In The Tank: This Week’s Best Defense and National Security Think Tank Offerings

The latest in wonk reads on national security, tech, and more. By Kedar Pavgi

Welcome to “In the Tank”, Defense One’s weekly think tank roundup. Every week, we’ll present the latest research published by think tanks from around the world on defense, national security, foreign policy, technology, and management – a tool to help the national security community navigate the future. If you’d like to submit your latest research, email Kedar Pavgi at

Overmilitarization: Why Law Enforcement Needs to Scale Down Its Use of Military Hardware and Tactics
Evan Bernick
The Heritage Foundation

In the summer of 1965, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles was embroiled in riots and looting. The violence began to resemble guerilla warfare, prompting the police inspector to reach out to the military for help – and the modern-day SWAT team was born. The Heritage Foundation’s Evan Bernick argues that domestic law enforcement has gone too far and needs to reduce its use of military tactics. Bernick’s examples mainly involve the excessive use of SWAT teams and military-grade weapons, but his argument could just as easily extend to the use of domestic drones and surveillance technology.

Plutonium Mountain: Inside the 17-Year Mission to Secure a Dangerous Legacy of Soviet Nuclear Testing
Eben Harrell and David E. Hoffman
Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

The Belfer Center’s Eben Harrell and David Hoffman detail the harrowing story behind the scientists involved with a massive nuclear cleanup operation in Central Asia. The problem: in Semipalantinsk, Kazakhstan, an area the size of Belgium, Soviet nuclear scientists had burrowed hundreds of kilograms of plutonium and other fissile material deep into the ground as part of weapons testing program during the Cold War. Once the Soviets abandoned the site in the early 1990s, scavengers set in to dig up and collect the copper wiring that had been used as part of the experiments. Kazakh nuclear scientists realized that an imminent catastrophe was on their hands when radioactive copper began to show up on metal black markets in China; it implied that the diggers were getting closer, or had already begun harvesting the nuclear material. They immediately reached out to a team of scientists and engineers from Russia and the United States, who began working on a 16 year, $150 million project to secure the material. The team delicately worked with political authorities in Russia and Kazakhstan, eschewed the International Atomic Energy Agency, and conducted astute international diplomacy to ensure that dangerous material did not end up in the wrong hands. This past week, the Pentagon announced possible plans to expand its program to detect foreign nuclear tests. Even with the possibility of rocket tests from Pyongyang in the near future, it was the hidden nukes in Kazakhstan that were causing problems for officials for over a decade.

Risk and Returns: The Economic Illogic of the Obama Administration's Arms Export Reforms

William D. Hartung
Center for International Policy

Dominating the debate in Washington this week was whether or not aid to Egypt should be frozen because of the recent military coup lead by the country’s defense minister and interim leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi. Egypt receives $1.3 billion in annual military assistance from the United States, including F-16 fighter jets and other armaments. Beyond just what is shipped to Cairo, U.S. defense companies manufacture billions of dollars of equipment—ranging from the advanced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, to submachine guns—to allies and other countries as part of a broader international defense and security market. The problem may be that the Obama administration’s willingness to relax arms export controls could compromise national security interests and human rights norms by allowing weapons to end up with dictators and unfriendly regimes, according to William Hartung of the Center for International Policy. He says that the Obama administration, under the pretense of increasing arms exports and domestic manufacturing jobs, may be allowing the wrong people to buy U.S. made defense technology. Many oppressive regimes in the past have purchased, and continue to buy key weapons systems through Pentagon run programs. Hartung argues that Congress should scrutinize the initiative, and ensure adequate oversight to prevent weapons from ending up with governments that may misuse it. 

Agenda for change: strategic choices for the next government
Peter Jennings, Mark Thomson, Andrew Davies, Anthony Bergin, Russell Trood, Ryan Stokes
Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Over the next week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is travelling to South East Asia to meet with his counterparts from ASEAN countries to discuss the future of security in the region. A major part of the Pentagon’s major “Pivot to Asia” includes a bigger partnership with Australia, where thousands of personnel will be stationed as part of an ongoing security agreement. Researchers at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute outline the major foreign and defense policy challenges facing the Australian government. In a series of papers, the scholars discuss many of the concerns threatening Australia’s national security, including the rise of an increasingly multipolar world and cyber threats, all of this in the midst of a tighter budget environment. Many of the challenges mirror those faced by the Pentagon, and the authors draw links to their counterparts in Washington. And though the two nations have many long-standing security and intelligence agreements in place, the researchers propose new ideas to rejuvenate the U.S-Australia relationship in a time of shifting global power structures.