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America's Secret Weapon in Space?: Behold the X-37B

The Buzz

Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the US has lacked its own vehicle for launching astronauts. This hasn't stopped America from launching its own mini-shuttle without a crew.

The X-37B spacecraft is roughly the size of a small car. It has flown in space three times on classified missions. After roughly 22 months in space, it seems that the latest mission is preparing to come home.

What is this mysterious vehicle doing? Nobody really knows, and that's quite remarkable in these times. Legions of amateur analysts track classified satellite launches. They can usually work out the true nature of a mission by studying its orbit and assembling other pieces of evidence. Thus satellites that are designed to act as secretive eyes in the sky are normally unmasked quickly.

The X-37B is different. We know it is an experimental space plane that was originally owned by NASA before it was transferred to the US Air Force. We also suspect that there's something secret underneath the clamshell doors of its small payload bay. But we don't know exactly what it is or what it is doing. Open sources and technical analysis doesn't yield many clues. There has also been no 'leakage' of secrets through whispers and gossip.

There's obviously a lot of technical wizardry at work with this spacecraft, but the absolutely hermetic nature of the program is also remarkable. When so many secrets have been leaked in recent times, this is one program that remains steadfastly under wraps.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Image: Wikicommons/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Kim Jong-un’s Vanishing Act: The Scary Reality if He Dies

The Buzz

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public for over one month, failing to participate in a major Supreme People’s Assembly gathering and anniversary commemorations of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party. These are the same sorts of events that his father, Kim Jong-il, failed to attend six years ago following a stroke from which it took months for him to recover. North Korea’s official media has publicly acknowledged Kim’s “discomfort.”

But perhaps what is more notable is that international media seem to “need” Kim Jong-un more than the domestic media, even while deriding North Korean media coverage of Kims pointing at things. The divergence in domestic and international media responses should give pause precisely because it reveals the way that the Kim cult of personality has distracted from our understanding of the underlying state of the North Korean regime: within North Korea, the people feel Kim’s presence even when he is absent; externally, North Korean propaganda has made Kim’s presence so critical that international media regard his absence as disquieting, even in without supporting indicators of instability or upset in Pyongyang. In this way, the cult of personality distorts our focus on the state and relationships among the underlying institutions (the party, the military, the state) as factors likely to influence the stability of the North Korean regime.

Likewise, publicly known international responses to Kim Jong-un’s absence can be grouped into three categories: whistling past the graveyard and alternately worrying or hoping that Kim will find his way into the graveyard. But no state has yet tipped its hand as to what it would do in the event of a real crisis of leadership in North Korea.

Kim Jong-il’s absence in 2008 was significant because his health crisis paralyzed North Korean diplomacy and accelerated succession planning that eventually unveiled and elevated Kim Jong-un as Kim Jong-il’s successor. But it did not ultimately have implications for the viability or continuity of the North Korean state. In contrast, Kim Jong-un’s absence has coincided with a period of unprecedented DPRK diplomatic activity under Kim Jong-un. Although Kim Jong-un’s relative youth mitigates against the likelihood that his health issues will debilitating, he does not have grown children, which underscores the potential complexities of succession and the need for a succession plan should something go wrong. Kim’s absence from public view by itself does not appear likely to shake the regime, but it reveals the vulnerabilities the regime faces as a result of its dependence on the “line of Mount Paekdu” as the overarching source of legitimacy behind Kim rule.

Kim Jong-un does not have a viable successor within his own line and is unlikely to have one for two decades. Moreover, as part of his own succession struggle, Kim Jong-il introduced the thought that “side branches” in the Kim genealogical tree constitute potential threats to legitimacy. But in so doing he introduced constraints on the viability of Kim Jong-un’s siblings (older brothers Kim Jong-chol and even the exiled Kim Jong-nam) or sister Kim Yo-jung (rumored to have already taken a central role in management of state affairs) as potential successors to Kim Jong-un. This circumstance heightens the possibility that Kim Jong-un’s demise could spark a complicated family battle for succession that could upend the viability of the regime. In this respect, the viability of Kim family rule in North Korea may appear more fragile than it has been in decades. Kim Jong-un’s absence points to this fragility.

This piece first appeared in CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

TopicsSecurity RegionsNorth Korea

Which U.S. States Win and Lose Most From Falling Oil Prices?

The Buzz

Oil prices are plunging. Which U.S. states will benefit most – and which are most at risk?

A study that the Council on Foreign Relations published about a year ago looked at exactly this question. The research, by Mine Yucel of the Dallas Fed and Stephen Brown of UNLV, ranked Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Tennessee as the biggest potential winners, and Wyoming, Oklahoma, and North Dakota as those with the most to lose.

