Archive for the 'News highlights' Category

Two recent articles regarding a possible Obama “no first use” policy: comments

See update at bottom!

The president wants to roll out announcements on nuclear policy in September to coincide with his final appearance at the U.N. General Assembly, officials said. One administration official told me that, in part because of allied concerns, the internal push on “no first use” was not gaining traction.

National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told me that the administration is “always looking for additional ways to achieve progress” on Obama’s Prague agenda — named for the disarmament aspirations the president set out in his April 2009 speech in the Czech capital — “while maintaining a credible deterrent for the United States, our allies and partners.”

Given the powerful opposition by key U.S. “allies” (a bad term but one almost universally used; the complement of “adversaries”), by the military and its corporate allies, by much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and by the majority Republicans in both houses of Congress, a substantive no first use (NFU) policy appears unlikely, especially at this late stage in Obama’s presidency.

Of course we would like to see a real, concrete, enduring NFU policy — but only if it is part of a larger change in U.S. foreign and nuclear policy, including a no second use policy.

By itself a NFU statement or policy is just a piece of paper, ephemeral, subject to reinterpretation and modification, while nuclear weapons are “used” all the time, 24/7, to condition foreign relations, affect domestic politics, and so on. NFU has precious little to do with “global zero” and is not necessarily a step toward nuclear disarmament, let alone abolition.

Perhaps Ben Rhodes will write a nice speech for the president to give at the UN, like he did for Prague in 2009. I am sure it will be stirring to the gullible, and the U.S. elite press will recognize which themes they are supposed to expertly discuss, qualify, and disseminate. The speech will be designed to protect the empire, lull disarmament advocates, quiet domestic opposition, calm the contractor cartel and its congressional protectors with coded language which will be missed by those who “want to believe,” and it will avoid foreclosing too many options, lest “deterrence” be “damaged.”

Thus by far the most likely outcome of the internal discussions about Obama’s nuclear legacy and a possible NFU policy lie in the field of propaganda and political theater.

But regardless of all this, we at the Study Group have two immediate questions about any possible NFU policy.

First, what would a NFU policy cost, politically, in terms of other nuclear policies? For example, would a NFU policy mean that all the weapons programs and factories go forward with Obama’s renewed blessing? Would continuation of NFU bind President Hillary Clinton to the whole modernization “package” as well? Every so-called “step” in U.S. disarmament achieved by Democratic presidents since 1995 has come at a terrific cost. (See “Stewards of the Apocalypse: an abridged history of U.S. nuclear weapons labs since 1989,” this blog.) In disarmament it has been “two steps forward, one step backwards” since 1995 — except, ironically, for G.W. Bush’s substantial weapons retirements.

And now the administration has resurrected the Russian bogeyman, the better with which to stomp down anything smelling of nuclear disarmament and slightly less belligerence worldwide.

Second, how real and permanent would a NFU policy really be, and what else would be involved in implementing it? Cartwright and Blair wrote this past Sunday in the NYT (emphasis added):

Although a no-first-use policy would limit the president’s discretion by imposing procedural and physical constraints on his or her ability to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, we believe such checks on the commander in chief would serve the national interest.

OK, but what are these intriguing “procedural and physical constraints” on the president’s “ability to initiate the use of nuclear weapons?” And who, exactly, would place “such checks on the commander in chief?” A military leader, perhaps? Who else could? A committee, exerting powerful psychological pressure? Meeting where, composed of whom? Who would set up this decision-making process right now? What discussions with the rest of the U.S. are they going to have? (Answer: none.)

All these discussions are secret. They have to be. But would this create, or perhaps ratify the present secret existence, of a power above the president? Would this negative NFU power come with a de facto permissive power as well, the power to OK the use of nuclear weapons? Who would really be making decisions and how precisely would this new system work? This could be quite a can of apocalyptic nuclear worms.

In this regard, it is very far from clear to us how nuclear use decisions are or might be made. We do not fully believe much of anything we have heard or read on this topic of late, including what we heard in a briefing in 2015 from a very senior STRATCOM nuclear war planner and Rose Gottemoeller about this topic at a side event at the United Nations. With the exception of Bruce Blair, we do not think even the most knowledgeable U.S. NGO experts understand this clearly. At some point in a nuclear war, if the president is dead from the outset as he or she is likely to be, plans for nuclear decision-making may become part of Continuity of Government (COG) planning, which is shrouded in enduring mystery. For example, we do not believe that only civilians in the line of presidential succession can authorize the use of nuclear weapons, which is what Ms. Gottemoeller and her co-briefer insisted to us was true. STRATCOM told us they knew the whereabouts of every individual in the presidential line of succession at all times. We doubt this. We also doubt that every one of these individuals would have truly independent decision-making power in the event of nuclear war. What does the Secretary of Agriculture know about nuclear war? Answer: what he would be told.

