Monthly Archives: April 2017

Nuclear Breakthrough Endangers the World

Nuclear Breakthrough Endangers the World

Dispatches From The Edge

April 20, 2017

At a time of growing tensions between nuclear powers—Russia and NATO in Europe, and the U.S., North Korea and China in Asia—Washington has quietly upgraded its nuclear weapons arsenal to create, according to three leading American scientists, “exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”

Writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project of the American Federation of Scientists, Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and physicist and ballistic missile expert Theodore Postol, conclude that “Under the veil of an otherwise-legitimate warhead life-extension program,” the U.S. military has vastly expanded the “killing power” of its warheads such that it can “now destroy all of Russia’s ICBM silos.”

The upgrade—part of the Obama administration’s $1 trillion modernization of America’s nuclear forces—allows Washington to destroy Russia’s land-based nuclear weapons, while still retaining 80 percent of the U.S.’s warheads in reserve. If Russia chose to retaliate, it would be reduced to ash.

Any discussion of nuclear war encounters several major problems. First, it is difficult to imagine or to grasp what it would mean in real life. We have only had one conflict involving nuclear weapons—the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—and the memory of those events has faded over the years. In any case, the two bombs that flattened the Japanese cities bear little resemblance to the killing power of modern nuclear weapons.

The Hiroshima bomb exploded with a force of 15 kilotons. The Nagasaki bomb was slightly more powerful at about 18 kt. Between them, they killed over 215,000 people. In contrast, the most common nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal today, the W76, has an explosive power of 100 kt. The next most common, the W88, packs a 475-kt punch.

Another problem is that most of the public thinks nuclear war is impossible because both sides would be destroyed. This is the idea behind the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, aptly named “MAD.”

But MAD is not a U.S. military doctrine. A “first strike” attack has always been central to U.S. military planning, until recently, however, there was no guarantee that such an attack would so cripple an opponent that it would be unable—or unwilling, given the consequences of total annihilation— to retaliate.

The strategy behind a first strike—sometimes called a “counter force” attack—is not to destroy an opponent’s population centers, but to eliminate the other sides’ nuclear weapons, or at least most of them. Anti-missile systems would then intercept a weakened retaliatory strike.

The technical breakthrough that suddenly makes this a possibility is something called the “super-fuze”, which allows for a much more precise ignition of a warhead. If the aim is to blow up a city, such precision is superfluous, but taking out a reinforced missile silo requires a warhead to exert a force of at least 10,000 pounds per square inch on the target.

Up until the 2009 modernization program, the only way to do that was to use the much more powerful—but limited in numbers—W88 warhead. Fitted with the super-fuze, however, the smaller W76 can now do the job, freeing the W88 for other targets.

Traditionally, land-based missiles are more accurate than sea-based missiles, but the former are more vulnerable to a first-strike than the latter, because submarines are good at hiding. The new super-fuze does not increase the accuracy of Trident II submarine missiles, but it makes up for that with the precision of where the weapon detonates. “In the case of the 100-kt Trident II warhead,” write the three scientists, “the super-fuze triples the killing power of the nuclear force it is applied to.”

Before the super-fuze was deployed, only 20 percent of U.S. subs had the ability to destroy re-enforced missile silos. Today, all have that capacity.

Trident II missiles typically carry from four to five warheads, but can expand that up to eight. While the missile is capable of hosting as many as 12 warheads, that configuration would violate current nuclear treaties. U.S. submarines currently deploy about 890 warheads, of which 506 are W76s and 384 are W88s.

The land-based ICBMs are Minuteman III, each armed with three warheads—400 in total—ranging from 300 kt to 500 kt apiece. There are also air and sea-launched nuclear tipped missiles and bombs. The Tomahawk cruise missiles that recently struck Syria can be configured to carry a nuclear warhead.

The super-fuze also increases the possibility of an accidental nuclear conflict.

So far, the world has managed to avoid a nuclear war, although during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis it came distressingly close. There have also been several scary incidents when U.S. and Soviet forces went to full alert because of faulty radar images or a test tape that someone thought was real. While the military downplays these events, former Secretary of Defense William Perry argues that it is pure luck that we have avoided a nuclear exchange, and that the possibility of nuclear war is greater today than it was at the height of the Cold War.

In part, this is because of a technology gap between the U.S. and Russia.

