My latest at the Diplomat expresses skepticism that the North Korean nuclear test is something to get all that excited about:
The first and most important lesson is that North Korean policy towards its neighbors does not appear to have appreciably changed in Kim Jong Il’s wake. North Korea continues to test ballistic missiles, it continues to test nuclear devices, and it continues to decay socially, economically, and in terms of the conventional military balance. North Korea is stuck on the wrong side of history, and the detonation of 1950s era nuclear devices does nothing to solve that problem.
Early, but looks as if the Norks may have just “expended some fissile material.” Jeffrey Lewis thinks maybe 10kt (probably bigger than either of the previous two tests), but obviously it’s too soon to say what or how big. And of course it could just be an earthquake…
My own view is that the United States can accept a lower threshold for at sea nuclear deterrence, but this leg should still retain a rump deterrence capability. Survivability concerns may not be what they were, but they are still relevant, and SSBNs have both survivability and flexibility advantages over ICBMs. It isn’t accidental that China, India, and Russia are all choosing to develop or upgrade their SSBN capabilities at the same time. Concerns about shipbuilding costs should be remedied by resource transfers between services; if the Air Force no longer operates an ICBM force, then funding can (at least theoretically) shift towards the Navy.
Replacement of the Ohio boats will still be expensive, but circumstances may allow life extension beyond current expectations. The long term answer may not be an entirely new SSBN design, but rather a modified Virginia class boat that could carry ballistic missiles. The Navy has argued that this design would become more expensive than an Ohio replacement, but issues of number and vulnerability may prove more manageable if the option is no boomers at all. No other state in the world can match such a capability, and yet the U.S. presumably feels deterred from launching pre-emptive nuclear attacks on China or Russia. A reduced SSBN force is still the best option for providing a foundational level of nuclear security.
The Department of Defense is a leader in equal opportunity for all patriots seeking to serve this great nation. . . The vigilant warriors in AFGSC understand they are all equal and unified in purpose to provide a safe, secure and effective deterrent force for the United States. . .
Dr. King would be proud to see our Global Strike team – comprised of Airmen, civilians and contractors from every race, creed, background and religion – standing side-by-side ensuring the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal remain the credible bedrock of our national defense. . . Our team must overlook our differences to ensure perfection as we maintain and operate our weapon systems. . . Maintaining our commitment to our Global Strike team, our families and our nation is a fitting tribute to Dr. King as we celebrate his legacy.
As Gizmodo points out, Dr. King’s presumed pleasure at the diversity of the USAF’s nuclear weapons teams could have been qualified by his pacifist views on nuclear weapons. I should note that this represents an almost perfect distillation of the conservative understanding of MLK ; an advocate of formal legal equality without any other ideological views.
Here’s a fascinating series of photographs from a book on the Soviet bomb program. Someday, I would love to see a big coffee table book of pictures like these from all of the nuclear powers. The story that Richard Rhodes tells about the Manhattan Project is of an extended, extremely well-funded fraternity retreat from an elite engineering college. The Russian visuals seem almost steampunk by comparison. I’m sure that the rest of programs have their own unique stories.
Is Saudi Arabia laying the groundwork to go nuclear? The idea that an Iranian nuclear test would force Saudi Arabia and other regional powers to develop their own nuclear programs was one of the most common objections to my argument that an Iranian nuke won’t have much of an impact of Middle East politics. The reasons for skepticism are fairly clear; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have all faced situations in which neighbors have gone nuclear (Turkey twice), and all three have developed means of dealing with the situation that don’t involve building nuclear weapons. Moreover, concern that Iran is building a weapon has existed for some time, and none of the three have thus far taken much in the way of visible steps to developing their own programs. I agree that Saudi Arabia is the most likely proliferant, but it must be noted that the Kingdom is almost uniquely vulnerable to the kinds of sanctions that have been imposed on Iran. It’s possible that the United States would act to protect the Saudis from international opprobrium, but pretty much any scenario in which the Kingdom decides to build a nuke also involves tension between the US and SA, to the extent that the Saudis don’t feel they can rely on US protection. Recall that Israel built a bomb prior to the development of a close security relationship with the United States; all of the more recent proliferants have had serious concerns about the trustworthiness of their great power patrons. In the Saudi case, this means that the cost of developing nukes would be exceedingly high. Guzansky suggests that the Saudis might buy a device off the shelf from Pakistan, which is possible but certainly without precedent.
