Saturday, November 25, 2017

Nuclear Posture Review


Seven days after his inauguration, President Donald Trump issued an executive order for a revised Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to be produced. It is underway. It will analyze how nuclear (a) policy and (b) capability should change considering global developments since the last NPR was issued in 2010. The project will be led by the deputy secretary of defense and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and should be completed before January of 2018.

It will begin by looking at new threats from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China, and how old threats have changed since 2010.
What to expect:
1)     More accusations of Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty

2)     A more comprehensive plan to modernize low-yield tactical nuclear weapons – This is a big reversal from Obama-era nuclear posture
·        Critics of low-yield nukes contend that a modernization program could spark an arms race, and that tactical nuclear weapons could be tempting to use, blurring the lines between conventional and nuclear war. Additionally, modernization is expensive. Thirdly, mini-nukes don’t provide any new military utility- anything they can do conventional explosives can do (and without breaking global norms).
·        Supporters of the modernization program point out that China and Russia have recently begun their own modernization programs. They also note that having a variety of yields and weapons (conventional, nuclear) provide the president a more comprehensive list of option in a wartime scenario. It also demonstrates a leader’s willingness to use the nuclear weapons if cornered, thereby enhancing deterrence.
·        **It should be pointed out we currently have a variety of low-yield nukes, and had a lot more during the Cold War

3)     Long Range Standoff weapon (LRSO), the new air-launched nuclear cruise missile
·        Critics say this is pretty pointless

4)     Modernization of triad with bombers (B-21, F-35) and subs (Columbia-class to replace Ohio)
·        I think the triad should be modernized. I’m okay with this one.

5)     Missile defense – this was ordered in a parallel Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) product.  
·        As shown by the recently approved budget, the missile defense program is being expanded to counter the threat posed by DPRK. This includes research on boost-phase interceptors, which are very impractical as you must maintain physical proximity to the adversary, and have extremely accurate intelligence about launch plans. Drones equipped with laser technology to strike missiles down during boost phase would take decades (and significant investment) to perfect.
·        Critics say that missile defense undermines deterrence, can spur and arms race, and are not accurate enough to comfortably rely upon.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

One Slip, Two Slip, Red Slip, Blue Slip: Bipartisanship is Dead

The “single most important legacy” of the Trump administration “has consequences 40 years out.” It seems there is little one can do to stop the judiciary picks that are coming from a deeply conservative base that, for most Democrats, is an alarming rate. Only a little-known process has helped the Democrats slow the nominations of lifetime judges to district and circuits courts. The blue-slip process had been used historically by both Republicans and Democrats since 1917. The process gives senators the ability to exercise a quasi-veto power over judicial picks in their home state. The senator returns a blue slip noting support when he or she consents to the nominee; since 1981, no circuit court judge has been confirmed without two blue slips from the home-state senators. However blue-slip process may not survive past its 100-year mark.
More unnerving than seeing Trump alone is seeing Mitch McConnell standing in solidarity with the president. Republican Congressmen seem eager to find some type of consensus with the president and have become Janus-faced in doing so. The pace of seats being filled is not fast enough for advocacy groups like the Judicial Crisis Group, and so McConnell has suggested that it is time to do away with the blue-slip process for circuit court nominees. During Obama’s presidency, Republicans encouraged the use of this process and took advantage of it to block many judicial nominations. The process has been honored on both sides by not advancing judges who were not given two blue slips. Both McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Chuck Grassley have used blue-slips to block Democratic nominees. Just this week Grassley decided to go ahead with two circuit court nominees who have not received support from both of their home-state senators.
The Trump campaign thrived under the message of bucking the system and doing away with long-standing political traditions that impede “progress.” The blue-slip process is not legally binding so we can be now be sure that it will not be honored. Trump has openly mocked and complained about judges who did not support him or his policies and now he seems to have a greenlight from Republicans to stack the courts, even when the nominees are deemed unqualified. For those who think we must “wait it out” and everything will change in four years, the nominees getting confirmed today are here for life. With these confirmations come full backing of Trump agenda. Should we not be concerned that when he stacks the Supreme Court, he secures an expansion on executive power? The unqualified crony judges getting in on Trump’s watch know they need to do his bidding and be thankful, and those of us who are concerned with consequences 40 years out must quit biding our time.  




Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Legal Zero-Days

It is well-established that the US Constitution grants the President wide latitude as Commander-in-Chief. National defense and foreign affairs are in the purview Presidential privilege by design. Jon Yoo, (the guy famous for the Torture Memos), wrote a 2003 legal review expressing the limits and opportunities available for judicial review for constraining the President's war-making powers. He wrote, "the courts historically have refused to adjudicate disputes over which branch may initiate military hostilities abroad, a result produced by the Constitution's textual allocation of war powers to the political branches and its structural failure to define a specific process for war-making."

Congress can pull purse-strings to create constraints, and there are audience costs a President must face with the electorate via the press for unpopular actions or plans. The Vietnam war took a hard u-turn when the gruesome images started coming home, and more recently the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are occasionally discussed as examples of how quickly the Americans fatigue from war. Presidents face constraints imposed from without as well as within. Alliances enable and constrain, treaties constrain, international organizations constrain. A 2016 RAND whitepaper on international legal policy included this handy chart illustrating the "gates" through which decisions to use drones for targeted killing must pass.

Available in RAND report "Clarifying the Rules for Targeted Killing"


The volume of dialogue around the legality of the use of a weapon is interesting. Militaries field new weapons all the time, but only some seem to create significant concern about their use. Nobody seems to be questioning the ethical use of the F-22, or that the law of armed combat needs revision to account for railguns per se. Some new weapons technology seem to create legal "zero-days." A zero-day exploit is valuable because it has a unique kind of stealth. It leverages gaps in the defender's planning or imagination. Autonomous robots, remotely operated UAV, even the first nuclear weapons are sort of black swans of the armaments world. The advantages created by having a zero-day or black swan weapon are so great as to sort of open up new patterns of war that just aren't understood well enough for people to decide on what is fair. The US used UAVs for reconnaissance during Vietnam, but the way they are used today is dramatically different. The low-signature nature of malware and drone strikes are really attractive as tools, not simply because of their physical stealth, but because of their legal stealth.

So guess who's back to tell us all about that problem—John Yoo. John and Jeremy Rabkin have written a new book called Striking Power: How Cyber, Robots, and Space Weapons Change the Rules of War (Encounter Books, 2017). Vince Vitkowsky's review for Lawfare approaches the book's premises critically. I recommend reading the full review to get a sense of their arguments, particularly Rabkin and Yoo's challenge to traditional just war theory, but also see how technical innovation can create legal ambiguities that are attractive to commanders operating in the permanent fog of war.

North Korea: A State-Sponsor of Terror?

News broke recently that the Trump Administration has re-added North Korea to the list of state-sponsors of terror; the Hermit Kingdom had been removed from the list in 2008 by President Bush. It is unlikely that North Korea will be directly impacted by the designation. The country is already facing heavy sanctions. Secretary of State Tillerson has acknowledged this fact but stated that the designation would discourage other nations from engaging in trade with the country. The move is likely to see widespread support in Japan and South Korea. While this designation may serve as an easy method to discourage other nations from trading with North Korea, it does arise questions as to whether or not the Kim regime actually supports terrorism.
The main justification for the designation is believe to be the assassination of Kim Jong Un's half brother in Malaysia. While the act was certainly an affront to international norms, it is hard to define what was clearly Kim Jong Un purging a potential political rival as being an act of terror. In addition, this was the only incident that was directly cited by the President when he made his decision. While North Korea's nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile testing are clearly belligerent actions in violation of international law, they are not doing this to aid a terrorist organization. While nations on the list like Iran are actively funding terrorist groups around the world, North Korea has taken no such actions. This makes the designation rather dubious.
While designating North Korea as a state-sponsor of terror is likely to have only a minor impact on that issue, it could cause a major problem for U.S. efforts to fight terrorism elsewhere in the future. The only reason the U.S. has designated North Korea as a state-sponsor of terrorism is to try to gain leverage on the country; by putting it on the list even though it does not actually sponsor terror groups, the impact of the designation could be weakened. If the world views the U.S. list of terror sponsors just being a list of nation's that the U.S. has disagreements with, it loses all effectiveness in aided in its intended purpose: identifying and punishing nations that sponsor terror groups. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Does the National Security Agency WannaCry?

