Tag Archives: nuclear weapons

“China will prevent them from doing so”

From the Global Times, which is an English language paper published by the Chinese government:

Beijing is not able to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time. It needs to make clear its stance to all sides and make them understand that when their actions jeopardize China’s interests, China will respond with a firm hand.

China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.

China opposes both nuclear proliferation and war in the Korean Peninsula. It will not encourage any side to stir up military conflict, and will firmly resist any side which wants to change the status quo of the areas where China’s interests are concerned. It is hoped that both Washington and Pyongyang can exercise restraint. The Korean Peninsula is where the strategic interests of all sides converge, and no side should try to be the absolute dominator of the region.

August 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Around 200,000 people may be dying prematurely in the U.S. each year due to air pollution. Meanwhile, the Trump administration may be trying to censor the National Climate Assessment, which presents the consensus among serious scientists in the United States government that climate change is very real and a very real threat to our country.
  • The U.S. may already be in the middle of a soft military coup. We have a batshit-crazy President playing nuclear chicken with all our lives. And with the legislative branch not even trying to do anything about this, we are actually hoping the generals who are running our country will be the coolest heads in the room when it comes to preventing nuclear war. North Korea may be closer to submarine-launched nuclear weapons than previously thought. Meanwhile, there are three ways for terrorists or other non-state actors to get their hands on nuclear weapons: “transfer—the sale or handoff of a weapon from a nuclear-weapon state; leakage—the theft of a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade fissile material; and indigenous production—the construction of a nuclear device from illicitly obtained weapons-grade fissile material.” And the U.S. and Russia are no longer cooperating on non-proliferation.
  • The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.

Most hopeful stories:

  • The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution (in July) that could eventually, maybe lead to the total elimination of nuclear weapons on Earth.
  • The Aichi Biodiversity Targets are some very specific numerical targets that have incorporated in the 2015 Sustainable Goals.
  • Great Transitions are ideas for how the world could transition to a sustainable state without going through a major setback along the way.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • When you sow seeds, it makes sense to sow the ones that have the most trouble establishing at the highest density.
  • You can use R to recreate the famous plot of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

As I am writing these words on Labor Day, the news is about a North Korean nuclear test. In a strange coincidence, I happened to see both the USS New Jersey, which was involved in the Korean War, and the Korean War Memorial here in Philadelphia yesterday (which never came). That war caused a lot of pain and suffering on all sides. It would be a tragedy to let it flair up again, and an even bigger tragedy if nuclear weapons were to be involved.

Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare by Bertrand Russell

Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare was a 1959 book by Bertrand Russell. The title is clearly tongue-in-cheek because these are two things that don’t mix. Here is a fun quote/paraphrase relating the book to the present day, provided by History News Network:

Responding on August 8 to North Korean threats, Trump publicly warned that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Later that day, North Korea’s state media announced that its government was considering a strategy of striking the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with mid- to long-range nuclear missiles―a strategy that a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army said would be “put into practice” once Kim authorized it.

This kind of reckless and potentially suicidal behavior is reminiscent of the game of “Chicken,” which achieved notoriety in the 1950s. In the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), two rebellious, antisocial male teenagers (or juvenile delinquents, as they were known at the time) played the game before a crowd of onlookers by driving jalopies at top speed toward a cliff. Whoever jumped out of the cars first was revealed as “chicken” (a coward). A more popular variant of the game involved two teenagers driving their cars at high speed toward one another, with the first to swerve out of the way drawing the derisive label. According to some accounts, young James Dean, a star of Rebel Without a Cause, actually died much this way.

With news of the game spreading, Bertrand Russell, the great mathematician and philosopher, suggested in 1959 that the two sides in the Cold War were engaged in an even crazier version: nuclear “Chicken.” He wrote: “As played by irresponsible boys, this game is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.” But the game became “incredibly dangerous” and “absurd” when it was played by government officials “who risk not only their own lives but those of many hundreds of millions of human beings.” Russell warned that “the moment will come when neither side can face the derisive cry of ‘Chicken!’ from the other side.” When that moment arrived, “the statesmen of both sides will plunge the world into destruction.”

This might be the biggest problem of all with having nuclear weapons around. Even if rational adult supervision is present 99% of the time, and even if there were no risk of terrorism, it only takes one irrational leader one time to pull the trigger and fuck up our world permanently.

