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Deal with Iran could end isolation but would it stop an arms race?

A deal on Iran’s nuclear program this week would be a historic step towards ending the country’s international isolation, but analysts remain divided on whether it would help stabilize the Middle East or even prevent a regional arms race.

Having spent years pushing for an agreement — whereby economic sanctions on Iran are relaxed in exchange for concrete guarantees that it will not pursue nuclear weapons — the West hopes the last-ditch talks in Vienna set an example to the world.

“It would… demonstrate that the global non-proliferation system works,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

“A combination of rules and pressure would have kept the number of nuclear-armed states from expanding, and that’s no small achievement.”

But there are many on the more hawkish side of the debate who feel the exact opposite could happen.

The Middle East is immersed in a series of bloody sectarian conflicts that have increasingly taken on the form of a region-wide struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslim powers.

The hawks warn any rapprochement between the West and Shiite Iran will be viewed with deep concern by Sunni-led countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — America’s traditional allies in the region — who will not trust Tehran to keep its promises.

“Unless it is a spectacularly better deal than anticipated, it is going to lead to a Sunni response in which they move forward on their own nuclear programmes,” said Mark Dubowitz of the right-wing Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.

“The Saudis could buy a ready-formed nuclear missile from the Pakistanis tomorrow. Or more likely, they could move ahead under the guise of a civilian program. The Turks, the Egyptians could do the same.”

‘Very cautiously’
Others say Washington is well aware of its allies’ concerns and will go out of its way to reassure them — not just the Sunnis, but also Israel which fears a threat to its very existence from a nuclear Iran.

“Any reconciliation between the US and Iran would proceed very cautiously and on the basis of what’s in America’s best interests and those of its traditional allies in the region,” said Robert Einhorn, a former special adviser on non-proliferation at the US State Department now at Brookings Institution.

Much will come down to the details. Regional governments will pore over the fine print of any deal, looking for weaknesses that Iran can exploit to pursue nuclear weapons without getting caught.

The outlook for Iran is more clearly positive. A deal would mark a symbolic end to 35 years of diplomatic isolation, help rebuild an economy shattered by Western sanctions and potentially strengthen the hand of moderates inside the country such as President Hassan Rouhani.

The lifting of sanctions will lead to “massive investments in the oil sector,” said Bernard Hourcade, an Iran specialist at French think tank CNRS, with new contracts already prepared to attract the likes of Total and Shell.

“Banks will be able to restart international negotiations and re-open credit lines. A large market will be put in place,” added Hourcade.

Russia will also be watching with mixed feelings. It worries the return of Iranian oil on the global market will lead to a further drop in prices, but also likes the prospect of selling more civil nuclear technology to Iran.

“A deal would cement Russia’s position as a major player in the region since it will have a central role in implementing the deal, which will take many years. It ensures the US remains dependent on Russia,” said Shashank Joshi, of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Don’t get excited
Before anyone gets too excited, however, analysts warn it is far from certain that Iran and the West will forge an agreement before the deadline on November 24, with most predicting another extension.

“The most that’s achievable is agreement on some of the key parameters of a deal such as enrichment capacity and phasing of the sanctions relief,” said Einhorn.

Even a complete deal will not have the dramatic impact many are anticipating, added Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group.

“A nuclear agreement could potentially serve as a gateway allowing Iran to renew cooperation with the West on issues of common interest such as stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, extremism in Syria, and European energy security,” he said.

“But this is not guaranteed. The history of Iran’s relations with the West is replete with misunderstandings and missed opportunities.”

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Unrest in Iraq could delay delivery of US F-16s

Violence in Iraq could delay the delivery of American F-16 fighter jets to the Baghdad government after contractors had to be evacuated from a key air base, the Pentagon said Monday.

Although the United States is moving to expedite the delivery of weapons and ammunition to the Iraqi government as it battles Sunni extremists, volatile conditions on the ground threaten to disrupt preparations for the F-16 jets, spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told reporters.

Private contractors working on the F-16 program at Balad airbase were recently moved to a safer location in Baghdad because of the threat posed by advancing Sunni militants.

“They (contractors) are no longer operating in Balad. So it will have an impact. It’s too soon to tell exactly what that impact is,” Warren said.

His comments came as Iraq took delivery of a first batch of Sukhoi Su-25 fighter aircraft from Russia, but the Pentagon insisted Moscow’s move would not derail Washington’s arms sales to Baghdad.

