Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

We forget that deterrence doesn’t need to be nuclear

As a principle and practice, deterrence existed long before nuclear weapons.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The logic of deterrence is irrefutable to most, especially when applied to nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, its effectiveness is questioned by everyone from disarmament activists to revisionist historians ― some of whom maintain that other factors constrained the United States and the U.S.S.R. from attacking each other during the Cold War ― to nuclear-weapons advocates. Among the last are those who assert that deterrence is of little value against a state such as Iran in the event that it were to acquire nuclear weapons. Apocalyptic clerics, they allege, would supposedly martyr their country rather than back down from a nuclear standoff, thus necessitating, at some point, a preemptive strike. Continue reading

Three Stooges

When it comes to nuclear weapons, austerity has a silver lining

Three Stooges

Just because something is embedded doesn’t mean it can’t be excised.

“Omne trium perfectum” goes the Latin saying — “everything which comes in threes is perfect.” Let’s see: the spiritual perfection of the Holy Trinity, the cinematic perfection  of the Three Stooges, and … the nuclear triad. Those dubious that the Three Stooges help prove the rule are advised to reserve the bulk of their doubt for that third leg.

In September the Cato Institute (a year after wresting some measure of independence from key founders the Koch brothers) issued a report written by Benjamin H. Friedman, Christopher A. Preble and Matt Fay titled The End of Overkill? Reassessing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy. Continue reading

Lifton, Robert Jay

Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels” ignores demons that lie dormant

Steven Pinker maintains the world is less violent than ever. Robert Jay Lifton? Not so much.

Robert Jay Lifton. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Robert Jay Lifton. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In this month’s Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (behind a paywall), esteemed atrocity authority Robert Jay Lifton addresses the “emerging school of thought” that “contends that the world is becoming increasingly safe.” For example he singles out Steven Pinker, who, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature (Viking, 2011), maintains that the world is considerably less violent than ever before.

Professor Lifton writes:

The peaceable-world claim is deeply misleading in its failure to confront a revolution in the technology of killing and the increasing capacity for detached slaughter or numbed technological violence.

This author was happy to have his own reservations about that school of thought seconded by someone as esteemed and knowledgeable as Professor Lifton. He elaborates by recalling an interview with a Hiroshima survivor.

I was left with a powerful image: “One plane, one bomb, one city.” That image has deeply influenced my perception of our vulnerability to products of technology that are called weapons, but can more accurately be termed instruments of genocide.”

The author of The Nazi Doctors (Basic Books, 1988) then writes about the numbing processes that are adopted by those who carry out mass killings and concludes:

Drones are the epitome of numbed technological violence, perhaps even a caricature of it in their increasing replacement of human beings.

Viewed from another angle, violence is kinetic energy: action, bodies in – no matter to what end – motion. Its incidence has declined in recent years. (Recall that during World War II, each day an average of over 50,000 people were killed or died from the effects of the war.) But that’s an illusion in an age when, from a remove, our civilian and military leadership are countenancing violence that’s in not a kinetic state, but its opposite: potential energy.

Nuclear weapons, for example, are like a drawn bow, especially when they’re on high alert. Their potential, once realized, would dwarf all the kinetic energy expended in the violence of the past.


Has nuclear disarmament outlived its shelf life?

Between the end of the Cold War and a president perceived as an architect of disarmament, nuclear weapons have lost their status as an “existential threat.”

BantheBombFrom the Partial Test-Ban and nuclear Non-Proliferation treaties through Reykjavík in the eighties to START I in 1991, arms control was beginning to look like it might corral nuclear proliferation by other countries and on our own soil. Instead, institutional blockades have slowed its pace while the nuclear-industrial complex has found a rhythm that it’s capable of keeping up for the long haul.

Worse, those of us advocating for disarmament can’t help but be prone to thoughts that we’re fighting yesterday’s fight. Some of us who advocate disarmament feel as if we’re viewed like figures from others eras who fought for unions, and women’s and civil rights. Those are battles perceived as long since won, however much those three causes remain under assault via attacks, respectively, on collective bargaining, abortion, and voter identification.

Alternately, viewed in today’s context, it’s as if we’re trying to organize our workplace when most of our co-workers, though ill-paid, have bought into the prevailing mood of contempt for unions. Or it’s like we’re trying to introduce a defined benefit plan (pension) into our workplace, when the horse of the defined contribution plan (401[k]) has long since left the barn.

Other reasons beside the slow pace of both arms control and disarmament (for which their advocates can be forgiven if it sometimes makes them feel like relics) are:

1. Much of the public believes that nuclear weapons are under control. We think:

a. The end of the Cold War meant a significant downgrade in the threat level.

b. A disarmament-friendly president is on the case.

c. As existential issues go, it’s been surpassed by an economy that seems increasingly like a house of cards waiting for the first ill wind to blow it down ­­– ­­ which might well result from another issue that seems to be more pressing than nuclear weapons: global warming.

2. Nuclear weapons have been around for 70 years and, aside from their use in World War II for which they were ostensibly intended, none have been used since. Maybe the world is a more rational place than we thought and they’re working as intended in the service of…

3. Deterrence, whose sheer logic is irrefutable to most and thus almost impossible to root out.

Nevertheless, it’s ironic that the hottest weapon in the world (over 180 million degrees plus) can’t crack the “What’s Hot, What’s Not” list of issues. At its peak in the late sixties, the U.S. nuclear arsenal numbered over 30,000 warheads. Its numbers are much reduced, but as of July of this year, according to the Arms Control Center, it still comprises 1,950 deployed strategic (the big ones) weapons and 7,700 undeployed strategic, as well as tactical (so-called battlefield nukes), weapons. Russia’s numbers, meanwhile, stand at 1,800 and 8,500, respectively.

Worse, according to a Ploughshares Fund report in September 2012, over the next decade, “The United States Government is on track to spend approximately $640 billion … on nuclear weapons and related programs [which includes] all costs associated with nuclear weapons production, operation, maintenance, clean up, and defense, as well as the prevention of nuclear proliferation.”

One can be forgiven for suspecting that, like a company downsizing, the United States and Russia have used reducing the numbers as a way to retrench and fortify the industry in perpetuity.

Nukes Are Off Our Radar (Well, Not Literally)

The sketch that follows is bound to make disarmament activists feel even older than they are – and newcomers to the field even more like outliers than they already might. You’ll recall that in July 2012 three members of Transform Now Plowshares broke into the Y12 nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they staged a demonstration. Convicted of damaging a national defense facility, they face up to 20 years in prison when sentenced on September 23. One, Sister Megan Rice, was 82 at the time of the incident and her co-defendants, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, were 63 and 57, respectively.

To the surprise and delight of anti-nukes advocates, the Washington Post pulled out all the stops a week before the trial was concluded with a lushly illustrated feature article. At one point author Dan Zak reported on the three meeting with young members of a progressive Christian group. He describes Sister Megan (as she’s known) “chatting with music student Chris Hickman.”

“I know nothing about the anti-nuclear movement,” Hickman tells her. “I was born in ’92, and it’s kind of an afterthought for my generation.”

True, the nature of the Transform Now Plowshares three action may be representative of an earlier generation of activists. But disarmament activists today can’t help but experience the young man’s comment as a blow to the gut.

Paralleling how nuclear weapons have slid completely off the radar of much of the public today is how they appear to be losing favor in the military. At about the same time as the Transform Now Plowshares trial, Robert Burns of the Associated Press reported:

The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control — and, if necessary, launch — nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized failings, including a remarkably dim review of their unit’s launch skills.

By way of explanation, Bruce Blair, the co-founder of Global Zero and one-time launch control officer, told Burns:

“The nuclear air force is suffering from a deep malaise caused by the declining relevance of their mission since the Cold War’s end over 20 years ago. … Minuteman launch crews have long been marginalized and demoralized by the fact that the Air Force’s culture and fast-track careers revolve around flying planes, not sitting in underground bunkers baby-sitting nuclear-armed missiles.”

In a follow-up article, Burns wrote:

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley … acknowledged in congressional testimony that he worries that talk of further shrinking the nation’s nuclear force is having a “corrosive effect” on his troops. [And] Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said at the same congressional hearing that it’s understandable that young missile officers may be demoralized by the realization that theirs is a shrinking field.

Blair, consulted for this article as well, elaborated on his remarks in the earlier article.

