Why Saddam and Gaddafi Failed to get the Bomb

Saturday, November 26th, 2016

Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, author of Unclear Physics, explains why Saddam and Gaddafi failed to get the Bomb:

While dictators with weak states can easily decide that they want nuclear weapons, they will find it difficult to produce them. Why? Personalist dictators like Saddam and Gaddafi weaken formal state institutions in order to concentrate power in their own hands. This helps them remain in power for longer, but makes their states inefficient. Weak states have fewer instruments to set up and manage complex technical programs. They lack the basic institutional capability to plan, execute, and review complicated technical projects. As a result, their leaders can be led to believe that the nuclear weapons program is doing great while, in fact, nothing is working out. In Libya, for example, scientists worked throughout the 1980s to produce centrifuges, with zero results.

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As my book shows, these programs were afflicted with capacity problems at every stage, from initial planning to their final dismantlement. These problems were worse in Libya than in Iraq, because Gaddafi dismantled most state institutions as part of his Cultural Revolution during the 1970s. Saddam created a bloated state that was difficult to navigate for his officials, with competing agencies and programs blaming each other for various problems as these emerged. This made oversight difficult, from Saddam’s point of view, and caused endless infighting and backstabbing inside the Iraqi nuclear program. As a result, scientists spent days in endless meetings, blaming each other for delays, rather than working together as a team to solve problems they were facing.

Even when Saddam tried to put more pressure on his scientists to deliver results, he failed. After Israel destroyed a research reactor complex in Iraq in June 1981, Saddam became more determined to get nuclear weapons. But the program made little progress. In 1985, his leading scientists promised Saddam that they would achieve a major breakthrough by 1990 – without specifying what exactly they would achieve by that time. By 1987, it was clear that they would not be able to make a significant breakthrough by the deadline. This created plenty of shouting and conflict inside the program, and led to an in-house restructuring, but even at this stage no one was willing to tell Saddam the bad news. When the delays could no longer be denied, the scientists blamed another agency. This was a strategic blunder – because this agency was led by Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamil. Saddam put Kamil in charge of the nuclear weapons program. Even Kamil, who was notoriously brutal against his employees, became so frustrated with the nuclear program that he threatened to imprison anyone found to intentionally cause delays. Tellingly, this threat was never implemented.

In contrast, Libyan scientists often did not show up for work. The regime couldn’t just fire them, partly because there were too few scientists in Libya to begin with. The regime was unable to educate enough scientists and engineers, and had to hire foreigners (including many Egyptians). Some of the Egyptian scientists went on strike during a 1977 conflict between the two states – and, apparently, managed to negotiate better conditions. Not quite what we would expect from a brutal dictator, is it? But, as the history of Libya’s nuclear program demonstrates, the regime invested enormous sums in buying equipment without getting significantly closer to the nuclear weapons threshold. In fact, nothing worked – including phones, photo-copiers and expensive laboratory equipment. Some of the equipment broke, and no-one knew how to fix them, whereas other stuff was left unopened because the technical staff was concerned that fluctuating voltage in their electrical system could break the equipment. The Soviet research reactor also faced problems, because the Libyans were unable to filter the water cooling the reactor system, which meant the pipes became clogged with sand.

The Iraqi and Libyan programs failed for different reasons. The Iraqi program was beginning to make some progress after the internal restructuring. Kamil decided to ignore Saddam’s rule to not seek help from abroad, and bought equipment for the nuclear weapons program from Germany and other countries in the late 1980s. But then, Saddam miscalculated badly and decided to invade Kuwait in the summer of 1990. After the invasion, the Iraqis launched a crash nuclear program. Kamil told Saddam that they were on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons in the fall of 1990, which wasn’t true. But, if Saddam hadn’t invaded Kuwait, which led to the 1991 Gulf War, he would most likely have acquired nuclear weapons. The Libyan program never even got close.

Gun Control Is Tax-Subsidized Marketing for Illegal Submachine Guns

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

Gun control Is tax-subsidized marketing for illegal submachine guns, J.D. Tuccille notes, because submachine guns are terribly easy to make:

“DIY submachine guns are popping up across the West Bank,” the Washington Post reported recently in a piece about a weapon that has repeatedly played a role in Palestinian attacks upon Israelis. The guns are of a common type referred to as the “Carlo,” based on the Swedish Carl Gustav M/45, which dates to the World War 2 era. The article added that hundreds of the submachine guns have been confiscated over the past year, and raids staged on 35 mechanics’ shops that were cranking them out.

