security

The Soviet Navy versus Russia’s

Despite the collapse of oil prices, Russia has remerged onto the global stage as a major player, in the aftermath of the conquest of the Crimea. Russia’s involvement in Syria, for example, reversed the course of that conflict, which was sliding towards the government’s defeat. Before the recent ceasefire was declared the government was on the verge of encircling Aleppo, which would have been impossible with Russia’s intervention. During the conflict, Russia launched missiles from naval ships in the Black Sea, which reminded observers of its new military capabilities.

While Russia has formidable military forces, however, it’s also worth remembering that it is not the great power that it was during the Cold War. In many respects, Russia barely has a blue water fleet, which is capable of operating globally. This graphic from Contemporary Issues and Geography makes clear the astounding decrease in the size and capabilities of Russia’s naval forces. While Russia is using its modest naval forces effectively, they still cannot compare either with the naval forces of the Soviet Union, or the U.S. navy today.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

The U.S. Drone Fleet

Warfare is changing rapidly, with the development not only of drones in the air, but also in other services. For example, the US. navy is increasingly interested in sub-hunting drones as a possible means to hunt other nations’ ballistic missile submarines. What is remarkable, however, is how fast the change has taken place within the U.S. air force. I recently came across this graphic at Contemporary Issues and Geography, which shows the size of the current U.S. drone fleet. Click on the image once to increase it to full size. As this graphic shows, the United States now produces and operates drones at a staggering scale.
Shawn Smallman, 2016.

The Magic of Number Stations

Waterfall display for "The Buzzer", radio station UVB-76 on 4625 KHz. The lower sideband is clearly suppressed. Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons on 28 June 2010 by Janm67
“Waterfall display for “The Buzzer”, radio station UVB-76 on 4625 KHz. The lower sideband is clearly suppressed.” Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons on 28 June 2010 by Janm67 with a GNU Free Documentation License.

One of the world’s enduring mysteries is the nature of number stations, which are shortwave radio stations that broadcast random lists of numbers, morse code, or strange bursts of sound, such as the odd beeps on Russian station UVB-76. Nobody knows what the purpose of the number stations is for certain, but we do know that they have been broadcasting for decades, that the transmitters have an immense amount of power, and that stations broadcast in languages that range from Bulgarian to Chinese. These facts probably mean that only nation states would have the resources to operate these communication systems. The most likely explanation is that these sites are tools for global espionage networks. It may be difficult to believe, but even in this internet age the most secure way to transmit one way messages may be through shortwave radio, which can’t be traced to the listener. The messages are almost certainly transmitted using one time pads, a probably unbreakable form of encryption. …

Security, fear and Stuxnet

Roman Poroshyn’s brief book (156 pages) provides an excellent overview of Stuxnet within the larger context of cyber-warfare and espionage in the Middle East. Unlike another book on the same topic, Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero, it is not based on extensive interviews, nor does it focus in as great a depth upon the process through which the virus was investigated by global cyber security firms. Instead, with Stuxnet: the true story of Hunt and Evolution, Poroshyn tries to place Stuxnet into a broader context of espionage and cyber-warfare directed against not only Iran, but also other institutions in the Middle East, such as the Lebanese banking system. The book is an engaging read (despite the awkward wording of its subtitle), and Poroshyn shares a number of intriguing insights, of which the most interesting was that Stuxnet’s creators ultimately may have allowed it to be revealed to the world as an act of psychological warfare (33-35, 154-155). One of Poroshyn’s other arguments is that Stuxnet is only one chapter in a much longer struggle, which is convincing given his detailed analysis of successive software tools (Flame, Gauss, Narilam, and perhaps Stars) that Israel and the United States likely used against Iran and other regional actors.

One of the book’s strengths is its ability to convey the intelligence of the software design behind this particular cyberweapon. For example, Stuxnet entered into the Iranian nuclear enrichment network through USB sticks, because the network was air-gapped (lacked an internet connection) to the outside world. The level of deceit entailed is chilling: “After the third infection the original Stuxnet worm commits suicide. It deletes itself from the USB stick without leaving a trace” (18). Perhaps most impressive was the fact that it used the very tools for securing machines to infect them: “The perfect match for all of Stuxnet’s requirements is a computer scan process, generated by antivirus software. Stuxnet injects its clone into a variety of processes generated by anti-virus programs from BitDefender, Kaspersky, McAfee, Symantec, and many others” (19). The program was so effective that it briefly shut down the entire Iranian enrichment program (22). Of course, the Iranians ultimately were able to return to significant production. What is impressive, however, was that it achieved this goals which would have been difficult to achieve even with a conventional airstrike against such a hardened site as the Iranian enrichment facility. It also had dangerous implications: “Russia, which is involved in the reconstruction of the Iranian nuclear reactor in Busher, immediately accused Stuxnet of problems associated with the reactor’s reconstruction, and blamed Stuxnet for all delays” (37). There seems to be little evidence for this allegation, but once the attack is made, other actors may also view themselves as being threatened (or that the attack represents a convenient excuse).

There is reason to believe, as Poroshyn suggests, that there are other versions of this particular weapon in existence, only biding their time to be unleashed (53). This book is currently in its third edition. It will be interesting to learn what has happened when the fourth edition is released.

