Monthly Archives: January 2018

Nuclear War: A Thousand Buttons

Nuclear War: A Thousand Buttons

Dispatches From the Edge

Jan 20, 2018

 

When President Donald Trump bragged that his nuclear “button” was bigger and more efficient than North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s “button,” he was perpetuating the myth that the leaders of nuclear-armed nations control their weapons. But you do not have to be Trump, Kim, Vladimir Putin, Theresa May, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Mamnoon Hussain, or Benjamin Netanyahu to push that “button.” There are thousands of buttons and thousands of people who can initiate a nuclear war.

 

Indeed, the very nature of nuclear weapons requires that the power to use them is decentralized and dispersed. And while it is sobering to think of leaders like Kim and Trump with their finger on the trigger, a nuclear war is far more likely to be started by some anonymous captain in an Ohio-class submarine patrolling the Pacific or a Pakistani colonel on the Indian border.

 

In his book ”The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” Daniel Ellsberg says that the recent uproar over Trump’s threats to visit “fire and fury” on North Korea misses the point that “every president has delegated” the authority to use nuclear weapons. “The idea that the president is the only one with the sole power to issue an order that will be recognized as an authentic authorized order is totally false,” he told National Public Radio.

 

If a single “button” were the case, decapitating a country’s leader would prevent the use of nuclear weapons. Take out Washington (or Mar-a-Largo), Moscow, or Beijing and you would neutralize a nation’s nuclear force. In reality, the decision to use those weapons merely shifts further down the chain of command. The Russians call it “dead hand”: Moscow goes, and some general in the Urals launches an ICBM or the captain of a Borei-class submarine in the Sea of Okhotsk fires off his multiple war head SS-N-32 “Bulava” missiles.

 

During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a single commodore on a Soviet submarine off Cuba, Vasili Arkhipov, refused to okay an order by the sub’s first and second in command to launch a nuclear tipped torpedo at U.S. warships that were harassing the vessel. If he had not intervened, according to Ellsberg, it is quite likely there would have been a nuclear war between the U.S., its allies, and the Soviet Union.

 

The problem with nuclear weapons—besides the fact that they are capable of destroying human civilizations and most life on the planet—is that they are actually quite fragile, with a very limited life span: “use them or lose them” is the philosophy of nuclear war planners, because if you hesitate, your opponent may destroy them before they can be launched.

 

The more efficient and accurate your nuclear force, the more destabilizing it becomes. For instance, the U.S. has thousands of nuclear weapons deployed in a “triad”: air, land and sea. To attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons would be tantamount to committing suicide, because no matter how large the attacking force was, it would be almost impossible to eliminate every warhead.

 

Russia also has vast numbers of weapons, although they are more vulnerable than those of the U.S. Russia has fewer ballistic missiles subs, does not really have a modern strategic bomber force, and its land-based missiles are endangered by recent American breakthroughs in warhead technology. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the U.S. now has the capability to “destroy all of Russia’s ICBM silos” in a first strike and still retain 80 percent of its warheads in reserve.

 

A “first strike” attack—also called “counterforce”—has always been central to U.S. military planning, and was recently adopted by the Russians as well. As a result, both nations keep their nuclear forces on a hair trigger, fearful that the other side could neutralize their nuclear weapons with a first strike.

 

The danger here, of course, is war by mistake, and there have been at least a half dozen incidents where the two countries have come within minutes of a nuclear exchange. A weather rocket, a flock of geese, an errant test tape, have all brought the world to the edge of disaster.

 

The time frame for making a decision about whether one is under attack or not is extremely narrow. It is estimated that the U.S. would have about 30 minutes to determine whether an attack was real, but, because the Russians do not have a reliable satellite warning system, that time frame would be about 15 minutes or less for Moscow.

 

China and India had a no-first use policy, but recently New Delhi adopted a “counterforce” strategy. Britain, France and Pakistan all reserve the right to first-use, The Israeli government refuses to admit it has nuclear weapons, so it is unclear what its policies are.