Again, we are sympathetic but wary and skeptical about NFU as an Obama “legacy.” We have written a number of colleagues in the U.S. and abroad about this in greater detail than we can go into here. We said:

I rather imagine there have been a lot of discussions in the White House about how to have change without really changing, e.g. a NFU without roots or fruits. That’s “how they roll,” up there in the White House.

An NFU without concrete changes in deployments and investments falls into the reality parodied by one of our advisors:

“Trust us, we won’t use nuclear weapons first.” I can’t help but see this as another hypocritical “legacy-saving” move by Obama.  Never mind that he brought back the Cold War and rebuilt the entire nuclear weapons manufacturing infrastructure in the US . . . really, he wants to have a world free of nuclear weapons….Sadly, we all want to succeed desperately enough to sometimes convince ourselves that we can compromise our way to nuclear disarmament.

Leaving the main issue, we take issue with this comment (emphasis added):

Those missiles [ICBMs] are mainly for first-use; they are a risky option for second-use because they are highly vulnerable to enemy attack. Eliminating these weapons entirely would be the best option.

Well, maybe. Maybe also be that ICBMs are really for no use at all. Their sole “use” might (secretly) be as targets, to absorb a Russian strike. We’d be the last to know, of course. Secrecy and ambiguity is an essential aspect of any such strategy, coupled with the necessary touch of madness. Especially Cartwright could not say this if he wanted to.

Phasing out land-based missiles and shifting to a reliance on submarines and bombers would save about $100 billion over the next three decades. The elimination of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons would save billions more. President Obama could begin the phaseout of land-based missiles before he left office by instructing the Department of Defense to remove 550 weapons [sic — 431 and slowly falling] from the operationally deployed category and transfer them to long-term storage, thereby reducing the operationally deployed inventory to about 1,000 strategic warheads. These missiles are surplus weapons no longer needed for deterrence.

Eliminating the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrence is an excellent idea. Do it.

The most recent State Department figures for deployed ICBMs (fact sheet of July 1, 2016, current as of March 1), are: 431 deployed ICBMs and silos, 255 non-deployed ICBMs, 23 non-deployed silos, and 4 test silos.

Update!‘ (WSJ)

It appears that the prospects for a NFU policy are approaching nil.

For reference:

Selected news & analysis re present and future great power wars, Aug. 1-13

This is a first attempt at pulling together recent articles of interest to our members. This format is experimental and will no doubt change. I (Greg) have included what I think are some of the most interesting articles bearing on present and future great power wars, just from the past thirteen days. Articles on other themes will follow, perhaps in a simpler format.

You will understand that memes of “Russian aggression,” “our adversaries in Asia,” etc. ad nauseum bear heavily on U.S. conversations about nuclear weapons. A massive mountain of propaganda is being dumped on us daily, which is difficult for many people to see through. We must try, and we must succeed one way or another, or our civilization will surely end. Hence the subject of this first summary.

    Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has disrupted a plot to carry out terrorist attacks in the Republic of Crimea. The attacks, planned by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Chief Intelligence Directorate, targeted critical infrastructure and facilities in Crimea. Russia’s intelligence services take the view that these planned acts of sabotage and terrorism were intended to destabilise the socio-political situation in the region in the run-up to federal and regional elections….
The attempts to enter Crimea unlawfully, the recent attempt on the life of Head of the Lugansk People’s Republic Igor Plotnitsky, the constant firing along the line of contact in Donbass, and the actions of radical nationalists and so-called ‘activists’ from around Ukraine that go beyond the bounds of any lawful framework are a vivid illustration of the state of affairs in Ukraine today. The numerous provocations, efforts to portray Moscow as the enemy, and the deliberate cultivation of anti-Russian sentiments are an attempt by the Ukrainian government to distract the public from the country’s own troubles and the problems affecting the majority of people in Ukraine. We see a deliberate effort to divert public attention from the actions and responsibility of those in power and their inability to carry out long overdue reforms and conduct an honest investigation into the murders of journalists and human rights activists and the crimes committed in 2014 during the Maidan protests, in Odessa, Mariupol, and other cities….
Attempts to destabilise the situation in Russian Crimea are doomed to fail. Russia unconditionally guarantees Crimea’s stability and security.
Kiev and its foreign backers should know that any harm to Russia or the deaths of Russian personnel will not go unanswered.
As President Vladimir Putin noted on August 10, given the current situation and until we see real positive steps from Kiev, like renouncing terror and provocations, it makes little sense to hold Normandy format meetings, like the Beijing meeting in early September requested by Mr Poroshenko recently.
Once again, we call on our partners to use their influence with Kiev to dissuade the government from taking any dangerous steps that could have grave consequences. Playing with fire is dangerous.

