Armageddon 2

The supremely bad U.S.-Russian plan to nuke asteroids.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Russia's State Atomic Energy Organization (ROSATOM) recently signed an agreement that provides for cooperation in a number of areas, including safeguards against nuclear proliferation, nuclear reactors, and defense from asteroids.

Defense from asteroids? What?

Let's be clear about one thing: When DOE and ROSATOM talk about "defense" against asteroids, that means they are going to discuss nuking rocks in space. (What do you think the ATOM stands for anyway?) Recently, a labbie at Los Alamos National Laboratory modeled a one-megaton explosion against an asteroid in space -- about 50 times the size of the device used in Hiroshima. The Russians think it "will take a nuclear device much bigger than one megaton to intercept" the sort of asteroids that interest them, according to Oleg Shubin. He should know: He's ROSATOM's deputy director of the development and testing of nuclear munitions. Boys will be boys.

We can choose between two pop culture references to mock this terrible idea.

One is Michael Bay's 1998 movie Armageddon, a Bruce Willis-Ben Affleck vehicle so terrible that Bay apologized for it. Bay really should also have apologized for the schmaltzy theme song, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." I don't know if U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz was reluctant to add asteroid defense to the program of cooperation, but I like to imagine ROSATOM Director Sergei Kirienko down on one knee, belting out the Dianne Warren-penned, Aerosmith-performed power ballad, slowly overcoming Ernie's resistance:

I don't wanna close my eyes,
I don't wanna fall asleep,
'Cause I'd miss you, babe,
And I don't wanna miss a thing.

So, there's that. There is also a crazy Russian cosmonaut character, which now seems sort of prescient.

On the other hand, the 1979 Atari video game, Asteroids, offers style. The millennials who populate Twitter might not know this, but Asteroids was amazing. (Did you know that you can play Asteroids in your web browser? Really. Go ahead, this article will still be here in a couple of hours.) My pal Arrigo makes a good case for choosing this reference: "Atari, it just sets the mood and carries that aura of passé which is so fitting."

Is someone huffing whippets in the Forrestal Building? Let us start by reviewing the myriad legal agreements that prohibit exploding nuclear weapons in space.

The Outer Space Treaty prohibits placing "any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction" in orbit, on celestial bodies, or "in outer space in any other manner" -- to say nothing of blowing them up. The Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibits nuclear explosions anywhere except underground. That means no explosions in the atmosphere or "beyond its limits, including outer space." The Threshold Test Ban Treaty limits the size of underground nuclear explosions but also has a companion agreement on "peaceful" nuclear explosions that makes clear any such explosions must be underground. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) did have a clause governing peaceful nuclear explosions, but that clause has to be interpreted now in light of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits any nuclear explosions, full stop. (The United States has signed but not ratified the CTBT.) The states that are party to the CTBT did agree to discuss underground peaceful nuclear explosions at a later date, but space is still off limits.

In other words, a mess of legal obligations stand between us and detonating a nuclear weapon in outer space. It's not entirely clear to me what there is to talk about with ROSATOM beyond how we absolutely, positively cannot do any of the things they are discussing. Who's ready for lunch?

At best, this program is make-work with a couple of junkets to Russia and northern California for bored weaponeers. At worst, it threatens to undermine of the framework of important treaties that help stop the further spread of nuclear weapons.

Now, I don't mind a paper study here or there. Asteroids -- really near-Earth objects (NEOs), of which asteroids are one type -- are a real policy issue, even if a global asteroid catastrophe is the kind of catastrophe that only happens once in a million years or so. Smaller asteroids, which can still do quite a bit of damage, hit the earth more frequently. In February, a meteor exploded over Russia. No one was killed, but lots of people were injured. And the thing about statistics is that very unlikely events are not impossible. Hell, Robin Thicke is famous. (Here is a nice primer on the asteroid threat -- a bit dated, but very well done.)

So, if some labbie wants to simulate a megaton-sized nuclear explosion against an asteroid, I suppose that's fine with me. But a cooperative program of work with ROSATOM seems like a permission slip to start planning things that are neither a good idea nor legal. There is a long and disreputable history of Strangelovian characters like Edward Teller and Lowell Wood using "planetary defense" as a justification for one nuclear weapons scheme or another, long after the demise of what little Cold War rationale might have existed. Convening the Cold War fossils for tea and cookies isn't very reassuring on this point.