“This dead-end career is not the result of shrinking nuclear arsenals, but rather because the Cold War ended decades ago and because so few senior commander jobs exist within the missile specialty. … Most crews can’t wait to transfer out of missiles into faster-track careers such as space operations, but the Air Force doesn’t make it easy.”

Or as Christopher Ford, now Republican Chief Counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, wrote in 2010:

Already, for instance, it would appear that the gradual [reduction] of the perceived importance of nuclear missions within the U.S. military — and the degree to which nuclear specialties have gone from being considered a badge of elite distinction to a career backwater relative to “real” warfighting or exotic emerging arenas such as outer space and cyberspace — has helped produce a more accident-prone culture in the nuclear components of the U.S. military.

This applies to civilian jobs in the national nuclear laboratories as well. For a Huffington Post piece I wrote in 2011 titled Nuclear Weapons Just Not Sexy Anymore, I quoted chemist Cheryl Rofer of Nuclear Diner about her experience working at Los Alamos National Laboratory:

Per nuclear weapons work… we saw that people in their 30’s were leaving and other people were not accepting positions when offered. From what I have heard — the reasons are: [Los Alamos] has moved from a place of high technology, pushing-edge science, creative thinking and engagement — to compliance [meeting regulatory requirements] and not on performance.

Another individual who worked there and who preferred to remain anonymous offered an additional reason.

When they moved the lab to private contractors they put in place a fee-based performance contract… based upon meeting environmental and safety and security [and] the way [they’re] paid is to have the least amount of mistakes and what is the best way to get the least amount of mistakes — to do the least amount of work.

Though it’s from 2003, this San Francisco Chronicle article brings us full circle back to the young man who spoke with Sister Megan.

Bruce Goodwin [the head of the weapons program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory] admits he often meets with puzzled stares when he tells young people he designs nuclear bombs for a living and tries to recruit promising scientists, as though he had emerged from an outdated science fiction fantasy.

“People will say to us, ‘My God, you still work on nuclear weapons?'” said Goodwin. … “I would say, ‘Yes, we do.’ But it is still a surprise.”

“It has become more difficult over the past 10 years to attract the right people.”

But it’s not just that young officers and designers no longer see nuclear weapons as a promising career choice, the military command is becoming disaffected with their actual utility for “warfighting.” Earlier this year, in the New York Times, David Sanger wrote (emphasis added):

… White House officials are looking at a cut that would take the arsenal of deployed weapons to just above 1,000. [The President] “believes that we can make pretty radical reductions — and save a lot of money — without compromising American security in the second term. And the Joint Chiefs have signed off on that concept.”

The Air Force is actually okay with reducing our nuclear arsenal? In a 2008 article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled “The U.S. Air Force’s indifference toward nuclear weapons” (behind a pay wall), Lawrence Korb explained why he believes the U.S. military “sees this large nuclear stockpile as an albatross around its neck.”

From its creation as a separate service at the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force was first among equals amid the nation’s three military departments and four armed services [due] primarily to its leading role in developing and deploying strategic nuclear weapons. … But with the Soviet Union’s collapse. … Strategic nuclear deterrence was no longer seen as central to U.S. security and the attention and resources of … the air force began to flow toward traditional air missions. Rather than the Bomber Barons, the air force in the post-Cold War era was led by the Fighter Mafia.”

Nukes are just no fun anymore. Why, you can’t even set the damned things off in tests. Besides, now that fighters are, to some extent, being replaced by drones, it only makes sense for the Air Force to be drawn to acquiring weapons such as Prompt Global Strike of which it can make actual use instead of nuclear weapons, which just stand around looking scary. In 2012 at Global Security Newswire, Elaine Grossman wrote:

Instances in which the White House might someday order a non-nuclear rapid [Prompt Global] strike could include a sudden move by China toward destroying a U.S. or allied communications satellite by rocket or laser; a North Korean ballistic missile being readied for launch against a neighboring U.S. ally; or a potential adversary’s nuclear warhead observed being mated with a delivery system.

… “For me, all of those are probably important; all of those have a scenario that go with them, that [make] you go, ‘Gee, I wish I had a tool like this,’” said [Gen. James Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff].

Swap “tool” for “toy” and you get a better idea.

Nuclear Weapons Are No Longer the Bogeyman of First Resort

Furthermore, nuclear weapons, seldom featured in films or books anymore as the agent of doom of choice, seem to have lost their power to shock. They were once the theme of a number of board games, from “Nuclear War” to “Nuclear Armageddon” to “First Strike.” But, near as I can tell, not since the British “DEFCON,” released in 2006, have they driven the plot of a video game. Especially telling, nuclear-weapons programs – once replete with terms such as vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and spasm attacks – no longer capture the imaginations of men and boys as expressions of macho and the warrior mentality, or as revenge fantasies.1

You could even make the case that the plague du jour – zombies (a preposterous monster if ever there was one) – have replaced them in the imagination of many of us as the threat du jour. In part, no doubt, that’s because, over the course of the almost 70 years that we’ve been living them, they’ve never been used. As with the little boy who cried wolf, we’ve heard one alarm too many and now tune those sounding them about nuclear weapons out. Also – aside from zombies – death by threats such as EMPs to autonomous drones have become more delicious to ponder.

In fact, what’s actually old are not only nuclear weapons, but the Cold War mentality critical to keeping them lodged in our defense budget where they continue to breed. Far from diverting attention from global warming and the ongoing financial crisis, both issues could be the beneficiaries of a new era of international cooperation that achieving disarmament could herald. Furthermore, we’d be free of fears that nuclear war could be the straw that broke the environment’s back. Also, while some of it will certainly by siphoned off for other defense programs, the rest of the funds saved by eliminating nuclear weapons could be applied to social programs and reducing the national debt.

In other words, rather than turn a deaf ear to disarmament advocates as if they’re old and in the way, recognize that nuclear weapons are for fighting yesterday’s battles with yesterday’s weapons.

1Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals, Carol Cohn, Within and Without: Women, Gender, and Theory. Summer, 1987 (Jstor, behind a paywall).

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.


U.S. tactical nuclear weapons more an irritant than deterrent

Is Pakistan a country that might, as opposed to the United States, actually find tactical nuclear weapons useful?

B61You’ve heard of planned obsolescence — tactical nuclear weapons are a case of deferred obsolescence: a weapon that has long ago worn out its welcome in the U.S. arsenal. On June 6, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Steve Andreasen, a consultant for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, wrote:

Throughout the Cold War, thousands of tactical nuclear weapons — short-range nuclear artillery shells, missiles and bombs — were deployed by the United States to deter the Soviets from exploiting their advantages in Europe to mount a lightning attack. … After the Soviet Union collapsed, President George H. W. Bush ordered the return of almost all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, leaving only a few hundred air-delivered gravity bombs — the B61 — in European bunkers.

… Politically, however, there are still voices that argue that even a bomb with no military utility is “reassuring” to certain allies, and that storing this artifact in European bunkers and maintaining allied aircraft capable of dropping this bomb is a valuable demonstration of NATO “burden sharing.” Moreover, these proponents are prepared to pay — or rather, have the U.S. pay — $10 billion to modernize and store the B61.

But to a state such as Pakistan, tactical nuclear weapons present an exciting new addition to their arsenal for which they may have big plans. At his Foreign Policy blog Best Defense, Tom Ricks interviews Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration. He said that Pakistan is

“… now are looking at tactical nuclear weapons.” [Their fear, Armitage said, is that if there is another Mumbai-like attack, India will respond with a corps-sized attack on Pakistan.] “Tactical nukes is what you’d use against a corps.” [This might provoke India to escalate further.] “But Pakistan would say that its tactical nukes would deter that.” [Brackets are Ricks’s.]

In a recent post titled Would Pakistan Respond to India’s Use of Conventional Weapons With Tactical Nukes?, I excerpted the Times of India’s Indrani Bagchi, who quoted Shyam Saran, the convener of India’s National Security Advisory Board. The latter said that Pakistan (according to Indian policymakers) hopes, by developing tactical nuclear weapons,

“ … to dissuade India from contemplating conventional punitive retaliation to … cross-border terrorist strikes such as the horrific 26/11 attack on Mumbai. What Pakistan is signalling to India and to the world is that India should not contemplate retaliation even if there is another Mumbai because Pakistan has lowered the threshold of nuclear use to the theatre level. … This is nothing short of nuclear blackmail.”

