15 December 2015

Scared of Global Warming: Go Nuke!

Chuck Spinney
This essay responds to a short opinion piece (which I urge readers to read before continuing) in the Guardian co-authored by scientist/political activist James Hansen and three colleagues (hereafter referred to as Hansen et al).  They propose to decarbonize electrical power production by replacing all fossil fueled power plants with nuclear power plants by 2050. All four are famous climatologists and very prominent advocates of the CO2 driven catastrophic global warming hypothesis.  All have advanced degrees in physics or meteorology.  None appear to have a background in nuclear engineering, nuclear safety, nuclear waste management, nuclear power plant design, nuclear powerplant maintenance, quality assurance, industrial cost estimating, industrial engineering, or industrial-scale construction/project management. 
If executed, their conversion proposal would be the most massive industrial/economic project in human history. It would also be unprecedented in terms of required international cooperation. Why is this necessary?
The authors state categorically that this crash program is necessary, because it is the “only way” to prevent catastrophic climate change (aka global warming).  Bear in mind, catastrophic climate change is at best a theoretical future possibility premised on the long range predictions of computer models that cannot be validated with reliable empirical data.[1]
Hansen et al claim without proof or expertise that new reactor designs are so safe and will have so little waste that the risks are small and costs are economical (at least when compared to the catastrophic risks and costs of the climate threat).
Their proposal embodies unstated management assumptions: They assume that an unprecedented crash program can be managed efficiently and safely, and that the pressures of time and the incentives of profits won’t tempt profit-maximizing contractors to cut corners.   They say nothing about the management burden, nothing about the investment and operating costs, and nothing about how those costs will be passed on to consumers in the form of electricity prices and tax subsidies. They do not address the obvious less costly alternatives: For example, the question of whether or not retrofitting/fielding conventional coal plants with modern CO2 scrubbing technologies might produce a sufficient reduction in CO2 to offset the disastrous effects of the warming hypothesis. Nor do they address the alternative of converting from coal to much cleaner natural gas.  Both alternatives would dramatically reduce CO2 emissions, drastically reduce truly dangerous pollutants like CO and black carbon and cost less than the nuc option.[2]
Together, their assertions make the Pentagon’s reckless predictions of the costs, production schedules, and effectiveness of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a far simpler prediction and management problem, look carefully thought out and conservative — and we all know how those turned out.  As we used to tell senior management in the Pentagon: ‘Mr. Secretary, if you want it bad, you’ll get it bad.’
The extreme nature of their proposal does bring one of the lingering mysteries of the climate debate into sharp relief, however: namely the murky relationships among global warming, nuclear power, and antipathy to coal fueled power plants.  This mystery has been lingering in the ether since Margaret Thatcher, a fan of nuclear power and a vitriolic enemy of unions — particularly the coal miners union — became the first world class politician to flack the dangers of manmade global warming caused of fossil fuel emissions. She later savagely recanted her position on global warming in a memoir written in retirement.
Let’s examine the immense scale and cost of their nuclear proposal.
According to the IAEA PRIS data base, there are 441 nuclear power reactors in the world actively generating electricity; 2 reactors are in long term shut down; and there are 65 new power reactors are under construction in 15 countries (almost 2/3 or which are concentrated in 4 countries: China 24, Russia 9, India 6, US 5).  Worldwide, there are also 156 reactors in permanent shutdown.  These numbers suggest that a world wide total of almost 600 commercial electrical power reactors have been produced since the first commercial reactor was opened for operation in England in 1956, almost 60 years ago.  
Against this level of reactor production and inventory, Hansen and his colleagues want readers to believe the “only” way to prevent the future climate catastrophe is to build 115 new reactors per year for the next 35 years.  That implies a total of 4025 new commercial reactors by 2050, a number that they did not deign to mention. Nor did they say how much this program might cost or how this production would be organized.
Let’s build a notional construction scenario to construct 4025 reactors in 35 years to get a feel for what Hansen et al are calling for.  We can then compare the build rates in that notional program to historical construction rates.  
We begin by making some highly optimistic simplifying assumptions that are biased in such a way as to understate the size and cost the of the task. 
Construction schedule = 4 years. According to the IAEA, the average time for the 59 reactors under construction in 2012 is predicted to be 7.4 years, with at least 18 reactors having encountered “costly and multiyear” construction delays. Two projects have been in construction for 40 years. (see Figure 12 and its discussion).  In the best of circumstances, assuming no schedule slippages, and using the newest designs and modular construction techniques, nuclear power advocates now claim it should take 40-48 months to build a power plant.[3]  So, for the sake of argument, lets assume optimistically that they are right and that it will take only 4 years (instead of 7+ years) to build each future reactor and there will be no construction delays during the next 35 years.
Reactor cost = $7 billion per reactor. Our notional reactor will be the the Westinghouse AP1000.  This is one of the most advanced reactors currently in the US and Chinese power plants that are now under construction, with possibilities elsewhere: Let’s use the cost estimate of $7 billion per reactor that were used in the original estimates for the AP1000 for reactors #3 and #4 in the Plant Vogtle project in Georgia.  This unit cost is likely to be low, because we are ignoring the additional $900 million adjustment in the Vogtle estimate that was in the works as of 2012 as well as any cost increases associated with the AP1000’s ongoing construction problems in China. The $7 billion per reactor implies and optimistic estimate for a total construction cost of $28 trillion for 4024 reactors over the next 35 years.
Reactor Life = 40 years.  Most of today's nuclear plants which were originally designed for 30 or 40-year operating lives. We will assume the upper end.  This will not effect the production program between 2016 and 2050, but reactors wear out, so we want to set up a construction profile that maintains some capacity for eventual replacement (about 100 reactors per year).
Production Rates: Bear in mind our goal is simply to get a feel for what Hansen et al are proposing. What follows is illustrative construction schedule and is in no way realistic, in that it optimistically assumes no waste, fraud, or abuse in what would be a gigantic surge of construction activity. We will assume construction starts in 2016 by initiating the construction of 70 new reactors (in effect immediately doubling the worldwide total of 65 are in various stages of construction). Production then builds up rapidly to a maximum of 148 new starts per year, holds steady for 4 years, then declines to a steady state of 100 starts per year until 2050. Given the preceding assumption, this schedule would bring 4025 reactors on line by 2054 and maintain capacity to begin replacing reactors scheduled for retirement. The first tranche would come on line in 2020 and the last tranche would come on line in 2054 (four years after the deadline set by Hansen et al).
Figure 1 compares the rate of reactor start ups under this notional program to the worldwide rate of startups between 1956 to 2015. It speaks for itself. Remember, this program is not realistic — but it matches the numbers in Hansen et al; and that brings me to the point: Any notional scenario that matches their numbers will create the same pie in the sky impression.

