Homeland (In)Security

Model Aircraft Are Not A National Security Threat

Recently, the FBI launched a successful sting operation that nabbed an wanna-be al-Qaeda member, Rezwan Ferdaus, who had been trying to provide terrorists with cellphones turned into explosive detonators and who had been plotting on attacking the Pentagon and the Capitol with remote-controlled aircraft.

There is already a great deal of hype from writers like Slate‘s Will Saletan over terrorists using RC aircraft to launch terrorist attacks. But it’s hype with little factual basis. The fact is that RC aircraft are not a significant threat to national security.

Setting the Record Straight

First, it’s important to get the facts correct. CNN erroneously reports that a model aircraft like the one that terrorist wanted to use can be purchased for less than $200. That is simply incorrect—you can buy small aircraft powered by electric motors and made of styrofoam for $200. But those will not carry much more than a small camera—certainly not enough explosive to make a dent in a building. Such aircraft weigh less than 2 pounds and have a range of less than two miles—hardly a devastating terror weapon.

The RC F-86 intended for the DC bomb plot

The RC F-86 intended for the DC bomb plot could not have carried a 20-pound payload

The aircraft that Ferdaus used was apparently a model of the Korean-War era F-86 with a wingspan of over five feet and a similarly-sized model of the Vietnam era F-4 Phantom. More than likely the aircraft would have been powered by gas turbine engines. Aircraft of that size are quite expensive, probably several thousand dollars, not including equipment. Plus, those aircraft are not designed to lift large payloads. They are designed for speed and maneuverability, not lifting objects. Even if Ferdaus had actually gotten his hands on C4 explosive, the chances of him pulling off a successful attack would have been slim. Loading that aircraft with 20 pounds of explosives and the gear needed for it to use GPS to fly to its intended target would have probably left it too heavy to fly, or at the very least much slower than it would otherwise be. While some reports say that the aircraft could carry 50 pounds of explosives, that is simply untrue. In theory a model aircraft of that size could be stuffed full of C4, but they would have no prayer of actually taking off with that kind of weight.

Not only that, but a turbine aircraft flying over Washington would have been very noisy and very visible. No doubt the Pentagon and the Capitol have systems in place to deal with airborne threats. Even at a maximum speed of over 100 miles per hour, a model aircraft is much slower than a missile, and much larger. The chances of it getting to a target undetected are slim to none. A plane packed full of explosives, assuming it could fly at all, would fly so slowly and ponderously that small arms fire would have no problem knocking it out of the sky long before it reached its target.

That assumes that Ferdaus wouldn’t have blown himself up in the process. C4 is a very stable explosive, but anyone who’s ever flown a model aircraft will say one thing: it’s damn hard. It’s harder than flying a full-scale aircraft. Even with technological aids, it’s still very difficult. And the aircraft that Ferdaus chose would require a long, paved runway to take off. It’s not something that could be launched from a park. Ferdaus would have more than likely not been able to take off, and there’s a good chance he would have ended up meeting his 72 virgins long before he would have caused harm to any government buildings.

In short, this attack would not have worked even if it hadn’t been an FBI sting from the very beginning. As Fast Company observes:

Model aircraft and drones are exceedingly poorly suited to lone wolf terrorist attacks. Despite the use of drones by the U.S. military for targeted strikes and assassinations, operation of these types of unmanned aircraft require access to resources and training generally available only to domestic and foreign military forces. In other words, if you don’t have North Korea or Pakistan training you and supplying AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, fuggedaboutit. The many drones easily available to the civilian market are good only for surveillance and aerial monitoring.

But that won’t stop the busybodies in Congress from trying to regulate model aircraft into oblivion given half the chance.

The Real Threat is Regulation

The real threat here isn’t from al-Qaeda. If you wanted to attack the Pentagon, there are 20,000 missiles gone missing from Libya that could do a lot more damage than a model F-86 packed with C4. Model aviation does not pose a substantial security threat to the United States.

