Reuters: Trump says ‘major, major’ conflict with North Korea possible

Reuters: Exclusive: Trump says ‘major, major’ conflict with North Korea possible, but seeks diplomacy.

The most important goal  of  IARPA crowd sourcing intelligence program was to improve the ability of the U.S. intelligence community to predict conflict and revolutions. North Korea is obviously on the top of the intelligence community’s menu.  So I can’t duck the obvious question.

The question would be posed to members of the intelligence community in terms of probabilities and timelines, which could be updated daily. I don’t feel the need to spin the wheel daily in this blog. It would simply bore you. But a version of this question can be answered with very compact, compelling reasoning. The question is:

“Will the U.S. – North Korea conflict on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles end in a negotiated settlement while Kim Jong-un is in power?”

The answer is no. A unique combination of facts work on both North Korea and the U.S. to prevent it.

The power base of Kim Jong-un is weak. This has been repeatedly emphasized by defectors as the cause of rampant executions of high level functionaries. And the executions do not cure the weakness; they may even exacerbate it. The rule of the dictator is a combination of carrot and stick. Too much  stick devalues loyalty;  the carrot becomes irrelevant to happiness.  Hence:

  • The rule of Kim Jong-un is too weak to survive cancellation of these programs.
  • If Kim Jong-un is deposed, it is most likely that he will die. He is too dangerous to his challengers to be left alive.
  • In the protracted negotiations with the father, Kim Jong-il, under the 1994 framework, the program slowed, or appeared to stop for periods, but no assets were relinquished by North Korea. Hence the son cannot relinquish assets.
  • The portraits of father and son hang side-by-side. This is not for decoration. It is symbolic proclamation that the son is the continuation of the father. A loss of symbolic continuity would immediately activate the weakness of the son’s power base.

About the rationality of Kim Jong-un, Trump says,

“I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational,” he said.

Perhaps Kim Jong-un is rational in the desire to stay alive. But more than anything else his presidency can accomplish, Trump has personally staked himself to solution of this problem.

The IARPA program included multi part questions. Part B could be:

“If there is an active U.S. – North Korea conflict, will China participate on the U.S. side?”

This question has a hidden dependency. If the progression towards conflict, which has now started, proceeds in a concert of the U.S. and China, the answer is  yes,  to nonmilitary, but extremely effective steps.  North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure cannot be eradicated by air power alone.  So there is a strong incentive on the part of the U.S. for a combination of  military and economic pressure, with the object of regime change.

The bullet list has tight linkages, implying that the object of regime change is identical as a goal with nuclear disarmament of North Korea


North Korea says it is ready to strike U.S. aircraft carrier

Reuters: North Korea says it is ready to strike U.S. aircraft carrier. The probability that it could is not zero. The ROKS Cheonan was a small South Korean warship that was sunk by a North Korean torpedo, launched from a submarine. Perhaps to make a point, the sinking occurred 75 miles from a joint U.S. – South Korea antisubmarine exercise. The psychological aspect of the Cheonan sinking is discussed in North Korea ICBM test — Trump says, “It’s not going to happen.”.

In NBC: U.S. May Launch Strike on North Korea Nuke Test, I used Benjamin Franklin’s method as the analysis tool. Tools like this may seem utterly crude, yet they help us grapple with the otherwise imponderable. Here’s another tool, which I used to advantage in the IARPA program “Forecasting World Events”,  to predict Assad’s use of chemical weapons around the time of Obama’s “red line.” The reasoning was analogous to the aphorism, “Money burns a hole in the pocket.” The fact of possession of chemical weapons  occupies a certain amount of Bashar Assad’s mental space. To a personal dictator,  possessing the weapon promotes the desire to use the weapon.

Kim Jong Un doubtless knows the saga of the Saphir , a rather small and old French nuclear submarine that, according to reports that may have been suppressed, “sank” in exercises the U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. The diesel-electric submarines possessed by North Korea do not  have the endurance of the Saphir, but make less noise, by which submarines are detected.