In January 1995, Russian early warning radar on the Kola Peninsula picked up a rocket launch from a Norwegian island that looked as if it was targeting Russia. In fact, the rocket was headed toward the North Pole, but Russian radar tagged it as a Trident II missile coming in from the North Atlantic. The scenario was plausible. While some first strike attacks envision launching a massive number of missiles, others call for detonating a large warhead over a target at about 800 miles altitude. The massive pulse of electro-magnetic radiation that such an explosion generates would blind or cripple radar systems over a broad area. That would be followed with a first strike.

At the time, calmer heads prevailed,, and the Russians called off their alert, but for a few minutes the doomsday clock moved very close to midnight.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the 1995 crisis suggests that Russia does not have “a reliable and working global space-based satellite early warning system.” Instead, Moscow has focused on building ground-based systems that give the Russians less warning time than satellite-based ones do. What that means is that while the U.S. would have about 30 minutes warning time to investigate whether an attack was really taking place, the Russians would have 15 minutes or less.

That, according to the magazine, would likely mean that “Russian leadership would have little choice but to pre-delegate nuclear launch authority to lower levels of command,” hardly a situation that would be in the national security interests of either country.

Or, for that matter, the world.

A recent study found that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan using Hiroshima-sized weapons would generate a nuclear winter that would make it impossible to grow wheat in Russia and Canada and cut the Asian Monsoon’s rainfall by 10 percent. The result would be up to 100 million deaths by starvation. Imagine what the outcome would be if the weapons were the size used by Russia, China or the U.S.

For the Russians, the upgrading of U.S. sea-based missiles with the super-fuze would be an ominous development. By “shifting the capacity to submarines that can move to missile launch positions much closer to their targets than land-based missiles,” the three scientists conclude, “the U.S. military has achieved a significantly greater capacity to conduct a surprise first strike against Russian ICBM silos.”

The U.S. Ohio class submarine is armed with 24 Trident II missiles, carrying as many as 192 warheads. The missiles can be launched in less than a minute.

The Russians and Chinese have missile-firing submarines as well, but not as many and some are close to obsolete. The U.S. has also seeded the world’s oceans and seas with networks of sensors to keep track of those subs. In any case, would the Russians or Chinese retaliate if they knew that the U.S. still retained most of its nuclear strike force? Faced with a choice committing national suicide or holding their fire, they may well choose the former.

The other element in this modernization program that has Russia and China uneasy is the decision by the Obama administration to place anti-missile systems in Europe and Asia, and to deploy Aegis ship-based anti missile systems off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. From Moscow’s perspective—and Beijing’s as well—those interceptors are there to absorb the few missiles that a first strike might miss.

In reality, anti-missile systems are pretty iffy. Once they migrate off the drawing boards, their lethal efficiency drops rather sharply. Indeed, most of them can’t hit the broad side of a barn. But that is not a chance the Chinese and the Russians can afford to take.

Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Forum in June 2016, Russian President Valdimir Putin charged that U.S. anti-missile systems in Poland and Rumania were not aimed at Iran, but Russia and China. “The Iranian threat does not exist, but missile defense systems continue to be positioned—a missile defense system is one element of the whole system of offensive military potential.”

The danger here is that arms agreements will begin to unravel if countries decide that they are suddenly vulnerable. For the Russians and the Chinese, the easiest solution to the American breakthrough is to build a lot more missiles and warheads, and treaties be dammed.

The new Russian cruise missile may indeed strain the Intermediate Nuclear Force Treaty, but it is also a natural response to what are, from Moscow’s view, alarming technological advances by the U.S. Had the Obama administration reversed the 2002 decision by George W. Bush’s administration to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the new cruise might never have been deployed.

There are a number of immediate steps that the U.S. and the Russians could take to de-escalate the current tensions. First, taking nuclear weapons off their hair-trigger status, which would immediately reduce the possibility of accidental nuclear war. That could be followed by a pledge of “no first use” of nuclear weapons.

If this does not happen, it will almost certainly result in an accelerated nuclear arms race. “I don’t know how this is all going to end,” Putin told the St. Petersburg delegates. “What I do know is that we will need to defend ourselves.”

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Turkey’s Dangerous Moment

Turkey’s Dangerous Referendum

Dispatches From the Edge

April 5, 2017

 

At first glance, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s drive to create an executive presidency with almost unlimited power through a nationwide referendum looks like a slam-dunk.

