Category Archives: Small Arms

Gunfight and Glock: Book Reviews

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read much about Sandy Hook. I know roughly what happened, but that’s as far as I can get, because this is such an abominable failure of a society to keep its most vulnerable members safe. That’s not just Sandy Hook, of course – it’s every massacre. And nothing ever happens in the aftermath – no real efforts to curb gun violence, nothing that expands mental health care – and I’m with the Onion here.

But maybe I’m being too cynical and defeatist. Maybe this, this finally, is what will mobilize America to demand change from ourselves and our leadership; to undercut the grip the gun lobby has on politics; to recognize that there is a middle ground between arming everybody and total disarmament. So for those who are getting going on this issue and need some good background reading, and also because G&L is collecting Best Books We Read in 2012 (contribute on Twitter with #bestbooks!), I wanted to post two book reviews/opinions I’ve been sitting on for way too long.

NB: these are snarky reviews, as serious book reviews can be found in other places, and nobody reads serious book reviews, and I actually think Gunfight is worth reading, and if I can convince you to read it by being flip, then it was worth it. But I do not take the issue of gun violence lightly, and I hope this will not be read as making light of the tragedies of the past week/month/year/decades (gun violence is epidemic, and it is vital not to decontextualize any one incident).

Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms In America, by Adam Winkler (2011, W. W. Norton & Co.).

Should I ever be asked to explain the history of America’s relationship with guns, I intend to hand over a copy of Adam Winkler’s outstanding Gunfight. On the surface, Gunfight is the story of the 2008 Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, which ruled DC’s ban on handguns unconstitutional and settled the question of whether the Second Amendment is an individual right or not. And while I find the term ‘legal thriller’ to be an oxymoron, Winkler gives life to the characters involved in the DC v. Heller case as it worked its way to the Supreme Court. So that’d be reason enough to read Gunfight; the strategic maneuvering around the case is pretty interesting.

But more usefully, Winkler traces the history of the tension between gun control and gun ownership in America, using the 2008 case as a backdrop. He gives a very readable, founding fathers-onward march through America’s weird love affair with guns. He covers the extensive regulations around guns in the colonial and post-colonial periods, providing an alternate (and well-researched) history that undercuts many of the “but the founding fathers said we could have guns!” arguments that seem to still hold water these days. Because it’s not just that the guns of yesteryear were slow to load and broadly inaccurate; they were also locked up most of the time. Likewise out in the Wild West; you gave your guns to the sheriff when you got to town, and you got them back on your way out.

Given the heat the NRA’s taken in the last week, it’s particularly instructive to look at the organization’s history, and Winkler does an excellent job here (and for those with short attention spans, so does Toobin). Once upon a time, the NRA wasn’t the trade association it’s essentially become (okay so technically the National Shooting Sports Foundation is the trade association. But the NRA’s funding comes mainly from gun manufacturers, and the NRA’s lobbying wing is the most active in the industry, and if there’s one thing gun manufacturers want, it’s to sell more guns, which means loosening laws and creating fear that those laws will be tightened ANY MINUTE BUY NOW OBAMA WANTS TO TAKE YOUR GUNS AWAY! It’s… weird. And really effective.)

Anyway! Once upon a time! Back in the 1930s! The NRA wasn’t like that. They actually lobbied for gun control. Karl T. Frederick, a past president of the NRA, was a conservationist and a crack shot who once said, “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” (210-211) Madness! And none of the NRA’s advocacy was about the Second Amendment, because it wasn’t seen as a particularly strong argument against gun laws. Ah, the glorious 30s. Except for the Great Depression and the start of World War II, that was a real good decade, I tell you.

And then the 1950s came along (whatever, 1940s, nobody loves you), and the soldiers came home and there were just lots of cheap guns left over after WWII, and while there were purchasing restrictions, they weren’t that onerous, and that’s when proliferation in America really kicked off. And then we had the 1960s, with the social upheavals thereof, and crime started to rise, and people started to arm themselves more for self-defense than for hunting. The NRA’s membership started to shift from hunters and recreational shooters to self-defense-oriented folks.

And then, in 1976, the executive vice president and de facto head of the organization decided to relocate the NRA headquarters out of Washington, DC, and get out of the lobbying business in favor of outdoorsman activities and environmental awareness programs. This did not sit well with the self-defense crowd. Harlon Carter, the head of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, and Neal Knox, who thought the assassination of MLK, Jr. was a government plot to advance gun control, engineered a coup that turned the NRA into the organization that it is today. Oops. Moral of the story: know your bylaws.

Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, by Paul M. Barrett

For my birthday, some very dear friends bought me Paul Barrett’s new book, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun after we wandered into his talk at Politics & Prose. And I wanted to like it, because hey, birthday present! Books about guns! This has been a winning combination in the past. But unless you care a lot about marketing strategies or are really into reporters’ notebooks, just borrow this one from the library.

Unfortunately for Mr. Barrett, the history of Glock, Inc. doesn’t span centuries, as American Rifle does, or involve global domination, as The Gun does, so there’s just not that much to write about that hasn’t been well-covered elsewhere. Here, I’ll sum up Glock:

  • In the early 1980s, a hard-working Austrian named Gaston Glock comes up with cheap semi-automatic pistol that holds 17 rounds at the same time American law enforcement begins to realize that revolvers are a pain to reload, especially when you’re getting shot at. Smith & Wesson fails to notice that revolvers are on their way out of law enforcement.
  • Glock hires a really, really good sales guy, Karl Walter. Really Really Good Sales guy is really really good. Boy, is he good. Strippers! Free training! Discounts for law enforcement and Hollywood!
  • Hard-working Austrian and Really Really Good Sales Guy manage to get their guns in the hands of law enforcement. The rest of the firearms industry, by contrast, twiddles their thumbs and looks sad.
  • Gun control advocates kick up a big fuss over the magazine size, light trigger pull, alleged undetectableness, whatever else they can find. Gun nuts buy them by the boatload. Some more pouting happens on the part of other manufacturers.
  • Really Really Good Sales Guy gets fired for being too good. Another sales guy is hired who eventually hires somebody to kill Gaston Glock. Assassination attempt fails. Exeunt.

