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April 12, 2006

Going Nuclear Iran  War and Peace

[Originally posted 4/11, but re-posted to bring it back to the top.]

If the US uses nuclear weapons against Iran, as US planners are reportedly contemplating, the real purpose will almost certainly be to break the long-standing taboo against the use of nukes. Why? Because the US is pushing hard to establish a first-strike nuclear capability vis-a-vis Russia and China. Making that threat credible requires that Russia and China be made to believe that the US is prepared to go nuclear.

An article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs explains the US's new-found nuclear primacy. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this material. You may have thought that US nuclear weapons development has been on hold since the end of the Cold War. Far from it. Out of public view, tectonic shifts in US nuclear policy and capability are underway. I've excerpted the article at some length, but I urge you to read on:

For almost half a century, the world's most powerful nuclear states have been locked in a military stalemate known as mutual assured destruction (MAD). By the early 1960s, the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union had grown so large and sophisticated that neither country could entirely destroy the other's retaliatory force by launching first, even with a surprise attack. Starting a nuclear war was therefore tantamount to committing suicide. [...]

[T]he age of MAD is nearing an end. Today, for the first time in almost 50 years, the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike. This dramatic shift in the nuclear balance of power stems from a series of improvements in the United States' nuclear systems, the precipitous decline of Russia's arsenal, and the glacial pace of modernization of China's nuclear forces. Unless Washington's policies change or Moscow and Beijing take steps to increase the size and readiness of their forces, Russia and China — and the rest of the world — will live in the shadow of U.S. nuclear primacy for many years to come. [...]

Since the Cold War's end, the U.S. nuclear arsenal has significantly improved. The United States has replaced the ballistic missiles on its submarines with the substantially more accurate Trident II D-5 missiles, many of which carry new, larger-yield warheads. The U.S. Navy has shifted a greater proportion of its SSBNs to the Pacific so that they can patrol near the Chinese coast or in the blind spot of Russia's early warning radar network. The U.S. Air Force has finished equipping its B-52 bombers with nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which are probably invisible to Russian and Chinese air-defense radar. And the air force has also enhanced the avionics on its B-2 stealth bombers to permit them to fly at extremely low altitudes in order to avoid even the most sophisticated radar. Finally, although the air force finished dismantling its highly lethal MX missiles in 2005 to comply with arms control agreements, it is significantly improving its remaining ICBMs by installing the MX's high-yield warheads and advanced reentry vehicles on Minuteman ICBMs, and it has upgraded the Minuteman's guidance systems to match the MX's accuracy.

Even as the United States' nuclear forces have grown stronger since the end of the Cold War, Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal has sharply deteriorated. Russia has 39 percent fewer long-range bombers, 58 percent fewer ICBMs, and 80 percent fewer SSBNs than the Soviet Union fielded during its last days. The true extent of the Russian arsenal's decay, however, is much greater than these cuts suggest. [...]

Compounding these problems, Russia's early warning system is a mess...If U.S. submarines were to fire missiles from areas in the Pacific, Russian leaders probably would not know of the attack until the warheads detonated. [...]

To determine how much the nuclear balance has changed since the Cold War, we ran a computer model of a hypothetical U.S. attack on Russia's nuclear arsenal using the standard unclassified formulas that defense analysts have used for decades. We assigned U.S. nuclear warheads to Russian targets on the basis of two criteria: the most accurate weapons were aimed at the hardest targets, and the fastest-arriving weapons at the Russian forces that can react most quickly. Because Russia is essentially blind to a submarine attack from the Pacific and would have great difficulty detecting the approach of low-flying stealthy nuclear-armed cruise missiles, we targeted each Russian weapon system with at least one submarine-based warhead or cruise missile. An attack organized in this manner would give Russian leaders virtually no warning.

This simple plan is presumably less effective than Washington's actual strategy, which the U.S. government has spent decades perfecting. The real U.S. war plan may call for first targeting Russia's command and control, sabotaging Russia's radar stations, or taking other preemptive measures — all of which would make the actual U.S. force far more lethal than our model assumes.

According to our model, such a simplified surprise attack would have a good chance of destroying every Russian bomber base, submarine, and ICBM. This finding is not based on best-case assumptions or an unrealistic scenario in which U.S. missiles perform perfectly and the warheads hit their targets without fail. Rather, we used standard assumptions to estimate the likely inaccuracy and unreliability of U.S. weapons systems. Moreover, our model indicates that all of Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal would still be destroyed even if U.S. weapons were 20 percent less accurate than we assumed, or if U.S. weapons were only 70 percent reliable, or if Russian ICBM silos were 50 percent "harder" (more reinforced, and hence more resistant to attack) than we expected. (Of course, the unclassified estimates we used may understate the capabilities of U.S. forces, making an attack even more likely to succeed.)

To be clear, this does not mean that a first strike by the United States would be guaranteed to work in reality; such an attack would entail many uncertainties. Nor, of course, does it mean that such a first strike is likely. But what our analysis suggests is profound: Russia's leaders can no longer count on a survivable nuclear deterrent. And unless they reverse course rapidly, Russia's vulnerability will only increase over time.

