The Sarin Sweepstakes

Is the Pentagon holding a contest to make Syria's chemical weapons disappear?

On May 24, an anonymous party posted a curious challenge online, offering $50,000 to anyone who can destroy or neutralize large amounts of chemical munitions. The proposal, made on the crowdsourcing website InnoCentive, was odd in a number of ways. First, Innocentive usually asks for ideas on how to solve technical problems, not military ones. Second, the wording of the offer strongly suggests that it was made by someone in the U.S. government who is looking for ways to deal with the Syrian chemical weapons program.

In the InnoCentive challenge, an unnamed "Seeker" asks for ideas on novel approaches to tackling the "demilitarization, destruction, or neutralization of a hypothetical stockpile of chemical warfare agents." The approximate size of this stockpile: 1,500 tons, which roughly correlates to the U.S. government's estimates of the Bashar al-Assad regime's chemical arsenal. "This size and mobility issues makes it exceedingly difficult to rapidly treat … without either having to build a dedicated facility at the location of the agents (a slow, difficult, and very costly option using current designs) or having to transport the agents to an existing remediation facility (creating the possibility for release of the agents in transport)," the proposal notes. 

In November 2012, Pentagon officials estimated that 75,000 troops would be required to deal with those weapons. No details were given as to those service members' duties, but they would almost certainly involve inspecting and reinforcing physical security measures such as bunkers and perimeter fences, in addition to carrying out the actual destruction of the chemical agents themselves. By point of comparison, the United States only has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan as of this June.

According to specifications given, the solution must be mobile and transportable on C-17 Globemaster aircraft. International C-17 users include Britain, Australia, Canada, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and India. Of those, Qatar has garnered attention recently for its involvement in supplying weapons to certain Syrian rebel groups via C-17 aircraft.

If the problem presented is destruction of the post-Assad chemical weapons stockpile, then the InnoCentive challenge might be a tacit admission that Syria's exotic arsenal may be even more difficult to control than President Barack Obama's administration has stated. By its own calculations, the Defense Department sees a required deployment of forces greater than their current commitment in Afghanistan, and a technical look at existing chemical agent disposal techniques shows three options, each more nerve-wracking than the last. One option requires the building of large custom-designed incinerators on-site in Syria -- necessitating the movement of massive amounts of equipment and personnel to build and operate. A second involves mixing massive quantities of nerve agent precursors with lye and water, producing toxic gases that could easily kill the people doing the mixing. The third would tie up the entire inventory of U.S. Air Force heavy-lift aircraft for a significant period of time and possibly more plastic explosives than America has on hand.

And those are just the best-case scenarios.

It raises the question as to whether American politicians are being completely forthright about the scope and scale of what they foresee needing to do in Syria and what that would require of U.S. taxpayers.

The Anonymous Seeker

InnoCentive's headquarters declined to identify the challenge sponsor (referring to it only as someone "vetted and legitimate"), but a nearly identical posting on a Duke University website identifies the proponent as the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). That's the Pentagon division tasked with countering weapons of mass destruction.

DTRA may be working in conjunction with the U.S. Army's Chemical Materials Activity (CMA), which a March 19, 2013, brief identified as having the lead for weapons of mass destruction elimination, specifically to render foreign chemical and biological stockpiles useless.

An additional item that appears to link the U.S. government to this effort is a particular photo of bunkered U.S. chemical weapons shown in the InnoCentive post. It is identical to one listed on CMA's website.

On June 13 of this year, the White House released a statement proclaiming that the United States is "prepared for all contingencies" regarding Syrian use of chemical weapons. "Any future action … must advance our objectives," the statement added, including "securing unconventional and advanced conventional weapons; and countering terrorist activity."

If the United States is the anonymous Seeker, this statement of national assets would appear to be inconsistent with the capability sought via InnoCentive. If the government has everything it needs to deal with the problem, why troll for solutions on an open website?

This isn't the first time the U.S. government has attempted to crowdsource particularly nettlesome problems. DARPA, the Pentagon's extreme research arm, has relied on the method to get new designs for amphibious vehicles and autonomous cars. DTRA posted a million-dollar challenge in December 2012 to determine different organisms through DNA analysis.

