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Still making things go boom dangerously

Written By: - Date published: 5:27 pm, March 15th, 2015 - 26 comments
Categories: International - Tags: , , , ,

Over the last few days I have been reading Neil Sheenan‘s “A fiery peace in a cold war“. It looks at the politics and infighting of the development of the US ICBM forces in the 50s and probably later (still reading). At the same time I’ve been reading last week’s Economist, including a feature on the current developing arms race in nuclear weapon systems. From the Economist leader

After the end of the cold war the world clutched at the idea that nuclear annihilation was off the table. When Barack Obama, speaking in Prague in 2009, backed the aim to rid the world of nuclear weapons, he was treated not as a peacenik but as a statesman. Today his ambition seems a fantasy. Although the world continues to comfort itself with the thought that mutually assured destruction is unlikely, the risk that somebody somewhere will use a nuclear weapon is growing apace.

Every nuclear power is spending lavishly to upgrade its atomic arsenal (see article). Russia’s defence budget has grown by over 50% since 2007, and fully a third of it is devoted to nuclear weapons: twice the share of, say, France. China, long a nuclear minnow, is adding to its stocks and investing heavily in submarines and mobile missile batteries. Pakistan is amassing dozens of battlefield nukes to make up for its inferiority to India in conventional forces. North Korea is thought to be capable of adding a warhead a year to its stock of around ten, and is working on missiles that can strike the west coast of the United States. Even the Nobel peace laureate in the White House has asked Congress for almost $350 billion to undertake a decade-long programme of modernisation of America’s arsenal.

The motivations are different.

Worst of all is the instability. During much of the cold war the two superpowers, anxious to avoid Armageddon, were willing to tolerate the status quo. Today the ground is shifting under everyone’s feet.

Inherently unstable states (for various reasons) like Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, and Iran appear to be using nuclear weapons or the threat of developing them to avoid change in their circumstances. They aren’t exactly states noted for their moderate internal and external politics. These are all states that are most notable for their populations of complete nutters, many of the more cynical ones in charge of those weapons.

Others want to shift the status quo.

Russia is increasingly using nuclear scenarios in their military exercises. Many of those scenarios postulate attacks on cities in neighbouring states like Warsaw or Stockholm. Bearing in mind their “plausible deniability” of special forces attacks on neighbouring states in recent years, neighbouring states either with or without Russian population enclaves have to be worried.

Resentful, nationalistic and violent, it wants to rewrite the Western norms that underpin the status quo. First in Georgia and now in Ukraine, Russia has shown it will escalate to extremes to assert its hold over its neighbours and convince the West that intervention is pointless. Even if Mr Putin is bluffing about nuclear weapons (and there is no reason to think he is), any nationalist leader who comes after him could be even more dangerous.

China is somewhat less ambiguous. They are developing a mobile second strike capability in the unfortunate traditional logic of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).

Nuclear expansion is designed to give China a chance to retaliate using a “second strike”, should America attempt to destroy its arsenal. Yet the two barely talk about nuclear contingencies—and a crisis over, say, Taiwan could escalate alarmingly. In addition Japan, seeing China’s conventional military strength, may feel it can no longer rely on America for protection. If so, Japan and South Korea could go for the bomb—creating, with North Korea, another petrifying regional stand-off.

All of this is eerily like the crazed nuclear and delivery systems build up in the 1950s that Neil Sheenan documents. As then, the partizian fools in the US congress play their part at putting us all at risk


KAL’s cartoon looking at the republican ‘help’ in tricky nuclear standoffs.

The turning point came between the US and the USSR during the Cuba crisis when the leaders at the time found that they had to talk to each other or mutually die. The decades of diplomacy following were important

What to do? The most urgent need is to revitalise nuclear diplomacy. One priority is to defend the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which slows the spread of weapons by reassuring countries that their neighbours are not developing nukes. It was essential that Iran stayed in the treaty (unlike North Korea, which left). The danger is that, like Iran, signatories will see enrichment and reprocessing as preparation for a bomb of their own—leading their neighbours to enrich in turn. That calls for a collective effort to discourage enrichment and reprocessing, and for America to shore up its allies’ confidence.

You don’t have to like the other side to get things done. Arms control became a vital part of Soviet-American relations. So it could between China and America, and between America and Putin’s Russia. Foes such as India and Pakistan can foster stability simply by talking. The worst time to get to know your adversary is during a stand-off.

Of course this is the obvious. But of course we have to look at the sterling example being set by the UN security council permanent members.

