The first nuclear detonation. Berlyn Brixner/Wikimedia photo

When Earth Dreamed of Nuking the Moon

America and Russia both planned to stake their claim on the moon by blowing up a little piece of it

In 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into low earth orbit. It was the planet’s first artificial satellite—and much to the apprehension of the Pentagon and U.S. policymakers, it belonged to the commies. The Space Race had begun and America was losing.

The decades that followed were a parade of Cold War paranoia, technological innovation and bizarre military strategies. Both the East and West wanted to make sure the world knew who was the top superpower. But how?

Being the first to the moon was the top prize. In the early days of the Space Race, both countries thought the best way to prove they’d been to the moon was to nuke it.

Today it seems ridiculous that anyone would try to nuke the moon, but the political and cultural tensions of the 1950s made desperate plans seems sensible. In 1958, the Armour Research Foundation—the precursor to the Illinois Institute of Technology—developed a plan with guidance from the Air Force.

Designated Project A119 or “A Study of Lunar Research Flights,” the ARF’s inquiry looked into the possible effects of a nuclear detonation on the lunar surface between 1949 and 1962. Partly, the studies were a response to growing concern over atmospheric effects of nuclear testing—but not merely.

“I was told the Air Force was very interested in the possibility of a surprise demonstration explosion, with all its obvious implications for public relations and the Cold War,” Leonard Reiffel, the director of the project, wrote in Nature.

It was clear the main aim of the proposed detonation was a PR exercise and a show of one-upmanship. The Air Force wanted a mushroom cloud so large it would be visible on Earth,” Reiffell told the The Observer. “The U.S. was lagging behind in the Space Race.”

The explosion would also tell scientists and the military a lot about the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in space. In a declassified report about the project written by Reiffel in 1959, he claimed that “certain military objectives would be served since information would be supplied concerning the environment of space, concerning detection of nuclear device testing in space and concerning the capability of nuclear weapons for space warfare.”

Soviet headgear. Adam Jones/ Flickr photo

Lunar mutual annihilation

A lot of those Cold War plans are still classified—including A119—and the reason we know about it is because of Carl Sagan.

In 1959, Sagan was a young grad student with his sights set on the University of California, Berkeley. As part of his application for a scholarship to UC’s Miller Institute, Sagan divulged some of the work he had done for the ARF, including reports he’d written titled Possible Contribution of Lunar Nuclear Weapons Detonations to the Solution of Some Problems in Planetary Astronomy and Radiological Contamination of the Moon by Nuclear Weapons Detonations.

The revelation that the popular cosmologist and science writer was willing to brag about his work on classified projects to help him get a scholarship caused a minor stir when it was discovered by biographers after his death in 1996. The Pentagon has yet to comment on the old Cold War moon nuking plans and many of the reports written at the time have since been destroyed.

The project, thankfully, never got off the ground, and America decided that putting a man on the moon was better than blowing it up.

In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara talked about sitting down with his chiefs to discuss the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited above-ground nuclear testing.

They said, “The Soviets will cheat.” I said, “How will they cheat?” You won’t believe this, but they said, “They’ll test them behind the moon.” I said, “You’re out of your minds.” I said, “That’s absurd.”

But it wasn’t totally absurd. America wasn’t the only country that once thought exploding the surface of the moon was a realistic idea. High on the success of Sputnik, two Russian scientists — Sergei Pavlovich Korolev and Mstislav Vsyevolodovich Keldysh — proposed a series of projects in 1958 that would take the Kremlin all the way to the moon and let the world know they’d been there.

It was designated the “E Project,” and it involved a number of steps. E-1 called for getting a spacecraft to the moon. E-2 and E-3 involved orbiting around the moon and taking pictures of its surface. E-4 was when things got weird. It involved detonating a small nuclear charge on the lunar surface.

Famed Russian rocket engineer Boris Chertok spoke with Reuters in 1999 about the E-4 project:

In 1958 there was a plan to send an atomic bomb to the moon, so that astronomers across the world could photograph its explosion on film. That way no one would have doubted that the Soviet Union was capable of landing on the surface of the moon. But the idea was rejected as physicists decided the flash would be so short lived because of the lack of an atmosphere on the moon that it might not register on film.

The Soviets, of course, sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. The American Apollo program followed, securing major PR and technological victories. And despite the nuclear sabre rattling, no lunar landscapes were harmed.

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Next Story — Turkish Tanks Take a Pounding in Syria
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A Turkish M-60 tank and ACV-15 armored vehicle. Turkish army photo

Turkish Tanks Take a Pounding in Syria

Rebels armed with guided missiles punish Ankara’s tank force


Ankara’s tanks have been in the news a lot this year, whether prowling the streets of the Turkish capital in a failed coup attempt, or taking missile fire from rebel fighters on the Syrian border.

