In the comments thread on my earlier post about whether the US was in decline, as well as in the comments thread on Obama’s Prague speech over at kiwiblog, and during an interview on Jim Mora’s show, I found myself correcting people with regard to US strategic doctrine. That got me to thinking about Obama’s promise to pursue global denuclearization. I decided to write up my thoughts as this month’s Word from Afar column at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0904/S00148.htm. The bottom line is that there are many reasons to believe that the promise, while apparently sincere, has many obstacles to overcome, and not all of them are located in Iran or North Korea.
I think kudos should be given to Jimmy Carter for confirming that Israel has 150 nuclear weapons. What other former president would have the testicular fortitude to reveal something like that? Israel is the elephant in the room whenever the US gets its hackles up over Iran.
I think you hit it on the head: “the political equivalent of comfort food“.
I find it unlikely that Israel, Pakistan or India will abandon their nukes. Or France & Britain, for that matter. I’m not sure whether deep cuts in US & Russian nuclear forces would make the world more secure – possibly, simply because the chances of the weapons being misappropriated reduces with the total number.
A technical point on radioactive weapons: “fissile” is not the same as “radioactive”. Fissile material, such as uranium or plutonium, can undergo fission in a nuclear reactor or bomb, depending on the isotope and the configuration. In fission, the atoms “split”, releasing a large amount of energy, either continuously or in an instant.
Radioactive material continually emits energy in the form of radiation – different elements emit different amounts of radioactivity.
All fissile material is radioactive, it’s true, but the level of radiation from uranium isotopes, for instance, is fairly low. Somebody making a radiation weapon would prefer an isotope such as Cobalt-60, which is highly radioactive, but not fissile.
Also, there is an established view that radioactive weapons are of limited effectiveness, except through speading irrational fear.
I also don’t quite understand the effectiveness of nuclear disarmament in preventing the use of radioactive weapons? It’s unlikely that a nuclear strike would be a reasonable response by a state to a radioactive attack, and on the other side the material of use for radioactive weapons exists for medical and industrial purposes, not as part of nuclear stockpiles.
Rich: It was not technical ignorance but sloppy writing and a weak proof read that led to the erroneous juxtaposition. Thanks for the clarification/correction.
As for the weird logic of nuke disarmament leading (somehow) the suppression of suitcase bombs, I tried to explain in the cited essay (apparently with little success) that it may be that the Obama administration believes that if it makes bilateral moves with Russia towards warhead reductions at the top of the nuclear food chain, then there will be trickle down effects through the NPT and IAEA that will curtail the diffusion of low-yield radioactive elements conducive to low-tech warfare approaches by non-state actors. I, like you, have my doubts about that–and a lot of the assumptions that lie in between.
Pablo your article didn’t address the US proposal to site ABM systems in Eastern Europe nor Putin’s counter-proposal to use the Gabala radar in Azerbaijan.
What is your reading of this issue as it relates to Obama’s disarmament proposal?
Reid: Looks like two bargaining points to me. Russia has killed off the thoughts of admitting Georgia and the Ukraine into NATO, and it has served notice to the Czechs and Poles that it will view them in a darker light should they allow the ABM sites to be hosted there, so the radar site counter offer provides a partial way out for the US. If the US really wants the ABM sites to protect Europe from Iranian as it claims, I see no reason why it would not allow Russia to participate in manning the sites. Either way, the nuclear disarmament to happen, the Russians need to be convinced of the utility of BMD, and that it would not be pointed at them. So any further SALT talks will have to start there.
Its fairly obvious the best way to contain a nuclear threat from Iran (and possibly Pakistan to Europe) is to have an anti-missile capacity in Europe. If Russia is not be onside with this, then they have to be involved (this could also bring them into more constructive agreement on preventing weapons nuclearisation in Iran).
Basing a NATO-Russian facility in Eastern Europe and another one within Russia (American-Russian or NATO-Russian) would be the best way to realise this. This would also reduce the heat in the issue of nations in Eastern Europe joining NATO (if Russia was a NATO partner in such matters as ABM efforts to defend Europe).
That the 43rd Presidents team could not get this was just another of their many foreign policy disasters.
the Iran/ABM angle is interesting on so many levels.
I don’t really know what I’m I’m talking about, so bear that in mind, and please correct me where I go wrong, so saying:
It seems to me that the ABM’s were and are aimed at Russia’s threat. That is where the idea originated, the people that were really pushing it mostly came from the ‘Team B’ groups in the eighties that hated Reagan talking to the Soviets and were convinced that the USSR was super strong and preparing for a first strike at any sign of US weakness.
To me the ABM sites were part and parcel of the NATO expansion and the backing Georgia and all that jazz. The point was to humiliate and keep Russia weak.
Support for this comes from the fact that they never seriously tried to get Russia on board, even though the sites were an obvious strategic threat to Russia.
Iran has no reason to strike Europe. For all the propaganda they are fairly rational actors. As Pablo notes the main reason(s) they would want nukes is to deter conventional attack, and to counter the Israeli threat. Iran certainly supports Hizbollah and to a lesser extent Hamas, but not to any greater extent than many of the Arab states. Beyond that though they are one of the most stable and rational states in the region.
