Another Curveball – Wonky Addendum

One of the criteria I use for judging whether a reporter knows what he’s talking about is the way he uses words. In science, words are used very precisely, some of them the same words that are used in everyday conversation. I recognize that reporters may try to simplify complex concepts for their readers; but they need to understand what they are simplifying. I also look for problems of logic and sequencing: has the reporter thought out how an activity must happen?

Here are two of those problems in David Ignatius’s article on Syrian chemical weapons.

Ignatius says “combine and activate the chemicals” at least twice. This is not something that someone who understands much about chemistry is likely to say. It’s a common mistake: not understanding chemical reaction. There is a difference between mixing and reaction. When you spoon sugar into your coffee and then stir, the sugar disappears as a solid, although you can taste it. It is mixed into the coffee, but it doesn’t react, it remains a separate chemical compound. When you are making a cake, you mix the ingredients. Some of the leavening ingredients start reacting right away, making the batter frothy with carbon dioxide, but most of the reactions take place during baking to make the liquidy batter into a solid with lots of porosity.

Some reactions take place quickly. You can mix vinegar and baking soda and watch the carbon dioxide froth out. But sugar in coffee is a mixture without reaction. When substances react, their chemical bonds rearrange to make something new. That’s how you get safe, edible salt (sodium chloride) from a soft, reactive metal (sodium) and a poisonous green gas (chlorine).

For a binary nerve agent, two precursors are manufactured that, when mixed, react to form the agent. Ignatius’s formulation, “combine and activate the chemicals,” doesn’t make sense. Combining the precursors activates them. Or, more accurately, produces the nerve agent. To a chemist, “combine” could mean mixing OR reaction, and, if it’s reaction, it doesn’t describe this kind of reaction. Mixing the precursors activates them. There’s no need to add red mercury or say magic words over them, or whatever “activate” means to Ignatius.

And that’s why nobody who knows chemistry would say it that way.

The more I think about these reports that Syria has binary precursors to chemical agents, the less credible they seem to me. Binary precursors require manufacturing two components, rather than just one. The two components require separate storage. Mixing them to form the agent and loading shells would require about the same equipment that a unitary agent would require. The capital requirements and number of steps are more than for a unitary agent.

Shells that mix binary precursors in flight are difficult to design and manufacture.

It’s difficult to see why a not-so-rich country would go to all this trouble. Not impossible, of course, but Occam’s Razor suggests that the stories of binary precursors being mixed before loading into shells are nonsense.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner and Phronesisaical.

11 comments to Another Curveball – Wonky Addendum

  • JustPlainDave

    Should would we presume that this is necessarily a “formal” binary mixture (I guess one could call it a weaponized binary rather than formal) like VX? The most frequent compound I see specified in the reporting (when they report more than a generic “nerve agent”) is sarin. What little I know about sarin indicates that it isn’t terribly shelf stable – meaning that it seems plausible that mixing is going to have to occur prior to use, formal binary or no.

  • Cheryl Rofer

    Yes, sarin seems to be the nerve agent most reported as part of Syria’s arsenal. In Ignatius’s article, it was not called out specifically.

    Sarin is not shelf stable when it’s impure. It was part of the declared US chemical arsenal when the US joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, and it’s being destroyed, along with the other chemical agents (one example here).

    The US did stockpile the precursors to sarin, as well, but it’s not clear from the Wikipedia article whether they were already in shells or stored in bulk.

    As I said, it’s possible that Syria has decided to take the more difficult and expensive route of stockpiling the precursors and mixing them later or having binary shells. But no way do you take a few containers of the precursors and teach your Lebanese buddies to mix them over the campfire or at the nearest high school or college.

    • JustPlainDave

      I’ve been doing a quick exploration of the same topic. Near as I can tell, there were quite significant quantities of munitions filled with GB that sat for periods best measured in years. They also appear to have had significant bulk stocks. It seems clear, however, that this was not viewed as ideal and they appear to have moved fairly quickly towards the more stable binaries.

      Knowing what I know of the Syrian defence / intelligence establishment, I’m somewhat skeptical that they have pure stocks. Certainly the performance that we have seen over the past couple of years would seem to be consistent with a less optimistic view of their capability. Our analytical challenge is to match not super well understood descriptions of what’s going on with potential signatures. It seems to me that what we’re seeing described is not a bad match for mixing of unitary nerve agents. Syria isn’t super wealthy or super competent and they don’t have a pressing need for large amounts of immediately deployable munitions – seems to me that the smart move on their part would be to invest in the process, produce the precursors for unitaries, and then fill the munitions when needed.

      • Cheryl Rofer

        As you’re making me think about it, my basic objection is that none of the accounts of “mixing” approach what I would consider scenarios that are unlikely to leave a number of dead or seriously injured in their wake.

        Let’s say there are “mixing trucks.” Where does the sarin go then? Mixing and filling have to be automated, or otherwise run enormous risks. Leaks and mistakes are likely to be fatal. You can argue that this doesn’t matter to a tyrannical regime, but it would affect military morale and enough people would have to be kept alive to run the trucks, which, Ignatius admits, haven’t been observed.

