In This Issue
Engineering & Foreign Policy
June 1, 2004 Volume 34 Issue 2

Japanese-American Collorative Efforts to Counter Terrorism

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Lewis M. Branscomb

The author makes a case for bilateral counterterrorism projects.

Terrorism is a very old threat to established societies, most frequently from groups with political agendas (such as the IRA) or individuals with idiosyncratic motives for violence against the societies in which they live (such as Timothy McVeigh). No nation is immune. Even stable, homogeneous societies, such as Japan, are vulnerable. The religious sect Aum Shinrikyo made small quantities of a number of biological agents and carried out a successful attack on people in the Tokyo subway. The group also carried out marginally successful attacks on the Diet and the Crown Prince’s wedding with botulin toxin and attempted an anthrax attack on the streets of Tokyo (Olson, 1999). With a reputed $1.5 billion in assets, the sect was rumored to have attempted to purchase nuclear weapons materials.

Two recent events have heightened Japan’s awareness that it might be targeted by Al Qaeda. First was the threat, thought to come from Al Qaeda, of terror attacks if Japan sent troops to Iraq (as she has now done). The threat became manifest with the taking of three hostages (since released) by insurgents. Second, the attack on the trains in Madrid, attributed to Al Qaeda, reinforced the reality of terrorist threats against U.S. allies.

Motives for Cooperation
Japan and the United States face similar threats, and a strong case can be made that they have a mutual interest in collaborating to reduce their vulnerabilities:

  • Both nations have sophisticated technical capabilities that might be used to reduce their vulnerabilities.
  • The economies of Japan and the United States, as well as their research and innovation systems, are closely linked.
  • The terrorist targets in the two countries are similar:
    - symbols of nationhood
    - large aggregations of people in confined spaces
    - even larger numbers of people widely distributed
    - control systems for critical infrastructure
    - the capability of responding effectively to attacks

  • The highly efficient industrial and service economies of both nations continue to create new vulnerabilities.

    In general, a strong argument can be made for multilateral efforts among the major democratic states to use technology to counter terrorism. The new brand of terrorism arises from transnational networks of linked terrorist groups that can launch cyberattacks on any nation from remote locations, can contaminate food in international trade, and can ship weapons (including nuclear weapons and nuclear material) into target states via international commerce. Ships, aircraft, trains, and trucks are themselves transnational targets. Thus, on the consequence side of the ledger, the economies of target societies are strongly linked. At the very least, for both fairness and efficiency, border control procedures, such as biometrics, require the collaborative development of standards to ensure that passports and other documents are effective in all cooperating nations.
Advantages of the Terrorists
Despite their small numbers, terrorists have some important advantages. First, their actions are largely unpredictable because their objectives, at least in the case of ideological terrorists such as Al Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo, are largely idiosyncratic and obscure.1 Second, we must assume that some of their number reside covertly in the societies they plan to attack.2 Third, terrorists appear to be very patient. They decide when they will strike. As a result, defenders against terrorism must be alert at all times, despite the apparent absence of terrorist activity.

Finally, terrorists may have international bases of operations and may even enjoy the sponsorship and assistance of a sympathetic or rogue state. The combination of stateless terrorists who can infiltrate target societies supported by the resources of an irresponsible but technically competent foreign government is particularly dangerous. The U.S. government identified the Taliban government of Afghanistan as such a state, and the Bush administration was concerned that the Baathist government of Iraq might also be such a state (although no credible evidence has emerged that Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the September 11 attack).3

Advantages of Industrial Societies
Modern industrial societies have some offsetting advantages, provided that they adopt a multilateral counterterrorism strategy. Global intelligence services and military presence, especially when societies cooperate with one another, may keep terror networks off balance and may be able to damage some of them and interfere with their communications and money flows. Military action, or the threat of it, may discourage rogue states from supporting them.