There are hints that analysis of the exercise produced initiatives to revise U.S. antisubmarine protocol. Nothing in open source exists to substantiate it, or allow knowledgeable estimates of current strategies. But physics is a very helpful substitute. The ocean is divided into layers of differing salinity and temperature. Each layer  contains and blocks sound from the layers above and below it. If you’d like to read the now-declassified report, it’s available courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute as a pdf.

This is why, against the deepest veil of secrecy, one folkloric saying is widely known: The best hunter of a submarine is another submarine. The U.S. has many submarines specialized for this task. The game gets interesting:

  • A dictator of little intellect has proven toys, diesel electric submarines.
  • The defense against them is not apparent to him, or to us, because of extreme secrecy.
  • If the dictator succeeds in damaging or sinking a U.S. aircraft carrier, his mood will be elation.  But the torpedo must actually hit.
  • If the torpedo misses, the dictator sees no downside. It is his experience, with the Cheonan, that even a hit produces no retaliation.

So there is a significant probability of miscalculation by Kim, engendered by the prior failure of South Korea to retaliate for the sinking of the Cheonan. If Kim were a child, one would say he is the victim of bad parenting.

Kim  may not then understand why his fleet of submarines is then replaced by oil slicks and debris.

Prediction: Sarin Use in Syria

CNN: Putin claims intel shows more chemical attacks planned in Syria. Quoting Putin via CNN,

“We have information from a variety of sources that such provocations … are being prepared in other parts of Syria, including in southern suburbs of Damascus,” Putin said Tuesday during a news conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

It surprises that this is not accompanied by one of the favorite phrases of current journalism: “send a message.” When Putin sends bombers into the U.S. Alaska air identification zone,  he is “sending a message.” A U.S. cruise missile strike on al-Shayrat airfield “sends a message” to Putin. Everybody is sending messages, but apparently, the style is to be very coy.  Now Putin advises us to expect more gas attacks in Syria. But where is the verbiage? He’s not sending us a message?

The specific location mentioned by Putin, the Damascus suburbs,  is noteworthy. The Ghouta chemical attack was the first large scale use of nerve gas in Syria. To date, it accounts for about 80% of all the chemical casualties sustained in the entire Syria civil war.

 The munitions used in the Ghouta attack were rockets. Various web publications portray different degrees of certainty as to which side is responsible. As before, in Russia denies Assad to blame for chemical attack, I refer to the BBC article, Syria chemical attack: What we know, as  more reliable than freely editable open sources on this controversial issue. Quoting,

However, by examining the debris field and impact area where the rockets struck in Muadhamiya and Ein Tarma, the inspectors found “sufficient evidence” to calculate azimuths, or angular measurements, that allow their trajectories to be determined “with a sufficient degree of accuracy”.

When plotted on a map, the trajectories converge on a site that Human Rights Watch said was a large military base on Mount Qassioun that is home to the Republican Guard 104th Brigade.

So let’s print the obligatory phrase: Putin is sending us  a message. There are several reasons why he would be so kind:

  • He couldn’t stop attacks in the Damascus area even if he wanted to. Assad’s rockets cannot be seized, controlled, or interdicted by the Russians in Syria.
  • In other areas,  aircraft may be used. But an endgame for Russia in Syria is nowhere in sight.   The more Assad’s forces can accomplish themselves, the less the Russians will be needed. Against the incredible uncertainties of dealing with  jihadis on the political level, “Assad the victor” is the only compact line of reasoning of sufficient simplicity to pass the Kremlin’s version of Occam’s Razor.
  • The implication that Russia is involved in gas attacks in Syria is potentially very dangerous to Russia. It’s so dangerous, the counter-propaganda comes in advance of the events.