The NSA cyber tool leak is considered one of the worst in the intelligence community's history. 

Here's why.

     In August of 2016, a relatively unknown hacking group calling themselves the Shadow Brokers publicly announced via Twitter that it had managed to acquire some of the National Security Agency's most valuable and secretive cyber tools, including zero-day exploits. For readers who may not be accustomed to cyber vernacular, a zero-day exploit is most troubling because it is a vulnerability to which the user, company, product, or service has not been made aware. That means a user has 'zero days' to fix the problem before it is exploited. The announcement linked to a website where the tools were auctioned and sold to the highest cryptocurrency bidder. The exploits were primarily linked to vulnerabilities within older Microsoft operating systems.

     Later, in April of 2017, the Shadow Brokers struck again. Using a site intended for programmers, the group released more of the NSA's cyber tools - this time for free. The United States' most advanced cyber espionage tools were suddenly public knowledge, which proved too tempting for malicious actors to resist obtaining. Subsequently, strains of ransomware began infecting systems worldwide - from Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, to the United States, Indonesia, and even Tasmania - marking the horror of how America's procured cyber weapons were now being used against itself and it's allies. 

    WannaCry is a strain of those ransomware attacks. First, what exactly is ransomware? Ransomware is a form of malware (think bad, virus-y software) that assumes control of a user's sensitive information. The attacker may gain control of viral files, such as personal or financial information, records, databases; the attack may even be able to control a mobile device. Typically, the attacker demands egregious payment in a form of cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, in order to return the user's files and sensitive data. Ransomware is cheap and usually affective, and also potentially delivers a high payload. Now, back to the NSA leaks. WannaCry was first discovered in May 2017 and infected the entire health apparatus in the United Kingdom. So far, estimates claim that WannaCry has held more than 200,000 computers hostages.  That translates to about 150 countries. WannaCry has the attributes of a criminal scheme, not that of a nation-state. Attribution is difficult. Cyberspace is tricky and quite easy to manipulate, especially if an actor is crafty enough to actually hack the National Security Agency. Russian or North Korean actors are the most likely culprits, but neither have been confirmed. 

     Regardless, the leaks have been damning. Why? The NSA supposedly hoarded its cyber tools so that it could utilize them as a part of larger surveillance campaigns. Since the leaks and consequential hackings, tech companies like Microsoft (whose Windows operating systems were the vulnerable victims) chastised the intelligence agency for hoarding sensitive information. The other problem? Exploits are finite. They have a shelf life. Once used, regardless of intent or purpose, the vulnerability typically is not able to be exploited again. For users and companies, this is good news. However, for the NSA and its purposes, this is not good news. Assuming vulnerabilities are patched, the NSA can no longer use its methods for conducting intelligence operations. Also, the leak raises some serious ethical questions. (note: I am not suggesting this is or is not ethical; I am simply presenting the questions raised in the aftermath). Should the NSA hoard critical vulnerabilities? Is it obligated to inform U.S. companies of holes in their software or systems? Unsure.

     Ultimately, the cyber leak should act as an example, or at the very least, a reason for why the United States defense apparatus needs to take cyber, network, and system defense very seriously.




Monday, November 13, 2017

Trump's Dronewar to be More Big League and Winning than Loser Obama's







But not.

Trump is inheriting an 16-year old, multi-appendaged monster called the War on Terror. One of its favorite hobbies during the past decade: drone strikes. The official (yet highly contested) number of drone strikes under the Obama administration is 542. These strikes killed an estimated 3,797 people, including at least 324 civilians.

The election of Trump has many people wondering how the drone program will change under the new administration.

In a 2015 Fox and Friends interview, Trump said, “When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.” It would apparently be wrong to hold people to what they say during a campaign, so lets look at Trump's actions post-inauguration.

There is little reason to believe Trump will meaningfully improve Obama's drone program. Many predict a significant uptick in drone strikes. On the first, second, and third days of his presidency, Trump ordered drone strikes in Yemen. And though Obama earned a negative reputation for his strikes, Trump is surpassing him in frequency. According to AlJazeera, Obama conducted one strike every 5.4 days; Trump has thus far averaged one strike or raid every 1.25 days.

On his trip to Southeast Asia, Trump vowed to loosen the restrictions on US soldiers to enable them to take down terrorists, whom he called “thugs and criminals and predators, and — that’s right — losers.”

