Saturday, April 25, 2015

What Happens if There's No Deal?

Centrifuges for Uranium separation. That's what all the
Shouting is about...
The hysterical attempts of the Israeli lobby and their congressional lapdogs to derail a diplomatic agreement with Iran over its nuclear program is utterly baffling. They say "no deal is better than a bad deal", but no deal is what we have now. If the P5+1 can hammer out a deal with Iran, there will be negotiated limits on Iran's nuclear R&D, and there will be an intrusive inspection regime to assure compliance. Sure, you can imagine a case where they would operate a secret nuclear weapons program in parallel, but they could be doing that now, and they could certainly do that much easier without the limitations in the agreement.

And just exactly how one-sided an agreement do they think Iran would be willing to sign? Their definition of a 'bad deal' seems to be one where both sides get what they want. A 'good' deal, then, would be one where Iran gives up all its rights under the NPT and other treaties in place with a hundred other nations in exchange for perhaps some sanctions relief. Even if Rouhani WANTED to agree to a deal like that, he would very quickly discover that he wasn't President anymore, and couldn't agree to anything on Iran's behalf.

Then there's the question of the sanctions themselves. If the rest of the world wants an agreement, and wants access to the Iranian market, and the US is seen as the intransigent bully who brought down the whole process for reasons of internal politics, there is going to be a very strong incentive to reduce the sanctions anyway. Certainly Russia and China will see no reason not to exploit the American diplomatic failure to reopen the Iran market for export goods and at the same time tweak the US. But beyond that, Germany, and France, along with much of the rest of the EU, are becoming increasingly frustrated with the unreasonable and unbalanced US/Israel position in the middle east, particularly the willingness to use disproportionate aggressive military force whenever they choose.  Certainly, the US unilateral congressional sanctions will stay in place, or even be increased, but they will be utterly ineffectual if they are not supported by the rest of the world.

So if the American political right and their Israeli allies are able to derail the agreement, they would find themselves in exactly the position they were in two years ago, at the outset of the diplomatic process. Iran would be a signatory to the NPT, and Israel and the US would be threatening her with attacks on a daily or weekly basis. Iran could run as many centrifuges, and keep as much stockpiled 20% enriched Uranium as it wanted. It could continue to move forward with the Arak heavy water reactor, a source of Plutonium. Plutonium bombs are much simpler to design, much easier to build and much more reliable than Uranium bombs.

The simple fact is that there is no evidence that Iran is working towards a nuclear weapon, so an actual war to 'prevent' them from developing that putative weapon is unlikely. Always remember that it would be a simple, low tech matter for Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz to shipping traffic, thus immediately removing more than 20% of the global oil supply and crashing the world's economies. Even the most bloody minded of corporate leaders would prefer not to see their profits destroyed for years to come.

Ultimately, this position is incoherent in the extreme. There is no way to arrive at the conclusion that the status quo is better than some agreement for ANYONE. If they derail the deal before it goes into effect, or if the deal collapses two or three years down the road, the outcome is exactly the same. Every claim that Netanyahu and Rubio make about the situation as it exists now would be 'true' then. The saving grace for the rest of us is that Iran is very unlikely to ever build a nuclear weapons program. But there is no doubt that Iran's breakout period will be much shorter without a deal - with 10,000kg of 20% enriched Uranium and an unlimited number of 2nd generation centrifuges spinning underground at Fordow, it's hard to understand why that would be seen as an improvement on a negotiated agreement.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Deepwater Debacle

Amazingly, this isn't the real disaster
Five years ago today, the end of the fossil fuel era on planet earth began. People had found, and accessed, all the easily available crude oil they could find, anywhere on the planet. The pursuit and development of this easily available oil had destroyed civilizations, started wars, generated incredible wealth and driven an industrial revolution that lead to a technological revolution that lead to the space age. But in April of 2010, oil wasn't easy to find, and it was even harder to get. Off the coast of Louisiana, BP did something almost unthinkable. They drilled a fifteen thousand foot well under five thousand feet of sea water. Everything was beyond their ability to control. The wellhead was too deep, the well was too deep, the oil reservoir was too highly pressurized, and if anything went  wrong there was just no way that the engineers could manage it a mile under water.

At 9:45 PM local time, the drill struck a pocket of very high pressure methane. The gas expanded up the well to the Deepwater Horizon rig, where it exploded, and the drilling platform burst into flames. Eleven workers died and the platform capsized and sank two days later. And just like that, nearly a mile under the surface, a wellhead was open and uncontrolled, and a huge volume of crude oil was gushing into the Gulf waters. 