Recently, Turkish armor crossed over into Syria and drove the Islamic State terrorist group from its last holdings along the Turkish border — and also fought with U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels, creating a frustrating diplomatic quandary for the White House.

It’s easy to see why Turkey’s tanks are so active. The country is facing one of its worst geopolitical crises in decades, and it also maintains an enormous tank force — more than 2,400 all told, greater than the tank forces of France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined.

But only Turkey’s 354 German-made Leopard 2A4 tanks are modern designs, and even those date back to 1985.

The vast majority of Turkey’s tanks are American-made M-48 and M-60 Patton tanks. The latter type, which entered service the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis, is rather long in the tooth. But curiously enough, the M-60 has seen the most combat.

Turkish M-60 tanks. Turkish army photo

Meet Turkey’s favorite tank

The M-60, informally called he Patton after the M-48 Patton and the famous American general, was a brawler of a machine designed to outmatch the ubiquitous Soviet T-54 by virtue of its heavier armor and long M68 105-millimeter gun.

This latest “Patton” was the last in a family of tanks including the M-46, M-47 and M-48, all armed with 90-millimeter guns.

The M-60 didn’t see action in the Vietnam War, except for bridge-laying and engineering variants. However, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli M-60s rushed to relieve a force of 170 M-48 and Centurion tanks defending the Golan Heights from a Syrian invasion of 800 T-54s and T-62 tanks.

During several days of perhaps the most intense armored warfare in history, Israeli tanks and artillery crushed the Syrian attackers, counter-attacked and drove within striking distance of Damascus. The Patton was so well-liked that Israel produced several generations of upgraded Mag’ach Patton tanks, the last of which remained in service until 2014.

However, the war demonstrated that Patton tanks were vulnerable to anti-tank guided missiles just beginning to proliferate around the world. When M-60s counterattacked Egyptian troops crossing the Suez Canal, those troops blew away the Israeli tanks — their hydraulics prone to bursting into flames — with portable AT-3 Sagger missiles.

To bolster its own tank fleet, the Soviet Union introduced the T-72 tank in the 1970s. This popular machine featured — at the time — superior armor and a more powerful gun. By the ’80s, the U.S. military began replacing the M-60 with the M-1 Abrams, a tank which possesses a far more decisive edge over its Soviet-era rivals than the Patton ever did.

Not only is the Abrams a superior tank hunter, its composite armor is better protected — although not invulnerable — from the shaped-charge warheads of anti-tank missiles.

M-60A1 and A3 Patton tanks still served with the U.S. Marines during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. These saw heavy combat against Iraqi tanks in Kuwait, knocking out around 100 tanks for the loss of just one Patton — largely testifying to the imbalance in training, tactics and supporting arms of the opposing forces.

How vulnerable is the M-60?

To begin with, its main gun ammunition is not separately stowed, as it is on the Abrams, making the shells more likely to detonate if the armor is penetrated.

That would be less concerning with modern armor. Except the M-60 has old-fashioned conventional steel armor, with a maximum frontal armor rating equivalent to 253 millimeters of rolled hardened armor (RHA) — the standard measure of tank armor effectiveness.

By contrast, ’90s-era 120- and 125-millimeter sabot shells can pierce the equivalent of around 800 RHA, and the AT-17 Kornet anti-tank missile can penetrate 1,300 millimeters.

Today, Turkey fields three types of M-60s, including 658 M-60A3 TTS vehicles with improved thermal sights for night combat, and 170 Israeli-upgraded M-60A1 Sabra Mark II tanks, designated the M-60T in Turkish service. Ankara fields 104 more M-60A1 tanks that it has yet to upgrade to M-60Ts.

Additionally, the Turkish army retains 758 older M-48A5 Pattons. Turkey once operated as many as 3,000 M-48s, which saw extensive action in Cyprus in 1972. The aging vehicles have received upgraded 105-millimeter guns and targeting systems also used on the M-60A1s and A3s.

The upgraded M-60Ts wield a new Israeli MG253 120-millimeter cannon, which offers comparable performance to the Abrams’ main gun. A more powerful engine boosts speed to 34 miles per hour, which is still slower than most modern tanks. The turret has reinforced appliqué armor — basically, bolt-on armor plates.

An Israeli Magach 7C fitted with the same applique armor once reportedly survived 18 hits from AT-3 Sagger missiles fired by Hezbollah without being penetrated. However, bear in mind that the Sagger dates back to the 1960s, and current missiles have far greater penetrating power.

The M-60T reportedly includes explosive reactive armor — bricks of explosives that prematurely detonate incoming missiles and shells. ERA is most effective protecting the tank from shaped-charge warheads fired from portable anti-tank missile launchers.

However, it appears that some, if not all, of Turkey’s M-60Ts do not come with reactive armor, but sport additional appliqué armor instead.