    A “Russian cyberattack”? How can the NYT claim such, in an opening paragraph, when even the Director of U.S. National Intelligence is unable to make such a judgement?…
The “Russia is guilty” claim for whatever happened, without any proof, is becoming a daily diet fed to the “western” public. A similar theme is the “barrel bombing” of (the always same) “hospitals” in Syria which is claimed whenever the Syrian government or its allies hit some al-Qaeda headquarter.
All this propaganda is in preparation of the rule of the “We came, we saw, he died. Hahaha …” psychopathic queen of war Hillary Clinton.
As Marc Wheeler, aka emptywheel, reminds us: 6:13 AM – 10 Aug 2016 emptywheel @emptywheel: “The actions to ensure we will escalate our wars are being taken as we speak. January will be too late to stop it.”

    Stepping back a bit: in August 2011, when Obama and Clinton both demanded Assad’s departure, and closed down the U.S. embassy in Damascus, the opposition to Assad had been largely nonviolent. But armed factions were, with U.S. encouragement, already taking shape, loosely coordinating as something called the “Syrian Free Army.” They included many pro-al-Qaeda elements who officially formed the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) in January 2012.
(The rule, if you haven’t noticed, is: When the U.S. overthrows a secular leader in the Middle East, or tries to, it creates a power void; it creates promised lands of opportunity for vicious jihadis, whose atrocities justify the redeployment of U.S. troops to the country involved in order to “preserve regional stability” and so forth. It is as though Washington is actively working to enrage, not only your everyday Muslim anywhere in the world, but your everyday anyone anywhere in the world, by its regime change bombing campaigns rationalized by lies.)
Al-Nusra gained widespread respect among the armed rebels in Syria in 2012. The U.S. press gave slight attention to the fact that the “Free Syrian Army” publicly justified and insisted upon its alliance with this al-Qaeda chapter.
Currently most factions (80% in one estimate) of the hundreds of Syrian Free Army factions work with al-Nusra. They value its experience and competence, even if they may dislike its puritanism in such matters as tobacco smoking and personal appearance. U.S. officials have long since realized that to topple Assad they need to—if not befriend al-Nusra directly (repeat: al-Nusra/ Fatah al-Sham was until yesterday an official al-Qaeda affiliate)—at least give their (more) directly subsidized associates leave to mingle as needed, to get the regime change job done.
By 2014, with Assad still in charge and al-Nusra coming to dominate the “opposition,” Obama asked Congress for money to fund a program for U.S. personnel to train in Jordan some 15,000 armed rebels in marksmanship, navigation and other skills. But as of September 2015, as a sheepish-faced General Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, told Congress, “We’re talking four or five” fighters actually trained.  In that same month, it was announced that about 70 fighters of “Division 30”—Syrians trained in Turkey, under the “Syrian Trade and Equip” program, had upon entering Syria turned over their weapons to al-Nusra…
The fact of the matter is, the U.S. has found it difficult, after all that’s happened in the region in this young century, to recruit Syrians willing to work with them. Blinded by their Exceptionalism, U.S. policy-makers can’t get it through their heads that U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Libya do not endear them to the peoples of those countries. Quite the opposite.

Kerry like Obama seems conflicted about what to do in Syria. He wants to topple Assad, because the U.S. government has announced he must go, and once such a proclamation is issued, it cannot (like a law of the Medes and Persians) be retracted for fear of loss of face. But Kerry’s also been (like Obama, who as you recall cluelessly called ISIL a “JV team” in August 2014) shocked by the sudden rise of that horrid outgrowth of the U.S. destruction of Iraq. It would be embarrassing if ISIL takes Damascus and blows up all the ancient Christian sites. Especially if Putin and tens of millions of Russian Orthodox believers who feel akin to Syrian       Orthodox Christians are standing around saying, “I told you this would happen, if you keep focusing so stupidly on Assad”).
So of course U.S. leaders have to condemn, and to some extent wage war on, ISIL as well as al-Nusra. The problem is how to pursue that objective while simultaneously maintaining that Assad is the main problem, and arguing that his very persistence in power strengthens the terrorists. It doesn’t make any sense.
In fact, the weakening of central state power encouraged by the U.S. since 2011 has allowed these groups to seize territory and advance their positions, while the reclamation of state authority when it’s happened has set back the bad guys. Or at least the worst guys.
The faction in the State Department that never learns anything and is currently demanding regime change is getting louder. The manifesto published by the 51 State Department dissidents suggests too much attention has been placed on countering ISIL. What we really need to do, they say, is step up efforts to remove Assad.    Despite The weird, unprecedented nature of the dissidents’ memo leak, Kerry has pronounced himself sympathetic. Meanwhile the recent statement from the “Center for a New Security” headed by key Clinton aide and likely future Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy similarly promotes regime change.
On July 29—the day that she secured the Democratic nomination in that sickening display of USA! USA! jingoism—Clinton’s campaign stated that she will “reset” U.S. Syrian policy as a top priority in office, to focus on toppling Assad from power. (Surprise, surprise, you fools who assumed she’d learned something from Libya.)
For all with ears to hear—and have learned anything at all since 9/11 and the inception of the era of constant wars, based on lies—the war-drums are sounding. But as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews notes, “Americans don’t care anything about foreign policy.”
One can only hope that the crazies in Syria are rolled back by rational secular forces before January, aided perhaps by welcome, coordinated foreign air power, when the Queen of Chaos comes to the throne (if so she does).
Because if she gets her chance, she will be looking for excuses to bomb Damascus.

