation.

Excerpt from Blood and Soil: American Bombing 50 Years Ago Still Shapes Cambodian Agriculture, Mar. 20, 2021

The Thirst for Rape that Won’t Go Away

Ethiopia’s government says it is conducting a policing operation against the ousted rulers of Tigray, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. Yet as phone connections to the region are restored, having been cut off since the fighting started on November 4th, 2020 credible reports of atrocities and war crimes are emerging. Many involve troops from neighbouring Eritrea, who are fighting alongside Ethiopian forces.

Perhaps the worst incident took place in Axum, one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities. According to Amnesty International, a rights group, Eritrean soldiers killed hundreds of civilians over two days in late November 2020 in retaliation for an attack on their camp. The soldiers picked out unarmed young men and killed them on the spot. They then plundered the city. “All we could see on the streets were bodies and people crying,” one survivor told Amnesty…

Months of restrictions on journalists and NGOs make it hard to know exactly what has been happening. The state-funded Ethiopian Human Rights Commission says it is investigating the Axum massacre and that its preliminary findings indicate that Eritrean soldiers killed a number of civilians in the city. It says it is also investigating reports of shelling in several parts of Tigray. Ethiopian officials including the president, Sahle-Work Zewde, have admitted that women in Tigray have been raped in large numbers. “We cannot pretend that we do not see or hear,” she said on February 19th, 2021. But she failed to identify the perpetrators, even though the victims said their rapists were soldiers in Eritrean and Ethiopian uniforms.

One survivor recounted a harrowing 10-day ordeal during which she said she and five other women were gang-raped by Eritrean soldiers. She said the troops joked and took photos as they injected her with a drug, tied her to a rock, stripped, stabbed and raped repeatedly her. Doctors who’ve treated Tigrayan women have said one woman’s vagina was stuffed with nails, stones and plastic.

Excepts from Murder in the mountains: Soldiers have killed hundreds of civilians in Tigray, Economist, Feb. 27, 2021

The Techno-spheres: Westerners against the Chinese

Lithuania’s government on Feb. 17 prohibited Chinese security-scanner maker Nuctech Co. from supplying equipment to the country’s two airports, saying a proposed deal was “not in line with national-security interests.” State-controlled Nuctech, which the U.S. government in December 2020 listed among Chinese entities banned from certain transactions with U.S. parties, had won a tender launched a year ago by state-owned Lithuanian Airports.

Canada last year also abandoned a plan to buy Nuctech scanners for its embassies following controversy around the announced deal. Norway, Croatia and an EU directorate in recent months have also stopped scanner tenders involving Nuctech, although none publicly linked the cancellations to security, as Lithuania did. Lithuania banned China’s Nuctech from supplying security-scanning equipment to its two airports.

“We are choosing the Western technosphere. We are not choosing the Chinese technosphere,” said Laurynas Kasciunas, chairman of the Lithuanian parliament’s national-security and defense committee, which oversees a national-security review board that had recommended banning Nuctech. Such policy reversals remain a minority amid extensive Chinese business activity across the EU. 

Excerpt from Daniel Michaels and Valentina Pop, China Faces European Obstacles as Some Countries Heed U.S. Pressure, WSJ, Feb. 23, 2021

At Gunpoint in Congo: Is Coltan Worse than Oil?

Tantalum, a metal used in smartphone and laptop batteries, is extracted from coltan ore. In 2019 40% of the world’s coltan was produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to official data. More was sneaked into Rwanda and exported from there. Locals dig for the ore by hand in Congo’s eastern provinces, where more than 100 armed groups hide in the bush. Some mines are run by warlords who work with rogue members of the Congolese army to smuggle the coltan out.

When demand for electronics soared in the early 2000s, coltan went from being an obscure, semi-valuable ore to one of the world’s most sought-after minerals. Rebels fought over mines and hunted for new deposits. Soldiers forced locals to dig for it at gunpoint. Foreign money poured into Congo. Armed groups multiplied, eager for a share.

Then, in 2010, a clause in America’s Dodd-Frank Act forced American firms to audit their supply chains. The aim was to ensure they were not using minerals such as coltan, gold and tin that were funding Congo’s protracted war. For six months mines in eastern Congo were closed, as the authorities grappled with the new rules. Even when they reopened, big companies, such as Intel and Apple, shied away from Congo’s coltan, fearing a bad press.

The “Obama law”, as the Congolese nickname Dodd-Frank, did reduce cash flows to armed groups. But it also put thousands of innocent people out of work. A scheme to trace supply chains known as ITSCI run by the International Tin Association based in London and an American charity, Pact, helped bring tentative buyers back to Congo.  ITSCI staff turn up at mining sites to see if armed men are hanging about, pocketing profits. They check that no children are working in the pits. If a mine is considered safe and conflict-free, government agents at the sites put tags onto the sacks of minerals. However, some unscrupulous agents sell tags on the black market, to stick on coltan from other mines. “The agents are our brothers,” Martin says. It is hard to police such a violent, hilly region with so few roads. Mines are reached by foot or motorbike along winding, muddy paths.

For a long time those who preferred to export their coltan legally had to work with itsci, which held the only key to the international market. Miners groaned that itsci charged too much: roughly 5% of the value of tagged coltan. When another scheme called “Better Sourcing” emerged, Congo’s biggest coltan exporter, Société Minière de Bisunzu, signed up to it instead.

Excerpts from Smugglers’ paradise: Congo, Economist, Jan. 23, 2021

Who Will Rule the Arctic?


Rosatom joined the Arctic Economic Council*in February 2021. Rosatom is a Russian state-owned corporation supplying about 20% of the country’s electricity. The corporation mainly holds assets in nuclear power and machine engineering and construction. In 2018, the Russian government appointed Rosatom to manage the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR grants direct access to the Arctic, a region of increasing importance for Russia due to its abundance of fossil fuels. Moreover, due to climate changes, the extraction of natural resources, oil and gas are easier than ever before.

Since Russia’s handover of NSR’s management, Rosatom’s emphasis on the use of nuclear power for shipping, infrastructure development and fossil fuel extraction is likely to become more prevalent in the Arctic region. Rosatom already operate the world’s first floating nuclear power plant in the Siberian port of Pevek and is the only company in the world operating a fleet of civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers…The company has numerous plans up its sleeves, among them to expand the fleet of heavy-duty nuclear icebreakers to a minimum of nine by 2035.

*Other members of the Arctic Economic Council.

Excerpt from Polina Leganger Bronder, Rosatom joins Arctic Economic Council, BarentsObserver, Feb. 8, 2021

Building Factories in Space: DARPA

DARPA announced on February 5, 2021  its Novel Orbital and Moon Manufacturing, Materials and Mass-efficient Design (NOM4D) program. The effort, pronounced “NOMAD,” seeks to pioneer technologies for adaptive, off-earth manufacturing to produce large space and lunar structures,  “NOM4D’s vision is to develop foundational materials, processes, and designs needed to realize in-space manufacturing of large, precise, and resilient Defense Department systems,” said Bill Carter, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “We will also explore the unique features of in-situ resources obtained from the moon’s surface as they apply to future defense missions.” 

Concerning mass-efficient designs, the vision is for completely new concepts that could only be manufactured in space….In order to take the next step, we’ve got to go about materials, manufacturing, and design in a completely new way.

Excerpts from Orbital Construction: DARPA Pursues Plan for Robust Manufacturing in Space, DARPA Website, Feb. 5, 2021

A Lethal Combination: Pentagon and NASA

U.S. government and aerospace-industry officials are removing decades-old barriers between civilian and military space projects, in response to escalating foreign threats beyond the atmosphere. The Pentagon and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are joining forces to tackle efforts such as exploring the region around the moon and extending the life of satellites. Many details are still developing or remain classified.  Driving the changes are actions by Moscow and Beijing to challenge American space interests with antisatellite weapons, jamming capabilities and other potentially hostile technology. Eventually, according to government and industry officials briefed on the matter, civil-military cooperation is expected to extend to defending planned NASA bases on the lunar surface, as well as protecting U.S. commercial operations envisioned to extract water or minerals there…

Large and small contractors are maneuvering to take advantage of opportunities to merge military and nonmilitary technologies. They include established military suppliers that already have a foot in both camps, such as Northrop Grumman,  the Dynetics unit of Leidos Holdings, and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Smaller companies such as Maxar Technologies Holdings,  closely held robotic-lander maker Astrobotic Technology, and small-satellite producer Blue Canyon Technologies, recently acquired by Raytheon Technologies, also seek to diversify in the same way…

The U.S. astronaut corps always has included many military officers, some previous NASA scientists quietly shared data with military counterparts and NASA’s now-retired Space Shuttle fleet was supposed to launch Pentagon satellites. But today, veteran industry and government experts describe the cooperation as much more extensive, covering burgeoning capabilities such as repairing and repurposing satellites in orbit, or moving them around with nuclear propulsion. Intelligence agencies are more involved than ever in leveraging civilian technology, including artificial intelligence, robotic capabilities and production know-how.

Excerpt from Pentagon, NASA Knock Down Barriers Impeding Joint Space Projects, WSJ, Feb. 1, 2021

The Struggle of Managing Dis-Used Nuclear Sources

Two disused radioactive sources, previously employed in cancer treatment, are now in safe and secure storage in the Republic of the Congo, following successful transport and increased security at their temporary storage facility, with the support of the IAEA. The sources no longer emit enough radioactivity to be useful for radiotherapy but are still radioactive and therefore need to be controlled and managed safely and securely. They are expected to be exported outside the country in 2022.

“It took time to understand the risks posed by the disused radiotherapy sources stored for so long in our country…,” said Martin Parfait Aimé Coussoud-Mavoungou, Minister for Scientific Research and Technological Innovation.

Around the world, radioactive material is routinely used to diagnose and treat diseases… This material is typically managed safely and securely while in use; however, when it reaches the end of its useful lifespan, the risk of abandonment, loss or malicious acts grows. 

In 2010, the University Hospital of Brazzaville received a new cobalt 60 (Co-60) sealed source for the hospital’s teletherapy machine, replacing its original source, which was no longer able to deliver effective treatment. The disused sealed source was then packaged and shipped by boat to the supplier. However, the delivery of the package was blocked in transit due to problems with the shipping documents and was returned to the Republic of the Congo. Since 2010, the Co-60 source has been stored at the Autonomous Port of Pointe Noire, one of the most important commercial harbors in Central Africa…

“The August 2020 explosion that occurred in Beirut Harbor reminded the Congolese Authorities of the risks to unmanaged or unregulated material, particularly in national ports and harbors,” said Coussoud-Mavoungou. Congolese decision-makers agreed that the disused source had to urgently leave the Autonomous Port of Pointe Noire.

Following a comprehensive planning and preparation phase, a transport security plan was finalized on location in November 2020, with the support of IAEA experts. They designed a security system for the package and conducted a pre-shipment verification and simulation. At the same time, 45 participants were trained from the five government Ministries involved in the transport by road of the source in Pointe Noire.

Excerpts from Security of Radioactive Sources Enhanced by the Republic of the Congo with Assistance from the IAEA, IAEA Press Release, Jan. 18, 2021

A Worldwide Web that Kills with Success

Doubts are growing about the satellites, warships and other big pieces of hardware involved in the command and control of America’s military might. For the past couple of decades the country’s generals and admirals have focused their attention on defeating various forms of irregular warfare. For this, these castles in the sky and at sea have worked well. In the meantime, however, America’s rivals have been upgrading their regular forces—including weapons that can destroy such nodes of power. Both China and Russia have successfully blown up orbiting satellites. And both have developed, or are developing, sophisticated long-range anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.

As a result, America is trying to devise a different approach to C2, as command and control is known in military jargon. The Department of Defense has dubbed this idea “Joint All-Domain Command and Control”, or JADC2. It aims to eliminate vulnerable nodes in the system (e.g., satellites) by multiplying the number of peer-to-peer data links that connect pieces of military hardware directly to one another, rather than via a control center that might be eliminated by a single, well-aimed missile.

The goal, officials say, is to create a network that links “every sensor and every shooter”. When complete, this will encompass sensors as small as soldiers’ night-vision gear and sonar buoys drifting at sea, and shooters as potent as ground-based artillery and aerial drones armed with Hellfire missiles.

One likely beneficiary of the jadc2 approach is Anduril Industries, a Californian firm…Its products include small spy helicopter drones; radar, infrared and optical systems constructed as solar-powered towers; and paperback-sized ground sensors that can be disguised as rocks

Sensors come in still-more-diverse forms than Anduril’s, though. An autonomous doglike robot made by Ghost Robotics of Philadelphia offers a hint of things to come. In addition to infrared and video systems, this quadruped, dubbed v60 q-ugv, can be equipped with acoustic sensors (to recognise, among other things, animal and human footsteps), a millimetre-wave scanner (to see through walls) and “sniffers” that identify radiation, chemicals and electromagnetic signals. Thanks to navigation systems developed for self-driving cars, v60 q-ugv can scamper across rough terrain, climb stairs and hide from people. In a test by the air force this robot was able to spot a mobile missile launcher and pass its location on directly to an artillery team…

Applying Artificial Intelligence (AI) to more C2 processes should cut the time required to hit a target. In a demonstration in September 2020, army artillery controlled by AI and fed instructions by air-force sensors shot down a cruise missile in a response described as “blistering”…

There are, however, numerous obstacles to the success of all this. For a start, developing unhackable software for the purpose will be hard. Legions of machines containing proprietary and classified technologies, new and old, will have to be connected seamlessly, often without adding antennae or other equipment that would spoil their stealthiness…America’s technologists must, then, link the country’s military equipment into a “kill web” so robust that attempts to cripple it will amount to “trying to pop a balloon with one finger”, as Timothy Grayson, head of strategic technologies at DARPA, the defense department’s main research agency, puts it…

Excerpts from The future of armed conflict: Warfare’s worldwide web, Economist,  Jan. 9, 2021

Tactical Nuclear Warhead to Respond ‘in Kind’ to Attack: W76-2

The US Navy has now deployed the new W76-2 low-yield Trident submarine warhead. The first ballistic missile submarine scheduled to deploy with the new warhead was the USS Tennessee (SSBN-734)…The W76-2 warhead was first announced in the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) unveiled in February 2018. There, it was described as a capability to “help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities,” a reference to Russia. The justification voiced by the administration was that the United States did not have a “prompt” and useable nuclear capability that could counter – and thus deter – Russian use of its own tactical nuclear capabilities…

We estimate that one or two of the 20 missiles on the USS Tennessee and subsequent subs will be armed with the W76-2, either singly or carrying multiple warheads. Each W76-2 is estimated to have an explosive yield of about five kilotons.* The remaining 18 missiles on each submarine like the Tennessee carry either the 90-kiloton W76-1 or the 455-kiloton W88. Each missile can carry up to eight warheads under current loading configurations…

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has further explained that the “W76-2 will allow for tailored deterrence in the face of evolving threats” and gives the US “an assured ability to respond in kind to a low-yield nuclear attack.”

