FAS Roundup- October 31, 2011

Goodbye to the B53, mystery behind the 1969 nuclear alert, new START data, advice for Washington regarding Iran and much more.


From the Blogs

  • New CRS reports, including casualty figures from the war in Afghanistan and more.
  • Mystery of the 1969 Nuclear Alert: In October 1969, the Nixon Administration secretly placed U.S. nuclear forces on alert for two weeks. Still today, no conclusive explanation for the potentially destabilizing alert can be found.  Even with full access to the classified record, State Department historians said in a new volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series that they were unable to provide a definitive account of the event.

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Army Seeks to Promote Cultural Literacy

A new U.S. Army publication (pdf) invites American soldiers to ponder the role of cultural factors in shaping perception and action.

Analyze this statement: ‘The English drive on the wrong side of the road.’

In some Islamic countries women wear burkas.  Who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged by this?

Why do you think major religious traditions tend to have a plain version and a more mystical version?

What do television commercials tell us about American culture?

This is not a purely theoretical exercise, but is intended to support the Army’s counterinsurgency role in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“Soldiers must understand how vital culture is in accomplishing today’s missions,” the new publication says. “Military personnel who have a superficial or even distorted picture of a host culture make enemies for the United States.  Each Soldier must be a culturally literate ambassador, aware and observant of local cultural beliefs, values, behaviors and norms.”  See “Culture Cards: Afghanistan & Islamic Culture,” U.S. Army, September 2011.


Army Weapon Systems 2012

The 2012 edition of the U.S. Army Weapon Systems handbook provides a concise description of dozens of Army weapon systems and programs.  In each case it presents system specifications and indicates the current status of procurement or development.  It identifies contractors by name and location as well as foreign military sales, where applicable.

“The systems listed in this book are not isolated, individual products. Rather, they are part of an integrated system-of-systems investment approach designed to make the Army of the future able to deal successfully with the challenges it will face,” the handbook says.

“Our goal is to develop and field a versatile and affordable mix of equipment that will enable Soldiers to succeed in full-spectrum operations today and tomorrow, ensuring that we maintain our decisive advantage over any enemy we face.”

Afghanistan War Casualties, and More from CRS

Between January and June 2011, the United Nations documented 1,462 civilian deaths in Afghanistan, which was a 15% increase over the same six months the year before.  Anti-government forces, e.g. the Taliban, were responsible for 77% of the casualties and pro-government forces were responsible for 12%.  (The remainder were indeterminate.)  These and other casualty figures were compiled from published sources by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in “Afghanistan Casualties: Military Forces and Civilians,” September 30, 2011.

Some other recently updated CRS reports include the following (all pdf).

“Pakistan-U.S. Relations: A Summary,” October 20, 2011

“Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: Background and Current Developments,” October 5, 2011

“Funding Emergency Communications: Technology and Policy Considerations,” October 4, 2011

“National Security Professionals and Interagency Reform: Proposals, Recent Experience, and Issues for Congress,” September 26, 2011

End of the B53 Era; Continuation of the Spin Era

Hans Kristensen with B53 Bomb

By Katie Colten and Hans Kristensen

[Modifed] Today, one of the largest weapons in the United States nuclear weapons arsenal, the B53, will be dismantled at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. Developed during the Cold War and deployed in 1962, this bomb weighs as much as a minivan and has an explosive yield of nine megatons, equivalent to 750 Hiroshima bombs.

Retired from the arsenal in 1997, the dismantlement of the B53 marks the end of the era of large, multi-megaton bombs, a hallmark of the Cold War. The largest-yield warhead in the U.S. stockpile today is the B83 bomb, which has a maximum yield of 1.2 Megatons.