But that won’t stop the regulators from trying to end the hobby. There have been efforts to regulate model aviation into the ground in the past, and busybodies like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have threatened to regulate RC planes before. The federal government does not like it when anyone does something that they can’t control, and model aviation is next in their crosshairs. This harebrained scheme by a terrorist wanna-be is just the excuse that Washington needs to clamp down.

And this could not come at a worse time. Model aviation is becoming more and more useful to the American people. Thanks to better battery technology and cheaper radios, model aviation is open to people who could never have afforded to get into the hobby in the days of expensive and dangerous fuel-powered engines and equally expensive radios. This means that children can get into a hobby that will teach them about physics, engineering, and aerospace. Last I heard, we wanted to build a high-tech 21st Century economy. We can’t do that by restricting the ability of the average citizen to explore science and technology on their own.

Not only that, but this technology has more concrete uses. Civilian drones can be used for aerial surveying, aerial photography, and scientific studies. The University of North Dakota recently flew a model plane close to a tornado to launch probes into the storm. An off-the-shelf AR.Drone that can be bought at a mall was used to survey damage after the New Zealand earthquake. These are applications that would have previously been too expensive for civilians to afford.

We should not risk these benefits over unnecessary fears of terrorism. We have already sacrificed too much in the name of security, preferring the illusion that “security theater” will keep us safe when the reality is that those measures are less about preventing terrorism and more about having the illusion of doing something.

Rezwan Ferdaus’ foiled attempt to attack Americans with model aircraft was never going to work, and even if it had, the damage would have been far less than more conventional modes of attack. But we should not let Ferdaus’ foolishness lead to an overreaction on the part of government. We only have so many resources that can be brought to bear in stopping the next terror attack, and using those limited resources to patrol civilian hobbyists diminishes our capacity to deal with real threats to our safety and security.

International Relations, Obama Administration

Serious Times Call For More Serious Analysis

Foreign Policy has two perspectives on Fareed Zakaria’s latest piece in Newsweek. Both are interesting critiques of both Zakaria and the Obama foreign policy.

First, Christian Brose finds Zakaria’s thinking too reflective of the “Washington establishment”:

We’ve been hearing a lot about the Obama administration’s plans to talk to adversaries — Iran, Russia, Syria, the Taliban, etc. But we’ve heard preciously little about how the administration intends to create conditions of strength that are the requirement for diplomatic success. Everyone knows Obama is willing to talk. The question is what new leverage he will bring to bear to make that talk effective. Will we use the military forces we are withdrawing from Iraq to exert greater pressure on Iran? Are we asking our European allies to take any bold new steps on financial coercion? What exactly is Russia willing and able to do to change Iran’s decision-making? So far, answers to questions like these have not exactly been forthcoming, and in their absence, it’s not at all off-base to think that talking without leverage could harm U.S. interests. (And all of this is assuming that Iran hasn’t just said, screw it, we’re getting the bomb, and damn the torpedoes, which opens up a whole new world of problems.)

Second, Peter Feaver argues that Zakaria doesn’t have a serious critique of American foreign policy:

A more balanced perspective on Bush — some positive, some negative — would pave the way for Fareed to offer a more balanced perspective on Obama. I agree with Fareed that some of the critiques of Obama have been exaggerated, almost as exaggerated as, well, the conventional wisdom on Bush. But surely in a column calling for a reasonable perspective on Obama’s foreign policy performance, Fareed could have found space to at least discuss some of the missteps and rookie mistakes: perhaps a mention of the ham-handed personnel decisions (like this one or this one) or the needless insults to allies (such as this one or this one). If these are dismissed as minor peccadilloes, how about a candid admission that, as Fareed himself recommended, Obama has more often than not continued Bush’s foreign policies while claiming to make bold dramatic changes?

In the end, I don’t think that the Obama Administration cares all that much about foreign policy. Obama is not a foreign-policy oriented President. He’s much more concerned with the U.S. economy, which is (rightly or wrongly) popularly conceived as much more important than what’s going on abroad. Obama’s view of American power is not fully formed. He had almost no foreign policy experience when he took office, and he’s displayed little interest in foreign policy now—other than largely staying the course from the Bush Administration.

