It’s Definitely Maybe World War 3

It’s Definitely Maybe World War 3
By Greg Mercer

The Washington Post
The Washington Post

On November 24, Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24 bomber which had been flying over Syria, after an alleged violation of Turkish airspace.[1] Needless to say, the details are still emerging and the facts are still highly contested. The New York Times has an excellent comparison of claims made by Turkish and Russian officials, including the radar maps released by each country showing the airspace violation (or lack thereof).[2] Russian President Vladimir Putin called the shootdown a “stab in the back” and promised harsh consequences. Turkey called for an emergency meeting of NATO.

This incident and its bellicose rhetoric sparked immediate buzz about declarations of war, what exactly NATO owes Turkey vis-à-vis Russia[3], and the possibility of military confrontation between Russia and the West.  One particular phrase was cautioned against by reputable folks and seriously considered by less-than-stellar[4] sources: World War 3. I think this is really interesting, so I turned to good old search analytics to see how the internet reacted:
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Continue reading “It’s Definitely Maybe World War 3”

The Candidates on Nonproliferation Part III

The Candidates on Nonproliferation – Part 3
By Greg Mercer

I initially set out to write this as a candidate-by-candidate look at what the 2016 crop had to say about an issue near and dear to Biodefense students’ hearts: nonproliferation. As it turns out, though, not many candidates have well-developed stances on highly specific policy issues (or any issues, depending on how serious a candidate we’re talking about) more than a year from the general election. Lucky for us though, there’s been a major nonproliferation news event to drive the foreign policy debate: the Iran nuclear deal. So this is a rundown of what’s been said and is being said about nonproliferation and WMD policy in the 2016 election.

See part 1 here
And part 2 here

I’m spending even more time on campaign sites to see what the 2016 election looks like for nonproliferation.

This time, I’ll take a look at top Democrat contenders. In contrast to the Republicans, most Democrats support the Iran deal, and generally tend to favor international arms control regimes.

Hillary Clinton:
In the Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton named loose nukes among the paramount threats to the US.  This issue is commonly understood to hinge on loose radiological material from the former Soviet Union (which is notoriously poorly controlled) and other states maintaining poor control of their nuclear weapons.  The Associated Press recently released an investigation into the Moldovan nuclear black market and Islamic extremists.  She has also strongly endorsed the Iran deal, and has a unique role in the debate, having helped to implement sanctions and launch negotiations with Iran as former Secretary of State.  The Politico story linked notes that she was more hawkish than Obama on Iran in the past.  (Her support of the Iraq War in Congress has been a recurring talking point for opponents).  Now, though, their views seem to be pretty closely aligned.  Hillary’s national security issues page also leans heavily on her experience at the State Department (in addition to being pretty relentlessly on-brand).  Among the usual issues- ISIS, Russia, Israel, the Iran deal- is a very interesting one: “Highly contagious diseases are a constant threat. Warmer and drier conditions caused by global climate change, along with our increasingly interconnected world, enable germs to spread more quickly across the globe. America must remain vigilant and do more to prevent and contain outbreaks.”   This is an uncommonly specific stance, and is placed alongside cyberattacks and climate change to make up an emerging threats triumvirate.  So far, though, there hasn’t been much elaboration on actual policy options to combat this threat, or what makes it a defense issue versus, say, an international development one.

Bernie Sanders:
In 2009, Bernie Sanders echoed President Obama’s call for “a world without nuclear weapons.”  While this obviously hasn’t happened, Sanders released a statement calling for an end to the production of weapons-grade uranium and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.  In March of 2015, Sanders cosponsored a bill to reduce American spending on nuclear weapons by $100 billion over 10 years (in grand Congressional naming convention, the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures Act, aka SANE).  A House and Senate version have been introduced, but are part of a much larger budget fight.  Sanders’ issues page supports the Iran deal, though it interestingly says the “agreement is not perfect,” but ultimately concludes that it is a far superior option to military action. As usual, Sanders officially gives his support to Obama and Secretary of State Kerry’s negotiations.  This page also does the thing where a first-person snippet introduces a long set of third-person position statements, but the personal statement highlights Sanders’ votes against the first and second Gulf Wars.  This casts him pretty clearly as anti-military intervention to prevent proliferation, but with the caveat that it remains an option.  There is also a separate, editorial-style section on just the Iran Deal, which offers more detail about uranium and centrifuge reductions.  Once again, it calls war “the last option.”  Much of Sanders’ campaign so far has hinged on economic and social issues, however, and he even said in the most recent debate that climate change is the most pressing national security threat.  When looking for threats to security, Sanders mostly looks beyond weapons of mass destruction.

