Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

05 February 2018

Seven Reasons to Deploy Small Nukes


[NOTE TO READERS: Today’s essay has been in the works for weeks, awaiting a good time to publish it. Today’s front-page New York Times story on the issue marks that time. For comment on our desperate need to save the Dreamers, click here. For my prediction of a coming stock-market crash, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Do Good by Doing Well

Is the volatility in our five-day stock-market crash just the usual tussle between greed and fear? Or is it something more?

Much, if not all, of Friday’s drop and Monday’s roller-coaster ride can be attributed to economic and market fundamentals, plus the bizarre effect of electronic trading programmed by financial nerds trying to become real nerds without covering all the contingencies. Yet today’s (2/8) steady drop seems to portend a real correction, even a panic, based on larger fundamentals—a government that is anticompetent and “going all the way.”

The quoted words are from a column that Tom Friedman, the New York Times pundit, published Thursday about a worldwide phenomenon: authoritarian leaders abandoning all restraint. With the President of the United States leading the charge toward recklessness, Friedman opines, only three things can stop the worldwide stampede: “the market, Mother Nature, and human nature."

We can’t do much about the last two. With his global-warming denial, our president is challenging Mother Nature to a duel—a contest that we will surely lose. (At 71, he personally won’t see the worse of the consequences, although he could see Manhattan inundated again.) And the time scale required for evolution—even social evolution—to change human nature is too long for mere mortals to contemplate.

But markets? Yes, markets we can handle.

If looks as if a lot of investors have taken Friedman’s prescription to heart. You can hasten the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s political reign of terror just by selling out. In so doing, you can save whatever profits the “Trump Bump” gave your family.

You can do good by doing well. But Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Only the first will save their profits. After that, the usual fear stampede will commence. It’s going to be a wild ride.



1. Our adversaries’ small nukes make our “Doomsday” deterrent impotent.
2. Big nukes, not small nukes, epitomize the genocidal notion of “total war.”
3. Big nukes erase the legal distinction between war and war crimes.
4. A general exchange of big nukes threatens the demise of civilization and even species self-extinction, so we should destroy big nukes first.
5. Small, accurate weapons can give war limited, rational goals.
6. Small nukes can make deterrence personal.
7. The smaller and more accurate the weapons, the lower the risk of accidents and mistakes.
Conclusion

President Obama, not Donald Trump, initiated our small-nuke program on expert advice. But today the whole world has come to confuse the weapons with the men. The notion of nukes—any nukes!—under the control of the likes of Kim Jong Un or Donald Trump rightly strikes fear in the stoutest heart.

But the weapons are not the men. Anyway, Kim and Trump now have big ones. Smaller, more accurate nukes have several advantages over our now-prevailing big nukes and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Here are seven reasons why smaller nukes are a necessity—and an improvement over big nukes—under foreseeable future circumstances:

1. Our adversaries’ small nukes make our “Doomsday” deterrent impotent. Other nations already have small nukes. Russia has thousands. And they are “legal;” the New Start [Disarmament] Treaty, which goes into effect today, doesn’t cover them.

For strategic reasons Russia refused to include them in the agreement. Now it is “validating” that strategy by flexing its military muscles—meddling in our own elections, land-grabbing in Crimea, fomenting a civil war in Eastern Ukraine, and conducting fearsome conventional military exercises near the tiny Baltic states.

China likely has small nukes, too. The Chinese are a practical people. They have always been too smart and too strategic to rely on threats as bizarre as Mutually Assured Destruction (“MAD”) or species self-extinction. Throughout the Nuclear Age, they’ve avoided wasting the money and energy (and polluting their land with radioactive by-products, as we have done near Hanford, WA) to build a nuclear arsenal capable of ending life on Earth. We and the Soviets, now Russia, haven’t been so smart.

As time goes on, more nations will develop and deploy small nukes. The reason is simple: they are far more sensible and flexible than big nukes that serve only as nation- or city-killers.

Imagine that we have no small nukes at all. Then imagine that another nuclear power uses a small nuke to destroy a foreign military base of ours, or a whole fleet of ours sailing in international waters. Imagine that an enemy destroys our Pentagon with a nuke small enough to avoid killing our civilian leadership. What would our leaders’ options for responding be?