Excerpt from William M. Arkin and Hans M. Kristensen, US Deploys New Low-Yield Nuclear Submarine Warhead, FAS, Jan. 29, 2020

*The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons.

Are Hypersonic Weapons Hyped Propaganda?

The United States, Russia, and China are developing an array of hypersonic weapons—maneuverable vehicles that carry warheads through the atmosphere at more than five times the speed of sound. The countries and their defense agencies, such as DARPA, claim that these weapons outperform existing missiles in terms of delivery time and evasion of early warning systems. New research, however, shows that these weapons travel intercontinental distances more slowly than comparable ballistic missiles flying depressed trajectories, and that they remain visible to existing space-based
sensors for the majority of flight. Fundamental physical limitations imposed by low-altitude atmospheric flight render hypersonic missiles an evolutionary—not revolutionary— development relative to established ballistic missile technologies.

Misperceptions of hypersonic weapon performance have arisen from social processes by which the organizations developing these weapons construct erroneous technical facts favoring continued investment in such weapons.

Excerpt from from Cameron L. Tracy and David Wright, Modeling the Performance of Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles, SCIENCE & GLOBAL SECURITY, 2021

Above-the-Speed-of Sound: US Hypersonic Weapons

From the DARPA Website: DARPA’s Operational Fires (OpFires) program, which is developing a ground-launched intermediate-range hypersonic weapons system, is advancing to a new phase. This new phase involves full-scale missile fabrication, assembly, and flight testing from a launch vehicle. It will be  be produced by Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control…OpFires aims to demonstrate a novel system enabling hypersonic boost glide weapons to rapidly and precisely hit critical, time-sensitive targets while penetrating modern enemy air defenses. 

DARPA’s Operational Fires Ground-Launched Hypersonics Program Enters New Phase, Jan. 11, 2021

How to Denude a Country: Military Invasions Dressed Up As Revolutions

“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”said Winston Churchill…Deception is still practiced in war.

In its conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenia has bamboozled drones with dummy missiles. During a stand-off with India, China published images of missile launchers that, on closer inspection, turned out to be wobbly inflatables. Indian and Chinese forces alike covered equipment with multispectral nets, which block visible light and other electromagnetic emissions. Engineers keep working on new gadgets. BAE Systems, a defense firm, boasts that its Adaptiv camouflage—a set of thermoelectric tiles that change temperature to match their surroundings—amounts to a “cloak of invisibility”.

European and American military officials describe Russian and Chinese practices with a mixture of distaste and envy. Whereas America’s use of decoys “is currently at a low after two decades of neglect”, notes Walker Mills, an officer in the us Marine Corps, China has invested in them, including a 35kg tank that fits in a backpack and inflates in four minutes. One report by America’s army says that Chinese forces “have the highest fidelity decoys seen to date”.

The laws of armed conflict are fairly clear about battlefield deception. Whereas “perfidy” (such as faking surrender to lure an enemy into an ambush, or disguising a tank as a Red Cross ambulance) is forbidden, “ruses” like decoys, feints and ambushes are fair game. But other laws can be bent or bypassed. Russia snatched Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 by cleverly using unmarked personnel—the so-called little green men—and a synchronized blitz of disinformation. The entire campaign was a deception: an invasion masquerading as a nationalist uprising.

Western armies want to catch up, in some ways at least. “We’ll re-learn deception,” promises General David Berger, head of America’s Marine Corps, who is reforming his force to better evade Chinese sensors in the Pacific. But this cuts against the grain. “There’s a cultural problem here,” says a veteran cia officer who specialized in deception. “I do think you’ll find generals who would feel that it’s fundamentally not a very respectable activity.”

Excerpt from Military Deception: Bodyguard of Lies, Economist, Dec. 19, 2020

The Extra-Ordinary Killing of 2020

A satellite-controlled machine gun with “artificial intelligence” was used to kill in November 2020, Iran’s top nuclear scientist. According to Iran, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was driving on a highway outside Iran’s capital Tehran with a security detail of 11 guards on November 27, 2020 when the machine gun “zoomed in” on his face and fired 13 rounds. The machine gun was mounted on a Nissan pickup and focused only on Fakhrizadeh’s face in a way that his wife, despite being only 25 centimetres away, was not shot…According to Iran, the machine gun was being “controlled online” via a satellite and used an “advanced camera and artificial intelligence” to make the target.

Excerpt from Nuclear scientist killed by satellite-controlled machine gun that “zoomed in” on his face, Iran says, CBS News, Dec. 7, 2020

How to Reach Beyond the Stars? Nuclear Power

The US President issued Space Policy Directive-6 (SPD-6), the Nation’s Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion (SNPP) on Dec. 16, 2020. Space nuclear systems power spacecraft for missions where alternative power sources are inadequate, such as environments that are too dark for solar power or too far away to carry sufficient quantities of chemical fuels. Space nuclear systems include radioisotope power systems and nuclear reactors used for power, heating, or propulsion. SPD-6 establishes high-level goals, principles, and a supporting roadmap that demonstrate the U.S. commitment to using SNPP systems safely, effectively, and responsibly…

NASA, the Department of Energy, and industry will design, fabricate, and test a 10-kilowatt class fission surface power system. NASA plans to demonstrate the system on the Moon in the late 2020s, providing power for sustainable lunar surface operations and testing its potential for use on Mars.  The space agency is also advancing nuclear thermal and nuclear electric propulsion capabilities. Nuclear propulsion can enable robust human exploration beyond the Moon. For crewed missions to the Red Planet, a traditional chemical propulsion system would require a prohibitively high propellant mass. 

NASA Supports America’s National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion, NASA Press Release, Dec. 16, 2020

Your Phone Is Listening: smart-phones as sniffers

U. S. government agencies from the military to law enforcement have been buying up mobile-phone data from the private sector to use in gathering intelligence, monitoring adversaries and apprehending criminals. Now, the U.S. Air Force is experimenting with the next step.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is testing a commercial software platform that taps mobile phones as a window onto usage of hundreds of millions of computers, routers, fitness trackers, modern automobiles and other networked devices, known collectively as the “Internet of Things.” SignalFrame, a Washington, D.C.-based wireless technology company, has developed the capability to tap software embedded on as many as five million cellphones to determine the real-world location and identity of more than half a billion peripheral devices. The company has been telling the military its product could contribute to digital intelligence efforts that weave classified and unclassified data using machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The Air Force’s research arm bought the pitch, and has awarded a $50,000 grant to SignalFrame as part of a research and development program to explore whether the data has potential military applications, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Under the program, the Air Force could provide additional funds should the technology prove useful.

SignalFrame has largely operated in the commercial space, but the documents reviewed by the Journal show the company has also been gunning for government business. A major investor is Razor’s Edge, a national-security-focused venture-capital firm. SignalFrame hired a former military officer to drum up business and featured its products at military exhibitions, including a “pitch day” sponsored by a technology incubator affiliated with U.S. Special Operations command in Tampa, Fla.

SignalFrame’s product can turn civilian smartphones into listening devices—also known as sniffers—that detect wireless signals from any device that happens to be nearby. The company, in its marketing materials, claims to be able to distinguish a Fitbit from a Tesla from a home-security device, recording when and where those devices appear in the physical world. Using the SignalFrame technology, “one device can walk into a bar and see all other devices in that place,” said one person who heard a pitch for the SignalFrame product at a marketing industry event…

“The capturing and tracking of unique identifiers related to mobile devices, wearables, connected cars—basically anything that has a Bluetooth radio in it—is one of the most significant emerging privacy issues,” said Alan Butler, the interim executive director and general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a group that advocates for stronger privacy protections. “Increasingly these radios are embedded in many, many things we wear, use and buy,” Mr. Butler said, saying that consumers remain unaware that those devices are constantly broadcasting a fixed and unique identifier to any device in range.

Byron Tau,  Military Tests New Way of Tracking, WSJ, Nov. 28, 2020

Who is the Boss? Cyber-War

A new National Cyber Power Index by the Belfer Centre at Harvard University ranks 30 countries on their level of ambition and capability…That America stands at the top of the list is not surprising. Its cyber-security budget for fiscal year 2020 stood at over $17bn and the National Security Agency (NSA) probably gets well over $10bn. The awesome scale of America’s digital espionage was laid bare in leaks by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, in 2013, which showed the agency hoovering up vast amounts of the world’s internet traffic and trying to weaken encryption standards.

China, in second place, has demonstrated a voracious appetite for commercial cyber-espionage abroad and an iron grip on the internet at home. Britain, whose National Cyber Security Centre has parried over 1,800 cyber-attacks since its creation in 2016, is third. Russia, whose spies interfered with America’s last election, is in fourth place. The big surprise is the Netherlands in fifth place, ahead of France, Germany and Canada. Dutch expertise in analyzing malware is particularly sharp…

Many countries outsource the dirtiest work to deniable proxies, like “hacktivists” and criminals….But while stealing things and disrupting networks is important, what matters most over the longer term is control of digital infrastructure, such as the hardware that runs mobile telecommunications and key apps. Dominance there will be crucial to economic strength and national security.

Excerpt from Digital dominance: A new global ranking of cyber-power throws up some surprises, Economist, Sept. 19, 2020

Saving Lives (if you can): Conflict Minerals and Covid-19

The Dodd-Frank Section 1502 forces manufacturers to disclose if any of their products contain “conflict minerals” mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and nine adjoining countries in Africa. Under the law, companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges must audit their supply chains and disclose if their products contain even traces of the designated minerals—gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten—that might have been mined in areas controlled by warlords.

The provision was sold as protecting Congolese citizens from warlords who profited from the mining and sale of these minerals…Manufacturers spent about $709 million and more than six million man-hours attempting to trace their supply chains for conflict minerals in 2014. And 90% of those companies still couldn’t confirm their products were conflict-free. Many decided to avoid the Congo region altogether and source materials from other countries and continents

When mining dropped off due to Dodd-Frank’s effects, Congolese villages were hit by reductions in education, health care and food supply. In 2014, 70 activists, academics and government officials signed a letter blasting initiatives like the Dodd-Frank provision for “contributing to, rather than alleviating, the very conflicts they set out to address”…

Then there is the race for Covid-19 vaccines and related medical supplies. including ventilators, x-ray machines and oxygen concentrators that are manufactured by using “conflict minerals.” The minerals restricted by the Dodd-Frank Act are frequently used in the composition and production of needles, syringes and vials necessary to transport and administer billions of doses of vaccines. The compressors used to refrigerate vaccines also use these minerals to function…Countries, such as China, which are not bound by Dodd-Frank, have access to Congolese tantalum that the U.S. lacks.

Excerpts from John Berlau and Seth Carter,  Dodd-Frank Undermines the Fight Against Covid, WSJ, Oct 28, 2020

How to Exploit the Secrets of the Ocean: DARPA

PARC, A Xerox Company, announced on October 22, 2020,  it has been awarded a contract by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the next development phase in the Ocean of Things. Initially announced by DARPA in 2017, the Ocean of Things project is deploying small, low-cost floats in the Southern California Bight and Gulf of Mexico to collect data on the environment and human impact. This includes sea surface temperature, sea state, surface activities, and even information on marine life moving through the area.

Xerox Ocean Float is Equipped with Camera, GPS and other sensors. Ocean of Things

“Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface, but we know very little about them,” said Ersin Uzun, vice president and general manager of the Internet of Things team at Xerox. “The floats gather data that we could never track before, enabling persistent maritime situational awareness.” Each solar-powered drifter has approximately 20 onboard sensors, including a camera, GPS, microphone, hydrophone, and accelerometer. The different  sensors can provide data for a broad array of areas including ocean pollution, aquafarming and transportation routes…Among other things, the float needed to be made of environmentally safe materials, be able to survive in harsh maritime conditions for a year or more before safely sinking itself, and use advanced analytic techniques to process and share the data gathered…PARC built 1,500 drifters for the first phase of the project and will deliver up to 10,000 that are more compact and cost-effective for the next phase. 

Excerpt from DARPA Awards PARC Contract to Expand Ocean Knowledge, XEROX Press Release, Oct. 22, 2020

New Fait Accompli in Space: the Artemis Accords

Seven countries have joined the United States in signing the Artemis Accords on October 13, 2020, a set of principles governing norms of behavior for those who want to participate in the Artemis lunar exploration program: Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom….The accords outline a series of principles that countries participating in the Artemis program are expected to adhere to, from interoperability and release of scientific data to use of space resources and preserving space heritage. Many of the principles stem directly from the Outer Space Treaty and related treaties.

NASA was originally focused on having the document apply to lunar and later Martian exploration. Japan wanted to include asteroid and comet missions as well, based on that country’s program of robotic asteroid missions like the Hayabusa2 asteroids sample return spacecraft. The document now includes asteroid and comet missions, as well as activities in orbit around the moon and Mars and the Lagrange points of the Earth-moon system.