Figure 1: Hansen et al’s Fantasy Scenario

Hansen et al justify this immense buildup of nuc power stations by claiming the risks posed by these nucs are small relative to the catastrophic risk of climate change.
So, let’s consider the balance of risks posed by the uncertainties implicit in this portrayal. When one begins to relax the planning assumptions in the name of realism, unit costs will increase, as will total program cost, schedules will stretch out, the reactor buildup (the red bars) will shift to the right, and the age of the existing inventory of reactors will increase. The theoretical date of decarbonization would be pushed ever further into the future, bringing into question the whole rationale for the crash program.
While Hansen et al claim this kind of crash program is needed to prevent a hypothesized climate catastrophe, there is obviously a lot of risk for real human and material screw ups in building and operating so many nuclear power reactors so quickly. They ignored these risks in their oped, but it behooves one to think about them.
Commercial nuclear power has an impressive safety record, with only two major catastrophes in 50 years out of the 600 reactors built to date: one light water graphite modulated reactor (considered by many experts to be a dangerous design) exploded at Chernobyl, and several more modern light water reactors at the Fukushima plant were seriously damaged by the effects of a major earthquake.  Both accidents resulted in terrifying radiation leakages.  While the causes of these catastrophes were very different, each had horrifying environmental and human consequences. The full extent of these consequences will not be known for generations, given the nature of radiation damage to organic tissue and DNA.  The worst incident is US history was the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, fortunately contained. Note how Figure 1 shows that actual world wide nuclear power plant construction slowed to a crawl. That slow down was caused in part because of the quite reasonable fears raised by these incidents.
But there is more to the slow down.  Construction of new reactors has also been slowed by recurring safety issues in existing reactors, including (1) the intractable technical and political problems of radioactive waste disposal; (2) reactor management and operational issues related to poor quality control, deficient inspection and safety procedures, and questionable compliance reporting; and (3) the effects of aging of existing reactors and supporting equipment. 
Yet the primary reasons construction of additional new Reactors in the United States stopped between 1978 and 2009 were related to the huge cost-increases and substantial schedule slippages in construction — i.e. due to management fiascos including poor planning and financing. Because of these fiascos, the taxpayers were made to foot bill on many of these projects. 
Given this management history, coupled with the current neo-liberal business culture’s obsessive focus on short-term goals and profits, the high up-front costs for a new reactor exceeds the loan borrowing capacity of most utilities. Therefore, in the US, investors demand that the government subsidize loans with federal guarantees. How such guarantees will be arranged around the world is yet another subject Hansen et al deigned not to address.  But if past is prologue, the real cost of the world wide program in Figure 1 would be well in excess of $28 trillion and investors will demand guarantees that will ultimately be paid for by consumers.  
There is yet another obvious if subtle risk factor that was totally ignored by Hansen et al: It must be assumed that the dramatic slow down in recent construction has been accompanied by a decrease in skilled nuclear operator labor, as well as engineering and hands-on nuclear program management expertise.  That consideration raises a question how safe and feasible it would be to rapidly expand to a crash program that multiplies total reactor production by a factor of 6.7 in only 70 percent of the time it took to produce all reactors in the world to date.

Perhaps the biggest weakness in Hansen et al, however, is logical. The case for decarbonization of power production has always rested on what environmentalists call the precautionary principle.  This is not a scientific principle but rather an argumentative proposition designed to justify a course of action. It does so by purporting to account for uncertain future risks associated with problems posed by damage to a “commons.”  Garett Hardin brilliantly analyzed the difficulties of coping with this kind of problem in a seminal 1968 paper entitled The Tragedy of the Commons (ironically, his subject was the risk of nuclear war and morality).  
The precautionary “principle” in its current incarnation argues that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of being dangerous to the public or to the environment, and there is no scientific consensus that the action or policy is not dangerous, then the burden of proof that it is not dangerous falls on those taking an action. The conjugation of “suspected” and “not” in this construction means that the person charged with the burden of proof must prove a negative — which is impossible.  The precautionary principle makes for a powerful emotional argument, particularly combined with an exaggerated sense of fear, because it turns the scientific principles of falsifiability and conditional truth on their heads.[4]  Moreover, invoking the Precautionary Principle places no logical limits on the upper bound for the cost of an ‘ounce of prevention.’ Anyone who doubts the power of this argument should examine how successfully the Pentagon uses the precautionary principle (in the form of inflating future threats) to jack up its budget.[5]
But even if one accepts the precautionary principle in this case, one must admit that it must also apply to nuclear power.  Hansen and his colleagues are claiming that the theoretical and unprovable danger posed by CO2 [see endnote 1] is more dangerous than the dangers implicit in an unprecedented expansion of nuclear power.  The proof that nuclear power is both costly and very dangerous is far more obvious and far more empirical than any theoretical future dangers posed by global warming: Chernobyl and Fukushima, not to mention the lesser dangers in Rocky Flats, Hanford, etc. are proof of nuclear power’s clear and present danger.  Yet against the social and economic costs of this known danger, Hansen et al would have the reader believe that the cost of a hypothesized catastrophic danger in the future is greater than the known danger.
So while Hansen et al's CO2 argument is based on the precautionary principle, the clear and present danger inherent in their proposal to unleash an unprecedented crash program in nuclear power plant construction makes a mockery of the very principle they rest their case on. And that, dear reader, is a logical absurdity. 
[1] See Professor John Christie’s statement and Professor Judith Curry’s statement to Congress for succinct statements of the some of the problems of these computer models.  The short video of Professor Freeman Dyson’s fascinating critique is also useful for people trying to understand the modeling problem (about 9 minutes into the video) as well as larger issues surrounding the alleged dangers posed by carbon dioxide. All of these critics agree with the physics of CO2 being a greenhouse gas.
[2] Currently, the cost of nuclear power — particularly the capital cost — would be prohibitive without substantial government subsidies (in the form of long term government loan guarantees).  Even if one believes the very unreliable and typically optimistic cost life cycle cost estimates for nuclear power, on average, life cycle costs would as much a 2.6 times coal (w/o co2 scrubbing), 1.05 times coal (with scrubbing that removes up to 90% of the CO2),  and 1.6 times natural gas, in $/MW-hr.
[3] Each plant usually has between 1 and 3 reactors. The US, for example has 61 plants with 99 reactors.  Japan is home to the world’s largest nuclear power plant with 7 reactors.
[4] This video clip from one physicist Richard Feyman’s famed Messenger Lectures is a brilliantly simple and humorous explanation of the scientific principles of falsifiability and conditional truth.
[5] The inmates of Pentagon routinely invoke the precautionary principle plus the politics fear to jack up defense budgets — but it goes by a more straightforward term: Threat Inflation (e.g., the Bomber Gap, the Missile Gap, and the Window of Vulnerability during the Cold War.