What Pakistan is “signaling” to me is that it doesn’t want to feel compelled to stay the hand of its Islamist militants, who it’s long viewed as its wild card. (That’s making the generous assumption that the army and/or ISI won’t be complicit in a future militant attack on India.) Instead, Pakistan is making contingency plans for the retaliation from India that it expects. But, is the luxury of keeping militants around worth developing and maintaining tactical nukes to clean up their messes? That’s some skewed calculus.

To give you an example of the problems this created, consider Ricks’s remark “This might provoke India to escalate further.” Saran says (emphasis added):

“India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective. … “A limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms. Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level.”

In other words, not only wouldn’t India be deterred from retaliating by Pakistan’s tactical – once called “battlefield” – nukes, it would retaliate with strategic – your garden-variety, apocalyptic – nukes! This whole business is riddled with opportunities for miscommunication that could result in an all-out nuclear war. In October 2012, George Perkovich explained in a Stimson Center report, about which I posted a month later.

Many worry about Islamist militants acquiring proprietorship of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. But the greater risk, according to Perkovich, is the confusion that India experiences in situations such as when its parliament was attacked in New Delhi in 2001 and during the Mumbai 2008 assault. Thus the nuclear deterrence model, which, according to conventional thinking, worked for the United States and Russia, may not be universally applicable. Why?

Perkovich writes that, “when it comes to … initiating and managing warfare between nuclear-armed states, it is generally assumed that a tight, coherent line of authority” is S.O.P. Otherwise “the implications for deterrence stability are profound.”

For example, if

… India is attacked by [Islamist militants] emanating from Pakistan and with ties to Pakistani intelligence services, [India] naturally infers that such actions represent the intentions and policies of Pakistani authorities. … If Pakistan does not … detain and prosecute the perpetrators … pressure mounts for India to demonstrate through force that it will [retaliate].

Perkovich presents this scenario.

For example, while India could perceive that the terrorist attacks it attributes to Pakistan signal Pakistani aggressiveness, Pakistani leaders [may only have intended the] initial terrorist attacks as a signal that the Pakistani state does not seek a wider conflict but [merely seeks] to press India to make political accommodations, in Kashmir or more broadly.

… This signaling process becomes all the more difficult and precarious if the Pakistani leaders who are presumed to be the authors of Pakistan’s signals and actions deny that the [terrorists] actually do manifest the policies of the state.

In that case …

Indian leaders then face a highly unstable dilemma. They could act as if the initial violence reflects the intentions of Pakistan’s chain of command, and send … signals of retaliatory action according to normal models of deterrence.

But this might only confuse Pakistan. Perkovich explains (emphasis added).

… if Pakistani leaders believe or claim that the perpetrators were not carrying out state policies, and India does escalate, Pakistani leaders will feel that India is the aggressor.

It becomes obvious that not knowing on whose authority an Islamist extremist attack on India was mounted

… produces dangerous confusion and ambiguity that interfere in the management of deterrence. Who is sending signals through violence that is perceived to be emanating from the state and/or its territory? What is being signaled?

In the end

… disunity erodes the rationality on which deterrence is predicated.

Returning to Ms. Bagchi and tactical nukes, she writes that another reason Pakistan developed them is

… to keep its weapons from being confiscated or neutralized by the US, a fear that has grown in the Pakistani establishment in the wake of the operation against Osama bin Laden.

In a recent ebook, historian Agha Humayun Amin, a former major in the Pakistani Tank Corps, confirms this.

The Pakistani military perception right from 2001 was that the USA was a threat for Pakistan’s nuclear program and US arrival in Afghanistan had more to do with Pakistan and less with the Taliban. Therefore the Taliban had to be supported. As long as the Americans were busy with the Taliban, Pakistan or Pakistani nuclear assets were safe.

Or, reports Elaine Grossman for the National Journal (emphasis added):

“When the U.S. says that they are worried about the security [of] Pakistan’s nuclear arms, it means it fears that these might fall in the hands of such elements as the extremist Taliban,” said a commentary published by Pakistan’s Frontier Post in late 2011. “However, when [former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood] Qureshi says so, he means that these are in danger of being whisked away by the U.S. armed forces.”

Update on the B61 from Arms Control Now:

But today (June 27), the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut funding for the B61 by $168 million, or 30 percent below the request, to $369 million.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.


Republicans perpetuate myths to keep Cold War alive

Republicans oppose U.S. cooperation with Russia on NATO missile defense.

MissileDefenseIn a Reuters blog post titled Why Russia won’t deal on NATO missile defense, Yousaf Butt of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies writes that, to “allay Moscow’s concerns, Washington has invited Russia to participate in [a missile defense] system, helping NATO guard against Iran.”

But, reported the Associated Press in May:

Republicans … trying to block Obama administration overtures to Russia on missile defense [are] proposing a measure that would bar the administration from sharing classified missile defense data with Russia.

That would undercut a path that arms control advocates have urged to restart nuclear talks, which have been set back by a missile defense dispute.

Dr. Butt elaborates.

Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio), former chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, and other House Republican leaders have said that if the Obama administration hands over to Moscow technical data on the missile defense interceptors — as the White House has proposed — then this could persuade Moscow that the system is not targeting Russian missiles.

So while the administration has insisted it doesn’t intend to target Russia, the House Armed Services Committee leadership appears nostalgic for the Cold War — and wants to use the system against the Russians. Is it any wonder Moscow remains skeptical?

Let’s backtrack. Missile defense systems, such as the NATO system in which the United States is inviting Russia to take part, are, writes Dr. Butt

… known to have serious technological flaws. … Why would Russia want to cooperate on an expensive system that does not work — especially against a threat from Iran and North Korea, which Russia discounts?

Russia may reject two-thirds of the equation – that Iran and North Korea are threats and that missile defense would even be effective against them – but still finds it convenient to act as if missile defense is directed at Russian ICBMs. Never mind that Russia would become privy to the truth of NATO’s motives if it cooperated.

Please don’t misconstrue this as my approval of missile defense in any way, shape or form. The recent news that an East Coast installation was proposed for Fort Drum – 300 miles from where we live in New York State — brought it home to me. But it seems as if we survived a near-miss.

[A] letter from the leader of the Missile Defense Agency to the Senate Armed Services Committee could be a big roadblock. In it, Vice Admiral James D. Syring writes, “There is no validated military requirement to deploy an East Coast missile defense site.”

Dr. Butt then asks:

If Iran or North Korea could so easily circumvent this vaunted missile defense system, why are the Russians (and Chinese) so up in arms against it?

The answer is simple: Russian and Chinese military planners — like those at the Pentagon — are paid to be paranoid. They must assume the worst-case scenario. Which, in this case, means they must treat a missile system as being highly effective —  even when it isn’t.

Or they treat missile defense as if it might be effective in the future.

Russian and Chinese analysts might also be worried about the potential for a major expansion in defensive missile arsenals; technical changes in the systems (such as nuclear-tipped interceptors); and the diversity and scale of sensor systems that are being brought online to support the system.

Republicans seek to turn Russian paranoia to their advantage by shamelessly perpetuating the myth that missile defense is directed against Russian ICBMs. To refresh your memories, remember, too, that missile defense is notorious for destabilizing nuclear deterrence. (Another disclaimer: optimizing nuclear deterrence is of no concern to me personally.)

By theoretically being able to halt an enemy’s first strike in its tracks, it makes the attacker’s remaining nukes vulnerable to a retaliatory strike by the state that was attacked. In other words, missile defense encourages other nuclear states to build more nuclear weapons and delivery systems. They would compensate for both those that would be shot down by missile defense and those destroyed in a retaliatory attack by the state that was attacked.

Missile defense continues to serve a useful purpose. No, not protecting the United States and Europe. But as the gift that never stops giving to keep the Cold War alive and money flowing into a white elephant as destructive to the economy as it is to our national defense.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

Nuclear missile wing’s “sagging morale” has an upside

Its personnel may be depressed, but at least they’re not launching nuclear weapons.

MinotFollowing up on his story of the17 launch crew members of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., who were removed from active duty, Robert Burns of the Associated Press reports:

Officers with a finger on the trigger of the Air Force’s most powerful nuclear missiles are complaining of a wide array of morale-sapping pressures, according to internal emails obtained by The Associated Press.

