Anyone hyping the EMP threat ought to be laughed out of public life…
Bernard Finel handles the latest attack-Iran nonsense capably, but I’d like to supplement three points:
- Fabius Maximus refers to General Wald’s post as part of a “years long project to start a war with Iran.” That’s true enough, but it’s also clear that General Wald envisions the war itself as lasting, well, years:
Furthermore, while a successful bombing campaign would set back Iranian nuclear development, Iran would undoubtedly retain its nuclear knowhow. An attack would also necessitate years of continued vigilance, both to retain the ability to strike previously undiscovered sites and to ensure that Iran does not revive its nuclear program.
The point is clear; a military strike cannot “solve” the problem of Iranian nuclear weapons. Only many strikes over many years can do that…
- With due respect to General Wald, anyone who argues that a nuclear weapon will grant Iran dominance over the Persian Gulf is a liar, a moron, or both. If a tiny nuclear arsenal with no second strike capability and an unreliable delivery system, in conjunction with a years’ outdated conventional military that’s a vanishingly small fraction of the size of the US military or the military organizations of the chief American regional proxies can win “dominance,” then, well, we might as well give up right now. The floor is yours, Private Hudson:
- General Wald invokes the “existential” threat to Israel as a reason to attack Iran. It’s worth dwelling on that for just a moment. The existential threat to Israel isn’t so much the possibility that Iran will launch a nuke as it is that Iranian possession of nukes will make Israeli life intolerable. The slightly elevated chance of nuclear annihilation, combined with increased Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, will make life in Israel sufficiently sketchy and unpleasant that Israeli Jews will begin emigrating to the United States, Russian “Jews” will stop emigrating to Israel, and the demographic balance in Israel proper (to say nothing of Mandate Palestine) will shift decisively in favor of Israeli Arabs, effectively destroying the Jewish state. This argument has been made with varying degrees of explicitness by Michael Oren and other Israeli officials. These concerns are real enough, given a particular construction of Israeli national interest. They do not, however, amount to an “existential” threat in the sense that the United States and the Soviet Union posed existential threats to one another during the Cold War. Moreover, I can’t help but think that there’s a certain absurdity in Israeli policymakers demanding what amounts to an absolute degree of security. If David Ben-Gurion had employed the same existential standard, then the state of Israel would never have been founded. Statecraft is dirty, dangerous business, and existential threats are pretty much an inevitable part of doing that business. Of course, the revolutionary generation always accepts sacrifice in the hope that its children will reap the benefits, but it’s still difficult not to conclude that the apple has fallen rather far from the tree.
France has acknowledged that it will no longer deploy nuclear weapons on board the Charles De Gaulle, at least under normal circumstances:
France no longer deploys nuclear weapons on its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle under normal circumstances but stores the weapons on land, according to French officials.
President Nicolas Sarkozy declared in March 2008 that France “could and should be more transparent with respect to its nuclear arsenal than anyone ever has been.” But while the other nuclear powers declared long ago that their naval weapons were offloaded or scrapped after the Cold War ended, a similar announcement has – to my knowledge – been lacking from France.
The French acknowledgment marks the end of peacetime deployment of short-range nuclear weapons at sea.
It is not clear when the French offload occurred; it may have been instigated years ago. But it completes a worldwide withdrawal of short-range nuclear weapons from the world’s oceans that 20 years ago included more than 6,500 British, French, Russian, and U.S. cruise missiles, anti-submarine rockets, anti-aircraft missiles, depth bombs, torpedoes and bombs.
The degree to which the great powers have denuclearized is remarkable. We speak about disarmament as if it were an impossibility, and I suspect that mutual zero will remain out of reach. Nevertheless, comparing the number of deployed nuclear weapons in the world today to the number in the 1980s shows a drastic reduction in nuclear arsenals, at least on the part of France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia. The shift hasn’t been universal, as China has modestly increased its nuclear arsenal, and North Korea, India, and Pakistan have become acknowledged proliferants. The exact number of Israeli weapons remains unknown. Still, reducing the overall number of nuclear weapons was a dearly held goal of arms reductionists in and out of government in the 1970s and 1980s, and we’ve seen progress towards that goal under just about any conceivable metric.