07 December 2015

Mountain Ambush: Turkish F-16s vs. Russian SU-24s

While circumstances of the recent  shoot-down of the Russian SU-24 by a Turkish F-16 in the border region of Turkey and Syria remain murky, Andrew Cockburn’s interview of Pierre Sprey, attached below, is best analysis that I have seen to date.    Be warned, however: I am biased, both the interviewer and the interviewee are good friends of mine.  
This compound map may help you to follow their discussion.  The shoot-down took place in the vicinity of the southern-most point of Turkey’s Hatay Province, a province with a history contested between Turkey and Syria ever since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. (When I visited the port captain’s office at Latakia harbor Syria (in 2008), the map behind his desk designated Hatay as “Occupied Syria.”)  The Russian SU-24 crashed into Syria and the one surviving pilot landed in Syria in the area just to west of the southernmost point of Hatay, probably in the area enclosed by the blue circle on the compound map below.

The target area was about five miles south of Yayladagi, probably somewhere inside the magenta oval in this Google Earth satellite photo of the border area.  The red line is the Turko-Syrian border. This corner of Hatay province is rugged, forested mountains with few roads (the yellow lines), and it is likely that infiltration routes for refugees into Turkey and jihadis out of Turkey are narrow foot paths through the mountains.  If Sprey’s analysis is correct, the pilot could easily stray briefly across the southernmost tip of the Turkish border on his high altitude (~ 18,000 ft) flight path from the east or south east, and if hit, the pilot would likely land in Syria since his target area was well south of the Turkish border.  This border geometry should help the reader appreciate Sprey’s hypothesis with respect to careful timing and a prepared ambush.
One factor not addressed in most media reports is that the Russian airplanes were sitting ducks for the Turkish F-16s waiting in ambush with IR missiles.  The SU-24 Fencer is a large, lumbering 40 ton, late-sixties Soviet knockoff of our infamously un-maneuverable F-111 Aardvark.  
I urge readers read carefully the entire interview at the link indicated below.

The Harper’s Blog

Mountain Ambush
“Looking at the detailed Russian timeline of what happened,” says defense analyst Pierre Sprey, “I’d say the evidence looks pretty strong that the Turks were setting up an ambush.”
By Andrew Cockburn, Harpers, December 4, 2015, 5:57 pm

On November 24, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber near the border of Turkey and Syria. In the immediate aftermath, officials from the two countries offered contradictory versions of what transpired: Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed that the plane was flying over Syrian territory when it was downed; Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan countered that it was inside Turkey’s border and had been warned ten times to alter its course. Hours later, President Obama threw his support behind Erdogan. “Turkey,” he said, “has a right to defend its territory and its airspace.”
I asked Pierre Sprey, a longtime defense analyst and member of the team that developed the F-16, to examine what we know about the downing and determine what actually occurred that morning.
The Russians have claimed the November 24 downing of their bomber was a deliberate pre-planned ambush by the Turks. Is there any merit in that argument?

Looking at the detailed Russian timeline of what happened—as well as the much less detailed Turkish radar maps—I’d say the evidence looks pretty strong that the Turks were setting up an ambush. They certainly weren’t doing anything that would point to a routine air patrol along the border. Their actions in no way represented a routine, all day long type of patrol. … continued

29 November 2015

What is Terrorism?

The Reign of Absurdiocy 
Uri Avnery, 28/11/15
[The writer (bio), a former member of the Irgun, a hero of the 1948 Arab Israeli War, and former member of the Knesset, is Israel’s leading peace advocate.]
There is no such thing as "international terrorism".
To declare war on "international terrorism" is nonsense. Politicians who do so are either fools or cynics, and probably both.
Terrorism is a weapon. Like cannon. We would laugh at somebody who declares war on "international artillery". A cannon belongs to an army, and serves the aims of that army. The cannon of one side fire against the cannon of the other.
Terrorism is a method of operation. It is often used by oppressed peoples, including the French Resistance to the Nazis in WW II. We would laugh at anyone who declared war on “international resistance”.
Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military thinker, famously said that "war is the continuation of politics by other means". If he had lived with us today, he might have said: "Terrorism is a continuation of policy by other means."
Terrorism means, literally, to frighten the victims into surrendering to the will of the terrorist.
Terrorism is a weapon. Generally it is the weapon of the weak. Of those who have no atom bombs, like the ones which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which terrorized the Japanese into surrender. Or the aircraft which destroyed Dresden in the (vain) attempt to frighten the Germans into giving up.
Since most of the groups and countries using terrorism have different aims, often contradicting each other, there is nothing "international" about it. Each terrorist campaign has a character of its own. Not to mention the fact that nobody considers himself (or herself) a terrorist, but rather a fighter for God, Freedom or Whatever.
(I cannot restrain myself from boasting that long ago I invented the formula: "One man's terrorist is the other man's freedom fighter".)
MANY ORDINARY Israelis felt deep satisfaction after the Paris events. "Now those bloody Europeans feel for once what we feel all the time!"
Binyamin Netanyahu, a diminutive thinker but a brilliant salesman, has hit on the idea of inventing a direct link between jihadist terrorism in Europe and Palestinian terrorism in Israel and the occupied territories.
It is a stroke of genius: if they are one and the same, knife-wielding Palestinian teenagers and Belgian devotees of ISIS, then there is no Israeli-Palestinian problem, no occupation, no settlements. Just Muslim fanaticism. (Ignoring, by the way, the many Christian Arabs in the secular Palestinian "terrorist" organizations.)
This has nothing to do with reality. Palestinians who want to fight and die for Allah go to Syria. Palestinians – both religious and secular – who shoot, knife or run over Israeli soldiers and civilians these days want freedom from the occupation and a state of their own.
This is such an obvious fact that even a person with the limited IQ of our present cabinet ministers could grasp it. But if they did, they would have to face very unpleasant choices concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So let's stick to the comfortable conclusion: they kill us because they are born terrorists, because they want to meet the promised 72 virgins in paradise, because they are anti-Semites. So, as Netanyahu happily forecasts, we shall "live forever by our sword".
TRAGIC AS the results of each terrorist event may be, there is something absurd about the European reaction to recent events.
The height of absurdiocy was reached in Brussels, when a lone terrorist on the run paralyzed an entire capital city for days without a single shot being fired. It was the ultimate success of terrorism in the most literal sense: using fear as a weapon.
But the reaction in Paris was not much better. The number of victims of the atrocity was large, but similar to the number killed on the roads in France every couple of weeks. It was certainly far smaller than the number of victims of one hour of World War II. But rational thought does not count. Terrorism works on the perception of the victims.
It seems incredible that ten mediocre individuals, with a few primitive weapons, could cause world-wide panic. But it is a fact. Bolstered by the mass media, which thrive on such events, local terrorist acts turn themselves nowadays into world-wide threats. The modern media, by their very nature, are the terrorist's best friend. Terror could not flourish without them.
The next best friend of the terrorist is the politician. It is almost impossible for a politician to resist the temptation to ride on the wave of panic. Panic creates "national unity", the dream of every ruler. Panic creates the longing for a "strong leader". This is a basic human instinct.
Francois Hollande is a typical example. A mediocre yet shrewd politician, he seized the opportunity to pose as a leader. "C'est la guerre!" he declared, and whipped up a national frenzy. Of course this is no "guerre". Not World War III. Just a terrorist attack by a hidden enemy. Indeed, one of the facts disclosed by these events is the incredible foolishness of the political leaders all around. They do not understand the challenge. They react to imagined threats and ignore the real ones. They do not know what to do. So they do what comes naturally: make speeches, convene meetings and bomb somebody (no matter who and what for).
Not understanding the malady, their remedy is worse than the disease itself. Bombing causes destruction, destruction creates new enemies who thirst for revenge. It is a direct collaboration with the terrorists.
It was a sad spectacle to see all these world leaders, the commanders of powerful nations, running around like mice in a maze, meeting, speechifying, uttering nonsensical statements, totally unable to deal with the crisis.
THE PROBLEM is indeed far more complicated than simple minds would believe, because of an unusual fact: the enemy this time is not a nation, not a state, not even a real territory, but an undefined entity: an idea, a state of mind, a movement that does have a territorial base of sorts but is not a real state.
This is not a completely unprecedented phenomenon: more than a hundred years ago, the anarchist movement committed terrorist acts all over the place without having a territorial base at all. And 900 years ago a religious sect without a country, the Assassins (a corruption of the Arabic word for "hashish users"), terrorized the Muslim world.
I don't know how to fight the Islamic State (or rather Non-State) effectively. I strongly believe that nobody knows. Certainly not the nincompoops who man (and woman) the various governments.
I am not sure that even a territorial invasion would destroy this phenomenon. But even such an invasion seems unlikely. The Coalition of the Unwilling put together by the US seems disinclined to put "boots on the ground". The only forces who could try – the Iranians and the Syrian government army – are hated by the US and its local allies.
Indeed, if one is looking for an example of total disorientation, bordering on lunacy, it is the inability of the US and the European powers to choose between the Assad-Iran-Russia axis and the IS-Saudi-Sunni camp. Add the Turkish-Kurdish problem, the Russian-Turkish animosity and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the picture is still far from complete.
(For history-lovers, there is something fascinating about the reemergence of the centuries-old struggle between Russia and Turkey in this new setting. Geography trumps everything else, after all.)
It has been said that war is far too important to leave to the generals. The present situation is far too complicated to leave to the politicians. But who else is there?
ISRAELIS BELIEVE (as usual) that we can teach the world. We know terrorism. We know what to do.
But do we?
For weeks now, Israelis have lived in a panic. For lack of a better name, it is called "the wave of terror". Every day now, two, three, four youngsters, including 13-year old children, attack Israelis with knives or run them over with cars, and are generally shot dead on the spot. Our renowned army tries everything, including draconian reprisals against the families and collective punishment of villages, without avail.
These are individual acts, often quite spontaneous, and therefore it is well-nigh impossible to prevent them. It is not a military problem. The problem is political, psychological.
Netanyahu tries to ride this wave like Hollande and company. He cites the Holocaust (likening a 16-year old boy from Hebron to a hardened SS officer at Auschwitz) and talks endlessly about anti-Semitism.
All in order to obliterate one glaring fact: the occupation with its daily, indeed hourly and minutely, chicanery of the Palestinian population. Some government ministers don't even hide anymore that the aim is to annex the West Bank and eventually drive out the Palestinian people from their homeland.
There is no direct connection between IS terrorism around the world and the Palestinian national struggle for statehood. But if they are not solved, in the end the problems will merge – and a far more powerful IS will unite the Muslim world, as Saladin once did, to confront us, the new Crusaders.
If I were a believer, I would whisper: God forbid.