China's nuclear arsenal is even more vulnerable to a U.S. attack. A U.S. first strike could succeed whether it was launched as a surprise or in the midst of a crisis during a Chinese alert. China has a limited strategic nuclear arsenal. The People's Liberation Army currently possesses no modern SSBNs or long-range bombers. Its naval arm used to have two ballistic missile submarines, but one sank, and the other, which had such poor capabilities that it never left Chinese waters, is no longer operational. China's medium-range bomber force is similarly unimpressive: the bombers are obsolete and vulnerable to attack. According to unclassified U.S. government assessments, China's entire intercontinental nuclear arsenal consists of 18 stationary single-warhead ICBMs. These are not ready to launch on warning: their warheads are kept in storage and the missiles themselves are unfueled. (China's ICBMs use liquid fuel, which corrodes the missiles after 24 hours. Fueling them is estimated to take two hours.) The lack of an advanced early warning system adds to the vulnerability of the ICBMs. It appears that China would have no warning at all of a U.S. submarine-launched missile attack or a strike using hundreds of stealthy nuclear-armed cruise missiles. [...]

Given the history of China's slow-motion nuclear modernization, it is doubtful that a Chinese second-strike force will materialize anytime soon. The United States has a first-strike capability against China today and should be able to maintain it for a decade or more.

Is the United States intentionally pursuing nuclear primacy? Or is primacy an unintended byproduct of intra-Pentagon competition for budget share or of programs designed to counter new threats from terrorists and so-called rogue states? Motivations are always hard to pin down, but the weight of the evidence suggests that Washington is, in fact, deliberately seeking nuclear primacy. For one thing, U.S. leaders have always aspired to this goal. And the nature of the changes to the current arsenal and official rhetoric and policies support this conclusion. [...]

Some may wonder whether U.S. nuclear modernization efforts are actually designed with terrorists or rogue states in mind. Given the United States' ongoing war on terror, and the continuing U.S. interest in destroying deeply buried bunkers (reflected in the Bush administration's efforts to develop new nuclear weapons to destroy underground targets), one might assume that the W-76 upgrades are designed to be used against targets such as rogue states' arsenals of weapons of mass destruction or terrorists holed up in caves. But this explanation does not add up. The United States already has more than a thousand nuclear warheads capable of attacking bunkers or caves. If the United States' nuclear modernization were really aimed at rogue states or terrorists, the country's nuclear force would not need the additional thousand ground-burst warheads it will gain from the W-76 modernization program. The current and future U.S. nuclear force, in other words, seems designed to carry out a preemptive disarming strike against Russia or China.

The intentional pursuit of nuclear primacy is, moreover, entirely consistent with the United States' declared policy of expanding its global dominance. The Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy explicitly states that the United States aims to establish military primacy: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States." To this end, the United States is openly seeking primacy in every dimension of modern military technology, both in its conventional arsenal and in its nuclear forces.

Washington's pursuit of nuclear primacy helps explain its missile-defense strategy, for example. Critics of missile defense argue that a national missile shield, such as the prototype the United States has deployed in Alaska and California, would be easily overwhelmed by a cloud of warheads and decoys launched by Russia or China. They are right: even a multilayered system with land-, air-, sea-, and space-based elements, is highly unlikely to protect the United States from a major nuclear attack. But they are wrong to conclude that such a missile-defense system is therefore worthless — as are the supporters of missile defense who argue that, for similar reasons, such a system could be of concern only to rogue states and terrorists and not to other major nuclear powers.

What both of these camps overlook is that the sort of missile defenses that the United States might plausibly deploy would be valuable primarily in an offensive context, not a defensive one — as an adjunct to a U.S. first-strike capability, not as a standalone shield. If the United States launched a nuclear attack against Russia (or China), the targeted country would be left with a tiny surviving arsenal — if any at all. At that point, even a relatively modest or inefficient missile-defense system might well be enough to protect against any retaliatory strikes, because the devastated enemy would have so few warheads and decoys left. [Emphasis added]

While we're worrying about Iraq, and maybe Iran, they're playing many moves ahead. One is reminded of Ron Susskind's quote:

[A senior administration aide told me] that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." [Emphasis added]

These people are preparing to take us down a very dark path indeed. As Bill Hicks used to ask, "How does it feel to find out we are the Evil Empire?"

Update: [11:14 PM] Consider for a moment how utterly devoid all this is of any form of democratic input. We can only discern our own country's policy with respect to something as momentous and horrific as a nuclear first-strike (and we're talking here about attacks that would, in the case of a country like Russia, have to involve many hundreds or thousands of nuclear weapons) by doing what we would do to discern another country's policy: we have to look at what kind of weapons are being developed and reverse-engineer their intended purpose.

All of this is happening far from public view, with exactly zero public input. No doubt it's entirely obvious to the Russians and Chinese what's going on. It's no secret to them. It's a secret only to the American public, and it is completely out of our control. So much for democracy.