 

Of all the nuclear-armed countries, North Korea is the most vulnerable, simply because it probably has no more than 50 or so nuclear weapons. There is a caveat here: U.S. intelligence has been consistently wrong on Pyongyang’s capabilities. It underestimated its ability to produce long-range missiles, it disparaged its capacity to produce a hydrogen bomb, and it miscalculated its capacity to wage cyber war. In short, the U.S. has no idea what would happen if it attacked North Korea.

 

Almost all estimates are that such a war would range from calamitous to catastrophic. And nuclear weapons are likely to make it the latter. The recent talk in Washington about a limited attack on North Korea—the so-called “bloody nose” strategy—could be seen by Pyongyang as an attempt to take out its small nuclear force. Under the rule of “use them or lose them,” North Korea might decide to launch them locally—South Korea—regionally—Japan—or even at the U.S. Estimates of the outcome of such a war range from the hundreds of thousands to several million dead.

 

Apparently there is also a plan to take out Kim Jung-Un, but decapitating North Korea’s leadership merely devolves the decision to use nuclear weapons to some commander in the field. Plus eliminating a nation’s leader would make it almost impossible to halt such a war. Who would one negotiate with?

 

In the end, the problem comes down to the nature of nuclear weapons themselves. Their enormous power and ability to strike quickly makes them vulnerable, and that vulnerability requires that the decision to use them be decentralized.

 

The recent scare that a ballistic missile was headed toward Hawaii was a bureaucratic screw up, someone pushing the wrong button on a computer. But that is how the world could end. Consider the following scenario:

 

An Ohio-class submarine armed with 24 Trident II ballistic missiles is on patrol in the East China Sea. Each Trident II missile has eight W-76 or W-88 warheads, 192 in all. The former pack a 100-kiloton punch, the latter up to 475 kilotons. In total, the submarine can generate up to 91,200 kilos of explosive force. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima was 15 kilotons. The U.S. has 18-Ohio class submarines.

 

A report comes over the COM that a missile is headed toward Hawaii, and then communications go dead, a not uncommon occurrence, according to Ellsberg. The captain of the Ohio-class sub knows he is not alone out there. Stalking him could be a Russian Yasen-class or Chinese Shang-class hunter-killer submarine. The U.S. captain needs to make a decision: use them or lose them.

 

It doesn’t take a major crisis to touch off a nuclear war. Maybe things get a little out of hand between Indian and Chinese troops on a disputed Himalayan plateau. Maybe India employs its “cold start” strategy of a limited military incursion into Pakistan and some local Pakistani field officer panics and launches a tactical nuclear weapon. The recently released U.S. “Nuclear Posture Review” posits using nuclear weapons in the case of a major cyber attack.

 

As Beatrice Fihn of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons puts it, “Our extinction could be one insult away.”

 

Some 252 million years ago something catastrophic happened to the planet. A combination of massive volcanic activity, asteroid strikes, and the release of stored up carbon dioxide in the oceans killed 96 percent of life in the sea and 70 percent of land life. Called the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event, it was the greatest die-off in our planet’s history.

 

Unless we get serious about abolishing nuclear weapons—something 122 nations voted to do last July—some unnamed captain in a submarine could do the same.

 

There are lots and lots and lots of buttons out there

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2017 Dispatches “Are You Serious”Awards

Dispatches Awards for 2017

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 1, 2018

 

Each year Dispatches From the Edge gives awards to individuals, companies and governments that make reading the news a daily adventure. Here are the awards for 2017.

 

The Reverse WEBBY Award to the Colsa Corporation based in Huntsville, Ala, a company that runs the multi-million dollar WebOps program for the U.S. Defense Department. WebOps, according to Associated Press, employs “specialists” who “employ fictitious identities and try to sway targets from joining the Islamic State.” But the “specialists” are not fluent and used the Arabic word for “salad” in place of “authority.” Thus the governing body set up by the 1993 Oslo Accords became the “Palestinian salad” (tasty with a light vinaigrette).

