The new WikiLeaks documents show that Iran has been hunting for missile technology all over the world, seeking to buy gyroscopes, jet vanes and metals, and perhaps whole missiles from North Korea. But Iran also has experienced great difficulty building longer range missiles. Why? Some clues can be found in one of the most interesting documents just released, a briefing that Russian officials gave their American counterparts on Iran's progress, or lack of it.
A summary of the Dec. 22, 2009 meeting was marked "secret" but tumbled out on Sunday in the reams of memos released by WikiLeaks and major news organizations. Fourteen Russian and 15 U.S. government officials compared notes that day about missile threats from Iran and North Korea.
Judging by the summary, it was a lively back and forth, during which the Russians claimed the threat from Iran's missiles is not as great as some have predicted in the United States. The size and nature of the threat is important because it undergirds the U.S. plans for a multi-billion dollar ballistic missile defense system.
The Russians were prepared to talk "seriously" with the U.S. group, the summary says. Their message was Iran is struggling to lengthen the range of missiles that could carry heavy loads, such as a one-ton nuclear warhead, that might threaten the region or beyond. The Russians said their basic conclusion is that "Iran's ballistic missile program continues to be directed toward developing combat ready missiles to address regional concerns," not targets like the United States.
This was also the assessment made in May by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
In the December meeting, there was a sharp disagreement about the U.S. claim that North Korea sold to Iran a batch of 19 missiles, known as the BM-25. The transfer was first reported publicly in 2006; the BM-25 missile is supposedly based on a Soviet naval ballistic missile design, the R-27, known in the West as the SS-N-6. This missile was first developed in the 1960s and later modernized; it was in service in the Soviet Union until 1988. Iran has not tested any of the missiles it imported. The U.S. officials speculated that Iran may have purchased it to reverse-engineer the technology (although North Korea has been known to ship parts, expertise and manufacturing facilities as well as the missiles themselves.) The U.S. officials said photos of the Iranian space launch rocket, the Safir, show an engine which looks like the one on the R-27, as well as fuel tanks and welds that resemble it. The U.S. officials said they had received "direct evidence" of the missile transfer from North Korea to Iran.
But the Russians strongly dismissed the BM-25 as a mirage, according to the summary. They said Iran would not have purchased an untested missile, and they doubted whether it even existed. "For Russia, the BM-25 is a mysterious missile," the summary says. "Russia does not think the BM-25 exists." They asked why North Korea would sell an untested missile; the Americans responded: for cash.
Both the Russians and Americans acknowledged the limitations of Iran's older, liquid-fueled missiles, based on the Soviet Scud and its modifications, including the Shahab-1, Shahab-2 and Shahab-3. Both sides also seemed to agree that the Safir is not a military threat because of the small size of the payload.
The key issue is Iran's pursuit of more modern and powerful solid-fuel missiles that could hit medium-range targets, such as those in the Middle East or Europe. Iran has been working on such a missile, called the Sajjil-2, which it has flight tested. (See my earlier post about it.) In the meeting, U.S. officials were more worried about this than the Russians, who said Iran continues to stumble with solid fuel technology. "In Russia's view, Iran appears to be having very serious problems with engine development," the summary says. U.S. officials countered that Iran has a decade of experience with short-range missiles using solid fuel, importing equipment from China, and could now extend it to larger missiles.
The Russians said Iran was a long way from building intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States. "Russia said its bottom line is that Iran lacks appropriate structural materials for long-range systems, such as high quality aluminum," the summary says. "Iran can build prototypes, but in order to be a threat to the U.S. or Russia, Iran needs to produce missiles in mass quantities, and it lacks materials sufficient for the type of mass production needed to be a security threat. Russia further noted that the technology for longer-range missiles is sophisticated and difficult to master."
At another point, the Russians said they think the North Koreans are working on a new, 100-ton capacity rocket engine using older technology, clustering the motors or stacking them. But Russia said the technology hasn't been actually spotted.
AFP/Getty Images; from Iran's ISNA agency, the two-stage solid-fuel missile, Dec. 16, 2009
Earlier this year, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute reported in the journal Science that they had designed and created a synthetic chromosome which they transplanted into a living cell. The living cell created new cells which are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The experiment was another reminder of the possibilities of synthetic biology, and its complexities.
The revolution in the life sciences is filled with promise for improvements in health, medicine, energy, and the environment. Yet the field known as synthetic biology is relatively new, and many hurdles remain. Turns out it is a lot easier to synthesize some bits of genetic material than it is to make them work inside the body. For an interesting look at the difficulties, see this piece from Nature, in January.
The knowledge of biology is dual use: that which can make our lives better can also be used for ill. With this in mind, President Obama last May 20 asked his new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to undertake a study of synthetic biology, looking at the “potential medical, environmental, security, and other benefits of this field of research, as well as any potential health, security or other risks.” He asked for the study to be complete in six months.
Last week, The Scientist published an interview with Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, who is the chairman of the 12-member commission.