In Notes to Russia, Putin, Medvedev, et al. on Shayrat Airfield, I wrote:

There is danger to Russia in complicity with Assad. If it becomes viral in the Islamic populations of Russia and Central Asia that Russia is complicit in gas attacks, it could boomerang on Russia. …Such a viral idea could not be controlled even by state media. In your justified fear of the potential for jihadism in Russia, do not make your problems worse by creation of a viral myth.

It would be natural to couple the above with the Russian bomber flights to conclude that Putin is “sending a message”, a warning not to countenance a second strike. In Reuters: NATO seeks to manage Russia’s new military deployments; Old Russian Joke, I offer another interpretation. It is an instinctive fear response, like a lizard inflating its sagital crest, or an animal posturing to appear larger than it is.

The thing to recommend this so-called messaging is that it worked very well during the early phase of the Ukraine conflict. Putin’s posturing as the “crazy man” was actually amplified by some western news media looking for article hooks.  This happens too often, as with the hyping of the Russian’s pleasantly named “Satan” missile.

 Now, hopefully, Putin-the-crazy-man is stale schtick. But General McMaster’s NSC may soon be challenged with multitasking two problems:

  • Deterrence of Assad’s use of sarin delivered by primitive, cheap barrage rockets. There is no infrastructure to disable, save destruction of the rockets themselves, which is generally considered too dangerous.
  • The North Korea game, in which the stakes for our close allies and distantly sympathetic China are incomparably higher.

But thank you, Vladimir Putin, for letting us know.

CNN: Russia tried to infiltrate Trump campaign

It is not known whether Page actually rose to the level of misconduct of White, who actually passed confidential information to the Soviet Union. This may have been nipped in the bud.

The danger was certain. The question of a prosecutable offense remains.


CNN: U.S. has a Program to Hack North Korea Missiles

CNN: U.S. has a Program to Hack North Korea Missiles. This is called “Left of Launch”

I wish this had been a “black program.” But “Left of Launch” has been peeking from behind the curtain since at least 2015. Quoting the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, (3/15/2015),

The “Left of Launch” strategy has been percolating over the past few years in the bowels of the Pentagon and government labs as part of an effort to reduce the cost of engagement of missile defense and to defeat an outnumbering force of offensive ballistic missiles that continue to proliferate around the world should they be used to threaten the United States and its allies.

Since CNN has given this a certain exposure, I feel I can add a little without helping North Korea. Left of Launch is practical against powers that cannot manufacture integrated circuits of a certain complexity. China, already self-sufficient or nearly so, is not in this class.

Back in the day, integrated circuits were relatively simple. A printed circuit board was required for just part of a small computer. For the most part, each chip performed a function so simple, it could be described by a “truth table”, that could be written down like a spreadsheet. You could test each chip and know exactly what it does.

The progress of integrated circuitry was so astonishingly rapid that it outran the words used to describe it. “LSI”, large scale integration, had at least a thousand gates. VLSI had many more. But some modern chips have more than a billion gates!

If you have something that complicated, and it has only a thousand pins (connections to the outside world) or so, can it be tested? Can the maker ever know whether it has any, shall we say, behavior, that is not in the specifications?

M.G. Karpovsky, a mathematician and digital logic  innovator, answered the question in the early 80’s. You can test about 71% of it. The rest is forever hidden. It would take something like the age of the universe to test all the combinations. Instead of being sure, it goes into your smartphone or laptop. At least it won’t catch fire like the battery.

A North Korean missile designer has two options. He can design the electronics for his rocket the really, really old way, using thousands of SSI (small scale integration) chips. It’s very tough to do this., and even harder to do it compactly. It was last done well by the famous names of U.S. computing. The rest gave up. Examination of scrapped Soviet electronics suggests their missiles might have not actually worked, so bad was their attempt. (Soviet missiles had a backup mechanical switch  so that if the missile actually hit the ground, it would at least not be a total dud.)

