The Complex

The Mysterious Disappearance of @NatSecWonk and Why We'll Remember Him or Her

Update 10/23/13: @NatSecWonk has been revealed to be a White House staffer on the verge of a leading job at the Pentagon. He has now been fired for his tweets, and is under investigation for possible security breaches. 

@NatSecWonk, the indomitably -- and, in some circles, infamously -- snarky Twitter voice on all things national security, has disappeared from the Twitterverse.

The eponymously named @NatSecWonk handle -- the mask for an anonymous individual who challenged the Twitterati with his or her views about policy, operations, and politics -- was abandoned within the last several days. Searches came up empty starting late last week: "Sorry, we couldn't retrieve user," came the response from TweetDeck. There was no reason given for the demise of NatSecWonk, who sniped at government officials and reporters -- and even complained about typos in think-tank event notices. Some might say the demise was premature. Others were happy to see him or her go.

One official, who insisted on anonymity if he could be described as "NatSecFlak" said NatSecWonk would not be missed. This official described NatSecWonk as one might talk about an abusive parent who had finally met a sorry end.

"NatSecWonk was an acerbic Twitter pundit that relished taking anonymous shots at senior leaders who are doing their very best for this country," NatSecFlak told Foreign Policy in an email. "The rants seemed pathological and personal. I hope whoever was behind the feed will get better soon. Their hate, rebranded as 'snark,' will not be missed."

NatSecWonk described him/herself as someone who "unapologetically says what everyone else only thinks. A keen observer of the foreign policy and national security scene. I'm abrasive and bring the snark." Like a sniper in his hide, NatSecWonk delivered blows from his or her darkened perch. Anyone in the media, government, or think-tank world was fair game. But within the Beltway, NatSecWonk was considered a valuable source of information. This summer, for example, the Atlantic's Steve Clemons wrote that he called the White House about President Barack Obama's approach to the G-20 summit based on a NatSecWonk tweet. And if NatSecWonk liked what he or she saw, it was considered high praise.

But it was the snark for which NatSecWonk was known. Proud of the fact that s/he wrote only what others were thinking but wouldn't say, he or she enjoyed every opportunity to point out a mistake in a story, a mark missed, or a display of what to him or her was sheer idiocy. "That Obama only called Kerry/Hagel AFTER he made decision with his WH aides on going to Hill underscores how all foreign policy is WH-based," NatSecWonk tweeted after Obama opted to ask Congress for authorization for military force in Syria.

Other tweets were more personal -- and brutal. "Geez, can't Doug Frantz stay in a job longer than two years at a time?" NatSecWonk tweeted after Frantz, a former journalist-turned-Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer-turned-journalist accepted yet a new job at the State Department. After an op-ed by White House strategic communications director Ben Rhodes ran in USA Today, NatSecWonk did a drive-by on Rhodes: "For today's USA Today op-ed, Tony Blinken wasn't available? Bill Burns? Jim Miller? All far better choices than @rhodes44." And another: "I love how @richardhaass talks a big game when he accomplished zilch as Colin Powell's feckless and overwhelmed Policy Planning chief." And then, summing up staffing issues within Obama's second term: "Growing problem for the Administration -- too many 1st term holdovers not getting the hint that it's time to move on and get the fuck out."

Other times s/he could be downright nasty. After former high-level officials at the State Department and Pentagon created Beacon Global Strategies, a consulting group, and hired Michael Allen, the former staff director for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, NatSecWonk posted: "Yo bitches, I called this back in April. Give credit where credit is due, but I missed blonde bimbo J. Michael Allen."

And NatSecWonk seemed to disdain the self-promotional culture that is today's journalism, berating Glenn Thrush at Politico at one point for posting his stories on social media. Another time he or she smacked the New Republic's Noam Scheiber: "Enough with the RTs of praise!" to which Scheiber, apparently shamed, replied: "I deserve that."

But no irony, no spelling mistake, no incorrect military or diplomacy reference went unnoticed.

The social media writer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wrote sheepishly after being called out for what appeared to be a typo: "@NatSecWonk And to think we were deliberating btwn "peek at" vs. "peek of". We noticed just after sending. Thx for keeping us on our toes," the social media guru at CSIS RTed. And another Tweet, after an event at Brookings: "Anyone else notice the irony of @BrookingsInst holding a roundtable this weekend on Global Poverty in Aspen, CO? Good grief."