Recently, the U.S. Air Force has used InnoCentive to find ways to airdrop pallets of humanitarian relief aid over populated areas that won't endanger those on the ground. And its Tec^Edge Innovation Pavilion has posted numerous challenges, including a 2011 effort that looked for a FAST rope descent device (something that diminishes the simplicity of that insertion technique in the first place).

The U.S. Agency for International Development used InnoCentive to find better ways of communicating securely during crises and documenting evidence of atrocities. The U.S. State Department used it to find better ways of tracking illicit arms transfers.

All those issues are hard ones to solve. None compare to the challenge of Syria's chemical arsenal.

The 3 Million Pound Problem from Hell

As of now, the United States has just two publicly known, officially sanctioned methods for disposing of chemical and biological weapons. The first involves fixed-site facilities relying on either incineration or chemical neutralization. The second is a field-expedient method used by explosive ordnance disposal technicians that involves "thermally treating" (read: blowing up) a liquid agent at a 10- or 20-to-1 ratio of C4 plastic explosive to agent. (A third option, which involves mixing the chemical precursors for nerve agents with massive amounts of lye and water, is considered even more risky than the first two.)

Prior to 1972, the United States commonly disposed of chemical munitions by burial on land or by loading them onto ships that were intentionally sunk out to sea. Both of those methods proved highly ineffective, as the residents of the Spring Valley neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and coastal Delaware residents well know. During World War I, the U.S. Army conducted extensive tests with chemical weapons at a facility on the campus of American University in Washington, D.C., and buried many of those munitions in pits nearby. With the land later sold for development, the munitions have a habit of turning up when new homes are built. Chemical weapons dumped at sea have found their way to shore, as detailed in a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report detailing three incidents from 2004 to 2012 in which clam fishermen and dredging operations turned up chemical weapons later destroyed by the military.

The U.S. Army's Chemical Demilitarization Program has four fixed-site disposal sites. They're located at Anniston, Ala.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Tooele, Utah; and Umatilla, Ore. Disposal by incineration involves physically deconstructing each munition into its component parts and burning them separately in different incinerators. Exhaust from each furnace is filtered and monitored for any residual contamination before being released into the atmosphere. Some metal parts can be recycled, while other products can only be sent to special hazardous-waste landfills. But, of course, American forces aren't about to bring Syria's chemical stockpile back home. And constructing such a facility over there would be difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. (Of the nine sites built for such work in the United States, three are closed, four are in closure, and two are under construction.) 

That leaves one other option: destroying these munitions with explosives.

To do the job right, you typically need 10 to 20 times more explosives than chemical agent. With an estimated 1,500 tons of chemical weapons in the Syrian arsenal -- 3 million pounds, in other words -- that would require at least 30 million pounds of C4 explosive to accomplish the task. That's no less than 24 million blocks of C4, which typically come in 1.25-pound bricks, known as M112s. It could be as much as 48 million such blocks.

With M112s packed 30 to a box (and that box weighs 48 pounds), those 24 million blocks would be packaged in 800,000 boxes, and that would equal 38.4 million pounds of cargo.

The 48 million blocks needed for the higher-end estimate would require 1.6 million boxes, weighing 76.8 million pounds total.

C-17 cargo planes have a maximum payload of 107,900 pounds, so transporting that much explosive cargo would require between 356 flights and 712 flights to get to Syria.

There are 220 C-17s in the U.S. inventory, so each would have to make three to four trips into Syria. And that's assuming that C-17 loadmasters and pilots would be comfortable flying more than 100,000 pounds of "bang" at one time in their aircraft. (By comparison, the B-52 can carry 70,000 pounds of weapons.)

And that doesn't include all the needed detonation cord and blasting caps to carry out those disposal shots. M112 blocks (NSN 1375-00-724-7040) cost $10.28 each in the stock system, so the cost of just the explosives would run between $250 million and $500 million dollars, to say nothing of the cost of transportation.