There. That’s the book (okay, maybe there’s more, but I gave up around p200). It’s an interesting story, but it’s not 267 pages worth of interesting, and the writing isn’t particularly compelling. In short, Glock is synonymous with gun in America for the same reason Xerox is both a brand and a verb: good marketing and slow-footed competition. Glock holds this special place in the American psyche simply because it hit the ground running with a novel product and some smart business practices in the 80s; it captured the law enforcement market early in its existence, giving it a way to quickly scale up production and a stamp of approval for other marketing efforts.

Glock seems to be the work of a reporter who thought it’d be cool to write about guns and needed an excuse to do some research. And there’s a lot of research. To his credit, Barrett did his homework, and he’s got a lot of facts and figures and dates to report. Oh, and anecdotes. So very many “and then I talked to this other random person” anecdotes. There’s also the irrelevant story of Barrett learning to shoot by… entering a competition? Okay, whatever. There’s just so much fluff, but I suppose that at 267 pages with wide margins and large font, any editing for fluff would’ve made this too short to be worth publishing as a book.

Glock tries to situate itself in the pantheon of Definitive Books About Guns, but it’s better suited to the business section. Pass.


I know Americans aren’t a particularly history-oriented bunch, by and large, but the history of gun laws in America is one that needs to read and internalized. Many of the proposals and op-eds I’ve read in the last week are, frankly, rehashes of history. This is not to dismiss them; rather, I simply encourage anybody writing or reading or lobbying or agitating or whatever you’re doing around the effort to curbing gun violence and/or proliferation to do your homework. Start with Gunfight. Skip Glock.

Posted in Book Reviews, GunsGunsGuns, Small Arms | Comments Off

“I’m Not Dead Yet!”: The UN’s Arms Trade Treaty is Still a Thing

The month of July was an acrimonious one for those on opposite sides of the arms control debate. More so than usual, that is. Hosted by the United Nations, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Conference met this summer with the goal of producing a binding document that would regulate the legal sale of arms between states. That didn’t quite happen. But rumors of the Treaty’s death are extremely exaggerated.

In the waning hours of the conference, the ‘final’ text that was under debate satisfied absolutely nobody. NGOs like Oxfam and Amnesty International insisted that it was riddled with too many loopholes that would prevent meaningful implementation. Gun rights advocates in the United States had been on a four-week bender to ensure that it would receive absolutely no domestic support if the text passed. They needn’t have worried; seemingly impervious to the raucous debate going on outside of Turtle Bay, the most drama that emerged on the last day had little to do with the issues being discussed externally. While the United States has taken the heat for ‘torpedoing’ the Treaty and ending the Conference in failure, it wasn’t alone – several other states, from those with questionable motives like Russia to democracies like India, quickly lined up behind the US proposal to delay acceptance.

The key word there is ‘delay’. A Report of the Conference was adopted in lieu of an actual vote, so the document wasn’t actually rejected, pushing the text back to the General Assembly. And that’s where the fun begins anew.

There are six Main Committees of the General Assembly, each composed of the full 193 Member States of the UN. Two of them have a credible mandate to allow for the debate of the text: the First Committee (Disarmament and International Security) and the Sixth Committee (Legal). While either one of them, or potentially both, could have the Arms Trade Treaty on their agenda when the Committees open for business in October, it’s likely that it will stay with GA1, which had the item during the last session.

From there, Member States will determine whether to utilize the GA for editing the draft of the ATT or whether a second round of negotiations would take place at another Conference. The United States would clearly prefer the latter; when the Obama Administration shifted from the Bush years’ opposition to the Treaty talks, it wasn’t without hesitation. In the 2009 General Assembly Resolution that provided the framework for the Conference (A/RES/64/48), it was determined that the talks would proceed by consensus. That provision proved a major stumbling block to adopting the text in July.

This veto ability may have had several delegations grumbling, but it was the smart choice for the United States. Much like Soviet insistence on a veto in the Security Council back in 1945, the United States was covering its flank both on policy and politics. On policy, they could make sure that any treaty wouldn’t necessarily go against US interests. Politically, the Administration could ensure that the US has the power to stop any treaty from being adopted that displeased us. It is certainly in the US’s best interest to push through another GA Resolution that sets a date for a new Conference.

But it’s far from certain that the US will get its way this time. Now that the text of the ATT is with the General Assembly, it is entirely possible that, with a few edits, the Assembly could hold a vote sometime this year. If that happens, a 2/3s vote of the GA could be enough to approve the text and open the Arms Trade Treaty for signature. It’s impossible to do a whip count for a text that may or may not exist yet, but it would definitely be close.

A final vote in November could also serve what could be a lame-duck Obama Administration in poking a victorious Romney in the eye. Rumor around the United Nations is that the acceptance of the Treaty was delayed in the first place to put off the acceptance of a document that would likely be controversial domestically until after the election. It’s highly probable that, should Romney take the White House, the US’s support for the concept of the ATT would be revoked once more. So it may be better to get something in November over certain rejection after January.