10 November 2015

The Rubio Plan: Peace Thru Pork in the Hall of Mirrors

Flush With Cash, Running On Empty (III)
Chuck Spinney
This is the third in a series of occasional postings describing the political-economy of US defense spending in the 21st Century. Postings I and II can be found here and here. This was reposted as Rubio's Big-time Military Build-up on 11 November 2015 in Consortium News.]
Attached herewith is Presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s “peace thru strength” plan for “restoring” America’s defense.  To be sure, this is only an opening shot in a Presidential bidding war that is sure to intensify in the coming months, with each candidate in every party trying to out-tough the others by spending more on defense (Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul perhaps being the only exceptions).
Before reading Rubio's piece of strategic wisdom, I urge you to think about the magnitude of what Rubio calls "$1 trillion in indiscriminate defense budget cuts.”  Rubio’s $1 trillion total is for cutbacks in the Pentagon’s future projections of its defense spending plans, not the actual cutbacks from the spending peak in 2010.  The graphic below places the actual cutbacks into a historical perspective: The chart shows that DoD spending declined by between $110 and $154 billion between 2010 and 2015, depending on if or how one chooses to account for inflation.   

One can compare the reductions from the most recent boom's peak in 2010 (labeled #IV in the graphic) to those reductions after earlier peaks (#s I, II, & III).  The effects of the $110 to $154 billion in cutbacks since 2010 are now embodied in Mr. Obama spending plan for 2016-2020 (highlighted in the yellow rectangle on the far right of each graph).  These cutbacks do not come close to accounting for the Pentagon's bow wave* of financial requirements in the laundry list outlined by Rubio in his attached “policy” statement.  
The chart shows there is a boom-bust character to defense spending.  The recent inflection point suggests we are approaching the end of the fourth bust and may be on the cusp of another or fifth boom.  Comparatively speaking, the current inflection in DoD’s spending shows signs of bottoming out at a much higher level than for any of the three preceding busts, all of which were conditioned by the Cold War.  Even the prominent spending hawk Loren Thompson recently characterized the current bust as being the “mildest defense downturn on record."   Note that Thompson's characterization of the most recent downturn as being relatively mild remains unchanged, regardless of how one accounts for the effects of inflation.  This is true even if one uses DoD’s self-serving estimates of inflation which make the earlier budgets of the 1950s and 1960s look larger — thereby making the current budget look like less of a departure from past budgets.  
Yet Mr. Rubio wants us to believe the most recent cutbacks have been catastrophic in their effect.  So, one might reasonably ask Mr. Rubio the following question: After spending all that money during the boom between 1997 and 2010, which was by far the largest spending spree since the end of WWII, and given the relative mildness of the recent declines, why do you say it is now necessary to embark on an even larger crash program to rebuild our defenses?  
Could it be that the pissant war on terror has cost far more than either of the far more intense wars in Korea or Vietnam (intensity being measured in terms of optempos and forces deployed)?  And if so, would you please explain why the the Global War on Terror costs so much more than Vietnam or Korea, or for that matter even World War I?  And can you explain why the diversion of money into GWOT resulted in a requirement for the kind of massive investment program you describe below?  
In short, Mr. Rubio, where did the money spent in boom #IV go?  And how can you account for it, given that the Pentagon’s own bookkeeping system can not pass an audit that links transactions to appropriations as required by the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 and the Accountability and Appropriations Clauses of the Constitution?
Such common sense questions, of course, will not be asked in any of the circuses passing for presidential debates, or by pliant reporters in the mainstream media, or by poohbahs on the Sunday talk shows.  But if you want to get a hint of what these record budgets bought for the taxpayers, before the budget started declining in 2010, I would urge you to reread the blaster, Flush With Cash, Running on Empty (I), posted last June.  
Since no one will ask Rubio these questions, ask yourself, dear reader, “What kind of security will Rubio's plan really buy for John Q. Average American?"  Hint: Could the answer be more of the same, that is to say: (1) continued aging of weapons, (2) more shrinking of force structures, (3) increased pressure to cut readiness to bail out the imploding modernization program, and most importantly, (4) a continuation of ever intensifying budget crises fueled by cost growth to be exploited by demagogic ignoramuses who are in the hip pocket of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex?
The term “bow wave” refers to a buildup of budget requirements in the future that is created by investment decisions made today. It is a chronic feature of defense planning and is created deliberately by the bureaucratic gaming strategies explained in Part III of my 1990 pamphlet Defense Power Games. The bow wave of rising investment requirements sets up the conditions for a continual budget crisis that creates increasing pressure to raise defense spending over the long term. These pressures have nothing to do with any external threats facing the United States but go a long way in explaining the boom and bust pattern of defense spending..
Marco’s Plan to Restore Military Strength