Posted by Jonathan at April 12, 2006 12:40 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


wow great post.

Posted by: BenE at April 12, 2006 08:08 AM

"It's a secret only to the American public, and it is completely out of our control."

I'd rephrase this to say "It's out of our control only because it remains a secret to the American public."

Are Americans more naive then they are hooked on happiness? Isn’t it easier to look the other way so long as you have a little cash in your pocket and can smile once and a while? Has there ever been a time in American's history where the vast majority of people were desperately miserable for more then one or two generations? The poorest of people in America have so much more than many millions of others around the world living in sheer desolation. Some of whom have been left with no other option but revolution.

Say we nuc Iran. Then say we have nuclear primacy. I say does having nuclear primacy really matter? I’ve been talking to people at work asking them if China would ever pull their money out of the US. Everyone seems to think no. They say China needs us as much as we need them because we buy most of their products. Maybe they’re right. But is it conceivable that if we nuc Iran, and China is willing to take a financial hit, that China would move their money to other countries on principle alone (knowing it would hurt us more than it would hurt them)? China’s fat right now sitting on a ton of cash. They can withstand an economic slowdown, at least for a while, we can’t. It seems to me the fallout of China pulling its money out of the US would absolutely devastate us. Certainly this is extreme and I have no idea what China would do if we show the world we have a nuclear backbone. Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

Oh, and to tie it all together it seems Americas will have to have a very powerful reason to revolt against our government, as is usually the case. Sadly, hitting Americans pocket books may be all it takes.

Posted by: Jeff at April 12, 2006 08:52 PM

Actually, I think that might be the point of American nuclear blackmail. One day we will, I guess, deliver a secret ultimatum to China, ordering it to dismantle its remaining nuclear weapons or face a decapitation strike on Beijing. Once the leaders complied, we could then use our overwhelming supremacy to force them to keep investing money in the US under unfavorable terms. I'm sure neocon monsters can come up with some cute euphemism for this, like enlightened extortion (we deserve it for all the good we do!). But if any other country ever did it to America, every right-wing gun nut would call it what it is: Slavery. Global slavery. Every country in the world would be forced to keep investing in dollars, even though they've been declining in value since 1971. We could print dollars as fast as we want. We could order everyone to use dollars to buy oil (which is already largely the case). We could claim we're "protecting" these countries from each other, just as the smart barbarians of Europe after the fall of Rome made themselves the barons and dukes of the peasants by imposing protection rackets on them. It would be every crime that Marx ever predicted of capitalism taken to a new order of magnitude, every murder charged against the Third Reich multiplied by a hundred.

So democratic input might stop such a monstrous crime if ordinary Americans consider it too risky, but you must admit that the idea of becoming a master race forever has proved seductive to various groups of white people in the past.

If such a plan is underway, I suspect it's because our leaders have known about Peak Oil and global warming for many years now and realized that the current global economic system is doomed. If America has to fight dozens of countries in little resource wars while our own tax revenue is ruined by climate change, no one will win. So the logical Machiavellian solution is to extrapolate an end game: nuclear blackmail against everyone at the same time. So we would not only force China to keep investing in America, but we would ration its oil and order it to burn less coal and thus produce less CO2. And we can use the same nuclear arsenal to do that to every other country. So every human being outside of America could be forced to work harder, get paid less, and shiver in the winter and die of heatstroke in the summer, all to feed super-profits into Cheney's sacred American Way of Life. It's not very different than how things are now.

But what if we used the nukes, destroyed a few governments to make an example of them -- and the survivors kept fighting us? What if we didn't have enough troops to send over to force them to keep working in American-owned sweatshops? What if people hated enslavement so much that they overthrew governments that obeyed us, despite the apocalyptic punishment awaiting them? What if they refused to pay taxes, refused to work, refused to serve in our puppet armies? What would happen to our economy if we had to do to every country what we've done to Iraq the last 15 years?

So civilization would soon collapse. Better that than a global slave plantation forever. Good luck to the free barbarians who will piss on our graves.

Posted by: super390 at April 13, 2006 05:45 PM

"If such a plan is underway, I suspect it's because our leaders have known about Peak Oil and global warming for many years now and realized that the current global economic system is doomed."

I have come to this same conclusion on numerous occasions myself. I think this line of logic also fits in nicely with the government's complicity in 9/11, and even the formation of the PNAC itself. It's foolish to think that a group of people so intimately connected to the energy and arms industries wouldn't be aware of Peak Oil and its political/economic implications. To that end, they are taking steps to preserve their own power and wealth, regardless of the consequences for the rest of the planet.
There are times when I think (hope?)that a Peak Oil precipitated collapse will make their apparent endgame - world domination - unattainable. But who knows, I'm sure they've anticipated just such an event, and it seems like they're attempting to solidify their power before that happens. We are certainly entering some frightening times.
- Mike Lorenz
The Blank Page

Posted by: crz53 at April 14, 2006 07:54 AM

I jacked up the link on my first post. This one has the right link to my blog.
- Mike Lorenz

Posted by: crz53 at April 14, 2006 07:55 AM