Would that really be for the best? A treaty adopted by two-thirds of the Assembly would likely not have the support of the major arms producers, save maybe Germany and France. And until enough states had ratified to put it into force, it would be just another piece of paper. Which isn’t to say that the enforcement mechanisms within the text were at all strong enough to bring violators in line; they most certainly are not. But the process would run far smoother when those actually producing the weapons being regulated are voluntarily cooperating with the laws surrounding them.

In any case, supporters of a stronger Arms Trade Treaty would be well served by accepting this delay and the US urging for a new round of negotiations. More time would allow supporters to draw on lessons learned from what was a very expensive lobbying effort. And now that there’s an initial text, it will be easier to determine what might discussed in a hypothetical ATT Conference II.

It’s also not guaranteed that a push to get the treaty through the General Assembly would work. Among the issues still to be resolved is whether or not ammunition would join Small Arms and Light Weapons and those systems included in the UN Register on Conventional Weapons under the purview of the Treaty. Western Europe and the African Union are an unlikely pair united on this front, and have been urging its inclusion since Day One – to the dismay of many other states.

Less core to the debate, but still notable, the Arab Group spent the last few hours of the conference pressing that the right to sell arms for groups seeking “self-determination” should be included. Israel was less than sold on this idea – and with good reason. The issue of who would be considered a legitimate buyer will come up again, regardless of where the treaty goes – and could potentially delay acceptance further.

For now, this is a lot of inside baseball on what has the potential to be a wide-reaching text, affecting many aspects of the estimated $60B annual arms trade. Both sides of the debate are regrouping in an attempt to sway the outcome more solidly in their favor, but neither Oxfam nor the NRA will actually be casting a vote in the GA Hall. In the end, it will be the States who decide whether the Treaty lives or dies.

Posted in GunsGunsGuns, Slightly Larger Arms, Small Arms | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Weapons Still Don’t Make War

Colin S. Gray notably claimed that “weapons don’t make war.” Gray did not mean that no relationship existed between weapons, policy, and strategy, but that as instruments, weapons only have meaning in the context of policy and strategy. While this idea seems intuitive enough, it is easily muddled; particularly when weapons appear to provide technical solutions, policymakers and strategists may be tempted to abdicate their duties by substituting a weapon for a policy or strategy.

One significant part of the problem is that analysts and advocates alike can be tempted to impute weapons with certain political, strategic, and moral considerations that do not derive from some inherent aspect of the weapon itself. This problem is rampant in commentary on drones. Even in the most cogent critiques, analysts often imbue drones themselves, rather than they ways they are wielded, with a sinister quality that has little do with drones as drones, and more to do with drones as a stand-off strike platform being deployed in a targeted killing campaign.

Imbuing drones with strategic or political qualities they do not actually possess distorts discussion of the targeted killing campaign. Firstly, it feeds into a false narrative that targeted killing is easy and cheap, when in fact it involves massive amounts of hardware and personnel. Witness the casual calls by some commentators for the U.S. to simply put Assad on a drone “kill list,” as if Syria’s significant air defenses would not pose any problem for drones which have never had to brave the hostile firepower of a state-equipped military. Secondly, it needlessly injects irrational fears and erroneous thinking into all discussion of drones. Few Americans worry about the fact that military-grade assets such as helicopters and light aircraft have been frequent fixtures of American law enforcement, and even fewer think these would ever be deployed against Americans they way they are against enemies in a war zone. Yet such logical leaps pervade drone commentary, inserting a bizarre suspicion into the discussion of all unmanned systems, despite the fact that military operating concepts for unmanned systems treat them primarily as an additional, useful tool to fill already established operating parameters and military missions.

Murtaza Hussain’s recent article in Salon serves as a good example of this common sort of drone analysis. Hussain rightly recognizes that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) follow in the footsteps of millenia of human innovations in the quest to find a way to kill hostile humans more effectively with less harm to oneself, but still insists that drone warfare is “particularly insidious,” for three primary reasons.

First, Hussain argues, drones inherently undermine the Geneva Convention, specifically, Article 41 of Protocol I, which prohibits killing of those “hors de combat.” Since a potential drone target cannot surrender to an unmanned aerial system, there is no choice but to kill them.

Is this an inherent quality of a drone? There is no opportunity to surrender to a sniper whose location is unknown to his target, and who may not be in a position to take his target prisoner anyway. There is no opportunity to surrender to a mortar bombardment. There is certainly no opportunity to surrender to a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, or the precision-guided bomb of a B-2 stealth bomber. The inability to surrender to a drone is not a problem unique to drones, or even particularly insidious, but a context, in some cases, of the way we may choose to employ a stand-off weapon, and not one that is all that morally or legally questionable. –

Rule 47. Attacking persons who are recognized as hors de combat is prohibited. A person hors de combat is:

(a) anyone who is in the power of an adverse party;
(b) anyone who is defenceless because of unconsciousness, shipwreck, wounds or sickness; or
(c) anyone who clearly expresses an intention to surrender;

provided he or she abstains from any hostile act and does not attempt to escape.

‘Hors de combat’ status is determined not by the type of weapon, but by the military circumstances. For example, in the controversy over an American attack helicopter killing Iraqis who appeared to be surrendering, it may not have been possible to establish clearly that they were. Throwing up one’s hands but then getting back in a vehicle and traveling is not surrender, since retreating or fleeing is distinct from surrender under international law. Virtually no signatory of the Geneva Convention believes there is an unmitigated legal obligation to accept surrender in circumstances where receiving surrender is militarily impossible or would impose significant risks to personnel granting quarter.