    Last week, U.S.-based think tank RAND Corporation – which also studied the prospects of war in the NATO member Baltic states – unveiled its latest thinking on what a potential clash between the United States and China would look like…
RAND examined two different scenarios, one for an inadvertent conflict taking place in the present day and one in 10 years from now, assuming Beijing’s military and economic buildup continues at roughly its current rate. China will substantially close its military gap with the United States over the next decade, it predicts – but the fundamental dynamics of how things will play out might not be hugely different.
Even now, the People’s Liberation Army is seen as having the ability to give a bloodied nose to U.S. forces in the region. Washington could expect to lose an aircraft carrier and multiple other surface warships in the opening stages, RAND warns, citing Chinese advances in ballistic and guided missiles as well as submarines.
The report does not estimate the number of human casualties, but they could be substantial. The loss of an aircraft carrier or several major surface warships could easily cost thousands of lives in an instant.
At the same time, it’s also generally assumed that both Beijing and Washington would have considerable success with cyber attacks.
The real decision for Washington would be how much military force to commit to the Asia Pacific theater….
Whether a conflict only endured days or weeks or dragged on for a year or more, Washington would almost certainly retain the ability to strike widely at Chinese targets across the battle space – including, in at least a limited way, into mainland China….
The real battle of attrition, however, would be economic – as it almost always is when great powers confront each other….
Perhaps most importantly, China might find itself cut off from vital external energy sources while Washington’s energy supply chain would be far less affected…
While RAND estimates a year-long Asian war would take 5-10 percent off U.S. gross domestic product, it believes China’s economy could shrink by up to 25 percent…
In the case of the United States and China, RAND’s analysts say they believe nuclear escalation would likely be avoided even if both sides fought prolonged naval and air battles.

    If anything, the proposals would serve Saudi Arabia’s agenda to import its austere Wahhabism in the Arab Gulf to the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean, and empower radical Islamist groups in the Mideast to harm US national security as well as Eurasian stability.
US/Saudi air campaign in Yemen has already devastated the country and empowered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Washington is again illegally bombing Libya to fight the jihadists it supported from its bombing five years ago.
It is also mind-boggling why Washington boasts US is a global leader in counter-terrorism while simultaneously stating it has no problem supporting jihadi groups that violate human rights and commit war crimes: chop off children’s heads;[6] use chemical weapons on civilians;[7] oppress women; massacre Christians, Alawites, and other religious and ethnic minorities.
Nonetheless, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said ‘one incident here or there” of beheading or chemical attacks will not stop Washington’s funding of jihadi groups.

    I just listened to Obama give Washington’s account of the situation with ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
    In Obama’s account, Washington is defeating ISIL in Iraq, but Russia and Assad are defeating the Syrian people in Syria. Obama denounced Russia and the Syrian government—but not ISIL—as barbaric. The message was clear: Washington still intends to overthrow Assad and turn Syria into another Libya and another Iraq, formerly stable and prosperous countries where war now rages continually.
    It sickens me to hear the President of the United States lie and construct a false reality, so I turned off the broadcast.
    If Helen Thomas were still there, she would ask the Liar-in-Chief what went wrong with Washington’s policy in Iraq. We were promised that a low-cost “cakewalk” war of three or six weeks duration would bring “freedom and democracy” to Iraq. Why is it that 13 years later Iraq is a hellhole of war and destruction?
    What happened to the “freedom and democracy?” And the “Cakewalk”?
    You can bet your life that no presstitute asked Obama this question.
    No one asked the Liar-in-Chief why the Russians and Syrians could clear ISIL out of most of Syria in a couple of months, but Washington has been struggling for several years to clear ISIL out of Iraq. Is it possible that Washington did not want to clear ISIL out of Iraq because Washington intended to use ISIL to clear Assad out of Syria?
    Washington produced this violence. Where is the question: “Why, Mr. President, did Washington introduce 15 years of massive and ongoing violence into the Middle East and then expect us to believe that it was the fault of someone else?”
    Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing have understood the message. Washington intends war. The purpose of Washington’s lies is to prepare the insouciant Western peoples for war against the two countries that Washington cannot subjugate except by victory in war…