For the time being, I suspect that Saudi Arabia will keep up a steady stream of hints about a nuclear program while continuing to work on its conventional deterrent capabilities. As with Israel, the political authorities would prefer that the United States simply make the problem go away. If Iran does get a nuke, however, I doubt that the Saudis will dive into a program anytime soon. To the extent that Saudi behavior will change, it’ll probably be in the direction of closer ties with the United States.
Randomly selected groups of survey respondents were told that the nuclear and conventional attacks would either be equally effective or that the nuclear attack had a greater chance of success. Everything else was held constant. When both options are equally effective, only a relatively small proportion of respondents prefers nuclear weapons, presumably to “send a message.” Yet, when nuclear weapons are portrayed as having a 90% success rate while conventional weapons hit the target with only 70% of the time, a (small) majority of Americans prefers nuclear weapons to conventional ones. This effect is even greater when the discrepancy in success rates widens further. Moreover, among the people that still prefer conventional weapons, most say that they do so not out of moral aversion but because they are concerned that first usage sets a dangerous precedent.
There’s obviously an elite-popular divide, because virtually no one in either party in DC has talked seriously about the use of nuclear weapons in a preventive war against Iran. Such was not the case fifty years ago, when preventive nuclear war was seen as a good options by some policymakers, but that simply illustrates how taboos develop over time. I’ve also never seen any evidence that anyone ever seriously discussed using tactical nuclear weapons in 1991, even against Iraqi military forces or suspected missile sites/chemical warfare facilities. Bush was fairly cagey about whether the United States would respond to an Iraqi chemical attack with nukes, but nobody ever seems to have proposed “let’s blow up this Iraqi tank column with a 30kt bomb.” Recall that the US military expected significant casualties (~10000) in the course of destroying the Iraqi Army, so nukes could genuinely have been expected to reduce direct military costs. The elite level taboo, presumably, is why no one thought in these terms. The reason for the divide is unclear; we don’t normally think of the US foreign policy elite as being more pacifistic than the population as a whole, but perhaps the answer lies in exposure to transnational norms.
I’d certainly like to see comparative data from the other nuclear states. My way out guess would be that you’d find similar or higher levels of support for non-retaliatory use of nukes in Russia (Russia still publicly talks about using nuclear weapons while at a disadvantage at conventional levels of escalation), relatively high support in Pakistan, China, India, and maybe Israel, and very low support in Britain and France. But that’s just guesswork.
Ackerman and Cohen accept many of these lies at face value. Ackerman apparently believes that the autocrats in Bahrain would not have suppressed demonstrators, but for the specter of Iran. Dead protestors in dozens of states not threatened by Iran might wonder whether the Bahraini government is telling the truth about its motivations. He and Cohen believe that the Israelis will act irrationally, mostly because the Israelis insist that they will act irrationally. To my mind, the Israeli response to the Iranian nuclear program has been quite rational; they have pursued low cost, relatively low impact ways of disrupting the Iranian nuclear program, all while repeatedly insisting to their patron state that they are extremely concerned, and will very soon be launching a disruptive attack that could destabilize the whole region, and wouldn’t it be better if the Americans solved the problem? There is nothing even mildly irrational about this strategy, and there is no reason whatsoever to suspect that the Israelis will become more irrational, or the Bahrainis less autocratic, after an Iranian nuclear test.