NASA is implementing the Artemis Accords as a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and other countries, which allows them to move more quickly than if NASA sought a multilateral agreement under the aegis of the United Nations…Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska, drew parallels with development of international civil aviation regulations, which started with bilateral agreements between the United States and United Kingdom that were later copied among other nations. “That is something that will possibly happen here as well,” he said.

The bilateral nature of the accords, though, do present restrictions. China, for instance, cannot sign on, because NASA, under the so-called “Wolf Amendment” in US law, is restricted from bilateral cooperation with China.

The accords are outside the traditional UN framework of international space law – such as the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The requirement to sign bilateral agreements with the US can be viewed as a way of trying to impose US preferences on how to regulate space on others. Russia has already stated that the Artemis Program is too “US-centric”.  India, Germany, France and the European Space Agency (ESA) have not yet signed on to the accords.

Excerpt from Jeff Foust ,Eight countries sign Artemis Accords, Space News, Oct. 13, 2020

What is the Sea Train? DARPA

DARPA’s The Sea Train program aims to demonstrate long range deployment capabilities for a distributed fleet of tactical unmanned surface vessels. The program seeks to enable extended transoceanic transit and long-range naval operations by exploiting the efficiencies of a system of connected vessels (Sea Train). The goal is to develop and demonstrate approaches that exploit wave-making resistance reductions to overcome the range limitations inherent in medium unmanned surface vessels. DARPA envisions sea trains formed by physically connecting vessels with various degrees of freedom between the vessels, or vessels sailing in collaborative formations at various distances between the vessels. The weak of October 5, 2020, DARPA awarded Gibbs & Cox a separate $9.5 million contract to develop a “Connectorless Sea Train” concept. 

Dr. Andrew Nuss, Sea Train

The Nuclear Waste Buried in the Sahara Desert

France should take initiative to solve the problem of the nuclear waste buried in the Algerian Sahara in the early 1960s, as no one knows its exact location, which is a classified military secret…In an interview with Radio France Internationale, Patrice Bouvre (head of the Paris-based Observatory for Armaments) said: “When France suspended its nuclear tests in 1966, it simply buried the waste of the 17 experiments it conducted over the years.” He added that Paris classified the location or locations of the buried nuclear waste and the documents related to the affair as “a military secret”, which remains to date.

As a result, there is no information available about the exact location of the nuclear waste buried in the Algerian desert. He called on the French authorities to reveal the truth about this file and to cooperate with Algeria to clean up the areas contaminated by the nuclear waste that still exposes these regions to serious environmental damages.

France conducted 17 nuclear tests between 1960 and 1966 in the Algerian Sahara, and the waste from these experiments is buried in an unknown location in the area, hindering attempts to remove the radioactive materials and protect the population and the environment

Calls for France to reveal location of nuclear waste dumped in Algeria, MiddleEastMonitor, Oct. 13, 2020

Government Intervention is Great: What China is Learning from the United States

A study published by the China Aerospace Studies Institute in September 2020′China’s Space Narrative: Examining the Portrayal of the US-China Space Relationship in Chinese Sources‘ used publicly available Chinese language resources to draw insights on how the Chinese view the U.S.-China space relationship. According to the study:

“Chinese sources weave a space narrative that portrays China as a modernizing nation
committed to the peaceful uses of space and serving the broader interests of advancing humankind through international space cooperation, economic development, and scientific discovery. Chinese sources minimize the military role of China’s space program.

In contrast, the same sources portray the United States as the leading
space power bent on dominating space, restricting access to space, and limiting international space cooperation to countries with similar political systems and level of economic development.

The report concludes that the United States and China are in a long-term competition in space in which China is attempting to become a global power, in part, through the use of space. China’s primary motivation for developing space technologies is national security…China’s space program is one element of its efforts to transition the current U.S.-dominated international system to a multipolar world….

Many Chinese writings on commercial space analyze the experiences of U.S. companies, with a particular focus on SpaceX. Chinese space experts call SpaceX the “major representative company” for commercial space worldwide. A report from Hong Kong media claims that Chinese investors view SpaceX as the “benchmark company” for emerging commercial space companies in the mainland. Chinese authors also follow developments in other U.S. commercial space companies, such as Digital Globe
and Rocket Lab.

Chinese authors also pay attention to the ways in which the U.S. government uses various policies and incentives to create a favorable ecosystem for the growth of new commercial space companies. Chinese writings analyze ways in which NASA has supported private companies with funding, technology transfer, consulting, and infrastructure leasing. Although their specific recommendations vary, Chinese authors view strong government oversight and intervention as crucial toward the success of the domestic commercial space industry.”

Tracking the Enemy: U.S. Space Force in Qatar

The newly formed U.S. Space Force is deploying troops to a vast new frontier: the Arabian Peninsula. Space Force now has a squadron of 20 airmen stationed at Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base in its first foreign deployment. The force, pushed by President Donald Trump, represents the sixth branch of the U.S. military and the first new military service since the creation of the Air Force in 1947.   Concerns over the weaponization of outer space are decades old. But as space becomes increasingly contested, military experts have cited the need for a space corps devoted to defending American interests…

In the spring of 2020, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard launched its first satellite into space, revealing what experts describe as a secret military space program. The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Iran’s space agency, accusing it of developing ballistic missiles under the cover of a civilian program to set satellites into orbit.

“The military is very reliant on satellite communications, navigation and global missile warning,” said Capt. Ryan Vickers, a newly inducted Space Force member at Al-Udeid. American troops, he added, use GPS coordinates to track ships passing through strategic Gulf passageways…

Isabel Debre, US Space Force deploys to vast new frontier: Arabian Desert, Associated Press, Sept. 21, 2020

A Perpetual State of Competition: US-China-Russia

The US Secretary of Defense stated in September 2020 that America’s air, space and cyber warriors “will be at the forefront of tomorrow’s high-end fight.” That means confronting near-peer competitors China and Russia. That means shifting the focus from defeating violent extremist groups to deterring great power competitors. It means fighting a high-intensity battle that combines all domains of warfare. “In this era of great power competition, we cannot take for granted the United States’ long-held advantages,” Esper said. 

The last time an enemy force dropped a bomb on American troops was in the Korean War. “China and Russia, seek to erode our longstanding dominance in air power through long-range fires, anti-access/area-denial systems and other asymmetric capabilities designed to counter our strengths,” he said. “Meanwhile, in space, Moscow and Beijing have turned a once peaceful arena into a warfighting domain.” China and Russia have placed weapons on satellites and are developing directed energy weapons to exploit U.S. systems “and chip away at our military advantage,” he said.

Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and some violent extremist groups also look to exploit cyberspace to undermine U.S. security without confronting American conventional overmatch. “They do this all in an increasingly ‘gray zone’ of engagement that keeps us in a perpetual state of competition,’ the secretary said…The fiscal 2020 Defense Department research and development budget is the largest in history, he said, and it concentrates on critical technologies such as hypersonic weapons, directed energy and autonomous systems. 

“In the Air Force, specifically, we are modernizing our force for the 21st century with aircraft such as the B-21, the X-37 and the Next Generation Air Dominance platform,” Esper said. “Equally important, we are transforming the way we fight through the implementation of novel concepts such as Dynamic Force Employment, which provides scalable options to employ the joint force while preserving our capabilities for major combat.”

To realize the full potential of new concepts the department must be able to exchange and synchronize information across systems, services and platforms, seamlessly across all domains, he said. “The Department of the Air Force is leading on this front with the advancement of Joint All-Domain Command and Control,” Esper said.  This concept is part of the development of a Joint Warfighting concept that will drive transition to all-domain operations, he said. “

For these breakthroughs to succeed in any future conflict … we must maintain superiority in the ultimate high ground — space,” Esper said…In collaboration with academia and industry, the Air Force’s AI Accelerator program is able to rapidly prototype cutting-edge innovation,” Esper said. One example of this was the AI technology used to speed-up the development of  F-15EX.


F-15EX

Excerpts from Esper: Air Force, Space Force Leading Charge to New Technologies, DOD News, Sept. 16, 2020

Conquering Space: China’s X-37B and the United States

Ever since China claimed success in the secretive launch of an experimental spacecraft, experts have been pondering over what it could be and what it did in space.The spacecraft – mounted on a Long March 2F rocket – was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northern China on Sept. 4, 2020 and safely returned to Earth after two days in orbit…Unlike recent Chinese high-profile space missions, very few details have emerged about the vehicle and no visuals have been released. Chinese authorities have been tight-lipped about the nature of the short-duration excursion and what technologies were tested. The exact launch and landing times were not revealed, nor was the landing site although it is thought to be the Taklamakan Desert, which is in northwest China.

Three years ago, China said it would launch a space vessel in 2020 that “will fly into the sky like an aircraft” and be reusable. A reusable spacecraft – as the name implies can undertake multiple trips to space – thereby potentially lowering the overall cost of launch activity. A traditional one-off spacecraft – costing tens of millions of dollars – is practically rendered useless after a single mission.

The experimental vessel reached an altitude of about 350km, which is in line with China’s previous crewed flights. The spacecraft also released an unknown object into the orbit before returning to Earth…Once the testing is complete, such a vehicle could be used to launch and repair satellites, survey the Earth, as well as take astronauts and goods to and from orbit, possibly to a planned future Chinese space station.

The Chinese craft’s size and shape remain unclear but it is widely believed to be some sort of uncrewed space plane similar to the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle operated by the US Air Force. The recent mission could be linked to the Shenlong – or divine dragon – space plane project, which has been in development for some time, according to reports. A second Chinese reusable space plane called Tengyun, or cloud climber, is also in the works. If confirmed as a space plane, China would become only the third country to have successfully launched such a vehicle into orbit after the US and the former Soviet Union. The European Space Agency is working on its own reusable orbital vehicle called Space Rider, while India is also said to be developing a space shuttle-like craft.

The X-37B, resembling a miniature space shuttle, has been in orbit since late May 2020 following its launch on its sixth assignment. Very little is known about the X-37B’s missions, prompting speculation that the planes could be used for spying activity or testing space weapons.

x-37b

According to Bleddyn Bowen, China’s spacecraft launch is “just another part of China becoming a comprehensive space power that utilizes space technology for the purposes of war, development, and prestige like all others”.

Pratik Jakhar, China claims ‘important breakthrough’ in space mission shrouded in mystery, BBC, Sept. 9, 2020

How to Fight: Laugh, Bleed, Kill

The U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks launched an Air Force special operations unit into more than 6,900 days, or nearly two decades, of continuous deployments and combat operations in the Middle East, officials said. Within weeks of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., the 17th Special Tactics Squadron deployed with Army Rangers on raids into southern Afghanistan on Oct. 19, 2001. Since then, the squadron has had no breaks in deployment. “We fight, bleed and laugh beside [the Rangers],” said Staff Sgt. Ryan Duhon, a tactical air control party operator quoted in last month’s statement. “We win as a team or fail as a team.”….

The Special Tactics community, whose airmen conduct personnel recovery, precision strike missions and battlefield surgery, is the most highly decorated in the Air Force since the Vietnam War. 

Excerpt from CHAD GARLAND, Air Force special ops members ‘fight, bleed and laugh’ on nearly 7,000 days of deployments, Stars and Stripes, Sept. 10, 2020

China’s Nuclear Triad: Land, Sumbarines and Bombers

Based on United States Report released in 2020 “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” by the Secretary of Defense, China’s progress in upgrading its strategic bombers to carry nuclear payloads puts it on the cusp of achieving a “triad” of delivery systems ((1) land-launched nuclear missiles, (2) nuclear-armed submarines, and (3) aircraft delivered nuclear bombs).  The development of a nuclear triad raises the long-term stakes in the complex relationship between Beijing and Washington. …The heavy emphasis on China’s nuclear improvements will probably be used by the Pentagon to press lawmakers and the public to support the massive reinvestment already underway in modernized nuclear weapons. This includes the B-21 bomber, an $85 billion Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ICBM program and the $128 billion Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine.

China’s defense ministry denounced the report as a document created with a “zero-sum-game mindset and Cold War mentality,” saying that the U.S. had “misinterpreted” the country’s nuclear policy and stirred up confrontation with Taiwan. “It’s extremely wrong and China firmly rejects it.”  As part of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to build a “world class” military by 2049, the Defense Department report said the People’s Liberation Army has already achieved parity with or exceeded the U.S. in at least three key areas: shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles and integrated air defense systems.

While the country has one overseas military base, in the East African nation of Djibouti, China’s government “is very likely already considering and planning for additional overseas military logistics facilities to support naval, air and ground forces…”.  China’s current nuclear arsenal includes 100 silo or road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, as many as six Jin-class nuclear missile submarines capable of carrying 12 missiles each and a new air-refuelable H-6N long-range bomber. The bomber is an upgrade on a previous model and comes with a modified fuselage “that allows it to carry either a drone or an air-launched ballistic missile that may be nuclear-capable. 

Excerpts from Anthony Capaccio, Pentagon Warns China Is Nearing a Milestone in Nuclear Weapons Buildup, Bloomberg, Sept. 1, 2020

China denounced the Pentagon report. According to Xinhua, the Pentagon report is crowded with anti-China hogwash. Fear-mongering over China has always been the Pentagon’s trick to demand more appropriations from the U.S. Congress. A fabricated grave threat to world peace can also help Washington sell more weapons to its allies, and serves as an excuse for America’s pursuit of global domination…While Washington is selling its latest “China-scare” fiction to the world, it is hard to overlook such facts that the United States spent more on military than 144 countries combined in 2018 and maintains nearly 800 military bases in over 70 countries.

Excerpt from Commentary: Lies, conspiracies behind Pentagon’s China military report, Xinhua, Sept. 5, 2020


Under Zero Trust: the U.S. Chip Resurgence

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched its Electronic Resurgence Initiative (ERI)  to help reboot a domestic chip industry that has been moving steadily offshore for decades…. Program officials and chip industry executives foresee the emergence of a “5th generation of computing” based on current cloud infrastructure while combining AI, the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G wireless networks to deliver big data.