Should they file a diplomatic protest? Should they mount a conventional military response?

As you consider conventional options, recall that our last quick and successful general military campaign was Gulf I. The war took only two months, but it took five months for Colin Powell to move half a million troops and their equipment to the theater. In contrast, a tit-for-tat use of a small nuke could take as little as ten minutes. Which would be the more effective deterrent?

In case of a limited nuclear strike on us, our armed forces, or our allies, would we want our only options to be a major ground war, Mutual Assured Destruction, or the release of large parts of our arsenal and the possible extinction of life on Earth? Lest you think the latter is unlikely, recall that we came within minutes of it during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Even if they haven’t yet done so, our smartest and most capable adversaries will build and maintain small nukes to put us in precisely the position of having no realistic or effective response to their use. If we cannot mount a limited and proportional response, and quickly, we will be left to threaten only the sort of disproportionate catastrophe that no rational leader would allow. Our big, “Doomsday” nukes will be useless to deter a small-nuke attack.

It’s sad that the logic of nuclear weapons conduces to an arms race in small nukes. But it does. On the other hand, a small-nukes arms race won’t be anything like the Doomsday race that we and the Soviets ran during the last century. You don’t need thousands of small nukes to mount a credible, effective deterrent. All you need is enough, at the ready, within striking distance of trouble spots and adversaries’ weak points.

Small nukes don’t threaten our species’ survival. With rational leaders, they don’t threaten any nation’s survival. On the contrary, they will give our nation the most effective and credible deterrent to a strike on us or our allies with small nukes: a quick, proportionate and equivalent response.

The ability to make a proportionate counterstrike presents an enemy making a small-nuke first strike with a clear set of options. There are only four: (1) to call it quits after a tit-for-tat exchange, (2) to expand the nuclear war with unforeseeable consequences, (3) to initiate Mutually Assured Destruction (if the initiator has the capability), or (4) to extinguish our species. A rational leader would take option (1), sacrificing a military base or city in exchange for one of ours.

That’s why no rational leader is likely ever to begin such an exchange, as long as we have enough small nukes and delivery means to mount a credible, proportionate response. Not knowing where the response might come would add power to the deterrent; a leader’s family or most loyal partisans might be there.

2. Big nukes, not small nukes, epitomize the genocidal notion of “total war.” The Germans invented that notion well before the Nazis took over. An obscure dirigible captain in the First World War, Fregattenkapitän Peter Strasser, was the culprit.

Strasser reasoned that civilian populations help the enemy’s war effort and so are fair game for “neutralizing.” So he began the dirigible bombing of civilians in London.

His deliberate targeting of civilians in cities morphed into the Nazis’ V-2 bombing of London in World War II. Later it led to the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and our nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The reductio ad absurdum was the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the vast majority of the civilian populations of the United States and the Soviet Union was hostage to war threats until cooler heads prevailed. Doesn’t it make sense to halt this steady progression toward Armageddon and Doomsday, let alone for civilians?

3. Big nukes erase the legal distinction between war and war crimes. Any nuclear weapon with a yield above ten megatons of TNT equivalent is more than 625 times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Although destructive power is not a linear function of yield, that kind of power has one use only: to kill as many people and destroy as much of cities and civilization as possible.

Using that kind of power necessarily implies civilian targets and invokes the notion of “total war.” It therefore violates two legal prohibitions on war-making, one ancient, one modern.

The ancient principle is the distinction between soldiers and civilians. From the Age of Chivalry through the development of modern firearms, tanks, planes and warships, soldiers have been tasked to fight and civilians have generally been off limits, at least until the last century’s military pathology. Big nukes necessarily violate that principle by putting civilians right at the bull’s eye: Ground Zero. Big nukes are much like the terrorism of 9/11, but on an inconceivably greater scale.

The modern prohibition that big nukes inherently violate is the one against genocide. The logical conclusion of “total war” is that it’s OK to stop or win a war by annihilating your enemy’s civilian population. Today, we recognize that as genocide—one of the starkest and most serious of war crimes. If we as a species are serious about stopping genocide, we have to outlaw big nukes.