Last Sunday I found myself in a twitter brawl after declaring that a nuclear armed Iran, while hardly ideal, would have no significant effect on the Middle East balance of power. Yale Journal of International Affairs asked me to write a longer piece on that argument:
The following facts about Iran are largely beyond dispute. It is outspent militarily by three of its closest neighbors, including Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Its only friends in the Middle East are a few terrorist groups and Syria, a nation beset with domestic furor. It has extraordinarily hostile relations with the United States, and only relatively polite relations with Russia and China. Iran’s existing conventional military forces are obsolete by regional standards. The country suffers from substantial domestic discontent and has undergone serial crises of governance structure since at least the late 1980s. Iran is heavily dependent on resource exports, inextricably and directly linking its economy to the international market and inviting all of the problems normally associated with the “resource curse.”
These things are true today. They will remain true the day after Iran tests its first nuclear weapon.
I do view China as a potential military threat to the United States… we already have superiority in terms of our military capability, and I plan to get away from making cutting our defense a priority and make investing in our military capability a priority, going back to my statement: peace through strength and clarity. So yes they’re a military threat. They’ve indicated that they’re trying to develop nuclear capability and they want to develop more aircraft carriers like we have. So yes, we have to consider them a military threat.
Simon Henderson and I disagreed on an issue related to the broader question of whether North Korean officials really showed AQ Khan three nuclear weapons. I said North Korea didn’t have enough fissile material, while Henderson referred me to one of his articles stating that North Korea “is already sitting on a stockpile of highly enriched uranium courtesy of Stalin, the Soviet leader.”
I didn’t find that statement credible and asked about its provenance. “Is this yet another of Khan’s assertions in these documents?” I wrote. “If so, this further undermines his credibility and demonstrates the need to place these documents in the public record to allow others to examine their contents.”
So, now we have the actual sentence from Khan’s statement: North Korea “had also manufactured a few weapons as, according to Gen. Kang’s boss, they had received Kg 200 plutonium and weapon designs from the Russians in the mid-fifties after the Korean War.”
Lewis has some exceedingly compelling reasons why we shouldn’t take this claim seriously. There’s no evidence of the transfer in the Soviet archives, it would have represented a huge Soviet investment, etc. Lewis theorizes that Khan is trying to absolve himself of responsibility for helping North Korea develop a weapon, which seems entirely reasonable to me. Nevertheless, an interesting read.
In 1982 I published an article that began, “Sometime in the 1980’s an organization that is not a national government may acquire a few nuclear weapons. If not in the 1980’s, then in the 1990’s.”
I hedged about the 80’s but sounded pretty firm about the 90’s. It’s now the 2010’s, twenty-nine years later, and there has been no nuclear terrorism nor any acquisition of such weapons by any terrorist organization that we know of; and I think we’d know by now. I don’t know of anyone—and I knew many colleagues knowledgeable on the subject—who thought my expectations outlandish. Something needs to be explained!
Schelling then goes through what amounts to the Mueller treatment, detailing all of the steps that would have to take place for terrorists to acquire fissile material and develop a nuclear weapon, which goes some distance to explaining why terrorists have not yet done so.
However, I think that the epistemology of the claim is more interesting than the claim itself. What Schelling doesn’t explain is why none of the knowledgeable people in 1982 could have come up with the same set of difficulties that we can understand with relative clarity today. The claim seems plausible on its face; if I were a nuclear weapons expert in 1982, I can’t imagine that it would have surprised me, whatever quibbling there might have been with the timing. There’s a certain similarity with claims about the imminence of the nuclear weapons development of Iraq/Iran/Burma et al, but without the same degree of institutional interest that we find in, say, the Israeli intelligence services. As the timing for an Iranian nuclear test keeps getting pushed back, we begin to reexamine our assumptions about the interest that Iran has in nukes and its capability to produce them, questions that should have occurred to us at the beginning but didn’t. In the latter case the timeline has been developed in a deliberately misleading way in order to suggest a much greater threat than actually exists; I don’t really see that in the case of Schelling’s terrorism claim, however.
It would be nice to think that there was some kind of “democratization of expertise” phenomenon happening, in which a closed group of “experts” had been replaced with a much broader social network community, but I’m not sure that’s the case, either. Again, the single best account of why terrorists haven’t acquired nuclear weapons comes from John Mueller, who by most accounts was, in fact, alive and conscious in 1982.