    In the latest escalation of bellicose rhetoric over the territorial dispute involving the South China Sea, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan warned of “offshore security threats” and urged for a “substantial preparation for a people’s war at sea” to safeguard sovereignty, China’s Xinhua writes.
    The warning comes a day after China launched a massive naval drill which is set to prepare China for a “sudden, cruel and short” war.
    Chang was speaking during an inspection of national defence work in coastal regions of east China’s Zhejiang Province. He called for recognition of the seriousness of the national security situation, especially the threat from the sea.
    Chang said the military, police and people should prepare for mobilization to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. He also asked to promote national defense education among the public.
    [The newspaper] said that “China doesn’t want wars, a war with the US in particular. The only possible scenario for a Sino-US war is that the US corners China on its doorstep with unacceptable provocations and China has to fight back.”    We will be very prudent about going to war, but if a war is triggered, we will have greater determination than the US to fight it to the end and we can endure more losses than the US.

The contiguous US can only avoid being stricken under the condition that China’s land is not attacked….The biggest risks that countries such as Japan and the Philippines will be embroiled into war come from their alliances with the US, which will tie them to the chariot of the US.

Mello (more on this in a pending article from us):

    RAND seems to think that China does not now have and cannot soon make more high-tech missiles and other theater defenses, cannot hide them, and that we can “take out” their bases and capabilities, leaving our [presumed huge, and presumed available] military forces available to win. I think the truth might be, or might be soon, otherwise.
LRSO [the Long Range Stand Off air-launched stealthy nuclear cruise missile] is needed to “signal” that the “rules of the game” are that the US must always win and therefore must always dominate, end of story. LRSO makes them back down before taking out carriers, other capital ships, and US bases. That is the idea. It is why JASSM-ER is not enough, why LRSO is not completely redundant. We need a BIGGER stick than JASSM-ER, not just something to throw back that is similar to what they might throw at us, and it has to be stealthy. 300 tons (unboosted yield, easily done) or 4-5 kt, on up to 150 kt, or whatever is deemed a big enough stick.

When STRATCOM uses the word “deterrence,” they now mean deterring the prospect of losing any war, anywhere, anytime. They mean the old Roman ultima ratio, the final decider, the winning weapon. Which is why Obama will not sign a no-first-use (NFU) declaration, or if he does it will be meaningless. The objective situation is that the US is inexorably losing control of its empire. The American Century is over. LRSO is a desperate measure. It is a very dangerous situation.

Comment on this from a colleague:

RAND is not in touch with their home planet.
The US flew, what, 50,000 missions in Iraq and couldn’t take out all of Saddam’s Scuds.  Even a preemptive nuclear strike wouldn’t take out everything.
Chinese hypersonic missiles will quickly sink the US ships in the South China Sea.  They would probably hit US bases in Japan and Okinawa, which would remove any advantage current forward basing allows….

    The current attack on the government held Aleppo by al-Qaeda in Syria (aka Jabhat al Nusra aka Fateh al Scam) was launched on August 1st. With up to 10,000 insurgents participating the attack was unprecedented in size. August 1st is exactly the same date Kerry had set as starting date for “a very different track”. This is likely not a random coincidence.
Despite the very large size of the “Great Battle of Aleppo” and its possibly decisive character for the war neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post has so far reported on it.
The U.S. had long prepared for an escalation and extension of the war on Syria. In December and January ships under U.S. control transported at least 3,000 tons of old weapons and ammunition from Bulgaria to Turkey and Jordan. These came atop of hundreds of tons of weapons from Montenegro transported via air to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. According to the renown Janes Defense military intelligence journal these Bulgarian weapons ended up in Syria where the Syrian army confiscated some of them from al-Qaeda and U.S. supported insurgents.
During the ceasefire and negotiations with Russia, the U.S. and its allies continued to arm and support their proxies in Syria even as those were intimately coordinating and integrating with al-Qaeda. The U.S. does not consider these groups to be terrorists, no matter with whom they associate or whatever they do. Even when such a group beheads a 12 year old, sick child in front of running cameras the U.S. State Department continues to support them and opines that “one incident here and there would not necessarily make you a terrorist group.”
Good to know …

Comment on this from a colleague:

Endless unreported support for Al Qaeda by the US.
The unreported story of massive US arms shipments to Al Qaeda in Syria in preparation for their unreported massive attack on Aleppo and its disastrous results. Weren’t they the reason we invaded Afghanistan and passed the Patriot Act? You know, the Act that ended the US Constitition?
How many millions of people has the US injured, killed, and made homeless in the last 16 years? Does anyone here even care? It is just business as usual as far as I can tell.