A Turkish M-60T rolling into Al Rai, Syria, in September 2016. Free Syrian Army video capture

M-60s in peril

Turkish tanks do not lack experience. Since 1978, the Turkish military has battled Kurdish separatists seeking to form an independent state.

The most prominent Kurdish separatist group in Turkey is the Kurdistan’s Worker’s Party, or PKK. Ankara has also opposed the advances of Kurdish separatists in neighboring Iraq and Syria. In 2008, 60 Turkish M-60 tanks crossed over Iraq’s border in the Operation Sun offensive targeting PKK bases.

When the Syrian civil war erupted, Ankara deployed M-60 tanks along the border and provided support to rebels opposed to Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad. These tanks fired into Syria on occasion in retaliation for loyalist fire landing on the Turkish side of the border.

However, the Turkish government also became concerned with Kurdish fighters holding territory in northeastern Syria. They mostly fought under the banner of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a group which Ankara insists is largely composed of PKK members.

Infamously, when the Islamic State assaulted the Kurdish-held border city of Kobane, Turkish M-60 tanks overlooking the battle did not fire a shot at the Islamic State troops, though the Turkish government, under international pressure, allowed Kurdish reinforcements to cross the border in support of the beleaguered YPG defenders.

Because the Kurds were one of the most reliable forces opposing the Islamic State, Washington began to provide them with extensive aid, first through air strikes and supply drops, and later with teams of Special Forces operatives. 
Ankara, for its part, arrived at a truce with the PKK and together pursued a peace process in 2013.

However, a month after the Kurdish-affiliated Peoples’ Democratic Party made significant gains in the June 2015 elections, Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan called off the ceasefire, citing a recent spate of attacks.

By that time, Turkey’s more permissive relationship with Islamic State militants crossing the Syrian border had ended. The terror group launched a wave of attacks and raids on Turkish targets, killing hundreds of civilians.

Ankara’s steel beasts were soon fighting both groups.

On April 21, video evidence appeared of Islamic State fighters firing a Kornet anti-tank missile at a Turkish M-60T tank, which was training Iraqi forces in Bashiqah, a town north of Mosul. Turkish troops returned fire and killed 32 Islamic State fighters, according to the Turkish army.

The Kornet is one of the most effective Russian-made missiles, and its tandem-charge warhead has successfully pierced the armor of both the M-1 Abrams and Israeli Merkava tank.

A picture of the vehicle released after the incident revealed that the missile damaged the vehicle — but it didn’t appear to fully penetrate.

A Turkish M-60T damaged in Bashiqah, Iraq. Turkish army photo

Fortunately, the crew survived — so the armor did its job. However, the missile apparently knocked the tank out of action.

It’s possible the missile didn’t cause a full kill because it struck the side of the Patton’s turret rather than the center of mass.

Subsequent clashes have been less kind to the Patton.

In May 2016, Kurdish fighters claimed the destruction of two Turkish M-60s. In video footage of one incident, an anti-tank team cheered as their missile struck a tank deployed behind sandbagged defensive positions on the top of a hill.

On July 15, Patton and Leopard tanks streamed into the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, blocking off the entrances to bridges and other strategic locations as part of an attempted coup d’etat.

The forces supporting the coup fielded 246 armored vehicles, including 74 tanks, according to the Turkish general staff. Some opened fire on pro-government civilian crowds with machine guns, and others attacked the Turkish parliament. One M-60 even rolled over cars blocking its path.

However, many tank crews were unwilling to fire on the dense crowds which surged around their vehicles. As the coup unraveled on the morning of July 16, many of the bewildered tankers surrendered to civilians — though an enraged mob lynched at least one surrendering crew member.

Turkish M-60A3s firing near Jarablus. Free Syrian Army video capture

Euphrates Shield

The loss of Turkish tanks and their crews have escalated in the months since. On Aug. 24, Turkey launched an incursion into Syria codenamed Operation Euphrates Shield.

A force including dozens of Pattons, mostly M-60A3s, supported Turkish-allied militias in an offensive on the Islamic State-held town of Jarablus. The jihadist fighters withdrew without exchanging fire, but the Turkish force continued its advance into villages held by Kurdish fighters.

On Aug. 27 a Kurdish anti-tank team knocked out a Patton with a U.S.-made TOW missile, leading to the first Turkish death in the intervention. The destruction of a second Patton appeared on video shortly afterward.

There are reports that Kurdish fighters knocked out or damaged four more tanks during the clashes. Nonetheless, the Turkish offensive successfully drove the Kurds from several villages, and Kurdish forces have mostly withdrawn to the east side of the Euphrates River.

Fighting between the two parties has died down since, perhaps a result of pressure from Washington, which is greatly troubled by the fighting between two critical regional allies.