What will changes look like? Trump’s national security advisors have suggested three major changes in the drone program:

1)   The targets of kill missions by the military and the C.I.A. should be expanded to include foot-soldier jihadists with no special skills or leadership roles

2)   Drone attacks and raids should no longer undergo high-level vetting

3)     CIA should have more territory access with overt strikes in Afghanistan (and possibly Yemen and Syria), instead of just Pakistan

My thoughts:
1)   Are these combatants? Is this ethical? In adherence with jus in bello? This will surely lead to change the way civilian casualties are counted. Obama-appointed NSC counterterrorism expert Luke Hartig states, these targets "may be couriers, bodyguards, or propagandists who, while lawful military targets under the laws of war, may not pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons."

2)     Why even suggest this publicly…? This is likely to increase civilian casualty. Seems reckless.

3)     Ok

Some are worried about the proposed increase of authority for the Central Intelligence Agency. Human rights groups think the CIA is less willing to honestly report civilian casualties than the military is.

Critics say the Obama administration’s transparency in admitting causalities has actually led to negative foreign and domestic views of the US drone program, creating red tape and making the job abroad harder.

Luke Hartig says, “I don’t know what the Trump administration is specifically considering in Afghanistan, but if their new plans for the war decrease any of that transparency, that would be a big strategic and moral mistake.”

And in the grand scheme of things, is the drone program even helping? Years of analysis indicate that drone strikes undermine the respect for international law, serve to further radicalize opponents, and may be counterproductive to our mission in the War on Terror. The film "Dirty Wars" (currently on Netflix) is great in examining this debate.



Though the personnel conducting the targeted killings characterize them as 'surgical' 'clinical' or 'precision' strikes, they tend to yield extensive civilian casualty, ranging from 8 to 21% of total killed. As one Atlantic op-ed writer states, “A surgeon as sloppy as that would be indicted."

I concur with a conclusion in the Atlantic: “Al-Qaeda and ISIS are dangerous abominations. Fighting them is just, even if the fight involves the inadvertent killing of innocents, but only if due care is taken to avoid those deaths whenever possible.” In short, we need to tighten quality control (evidently lacking in the Obama-era drone program), not loosen it. Trump’s proposals of broader authority, potentially leading to enhanced secrecy do not do this.


Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Defense Department is Serious About Climate Change

Net Assessment has been lauded for finding novel ways of countering the strategic advantages that the Soviet Union amassed at different times up until its collapse. But Marshall's focus on the Soviet Threat essentially coupled the man, the office and the practice to that same irrelevance that the US Defense establishment has viewed Russia since the early 1990s. With the threat of nuclear annihilation by the great bear basically vanishing overnight, popular panic shifted towards the environment as a new source of doom-saying. Pollution, garbage, a hole in the ozone layer, global deforestation, all took the top spot on our fear index, until 2001. How has the defense sector responded to the shift in mission? Where do they stand on climate change?

Let's get this out of the way: they are not the source of proposals to nuke hurricanes.

According to The Center for Climate and Security, the Department of Defense (DoD) and intelligence community (IC) have authored almost 80 reports on the intersection of climate change and national security since 1990. Production was slow during that first decade, but picked up significantly during the oughts, and skyrocketed under Obama. Let me repeat—80 different reports, not 80 pages of writing, but following a surge in reporting from the IC in 2009, DoD put out an average of five reports per year. The Office of Net Assessment even released a report in 2003 with the delightfully cumbersome title, "An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security."
Graph by Rick Spencer, data from The Center for Climate and Security.

There is a long list of reasons that the national security world is concerned with global warming. It is no coincidence that geopolitical stability is tied to economic stability, and some of those "hot spots" are quite literally getting hotter. Hot places getting hotter isn't the only place to look for geopolitical change. The cold places also getting warmer could change every aspect of the way the modern world is organized. As shores recede, rivers swell, ice melts, and permafrost thaws. What does permafrost have to do with national security? The IMF has reported that for Russia a "…0.83 percent increase in per capita output is expected if temperatures rise 1 C." While some have referred to Putin's commitments as "lip service," others are starting to recognize that Russian activity in the Arctic may not be as absurd as it sounds immediately, and that the way global warming would change both her interior, and her conflict-fraught southern domains, will have serious geopolitical ramifications, not just for the US, but for everyone involved.