“The Carlo has remained so popular because of how little machinery and technical know-how is required to produce it,” a Times of Israel story noted earlier this year. “A drill press, some welding equipment and blueprints from the internet are all that’s needed to create one of these potentially devastating weapons.” The story lamented that “it’s nearly impossible to prevent its production.”

Ironically, Israelis themselves relied on homemade submachine guns during their War of Independence. In their case, they knocked off copies of the British-designed Sten gun and fed them with ammunition manufactured in a clandestine factory beneath a laundry. Similarly to the weapon copied by West Bank mechanics, “the Sten used simple stamped metal components and minor welding, which required minimal machining and manufacturing,” according to Wikipedia.

That simplicity is a feature of many simple, sheet-metal submachine guns dating to the war era. Desperate to satisfy the need to produce massive numbers of guns in short order, designers crafted weapons that could be made in any number of existing shops using general-purpose machinery. Long before 3D printers and CNC milling machines drove headlines about DIY firearms, those characteristics made such weapons natural choices for various insurgencies battling governments in regions across the world.

Because they’re so easy to produce, submachine guns also became a natural go-to for non-political manufacture in countries that have strict gun control regimes. Brazil seems to be an especially fertile source for homemade automatic weapons. There’s an online cottage industry in tracking Brazilian police announcements of gun confiscations and posting photos of the creative copies of commercially produced weapons—as well as weirdly innovative original designs.

Unsurprisingly, Brazil has a thriving market for Sten guns and the like made in car repair shops because it has a severely constrained legal market for firearms. Brazilians have to jump through hoops to get government permission to purchase guns, and even if they satisfy all requirements, police can say “no” on a whim. That leaves many residents of the country without a legal means to protect themselves from the country’s extremely busy criminal class (60,000 murders every year, according to some estimates). Those criminals are, of course, well-armed courtesy of that black market described above.

Some of the country’s lawmakers want to make it less-daunting to legally own the means of self-defense. But for now guns remain easily available only to those willing to break the law, which leaves opportunity for DIY manufacturers.

Australia also has famously restrictive gun laws of such exquisite legislative perfection that they bear emulation, according to leading presidential contender Hillary Clinton. Well, except that the Australian government is a tad upset about gun smuggling by outlaw gangs and the hundreds of thousands of illegal firearms in circulation. Officials plan yet another amnesty for owners to surrender the illegal weapons, although Sydney University gun policy analyst Philip Alpers told ABC News that he expects it to produce only “rubbish guns” that nobody values.

Because, honestly, if you’ve gone through the trouble and expense of purchasing one of the “perfectly constructed MAC 10 machine guns” manufactured by a jeweler turned underground arms dealer, why would you surrender it?

Like Brazil, diversity is characteristic of Australia’s illegal arms makers, who also produce submachine guns inspired by the late Philip Luty, a Briton who created designs intended for home manufacture (he was imprisoned for his troubles, but his plans are widely available). Ten percent or more of illegal guns seized by Australian police are produced by underground armorers—with powerful and easily made submachine guns featuring prominently among them.

Australia is a much safer country than Brazil, and has a lower homicide rate than the United States. But at least one academic assessment has concluded that the crime rate seems to fluctuate independently of gun ownership. That new gun amnesty is motivated not just by a black market, but by a spike in crime including murders.

Collateral Alley Scene

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

When I was first learning to shoot, my defensive shooting instructor showed us the alley scene from Collateral. Here Larry Vickers takes us through it:

More than an Off-Duty Police Officer

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

The “off-duty police officer” who stopped the jihadi knife attack in Minnesota was more than an off-duty police officer:

He owns a firing range and firearms training facility called Tactical Advantage. He’s considered an expert in firearms training and education and has helped teach classes on law enforcement skills at St. Cloud State University for nine years, his company website says.
He’s a member of the United States Practical Shooters Association and has won medals in various shooting competitions.

