Thursday, January 31, 2008

Embassies of the Future

Consul at Arms pointed out that The Skeptical Bureaucrat has an interesting piece on Embassies of the Future.

I was particularly interested in this part:

"First, the new EOTF makes a big point about the operational necessity of locating new embassy office buildings in highly accessible central downtown sites, rather than on the edges of cities (where they tend to be located now). That's fair enough. But the panel seemed to assume that security requirements for setback distance are the main reason why we have usually picked remote locations; therefore, the argument goes, if the security folks would only accept a little more risk we could have our new embassies downtown. Actually, setback requirements are only part of the reason new embassies tend to be located far from downtown. The Office of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has determined that they need a minimum site size of 10 acres - and more than that for a large embassy - in order to have a functional compound with all the supporting infrastructure (warehouse, motor pool, utility structures, parking, etc.) that new embassies require. The security requirement for setback between a new office building and the street is only 30 meters, and that could be met with a site far smaller than 10 acres. Indeed, we have some existing embassies on sites of less than 3 acres that nevertheless have full setback. Security considerations contribute to the site selection problem, but only in a minor way.

Have you ever tried to find a suitable and affordable new construction site of at least 10 acres in the central business district of an overseas city? I have, and can testify that it is, most of the time, impossible. Selecting a site is a very picky business. In addition to the size requirement, we also need our site to have particular soil conditions (to ensure the new building won't sink), an unobstructed satellite 'look' (for communications), a lack of certain undesirable neighbors and nearby industrial hazards, a lack of site pollutants that would require environmental remediation (a big issue in many third-world cities), multiple approach routes (to avoid transit choke-points), and to be available for purchase 'in fee simple' or else in consecutive 99-year leases (to prevent any future legal encroachment on the site). If we have all those requirements met, the purchase price of the site must be within the U.S. Government's independent assessment of its fair market value, or else we are precluded from purchasing it. Lastly, even after we purchase it, we can still have the new construction project cancelled due to protests and court/zoning challenges by local groups opposed to having a U.S. embassy in their neighborhood. That last problem can be a big one; in just the past five years, strong protests by influential local citizens twice caused us to lose downtown sites we had selected in Karachi, Pakistan, and almost led to the cancellation of a new construction project in Jerusalem.

Despite the best intentions of all concerned to find a downtown site for new embassies, most of the time it won't be feasible.

Regarding the new EOTF's second big point, the need for risk acceptance vice risk avoidance, I have a mixed reaction. I fully support risk-based decision making and think we need more of it in the embassy arena, especially as a counterweight to the heavily standards-based approach used by the Overseas Security Policy Board [see more on the OSPB here]. However, the new EOTF panel makes the mistake of not appreciating how much risk acceptance has already gone into creating the current embassy security requirements.

Take the issue of blast protection, for example. It is far from a secret that new embassies are constructed to withstand bomb blast; what is something of a secret is exactly how large a blast they are designed to withstand. That design-basis threat explosive charge weight is, in fact, a risk-based requirement, since it was derived from a statistical assessment of probability [you'll have to take my word on that, since I can't cite an open source]. Using historical data on actual VBIEDs, you can determine the likelihood that any future bomb will exceed a certain size. The size data in that sample will range from the tiniest of pipe bombs up to the largest VBIED on record, the 12,000-pound TNT equivalent charge used against the U.S. Marine Battalion Landing Team HQ in Beirut in 1983. With that data, a decision-maker can choose how much risk to accept. For example, he could choose to be protected against a 200-pound bomb, which is about the statistical median size of all VBIED incidents, and be reasonably sure that he would be protected against 50 percent of any future bombs. The OSPB has made its own informed judgment as to how much blast risk to accept in new embassy construction. The specific charge weight they chose isn't important [and it's not 200 pounds]. My point is simply that the new embassy construction process currently does accept risk, even in this critical area."

You can read the whole piece here.

1 comment:

Consul-At-Arms said...

Thanks for the link. I've linked back to you here: