Geoff FordenAll Good Things…

…must eventually come to an end.  I have enjoyed writing for ArmsContolWonk.com very much and it has been one of the more satisfying professional experiences I have had.  Unfortunately, at least for me, this post will be my last.  I am moving on in my career and no longer can afford the time etc. involved in writing these posts.  Jeffrey took a risk on letting me write a “techno-wonk” component for his outstanding blog and I will always be grateful to him for doing so.  While I’m at it, I want to say that Jeffrey was a pioneer in exploiting the potential of the web for informing the public with reasoned debate and I hope he gets the recognition that he deserves.  ACW has been a leader this in effort and I am proud to have been a part of it even briefly.

The spiffy new blog format Jeffrey has initiated for the blog easily allows me to see that this is the 142nd posting I have done for ACW.  A high fraction of these have been about missiles and missile proliferation.  In them, I have focused on what I call the “How” of proliferation rather than the “why” that has been discussed so much previously.  While I do think missiles and space are cool (who doesn’t?), I have always considered them to simply be a more visible way of understanding how developing countries acquire the advanced manufacturing capabilities needed for almost any WMD technology.  There are two reasons for this.  First, you can almost always distinguish success from failure with rockets, and especially satellite launches.  Second, missiles and space launch vehicles represent a national achievement that most countries are more willing to release information about than other technologies.  Consider Iran’s release of videos of the production of Shahab engines.  (It is true that Iran has released images of the components for the centrifuges but I think, on the whole, there has been more released for their satellite program.)  There are, of course, a number of reasons for this; reasons that I would have liked to talk about in future blogs.  Perhaps others on ACW will find this topic interesting and post on it.  I hope somebody continues to analyze.

Another future topic I would have liked to write about is motivated by the many recent examples of leaking.  As one friend of mine recently wrote: “Information wants to be free.”  I have a serious problem with that if the implication is that we can stop trying to contain proliferation sensitive information.  (If it is a statement about entropy and proliferation, it is simply a statement of fact.  You simply cannot have information shared among 850,000 holders of Top Secret clearances and expect something not to get out.)  One issue I wanted to work through on these pages was the relation between proliferation secrets and how successful proliferators are.   I have discussed many times just how ineffective “reverse engineering” the production line for making WMD is.  Proliferators need more than blueprints for effective proliferation, they need someone to teach them the shop-floor skills to take a “product’s” blueprint and create the process for its construction.  This is why the secret formula for VX really did not help Iraq when it tried to produce militarily useful quantities of the stuff.

But why make it easier for them?  It was just this balancing of assistance and difficulty that I wanted to explore.  I am sure others will take up this challenge on these pages.  The answer is just too important.

If what I consider my most important work here was understanding the “how” of proliferation, I had the most fun writing some of the more off-beat posts.  My favorite post—the one I had the most fun writing—was “Shocking Good Fun,” where I analyzed the atmospheric phenomena associated with a rocket going supersonic.  I also really enjoyed thinking about antipodal seismic signals of nuclear blasts.  That is another regret: that I have to leave before completely mining the wealth of ideas in “Caging the Dragon,” the excellent DOE report on containing nuclear explosions underground.

Of course, discussing past posts would be meaningless without talking about the contributions from you, wonk-readers.  I consider myself a generalist with a special interest in rockets (see above for why I think that is).  There are many real experts in the technologies I have written about and they have been kind enough to contribute their ideas and knowledge to these pages.  I have learned a lot from these experts and I am sure the general reader has a pretty good idea who they are.  (Several use pseudonyms.)

Of course, any time you discuss several specific countries on the internet, you get some very strong reactions.  Reactions that have a tendency to get very unpleasant, very quickly.  As I carried out my duties to moderate these discussions—after all, the vast majority of our readers really do not want to read comments filled with unthinking hate—I would often see a comment that was sure to draw and escalation from the “other side.”  Sometimes, such comments would have a valid point to make or contain at least some interesting points of view and I would wonder why the writer needed to include the barbs in them that were sure to inflame people with different loyalties. In all cases, it might have had an immediate emotional release for the writer, but it always reduced the intellectual impact of the comment.

I came to expect that type of comment from some of the nationalities that we discuss in these pages, but I was very surprised to get it in full force on the very few occasions I might have hinted that I am not a fan of NASA’s manned space flight program.  (Not to mention the one time I talked about something all too many people want to think of as a UFO!)

Finally, I’d like to hear from you, wonk-readers, about which are your favorite posts that I have contributed and why.  And, perhaps more importantly, which were your least favorite posts that I have written.  Here too I’d like to know why.  I should say that I know I have made mistakes in these posts; mistakes I have tried to acknowledge.  But the point of my posts was never to lay out my “wisdom” before you, but to explore new ideas and do so in a time frame much faster than permitted by refereed journals.  That has inevitably led me to make mistakes (one howler—it was so bad, I deleted it before many readers had a chance to see it—involved me forgetting that the vacuum between the rotor and a centrifuge’s outer casing acted as a thermal barrier and greatly reduced the power requirement for a clandestine enrichment facility) so please be kind, gentle reader!

Comments

  1. Mike Plunkett (History)

    I for one will miss your contributions to ACW. As someone who is very far from an expert in rocketry, I’ve found your posts to be interesting, insightful and educational. I wish you the best of luck in whatever it is you are moving on to.