The issue with drone strikes is not that unmanned systems carry them out (any stand-off weapon would face this problem), but that, outside the use of drones as close air-support in Afghanistan, drones are being deployed with only minimal special operations and covert personnel on the ground. That is, it is the nature of the conflict–a series of covert, clandestine, and stand-off strikes outside the context of a major conventional ground deployment–that causes these issues. And, indeed, looking in the larger context of the targeted killing program and the types of organizations they target, the much bigger – and more blatant – issue is the relentless violation of Article 41, which prohibits combatants to engage in perfidy, and which contributes to the next problem Hussain outlines.

As Hussain correctly notes, much reporting about the drone program indicates that their massively increased precision compared to other weapons systems is not particularly useful if the U.S. fails to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants for want of adequate intelligence. The problem of which Hussain speaks is one of any force confronting an enemy which flirts with violations of international humanitarian and customary prohibitions against perfidy. This Any veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan could explain that identifying legitimate combatants and targets is difficult even with troops on the ground. The moral issue at stake here – killing a potential noncombatant because their behavior may indicate hostile attempts at perfidy – has very little to do with the platform itself. If anything, drone operations, which occur in concert with manned Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, prolonged surveillance, and ground-based covert or clandestine units, provide more opportunity for discrimination than simply lobbing TLAMs or JDAMs would (or conduct ascribed even to men with boots on the ground after curfew in purported “free fire zones” or “Indian Country” in Vietnam). It is not a problem with the so-called drone war, even less drones.

I say so-called drone war because that term fundamentally replaces context and analysis of the war with the weapon most publicly associated with it, significantly contributing to my issue with Hussain’s third point, which is that drones are insidious for enabling a “no cost” form of warfare. As one of this blog’s guest posters has pointed out for Foreign Policy, while drones may be cheaper than using other types of weapons for the same mission, that does not make the mission cheap. The argument that drones make war more likely, or let it persist for longer, does not hold up to any serious scrutiny.

The notion that somehow drones created low-risk, low-scrutiny warfare lacks historical or contemporary perspective. If there were no unmanned systems, casualties would still be low, and a massive targeted killing campaign could still be affordable, albeit with a slightly different execution. Open-ended authorizations of force for clandestine programs pre-date drones and do not require them. It’s not even as if drones allowed such secret wars to employ aircraft, either – the notion of a secret CIA air force precedes drones by decades.

That these campaigns are “low risk” has less to do with drones and more to do with the fact that the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are all basically acquiescent, tacitly or overtly, with Americans killing suspected terrorists or insurgents inside their borders, and that the targeted insurgents lack the military equipment or tactical acumen to inflict serious casualties on such a force. This targeted-killing program, employing a wide variety of air, land, and sea-based, manned and unmanned, overt and covert assets, is enabled by the unrelenting U.S. desire to kill terrorists and an open-ended legal authorization or acquiescence from Congress and the public. When Hussain argues:

Thus to a degree unprecedented in history the advent of drone warfare has given the government a free hand to wage wars without public constraint and with minimal oversight

he is doubly incorrect. The “nature” of the targeted killing program is inherent in the targeted killing, not drones or even “drone warfare,” since high-value targeted killing campaigns can take place with anything capable of lobbing a warhead to a forehead. And furthermore, the kind of conflicts we are seeing now are, by any empirical metric, not unprecedented in their lack of public oversight, their duration, or material constraints, regardless of platforms.

Another common fallacy of the sort of thinking that ascribes strategic or moral values to weapons or weapons systems is that of “lightly” or “defensively” arming foreign irregular groups, particularly in Syria. Critics who oppose arming Syria’s rebels rightly note that arms do not inherently constrain the purposes of human beings using them, and fear that adding more weapons to a major civil war could lead to post-conflict arms trafficking and their use in less-than-desirable activities, such as terrorist attacks, reprisal killings, continued internal violence, and attacks against the arming powers’ own interests.

The problem with linking arms provisions with defense of safe zones or protection of civilians is that there are no weapons systems that cannot be used to violate these intentions. Particularly with weapons that individuals or small groups can transport and operate on their own, speaking of an “offensive” or “defensive” weapon is foolish. A man-portable surface-to-air missile is defensive when it shoots down a helicopter strafing a rebel position, but it is offensive when its users encamp outside an airfield and use it to shoot down a landing transport or airliner.

The behavior of armed factions in Syria will be determined by their interests and the strategic context in which they seek to achieve them. Weapons are only part of that strategic context, and they are not a driving or controlling factor. For example, one justification analysts such as Anne-Marie Slaughter and others have long used for arming the Syrian rebels is that this would enable the creation of “safe zones,” but safe zones may not be the best military or political strategy for the rebels. If they believe taking those weapons and waging a continued guerrilla campaign that focuses on exhausting the regime as the goal, and considers the protection of civilians a secondary priority, then providing nominally “defensive” weaponry enables an offensive campaign.

When Slaughter and many others argue for providing “anti-tank, countersniper and portable antiaircraft weapons,” they are banking on several things. First, that whoever signs pledges to behave defensively actually means it and won’t manipulate foreign backers for their own interests. Second, that whoever signs the pledge has effective command and control down to the front lines where the weapons get used. Finally, that in the post-ceasefire or post-Assad stage, those weapons will not be used contrary to the desires of the rebels’ foreign patron. Characterizing the weapons as “defensive” or “light” does not eliminate any of these problems.

Consequently, arguments for arming the rebels often imbue the weapons with the intentions of the policy proponent. Take the following example. In this article, the author makes the case for providing RPG-7s and other light anti-armor weapons to the Syrian rebels, because they pose a low risk for post-conflict violence or a low degree of threat to the American counterpart to Syria’s tanks – the M1 Abrams. This is a perfect example of ascribing implicit political and strategic characteristics to a weapon rather than the context of its use: provide RPG-7s for destroying tanks, and dismiss it as a threat because post-conflict violence is less likely to involve tanks, and the weapon in question does not seem dangerous to American tanks.