News highlights, Feb. 8

This is the inaugural day of offering a highly-selected list of what I think are the day’s most useful and important articles on nuclear weapons policies, U.S.-Russian relations, and selected environmental issues.

The idea is to present minimal comment but offer for a wider audience some of the issue updates we have provided for years to a small group of interested parties.

Nice review of nuclear weapons modernization issues, with interesting quotes, insights, data, and pictures.

  • U.S. oil production is falling and imports are rising. These trends will continue for a while, because the U.S. is now sliding irrevocably down the far slope of its second oil production peak.

See a comment today by Jeffrey Brown, with link to Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Information Agency (EIA) data.

For more insight from oilman Brown see also “The Great Condensate Con: Is the Oil Glut Just about Oil?” and this fine comment over the weekend.

Matt Mushalik offers an outstanding analysis of the overall U.S. situation, savaging the myth of oil independence. Don’t miss it.

Why is this important? Because the world is running out of cheap oil, the kind that supports our present extravagant civilization. The present downturn in price has already cancelled so much capital investment in oil production that 2015 is now sure to stand as the year of peak production in my opinion. The world’s economies are too morbidly unequal, internally inequitable in too many cases, and in some cases (like ours) obese to pay enough for oil to support the cost of the marginal barrels. Meanwhile depletion never sleeps.

The New York Times gathers a “critical” mass of former insiders now dissing nuclear modernization plans

1/13/16 update: an alert reader (Steve Starr) has noticed an important factual mistake in yesterday’s post, which I have corrected. In the process I’ve added considerably to the argument. Thank you Steve.

(Note to readers: henceforth I will try to use this blog to assemble and briefly comment upon a few important news stories on a very frequent basis, daily if I can, in addition to posting what have been all-too-occasional essays. I will explain more tomorrow given the lateness of the hour today, and meanwhile jump right in.)

Today [1/12/16], on the morning of President Obama’s last State of the Union Address, the New York Times headlined quite a decent article by Bill Broad and David Sanger on the proposed B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb, the very dangerous proposed Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) cruise missile, and the Administration’s nuclear warhead modernization program generally.

The interesting video that opens the article is part of a longer video shown to guests at the Washington DC “lab day” conference in October, provided later to this organization by Sandia National Laboratories. We distributed it widely on 12/31/15.

Broad and Sanger get the evolving politics right. The Administration’s ambitious warhead modernization plan is in some trouble. That, and the NYT‘s recognition (on the front page no less), is the news. The critical views of the former Administration officials variously cited — Phil Coyle, Andy Weber, William Perry, Steve Fetter, James Cartwright — do carry real political as well as intellectual weight.

It’s better late than never. If not for the Times‘ need to remain within a very small bubble of elite insider opinion, an article making the same arguments could have been produced five years ago, before B61-12 decisions were made. The hour is now late. As one government analyst remarked to me in 2014, “Congressional opposition to the B61-12 died on the streets of Kiev.”

Not so for the LRSO. For that, design is just beginning.

Still, it should be said that despite the B61-12 decisions that have been made, there are still plenty of “off-ramps” available. There are plenty of ways this program could be set aside, and plenty of potential new reasons to do so. The immediate future of the Republic is very clouded. Black swans are filling the sky. Even if the bomb is finally built there will be plenty of excellent reasons to not deploy it outside U.S. territory. If deployed, there will be plenty of reasons to retire it.

There is always, as a Chinese sage once said in a slightly different context, “another way up.”

In the long run, the B61-12 will not last. Will we?

That said, there is an important error in this article, in the title as well as the text. It is just not right to say that the B61-12 is part of any “build-it-smaller approach.”

First, the B61-12 Life Extension Program (LEP) does not lower the maximum yield of its B61-4 “parent,” and it does not lower the selectable yields that would be available from a possible B61-4 LEP. No other planned LEP for any warhead or bomb does so either, all the way out to 2040.

Second, the claim that the B61-12 “replaces” all other deployed U.S. gravity bombs (the B61-3, B61-7, the inactive B61-10, B61-11, and the B83; see Kristensen here) does not hold water. That is what the Administration says. It should not have been repeated in this article without serious critique. This “replacement” meme is all about selling new bombs.

B83 retirement in particular is being used as a “bargaining chip” vis-a-vis Congress and future administrations. The 1.2 megaton B83 has been exiting for some time, as Kristensen notes. There is no LEP planned for it and no funds have been allocated for one. The B83 is on a glide path to retirement.