“The U.S. microelectronics industry is at an inflection point,” Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told the virtual ERI summit. After decades of offshoring of chip fabrication, packaging and testing capabilities, “How do we reverse this trend?”  The Defense Department is expanding its technology base efforts by implementing a “step-by-step process for reconstituting the microelectronics supply chain,” focusing on various segments of the semiconductor ecosystem, including memory devices, logic, ICs and advanced packaging along with testing and assembly.

“While DoD does not drive the electronics market,” constituting only about 1 percent of demand, “we can drive significant R&D,” ERI is advancing public-private partnerships that provide a framework for commercial innovation. The result would be “pathfinder projects” geared toward a renewal of U.S. chip manufacturing. As trade frictions with China grow, ERI is placing greater focus on ensuring the pedigree of U.S. electronics supply chain. “We need to find a path to domestic sources,” said Lord.

While nurturing government-industry partnerships as part of an emerging next-generation U.S. industrial policy, this year’s DARPA summit also emphasized chip standards and processes for securing fabs, foundry services, devices and foundational microelectronics. In that vein, U.S. officials stressed new chips metrics like “quantifiable assurance” to secure dual-use devices that could end up in weapons or an IoT device.

“Our interests to protect both the confidentiality and the integrity of our supply chain are aligned with commercial interests, and we will continue to work across government and industry to develop and implement our quantitative assurance strategy based on zero trust,” said Nicole Petta, principal director of DoD’s microelectronics office. The “zero trust” approach assumes no device is safe, and that all microelectronics components must be validated before deployment. The framework marks a philosophical departure from DoD’s “trusted foundry” approach instituted in the 1990s, largely because “perimeter defenses” failed to account for insider threats…

DARPA Chip Efforts Pivots to Securing US Supply Chain, https://www.hpcwire.com, Aug. 24, 2020

War and the Innocent Bystanders

During a visit to Tokyo in 2017, Donald Trump called on Japan to buy “massive” amounts of American weaponry. At the time, North Korea was testing new rockets regularly. For the Japanese government, buying Aegis Ashore, a pricey American missile shield, allayed both concerns. Not all Japanese, however, were happy with the purchase, especially in Araya, a quiet residential neighbourhood of low-slung homes next to the sea in Akita city—and the site of a proposed Aegis base.

Akita City, Japan

Jittery locals fretted about electromagnetic waves from the system’s radar and debris from its rockets. They worried about becoming a target in a conflict, as the city’s oil refineries were during the second world war. “Why, why here?” asks Sasaki Masashi, a retired railway worker and head of a neighbourhood council. “It says: ‘Please attack us’,” complains Sakurada Yuko, another anti-Aegis campaigner. They have collected signatures, harangued officials and voted against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party  which unexpectedly lost a seat in Akita in elections to the upper house of parliament last year.

In June 2020  Akita received unexpected but welcome news: the government declared it was scrapping the $4.2bn purchase of Aegis Ashore. Kono Taro, the defence minister, cited the ballooning cost of ensuring that boosters did not fall on civilian property….

Excerpts from Anti-anti-missile systems, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

Everything Moving in Space Is a Weapon? Yes.

Kosmos 2542, a Russian satellite that was launched in November 2019, was “like Russian nesting dolls”. Eleven days after its launch it disgorged another satellite, labelled Kosmos 2543. Then, on July 15th, Kosmos 2543 itself spat out another object, which sped off into the void.  Merely a “small space vehicle” to inspect other satellites, said the Russians. Nonsense, said the Americans; it was a projectile. The intentl.. was to signal Russia’s ability to destroy other nations’ satellites….In January 2020, America complained that Kosmos 2542 and 2543 had tailed a spy satellite in an “unusual and disturbing” way (American satellites have also sidled up to others in the past). 

Anti-satellite weapons are not new. During the cold war, America and the Soviet Union developed several ways to blow up, ram, dazzle and even nuke each other’s satellites. The countries conducted two-dozen anti-satellite tests between them. Ten were “kinetic”, involving a projectile physically striking a target. But new competitors, and new technologies, mean anti-satellite warfare is a hot topic once again. China has conducted ten tests over the past 15 years, including a kinetic one in 2007 that created a great deal of space debris. India conducted its first kinetic test in 2019. America, Russia and China have all manoeuvred their satellites close to others, sometimes provocatively so. New methods of attack are being tested, including lasers and cyber-attacks.

Some satellites, such as America’s GPS constellation, blur the distinction between military and civilian assets. Over the past decade, America’s armed forces have put payloads on three commercial satellites, and plan to pay Japan to host others on its own navigation satellites….Then there is the question of what counts as an attack. Michael Schmitt, a law scholar, and Kieran Tinkler, a professor at the us Naval War College, say it is unclear whether jamming a civilian satellite would violate the general prohibition on attacking civilian objects. Blowing up a military one, meanwhile, might or might not constitute an indiscriminate (and hence illegal) attack, depending on whether it could have been disabled by other means and how much debris was produced.

Perhaps the biggest difference between space war and terrestrial war is how long the consequences can last. Much of the debris from China’s 2007 test, for instance, will still be in space at the turn of the next century. The more debris, the greater the likelihood of accidental collisions with other satellites, which generates more debris in turn. Enough debris could lead to a chain reaction known as Kessler syndrome, which could render entire swathes of near-Earth space unusable for decades…

Space Junk

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 requires states to consult each other on actions that “would cause potentially harmful interference”, though the rule has rarely been heeded. Most countries accept that, in wartime, a body of existing laws known as international humanitarian law would apply, as on Earth—something America confirmed in its “Spacepower” doctrine, published on August 10, 2020. International humanitarian law is based on principles such as distinction (between combatants and civilians) and proportionality (between civilian harm and military advantage). But how to apply such ideas in a place with few humans is not always obvious.

The Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) is being spearheaded by McGill University, in Montreal, and a separate Woomera Manual by the University of Adelaide. Both hope to publish their documents 2020…

Russia and China would like a formal treaty banning all weapons in space. Both are keen to prevent America from deploying space-based anti-missile systems which might threaten their own nuclear forces. America and its allies resist this. They argue that it is impossible to define a space weapon—anything that manoeuvres in orbit could serve as one—and that it would be easy to cheat. The European Union has instead proposed a voluntary code of conduct. Many non-Western countries would prefer a binding treaty…. Though most are not space powers, many are likely to become so in the future, so their buy-in is important.

Excerpts from Satellite warfare: An arms race is brewing in orbit, Economist, Aug. 15, 2020

The End of the Mindless Self-Indulgence: the Gulf States

Algeria needs the price of Brent crude, an international benchmark for oil, to rise to $157 dollars a barrel. Oman needs it to hit $87. No Arab oil producer, save tiny Qatar, can balance its books at the current price, around $40 (summer 2020)….The world’s economies are moving away from fossil fuels. Oversupply and the increasing competitiveness of cleaner energy sources mean that oil may stay cheap for the foreseeable future. 

Arab leaders knew that sky-high oil prices would not last for ever. Four years ago Muhammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, produced a plan called “Vision 2030” that aimed to wean his economy off oil. Many of his neighbours have their own versions. But “2030 has become 2020…” 

Still, some see an upside to the upheaval in oil-producing states. The countries of the Gulf produce the world’s cheapest oil, so they stand to gain market share if prices remain low. As expats flee, locals could take their jobs…

Remittances from energy-rich states are a lifeline for the entire region. More than 2.5m Egyptians, equal to almost 3% of that country’s population, work in Arab countries that export a lot of oil. Numbers are larger still for other countries: 5% from Lebanon and Jordan, 9% from the Palestinian territories. The money they send back makes up a sizeable chunk of the economies of their homelands. As oil revenue falls, so too will remittances. There will be fewer jobs for foreigners and smaller pay packets for those who do find work. This will upend the social contract in states that have relied on emigration to soak up jobless citizens….With fewer opportunities in the oil-producing states, many graduates may no longer emigrate. But their home countries cannot provide a good life. Doctors in Egypt earn as little as 3,000 pounds ($185) a month, a fraction of what they make in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. A glut of unemployed graduates is a recipe for social unrest…

For four decades America has followed the “Carter Doctrine”, which held that it would use military force to maintain the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf. Under President Donald Trump, though, the doctrine has started to fray. When Iranian-made cruise missiles and drones slammed into Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, America barely blinked. The Patriot missile-defence batteries it deployed to the kingdom weeks later have already been withdrawn. Outside the Gulf Mr Trump has been even less engaged, all but ignoring the chaos in Libya, where Russia, Turkey and the UAE (to name but a few) are vying for control.

A Middle East less central to the world’s energy supplies will be a Middle East less important to America. ..As Arab states become poorer, the nature of their relationship with China may change. This is already happening in Iran, where American sanctions have choked off oil revenue. Officials are discussing a long-term investment deal that could see Chinese firms develop everything from ports to telecoms… Falling oil revenue could force this model on Arab states—and perhaps complicate what remains of their relations with America.

Excerpts from The Arab World: Twilight of the Petrostates, Economist, July  18, 2020

How to Poison a Population: War and Persistent Oil Pollution

Oil pollution in Syria has been a growing concern since the 2011 onset of a civil war that has taken a toll on oil infrastructure and seen rival powers compete over control of key hydrocarbon fields. In the Kurdish-held northeast, a large storage facility in the Rmeilan oil field in Hasakeh province is of particular concern, according to the Dutch peace organisation PAX. [A River of Death, pdf] Oil leaks from the Gir Zero storage facility have been suspected since at least 2014, the latest in March 2020, it said in a June report. Thousands of barrels have leaked out into creeks in the area over the past five years, threatening the health and livelihoods of people in dozens of villages….

The major Rmeilan field controlled by the Kurdish administration, located near a US airbase, has been among the Syrian Kurds’ most prized assets since regime forces withdrew early on in the war. But oil wealth comes at a heavy cost for livestock farmers
whose sheep and cows have died because they drank oil contaminated water.

Residents too suffer heavily from the pollution because  of the foul odour of gas and crude oil wafting over the area… Compounding the situation, makeshift oil refineries have cropped up across the northeast in recent years, dumping oil waste in the waterways…These informal refineries receive oil from nearby fields and process it to provide benzine, gasoline and diesel to locals.

Excerpts from Delil SouleimanBlack waters: Oil spills pollute northeast Syria creeks
by Delil Souleiman, AFP, July 23, 2020

The Deterrent Power of 44 000 tonnes Assault Ships: Sea Dragon Commandors v. US Marines

China launched its military build-up in the mid-1990s with a top priority: keep the United States at bay in any conflict by making the waters off the Chinese coast a death trap. Now, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is preparing to challenge American power further afield.

China’s shipyards have launched the PLA Navy’s first two Type 075 amphibious assault ships, which will form the spearhead of an expeditionary force to play a role similar to that of the U.S. Marine Corps. And like the Marines, the new force will be self-contained – able to deploy solo with all its supporting weapons to fight in distant conflicts or demonstrate Chinese military power.

The 40,000-tonne Type 075 ships are a kind of small aircraft carrier with accommodation for up to 900 troops and space for heavy equipment and landing craft, according to Western military experts who have studied satellite images and photographs of the new vessels. They will carry up to 30 helicopters at first; later they could carry fighter jets, if China can build short take off and vertical landing aircraft like the U.S. F-35B…Chinese military commentators say China’s shipyards are now building and launching amphibious ships so rapidly it is like “dropping dumplings” into water.

As shipyards churn out amphibious vessels, China is expanding its force of marines under the command of the PLA Navy. These troops are being trained and equipped to make landings and fight their way ashore. China now has between 25,000 and 35,000 marines, according to U.S. and Japanese military estimates. That’s a sharp increase from about 10,000 in 2017…“Without an amphibious force, any military force is greatly constrained in where and how it can conduct operations,” said Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel… “Jets can drop bombs and ships can fire missiles at the shore – but you might need infantry to go ashore and kill the enemy and occupy the ground.” In China, the state-controlled media regularly reports on the gruelling training and military skills of the Jiaolong, or Sea Dragon commandos – a unit from the marines special forces brigade based on Hainan Island off southern China.

“We are currently only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said Ian Easton, the senior director of the Project 2049 Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based security research group. “Ten years from now, China is almost certainly going to have marine units deployed at locations all over the world. The Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions are global. Its interests are global. It plans to send military units wherever its global strategic interests require.”…

[China has learnt lessons from the U.S.]——U.S. expeditionary flotillas, packed with marines, all their heavy equipment and air support, are a potent reminder of American power. A raw demonstration came in the tense period in 1999 when an Australian-led United Nations peacekeeping force intervened to stop violence in what was then Indonesian-controlled East Timor. American forces didn’t become heavily involved on the ground. But the presence of the USS Belleau Wood, a 40,000-tonne amphibious assault ship carrying 900 marines and heavy lift and attack helicopters, served as formidable back-up as the UN troops restored order without any significant resistance from Indonesia.

Excerpts from DAVID LAGUE, China expands its amphibious forces in challenge to U.S. supremacy beyond Asia, Reuters, July 20, 202

The Global Gold Rush and Plunder of Congo

Since March 2020, record amounts of gold dug from artisanal mines in the conflict zones of Eastern Congo have been smuggled across the porous border with Uganda, where it is being stamped with fake certifications before being shipped to international markets in Dubai, Mumbai and Antwerp, according to Ugandan security officials, smugglers and traders. Much of the gold is reaching these overseas markets using cargo planes returning from Uganda after delivering Covid-19 aid and other essential supplies, according to plane manifests seen by The Wall Street Journal.

