Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Debating the absurd

I came across a couple of very interesting blogs that discuss some of the issues I cover. They are Arms Control Wonk and DefenseTech.

Before reading this post, you should jump here for the start of this "thread" and here for the post I'm actually responding to.

At the latter site, 21st Century Schizoid Man (which, BTW, is a King Crimson song title), John Opie writes:

Target sets have nothing to do with deciding to use a nuclear weapon: rather, a decision to use a nuclear weapon is first and fundamentally a political decision that has nothing to do with target sets.

First off, I need to define "target sets." Simply, that's the list of targets a given nuclear attack plan will hit, as defined by the intended effect the attack will have on the people of the other country. Even if the intent is limited to, say, destroying their military capacity, the vast destructiveness of nuclear weapons dictates that a decision to use nukes SHOULD include agonizing over the effect on the people (esp. civilians) near the target. Taking into account the effects on people is the definition of a "political" decision, and refusing or being unable to do that may not be "inhuman," but it's certainly inhumane.

These devices are not and cannot be precision weapons whereby we can take out a tank factory next to a school (the example is from the DefenseTech article) with minimal civilian deaths. If a nuke goes off, it's all but guaranteed to vaporize that factory AND the school AND obliterate everything else within several square miles, minimum, with the VAST MAJORITY of the dead being civilians.

When nukes are in play, the expression "a minimum of force and destruction" is simply a denial of reality. Minimum destruction would be an attack that destroyed the tank factory without touching the school or any nearby homes, something that is impossible with nukes.

Mr. Opie later writes:

Target 69 weapons if you want to have a 94% kill probability of a hardened target under those conditions. Period.

What exactly is the point of such massive overkill? Doing that only serves to turn a wide swath of land into black glass forever and kicks up massive quantities of fallout that poisons millions downwind. That's not "minimal" destruction by any sane definition of the term (if there is one).

Even if the target is technically not destroyed, it only takes one or two explosions to ensure that nobody can use the place for the foreseeable future.... b/c anyone who tries will cook themselves getting there (or getting out). Survivors inside will be effectively trapped, probably until they starve or suffocate.

A perfect example is the US's own NORAD HQ -- The Russians or anyone else wouldn't need to pummel it into dust (which might indeed take dozens of warheads); they just have to drop one or two beside the main entrance and nobody inside is getting out. NORAD is, de facto, dead.

Of course, so is most of Colorado Springs, which goes right back to my original point. There is no such thing as a "nuanced" use of nuclear weapons. They are designed to destroy indiscriminately and to inflict as much terror as possible.

He's right when he says that everyone abstracts various aspects of life and decision-making to some degree, and it is almost necessary when comprehending geopolitical issues. But the level of abstraction and demonization necessary to actually use modern nuclear weapons is pathological given what we already know about the deaths, destruction, and long-term suffering "small" nukes caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.



Blogger John F. Opie said...

Hi Jay -

Nice post, thanks. Sorry to be so late responding, was in London for 9 days.

But I must disagree.

What you really are trying to argue, I think, is that nukes are terrible weapons. No argument there: but you are making the common mistake of demonizing them.

I'll repeat: the decision to use nuclear weapons is a political decision. Everything else is derivative.

There is no massive overkill of targeting 69 weapons IF the potential enemy has an ABM system in place that may well knock down the first 20 missiles, or if the target is so hardened that nothing less than a CEP of 0 meters will take it out.

But you're missing another point: you don't target with 69 weapons arriving in some sort of blind automatism, but rather sequentially until your target is finally destroyed: that is the purpose, to a large extent, of having satellites up there to do damage assessment. Nukes are too valuable to simply expend them.

And the point of destroying a technical target is not to ensure that no one will use the place for the foreseeable future, but rather that no one can use it **now**: many targets are time-sensitive. If I am targetting a heavily defended target, then I will attack first the defenses. When the US went into Iraq in GW I, helicopters were used to take out major air defense radars right before the air attacks began. No point in taking them out after the attacks have taken place and they have been used.

And blocking the entrance to NORAD doesn't mean it's dead! Multiple independent and redundant communications systems - just what do *you* think the design of the Internet was for??? - means that even if the folks at NORAD can't get out, they can still run the show.

That means that NORAD **isn't** dead. That is why NORAD is buried the way it is, in the heart of a mountain and designed to survive such a blast, even in front of the doors (which aren't where you think they may be): it would take a direct hit with a massive multi-megaton weapon to directly remove NORAD.

And NORAD doesn't have to survive long: it just needs to survive long enough to get the orders out. Those orders might be simple enough as a 4-digit code to trigger the appropriate response: if a potential attacker *really* wants to cripple any US response to a nuclear attack, they *have* to try and take out NORAD in order to cripple any response.

