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A Doomsday Machine, or the Next Best Thing

“Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret,” said Dr Strangelove to the Soviet ambassador in Stanley Kubrick’s classic film of the same name. Fifty years later, it would appear that the Russians have finally watched the movie.

In Kubrick’s film, a rogue American air force commander orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union – but he doesn’t know that the Russians have built a Doomsday Machine that will automatically explode and spread lethal radioactive contamination all over the world if American nuclear weapons land on the USSR. So everybody dies.

Moscow doesn’t want the United States to make the same mistake in real life, so it has just let us know that it is building a mini-doomsday machine. It wouldn’t destroy the whole world, just a half a continent or thereabouts – like, say, all of the United States east of the Mississippi River, or all of China within 1,500 km of the coast.

It is awkward to say this sort of thing through diplomic channels – “I have the honour to inform Your Excellency that we can now destroy half of your country with only one explosion” – so the preferred method is to get the word out by an accidental “leak”. In this case, the leak occurred on 10 November in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where President Vladimir Putin was meeting with his senior military officers.

A cameraman for state-owned Channel One television “accidentally” filmed a general studying a poster of a new weapon called “Status-6”, a giant torpedo (a “robotic mini-submarine”, the poster called it) that can travel up to 10,000 km at high speed carrying a huge payload – like, for example, a truly gigantic thermonuclear weapon. And the film clip was broadcast all over Russia before the “mistake” was discovered.

The text on the poster was clearly legible. The “oceanic multi-purpose Status-6 system,” it said, is designed to “destroy important economic installations of the enemy in coastal areas and cause guaranteed devastating damage to the country’s territory by creating wide areas of radioactive contamination, rendering them unusable for military, economic or other activity for a long time.”

“It’s true some secret data got into the shot. Therefore it was subsequently deleted,” said President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. But the complete text and a cutaway diagram of the Status-6 are now available on a hundred websites, and the Kremlin doesn’t seem particularly upset.

Indeed, the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta later reported details of the weapon, without showing the diagram, and speculated that it would carry a gigantic cobalt bomb – just like the Doomsday Machine in “Dr Strangelove”, although a little smaller.

The explosive core of the warhead would be a massive thermonuclear bomb – perhaps as big as 100 megatonnes, almost twice as big as any bomb ever tested. Around this core would be wrapped a thick layer of cobalt-59, which on detonation would be transmuted into highly radioactive cobalt-60 with a half-life longer than five years.

“Everything living will be killed,” the paper said. Konstantin Sivkov of the Russian Geopolitical Academy helpfully explained to the BBC Russian Service that a warhead of up to 100 megatons would produce a tsunami up to 500 metres high, which together with the intense radiation would wipe out all living things up to 1,500 km deep inside US territory.

This is crazy talk, but the Russians have always lived in fear that the United States might somehow develop the ability to destroy Russia without suffering serious retaliation. And the truth is that the American military have never stopped looking for some way to do exactly that.

Back in the 1950s, when US Strategic Air Command really could have destroyed the Soviet Union with impunity, physicist Andrei Sakharov (later the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize) actually proposed a weapon rather like System-6 so that Russia could take revenge from the grave.

The latest US gambit is anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defences to be based in Eastern Europe, allegedly to defend against nuclear missiles coming from Iran.

But Iran doesn’t have any nuclear weapons, and it may never get them. Yet the American ABM system is going to be deployed in Poland and Romania in the near future. Moscow is therefore convinced that the whole project is really intended to shoot down its own missiles shortly after launch.

There is no realistic possibility that the American ABM defences could really destroy all or even most of Russia’s missiles, but that is exactly what Putin is saying to his generals on the sound-track just before the TV clip focusses on System-6.

System-6 is not scheduled to be operational until 2019-20, and it may never be built at all. But the old game of nuclear one-upmanship goes on even though the two countries are no longer really enemies. It is pointless and potentially very dangerous, and President Obama might usefully spend the last of his political capital putting an end to it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“The text…time”; and “Back…grave”)

Paris Attacks: The Terrorist Strategy

As always after a major terrorist attack on the West, the right question to ask after the slaughter in Paris is: what were the strategic aims behind the attack? This requires getting your head around the concept that terrorists have rational strategies, but once you have done that the motives behind the attacks are easy to figure out. It also becomes clear that the motives have changed.