4. A general exchange of big nukes threatens the demise of civilization and even species self-extinction, so we should destroy big nukes first. Initially Ronald Reagan was no fan of disarmament. He proposed using our American innovative and productive supremacy to make a nuclear war “unwinnable” for the Soviets.

But he stopped and began to preach disarmament during his second term, after experts informed him that a general exchange of nuclear weapons with the USSR would cause hundreds of millions of casualties. He also knew of our own scientists’ predictions, during the Cuban Missile Crisis: that the “nuclear winter” following any such exchange might extinguish our entire species, or at least destroy most of human agriculture and send us all back to the Stone Age.

In the quest to remove the threat of nuclear weapons forever, it makes sense to avoid the worst cases first. Those are the threats of major-power MAD or species self extinction. The practical way to eliminate them is to transition from big to small nukes and destroy, under international verification, the big nukes first.

If you want to eliminate nuclear weapons, you have to start somewhere. Once major powers have credible and effective nuclear deterrents using small nukes, they can get rid of the big ones without impairing their defenses. Indeed, small nukes will improve their defenses and allow all of humankind to sleep more soundly.

5. Small, accurate weapons can give war limited, rational goals. If Peter Strasser’s “total war” justified insane conclusions like genocide, Mutually Assured Destruction, and species self-extinction, another German had already offered a more sensible approach. Carl von Clausewitz said that “war is just politics by other means.”

What did he mean? Well, the goals of politics are hardly genocidal murder, mutual annihilation, or species self-extinction. As in politics, the primary goal of war is changing an adversary’s behavior. You can do that in several ways: (1) persuasion, (2) coercion, (3) destroying an enemy’s ability to coerce (i.e., his military forces and/or military productive capacity) and (4) killing or disabling the enemy’s leaders, thereby forcing their replacement.

Small nukes are ideal for all these purposes—the smaller, more accurate and more focused, the better. Big nukes, like the ones we have far too many of today, offer only useless and counterproductive overkill.

Only two nations, the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia), have been so driven by fear, panic, ideology and self-righteousness as to waste vast sums of money on world-destroying nuclear arsenals. Other, more sensible nations, maintain just enough nukes to credibly deter conventional invasion.

These sensible nations include Britain, China and France. We and the Russians would do well to follow their example and downsize our deterrent forces. We can do so by reducing both the numbers of weapons and their sizes.

6. Small nukes can make deterrence personal. Tyrants seldom care much about their people, no matter how large or small the population. Stalin famously opined that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” So attempting to deter a tyrant by threatening his civilian population—even with total annihilation—is futile. Most tyrants consider the “masses” their pawns, analogous to expendable equipment and supplies.

But credibly threaten the tyrant himself—his own life, his family, his immediate entourage, and the tools of his coercion—and you have a much more effective deterrent. That’s what small nukes can do, especially if they are accurate and designed to penetrate armor and deep bunkers.

Of course the international law of sovereign immunity frowns on assassinating others’ leaders. If you try to do that to them, they will try to do it to you. So fears of a terrible reciprocity buttress the law.

But we are not talking about ordinary leaders or ordinary circumstances. We are talking about pathological leaders like Kim, whom the militaries and spies of several nations would kill in a heartbeat but for the dire consequences of trying and failing. Properly designed small nukes can reduce the risk of those dire consequences more than any other weapons.

Today we have little means besides small nukes to deter Kim’s aggression and provocations. He knows that we are not going to start a major ground war, let alone Armageddon, in response to provocative nuclear-weapon or missile tests or small conventional attacks on South Korea or innocent South Korean fishermen. But small nukes, hidden in undetectable submarines, have the ability to take out Kim and his major military assets in a surprise attack.

Even if we never mount that attack, our ability to do so provides an effective deterrent. It’s this deterrent, not Trump’s childish threats, that appear to be moving Kim toward the negotiating table.