The trade in conflict gold isn’t new, but it has perhaps never been more lucrative: Gold prices at illegal and unregulated Congolese mines, where supply chains have been disrupted by coronavirus shutdowns and renewed violence between militant groups, have dropped over 40% since April 2020, according to local traders, while on global markets, prices are up by almost a third…Activists and U.N. investigators have long accused Uganda and several of Congo’s neighbors of being complicit in the plunder of Congolese gold…The calls to end the illicit trade grew louder last year after Uganda’s gold exports overtook coffee to become the leading export commodity for the first time—despite the country producing very little bullion.

U.N. investigators estimate that each month between 2 tons and 3 tons of Congo’s conflict gold—with a market value of over $100 million—is crossing the Ugandan frontier, passing border crossings patrolled by heavily armed guards, with metal fencing and razor wire erected to reduce the flow of people due to coronavirus fears…

Smugglers and police say the gold is secreted in trucks that are allowed to bypass coronavirus restrictions to deliver “essential goods” from fuel to food supplies. The yellow bars, weighing between 5 to 20 kilograms, are stuffed underneath truck cabins, inside battery compartments and emptied gasoline tankers. Once inside Uganda, the truckers sell the bars to traders who purchase forged documents in Kampala that disguise the gold’s origin.

The scramble is fueling violence in the eastern Congolese province of Ituri…Fresh spasms of violence have left more than 1,300 civilians dead since March 2020, in what the U.N. says may amount to war crimes. Some six million people are displaced. Armed groups are carrying out predatory raids on mines in search of gold.

In the meantime on Wall Street, on July 24, 2020, gold futures were priced at $1,897.50 a troy ounce eclipsing their August 2011 peak of $1,891.90. The coronavirus has ignited a global gold rush, with physical traders around the world trying to get their hands on more metal and individuals around the world ordering bars and coins.

Excerpts from Nicholas Bariyo and Joe Parkinson, Under Cover of Coronavirus Lockdown, a Booming Trade in Conflict Gold, WSJ, July 9, 2020, Gold Climbs to a High, Topping Its 2011 Record, WSJ, July 24, 2020

Water Conflicts: Who Owns the Nile River

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a giant edifice that would span the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile river.  Half a century in the making, the hydro-electric dam is Africa’s largest, with a reservoir able to hold 74bn cubic metres of water, more than the volume of the entire Blue Nile. Once filled it should produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, double Ethiopia’s current power supply. Millions of people could be connected to the grid for the first time. More than an engineering project, it is a source of national pride.

For Egypt, however, it seems a source of national danger. Over 90% of the country’s 100m people live along the Nile or in its vast delta. The river, long seen as an Egyptian birthright, supplies most of their water. They fear the dam will choke it off. Pro-regime pundits, not known for their subtlety, have urged the army to blow it up….Ethiopia wants to start filling the reservoir during this summer’s rainy season. On June 26th, 2020 after another round of talks, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan pledged to reach a deal within two weeks. Ethiopia agreed not to start filling the dam during that period.

Diplomats say most of the issues are resolved. But the outstanding one is big: how to handle a drought. Egypt wants Ethiopia to promise to release certain amounts of water to top up the Nile. But Ethiopia is loth to “owe” water to downstream countries or to drain the reservoir so much that electric output suffers. It wants a broader deal between all riparian states, including those on the White Nile, which flows out of Lake Victoria down through Uganda and Sudan.

Even if talks fail and Ethiopia starts filling without a deal, Egyptians will not find their taps dry. There is enough water in the reservoir behind Egypt’s Aswan High Dam to make up for any shortfall this year. But the mood in both countries is toxic. Egyptians have cast Ethiopia as a thief bent on drying up their country. In Ethiopia, meanwhile, Egypt is portrayed as a neocolonial power trampling on national sovereignty. The outcome of the talks will have political consequences in both countries, and perhaps push them to the brink of conflict—at a time when Egypt is already contemplating involvement in a war in Libya.

Ethiopia’s grand dam became a reality and a national obsession under Meles Zenawi, the longtime prime minister who ruled until 2012. His political masterstroke was asking Ethiopians to finance it through donations and the purchase of low-denomination bonds…. Most contributed voluntarily, but there was always an element of coercion. Civil servants had to donate a month’s salary at the start. Local banks and other businesses were expected to buy bonds worth millions of birr. ….

Excerpts from The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Showdown on the Nile, Economist, July 4, 2020

.

The Worst Murderer: Jihadists or Governments?

Sahel: West Africa’s most populous countries, along the Atlantic coast, have become vulnerable to the predations of jihadists spilling out of failing states farther north in the Sahel on the borders of the Sahara desert. Jihadists seized control of chunks of Mali in 2012 and were stopped from overrunning Bamako, its capital, only after thousands of French troops were hurriedly flown in. The insurgents have since pushed across the border into Niger and Burkina Faso. In those three countries alone, 4,800 people lost their lives in the conflict last year. Fully 1.7m people have been forced to flee their homes. Now the war is beginning to jump borders again, putting at risk some of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, including Benin, Ghana and Ivory Coast.


This war in the Sahel has been growing rapidly. Ten times more people were killed last year than in 2014 (excluding deaths in north-eastern Nigeria, which faces its own jihadist insurgents). Two main jihadist groups are behind most of the fighting: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which is linked to al-Qaeda. These groups have extended their reach, even though thousands of international peacekeepers and local and Western soldiers have been deployed to stop them. France has sent some 5,100 troops to the Sahel, while the United States has provided another 1,200. In addition, the un has 15,000 blue helmets there, including about 350 Germans, plus 250 British soldiers who are soon to arrive. With American forces leaving Afghanistan, the Sahel will soon be the West’s biggest combat zone.

Worse, the jihadists are expanding in three directions at once. To the south they threaten Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Togo. To the west there has been a spate of attacks in Mali close to its border with Senegal; and to the east with Nigeria’s insurgent groups. The jihadists already have a “de facto safe haven in northern Mali”, says General Dagvin Anderson, in charge of America’s commandos in Africa. He frets that as they expand they will have more scope to plan attacks on American soil.

The weakness of governments and the feebleness of their public services are helping the jihadists. In the neglected hinterlands of the Sahel the rebels offer themselves as an alternate state, serving up sharia and medical aid. Moreover, the jihadists have been adept at exploiting ethnic faultlines, for instance between largely Muslim and seminomadic Fulani herders and more settled farming communities, which have their own armed groups of traditional hunters known as Dozos. =

Trade and commerce also provide an incentive for the jihadists to expand their reach. The migration corridor between Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast is the busiest in Africa. Jihadists cash in by taxing traders and smuggling stolen livestock, drugs and guns. The gold mines in Burkina Faso have become a target. Much of the gold is smuggled out through Togo, which officially exported seven tonnes of the metal to the United Arab Emirates in 2018, despite mining very little itself. Gold is also pulling jihadists towards Senegal…

But in 2020, more civilians in the Sahel have been killed by government soldiers than by jihadists, says José Luengo-Cabrera of the International Crisis Group (icg), a Brussels-based ngo. “When soldiers kill the head of the family, they almost throw his sons and nephews into the arms of bearded men in shorts hiding in the bush,” one villager told Human Rights Watch, a global monitor. It says in the town of Djibo alone, in Burkina Faso, evidence suggests government forces have murdered 180 men—many of them were blindfolded and had their hands bound before they were shot. In Burkina Faso… citizens may feel safer living among terrorists than with their own country’s security forces.

Governments in the region and some Western forces have made matters worse by supporting militias. In 2018 the French army allied itself with Tuareg militias from Mali to fight against ISGS. They clobbered the jihadists but also killed scores of civilians, aggravating ethnic tensions and fuelling recruitment by the insurgents….Above all, governments need to regain legitimacy by providing services and holding themselves to account. “It is not possible to win the war if there is not trust from the population,” says Niagale Bagayoko of the African Security Sector Network…But good governance and decent services in the region are scarce. At a meeting of Sahelian leaders with Mr hard. In Burkina Faso alone, the jihadists have forced about 2,500 schools to close.

Excerpts from Jihad in the Sahel: Fighting a Spreading Insurgency, Economist, July 11, 2020

Leave No Oil Under-Ground: OPEC against US Frackers

In 2014-16, the OPEC waged a failed price war to wipe out American frackers. Since then the cartel and its partners, led by Russia, have propped up oil prices enough to sustain shale, but not enough to support many members’ domestic budgets. In March 2020 Saudi Arabia urged Russia to slash output; Russia refused, loth to let Americans free-ride on OPEC-supported prices. The ensuing price war was spectacularly ill-timed, as it coincided with the biggest drop in oil demand on record.  The desire to chasten American frackers remains, though. OPEC controls about 70% of the world’s oil reserves, more than its 40% market share would suggest… If the world’s appetite for oil shrinks due to changing habits, cleaner technology or greener regulations, countries with vast reserves risk having to leave oil below ground. 

Excerpts from Crude Oil: After the Fall, Economist, June, 13, 2020

China’s Nuclear Secrecy

Since testing its first nuclear bomb 56 years ago, China has never revealed even a ballpark figure for the size of its arsenal. …America…would like it if China were to make its intentions so clear. It wants the country to end its obsessive secrecy and join America and Russia in setting limits to the size of their nuclear arsenals. The DF-41s, a new kind of intercontinental missile capable of hitting anywhere in America, first displayed in public in October 2019 at a National Day parade in Beijing are one reason why America is growing ever more keen to get China talking. They are China’s first missiles with such a range that can go on roads, making them more difficult for American weapons to knock out than ones fired from silos or fixed launchers. They can probably carry multiple warheads, making it even harder to protect America from their devastation.

By most estimates, China has less than 1,000 warheads—about 300 is widely considered to be a reasonable guess. By contrast, America and Russia have around 4,000 apiece. But whereas those two countries, over the decades, have signed pacts to prune their arsenals, China has sat out arms-control. Its nuclear forces have been growing in size and sophistication, in part to ensure that they could survive a surprise strike from America’s increasingly accurate weapons….

In 2019 America pulled out of a treaty with Russia banning medium-range missiles fired from land. It did so ostensibly because of Russian cheating, but the Pentagon made no secret of its desire to match China’s unchecked build-up of such weapons. Now China casts a shadow over the one nuclear pact that still binds America and Russia, the New start treaty. Signed in 2010, it caps “strategic” (ie, long-range) weapons and allows each side to inspect the other’s 18 times a year. It expires in February 2021, but could be renewed if both agree.  Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, says he is game. But Donald Trump and many of his advisers want China to sign up first. “The administration’s goal is to keep China’s stockpile from growing,” says Tim Morrison of the Hudson Institute…But China’s tradition of military secrecy is “deeply rooted”. Opening up will require trust. What little there is between China and America is being threatened by the pandemic. 

Excerpts from Arms Control: Be Afraid America, Economist, May 23, 2020

The Nuclear Option: Chopping off Hong Kong from the Dollar System

China and America have begun the fraught business of disentangling their financial systems. Chinese firms with shares listed in New York have rushed to float in Hong Kong, too, after the White House signalled they are not welcome on Wall Street….But now Hong Kong itself, the world’s third-biggest international financial centre, has become a geopolitical flashpoint. Its unique role as the conduit between global capital markets and China’s inward-looking financial system means that both sides must tread carefully.

On May 28, 2020 China said it would enact a new national-security law for Hong Kong, undermining the formulation of “one country, two systems” in place since 1997, under which the territory is supposed to be governed until 2047. In response, America has said it may downgrade the legal privileges it grants Hong Kong, which treat it as autonomous from China

Hong Kong’s place in the world depends on having the rule of law, a trusted reputation and seamless access to Western financial markets. Other Chinese cities have big stock exchanges: shares listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen are together worth a lot more than those in Hong Kong. But neither has fair courts, an independent central bank, free movement of capital or a mix of Western and Chinese firms. These foundations are the basis for $9.7trn of cross-border financial claims, such as loans, that are booked in the territory. Hong Kong is also where mainland Chinese firms and banks go to deal in the dollar, the world’s dominant currency. Some $10trn of dollar transactions flowed through Hong Kong’s bank-to-bank payments system last year.

Until recently, conventional wisdom held that Hong Kong’s position would be assured for 20-30 years, because it would take that long for China either to upgrade its markets to Western standards or to become so powerful that it could impose mainland practices, and the yuan, on the rest of the world. But the trade war, a year of street protests and China’s iron-fisted response to them raise new questions about Hong Kong’s durability. Bullying from Beijing erodes the sense that it is autonomous. And there is an outside chance that America could impose sanctions or other restrictions that would stop some Hong Kong officials, firms or banks from using dollars….. America’s might bring into question whether money parked in Hong Kong is still fully fungible with money in the global financial system. If these worries spread, they could destabilise Hong Kong and cause a financial shock in China and well beyond it.

The good news is that so far there is no sign of capital flight. Hong Kong’s vast deposit base has been stable in recent weeks, say its bankers. Investors are reassured by its $440bn or so mountain of foreign reserves and a long record of capable financial management. The rush of Chinese listings will bring in new cash and drum up business in the city….Nonetheless, for China the prudent policy is to try to speed up the development of the mainland’s financial capabilities so that it is less exposed to potential American punishment…Italso means another big push to boost the global role of the yuan and reduce China’s dependence on the dollar…

Excerpts from Hong Kong: Conduit’s End, Economist, June 6, 2020

Selling War Services: the Mercenaries

Despite a UN treaty banning mercenaries, their day is far from over. Some analysts think there are now more of them in Africa than ever. But can they ever be a force for good?  ….In the years after most African countries gained independence, mercenaries were notorious for supporting secessionist movements and mounting coups. 

Western governments have in the past winked at mercenary activity that served their commercial interests. But nowadays Russia is seen as the leading country egging on mercenaries to help it wield influence. It does so mainly through Wagner, ***whose founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is close to President Vladimir Putin.