The modern alternative is to build the missile electronics out of Big Chips, with spiffy acronyms like ASIC, FPGA, and CPLD. All these chips are subject to the 71% rule. In the unknown 29%, these chips could be having their own conversation on the side. And Karpovsky has shown there is no way to test the truthfulness of a big chip.

Could Kim & Co. examine the chips with a microscope? It is doubtful they could learn anything, since an elaborate scanning system would be required for comparison with a “true” chip. Could Kim & Co. seek alternate suppliers? This is doubtful, since the technology remains in the hands of the G7. But as the technology diffuses, it could happen in the future.







Understanding the Mother of All Bombs

This bomb discussion will end with an interesting insight into the politics of Afghanistan. In between, there will be blast tables provided by the BATF.

Foreign policy lives at the intersection of national interests, personalities, and the physical world. In the past few days, there has been a tremendous amount written about the MOAB, making it sound controversial, when it really is no more than a very jumbo fire cracker.

There is no reason to doubt General Nicholson’s statement (Reuters). Quoting:

“This was the first time that we encountered an extensive obstacle to our progress,” he said of a joint Afghan-U.S. operation that has been targeting Islamic State since March.

“It was the right time to use it tactically against the right target on the battlefield.”

Afghan and U.S. forces were at the scene of the strike and reported that the “weapon achieved its intended purpose,”, Nicholson said.

Some of the smaller websites have published outlandish statements on the destructiveness of the MOAB. It has even become political capital, as a symbol of unstoppable power, and a novel evil.  The former president of Afghanistan,  Hamid Karzai tweeted (Al Jazeera),

“This is not the war on terror but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons.”…

“I vehemently and in strongest words condemn the dropping of the latest weapon, the largest non-nuclear , on Afghanistan by US…1/2″

Some students of international relations, a quintessential liberal arts major, may have slept through their “physics for poets” course. This is for them. It’s also for the reporter or digger who wants to understand whether a currently circulating attitude is the result of propaganda, political posturing, or a media-frenzy feedback loop. At this point, the words-in-print this past week about the MOAB could be as much as 10% of that devoted to  the sarin gas attack. But the two events are in no way commensurate.

Let us compare. The MK-84 2000 pound bomb has a 1000 pound case. On detonation, the case turns into shrapnel with a 400 yard lethal radius. The blast radius is much smaller than the shrapnel radius.

The MOAB contains 18,700 pounds of high explosive. It has a thin skin of aluminum. On detonation, the skin vaporizes. With possible exception of a few fragments of tail and bits of fin, there is no shrapnel. While high explosives differ in detail, they are more similar than different. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives finds no need to distinguish between the varieties of high explosive. The MOAB is not a fuel-air or thermobaric bomb, which would alter the discussion.

Now consult the BATF table, which provides safe storage distances for high explosives based on weight. Consult the column for a highway with more than 3000 cars per day, in straight line of sight of the explosive (unbarricaded.)

  • If the 2000 pound bomb, containing 1000 pounds of explosive, does not have a case that turns into shrapnel, the safe storage distance  is 636 feet.
  • For the MOAB, which contains 18,700 pounds of HE, the safe storage distance is about 1650 feet.

Note that 18,700 pounds of explosive increases the safe distance by only a factor of 2.5. But what is the lethal distance? Clearly, it must be a fraction of the safe distance. A bomb creates a brief pulse of overpressure. (CDC, pdf) Explosions and Refuge Chambers, Table 1 shows no direct damage to the human body by overpressure of 2 pounds/square inch.

At what distance is the overpressure greater than than 2 PSI?  From FEMA (Chapter 4, pdf)  EXPLOSIVE BLAST 4, figure 4.6,

  • 2000 lb bomb with 1000 lb of explosive:  less than 260 feet.
  • MOAB: less than 700 feet.

Somewhere inside the above circles, lethal effects occur. But the 2000 lb bomb has a lethal shrapnel radius of 1200 feet. The MOAB produces little or no shrapnel. We have the surprising conclusion that the MOAB is less likely, in many circumstances, to produce collateral casualties than the ubiquitous MK-84 bomb!