On Sept. 3, a battalion of Turkish armor joined allied militias in opening a new front around the Syrian village of Al Rai, with artillery support from U.S. HIMARS rocket batteries. This time, the Turkish force did engage Islamic State fighters, and successfully eradicated the last of the terror group’s positions on the Turkish-Syrian border.

However, on Sept. 7, the Islamic State released video footage of two Turkish Pattons near Al Rai taking hits from missiles — again likely to be Kornets. Testifying to the power of the Russian-designed missiles, the first tank violently burst into the flames, while the second erupted in a cloud of smoke and debris.

The next day, Islamic State fighters filmed the destruction of yet another Patton near the village of Tal Hawa. This tank also erupted in flames, and only one of the crew of four is reported to have survived.

It’s worth noting the M-60s in these cases were not deployed in hull-down position — that is, positioned behind the crest of the hill, leaving only their turrets exposed. Had they, the damage may have been less, and the missilers would have had a more difficult shot.

But Euphrates Shield is not the first time Turkish tanks have crossed the Syrian border.

In February 2015, a battalion of 39 Pattons crossed the border as part of a task force to retrieve the remains of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the first Ottoman emperor. The Turkish government was concerned that the Islamic State might overrun and desecrate the tomb.

A Turkish Leopard tank fires its main cannon. Turkish army photo

Late-coming Leopards

The losses suffered by the Patton prompted Offiziere to ask — where are Turkey’s superior Leopard 2 tanks?

The Leopard 2 is the German counterpart to the U.S.-made Abrams, a next generation main battle tank that decisively outmatched its Soviet contemporaries in both firepower and protection. Turkey’s 2A4 variant was the first major upgrade of the design, adding improved titanium-tungsten armor and an automatic fire-suppression system.

The 2A4 entered service during the final years of the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Germany sold of hundreds of the beasts as it downsized its military. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, however, that Berlin approved the sale of 354 Leopard 2s to Turkey.

Now 30 years old, the 2A4 is no longer quite in its prime, though it remains much tougher than the Patton. The 2A4’s frontal armor is rated around 700 millimeter RHA — and 1,000 millimeters RHA verses the shaped-charge warheads in anti-tank missiles, theoretically adequate to withstand most older anti-tank weapons.

The German army currently operates the much improved 2A5 and 2A6 variants, which have a longer-barreled main gun and upgraded wedge-shaped spaced armor that gives them a space-age look compared to the boxy turret of the 2A4. Turkey has developed its own upgraded version of the 2A4, but has not put the upgrade into production.

Turkish Leopard 2s have deployed close to Greece and Turkey, well away from the Syrian border. However, early in September, Leopard 2s reportedly embarked on trains destined for the Syrian border. Evidence of them in combat has yet to surface.

Ankara still has nearly 400 German Leopard 1 tanks, which entered service four years after the M-60 Patton.

The Leopard 1 is very fast and mounts a decent gun, but is not heavily armored. Turkey has 170 Leopard 1A1s upgraded with locally-produced Volkan targeting systems that enhance their accuracy and night-fighting capabilities. Ankara maintains a further 227 Leopard 1A3s, a variant with improved spaced armor and a wedge-shaped gun mantle.

Nonetheless, like the M-60, the Leopard 1’s armor is vulnerable to modern anti-tank weapons.

The Turkish military is awaiting its own domestically-produced main battle tank, the Altay, which incorporates technology from the South Korean K-2 Black Panther tank. The Altay could probably stand on equal footing to the Abrams and modernized Leopard 2 tanks — but only four have been made so far, and it isn’t set to begin full production until 2017.

A Turkish ACV-15 AIFV armed with a 25-millimeter cannon rolling towards Al Rai, Syria. Free Syrian army video capture

Ankara’s other beasts

Besides tanks, Turkey has fielded numerous armored vehicles in the recent fighting, some of them unique domestic designs.

ACV-15 infantry fighting vehicles have been prominent in Turkey’s incursion into Syria. The ACV-15, sometimes designated the ACV-300, is actually evolved from the boxy old M-113, the iconic rhombus-shaped armored personnel carrier of the Vietnam War.

The U.S. Army has since mostly moved on to the more heavily armed and armored M-2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. The ACV-15-AIFV, on the other hand, converts the M-113 into a cut-price Bradley surrogate, with its own 25-millimeter cannon turret.

The more numerous ACV-15-AAPC mounts a .50-caliber machine gun in a tiny open-topped turret. Both vehicles feature spaced ceramic armor panels. The Turkish army operates more than 2,000 ACV-15s, including anti-tank and mortar carrier variants.

The T-155 Firtina. Turkish army photo

Another armored vehicle operating on the Turkish-Syrian border is the T-155 Firtina — a locally-produced knock-off of the South Korean K-9 Thunder self-propelled howitzer.

The Firtinas have long-barreled 155 millimeter howitzers with a range of 30 to 40 kilometers depending on the ammunition.