Administration officials have been busy spinning the dismantlement as proof of the administration’s commitment to nuclear disarmament and as vindication of its plan to spend billions of extra dollars to modernize the nuclear weapons production complex. Continue reading

Purpose of 1969 Nuclear Alert Remains a Mystery

For two weeks in October 1969, the Nixon Administration secretly placed U.S. nuclear forces on alert.  At the time, the move was considered so sensitive that not even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was briefed on its purpose.  Still today, no conclusive explanation for the potentially destabilizing alert can be found.  Even with full access to the classified record, State Department historians said in a new volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series that they were unable to provide a definitive account of the event.

Previous historical scholarship has inferred from selected declassified documents that the alert was somehow intended to communicate a firm resolve to end the Vietnam War by whatever means necessary.  (See “Nixon’s Nuclear Ploy” by William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, National Security Archive, December 23, 2002; and “The Madman Nuclear Alert” by Scott D. Sagan and Jeremi Suri, International Security, Spring 2003.)

But based on the classified record, that interpretation remains unproven and uncertain, according to the gripping new State Department FRUS volume on “National Security Policy” (pdf).

“The documentary record offers no definitive explanation as to why U.S. forces went on this alert, also known as the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Readiness Test,” the editors of the FRUS volume said (Document 59).

“There are two main after-the-fact explanations: first, that nuclear brinkmanship was designed to convince the Soviets that President Nixon was prepared to launch a nuclear attack against North Vietnam in order to convince Moscow to put pressure on Hanoi to negotiate an end to the war in Southeast Asia” along the lines that previous historians have suggested.

The second proposed explanation is “that the President ordered the alert as a signal to deter a possible Soviet nuclear strike against China during the escalating Sino-Soviet border dispute.”  Consistent with the second interpretation, the FRUS volume provides new documentation of intelligence reports indicating that Soviet leaders were considering a preemptive strike against Chinese nuclear facilities.

Astonishingly, even the most senior U.S. military leaders were kept in the dark by the White House about the nature of the alert– before, during and after the event.

“It is difficult to measure the success of this operation,” wrote JCS Chairman General Earle G. Wheeler to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird on November 6, 1969, “since… the objectives of the test are unknown.”

“It seems prudent if maximum benefit is to be gained from an operation of this type that at least you and I and the senior commanders are informed of the objectives and goals,” General Wheeler suggested (Document 92).

In the end, the secret U.S. military alert — one of only a few such cases involving U.S. nuclear forces — had little discernable impact.  “There has been no reflection of acute concern by the Soviets…,” the CIA reported in an October 27, 1969 memorandum included in the FRUS volume (Document 89).  “There has been no reflection of the US military alert posture in Soviet or Chinese news media or diplomatic activity.”

Of the small White House group that directed the secret 1969 alert, perhaps only Henry Kissinger remains alive and active.  He did not mention the alert in his memoirs, the FRUS editors noted, except perhaps in an oblique statement that the United States “raised our profile somewhat to make clear that we were not indifferent” to Soviet threats against Chinese facilities.

FRUS Leads Declassification, but Sometimes Lags Behind

At its best, the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series serves as a driver of declassification, propelling it farther and faster than it would otherwise go.  But it’s not always at its best.

In 1992, Congress enacted a law concerning FRUS that represented one of only a couple of continuing statutory requirements to conduct declassification of official records.  (The Atomic Energy Act, which also imposes continuing declassification requirements, is the other statute that comes to mind.)  The 1992 law directed the State Department to publish FRUS in such a way as to provide “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions” and to do so “not more than 30 years after the events recorded.”  This implied an ongoing obligation to declassify historical records in a timely fashion.

The State Department has never met the statutory 30 year deadline.  Nor has Congress effectively required that it do so.  In fact, Congress has not even conducted regular oversight of the FRUS program, which has experienced significant turmoil in recent years.

But the statute has not been altogether forgotten or ignored, either.  In numerous areas of historical research, FRUS represents the vanguard of declassification, opening up otherwise inaccessible collections for the first time.  This is notably true in the latest FRUS volume on “National Security Policy” published last week.  It includes previously unreleased material declassified specifically for FRUS, “some of it extracted from still-classified documents.”