American Ordnance LLC, which makes M112 blocks at the Milan Army Ammunition Plant, would likely have to run its lines overtime to keep up with the demand.

Gross Contamination

To safely dispose of chemical munitions by detonation, a strong inverse temperature gradient (where the temperature decreases with altitude) is desired. This allows particulate matter and resulting vapor to rise up and away from the site. Wind speed and direction (two wholly unpredictable variables) have to be favorable for disposal as well.

When done poorly, disposal of chemical munitions by detonation can create situations like the al-Khamisiyah incident during Operation Desert Storm. Located in the southeast of Iraq, the al-Khamisiyah facility was a massive complex of a hundred ammunition bunkers spread over 40 square kilometers. In these bunkers was a mix of conventional and chemical munitions, and from March 3 to April 6, 1991, teams of U.S. Army engineers and explosive ordnance disposal technicians destroyed them with plastic explosives. Just a few years later, federal investigators looked at the disposal operations there -- and the resultant plume of chemical agent released -- as a possible explanation for the illnesses widely termed Gulf War syndrome.

Any factory in Syria built to demilitarize chemicals agents could cause gross contamination of groundwater and soil, which would have to be remediated to reduce hazards to the local population. Similarly, disposal by detonation would contaminate the immediate area and require extensive remediation or long-term quarantine. Needless to say, neither of these options is ideal. And that probably explains why someone is willing to give 50 grand to anyone who can come up with a better idea.

U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images


Chairman of the Board

How Mao unintentionally created China’s capitalist revolution.

In his opening remarks at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting between high ranking U.S. and Chinese officials, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke about his first visit to China in 1976, the year that Chairman Mao Zedong died. "It was already clear then," he said on July 10, "that China stood on the cusp of remarkable change." That was 37 years ago, when China was still one of the poorest countries in the world -- even after a century of experimentation with one formula after another for making their nation wealthy and powerful again.

It was by no means clear back then whether the incipient changes Biden sensed would really take hold. Few imagined that by the early 21st century, China would be in a position to challenge the United States economically, militarily, and even in the contest for soft power. So, after spending so many generations mired in a cycle of failed reform and revolution, how did China finally manage to chin itself up into its present period of prolonged economic dynamism?  

One of the most interesting and paradoxical explanations originates with Mao, the very person who had such a destructive effect on China in the last decades of his life. By razing the edifice of old China as relentlessly as he did, Mao may have actually cleared the way for Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's subsequent reforms, thereby playing a role in China's rebirth that the Chairman could never have imagined while alive.

No leader in 20th-century China was more totalistic and unrelenting in attacking traditional culture than Mao. Under his despotic rule, China's Confucian heritage and old social values system was subject to a series of relentless assaults unequaled in history. Since the early 20th century, reformers such as the public intellectual Liang Qichao and political leader Sun Yat-sen had recognized that China's modernization would require the destruction of the old to make way for the new. They sought to transform a docile populace into an energetic and patriotic citizenship and turn a xenophobic ruling class into a cosmopolitan and modernist elite. But none of Mao's predecessors had been able -- or willing -- to muster the same ideological boldness, much less the organizational fortitude and leadership ruthlessness, to challenge China's thousands of years of continuous culture aggressively enough to actually neutralize tradition's drag on modernization.

As a young man, Mao was a disciple of both Liang and Sun, but was made of far sterner stuff. He ultimately embraced a far more extreme form of revolution -- one that insisted on constant, violent upheaval. Where others succeeded only in muting the influence of China's ancient culture, Mao nearly extirpated its very roots, and thus its hold on several subsequent generations of Chinese. His successive political and ideological campaigns, culminating in the riotous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that ended only with his death, all but severed the bonds of tradition that had fixed father over son, husband over wife, master over student, family over individual, past over future, and continuity over change. The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966, was a lost decade of violent criticism sessions against parents, teachers, and party cadres, of urban youths being sent down to rural backwaters, and of vicious power struggles among top leaders. Mao's mass campaigns such as "Criticize Confucius and Lin Biao" and "Destroy the Four Olds" made Chinese tradition itself into the enemy of the revolution.