Teller is a particularly important, and reviled, figure in this discussion. I.I. Rabi, one of Teller's colleagues on the Manhattan Project, is said to have reflected, "it would have been a better world without Teller." In the 1950s, Teller was talking about a 10,000- megaton bomb -- that's 670,000 Hiroshimas, in case you are counting at home. On his blackboard at Los Alamos, Teller reportedly had a device so large that it would kill everyone on earth. He named it "Backyard," since there would be no need to move it anywhere. (Alex Wellerstein has a wonderful blog post on Teller, from which much of this is drawn, entitled "In Search of a Bigger Boom.")

Teller spent the Cold War as an advocate for lots of things I don't think were good ideas and as an implacable opponent of most everything I think was. By the 1980s, he was promoting "Excalibur," a Strategic Defense Initiative project in which nuclear weapons detonated in space would generate X-ray lasers that would shoot down incoming Soviet ICBMs. (As I have noted before, Reagan administration officials had trouble grasping that the lasers resulted from nuclear explosions in orbit. One exasperated advisor took to telling then-Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, "It go boom, Cap.")

Teller outlived the Soviet Union, which left him shooting at asteroids. "Late in his life," one colleague wrote, "Teller was a powerful advocate for defending against asteroid impacts." That's a nice way of saying that, after the Cold War, Teller turned to planetary defense as a way to resurrect stupid ideas like "Backyard" and "Excalibur." Teller even schlepped his way out to Chelyabinsk-70, now Snezhinsk, one of the closed Soviet nuclear cities, to convince the Russians to join his foolish crusade. I guess it worked.

Teller said his interest was in planetary defense, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see it was about his shrinking target base. It just took an astronomer: David Morrison.

Morrison -- who is best-known for patiently dealing with all the 2012 Mayan doomsday morons -- knows more about detecting asteroids and what to do about them than just about anyone. (He wrote the primer referenced above.) Morrison knew Teller and seems to have liked him well enough. That hasn't stopped Morrison, however, from telling stories that illustrate Teller's less appealing side. After Teller's death, Morrison described a 1992 meeting of Teller, Lowell Wood, and other nuclear weaponeers at Los Alamos that Morrison and few other astronomers attended.

Morrison and another well-known scientist, Clark Chapman, have written an account of the meeting that is much too long to reproduce here. (Still, it is worth reading in full.) The short version is that the astronomers present noticed that the asteroid scenarios promoted by Teller, Wood, and other weaponeers just happened to require nuclear weapons like "Backyard" and "Excalibur." Morrison and the other astronomers were also struck by how little debate occurred among the weaponeers, who simply followed Teller and Wood's advocacy of artificial scenarios that required nuclear solutions. Morrison and Chapman are perhaps too polite to say so directly, but their account leaves the impression that Teller and Wood let their enthusiasm for certain nuclear weapons projects drive their analysis of the asteroid problem, rather than the other way around.

Excuse me, anyone seen an asteroid that might need a gigaton worth of yield?

Morrison and Chapman's account emphasizes the differences in perspective between weaponeers and astronomers, ending with a comparison of Teller's demeanor to that of the easy-going, well-liked, and equally eminent astronomer Gene Shoemaker. (Shoemaker as in "Shoemaker-Levy 9.")

The distinction between weaponeers and astronomers is relevant here -- after all, DOE and ROSATOM are largely weaponeers. And there is a good case to be made that, for now at least, the threat posed by asteroids is really an astronomy problem.

There are, of course, some hypothetical scenarios in which a nuclear explosive might be the best solution to an asteroid barreling toward our little planet. (That's the thing about hypothetical scenarios.) But the likelihood of a very large asteroid impact is extraordinarily small to begin with, and the scenarios in which a nuclear explosive would be necessary are those in which we would see the asteroid in time to act, but not with so much time that we could fashion a non-nuclear response. This is a vanishingly small subset of an already unlikely class of threats. 

The real problems are the asteroids that we won't see until after they hit us. The meteor that exploded over Russia in February struck out of the blue. And a system of nuclear interceptors is of no use against asteroids we can't detect.

Our current efforts to scan the heavens have eliminated, according to Morrison, about 80 percent of the asteroid risk. Being able to deal with the next 10 percent requires much larger investments in space surveillance, particularly new telescopes like the $390-million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) that the National Science Foundation and DOE are about to start building in Chile. This is an important project -- much more so than funding some boondoggle to sample vodka in Snezhinsk or Sarov. It is also in real budgetary peril because of sequestration. "I've been told we are a high priority for both agencies," U.C. Davis Professor and LSST Director Tony Tyson told Science magazine, "but it's hard to read the political tea leaves."