Monday, November 06, 2017

The Business of Government

State Department Status: Underfunded, Unqualified, and Unprincipled

As Secretary Rex Tillerson continues to turn the State Department into a new version of ExxonMobil, it is time to perform a net assessment of our own government. We see gaping holes in the Trump cabinet as positions remain unfilled and long-time employees either find themselves cut from the budget or running from Washington. Diplomacy is more effective and far less expensive than defense. Like any successful business, essential State Department jobs must be filled with experienced, qualified people. Like many businesses however, the Department is being run with reduced funding and cronyism. Net assessment uses data that are widely available: my data comes from the political appointee tracker.[1] It is necessary to make strategic insights to identify the suitability of new members of the cabinet and appointees with regard to their possible threat to our national security.

Tillerson has been able to cut costs by cancelling up to 100 Foreign Service jobs, failing to nominate people to fill empty department positions and even combining jobs. For example, the Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources positions are now filled. To ensure the audience has some understanding of these positions, Wikipedia says it simply. The Deputy Secretary serves as the department’s principal deputy whereas the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources is the “third in charge” of the Department of State.[2] We can now rest assured that Deputy Secretary John J. Sullivan will serve as acting secretary in Tillerson’s absence and serve as his principal adviser. Using this effective business move, Tillerson cut salary costs and made Sullivan, who is second in charge, also act as “third in charge.”

Now that we are beginning to understand how to fix the State Department by reorganizing it like a business, it should come as no surprise that there is still no nominee for the Chief Financial Officer. Tillerson has taken the role of this job as he advises himself on all aspects of budget, grants, financial management and acquisition. Dual job security is better kept with a legal adviser. Thankfully, this gap was recognized and Jennifer Gillian Newstead was appointed on September 2nd although she is still just waiting to be confirmed. On September 15th, Irwin Steven Goldstein was nominated to be Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Fitting in well with the State department’s new Exxon model, Mr. Goldstein has been a Senior Vice President at BP Global Solutions, a consulting firm, for over five years.

The Undersecretary for public diplomacy serves as the principal foreign policy adviser to the secretaries in the formulation, conduct and coordination of a comprehensive outreach and public affairs strategy that supports key diplomatic policies, priorities and initiatives worldwide.[3] Mr. Goldstein is a communications and marketing executive with “a passion for building compelling brands and developing and executing communications strategies that connect with diverse audiences.”[4] According to Mr. Goldstein’s bio, he has held many senior vice president and chief communication officer positions in the areas of communications, branding, and social media at several large private sector companies.[5] Can we all be confident that these business skills will surely transfer to a diplomatic world stage?

Equally concerning is the appointee Stephen Akard for Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources at the State Department. The Director General advises the Secretary on the Department’s most senior appointments and the management of the 75,000 Foreign Service, Civil Service, and Locally Engaged Staff employed by the State Department. Akard was appointed on October 10th however the American Academy of Diplomacy (AAD) has requested the Senate to oppose the nomination. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) Chairman Bob Corker and Ranking Member Ben Cardin released a statement from the AAD citing the concerns regarding unsuccessful attempts to meet Akard and his lack of necessary professional background to hold the position. Akard has less than 10 years in the Foreign Service.[6] The letter was authored by Tom Pickering and Ronald Newmann, former senior diplomats, and states “we believe that, as good and decent a person as Mr. Akard may be, his confirmation as the Director General would be another step to further weaken the State Department, whose Foreign Service and Civil Service employees loyally serve the President, the Secretary of State, and the United States of America.” The authors compare his nomination as that of an army captain being appointed to a position with the ranking of a four star general.[7]

Akard is noted to be “one of the latest in a string of Indiana representatives appointed to federal positions by Trump.”[8] Others include former Indiana Senator Dan Coats as director of intelligence, former Indiana State Health Commissioner Jerome Adams to serve as U.S. Surgeon General, Seema Verma, the author of Healthy Indiana Plan, as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and former Indiana Department of Agriculture Director Ted McKinney as Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As more scandal erupts in Washington, more essential jobs are cut that could have furthered diplomatic efforts. As in big businesses, cronyism continues in the government. One can argue that our own administration is currently the highest threat to national security.