7. The smaller and more accurate the weapons, the lower the risk of accidents and mistakes. It’s almost a tautology that smaller nukes threaten less risk of error than big ones. If a ten-megaton weapon goes off course, or if it’s thrown off course in a failed attempt to shoot it down, it can annihilate an entire city or region, even if initially targeting a remote military installation. An entire conurbation like Greater Tokyo, Greater New York, or Metropolitan Los Angeles could literally go up in smoke, along with millions of innocent inhabitants.

What possible rational purpose could that serve, even for an implacable enemy of the target country?

Except for so-called “tactical” field weapons, almost every nuke today has greater yield than the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet both cities survived their nuclear attacks and are thriving metropolises today.

This is not to excuse or justify those attacks. Only the verdict of future history, if anything, can do that. It’s simply to state the obvious: still smaller weapons might achieve legitimate political goals with less risk to innocent civilian populations. Imagine a nuke small enough to take out Kim and his entourage in their bunkers and leave the rest of Pyongyang untouched, let alone the rest of North Korea.

Conclusion. For decades the threats of MAD and species’ self-extinction have kept the peace. The reason was simple: the size and destructive power of the US’ and Soviets’ (or Russians’) vast nuclear arsenals made their use literally unthinkable.

With MAD as the deterrent goal, an actual exchange of nuclear weapons would have resulted in greater civilian casualties than the entire Second World War. In the worst case, it would have annihilated both “superpowers” or our entire species.

The insanity of either such outcome has led humanity to try not to think about nukes for several decades. Meanwhile, the presumedly declining risk of Armageddon lulled us into ignoring the proliferation of nukes, the near-nuclear war between India and Pakistan in 1999, the growing enmity between the US and Russia, and the stark and explicit nuclear threat of Kim Jong Un. It’s now time to awaken from our Doomsday-induced stupor.

Contrary to popular belief, nuclear weapons need not produce nuclear explosions by accident or negligence. Nuclear explosions require extremely precise and delicate triggering with conventional explosives. We can and do design weapons to be failsafe, with systems that inactivate them unless and until they receive final “go” signals in their ballistic descent phases or their final approaches to their targets.

The problem is not so much unintended nuclear explosions as the risk of the high conventional explosives dispersing radioactive material in an accident. That’s what actually happened in the infamous 1966 incident near Palomares, Spain. There a midair collision of two US planes dropped four powerful nukes, causing plutonium contamination of large areas of seacoast and sea. As a result of that accident and its cleanup, there is still dangerous radioactivity in the area generations later, and many of the (often uninformed) troops deployed in the cleanup suffered disease and early death.

Smaller nukes can ameliorate these risks, too. The smaller the nuke, the less radioactive material it needs, and the lower the risk of contamination in any accident. In addition, smaller nukes can be based on uranium, rather than plutonium, whose chemical properties and long half-life make it the most dangerous radioactive contaminant in large-scale use. (A single tiny particle of plutonium, lodged in a healthy persons’s lungs, can cause lung cancer.)

In any event, the main point is clear. The “insanity” of nuclear weapons inheres primarily in past and current policies for their use as deterrents: the notion of threatening to annihilate an entire nation or region, its population, or even our entire species.

It makes basic common sense to downsize nukes from such nonsensical Doomsday devices to weapons that can take out a tyrant and his entourage or a threatening military installation (including nuclear facilities themselves), or that can decapitate a rogue regime like North Korea’s. Downsizing may make the use of nukes more probable than at present. But for that very reason, small nukes can better deter tyrants as proliferation inevitably continues. They therefore can allow our flawed species to muddle on.

Putting one’s head in the sand has never been an effective solution to global warming or anything else. There will be small nukes. There already are. Russia has thousands. Israel, among others, probably has them, too. The Israelis are smart enough to understand the folly of using Doomsday weapons in their crowded and holy neighborhood. If humanity must have nukes, smaller is better.

We Americans invented nuclear weapons. We have the most innovative society and (but for the recent Russian cyberattacks) the most inventive military engineering in human history. If any nation ought to have the credible, realistic deterrent of small, accurate nukes, it ought to be ours. To think otherwise is to allow our national security and global influence to depend upon the kindness of inimical strangers.

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