Wagner has been hired to prop up a number of shaky African regimes. In Sudan it tried to sustain the blood-drenched dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. He was ousted last year after big protests. In 2018 hundreds of Wagner men arrived in the Central African Republic to guard diamond mines, train the army and provide bodyguards for an embattled president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra. In Guinea, where Rusal, a Russian aluminium giant, has a big stake, Wagner has cosied up to President Alpha Condé, who has bloodily faced down protests against a new constitution that lets him have a third term in office. In Libya, despite a un arms embargo, Wagner is reported to have deployed 800-1,200 operatives in support of a rebel general, Khalifar Haftar, who has been trying to defeat the UN-recognised government….

Mercenaries have three main advantages over regular armies. First, they give plausible deniability. Using them, a government such as Russia’s can sponsor military action abroad while pretending not to. Second, they tend to be efficient, experienced, nimble and flexible. Third, they are cheaper than regular armies. Whereas soldiers receive lifelong contracts and pensions, mercenaries are often paid by the job..

***Other firms include Dyke Advisory Group (DAG) , OAM Middle East

See also The UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries

Excerpts from Soldiers of misfortune: Why African governments still hire mercenaries, Economist, May 30, 2020

Japan’s Nuclear Bombs

On May 13, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority announced that the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, had met new safety standards created after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami….The Rokkasho plant is a 3.8 million square meter facility designed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s nuclear reactors.  Construction began in 1993. Once in operation, the plant’s maximum daily reprocessing capacity will be a cumulative total of 800 tons per year.  During reprocessing, uranium and plutonium are extracted, and the Rokkasho plant is expected to generate up to eight tons of plutonium annually.

Both are then turned into a mixed uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel at a separate MOX fabrication plant, also located in Rokkasho, for use in commercial reactors. Construction on the MOX facility began in 2010 and it’s expected to be completed in 2022.  Japan had originally envisioned MOX fuel powering between 16 and 18 of the nation’s 54 commercial reactors that were operating before 2011, in place of conventional uranium.  But only four reactors are using it out of the current total of nine officially in operation. MOX fuel is more expensive than conventional uranium fuel, raising questions about how much reprocessed fuel the facilities would need, or want.

The Rokkasho reprocessing plant can store up to 3,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s power plants on-site. It’s nearly full however, with over 2,900 tons of high-level waste already waiting to be reprocessed.

Why has it taken until now for the Rokkasho plant to secure approval from the nuclear watchdog?   Decades of technical problems and the new safety standards for nuclear power that went into effect after the 2011 triple meltdown at the power plant in Fukushima Prefecture have delayed Rokkasho’s completion date 24 times so far. It took six years for the plant to win approval under the post-3/11 safety standards…By the time of the NRA announcement on May 13, 2020, the price tag for work at the Rokkasho plant had reached nearly ¥14 trillion.

Japan is the only non-nuclear weapons state pursuing reprocessing. But as far back as the 1970s, as Japan was debating a nuclear reprocessing program, the United States became concerned about a plant producing plutonium that could be used for a nuclear weapons program.  The issue was raised at a Feb. 1, 1977, meeting between U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale and Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda.  “Reprocessing facilities which could produce weapons grade material are simply bomb factories,” noted a declassified U.S. State Department cable on the meeting. “We want to cooperate (with Japan) to keep the problem under control.”

The U.S. oppose the Rokkasho plant’s construction in 1993, following an agreement in 1988 between the two countries on nuclear cooperation. ..The U.S.-Japan nuclear agreement meant the U.S. would give advance consent for Japan to send spent nuclear fuel to the United Kingdom and France — states with nuclear weapons — for reprocessing until Rokkasho was running at full-scale.

Currently, Japan has nearly 45 tons of plutonium stockpiled, including 9 tons held by domestic utilities. Another 21.2 tons is in the United Kingdom and France is holding 15.5 tons under overseas reprocessing contracts.

Thus, Japan finds itself caught between promises to the international community to reduce its plutonium stockpile through reprocessing at Rokkasho, and questions about whether MOX is still an economically, and politically, viable resource — given the expenses involved and the availability of other fossil fuel and renewable energy resources.

Excerpts from Aomori’s Rokkasho nuclear plant gets green light but hurdles remain, Japan Times, May 31, 2020

Preserving Seeds that Feed the World: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Six hundred miles from the North Pole, on an island the size of West Virginia, at the end of a tunnel bored into a mountain, lies a vault filled with more than 1 million samples of seeds harvested from 6,374 species of plants grown in 249 locations around the globe.The collection, the largest of its kind, is intended to safeguard the genetic diversity of the crops that feed the world.  If disaster wipes out a plant, seeds from the vault could be used to restore the species. If pests, disease or climate change imperil a food source, a resistant trait found among the collection could thwart the threat.

While some countries have their own seed banks—Colorado State University houses one for the U.S.—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault serves as a backup. The vault, built in 2008 at a cost of about $9 million, is owned and maintained by Norway, but its contents belong to the countries and places that provide the samples.  “It works like a safe-deposit box at the bank,” said Cary Fowler, an American agriculturalist who helped found the vault. “Norway owns the facility, but not the boxes of the seeds.”

In 2015, after the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, scientists who had fled the country withdrew seeds to regenerate the plants in Lebanon and Morocco.  “It had one of the world’s biggest and best collections of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and grass pea,” Dr. Fowler said. “It was the chief supplier of a disease-resistant wheat variety for the Middle East.”  In 2017, the group returned copies of its seeds to the vault.

The 18,540-square-foot seed vault includes three rooms with the capacity to house 4.5 million samples of 500 seeds each—a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds. The environment’s natural temperature remains below freezing year round, but the seeds are stored at a chillier -18 degrees Celsius, or around -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re expected to last for decades, centuries or perhaps even millennia….

While dwindling diversity might not seem like an imminent threat, four chemical companies now control more than 60% of global proprietary seed sales…That concentration of power, some worry, could lead to less agricultural variety and more genetic uniformity…In the meantime, the seed vault (which doesn’t store genetically modified seeds) will continue to accept deposits in an effort to preserve all of the options it can.

Excerpts from Craven McGinty, Plan to Save World’s Crops Lives in Norwegian Bunker, WSJ,  May 29, 2020

Strangling China with Hong Kong: the Politics of Fear

The U.S. determination  that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from mainland China, under the Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, will have significant implications for the city’s exporters and businesses.  Sensitive U.S. technologies could no longer be imported into Hong Kong, and the city’s exports might be hit with the same tariffs levied on Chinese trade.

But the act doesn’t cover the far more extensive role Hong Kong plays as China’s main point of access to global finance.  As of 2019, mainland Chinese banks held 8,816 trillion Hong Kong dollars ($1.137 trillion) in assets in the semiautonomous city, an amount that has risen 373% in the last decade…. China’s banks do much of their international business, mostly conducted in U.S. dollars, from Hong Kong. With Shanghai inside China’s walled garden of capital controls, there is no obvious replacement.

While the U.S. doesn’t directly control Hong Kong’s status as a financial center, Washington has demonstrated its extensive reach over the dollar system, with penalties against Korean, French and Lebanese financiers for dealing with sanctioned parties. The U.S. recently threatened Iraq’s access to the New York Federal Reserve, demonstrating a growing willingness to use financial infrastructure as a tool of foreign policy.  Even though the U.S. can’t legislate Hong Kong’s ability to support Chinese banks out of existence, the role of an international funding hub is greatly reduced if your counterparties are too fearful to do business with you.

Putting the ability of Chinese banks to conduct dollar-denominated activities at risk would be deleterious to China’s ability to operate financially overseas, posing a challenge for the largely dollar-denominated Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative. It would also put the more financially fragile parts of the country, like its debt-laden property developers, under strain.  China’s hope to develop yuan into an influential currency also centers on Hong Kong’s remaining a viable global financial center—more than 70% of international trade in the yuan is done in the city.

Excerpts from Mike Bird, How the US Could Really Hurt China, WSJ, May 290, 2020

Mining the Moon: The First Mover Advantage

The US government is starting to lay down the groundwork for diplomacy on the moon. On 15 May, 2020 NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine released a set of principles that will govern the Artemis Accords on the exploration of the moon. The accords are named after NASA’s Artemis programme, the US initiative to explore the moon, with a planned launch of astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024. Other countries are also increasingly turning towards the moon, which is concerning when a landing on the moon can send up clouds of potentially hazardous dust that travel a long way across the surface and even into orbit…

At the moment, there is little practical international law governing activities on the moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 deals with general space exploration, while the more specific Moon Agreement of 1984 states that “the moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of all mankind”, prohibiting the ownership of any part of the moon or any resources from the moon….However, no nation capable of human space flight has signed the Moon Agreement, effectively rendering it moot. In fact, in April 2020, US president Donald Trump issued an executive order supporting moon mining and taking advantage of the natural resources of space.

The Artemis Accords aim to protect historic locations like the Apollo landing sites but encourage mining in other areas. They also promote transparency and communication between nations, requiring signatories to share their lunar plans, register any spacecraft sent to or around the moon and release scientific data to the public.  That transparency requirement might be a stumbling block for potential parties to the accords, says Forczyk. “I really don’t know how much countries are going to be willing to share some of their more delicate, sensitive information,” she says. “

The rest of the stipulations of the Artemis Accords are about safety: nations will be able to set “safety zones” to protect their activities on the moon, they will have to work to mitigate the effects of debris in orbit around the moon and they will agree to provide emergency assistance to any astronauts in distress.

Rather than attempting to put together an international treaty, which could be difficult to negotiate before NASA’s next crewed launch to the moon, the US will sign bilateral agreements with individual countries.

Excerpts from Leah Crane, NASA’s Artemis Accords aim to lay down the law of the land on the moon, New Scientist, May 20, 2020

The Game of Chicken in the Melting Arctic

In 2018 the NATO alliance, joined by Sweden and Finland, held Trident Juncture, its largest exercise since the end of the cold war, in Norway. That involved the first deployment of an American aircraft-carrier in the Arctic Circle for three decades. Western warships have been frequent visitors since. On May 1, 2020 a “surface action group” of two American destroyers, a nuclear submarine, support ship and long-range maritime patrol aircraft, plus a British frigate, practised their submarine hunting skills in the Norwegian Sea.

Such drills are not unusual. But on May 4, 2020 some of those ships broke off and sailed further north into the Barents Sea, along with a third destroyer. Although American and British submarines routinely skulk around the area, to spy on Russian facilities and exercises covertly, surface ships have not done so in a generation. On May 7, 2020 Russia’s navy greeted the unwelcome visitors by announcing that it too would be conducting exercises in the Barents Sea—live-fire ones, in fact. On May 8, 2020… the NATO vessels departed.

It is a significant move. The deployment of destroyers which carry missile-defence systems and land-attack cruise missiles is especially assertive. After all, the area is the heart of Russian naval power, including the country’s submarine-based nuclear weapons. Russia’s Northern Fleet is based at Severomorsk on the Kola peninsula, to the east of Norway’s uppermost fringes.

Western navies are eager to show that covid-19 has not blunted their swords, at a time when America and France have each lost an aircraft-carrier to the virus. But their interest in the high north predates the pandemic. One purpose of the foray into the Barents Sea was “to assert freedom of navigation”, said America’s navy. Russia has been imposing rules on ships that wish to transit the Northern Sea Route (NSR), an Arctic passage between the Atlantic and Pacific that is becoming increasingly navigable as global warming melts ice-sheets . America scoffs at these demands, insisting that foreign warships have the right to pass innocently through territorial waters under the law of the sea. Although last week’s exercise did not enter the NSR, it may hint at a willingness to do so in the future.

On top of that, the Arctic is a growing factor in NATO defence policy. Russia has beefed up its Northern Fleet in recent years…Russian submarine activity is at its highest level since the cold war…Ten subs reportedly surged into the north Atlantic in October 2019  to test whether they could elude detection….Russia’s new subs are quiet and well-armed. As a result, NATO’s “acoustic edge”—its ability to detect subs at longer ranges than Russia—“has narrowed dramatically.”

Russia primarily uses its attack submarines to defend a “bastion”, the area in the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk where its own nuclear-armed ballistic-missile submarines patrol.  A separate Russian naval force known as the Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research (GUGI, in its Russian acronym) might also target the thicket of cables that cross the Atlantic.

The challenge is a familiar one. For much of the cold war, NATO allies sought to bottle up the Soviet fleet in the Arctic by establishing a picket across the so-called GIUK gap, a transit route between Greenland, Iceland and Britain that was strung with undersea listening posts….The gap is now back in fashion and NATO is reinvesting in anti-submarine capabilities after decades of neglect. America has stepped up flights of P8 submarine hunting aircraft from Iceland, and Britain and Norway are establishing P8 squadrons of their own. The aim is to track and hold at risk Russian nuclear subs as early as possible, because even a single one in the Atlantic could cause problems across a large swathe of ocean.

GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, UK) gap. Image from wikipedia.

But a defensive perimeter may not be enough. A new generation of Russian ship-based missiles could strike NATO ships or territory from far north of the GIUK gap, perhaps even from the safety of home ports. “This technological development represents a dramatically new and challenging threat to NATO forces…. Similar concerns led the Reagan administration to adopt a more offensive naval posture, sending forces above the gap and into the maritime bastion of the Soviet Union. 

Excerpts from Naval Strategy: Northern Fights, Economist, May 16, 2020

Our Cold War Roots: Weaponizing China’s One Child Policy

The elite US special operations forces are ill-equipped for high-tech warfare with China and Russia, experts warn, as the Trump administration pivots from the “war on terror” to a struggle with geopolitical rivals. Special operations, known for kicking down doors and eliminating high-value targets, number 70,000 personnel, cost $13bn a year and have carried much of the burden of the war on terror. But it is unclear what role they will play as the Pentagon moves to redeploy troops from Afghanistan to the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s regional ambitions.

