Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Debate over Nuclear Weapons Continues

Keywords: The Agenda; North Korea; United States; Iran; Israel; nuclear weapons; retaliatory strike; launch on warning

I have heard that the TV show, The Agenda, read aloud a letter that I placed on their blog after North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon several weeks ago. So a friend of mine wrote me, challenging my statement that the United States is far more dangerous than and , which are now the subject of anxiety and vast media coverage. The existence of 24,000 nuclear weapons by the existing nuclear powers is not considered a problem. This double standard absolutely appalls me, but my friend Richard does not see it that way. He wrote to me,

“As much as I think Bush is....unwise and you really think a nuclear armed Iran-- vowing to wipe off Israel off the map, and threatening Europe with missiles-- is ....less dangerous?”

Yes, I do. For one thing, is responding the Israeli nuclear weapons by attempting to build an arsenal of his own, probably more as a way of recapturing Iran’s primacy in the Muslim world by pulling Uncle Sam’s beard. But if you want to see them disarm, then get Israel to offer to disarm if they agree not to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel won’t do that. It has 400 plus nuclear weapons, some of them installed on several planes whose pilots are trained deliver them. (See the photo showing the inside of the nuclear plant at Dimona -- photos for which Vanunu served many years imprisonment and still is being kept from leaving Israel.)

held a day-long series of lectures a couple of weeks ago. , a political scientist at UBC, estimated that it would take four years for Iran to acquire these weapons.

Richard writes more:

“A nuclear armed Iran that will give suitcase nuclear bombs to its clients in Hezbollah and elsewhere? Look what they did in Argentina.

“It may be a mistake will happen, like you mentioned on the Ideas episode. And the thugocracy in Moscow and the pea brains in Washington will exchange nuclear weapons. But who actually thinks THAT'S the most dangerous scenario on the planet?

“You do I guess. You may have good reasons. But I don't think the Russians and the Americans are insane.

“Fanatics who want to bring on the coming of the Messiah Mahdi are not. (including Christian fundamentalists).”

I don’t know what you’re referring to in . There was a time when Argentina was attempting to develop , but they gave that up voluntarily.

I don’t like suitcase bombs, and I don’t like proliferation of any kind – especially vertical. But the answer to that is to stop accepting – allowing countries you’re friendly with to have such bombs when other countries are not. India violated the only international treaty about the access to nuclear weapons, the NPT, and now Bush has said that’s okay. Yesterday the newspaper reported that Congress has accepted Bush’s decision on this point. It just keeps chipping away at the only fair standard for managing these things. Actually, it’s not a fair standard because it gave special status to the five countries which then had nukes. But at least it was supposed to be a fair standard after that point, with mechanisms for inspection and verification. That treaty is broken now; the tolerance of Israeli bombs was the biggest early damage to the treaty.

Right now there’s very little prospect that the Russians and Americans will get into a nuclear war. However, the general principles that might prevent nuclear wars have been deteriorating. For a while Russia promised never to be the first to use a nuclear weapon in any conflict; now they no longer promise that. The US has never promised that. Indeed, the US has explicitly abandoned the claim that nuclear weapons are intended just for deterrence. Now the official policy is to use them in war.

In March 2002 Patrick Martin wrote,

“The Bush administration has told the US military to greatly expand preparations for the use of nuclear weapons in future wars, according to press reports on the weekend which have been confirmed by the Pentagon and White House."

"The Pentagon has been directed to develop contingency plans for nuclear attacks on seven different countries. These include China and Russia, the two powers which have long been targeted by the US nuclear arsenal; Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the three countries demonized by Bush as the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union speech; and Libya and Syria.”

Then last month, Bush announced a much more radical policy about the use of nuclear weapons against other countries, plus the intention to expand into space. Basically he’s saying now that the US will do whatever it damn pleases, and will prevent other countries from doing the same. The US as policeman? Ye gods.

