Monday, March 1, 2010

On the Eve of Obama's Nuclear Posture Review & Fifty Six Years After Castle Bravo: Ruminations on the History and Future of Nuclear Weapons

Today marks the 56th anniversary of the Castle Bravo nuclear test. As the largest-ever weapons test conducted by the United States, and the first test of a deliverable hydrogen bomb on the planet, there's a sense in which today is a more real anniversary of the nuclear age than Trinity (the first nuclear test), or even Hiroshima (the first wartime nuclear deployment). The blast, equivalent to 15,000,000 tons (15 megatons) of TNT, was conservatively 750 times more powerful than these earlier bombs, and three times as potent as the scientists conducting the test predicted. It spread so much harmful radiation over such a large swath of the south pacific that belatedly-evacuated islanders suffered illness and birth defects while a Japanese fisherman was killed outright and massive contaminated fish harvests had to be scrapped. Reaction to the uncontrolled test is a textbook case of how nuclear reforms come about: just as we discover greater nuclear power, its consequences immediately inspire the desire to control or even undo the advance. In this case, the damages caused by the loose radiation led directly to the limitation of above-ground testing and slowed the pursuit of higher weapon yield.

As critical as I can be of the current administration, there's one issue where Obama – so far – deserves all of the credit we can give him. By pledging to rid the world of nuclear weapons, he has not only repudiated an orthodoxy that has held sway in the upper echelons of the United States government since Harry Truman, but pushed the world towards a security it hasn't had in sixty years.

Though the threat of global nuclear war has faded since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the likelihood of nuclear terrorism is as high as ever. It remains unclear whether and how many "suitcase" bombs were lost during Russia's reorganization in the 1990s, and there is no way to account for every piece of nuclear material from the hundreds of refinement and storage sites throughout the former Soviet Union. And as unstable dictatorships like North Korea and Libya make bids for membership in the nuclear club (successful or not), Iran's increasing nuclear ambitions look downright sensible.

More alarmingly, even an engagement between "minor" nuclear powers like India and Pakistan would likely have apocalyptic effects. Scientists Micahel Mills and Owen Brian Toon recently re-ran the old nuclear winter experiments with the faster computers and more advanced climate models that we have today, on the assumption of a 100 sub-megaton bomb exchange (in keeping with Indian and Pakistani capabilities). Their conclusions? In addition to causing ten times more damage to the ozone layer than all the CFCs ever released, the firestorms caused by the explosions would put such a massive amount of smoke into the upper atmosphere that agriculture would be rendered untenable, worldwide, for as long as ten years.

To put this in perspective, the Federation of American Scientists estimates that there are approximately 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world, many of which are decidedly not in the sub-megaton range. The majority (21,400) are held by the United States and Russia, with the remainder spread (in decreasing numerical order) between France, China, the United Kingdom, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea.

Thus, the genius of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is not just its damned accurate portrayal of the paranoiac cold war strategic mentality. It's that the doomsday device developed by the Russians as a deterrent precisely describes the world in which we've been living since the 1950s.


So when I saw Ross Douhat's New York Times op-ed a few weeks ago about Obama's arms control plans – published perhaps a month before Obama's Nuclear Posture Review is due – I had a moment of hope: maybe the disarmament of our biggest international death trap is something we can finally agree upon, politically.

Nope. Of course not. Eliminating the largest threat humanity has ever faced wouldn't be in keeping with a "conservative" viewpoint at all, would it?

In fairness, Douhat, like most post-Carter presidents, is in favor of stockpile reduction. Even he recognizes that there literally is no contingency in which the United States would need all of its 9,400 nukes (2,700 of which are actively deployed at this very moment). But there the sanity ends.

Like so many cold war game theorists, Douhat clings to the illusion that the bomb is a deterrent that keeps America and its allies safe, rather seeing it for what it is: a gun that, when fired, will explode and kill everyone in the room. It’s not even that he’s wrong about the points he makes. It may very well be that countries like Turkey only refrain from pursuing nukes because they fall under NATO’s nuclear protection; it may well be that Iraq’s nuclear aspirations had everything to do with counterbalancing America’s advantages in conventional arms, rather than matching its nuclear capabilities; it may even be the case that America’s bombs are an essential part of the deterrent, or will become an essential part of the deterrent, to radical, nuclear-armed countries like Iran and North Korea.

But to focus on particulars like these as an argument against the eventual, total elimination of nuclear weapons is to utterly and dangerously fail to understand what they are. The more we learn about what these bombs do, the clearer it becomes that we can never, ever use them. It doesn't matter who has more, or whether one side can more thoroughly destroy another first. It does not even matter what country has them in a more than incidental sense. The destructive power of nuclear weapons is simply so great that their existence in these numbers is a direct threat to all higher life on the planet.

Let us take a step back from North Korea and Iran, and even from the Soviet Union: is there cause to trust the United States government with so great a power? Can you name an individual, group or an agency in whom you would entrust the ability to end all human life? Because this is not a hypothetical question. We have chosen twelve individuals thus far, and choose again every four years. And while we may give them credit for the fact that we’re still here, a closer look at the history of near-confrontations reveals a far scarier picture.

If you haven’t already seen it, then watch the first twenty minutes or so of Errol Morris's Fog of War and listen to Robert McNamara, secretary of defense during the Cuban missile crisis, describe just how close our country’s highest standard of "rational individuals" (McNamara's words) came to obliterating the planet during those two weeks in 1962. Even with all the benefits of time to sleep on a decision and speak with the adversary, we came “within a hair’s breadth” of nuclear war.