The 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 followed the classical terrorist strategy of trying to trick the target government into over-reacting in ways that ultimately serve the terrorists’ interests. Al-Qaeda’s goal was to sucker the United States into invading Muslim countries.

Al Qaeda was a revolutionary organisation whose purpose was to overthrow existing Arab governments and take power in the Arab countries, which it would then reshape in accord with its extreme Islamist ideology. The trouble was that Islamist movements were not doing very well in building mass support in the Arab world, and you need mass support if you want to make a revolution.

Osama bin Laden’s innovation was to switch the terrorist attacks from Arab governments to Western ones, in the hope of luring them into invasions that would radicalise large number of Arabs and drive them into the arms of the Islamists. His hopes were fulfilled by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Once the Western troops went in, there was a steep decline in terrorist attacks on Western countries. Al-Qaeda wanted Western troops to stay in the Middle East and radicalise the local populations, so it made no sense to wage a terrorist campaign that might make Western countries pull their troops out again.

The resistance in Iraq grew quickly and and attracted Islamist fighters from many other Arab countries. The organisation originally known as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” underwent several name changes, to “Islamic State in Iraq” in 2006; then to “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” – ISIS for short – in 2013, and finally to simply “Islamic State” in 2014. But the key personnel
and the long-term goals remained the same throughout.

The man who now calls himself the “Caliph” of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Bahdadi, first joined “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” and started fighting the US occupation forces in Iraq in 2004. But along the way the strategy changed, for ISIS eventually grew so strong that it conquered the extensive territories in Syria and Iraq that now make up Islamic State. Popular revolutions were no longer needed. The core strategy now is simply conquest.

In that case, why are Islamic State and Al-Qaeda still attacking Western targets? One reason is because the jihadi world is now split between two rival jihadi franchises that are competing for supporters.

The split happened in 2013, when ISIS, having launched a very successful branch operation in Syria known as the Nusra Front, tried to bring it back under the control of the parent organisation.

The Syrian branch resisted, and appealed to Al-Qaeda, the franchise manager of both jihadi groups, for support. Al-Qaeda backed the Syrians, whereupon ISIS broke its links with Al-Qaeda and set up as a direct competitor.

ISIS and the Nusra Front then fought a three-month war in early 2014 that killed several thousand militants and left the former in control of most of eastern Syria. Soon afterwards ISIS overran most of western Iraq and renamed itself Islamic State.

Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, are currently observing a ceasefire in Syria, but the two brands are still in a bitter struggle for the loyalty of jihadi groups elsewhere in the Muslim world.

Spectacular terrorist operations against Western targets appeal to both franchises because they are a powerful recruiting tool in jihadi circles. But Islamic State has a further motive: it actually wants Western attacks on it to cease.

It’s a real state now, with borders and an army and a more or less functional economy. It doesn’t want Western forces interfering with its efforts to consolidate and expand that state, and it hopes that terrorist attacks on the West may force them to pull out.

France is a prime target because French aircraft are part of the Western-led coalition bombing Islamic State, and because it’s relatively easy to recruit terrorists from France’s large, impoverished and alienated Muslim minority. Russia has also become a priority target since its aircraft started bombing jihadi troops in Syria, and the recent crash of a Russian airliner in Sinai may be due to a bomb planted by Islamic State.

So the outlook is for more terrorist attacks wherever Islamic State (and, to a lesser extent, Al-Qaeda) can find willing volunteers. Western countries with smaller and better integrated Muslim communities are less vulnerable than France, but they are targets too.