Yeah, he’s a USPSA shooter. I don’t want to say he’s living the dream, but…

Guns Used in Crimes

Sunday, August 21st, 2016

Lawful gun owners commit less than a fifth of all gun crimes — which is still more than I would’ve expected, to be honest:

In the study, led by epidemiologist Anthony Fabio of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, researchers partnered with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police to trace the origins of all 893 firearms that police recovered from crime scenes in the year 2008.

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More than 30 percent of the guns that ended up at crime scenes had been stolen, according to Fabio’s research. But more than 40 percent of those stolen guns weren’t reported by the owners as stolen until after police contacted them when the gun was used in a crime.

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It’s also likely that many guns on the black market got there via straw purchases — where a person purchases a gun from a dealer without disclosing that they’re buying it for someone else. This is illegal under federal law. One potential sign that straw purchasing is a factor in the Pittsburgh data: Forty-four percent of the gun owners who were identified in 2008 did not respond to police attempts to contact them.

[...]

Additionally, past research has demonstrated that a small fraction of gun dealers are responsible for the majority of guns used in crimes in the United States. A 2000 report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that in 1998, more than 85 percent of gun dealers had no guns used in crimes trace back to them. By contrast, 1 percent of dealers accounted for nearly 6 in 10 crime gun traces that year.

Don Quixote de la Garrapata

Saturday, August 20th, 2016

I didn’t watch the Tick cartoon or the live-action show, but I did read the original comics back in the day, so I made time to watch Amazon’s pilot for a new Tick show, and I must agree with this review:

The Tick 2016 throws a bravura mix of tones at its audience: it’s campily loopy yet deadly serious, satirical yet sincere, cartoonish yet fraught with dread.

I was not expecting them to take The Tick into darker and edgier territory, but it certainly makes the hero’s delusional idealism stand out even more.

If you’re interested in the original comics, there appear to be no collections in print. Sigh.

By the way, as a gun guy I got a chuckle out of the Terror’s henchmen, armed with Ruger 22/45 Lite pistols:

Tick Terror Henchmen with Ruger Lite Pistols

The Fetishistically Focused Firearms of the Olympics

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

The firearms at the Olympics are as fetishistically focused as any inanimate object can be:

The pistol, rifle, and shotgun events are governed by the International Shooting Sports Federation’s thick rulebook, and the construction and calibration of these precise firearms is regulated by strict guidelines and staggering amounts of minutia that dictate everything from trigger pull weight and barrel construction to thumb rest ergonomics and ammunition specs.

The wildest firearms are the least restricted. In “Free Pistol,” the unofficial term for the 50-meter pistol event, .22-caliber handguns are bound by the loosest of requirements and look the part. The rulebook requires only that the firearms are safe to shoot and incorporate an open iron sight (no scopes or lasers) and a grip that doesn’t extend beyond the wrist. Subsequently, these hot rod handguns tend to feature long, thin barrels (for accuracy and low weight), and a strangely stripped-down, almost steampunk look. They fire .22-caliber long rifle ammo.

Free Pistol Shooters

Air-powered rifles and pistols lack the aural impact of a .22, but they demand exceptional accuracy. Competitors fire at 10-ring targets from 10 meters. To land a bullseye at that distance, a tiny .177-caliber lead projectile must hit a circle the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The emphasis here is on extreme precision: Serious contenders miss the bullseye once or twice out of every 60 shots, and the relatively recoil-free nature of the firearms put more pressure on the shooter’s steadiness and the integrity of the tiny pellet, as the slightest distortion of its shape will affect its aerodynamic profile, and subsequently, its path.

The air rifles and pistols tend to use pressurized air to propel the pellet, which is sometimes referred to as SCUBA drive, since it relies on atmospheric air rather than compressed carbon dioxide. CO2 is rarely used, as temperature fluctuations can affect the accuracy of the shot. (Ed. note: a commenter notes that air is used for other reasons. “Many European nations strictly regulate the release of CO2, including from airguns, and that got in the way of purchase and use of CO2 airguns and filling gas,” commenter Wanlance Yates notes. “In addition, CO2 is more complex to obtain and use when filling the gas cylinders, whereas SCUBA pressure air is commonly available from dive shops (and is less regulated). There are even hand pumps that can be used to fill the air cylinders, although this requires more time and effort, and most airgun shooters just get a SCUBA tank to use for their refills.”)