“The Iraqi purchase of Russian military equipment does not affect the Iraqi purchase of American military equipment,” said Warren, adding: “We are continuing with our foreign military sales program to Iraq.”

He rejected criticism from some Iraqi leaders that the United States was purposely stalling the delivery of badly needed weapons or aircraft, including the F-16s.

“We are very aware of the critical need that Iraq has for advanced weapons. We are working as quickly as possible to ensure that they receive all the foreign military sales that they have requested and that they paid for,” he said.

“We don’t believe our process is any slower and more deliberate than it needs to be.”

However, all arms sales have to be vetted to comply with rules about safeguarding the transfer of some sensitive military technology, he said.

The United States has provided 400 out of 500 Hellfire missiles recently purchased by Iraq, and the final 100 missiles would arrive in Baghdad with a few weeks, he said.

And the Pentagon continues to supply Iraqi forces with small arms and ammunition that are of “immediate” use, he added.

The Defense Department plans to sell Iraq up to 24 Apache attack helicopters as well, but Baghdad has not yet paid for the choppers, according to Warren.

The key to resolving the conflict in Iraq was not supplying Baghdad with weapons but instead forging a political settlement addressing the country’s sectarian tensions, he said.

“The solution to this problem is an inclusive government, not firepower,” he said.

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Russia warns could halt foreign arms checks

Russia is considering halting foreign inspections of its strategic weapons arsenal, including nuclear-capable missiles, in response to “threats” from the West over the Ukraine crisis, the defence ministry said Saturday.

“The unfounded threats towards Russia from the United States and NATO over its policy on Ukraine are seen by us as an unfriendly gesture that allows the declaration of force majeure circumstances,” a high-ranking defence ministry official, who was not named, said in a statement to all Russian news agencies.

The inspections that could be halted are carried out in line with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the United States and the Vienna Document between Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) member states.

Cutting off such inspections would likely be seen by the West as a major violation of such agreements, which are regarded as a cornerstone for the maintenance of global peace in the post-Cold War world.

“We are ready to take this step in response to the announcement by the Pentagon about stopping cooperation between the defence institutions of Russia and the United States,” the Russian defence ministry official added.

“Inasmuch as these inspections are a matter of trust, then in a situation where the United States has de facto declared the imposition of sanctions then there cannot be normal, bilateral contacts on observing agreements.”

The New START treaty between Russia and the United States, signed between US President Barack Obama and then Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, entered into force in February 2011.

The agreement provides for 18 on-site inspections per year as part of a verification regime for a treaty that envisages drastic cuts in missiles and nuclear warheads on both sides.

The United States has already imposed visa bans and set the stage for wider sanctions against Russia over the seizure of the Ukrainian region of Crimea by pro-Russia forces.

Obama also signed an executive order paving the way for economic sanctions against individuals or entities in Russia.

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G-8: US Army Soldier Levels Could Drop to 420,000 By 2019

In his own words, the G-8 reiterated what the secretary of the Army and chief of staff have both said about downsizing Soldier levels to under 450,000 — “even at 450, it’s a high risk for the mission sets and mission tasks that have been given to us.”

Presently, the Army has about 564,000 Soldiers on active duty, but that number has been mandated to come down to 490,000 by 2015.

“We’re on a glide path, and the monies are laid out to give us a 420,000 Army by 2019,” said Lt. Gen. James O. Barclay III, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, G-8. “That doesn’t mean we’re set on going to 420, we’ve got some decision points built in, coming into the ’16, ’17 timeframe, so we’re taking a hard look at what is the right set.”

What leadership is looking at with regard to manning is how the Army will look across the force; from the brigade combat teams, enablers, the engineer forces, reconnaissance and clearance forces and how the mix is worked, Barclay said. He added BCTs will come down to 32 made up of three battalions.

Addressing the Army’s overall shape at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Aviation Symposium & Exposition, Jan. 15, in Arlington, Va., Barclay didn’t specifically focus on the Army aviation community, but rather on what he called the three-legged stool of readiness, modernization and force structure.

“The bottom line of all this is that over the next five years, the Army is going to have a significant challenge to be able to balance our end-strength, our modernization, and then maintain the readiness of the force we keep,” he said. “With the challenges we’re facing today, it’s going to take an innovative approach to how we’re solving the problems and issues.”

