Food for Thought: Missiles

An interview with Masao Dahlgren and Scott LaFoy.

Food for Thought is an interview series that sits down with national security professionals over food, drinks, coffee, or whatever. It brings people together. It connects “mid-career experts” with “emerging professionals” (while keeping those classifications purposefully vague) to welcome voices and conversations that haven’t yet been heard on issues that matter the most. No facades of mentorship or shallow professional development advice… just the thoughts and topics that people are passionate about. Food for Thought will span across organizations, political beliefs, age groups, and dining establishments to spark ideas and make connections integral to the cohesion of the national security community.

“Food may not be the answer to world peace, but it’s a start.”- Anthony Bourdain 

“Every interview should come with French Fries.”

Especially the truffle fries from Commissary.

Commissary is a small neighborhood café in Logan Circle, that has an expansive drink and food menu with affordable price tags. Contrary to what the name might suggest, the space is incredibly cozy, filled with plush chairs and footrests. It’s simultaneously reminiscent of small neighborhood slam poetry café and a local dive bar; Juxtaposed aesthetics that somehow just work. It’s a place of very little frills, to take high-quality people and to enjoy high-quality food and drink.

For my latest interview for Food for Thought, I sat down and talked missiles and national security technology over piles of fries with two giants in the missile field: Masao Dahlgren and Scott LaFoy.

Masao Dahlgren is the king of missile Twitter (although his official title is a Research Assistant at the Center for Strategic and international Studies’ Missile Defense Project). Dahlgren runs the uber-popular “Missile Tidbits” or @divert_thruster Twitter account, tweeting rare and incredibly insightful missile facts almost daily. Plus, he’s funny as hell. Previously, Dahlgren interned at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the Office of International Affairs with the US Department of Justice, and the Hudson Institute. Dahlgren recently graduated from American University with his BA.

Similarly, Scott LaFoy has arguably one of the most famous voices (quite literally) in the arms control field. LaFoy is the producer of and a contributor to the Arms Control Wonk Podcast, the leading podcast on arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation. He works as a consultant, and independent research interests include Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), satellite imagery, ballistic missiles, ballistic missile defense, North Korea, and China.

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THE INTERVIEW

Q: What are your current research interests and ongoing projects?

Dahlgren: “In the missile world, I’m currently interested in missile defense countermeasures. This has largely been my main project outside of work. Broadly speaking, countermeasures are devices used spoof missile defense systems. While much of the current discourse focuses on how effectively countermeasures work, I am investigating historical case studies of how states acquire them and how they fit into states’ strategic thinking.

LaFoy: “I’m currently revisiting a satellite coverage simulation that I was working on in 2016 and 2017, when North Korea was blasting off missiles every two weeks. My basic question was, “If an analyst with a shoestring budget and enough commercial observation satellite imagery could simulate when the holes in the observation were, could the analyst then ballpark when there were no satellites looking at you? (Outside of stealth satellites).” The answer is yes! I’ve created an experimental output that tweets every time Sinpo port in North Korea is under an observation satellite. Basically, I want to be able to tell when things can be seen and when they cannot be seen in a simple binary (i.e. visible, or not visible). However, there are a lot of variables to account for… (such as cameras, satellites, and sensors), it’s ultimately difficult to actually tell who is listening or watching, for how long, and if they are even looking at the imagery or not.”

Q: What technical issues in national security interest you the most?

Dahlgren: “There’s a lot policy questions to unpack regarding the recent revolution in machine learning. I’m particularly interested in how these technologies could impact the discrimination problem in missile defense. Could new classifier technologies help missile defense sensors sort out real warheads from decoys and debris?

LaFoy: “Machine learning and AI has also been on my mind a lot lately.”

Dahlgren: “Yeah… it’s super popular in DC!”

LaFoy: “I have a particular fascination with AI and machine learning and ethics. For those that utilize and exploit Ai or machine learning, it becomes black-boxed because so much of the technologies are constantly changing. As these systems develop, it becomes very complicated to track what it does and how it responds to inputs and outputs. First, we need more education on the technologies themselves and the implicit biases that build datasets and potentially unethical algorithms, before they can be used more widely. I’m also interested in the OSINT applications, and how automatically collated systems, in a way, make operational and informational security very complicated.”

Dahlgren: “It’s very unintuitive how neural network-based programs reach the conclusions they reach; you can create a judge that can accurately discern the facts of the case but can’t tell you why it made the decision it did.”

LaFoy: “It’s hard to accurately evaluate the data unless you train and test it on a human…But do you want something more accurate than a human? I also think this issue leads into situations where data is being harvested from locations people think are traditionally secure (i.e. texts or documents hosted in Google Drive). It’s concerning how these data sets can be turned against the end-user. Additionally, specifically regarding AI and missiles, from a human intelligence (HUMINT) sense, people are constantly innovating with large data sets around them. I think AI and machine learning create interesting opportunities to automate surveillance.”

LaFoy: “Overall, I think AI and machine learning aid in processing large amounts of data and figuring out what is the noise.”

Q: How did you get into the technical area of national security?

Dahlgren: “I was very interested in nuclear issues in school, and anyone that has an interest in nuclear issues tends to be interested in how technology impacts national security. That, and listening to Scott and Jeffrey Lewis’ podcast, “Arms Control Wonk” — which got me fascinated with the field.