North Korean nuclear submarines

Submarine-launched nuclear missiles are the ultimate deterrent, because unless your enemies are sure they can find and destroy all your subs before they have a chance to launch, you have the ability to retaliate anywhere at anytime, even if this is your last action after your enemy has turned your country into a “sea of fire” (as the North Koreans are fond of saying). If you read the first half of this CNN article, you think North Korea has them or almost has them, but if you get to the end you find out that the expert consensus is that North Korea isn’t close.

The US military has detected “highly unusual and unprecedented levels” of North Korean submarine activity and evidence of an “ejection test” in the days following Pyongyang’s second intercontinental ballistic missile launch this month, a defense official told CNN on Monday.

An ejection test examines a missile’s “cold-launch system,” which uses high pressure steam to propel a missile out of the launch canister into the air before its engines ignite. That helps prevent flames and heat from the engine from damaging either the submarine, submersible barge or any nearby equipment used to launch the missile.

Two concerns: one is that Trump decides they are close and decides to order a preemptive strike. Even if this were the best course of action, Trump is not the leader we would need at the helm during such a crisis. Two is that these might be the same experts what brung us weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Maybe this is their makeup call for the earlier bad call. In other words, maybe we’re in for an unpleasant WMD surprise that goes in the opposite direction of the last one.

The current US intelligence assessment is that the missile program aboard submarines remains in the very early stages.

nuclear proliferation and non-state actors

This post on Lawfare talks about three ways people and groups other than nation-states could get their hands on nuclear weapons.

That entails blocking the pathways to terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon. There are three possibilities for how a terrorist organization might acquire the bomb: transfer—the sale or handoff of a weapon from a nuclear-weapon state; leakage—the theft of a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade fissile material; and indigenous production—the construction of a nuclear device from illicitly obtained weapons-grade fissile material.

Each pathway to nuclear acquisition by a non-state terrorist group is contingent on an act of commission or negligence by a state. The “leakage” of a weapon to a terrorist group would originate from one of the nine nuclear-weapon states or the 22 states (at current count) with weapons-grade fissile material in their civilian stocks. Among this group, the countries of greatest concern regarding the nexus of proliferation and terrorism—North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia—are each continuing their development of nuclear weapons and risking broader proliferation, including to non-state actors.

North Korea is on the verge of a strategic breakout both quantitatively, by ramping up its number of warheads to possibly as many as 100 weapons by 2020, and qualitatively, by mastering warhead miniaturization. And it would have few qualms about selling nuclear materials for the right price. Pyongyang is known, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, for its willingness to “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.” Pakistan continues to build up its nuclear arsenal (including the development of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons), employs terrorism as an instrument of state policy, and faces the internal security threat of radical Islamists attempting to infiltrate its nuclear establishment. And Russia, which inherited the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal and stocks of fissile material, terminated its nuclear-security cooperation with the United States under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program put in place by the Nunn-Lugar Act in 1991.

July 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new cancer treatment genetically modifies a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer cells.
  • Shareholders of big fossil fuel companies are starting to force some action on climate change business risk disclosure.
  • Richard Florida offers five ideas for solving poverty and what is wrong with cities: taxing land based on its improved value, massive investment in public transportation and public education, ending the mortgage interest tax deduction, and guaranteed minimum income.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Technology is marching on, whether or not the economy and human species are. The new thing with satellites is to have lots of small, cheap ones instead of a few big, expensive ones. Even if the coal industry were to make a comeback, today’s coal jobs are going to data analysts, remote control machine operators, mechanical and electrical engineers, not guys underground with pickaxes and headlamps. But the coal can be produced with a lot less human effort (i.e. jobs) than it used to be. Iris scans like in Minority Report are now a thing.
  • Ecologists have some new ideas for measuring resilience of ecosystems. Technologists have some wild ideas to have robots directly counteract the effects of humans on ecosystems. I like ideas – how do I get a (well-compensated) job where I can just sit around and think up ideas?
  • Isaac Asimov says truly creative people (1) are weird and (2) generally work alone.