This is not a pleasant subject. Students of IR may prefer to contemplate Metternich or Bismarck. But there is actually an interesting takeaway. Hamid Karzai is still an important political figure in Afghanistan. His polarized comments on the Big Firecracker (I’m giving the MOAB my own name) indicate he is hedging his bets on the future of Afghanistan. As the situation in Afghanistan continues to evolve, he is a man to watch.

But this newly released footage of the MOAB in action could change my mind. What do you think?





NBC: U.S. May Launch Strike on North Korea Nuke Test

NBC: U.S. May Launch Strike If North Korea Reaches For Nuclear Trigger. The Pentagon response is a dour not-quite-denial: (Reuters) Pentagon declines comment on NBC story on North Korea.

I have been thinking along these lines myself, but in the interest of not tipping the U.S. hand, I refrained. This is an open source blog, but it is also an easy digest for adversaries as well as friends.

In North Korea ICBM test — Trump says, “It’s not going to happen.”, I wrote:

This is the root of the conventional, almost unnoticed assumption, that any response to North Korea must be nonescalatory. This piece isn’t contradicting that, but merely drawing it out. If the strict regime of nonescalatory response were loosened, options exist. I don’t want to discuss them. I don’t want to impede a possible U.S. response in any way. So as interesting as the the subject is, I must forgo.

Since (NBC) “multiple senior U.S. intelligence officials” don’t leak stupidly, it’s kosher to discuss this in general terms. I still don’t want to draw  all the options. But in Xi-Trump meeting; Long Range; North Korea, I wrote:

Since Trump’s concept of achievements is that they are fungible, he reconsiders the South China Sea.  There are things you want to keep, and things you want to trade. It’s key to streamlining a business.

Maybe it’s trading material. I’ll finish this a little later.

One of the purposes of this blog is to make open source analysis a teachable skill. One of the most powerful predictive tools was devised by Benjamin Franklin: the list of pros and cons. The genius of it is that in the tally, each item on the list is given equal weight. Let’s apply that now to the question of a U.S. action against the North.

The Pros

  • Trump’s vow to solve the problem of North Korea.
  • His recent use of force in Syria.
  • The enthusiasm of China state media with the Xi-Trump meeting, in spite of China’s awareness of the above. Hence, the “trading material” reference.
  • Shared dislike of “Fatty Kim.”
  • Possible awareness by South Korea of a grim future with the North.
  • The conventional wisdom that force is off the table. Conventional wisdom is always vulnerable.

The Cons

  • A possible attack by the North on the South, with all the ramifications.
  • Refusal by the South to face up to the growing threat.

Notice that all the things that could happen to the South are not itemized. In the opposite extreme every casualty could be an element of the list.  In Franklin’s use of his method, tightly linked propositions are collapsed into a single list element. Each list element has the same weight.

Since the pros have it, 6 to 2, the estimate is that an attack has significant chance. It may have strange aspects.

China’s role may not be entirely passive.



MOAB, “Mother of All Bombs”, in Afghanistan

Things that go BANG! have a great draw. You could say anything you want about the GBU-43, the “Mother of All Bombs”. Most readers in the U.S. will have a mildly euphoric feeling, similar to that from a bar of really good chocolate.

The MOAB is not the largest conventional bomb in the U.S. arsenal. The crown belongs to the GBU-57A/B, which is 50% heavier. The MOAB is “larger” only in the distinction of the largest amount of explosive. The GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator contains much less explosive, but it has a case designed to penetrate at least dozens of yards (with specialty concrete somewhat resistant)  into an underground target.

The MOAB is an air-burst bomb. For the surface targets for which it was designed, the GBU-43 provides unparalleled “shock and awe.” But since the target was a tunnel complex, why was the GBU-57 not used instead? Strike planners always have legitimate technical reasons, which have nothing to do with revenge. There were only 15 GBU-43’s in the stockpile, and now one less.