It could not be more misleading. RPG-7s can do serious harm to virtually every other vehicle in the American land arsenal, and not only that, they have done serious harm to American aircraft, such as the Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu or, more recently, Extortion 17. RPG-7s have very short arming ranges, which make them particularly useful for urban combat, and they have more than enough firepower to destroy cars and armored personnel carriers, or to attack targets inside buildings. The number of terrorist attacks involving RPG-7s likely numbers in the tens of thousands. Simply because rebels received them to kill Syrian government tanks hardly means they cannot make use of them in a post-conflict environment. Nor, under the criteria of the safe zone advocates, would they necessarily make safe zones feasible. They hardly solve the issue of Syrian artillery, and anyone familiar with the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan can explain how RPGs, along with improvised explosive devices, mortars, snipers, and other weapons systems, can enable tactics to further a guerrilla movement or terrorism.

It is not only when discussing the arming of rebels that weapons are used as totems for broader discussions of policy.  In Libya, Syria, and many other conflicts, the use of air power is often seen as a signal that a government’s suppression of a rebellion is reaching some sort of policy-relevant turning point. Aerial defections receive nearly as much attention as political defections. But why should that be? Air power may be used for indiscriminate bombings, but few regimes rely on their air power for conducting such operations. Nor is the air force the critical element of regime military strength. Indeed it is their artillery, as Brett Friedman explains, that provides the backbone of their killing power in operations for reducing cities. Pro-regime paramilitaries operate without much in the way of heavy weapons, let alone airpower, yet we frequently hear – from the highest levels of government – that it is helicopters that will “escalate the conflict quite dramatically.” What does this actually mean?

The primary effect of helicopters appears to be psychological. The greatest amount of violence will come from more mundane weapons, and the story of Syrian air power is hardly the bellwether of the Syrian civil war. Overly focusing on Syrian air power not only distracts from the more important drivers and dynamics of conflict, it also distorts discussion of potential policy solutions.

Calls for “no fly zones” over Syria play into a problem that is at least relatively easy for Western powers to solve – taking the Syrian air force out of operation – but will likely not produce meaningful strategic or political results. If the object of an intervention in Syria is to prevent the government’s reduction of urban centers or end the violence, merely targeting Syrian air power is not a particularly effective way of doing so, since such actions would not immediately or effectively impede the action of the more critical Syrian ground forces. If a certain type of intervention is unlikely to be efficacious in actually achieving our overall aims in a conflict, that is important to know. Focusing on a weapon system rather than the strategic context and outcomes impedes that process significantly.

Gray’s statement holds true. Weapons still do not make war. They are wielded and directed by humans against those of an opposing force or forces, in the midst of a host of mitigating factors, to achieve strategic aims. When Gray made his argument, he was challenging the notion of “strategic weapons” – weapons which have much more credible claims to transformative power or unique political or strategic quality than any of those discussed here – but even they are ultimately still devices whose meaning for politics, policy, and strategy derives from that broader ensemble of factors. Understanding what weapons systems are capable of is absolutely important for determining what kinds of strategies and policies are feasible, but they must be viewed as instruments subordinate to established ends. While weapons may appear easier to grasp than the complexities of warfare and the even more multifaceted issue of war, they should not take a lead role in coloring our analysis of policy.

Posted in Military, Small Arms, Strategery | 1 Comment

The Anti-Piracy Business – Warning Shots and the Rules of Engagement

I’ve had an interest in the private maritime security industry and the international regulations thereof ever since a friend’s ship was taken by pirates a couple years ago, so when friend of the blog Jay Fraser* approached us about doing an interview with his friend who runs a maritime security company, we jumped on it. I hope you find it as interesting as I do! – DW

Many of us grew up with pictures of swashbuckling pirates and images of Errol Flynn in movies like “Captain Blood” and “The Sea Hawk.” [ed: and some of us grew up with Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook...] In school, we learned about the Barbary Pirates attacking American and British shipping vessels off the Northwest Coast of Africa, near Tripoli and Algiers, and President Thomas Jefferson’s naval responses.  More than two hundred years have passed, and while the locale has shifted to the northeast coast of Africa, the problem piracy remains. Today, piracy is focused primarily in the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean.  Pirates are live firing against merchant vessels, sometimes attempting to board the ships, and are using violence and ransom as a means to an end.

As noted in a recent update published by Stratfor, with the end of the monsoon season and the return to calmer water in the region, the piracy season is “back on.”  One of the more recent trends is the emergence of companies hired by the shipping companies to place armed personnel on the commercial vessels in efforts to discourage and limit the success of these pirates.

I’m privileged to know and to call a friend a man who operates one of these private security companies, Jim Jorrie of Espada Logistics and Security Group (San Antonio, Texas).  I interviewed Jim for an audio spot for ThreatsWatch about three years ago and he and I recently talked about doing an update.  Thanks to my friends at Gunpowder & Lead, here is the interview we did just a few days ago.

Jay Fraser: Jim, when we spoke back in April 2009, it was right after some pirates in the Gulf of Aden had overrun the Maersk Alabama.  The ship’s captain Richard Phillips was held captive after the rest of the crew was released.  The incident ended when Navy sharpshooters were able to take the kill shots.  But this incident brought to the attention of many Americans the problem of piracy on the high seas, and especially off of the coast of Somalia in the Gulf of Aden.  Today I would like to cover a lot of ground in a short time and have you explain how the piracy problem has evolved in the last three years.