On the readiness side, Barclay said there was a fear of returning to tiered readiness, it’s something leadership does not want to do as an Army because it would create an Army of “haves” and “have nots.” The goal, he said, was to have an Army that can be flexible and adaptive, and can be backed up by pushing resources very quickly and be ready to do mission sets.

“On the modernization side, 2014-2019, we’re looking at incremental improvements across different systems and programs and how we’re going to invest in science and technology and get after the joint military role,” he said, noting the Army didn’t take as large a whack in S&T programs as the Navy and Air Force.

Barclay also said as the Army works through the issues and challenges ahead, it also has to look at the joint nature of a smaller overall force and take into account what’s happening as the other services are also facing cuts.

“If you take a Navy carrier group out, and you take a lot of cruisers and destroyers out all of a sudden they don’t need as many Seahawks,” he said. “That has an impact on the Army’s program.” The SH-60 Seahawk is the Navy version of the UH-60 Black Hawk.

“Same thing with the JLTV, the joint light tactical vehicle, which is an Army and Marine vehicle,” he said. “It can’t be an Army discussion by ourselves; we have to ensure we include the other services for those programs that impact each service, and we have to make sure we protect programs that we need.”

Barclay concluded his address by saying that balance would probably not be achieved until the 2020 to 2022 timeframe.

“By then, we’ll have the decisions on what the final end strengths will be, where we’re going and a clearer picture of really, truly what kind of equipment sets, amounts and quantities will be required and then we’ll also know how much money we’ll have left to put into the readiness piece of that,” he said.

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Bomb-detecting lasers could improve security checkpoints

By on Friday, September 13th, 2013

Michigan State University research has put the possibility of bomb-detecting lasers at security checkpoints within reach. In the current issue of Applied Physics Letters, Marcos Dantus, MSU chemistry professor and founder of BioPhotonic Solutions, has developed a laser that can detect micro traces of explosive chemicals on clothing and luggage.

“Since this method uses a single beam and requires no bulky spectrometers, it is quite practical and could scan many people and their belongings quickly,” Dantus said.

“Not only does it detect the explosive material, but it also provides an image of the chemical’s exact location, even if it’s merely a minute trace on a zipper.”

This doesn’t mean that security forces will be armed with handheld laser in airports, however. This laser would more likely be in a conveyor belt, like the X-ray scanners already used for airport security. The low-energy laser is safe to use on luggage as well as passengers, he added. For decades, scientists have been working to develop lasers that are powerful enough for detection, but safe enough to use on people.

Dantus’ initial spark for this breakthrough came from collaboration with Harvard University that developed a laser that could be used to detect cancer, but has the beam output of a simple presentation pointer. “While working on biomedical imaging, I began exploring additional applications,” Dantus said.

“We soon learned how effective it was for detecting traces of hazardous substances from distances up to 10 meters away.” Dantus’ bomb-detecting laser works as a single beam, but uses two pulses. The first resonates with certain chemical frequencies found in explosives. The second, a shadow pulse, serves as a reference.

A discrepancy between the two pulses indicates the presence of explosive materials.

The laser is not affected by the color or surface of clothes or luggage,” Dantus said. “The resonant pulse and the shadow pulse are always in balance unless something is detected. Our method has Raman chemical specificity, excellent sensitivity and robust performance on virtually all surfaces.”

An aerospace company has already expressed interest in furthering this technology. With additional funding, a standalone prototype could be created in about one year, he added.

Funding for this research was provided by the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate. BioPhotonic Solutions is a high-tech company Dantus launched in 2003 to commercialize technology invented by his research group at MSU.

Source: Michigan State University

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New Detectors Could Turn Smartphones into Explosive Detectors

Each sensor chip built with the SiN-VAPOR technology contains over a billion sensors, capable of detecting ten molecules of chemical traces in a billion of other molecules present in the sampled liquid or gas. Photo: NRL

Each sensor chip built with the SiN-VAPOR technology contains over a billion sensors, capable of detecting ten molecules of chemical traces in a billion of other molecules present in the sampled liquid or gas. Photo: NRL

Scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) have developed a technology to fabricate a sensor that could detect chemical substances traces in gaseous or liquid form, at unprecedented low concentrations. The new detector employs a new silicon fabrication technique called ‘Silicon Nanowires in a Vertical Array with a Porous Electrode’ (SiN-VAPOR); this technology has demonstrated detection capability on the parts-per-billion (PPB), and even parts-per-trillion level of sensitivity.