Putting foreign ground troops into Syria would only make matters worse, so the least bad option for all the countries concerned is to ride the terrorist campaign out. Horrendous though the attacks are, they pose a very small risk to the average citizen of these countries. Statistically speaking, it’s still more dangerous to cross the street, let alone climb a ladder.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10, 11 and 12. (“The split…world”)

P.S. Who takes their passport along on a sucide mission? There is a strong possibility that the Syrian refugee’s passport found at the scene of the Paris attacks was taken there to cause a huge backlash against Syrian refugees entering Europe, and thus further alienate European Muslims from their own governments.

Salami Tactics and the Climate

Salami tactics are useful when dealing with problems that are too big to resolve in one go. Muster all your resources and deal with one aspect of the problem. Come back later, when your resources have grown, and hack off a different piece. Repeat as necessary, until the problem disappears.

Salami tactics are driving the make-or-break climate summit that opens in Paris on 30 November. Over the next dozen days more than 150 countries will make binding pledges to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”.

This is better than what happened last time, at the disastrous Copenhagen summit in 2009, where only the developed countries were willing to make any promises at all.

Even China, now the biggest emitter in the world, was refusing to accept any limits on its emissions on the grounds that the small group of countries that industrialised early (basically the West plus Japan) were historically responsible for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Copenhagen summit broke up in disarray, with nothing of substance accomplished, and we had to wait six years for another kick at the can.

Now both the United States and China, the two biggest hold-outs last time, are making concrete offers to control their emissions. That’s crucial, because together they account for 40 percent of global emissions.

The conference must also come up with acceptable ways to monitor the emission cuts everybody is promising to make and to discipline the laggards and the cheats. But let’s be optimistic, and assume that the summit can even agree on a mechanism to transfer $100 billion annually from the rich countries to the poor countries to help them cut their omissions.

That still won’t save us from runaway warming and all the calamities that would entail.

Late last month the United Nations did an analysis of the 146 national plans for emissions cuts (including those of all the big countries) that had already been submitted. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t add up.

If all the promises are kept, global emissions will slow down – but the world still end up in the year 2100 with an average temperature 2.7 degrees Celsius higher than it was in the late 19th century. Yet all the governments going to Paris have acknowledged that the average global temperature must never exceed two degrees C higher.

What can they be thinking? Unlike the media and most of the lay public, the governments understand that plus 2 C is already catastrophic. If we stay there long enough, all the ice on the planet eventually melts and the sea level rises by 70 metres.

Even in the much shorter term plus 2 C means massive storms, widespread desertification, the loss of the world’s coral reefs and a crash in fish stocks due to ocean acidification. Food production worldwide will plummet, and there will be massive, unstoppable refugee flows as hunger and wars devastate the more vulnerable countries.

The governments also know that exceeding plus two or maybe even just getting near it will trigger the “feedbacks”: an ice-free Arctic Ocean absorbs the Sun’s heat rather than reflecting it, the melting of the permafrost zone releases of enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the warming of the oceans releases even more.

At that point the warming moves beyond human ability to control. The feedbacks, once started, are unstoppable. Even if human beings ultimately get their own emissions down to zero, the feedbacks will still take us up to plus four, plus five, maybe even plus six degrees eventually.

The governments know all this, and yet they have still come up with total promised cuts in emissions that deliver us to an average global temperature of plus 2.7 degrees C by the end of the century. What CAN they be thinking?

They think that they are going as far as they can safely go without committing political suicide. Every government must contend with huge vested interests at home that will be hurt by the shift away from fossils fuels and towards renewables. If governments go too far too fast, they risk being destroyed by the backlash.

Okay, so they are doing all they can politically – but what about the future of the human race? Well, you see, even inadequate cuts in emissions will increase the amount of time it takes for us to reach plus 2 C. And the governments secretly think that we can use that extra time to come back for another conference in three or five years’ time and agree to bigger emissions cuts.

Those further cuts will give us still more time before we reach plus 2, and we use that time for another round of cuts. Like Xeno’s arrow, we get closer and closer to the target (which we must never hit) but never quite reach it. Warming certainly reaches plus 1.8 C or something like that, but it never quite hits plus two.

