By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow
Showdown in the South China Sea: United States flies nuclear-capable bombers
In the tense South China Sea area, the United States last week flew two American nuclear-capable bombers near disputed islands in the South China Sea. On Tuesday, June 5, two B-52H Stratofortress strategic bombers flew near the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by the Philippines but held by China. The flight was described by the Department of Defense as a “routine training mission.” The bombers’ flight is not a first for the United States acting in the South China Sea, but it comes at a tense moment after China’s mid-May landing of bomber aircraft on a South China Sea island. In response to the U.S. bomber flights, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that China “won’t be scared by any so-called military ship or aircraft” and promised to continue taking “all necessary steps…to protect the peace and stability of the South China Sea region.”
India and Pakistan
India tests its most advanced nuclear-capable ICBM for the sixth time
On June 3, India once again successfully test fired its most advanced nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile to date, the Agni-V. This is the sixth test of the Agni-V, and all tests have been officially classified as successful by the Indian Ministry of Defense.
The exact range of the Agni-V is classified, but is believed to be 6,000-7,500 kilometers, and the missile can carry a nuclear warhead of up to 1,500 kilograms (3,300 pounds). Based on the long range of the Agni-V missile, it is likely intended to deter China rather than Pakistan, which is threatened by India’s shorter-range missile systems.
Amendment to 2018 budget adds $1.57 billion for weapons development
On June 7, RT reported that a new amendment to Russia’s 2018 federal budget increased funding for development of new weapons by $1.57 billion. According to MP Vladimir Gutenev, the funding increase was part of a necessary adjustment to the 2018 budget, which had a surplus of about 0.5% of the GDP (roughly $7.7 billion). TASS reported that the amendments envisioned a budget revenue increase primarily driven by a surge in oil and gas revenues.
Trump requested Saudi oil support before making Iran deal announcement
One day before President Trump violated the Iran nuclear deal, a senior official in his administration phoned Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to ask for help in keeping oil prices stable in the aftermath of the announcement. The call was a rare direct application of pressure to a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and it seems to have achieved its aims: hours after President Trump’s announcement, Saudi Arabia issued a supportive statement indicating its readiness to raise output to offset any supply shortage. The statement came as something of a surprise to other OPEC members, particularly since Riyadh has previously indicated that it could not increase oil output.
Notably, the timing of the call suggests that Saudi Arabian leadership was aware of President Trump’s intention to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal before many key U.S. officials.
MOX Note: This week’s Broken Arrow News was supposed to contain a brief update on the Mixed-Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility in South Carolina, but it turned out not-so-brief, so we made it a standalone piece instead – make sure to check it out!
After numerous safety violations at Los Alamos National Lab, DOE awards $2.5 billion contract to new management team—including previous manager, University of California
For 75 years, the University of California has contracted with the Department of Energy to manage and run Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), a key nuclear weapons research and production facility. The lab has long been plagued by serious safety issues and potentially disastrous near-misses under University of California management. In 2011, technicians came close to causing an accidental criticality incident by place eight rods of plutonium in close proximity to one another to take a picture. Even after the plutonium rods were noticed by a supervisor, safety protocols were not followed in responding to the danger. The 2011 incident ultimately led to the plutonium handling operations at LANL being shut down for more than three years due to concerns that the lab was not equipped to prevent a deadly accident.
Due to the long track record of mismanagement and insufficient safety measures at LANL, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) indicated in 2015 that it would be seeking new leadership for the lab when awarding its next contract. However, the NNSA announced last Friday that the $2.5 billion LANL contract would be awarded to a management partnership that includes University of California.
The partnership is called Triad National Security LLC and consists of University of California, Texas A&M University, and Battelle Memorial Institute. The partnership is not untested: Triad National Security has run Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California for the last ten years, and Battelle Memorial Institute specifically has experience running seven other national labs. However, the persistence of University of California’s management role is concerning, especially because LANL has been directed to expand its plutonium pit production dramatically over the next decade. The lab is expected to achieve a production capacity of at least 50 pits per year by 2030 in order to meet the Department of Defense’s unexplained requirements for plutonium pit production.
Pentagon spokeswoman: Draft plans completed for low-yield sea-launched nukes
Last week, Fox News reported that the Pentagon has completed draft plans for the new low-yield sea-launched nuclear weapons recommended in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza told the outlet that the Nuclear Weapons Council has approved the draft plan, and have “agreed to allow the NNSA to begin developing scope, schedule, and costs for this activity.” Final requirements for the two new low-yield nuclear weapons are still being developed, but the comments by Lt. Col. Baldanza confirm what we all already knew: the process to develop these new weapons continues to move forward.
Pentagon explores using artificial intelligence to detect potential missile launches
According to a report last week by Reuters, the Pentagon is reportedly exploring ways that the United States could use artificial intelligence to help detect preparations for a missile launch. Several sources told Reuters that in these classified research programs, the Pentagon is developing computer systems that could somewhat autonomously process huge amounts of data, including satellite imagery, in search of signs that a missile launch is being prepared somewhere in the world. Apparently, a pilot project in the program is focused on North Korea.
The idea of artificial intelligence being used to detect potential missile launches is a frightening one, considering that image-classifying systems that use artificial intelligence can be fooled under the right circumstances. Thankfully, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has acknowledged that problem. Dr. Steven Walker said in an interview that the Pentagon still relies on humans to review conclusions reached by artificial intelligence systems.