 

The man has not lost an election since 1994, and he has loaded the dice and stacked the deck for the April 15 vote. Using last summer’s failed coup as a shield, he has declared a state of emergency, fired 130,000 government employees, jailed 45,000 people—including opposition members of parliament—and closed down 176 media outlets. The opposition Republican People’s Party says it has been harassed by death threats from referendum supporters and arrests by the police.

 

He has deliberately picked fights with Germany, Austria and the Netherlands to help whip up a storm of nationalism, and he charges that his opponents are “acting in concert with terrorists.” Selahattin Demirtas, a Member of Parliament and co-chair of the Kurdish-dominated People’s Democratic Party, the third largest political formation in Turkey, is under arrest and faces 143 years in prison. Over 70 Kurdish mayors are behind bars.

 

So why is the man so nervous?

 

He has reason to be. The juggernaut that Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) put together to dismantle Turkey’s current political system and replace it with a highly centralized executive that will have the power to dismiss parliament, control the judiciary and rule by decree has developed a bit of a wobble.

 

First, the nationalists—in particular the rightwing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—are deeply split. The leadership of the MHP supports a “yes” vote on the referendum, but as much as 65 percent of the rank and file are preparing to vote “no.”

 

Second, there is increasing concern over the economy, formerly the AKP’s strong suit. Erdogan won the 2002 election on a pledge to raise living standards—especially for small businesses and among Turks who live in the country’s interior—and he largely delivered on those promises. Under the AKP’s stewardship, the Turkish economy grew, but with a built-in flaw.

 

The 2000s were a period of rapid growth for emerging economies like China, Russia and Turkey. China did it by building a high-power manufacturing base and exporting its goods to the global market. Russia raised its economy through commodities sales, particularly oil and gas. Turkey’s huge spurt, however, was built around domestic consumption, in particular real estate and construction. Indeed, Turkey’s historical strength in manufacturing has languished.

 

Much of the construction boom was financed through foreign loans, and as long as investors were comfortable with the internal situation in Turkey—and money was cheap—real estate was Erdogan’s Anatolian tiger. But when the U.S. tightened up its monetary policies in 2013, those loans either dried up or got more expensive.

 

Turkey was not the only victim of U.S. tight money policies. Washington’s monetary shift also badly damaged the economies of Brazil, South Africa, India, and Indonesia. But the effect on Ankara has been to increase the debt burden and fuel a growing trade imbalance. Growth fell from 6.1 percent in 2015 to 1.5 percent in 2016.

 

The fall of the Turkish lira means imports cost more at a time when Turkey’s private sector has accrued a foreign exchange deficit of $210 billion. Consumer inflation will almost certainly reach 11 or 12 percent this year and the jobless rate is over 12 percent. Among young Turks, age 15-24, that figure is over 25 percent. Almost four million people are out of work and many Turks now spend 50 percent of their income on food, housing and rent.

 

To add to these woes, the credit agencies Moody’s, Standard and Poor, and Fitch recently designated Turkey’s status as “non-investment” and its economic outlook from “stable” to “negative.” Part of the downgrade was based on politics, not the economy. Fitch pointed out that if Erdogan’s referendum passed, it “would entrench a system in which checks and balances have been eroded.”

 

Businesses are generally not bothered by authoritarian regimes, but they are uncomfortable with instability and a cavalier approach to the rule of law. Erdogan’s erratic foreign policies and the government’s seizures of private businesses whose owners choose to oppose him do not create an atmosphere conducive to investor confidence.

 

There is growing nervousness about Erdogan’s internal and external policies. Turkey once had a policy of “no trouble with neighbors,” but Ankara is suddenly fighting with everyone. Erdogan strongly supported efforts to overthrow the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. He backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He put troops in Northern Iraq aimed at keeping the Kurds down. He started a war with his own Kurds and bullies and intimidates any domestic opposition.

 

A case in point is the lucrative tourist industry that normally contributes about 5 percent of Turkey’s GNP. Turkey is the sixth most visited country in the world, but the industry was down 36 percent in 2016, a loss of $10 billion. Formerly, large numbers of tourists visited from Russia and Iran. But Erdogan alienated the Russians when he shot down one of their bombers in 2015 and angered Iran when he went to Saudi Arabia and denounced the Iranians for trying to spread their Shiite ideology and “Persian nationalism” throughout the Middle East. As a result, tourism from both countries largely dried up, hitting Istanbul and coastal cities like Antalya particularly hard.

