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America’s Nuclear Deterrent 64 Years After Trinity July 16, 2009

Posted by SV in China, History, Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Science, U.S. Government.
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Today, July 16th 2009, marked the 64th anniversary of the Trinity nuclear test in Alamagordo, New Mexico.  That test brought the world unambiguously into the Atomic Age.  Since that day nuclear weapons have played a critical role in U.S. defense policy, first as the ultimate tool with which to win the Second World War and almost immediately thereafter as a critical tool to deter aggression against the United States and its allies.  This mission became of even greater importance with the Soviet testing of an atomic bomb in August of 1949.

Despite serving as the most powerful deterrent against threats to the U.S. homeland and its allies, and by preventing a massively destructive conventional (or nuclear) war between the major powers, the nuclear deterrent of 2009 is atrophying and declining in reliability and safety.  As the Congressionally-mandated Strategic Posture Commission pointed out in its final report, the current nuclear weapons complex suffers from a lack of funding, a lack of emphasis on maintaining the intellectual base, and an almost hostile attitude by policymakers.  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Jon Kyl and former Reagan Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle charged the president with neglecting to support a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent as well as endorsing the unverifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Senate rejected in 1999.

As the U.S. nuclear inventory continues to age, life-extension or stockpile stewardship programs continue in their attempt to increase the weapons’ service lives.  However, with each further modification, the weapon design is taken farther from the actual model that was proven successful through testing.  Also, each passing year sees more scientists who had experience with nuclear testing retiring.  Therefore the hands on expertise that was produced through a rigorous and scientific development and testing process is declining precipitously.  Crucial skills and knowledge, some of which may only be understood through testing, are being lost.

Though the proponents of a CTBT argue that it will strengthen Washington’s hand in promoting nonproliferation and tougher sanctions toward Iran and North Korea, there is little evidence to support this.  No matter if every other third-party nation suddenly endorsed U.S. nonproliferation efforts, as long as Russia and China continue to block effective measures, which have been within their interests, no amount of political good-will generated by CTBT ratification will stop proliferation.  Therefore, the CTBT could only bring into question more the reliability of America’s nuclear deterrent.  If the U.S. is to deter aggression and assure its allies (so that they do not develop their own weapons), it will eventually have to test a new, modern, safe nuclear warhead design to replace the Cold War-era stockpile.

If one wants to reach a compromise position, I would suggest following the French example.  France conducted its last nuclear test in 1995, providing it with a modern, reliable, and proven warhead design that would serve French purposes for decades to come.  Within the next year it signed and ratified the CTBT.  The U.S. could develop a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) that would have  a service life of decades, test it to verify its reliability and effectiveness, and then ratify the CTBT.  Though a skeptic or pessimist may still argue that the U.S. may need to test a new or different design in the future, there is a “supreme national interest” clause in the CTBT that would allow the U.S. to withdraw if it served to further U.S. national security.  International agreements, after all, should only be abided to in order to further the national interest.

Alamagordo brought the world, willing or not, into the Atomic Age, which we remain in.  The Trinity test was the epitome of the scientific process.  Theorize, hypothesize, predict, and finally test.  Testing, as with any military weapon system, is a crucial option to have available.  Theory with testing is science.  Theory without testing is theology.

Trinity Test


Avoiding the ‘End of History’ Syndrome: The US Military of the 21st Century December 22, 2008

Posted by SV in Asia, China, History, Iran, Nuclear Proliferation, Russia, Terrorism, U.S. Government.
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The New York Times ran an op-ed recently (“How to Pay for a 21st-Century Military”) that erroneously recommends how to modernize the US military. The NYT uses the Global War on Terror as the basis for its suggestions of how to cut costs and increase effectiveness in the military. To do so is to repeat the error made by Francis Fukuyama in the 1990s of suggesting we had reached “the end of history” with the fall of the Soviet Union. GWOT is a temporary divergence from the norm of warfare, and the military must remain prepared to engage in inter-state war if America is to remain the strongest power.

Why the New York Times article is wrong (it would be beneficial to read the original op-ed):

1. Great power war is still a possibility. The recommendations to halt production of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor, cancel the DD-G 1000 Zumwalt class destroyer, and stop churning out Virginia class submarines are all naive in the extreme. These weapons systems have critical roles to play in the contingencies of great power conflict.

