Media Link: “AVFA” on Oppenheimer’s Nightmare.

Last week former President and Prime Minister, now Deputy Chair of the Russian Security Council Dimtry Medvedev warned that Russia would use nuclear weapons if its forces in Southeastern Ukraine were on the verge of defeat, using the argument that the region was Russian and the use of nuclear weapons was a justified act of self-defence. Meanwhile, in the coming few days we shall witness the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the dawn of the nuclear (weapons) era. And coincidentally or not, in recent weeks the movie “Oppenheimer,” about the so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” was released to popular and critical acclaim. That got me to thinking about where the world stood today when it came to the potential use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The situation is not good.

As it turns out I have an indirect connection to the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project that Oppenheimer directed and which led to the devastation of the two Japanese cities. Using that as a potential “hook,” I pitched the idea of doing a podcast on the subject of nuclear and other arms control efforts to my “A View from Afar” co-host Selwyn Manning. He asked that we also consider potential solution sets to the currently sad state of affairs when it comes to nuclear, chemical and biological arms control agreements, where the conventions that have been agreed upon are now either suspended, have lapsed or are being ignored. It seems that, as I have written about previously, in times of global systemic realignment, norms erosion and violation is a defining feature of the transitional moment. As things stand, solutions are hard to come by because although technical fixes are available, decisions about the use of WMDs are ultimately political. That was true for the Manhattan Project in 1945 and it is true today, and in today’s world the political will to renew and enforce arms control and non-proliferation agreements is not a universal value. It is a sobering realisation, one that drove Oppenheimer into anti-nuclear activism back then and one that we are confronted with now.

Your can catch the podcast here.

4 thoughts on “Media Link: “AVFA” on Oppenheimer’s Nightmare.

  1. The US could get rid of its land based nuclear missiles, which appear to me to serve no purpose other than to act as a jobs program for the local states, at no cost to the US’s security. It could also dismantle the great majority of its inactive stockpile too.

    It could do so unilaterally. I mean, really, what does the US have to fear? The biggest obstacle is the aforementioned local pork to three states and its own pride and ego.

    The US has easy options available to it for de-escalation. Other states do not, they’d all provoke significant internal problems.

  2. James,

    It seems to me that your implausible scenario would work best as a bargaining chip for similar reductions in the Russian and PRC land based fleets. The whole point of the nuclear triad (now more like a biped) is redundancy in order to survive a first strike and retaliate in sufficient numbers to cancel any advantage the adversary may have sought with the opening gambit. The air leg of the triad is now very much a third-strike option since manned and unmanned aircraft moving at subsonic speeds are very vulnerable to AA defences. With stand-off supersonic missiles they become second-strike platforms but are vulnerable to pre-emptive (nuclear and conventional) strikes when not in the air.

    In contrast, submarine platforms, even when conventionally powered, can deploy nuclear missiles from concealed maritime locations, including against targets well inside coastal limits. That is why nuclear force configuration in Great Powers is increasingly biped and also why there is now a rush by many smaller powers to purchase submarines for both defensive and offensive purposes (since they do not need to have nuclear warheads in order to carry out effective strikes on adversary targets). Already, smaller nuclear forces in countries with smaller land masses like those the UK and the French Force d’Frappe are organised around submarine fleets and air-launched “stand-off” missiles rather than fixed (siloed) land based launchers, instead opting for mobile land launchers that fire IRBMS rather than ICBMs (because of the location of their main adversaries) when it comes to that leg of the deterrent force.

    In the early 80s I wrote an article suggesting that SALT negotiations propose to trade-off land-based offensive nuclear forces for effective anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems on a one-to-one or multiple-to-one basis (since more defensive systems would not threaten adversaries’ vital interests while increasing effectiveness against incoming ICBMs). The article was accepted but never published by a professional journal because no sooner had it been accepted, Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative, which increased ABM capabilities while maintaining the offensive component of the US triad (and effectively violating the spirit of the ABM Treaty extant at the time). So I have the dubious honour of having been accepted and not published by a leading journal of strategic affairs, something that at the time was devastating for me since I was a grad student about to go on the academic job market. I still have the final proofs of the article with the markups and corrections on them stored in an old file cabinet.

    My final thought goes to what I was saying in the podcast. There has to be a political will to engage in arms control negotiations and I just do not see it in the Great Powers at the moment (or in any nuclear-armed State). Even as a bargaining chip or negotiating ploy, I do not think that unilaterally reducing land-based nuclear weapons, or even mutually doing so, will fly. Plus in a democracy, unilateral removal of things like a land-based ICBM force is tantamount to committing political suicide, so will simply not be possible in any event. For their part authoritarians might do it as a gesture of good will to adversaries, but then again, who has good will these days amongst the opposing nuclear-armed camps? To the contrary, the current era is marked by the upgrading and expansion of nuclear forces, so unfortunately the trend is contrary to our suggestion on a number of levels.

  3. Interesting broadcast @ Pablo and Selwyn, AND Barbarba’s contribution.
    Towards the end, you (Pablo) mentioned lil ‘ole NuZulln (that punches above its weight) and mini states’ ability as mice to push back against the elephant.
    (I love elephants by the way, and they’ve never shown any animosity towards me). It is, and will be a daunting task however, but we can tickle the elephant’s toes – even to the point of rendering them temporarily useless and incapable of doing anything useful.
    I’m not sure if you’ve ever watched (not with elephants, but with tigers at least) how it is possible to turn a tiger or a lion’s pride and its tribe against one another.

  4. FME (for short):

    Since you like elephants, how about this? Not sure if I mentioned in the podcast but Lee Kuan Yew once said something to the effect with regard to small states dealing with Great Power competition, “Whether the elephants are fighting or making love, the mice need to tread carefully.” Not sure if your suggestion is workable but who knows?

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