Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Most Fun Blog Post of March 29, 2006, and a Proposal to Solve the Iranian Nuclear Crisis

Back on March 29, Dan Drezner had a fun post about a foreign policy paper. (Must have been a slow day for Salma Hayek news.)

Keir Lieber and Daryl Press published an article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. Their thesis?

For four decades, relations among the major nuclear powers have been shaped by their common vulnerability, a condition known as mutual assured destruction. But with the U.S. arsenal growing rapidly while Russia's decays and China's stays small, the era of MAD is ending -- and the era of U.S. nuclear primacy has begun.

Nuclear primacy is a fun concept.

The ability to destroy all of an adversary's nuclear forces, eliminating the possibility of a retaliatory strike, is known as a first-strike capability, or nuclear primacy. [emphasis added, but not needed]

Several trends are making this possible: the old Soviet arsenal has been in a state of decline since the end of the Cold War, China's modernization projects are proceeding at a glacial pace, and the US arsenal has improved tremendously:

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.

Lieber & Press's paper is quite interesting, and I recommend it as bed-time reading.

Any American old enough to remember Mutual Assured Destruction (Pooh, this DOESN'T mean you!) has to find the idea of US nuclear primacy a bit heady. "You mean we actually can win one of those things? Judas H. Priest, that's almost as scary as the idea of MAD! And all it will require is the use of a few small nukes, probably not even enough to trigger a nuclear fall, much less a nuclear winter!" (Non-Americans will understandably view this prospect unhappily.)

But here's an even headier thought. US military abilities continue to improve at a fast rate. I posit that it's not inconceivable that at some point in the not too distant future (say two or three decades) the US might be able to launch a non-nuclear first strike capable of destroying any potential enemy's nuclear arsenal. (For those thinking that conventional explosives couldn't possibly destroy hardened bunkers I will simply point out that explosives aren't the only way to deliver a lot of energy to a specific point.)

What does all of this mean? First, that for any nation, possession of nuclear weapons will no longer guarantee that force can't be used against it. There doesn't really need to be a second point.

(Here is an example of this guarantee not being worth much anyway, but no one aside from the combatants and wonks really remembers this kind of thing after it's done. The thought most would have, if they thought of this conflict at all, would be, "Really, this was more of a border skirmish than an outright war." The estimated 4,600 killed in approximately three months might argue the point, if they could.)

So Iran wants The Bomb. They want it for at least one of two reasons: either as a weapon to use in offensive wars, or as a deterrent against military action by other states. (Primarily the USA of course.) And if other nations see this strategy work, then they will pursue it themselves.

How to stop this? Don't. At least, not for Iran. Let Iran continue its development plan. When they finally succeed in developing nuclear weapons, then attack. Show that nuclear weapons really aren't a deterrent. (As a bonus, we should take out Pakistan's arsenal as well.) This will give other nations reason to pause before counting on nuclear weapons as a deterrent, and hence give them less reason to spend the resources to develop them.

7 comments:

Pooh said...

Is this a 'modest' proposal? To the extent it's not, I think it perfectly embodies why American monopolarity (to make up words) leaves me in discomfort.

I'd also point out that such unipolarity incentivizes non-state (read: terrorist) activity. That's not condoning such actions, just recognizing that when you hold a gun up and say "the first one to try something gets it," no one is likely to challenge you to a fist fight, but they may try to poison your coffee.

And hey, just because I'm not old enough to 'remember' MAD doesn't mean I don't know about it. (And you're what, 7 years older than me? punk...)

(Yes, nuclear Iran is doubleplusungood. Invading/attacking now? Unwise, probably unworkable and almost certainly counterproductive. Where does that leave us? You got me, but thankfully that's above my (and your) paygrade.)

Icepick said...

I don't do modest proposals. That's some other guy.

But I'm just proposing a thought experiment. As you're no doubt aware, any fully modern industrial or post-industrial nation can build nuclear weapons if they can get the raw material. That includes all of the major nations of Europe, and a goodly portion of the mid-sized nations. Really, it's just WWII tech, decades older than either of us.

And now we know that nations with marginal industrial capability (Pakistan, North Korea, Iran) can produce these weapons as well.

The first question that needs to be answered is, do we care? The answer, for me, is that it depends. While India is no ally of ours, I don't worry about India having the bomb. Pakistan having the bomb scares the hell out of me though. Iran is closer towards Pakistan than India on my meter, but I'm not certain that they're as bad as Pakistan.