US war plans exist for all kinds of contingencies, including against Iran, though I don’t expect that to happen. I think Bush will have to negotiate with Iran as part of the plan for leaving Iraq – not that he will want to do so, but the Democrats will force him to do so pretty soon. Ahmedinajad is willing to negotiate – he said so to Europeans within the last few days.

However, the biggest danger is that there will be a mistake that can’t be rectified in time. There are serious errors about once a year and vastly more false alarms than that, which are generally detected as false before anything irrevocable happens. Scott Sagan wrote a book about the subject, though only a fraction of these events can be described, because of secrecy rules. Also, Alan Phillips wrote a paper a few years ago describing a selection of twenty different past mishaps that might have caused a nuclear war.

“The rising moon was misinterpreted as a missile attack during the early days of long-range radar. A fire at a broken gas pipeline was believed to be enemy jamming by laser of a satellite's infrared sensor when those sensors were first deployed.”

Here is one example that Phlllips gives:

“November 5, 1956: Suez Crisis Coincidence

British and French Forces were attacking Egypt at the Suez Canal;. The Soviet Government had suggested to the U.S. that they combine forces to stop this by a joint military action, and had warned the British and French governments that (non-nuclear) rocket attacks on London and Paris were being considered. That night NORAD HQ received messages that:

(i) unidentified aircraft were flying over Turkey and the Turkish air force was on alert

(ii) 100 Soviet MIG-15's were flying over Syria

(iii) a British Canberra bomber had been shot down over Syria

(iv) the Soviet fleet was moving through the Dardanelles.

It is reported that in the U.S.A. General Goodpaster himself was concerned that these events might trigger the NATO operations plan for nuclear strikes against the U.S.S.R.

The four reports were all shown afterwards to have innocent explanations. They were due, respectively, to:

(i) a flight of swans

(ii) a routine air force escort (much smaller than the number reported) for the president of Syria, who was returning from a visit to Moscow

(iii) the Canberra bomber was forced down by mechanical problems

(iv) the Soviet fleet was engaged in scheduled routine exercises.”

There was another case that I know better when a Colonel was in charge of monitoring possible incoming US missiles and was informed that the radar showed five US missiles headed their way. He was supposed to begin the steps to immediate retaliatory strikes but he refused to do so. You and I are still alive today only because he disobeyed orders. I collected money for him a few years ago and sent it to him via my friend Julia Kalinina, who took a picture of him in Moscow holding a copy of Peace Magazine.

The great source of danger is the continuing “” status of thousands of missiles, both in Russia and the US. False alarms are almost a daily thing, but even within the past five years there was a mistake because of a test firing in Scandinavia that was set off without pre-notifying the Russians, who took it seriously. When there is a possible , the standard procedure is for the operators to inform the top authorities and ask permission to launch a retaliatory strike before the first incoming missile has landed. They have no more than fifteen minutes. There are numerous US generals who have had responsibility for the nuclear arsenal and who acknowledge that the risks are hair-raising. At a minimum, these weapons should be taken off Launch-on-Warning status.

Enough for now. I have more to say, but this chunk is getting too big.


Blogger Tim said...

The United States identifies itself as doing good. Therefore, its "goodness" justifies its ownership of nuclear weapons. Of course, any other country could claim the same. And given America's invasion of Iraq, America very quickly loses its qualities of "goodness" (one could argue that there are a pile of American actions that could be classified as "evil").

I am not sure of the viability of the suitcase nuclear bomb. The only ones out there would have been obtained from the Soviet Union in the 90s, and they require periodic maintenance and have to get onto US soil.

Even still, despite America's ownership of nukes, one should agree that more nukes belonging to more countries is a bad thing. You could argue that if Israel has nukes, why shouldn't any other country? But two wrongs don't make a right. Having nuclear weapons also means using them only as a deterrent rather than an attack. Who today has the moral right to determine which countries should have nukes versus those who should not? The UN security council (all permament members are nuclear states)?

2:06 PM  

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