… Key themes among the complaints include working under “poor leadership” and being stuck in “dead-end careers” in nuclear weapons, one email said. … The complaints also said there was a need for more experienced missile officers, a less arduous work schedule and “leaders who will listen.”

Taken together, the complaints suggest sagging morale in arguably the most sensitive segment of the American military.

Obviously, in

… the nuclear missile business, morale is not a trivial matter. Mental state is treated as a vital sign — like physical health, criminal record and technical knowhow — that must be monitored to indicate whether an individual is fit to be trusted with weapons of such destructive power.

Revisiting a key reason for “sagging morale”

… the shrinking role and size of the U.S. nuclear force and, consequently, a reduced sense of purpose among launch crews who do 24-hour shifts in control centers buried deep below ground.

Bear in mind, says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists in a quote:

“You can’t take away the fact that the mission they sit and wait for” — to launch a nuclear attack — “is very unlikely to ever happen,”

Catch the implication? Apparently, what the sensitive psyches of “missileers” require to feel needed is the opportunity to start the launch sequence for any or all of the 150 nuclear-armed ICBMs they control at Minot.

In other words, when it comes to their mental health, wouldn’t we rather have missileers “sit in a hole in the Midwest and wait for nothing” (in Kristensen’s words) – no matter how depressed — than be cheerful sociopaths waiting for a chance to light up the world?

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Expand nuclear weapons programs to protect missileers’ tender psyches

Nuclear missile officers’ jobs weigh heavy on them but not for the reasons you’d think.

On May 8 we posted about an article by Robert Burns of the Associated Press, in which he reported that the Air Force removed authority to control – and launch – nuclear missiles from 17 officers of the 91st Missile Wing in Minot, North Dakota after they were given a poor review for a series of mistakes.

In a follow-up piece, Burns asks Is There a Morale Crisis in the US Nuclear Force? He reports:

Inside the missile launch capsules, so called because of their pill-like shape, two officers stand watch, authorized to turn the keys enabled by secret launch codes if the presidential order ever comes. … Publicly, the Air Force insists that its missileers, as they are known within the service, are capable, trustworthy and committed. But Air Force Secretary Michael Donley also acknowledged in congressional testimony that he worries that talk of further shrinking the nation’s nuclear force is having a “corrosive effect” on his troops.

Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said at the same congressional hearing that it’s understandable that young missile officers may be demoralized by the realization that theirs is a shrinking field.

“You say, ‘My goodness, there’s only three (missile wings in the entire Air Force). There’s no opportunity there,'” Welsh said. “That’s actually not the case, but that’s the view when you’re in one of those units.”

While “That’s actually not the case” might be true technically, any opportunity may just be a higher rank and more responsibility in a field that’s, nevertheless, “shrinking.” (Not fast enough to our liking!)

Though it may not be exactly what they mean, one could be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that Secretary Donley and Gen. Welsh are recommending expanding our nuclear-weapons program to prevent missileers from growing discouraged and help them keep their heads in the game.

I know what you’re thinking: would that their jobs oppressed them because the fate of the world lies on whether or not they push a button. (Or toggle a series of switches or whatever.) But, hey, you’ve got to be pretty hard-hearted towards missileers and their sensitive psyches to deprive them of more nukes.

Burns reports on the real reason for their bleak career prospects (emphasis added).

Bruce Blair, a former missile launch officer and now a national security scholar at Princeton University, said Friday that morale has dropped in part because the ICBM mission that originated in 1959, deterring the Soviet Union from attacking the U.S. or Europe, is less compelling than it was generations ago.

“This dead-end career is not the result of shrinking nuclear arsenals, but rather because the Cold War ended decades ago and because so few senior commander jobs exist within the missile specialty,” Blair said. “Most crews can’t wait to transfer out of missiles into faster-track careers such as space operations, but the Air Force doesn’t make it easy.”

While they wait for those transfers, maybe the Air Force can take a cue from “the missile launch capsules, so called because of their pill-like shape” and dole out Prozac to their missileers. It’s a lot cheaper and less risky than expanding our nuclear-weapons program to boost their morale.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

Spirit of boondoggle departs quashed Los Alamos project, finds new one to possess

The construction of an expensive new plutonium pit facility has been abandoned. Will it be replaced a collection of smaller buildings?

Thanks in large part to lawsuits filed by the Los Alamos Study Group, last year the Obama administration halted the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The research for which it was earmarked was  on plutonium pits, which is where the chain reaction of a nuclear weapons occurs. Even if you believe in nuclear weapons, the need for new pits is nonexistent because they’re noted for their longevity.

How difficult it is to discontinue researching and manufacturing plutonium pits is a microcosm for how the nuclear weapons-industrial complex itself endures. In February at Global Security Newswire, Elaine Grossman reported that, without the CMRR-NF, Los Alamos would

… instead permanently parcel out work to an array of smaller buildings. [The] institution’s director said. … “I’m concerned that in the current fiscal crisis, it may no longer be practical to plan and build very large-scale nuclear facilities,” Charles McMillan, who heads the New Mexico research site, said at a three-day conference on nuclear deterrence in Arlington, Va. “A new path forward is needed.”

On May 7, a Los Alamos Study Group [LASG] press release stated:

After more than a year since a halt to new funding was announced for [the CMRR-NF], a few details about the latest plan to construct a large-scale “pit” factory complex have begun to emerge.

Note that McMillan’s use of the phrase “very large-scale nuclear facilities” referred to the two main buildings of the planned CMRR-NF. The complex that LASG refers to is smaller buildings, as Ms. Grossman reported. More from the press release:

It is now clear that the “interim” “plutonium sustainment” plan [in lieu of the CMRR-NF – RW] of last year is but the first part of a much larger, multibillion dollar plan spanning approximately two decades, which could easily exceed CMRR-NF in final scope, cost, and possibly in size.

The new plan aims not just to replace the capabilities once envisioned for … CMRR-NF but also to supplement or replace some the most dangerous and demanding capabilities of LANL’s large main plutonium facility.

This year’s plan is certainly much larger than the … “interim” plan … in pit production capacity, physical scale, environmental disruption, cost, and duration [and] includes everything in the “interim plan” plus construction of underground laboratory and production “modules” connected by “tunnels” to the [large main plutonium facility].

Furthermore, states LASG Director Greg Mello:

“There are as yet no firm mission requirements, no project definition, no total estimated cost, no requested line item, no analysis of alternatives, no environmental impact statement [EIS], and no schedule for this project. Despite these deficiencies, despite wasting $500 M and ten years on the last plan, and despite NNSA’s abysmal management record, the agency now claims that hundreds of millions of dollars must be spent each year, starting right now, to get this ‘non-project project’ going.”

Mello then hints at how difficult it is to put the nail in the coffin of these projects. Like monsters or slashers in horror movies, they have a discouraging habit of rising up like phoenixes just when you think you’ve killed them dead.

“No U.S. warhead requires new pits, so none of this is about maintaining warheads. Pit aging is not even mentioned in the April 8 letter as a driver for this project.”

What purpose would new plutonium pits serve then? From the press release again.

The need for new pit production is tied to these two proposed Life Extension Projects (LEPs), which congressional and administration officials have described to us as, essentially, new warheads:

• A proposed W78/W88 “interoperable” Air Force/Navy warhead for land-based and sea-based missiles. Depending on the design chosen and the size of the “build,” [it] might require pit production.

• The proposed “Long-Range Stand-Off” (LRSO) missile warhead [which] too might require pit production.

The spirit of boondoggle flees the dying host of one project, only to seek out another to possess. We can never truly drive a stake may never be drive into nuclear weapons until the Unholy Trinity of waste, pork, and campaign financing is exorcised from the body politic.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

Would Pakistan respond to India’s use of conventional weapons with nukes?

Theoretically Pakistan is poised to respond to Indian military retaliation for a terrorist strike with tactical nukes.

It’s debatable how much nuclear weapons add to national security. But what’s undeniable is that they add layer upon layer of complexity, sprinkled with convoluted and even counterintuitive thinking (such as how missile defense systems are seen as an offensive act), to national defense. By way of example, on April 30, in the Times of India, Indrani Bagchi, wrote:

India will retaliate massively even if Pakistan uses tactical nuclear weapons against it. [It] will protect its security interests by retaliating to a “smaller” tactical attack in exactly the same manner as it would respond to a “big” strategic attack.