If you are interested in cyber-warfare you might want to read my review of the novel Ghost Fleet.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

Seymour Hersh and Syria

Few investigative journalists have as impressive a history covering international issues as Seymour Hersh. His current article, Military to Military, in the London Review of Books harshly criticizes current U.S. policy in Syria for being too critical of Russia, too supportive of Turkey, and most of all, unsuccessful. The piece is well worth reading.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Book Review of Lords of Secrecy

Scott Horton’s book Lords of Secrecy is a passionate, angry, well-written and disturbing look at how U.S. national security agencies have undermined congressional oversight, and consistently violated the law. At the core, this book argues that the growth of the national security bureaucracy has outgrown the ability of Congress to provide oversight, and fundamentally threatens democracy. In the aftermath of the appalling and evil attacks in Paris last week, there is currently a clear need for effective intelligence agencies. Horton’s work, however, raises questions about the autonomy of these organizations, and the risks that their work may entail by pervading secrecy throughout our political culture. …

Security and a strange cyberattack

The Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. This photo was taken by Hamed Saber, and was posted to http://www.flickr.com/photos/hamed/237790717, and downloaded from Wikipedia Commons
The Natanz nuclear facility in Iran. This photo was taken by Hamed Saber, and was posted to http://www.flickr.com/photos/hamed/237790717. I downloaded the image from Wikipedia Commons

In Countdown to Zero Kim Zetter describes a 2010 cyberattack on the Iranian nuclear program. In a brilliant piece of computer engineering, the control units for centrifuges that enriched uranium were forced to slow and fail. The attack was so carefully planned that even after it began the Iranians were initially unable to diagnose the problem. The book itself is well written and carefully researched. Zetter did extensive interviews in the cybersecurity community, to understand how people identified and studied this particular worm. This work is detailed in extensive footnotes, which will lead a curious reader down interesting paths. Zetter carefully describes the technical issues involved in the attack, without letting this detail impede the storyline. Overall, this is a masterful work of narrative non-fiction, which engages the reader in a highly complex topic. …

Climate Change and the Middle East

Image of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook, Yemen.
Image of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook, Yemen.

I’ve blogged before regarding the argument that a disastrous drought helped to feed the conflict in Syria. It’s worth revisiting the topic, however, based on a report edited by Caitlin Werrel and Francesco Femia at the Center for Climate and Security.The report, “Climate Change and the Arab Spring,” was published in February 2013, and makes the argument that climate change was a key factor in the Arab Spring, although that is not to say that it caused the uprisings. The essays in the collection clarify the truly global factors that underpinned this event, from declining wheat production in China, which undermined food security in the Middle East, to the “transcendent challenges” created by climate change globally.

The link between drought and warfare is not new. This linkage, for example, may help explain the collapse of classical Mayan civilization in the 9th century in the Yucatan peninsula and Central America. The Mayan city-states faced both an epic drought, and -based on the archaeological record- widespread warfare perhaps beginning around 800 AD (Michael Coe, The Maya, 162-163, Jared Diamond, Collapse, 172-174). The historical connection between drought and conflict is a deep one. …

Thucydides, fear and China

Over the last 15 years a veritable cottage industry has arisen to describe similarities between 1) contemporary East Asia and Europe before World War One and 2) the potential for conflict between the United States and China, based on the work of Thucydides. Often scholars make both points, which is the case with Graham Allison’s recent article in the Atlantic. While the topic may not be new, it is no less significant for that reason. Allison makes this comparison based on a historical study done by his team for the Belfer Study at Harvard. I won’t summarize the results here, because I’d encourage you to view the presentation itself, but suffice it to say that there are reasons for serious concern. If Allison’s team is correct, the odds of war are higher than for peace, although conflict is not inevitable. For any nation in the region (see my book review of Malcom Fraser’s Dangerous Allies)  the current situation should be worrying. While the United States is currently preoccupied by Russia’s actions in Europe, Allison states that the greatest threat remains a conflict with China. The reason that so many authors write about the parallels with World War One is that conflict is likely to come about less from malice and planning than coincidence and misinterpretation. Scholars have often spoken about Europe “sleepwalking” into World War One. While it is easy to condemn that long-ago generation of statesman, diplomats and leaders, its more discomfiting to ask how current leaders would respond to a similar challenge. For all these reasons, I strongly recommend Allison’s piece in the Atlantic.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Ghost Fleet: a book review

F35 on training flight. Wikicommons. U.S. Navy ID number ID 110211-O-XX000-001
F35 on training flight. Wikicommons. U.S. Navy ID number  110211-O-XX000-001

P.W. Singer and August Cole have written a techno-thriller based on a Chinese invasion of Hawaii, in a strange replay of Pearl Harbor. As with Tom Clancy’s work, there are multiple points of view, moral black and whites, and the technology is at times as much of a star as the main characters. Yet this work creates a pessimistic twist to Clancy’s upbeat vision. In Ghost Fleet America’s reliance on technology makes the country so vulnerable to attack that it must draw (spoiler alert) on irregular warfare tactics that its armed forces learned fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is a contradiction within this work. At times some scenes come across as unrealistic, and the analysis of international politics seems simplistic. Some plot devices, (another spoiler alert) such as the discovery of new resources leading to a surprise invasion, are so common in the genre as to be exhausted. In contrast, the focus on technology is all too convincing, and this detailed look at possible scenarios for future warfare (the book has extensive endnotes) is fascinating. The work is also carefully plotted, and the climax is deftly handled. …

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