The “Utility” of Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons

The B61 family of modifications

The B61 family of modifications

An article in the New York Times made the rounds last week, asserting that the new modification (“mod”) of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb was of a lower yield than its predecessors, and arguing that lower-yield, precision weapons are destabilizing to nuclear strategy and that their relatively limited destructive capabilities in turn render them more likely to be used than the multi-megaton, Cold War-era city-busters. It was also proclaimed that this was the death knell for the Obama Administration’s disarmament and arms control efforts, and represented a “new arms race” between nuclear powers.

The argument is well-intentioned, but misguided.

The article quotes the usual suspects – James Cartwright, Andrew Weber, William Perry – and offers some assertions that are patently false on their face.

David Sanger and William Broad, the authors of this piece, focus solely on US weapons development and policy in a bubble, ignoring the larger context of the world in which nuclear weapons exist. As they and their interview subjects characterize it, the United States is the one upsetting the nuclear balance:

Already there are hints of a new arms race. Russia called the B61 tests “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.” China is said to be especially worried about plans for a nuclear-tipped cruise missile. And North Korea last week defended its pursuit of a hydrogen bomb by describing the “ever-growing nuclear threat” from the United States.

This, of course, ignores the fact that Russia has violated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, China has refused to enter into any arms control arrangements and is busy expanding its own arsenal (including the production of new nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles; the former something that the United States still will not do), and North Korea has rejected carrot and stick approaches alike dating back several decades. If the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in the aftermath of the Cold War – or the past 30 years of sanctions – were insufficient to dissuade Pyongyang from nuclear proliferation, it’s hard to envision what would. Continue reading

Intelligence Collection and Systems Thinking


Methods of intelligence collection

Methods of intelligence collection

Not performing enough human intelligence collection is a standard refrain these days. As the saying goes, “we’ve traded spies for satellites.” A golden age of honeypots and tradecraft and dead drops had been left behind at the dawn of the digital age. This is, purportedly, in keeping with the military establishment’s general overreliance on technology, stretching back to Rumsfeldian “transformation,” the ill-fated “revolution in military affairs” (RMA), and earlier. Conventional wisdom has it that this shift in emphasis was proven correct in the 1991 Gulf War, but it could also be argued that this was the war that the US military—especially the “armor guys”—had been itching to fight since the partition of Germany. Rather than the harbinger of a new era, the Gulf War was instead the last gasp of the Cold War.

But what does this have to do with human intelligence?

Contrary to the emphasis placed on the “spy games” aspect of Cold War diplomacy, intrigue, and espionage, the period between 1936 and 1989 saw a vast increase in technical methods of intelligence and relative devaluing of  human collection (analysis, as always, has remained a predominantly human province). Some of these technical methods and their operators became lore unto themselves—Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 (imagery intelligence, or IMINT) and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (signals intelligence, or SIGINT) come to mind—but most operated in a behind-the-scenes way. And they certainly continue to do to this day, recent disclosures notwithstanding.

The intelligence community has additionally seen a change in the way it structures its collection and analysis missions. During much of the Cold War, capabilities were duplicated throughout different agencies. Thus, in addition to the Defense Mapping Agency that preceded the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and today’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had its own IMINT people in the form of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, the National Reconnaissance Office did its own thing with satellites, and so forth. While all of these organizations persist in one form or another, their functions have been streamlined, such that we have most IMINT running through NGA, much of the SIGINT community operating at the National Security Agency (NSA), et cetera. Gaps do exists, as do split missions, and the joint responsibility of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA for HUMINT is one such example. But in general, we now have standardized methods and practices of intelligence gathering, processing, exploitation, collection, and analysis. The very concept of “all-source intelligence” during the Cold War would have been unthinkable—and still seems a novelty to many analysts in the intelligence community—because it would have meant someone was driving in your lane, and that would be unacceptable. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.

Continue reading

What’s Scots for “Nuclear Weapons?”

No Cross of St. Andrew here

This is the year. 2014 will mark the historic referendum in which Scotland, yet again, votes whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom and go it alone. Having read Halting State, Charlie Stross‘ fantastic novel set in the nation of Scotland in 2018, there’s a whole realm of aesthetic and imagination and possibility associated with the prospects of an independent Edinburgh. Others are just as interested: Tyler Cowen makes one of the economic arguments against Scottish independence, and Tom Ricks asks all the questions, But part of my interest lies in more prosaic matters: namely, where do the nukes go?

Scotland’s defense policy would likely align much more closely with those of Norway and Denmark than with its southern neighbor. Between North Sea oil and Arctic issues, Holyrood’s posture and attention would be directed entirely upwards. And of all the realms in which nuclear weapons might not have such great utility (especially not as large submarine-borne countervalue weapons), the Arctic is probably #1. If NATO plays it cool and avoids major engagements, then a single brigade might just cut it. But otherwise that might be wishful thinking.