Two questions immediately arise.

1. Why did Pakistan develop tactical nuclear weapons?

2. Why would India respond disproportionately to the use of what’s often referred to as “battlefield” nuclear weapons? (Not to diminish their power or, by any means, condone a state’s possession of them.)

First, we’ll quote Ms. Bagchi, who quotes Shyam Saran, the convener of India’s National Security Advisory Board. Speaking for nuclear-weapons policymakers in New Delhi, Mr. Saran “placed India’s nuclear posture in perspective in the context of recent developments, notably the ‘jihadist edge’ that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability have acquired.” (No, jihadis haven’t – yet anyway – insinuated themselves inside Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons program.)

Answering question one, Saran said that Pakistan hopes (according to Indian policymakers), by developing tactical nuclear weapons,

“ … to dissuade India from contemplating conventional punitive retaliation to … cross-border terrorist strikes such as the horrific 26/11 attack on Mumbai. What Pakistan is signalling to India and to the world is that India should not contemplate retaliation even if there is another Mumbai because Pakistan has lowered the threshold of nuclear use to the theatre level. … This is nothing short of nuclear blackmail.”

You can see how nuclear weapons have the power to cloud men’s minds. Pakistan (if the Indian policymakers are correct) thinks that it can keep India from retaliating to yet another terrorist attack. With the same dearth of commonsense that Pakistan exhibits in the above passage (if true), India then declares that it won’t just retaliate with tactical nukes, but with strategic nuclear weapons.

Never mind that the best way to keep India from retaliating is, obviously, to refrain from attacking. Of course, that beggars the question of whether Pakistan can keep its militants from attacking India (except for when it wants them, too).

Providing an answer to question two, Saran says (emphasis added):

“India will not be the first to use nuclear weapons, but if it is attacked with such weapons, it would engage in nuclear retaliation which will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage on its adversary. The label on a nuclear weapon used for attacking India, strategic or tactical, is irrelevant from the Indian perspective.”

Re what’s emphasized: ever notice how often bravado and black humor intersect? To buttress his argument, Saran claims:

“A limited nuclear war is a contradiction in terms. Any nuclear exchange, once initiated, would swiftly and inexorably escalate to the strategic level.”

In any event, another answer to question one may exist. Ms. Bagchi writes that Pakistan may – also? primarily? – have developed tactical nuclear weapons

… to keep its weapons from being confiscated or neutralized by the US, a fear that has grown in the Pakistani establishment in the wake of the operation against Osama bin Laden.

Western policymakers might be inclined to shoot down this line of thinking as a conspiracy theory. But, as historian Agha Humayun Amin, a former major in the Pakistani Tank Corps, writes in a recent ebook

The Pakistani military perception right from 2001 was that the USA was a threat for Pakistan’s nuclear program and US arrival in Afghanistan had more to do with Pakistan and less with the Taliban. Therefore the Taliban had to be supported. As long as the Americans were busy with the Taliban, Pakistan or Pakistani nuclear assets were safe.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Minot’s launch control fail: Reason #532 why nuclear deterrence is a fragile foundation for peace

To concerns about human error in nuclear launch control add moodiness.

Robert Burns of the Associated Press reports that the Air Force removed authority to control – and launch – nuclear missiles from 17 officers of the 91st Missile Wing in Minot, North Dakota after they were given a poor review for a series of mistakes.

The tip-off to trouble was a March inspection, which earned the equivalent of a “D” grade when tested on its mastery of Minuteman III missile launch operations. … In addition to the 17, possible disciplinary action is pending against one other officer at Minot who investigators found had purposefully broken a missile safety rule in an unspecified act that could have compromised the secret codes that enable the launching of missiles. [Emphasis added.]

Human error when on nuclear launch duty is serious enough. But willfulness only further increases the degree of difficulty of managing nuclear risk.

You could tell it was bad. The deputy commander of the 91st Missile Wing, Burns reports, wrote in an email:

“We are breaking you down, and we will build from the ground up. … It takes real leaders to lead through a crisis and we are, in fact, in a crisis right now.”

He told his subordinates, “You must continue to turn over the rocks and find the rot.”

The deputy commander’s name, by the way, is General Jack D. Ripper, I mean, Lt. Col. Jay Folds. But what exactly turns these officers into slackers? Burns asked Bruce Blair, the co-founder of Global Zero and one-time launch control officer.

“The nuclear air force is suffering from a deep malaise caused by the declining relevance of their mission since the Cold War’s end over 20 years ago. … Minuteman launch crews have long been marginalized and demoralized by the fact that the Air Force’s culture and fast-track careers revolve around flying planes, not sitting in underground bunkers baby-sitting nuclear-armed missiles.”

In other words, they’re sulking. But how can the Air Force maintain a nuclear command without officers who aren’t immune from making mistakes or obsessing over their stalled careers? By replacing them with robots! Hey, “smart,” autonomous drones are starting to seem inevitable. Why not adapt them to nuclear launch control?

Of course, that would be Reason Number 533 Why Nuclear Deterrence Is a Fragile Foundation for Peace.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: ForeignPolicy

Emphasis added: the foreign policy week in pieces

As if Iran Isn’t Noticing

[Philip Coyle of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation] worries that the overall effect of the White House’s about-face on nuclear weapons policy could prove counterproductive. “We don’t want more nuclear weapons in the world,” he says. “We’re asking North Korea to stop its program. We’re asking Iran to stop its program. And in the same breath we’re gutting our nuclear nonproliferation by 15 or 20 percent. That would send a confusing message to the rest of the world.” 

How Obama Learned to Love the Bomb, Erika Eichelberger and Dana Liebelson, Mother Jones

Arms Race Gives Way to Network Race

The fundamental dynamic of the Cold War was an arms race to build nuclear weapons; conflict today is primarily driven by an “organizational race” to build networks. Terrorists, insurgents, and other militants focus on the creation of dispersed cells. … Intelligence, law enforcement, and military organizations strive to network their information flows, the aim being to mine “big data” to illuminate enemy cells, then to use this knowledge to eliminate them. In Boston last week, both aspects of this organizational race were evident – the small cell and big data – and both had their innings.

Small Cells vs. Big Data, John Arquilla, Foreign Policy

NORK: We’re Not Chumps

[North Korea] is well aware of the fate of the “axis of evil”: Iraq was invaded and occupied, and Iran is suffocating under the weight of economic sanctions and facing a possible Israeli or U.S. attack. From North Korea’s point of view, the only thing that Iraq and Iran have in common is that neither of them developed nuclear weapons.

Breaking Out the Bush Playbook on Korea, Conn Hallinan, Foreign Policy in Focus

Nuclear Energy: Just a Few Degrees of Separation From Nuclear Weapons

… the Western approach toward Iran is that it does not make the necessary conceptual distinction between an indirect or latent nuclear capability and a drive to create nuclear weapons. Like other countries that possess a nuclear fuel cycle, such as Japan, Iran today has a latent nuclear capability that is a byproduct of its NPT-based nuclear progress, rather than a deliberate (i.e., illegal and clandestine) proliferation march. The mere suspicion that Iran’s capability will be misused in the future and bring Iran to the weaponization threshold cannot be the basis to deprive a country of its nuclear rights. … the West should focus on … on persuading Iran, through incentives and lack of security threats, to keep its indirect nuclear capability dormant indefinitely.

A proposed endgame for the Iranian nuclear crisis, Kaveh Afrasiabi, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The Word Terrorism Increasingly Applied to Muslims Only

… preconceived notions [hold] that terrorists or “jihadists,” a term often used interchangeably with the word “terrorist,” can only be Muslim. This is also akin to saying that other criminals or terrorists who are of other faiths cannot be true terrorists or that their criminal acts — such as mass shooting in a movie theater, or in a school, or a in a Sikh Temple, where scores of innocent people were massacred — cannot be described as terrorism.

Try Boston Marathon Bomber for His Crimes, Not His Religion or Nationality, Ali Younes, Focal Points

Did It Arrive on Pallets Like in Iraq?

All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the C.I.A. to the office of President Hamid Karzai, according to current and former advisers to the Afghan leader. … Moreover, there is little evidence that the payments bought the influence the C.I.A. sought. Instead, some American officials said, the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords. … “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” one American official said, “was the United States.”

