Frog Soup

Ruminations on the twilight of democracy in America.
by Monkey99


Monday, May 02, 2005

Nuclear Arms Race Redux

The scientists who worked on The Bomb were all acutely aware that they were handing humanity the means of its own potential destruction. They worked on the project anyway because they knew that the Nazis were also working on it. Their hope was that the Bomb would force humanity to confront itself and cease its reliance on violence to settle disputes. The existence of The Bomb would forever compromise humanity's ability to resort to unbridled warfare. And this is in fact what happened. The so-called Cold War and all of the accompanying proxy conflicts notwithstanding, World War III was never fought. I know that the neo-cons refer to the Cold War as World War III and the War on Terror as World War IV, but I'm not buying either of those propositions. Measured against the level of death and destruction visited upon us by the first two World Wars, neither the Cold War nor the War on Terror deserve to be counted in the same ordinal progression as the first two. World War III, if it had occurred, would have been an all-out conflict between the two super powers: the US and the USSR. In that event, it would've been close to impossible to avoid bringing the two countries' nuclear arsenals to bear. I believe it was the existence of those nuclear arsenals that kept the two super powers from ever going down that road to begin with. So, the weapons did, to a limited extent, achieve what the nuclear scientists had hoped. But, not entirely. The Bomb didn't bring an end to human warfare, but it did prevent the kind of "all-out" warfare typified by the two World Wars.

The way that nuclear weapons prevented World War III can be described by an acronym: MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction. The MAD doctrine was the lynch pin of nuclear weapons policy on both sides from the early 50s on. In a nutshell, each side was deterred from using nuclear weapons against a similarly armed adversary by the certain knowledge that that adversary would retaliate in kind. E.g. if we launched a nuclear strike against the USSR, she would in turn launch one against us, provided we did not eliminate her capacity to do so. Thus, we would both be destroyed. Mutually Assured Destruction. In a way, these seemingly offensive weapons, served a primarily defensive purpose. Like Germany's "fleet in being" in World War I, they were intended, by their very existence, to keep an enemy from launching an attack in the first place.

Its "through the looking glass" characteristics like this that put the "unconventional" in unconventional weapons. They defy conventional wisdom. What would you expect from something invented by physicists?

So, the MAD scenario provided a stable, albeit precarious equilibrium for over 4 decades. And there were steps taken by both sides to preserve this equilibrium, for both our sakes. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, were all attempts to provide stability.

Occasionally, one side or the other would take actions which upset the balance, such as the USSR's deployment of SS-20 medium range missiles in Europe. These weapons, although not directly threatening the US, could destroy targets in Western Europe within minutes. Thus it was a possible first-strike weapon, it could be used to start a nuclear war. Its intent was probably to fight and win a war in Europe, or at least show the West that the Soviets were prepared to do so, while hopefully avoiding escalation to an all-out nuclear war with the US. Of course once nuclear weapons begin going off in population centers, there's no telling when the escalation will stop. So, by lowering the bar for the likelihood of their use, these "theater" weapons made nuclear war more likely. The US, under Reagan, later countered these SS-20s with Pershing IIs and cruise missiles deployed in the UK and West Germany, which pressured the USSR to the negotiating table and resulted in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the eventual scrapping of all short and medium range missiles. And balance was restored, this time. But, considering the stakes, I find this kind of brinkmanship to be profoundly reckless, regardless of the happy outcome.

In my view, a far more reckless escalation in the arms race, was the US development and deployment of the Trident II submarine-based missile systems in the late 1980s. These are true first-strike weapons, designed to wipe out the Russian's capability of retaliation. Tridents can destroy their targets, even hard-targets (think: missile silos) within 10-15 minutes of launch. Well, that's great isn't it? No. The Russians are aware that they have only 10 minutes to make a launch decision, and so their systems are on even more of a hair-trigger than before. An oft-mentioned near disaster occurred in 1995 (the more observant of you will notice that that is after the supposed end of the Cold War), when Yeltsin was literally minutes away from pushing the proverbial button because of what later turned out to be a Norwegian rocket carrying scientific experiments. There have been many other close calls. By shortening the fuse, and by developing systems like the Trident II that are specifically intended to allow first-strike, we make accidental nuclear war much more likely.

And then along comes Bush.

There are two projects in particular that the Bush administration has pursued that should give us all pause. They're related, as I'll point out later. The two initiatives are:
1) National Missile Defense, also known as the missile shield
2) Next Generation Tactical Nukes, aka bunker busters or baby nukes

The missile shield is the current incarnation of the Star Wars boondoggle, only instead of using space-based means to stop incoming ICBMs, we'll be relying on missiles of our own: Anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs). The Bush administration had to unilaterally abrogate a thirty-year-old treaty, the 1972 ABM Treaty, to pursue this goal. But, hey, international law is for sissies. An oft mentioned analogy for what this system must accomplish is: trying to hit a speeding bullet with another bullet. Sounds difficult, eh? It is, but the analogy is still inadequate. Bullets can't change their trajectory or take other actions to foil an attacker, missiles can. Even the bullet vs. bullet problem is hard enough and we have so far failed in even that task. A majority of test cases have failed altogether, and those that "succeeded" have done so only by equipping the targets with GPS beacons that broadcast the target's position. Needless to say, no enemy missile will be equipped with such a beacon. Quite the opposite, it will likely be equipped with various counter-measures to deliberately foil an ABM. No tests with such counter-measures have been performed, to my knowledge.