(As an aside, it would be interesting to investigate whether the more accurate, 50 kt B61-12 could accomplish the destructive missions of the B83, whatever they may be — for example, holding  deep command and control targets at risk. In the matter of creating forces on targets significantly deeper than the accuracy of the B61-12, I doubt that a bomb with only 4% of the yield can do that comparably at the relevant depth, say 100 meters, even with the B61-12’s greater accuracy. Similar questions arise for the B61-11 earth penetrator.)

We need to ask: do either the B83 or B61-11 really have a military mission today — or more rigorously, one that passes the smell test even from the military perspective?

Do any of these bombs, in fact? Upon information and belief, the B61-4 has had, at least until recently if not still also today, no military mission — no target set. We believe NATO nuclear weapons have no pre-planned targets. In the event of a crisis, they’ll think of something to bomb.

Just considering the military perspective, aren’t the missions for all nuclear gravity bombs evaporating? Aren’t all these bombs obsolete, or on the verge of becoming so? (But of course these plans, plus NATO expansion and forward basing, plus the U.S.-planned neocon coup in Ukraine, have triggered a variety of Russian reactions, including some announced this week. So the potential target set of the B61-12, in the same minds that have promoted it, may be expanding quickly.)

From this perspective isn’t the B61-12, with its new capabilities over a simpler B61-4 LEP, just keeping faith in nuclear gravity bombs alive for a new generation of delivery aircraft and a new generation of NATO leaders? Isn’t that the big secret of this bomb — that without the glitz of its new technology and its compatibility with expensive new delivery systems, the NATO nuclear mission would become visibly obsolete?

In any case, it is very far from proven that the B61-12 will “replace” these bombs, with the exception of the B61-4 from which it is to be physically made.

Third, the very idea of a “smaller” nuclear weapon is problematic from all relevant perspectives except one: nuclear war fighting. In terms of international politics, humanitarian and nonproliferation law, supporting infrastructure and program commitments, and the pork-barrel politics that so massively drive procurement decisions — which is to say, in most of the real world where politics is done and history is made — a “smaller” and “more accurate” nuclear weapon describes a distinction without a difference.

Only in weapons phenomenology, targeting, and strategy is there a difference, and that difference is less than might appear.

For example, is the risk of nuclear escalation from an “accurate” B61-12 detonation significantly and knowably different than that from detonating a B61-4? So then how is the B61-12 more usable, or more credible as a deterrent, than the B61-4 it is to replace? How is the proposed new bomb smaller, in this sense — from the point of view of prospective nuclear war?

To take another example, we say that the combination of high accuracy, stealthy delivery, forward basing, and selectable yields enables the B61-12 to address a larger target set, all of which is certainly true to some extent. But what is the actual increment of that B61-12 target set, beyond the target set of a life-extended B61-4 with the same forward basing, same stealthy delivery, and the same original selectable yields? In other words, how much of this bomb’s purported greater utility is just hype?

What about collateral damage, then? Wouldn’t that be “smaller?” Well, blast overpressure and thermal deposition from nuclear weapons scale with the 1/3 power of the yield, so the B61-12’s highest yield (50 kt) would produce a given overpressure or thermal pulse reaching to 67% the radius of the B61-3’s 170 kt explosion, or to 52% of that from the B61-7’s 360 kt. To my view, this is not an impressively “smaller” bomb in this sense either. In what important sense for civilization, or for the target country, would the detonation of a B61-12 be much “smaller” than that of any other nuclear bomb or warhead? Would a blast of more than three times the size of Hiroshima be more “acceptable?”

So I would say that Broad and Sanger have fallen into the trap of privileging the nuclear war fighting perspective. Unfortunately, most arms control discourse about this bomb does so also.

The great bulk of arguments against this weapon have rested on its novel features. The differences are real but narrow, and overall they do not touch or refute enough of the real political and strategic motives for pursuing this bomb. That is one reason they fail. You could say that we who oppose this bomb have too often confined ourselves to arguments that are so narrow that they are logically and factually flawed.

For example, we say that the B61-12 costs more than a simpler LEP. That is true. But what if spending money, hiring new weapons engineers, and supporting the labs and plants and giving them all something to do are goals, not costs? (And of course they are.) In that case the greater the cost, the better! And in comparison to the goal of keeping NATO nuclear, and Europe in the U.S. geopolitical orbit, the cost of the B61-12 is beyond trivial.

What about the increased risk of nuclear war it appears to represent? Yes, every gain in deterrent credibility is also an increase in the risk of nuclear war. But is the B61-12 really that much worse in this regard than the B61-4 or any of the other bombs it is falsely claimed to replace? Yes, perhaps it is riskier, but will this difference in risk, even if properly perceived, ever be enough to offset the political and management benefits of spending all that money, enthusing the pro-nuclear NATO military partners, and perhaps even keeping the NATO nuclear mission alive? I doubt it.