General Richard Clarke, commander of special operations command (Socom), told an industry conference this week that the US needed to develop new capabilities to “compete and win” with Russia and China. He added that Socom must develop cyber skills and focus on influence campaigns rather than “the kill-capture missions” that characterised his own time in Afghanistan after the September 11 2001 attacks. Socom’s fighters include US Navy Seals, Army Green Berets and Marine Corps Raiders. Defence officials say China has raised military spending and research with the aim of exploiting American vulnerabilities, while Russia has tested out new technology during combat in Syria. “Maybe we are further behind than we know,” Colonel Michael McGuire told the annual Special Operations Industry Conference

McGuire highlighted US vulnerabilities in cyber security, and soft-power tactics by America’s enemies that could “drive fissures through some of our alliances”. He proposed shifting focus to defence over attack.   “You could have hundreds and thousands of engagements every single day in a fight against China. We are just not fast enough, dynamic enough or scaleable enough to handle that challenge,” said Chris Brose, chief strategy officer at Anduril…. He added “Most of the US-China competition is not going to be fighting world war three,” he said. “It’s going to be kicking each other under the table.”….

US special operators have for years had the run of the battlefield. But they face very different conditions in any fight against China, which has developed an arsenal of missiles, fighter jets, spy planes and other eavesdropping and jamming techniques that would make it hard for America to conceal troops, transport and communications. Special operations forces are not ready for operations against a near-peer foe, such as China, in a direct engagement… He called for a return to their cold war roots. “Vintage special operations forces is about stealth, cunning and being able to blend in — they were triathletes rather than muscle-bound infantrymen with tattoos,” said the former officer. 

David Maxwell, a former Green Beret and military analyst, is among those who favour a shift towards political warfare.One such idea of his would involve a popular writer being commissioned to pen fictionalised war stories based in Taiwan intended to discourage Beijing from invading the self-governing island. He told a gathering of Pacific special forces operators in February 2020 that fictional losses could “tell the stories of the demise of Chinese soldiers who are the end of their parents’ bloodline”. He argued that Beijing’s former one-child policy could be weaponised to convince China that war would be too costly. But Mr Maxwell said such ideas have yet to catch on. He added that psyops officers lamented to him that it was “easier to get permission to put a hellfire missile on the forehead of a terrorist than it is to get permission to put an idea between his ears”.

Excerpts from Katrina Manson , US elite forces ill-equipped for cold war with China, FT, May 16, 2020

Nuclear Operators: Who Helps India and Pakistian with their Atomic Bombs

Using open-source data, the nonprofit Centre For Advance Defense Studies (C4ADS) report published in April 2020 provides one of the most comprehensive overviews of networks supplying the rivals, in a region regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoints.

To identify companies involved, C4ADS analysed more than 125 million records of public trade and tender data and documents, and then checked them against already-identified entities listed by export control authorities in the United States and Japan. Pakistan, which is subject to strict international export controls on its programme, has 113 suspected foreign suppliers listed by the United States and Japan. But the C4ADS report found an additional 46, many in shipment hubs like Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. The father of Pakistan’s atomic bomb, AQ Khan, admitted in 2004 to selling nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya. He was pardoned a day later by Pakistani authorities, which have refused requests from international investigators to question him.

India has a waiver that allows it to buy nuclear technology from international markets. The Indian government allows inspections of some nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but not all of them. C4ADS identified 222 companies that did business with the nuclear facilities in India that had no IAEA oversight. Of these, 86 companies did business with more than one such nuclear facility in India.

Both countries are estimated to have around 150 useable nuclear warheads apiece, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit group tracking stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Excerpts from Alasdair Pal, Exclusive: India, Pakistan nuclear procurement networks larger than thought, study shows, Reuters, Apr. 30, 2020

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

A Nasty Divorce: US-China Internet Cables

United States officials granted Google permission to turn on a high-speed internet link to Taiwan but not to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, citing national-security concerns in a ruling that underscores fraying ties between Washington and Beijing.“There is a significant risk that the grant of a direct cable connection between the United States and Hong Kong wouldpose an unacceptable risk to the national security and law enforcement interests of the United States,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in its decision, which was backed by the departments of Homeland Security and Defense. The agencies instead urged the Federal Communications Commission to grant Google owner Alphabet  permission to start using the portion of its 8,000-mile underwater Pacific Light cable that connects California to Taiwan. .

The decision threatens to end Hong Kong’s dominance as a top destination for U.S. internet cables and puts at risk several ongoing projects, including a Facebook backed fiber-optic line linking Los Angeles to Hong Kong and a Google-backed project linking Hong Kong to the U.S. territory of Guam.

Washington is turning to the self-ruling island of Taiwan, which the U.S. supports with arms sales and unofficial political ties despite Beijing’s claims that it is part of China. U.S. officials are also considering alternatives such as Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Google and Facebook originally teamed up to build Pacific Light to Hong Kong in 2016, continuing the Silicon Valley giants’ long-term strategy to take more control of the network pipes that connect their data centers. The web companies and their Chinese investment partners kept building the cable even as U.S. authorities withheld the regulatory approvals they needed to start using it.

Major international data projects are subject to review by Team Telecom, a coalition of federal agencies with national-security oversight. The panel has taken a hard line against China in recent years. Team Telecom in 2018 recommended for the first time the denial of a Chinese application—that of China Mobile —to provide telecom services through U.S. networks, citing national-security and law-enforcement concerns.

President Trump on April 4 2020 signed an executive order that puts the attorney general in charge of overseeing Team Telecom and gives the panel direct authority to review existing licenses to provide such services, including those issued earlier to Chinese state-owned operators China Telecom and China Unicom.

Excerpts from Drew FitzGerald and Kate O’Keeffe, U.S. Allows Google Internet Project to Advance Only if Hong Kong Is Cut Out, WSJ, Apr. 9, 2020

Can’t Treat Covid-19 with Flip-Flops

The U.S. Covid-19 response remains a work in progress—fragmented, chaotic, and plagued by contradictory messaging from political leaders, [such as the flip-flops on the use of face masks, see Stop Buying Face Masks , Learn How to Make Your Own Face Mask]. …

 “We don’t have a national plan,” says epidemiologist Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “We are going from press conference to press conference and crisis to crisis … trying to understand our response.”…Even if lockdowns succeed at halting the virus…. the United States needs to marshal massive resources to monitor for new outbreaks and quickly contain them…. Identifying cases and contacts and isolating them will require a huge increase in public health workers at the local level….The absence of nationwide coordination highlights the division of legal power between the federal and state governments…. Governors, not federal officials, typically hold police powers to shut businesses and enforce curfews. But many are reluctant to invoke those powers and suffer the political costs without clear direction from above….“The closest comparison here, in terms of national mobilization, is a war. And there is no way the United States would fight a war as 50 separate states.”

Excerpts from United States Strains to Act as Cases Set Record, Science Magazine, Apr. 3, 2020, at 6488.

Even the Oceans are not Free: Swarming the Seas

The Ocean of Things of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to  wire up the high seas with swarms of floating, connected sensors.  Such devices are not in themselves new. There are around 6,000 floating sensors deployed around the world’s oceans, run by navies and research institutes. What is unprecedented is the scale of  DARPA’s ambition. Over the next few years it hopes to deploy 50,000 sensors across 1m square kilometres of sea, an area considerably larger than Texas. The eventual goal—much more distant—is to enable the continuous monitoring and analysis of a significant fraction of the world’s oceans.

Existing “floating instrument packages”, known as floats or drifters, are often custom-built, and usually contain the highest-quality instruments available. They therefore tend to be expensive, and are bought only in small numbers. A typical existing float, designed for scientific research, is the Argo. It costs around $20,000, and can measure water temperature and salinity.  The Ocean of Things takes the opposite approach. The aim is to cram as many cheap, off-the-shelf components as possible into a single low-cost package. Current float prototypes cost around $750…That would allow tens of thousands to be deployed without breaking the bank. Large numbers are crucial for coverage. They also help compensate for inaccuracies in individual instruments.

The project’s researchers are evaluating three designs from different manufacturers, ranging in size from about six to 18 litres. One, proposed by Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, is made of glass, like a traditional Japanese fishing float. A second, from a firm called Areté Associates, has an aluminium shell, and uses wood for buoyancy. Both models feature solar panels. The third, made by a company called Numurus, is made of lacquered cardboard, and relies entirely on its batteries. All three are designed to last for a year or so and are made to be as environmentally friendly as possible, with minimal use of plastics. That is important because, at the end of their mission, the floats are designed to scuttle themselves

With 361m square kilometres of ocean on the planet, a true Ocean of Things, monitoring everything on and under the water, would require about 18m floats.

Excerpts from Big Wet Data: The Ocean of Things, Economist, Mar. 14, 2020

The Nuclear Reactors Buried in the Deep Sea

The Soviet Union used the waters east of Novaya Zemlya to dump reactors, spent nuclear fuel and solid radioactive waste from both the navy and the fleet of nuclear-powered civilian icebreakers. About 17,000 objects were dumped in the period from the late 1960s to the late 1980s. Most of the objects are metal containers with low- and medium level radioactive waste. The challenge today, though, are the reactors with high-level waste and spent uranium fuel, objects that will pose a serious threat to the marine environment for tens of thousands of years if nothing is done to secure them.

The reactors from the submarines K-11, K-19 and K-140, plus the entire submarine K-27 (in the Kara Sea) and spent uranium fuel from one of the old reactors of the Lenin-icebreaker have to be lifted and secured. Also, the submarine K-159 (in the Barents Sea) that sank north of Murmansk while being towed for decommissioning in 2003 have to be lifted from the seafloor, the experts conclude. A study report made for Rosatom and the European Commission has evaluated the costs of lifting all six objects, bringing them safely to a yard for decommissioning and securing the reactors for long-term storage. The estimated price-tag for all six will €278 millions, of which the K-159 is the most expensive with a cost of €57.5 millions. Unlike the submarines and reactors that are dumped in relatively shallow waters in the Kara Sea, the K-159 is at about 200 meters depth, and thus will be more difficult to lift.

Excerpts from Thomas Nilsen, Lifting Russia’s accident reactors from the Arctic seafloor will cost nearly €300 million, Mar. 8, 2020

Survivable Nuclear Weapons: Count on Them

The U.S. Defense Department said on February 4, 2020 the Navy had fielded a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, something the Pentagon believes is needed to deter adversaries like Russia but which critics say lowers the threshold for using nuclear weapons.  Low-yield nuclear weapons, while still devastating, have a strength of less than 20 kilotons. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in August 1945, had about the same explosive power.

“This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon,” John Rood, the under secretary of defense for policy, said in a statement.  “(It) supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario,” Rood added….

“The administration’s decision to deploy the W76-2 warhead remains a misguided and dangerous one. The deployment of this warhead does nothing to make Americans safer,” Democratic Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.  The United States already has air-launched, low-yield nuclear weapons and critics say that should be sufficient….

Excerpts from Idrees Ali U.S. deploys ‘more survivable’ submarine-launched low-yield nuclear weapon, Reuters, Feb. 4, 2020

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

Biometrics Run Amok: Your Heartbeat ID, please

Before pulling the trigger, a sniper planning to assassinate an enemy operative must be sure the right person is in the cross-hairs. Western forces commonly use software that compares a suspect’s facial features or gait with those recorded in libraries of biometric data compiled by police and intelligence agencies. Such technology can, however, be foiled by a disguise, head-covering or even an affected limp. For this reason America’s Special Operations Command (SOC), which oversees the units responsible for such operations in the various arms of America’s forces, has long wanted extra ways to confirm a potential target’s identity. Responding to a request from soc, the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO), an agency of the defence department, has now developed a new tool for the job.

This system, dubbed Jetson, is able to measure, from up to 200 metres away, the minute vibrations induced in clothing by someone’s heartbeat. Since hearts differ in both shape and contraction pattern, the details of heartbeats differ, too. The effect of this on the fabric of garments produces what Ideal Innovations, a firm involved in the Jetson project, calls a “heartprint”—a pattern reckoned sufficiently distinctive to confirm someone’s identity.

To measure heartprints remotely Jetson employs gadgets called laser vibrometers. These work by detecting minute variations in a laser beam that has been reflected off an object of interest. They have been used for decades to study things like bridges, aircraft bodies, warship cannons and wind turbines—searching for otherwise-invisible cracks, air pockets and other dangerous defects in materials. However, only in the past five years or so has laser vibrometry become good enough to distinguish the vibrations induced in fabric by heartprints….

Candice Tresch, a spokeswoman for the cttso…. cannot discuss the process by which heartprint libraries might be built up in the first place. One starting point, presumably, would be to catalogue the heartbeats of detainees in the way that fingerprints and dna samples are now taken routinely.

Excerpts from Personal identificationPeople can now be identified at a distance by their heartbeat, Economist, Jan 23, 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

Algorithms as Weapons –Tracking,Targeting Nuclear Weapons

 
New and unproved technologies—this time computer systems capable of performing superhuman tasks using machine learning and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI)—threaten to destabilise the global “strategic balance”, by seeming to offer ways to launch a knockout blow against a nuclear-armed adversary, without triggering an all-out war.

A report issued in November by America’s National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a body created by Congress and chaired by Eric Schmidt, a former boss of Google, and Robert Work, who was deputy defence secretary from 2014-17, ponders how AI systems may reshape global balances of power, as dramatically as electricity changed warfare and society in the 19th century. Notably, it focuses on the ability of AI to “find the needle in the haystack”, by spotting patterns and anomalies in vast pools of data…In a military context, it may one day find the stealthiest nuclear-armed submarines, wherever they lurk. The commission is blunt. Nuclear deterrence could be undermined if AI-equipped systems succeed in tracking and targeting previously invulnerable military assets. That in turn could increase incentives for states, in a crisis, to launch a devastating pre-emptive strike. China’s rise as an AI power represents the most complex strategic challenge that America faces, the commission adds, because the two rivals’ tech sectors are so entangled by commercial, academic and investment ties.