 

Iranians and Russians are not the only nationalities looking elsewhere for fun and relaxation. Erdogan’s sturm und drang rhetoric directed at the European countries that refused to let him campaign for his referendum among their Turkish populations—“Nazis” and “fascists” were his favored epithets to describe Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria—has tourists from the West looking to vacation in Greece, Spain and Italy instead.

 

To label Erdogan’s foreign policy “schizophrenic” is an understatement.

 

On one hand, he has backed off from the demand that Syrian President Assad must go and is working with the Russians and Iranians—and Egyptians—to find a negotiated settlement to the horrendous civil war.

 

On the other, he is wooing Saudi Arabia, the major backer of al-Qaeda associated groups in Syria who have made it clear that they are not interested in negotiations or a political settlement. He is also clashing with Russia and the U.S. over those countries support for Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

 

In one rather bizarre example of schizoid foreign policy, Turkey sponsored a Mar. 14 meeting of 50 Syrian tribal leaders to form an “Army of the Jezeera and Euphrates Tribes” to fight Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria. Beating up on the Kurds is standard Erdogan politics, but how he squares attacking Russia and Iran while professing to support a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war is not clear.

 

His political calculations keep backfiring. For instance, when Iran signed the nuclear agreement and sanctions were lifted, Turkish businesses were eager to ramp up trade with Teheran. Erdogan’s searing attack on Iran largely scotched that, however, and the Turkish president has very little to show for it. Erdogan calculated that embracing Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies would more than offset alienating Iran, but that has not happened.

 

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar have a combined overseas investment portfolio of $262 billion, but only $8.7 billion of that went to Turkey. Europe makes up the great bulk of foreign investments in Turkey, distantly followed by the U.S. and Russia.

 

In part this is because the Gulf monarchies have their own financial difficulties, given low oil prices and the grinding war they are fighting in Yemen. But one suspects that Saudi Arabia is wary of Erdogan’s AKP, which is closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudis consider the Brotherhood their main enemy after Iran, and they strongly supported the 2013 military coup against the Egyptian Brotherhood government. The recent thaw in relations between Turkey and Egypt has resulted in a chilling of ties between Riyadh and Cairo.

 

The Islamic State has recently targeted Turkey, in large part as blowback from the Syrian civil war. Ankara formerly turned a blind eye to the Islamic State’s supply lines into Syria because Erdogan wanted to overthrow the Assad government, and replace it with a Muslim Brotherhood friendly regime. Now that policy has backfired on Turkey, much as U.S. support for the Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan led to the formation of al-Qaeda and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.

 

The Kurds have also engaged in a bombing campaign, but that is a response to Erdogan’s attacks on Kurdish cities in southeastern Turkey.

 

It is not clear how widespread the “no” vote sentiment is, although it supposedly includes up to 100 AKP parliament members worried about concentrating too much power in the President’s hands. Pollsters say a significant number of voters are unwilling to say how they will vote. In the current atmosphere of intimidation, it could mean those “refuse to say’ will turn to “no.” Certainly Erdogan’s prediction of a 60 percent approval has gone a glimmering.

 

What happens if people do vote “no”? And would Erdogan accept any outcome that wasn’t “yes”?

 

One disturbing development is the formation of a paramilitary group called “Stay as Brothers, Turkey.” Organized by Orhan Uzuner, whose daughter is married to Erdogan’s son, Bital, the group claims up to 500 members. The opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet calls the group “Erdogan’s militia,” and some members of the National Movement Party say the “Brothers” are sponsoring weapons training and encouraging members to arm themselves. With the military firmly under control following last year’s attempted coup, even a small group like the “Brothers” could play a major role if Erdogan decides he is finished with the democratic process.

 

Certainly the President is in a bind. He needs foreign investments and tourism to get the economy back on track, but he is alienating one ally after another.

 

He could tighten Turkey’s monetary policies to staunch the outflow of capital, but that would slow the economy and increase unemployment. He could lower interest rates to stimulate the economy, but that would further weaken the lira.

 

His strategy at this point is to double down on getting a “yes” vote. If he fails, things could get dangerous.

—-30—

 

 

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