With Bags of Cash, C.I.A. Seeks Influence in Afghanistan, Matthew Rosenberg, the New York Times

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: ForeignPolicy

Emphasis added: the foreign policy week in pieces

CATEGORY: ForeignPolicyIraq’s War for Terrorists Sets up Branch Campus in Syria

Of especially grave concern is the movement into Syria of bomb makers and military tacticians. As Iraq’s jihad was for much of the past decade, Syria’s is now becoming the “destination jihad” du jour.

Iraq: Where Terrorists Go to School, Jessica Stern, the New York Times 

Don’t Give Them Any Ideas!

[Novelist John] Le Carré is not a hunter himself, but he nodded at the people he knew and mounted a casual and running defense of fox hunting, as if he were doing color commentary from the 18th hole at the Masters. It’s an ancient part of the rural culture, he said. It’s egalitarian in this area (some 300 miles west-southwest of London), not an upper-class diversion. … “At least they aren’t hunting that poor goddamn thing with drones.”

John le Carré Has Not Mellowed With Age, Dwight Garner, the New York Times

Self-fulfilling Prophecy

Islamist terrorists provoke the governments they oppose into responding in ways that seem to prove that these governments want to humiliate or harm Muslims. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and “extraordinary rendition” have become for Muslim youth symbols of the United States’ belligerence and hypocrisy.

Mind Over Martyr, Jessica Stern, Foreign Affairs (PDF of entire article)

Putting Jihadists on the Couch

Self-awareness is not a characteristic of most terrorists. And to be effective those fighting them have to try to understand them better than they understand themselves.

The Terrorist Tipping Point: What Pushed the Tsarnaev Brothers to Violence?, Christopher Dickey, the Daily Beast

Nuclear Weapons No Shortcut to National Security

While the United States would like to be able to rely more on its European allies, many experts doubt that even the strongest among them, Britain and France, could carry out their part of another Libya operation now, and certainly not in a few years. Both are struggling to maintain their own nuclear deterrents as well as mobile, modern armed forces. The situation in Britain is so bad that American officials are quietly urging it to drop its expensive nuclear deterrent.

“Either they can be a nuclear power and nothing else or a real military partner,” a senior American official said.

Shrinking Europe Military Spending Stirs Concern, Steven Erlanger, the New York Times

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

How did the administration find itself in debt to the nuclear labs?

Corporate contractors not only receive money from the federal government, but help dictate policy.

Dienekes was a Spartan soldier noted for his bravery. Herodotus wrote of him in The Histories  (via Wikipedia)

It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, their arrows would block out the sun. Dienekes, however, undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, ‘Good. Then we will fight in the shade.'”

A reporter using the name Dienekes produced a paper in February titled Broken Promises: The White House, Special Interests, and New START that the Los Alamos Study Group featured on its website. Perhaps, he identifies with Dienekes because he feels vastly dwarfed by the forces of the Iron Triangle (his description: “the relationship between congressional committees, federal agencies, and special interest groups seeking to benefit from public policy”) against which he pits himself. Meanwhile, this reader can’t help but observe that in the event of a nuclear war, the survivors will be living in the shade of nuclear winter.

Here’s the central question that Dienekes invokes.

Why did the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) approve an under-the-radar process for transferring money each year to the nuclear weapons labs of the Department of Energy (DOE)? Why did the DoD do this when it has its own labs and [it] partners with the nuclear labs as needed, already funding [the latter] with about $900 million annually? Normally fiercely protective of their budgets, why did the heads of these agencies move so swiftly in June 2009 to implement what was a mere proposal made only three months earlier by a DOE-sponsored think tank? … Why, given the considerable negatives, was the new funding stream created?

The seeds of the answer can be found in another question he asks.

Was it just a coincidence that these agencies signed a formal charter setting up the funding scheme nine days before the nuclear lab directors appeared on Capitol Hill to give their expert testimony on the administration’s New START treaty?

Dienekes created a timeline to exhibit “evidence that the private contractors running the DOE nuclear weapons labs (Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia) got the coveted interagency charter by helping the president win a major foreign policy victory.” He elaborates.

The administration needed support from the CEO lab directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia to win ratification of New START. The public record shows the labs got $357 million in stimulus dollars. In addition, the White House hiked investment to a level, in constant dollars, nearly 70% more than the Cold War average, causing a former NNSA administrator to say he would have, “killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration.” And DoD agreed to kick in nearly $6 billion over a five-year period to modernize nuclear weapons infrastructure. But this was not enough to satisfy the CEO lab directors. They wanted more.

The corporations (Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, URS, Battelle and Lockheed Martin) that run the nuclear labs coveted non-nuclear missions with binding long-term financial commitments from multiple federal agencies. Why? Because they foresaw a smaller nuclear stockpile as a result of the administration’s arms control initiatives, and without new projects to replace old warheads, this meant less workload, greater excess capacity, and higher overhead costs — all of which would spark more calls for downsizing. [They] will lobby for greater commitments to expand missions, increase workloads, build new facilities, and move more public money into the pockets of private firms. Unfortunately, such commitments will likely be made off-the-radar within the Interagency Council on the Strategic Capability of the National Laboratories, basically a top-level pressure group designed to serve the interests of the Iron Triangle.

But, “expert testimony” aside, why else did the administration feel it needed to accede to the demands of the CEO slash lab directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia? Aren’t the labs subordinate to the federal government and dependent on it for funds? Dienekes reminds us of what happens “when the Oval Office embraces the Iron Triangle.” In the White House, “a gathering of administration officials and corporate contractors indulged their sizeable appetites for political gain, commercial profit, and personal advancement.”

Though he doesn’t spell it out, what I think Dienekes means is that corporate contractors contribute money to Democratic campaigns. If they’re not kept happy, they’ll cut off funding. It’s a pity that when ownership of the national laboratories was privatized (Los Alamos in 2006, Lawrence Livermore in 2007), the Department of Energy couldn’t foresee — or wasn’t concerned with — how much influence the corporate contractors would exercise over not only their own funding, but national nuclear-weapons policy.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

Nuclear weapons have outlived their usefulness — if they ever had any

Historian Ward Wilson pokes holes in the mythology of nuclear weapons.

Long awaited by many of us in the arms control and disarmament communities, historian Ward Wilson’s book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January. It doesn’t fail to deliver. What at first seems like a short book soon becomes a distillate of years of the author’s thinking, to which the expansive footnotes and lengthy bibliography also attest.

Wilson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. For years unaffiliated, though, with either academy or a foundation, his writing style can be characterized as plain speaking and congenial, accessible to the general public as well as policymakers, strategists, and historians.

Sixty-eight years after the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, arms control moves in fits and starts and total disarmament is considered unrealistic — unattainable to its advocates, inadvisable to most. Meanwhile, those members of the public who aren’t too frightened by existential issues or too distracted to face them view global warming as more urgent than nuclear weapons. Others operate under the illusion that the end of the Cold War has diminished the nuclear threat to the point where we can live with it.

Besides, the primal logic of deterrence — discouraging an attack by your ability to respond — makes perfect sense to many. But, nuclear weapons may not lend themselves to deterrence as well as conventional thinking holds. In fact, the idea that “nuclear deterrence works in a crisis” is one of Wilson’s myths — as is even the proposition that they keep us safe.

Actually, deterrence is the second pillar of faith in nuclear weapons. The first was erected when their detonation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II supposedly forced Japan to surrender. It’s also the first myth that Wilson attempts to debunk: “Nuclear weapons shock and awe opponents.” For one cannot stand without the other. As he wrote in a 2008 article (The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence) for Nonproliferation Review that helped put him on the map as a nuclear-weapons historian: “The collapse of the Hiroshima case undermines one of the cornerstones of nuclear deterrence theory.”

Turns out, as Wilson writes in Five Myths, “Japan’s leaders consistently displayed a lack of interest in the [conventional] bombing that was wrecking their cities.” To them, it was the Russian invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island upon which the war hinged. With Russia also planning to invade Hokkaido, the northern-most of Japan’s islands, Japan realized it could not fight a war against both Russia and the United States-led Western powers. Wilson then turns the question around.

Proponents of nuclear weapons who claim that Japan was forced to surrender because of the bombing of Hiroshima face a difficult question: Why would Japan’s leaders have been motivated to act by an event that was not strategically decisive?