On the other hand, because the FRUS declassification process is often so slow and prolonged, it can produce erratic and misleading results.  The latest FRUS volume began a declassification review in 2005 that was not completed until 2011.  This created the awkward circumstance that information which may have been properly classified in 2005 could be withheld from release in FRUS in 2011 despite the fact that the information had ceased to be classified in the interim.

Thus, the new FRUS volume included a redacted version of President Nixon’s 1971 National Security Decision Memorandum 128 on the FY 1972-1974 Nuclear Weapons Stockpile (Document 196).  “The President approves a total stockpile of [deleted] for the end of FY 1973 and a total stockpile [deleted] for the end of FY 1974,” according to the FRUS version which treats the stockpile numbers as still-classified information.

This version of the document fails to recognize that the stockpile totals for 1973 and 1974 (among other years) were declassified by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Energy in May 2010.

Yet this information cannot be found in the new FRUS volume, suggesting a need for improved coordination of the declassification process to make it even more productive.

New START Data: Modest Reductions and Decreased Transparency

New START aggregate numbers have been published by the United States and Russia.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The latest New START treaty aggregate numbers of strategic arms, which was quietly released by the State Department earlier last week, shows modest reductions and important changes in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces.

Most surprisingly, the data shows that Russia has increased its number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and is now again above the New START limit.

Because of the limited format of the released aggregate numbers, however, the changes are not explained or apparent. As a result, though not yet one year old, the New START treaty is already beginning to increase uncertainty about the status of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. Continue reading

FAS Roundup- October 24, 2011

One of the benefits of FAS membership is receiving weekly updates regarding the latest news and information on science and technology issues affecting our world. I am excited to share with you a new e-newsletter that will be sent to members every week, highlighting events, publications, reports and news from FAS and our experts about the urgent need for a more secure world.

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Invention Secrecy on the Rise

During fiscal year 2011, there were 143 new secrecy orders imposed on patent applications under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reported this week.  This represents an increase of 66% over the year before, and it is the highest number of new secrecy orders in a single year since 1998.

The Invention Secrecy Act authorizes the government to block the disclosure of a patent application if it contains information that might be “detrimental to the national security.”  Remarkably, this secrecy authority extends even to privately-generated inventions that the government does not own or control.

According to USPTO statistics obtained by the Federation of American Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act, a total of 5,241 patent secrecy orders were in effect at the end of FY 2011, including both new secrecy orders and those from previous years that had been renewed.  This is the highest annual total since 1995.

An explanation for the increase in secrecy orders was not reported.  Nor do the statistics themselves include anything like a “figure of merit” that would confirm their validity or their legitimacy.

The use of secrecy orders has sometimes been questioned, particularly when they extend to inventions that are not clearly limited to military or other national security applications.  Forty years ago, government agencies directed that advanced renewable energy technologies should be reviewed for possible restriction under the Invention Secrecy Act.  These included photovoltaics that were more than 20% efficient and energy conversion systems with efficiencies “in excess of 70-80%.”  (“Invention Secrecy Still Going Strong,” Secrecy News, October 21, 2010)

To be “detrimental to national security” — which is the threshold for a secrecy order under the Invention Secrecy Act — is a lower standard than to cause “damage to national security,” which is the criterion for national security classification.

Government reviewers may recommend imposing a secrecy order on a patent application in which the government has a “property interest” (i.e. the government owns or supported the development of the invention) whenever disclosure of the application “might be detrimental to national security,” according to a 2010 directive from the Department of Defense.  However, if the government does not have a property interest in the invention, then reviewers can only impose a secrecy order if disclosure “would be detrimental to national security,” a more demanding standard.   But the term “detrimental” was not further defined and the precise scope of the review process is not publicly known.

It has been years since Congress conducted investigative oversight of the invention secrecy program.  An informative series of hearings entitled “The Government’s Classification of Private Ideas” was held by the House Committee on Government Operations in 1980.  Extensive excerpts from the published hearing volume are posted here.