The F-22 is the top of the line fighter that can achieve air supremacy and defeat an enemy air force more quickly and efficiently than the slightly-less capable F-35. As the F-16s age and grow increasingly less effective for counterinsurgency and inter-state operations, the F-22 is needed to maintain the Air Force’s comparative advantage over a host of possible rivals.

The Zumwalt class destroyer, which the Navy is only getting two of, would play a vital role in a conflict in which the US had long sea-lines of communication (i.e., in the Middle East or Asia). The Navy’s current program seeks to maintain a fleet of 313 ships, close to an all-time low. To cut it even further risks stretching it too thin to respond to a range of possible crises.

The writers’ recommendation to cancel production of the Virginia class attack submarine also reflects their lack of understanding of future conflict. Though they rightly point out that it is a public works project and designed for operations against China, they neglect why these are positive aspects. After a US nuclear submarine sunk with crew and engineers on board, after the US had stopped building submarines regularly, it was decided that we needed to continuously build subs so that the technical experience, facilities, and infrastructure were not lost. Also, subs would play a pivotal role in a conflict with China, and more are needed if that contingency would occur.

Regarding their criticism of “premature deployment of missile defenses,” see my post on “Defanging Deterrence.” The Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey, though there is almost no comparable aircraft, could likely be cut without impacting the Corps’ overall effectiveness. It has had 25 years to be perfected, and still has safety and reliability issues.

2. Reducing nuclear weapons further would contribute to proliferation. After the Moscow Treaty of 2002 that set the number of nuclear warheads for the US and Russia at 1700-2200, there were opposing calls to cut the numbers further or to stop cutting them. Though it is fashionable to believe nuclear weapons no longer have a role to play, they are essential to deterrence and non-proliferation.

Cutting the inventory further would undermine deterrence because without a diverse and robust arsenal, other nations may not find our deterrent as credible as it once was. Also, reducing the reserve stockpile could be disastrous. Since the US has not tested any of its nuclear weapons since the early 1990s, if a problem were discovered with one of the few types of warheads, the reserve would have to temporarily fill-in on the missiles until the error were fixed. Cutting the reserve requires an end to talks of a comprehensive test ban treaty, something the NYT is unwilling to discuss.

Reducing the number of nuclear warheads in the US arsenal is also something many of our allies will not tolerate. Under the “deal,” the US would retain nuclear weapons so that they would not need to. If the US cuts its numbers further, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Egypt, Germany, and Poland may decide to acquire a nuclear capability. Many of these allies were upset with the Moscow Treaty, and do not want the US to cut its inventory further. To stop proliferation of nuclear weapon states, the US needs a large arsenal.

3. The Global War on Terrorism is not the defining model of warfare for the 21st-century. Though it has dominated the first decade, the GWOT will likely remain a low-intensity, long-term action that will not warrant drastic changes in the military.

Increasing the size of the Army and Marines is a good step towards modernizing the US military, but not at the cost of the Navy or Air Force. All services play an important and interconnected role in conducting operations. Like a three (or four)-legged stool, if one of the legs is shortened or lengthened while the others are not, it will not remain efficiently functioning.

The editors’ calls to expand the Navy’s littoral combat ships and resupply the National Guard and Reserves are all important actions, but they cannot expect to cut vital weapons programs to meet those goals. America still has very dangerous potential enemies in the world, and terrorists, while a considerable threat, are not an existential threat.

In conclusion, the writers of this op-ed are still stuck in the “end of history” thesis. They believe that because most of these weapons systems were designed for conflict with the Soviet Union, they are now obsolete. They ignore the peril posed by aggressive states like Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and potential adversaries like Venezuela or Pakistan. If they want to cut costs or make the military more effective, they need to focus their attention on bloated bureaucracies, red tape around weapons development, and cutting select programs like the Osprey, airborne-laser, etc.

Warfare for thousands of years has normally been between states or nations. To suggest that this notion is obsolete in the 21st-century is to neglect the lessons of history. Similar feelings were the rage in Europe after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, after WWII in 1945, and with the fall of the Soviet Union. Even President Jefferson believed in the future states would wage war solely through economic means. History has not come to an end, and neither has traditional warfare, therefore the United States should be prepared to fight and win any conflict that erupts, whether counterterrorism or inter-state.