Both Japan and the United States have preeminent capabilities in science and technology, both military (in the United States) and commercial high-tech (in both countries). Through the application of available or new technologies, internal targets can be made less vulnerable, and thus less attractive. New technologies can also limit the damage from an attack, increase the speed of recovery, and provide forensic tools to identify the perpetrators. However, terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda are led by well educated and well financed people who may also have advanced technical skills. If they were supported by a government whose military establishment has developed weapons of mass destruction, these skills could be greatly amplified. Any technical strategy for responding to the threat of catastrophic terrorism must be configured to address this possibility.

Thus, there is an obvious incentive for collaboration in science and technology for countering terrorism. A dialogue between the United States and Japan is under way to explore how collaboration might be improved. On February 12 and 13, 2004, a bilateral conference was held in Tokyo to explore possible collaborative activities by agencies of the two governments to use science and technology to counter terrorism. The U.S. contingent was led by Dr. George Atkinson, science advisor to the secretary of state; a delegation from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate, headed by Dr. Penrose (Parney) Albright, also participated. The Japanese contingent was led by officials of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), representatives of the police, and Professor Kyoshi Kurokawa, chair of the Japan Science Council (Branscomb, 2004). A memorandum summarizing the working arrangements agreed to in that session is now being negotiated.

U.S. and Japanese Views of Safety and Security
The most striking contrast between the U.S. and Japanese positions was the difference in emphasis on preparations for and responses to unintentional (i.e., natural or accidental) disasters and failures from poor system design of critical infrastructure systems versus intentional (or terrorist) disasters. The U.S. view is based on the political image of "war on terrorism" and the sense that the American public expects counterterrorism to be the first priority on the administration’s agenda. The Japanese, however, derive their agenda, which they call "safety and security," from two critical features of Japanese experience: (1) the frequency of devastating earthquakes, typhoons, and tsunamis; and (2) a constitutional commitment not to prepare for or engage in warfare. Thus, the Japanese consider preparations for high-consequence terrorism an extension of their "normal" civil duty of preparing for natural and accidental disasters. From the American point of view, preparations for the normal duties of providing safety and security are by-products of DHS’s counterterrorism role.4

These contrasting views can be brought together. First, from the Japanese perspective, the threat of terrorism has, as discussed above, become real and apparent to the public. Thus, the major science and technology agency, MEXT, has a new, high-priority mission to research and develop systems for reducing vulnerabilities to terrorism and improving responses to terrorist acts.

Second, the technologies for counterterrorism have some attributes in common with military systems (e.g., high-technology, complex systems environment, markets created by public policy, et al.). Because the safety and security of the civil population (threatened by terrorists) is a civil, not a military, responsibility, this may be an area in which Japanese and U.S. contractors and agencies can do business without running afoul of constraints against Japanese military sales to the United States. Finally, by pursuing the counterterrorism science and technology program through a civil agency (MEXT), which has more benign, civil missions, the program may have more sustainability.

From the U.S. perspective, an argument can be made that the Japanese approach is right for America, too. Because terrorist threats are expected to persist for decades, there are serious questions about the sustainability of U.S. investments in counterterrorism science and technology (Branscomb, 2004). A case can be made that, as long as both countries have conspicuous vulnerabilities that can be attacked by terrorists with very serious consequences, there will be individuals and groups eager to exploit those vulnerabilities. Even when Al Qaeda fades from the scene, other groups may be eager to exploit the extreme asymmetry inherent in the terrorist threat to economically advanced societies.

Americans may tire of incessant color-coded warnings in the absence of serious attacks on the homeland; they may resist the huge budgets of the counterterrorism effort. The captains of critical infrastructure industry may continue to resist the massive capital expenditures required to reduce their exposure to attack to a tolerable level. And, if it appears that Al Qaeda and affili-ated groups have disbanded or become quiescent, the public may not believe the threat is still credible. Thus, presenting the U.S. strategy as a quest for safety and security may help to make the long-term effort sustainable. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and massive forest fires will not go away. Failures in our increasingly complex infrastructure will probably become more frequent with more serious consequences.

Thus, I believe the United States can learn a lot from the Japanese approach to characterizing the job ahead. If the goal of the search is for a dual-benefit5 strategy that reduces the cost to the economy and reduces the failure rate of our infrastructure, the incremental added cost of reducing the vulnerabilities specific to terrorism can be greatly reduced.