Continue reading “The Candidates on Nonproliferation Part III”

Iran’s Shifting Preference?

By Scott McAlister

With the possible passage of the Iranian nuclear deal looming, it is important to look to possible consequences of the deal.  By taking away Iran’s ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon in the near future, how does that affect their overall desire to possess weapons of mass destruction?  In the world of WMD’s, the big three are nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.  It can be argued that nuclear weapons are far above the other two, as they are the only one to cause enormous amounts of damage to a victim’s infrastructure and population.  It is true, a biological or chemical weapons attack isn’t going to take down buildings or level cities, but does that mean they don’t deserve to be feared?  Biological weapons can introduce susceptible populations to deadly pathogens, and can cause mass hysteria when released.  Biological weapons programs are also much easier to hide.  While having a nuclear reactor isn’t a dead give away for building a nuclear bomb, if you are enriching uranium past a certain point, it might send up some red flags (normal enrichment for energy is 3-5%, weapons grade is above 75%, records show Iran had enriched uranium past 20%.)  The scary thing about biological and chemical weapons programs is their ability to hide in plain sight.  Due the dual use of much of today’s biotechnological advancements, an offensive weapons program can be disguised as a facility to create vaccines or research centers for diseases with minimal effort.

This brings us to Iran.  If the deal passes, Iran will realistically be unable to produce a nuclear weapon for at least the next 10 years, loosing a vast majority of its nuclear fuel, decommissioning a majority of its centrifuges, and subjected to thorough inspections.  The question now is, does their inability to produce a nuclear weapon influence them to switch routes and invest in an offensive biological weapons program?  While some hold that nuclear weapons are a class above biological and chemical weapons, to others it’s the notion of possessing a WMD of any form that holds clout.  Does Iran view biological weapons as an equally effective way to convey their message to the outside world? Continue reading “Iran’s Shifting Preference?”

GMU Alum Dr. Daniel Gerstein’s New Book

GMU Biodefense PhD Alum Dr. Daniel Gerstein has a new book out! A must read, National Security and Arms Control in the Age of Biotechnology looks at the past, present and future of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The book examines the policies that served to undergird the establishment of the Convention and the impact of changes in biotechnology on this important treaty. The centerpiece of the book are the ten reasons that the author, Dr. Dan Gerstein, posits make the BWC the most important treaty of the 21st Century that most people have never heard of. Find out why the BWC is central to our national security and what can and must be done to ensure its continued relevance.

Order now at Rowman and Littlefied Publishers and receive a 35% discount! Visit their website here and enter the code 4M13NSARC to receive this discount.

About the Author: Dr. Daniel M. Gerstein is a security and defense professional who has served in a variety of positions as a Senior Executive Service (SES) government civilian, in uniform, and in industry. He is currently serving as the Deputy Under Secretary for Science & Technology in the Department of Homeland Security. He is also an Adjunct Professor at American University in Washington, DC at the School of International Service (SIS).

Bragging about our Faculty: Round 1

Dr. Gregory Koblentz has a new review out in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence, on Nicholas H. Bergman (Ed.)’s book “Bacillus anthracis and Anthrax”.

“This book provides a comprehensive review of the scientific community’s understanding of the bacteria Bacillus anthracis and the disease it causes, anthrax. This book is not just about biology though. As two of the book’s contributors observe, ‘the history of the anthrax vaccine attests to how biomedical science is influenced by society’s perception of the threat posed by infectious diseases and vice versa’ (p. 269). This is true of the broader B. anthracis research agenda as well. Research on B. anthracis in the United States declined significantly after the late 1960s, around the time that the United States renounced its offensive biological warfare program. Interest in the bacteria was rekindled in the 1980s by a suspicious outbreak of inhalation anthrax in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk in 1979 (which was later determined to have been the result of an accident at a military biological weapon facility in the city). This book is a product of the latest surge in interest in this fascinating bacteria, galvanized by the 2001 anthrax letter attack.”