The Firth of Clyde is of major importance to the Royal Navy. But the shipbuilding contracts there are likely to depart along with UK forces. These could be repurposed by Scotland for new construction to augment its few unarmed fishery protection vessels (this, of course, depends on what Edinburgh is able to successfully wrest away from London). But more importantly, the Clyde is the heart of the British nuclear deterrent.

Right now, the UK’s four Vanguard-class Trident SSBNs are based at HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane in the Clyde, with additional support coming from RNAD Coulport. And this is no abberration; Scotland has been critical to the UK deterrent from its inception. In 1963, when the Royal Navy was looking into acquiring Polaris from the United States, it drew up a short list of ten candidate sites for basing nuclear submarines. Of the ten, six were in Scotland. But what about the others? Would they play host to an atomic arsenal in the 21st century?

Continue reading

Across the Ether

Forgive the indulgence while I briefly divert along a Geoff Manaugh-type tangent.

The Singapore strategy was employed by the United Kingdom as its dominant  in the interwar years, up until about 1941…when Singapore fell. Of course, the origins of the Singapore strategy arose as a counter to the Japanese and US Navies, the Royal Navy’s original nemesis of the German High Seas Fleet having been scuttled at Scapa Flow.

More importantly, though, was the later role that ghostly, sunken fleet would play: a source for “low-background steel.”

3D model of the wreck of the Kronprinz Wilhelm at Scapa Flow.

Now, the very concept of low-background steel is one that makes me shudder with excitement. Low-background steel is a necessary component in certain devices, particularly medical equipment and Geiger counters. The latter is of prime interest: nuclear explosions from 1944 onwards raised the worldwide level of background radiation to the point where obtaining a proper control requires quite literally salvaging the past.*

Every ounce of steel that has been produced in the postwar error has been irrevocably contaminated by a natural sin of background radiation levels and radionuclides. Humankind changed the entirety of the natural world. It’s kind of a mind-boggling idea.

What also intrigues me is that thought that a century from now our materials might be useful for similar reasons, as a sort of living archeological project or time capsule that doesn’t just reveal something about the past, but is a necessity; The only available option in the absence of time travel.

We live inside our own time capsules. The coveted “prewar” buildings in New York and Providence and Boston abound, particularly in the latter two, in which close to 40% of their housing stock was built before 1940. Could that too have some relevance to future researchers and laboratory scientists? Housing patterns and living arrangements before the advent of doormen and glass-and-steel constructs? And seeing the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, of sunken cars and drowned tunnels, one wonders if someday the subways and highways of New York might become their own aquatic monument to the past. The DC Metro, “America’s Subway,” submerged beneath the waves.

It is, of course, difficult to hear about low-background steel without thinking of the Fallout 3 series’ “pre-war artifacts.” In that universe, the Great War is when everything changed and hundreds of millions perished in a nuclear holocaust. But a player can still find mementos of a lost era. Pre-war money, steak, and soda can all be picked up – and in the case of the latter, consumed. Even the aesthetic of that bygone age – a heavily saccharine version of a 1950s idyll – remains a coveted item in the form of furniture for your house.

Perhaps, if there’s a unifying theme across all these disparate threads, it’s that war and conflict and destruction serve as a natural line of demarcation, and once crossed, nothing will ever be the same again. What reserve fleets and low-background steel and prewar buildings and all the rest offer us is a tenuous link with that past, and a means of making it tangible. It’s comforting to think that maybe no era is truly lost forever.

*It should be noted that since the advent of the Partial Test-Ban Treaty background levels have dropped worldwide. But they still remain significantly higher than pre-war levels.

Third Time’s a Charm, and By “a Charm” I Mean Exactly the Same

DPRK test, actual scale (Not actually) [image: Petey Santeeny]

Following the other night’s North Korean nuclear test, there was definitely enough anxiety to keep observers and analysts up for hours. But there are a couple factors at play allowing me to sleep pretty soundly. Hopefully they’ll help you do the same!

The first is the relatively small yield – yes, it’s larger than the first two tests, but that really doesn’t mean anything. A 10 kiloton (or 6-7 kt or 15 kt) nuclear weapon is nothing to sneer at, but as the world saw with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a weapon of that kind isn’t much more effective than conventional explosives. The firebombings of Tokyo did more damage and took more lives than either nuclear blast in World War II.

They’ve also talked about switching their nuclear fuel from plutonium to highly-enriched uranium, which is weird and kind of a step back. The United States used to use HEU but once we perfected plutonium processing techniques we stuck with that. It’s a much more effective fuel for a multi-stage thermonuclear explosion, and it’s a little weird for anyone to change from plutonium. If true, it could indicate a processing and/or supply issue, but that would be a good sign; it would means that they’re having trouble sourcing fissile material. So they may not even have the raw materials necessary to build many bombs.