Oil prices have fallen by about twenty percent in the last few months. Brown and Yucel combined statistical analysis of the historical relationship between oil prices and employment with current data about state economies to estimate what a twenty-five percent price rise would do jobs. They note that the same analysis can generate insight into the potential impact of a price plunge. This map (also see above), which I’ve created by assuming that an oil price drop is as bad for jobs as an oil price rise is good for employment (Brown and Yucel discuss the value and limits of such an assumption in the paper), shows the results.

Brown and Yucel add some additional insight into the dynamics at work here:

“States like Texas and Louisiana that have downstream oil and gas industries that benefit from falling energy prices such as refining and petrochemicals would be less affected. In addition, states in which natural gas is more prominent than oil are likely to see less harm from falling oil prices. With the recent weakening in the relationship between oil and natural gas prices, a decline in oil prices does not necessarily imply as big a change in natural gas prices as it once did, lessening the effect of an oil price decline.”

They also provide historical perspective:

“When oil prices collapsed to near about eleven dollars per barrel in 1986, the Texas economy went into a deep recession for two years. Economic output contracted 5.6 percent and employment fell 1.1 percent…. Even though oil and gas extraction accounted for 19 percent of the Texas economy in 1981, that share was the second smallest among the eight oil-sensitive states (West Virginia was smallest). As a percentage of state GDP, the oil and gas sector accounted for 49 percent in Alaska, 37 percent in Wyoming, 35 percent in Louisiana, and 20 percent in North Dakota. The 1986 oil price crash also caused a recession in most of these states, with employment declines largest in Wyoming (-5.9 percent) and Alaska (-4.5 percent)—states with the largest oil and gas output shares.”

The historical record – both anecdotal and leveraged using statistics – is far from a perfect guide to the future, particular with massive changes in the U.S. oil and gas industry in recent years. And the fall in prices isn’t yet remotely comparable to 1986. Nonetheless, if you’re looking to see where and how falling prices might help or pinch economically, the Brown and Yucel study is a great place to start.

This piece first appeared in the CFR blog Energy, Security and Climate here.

TopicsEnergy RegionsUnited States

The Iran Nuclear Talks: Show Us Your Brackets

Paul Pillar

In any negotiation one can never be sure until the end how much either side is temporarily holding out for something more than what they will eventually accept. Some optimistic comments have been made about the nuclear negotiations with Iran, to the effect that we should not pay too much attention to indications of stalemate because both sides probably are saving their biggest remaining concessions until the last minute. Maybe, but there still seems to be good reason to worry that we may blow the best opportunity in a decade to get off a fruitless course of confrontation with Iran, to secure the declared objective of Iran never getting a nuclear weapon, and to unshackle U.S. diplomacy to deal better with other regional problems.

We will blow the opportunity if our side sticks stubbornly to the notion that limiting Iran's uranium enrichment program to X number of centrifuges or Y number of separative work units is so important it is worth killing an agreement altogether—in which case, of course, there would be no limits at all on Iran's enrichment program. It is not so important, and the fixation on “breakout” is badly misguided because any possible response to such an Iranian move would not depend on the sort of “breakout times” being talked about and because the fixation ignores the whole motivations and incentives side of an agreement.

One should hope that enough good sense will prevail to realize this, and that enough political fortitude will prevail to resist the demands of those who have been battling good sense on this issue all along. But with the current target date for completion of the negotiations just a few weeks away, it may be time for the authorities on both sides of this negotiation who realize the advantages of reaching an agreement to try something different.

So far not many details of what has been tentatively agreed to have leaked out. That generally is a good thing in any negotiation, and a sign of seriousness and good will on both sides. Keeping what is on the negotiating table confidential means neither side has shifted entirely to a mode of publicly assigning blame for failure, and the confidentiality is consistent with the principle that nothing is finally agreed to until everything is agreed to—a principle that facilitates flexibility in making offers and exploring the bargaining space. But with the danger of failure looming, it might be time to try something different.

According to the meager indications that have leaked out, the negotiators already have arrived at common language for the great majority of provisions in an agreement. Differences remain on just a few sticking points such as capacity for uranium enrichment and the length of time Iran would be subject to the one-of-a-kind restrictions that the agreement would entail. The parties should consider making public the draft agreement as it now stands, with the continuing disagreements indicated through bracketed language.

Doing so would be a recognition that in many ways the toughest political contest is being waged not between governments in the negotiating room but instead between each government and anti-agreement hardliners on its own side. Making public the draft bracketed agreement might help to overcome in several ways the hardliner opposition.