Movie Review: Argo

By: Ashley Negrin, GMU Biodefense MS Program

3.5/4 Petri Dishes

For anyone who may be on the fence about shelling out $10.50 for a ticket to Argo, let me just assure you that you will not be disappointed.  I am not just saying this because of my infatuation with political thriller movies or with Ben Affleck, but Affleck proves, yet again, that he has certainly got a knack for directing.  The plot, based on the true story of the unusual rescue of six Americans during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, keeps the audience engaged right from the beginning.  Affleck plays the role of Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who spearheaded the creative plan to rescue the hostages from the Canadian ambassador’s home in Tehran.  The casting of Alan Arkin and John Goodman as two Hollywood professionals helping to create the fake movie that brings the hostages home provides the perfect amount of comic relief in an otherwise humorless situation.  Sporting the true late 1970s style of feathered hair and polyester suits, the cast successfully takes the audience back to 1979 and 1980 to experience the suspenseful events surrounding the little-known rescue of the six hostages.

For me, what made this film so interesting was its focus on the six American hostages.  While the movie begins with scenes of the Iranians protesting outside of, and then storming the U.S. Embassy, the true focus is on the story of the six Americans hiding out in the Canadian ambassador’s home.  It shows a different aspect of a crisis we have all studied.  It can be difficult to keep an audience in suspense when the ending of the story is already known, but Argo successfully keeps you engaged and eagerly waiting to see how the hostages make it home.

At the heart of the movie is the notion of international cooperation and diplomacy, and the benefits of both.  This mission could not have moved forward or ended in success without the critical aid of Canada, which Affleck understands and illustrates in the film.  While the film does not depict exactly what happened during the course of these events (it is a Hollywood movie after all), it is an entertaining and dramatized look at a once classified operation.  Ultimately, this is a very enjoyable film for anyone interested in politics and international affairs, history, or Ben Affleck.

Book Review / The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History

The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History (Harvard University Press 2012)
Raymond Zilinskas and Milton Leitenberg
Hardcover. 960 pages. $55.00

Reviewed by Justin Ludgate (GMU Biodefense MS Program)

In researching one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Soviet Union, Raymond Zilinskas and Milton Leitenberg’s work on the history of the Soviet Union’s biological weapons program (BW) program is ambitious to say the least. The authors describe the current view of the Soviet Union’s BW program as being an incomplete picture cobbled together from precious few, often flawed, primary sources due to the compartmentalization and secrecy that veiled the program. Zilinskas and Leitenberg bring new research and analysis to the table and provide the most comprehensive examination to date of the Soviet BW program. The book itself is vast and covers everything about the program from research on weaponizing Francisella tularensis to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin’s failures to end offensive BW research.

Overall, the tone of the book suggests future concerns regarding Russia’s failure to abide by international agreements, such as the Biological Weapons Convention, due to the ongoing concern of closed Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) biological research facilities. Though not without criticism, the authors do note that U.S. efforts to prevent BW related proliferation of materials, technology, or personnel were largely successful thanks to programs such as the U.S. Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program and the Department of State’s International Science and Technology Center.

The book’s first goal is to describe the Soviet BW program as thoroughly as possible, as it was the largest of its kind in the world. The first chapter covers the program’s history between 1918 and 1972, or the “first generation” of the Soviet BW program. The Soviet BW program was initially influenced by the parallel needs of combating endemic diseases and preventing a recurrence of the high level of disease-related deaths suffered by the armed forces during World War I and the subsequent civil war. Prior to World War II, the military concentrated its efforts on weaponizing agents such as Bacillus anthracis, Yersinia pestis, and various types of Rickettsiae. All of these pathogens were endemic to the Soviet Union and defensive research efforts such as vaccine development often paralleled offensive research, creating a complicated dual-use relationship. The Soviet Union later exploited this dual-use relationship to establish cover stories for institutions dedicated to offensive BW research during the program’s second generation which ran from 1972 until 1992.