Even if it had a better track record, its a bad thing for another reason. It destabilizes the MAD. Since those that possess ABMs will feel protected (whether they really are or not), they will feel less inhibited in using their own nuclear weapons, since the destruction will no longer be mutually assured. So we can use our nukes with impunity, secure in the knowledge that we won't suffer any retaliation. At least in theory. Want to try it out? Me neither. And neither did wiser politicians on both sides of the Cold War, which is why the 1972 ABM Treaty was signed.

Missile defense is not a new issue, and has been pushed by interested parties in the Pentagon, defense industry and conservative intelligentsia for decades. A NMD bill was passed by Congress in 1999 with broad (and veto-proof) support from both parties. But no mandate was made on actual deployment, and in fact Clinton deferred on deployment until such a system was technologically feasible and the Russians and Chinese would agree to amendments to the 1972 treaty. But that was Clinton. The Bush administration pulled NMD right on to the front burner. And in December of 2001, Bush announced unilateral US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. And work on NMD has proceeded briskly. Not that we yet have anything to show for the tens of billions we've poured into it. The thing still could not knock a real missile out of the sky without cheating. In last year's defense budget, Senator Boxer proposed a common sense amendment that would prevent deployment of a missile shield until it could actually be proved to work. The measure was rejected and with some notable Democratic turncoats providing cover. Zell Miller, no surprises there. Lieberman, we've come to expect this kind of thing from him. Bayh, Landrieu, and both Nelsons, all regular fence hoppers, still no real surprises. And then ... drum roll ... Clinton.

Way. To go. Hillary.

And the missile shield, ultra-expensive, broken piece of shit that it is, is currently being deployed in Alaska. Lets be clear. Its not that it hasn't been tested so we don't know if it works. It has been tested. And it doesn't work. Its like taking a car out for a test drive and it bursts into flames, and the wheels fall off. "I'll take it! How much?"

And as far as this renewed interest in tactical nukes, described in the Nuclear Posture Review leaked in March 2002 as "more usable", they are obviously destabilizing. They make actual use of nuclear weapons in a war (i.e. nuclear war) much more likely. What we're talking about here are small nukes that can be delivered by fighter-bombers, howitzers, land mines, etc. These suckers are meant to be used. They could've taken care of Fallujah in an hour instead of a month, that's the plan.

I promised to tie the two threads together, so here goes. Even the most ardent hawk cannot claim with a straight face that a missile shield will protect us from a massive strike from the Russians. Few would even claim that it would keep us safe from the Chinese. Everyone agrees that the purpose of the shield is to protect us from so-called rogue nations. Small fry nuclear states, with only a few handful of nuclear weapons at most. Lets go back to the MAD doctrine, for a second. The reason that the Soviet Union, and later Russia, with all of its thousands of nuclear warheads, hasn't attacked us after all these years (assuming they wanted to), is because they were assured that we would respond massively, destroying them. If the Russians with their thousands were deterred, why would a rogue nation with only a handful attack us? Because they're madmen? Please. Whatever you may think of Hussein, or Kim, or the Iranian theocrats, they're not stupid. Even if they had nukes, and missiles capable of striking in the US, they wouldn't commit suicide. And non-state enemies, like al-Qaeda, would be far more likely to use other more "hand-rolled" methods to nuke us, say by a nuke stashed in a truck, or a ship, or an apartment, etc.

No, the missile shield is indeed meant for rogue nations. But not to prevent a first strike against us. I can think of no reason why even a "rogue" adversary would launch a nuke against us, knowing that we would respond with our nuclear weapons ...

... unless we were already using nukes against them.

And that is what I think the purpose of the missile shield is. To allow us to launch a first strike, probably with tactical nukes, against a lightly armed nuclear adversary. Like North Korea, or Iran.

I just don't see any other way of looking at it. Do you?


Blogger alex9852 said...

I really enjoy reading your blog, it always has great insight. But I am very frustrated with the media’s lack of questions to the presidential candidates about global warming. Now that it is down to just a few candidates I would think that this would be a bigger issue.

Live Earth just picked up this topic and put out an article ( ) asking why the presidential candidates are not being solicited for their stance on the issue of the climate change. I just saw an article describing each candidate’s stance on global warming and climate change on . So obviously they care about it. Is it the Medias fault for not asking the right questions or is it the candidates’ fault for not highlighting the right platforms? Does anyone know of other websites or articles that touch on this subject and candidates’ views? This is the biggest problem of the century and for generations to come…you would think the next president of the United States would be more vocal about it.

2:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home