 

Runner up is the military’s Special Operations Forces (SOFs) that botched a raid in Yemen last February that got a Navy SEAL killed and destroyed a $75 million MV-22 Osprey aircraft. Desperate to show that the raid gathered valuable intelligence, U.S. commanders published a video on how to make explosives that they say were captured during the raid. Except the video was 10 years old and all over the Internet. The raid also killed several children, but the Trump administration called it “a success by all standards.”

 

The Little Bo Peep Award to the DOD’s “Iraq Train and Equip” program that lost track of $1.6 billion worth of weapons and military equipment, some of which might have fallen into the hands of the Islamic State. “Sending millions of dollars worth of arms into a black hole and hoping for the best is not a viable counter-terrorism strategy” Amnesty International researcher Patrick Wilcken told the Financial Times.

 

The Rudyard Kipling Award to the U.S. DOD for spending $28 million on new camouflage uniforms for the Afghan Army that depict a lush forest background. The country is almost 98 percent desert.

 

Runner up is the British New Century Consulting contractor hired by the U.S. for $536 million to train intelligence officers for the Afghan Army. There is no evidence that the company did so, but New Century did buy Alfa Romeos and Bentleys for its executives and paid six figure salaries to employees’ relatives without any record of their doing work.

 

The U.S. has spent $120 billion in Afghanistan since 2002. Most of it goes to train the Afghan armed forces, whose desertion rate is close to 35 percent, in part because the Taliban are inflicting heavy casualties on police and soldiers. How many casualties? Not clear, because the Pentagon has classified those figures. “The Afghans know what’s going on; the Taliban knows what’s going on; the U.S. Military knows what’s going on,” says John F. Sopko, the special inspector for Afghanistan. “The only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people paying for it.”

 

Dispatches suggest that readers read a short poem by Kipling entitled “Arithmetic on the Frontier.” Nothing’s changed.

 

Marie Antoinette Award to Brazilian President Michel Temer, who has instituted a draconian austerity regime in one of the most unequal countries in the world, while ordering more than $400,000 in food for his official trips. That would include 500 cartons of Haagen-Dazs ice cream, almost a ton and half of chocolate cake, provolone, Brie and buffalo mozzarella for sandwiches, and 120 jars of Nutella spread. Public uproar was so great that the order was cancelled. However, Temer did host a taxpayer-funded steak and shrimp feed for 300 legislators in an effort to get their support for budget cuts. Temer ally Pedro Fernandez suggested that one way to save money on a program that feeds the poor for 65 cents a meal is to have them eat “every other day.”

 

The Grinch Award had three winners this year:

 

  • The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for demanding that Cambodia repay a $506 million debt to Washington for a Vietnam War era program called Food For Peace. While USAID was handing out rice, wheat, oil and cotton to refugees, the U.S. military was secretly—and illegally—dropping more than 500,000 tons of explosives on Cambodia. Those bombings killed upwards of half a million people, destabilized the Phnon Penh government, and led to the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge that killed more than two million people. Bombs still litter Cambodia and kill scores of people every year.

 

  • The U.S. Defense Department for discharging soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, thus denying some of them health care, disability pensions and education funds. Of the 92,000 troops discharged from 2011 to 2015, some 57,000 were diagnosed with PTSD, TBI, or both. The military is supposed to screen discharges before tagging them with the “misconduct” label, but in almost half the cases there was no screening. Of that 57,000, some 13,000 received a “less than honorable” discharge that denies them health care, pensions and benefits.

 

  • Stephen Miller, President Trumps speech writer, for intervening in the Group of Seven summit meeting in Sicily and sabotaging an Italian initiative to resettle millions of refugees from wars in the Middle East and Africa. The G-7 includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the U.S.