Jim Jorrie: Thank you Jay for this chance to give an update from our last interview.  Yes, the last three years have been very interesting and things have really changed out there.

JF: Since G&L is a new audience, can you give us a quick bio and then a capsule version of how you got into the pirate fighting business?

JJ: I started out in 1983 enlisting in the Navy and moved on to receive a commission in the Army with a focus on Defense support to Civil Authority missions.  As a civilian I have worked in the intelligence community and held the post of Homeland Security Coordinator for San Antonio and the surrounding areas.  I have also had the privilege of being involved in several National Response Plans such as the Pandemic Influenza response plan.  Around 2004 I was asked to provide some security assessment work for private oil exploration in Colombia.  This bloomed into multiple security projects and was really the genesis of ESPADA.  About 3½ years ago we had an opportunity to assess the emerging piracy problem in the Gulf of Aden.  Since one of our core competencies is providing logistics in austere locations, providing anti-piracy security services was a natural fit for our company.

JF: When we spoke earlier this week, you and I talked about the changing nature of the Somali pirates and specifically about their levels of aggression, the fact that they are better armed and that they now use tactics like kidnapping.

JJ: Three years ago the piracy was conducted by two major clans in Somalia.  Since that time, organized crime syndicates have joined the enterprise increasing the technology, intelligence gathering and execution of piracy.  Also, there emerged confederations from other countries that expanded the pirate network.  For example, vessels that are overtaken in the lower Red Sea may now be taken by Eritrean or Yemeni criminal confederations that will in turn transfer the ship to the Somali clans that in turn negotiate for the ransom.  The same is true on the east coast of Africa where you may have Kenyan and Mozambican confederate criminal organizations that cooperate with the Somali pirate clans.

We continue to see the use of RPGs and AKs in most attacks, but there have been a few attacks where the pirates have used crew-served weapons such as the PKM.  Other than that, the major change in operating tactics has been the actual use of the hijacked vessels as mother-ships.   They use cranes that are on the ships to lift the pirate skiffs onto the deck of the ship and then take the hijacked vessel far out at sea to launch their attacks.

JF: Some people aren’t really aware of the rules of engagement your company and others must operate under.  Can you explain a bit of what has to be done in order for you to operate and perform your security functions (restrictions, still not permitted to fire on sight or have to wait and return fire?).

JJ:  This continues to be an interesting source of debate.  The International Law of the Sea that covers piracy is several hundred years old.  And it is very clear on what rights a ship’s Captain has to defend his ship from a pirate attack.  Of course in recent years lawyers have gotten further involved in crafting specific, eloquent language that restates rules from the Barbary pirate days.  For example, if a pirate vessel fires on a ship the ship’s master may use any means at his disposal to safeguard his ship and crew.  For a security team, this means we can fire warning shots to communicate to an approaching or menacing vessel that he is approaching an armed ship.  However, if the security team fires on an approaching vessel without the command of the master in defending the ship, then the master/team/owner etc. are liable for the actions.  Most engagements will begin and end at approximately 300 meters from the vessel.  At this distance the pirates either begin firing at the ship or the warning shots communicate the potential danger of them proceeding. To many people, having to wait until a heavily armed pirate boat is within 300 yards of the vessel and – more importantly – until it has fired on the vessel before the vessel’s security team can respond is an uncomfortably short distance, but those are the rules of the game in antipiracy security.

JF:  I think one of the more interesting things people need to hear is about the practical business issues of running a company like Espada.  The other day you mentioned some points about the need for rapid deployment.  Can you add to that?

JJ:  Unlike a traditional contract, our services are hired ad-hoc.  This presents some extreme logistics and personnel challenges for us.  It is very expensive to fly people back and forth halfway around the world, so you have to have facilities in the Area of Operation in which to house them.  A normal notification of a request for our services comes with about 48 hours advanced warning.  Paying the security team members doesn’t stop, so scheduling them for follow on transit work and reducing their down time is of key concern. The cost of insurance for this sort of business is, as you can imagine, astronomical. And on top of these challenges is the fact that many of the countries know that the ship owners and security team can work out of their designated transfer points.  So at times, just getting a bus ride from the airport to the boat with equipment can cost over $10K USD.  With all of the deposits, insurance, working capital requirements, and emerging regulatory requirements I would hate to try to start a business like this now as it would be very hard.

JF: One of the comments you made struck me when you mentioned about weapons regulations.

JJ:  While I am a firm believer in the accountability of firearms, US companies have been put into a competitive disadvantage to their British and European counterparts with regards to regulatory compliance and authorization in marine security.  We spent a lot time early on asking different government departments the proper way to export weapons for the exclusive use of our security personnel.  Unfortunately, not having the resources of some of the other large defense contractors, we made a few missteps in the handling of the reporting. The British and Europeans, in contrast, received active support from their governments, even to the extent where they were able to get letters of endorsement for their business from the government. Clearly this is something the US government does not do.  I do think that the US regulatory agencies are starting to come up to speed with understanding the commercial requirements of the marine security industry.  And is my hope that they will continue to work with legitimate maritime security organizations to help facilitate and not restrict their business.  Bottom line, the more successful we are the more Americans we put to work.

JF: I guess one final question is about the “soldiers of fortune” that you encounter in theater and the problems they are creating for you and your company.

JJ:  This turns out to be a classic example of one or two organizations that have no business being out there in the first place, screwing something up and the rest of us having to deal with the whiplash of new rules.  Whatever happened to the old adage that if you stepped on the foot of your date, you weren’t invited back to the dance?  Weapons authorizations, terrestrial logistics, and the other aspects of operating in a marine security business are serious and complex.  This is not an arena that a group of hunting buddies needs to venture out into carelessly.  Very few problems have come from the larger more established companies.