        Every account I have seen that includes something about mixing lacks some crucial detail or has something wrong. The few “facts” do indeed overlay some part of mixing precursors to produce a nerve agent and then filling shells. However, the repeated use of the words “binary” and “mixing” overlay to about the same extent the use of “aluminum tubes” in not-quite-right accounts of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program during 2002. If the second is the correct interpretation, that is likely to cause many more deaths than the first.

        Are you referring to the US in your first paragraph? Binaries were always a small part of the inventory. What I’ve been able to find on the internet relative to chemical weapons is surprisingly limited.

        • JustPlainDave

          I tend to think that the whole mobile mixing trucks thing is entirely nonsensical, as is the notion that they sent stuff into Lebanon and then pers came out of Lebanon for training. That makes not so much with the sense.

          My issue is with trying to figure out what corresponds with the assertions out of the USG that there had been activity indicative of preparation for deployment. Mixing unitaries (which requires more infrastructure and environmental controls, likely at centralized locations [i.e., detectable by our platforms] than binaries) and filling delivery systems seems to me to make the most sense. The thing that I have noted about a lot of this sort of thing over the years is that frequently the folks who are doing the most talking are the ones that know the least about the specifics of what is actually going on. As an example – do they (the sources) know that it’s binaries (as opposed to unitaries) or is that their assumption because they were kinda sorta briefed on mixing / filling activity? Chem/bio is not where the cool kids hang out these days and I wouldn’t assume that too many of these folks have any significant background for contextualization of what they hear: “nerve gas? mixing? wasn’t what they had in that Nick Nolte movie about the occupation of Alcatraz? “-> binary nerve agents.

          Yes, I was referring to the US in my first graf. What I see in the patterning is large scale weapons deployment by the mid- to late-sixties, followed pretty quickly in the 70s by demil of many gen 1 / 1.5 systems, production of gen 2 systems, a lot of debate about whether to get into binaries, production and then truncation of the production trajectory by sober second thought, butressed by the obliging fall of the Sovs. I can see how that would reasonably end up with them being a pretty small component of total holdings, even if the developmental trajectory looks to have moved at a reasonable pace (all it 30 – 35 years). As a single source, this: War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda looks good. I’ll work through it over Christmas (always with the cheery reading around our Yule log).

          • Cheryl Rofer

            Dave: We pretty much agree.

            I’ve been wracking my brains over this and that graph from George Jahn for the past few weeks. I’m trying to figure out the backstories, in this case where those USG reports are coming from. For now, I’ve decided that there isn’t enough information (and too much nonsense) to fully figure out either one. This one has less information.

            War of Nerves is a good source. For 1950s-60s thinking on this sort of thing, there have been an article and a long blog post at the New Yorker. I’ve picked up most of what I know on the fly.

          • JustPlainDave

            Yeah, I looked at all the discussion arising out of that and had a tough time coming to definitive conclusions (other than the fact that most everyone who really knows anything about it and is willing to speak publicly has – at a minimum – pronounced biases [some seem to trend to obstinate zealotry]). I tend to think that David’s notion of axis mislabelling is reasonable – questions then centre around the dispersion of the graph and the shape of the back part of the graph (which strikes me as the hardest to model without actual experience with the materials).

            What any of it means in isolation as an analytical insight into the Iranian program, not terribly sure – though if the post-2003 dating on it is accurate, it becomes more concerning. I’m a lot more clear as to what the divergent interpretations of it in the “commentariat” mean about thought processes – an objective observer would swear to god that some of these people think that the NPT is to be interpreted as a “everything but the last turn of the screw” instrument. The vindictive bastard in me says that if that’s their honest opinion they should be on the NEST callup list as “close proximity to suspect device coffee maker”.

  • MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s foreign minister says the Syrian government has consolidated its chemical weapons in one or two locations amid a rebel onslaught.

    Sergey Lavrov says Russia, which has military advisers training Syria’s military, has kept close watch over its chemical arsenal. He says the Syrian government has moved them from many arsenals to just “one or two centers” to properly safeguard them.

  • Cheryl Rofer

    Well, that could explain any movement that the USG has been seeing.

    • That was my thought too – afterall, it’s the only bit the US has officially noted. The rest of it, the unofficial leaks about mixing and training, may just be factional agitprop.

      • JustPlainDave

        I’m very, very skeptical that this report is true. In order for it to be true, we have to believe that the Syrians have been moving quantities of materials in the range of, I suspect, thousands of tonnes – certainly hundreds – without the USG and others squeaking up about it. We then also have to believe that the Syrians – who maintain their chem capability at least in part as a poor man’s Samson Option – spontaneously decided to greatly simplify the challenge facing western planners who might be thinking about a coup de main to secure Syrian stores by dramatically reducing the number of places they have to hit. This does not make sense.

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