As President, Marco will:
Restore Military Strength
  • Work to return to Secretary Gates’ fiscal year 2012 budget baseline over the course of his first term and begin to undo the damage caused by $1 trillion in indiscriminate defense cuts.
  • Plug critical operations and maintenance shortfalls, restore military readiness through accelerated training and exercises, and make targeted investments in urgent modernization priorities.
  • Build a “full spectrum” force able to maintain security simultaneously in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Recapitalize the Navy
  • Immediately begin to increase the size of the Navy to a minimum of 323 ships by 2024.
  • Work with our allies in Asia to forward deploy a second aircraft carrier in the Pacific while increasing the carrier force from 10 to 12.
  • Restore continuous, credible naval combat power to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Build the new Ohio-class Replacement (ORP) ballistic submarine to ensure a credible and survivable 21st century strategic deterrent.
  • Build at least two attack submarines every year to preserve America’s undersea dominance amid intensifying naval competition.
  • Fully integrate the F-35B and push ahead with development of a new amphibious-assault vehicle.
  • Build an amphibious fleet of 38 ships (from today’s 30) to meet the Marine Corps wartime lift requirement.
  • Reverse reductions to the operating status of 11 of our 22 current cruisers.
  • Replenish depleted inventories of critical munitions while accelerating development and procurement of new advanced strike and anti-ship missiles.
  • Fully fund Navy-Marine Corps maintenance and modernization accounts.
Modernize the Air Force
  • Invest in better Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capabilities at the theater and strategic levels.
  • Prioritize returning Air Force readiness to pre-Obama levels.
  • Accelerate F-35A procurement.
  • Develop and field the Long Range Strike Bomber capable of both conventional and nuclear missions to replace our current aging fleet of B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers.
  • Reposture the tactical Air Force for increased presence in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia.
  • Ensure that the KC-46 tanker program stays on track to replace the aging KC-135 fleet.
  • Ensure development of the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon.
Strengthen the Ground Forces
  • Reverse the current cuts and maintain the Marine Corps and the Army at their pre-9/11 end-strengths of 182,000 and 490,000 respectively.
  • Strengthen international partnerships to reduce the need to deploy ground troops.
  • Work to return a corps headquarters to Europe and station additional BCTs in Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression.
  • Reexamine the Army’s mobility and prepositioning to respond to crises in the Pacific.
  • Continue to invest in Army Special Operations capabilities to remain at the cutting edge of the continuing war on terrorism.
  • Maintain the Army’s proficiency across the full spectrum of war in order to combat state actors, defeat non-state threats, and shape the security environment to America’s advantage.
  • Revamp the Army’s acquisition system and specifically look at options to modernize its aging vehicle and helicopter fleets.
Reform Military Personnel and Benefits
  • Reform the military benefit structure and military career paths and specializations to attract and retain high quality personnel to the military, while preserving a sustainable balance between training and procurement needs.
  • Continue recent efforts to reform military retirement, education, and healthcare on the basis of the recommendations of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
  • Ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs is accountable and that our veterans have access to the best treatment possible when they return from the battlefield.
Transform the Pentagon Bureaucracy
  • Optimize the Pentagon workforce by shrinking the Pentagon bureaucracy and achieving the correct balance between uniformed personnel, civilians, and contractors.
  • Facilitate a more-technologically agile and adaptable workforce that can leverage technological evolution.
  • Develop fellowship programs in the private sector for defense department personnel to renew skills to comport with industry standards.
Overhaul the Acquisition Process
  • Streamline the acquisition process to prevent costly mistakes, hold private contractors accountable, and field top of the line technology to future warfighters.
  • Remove barriers and strengthen exemptions for commercial acquisitions allowing the Pentagon to leverage cutting edge commercial technology, such as data analytics, cloud computing, 3-D printing, and robotics.
Modernize Missile Defense for the 21st Century
  • Expand missile defense by speeding up deployment of interceptors in Europe, deploying a third site in the United States, and ensuring that advanced programs are adequately funded.
  • Work interoperably with allies on missile defense — we should encourage the spread of missile defense technology as a solution to the spread of ballistic and cruise missiles.
  • Increase the Missile Defense Agency’s Research & Development budget and create a rapid-fielding office to focus on fielding directed energy weapons, railguns, UAV-enabled defenses, and other means to defeat a threat missile across its entire flight trajectory.
Modernize and Protect Strategic Assets
  • Ensure continued freedom of access to space in the face of a potential adversary’s development of anti-satellite missiles.
  • Modernize the nuclear arsenal and stop the Obama administration’s proposed cuts to the nuclear arsenal.
  • Pursue arms control only when it is in America’s interest and when prospective negotiating partners comply with their commitments to us.
Promote Innovation for the 21st Century
  • Ensure U.S. military technological superiority by prioritizing key areas of defense technology that will counter those adversaries and competitors seeking to undermine our military predominance.
  • Improve anti-submarine capabilities; procure advanced air warfare capabilities; sustain our advantage in precision strike from land, air, and sea; and invest in electronic warfare capabilities.
  • Expand the use of rapid acquisition processes for key innovative technologies.
Posture the Force for the Cyber Era
  • Improve cyber defense capabilities by hardening DoD systems and examining the sourcing of our weapons components.
  • Outline a declaratory policy so our adversaries understand the consequences of attacking our computer systems.
  • Improve offensive cyber capabilities and ensure that Cyber Command cyber mission forces have the tools and authorities to perform the cyber offensive mission.
  • Better integrate cyber threats and cyber aspects of modern warfare in training, doctrine, and exercises across the combatant commands.