But NatSecWonk seemed more than just an observer of foreign affairs and national security policy in Washington. After the Pentagon's No. 2, Ash Carter, the deputy secretary of defense, announced he was leaving, speculation quickly leapt to whether Michèle Flournoy, the Pentagon's former policy chief, would replace Carter come Dec. 4, when he leaves. But NatSecWonk didn't like that rumor and hinted at the insidery-ness that was his or her signature. "Everyone, just stop with the stupid speculation on Flournoy or even worse, a Senator, for Carter's job. So ill-informed."

After the furloughs from the government shutdown began Oct. 1 and someone noted the high number of federal workers drinking on 14th Street in Washington, @NatSecWonk RTed: "Are there droves of overweight men in short sleeved shirts?"

But he or she could clearly touch a nerve. FP's own David Rothkopf replied to a snarky tweet thusly: "Oy vey. It's late at night (for me) and I'm tweeting in the back seat of a car. Cut me some slack."

At one point, the Daily Beast's Eli Lake, sounding frustrated with @NatSecWonk's anonymous swipes, tweeted simply: "@NatSecWonk these tweets would be funnier if you used your own name."

Indeed armchair tweeters occasionally thought out loud about who was behind the handle, which indicated it was someone with institutional knowledge of the State Department but with a solid grounding in Defense Department affairs. Or was it the other way around?

"Only thing I'd note is that it always seemed pretty clear it wasn't someone at DOD -- they didn't use Pentagon acronyms or jargon," one defense official told FP.

But now @NatSecWonk is gone. And s/he make take the secret of the Wonk's identity to the digital grave -- unless of course he or she sees something in a story about him or her that makes him or her rise from that digital grave. Perhaps it's just a Halloween prank.

Tim Denison

The Complex

The Navy Is Building a Stealth Battleship Strike Force

The Navy's newest warships are hard to detect on radar, heavily armed with super-accurate guns and missiles ... and gigantic. Six hundred feet long and displacing 15,000 tons of water, the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class ships are designated as destroyers but are actually as big as some World War I battleships.

The lead ship in the class is slated to launch any day now -- a milestone briefly delayed by the recent government shutdown. The Navy is building three of the Zumwalts over the next five years and deploying them to the Pacific to counter China's fast-improving military.

That's assuming the $7-billion-apiece Zumwalts don't simply capsize the first time a powerful wave strikes them from behind. The high-tech battleships feature a novel, downward-sloping "tumblehome" hull that's optimized for stealth not stability -- and lacks the wave-resisting qualities of traditional ships with upward-flaring hulls.

"On the DDG-1000, with the waves coming at you from behind, when a ship pitches down, it can lose transverse stability as the stern comes out of the water-and basically roll over," naval architect Ken Brower told Defense News.

Even if they don't sink in heavy seas, the Zumwalts are controversial vessels. Besides being by far the biggest and most expensive surface combatants in memory, the Zumwalts are actually inferior to older, smaller ships in certain key stats, in particular radar performance and missile capacity.

But what they lack in weapons and sensors, the new battleships make up for with other enhancements, including space for their own robotic air forces plus massive electrical output that, in the near future, could support powerful laser weapons.


Navy art

Warship fantasy

The Zumwalts began as a 1990s naval fantasy. The sailing branch wanted to revamp its entire fleet of 100 frigates, destroyers and cruisers with a single basic design that could avoid radar detection, carry new sensors and weapons and be operated by a greatly reduced crew. The stealth design would be scaled upward or downward to replace 10,000-ton cruisers and destroyers and 4,000-ton frigates.

As with other military techno-fantasies of the ‘90s, the 21st-Century Surface Combatant initiative collapsed under the weight of its mounting cost and complexity. All that survives at present are a couple dozen small Littoral Combat Ships currently under construction plus the three Zumwalts. To keep its surface fleet numbers up, the Navy has decided to keep building the same Arleigh Burke-class destroyers it has been buying since the late 1980s.