Today, we no longer have the luxury of weeks or days. Since the development of ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles), SLBMs (Submarine-launched Ballistic Missiles) and forward-deployed MRBMs (Medium Range Ballistic Missiles), most of which contain multiple independently targetable warheads used to completely blanket a target area, the time for thought has shrunk to mere minutes.

Perhaps the second greatest close call occurred during the Able Archer 83 NATO exercise in 1983, when deployment of Pershing II missiles to West Germany (capable of reaching their targets in Russia within four to six minutes of launch) coincided with a NATO simulation of an escalating nuclear conflict about which NATO utterly failed to notify the Soviet Union. Unbeknownst to the west, Russian panic and preparation for massive nuclear retaliation escalated until NATO simulation reached DEFCON 1 with no subsequent launch of thousands of missiles. Had the false radar blips experienced by the Russian watch system days before Able Archer occurred as the exercise reached its hot point; had Russia decided that its intelligence pointed irrefutably to a NATO first strike attempt; and perhaps even more plausibly, had the tensions felt by the lower echelons of the Soviet army manifested themselves in smaller conventional engagements with NATO forces; we would very likely not be here today.

So you can see, then, how Dr. Strangelove’s most genius, scariest moment, is its end. Suspicious of the Americans and enticed by the prospect of life in a mineshaft with dozens of attractive women for breeding, the Russian ambassador actively chooses to set off the doomsday device, ending in an instant humanity's prospects for the next century of above-ground life.

It is all too human to think that we are worthy of such a charge. But to be painfully honest: we are not worthy. We need to do everything in our power to destroy those weapons that already exist and make it as difficult as possible to make more. In the short term, tactically, people like Douhat may be right that the United States's stockpile is a tool for achieving this end. But even if there were not real reasons to doubt this argument on its face, citizens of this country need to take a realistic appraisal of our own responsibility in maintaining and proliferating the nuclear mindset.


  1. dude, I love your commentary, but must you scare the ever-loving shit out of me with every post? first it was the hadron collider, and now this? your next post better be about butterflies...

  2. hahahaha!

    yeah, sure thing. next post: butterflies.

  3. Great post.

    As Jonesy said, absolutely terrifying, but really fascinating.

  4. Nice post;

    Reminds of a debate I had with a few of my students last semester.

    We were discussing this issue and whether Nukes should even be considered "weapons" anymore, or if they were something else entirely.

    One kid argued that Nuclear use was necessary, not only b/c we needed to promote the deterrent value our arsenal, but also for protection.

    I'm not so sure. Part of me keeps thinking that the nature of warfare and geopolitics has changed to such a point that the threshold offense that would compel the US to use nukes on purpose is so ridiculously high that I can't imagine it happening realistically.

    We have 9-10,000 or so; at one point they had a deterrent value. But that time has passed; and the World has gotten smaller. I'm not even sure if it is possible for a country to "win" a war anymore in the same sense that it meant prior to Vietnam.

    If we were to be attacked, it would probably be by a group or person that would be difficult to trace to a supporting government. And even if we were to have "credible/operable" evidence that country X planned, trained and funded the attack, what would happen? Would the US really be ready to bomb millions of innocent citizens?

    Or perhaps more relevant--Would the US be willing to risk economic instability and chaos by using the nuke when the desired outcome could be achieved by other force? (There was an article about this I read a while back that I'll try to post)

    Or would we do what we we've been doing for the last 60 years; economically fuck over the country and create ethnic strife that tears the country apart all in the name of stabilization?

    Maybe I'm starting with a faulty premise--that the US will continue to have a sane Commander-In-Chief with a finger on the button. But for an American President to actively have the support of the people and military to use the bomb on a target seems too remote a possibility.

    At this point, nukes have become the State equivalent of a convertible; its cool to have and may get you laid once in a while; but then you realize that it requires expensive maintenance and everyone else on the block wants one. So then you also have to lock it up and keep it in a garage for its own protection.

    And I agree, the far greater threat is terrorist acquisition of nuclear materials.

    Sorry if what I've written is unclear, I was typing stream of conscious in my 10 minute gap between class; I 'll try to clarify some points after I get done...

  5. One other point. The point of having nukes is to prevent a nuclear attack on the US. That's great, and obviously the whole "M.A.D" system collapses if we don't have nukes, since then Russia could just decide that Kansas would look prettier if it were made entirely of radioactive glass. But the thing is, if it's impossible to stop a nuclear strike once it's started, what's the goddamn point of launching in retaliation? Ok, so you don't like the other guy much, being as he just killed you and your entire country. But what does reducing the rest of the planet to a pile of rubble get your newly-dead self? Jack squat - you're dead. So the question is, would you prefer that the world you leave behind be a) Russian/Chinese or b) devoid of all human life? I can see why it's necessary that everyone else THINK we prefer option b - that makes them way less likely to shoot us. But honestly, I'd rather be Russian than dead.

  6. good lord, awesome post.

    i feel like we're gonna need to wait until the cold warriors all die off or something for people to start getting serious about getting rid of these things, a lot of people have this weird attachment to them.

  7. You're probably right, it's kinda like nimsofa's special attachment to chicken wings.

  8. I loved your blog. Thank you.