So, if all, or any of that makes sense, and if we put to one side the idea that Iran is run by a bunch of 12th Imam obssessed nutjobs who are hell bent on the destruction of Israel in particular and the west in general, (I think we can safely put this to one side, because there is no evidnce for it in Iran’s behavior), then what about Obama’s policy?
I think that this is where the international bank of nuclear material comes in. It calls Iran’s bluff. If they want fuel for energy, which is their right, then that can be provided. If they want to have the full cycle, then that can be fully monitered and the fuel can be part of that bank. If they don’t want to play, then that tells us something.
If they do agree to play though, then that removes the stated reason for the ABM sites. Clean slate with Russia, Iran’s intentions and capabilities clearer. Who’s not happy?
I think it was a planned move. These guys think these things through and they consider all the options. The US ABM proposal in my view is an aggressive power play against Russian security designed precisely to engender the reaction we’ve witnessed. I think Pablo’s comment about it being a bargaining chip is correct, but the fact is, the US have created this bargaining chip from nothing simply through this proposal, therefore they can afford to drop it completely.
Kind of. I personally think it’s highly likely Iran picked up one or more rogue nukes that were made available on the black market during the disintegration of the USSR.
Who knows, of course, but on the principal of planing for the worst and hoping for the best, that’s my current assessment.
I think the educated “guess” is that Iran is intent on being a player in the region and sees this as premised on being a nuclear weapons power.
They are sophisticated enough to know that the denial of this intent is part of the process of the fait acompli. The Iranian people have no real objection to their government deception – as they share the nationalist aspiration to the old glory of Persia/Iran (it’s a little reminiscent of the Iraq Baath Party Babylon pretensions back in the 80’s).
To Iran and the people of this nation, nuclear power status is the way to gain respect (an Islamic nuclear armed power government seat alongside Russia and the Americans in the ME peace process).
The only way to contain this from ever escalating into the Cold War (an actual nuclear war with Iran is no more likely than one with the Soviet Union once was) scenario is by the ABM route – which is why this is likely to continue to be proposed (whatever the earlier Bush team motives for NATO bravado/humbling Russia in Eastern Europe). The possibility of a Pakistan meltdown only reinforces the motivation to go down this path.
One can offer to supply Iran with all the means of nuclear capability – but they want independent capability status not dependence so this will come to nothing (and this is true whether or not they seek weapons capability).
The UN could design sanctions to apply only when Iran went down the weapons path – it is probably the only deterrent the world has. The only way to safeguard Europe afterwards is ABM capacity. Without it, Europe is essentially required to treat Iran as an equal in regional ME issues.
I’m very unconvinced that ABMs are useful.
Firstly, in order for a state to consider itself “safe” from nuclear attack, it would have to be confident of a very high probability that *no* missiles would get through in a nuclear attack. The destruction of Seattle, for instance, would not be an acceptable outcome.
In order to deliver say a 90% probability of success against a country with 10 ICBMs, one would need a 99% effective system. If they built a further 90 missiles, the system would need to be 99.9% effective.
Secondly, in most conflicts I can think of since the invention of aircraft, air defence has not met expectations. One would think an ABM/ICBM showdown would be no different.
Quite possibly so – but is this any reason not to develop the capacity and improve on it over the years?
Also the ABM site is as useful in its existence as in its actual use – to strengthen co-operation with the Russians in a common security purpose and diminish capacity for Europe to be intimidated.
One only has to look at how North Korea behaves …
Apparently the Pentagon doesn’t share your view, Rich. The US battlefield extends into space. It’s their trump card. The ABM radar is only one of the pieces to the ABM system.
The Russians and the Chinese have enough intelligence assets to know whether the proposed ABM sites are bluffs or not.
So far, the Russians are playing it as if its real and the moves they’re making indicate they regard it very seriously both from the gravity of the moves themselves and the adamant nature in which they’re being played.
They may of course be playing a double-bluff and I have no way of knowing that. However their moves to date indicate real intent to prevent a real threat and until they moderate their plays that remains my own personal position on this.
You talk here about being “confident of a very high probability”, and you talk below about 90%. I think you’re trying to argue that they’re not the same.
This is the sort of assertion which looks like it makes sense until you think about it. It only holds if a defender would do nothing after the first missile were fired, allowing the aggressor to fire again (or if the aggressor had sufficient capability to overwhelm the ABM defence, and was prepared to use it all at once.
In other words, it’s a strawman against ABMs.
I’d argue that a 90% chance of surving an attack without having a nuclear weapon land on ones territory is the minimum acceptable defence. Lew, do you think this is too low or too high?
I consider it’s highly probable that a nation that attacks a stronger state with ICBM’s *would* fire all its missiles at once, given the likelihood of a massive counterforce response. The only exception would be if they had a second strike submarine capability, where they could fire missiles incrementally (and then my stats would still hold).
(Any agressor state would be by definition not acting rationally).
Reid, the US military industrial complex will take any opportunity to obtain funding, whether objectively desirable or not. It’s a money and ego thing.
Its only a matter of “rational” choice if one attacks first and hopes to survive a counter-strike using “90%+ effective” ABM’s, whereas ABM’s are also a defence against a first strile by another (a last resort and any port in a storm applies – even if its only 60%/50%/40% etc).
And as I said the major purpose would be
1. developing NATO-Russian co-operation on containing a common threat
2. reducing the leverage aquiring nuclear weapons would deliver (thus in support of nuclear disarmament).