The bonds of that tradition had tormented earlier reformers, many of whom confessed to being unable to escape it themselves. Lu Xun, a master of modern Chinese literature, admitted to "constantly rediscovering in myself ... odious thoughts that the ancients recorded in their works." A profound influence on Mao, Lu hoped at least the next generation could be spared: "Let the conscious man assume the heavy burden of tradition, let him arch his back under the gate of darkness to allow his children to escape into the free space and light where they may spend their days in happiness and lead a truly human life." It was that "gate of darkness" which Mao sought to demolish.

But, so powerful was the hold of the past that later in their lives the first generations of reformers were almost all ineluctably drawn back into the "gate of darkness" of traditional values and culture from which they had so energetically sought to escape. Liang, Lu, and even Communist Party founder Chen Duxiu all returned to Chinese classical scholarship late in life, finding a solace in the ancient texts as they faced their own mortality and a society so stubbornly resistant to change.

Seen through such a historical lens, the wrecking ball of Mao's revolution can appear in a different light, as an instrument that was savage but necessary to clear the way for whatever might follow. It is true that Mao's final two decades -- from the Anti-Rightist Campaign and Great Leap Forward through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution -- were to a horrifying degree "lost" years for China. Tens of millions of people endured persecution in the name of Mao's "permanent revolution;" tens of millions more died from the famine caused by Mao's reckless economic policies. As Chen Yun, Mao's comrade in arms since the 1930s, summed up his legacy: "Had Chairman Mao died in 1956, there would have been no doubt that he was a great leader of the Chinese people.... Had he died in 1966, his meritorious achievements would have been somewhat tarnished, but his overall record was still very good. Since he actually died in 1976, there is nothing we can do about it."

Looked at through the cold eye of history, however, it may have been precisely those periods of Mao's most uncompromising nihilism that demolished China's old society, freeing Chinese from their traditional moorings. Mao's brutal interim was perhaps the essential, but paradoxical, precursor to China's subsequent boom under Deng and his successors, catapulting the Chinese into their present single-minded and unrestrained pursuit of wealth and power.

Even Harvard's John Fairbank, the founder of modern Chinese studies in the United States (and by no means a Mao enthusiast), could appreciate the purgative virtue of the Chairman's permanent revolution. "In the old society teachers were venerated by students, women were submissive to their husbands, and age was deferred to by youth," wrote Fairbank in 1980. "Breaking down such a system took a long time because one had to change one's basic values and assumptions accepted in childhood. The times called for a leader of violent willpower, a man so determined to smash the old bureaucratic establishment that he would stop at nothing."

For better or worse, Mao was such a man -- modern China's "perennial gale of creative destruction," in economist Joseph Schumpeter's famous phrase; or, as Liang Qichao had yearned at the dawn of the 20th century, a leader willing to "carry out harsh rule, and with iron and fire forge and temper our countrymen for 20, 30, even 50 years."

In 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to prevent China from "taking the capitalist road," yet ironically his efforts ended up having precisely the opposite effect. "A common verdict is, ‘no Cultural Revolution, no economic reform,'" declare Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, leading historians of the period, in their 2008 book Mao's Last Revolution. "The Cultural Revolution was so great a disaster that it provoked an even more profound cultural revolution, precisely the one that Mao intended to forestall."

By force-marching Chinese society away from its old ways of doing things, Mao presented Deng with a vast construction site on which the demolition of old structures and strictures had been mostly completed, making it shovel-ready for Deng's bold new policy of reform and opening up. Mao's epic destructiveness, which was supposed to prepare China for his version of utopian socialism, instead paved the way for China's transformation into exactly the kind of capitalist economy that he most reviled during his lifetime, but also a nation that Mao, like every modern Chinese reformer before him, dreamed of fashioning: a strong and prosperous one. The question for Chinese leaders now is what exactly they intend to do with their newfound and hard-fought wealth and power -- and the challenge for the United States, is how to best help shape the answer in ways beneficial for both nations' people. 

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