All summer long we watched, the world watched, as the people who drilled the well, who told us the well was safe, who believed - or claimed to believe - that they had the technical and engineering wherewithal to manage such a difficult and monumental project tried one ad hoc scheme after another to seal the blowout. For 87 days, crude oil flowed into one of the richest fisheries in the hemisphere at a a rate of 62,000 barrels per day. Even worse, in a desperate attempt to mitigate an ongoing environmental disaster of the first order, they sprayed almost 2 million gallons of the toxic oil dispersant 'Corexit' into the gulf waters.

And all through May and June, on into July, day after day we saw the smartest people in industry and government try increasingly desperate untested solutions, and day after day they failed, leaving us with the same haunting dim view from a robotic camera 5000 feet under the surface, showing the blasted wellhead pouring crude oil into the gulf. 62,000 barrels every day. Finally, in early September, they were able to cap the well, although there is ongoing disagreement about how much crude oil continues to seep from the Macondo well.

Of course they continue to drill for the earth's remaining oil, regardless of how inaccessible it might be. They continue to recover oil from tar sands, and by hydraulic fracturing. But that night in April of 2010 was the peak, the beginning of the end, a rubicon that cannot be uncrossed. Despite the efforts of the fossil fuel industry and their corrupt politicians, renewables are the growing energy sector. Hybrid and electric cars are accepted in the market, and the price of solar and wind generated power was close to par with fossil fuels before the collapse of oil prices in 2015.

As other nations build out their alternative generation capacity, the demand for fossil fuels will continue to fall, and with surplus supplies, the price will stay low. In developed nations, electric vehicles will continue to gain in popularity as a usable charging infrastructure is developed. In developing nations, the air pollution problems have gone from nuisance to catastrophe, and they are taking rapid action to reduce their fossil fuel consumption.  Of course, it's very likely that we've already done irreparable damage to the climate and the oceans, but you've got to start somewhere, and all this started with the Deepwater Horizon disaster five years ago.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Putin's Missiles

It's good. It's not magic.
So relations between Russia and the West are quite tense these days, so it should come as no surprise that the Putin government is going to take every opportunity to tweak the US. And sure enough, on the heels of the Iran Nuclear framework agreement, the Russian President announced that he was releasing the S-300/SA-20 air defense missile batteries, a sale that was blocked due to UN sanctions by then President Medvedev in June of 2010. But that's not really what I want to talk about here. I have been consistently appalled by the dishonesty, the misinformation and the gross inaccuracy of the reports around this transfer, not just in the media but by government spokespeople.

The inaccuracies fall into two general categories. First is the hysteria, most often implicit, that these missiles will make Iran a greater 'threat' to her regional neighbors, and second is the hyperbole attached to any discussion about the capability of the SA-20 system.

We can deal with the first category very quickly. Air defense systems cannot represent a threat to another nation. They are designed to defend against air attacks - they don't have a capacity to damage another nation's cities or militaries. This is the great irony of the generalized hysteria over Iran's potential purchase of advanced air defense systems. It makes it harder to launch an unprovoked air attack on Iran - that's essentially the complaint. We threaten them every day with aggressive war, and if they respond to those threats by trying to improve their defenses, do we really think it's a reasonable response to get all butthurt?

The second issue is much more interesting. SA-20s are truly modern air defense systems. They use a variety of modern radars and the missiles have powerful multi-spectral sensors and thrust vectoring that permits them to maneuver with their targets. They DO represent an increased risk to non-stealthy attackers. But that's not the entire context. We're being told that these systems would make it impossible to attack Iran. That's utterly ridiculous hyperbole. Modern doctrine is entirely premised on the reduction of enemy air defenses before the bombing campaign begins in earnest. The west has a variety of assets, from cruise missiles to stealth bombers to drones to Wild Weasels to detect, locate and destroy air defense radars and missiles. And that's the weakness of all these systems - in order to detect and target attackers, they have to radiate. Electronic warfare aircraft receive, categorize and pinpoint these emitting radar systems, and any of a number of systems will be released to destroy them in seconds. Even a mobile system like the SA-20 never has a chance to move. Once it lights up its search and track radar, its life expectancy is less than sixty seconds.

So in our desperate attempt to portray Iran as some kind of rapacious, marauding nation, an equivalent to 1938 Germany, we describe a defensive system as an offensive threat, we claim that an ability to deter unprovoked attacks is an aggressive stance, and then we claim that these systems, if delivered, would simply prevent any attack on Iran no matter what the motivation. The world we live in has become so dishonest, and so violent, that nothing makes any sense anymore. But sometimes you just have to point out the lies, and think about what they mean.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

70 Years Ago Today - Ernie Pyle and the Death of Real Combat Journalism

Ernie Pyle shares a smoke with Marines on Okinawa.
He would be dead within a week.

Much of how warfare has been conducted historically has been determined by communications technology. From runners on foot and horseback to unreliable field radios, from short wave telegraphy to digital satellite voice comms, what can be done tactically has often been determined by what could be communicated, and how quickly. The same has also been true of the journalism of warfare.

World War II sat on the cusp, at the nexus of the primitive and the advanced. It was a cataclysmic event that demanded journalists try to find a way to tell the stories, but it was so big, both in numbers and in geography, and at the same time so localized, small unit battles with limited central control, that the press had to try to decide how they could best cover it. The common choice was to report the big picture, the battles, the armies, the advances, the setbacks. Later, photos and film would arrive from the front, to fill in the blanks and offer the people a view - subject to censorship - of the fighting up close.

Ernie Pyle had a different idea. He didn't think the story was the events of the war, exactly, but rather the regular, dirty, hungry, sick Americans in far-flung lands fighting the battles, the skirmishes and the conditions. Pyle had been a correspondent for the Scripps-Howard papers from 1935 to 1942, traveling around the Americas and writing about people and places from a very close, intimate standpoint.

He told the stories that soldiers saw, up close. Their relationship with death, their exhaustion, their gentleness and their savagery. He talked about sleeping with the dead laid out alongside the road outside, and he talked about the fear and loathing of the enemy on Okinawa.

He traveled with the front line from North Africa to Anzio to Normandy to Okinawa, and then, finally, on a road 300 meters from the beach on Ie Shima island off the coast of Okinawa, he looked over a trench-line and caught a machine gun round behind the left eye, killing him instantly. The one voice that could try to make people understand the cost and the brutality of infantry combat had been silenced in the most prosaic, pointless manner. Death in Pyle's world was quick and meaningless, and that ultimately included his own.

Pyle represented the high-water mark for war correspondents - the eloquence and immediacy of the written word telling not just the stories, but conveying something more important - the value of the lives being lost, and the savage human cost paid by the survivors. Indeed, after covering the liberation of Paris in August 1944, he wrote a column apologizing to his readers that he had "lost track of the point of the war" and he hoped that a few weeks rest at home would prevent his hospitalization for 'war neurosis'.

By Vietnam, it wasn't about newspapers - Vietnam would be a television war. Correspondents were still completely unfettered, but it had become much more about images than words. And after Vietnam, the American military opted for very tight control over the press, resulting in the worthless, sanitized propaganda we've been getting since we first invaded Iraq in 1991.

It would be easy, and glib, to say there will never be another Ernie Pyle. In a sense, that is self-evidently true - if for no other reason than there will never be another World War II. It's true that his conversational style, his eye for detail and his sense of humanity made him the best at his craft, but his legacy lives on on the web, carried by the likes of David Axe and his contemporaries.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Mystery of Metcalf

It's so easy anyone can do it
Two years ago today, something very weird happened at a PG&E power sub-station in San Jose California. It's a total mystery, and it's therefore one of the most important harbingers of the future of American infrastructure imaginable or it's a bizarre one-off rage event.  At any rate, at midnight a person or persons unknown opened a cable vault next to highway 101 and cut fiber optic cables serving AT&T and Level 3 customers. A few minutes later they opened fire through the chain-link fence on the substation equipment with an automatic rifle chambered in 7.65x39, likely an AK-47 or one its clones.

17 transformers were destroyed when 52,000 gallons of cooling oil leaked out and one after the other they overheated. By the time San Jose PD responded to reports of shots fired, the attackers were long gone, leaving behind a pile of spent brass and a major electrical distribution facility serving a major city crippled for months. It eventually cost $15.4 million to clean up the mess and replace the destroyed equipment.

PG&E was able to prevent long-term outages by re-routing power, but the obvious implication was that such a simple, low tech attack could have been replicated simultaneously at several primary points on the grid and there would be no power to re-route.

No arrests have been made, and no organization has taken credit for the attack, leaving many questions outstanding. Was it a trial run by a 'sleeper cell', verifying the theory that you could cripple the grid without explosives and without ever penetrating the physical security provisions in place?  Or was it a disgruntled employee who sought revenge for some kind of employment setback by imposing millions of dollars in damage? The FBI says - probably correctly - that the attack doesn't meet the definition of terrorism, because it wasn't (to anyone's knowledge) carried out in furtherance of a political or social agenda.

