February 17, 2016

Compare and Contrast

We mentioned yesterday that it looks like the Chinese may be putting their nuclear force on hair-trigger alert.

According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Beijing is considering a small but scary change to the way it stores its nuclear weapons. China may be reversing its decades-old nuclear policy and putting its nuclear weapons on permanent high alert. This would make China's nuclear deterrent more credible, but also heighten the possibility of accidental nuclear war.
The full report from the Union of Concerned Scientists is here. As is typical for them their suggestions all involve the U.S. coming off of a strike on warning status. Of course they also think that GMO foods should be banned so take their suggestions with a grain of (iodized) salt.

What is clear, is that China is engaged in a massive modernization of its nuclear forces. Little in the way of specifics is available, but this excerpt of a report from last year gives a good idea of what's in the works. Note that we have NO arms control treaties with China and no joint inspection agreements unlike those we have with Russia, so there is a LOT of room for surprises, particularly on numbers of warheads. 

Meanwhile in the U.S.A. It is unclear if this is the hope or the change, but it does seem consequential whichever it might be. 

Even before the 10-warhead mega-missile retired, plans were hatched for the Air Force to retrofit MX-like accuracy into remaining land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, called ICBMs.
But that never happened.  Somewhat amazingly, nearly nobody's noticed.

The Minuteman 3 is about 50 percent less accurate than the less old Peacekeeper missiles which were retired some years ago. The minuteman originally compensated for this by having a 1.2 MEGATON warhead. This was, later supplemented by other missiles with 3 smaller warheads, first the W-62, then the W-78. All the Minuteman missiles with the single Big warhead were retired some years ago and when the Peacekeeper missiles were retired, their mid yield warheads (the fairly modern and much safer W-87) were transferred to the much older Minuteman missiles. 

However. The Minuteman missiles were reduced from 3 warheads to 1 each so that they now have about a third the yield of the original Minuteman 1 (and obviously a third the yield they had before the "upgrade"). More significantly, they were supposed to be retrofitted with the much more accurate guidance package of the Peacekeeper missile to compensate for this. However, the Obama administration nixed this along wth several other upgrades to the nuclear arsenal. Thus the ability of these smaller and fewer warheads to deal decisively with a large nation's military is significantly reduced. This is because that while nuclear warheads are very powerful, they still require precise placement to take out a hardened bunker or missile silo, this is especially true with the much fewer and smaller warheads currently deployed.

It gets worse:
Ironically, Carter and the nation's commander in chief, President Obama, may be unaware that the U.S. arsenal cannot actually accomplish what's enshrined in the nuclear-contingency blueprints they've approved, according to defense sources. The promise of greater accuracy for the land-based missiles reportedly helped lay the groundwork for reductions in the 2011 New START agreement between Washington and Moscow, and many have assumed the precision now exists.
It's conceivable, strangely enough, that the Kremlin has already taken stock of the U.S. targeting deficiency. Considerable data about the capabilities of U.S. Air Force and Navy ballistic missiles can be found in open sources and online.
 

I suspect that neither the word "Ironically", nor the phrase "strangely enough" is being used properly in that quote.  

Note that one of the many hurdles to rectifying this is fears of civil service job security. 
But the ICBM program headquarters at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, also stands to lose jobs and clout if the advanced accuracy technology is adopted. Repair personnel based at Hill keep busy maintaining the old Minuteman 3 mechanical guidance units, which break down once every three years on average.
By contrast, solid state uses fewer moving parts and can run for 20 years between breakdowns, according to Air Force Research Laboratory data.
Oh...what EVER would we do with a reliable deterrent that didn't break down every three years? Perhaps not reducing our 400 single warhead missiles to...less at any given time. 

Of course, it is possible that the old '60s era guidance system is less prone to EMP and hacking and doesn't use the GPS  satellites that would be knocked out swiftly in any nuclear attack, so perhaps commercial off the shelf upgrades are not actually the panacea that the article suggests. The blue-screen of ATOMIC death should be limited to Cherenkov radiation on a CCTV. 

An extensive overview of hypothesized scenarios and effects involved in a China-U.S. Nuclear exchange can be found here. Note that this study is from a few years ago and does not take into recent Chinese developments and assumes that the U.S. actually upgraded the Minuteman guidance to render it effective against hardened targets. 



The calculus in these matters for a totalitarian dictatorship or oligarchy is vastly different than a representative republic. The possibility that a large nation which places a low value on human life might think that they can "take the hit" and deal a death blow to an adversary should not be ignored, especially since the vastly reduced numbers of active nukes in the world mean that a nuclear war today would not be a global extinction event. This, ironically could increase the possibility of these terrible weapons use. As such our deterrent should be as robust and credible as possible. 


UPDATE: And in other nuclear news...

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February 16, 2016

News That Doesn't Concern The Trumped-up Trump-Centric Trumpeting of Trumpism by the Trumpen Proletariat

For many of  us who grew up in the later stages of the Cold War, the region known as the Fulda Gap was a tidbit of geography that carried special meaning. Today the Sulwaki Gap seems to be replacing it in the atlas of dread.



