Ohio’s train derailment shows our national security weaknesses
Earlier this month, a threat with potentially grave consequences for the long-term national security of the United States presented itself — and not in the form of a high-altitude balloon.
It was a railroad derailment in East Palestine, Ohio that resulted in a release of vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing substance that emergency crews burned to prevent an explosion. Many organizations, including those responsible for the security and welfare of the citizens of East Palestine, may not have considered this incident a national security issue. But it is and as such it requires a more vigorous response and certainly more attention than the spy balloon or spy balloons.
First, consider that “national security” includes not only the United States’ external defenses, but also the intelligence apparatus that supports its military operations, defense against terrorist attacks, and diplomatic efforts to recruit allies and communicate with potential adversaries. All of these measures and a host of others are what nations do to protect their citizens. And while these actions are generally viewed separately from the things a nation does to promote the prosperity and well-being of its people, they cannot be separated.
National security is about protecting a nation and its people and their well-being. This means that certain aspects of infrastructure and services are so fundamental to this effort – fundamental to the functioning of society – that their continued viability is also viewed as a national security issue.
A secure food supply, for example. Or energy supply, public safety or protection against environmental hazards. But last week, residents of eastern Palestine drank only bottled water; cattle and fish die suddenly; The possible health and environmental consequences, while still unknown, are very likely to be serious.
The rail disaster was not the result of an outside attack, and while the exact reasons for the accident are still being investigated, it’s not hard to imagine that it was a slow-moving, internally-caused disaster of neglected infrastructure, leaner workforce models, and more watered-down Safety requirements – a set of choices in favor of efficiency over safety, all resulting in dangerous cargo being routed through places where people live. The effects of this disaster will no doubt unfold for decades, with unseen contamination already hitting vulnerable people and environments and lingering long after the cleanup crews have left.
Again, this disaster is not unique, but is consistent with many other slow-moving disasters, such as the water crises in Flint, Michigan and in Jackson, Mississippi; or the Deepwater Horizon and Taylor oil spills; or the myriad other unnamed and underreported disasters hitting communities already experiencing high levels of poverty, substance abuse and addiction, and ill health, and a growing risk of major climate shocks and stresses.
But the symptoms of the United States’ degraded infrastructure, as well as its dangerous practices of routing dangerous cargo through population centers, and its understaffed response force also highlight a troubling national security issue — one that would require a major international organization to mobilize a slow and responsive response unsure. If such systems and capabilities are already on the brink of collapse in peacetime, they would likely collapse in time of war, the potential impact of which is likely to be far greater than the information the systems could have gathered in a high-altitude balloon.
This is not to dismiss airspace intrusion, but rather to point out that collective attention may be misplaced. The slow deterioration of infrastructure and disaster relief efforts are less a spectacle than a balloon overflying, but the Ohio train derailment and chemical spill have highlighted just how bizarre such a focus on perceived external national security threats has become. The far greater threat could come from within.
Defense and intelligence services will no doubt adequately assess the threats posed by balloon overflights. It is already known how to reduce the risk that the slow-moving disasters will develop with greater frequency and increasing severity. It requires investment in decaying infrastructure and hiring people to operate and maintain it. It requires stricter safety regulations, a stronger social safety net and adequate public health funding. Again, these are national security issues – ones that can be considerably more immediate than defense against aerial intelligence gathering.
Brad Martin is a senior policy researcher at the nonpartisan nonprofit Rand Corp. and director of the Rand National Security Supply Chain Institute.
Aaron Clark-Ginsberg is a social scientist at Rand and Professor of Policy Analysis at Pardee Rand Graduate School.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2023-02-19/ohio-train-derailment-environmental-threat-infrastructure Ohio’s train derailment shows our national security weaknesses