Aren’t the stronger arguments against the B61-12 the arguments against any tactical nuclear gravity bombs, against foreign basing of nuclear weapons in general, against nuclear (delivery) sharing in general, against nuclear gravity bombs altogether, and against the fiction or idiocy (take your pick) of “nuclear umbrellas” in general?  And this list could be extended.

I am not saying that cost should not be considered. I am saying it is a weak argument, and a benefit in many eyes.

The bigger issues are also the bigger motivations for this program, and they are just too often “off the table” within the bubble that is imperial Washington.

The present article, and some of our own work in the past, as well as the work of the masterful Hans Kristensen on this topic (on whom we rely for so much), just make too much of these small differences. It is an expression of the quantitative obsession that leads the arms control field to so often miss the forest for the trees. Usually this or that “tree” is “better” or “worse” in rather small ways. This distortion and denial is a defining characteristic of arms control.

Does it need to be said again that the President’s vague and aspirational 2009 Prague speech — cited in this article as if it meant something — was without disarmament content?

Phil Coyle’s wise and important remarks about production surge capacity (we don’t need it) and the unlikelihood of actually completing the modernization plan are well worth emphasizing:

But the bigger risk to the modernization plan may be its expense — upward of a trillion dollars if future presidents go the next step and order new bombers, submarines and land-based missiles, and upgrades to eight factories and laboratories.

Insiders don’t believe it will ever happen,” said Mr. Coyle, the former White House official. “It’s hard to imagine that many administrations following through.

Exactly so, and for many more reasons than can be mentioned in the New York Times.

The flip side of the article’s emphasis on former insiders and on the nuclear war-fighting perspective is its omission of any of what might be called any “left of center” — any actual disarmament oriented — critiques.  The B61-12 plan “seemed reasonable, critics said, until attention fell on the bomb’s new tail section and steerable fins.” Really? Well, the B61-12 never seemed reasonable to quite a few analysts, including me.

The Santa Fe New Mexican carried this story. I offered this comment:

This is a decent article, despite its [NYT] provenance.

Readers may wish to see this interesting testing video produced by Sandia National Laboratories, shown to guests at the Washington DC “lab day” conference in October and provided to our organization: It forms the lede in the original article.

The bermed target area appears to be about 30 meters in radius, and if so this corresponds to the previously-advertised accuracy of this new bomb. The clean entry of the bomb in the earth suggests some earth-penetrating capability, which was present in earlier B61 models as well. Both enable lower yields and expand the potential target set, leading to the perceptions of greater risk discussed in the article.

The perennial problem of the arms control community, which historically has felt a need to be very close to the U.S. government for funding and “access” and remains very close today, is one of which world-ending weapons to oppose — where to draw the line — and how to do so effectively given their broad endorsement of nuclear budgets, institutions, and especially of treaties like New START, which could not be ratified without a blanket endorsement of nuclear weapons modernization. Alas, New START had no disarmament component.

All the B61-12 critics mentioned in this articles were in favor of broad-spectrum modernization of the entire triad in 2010 for the sake of New START ratification. Those then in government like Phil Coyle and Andy Weber had to hold their noses (Coyle did I am sure!), or else thought the bomb was a good idea.

These latter-day critics were however outmaneuvered and effectively neutered by the neocon coup in Ukraine and subsequent deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, passively allowed by a tragic, MIA president who is no longer in charge of his government, if he ever was.

The B61-12 program is driven by the availability of the technology, by pork-barrel politics (Udall rescued it in committee), and by a desire to keep NATO nuclearized, with forward-based bombs to be delivered by non-U.S. pilots in violation of the NPT, as part of the “glue” that keeps NATO states aligned with the U.S. instead of building ties with energy-rich, nearby Russia. It’s all about our on-going, never-ending, Cold War with Russia.

The labs of course need that war to justify their massive budgets, which now dwarf what they got during the Cold War in constant dollars. This one bomb supplied the money that allowed Sandia to hire 600 new staff. This bomb is thus a potent weapon in the never ending fight against spending for schools, sustainability, and infrastructure, and it helps keep clueless or hireling politicians in line. It is, as General Smedley Butler said so long ago, a racket, in this case dressed up in very fancy clothes but a very effective con just for that reason.

One might get the impression that this is a “smaller” yield bomb than the bomb it replaces. It is not. It is a variable-yield bomb.

I don’t want to lightly gloss over the notion of the NNSA weapons labs as rackets. I did not mean that as a figure of speech. They are indeed rackets, and as institutions they cannot be understood at all without examining them from that perspective. The U.S. warhead labs don’t just have the occasional departure from social, environmental, worker safety, or legal norms. They are fundamentally constituted outside those norms. But with that assertion, offered here for your meditation and without further explanation, these comments must close.

If you have comments, send them to me.  Thank you for your attention.