Highly specialized accessories accompany air-powered competition, with rules dictating virtually every article of clothing, down to the underwear. For maximum steadiness, competitors climb into stiff leather suits not unlike motorcycle gear for additional support. Wide-soled shoes enable a steadier stance, and some events involve padded rolls for ankle support when a kneeling posture is required. To prevent eyestrain and squinting, small blinds can be attached to the firearm or headgear — a quirky detail that all but removes the cool factor from this admittedly cerebral sport.

Apart from their custom built stocks, shotguns used in Olympic level skeet and trap competitions resemble standard-issue hunting implements. But virtually everything about them is customized for competition.

Why Olympic Shooters Look Like Cyborgs

Friday, August 12th, 2016

Olympic Shooters look like cyborgs, because they’re wearing a lens, a mechanical iris, and a series of blinders:

Russian Olympic Pistol Shooter

An eye at rest would rather focus on a distant object than one that is near at hand; focusing on something in the foreground requires effort, and can lead to fatigue. Adding just a touch of lens power (+0.50 diopter, for the opticians in the house) to a sharpshooter’s prescription can help her sighting eye bring her gunsights into focus and keep them there, even as she concentrates on aligning them with the target in the distance.

But the lens presents a tradeoff: Bringing a gun’s sights into sharper focus can make the target go fuzzy. That’s where the blinders and mechanical iris come in.

“Your eye is like a camera lens,” says Tom Gaylord, a competitive air gunner known in sharpshooter circles as the godfather of airguns. And if you were armed with a camera instead of a pistol, bringing the target back into focus would be as simple as narrowing the aperture of your lens. This increases the range of distance within which objects will appear in focus (aka “depth of field,” for the photographers in the house). A greater depth of field means you can hold a target that’s 30 feet away and a pair of gunsights hovering at arm’s length in focus all at the same time.

A shooter typically mounts his mechanical iris to his shooting glasses just behind his lens. This lets him control the depth of field of his own vision. Twisting the iris narrows its aperture and reduces the amount of light that reaches the shooting eye, bringing the target and both sites into sharper focus than would be possible without the glasses. “The less light you can tolerate, the greater your depth of view will be,” Gaylord says. (Ever tried the pinhole trick, or squinted to see your alarm clock? This setup works by the same principle.)

The blinders serve a similar purpose by reducing the amount of light entering the shooter’s pupils. But the opaque plastic tiles also work to obscure the movements of other shooters and visuals that might otherwise distract an athlete. “I use them to block the vision of my non dominant eye,” says Jason Turner, a three-time Olympic marksman.

Testing New Weapons and Tactics in Ukraine

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

One of Russia’s goals in Ukraine is to test new weapons and tactics, such as:

  • A device that can use acoustics to locate the position of snipers so they can be killed.
  • Drones flying in pairs with the lower aircraft drawing fire from forces on the ground, enabling the higher drone to pinpoint its target.
  • Text messages sent to entire communities minutes before a Russian attack, used to create confusion or spread panic with false information.
  • “Spoofing” of GPS navigation systems to make enemy forces lose their way on the battlefield.
  • Devices in civilian vehicles to intercept soldiers’ communications.

U.S. Shooters Win Medals But Little Attention

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Shooters won two of Team USA’s first six medals — including its first gold — but have received little attention:

But maybe that’s a good thing.

At the London Olympics, U.S. shooters received death threats via social media, prompting organizers to provide the athletes with a security detail. That was so upsetting to Corey Cogdell-Unrein that she finished 11th, after winning bronze in Beijing.

Without that distraction on Sunday, she won bronze again in trap, after narrowly missing a shot at the gold-medal match.

[...]

Cogdell-Unrein’s bronze came a day after 19-year-old Virginia Thrasher took gold—America’s first gold of the Rio Games—in the 10-meter air rifle. Thrasher, ranked 23rd in the world, was hardly expected to finish first. America’s highest-ranked shooters will compete in the days ahead, including skeet shooter Kim Rhode, who is striving to become the first American Olympian in any sport to win a medal in six different Summer Games.

Germany Gun Numbers

Thursday, August 4th, 2016

The German Firearms Register records almost 5.5 million private guns belonging to 1.4 million people — but the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung estimates that there are also 20 million illegal firearms in Germany.