They can sustain a firing rate of two to three rounds per minute, or surge three rounds in 15 seconds, all timed to land at the same time. The Turkish army fields well over a hundred of the vehicles out of a final intended total of 350.

The Firtinas first saw action against PKK forces in Iraq in 2008.

They have since hit targets across the Syrian border — some of them , apparently, very close to the border.

On April 30, the Islamic State released a video depicting AT-13 Metis-M missiles taking out a platoon of three Firtinas in sandbagged positions. Like most self-propelled artillery, the Firtina’s armor is for stopping shrapnel and small arms, not guided missiles — leaving one to wonder why the vehicles were in such an exposed position in the first place.

Firtinas have been providing fire support for Euphrates Shield.

Finally, the Otokar Kobra is a unique armored vehicle incorporating Humvee DNA. For one, it has the same suspension and wheel base. However, unlike the Humvee, it’s designed from the get-go with a mine-resistant v-shaped hull and better protection from small arms and shrapnel.

There are a lot of different variants, including recon, anti-tank, and mortar-carrying vehicles. The basic version can carry eight passengers, and typically mounts a turret with a 12.7-millimeter machine gun or an automatic grenade launcher.

An Otokar Kobra in Azerbaijani service. Mangust77 photo via Wikimedia

Turkish Kobras have been heavily involved in the conflict with the PKK, and there are several videos of them ambushing unsuspecting PKK fighters.

In return, the vehicles have suffered more than their share of ambushes, many documented on video.

Despite reportedly having a good record surviving blasts from improvised explosive devices and mines, this has simply led to Kurdish fighters making bigger bombs. In August 2015, a 2,000 pound IED destroyed a Turkish army Kobra in Siirte province, killing its eight passengers.

Kobras have also seen action in service with the Nigerian army in its war with Boko Haram, in Georgian service during the 2008 war with Russia, and with Turkish troops in Afghanistan. A new Kobra II vehicle weighing twice as much is entering service, and should have even greater protection from IEDs.

Turkey possesses hundreds of other locally-produced armored personnel carriers, including the Ejder and Kirpi mine-resistant vehicles and the Akrep and ZPT armored cars.

Turkish M-60 tanks. Turkish army photo

What’s next

On Sept. 16, Turkish tanks embarked on a third offensive into Syria, this time supporting allied rebels in a push on the Islamic State-held city of Al Bab. The offensive has reportedly captured more than a dozen villages, though the Islamic State claims to have knocked out a Turkish tank on Sept. 18.

Turkey’s armored vehicles will likely face further combat with determined and well-armed fighters from both the Islamic State and Kurdish militants — let alone the possibility of unintended clashes with the Syrian army.

Washington would prefer Turkish guns to remain pointed toward the Islamic State, but unfortunately the enmity between the Ankara and Kurdish separatist groups runs long and deep — and may prove to difficult to patch over as retreating jihadists leave behind a territorial vacuum that both parties will likely seek to fill.

There are also tactical lessons for the Turkish army. The M-60 tanks at the spearhead of Ankara’s war effort pack intimidating firepower and have generally succeeded in securing their objectives. However, these tanks remain a product of another era, and remain vulnerable to deadly anti-tank missiles widely employed in Syria.

Whether the Turkish military will risk its Leopard 2s in an effort to mitigate losses — and whether those tanks would fare better against experienced missile teams armed with powerful missiles such as the Kornet — is far from clear.

The same could be said regarding the end game of the Turkish intervention in Syria.

Next Story — ‘Our War’ Brings Westerners to the Kurdish Front Lines
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Saluting the YPG flag. ‘Our War’ capture

‘Our War’ Brings Westerners to the Kurdish Front Lines

Learn from men who left it all behind to fight the Islamic State


It’s a lo-fi image, grainy and cropped on both sides as if it were shot on a camcorder in the ’90s. The lens goes in and out of focus and the image clears up — it’s a young man in green and brown fatigues cutting hair. He stands in rubble in front of a gray brick wall.

“This is Kobane’s hair salon,” someone says. The camera pans down to show the squinting face of the young man the barber is working over with what look like safety scissors. An AK-47 leans against the gray brick.

“Here we have our trusted barber,” the voice says. “As you can see, he’s doing a terrible job but he’s the only barber available on the front line. We’ll have to make do with it.” The voice laughs.

Cut to a man in fatigues and a flak jacket standing in a dark room holding a landline telephone in his hands. “America!” He yells down the line, a goofy grin on his face. “Is everything fine? Obama! Air strikes! Thanks, thanks.”

This is Our War, a documentary about the YPG, the Kurds and the Westerners who cross the world to join their fight against the Islamic State.

The Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group with no country to call their own, and the YPG is the military arm of the Syrian Kurdish de facto state in Rojava, Western Syria.