And I would severely disagree with your stance of there being no nuanced use of nuclear weapons: are you saying that there can only be a nuclear spasm?

And nukes are not designed to destroy indiscriminately and inflict as much terror as possible: to do that, you need to do things like putting cobalt blankets around your warhead to make it as dirty as possible, among other things.

And what you're trying to say, ultimately, is that any decision to use nuclear weapons in pathological. That is too simplistic: the use of any weapon could then be said to be pathological, which leads to extreme pacificism and an abondonment of the idea that anything is worth defending.

Which is nothing less than the path that leads to abject appeasement.

I think you have no recourse except to enter the world of geo-military-political calculus, of laying out the choices and making the decisions based on abstractions.

And this I've posted in my comments as well...

8/15/2005 6:29 AM  
Blogger Jay Denari said...

Thanks for your response, John, but we clearly disagree on a lot of things here.

First off, although I certainly prefer peace to war and think the vast majority of problems can be solved by serious diplomacy, I do believe there are certain circumstances where it's necessary to fight.

WW2, for example, was a just war, and I can even accept our use of nukes on Japan, if only on the grounds that we can't change it now and we didn't really know what their full effects would be.

But now that we do, there's NO justification for using such weapons. The costs are far too great, in both the short and long term. That's not demonization or "appeasement," it's concern for the survival of fellow human beings and hope for a long-term future. Your "calculus" that my opposition to nukes is pacifistic and "an abondonment of the idea that anything is worth defending" is completely untrue.

The very existence of nuclear weapons is itself a source of terror for many people, and dropping one -- even without the extra "dirty" fallout-producing material like cobalt -- IS indiscriminate. Sure, planners can choose to use the Bomb vs. a conventional bomb on target X for any number of reasons -- it's "discriminate" in that sense. But the effects are not discriminate at all, and those are what will determine who the survivors are, if any.

Let's assume the targeters are 100% accurate: ground zero is in the dead center of the tank factory. Using a laser-guided conventional missile, a typical tank shell, or similar weapon in such an attack will have a far more limited radius of destruction than will a nuke. Any of the conventional weapons certainly will cause some shrapnel/debris that might injure civilians & damage civilian buildings nearby. But their potential for "collateral damage" (I hate that term, its purpose is to allow military folks to distance themselves from the mass murder of civilians) is substantially less than a nuke's. Even a Hiroshima-sized nuclear warhead (a very small one by modern standards) WILL, without doubt, destroy nearly everything for several square miles, regardless of whether it's the factory, the school, hospitals, everyday businesses, homes, bridges, etc. The neighboring school stands no chance of survival with a nuke, but it does with a conventional bomb. How can that effect be considered "nuanced?"

When nukes go off, their thermal pulse, blast wave, and subsequent radiation including fallout have much broader & longer-lasting effects than does a conventional high explosive. Fallout is especially random & pernicious: it can go anywhere the wind goes, endangering civilians in the enemy nation, our own troops, and even citizens of completely neutral countries for extended periods of time, often without the affected people even knowing a bomb has been dropped. Likewise, radioactive particles last for years and can seep into the food chain and water supply. Conventional weapons only affect those in the immediate area for a short period of time. (Some psychological effects do overlap in individuals, although they're likely to be far more widespread after being hit by nukes than by conventionals simply due to the sheer power of the nukes.)

Much of this is probably stuff you already know, but clearly it needs to be repeated. None of these effects are debated by military planners or scientists. Because these effects are so terrible, they CANNOT be "derivative;" they MUST be central to the decisionmaking process. If they don't play such a role, then they are meaningless... or the decisionmaker is sociopathic and seriously lacking in concern for other human beings. Just as chemical and biological weapons are largely banned, so nukes should be, and for many of the same reasons.

You wrote:
you don't target with 69 weapons arriving in some sort of blind automatism, but rather sequentially until your target is finally destroyed:

Really? Once they're launched, you have ZERO control over them. The first one is successful, or the tenth, and that makes all subsequent hits "overkill" by definition.

I understand your point about NORAD, but it doesn't take into account the fact that in all situations but complete surprise, NORAD's orders have already been transmitted by the time it gets hit. By then, it's too late; in fact, ironically, by nuking NORAD the enemy might be depriving itself of a remote chance that someone there might be able to stop the carnage. (Yes, I know the Net is based on a DOD system.)

You raise the issue of an ABM system. While a legit point in theory, nobody actually HAS a system that's very effective. Same's true of the satellites: that works if the enemy is NOT remotely our equal; but if a war were ever to reach the point of ICBM launches, those satellites would likely be destroyed almost immediately for the very same reason radar stations are.

8/16/2005 12:03 AM  

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