Ensure that the cyber threat is appropriately prioritized by all services; study whether cyber should be its own service rather than a mission of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force.

07 November 2015

Reinventing Guns and Butter Politics for the 21st Century

Chuck Spinney
The Center of American Progress (CAP)  is a prominent Democratic 'think tank’ in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac. The CAP brands itself by saying it is "dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action." The Center also claims it presents a liberal viewpoint on economic issues. Its blog, inaptly named “Think Progress," is widely read among avant guarde ‘progressives.’

The blog and the CAP itself are quite useless for people trying to understand the real issues at stake for what remains of the old Democratic coalition put together by FDR and how the Democrats placed themselves on a pathway to their own self-destruction by evolving neoliberal responses in the 1980s (like the Democratic Leadership Council) to the wedge issues first exploited by Richard Nixon.  That is because the CAP is really a political front for the progressive apparatchiks in the emerging Clinton neoliberal oligarchy.  The CAP’s founder John Podesta, a long time Clinton aide, is managing Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.  The current CAP president, Neera Tanden, is a long time Clinton confidant and advisor. 
The independent investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald just exposed (attached below) the mentality of the people who are running the CAP.  That mentality is made evident by their own words, expressed in emails leaked by someone inside of the CAP to Greenwald.  The emails describe the CAP’s obsequious pandering to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and AIPAC.  This is to be expected, of course; and the pandering is the primary focus of Greenwald’s report.  That said, the cynical distancing of CAP and Ms. Clinton from a sitting Democratic President is worse than even the most jaded readers of the Blaster might expect.  
But one 2011 email sequence is even more revealing of the CAP mentality, IMO:  CAP staffer Faiz Shakir questioned whether it would be politically or morally wise for the United States to force Libya to use its oil revenues to reimburse the United States for our bombing and “liberating” of Libya.   Ms. Tanden’s slam-dunk counterargument says it all.  Both emails are reproduced here ...
click on figure for larger size
There you have it: A “liberal progressive's" mutation of guns and butter politics for the 21st Century!  
Ms. Tanden thinks we should make the countries we bomb use their oil wealth to reimburse us for the cost of bombing them.  That way we don’t have to cut Head Start, food stamps, or Medicaid.  
This is an insensitive policy wonk’s version for what we in the Pentagon used to call a “self licking ice cream cone.”  It is necessary, Ms. Tanden asserts, because we live in an era of intensifying "deficit politics.” This is a brand of politics that neoliberal Democrats brought upon themselves by going along with Reagan tax cutting and defense spending policies, increasing privatization since the days of Jimmy Carter, and Mad King George’s pre-9-11 reckless tax cuts and defense increases in 2001*.  
More importantly, according to Ms. Tanden, forcing bombed countries to reimburse us for our bombing is a way to use the indispensable power of the United States (to borrow a term of diplomatic art coined by Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeline Albright), “to continue to engage in the world.”
But there is more to Tanden's vision.
Consider, please, the possibilities inherent in its elegant symmetry: Using war to fund social programs effectively synthesizes (1) the neoconservative impulse to wage war on everyone with, (2) the tenets of neoliberalism, and (3) what remains of the US welfare state.   Like Bill Clinton’s theft of the NATO expansion issue from Bob Dole in October 1996 during the last month of the presidential election, Tanden’s vision pulls the rug out from under the warmongering nutcases on the right, while placating both the money lust of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex and the humanitarian interventionists on the “left," but it also panders to what's left of the old time social liberals who have been dealt out of the game since the days of LBJ.   
This is a transcending vision of neoliberal triangulation politics on a grand scale, far beyond the wildest imaginings of Bill Clinton’s Triangulator-in-Chief, Dick Morris, who said triangulation meant "the president needed to take a position that not only blended the best of each party's views but also transcended them to constitute a third force in the debate.”
That is how “think progress” relates to the moral, mental, and material progress in the Hall of Mirrors.
* Readers would be wrong to think that the Pentagon’s huge budget increases were triggered entirely by 9-11.  As this paper shows on pages 2-3, most of the increases were already planned and in the Pentagon’s computers by the end of July, 2001, well before 9-11.  To be sure, the Pentagon and the Bush Administration exploited the hysteria triggered by 9-11 to ratchet the budget beyond this projection of the Global War on Terror’s initial cost estimates projected in the figure.
Leaked Emails From Pro-Clinton Group Reveal Censorship of Staff on Israel, AIPAC Pandering, Warped Militarism
Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, Nov. 5 2015, 2:04 p.m.
(updated below)
LEAKED INTERNAL EMAILS from the powerful Democratic think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) shed light on several public controversies involving the organization, particularly in regard to its positioning on Israel. They reveal the lengths to which the group has gone in order to placate AIPAC and long-time Clinton operative and Israel activist Ann Lewis — including censoring its own writers on the topic of Israel.
The emails also provide crucial context for understanding CAP’s controversial decision to host an event next week for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That event, billed by CAP as “A Conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” will feature CAP President Neera Tanden and Netanyahu together in a Q&A session as they explore “ways to strengthen the partnership between Israel and the United States.” That a group whose core mission is loyalty to the White House and the Democratic Party would roll out the red carpet for a hostile Obama nemesis is bizarre, for reasons the Huffington Post laid out when it reported on the controversy provoked by CAP’s invitation.
The emails, provided to The Intercept by a source authorized to receive them, are particularly illuminating about the actions of Tanden (right), a stalwart Clinton loyalist as well as a former Obama White House official. They show Tanden and key aides engaging in extensive efforts of accommodation in response to AIPAC’s and Lewis’ vehement complaints that CAP is allowing its writers to be “anti-Israel.” Other emails show Tanden arguing that Libyans should be forced to turn over large portions of their oil revenues to repay the U.S. for the costs incurred in bombing Libya, on the grounds that Americans will support future wars only if they see that the countries attacked by the U.S. pay for the invasions. … continued

