The Globe and Mail’s “The Decibel” podcast interviewed me on nuclear weapons. I think it’s a pretty good primer on nuclear weapons effects.
I will not link to William Arkin’s article in Newsweek based on his interviews with STRATCOM personnel. It is in honor of this article that I chose the header photo. I am engaging with the article only because people I respect have retweeted it.
There’s a great deal wrong with it, but I’ll stick with three points for now.
In this country, the military reports ultimately to the President. It’s not up to them to argue with him publicly. Further, STRATCOM is not “the military,” as the article implies, but a specialized part of it. It’s not even clear that the people Arkin quotes are representative of STRATCOM.
It’s more than irresponsible to imply that Jake Sullivan has threatened Vladimir Putin with “a decapitation strike to kill Putin in the heart of the Kremlin.” It’s inconsistent with US policy and everything Joe Biden has said on the subject.
The business about an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack hovers on the edge of fanaticism. It’s true that a general nuclear attack might begin with an EMP blast, but EMP alone is not the devastating killer that Newt Gingrich made it out to be.
Arkin is talking to a few people in a very narrow part of “the military,” who have blinkered viewpoints.
Putin’s speech this morning did less to rattle his nukes than some of his previous speeches. It’s not at all clear that he would use nukes to defend his new “People’s Republics.” Yes, he used those words. I’ll have more to say later, but for now here’s my Twitter thread and one observation from this morning.
Breaches were reported this morning to be spouting natural gas in the Baltic Sea. The pipelines are not currently in use, so this is the gas that was stationary in them. Pipelines are designed so that sections can be shut off, and presumably this has been done.
Seismic observations indicate the breaches were caused by explosions, according to Björn Lund, director of the Swedish National Seismic Network. He is quoted as saying that the explosions were equivalent to at least 100 kg of TNT, which is a lot and probably damaged the pipelines badly. TNT is the standard used for this sort of thing, but the explosives used were more likely C4, which is more powerful per unit weight. Its equivalent would be 72 kg. Underwater mines have also been mentioned.
If you’re worried about another asteroid impact like the one that killed the dinosaurs, you won’t want to miss this.
It’s a beginning of an answer to the question whether, if we detected an asteroid headed for the Earth, we could divert it.
Nuclear blasts have been a media favorite, but it turns out that whacking the asteroid physically is more likely to be effective.
But asteroids come in two kinds – one that is pretty much solid, and another that is a bunch of rocks flying in close formation, held together by gravity. In the first, the spacecraft crashes into it and transfers energy to alter the asteroid’s orbit. There are some tricky parts to getting the right angle on it to get the result one wants, but otherwise straightforward.
It’s not clear and difficult to calculate what happens if the asteroid is a bunch of rocks. I’m hoping that is the case and that it is a glorious video, with the asteroid deforming and some rocks flying off in various directions. Not clear whether the orbit will change.
I’ve linked to the NASA page with recent news. Sadly, the website is not all that user friendly. I couldn’t even find a link to the livestream from it.
Graphic: Illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) LICIACube prior to impact at the Didymos binary system. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben
I’ve been saying these things on Twitter, but I probably should provide a more stationary, all-in-one-place form for those not on Twitter.
Classification is a system for dealing with sensitive information that could harm the United States if made public. It is a system of instructions for handling that information. Information is classified, and documents containing that information are classified. Other materials, including physical models and the usual elaborations on documents like videos, may be classified. I’ll subsume them all under the word “documents.”
Declassification involves declaring the information no longer of potential harm to the United States. Because it is a part of the system for handling documents, it must be made known to the people who will be handling those documents.
Trump seems to believe an essentialist version of classification, that it is an inherent quality of a document that can be added or removed by his mental actions. This is, of course, absurd.
What effect will Putin’s war have on Russia? There’s an active trade in historical analogies, but the more I look at those analogies, the more I become convinced that few of them work. They don’t even rhyme.
War in Europe because of an attempted grab by a declining power with no strong allies. It doesn’t fit the Cold War Soviet attack through the Fulda Gap, the objectives of which were never clear – control of West Germany? Disruption of Europe’s prosperity? Perhaps it’s a little like Vietnam, with the technologically favored side being undercut by defenders of the homeland and now a draft of unwilling fighters.
World War I started between major powers who were spoiling for a war and did it very badly. Russia has mobilized three times, I’ve seen more than once on Twitter: World War I, World War II, and now. It went badly for them in World War I.
Newsweek published my op-ed on the dangers at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that Russia captured the plant as part of the initial “three-day war” and with the collapse of that objective had to figure out what to do with it. They came up with two possibilities: Frighten Ukrainians and their arms suppliers with the prospect of a radiological accident, and take the power to Russia.
Those two objectives are in conflict, however. A radiological accident would contaminate the plant and at least require a long decontamination before power could be supplied to Russia.
As Russia’s situation deteriorates on the battlefield, concerns grow about the possibility that Vladimir Putin might try to change the situation with a battlefield nuclear weapon. The war is so far confined to Ukraine, which makes it highly unlikely that Putin would reach out with strategic nuclear weapons to begin World War III. That’s all I’ll say about that.
Early on in Russia’s war, Putin was quick to remind the world that Russia possesses nuclear weapons. That brought on a spate of commentary about a nuclear umbrella for war and the circumstances in which Russia might use those weapons. The conclusion was that Russia might use battlefield nuclear weapons to stave off a defeat, but not before.
General mobilization of the Russian population would allow Putin to increase military numbers. But it would be an admission that the war is going badly. In the same way, the use of a nuclear weapon would be an admission that the war is going badly. Putin seems to be firmly resisting the first. The admission of failure might be enough to prevent the second.
The Soviet Union ran on a command economy. To a great extent, it was isolated from the rest of the world economy. When the Soviet Union came apart in 1991, it had to reconstruct its economy to work with the rest of the world. That would never have been easy.
But as Gorbachev was rightly blamed for the breakup of the Soviet Union, the economic mess of the 1990s was not his fault. However, blame for one meant blame for the other to many ordinary citizens.
Paul Krugman offers economic information from 1990s Russia to show why Russians might have been angry. It was bad.
Many Russians lost all their savings. The way enterprises were privatized built the oligarch class.
Could it have been done better? Many of the satellites and former republics managed softer landings. A team from Harvard University advised the Russian government on economic “shock therapy.” The US Congress, led by Newt Gingrich’s Republicans, would have nothing to do with a Marshall Plan for the former Soviet Union. They barely were willing to fund a pittance for helping Russia to make its nuclear inventory safe.