JF: Jim, is there anything else that you’d like to add before we wrap this interview?

JJ: I think I will leave you with two comments.  One, there is a lot of good combat veterans out there that are unemployed.  And I would put out there to you that this line of work is something they should consider, as we strongly prefer to hire veterans because of their training and professionalism.  Lastly, in all my travels over the last 3 years setting up our maritime security operations I have gained a renewed appreciation for being an American.  It is easy to get caught up in the political rhetoric and other problems in our communities.  But when you spend time in other countries dealing with their politics, their regulations, their lack of a constitution and civil liberties, it gives you a new perspective that maybe this 300 year experiment that we call America isn’t that bad after all.

*Jay Fraser is a technology entrepreneur currently operating two ventures, one of which is involved in counterfeit detection and covert surveillance technologies.  He serves as Principal Investigator for this company’s Department of Defense contracts, and has also coordinated sensitive international special projects. His responsibilities include strategic direction, operations, managing programs with federal agencies and National Labs, negotiating licensing and R&D agreements, and dealing with potential commercial partners & customers.  The second company, newly formed, is involved in the information sharing environment with the ability to enable seamless exchange of information across and among a network of authorized users.  Until recently he wrote about issues related to homeland security, policy implications, and technologies used in the Global War on Terror for ThreatsWatch.Org.  Mr. Fraser is an experienced public speaker and often lectures on technology strategy and technology transfer.

Posted in Small Arms, Terrorism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Dust That Pancho Bit Down South Ended Up in Lefty’s Mouth

Two weeks ago I had a piece up at the Atlantic about American guns and the Mexican drug war. I really have nothing more to say about the subject; I’m just putting the link up here for posterity as I’m doing some housekeeping tonight.

By the by, I highly recommend not reading the comments; the whole thread is Godwinized by the third, and the first suggests we seal the border. Like most public conversations about American gun laws, it’s a lot of shouting without a lot of critical thinking, which is a damn shame.

Posted in GunsGunsGuns, Metablogging, Small Arms | Tagged , | Comments Off

Massive Italian Weapons Cache Goes Missing, Possibly Given to Libyan Rebels

I’m a crap blogger. I know. But look! I wrote something! It’s up at UN Dispatch, my other bloggy home. And here! Full text! Exclamation points!

A substantial cache of weapons has been removed from an Italian arms depot – and the Italian government won’t say where they are. Citing state secrecy orders, Ministry of Defense officials in Rome are refusing to respond to investigators’ requests for clarifications on the whereabouts and method of transport of these arms.

The Guardian reported yesterday that

The weapons were from a consignment that included 30,000 Kalashnikov AK-47 automatic rifles, 32m rounds of ammunition, 5,000 Katyusha rockets, 400 Fagot wire-guided anti-tank missiles and some 11,000 other anti-tank weapons.

They were transferred from a store on the island of Santo Stefano, off the north coast of Sardinia, and transported to the mainland where they were loaded onto army trucks, a source familiar with the operation told the Guardian. But what happened to them after that is a mystery – and now a secret.

The arms were said to have been moved about a month after Silvio Berlusconi radically shifted his stance on Libya. Firmly allied to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi until the outbreak of hostilities, he was initially reluctant to do more than provide base facilities for France and Britain.

But on 26 April, after a telephone conversation with Barack Obama, he announced that Italian planes would join the air strikes on Libya in an attempt to break the deadlock on the ground.

While inconclusive, if Italy did supply these arms to the Libyan rebels in late May, it would join France in the legal gray area between civilian protection and the arms embargo. The US and others have argued that UN Resolution 1973, which authorized international action to protect civilians in mid-March, permits arms transfers to the rebels. Other governments have rejected that interpretation and condemned France’s air drop of small arms to the rebels as directly contravening Resolution 1970, which enacted an arms embargo against Libya in February. While it’s unlikely there will be any short-term ramifications for France or Italy, it raises questions about Italy’s motives and its reliability as a partner in the Libya operations. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for the MoD to confirm or deny whether these arms are now in Libyan hands.

The story of how these weapons came to Italy is also noteworthy. Initially seized in 1994 by Italian warships acting on British intelligence, the Russian-made arms were captured on their way to Croatia during the Balkan wars. While eight people were eventually brought to trial on arms trafficking charges, all were acquitted. An Italian judge ruled that the weapons were to be destroyed; instead, the Italian government kept them in storage.

The history of these weapons and their possible transfer to Libya highlight the need for an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) as well as one of the primary challenges negotiators must overcome. Ideally, an ATT would prevent the transfers of arms to states or conflicts with high potential for human rights violations and would impose penalties on states that violate it. The details are still being hashed out at the UN, but arms are fungible and, especially in the case of the AK-47, have a longer lifespan than most modern conflicts. There is a strong incentive for states to keep and potentially resell weapons; an ATT with teeth could provide a disincentive and, should states violate their treaty obligations, impose penalties. However, negotiators must first solve the problem of enforcement and verification. Without a way to verify whether states are meeting their obligations, the ATT will be little more than a nice idea.

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The Arms Trade Treaty Doesn’t Care About Your Guns

I’ve got a post up at UN Dispatch on the Arms Trade Treaty and how it won’t take your guns away, regardless of what Larry “Chicken Little” Bell wants you to believe. And hey, you’ll even be able to keep buying guns! Unless you’re buying them from shady companies in Iran, in which case, you have bigger problems than the ATT. Or if you’re trying to equip your army of child soldiers. That’ll be a little harder in the future, maybe. Just fair warning.