Ecological Economics6

Vulnerabilities Created by Efficiency
The vulnerabilities of modern industrial societies result not only from the possible escape of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) from government control, but also from the possible uses of commercial and industrial products as weapons. A source of even greater vulnerability, however, is the very efficiency of competitive economic systems. The competitive drive for commercial efficiency creates linkages and vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure industries - energy, transportation, communications, food production and distribution, public health, and financial transactions. Industrial efficiency may compromise an industry’s resilience to catastrophic terrorism in several ways:
  • Single point failures in industries in which costs of equipment (e.g., ultrahigh-voltage transformers in electric power distribution systems) are high and the risks from small, more frequent events are low. This equipment is operated without redundant backup.
  • Excessive concentration to increase economies of scale. For example, chicken processing and distribution are concentrated in a handful of large firms. Fuel and passengers are concentrated in large commercial air transports.
  • Coupling of critical infrastructure systems to leverage economies of scope. For example, transportation safety depends on the availability of electric power and secure computer networks.
Thus, a competitive economy creates vulnerabilities that can only be reduced through government policy and industry cooperation (Branscomb, 1997). The President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) estimates that 85 percent of U.S. infrastructure systems are owned and run by private firms, not government. To pay for reducing these vulnerabilities, industry would have to make public-goods investments with no reliable means of evaluating risk and thus justifying the expense.

Dual-Benefit Strategy
In a limited number of cases, firms may be able to devise protective strategies that also reduce costs or improve products or services so that the total cost is minimized, or even negative. The way many firms responded to the Y2K threat offers some hope for this option. A dual-benefit strategy would have several advantages:
  • It would increase the likelihood that industry would invest in hardening critical infrastructure.
  • It would encourage a more sustainable public commitment to and tolerance for the costs and inconveniences of national efforts to counter terrorist threats.
  • It would integrate homeland security research and development and engineering to ensure a high-quality, national effort.
Because most terrorist targets and many of the weapons are embedded in the civil economy, security issues cannot be neatly separated from other issues. A strategy for gradually restructuring physical facilities, production processes, means of distributing food, and the like will have to reflect a balance of public-good investments, for which government will have to take the initiative, and commercial investments aimed at competitive success. The political economies of the United States and Japan are not designed to make this marriage of conflicting interests and responsibilities easy; European nations are more accustomed to balancing the public good and competitiveness in their economies. However ideologically distasteful the phrase, at least to Americans, both the United States and Japan will need a counterterrorism industrial policy.

There are many examples of civilian benefits in the United States that might result from a dual-benefits strategy:
  • revitalization of the Public Health Service to meet the normal health needs of communities
  • technical capability of responding even faster and more effectively to natural biological threats, such as SARS, the West Nile virus, and the monkey pox virus
  • decrease in the number of illnesses caused by infection from the food supply
  • more reliable electric power and other services, especially in the event of hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes
  • improvements in the safety standards of the chem-ical industry
  • fewer cyberattacks by hackers and financial systems that are more secure against theft and malicious damage
  • more efficient and timely tracking of goods in transit and billing for their content
  • a lower risk to fire, police, and emergency health professionals
A similar list could be constructed for Japan.

U.S.-Japan Cooperative Strategies
Bilateral cooperation includes exchanging information, experience, strategies, and tactics and identifying opportunities and gaps in each nation’s strategy. Observing each other’s system tests and evaluations might benefit both countries.

A comparison of preparations for high-consequence disasters in very large cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, with preparations in Tokyo and Osaka could be instructive. U.S. thinking does not traditionally include a city as critical infrastructure, yet the complexity and interdependence of critical services in a city creates an environment in which predicting consequences and providing emergency management are especially difficult. Other useful comparisons would be of first responder operations, communications, special equipment, and tactics.

Areas for cooperative research include the application of complex systems-engineering methods to determine both vulnerabilities and alternative tactics for response and recovery. Research could also focus on industry technologies and standards for products in international trade that could be used to deliver weapons (e.g., food products and pharmaceuticals). Another fruitful area for collaborative research is common strategies for protecting engineering and science systems, especially computer communications networks that are international by nature.