The other part is a little up in the air and I’ve heard competing claims, but nothing I’ve read so far confirms (despite Pyongyang’s claims) that North Korea has successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon – which would be a prerequisite for mounting it onto an ICBM. It’s one of the most difficult steps in the technological scale of nuclear science and requires increasing reaction efficiency. The small gain in yield this test provided makes me think that they definitely haven’t reached that step yet. I’m also not positive on the physics – and it might just be a coincidental concurrence rather than cause – but I believe the only miniaturized, i.e., ICBM warheads in existence are thermonuclear, and a failure to demonstrate that technology definitely means something.

So, in short, I’m not worried yet. They can’t build very many bombs; the bombs they can build aren’t especially powerful; they have no missile with the range to reach the United States and even if they did they haven’t miniaturized a warhead sufficiently to mount on it; and their only means of delivering one of the few extant bombs is by bomber, which exist in low numbers and also don’t have the range to hit the US, much less reach here undetected. So we’re all safe over here for the foreseeable future.

I don’t know that this really changes anything strategically even in the region. We’ve known, the South Koreans have known, and the Japanese have known; it’s common knowledge that North Korea has some nuclear weapons. And that hasn’t led to regional proliferation or a move to oust the Kim regime or anything like that. I don’t see “just another test” making a dramatic difference on that front. Dr. Farley probably says it best: “Last night, North Korea expended a significant fraction of its fissile material to achieve nearly nothing, beyond possibly the irritation of Beijing and the strengthening of right-wingers in Japan and the United States.”

Yeah, great job there, Pyongyang.

Nuclear “Decadence”

You know, sometimes I really admire Al Jazeera’s reporting. And other times to call out certain articles reminds me too much of picking on a small kid in gym class or the merciless vigilantism against Judith Griggs of “but honestly, Monica” fame.  But honestly, readers, this article that’s three months old – “Nuclear weapons as instruments of peace: The support for nuclear weapons found among top scholars in the field is a warning sign of American cultural decadence” – has been in the limited queue of AB for a while, and it’s an itch that I feel like scratching.

The meat of UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk’s argument is:

What shocked me about the panel was not its claim that violence was declining and war was on the brink of disappearing, but the unqualified endorsement of nuclear weapons as deserving credit for keeping the peace during Cold War and beyond. Nuclear weapons were portrayed as if they were positive contributors to establish a peaceful and just world, provided that they do not fall into unwanted hands (which means “adversaries of the West”, or more colourfully phrased by George W Bush as “the axis of evil”) as a result of proliferation.

He refers to nonproliferation as a “ploy” (vice a full commitment to disarmament) and suggests that scholars are “captivated” and have “succumbed to the demons of nuclearism.” I mean, yeesh, what do you expect from al Jazeera, but still.

I was told once by a vice commander of a US nuclear base that “we use nuclear weapons every day.” And in fact, the current mode of their employment is in fact the way that we should hope to always use them: passively. They sit, they wait, but they never launch because they don’t have to. Obviously nuclear weapons have proven of limited use when it comes to conventional conflict (though note that there have been few truly interstate wars since Korea, and only a single one in the short twenty-first century: the Russo-Georgian War in 2008), but their very existence is an argument against using them.

Yes, let’s reduce numbers; yes, let’s try to prevent nations from developing or obtaining nuclear weapons; and yes, let’s eventually get rid of them worldwide. But don’t tell me that in the world we live in nuclear weapons don’t serve a stabilizing purpose.

“There is nothing to be gained by trying to get away”

Between the weather and a complete lack of good news in the world, I’ve been in not so much a foul mood lately as a dark mood; I’ve found myself exploring all manner of eschatology and other ridiculousness related to the apocalypse (great resource: Exit Mundi). And rereading my own article hasn’t helped anything. I know this is old news to most, but I was reminded of the BBC’s nuclear war transcript the other day and thought it deserved some reprinting.

If Britain had been attacked with nuclear weapons during the Cold War (I believe the years 1974-79 were when this particular transcript would have been used), then BBC presenters would have read the following chilling passages to the nation:

This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible. Meanwhile, stay tuned to this wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own homes.

Remember there is nothing to be gained by trying to get away. By leaving your homes you could be exposing yourselves to greater danger….

Make your food stocks last: ration your supply, because it may have to last for 14 days or more. If you have fresh food in the house, use this first to avoid wasting it: food in tins will keep…

Do not, in any circumstances, go outside the house. Radioactive fall-out can kill. You cannot see it or feel it, but it is there. If you go outside, you will bring danger to your family and you may die. Stay in your fall-out room until you are told it is safe to come out or you hear the “all clear” on the sirens.

The actual BBC link above has a clip of Harry Shearer reading the transcript while doing a pretty serviceable impression of Cronkite. But I’d love to hear it from an actual Briton. Is there anything more despair-inducing than “nothing to be gained by trying to get away”?