How Long Would It Take To *Cough* End North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program?

Observe how gracefully I avoided the unclear word denuclearization by saying what I mean. Another area of disagreement is in how long it would take to remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons and eliminate or repurpose the facilities that develop and build them. And we don’t know what North Korea thinks about that.

John Bolton estimated that it would take a year. The Institute for Science and International Security estimates 30 months. A study by Siegfried Hecker, Robert Carlin, and Elliot Serbin at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation estimates as long as 15 years.

Why the big differences? Read More

This Is What You Do When You Don’t Have A Real Argument

Two of the key people in the Obama administration for the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), were investigated by an Israeli private intelligence agency trying to find dirt on them, The Guardian reported today.

The agency talked to reporters in order to find whether Ben Rhodes and Colin Kahl, advisors to President Obama, had shared sensitive information. Presumably they found nothing, or we would have heard about it.

This has been the modus operandi of the JCPOA opponents all along. On Twitter, they indulge in ad hominems and personal attacks rather than present a coherent argument. They set up straw men with views that misrepresent the case for the agreement. They all seem to have the same talking points and slogans (“sunset clauses,” “give Iran nuclear weapons”) in what I might have called an echo chamber if they hadn’t seized on that Read More

Deterring Regime Change

Nuclear weapons programs come with costs: financial, reputational, and the potential for being made a target by other nuclear powers. There is also an opportunity cost in diverting smart scientists, engineers, and managers from work that might produce improvement to people’s daily lives and the economy.

Leaders understand that there are costs. In starting his nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan declared “’We will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get [a nuclear weapon] of our own.”

The Iranian documents presented by Benjamin Netanyahu yielded one new piece of information: That Iran planned an arsenal of only five rather small (10 kiloton yield) warheads. Likewise, Kim Jong Un has declared his arsenal complete after what seems a rather sketchy set of tests. Read More

Just Say No

This story got buried under the news of Andrew McCabe’s firing on Friday, but it’s important if we want to elect people who can bring about responsible government. That starts now, as we move toward November’s elections.

You know those cute little quizzes that are supposed to tell you something about who you are? Which movie star are you? Are you a cat or a dog person? What is your color? So much fun to compare with what you think of yourself and with your friends’ results. In fact, you could share on Facebook and urge your friends to see what their favorite color was. Those quizzes asked you to share most of your Facebook data before you could play.

You may have been contributing data to Cambridge Analytica’s work to help elect Donald Trump. Read More

Making Sense Of That Nuclear Deal With Saudi Arabia

The United States is trying to develop a nuclear cooperation agreement (123 agreement) with Saudi Arabia. The stories (another) focus on whether such an agreement would limit Saudi Arabia’s access to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, two technologies that can produce materials for nuclear weapons.

Let’s look at two other factors. 1) Although Saudi Arabia has had big ambitions for nuclear power, starting from sixteen reactors and now down to two, it is not clear that they can afford those reactors and have no administrative support for them. 2) Westinghouse, the company being pushed by the United States, is in no position to build those reactors. Read More

Stephen Walt Agrees With Me

On the Nuclear Posture Review. He goes on about more aspects of it than I did yesterday, but his conclusions in that area are very similar to mine.

Moreover, I find the elaborate scenarios that nuclear strategists dream up to justify new weapons to be both militarily and politically unrealistic. They tend to assume that complex military operations will go off without a hitch the very first time they are attempted (and in the crucible of a nuclear crisis), and they further assume that political leaders in the real world would be willing to order the slaughter of millions for something less than existential stakes. My main concern has been that some gullible politician would actually believe that one of these elaborate scenarios would actually work and might therefore be tempted to try it. Just as bad: An adversary might think the United States thought it could win such a war and might decide it had no choice but to try to hit it first.

I also find the obsession with matching capabilities at every rung of some hypothetical “escalation ladder” to be slightly absurd. Is it realistic to think that U.S. leaders defending vital interests against a possible Russian threat would be stymied because they didn’t have a capability that exactly mirrored whatever Russia had or was threatening to do? Would a top advisor really say to the president: “Oh dear, sir, Russia just threatened to attack with a nuclear weapon with a yield of 7.2 kilotons. We have lots of 5-kiloton bombs and lots of 11-kiloton bombs all ready to go, but if we use the little one, they’ll think we’re wimps, and if we use the big one, then the onus of escalation will be on us. I guess they’ve got us over the whing-whang, sir, and we’ll just have to do whatever Putin says. If only we had built more 7.2 kiloton bombs than they did!

Read More

Levels of Deterrence

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) mentions some variant of “deter” 279 times. Deterrence is supposedly what today’s nuclear arsenals are about. The idea is that we have enough nuclear weapons so that if an enemy attacked us, we could still destroy them. That standoff, established after the nearly world-ending Cuban Missile Crisis, seems to have worked. Or it’s possible that the reason for no nuclear war in the past 56 years is that nations recognize that destroying the world is in nobody’s interests. Read More

Nuclear Policy In The Trump Administration

A couple of weeks ago, the administration released its Nuclear Posture Review. All administrations like to put their stamp on policy. The last review was in 2010.

There are lots of things in this one to talk about, and many articles out there about them. I’ve been trying lately to stand back from the trees and look at the forest. So, as a former project manager, some of the first questions I come up with have to do with budgets and timelines. Things like resource availability and scheduling. I wrote that up for Physics Today.

Short version: Looks to me like they can’t do what they want with the resources they’ve got. Plus it will take a decade or more to build the nukes they want, so maybe diplomacy can achieve our ends faster.

 

Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.

 

Links – February 1, 2018

Cool dinosaur and mammal tracks at NASA. Top photo from here.

The first thing Congress needs to do, when it can get away from the fever dreams of the worst of its members, is to reconstruct the process for passing a budget before the end of the fiscal year.

Americans Are Rising to This Historic Moment. I’m not as convinced as Eliot Cohen, but I think there are positive signs.

Heather Cox Richardson on creeping authoritarianism.

Five Questions the Nunes Memo Better Answer. What is at stake – the grand bargain with the intelligence community. And why aren’t we hearing more from the intelligence community?

Is the Trump foreign policy great-power competition or America First? It depends on whom you ask.

Zeynep Tukfeci on the latest data privacy debacle. It’s not enough to ask individuals for their permission.

Leaks, feasts and sex parties: How ‘Fat Leonard’ infiltrated the Navy’s floating headquarters in Asia. There are simple ways to avoid this kind of corruption. We need to know why the Navy didn’t apply them.

Victor Cha: Giving North Korea a ‘bloody nose’ carries a huge risk to Americans. Cha was to be US ambassador to South Korea, but apparently the ideas expressed in this op-ed were felt to be disqualifying.

This is definitive, if you have friends who are still pushing the Sy Hersh narrative about nerve agents in Syria. It was the Syrian government who were responsible for the sarin attacks.