Hey, Tony, sorry about Chile. But if you want to go see the monastery at Sarov, there's travel money.

I realize that telescopes aren't nearly as sexy as a couple of megatons in space, but improving our detection capabilities can provide plenty of warning, including enough time to sober up the folks at ROSATOM and put them on a plane to Los Alamos or Livermore in the event that Ben Affleck is tied up with freeing hostages in Iran.

As you can tell, I am a little unhappy that DOE is planning some silly conference of weaponeers to talk about asteroid deflection while the LSST is on the sequestration chopping block. We should not undermine the framework of treaties and agreements that support our fight against the very real spread of nuclear weapons in order to reduce a largely hypothetical danger, particularly when we are on the verge of cutting much more useful investments in detection. Having DOE and ROSATOM talking about asteroid defense is a waste of money, and it would be even if we weren't staring at sequestration and a government shutdown.

If the folks at ROSATOM are really that bored, I've got a better idea for just a couple hundred bucks, plus shipping. What will it be: arcade or cocktail style?


National Security

Pick a Card, Any Card

How Brian Eno explains Obama's Syria policy.

Last week, I wondered if the administration was making policy on Syria using Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies.

In case you don't know, Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards. Eno -- Roxy Music keyboardist, ambient music pioneer, and uber-producer -- created the deck with his friend Peter Schmidt, a painter, to provide inspiration when facing an artistic block. Subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas, each card in the deck is printed with a cryptic aphorism -- e.g., "Change specifics to ambiguities." Selecting a card at random is intended to encourage you to look at a problem differently. "The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts," Eno explained, "which said, 'Don't forget that you could adopt this attitude,' or 'Don't forget you could adopt that attitude.' The first Oblique Strategy said 'Honour thy error as a hidden intention.'"

Honour thy error as a hidden intention, indeed! I had been kidding about the whole Eno thing. But then John Kerry opened his big mouth and stumbled his way out of the morass that is the president's policy on Syrian chemical weapons. Someone send that man a copy of Here Come the Warm Jets.

Let's recall that this entire policy is, more or less, the result of an off-the-cuff remark. A year ago, in August 2012, President Obama ad-libbed a red line, announcing "that a red line for us [in Syria] is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

"You are an engineer."

I don't think the president meant it. Or he wouldn't have meant it had he thought about it before saying it. His every action to build public support since Syria conducted a mass gas attack on August 21 betrays what looks to me like regret. The president's decision to throw himself on the mercy of the U.S. Congress seems particularly designed to evade responsibility.

And, yet, he may be saved by another off-the-cuff remark. In response to a question about whether there was anything Bashar al-Assad could do to avoid a military strike, our verbose secretary of state chose to make policy on the fly: "Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week -- turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting."

"Assemble some of the elements in a group and treat the group."

And just like that, the Russians and Syrians said, "Yes!" (It must have been a new experience for Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, who has inherited the title of "Mr. Nyet" from Andrei Gromyko.) Lavrov seized on the idea, stating, "We are calling on the Syrian authorities not only [to] agree on putting chemical weapons storages under international control, but also for its further destruction and then joining the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons."

The Syrians were delighted. Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said that "the Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and also motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression against our people."

Early reports suggest the administration is cool to the idea, though not openly hostile.

"Mute and continue."

Now, let's not get giddy here. Bashar is probably jerking us around. Saddam did the same thing -- remember that Hugh Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed he named the 1998 strike against Iraq "Desert Fox" because Saddam would always make an empty concession at the last moment to head off a strike. This time, Shelton said, he wanted to be "sly like a fox" and catch Saddam with "his pants down." Assad, too, is making a last-minute concession to head off an airstrike. But his motives matter less than the fact that he is, apparently, eager to avoid a military strike. So are the Russians. Some have derided the proposed strikes as mere symbolism. Assad's behavior suggests he thinks airstrikes would be painful. That's the first good news we've had in a while.

The Russians and the Syrians almost certainly believe that President Obama is facing a disastrous result when the authorization for the use of military force comes before the House. Assad, who apparently leaves C-SPAN on the television in his presidential palace, may well think that a last-minute offer would be the final nail in the authorization's coffin. I think he is wrong.