LaFoy: “So originally, I was more of a North Korea person, and interested more in the political theory and traditional International Relation side of things. I was really interested in the impact of nuclear weapons and North Korean policy as it relates to the international community. Eventually I studied nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles more in-depth to better understand the technical side. I am drawn to these weapons as a focus of study because they are unique tools of power and diplomacy. Nuclear missiles are a weapon of policy more than a weapon of war. The technical details and margins matter for treaties and military postures in a way that is rarely represented in other weapon systems. It would be rare for a new type of tank to totally obviate some form of ground warfare and require an adversary to totally change their military or diplomatic posture, but missiles have a much more direct effect on policy and reactions. They are the materiel directly affecting policy, the international order, how people get along, in a way that conventional systems don’t. They’re not an instrument of policy power, but they have huge policy implications. There’s also this unique US/North Korea dichotomy with regards to missiles that is fascinating.”

Q: How have you found ways to convey your technical subject areas to a less technical, potentially policy-oriented crowd?

Dahlgren: “I use social media outreach — especially Twitter — to talk about my research. This usually takes the form of posting a striking image related to my ongoing research and explaining the history and context behind it. Images grab people’s attention, and Twitter’s limits force me to write in a way that is digestible; in a way that might easily translate to social media. Using social media allowed my research to reach a broader audience than I thought possible, but more importantly, taught me habits of writing and thinking to make the rest of my work more accessible.

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LaFoy: “For me, it really depends on the audience. In this sphere there seems to be the academics, industry people, policy people in the field, policy people out of the field, and then the general public. So, you really have to adapt depending on your audience. Students interested in missiles are a completely different audience from the deeply entrenched policy people, and I think that is sometimes forgotten. It’s a constant fight to try and edit technical material to make it relatable. Jokes and memes do really help a lot, especially in new media (like social media). They break up the otherwise monotonous content, and do create a sort of on-ramp for accessing otherwise inaccessible data. I think it’s also important to write outside of the peer academic field, and use common language, make jokes, and define acronyms. I actually think Masao’s Twitter is a perfect example of this. It has the pictures, the jokes, the citations… every part explains something to an audience at virtually any level.”

Q: What’s one missile, or missile system, that people should know about?

Dahlgren: “The Prithvi Defence Vehicle Mark-II, or PDV Mk-II, is India’s most recent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). ASAT weapons are designed to destroy satellites; kinetic interceptors like PDV Mark II can create a lot of space debris that endanger other space assets. India’s efforts to develop missile defenses and ASAT weapons are something we should be talking about more. More broadly, we should be speaking about ASAT weapons more. There are so many critical assets in space which support US missile defenses and battlefield communications. Threats to these capabilities are ones which should be taken seriously.”

LaFoy: “I think strategic ballistic missile defense (BMD) as a whole should be focused on more. There’s this Ven Diagram between ASAT weapons and BMD systems because BMD could theoretically be used for ASAT roles. There’s this big overlap in capabilities and a general lack of understanding, especially around what missile defense are, and their implications on strategic stability. This is true in terms of effectiveness, utility, and budgetary costs. Budgets are especially hard, since there are complex relationships to how national-level strategic arms races work. It isn’t always just about building an interceptor that can cheaply and efficiently defeat incoming ICBMs, but also being able to efficiently support the surrounding infrastructure to continue developing, manufacturing, deploying, expanding, and protecting those interceptors. It is an expensive race that is hard to participate in. And, of course, if the adversary can do all of that for way cheaper for offensive systems, then you are incentivizing the proliferation of additional nuclear weapons. Missile defense has multiple levels of purpose and levels of deterrence, and frequently is oversimplified. It’s a complicated system that has a lot of nuance to it.”

Q: What is your favorite missile and why?

LaFoy: “I don’t have a specific system that speaks to me because I like missiles that are weird or “underdogs,” but not in a complimentary sense. I’m interested in missiles systems that are surprises or atypical, especially if they imply that someone had to lie or steal or go down a weird development path to build it. Anything that builds up a good analytic puzzle in terms of how the system got funded and built. I’m also interested in any missile that generates self-parody and discussions. I think the Peacekeeping MX basing options report by Ash Carter is a good example of this. The paper goes through like thirty different ways to base the Peacekeeper missiles, and some of them seem really ridiculous (like the blimps or hovercraft), but it is a comprehensive report that starts prodding at every variable that planners would need to consider when searching for an alternative to a traditionally accepted strategy (silos for land-based missiles, in this case). Thinking through those variables for adversarial systems ends up being helpful when you see things like ICBMs based on the tops of mountains (which is almost the opposite of how the US and Russia base ICBMs). But I also think it’s important not to trivialize missiles too much. As scholars have noted on Twitter, turning missiles into something cute is mentally disarming, and if you trivialize them too much, it’ll cause problems.”

Dahlgren: “My favorite missile is the missile that’s never used. It’s easy in any field to joke about what one studies, but I’m wary about trivializing what are fundamentally weapons of war. There are a great many interesting rockets out there, but they are instruments of policy first and foremost. The best missiles are the ones which US adversaries haven’t built; ones which don’t threaten the United States or its allies.