The chilling of relations between America and Russia over Ukraine has resulted in cooperation on nuclear security measures being suspended, while promised follow-on measures relating to New START have been quietly abandoned. Vladimir Putin, Mr Medvedev’s predecessor and successor, takes every opportunity to laud his country’s nuclear prowess, and is committing a third of Russia’s booming military budget to bolstering it.

It is not the only power investing in its nukes (see table). America is embarking on a $348-billion decade-long modernisation programme. Britain is about to commit to modernising its forces, as well, while France is halfway through the process. China is investing heavily in a second-strike capability. In short, there has been no attempt to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the military and security doctrines of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, despite their commitments under the NPT. An initiative aimed at making nuclear weapons illegal under international humanitarian law, backed by over 150 NPT signatory countries, has attracted little to no support from the weapons states and only lip service from countries which welcome America’s nuclear protection.

Perhaps having NZ on the security council might be useful. Perhaps we could once again tell those idiot states, especially the US,  to lead by example.

Cannon fired nuke test 1953

Cannon fired nuke test 1953


26 comments on “Still making things go boom dangerously ”

  1. Murray Rawshark 1

    “Perhaps having NZ on the security council might be useful. Perhaps we could once again tell those idiot states, especially the US, to lead by example.”

    I can’t see our having a government in power in the near future that would do that. National thinks the US already leads by example and Labour has been very happy to be back in the 5 eyed club.

    • Anne 1.1

      I can’t see our having a government in power in the near future that would do that.

      Actually I can. Andrew Little is strong and morally principled. I’ve had the good fortune to hear him make a speech twice now in a semi-private setting with no media present. He is more than capable of… telling those idiot states, especially the US, to lead by example.

      • Murray Rawshark 1.1.1

        It would be good if you’re right, but how does this mesh with his voting for increased participation in the 5 eyes club? That’s what giving our squirrels more power means – more involvement in the seppo gang.

  2. mickysavage 2

    Dang I was hoping we had left this insanity in the 1980s. Risking mutually assured destruction and squandering resources on nuclear weapons when we could make major inroads into poverty is rather silly.

    • lprent 2.1

      Nope. It looks to me like we’re just getting a slow tooling up amongst quite a number of nations. Technically it is getting cheaper, and there aren’t too many political constraints on doing it.

      • mickysavage 2.1.1

        Yep and the profit margins are huge …

        Behind climate change this is the biggest threat to humanity …

  3. GregJ 3

    It seems this from Flanders and Swann is still as apposite as it was in the sixties. 😥

    • Murray Simmonds 3.1

      Absolutely delightful link – thank you GregJ.

      Perhaps instead of wasting all that money on a new flag we could put some of it towards a new National Anthem.

      I’d vote for the Flanders and Swann offering as an alternative to what we presently put up with, any day.

  4. les 4

    the western nations should be the only ones allowed to have nuclear weapons because they are responsible,have high morals,ethics and are doing Gods work.

  5. These are all states that are most notable for their populations of complete nutters, many of the more cynical ones in charge of those weapons.

    I see that you included Israel in that lot, which is sensible, given the crazies currently in charge of the place. However, what disturbs me, and what is different from the 1950s, is that the same kind of crazies are ascendant in the US and Canada, and to a lesser extent the UK and Australia. For all the faults of the Key government, they aren’t mental like Abbott or Harper (and I don’t care what people say: Harper is mental).

    • lprent 5.1

      However, what disturbs me, and what is different from the 1950s, is that the same kind of crazies are ascendant in the US…

      Are you kidding? LeMay, Teller, von Neumann, Truman, Eisenhower, damn the list is endless. I swear that that entire generation of traumatised refugees and military paranoids were completely nuts, and in charge of the programmes for atomic weapons.

      And I haven’t gotten on to the congresses of the 50s. The material in some of the books I have read could be used to show the nuts that ran things.

      Those just happen to be a few of the people who have appeared in this book so far. The completely wired theories that they had and their complete inability to believe what intelligence that they had. I think that many in control of that post-two wars and depression generation in power in the US and UK were just nuts

      • Tom Jackson 5.1.1

        Eisenhower? What did he do? I have a hard time thinking he was barmier than the tea baggers. And at least some of the others on the list believed in the scientific method – such heresy would not be tolerated in today’s Republican party.

    • Colonial Rawshark 5.2

      They aren’t exactly states noted for their moderate internal and external politics. These are all states that are most notable for their populations of complete nutters, many of the more cynical ones in charge of those weapons.