Obama’s idea is that if somehow everyone gets together and talks somehow everyone will come to a consensus. That model barely works in faculty meetings, and it won’t work in international diplomacy. Iran will not give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Why should they? The US can talk all they want, but there’s nothing we can offer that will give Iran a reasonable incentive to stop. The Iranians are doing what a rational state would do in their shoes: develop a nuclear deterrent to Israel. That they may be insane enough to use that deterrent is a problem, but even if the Iranian regime were perfectly rational, they’d still be developing nuclear weapons.

There’s no “consensus” there. Iran wants nuclear weapons, we want to deny them the opportunity. There’s no amount of carrots that can dissuade them otherwise, and the Iranians know damned well that Barack Obama does not have the political will to stop them. They have no fear of President Obama, and there’s no reason they should fear him. That is a problem for us.

On the other hand, I suspect that Tehran is frightened of Binyamin Netanyahu. He will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, and he’s the only world leader who would do something to stop them. But even that seems a less than likely circumstance.

What should Obama do? He has to face facts: the world is not a peaceable place. If he chooses to negotiate it must be with the full understanding that negotiation may be pointless. That means understanding that players like Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela may not have any interest in so much as throwing us a bone. That means being willing to be both smart and tough. All the tough rhetoric in the world is worthless. Nobody fears Vladimir Putin because he talks tough, they fear Putin because he’s perfectly capable of killing dissidents, invading countries, and playing hardball to get what he wants.

That doesn’t mean that Obama should emulate Putin, but that does mean that he needs to learn to play hardball. That means being willing to engage Central Asian states on the same terms that Russia does: and they’ve become far better than us at offering tasty carrots and brutal sticks. We can’t pretend that Tashkent works the same way as Washington D.C. It doesn’t, and we have to learn to play by the regions rules.

Obama has shown some promise—he has been less radical in foreign policy than some had predicted. But he still has a long way to go. He can’t keep alienating allies like he did with his shameful performance with Gordon Brown. He has to face the realities of a harsh and unforgiving world. Obama has the benefit of being intelligent and articulate, which counts for a lot. But it will never be enough, and unless the world fears him just a little, America will never truly be respected.

Iraq, Politics, War On Terror

As Iraq Lifts Itself Up, Some Stick To The Script

Even as terrorists try to their best to sow fear, the signs of a major turnaround in Iraq continue as the inertia in the conflict now favors stability rather than violence.

Al-Anbar Province, once the center of violence in Iraq and a pipeline for terrorists, guns, and money is now a place of relative tranquility. The reason is simple: US resolve helped empower Iraqis to fight terrorism:

The U.S. military assault on Fallujah in 2004 yielded a significant U.S. victory both in moral and tactical terms, David Bellavia, a former staff sergeant with the U.S. Army who served with the First Infantry Division for six years, said in an interview.

“I call it my generation’s Normandy because it identified for the enemy what the American fighting man was all about,” he said. “They completely underestimated us and had this idea that because we couldn’t use our technology, we wouldn’t have intestinal fortitude to see the battle through, but this is what ultimately delivered us.”

In 2005, Bellavia received the Conspicuous Service Cross, the highest award for military valor in New York state. He is also the author of “House to House,” which chronicles the Battle of Fallujah in graphic detail.

The Rumsfeld strategy, while based on a sound premise, was ultimately based on the wrong premise. The worry was that more troops would mean more casualties, which emphasized the worries of American politicians rather than what really mattered—the security of Iraqi civilians. Even during the darkest days of the war, brave and resourceful military commanders like Col. H.R. McMaster were developing the tactics to fight and win in Iraq. In Fallujah, we demonstrated that we would not back down. That lesson was brought home time and time again, until finally the Iraqis started joining our side. Once that began to happen in a significant fashion, al-Qaeda was damned.

This ABC News report puts the usual spin on the good news: sure, violence is down, but will it last. What the media, Sen. Obama, and the rest of the antiwar partisans fail to understand is that the reduction in violence is the direct result of our fortitude on Iraq. For all of the President’s legion of faults, especially in the conduct of this war, his stubbornness may have saved Iraq from a humanitarian nightmare that would make Darfur look like nothing. His stubbornness and our military’s skill, combined with the bravery of the Iraqi people have paid off with a great peace dividend.