Some combination of the Trump news, the things I see every day on the streets of Philadelphia, and events affecting friends and family led me to question this month whether the United States is really a society in decline. Actually, I don’t question that, I think the answer is yes. But the more important question is whether it is a temporary or permanent decline, and what it means for the rest of the globe. I am leaning slightly toward permanent, but maybe I will feel better next month, we’ll see. Maybe I need to get out of this country for a little while. Last time I did that I felt that the social glue holding Americans together is actually pretty strong compared to most other places, even if our government and its approach to other governments have become largely dysfunctional. We need to get through the next couple years without a nuclear detonation, hope the current vacuum of leadership leads some quality leaders to emerge, and hope things have nowhere to go but up. There, I talked myself off the ledge!

 

the value of nuclear weapons

Moral considerations aside, Richard N. Haas gives a clear explanation of why nuclear weapons are attractive to countries.

Decades ago, Israel made such a calculation in the face of Arab threats to eliminate the Jewish state. More recently, Ukraine, Libya, and Iraq all gave up their nuclear weapons programs either voluntarily or under pressure. Subsequently, Ukraine was invaded by Russia, Iraq by the US, and Libya by the US and several of its European partners. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya were ousted.

North Korea has avoided such a fate, and the third generation of the Kim family rules with an iron fist. It is doubtful that the lesson is lost on Kim Jong-un.

You could try to estimate what it would cost for a particular country to have a conventional military equal in deterrent power to a few nuclear weapons. And the answer is almost certainly that they couldn’t afford it, even if they had the people and technology and productive capacity necessary. So a nuclear deterrent seems very logical. Of course the problem is that when everybody has them, or even a substantial fraction of countries has them, the risk to everybody becomes much higher than if nobody had them.

Another thing I learned from this article is that the UN General Assembly in July created (I don’t know if that is the right legal word) a treaty designed to facilitate long-term disarmament and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. It may not be legally binding or backed by serious political power at the moment, but it shows leadership and could give serious, ethical leaders something to point to in future negotiations. Imagine for example if China, Russia, and the United States decided to throw their weight behind this.

Niall Ferguson compares Trump to JFK

Niall Ferguson appears to have finally stopped explaining and apologizing and rationalizing Donald Trump, and admitted that he is a bad President. Just not the only bad President ever, so that makes it okay. Who is Niall’s example of another bad President? John F. Kennedy. He withheld information on his health from the public, had suspected ties to organized crime, and was unfaithful to his wife. These are historical facts I can’t argue with, but surely not very important points of comparison between the two men. Niall picks a couple more points of comparison that I think are important, but for completely different reasons than Niall.

And on his watch, the world came closer than at any other time to nuclear Armageddon, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. How was catastrophe averted? By using a back channel to the Kremlin to cut a secret deal…

Perhaps Trump’s Cuban missile crisis is on its way, in North Korea.

On the secret back channel, Trump has been criticized for not maintaining this back channel. The idea of the back channel is that if the radar says there are incoming missiles, the President has a direct line to the other side that will help him make a crucial decision whether to launch a response. That happened several times during the Cold War. Do we trust Trump to make the right decision under similar circumstances? Or at least a reasoned, rational decision even if there is no right one. I don’t.

On the Cuban Missile Crisis, one reason it happened is that foreign enemies perceived the U.S. leadership as weak and decided to test it. When we were tested, the U.S. military leadership pressed for an attack on Cuba, which very likely could have led to a world war with or without thermonuclear weapons. Kennedy resisted this advice and managed to defuse the crisis without launching an invasion. I admit, he bluffed his way through it, and maybe got lucky, but it was strong leadership and it took as much courage to stand up to the U.S. military as to the USSR. Possibly more. And maybe they killed him for it.

Trump is not only weak, he is an international laughing stock. Foreign powers who wouldn’t have crossed a Clinton or Bush or Obama are constantly testing him. Not only is he likely to do whatever military advisers tell him to do, he does not really even have independent civilian advisers to counter them. He is insecure, ignorant, and irrational. The risk to civilization is huge.

Wow, I just depressed myself. Well, nuclear weapons are the worst thing currently out there in the world, and the threat is real and growing. Start a global thermonuclear war, and we will not be around to worry about health care or climate change or anything else. The cockroaches can figure that stuff out when they evolve intelligence in another trillion years or so.