For one thing, exposing the draft agreement would underscore how far the parties have come, how close they are to inking a final deal, and how much of a shame it would be to throw the effort away through stubbornness that causes the talks to collapse. Making a bracketed text public also would place the burden of proof on those who would contend that something like the difference between X centrifuges and Z centrifuges is of deal-killing import—when in fact it is not.

Letting us all see the terms of a draft deal might help us get away from a silly mantra that has been so drummed into the discourse by opponents of any agreement with Iran that even those who support the negotiations sometimes voice it. The mantra is “no deal is better than a bad deal.” The mantra is a fatuous tautology. Whether a particular deal is good or bad depends on comparing it with no deal. Seeing the terms of an actual draft agreement would enable all of us to make that comparison. And what could then be demanded of the hardliners on both sides is: explain exactly why no agreement at all supposedly would be better than the terms you see before you—even with the bracketed language that the other side wants. Hardliners on our side would have to explain why the absence of agreement—meaning no restrictions on uranium enrichment, no enhanced inspection and monitoring, and nothing else in the way of special requirements being placed on Iran—would be better than allowing Z (rather than X) number of centrifuges.

Negotiating practice being what it is, such a public revelation probably won't happen unless the target date next month is reached without a deal being struck. But by then it may be too late.

 

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

The World Needs More Nobel Controversies

The Buzz

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has abandoned its recent fondness for giving the Peace Prize to aseptic international bureaucracies, giving this year’s award to Malala Yousafzai, a human, and Kailash Satyarthi, another human. That’s a positive step, and the two clearly deserve recognition. The sort of work they do—advocating on behalf of children—also merits international notice, as many states around the world are experiencing massive “youth bulges.” This global bumper crop of young people will shape this century for good or for ill, and people like Yousafzai and Satyarthi are fighting on the side of good. The two are also from opposite sides of one of the world’s many bloody frontiers—Satyarthi is a Hindu from India, Yousafzai a Muslim from Pakistan. They’ve invited their leaders to join them at the award ceremony in December, prompting jokes that they’re already working on their next Peace Prize.

Both had already won a raft of international honors. Their cause and their heroism is almost universally acclaimed in fashionable circles. There won’t be a Nobel controversy this year.

And it’s a shame there wasn’t.

2014 has been a terrible year. A new European war opened up in Ukraine. Israel and Hamas were at each other’s throats again. The Syrian civil war, which didn’t seem like it could possibly get any worse, did, with a new barbarism emerging and spreading into Iraq. International tension is on the rise in East Asia and between the great powers. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Mexico, Nigeria, Libya, the Central African Republic and others became or remained bloody messes. That the people “who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations” (as Alfred Nobel’s will put it) in such a year would be a pair of children’s-rights advocates shows us just how far we are from peace.

Today’s international system is in serious disorder. We do not need prophets to scourge us or minor saints to rescue a few of us from the rising tide of blood. We need statesmen who are not afraid to wade into it, to be stained by it, but finally to stop it. War ends when the war-makers choose peace. And peace lasts when the war-makers shape it to reflect their interests and their mutual fears, so that the next generation of potential war-makers will be satisfied, too. Peace can be an ugly business. The pure in heart often play only minor parts.

That is reflected in the history of the Nobel. Some of the greatest steps for peace were taken by people your postcolonial studies prof would have called “problematic.” Anwar Sadat, anti-Semite, Nazi fanboy and author of a war of aggression against a neighboring state, won his alongside Menachem Begin, a retired terrorist who was no stranger to acts of aggression himself. The peace they made dramatically reduced the chances of another massive Arab-Israeli war—a war which, if the previous one is a guide, would introduce real dangers of nuclear attack and even great-power conflict. The humanitarian benefits of that peace were enormous, and continue to accrue to this day. The story’s similar elsewhere. We find a number of warring parties. We find the great imperialist Teddy Roosevelt, who helped settle the Russo-Japanese War. We find apartheid leader F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, who long refused to give up armed struggle. Taken together, the grubbier winners of the Nobel could rightly claim that they saved the lives of hundreds of thousands—if not of millions.

So we should hope that this time next year, the salons are howling with outrage at the news of the Norwegians’ choice. We should hope, indeed, that the Norwegians found themselves with many equally ugly alternatives. That would be a sign that the world was back on the way to stability, that the bloodshed had slowed. And if they must once again give the Peace Prize to someone we could all agree on? I hope we’ll still be here to politely applaud.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences(Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

TopicsSecurity RegionsPakistanIndia

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