Our War is a short, sweet and thoughtful documentary made by journalist and War Is Boring contributor Benedetta Argentieri and fellow filmmakers Bruno Chiaravalloti and Claudio Jampaglia. It tells the story of three Westerners who left their lives to journey East and fight the Islamic State.

Argentieri and company crafted the documentary out of interviews with the three young men and personal footage from the front lines in Rojava. The result is a meditative mix of candid war footage and personal testimony. It’s stunning.

Former Marine Joshua Bell is the American of the group. He’s the kind of guy who a lot of people would dismiss because of his accent and scraggly beard, but that would be a mistake. Bell is intelligent and reasoned but also seems lost, as if he’s looking for something he knows he’ll never find. It’s as if he walked out of a John Steinbeck novel.

“If I was gettin’ paid over there, I’d’ve probably never left,” he confides in a friend early in the film. He spent 11 months as a volunteer in the YPG and he did every job they needed him to do. He drove trucks, stood guard and repaired weapons. Whatever work he could do to help the war effort.

Bell has a low opinion of most Westerners who joined the fight. Thousands flocked to the Kurdish front lines to join the various armed groups fighting against the Islamic State but most had no idea what they were doing.

“One lost his weapon twice, one lost one of his boots, one of ’em was doing drugs, one of ’em was being very touchy feely with the YPG after being warned repeatedly,” Bell explains. “I’ve seen a few who’ve written books and given interviews talking about what war heroes they are. They’re total shitbirds … you’re not fucking Rambo.”

A Kurdish sniper aims down the barrel his rifle. ‘Our War’ capture

Karim Franceschi is an Italian who joined the fight because, “I have hate inside me against these monsters.” He admires not only the Kurdish struggle, but also the politics of Rojava and the YPG.

Franceschi is serious yet romantic. He talks of the Italian anti-fascist partisans, compares the Kurdish struggle to the Spanish Civil War and participates in socialist politics back home in Italy.

While in theater, he says he became addicted to the adrenaline rushes but learned to respect fear. “That’s when you realize fear is a precious thing. Fear helped me to react to danger … I saw many people dying because they gave up fear.”

Rafael Kardari is a Swedish man whose parents are Iraqi Kurds. He seems younger than Bell and Franceschi, sillier and likely to smile. He watched a clip of Islamic State executioners murdering blindfolded children on Facebook and decided he had to do something.

“After I watched this video I immediately decided to fight against ISIS, not just help the refugees,” he explains. Two weeks later, he was at the border. Kadari seems the most level, the most normal — at least to an American’s eyes — of the three young men.

It seems he wants to fight out of a sense of justice, whereas I felt Franceschi pursued a utopian dream. Bell freely admitted he was running way from his life and said most of the Westerners he met in Syria had done the same.

One of the secrets to a great documentary is to focus on the subject and keep the filmmakers out of it. Werner Herzog would probably disagree with me, but only a person with as striking and bizarre a personality as his can get away with it. Better for the rest of us to just report what we see.

Argentieri, Chiaravalloti and Jampaglia have done that here. They aren’t characters in the story and they use their talents to bring three distinct personalities into focus. They use the wayward men of three different Western countries to make the audience understand what’s at stake on the battlefield.

Bell, Kardari and Franceschi help viewers understand what’s going on in an area of the world few people will ever see in an important conflict largely bereft of journalists. Theirs is a story few are telling. That’s what makes Our War so precious.

Next Story — The Deadly History of the Kalashnikov
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The AKMS modification of the infamous AK-47. Vitaly V. Kuzmin photo

The Deadly History of the Kalashnikov

AK-type rifles will persist in conflicts for decades to come because they’re cheap, simple and reliable


A few days ago, fighters from the Free Syrian Army ran American special operations forces out of a town near the Turkish border, hurling insults such as “infidels,” “crusaders,” “dogs” and “pigs.”

These fighters, who are actively benefiting from U.S. support, brandished the most recognizable gun of all time, the Kalashnikov. The power of this image cannot be understated.

Thanks in no small part to the film, television and video game industries, most people associate the AK-47 with tyrannical terrorists, depraved drug cartels and rabid rebels. Indeed, the high profile use of Kalashnikovs in the Dallas police shooting and the Islamic State’s Paris attack reinforces this link.

Originally built for the Soviet army and as a tool for spreading communism around the globe, there are now over 75 million Kalashnikovs and variants in circulation, produced by nearly 100 nations. The rifle is easy to produce, easy to use and reliable, which makes it so effective.

The AK has made its mark on countless conflicts on nearly every continent. The story of this weapon is one of battlefield utility, market saturation and ill-advised arms shipments.

A Russian VDV commando, not to be mistaken with Rambo. Vitaly V. Kuzmin photo

To understand how the AK became as important as it is, ones must revisit the context in which it was designed. Mikhail Kalashnikov incorporated lessons learned from the Second World War in creating his namesake.