The main piece of evidence that Wilson uses to build his case against the efficacy of nuclear weapons is the Cuban missile crisis, about which you’ve no doubt already seen much revisionist history in commemoration of its fiftieth anniversary last year. Wilson, though, instead of concentrating on why our nukes didn’t deter Russia, focuses on why Russia’s nuclear threat didn’t deter President John Kennedy from blockading Cuba and demanding that nuclear missiles be removed from Cuba. “So why did,” Wilson asks, “nuclear deterrence fail? And why did Kennedy take steps that seem to meet [a] definition of reckless lunacy?” (Author’s emphasis.)

In still more picturesque language, he rephrases the question directly.

In the most dangerous nuclear crisis the world has ever known, one leader saw the nuclear deterrence stop sign, saw the horrifying image of nuclear war painted on it, and gunned through the intersection anyway.

In other words, fear of Russia’s nuclear weapons didn’t keep President Kennedy from putting the pedal to the metal. Wilson again:

One way that proponents of nuclear weapons explain Kennedy’s willingness to risk nuclear war is by arguing that U.S. nuclear superiority made the risk of nuclear war negligible.…But most of the senior participants and Kennedy himself said, either directly or indirectly, that nuclear superiority had had little to do with decisions made during the crisis.…by the late 1950s both sides had the ability to inflict significant damage in the event of a war, even after absorbing a nuclear strike.

Another approach that helped lend Wilson credibility early in his career was to forbear attacking nuclear weapons from the point of view of morality and, instead, hold them accountable on the basis of their actual usefulness as weapons.

The problem with nuclear weapons is that there is no way to concretely verify the claims that are made about their importance. There is really only one data point — Hiroshima — determining their cash basis. The danger is that we have overinflated their value by misinterpreting that one event.

Confident that he’d win, it’s as if Wilson agreed to cede the home-court advantage to the arrayed forces of national defense: “Body count aside, will nuclear weapons win wars?” (My words, not his.) More to the point, will bombing cities, known as area bombing in World War II, prove decisive in winning wars? Wilson writes:

People often talk about nuclear weapons’ ability to create destruction as if it were an accepted fact that destruction and military effectiveness are the same thing. But.…destruction does not win wars.

Among the instances he cites besides Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the siege of Stalingrad during which the Wehrmacht destroyed the city with bombing and artillery. Soviet soldiers clung to the ruins and eventually outlasted the German assault. Wilson concludes:

Destroying cities and killing civilians is large beside the point in terms of military strategy.

Each of the five myths transitions to the next. Wilson pulls this off exceptional gracefulness when, at the end of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, he addresses the subject of the nuclear genie — the idea that nuclear know-how and technology can’t be un-developed, as it were, and stuffed back into the bottle. Connecting the circle, he writes that obsolescence will obtain when it’s shown that nuclear weapons are no longer viewed as useful in winning wars.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Latest smoking gun on Iran’s nuclear program just another misfire

Yousaf Butt lays waste to the magnetic-ring-sign-of-Iran-nuclear-expansion theory.

On February 13 Joby Warrick reported for the Washington Post that “Iran recently sought to acquire tens of thousands of highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines, according to experts and diplomats, a sign that the country may be planning a major expansion of its nuclear program that could shorten the path to an atomic weapons capability.” More:

Purchase orders obtained by nuclear researchers show an attempt by Iranian agents to buy 100,000 of the ring-shaped magnets — which are banned from export to Iran under U.N. resolutions — from China about a year ago, those familiar with the effort said. It is unclear whether the attempt succeeded.

Or as the ISIS report Institute for Science and International Security that Warrick sited concluded:

This large potential order by Iran in late 2011 for 100,000 ring magnets ready for use in IR-1 centrifuges implies an Iranian intention to greatly expand its number of these centrifuges.

Not so fast. Yousaf Butt of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies explains.

The magnets in question have many uses besides centrifuges and are not only, as Warrick describes them, “highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines.” … Why ISIS does not offer alternate and more plausible applications of these unspecialized magnets is a puzzle. … For instance, one vendor outlines some of the various possible uses in speakers, direct current brushless motors, and magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

Even more damning to the report…

As others have already noted, it seems to make little sense to order ceramic magnets that are, as ISIS describes, “almost exactly” the right dimensions. If one is intending to purchase 100,000 ceramic ring magnets for critical high-speed centrifuge applications, why not order them exactly the right size? Ceramics are almost impossible to machine due to their brittle nature and are generally ordered to the precise specifications.

Also fairly embarrassing…

The alleged inquiry states, “Dear Sir We are a great factory in south of Iran and for our new project we need 100.000 pcs Ferrite Barium strontium ring magnet . … we would like buy from you [sic] company. We should be glad if you supply this magnet for us.” Presumably, an attempt to source 100,000 parts related to Iran’s controversial and often secretive nuclear program would not be conducted quite so openly. [It’s] also at odds with procurement best-practices, for several reasons. First, such a large order would likely drive up the market price and perhaps even signal to the supplier to choke off the supply, in hopes of obtaining a better price later.

I’ve saved the worst for last…

The apparent manufacturer or supplier of the magnets in question, Ferrito Plastronics, is evidently a “tiny firm in a dark alley in Chennai’s electronic spare parts hub on Meeran Sahib Street.” According to the Times of India, “the Chennai firm does supply magnets. But these, avers company proprietor Bala Subramanian, are the ones used in loudspeakers, coils, and medical equipment. Besides these, there are decorative magnets for fridges.”

In other words, if you haven’t figured it out yet…

Such a firm would seem unlikely to be the optimal source for 100,000 high-quality centrifuge ring magnets.

We’ll give Professor Butt the final word.

… reporters and editors should raise the bar for the evidence underpinning stories of alleged Iranian nuclear weapons-related work.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

How our obsession with Iran increases chances of nuclear war with Russia

Missile defense cuts off our nose to spite our defense face.

It’s common knowledge that, when it comes to protecting us from a nuclear launch by a major power such as Russia or China, missile defense has been found woefully lacking. At best, it’s supposed to protect the United States and Europe from states with small nuclear weapon programs such as North Korea and Iran. (Even though it’s efficacy in those situations is questionable as well.)

Nevertheless, Moscow professes to believe that our installations in Europe are intended as a defense against Russia’s nukes. It also maintains that missile defense deployed in the United States, as well, is a cover behind which the United States could launch a first strike. Much of its counterstrike, Moscow fears, would then be deflected by U.S. missile defense, while the United States would wipe out much of Russia’s remaining land-based nuclear missiles, thus diminishing the latter’s second-strike capabilities.

Thus, according to this line of reasoning, the state against which a state such as the United States is seeking to defend itself with nuclear weapons is motivated to build that many more nuclear weapons and delivery systems to make up for those it would lose in the air and on the ground. That’s why missile defense is considered “destabilizing” to the balance of nuclear power.

Missile defense also cuts off our defense nose to spite its face with Iran, but in a different way. By way of prelude to an explanation comes a summary of a new Threat Assessment Brief for the Arms Control Association by Greg Thielmann titled Iran’s Missile Program And Its Implications For U.S. Missile Defense.

Although plans for expanding U.S. strategic missile defenses focus on the Iranian ICBM threat, that threat is not emerging as was previously predicted. Iran conducted no long-range ballistic missile tests in 2012 and has not flown even the larger space launch vehicle that it displayed two years ago, which could have helped advance ICBM technology. [It] continues to focus on short- and medium-range rather than longer-range ballistic missiles.

Nor, the summary reminds us, has Iran even decided to build nuclear weapons yet. Thielmann himself writes that

… although neither Iran nor North Korea has deployed ICBMs, ambitious U.S. missile defense efforts to counter them have [as explained above — RW] helped dim immediate prospects of negotiating additional limits on the countries that potentially pose the greatest threats to the United States—Russia and China.

He expands on what I wrote above.

Although often dismissed in the West as disingenuous in expressing concerns about U.S. missile defense, Russian and Chinese security officials are not immune to the kind of “worst-case” analysis [that was] frequently demonstrated by the U.S. officials with regard to Soviet strategic missile defense capabilities throughout the Cold War.

Thus …

An understanding that the Iranian ICBM threat is less acute than previously depicted dovetails with the growing realization that U.S. strategic defense capabilities are less robust than previously portrayed. A logical response to these developments would be to suspend the deployment of a new, more advanced …  interceptor in the fourth phase of the planned European [missile defense] deployment until the Iranian ICBMs against which it is directed start to materialize.