So few in number, the Zumwalts will be niche, practically experimental vessels -- albeit with potentially powerful combat abilities. "What a tremendous ship!" Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, the Navy's top shipbuilder, crowed to Defense Media Network. He described the Zumwalt class as "unique because it incorporates several innovative technologies into a multi-mission warship, including integrated power distribution, signature reduction, active and passive self-defense systems and enhanced survivability features."


Wheeling out DDG-1000's deckhouse. Huntington Ingalls Industries photo

Building the battleships

In addition to the hard-to-detect tumblehome hull, the Zumwalts have smooth, angular superstructures that, in two of the three vessels, are made of composites instead of steel, further enhancing their stealth qualities. To save money, the Navy decided recently that the third and final Zumwalt will have a steel deckhouse made in Maine.

Huntington Ingalls Industries makes the 1,000-ton composite superstructure deckhouses in a special facility in Gulfport, Mississippi and ships them by barge to Bath Iron Works in Maine, where the ships are assembled and where they will be launched, one every couple of years starting later this year.

Rather than packing the vertical-launch missile cells into tight groupings fore and aft, as is typical, the Zumwalts carry their missile cells along the edge of the hull, effectively adding heft to their outside lines that can insulate them against enemy strikes.

But the unique layout decreases the overall missile arsenal from 96 large munitions in an Arleigh Burke to just 80 in a Zumwalt. Granted, the Sea Sparrow short-range self-defense missile comes in four-packs that fit inside a standard launch cell, so in theory a Zumwalt could carry 320 Sea Sparrows.

But in practice the vessels will carry a mix of munitions including larger, one-per-cell SM-2 long-range air-defense missiles. In a divisive move, the Navy has opted not to give the new battleships the radar enhancement for deploying all the SM-2's modes, in particular its ability to hit incoming ballistic missiles.

Cost is one reason. The other reason is that the Zumwalts are primarily bombardment ships meant for sneaking up on and smashing targets on land. And for that they will carry scores of Tomahawk cruise missiles plus other high-tech weapons.

Scale models of an Arleigh Burke and a Zumwalt by Modeled Horizons, showing their relative sizes. Modeled Horizons photo

Reaching out

Each Zumwalt comes equipped with two 155-millimeter cannons made by BAE Systems and installed forward of the deckhouse in "holsters" that help them avoid radar detection. The guns are fed by automatic ammo systems that can deliver a 225-pound shell to each gun every six seconds until the 600-round magazine is depleted.

Boosted by rockets in their bottoms and steered by small fins, the shells can fly 62 miles to precisely hit GPS coordinates. But it's the possible future weapons that have the Navy really excited -- and that's got everything to do with the battleships' electrical power generation.

"It has the power margin," Rowden said. "It's an electric drive-ship, and the power generation capability it has is huge." At cruising speed, the Zumwalts produce 58 megawatts of excess power for weapons, sensors and other gear.

That electricity could power a laser gun. In 2010 Boeing completed initial design work on the so-called "Free Electron Laser Weapon System," a weapons-grade light beam. "The Free Electron Laser will use a ship's electrical power to create, in effect, unlimited ammunition and provide the ultra-precise, speed-of-light capability required to defend U.S. naval forces against emerging threats, such as hyper-velocity cruise missiles," Boeing veep Gary Fitzmire said.

An officer in the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment told War is Boring that the Zumwalts would be perfect test platforms for the laser.

Navy concept art

Pacific Showdown

Based in San Diego starting in 2014, the Zumwalts will reinforce the Navy's Pacific Fleet as it stands up to an increasingly aggressive and well-armed China. Rowden said the battleships could sail alone, in groups with other surface ships or alongside aircraft carriers.

In America's ongoing campaign against Islamic terrorists or, God forbid, in some future shooting war with China, the Zumwalts could send Navy SEALs ashore by small boat or by one of the two Seahawk helicopters each carries. With their 11,000-square foot flight decks, the vessels can also support up to three Fire Scout drone helicopters for recon missions.

The commandos and drones could spot the targets and the Zumwalts could hit them with missiles and guns -- and then fire missiles and possibly lasers to defend themselves from counter-attack.

But if a big wave hits from behind -- watch out. Even a $7-billion stealth battleship has weaknesses. The Zumwalts' most dangerous enemy could be the sea itself.

First published on Medium.com's War Is Boring collection.

Bath Iron Works