Gutmann says the benefits of the new field could range from “better production of vaccines to environmentally friendly biofuels to developing, in the near term, semi-synthetic anti malarial drugs.” But there are risks, she added, all in the future. The primary risk “that needs to be overseen is introducing novel organisms into the environment, [and] how they will react with the environment.”
She says the panel will recommend some kind of middle ground between unfettered scientific discovery and stopping all scientific research until the risks are known.
Can biological science police itself? This is the question Amy E. Smithson has asked in a new article for the journal Survival. Smithson, a senior fellow at the James L. Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute, says recent experiments have sparked a debate over the need for increased oversight, whether by scientists themselves, or by the government, or others. The article gives a good overview of the options. Smithson concludes that we haven’t found the best answer yet, and both government and those outside it need to do more to find the right mix of oversight. While the government can’t leave it all to the private sector, Smithson says the biotech industry is not likely to tolerate those who would misuse biology for malevolent purposes. “Companies do not want to see products designed and produced for legitimate purposes hijacked for malign ones,” she writes, “if only because such misuse could cause a company’s fortunes to plummet.”
A related phenomenon is the rise of the do-it-yourself bio community. According to another recent piece in Nature, potential “bio-hackers” around the world “are setting up labs in their garages, closests and kitchens—from professional scientists keeping a side project at home to individuals who have never used a pipette before.” For now, they are weekend hobbyists, the article says, but there have been security concerns raised about dabbling in dangerous pathogens. The FBI has taken a sort of “neighborhood watch” approach to the hobbyists, relying on the biohackers to monitor their own community and report any behavior they find threatening, the article says.
Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker has posted online his report (pdf) from a recent visit to North Korea in which he was shown a new uranium enrichment facility. This is an important development. North Korea previously had taken the plutonium route to building a bomb. Now, it appears they have turned to uranium. Is the new facility really intended to make low-enriched uranium, fuel for a reactor to provide badly-needed electricity, as the North claims, or are they pursuing highly-enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons? There's no conclusive answer, but Hecker's report is worth reading. He's a skilled expert who has made previous trips to North Korea and knows the technology. He describes a tour in which he saw a modern facility with centrifuges needed to enrich uranium to higher levels. Hecker says there are a host of new questions, but one thing is certain, "these revelations will cause a political firestorm."
The first look through the windows of the observation deck into the two long high-bay areas was stunning. Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us.... The control room was astonishingly modern. Unlike the reprocessing facility and reactor control room, which looked like 1950s or 1980s Soviet instrumentation, this control room would fit into any modern American processing facility.... I expressed surprise that they were apparently able to get cascades of 2,000 centrifuges working so quickly, and asked again if the facility is actually operating now--we were given an emphatic, yes. We were not able to independently verify this, although it was not inconsistent with what we saw.... A North Korean uranium enrichment program has long been suspected. I believe they started early, perhaps in the 1970s or 1980s, but then did not try to accelerate the effort until their dealings with A. Q. Khan in the 1990s. However, the 2,000-centrifuge capability significantly exceeds my estimates and those of most other analysts.
Update: The Institute for Science and International Security has some interesting satellite photos here.
How many nuclear warheads are there still remaining in the world today? Five thousand? Ten thousand?
Would you believe 22,500?
Now, consider this: the New START treaty on strategic weapons, which is pending ratification in the Senate, would restrict each side to 1,550 warheads, or a total of 3,100 in both the United States and Russia.
Do the math. This treaty is not taking a big bite out of nuclear arsenals. If approved, there will still be more than 19,000 nuclear weapons in the world. And most of them will still be in the United States and Russia: tactical nuclear weapons (not covered by this treaty) and strategic weapons in reserve (also not covered) as well as warheads that are offline, waiting for dismantlement.
In other words, there is still a ton of work to do. What's odd about the current debate on whether to ratify New START is that no one really is arguing that we need so many nukes. No one can point to the threats that will be deterred. Indeed, now that the Cold War has ended, it is clear we have an overhang of weapons, far more than we need. They are like old clothes stuffed in our closet, and we just won't get around to facing the fact that we will never wear them again.
The current debate over New START is misplaced. The treaty is good for verification and continuity; the right thing to do is ratify it, and get moving to the next phase, which ought to get us to far fewer weapons. Smart roadmaps are already available. A surprisingly good stack of scholarship has come out recently on how we can reach that destination. These reports deserve to be read, not just thrown into a file drawer.
President Obama's Nuclear Posture Review acknowledged the nuclear overhang. The United States and Russia "each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence," the report says. This is a document intended to set nuclear policy for the next five to ten years, endorsed by the military leadership. They get it: we could go lower.
Then there's an important essay in the Sept.-Oct. issue of Foreign Affairs, which is based on extensive computer modeling. The five authors, including three from Russia with deep experience in Soviet and Russian nuclear forces, show that it is possible to get down to 1,000 warheads without weakening security on either side. Another report which endorses one thousand as a goal came out this week from the Council on Foreign Relations.