Dr. Christopher W. Field.

Dr. Christopher Field.

Currently, bomb-sniffing dogs and laboratory-grade equipment are the state-of-the-art technology for trace chemical detection. However, both of these options are expensive and require a trained professional to handle them. The challenge of detecting the IEDs is the identification of trace chemicals that are easily masked by abundant compounds like perfumes or diesel exhaust.

SiN-VAPOR architecture is unique and different from other explosive detection technologies in its three-dimensional architecture, thus maximizing the detectors’ surface area in order to maximize the sensing capabilities within the sensor. The sensors based on SiN-VAPOR is embedded on a silicon chip, forming a small, lightweight and portable device that will be able to integrate in other handheld devices such as wrist watches, smartphones, motion detectors, unattended ground sensors or wearable communications systems. “This sensor can be made for less than a dollar a piece, and uses less than a microwatt of power” Dr. Christopher Field, the NRL scientist leading this research said, adding such devices could be integrated into the warfighters’ and first responders gear, along with communications devices, such sensors could be networked into a persistent, distributed sensor network that could monitor the operating area, airport or protected facilities at all time.

“That means that we have a sensor about the size of a quarter that can detect very low concentrations of analytes in the vapor phase,” explains Field, such a detector would be that able to detect traces of chemical substances down to the tenth PPB. “We’re able to detect from the background, ten molecules of one analyte versus a billion of other molecules that may be in the same environment.”

SiN-VAPOR is unique and different because of its 3D architecture. The 3D architecture allows scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory to maximize the surface area, and therefore maximize the sensing capabilities within the architecture. (Photo: Jamie Hartman, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

SiN-VAPOR is unique and different because of its 3D architecture. The 3D architecture allows scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory to maximize the surface area, and therefore maximize the sensing capabilities within the architecture. (Photo: Jamie Hartman, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory)

According to Dr. Field the current sensor contains over a billion nanowires Dr. Field added. “Each wire is a sensor, so we essentially have a billion sensors on the size of a quarter.” Fields explain, adding that the final form factor for the complete sensor will be smaller and likely to be integrated in other handheld or wearable devices. According to Field, the SiN-VAPOR technology could help soldiers, first responders, firefighters, and medical professionals by improving their situational awareness of dangerous chemicals present in their operating area by constantly monitoring the environment, and instantly reporting the presence and concentration of toxic fumes or chemical traces that could indicate the presence of explosives, chemical warfare agents, toxic fumes etc.

Other applications could involve firefighting on ships or nuclear facilities, where robots are ‘recruited’ to fight blazes contained in closed areas. Such robots would first send in ‘micro flyers’ carrying SiN-VAPOR silicon chips, to scan the scene of a fire, locate the heat source, and report if toxic fumes are present. Other applications could assist counter-IED road clearing operations, where robot scouts equipped with SiN-VAPOR based sensors would be used to searching for explosive traces, indicating the possible presence of hidden threats.

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US could reduce army by further 15 percent: Hagel

By on Thursday, August 1st, 2013

The US Army could be reduced by a further 15 percent, with cuts to the numbers of full-time active soldiers as well as reserves, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday.

He said a review found that priority missions could be handled with between 420,000 and 450,000 active troops — compared to the 490,000 currently envisaged after cuts.

Presenting the results of a study to reporters at the Pentagon, Hagel said the additional cuts would help him make $150 billion in savings at a time when budgets are tight.

But he warned that even with an additional 15 percent reduction in troop numbers, the Pentagon would not be able to meet the savage spending cuts imposed on it by the so-called “sequester.”

This draconian package of across the board funding reductions was a result of Congress failing to agree a budget, and has forced the Defense Department to furlough thousands of civilian workers.

“One option the review examined found that we could still execute the priority missions determined by our defense strategy while reducing army end-strength to between 420,000 and 450,000 in the active component and between 490,000 and 530,000 in the Army reserves,” he said.

“Similarly, the Air Force could reduce tactical aircraft squadrons – potentially as many as five – and cut the size of the C-130 fleet with minimal risk,” he said, referring to the military’s workhorse transport plane.

But he said that the review had also laid out two more dramatic options for meeting the budget cuts demanded under the sequester.

The only way that this could be done, he said, would be by dramatically reducing the size of the armed forces or by halting technological modernization programs.

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