There is debate about the professionalism of the attackers. Much of the media portrayed it as a highly professional sniper attack, but the evidence runs both ways. The evidence the shooter had trouble hitting what he was shooting at - or perhaps just wasn't sure what precise part of the equipment would cause the most damage - but he/they were thoughtful enough that none of the spent casings had fingerprints or have been traceable.

In the most important sense, it really doesn't matter. No matter the reason for the attack two years ago, it served as a proof of concept for a simple approach to taking down a large segment of the electrical grid. No hacking, no bombs, no highly trained specops warriors disabling cameras and cutting through fences - just a dozen guys with a half dozen rifles and a thousand rounds of ammunition. And anybody concerned with such an attack now knows exactly how to do it.

Metcalf appears poised to remain a mystery forever, but it may ultimately be the most important terror attack you never heard about.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Seeing the Forest

They're crazy
Amid the global hysteria over Iran's nuclear program that has lead to repeated threats of aggressive war, sanctions, assassinations, sabotage, economic warfare and ultimately the possibility of a diplomatic agreement to end the 'crisis', something very fundamental has been completely overlooked. Put simply, why Iran? There's been a 'Muslim Bomb' for almost 20 years in Pakistan, there's North Korea's utterly insane regime with nuclear weapons, there was the whole cold war face-off between the US and Russia that had their strategic arsenals on hair- trigger 'launch on warning' readiness, and somehow, a combination of strategic deterrence and 'Mutually Assured Destruction' (represented by the absolutely perfect acronym 'MAD') prevented any of those fairly shady characters from ever actually USING their weapons.

Of course, we know the answer. Iran, the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs are willing to sacrifice their entire nation, all its people and all its history in order to launch one final blow against Israel. Certainly, the Islamic penchant for suicide bombing and martyrdom hasn't helped this situation, but I'm pretty skeptical. First, it seems like a pretty specific suicidal hatred. According to this narrative, Khameini is willing to sacrifice his country under a rain of Israeli nuclear weapons, but only if he can use a nuclear device of his own. For all these years, he (and his predecessor) has had the opportunity to launch attacks on Israel and die as a result and have never chosen to do so.

Second, the dire warnings that the Iranians are a year or less from having a nuclear weapon have been ringing out for over 30 years. At some point you have ask if they should be taken seriously at all.

Third, primitive first generation nuclear devices are large, heavy, fragile and unreliable. And then there's the matter of delivery systems. A device like this would have to be loaded in a large, slow transport plane and the possibility that an aircraft like that could penetrate Israeli airspace from Iran is essentially zero.

And unlike those nations threatening it, Iran has a hundred year history of peaceful coexsistance with its neighbors. Yes, the Iranian government supports certain factions in other parts of the region - what other nation doesn't do that? Certainly the US and Israel support some fairly unsavory factions as part of their foreign policy.

I dunno. I know some Israelis, and their belief in the suicidal hatred of the Iranian leadership is conventional wisdom, not something to be questioned. And if you DO suggest it might be a bit beyond any human historical likelihood, they win the argument by telling you you're naive and you're not the people that are going to die under that mushroom cloud.

But it's very important to think about, for a couple of reasons. First, if you think about it, since 9/11 scaremongering about a nuclear device being used in a Muslim terrorist attack has been the primary justification for wars and interventions all over the globe. It's just a little too convenient -  it worked for the odious GW Bush in Iraq, and all over the world other heads of state noticed. It's been adopted as the most powerful message to manipulate your population into supporting yet another illegal war.

Beyond that, it's more than a little frightening that the leadership of multiple nations can be pulled in to an extreme, unlikely narrative like this and have it end up defining a huge portion of their foreign policy. The US tends to let Israel drive it's policy in the region, and let's face it, America has something in its character that makes it want to go to war with Muslim nations. But why Germany, Russia and China would go along with this convenient delusion is hard to grasp.

Iraq was never a threat, and millions of lives were lost or ruined. Iran has never been a threat, and look what it takes for them to be permitted to participate in the NPT. Israel has a significant nuclear stockpile, the Sunnis have a nuclear power in Pakistan, and Iran's fully inspected and monitored nuclear program is the major threat?

If there was ever a reason to question the sustainability of the current global order, this entire Iran nuclear debacle would be it.