Also, take time to read the article in Strategic Studies Quarterly (pdf) in which three Air Force thinkers concluded that "America's security can rest easily" on a comparatively small nuclear force. The United States, they wrote, could "draw down its nuclear arsenal to a relatively small number of survivable, reliable weapons dispersed among missile silos, submarines, and airplanes." They said such a force might number only 311 nuclear weapons. They get it, too.
For another perspective, read the report last year by the Federation of American Scientists, which calls for a change in the nuclear targeting strategy that would also be a step toward much lower levels of weapons.
And for a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, read the Global Zero action plan, a phased approach that would start with the United States and Russia and then draw in the other nuclear weapons powers.
All of these reports face squarely the reality that times have changed, and the nuclear arsenals need to change too.
When it was first approved by Congress, the Nunn-Lugar legislation was aimed at securing the weapons of the collapsing Soviet Union -- nuclear, chemical and biological materials left over from the Cold War. Much work has been done over the last two decades, and now the program is expanding its horizons, with an emphasis on finding and containing biological threats. They're calling it Nunn-Lugar Global.
Next week, Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and a group of Pentagon officials head to Africa, where they are planning to talk to governments about securing dangerous germs. Lugar was the original co-author of the legislation with former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.)
They'll be inspecting laboratories in Kenya and Uganda. The labs are working on infectious disease diagnosis and treatment; the concern is that they may lack sufficient security, given the lethal potential of the pathogens inside. Lugar said in a statement that he hopes to build cooperation with the governments to upgrade security -- and put the bad stuff under a tighter seal. "Deadly diseases like Ebola, Marburg and Anthrax are prevalent in Africa," Lugar said. "Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are active in Africa, and it is imperative that deadly pathogens stored in labs there are secure."
The Pentagon officials who will be travelling with Lugar include: Andy Weber, assistant to the secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs; Ken Handelman, acting assistant secretary for global strategic affairs, and Kenneth A. Myers III, director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
AFP/Getty Images. A doctor inspects a patient in Uganda after an Ebola outbreak in 2007.
In The Oligarchs, I wrote about the Russians who got rich in the wild new capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union. One of the most canny and quiet of this generation was Mikhail Khodorkovsky. For seven years, he's been behind bars, accused of corruption, and today he delivered a closing statement in his second trial. I have written of Khdorkovsky's many financial maneuvers, which were ruthless, and typical for the times. But the case against him seems arbitrary and capricious.
His statement to the court is infused with idealism about Russia's future, which must be hard to muster at a time like this.
Here's a bit of it:
I will not be exaggerating if I say that millions of eyes throughout all of Russia and throughout the whole world are watching for the outcome of this trial. They are watching with the hope that Russia will after all become a country of freedom and of the law, where the law will be above the bureaucratic official. Where supporting opposition parties will cease being a cause for reprisals. Where the special services will protect the people and the law, and not the bureaucracy from the people and the law. Where human rights will no longer depend on the mood of the tsar. Good or evil. Where, on the contrary, the power will truly be dependent on the citizens, and the court -- only on law and God. Call this conscience -- if you prefer. I believe, this -- is how it will be. I am not at all an ideal person, but I am -- a person with an idea. For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in jail, and I do not want to die there. But if I have to -- I will not hesitate. The things I believe in are worth dying for. I think I have proven this.
For the full statement in English, see Julia Ioffe’s blog, The Moscow Diaries.
Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP/Getty Images
Last weekend there was a computer failure of some kind at the F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming that took 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles temporarily off-line. As described by Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic, it appears to have been a breakdown in a launch control center computer that controls about five missiles; the failure then cascaded to others. The incident was serious enough to warrant a briefing up the chain to the commander in chief, President Obama.
The military said the incident lasted about an hour and that it did not decrease Obama’s ability to control the weapons. There are 150 Minuteman III missiles on the base.
These weapons systems are hugely complex, and snafus have happened before. The failure of a simple computer chip once triggered a false alarm when Jimmy Carter was president. Another time, the insertion of a training tape into a slot set off a mistaken alarm.
The real question to be asked at a moment like this should be: why are these missiles on launch-ready alert, ready to go within four minutes of an order from the president? This alert status for land-based missiles is a legacy of the Cold War and one that makes no sense now that the superpower confrontation is over. One of the simplest moves that the United States and Russia could make toward a safer world today would be to build in a delay, say a few hours or a day, before the missiles could be launched. This “de-alerting” would have to be done by both sides, but it might let everyone breathe a little easier on those weekends when a computer decides to take a holiday.
Update: Bruce Blair has an good explanation for what happened in a comment to Page van der Linden's post at ArmsControlWonk.
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, says in his just-published memoir, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, that President Bill Clinton’s White House lost the "presidential authorization codes" for launching a nuclear strike, and they were missing "for months." Shelton writes, "This is a big deal—a gargantuan deal -- and we dodged a silver bullet.”
Shelton says the system "failed" and asks "how in the hell could we have lost the codes and not known it?"
It sounds quite alarming, but there's a big gap here. Shelton’s account is oddly imprecise about a process that is supposed to work like clockwork.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.