  2. Martin Dirksen-Fischer (History)

    Thank You very much for the work done, especially Your articles on the NORKs are extremley good reading.
    Maybe Your article on the Flu was just a little bit less convincing.Thanks again!

  3. steeljawscribe (History)

    Geoff:
    Wishing you “fair winds and following seas” – although your posts will be missed. In particular, will especially miss the missile technology/proliferation posts as they have provided more than one instance of an “ah ha!” moment.
    w/r,
    SJS

  4. Micheal Lunny (History)

    I am genuinely sad to hear that you have too much real work to continue to contribute to ACW Dr Forden, the mixture of epistemology and rocket science in your posts is a heady one and I always looked forward to reading them.

    However I am sure ArmsControlWonk’s loss is science’s or public policy’s gain.

    I personally most enjoyed your posts on Omid as I still harbour hopes that rocketry can brings us together (as opposed to blow us apart).

  5. John Hughes (History)

    Dear Dr. Forden,

    Your posts were my favorite posts on ACW. I loved how you analyzed photographs or stories from a physics perspective. I didn’t understand it all, but it was fun to read. I’ll miss you. Maybe you could do a guest post every once in a while?

    John

  6. archjr (History)

    Many thanks for all your fine work. I mostly have worked on nukes for the last 30 years, and had but a limited layman’s knowledge of the ins and outs of missiles, etc. But your careful explication to those of us less knowledgeable has greatly increased my understanding, making me, I suppose, a layman geek, if not a layman wonk. Best luck in your future endeavors.

  7. Michael Elleman (History)

    Geoff,
    Thank you for taking the risk and posting your ideas and insights, almost all of which have contributed to the scholarship of how proliferators proliferate. Your posts rarely failed to stimulate the imagination, provoke critical debate, and expand the knowledge of experts and casual readers alike. We will miss your wisdom and sense of humor.

    Best wishes on the new job, enjoy and please stay in touch.
    Mike

  8. Mark Lincoln (History)

    The ‘How’ of Arms Proliferation will be missed.

    With defense cuts looming, we shall be assailed by endless hysteria – such as the twaddle recently pandered about the Dong Feng ‘Carrier Killer.’

    As one who has watched the budget wars since Eisenhower’s cuts in the late 1950s, I am very aware that the public at large lacks the technical awareness and critical thinking skills to respond to histrionics with reason.

    Geoff has consistently applied just those functions to Arms Control problems in a lucid and readable fashion.

    His posts will be missed.

  9. jeannick (History)

    Thanks for your posts Geoff
    It was a bit of clear water in the geopolitical scrub land
    it made me somewhat less ignorant and often much entertained

  10. Mohammad (History)

    Although perhaps an important part of your job is to help deny my country access to sensitive technologies, I, as an Iranian national will miss your posts much. I especially liked how you focused on the technicalities (instead of all too common political commentary) and avoided taking parts in your arguments, although I didn’t necessarily understand the deeper technical issues.
    Needless to say, my favorite post was Congratulations Iran!. And I enjoyed our brief non-wonky discussion on the satellite images of University of Tehran here.

    • Mohammad (History)

      I also wanted to thank you for all the effort you have made in writing your informative posts. (Please append to my comment above)

  11. Hairs (History)

    Thank you Geoff for all your posts – they were not only a pleasure to read but, perhaps even more importantly for me, enlightening. There is no end of fluff, politics and opinion out here on the internet, so I always appreciated how your calculations and arguments used known science and engineering to constrain what was, and was not, plausible in the world of arms control.

    My favourite post was “Congratulations Iran!”. I know that there are fears, which I share, that Iran is using its space programme to further military research. But when I consider all the benefits that humanity has derived from satellites and space science I cannot help but think that in the long-run Iran *should* be congratulated; launching Omid was a technical achievement of the first order.

    If we’re going to continue the journey out of the trees and up to the stars then ignorance and prejudice must be replaced with knowledge and reason, and in their own small way your posts have helped us along that road.

  12. George William Herbert (History)

    Fair sailing. Your contributions will be missed here, but undoubtedly you’ll continue your important work elsewhere…

  13. Jonathan McDowell (History)

    Bon voyage Geoff!

  14. Jan Stupl (History)

    Thanks for sharing all the good work! I really liked the short response time to interesting events. Being as fast (and sometimes faster) as the press and(!) delivering reliable information has been extremely impressive.

    Good luck to you Geoff!

  15. Jochen Schischka (History)

    Geoff, i think i speak for all when i say that you will be missed sadly. The gap you’ll leave behind here at ACW will be difficult to fill.

    I for my part particularly enjoyed everything related to missiles (even though there were some canards in that category – like that story about the ‘new north-korean two-staged missile’, which eventually turned out to be in fact a south-korean rocket-boosted anti-submarine-torpedo…), and your posts on the ‘How of Proliferation’ were excellent work.

    Good luck with your new job – and keep watching the skies!

    P.S.: BTW, i’m not really surprised by what you write about ‘unpleasant’ reactions on comments considering NASA’s manned space flight program or UFOs. Those two topics seem to be highly attractive to people with fanatical commitment, and fanatics typically will try to forcefully suppress anything openly undermining their (illogical) beliefs.
    Thankfully, blogging is rather unphysical – so any sort of aggressive behaviour will in most cases be limited to written form…

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