This peace will last so long as national reconciliation is in the interest of all the parties. The Sunnis are outnumbered. They tried violent resistance and were nearly ethnically cleansed. The Shi’ites also know that violence does not help them. They have political leverage, and because of that they have the most to lose if Iraq flies apart. They may have the numeric superiority, but if they start a civil war, the Sunnis will end up back in bed with al-Qaeda, and even if the Shi’ites win, it will be at a great cost, and would cause Iraq to fall into the hands of the Iranians. Iraqi and Iranians share a common religion, but nothing else.

Iraq can be peaceful, not because of some noble ambition, but because of enlightened self interest—and that is the most powerful force in the universe.

Yet all this could be undone by a public more interested in bread and circuses than world peace. The Democratic Party, by playing to the basest isolationist and xenophobic interests, is threatening the progress that has been made. A premature withdrawal from Iraq would undermine all this progress. If the US leaves, the Iraqis cannot yet keep the peace. A US presence is a necessity to provide the Iraqis with the security needed for progress. The argument that the US presence somehow undermines Iraq’s progress is ridiculous on its face—Iraq has made great political progress, and that progress is only possible because the Iraqis have security. If the Iraqi people cannot be secure in their homes, how can they possibly be expected to trust each other? I, for one, would love to see Sen. Obama spin his way out of that question.

Contrary to the ignorant and arrogant arguments that Iraqis are not pulling their weight, they are making great strides towards restoring the greatness of the nation of Iraq. Day by day, the Iraqis that work towards the betterment of their nation and fight against terror bring Iraq closer to the days when Baghdad can once again be a center of learning and commerce and a great world city.

We in America must never belittle their sacrifice. In a spirit of solidarity, we must continue to support our Iraqi allies in their fight against terror and oppression. Instead of giving them up, we should continue to support their struggles—after all, we were once a struggling young power as well.

It is fair to ask what we are fighting for. What we are fighting for in Iraq is this: that one day a joint US-Iraqi biotechnology venture can discover a cure for cancer, AIDS, or another terrible affliction. That some day, in a place like Darfur, US and Iraqi peacekeepers can work alongside each other again to restore another war-shattered country. That some day, Iraq will become a brother nation to us, an ally as great as those we liberated 60 years ago.

That dream is within the grasp of both the people of the United States and Iraq—but only if we do not let our short-term politics interfere.


Safety And Numbers

A recent study conducted by the BBC has shown that Iraqis are feeling increasingly secure as the level of violence in Iraq drops. What’s interesting to note is the disparity between people who feel safe in their own homes, yet still think the rest of the country is unsafe. The same factors that explain why many Americans feel secure in their own finances yet thing think that the country as a whole is in recession apply to the Iraq data. People tend to only have limited and largely anecdotal contacts with places outside their own perception—so what they think of the outside world is shaped by the media. And the media runs on the maxim “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Looking at the survey data, it does look as though the security situation in Iraq is finally calming down. That doesn’t mean that there will not be sporadic acts of violence—as long as the opportunity costs are so low, groups like al-Qaeda will continue to launch a low-level campaign of intimidation. However, it’s a numbers game. Al-Qaeda has to launch enough attacks to keep the Iraqi populace in fear. The Iraqis are continuing to supply intelligence to the Iraqi police and military as well as the coalition. More terrorists get caught, which leads to more captures, until entire cells are compromised.

The situation in Iraq will be one long rollback, but that which was supposedly impossible has already been done—Iraq’s slide into anarchy has been halted. The security situation has begun to stabilize. Political progress has been made on key issues like oil and de-Ba’athification. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is losing, and losing decisively.

The war in Iraq was pronounced to be all but lost only one year ago—and now the situation is looking anything but lost. In war as in life, fortune favors the bold, and the boldness of men like Col. H.R. McMaster and Gen. David Petraeus have ensured that the situation in Iraq is vastly improved from where it was just one year ago.