Congratulations of a sort are due India, which just launched its first nuclear ballistic missile submarine. The boat was built with Russian assistance, which makes sense because it kind of looks like a Russian sub. Arihant is the first of three expected boats, which is a bit light for a sea-based nuclear deterrent; India must be expecting to build a second class with the experience gained from these subs. The wikipedia page suggests that the Arihants will carry two different kinds of SLBM, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. One of the SLBM types appears to have been successfully tested, which puts the Arihant ahead of the latest Russian SSBN…
Geoffrey Forden is no longer convinced that North Korea detonated a nuclear device:
Let us suppose, for the moment, that the DPRK actually did explode 2,500 tons of TNT instead of a nuclear device. How could they load a tunnel with so much conventional explosive and not be detected by the West’s satellites? This was the real reason I was so sure it had been a nuclear explosion. I was convinced, unfortunately before doing a very simple calculation, that the trucks filled with high explosive (HE) would be detected.
However, it is not all that much HE. If TNT was used, as opposed to a higher density explosive like RDX, North Korea would only have to excavate a cavity 12 meters on a side and fill it with high explosives.
If four 10-ton trucks delivered their load each night (with a fifth truck coming every 10th day) they could drop off all the HE within two months. Using RDX, or some other higher density explosive, could significantly decrease this time. That seems quite doable and to be potentially undetectable by the West.
I discussed some potential strategic rationales for faking a nuclear test here. Shortly after the “test,” I had a long and somewhat angry dispute with a conservative friend about this Mark Steyn article. In it, Steyn quotes an unnamed friend to the point that the Obama administration had failed to react to “an underground atomic device many times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” I pointed out that the sentence has rather a different impact when it reads “an underground atomic device that is less than a quarter as powerful as the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” and suggested that the fact-checking machine at National Review appeared to be on the fritz. My friend was not amused, arguing that the general nuclear capability mattered much more than the specifics. I thought then that this was a reasonable point (although it hardly justifies Steyn’s sloppiness), but I now think it’s fair to say that North Korean capabilities are in serious question.
If you wish to espouse a weakly conceived and difficult to defend policy propositions in a limited space, there’s no better strategy than finding a figure of age and respect to hand down the pronouncements from on high. That way, they acquire a certain gravity without actually having to make any sense. Witness Melanie Kirkpatrick, who decided to sit down with former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, and saw fit to publish the results in an op-ed. As arguments, Schlesinger’s comments make little sense. As pronouncements, however, they acquire the quality of ageless wisdom. Ageless wisdom, of course, does not need to be defended, and doesn’t particular need to be coherent.
Kirkpatrick’s interview of Schlesinger begins with a series of cliches, then goes downhill. We learn that nuclear deterrence takes place everyday, and thus that if nuclear weapons went away wars would suddenly break out all over the place. Schlesinger doesn’t give us any indication of where these wars might happen, and neither does Kirkpatrick. Similarly, neither Kirkpatrick nor Schlesinger indicate why they believe that the massive conventional superiority that the United States enjoys over any opponent or plausible combination of opponents would fail to deter aggression; it’s almost as if spending as much on defense as every single other country in the world combined isn’t worth the trouble. I find Schlesinger’s assertion that Iran and North Korea are immune to deterrence particularly puzzling, especially in the context of his claim that nuclear deterrence is operative every single day. Seriously, does the old man think that the Russians are about to invade Poland?
Here’s something else I don’t get; Schlesinger suggests that one of the dangers of a reduced US nuclear posture is that more countries around the world will decide to go nuclear. One of his solutions to this problem is that the United States ought to try to convince Japan to develop nuclear weapons. This “idea” has also been proposed by Charles Krauthammer and a few others on the right. Setting aside the basic contempt for international non-proliferation institutions (which Japan continues to strongly support), I find this logic befuddling. I suppose that it’s logically possible that selective early proliferation could prevent even more widespread proliferation, but I’m not sure how it works in practice. Japan isn’t the leader (or even a major player) in a multilateral alliance system; while you could argue that French, British, and US possession of nuclear weapons obviated the need for, say, German and Italian nukes, it’s unclear to me exactly who the Japanese would prevent from going nuclear. All of Japan’s neighbors except for South Korea already have nukes, and the South Koreans are probably MORE likely to acquire them if the Japanese proliferate. It’s an idea that doesn’t make the faintest amount of sense to me, except perhaps in that it undercuts aforementioned Japanese support for the global non-proliferation regime.
Schlesinger’s discussion of RRW is just silly, but then most such discussion verge on the absurd. I doubt very much that the Russians are actually modernizing their warhead stockpile at any reasonable speed, and in any case nuclear weapons don’t fight one another. Assuming any reasonably sized nuclear force, concerns about the reliability of US warheads (which are in any case overblown) disappear in a cloud of atomic dust. It’s revealing that the “reliability” advocates never really bother to construct any hypotheticals about why warhead reliability might matter; they would all sound something like this. Maintaining some research-oriented capability to build new nuclear warheads is probably necessary if you don’t envision complete nuclear abolition, but I suspect that the core capability can be kept at a pretty low level, far below what’s envisioned by most RRW advocates. That said, I would certainly trade RRW for a dramatically reduced nuclear stockpile, and a guarantee that warhead design would concentrate on long term reliability, rather than on operational and tactical versatility.