Some Chinese officials sound gung-ho about AI as a path to prosperity and development, with few qualms about privacy or lost jobs. Still, other Chinese fret about AI that might put winning a war ahead of global stability, like some game-playing doomsday machine. Chinese officials have studied initiatives such as the “Digital Geneva Convention” drafted by Microsoft, a technology giant. This would require states to forswear cyber-attacks on such critical infrastructure as power grids, hospitals and international financial systems.  AI would make it easier to locate and exploit vulnerabilities in these…

One obstacle is physical. Warheads or missile defences can be counted by weapons inspectors. In contrast, rival powers cannot safely show off their most potent algorithms, or even describe AI capabilities in a verifiable way….Westerners worry especially about so-called “black box” algorithms, powerful systems that generate seemingly accurate results but whose reasoning is a mystery even to their designers.

Excerpts from Chaguan: The Digital Divide, Economist, Jan 18, 2019

Making Friends with Radioactive Waste: the Nuclear Dump of Moscow

Russian environmental activists and residents are sounding the alarm (in December 2019) over government plans to build a motorway near a Soviet-era radioactive waste site in southeast Moscow that they fear could spew dangerous particles into the air.  The 34-km (21-mile) road, which city authorities say is safe and will help ease traffic, is set to pass the Moscow Polymetal Plant and a fenced-off site where it disposed of radioactive substances decades ago.  Vasily Desyatkov, a senior city construction official, said surface and underground tests carried out where the foundations of the road were due to be laid had turned back normal readings that show there is no risk.

But that has not placated activists who have led a series of protests in recent months.  “It could lead to the release of radionuclides contained in the soil which will be dispersed with the dust. They will be spread everywhere – on people’s feet, car wheels, anything,” said Igor, a protester.

The site, the Moscow Polymetals Plant’s slag heap, is Just 13 kilometers from the Kremlin and steps from Kolomenskoye Park, a popular spot for Muscovites to ski in winter and picnic in summer, the Moskvorechye-Saburovo hill is the most contaminated of the bunch, according to Radon, a government agency tasked with locating and clearing radioactive waste. A legacy of a rushed Soviet effort to begin nuclear research as the race to build an atomic bomb gained steam in the 1930s, the hill is one of many contaminated sites across Russia …

Moskvorechye-Saburovo District Moscow

It contains tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste left over after the extraction of thorium and uranium from ore. The factory ceased production of metals in 1996 for “environmental reasons,” according to its website — it now produces weapons and military equipment — and the dump is now a hill half a kilometer wide sloping down to the banks of the Moscow River.  City officials had been considering a full-scale clean-up for years, but never rubber-stamped a plan due to the risky location of the site near a source of water for Moscow’s southern suburbs. 

“Operations in such an environment are a serious engineering challenge — one incautious step, and radioactive soil gets into the river,” said Alexander Barinov, Radon’s chief engineer for Moscow…. “Full decontamination by removing all of the radioactive waste is simply impossible,” he added, noting that Radon every year conducts “a kind of therapy” to ensure the site’s safety — in short, dumping dirt on top of the waste to keep it buried after topsoil runoff each spring. 

Excerpts from Russians protest over plans to build road near Soviet-era radioactive waste site, Reuters, Dec. 10, 2019; Will a Road Through a Nuclear Dumping Ground Result in ‘Moscow’s Chernobyl’?, Moscow Times, July 16, 2019

Sea Turtle Trapped in Floating Cocaine Bales

Some Things Are Always the Same: Drug Trafficking from Netherlands to East Africa

Having fallen during the global financial crisis, production of hard drugs is now as high as it has ever been… In the rich world, too, drug use is climbing again… And in countries from eastern Europe to Asia, demand for recreational drugs is growing with incomes.  Most of these drugs have to be smuggled from places such as Afghanistan and Colombia to users, mostly in America and Europe.

Police from Britain and the Netherlands have cracked down on shipments through the Caribbean, so traffickers are moving their product through west Africa instead. That means that the violence and corruption that has long afflicted Latin America is spreading….The increase in production of drugs “probably affects Africa more than anywhere else”, says Mark Shaw of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime, a think-tank, because many African states are fragile. Smugglers easily bypass or co-opt their institutions and officials. Drug markets, like other forms of organised crime, thrive best in places where the governments cannot or will not resist them. Trafficking then makes weak, dirty institutions even weaker and dirtier.

Guinea-Bissau’s appeal is partly geographic. The country is a mere 3,000km from Brazil—about as close as Africa and South America get—and reachable by small aircraft fitted with fuel bladders. With over 80 islands, most uninhabited, it is easy to drop off drugs undetected, or to smuggle them in from boats. In the early days of the trade, when cocaine washed up on beaches, locals did not know what it was and used it as detergent or make-up. Now they know.  Guinea-Bissau’s politics are ideal for drug barons. Politicians need money and violence to gain and hold high office. Cocaine can pay for both.  Electoral campaigns involve hundreds of cars, huge wodges of cash and even helicopters, none of which is readily available in a poor country. 

Guinea-Bissau is not the only place in west Africa to be afflicted by cocaine. In February 2019,  nine tonnes were found in a ship in Cape Verde. In June police in Senegal seized 800kg hidden in cars on a boat from Brazil.  East Africa is plagued by heroin.

What are the consequences of the shift in smuggling routes? Drugs need not cause wars—if they did, the Netherlands, which produces much of the world’s ecstasy, would be a hellhole. But they do give people something to fight over, and bankroll armed groups that were already fighting for other reasons….Being a transit country has other downsides. Smugglers often pay their contacts in drugs to sell locally. The world’s second-biggest market for cocaine is Brazil, a major transit country. Heroin is a scourge in east Africa; crack cocaine bedevils west Africa….Mexico offers a glimpse of how drug-trafficking may further evolve. As demand in the United States has changed, due to the partial legalisation of cannabis and a surge in opioid use, traffickers have diversified. Tighter security on the border also favours heroin and fentanyl, which are less bulky. A truckload of marijuana is worth about $10m, says Everard Meade of the University of San Diego. $10m of cocaine would fill the boots of several cars. But $10m of heroin can be smuggled inside two briefcases.

So long as drugs are illegal, criminals will profit from them. Whatever the police do, cartels will adapt…In Britain some Colombians now run vertically integrated businesses—controlling supply at every level from production in the Amazon down to distribution in British cities… Italian traffickers have hired divers in Brazil to attach magnetic boxes filled with drugs to the bottom of ships, to be removed by a second set of divers when the ships arrive in Europe.

Excerpts from Drug Trafficking: Changing Gear, Economist, Nov. 23, 2019 

The Jihadist Mafia: Controlling the Gold of Sahel

Burkina Faso is struggling to contain a fast-growing jihadist insurgency. Along with Mali and Niger, it has become the main front line against terrorists in the Sahel, a dry strip of land that runs along the edge of the Sahara. This year alone the conflict has killed more than 1,600 people and forced half a million from their homes in Burkina Faso….A worrying new trend is a battle by jihadists and other armed groups to take control of the region’s gold rush.

Although gold has long been mined in the region…it has boomed in recent years with the discovery of shallow deposits that stretch from Sudan to Mauritania. International mining companies have invested as much as $5bn in west African production over the past decade, but the rush has also lured hundreds of thousands of unsophisticated “artisanal” miners. The International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO, reckons that more than 2m people are involved in small-scale mining in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. In total they dig up 40-95 tonnes of gold a year, worth some $1.9bn-4.5bn.

Artisanal Mining’s Claustrophobic Conditions

This rush—in a region where states are already weak and unable to provide security—has sucked in a variety of armed groups and jihadists, including the likes of Ansar Dine and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara…The jihadists probably have direct control of fewer than ten mines…But they have influence over many more. In some areas artisanal miners are forced to pay “taxes” to the jihadists. In others, such as Burkina Faso’s Soum province, the miners hire jihadists to provide security… Other armed groups such as ethnic militias are also in on the bonanza and collect cash to guard mines. International mining firms may also be funding the jihadists by paying ransoms for abducted employees or “protection” money to keep mining, according to a study published by the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries.

For the moment much of Burkina Faso’s artisanal production is sneaked into Togo… Togo does not produce much gold domestically but it sent more than 12 tonnes of gold to Dubai in 2016. Gold is also taken out of the Sahel through major airports in hand luggage. 

The resource curse: How west Africa’s gold rush is funding jihadists, Economist, Nov. 16, 2019

Assassinations and Top Secret Chemicals: the case of Novichok Nerve Agent

In 2018, one of the Novichok nerve agents was used in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy on U.K. soil—spurring the United States and allies to lift the veil of secrecy and mount a drive to outlaw the obscure class of nerve agents, concocted in a Soviet weapons lab during the height of the Cold War. Now, their effort to amend the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is about to pay off.

On 9 October, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that administers the treaty, reviewed a revised proposal from Russia that would bring Novichoks under the treaty’s verification regime, along with a class of potential weapons known as carbamates. If the Russian proposal and a similar one from the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands are approved at a treaty review meeting in December 2019.

The newfound glasnost on Novichoks, also known as fourth-generation nerve agents, should spur research on their mechanism of action and on countermeasures and treatments.   Chemical weapons experts had been whispering about Novichoks for decades.   Treaty nations have long resisted adding Novichoks to the CWC’s so-called Schedule 1 list of chemical weapons, which compels signatories to declare and destroy any stockpiles. “People were worried about a Pandora’s box,” fearing such a listing would force them to regulate ingredients of the weapons, Koblentz says. That could hamper the chemical industry and might clue in enemies on how to cook them up. (Who has the agents now is anyone’s guess.) Indeed, the U.S. government for years classified the Novichok agents as top secret. “There was a desire among Western countries to keep the information as limited as possible to avoid proliferation issues,” Koblentz says.

The 2018 assassination attempt against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, U.K., thrust the Novichok agents into the spotlight. The botched attack gravely sickened Skripal, his daughter Yulia, two police officers who investigated the crime scene, and a couple—Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess—who a few months later happened on a perfume bottle containing the agent. After long hospitalizations, the Skripals, the officers, and Rowley recovered; Sturgess died. The United Kingdom charged two Russian men, reportedly military intelligence officers, as the alleged assailants, and obtained a European warrant for their arrest; they remain at large in Russia.

Excerpts from Richard Stone, Obscure Cold War nerve agents set to be banned, Science, Oct. 25, 2019

How to Engineer Bacteria to Search for Underground Chemical Weapons: DARPA

U.S. military researchers asked in 2019 two companies to develop new kinds of biological sensors that can detect underground disturbances or the presence of buried chemicals or weapons.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., are looking to Raytheon BBN Technologies, and Signature Science, for the BioReporters for Subterranean Surveillance program.  This project seeks to use indigenous and engineered organisms to sense changes of interest to military commanders in natural and built environments. Raytheon BBN and Signature Science won separate $1.6 million contracts for the Subterranean Surveillance progam.

The two companies will perform laboratory research and proof-of-concept demonstrations of biological sensing systems in well- controlled field tests that take advantage of recent advances in microbial science and synthetic biology to develop biological sensors, signal transducers, and reporters that can reveal subterranean phenomena at a distance.  Bio Reporters should be able to sense a phenomenon at least one meter below the surface, propagate a signal to the surface within seven days, and be continuously detectable on the surface at a distance of 10 meters over the subsequent seven days.

DARPA researchers want Raytheon BBN and Signature Science experts to take advantage of the extensive biological networks that exist underground to monitor large areas to increase the military’s ability to detect subterranean events without the need for precise coordinates.

Excerpts from John Keller, Researchers eye new biological sensors to to detect underground objects like buried chemicals and weapons, https://www.militaryaerospace.com,  Nov. 6, 2019

In more detail  Signature Science and its partner, the Texas A&M University Center for Phage Technology, aim to leverage modern and synthetic phage biology and the straightforward molecular genetics of the harmless soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis to generate a new platform to recognize and report on specific chemical threats underground. The Spore-Phage Amplified Detection (SPADe) method, potentially extensible to explosives, radiation or physical disturbance sensing, seeks to substantially advance currently used techniques which rely heavily on manual soil testing. 

Cyber-Attacking Nuclear Plants: the 3 000 cyber bugs

In the first half of 2019 , no country endured more cyber-attacks on its Internet of Things—the web of internet-connected devices and infrastructure—than India did. So asserts Subex, an Indian telecommunications firm, which produces regular reports on cyber-security. Between April and June of 2019, it said, recorded cyber-attacks jumped by 22%, with 2,550 unique samples of malware discovered. Some of that malicious code is turning up in hair-raising places.

On October 28, 2019 reports indicated that malware had been found on the computer systems of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, the newest and largest such power station in India. Pukhraj Singh, a cybersecurity researcher who formerly worked for the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), India’s signals-intelligence agency, says he was informed of the malware by an undisclosed third party in September, and notified the government.The attackers, he said, had acquired high-level access and struck “extremely mission-critical targets”…. On October 30, 2019 the body that operates nuclear power plants acknowledged, sheepishly, that a computer had indeed been infected, but it was only an “administrative” one.

Sensitive sites such as power plants typically isolate the industrial-control systems (those that control the workings of a plant) from those connected to the wider internet. They do so using air-gaps (which involve disconnecting the system from the wider world), firewalls (which monitor data-flows for suspicious traffic) or data diodes (which allow information to flow out but not in).

But breaching a computer on the outside of these digital moats is nevertheless troubling. It could have given the attackers access to sensitive emails, personnel records and other details which would, in turn, make it easier to gain access to the more isolated operational part of the plant. America and Israel are thought to have sneaked the devastating Stuxnet virus into Iran’s air-gapped uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz around 2007 by planting a USB stick on a worker, who carried it inside and plugged it in.

The culprit behind the Kudankulam attack is unknown, but left some clues. The malware in question is from a family known as DTrack, which gives attackers an intimate look at what victims are doing—down to their keystrokes. It is typically used to monitor a target, making it easier to deliver further malware. DTrack was originally developed by a group of hackers known as the Lazarus Group, who are widely assumed to be controlled or directed by North Korea.

Excerpts from On the DTrack: A cyber-attack on an Indian nuclear plant raises worrying questions, Economist, Nov. 1, 2019