Salami tactics. Although there is also a whiff of Russian roulette to this way of doing business.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Even…can”; and “The conference…emissions”)

Don’t Touch That Button!

“When people say they’re never going to use the (nuclear) deterrent,” said General Sir Nicholas Houghton, “I say you use the deterrent every second of every minute of every day. The purpose of the deterrent is you don’t have to use it because you effectively deter.”

You sort of know what he meant to say, although his syntax needs some work. But the general’s incoherence is forgiveable, because it is grounded in the greater incoherence of the strategy he is trying to defend: the notion of an independent British nuclear deterrent.

As Britain’s most senior serving military officer, Houghton went on the BBC last weekend to denounce the leader of the opposition, Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn. Why? Because Corbyn had said he would never press the nuclear button in the (rather remote) contingency that he becomes prime minister after the 2020 election.

Indeed, Corbyn has said that he would like to get rid of Britain’s nuclear weapons entirely. “There are five declared nuclear weapon states in the world,” he told the BBC a month ago. “Three others have nuclear weapons. That is eight countries out of 192; one hundred and eighty-seven countries do not feel the need to have nuclear weapons to protect their security. Why should those five need them to protect their security?”

Now, there are a few errors and omissions in that statement. 192 minus eight is 184. The five “declared” countries – the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China – were already nuclear weapons powers before the Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968, and their bombs were “grandfathered” by the treaty. They promised to get rid of them eventually, but half a century later “eventually” has still not arrived.

The four (not three) other nuclear weapons countries, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, never signed the NPT because they all had powerful enemies. Just like the original five, they were all thinking in terms of sheer survival when they developed their first nuclear weapons.

But what Corbyn failed to mention (to the great disadvantage of his argument) was that six other countries either had nuclear weapons or were on the brink of getting them – but then turned around and walked away from them.

Brazil and Argentina frightened each other into a race to develop nuclear weapons under the ultra-nationalist military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, but they didn’t really pose a threat to each other and the programmes were ditched by civilian governments in the 1990s. Both countries signed the NPT just before the century ended.

After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan all wound up with ex-Soviet nuclear weapons on their soil. But they had no real enemies, so they all agreed to destroy them or give them back to Russia, the legal successor to the Soviet Union.

And South Africa developed nuclear weapons in the dying days of apartheid, fearing that Cuban and Russian military help to the “front-line states” of Africa might grow into an all-out military assault on the white-ruled state. After white minority rule ended peacefully in 1994, the new government led by Nelson Mandela quietly dismantled the six South African bombs.

Nobody developed nuclear weapons just to feel more powerful: they were all driven by fear of attack. And when that fear vanished, as it did for some countries, they promptly got out of the nuclear weapons business again. Logically, both Britain and France should now belong the latter group.

They both built their bombs just after the Second World War because they feared an overwhelmingly powerful conventional conventional attack on Western Europe by the Soviet Union, and didn’t trust the United States to use its own nuclear weapons to save them.

After the Soviet Union fell, they faced no threat that was even remotely comparable. They still don’t today. Yet they cling to their irrelevant nuclear weapons, presumably because they think that is what guarantees them a seat at the high table.

Maybe it does, but it is a very expensive way to keep a seat of such dubious value. The military forces that Britain actually uses from time to time are being hollowed out to maintain this ludicrous deterrent (which depends on missiles leased from the United States).

It wouldn’t transform the world if Britain got rid of its nukes, but it would be a down-payment on what all the declared nuclear powers said they would do when they signed the NPT. French nuclear disarmament would also be a good idea.

Like people who live on the slopes of a volcano that hasn’t erupted in seventy years, we have mostly forgotten the appalling danger that still looms over us. The Cold War ended thirty years ago but the weapons are still there, waiting for some fool or madman to press the button.

I know what you’re thinking: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, and now it has a real enemy in Russia. So tell me: would you feel safer if Ukraine had nuclear weapons too? Would Ukrainians?

No. The stakes would be a hundred times higher, and we would have been living in a terrifying nightmare for the past two years.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7, and 12. (“You…deterrent”; “But…them”; and “They…them”)