 

The Golden Lemon Award to Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons system in history. In the long run the program is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion. The plane was withdrawn from an air show in Amberley, Australia because there was a possibility of lightning (the plane’s name is “Lightning II”), and this past June five pilots’ experienced “hypoxia-like” symptoms—no air—and the plane was grounded. So far, no one has figured out the problem. The F-35 can’t open its weapons bay at high speed, because it causes the plane to “flutter,” and while it is supposed to be able to take off from an aircraft carrier, it can’t. According to a study by the Director of Operational Test Evaluation, “The aircraft will have little, if any real combat capability for years to come.”

 

A better buy for the money? Higher education students in the U.S. are currently $1.3 trillion in debt.

 

The Torquemada Award to Alpaslan Durmas, education minister in Turkey’s conservative Islamic government, for removing all references to “evolution” in biology textbooks because it is “too complicated for students.” Instead they will be instructed that God created people 10,000 years ago. Mustafa Akyol of Al Monitor points out the irony in Durmas’ order. Medieval Muslim scholars wrote about a common origin of the species, and “That is why John William Draper, a Darwin contemporary, referred to Darwin’s views as the ‘Mohammadan theory of evolution.’”

 

Turkey has also blocked Wikipedia in case some of the kiddies want to read about evolution on line.

 

Frankenstein Award to the U.S. Navy for building small “killer” boats called Autonomous Surface Craft that use artificial intelligence to locate and destroy their targets. I mean, what could go wrong, this is the U.S. Navy, right? The same one that rammed two high-tech guided missile destroyers into a huge oil tanker and a giant container ship this past summer, killing a score of sailors. A guided missile cruiser collided with a South Korean fishing boat, and the guided missile cruiser Antietam ran aground in Yokosuka Harbor in Japan. The Navy also kind of lost track of an aircraft carrier battle group in the Indian Ocean.

 

So, not to worry.

 

The Ostrich Award to The Trump administration for first disbanding the federal advisory National Climate Assessment group and then sending speakers representing Peabody Energy, a coal company; NuScale Power, a nuclear engineering firm; and Tellurian, a liquid natural gas group to represent the U.S. at the international climate talks in Germany. Barry K. Worthington, executive director of the U.S. Energy Assn., said he was going to challenge the idea fossil fuel should be phased out. “If I can throw myself on the hand grenade to help people realize that, I’m willing to do it.”

 

It was a puzzling analogy.

 

In the meantime, 2016 was the hottest year on record, breaking records set in 2014 and 2015. Temperatures were particularly high in Asia and the arctic, and drought was widespread in southern Africa. Wildfires burned 8.9 million acres in western Canada and the U.S. And a patch of warm water off the coast of Alaska facilitated the growth of toxic algae that killed thousands of seabirds and shut down fishing industries.

 

The Doom’s Day Award to what the Financial Times calls the “uber-rich” who are “hedging against the collapse of the capitalist system” by buying up land in New Zealand. “About 40 percent of our clients are Americans,” says Matt Finnigan of Sotheby’s International Realty New Zealand. The buyers want land that comes “with their own water supply, power sources and ability to grow food.”

 

But you don’t have to go down under to bunker down. Vivos Group will sell you a hardened concrete bunker in South Dakota for $25,000 and a yearly fee of $1000. Or you can buy a cabin on the World, a huge cruise liner that will take you far from trouble. If you are Larry Ellison, you can buy 98 percent of Lanai, one of Hawaiian Islands.

 

In Memory of Edward Herman, co-author with Noam Chomsky of “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” who died Nov. 11 at age 92. The book was what author and journalist Matt Taibbi called “a kind of bible of media criticism for a generation of dissident thinkers.” Herman wrote almost 20 books on political economy and corporate power, including his 1997 “The Global Media” with Robert McChesney.

 

Presenti

 

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