30 October 2015

The Budget Deal and the Canary in the Coal Mine

Flush With Cash, Running on Empty (II)*
Chuck Spinney
[A slightly edited version of this posting appeared on the Moyers & company website on 8 November 2015]
The Pentagon just won another small skirmish in its long war with Social Security and Medicare. That is the unstated message of the budget deal just announced gleefully by congressional leaders and the President.  To understand why, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane.
Last January, President Obama submitted Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget to Congress, and he proposed to break the spending limits on both defense and domestic programs.  These limits are set by the long-term sequester provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011  (BCA), which, for better or worse, is the law of the land, and Obama was asking Congress to change the law.  Mr. Obama wanted to finance his ramped up spending proposals by increasing taxes.  Of course, he knew that the Republican controlled Congress lusted for defense increases but hated domestic spending, particularly entitlements. Moreover, he knew increasing taxes was like waving the red cape in front of the Republican budget bulls.  So, he knew his budget would be dead on arrival.  Obama’s budget, nevertheless, had one virtue: it was up front about the intractable nature of the budget problem.  In effect, whether deliberately or not, Obama laid a trap that the Republicans merrily walked into during the ensuing spring and summer.
Obama's gambit set into motion a tortured kabuki dance in the Republican controlled Congress.  The Republicans, as Obama well knew, wanted to keep up the appearances of adhering to the BCA.  But at the same time, they wanted desperately to shovel money into the Pentagon’s coffers.  The net result was that Obama’s proposal triggered a series of increasingly irrational Congressional negotiations, bizarre back-room deals and weird budget resolutions.  These machinations came to a head with the passage of a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that proposed to (1) keep the Pentagon’s base budget at the BCA level of about $499 billion, but (2) pack the accounts in the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingencies Operations fund (OCO) with a programs and pork that should have been in its base budget.  The reason for the dodgy OCO 'slush fund' rested in the politically irresistible fact that the OCO is a separate war-fighting fund** for the Pentagon that is exempt from the spending limits set by the BCA’s sequester provisions.  The net result of the smoke and mirrors by the Budget and Armed Services Committees of Congress was a total defense budget that was almost identical to Obama’s original submission, but one that was not accompanied by his domestic funding increases or his tax increases.  And this monstrosity was all wrapped up in a ridiculous pretense of adhering to the BCA limits. 
Last week, President Obama seemed to close the trap by vetoing the 2016 NDAA. But this too was smoke and mirrors.
The veto put in motion yet another kabuki dance, this time behind closed doors between the White House and the leaders of Congress. The goal was to reach an overall budget deal that would avoid a government shutdown, which the majority Republicans were terrified of being blamed for on the eve of an election year.  At the same time, they wanted to dodge the BCA’s sequester bullet while they shoveled more money into the Pentagon. 
That deal has now been joined, and the Republic has been saved, albeit at an unknown price.  Nevertheless, some of the sordid details of that price are now beginning to seep through the chinks in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac.
According to this report in Defense News, the elements of the budget deal include:
The deal raises the BCA spending caps (again) by $80 billion over next two years; including $50 billion in FY2016 and $30 billion in FY2017.  It also increases the Federal Government’s debt limit. These spending increases would be split equally between defense and domestic programs, and they would be financed by two squirrelly provisions, to wit:
The first financing gimmick cuts back Medicare and Social Security disability benefits. But if past is prologue, the cut to Medicare is likely to be reversed again next year, which is an election year — because everyone in Congress wants the endorsement of the American Medical Association (AMA).  The cut to Medicare providers was first made permanent law by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, and since then Congress has reversed the scheduled provider cut 17 times
The second financing gimmick is to sell crude oil  from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Ironically, this rather bizarre provision is peculiarly fitting to the culture of Versailles on the Potomac.  Few remember that the reserve was justified to the American people in 1975 as an insurance “cushion" to reduce the adverse effects of future rises in oil prices or supply disruptions engineered by OPEC, which is controlled by our supposed “ally” Saudi Arabia.  So why sell the reserve's oil when prices are near record lows (adjusted for inflation) compared to those of the last fifteen to twenty years, particularly since the Saudis are flooding the market to take out the US frackers?  Who benefits is a fascinating question with all sorts of twists and turns and is not yet answered.  But it is worth recalling the 1997 Balanced Budget Act had a provision to sell the Naval Petroleum Reserve at Elk Hills (sold in 1998) – at that time, the largest privatization of government assets in history, precisely when oil prices were at their lowest level (adjusted for inflation) since the 1960s. They sold it to Occidental Petroleum which made a killing. 
There is one thing the deal makes clear, however.The Pentagon's share of the spending increases would be $33 billion in FY16, made up of a $25B increase in the Pentagon’s base budget and an $8B increase in the OCO. As for how the Pentagon’s $15 billion increase in FY17 will be allocated, the report in Defense News is silent.
So, there is good reason why champagne corks are popping in halls of the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex (MICC) and its lobbying affiliates on K Street.  Indeed, to celebrate the triumph, the AF immediately announced it awarded Northrop-Grumman a huge concurrent engineering contract (Milestone B) to design and build the first 21 of 100 new long range strike bombers, which heretofore had been shrouded in heavy secrecy. No one knows what this bomber will even look like, let alone what the program will cost, but two years ago, there were reports of a “pre-cost-growth” total program cost estimate (R&D and production) reaching $81 billion. At least one of the MICC’s euphoric wholly-owned subsidiaries in the Fourth Estate has already written that 100 bomber is not enough, given the threats we face and the number of aging bombers that need to be replaced. 
This new bomber program is  by far the largest weapon acquisition program yet started in the 21st Century.  Yet there has been no oversight, except by its advocates in the smoke-filled, super-secret secure compartmented information facilities (SCIFs) spread around Versailles.  Moreover, the bomber's heavy concurrency means that the production-related money will quickly start flowing to hundreds of congressional districts, well before it is designed.  So, before you can say sequester next year, the Bomber, like the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, will be unstoppable.  And, like the F-35, it will acquire a life of its own to live on, no matter how badly it fails to meet its cost goals, its capability specifications, or its production quotas — for the simple but powerful reason that a majority in Congress are being bought off today in a way that will ensure they vote for it tomorrow.  
But there is more.  The new Bomber is just the beginning of the new defense boom that Mr. Obama and Congress are launching beneath the smoke and mirrors of their budget practices.  The Pentagon already has a  bow wave of increased spending for new weapons in its R&D pipeline.  In that sense, it is no accident that, a year ago, as he was departing the Pentagon, the Pentagon’s ineffectual comptroller Robert Hale characterized the new bomber as the “canary in the coal mine.” He was wringing his hands over the rapidly growing requirements for larger defense budgets in the future — requirements he helped to create.  Bow waves are a perennial feature in Pentagon planning.  I first heard the term in 1973.  The current bow wave, like its predecessors, will lead inexorably to more budget crises and more dodgy budget deals made by the best government money can buy.
So, once again, Mr. Obama had a shot at leading from the moral high ground, and once again, he blew it.  He had the Republicans on the ropes, with all their warts on full display, but then he squandered an opportunity to effect even a pretense of challenging a thoroughly corrupt system. 
[Addendum: By 4 November, the newsletter Flight Global explained why the champagne corks were popping within the MICC and its lobbyists, saying ...
"The anticipated two-year budget deal has investors feeling optimistic, since the alternatives were a full-year continuing resolution that maintains fiscal year 2015 government spending levels or full sequestration. In response, Moody changed its outlook for the global aerospace and defence industry from stable to positive, with worldwide defence spending now tipped to grow by 2% to 3%." ]
Obama’s most recent performance is yet more proof that he is no change agent.  A better characterization would be that he is merely another apparatchik, whose role is to protect the interests of the factions making up the shadow government that is now running the show — what former congressional staffer Mike Lofgren calls the US Deep State.****
* This essay is the second in a series of occasional essays on the nature of defense spending. The first can be found here.
** The OCO is a George W. Bush gimmick, created in 2001 after 9-11 to capitalize on the national hysteria to pay for the Global War on Terror by taking its costs off the books.  All our previous wars — e.g., WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Kosovo — were funded out of the “base” defense budget and there was no need set up a special war fighting account. 
*** The term “bow wave” refers to a buildup of budget requirements in the future that is created by investment decisions made today. It is a chronic feature of defense planning and is created deliberately by the bureaucratic gaming strategies explained in Part III of my 1990 pamphlet Defense Power Games. The bow wave of rising investment requirements sets up the conditions for a continual budget crisis that creates increasing pressure to raise defense spending over the long term. These pressures have nothing to do with any external threats facing the United States.
**** Lofgren a former Republican congressional staffer on the House and Senate Budget Committees has written an important new book,  The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. It will hit the stands next January.