What Hath 90 Years Wrought? November 11, 2008

Posted by SV in History, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations, United Nations.
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Europe in 1907

Europe in 1907

At 11:00 AM on November 11th, 1918, the guns of August were finally silenced as an armistice brought a cessation to hostilities in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the world’s oceans. Within the following year, the Versailles Treaty would be signed, empires would collapse, others would rise, and events would be set in motion that continue to reverberate through today. The importance of Veterans’ Day is therefore not just honoring all those that have served this country for over 200 years, but also remembering the lessons of history that were shaped from June 28, 1914 until June 28, 1919.

In the immediate political context, alliances between great powers that had difficulty communicating with each other and with their rivals led to deadly consequences. War was triggered over misperceptions, misinterpretations of messages, and ironclad/set-in-stone war plans. After four years of bloodletting and a year of treaty negotiations, the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires collapsed. The British and French Empires were fatally weakened, and would collapse entirely within fifty years after the second bloodletting known as WWII. The Great War also witnessed the outbreak and success of the October Revolution that brought Lenin and communism to power in Russia and the emergence of the United States as a great power that could play a role in the European balance of power.

Deeper than this, mass social movements, of the kind not seen since the French Revolution, broke out during the course of the war. Nationalism became a force to be reckoned with that prevented the leaders of Europe, some of them related to one another, from calling a conference to settle their disputes peacefully. Nationalism also served to dissolve the multi-ethnic empires of Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans, who famously faced the “revolt in the desert” led by Lawrence of Arabia. Disaffection with the war and dissatisfaction with the czar’s leadership led to the ouster of Nicholas II from Russia, the brief installment of a democratic transitional government, and then the October Revolution that brought Lenin and the Soviets to power. From November 7, 1917 until December 26, 1991, Russia and the Soviet Union would be a constant threat to the order and stability of the Western World.

As far as the context of international relations is concerned, the Great War was also another turning point. Germany was crippled but not divided, leaving it the ability to rise again and threaten regional hegemony with the rise of Hitler to power. Russia/USSR became a rather large and powerful revolutionary state that sought to export its ideology and undermine the rule of Western governments. France and Britain were weakened to the point that they barely held tentative control over their colonial empires. A power vacuum opened up in Eastern Europe as a rush of new (and weak) states (inspired by Wilson’s call for self-determination) emerged. The Japanese Empire got its first taste of significant Pacific expansion as it gobbled up German colonies and sought to increase its position vis-a-vis China. And the United States, in its intervention, indicated that it would not stand for the existence of a European hegemon and set the precedent for a US role in European affairs that is still in effect today.

Looking back 90 years later, what is the significance of the Great War, and what lessons can we draw from it? Other than the historical firsts it brought about (use of chemical weapons, development of the tank, use of the airplane, submarine blockades, etc.), it illustrates that the international system cannot be governed by a world body like the League of Nations or United Nations. States will not give up their sovereignty or power because they do not trust other states to do the same. Other lessons? You must have accurate, direct, and constant communication between friends and foes. Miscommunication can often be the greatest culprit of war. Also, do not have your war plans set in stone, and especially don’t let them be drafted and directed solely by military personnel. As Clemenceau famously quipped, “war is too important to be left to the generals.”

So what does this mean for the world situation today?  For one, there is a constant, predictable, and consistent element to world events: uncertainty.  The fog of war is hazy some of the time, and impenetrable much of the time.  Nations must prepare for the unexpected, and not go to war with high expectations and happy assumptions (WWI: “home by Christmas;” Iraq: “oil will pay for reconstruction”).  If you leave a powerful nation feeling resentful and vengeful, they will rise again and bite as soon as they can (WWI: Germany under Hitler, Soviet Union under Stalin; today: Russia under Putin).  And lastly, America can get dragged into a war that started in a far, heretofore unheard of corner of the world (WWI: Sarajevo, Serbia; today: Georgia, Lithuania?).  Though we persevered, and found out the extent of our strength, unless we continue to maintain a sound economy, a strong military, and a forceful international stance, we are fated to get pulled into a war not of our choosing and, perhaps, one we cannot end acceptably.

So on this Veterans’ Day, remember all the heroic men and women that have served this country in uniform.  Remember the last doughboy, Frank Buckles, who is 107.  And constantly remember the significance and lessons of that “war to end all wars.”  War was thought unthinkable in 1907, all the economies were interconnected and peace abounded, but in just over a decade that map was drastically revised.  It has happened since (WWII, Indochina Wars, decolonization), it can happen again.