"Look at the order in which you do things."

We have an opportunity here, if the Obama administration can think beyond the next off-the-cuff sentence. The president should announce a dual-track policy: He will accept Syria's offer to negotiate a verifiable renunciation of Syria's WMD programs, while at the same time seeking authorization from Congress in response to the massacre at Ghouta. As commander-in-chief, he can hold strikes in abeyance, giving the diplomatic track with Syria and the United Nations enough time to succeed. If negotiations collapse, the United States will have forces in place and legal authorization for a prompt effort to degrade Syria's capabilities and punish the Assad regime. Operation Steadfast Caucus might not be a total goat rodeo after all.

A dual-track policy would make it very hard for Congress to reject the president's request for the authorization of the use of military force. It is, after all, the threat of force that has prompted Syria to propose renouncing its chemical weapons stockpile. If Congress rejects military force now, then Assad will certainly renege on his offer and keep his stockpile of chemical weapons. The president stands a far better chance to win authorization to use force in support of a plausible diplomatic effort than for a punitive strike to save him from the embarrassment of an impulsive remark. Congress can find acceptable language that expresses support for diplomatic efforts to secure Libya's renunciation of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, while authorizing the president to use force if he determines negotiations have failed.

"Go outside. Shut the door."

A dual-track approach would also move the United States closer to authorization from the United Nations Security Council. Although Russia would veto any resolution that explicitly authorized U.S. military action against Syria, the United States can push for a resolution calling on Syria to renounce its chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, one that invokes U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 and Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Such an invocation would provide at least implicit authorization to use force if Assad reneged on his disarmament commitments or used chemical weapons again.

Simply opening up negotiations with the Syrian government should shore up support for the president in both Washington and New York.

"Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them."

And, of course, it might actually work. I've posted a slightly longer discussion of the modalities at ArmsControlWonk.com, but the outlines of an agreement are relatively clear: Syria would sign and ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and publicly state that the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibits the use of chemical weapons in internal conflicts. Under the Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria would be obligated to declare its chemical weapons holdings within 30 days and destroy them within 10 years. The United States should insist that Syria accept an expedited schedule under the auspices of an international team that would help secure and remove Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons and precursors.

"Don't be frightened to display your talents."

The mechanics are not impossible, although the work of inspectors will be slowed by the security situation. It would probably take about two months for technical personnel to begin their activities. In 1991, the United Nations was able to commence its first chemical weapons inspection in Iraq about two months after Iraq accepted U.N. Security Council Resolution 687. Similarly, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which has an inspectorate of about 200 personnel, was on the ground in Libya overseeing the destruction of chemical agents about two months after Muammar al-Qaddafi renounced weapons of mass destruction in December 2003.

It is important to have realistic expectations about what Syria's disarmament would look like. Although the Bush administration was fond of the phrase "complete, verifiable, and irreversible" disarmament, the reality in Libya fell short of those lofty goals. The Libyans were not entirely forthcoming in the early stages. Some commanders were reluctant to turn over chemical weapons stockpiles, fearing that Qaddafi was engaged in some sort of perverse loyalty test. At the end of the day, Bush administration officials were forced to admit that their confidence in Libya's disarmament was a judgment call. When Qaddafi fell in 2012, the OPCW found a remaining stockpile of mustard gas, as well as empty shells.

"You can only make one dot at a time."

Still, what remained was a fraction of Qaddafi's original arsenal. Most importantly, the stockpile remained in a storage depot for the duration of the conflict. Qaddafi, who had used chemical weapons in Chad and Sudan, was unable or unwilling to gas the opposition as his hold on power crumbled. Disarmament need not be perfect. After all, an airstrike would be even less likely to destroy the entirety of Syria's capacity to make and use chemical weapons. If Assad surrenders the larger portion of his chemical weapons stockpile and refrains from further large-scale gas attacks, that outcome is far preferable to what we might achieve through force alone -- to say nothing of what happens if the president suffers a humiliation at the hands of Congress. If the deal completely collapses in six months or a year, the president will still be in a better position than he is today.

This does not, of course, achieve justice for the men, women, and children murdered on August 21. But it may very well stop more gas attacks. Often, in international relations, we have to settle for preventing further atrocities. Justice, when we are very lucky, only comes later.

Or, as Brian Eno said in one of his cards: "Left channel, right channel, centre channel."

I chose the oblique strategies in the column at random. If you find them insightful, that's your insight, not mine.