Map Via


I momentarily misread this as "Vladimir Putin Wants to Destroy Naruto" and was perplexed, but not alarmed...alas. The article lays out a scenario where Turkey, intervening in Syria, exchanges fire with the Russians and the Russians hit a facility inside Turkey. This is not at all unlikely since the two nations are historical enemies, are currently at cross purposes in Syria and have recently exchanged fire with lethal results. The goal from the Russian perspective would be to destroy NATO's credibility should they refuse to come to Turkey's aid when Turkey invokes article 5 of the NATO charter. If Russian can secure the Hellespont, they will have achieved one of their primary goals of the last 300 years....so their motivation is great, perhaps great enough that the risk of WW3 seems worth it to them. 

That Russia (like China) has numerous domestic problems, does not make the risk of their engaging in ambitious foreign adventures necessarily unlikely. Such circumstances can have the opposite effect. 

The mess in Syria is already disturbingly international in nature. The Washington Post goes so far as to call it a 'mini world war'. While that is certainly hyperbole, the number of nations invested in the outcome of this squalid mess has the potential to widen its reach. 

Elsewhere in the Middle East the Iran Deal so doggedly sought by the current administration appears to be bearing fruit.
"We see signs that countries in the Arab world are preparing to acquire nuclear weapons, that they are not willing to sit quietly with Iran on brink of a nuclear or atomic bomb,"
 

Pivoting to Asia for a bit reveals that China is putting MIRVs on its big DF-5 ICBMs. This is surprising mainly in that the Chinese seem to be keeping the old missiles in service despite the existence of the new Road Mobile DF-41. Most likely the very large throw weight of the liquid fueled  DF-5 is a factor. The Middle Kingdom also seems to be putting its nuclear forces on an alert footing...this is not a short term mobilization but a larger change in policy regarding how their deterrent is handled. 

China is also equipping its "scientific research stations" on the Philippine reefs it has turned into islands with impressive AAA/ABM missile systems...no doubt for launching sounding rockets. 

Meanwhile...In South Korea...
Won Yoo Chul, floor leader for the ruling Saenuri party, on Monday said South Korea should adopt "peaceful” nuclear weapons and missiles against North Korea’s "fearful and self-destructive” ones.

He said South Korea should be independent from ally Washington’s so-called nuclear umbrella to deter North Korea’s nuclear threat, or reconsider deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn from South Korea in 1992 under a pact for the denuclearization of the peninsula.  

Fecklessness...the gift that just keeps on giving. 

On the economic front, Kyle Bass, who was something of a Cassandra with regard to the bursting of the 2008 financial bubble is now saying the saying similar things about China...except that he expects it to be far worse than 2008

Silly Cassandra...I'm sure the powers that be would tell us if something were up

In other news...well intentioned hippies should write in English or Spanish...I'm just sayin'. 

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February 04, 2016

Yet More Thoughts on That Non-Gargantuan Nork Nuke

Business Insider is reporting that the claim by the North Koreans that they conducted an H-Bomb test may indeed be something more than a crate of commie kimchee. For one thing, recent analysis of the seismological data indicates that the detonation was actually much deeper than was initially supposed (more than twice the depth of the previous tests). There seem to be other indicators as well, that this was a test related to specific components used in an H-bomb, though officials are a tad coy about specifics, about how they have come to this conclusion or what components they might be. One interesting fact is that air samples aren't detecting any radioactives, which could mean that the DPRK is getting better at preventing any venting. (I suppose it is also possible that they popped of between 7 and 10 thousand tons of TNT; that's not without precedence but there doesn't seem to be any reason to do that as they clearly do have atomic weapons). There is more on this test here and here. American tests that tested H-bomb components prior to the first official H-bomb (Ivy-Mike) included Greenhouse-George. That test (and not Ivy-Mike) was was actually the first thermonuclear burn, though its fusion yield was far less that its fission yield. It was a proof of concept test and could well be what is being implied for the North Korean test. Something along those lines would make North Korean claims about the test substantively true. 


Note that the Buisness insider piece also has this to say....
As Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian at the Steven Institute of Technology and creator of Nuke Map, told Business Insider on January 6, a country that's mastered thermonuclear-weapons design suddenly has a number of possible options open to it.

For instance, a country with a thermonuclear capability could build "a very thin-cased bomb of low yield [in this case 1 to 10 kilotons, or 1,000 to 10,000 tons of TNT] that would emit a lot of radiation relative to its blast power."

This jives somewhat with what we posted on the subject last month, though the assumption here is that this was just a proof of concept test, and not (as Nigel Cook suggests) a test of an operational device.

In another area of weapons technology, the North Koreans have an indisputably operational unconventional weapons system, though in this case a minimal amount of R&D was required since the technology involved is quite mature, or, shall we say, quite ripe.  



While the threat of these other weapons is somewhat limited, any country that bombards its neighbors with profanity-filled, exploding poop-balloons is bat-scat bonkers enough that its nuclear arsenal, however modest, should warrant considerable concern. 

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