      Iran is a very rational, technologically, industrially and scientifically advanced, modern Islamic society that is very keen to engage with the USA, Russia and China in both diplomatic and economic terms.

      They have signed the IAEA ‘additional protocols’ ensuring a very high level of transparency over their nuclear programme – something that Pakistan, North Korea and Israel refuse to do.

      They have also been attacked multiple times by foreign powers in their modern history but have invaded no other country in all that time. It is an old, proud civilisation widely tolerant of many religions within its own young and highly educated population.

      And its literacy rate for women today is over 95% – exactly the same as the male rate. As I understand it during the US backed Shah’s time, the figure was around 50%. Within that same time frame the birth rate in Iran has dropped from about 6 to just over 2. That’s evidence of a nation which is progressing in leaps and bounds.

      • lprent 5.2.1

        Iran is a very rational, technologically, industrially and scientifically advanced, modern Islamic society that is very keen to engage with the USA, Russia and China in both diplomatic and economic terms.

        Parts are. Parts are not. It is also not a homogenous society and has some “interesting” features in its political system – like the armed militias. Which I notice you didn’t point to their governing systems, but was the key to my point.

        They are also noticeable for the style of attacks internally on dissidents using local militias, externally using those same militias to dragoon citizens as cannon fodder during the Iran-Iraq war, and having a way of changing power that is has been pretty damn opaque to its citizens as well as to external observers but has a lot to do with using those militia to push around voters.

        The last election was rather different because it appears to have at least partially pushed out the overbearing effect of the militias for the first time in 3 decades. But the internal power structures still appear to be relatively unstable.

        • Colonial Rawshark

          Parts are. Parts are not. It is also not a homogenous society and has some “interesting” features in its political system – like the armed militias. Which I notice you didn’t point to their governing systems, but was the key to my point.

          Now that is also true. However I’d say that in D.C. the very powerful pro Israel neocon faction adds ‘spice’ and ‘non-homogeneity’ to the US political system. And they have been shown to cause actual wars, big ones. So I hesitate to conclude where the biggest danger to the Middle East is actually coming from.

          The other thing to note is that the Iranian cabinet is full of US alumni, including half a dozen or more PhDs. Their government understands the west far more than the west currently understands them.

          I found this by a former US Middle East civilian intelligence contractor who had top secret clearance quite informative:

    • Murray Rawshark 5.3

      Abbott is mental and some of his cabinet, like Pyne and Morrison, are even worse.

  6. Quote from a well known scientist.

    Humans are an advanced bred of Monkeys living on a insignificant rock floating in the middle of nowhere.

    Well, I reckon the advanced bred of monkey is about right, a few are hell bent on ending the human race, or at least there are those who can’t seem to help themselves.

    We can only despair at their idiotic mentality.
    Politicians, Who would have them ?

  7. Clemgeopin 7

    I think the world is %#@* ed.

    Is there a way to really un%#@*it?

  8. Macro 8

    Mind you lprent we are currently heating the Earth at the rate of 4-5 Hiroshimas per second. This energy far out ways the energy of all the atomic weapons we have amassed . If all the weapons were exploded at once they would be only a fraction of the energy that the Earth accumulates every year. Not to say that it wouldn’t be devastation and complete annihilation, just making the point that thanks to the massive heat sink of the oceans, if that energy were all released into the atmosphere at once we would be toast.

    • lprent 8.1

      Sure and it will cause major problems over centuries starting about now.

      But the problem with using nukes, especially ground strike, is that they act like volcanoes and pass a pall over the earth

      Human societies societies are incredibly dependent on agriculture, agrticuiture is very sensitive to weather and climate effects and either the slow effects of greenhouse gases or stratospheric debris disrupts it quite effectively. As our population continues to build well past the carrying limits we get more affected by even minor shifts in food production

  9. Wonderpup 9

    The discussion has been about the consciously planned use of nukes. What about an accident? It has only been through pure luck that a weapon hasn’t detonated accidentally. Schlosser’s book on the history of nuclear weapon ‘safety’ isn’t perfect, but it is a good read.


    • greywarshark 9.1

      Bill did a piece on the Japanese nuclear plants and the fact that they are in a perilous state which can’t be contained completely.

  10. The arms race never really stopped, so much as it slowed down until the Russian economy started improving. Rather than go for wholesale nuclear arms reductions, the Russians and the Americans started upgrading existing devices where possible instead of manufacturing new ones. With the absence of any new really ground breaking treaties like Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was when it was conceived and little effort being made to communicate concerns, the diplomatic situation is probably no better than the state of nuclear weapons on the whole.

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