During the war, the Soviets found that the intermediate cartridge would be ideal for frontline troops. Unlike large-caliber rounds common of the period, intermediate-sized rounds would be easier to shoot in rapid succession, be lighter and allow troops to carry greater quantities of ammunition.

The Germans developed their own round, the 7.92-millimeter Kurz, for a rifle called the Maschinekarabiner 42, which would eventually evolve into the StG 44.

This weapon had a particularly high rate of fire, a larger round than submachine guns, yet was lighter than a machine gun. The StG 44 stood in sharp contrast to the weapons used by the Soviets in the war, primarily the PPSh submachine gun (high rate of fire, but pistol caliber) and the Mosin-Nagant (large caliber, but bolt action).

Seeing the utility in the German design, the Soviets sought to create their own version of this rifle. The end result, the AK-47, enabled the Soviets to bridge the capability gap between the different weapons they most frequently used during the war.

The Soviets also wanted firearms that were rugged, simple to produce and cheap to make.

Field conditions on World War II’s Eastern Front were particularly brutal and required exceptionally robust weapons. Kalashnikov designed his rifle to deal with dirt and debris by giving it loose tolerances.

This allowed the AK to shoot accurately up to a few hundred meters, but withstand horrendous abuse. To be able to provide firepower, resist unbearable conditions and fire reliably for its size was a game changer in the late 1940s and has become the modern standard.

Furthermore, the AK-47 was inexpensive and required minimal materials to create. Winning war is about more than just killing the enemy; cost efficiency is crucial. Future renditions of the rifle (primarily the AKM family) would only make the rifle cheaper and even easier to build through simplified production techniques.

Throughout the Cold War, the AK provided the proletariats of the world with the means to rise up in communist insurrection. This mentality, that one must always be ready for war and continue the revolution, made arms production a core component of socialist planned economies. Moscow supplied millions of AKs, RPKs, PKMs and other Kalashnikov variants to friendly socialist nations.

The beauty of such a simple device was that the Soviets could also lease plans of the rifle, so that the weapon could be produced locally. The AK-47 and its derivatives could be built in nearly any country.

The AK first saw widespread military use in Vietnam. American soldiers saw its effectiveness firsthand, as farmers armed with the rifle proved a tenacious foe. Washington would take this experience to heart and go on to design the AR-15 (what would become the M-16) with such lessons in mind.

In doing so, the United States ended up arming its troops with a rifle that was lighter and capable of suppressing fire as well. In effect, America was saying goodbye to large-caliber rifles like the M-14 as standard infantry rifles, moving closer to the Soviet model.

Russian interior ministry troops during an exercise in 2014. Vitaly V. Kuzmin photo

The reach of the AK and weapons inspired by it would go on to provide the fuel for much of the violent encounters of the Cold War.

An example of the global reach of the AK can be seen in 1980s El Salvador, described in C. J. Chivers’ book, The Gun, a meticulous history of the rifle and its impact. Communist guerrillas operating in the country were initially waging war using leftover local weaponry and whatever surplus they could find.

Government forces eventually started finding AK variants from North Korea, East Germany and Yugoslavia in rebel hands, with ammunition originating from Cuba.

This supply network showed that the Soviet model of exporting small arms to socialist nations around the world worked. The AK had a worldwide network and could supply conflicts anywhere due to the massive amount of governments that used or produced the rifle.

During the Soviet-Afghan War, mujahideen forces started their struggle using weapons as dated as the “Boer” rifle from the British-Afghan War (the Russian General Staff detailed the arming of Afghan forces in their write-up of the conflict).

The Kremlin-friendly government in Afghanistan was supplied with AKs and other Warsaw pact weapons prior to the war. The CIA, wealthy Saudis and others who had a stake in seeing Moscow fail would provide a steady flow of additional arms.

In effect, the war turned the Kalashnikov against the army it was made for. After years of fighting, thousands of weapons would be left behind in the country, giving warlords the tools to install the Taliban and continue to bedevil American strategists who currently seek to stabilize Afghanistan.

Kalashnikov’s rifle has continued to fuel guerrilla warfare, terrorism and crime after the Cold War ended. Although Kalashnikov himself claimed his rifle was a tool of liberation, the AK is more frequently seen in the hands of terrorists or the cartels in Mexico.

Smuggling AKs also tends to be easier than moving bomb-making materials and other destructive devices, in part why the rifle has been branded as the terrorist’s new tool of choice.

Nations and nonstate actors have also supplied AK variants to wage insurgency and violence in Libya, Ukraine, Mali and beyond. More often than not in Syria, the Kurds, ISIS and government forces are pointing the same weapons at one another.

What does this all mean for American foreign policy? With Syria and Ukraine weighing heavily on U.S. policymakers, an otherwise obvious point needs to be made: shipping small arms to far away places does not a foreign policy make.