24 October 2015

Drone Warfare and the Big Scoop Shovel

In the last week, much has been made of the leaked DoD briefing entitled ISR Support to Small Footprint (CT) Operations - Somalia and Yemen, dated February 2013.  To date, all the reports I have read, save one, focus on the “critical shortfalls” of drone warfare revealed in these slides — see, for example The Intercept, which broke the story on October 15 and placed the slides on the net, and this report in Common Dreams, an anti-war progressive outlet. Both of these reports and the briefing slides contain a lot of useful information and are well worth careful reading. But there is more.
Attached below is the exception.  Andrew Cockburn* argues in Harpers that the real message of the briefing is “send more money.”  I agree with Cockburn, and I would direct readers to the blue box at the bottom of the study overview (slide 3), which says that the purpose of the briefing analysis is “to inform ISR planning and investments for potential future small footprint operations.”  
Cockburn ends by noting that it is budget time, and perhaps this leak had a little encouragement — or in my words: The MICCsters in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac are not above leaking sensational, seemingly embarrassing information, if the press dutifully uses it to help Congress shovel more money their way.
As one Republican reform-minded congressional staffer told me in the late 1970s, the defense game is first and foremost about “turning on the big scoop shovel.”  About the only thing that has changed since then is the size of the ‘scoop,’ which is why a pissant little** war like the Global War on Terror is now the second most expensive war in U.S. history.
* Cockburn is a close friend.  I consider his most recent book, Kill Chain, to be one of the most important books about drone warfare, particularly how it is less a "revolution in military affairs" than a  rebranding of a flawed strategic dogma that reaches back to the 1930s
** 'Little' in terms of activity measurements, like optempos, troops deployed, bombs dropped, sorties flow, etc. (see Flush With Cash, Running on Empty).

Flying Blind
The authors of the Drone Papers were delivering a simple message: send more money.
By Andrew Cockburn, Harpers, October 23, 2015, 12:36 pm
The Drone Papers—a cache of recently leaked PowerPoint slides outlining the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command’s drone assassination program—certainly offer an instructive firsthand glimpse into the mindset behind the military’s manhunting activities. (The companion CIA program does not feature in the leak.) As might be expected, acronyms are sprayed across the slides like shrapnel: B.B.C.s refer to the Baseball Cards summarizing the habits and personal lives of H.V.I.s, or High Value Individuals, that make their way to the Oval Office; E.K.I.A., Enemy Killed in Action, is a convenient term for nameless victims posthumously designated as terrorists. Pity the poor Afghan policeman, an A.N.S.F., Afghan National Security Force, if someone mistypes a couple of letters in his designation and he goes on a B.B.C. as an A.Q.S.L., Al Qaeda Senior Leadership. 
Behind the reality-clouding jargon and the chilling depiction of a murder machine at work, however, the authors of the slides were clearly delivering a simple message: send more money. 
Understanding this helps explain some otherwise surprisingly candid admissions in the material, such as the acknowledgment that an intense H.V.I. campaign, Operation Haymaker, in two provinces of northeast Afghanistan in 2013 and early 2012 caused only “marginal disruption” to targeted Al Qaeda leadership. On a slide bewailing another operation’s specific shortcomings, such as shortfalls in “finishes” (killings), the author invariably blames a shortage of drones and technological sophistication. A successful finish apparently requires “massed” surveillance by multiple drones, meaning that while the target is being finished off, other candidates for death go unwatched, a phenomenon lamented as “blinking.” The recommended solution spelled out on a slide: “Additional ISR [drones and other intelligence-gathering systems] Will Prevent ‘Blinking.’” Similarly, Haymaker was inevitably doomed to mere “temporary” effects “without a long-term, persistent campaign.” 
Farther afield, in Yemen and East Africa, missions are evidently hamstrung by the time it takes for drones to get to the target, an impediment evocatively labeled the “tyranny of distance.” A former Pentagon analyst with long exposure to budget-fertilizing studies of this sort commented to me, “Whoever dreamt up that ‘tyranny’ phrase deserves immediate promotion to four-star rank. It could easily put $10 billion on the budget.” For example, the “persistence” that could obviate the need for smaller drones to make time-wasting trips all the way to southern Somalia might be supplied by buying more Global Hawks, the high-flying long-duration drone with a current cost somewhere north of $200 million a copy.
Less obviously, fulfilling a demand on the slides for “H.D. F.M.V.”—high-definition video— would come with a very stiff price tag indeed. Identifying designated victims has long been a problem (out of more than 200 people killed in Haymaker by February 2013, just thirty-five were on the target list), partly caused by the fact that despite popular impressions to the contrary, drones don’t see very well—in some circumstances their vision is no better than 20/200, the legal definition of blindness for drivers in this country. Children, for example, can normally only be recognized as such on an I.S.R. video if they are standing next to an adult, a problem known in the business as “slants.” Part of the reason for perennially blurry pictures is that the information, once collected by the drone’s sensor, must be transmitted via satellite to pilots and myriad headquarters oceans and continents away. This consumes an enormous amount of bandwidth, which is already very costly, especially as 80 percent of the bandwidth used by the military is rented from commercial providers. As far back as 2001 Special Forces Command alone was already spending $1 million a day in this way, and the cost has grown exponentially since then.
A clear-eyed defense planner or legislator briefed on these slides might reasonably conclude that the H.V.I. program is a militarily ineffective money pit and move to close the whole thing down. A more likely consequence is that recipients of this briefing will harken to disarming confessions of failure and do the necessary at budget time. If the wider public gets the same message, so much the better, which gives rise to an unworthy thought: might not this leak have had a little official encouragement?

Andrew Cockburn is Harper’s Magazine’s Washington Editor and author of Kill Chain, The Rise of the High Tech Assassins (Holt 2015). Twitter: @andrewmcockburn.