But assuming one wants to stop nuclear proliferation, how is one going to do it? The French, Russians, Chinese and Pakistanis are quite willing to sell the knowledge and equipment. And that's not even accounting for the free-lance ex-Soviet scientists looking for work. So you can't cut off the supply.

That leaves trying to cut the demand. I'm not sure how that can be done, but I know relying on the UN is stupid. Whatever else we learned from Iraq, we learned that the UN General Secretary can be bought and paid for relatively cheap.

So that leaves economic and military incentives. In the case of Iran, they hold all of the trump cards because the world needs their oil. So now we're down to military options.

But for various reasons, those scenarios all suck too. (I will note that several people now saying that there is no way we could possibly know the location of all of Iran's facilities were no doubt the same people insisting that we DID know where all of Iraq's facilities were.)

I really don't know what we can do. It's been clear since 1994 that there's nothing we can do about North Korea except hope that the Chinese can and will do something. It now looks like there's nothing we can do to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. The timeline for either country developing usable weapons is unclear, but clearly with enough time it will happen. (And maybe already has with NKorea.)

This will NOT be like the days of MAD. In this game the short stacks will alway have the pot-odds on their side. Eventually someone is going to have to call a bluff. I think doing it sooner rather than later is probably a good gamble. Perhaps we can keep other players from entering the game.

Icepick said...

To the extent it's not, I think it perfectly embodies why American monopolarity (to make up words) leaves me in discomfort.

Well, the only thing we can do about it is disarm, and that's a very bad option. Like it or not, we are the world's policeman. We're stuck defending the global order, such that it is. And now that Britain is effectively disbanding their projectible military force, we're stuck with an even greater share of policing the globe.

Our real problem is that we did too damn good a job of pacifying Europe and Japan. Now they don't want to do anything except sit in the stands and bitch.

I'd also point out that such unipolarity incentivizes non-state (read: terrorist) activity. That's not condoning such actions, just recognizing that when you hold a gun up and say "the first one to try something gets it," no one is likely to challenge you to a fist fight, but they may try to poison your coffee.

Yes, and your solution?

Icepick said...

And you're what, 7 years older than me? punk...

Nine years, and you should respect your elders.

Where does that leave us? You got me, but thankfully that's above my (and your) paygrade.

I don't know that that's such a good thing. Really, do you think that anyone in either of the parties is really that good at these things?

XWL said...

What if some scientest proves beyond almost any shadow of a doubt that the only way to reverse the weather fluctuations caused by carbon emissions (assuming that they are a bad thing, which isn't a foregone conclusion) is to nuke (with the fallout free Neutron devices) the hell out of a fair amount of real estate, thus balancing the greenhouse effect against the nuclear winter effect?

Would it be irresponsible not to then nuke the hell out of one or two screwed up countries?

And there is a huge difference between hearing about the possibility of a global nuclear holocaust, and quite another for it to be the stuff of the nightly news.

(which the Reagan hating media tried to convince everyone was what that crazed armageddonist christian would not only cause, but openly desired, and given that Soviet Premiers had a habit of dying for most of his first term, there was always the possibility that some crazed militarist would take charge of the Soviet Union)

(almost sounds familiar, but now it's just a city or two that will likely be wiped out)

(and for Iranians, my hometown is target 2 (Tel Aviv is still target 1, Los Angeles, and it's massive Persian expat community has to be target 2, Jerusalem is untouchable due to the holy sites))

Pooh said...

This will NOT be like the days of MAD. In this game the short stacks will alway have the pot-odds on their side. Eventually someone is going to have to call a bluff. I think doing it sooner rather than later is probably a good gamble. Perhaps we can keep other players from entering the game.

Now that's an analogy I can get behind. Have I blogged about my years as a poker semi-pro yet? (Other people, my parents most certainly included, know that period better as "law school")

Like it or not, we are the world's policeman. We're stuck defending the global order, such that it is. And now that Britain is effectively disbanding their projectible military force, we're stuck with an even greater share of policing the globe.

Sure. If that's the case, maintaing the moral high-ground becomes a first order imperative. "Police" power is to a large degree a fiction agreed upon by the population. A side-effect of unilateralism (and, dare I add, torture) is the degrading of our perceived moral authority which serves to lessen the degree to which those being policed agreed. No, we don't need France, but they could certainly help, for example.

Icepick said...

I'll get back to these comments tomorrow. But I'm to tired to write anything lengthy tonight, and everyone who knows me knows I'm a wordy bastard.