Exchanges of information and student and postdoctoral exchanges in areas of basic science and basic engineering could make the task of counterterrorism easier. Examples range from using very large sensor networks to produce actionable information, to inventing biomaterial detectors for explosives, to mimicking the olfactory capability of dogs. The joint development of standards for all technologies, such as biosensors for border control, require agreed-upon, compatible hardware and software interfaces.

Role of Engineering
Systems engineering skills are crucial for collaboration. The limitations of human performance are even more severe in homeland security than in military operations. The variety of circumstances under which attacks might occur, uncertainties about how sensor systems will respond to new circumstances, and above all, the need for data interpretation that results in credible information for emergency decisions will all stress systems designs and analysis. A cyberattack coupled with more conventional attacks would make getting "actionable" intelligence much more difficult. American expertise in systems engineering and human-factors design could be coupled with Japanese skills in rapid prototyping and fast learning and redesign to address these problems.

The engineering challenges posed by technical complexities are even more difficult because of the sensitivity of systems design to cost, which is a more sensitive issue in homeland security than in military technology for three reasons: (1) the need to prepare for a huge variety of potential targets and weapons; (2) the expectation that private firms in cities and critical infrastructure will pay to reduce vulnerabilities and improve response; and (3) the dependence on a civil department (DHS in the United States and MEXT in Japan) to cover much of the development costs. Unlike American defense industries, Japanese defense industries are firms with primary businesses in civil markets; thus, they have experience in dual-benefit design and manufacturing that could be very helpful.

Finally, engineering inventions are badly needed in many areas to convert some promising scientific principles into workable devices and systems. In the past, there has been no market in homeland security, and commercial markets are likely to be weak in the future. Thus, although national expenditures in science will surely lead to ideas applicable to homeland security, there will be a great need for engineering invention, prototyping, development, and innovation.

Next Steps
At the discussions in Tokyo, the participants agreed that the U.S.-Japan Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement is an appropriate framework for a variety of collaborative projects. This agreement expires in the summer of 2004 and must be renegotiated, but there seems little doubt that both sides wish to see it extended. Within that framework, a variety of joint project agreements between government agencies with like missions can be defined. In addition, discussions have begun on a framework for encouraging and coordinating an academic and basic research component of the program. The Science Council of Japan and the U.S. National Academies have been suggested as possible partners in that effort.

Branscomb, L.M. 1997. Confessions of a Technophile. New York: Springer-Verlag.
Branscomb, L.M. 2004. Protecting civil society from terrorism: the search for a sustainable strategy. Technology in Society, in press.
Olson, K.B. 1999. Aum Shinrikyo: once and future threat? Emerging Infectious Diseases 5(4): 513-516. Also available online at <> .
Holton, G. 2002. Reflections on Modern Terrorism. Available online at < html>.

1. Politically motivated terrorists, such as the Irish Republican Army, may have a specific goal that, if achieved, might bring an end to attacks. One can imagine an attempt to negotiate an end to their terrorism. This is not the case for Al Qaeda, which carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
2. There may, of course, also be domestic terrorists, citizens of the target society motivated by ideologies that are local in nature, such as the attack on the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, which was related to the government handling of the Branch Dividian sect in Waco, Texas.
3. Gerald Holton anticipated just such a combination, individual terrorists supported by a rogue government, in a paper presented at a terrorism conference at the Hoover Institution in 1976 and published at that time in Terrorism, an International Journal. He called this threat Type III terrorism (Holton, 2002).
4. The roughly 50 agencies that comprise DHS continue to be responsible for their "normal," pre-September 11 duties. Thus, DHS is truly a "dual-benefit" agency, as are MEXT and other emergency support agencies in Japan.
5. The phrase "dual-benefit strategy" was suggested by Ruth A. David, CEO of ANSER Corporation.
6. This section is taken from Branscomb, 2004.
About the Author:Lewis M. Branscomb is Professor Emeritus, Public Policy and Corporate Management at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.