Those 20 million illegal firearms don’t seem to be put to much use. There were 57 gun homicides in Germany in 2015, up from 42 the previous year — compared with 804 in 1995.

Waiting will get you killed

Thursday, July 21st, 2016

The various recent attacks all took place where law-abiding adults could not legally carry handguns for self-defense and largely had to wait for armed police to arrive, but waiting will get you killed:

A lot of people can be shot in the time it takes police to arrive after a mass public shooting begins. The norm seems to be between three and eight minutes.

Active Shooter Results

In every single active shooter attack where a good, armed person was present when the attack began and acted aggressively to stop the killer, the body count was less than 10, single-digits. Every time. 100%. Having a good, armed person present who will act to stop the killer, whether it’s a cop, armed security guard, or armed citizen, ends the attack in the first 1–2 minutes. This prevents the killer from having the time needed to amass a high body count. Waiting on police to arrive and stop the killing gives the killer plenty of time to shoot a lot of people.

Jon’s Law

Saturday, July 16th, 2016

The recent truck attack brought to mind Jon’s Law, from the world of hard science fiction fandom:

Any interesting space drive is a weapon of mass destruction.

Apparently Warg Franklin had the same thought:

Looks like it turns out we don’t need to imagine starships, or even airplanes, for this to be a problem. In the hands of sufficiently motivated terrorists, everyday tools like trucks become weapons of mass killing.

Banning assault trucks is attacking the wrong part of the problem.

Danger at the Zoo

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

Zoos accredited by organizations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have weapons teams trained to use deadly force to prevent death or serious harm:

Although the procedures followed by the ‘weapons teams’ are standardized, the firearms used appear to be chosen by the individual zoos and/or the leader of each team. Open source information points to a combination of 12 gauge shotguns and high-powered rifles being on hand at most major zoos.

From a story in the St Petersburg Times:

The team armed themselves with four guns from a locked cabinet kept in the general curator’s office. Salisbury carried a 12-gauge shotgun. The remaining staff carried two .375 rifles and a 30-06 rifle.

Zoo employees also train and qualify with local and state law enforcement agencies.

From a story in the Pittsburgh Tribune:

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Stephen A. Bucar said police officers and zoo workers went through training immediately after the incident Nov. 4, 2012, when 2-year-old Maddox Derkosh was killed. Bucar said police don’t carry weaponry needed to bring down a large animal in the event of a similar incident. They don’t know enough about animal behavior to shoot an animal, he said.

Some guidelines:

Always make sure that firearms are on safety and handled with extreme caution. The use of a killing weapon must always be tempered by the potential to endanger human life.

Whenever possible, the shooter should stay in a vehicle when approaching the animal.

Never run after the animal. It’s certain that you can’t outrun it. You will be out of breath, which will not allow you to have a steady hand.

Make sure you have a good clean shot. Be aware of what is in front and behind your target.

If you must shoot, shoot to kill. If you do not feel you are capable of doing this, relinquish the responsibility to another qualified shooter (if one is available)

If you haven’t seen the raw footage:

National Firearms Act

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

Alan Berlow, writing in the New York Times, asserts that the National Firearms Act “stands as a stark rebuke to the most sacred precepts of the gun lobby and provides a model we should build on.”

According to A.T.F. analysis, among N.F.A. weapon owners there were only 12 felony convictions between 2006 and 2014, and those crimes did not involve an N.F.A. weapon. If that conviction rate were applied to the owners of the other privately owned firearms in the United States, gun crime would virtually disappear.

You see, he has causality laughably reversed.

The National Firearms Act was passed in 1934, in response to the gangland violence of the (recently ended) Prohibition era. It required NFA firearms to be registered and taxed — at the then-prohibitive rate of $200 per firearm (roughly $3500 in today’s dollars).

Which firearms were to be NFA firearms? Machine guns and all guns small enough to be concealed. Conventional semi-auto pistols and revolvers were ultimately excluded from the act before it passed, but short-barreled rifles and shotguns were not.

Also, “silencers” or sound suppressors are considered NFA firearms — even though they are not firearms and are almost unregulated in other countries that regulate firearms quite tightly.

So, the well-to-do, law-abiding citizens willing to go through the bureaucratic process to legally own a suppressor are — surprise! — not felons and don’t commit violent crimes with their firearms.