I should say that I’m broadly sympathetic with Schlesinger’s suggestion that we will never be rid of nuclear weapons. I can’t get past the problem of verification; any scheme to reduce the number of nuclear weapons to zero runs up against major incentives to deceive and defect. Were I Russia or China, I would never trust the United States to eliminate all of its nuclear weapons, and given US conventional superiority, Russia and China have even more incentive to deceive than we. I don’t see a way around this; while we have monitoring institutions that can fix the number of nuclear warheads within a particular range, I don’t see how any set of inspections could be intrusive enough to assure complete security. And while I would concede that the threat of retaliation isn’t the only, or even the most important, reason that nations have refrained from using nuclear weapons since 1945, I’m convinced that it’s part of the explanation. The best I could hope for in terms of a nuclear future is for the major powers to adopt a standard of minimal safe deterrence (the details of which can vary), and substantially reduce their nuclear stockpiles. I also think that there’s an outside possibility that the United Kingdom may give up its nuclear weapons in our lifetime, but that depends on the particular international position of the UK and on its relationship to France and the United States.
That said, there’s certainly a huge distance between a minimal safe deterrent posture and where we are now. Moreover, there’s probably some value to nuclear abolition as rhetorical aspiration; the Chinese have been calling for abolition for a long time, even as they pursue moderate increases in their own nuclear arsenal. Most importantly, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (which holds nuclear abolition as an aspiration) has been remarkably successful; it has provided the means through which nuclear proliferation can be monitored, and has at least contributed to the decision of most nuclear capable countries not to go through with weapon development.
Even the Soviet bloc worried that the Chinese were crazy. The causes and course of the Sino-Soviet split are complex, but nuclear weapons were near the heart of the dispute. Chinese brinksmanship in the 1958 Quemoy crisis prompted the Soviets to suspend nuclear cooperation. In a ridiculously entertaining series of pamphlets issued between 1959 and 1963, China and the Soviet Union sparred over the role that nuclear weapons were to play in defense of the socialist world. The Chinese displayed on almost casual disregard for the atomic bomb, dismissing it as a “paper tiger,” and argued that peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism was a fantasy. The exasperated Soviets responded with a question: “We would like to ask the Chinese comrades who suggest building a bright future on the ruins of the old world destroyed by a thermonuclear war whether they have consulted the working class of the countries where imperialism dominates?”
Fox News is reporting this morning that North Korea has declared the existence of its uranium program, and is threatening the weaponize its remaining plutonium. The New York Times confirms the latter, but not the former, and I can’t seem to find the text of the North Korean declaration (although CNN confirms the Fox account). The suspected existence of the uranium program helped derail the Agreed Framework that held between 1994 and 2002 (US intransigence also helped), which eventually led to the restart of the plutonium program at Yongbyon. The North Korean declaration is in response to the tighter sanctions regime established by yesterday’s UN resolution. It also looks as if North Korea may be preparing a third nuclear test; the general consensus is now that the device in the first test failed completely and the device in the second failed partially. North Korea is suspected to have enough plutonium for about half a dozen bombs (with perhaps one or two more if the rest of the plutonium at Yongbyon is weaponized), but I haven’t seen a good estimate of how much uranium it could have enriched.
Galrahn has a brief discussion of what the UN resolution means; China and Russia have committed, in word if not yet in action, to a regime which allows the interception and inspection of North Korean ships carrying prohibited weapons. As the resolution bars North Korea from exporting any arms at all (and from importing most arms), this is fairly wide-ranging authority. Even if China and Russia aren’t fully on board with implementation, the resolution makes any effort to export very risky for the North Koreans.
All of this seems to me to be the right way to go. It’s fair enough to suggest that we should tread lightly where North Korea is concerned, but that doesn’t obviate the international community of the responsibility to establish boundaries of appropriate conduct. North Korean breaches of these lines have made China, Russia, and South Korea willing to engage in more assertive diplomatic action than they had previously been prepared for. If additional tests are simply a negotiating tactic on the part of the North Koreans, then additional UN sanctions are the diplomatic counter-tactic of the US, Russia, China, and South Korea. I’m not too worried about additional North Korean nuclear tests (each test expends plutonium while unifying the international community), but the concern is that the next negotiating tactic the North Koreans will employ will involve military skirmishes along the DMZ, or near offshore islands.