The authors credit the massive growth of the “modern” Soviet BW program experienced after 1970 to the machinations of a scientist named Yury A. Ovchinnikov, who convinced the MOD that biotechnology research could provide the Soviet Union with a potent weapon. At that time, scientists were dependent on the patronage of the Soviet government, as there were no private institutions capable of funding scientific projects. The MOD and the Military Industrial Commission (VPK) in particular were highly sought after patrons due to their deep pockets. However, the funding came with strings attached. Scientists interested in studying bacteria, viruses, and genetics were often obliged to conduct military research, whether they were aware of it or not. While Ovchinnikov was successful in securing funding from the MOD, the bargain ensured the continued militarization of biology in the Soviet Union for years to come.

By 1972, the 15th Directorate of the MOD was tasked with overseeing a network of BW research institutes, located in Kirov, Zagorsk, and Sverdlovsk. In 1973, a new network of offensive and defensive BW research institutes, named Biopreparat, was established. Officially reporting to a civilian authority, many aspects of offensive research were undertaken by military scientists and senior officials within the new organization held military rank. The book provides a host of details about the history, research, and current workings of former Biopreparat institutes such as Vector, the State Research Center for Applied Microbiology, and the Stepnogorsk Scientific Experimental-Industrial Base. This includes the dire economic situation these institutes found themselves in following the cessation of funds flowing from the Soviet state apparatus after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The second goal of the book is to ascertain whether the drastic loss of funding to BW institutes within Biopreparat and the MOD, following the end of the Soviet Union, caused a “brain drain” of former BW scientists to other nations or the proliferation and sale of BW-related material. The authors argue that U.S. threat reduction programs were largely successful in preventing the proliferation of BW research, materials, and personnel. However, a closed system of institutes with historic ties to the Soviet BW program still exists today. Worse, the authors argue that a regression has taken place in Putin’s Russia. The Russian government now refuses to admit that there ever was an offensive BW program and has reverted to the Soviet-era story that the 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk was caused by contaminated meat and not an accident at a military BW site.

In writing this book, the authors faced a daunting task. Compartmentalization within the Soviet BW program ensured that even high-level sources, such as Ken Alibek, Vladimir Pasechnik, and Igor Domaradsky, did not necessarily possess the full picture of the Soviet BW program. The authors interviewed various other scientists involved in Biopreparat, but their identities are largely kept anonymous due to a decree from the Russian government that criminalizes any discussion of former Soviet state secrets. The lack of sources within the MOD leads to significant gaps in the book regarding Soviet BW munitions, doctrine, and strategy.

Overall, the book is a comprehensive analysis of the Soviet BW program, including its origin, evolution, motivation, and accomplishments and failures. The Soviet Union’s BW program is a great topic for anyone studying biodefense as it offers both scientific and political insights.  The writing style is easy to follow, although readers with little scientific background may have to refer to the glossary during some of the more technical sections of the book. The acronyms and changing names of certain institutes involved in the BW program can be confusing, but that is to be expected given the sheer size and scope of the Soviet BW program. In synthesizing new and previously available sources, this book provides the most objective assessment of the Soviet Union’s BW program, as well as the implications of this program on the future of international security. That being said, the authors are careful to point out the limitations of their research and gaps in their knowledge of various aspects of the Soviet BW program, indicating that much remains to be learned about the largest and most advanced BW program in history.

Book Review: The Viral Storm

Book Title: The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age (Times Books 2011)
Book Author: Nathan Wolfe
Reviewer: Kathleen Danskin, GMU M.S. in Biodefense Program

At first glance, the title of this book may bring to mind alarmist doomsday scenarios of a future filled with unstoppable global pandemics. However, the “new pandemic age” that Nathan Wolfe describes is instead one in which humans can anticipate pandemics and intervene in the early stages to prevent disaster. While the book does rely on a few of the standard ominous vignettes featuring H5N1, SARS, or bioterrorism to create a sense of fear and urgency, the overall message is one of optimism and confidence that these scenarios are not inevitable.

Continue reading “Book Review: The Viral Storm”