Anyway, give it a read and lemme know your thoughts. I’m still mulling over the value of the ATT and the potential pitfalls it’ll face, so expect more from me on this over the next year.


[also, apologies for the light post volume lately, not that you're surprised. no excuses besides life getting in the way of writing. gotta get that Caitlin in here more often...]

Posted in Small Arms, The Acronym Game! | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Libyan Arms: They’re Not Staying Put And It Might Cause Problems

I sure wish somebody would tell me what is going on in Libya. “The situation in Libya poses quite some problems for West African countries,” a statement said.

An unrelated image of a Giant West African Snail
This tongue-in-cheek blog post brought to you by the letters S, R, S, L, and Y.

With gratitude to Tom Ricks for liberating me from word count minimums and the need to provide context.

Posted in Small Arms, War | Comments Off

Cluster Munitions Go Boom.

I have an article up at The Atlantic today on cluster munitions in Libya – how they got there, why that sucks, etc. I’m pretty pleased with how it came out, even as the writing process bore out the E.L. Doctorow quote, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Had no idea where it was going, but I think I got somewhere interesting.

I struggled with a couple thoughts in writing this, most of which didn’t fit the story(ies) I was trying to tell. I’m just going to jot them down here and hopefully come back around to this soon:

  • So what about smart bombs anyway? How well do these actually work at discriminating between various targets? Given that there is no way to protect all civilians in a combat zone, could they be a reasonable alternative, or do they just have some good PR going for them?
  • In a more US-centric discussion, if cluster munitions are militarily necessary, and we recognize the need to protect civilians, and Secretary Gates has said he wants the US to be all-smart-bombs-all-the-time by 2018 … why can’t we sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions? The CCM allows for guided munitions and their development. The CCM does NOT prohibit us from working with countries that aren’t signatories (which would be a problem with Israel). Basically, I’m struggling with why we refusing to give up the stuff that makes our own jobs harder? Well, not my job, obviously, but, y’know, somebody’s.
  • Stephanie Carvin of The Duck of Minerva raises the excellent point  that advocates need better arguments. I wouldn’t call myself an advocate, but as some free advice to those who are: humanitarian pleas aren’t nearly as convincing as national security/national interest arguments. Find ways that the US benefits by banning cluster munitions that go beyond the “but limbless children!” point. Because that’s clearly not cutting it. Find evidence that signing international treaties in the past has bolstered the US’s international standing/national security (note: I haven’t done that research and have no idea if such evidence exists, but if it did, it would be more convincing than the limbless children)
  • There’s a larger point to be made about Europe and the arms trade, but I’m still working that one through, and I don’t want to give away the ending before I’ve had time to think about it and do more research.

While I put these links into the Atlantic article, I’d like to suggest anybody interested in the subject read these two articles in particular:

  • USAToday’s 2003 two part write-up of the US’s use of cluster bombs in Iraq is an excellent primer on the subject and provides a nuanced, non-hysterical exploration of the issues around their use.
Posted in Metablogging, Slightly Larger Arms, Small Arms, The Acronym Game! | Comments Off

Atlantic City

So, uh, had no idea that was going to go over so well. Front page? All day? Sweet crumbs. Thanks, of course, for all the compliments, but extra thanks to everybody who commented, both at The Atlantic and on Twitter – far better to be disagreed with than to not be heard at all, and I’m actually quite pleased with the comments I’ve read.

On that note, a couple conversations jumped out at me during the day that I was, unfortunately, too busy to address immediately. In particular, I’d like to (belatedly) jump into the conversation between Mark Lynch, Andrew Exum, and Gulliver:

Really good points on all sides. Mark’s right in noting that whether the US gives them guns is irrelevant to whether the rebels get guns. Of course they’re going to get guns. It’s Libya. The black market has been going strong there for decades, and where there’s war there’s money to be made. Qaddafi’s been a villain since Airwolf and isn’t particularly popular in his neighborhood – I’d be shocked if Egypt hasn’t already been hard at work arming the rebels.

But as Gulliver points out, the question of whether the U.S. provides the guns is not irrelevant to the U.S. For us, there’s no real winning scenario in Libya right now: either Qaddafi wins and we’re sad; the rebels win and… we’re probably sad since we’re on the hook for post-conflict reconstruction in a country we know almost nothing about; or there’s a stalemate and we’re stuck hanging around yet another desert wondering how the hell we got there.

In any of these scenarios, we do not want to have provided more small arms. We really don’t. As I outlined, we have a lot to lose, both from a humanitarian perspective and a national interests perspective, but very little to gain from providing free hardware to a rag-tag rebellion that can’t hold territory. I ask this in all seriousness, because I really can’t find any answers: can anybody tell me how we would benefit?

Steve Metz brings up the idea of leverage, suggesting that by providing guns we gain leverage, and somehow that’s important, because if we don’t support the rebels, they… won’t do what we want after the shooting stops? They’ll sideline us in the political reconstruction process? They won’t take our interests into consideration further down the road? I’m not sure. And aren’t there more valuable and ingratiating avenues to take that don’t involve weaponry?

And really, what sort of leverage does providing arms actually gains us*? My instincts say Ex is right on: we only have leverage when we continue to have something of value to provide. With more complicated systems, our expertise and continued access to replacement parts and supplies is important and can help ensure that we remain relevant to the political discussions that follow war. With AK-47s, replacement parts and ammo can be purchased from any state (or non-state actor). Gratitude is fleeting. Guns are not.

* Would love solid research on this, if anybody has any. Otherwise, I might’ve found a thesis topic.

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