Washington has little control over where these weapons end up. The choice to arm Afghan National Police units with Hungarian AK derivatives was problematic to say the least. American rifles are now being funneled onto the black market in the region. These weapons — whether through theft, abandonment or illicit trade — help sustain the Taliban, ISIS and others.

It is not certain that Washington directly supplied the weapons that featured in the embarrassing video along the Syrian-Turkish border. The Pentagon and CIA are currently backing competing rebel groups in Syria, further blurring the line separating freedom fighters and terrorists. Washington must reassess the benefits of so liberally injecting weapons into disparate conflicts.

In the current Syrian nightmare, the opacity of who constitutes righteous rebel or terrorist only makes this process more difficult.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest.

Next Story — Op-Ed — Great Britain Needs to Figure Out Its Killer Drone Rules
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Royal Air Force photo

Op-Ed — Great Britain Needs to Figure Out Its Killer Drone Rules

London could follow Washington’s lead


The United Kingdom must support the United States in its efforts to create an international framework on the export and use of drones. But first, it needs to fix the problems with its own use.

In recent weeks, the United States has reportedly entered into negotiations with exporters and importers of armed drones in order to develop an international agreement on the rules governing export and use of drones.

Washington is encouraging its allies to sign up to rules which include adherence to international law and human rights law, a dedication to existing arms control laws, “appropriate transparency,” responsible use and a review of a country’s human rights record before selling drones to them.

America’s own use of drones since 9/11 has drawn heavy criticism. The United States expanded the definitions of core principles of international law in order to justify a broad targeted-killing policy against Islamic militants “wherever they may be.”

This has led to a number of problems, including a perceived lack of respect for national sovereignty, high number of civilian casualties and doubts surrounding its effectiveness.

U.S. Air Force photo

In light of international and domestic criticism, Washington has sought to improve the legitimacy of these operations. Transparency and oversight of strikes has increased and in the spring of 2015, the United States developed its own policy guidance on the export of drones — and now is encouraging others to do the same.

Special relationship aside, the United Kingdom may prove unwilling or unable to sign up to these important commitments. It has shunned all previous attempts to create an international consensus, and the United Kingdom’s drone strike last year against Reyaad Khan, a U.K. citizen fighting for ISIS, revealed a lack of what might be called “appropriate transparency” over U.K. drone operations.

After then-prime minister David Cameron’s initial announcement, the government offered very little additional information on the strike. It also refused to release the attorney general’s legal advice on the strike and has categorically ruled out judicial review.

Cameron argued that public oversight was not necessary because the strike was being investigated by the security cleared Intelligence and Security Committee. However, the chair of the ISC admitted he was not currently being provided enough information “to do a thorough job.”

More recently, London has increased the opacity of its use of drones more widely. For example, the government will not disclose the number of drones currently operating in Iraq and Syria, even though it will do so for the number of Typhoon and Tornado jet fighters.

Royal Air Force photo

Nor will it provide any insight into the use of drones outside these areas arguing, as it did in a response to member of parliament Richard Burden earlier this month, that providing the information “would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces.”

Many have also criticized the United Kingdom’s reporting of civilian casualties — and especially the claim that it has killed virtually no civilians through drone strikes. Chris Fuller argues that the United Kingdom must learn from the mistakes of America and “and provide more transparency and oversight by choice, before such details are eventually forced out.”

The little we do know about the United Kingdom’s use of drones also demonstrates practices that could violate an international framework. In Yemen, it was revealed that London’s provision of training and intelligence plays a “critical” role in the Saudi-led airstrikes which have been roundly criticized for their high civilian casualties and disregard of international human rights norms.

This week, the Royal Air Force’s own Reaper drones were implicated in a coalition airstrike in Syria which mistakenly killed 62 soldiers who were fighting ISIS and injured hundreds more. These strikes also threaten a fragile ceasefire in the country.

The United Kingdom may, then, be unwilling to sign up to America’s framework. However, if it does not join the United States in acting now it may lose its chance. Ninety countries now have drones and around 20 have or are developing armed drones.

This includes a number of countries whose interests may not align with those of the West, such as China and Iran. Proliferation of this technology undermines the United States’ technological advantage and, with it, the ability to limit who has drones and how they use them.

Given this, the best way for the United States and its allies to ensure others use this newly acquired technology in ways that adhere to international law is through building an international consensus.

The U.K. government must seize this opportunity to help establish international standards. Washington is finally pushing for a system where drones can only be exported to countries that will use them responsibly and uphold humanitarian and human-rights law.

This is the time to encourage countries to adopt more restrictive rules on the use of drones before they spread further. London should push for an agreement which clarifies the legal basis for the use of drones and calls for the highest standards of transparency and accountability to their use, while doing its utmost to improve its own standards in turn.

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