In fact …

If properly communicated to Moscow and Beijing, such a U.S. policy adjustment … could give Russia and China additional incentives to help restrain Iran’s missile program. It could also open a pathway to progress in negotiating further reductions in Russia’s excessive strategic nuclear forces and reduce the likelihood that China will substantially increase its long-range ballistic missile forces.

In other words, if the United States backed off on missile defense, it might increase Russia and China’s cooperation — setting aside for the moment that it’s in the service of a pitiless sanctions regiment  — with us on Iran. As it stands now, a toxic byproduct of our obsession with Iran’s nuclear program is the increased chance of nuclear war with Russia and China.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, you have to keep your eye on the ball.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

CATEGORY: WarSecurity

Nuclear weapons and voter ignorance are a lethal mix

Nuclear weapons are not only a threat to our survival, but to democracy itself.

Most of us keep our distance from the subject of nuclear weapons. Nor is it hard to understand why. Many think that since the end of the Cold War, nuclear war has become a minor threat. Especially when compared to an economy that seems like it’s always on the brink of imploding just as the United States and Russia seemed always on the brink of exploding into nuclear war. Nor, understandably, are most who are aware that nuclear war remains a threat capable of facing what may well be a sword of Damocles hanging over their very existence, as well as their families’.

Another, less apparent, reason why most of us avert our attention from the prospect of war waged with nuclear weapons is that we believe that national-security policy, as well as warfighting strategy, not to mention the daunting technology of nuclear weapons, are above our pay grade. After all, deterrence seems to be working, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but, when it comes to weapons with the destructive power of nuclear weapons, keeping the world waiting with bated breath to make sure that war doesn’t break out is not a long-term solution.

In an oped at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled Democracy and the bomb, Kennette Benedict, its executive editor, points to the lack of attention paid to nuclear weapons and disarmament in the recent election as evidence that most of us feel overwhelmed by the whole subject. “Too often,” writes Ms. Benedict

… many of us lucky enough to live in democracies view elections as the only responsibility we have as citizens and leave the policy discussions to the elected and to the experts. … Political leaders and policy experts don’t always encourage a lot of participation, either; perhaps they believe that citizens are badly informed about issues and that their participation will result in poor decisions.


Allowing policy leaders and officials to make decisions for us, however, is at odds with the principle of equality, as Robert Dahl notes in his often overlooked essay “Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship.” …  The principle of guardianship … holds that only a small minority of citizens is sufficiently qualified and therefore capable of making binding decisions for the nation. As Dahl observes, the political system of a modern democratic country is usually a combination of democracy and meritocracy, but, when it comes to nuclear weapons, “We have in fact turned over to a small group of people decisions of incalculable importance to ourselves and mankind, and it is very far from clear how, if at all, we could recapture a control that in fact we have never had.” We are living in a democracy based on guardianship, not equality, when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Since it combines two of our favorite subjects — nuclear weapons and voter ignorance and/or apathy — we were only too happy to go straight to the horse’s mouth and read Controlling Nuclear Weapons (Syracuse University Press, 1985), which, though Benedict refers to it as an essay, was published as a short book. Dahl, who taught at Yale University and was known as the “dean” of American political scientists, writes that the idea that only a minority of persons are competent to rule, per Plato’s The Republic, has enjoyed new life (at least as of the eighties) in democratic countries because

… the complexity of public issues challenges the assumption that ordinary people are competent to make decisions about these matters. in order to make wise decisions, decision makers need specialized knowledge that most citizens do not possess.


One might respond by saying that even in a democracy, after all, complex decisions like these can be delegated to experts. But suppose that most of us do not even possess enough knowledge to understand the terms on which we can safely delegate authority over these decisions to those more expert than we? Then we have not simply delegated authority. Instead, we have alienated [or given away — RW] control over our lives to others: that is, for practical purposes we simply lose control over crucial decisions, and lose control over our lives. The more we alienate authority … the more we lose our freedom, and the more hollow the democratic process becomes. Or to put it another way, the more that we alienate authority the more the external forms of democracy clothe a de facto regime of guardianship.

Thus, the subject of nuclear weapons not only overwhelms us, but may strain democracy itself to the breaking point. As Dahl asks:

Are the institutions of contemporary democracy adequate to cope satisfactorily with the enormous complexity of public matters?

The reservation we have with Dahl’s otherwise valuable book is that he seems to think that nuclear weapons are a problem to which society needs to adjust. Dahl provides ideas for solutions for citizen participation in nuclear-weapons decisions, many of them more or less implemented in the meantime via information technology. But they seem like so much tweaking.

The case can be made that nuclear weapons are the ultimate test of democracy. But the stakes are too high if we lose. In fact, the existence of nuclear weapons needs to adjust to the needs of society by eliminating them.

We find ourselves in reluctant accord with libertarians, though while many of them believe that government is too large and complex for the average voter (as best explained by Ilya Somin for the Cato Institute in 2004) to understand, we’ll just stick with “too complex.” Nuclear weapons, with the existential questions they force us to face and their daunting strategy and technology, exponentially compound the problem. They discourage participation in democracy, at exactly the point democracy is most needed. As Benedict writes:

Once citizens no longer feel qualified to participate in decisions about their very survival, the connection between the governing and the governed is severed. It is hard to see where the democracy is in this.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Y-12 activists may be barred from bringing up the morality of nukes at their trial

Federal prosecutors seek to remove justification for the existence of nuclear weapons from the trial of the Transform Now Plowshares Three.

Remember the activists who infiltrated the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on July 12? They’re members of  Transform Now Plowshares, the current version of the original Plowshares Christian pacifist movement. The Plowshares Eight initiated these kinds of actions in 1980 when they snuck into a General Electric nuclear missile facility in Pennsylvania.

Like their predecessors, the Transform Now Plowshares Three are as physically courageous as they are morally. A lengthy jail term could see at least one of its members, 82-year-old Sister Megan Rice, die while incarcerated.

At the trial in February they each face 15 years in prison and fines up to $500,000. Worse, as the co-director of a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin called Nukewatch, John LaForge, wrote at the Transform Now Plowshares site, “federal prosecutors have mentioned bringing two heavier charges, including sabotage ‘during wartime,’ which together carry up to 50 years.”

Even worse, the Transform Now Plowshares Three may be left destitute of tools with which to defend themselves. LaForge explains.

If the government gets it way, the trial judge will keep facts about nuclear weapons away from jurors and make sure that questions about the Bomb’s outlaw status are left out of jury instructions. … before starting deliberations.

On Nov. 2, federal prosecutors [urged the judge] to “preclude defendants from introducing evidence in support of certain justification defenses.” The motion asks the court to forbid all evidence — even expert testimony — about “necessity, international law, Nuremberg Principles, First Amendment protections, the alleged immorality of nuclear weapons, good motive, religious moral or political beliefs regarding nuclear weapons, and the U.S. government’s policy regarding nuclear weapons.”

The prosecution’s justification? That it is “not relevant.” Even though

The U.S. Attorney’s motion … confesses, “[w]e do not suggest that the deployment of nuclear armament systems does not violate international law, but merely that Congress has power to protect government property.”

The value of the Transform Now Plowshares Three’s efforts was initially depreciated because the only kind of soul searching resulting from their actions was about plant security, not the morality of nuclear weapons. Now, federal prosecutors would move to expunge justification for the existence of nuclear weapons from the trial and reduce it to a simple case of trespass and vandalism at a military installation.

Clearly, the U.S. Attorney’s office fears that admitting discussion of the justice of nuclear weapons to the jurors’ deliberations will only obstruct the progress of the trial. More to the point it probably knows it’s an argument it can’t win.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

WaPo's Dana Priest's alarmist excursion into the nuclear weapons-industrial complex

One of the Washington Post’s star reporters has assigned herself the task of scaring up funds for “nuclear modernization.”

It was with some anticipation that I approached Dana Priest’s series in the Washington Post on nuclear-weapons modernization. After all, she’d won a Pulitzer prize and George Polk award for her reporting on CIA detention sites overseas and, along with William Arkin, she’d written Top Secret Americaa three-part series on how immense the U.S. intelligence and classified activity system had become. Continue reading