Because the MOAB is an air burst weapon, it has very limited effectiveness on a cave system. If the entrance is known, and happens to be a massive structure instead of a rabbit hole, it might be useful. A topographic depression could also focus the blast. But in practically all cases of underground targets, the GBU-57A/B is much more “total.”

There are a limited number of reasons why the GBU-43 was used instead of the GBU-57. It is  disappointing that the media leave this unexplored. All of the possible reasons are easily understandable by the general public.

The bomb, in and of itself, is treated as a news article. Bombs are not news articles; they are weapons.








FBI Court Order to Monitor ex-Trump Adviser

WP via Reuters: FBI got court order to monitor ex-Trump adviser in Russia probe: Washington Post. Quoting,

The judge was convinced there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of Russia, the Post said.

Since this is now a “spy case”, let’s review the meanings and definitions of espionage. Many of us are familiar with the atomic spies, particularly Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917, and sentenced to death. Others charged under the 1917 Act were the 80’s spies, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.

The “illegals” of the Illegals Program, of whom Anna Chapman is the most famous, were charged instead under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which covers anyone acting in a “political or quasi-political capacity” for a foreign government. As far as FARA is concerned, Anna Chapman could have been no more than a lobbyist, or an influencer of any kind. If she was in the pay of a foreign government, she was obliged to register under FARA.

Most of the above illegals had fictitious identities. They communicated with Russia using the advanced tools of spy tradecraft, such as secret radios, steganography (messages hidden in pictures), etc. Yet they were not charged under the Espionage Act, because prosecution under the Act, which is disturbingly vague in some ways, has been mostly reserved for transfer of classified information, of military value, to a foreign power.

Suppose you’re a digger, and you have a source. One question you should ask is whether the suspected violations are in the category of espionage, as defined by the 1917 Act, or covered by FARA?

  • A FARA case requires proof that the accused was paid by a foreign government, not a private company. In Russia, there is no practical difference, except where the money trail leads.
  • The 1917 Act, which has been abused with prosecution failures, requires the passage of classified information.  The case of James Rosen  would be an interesting digression, but it has the taint of cross-party animus. That particular form of abuse is not relevant here because the administration is investigating itself.

We think of the “illegals” as spies, because that was their ultimate intent.  Inserted into American society with false identities, their ultimate purpose was to get close to the centers of power, close to individuals who could be blackmailed, or simply co-opted to provide “sensitive”, if not classified information. After the process of development matured,  an illegal could even influence  policy by direct personal persuasion. This is classic subversion.

The illegals  were spies in the incubator. Had they hatched, Espionage Act prosecutions might have resulted. Had suspected violations of FARA continued into the current administration, they might have transitioned to classic espionage, or subversion of the decision process. It’s the gleam in the eye of every spymaster. It’s what they live for.

 So if you live to dig, this is your question: What was going on?  FARA, Espionage Act, or both?  The FBI is trying to figure this out. Nothing has been disclosed in open source save for a few names, a computer server, a payments book in Kiev, and the quote of the Post article.

But now you have these points to guide your search:

  • It is said that the discovery of Anna Chapman’s ring was unusual in the extreme. The most accepted explanation, that given by Chapman herself, is betrayal by the ring’s spymaster, Colonel Poteyev. So there’s a good chance there is another undiscovered or un-busted ring.
  • Ring, no ring, or ring yet-to be, there was a Russian spymaster. To not have one would be too unusual. Russians have spymasters like we have Wawas.
  • The ultimate goal of a spymaster who runs an illegals network is to infiltrate sleepers into centers of power and secrets.
  • The spymaster had leaks, from the Hillary Clinton campaign, as trading material. The popular assumption is that the leaking was basically unilateral, to derail the Clinton campaign.
  •  But there is something the spymaster desperately wants for his network,  something to motivate a trade.

What was it?