Planet primed for hair-trigger alert

Glory and Terror
October 15, 2004

Jack Harris is alarmed by the potential for accidental nuclear exchanges and joins Steven Weinberg in calling for better-deployed defence budgets

During the summer of 1979, I took part in a debate in a US maximum security prison in Tennessee on the subject of "Making Decisions". Speaker after speaker thought that having made a decision, one should stick to it through thick and thin, come what may. I disagreed and said so in no uncertain terms. I argued that, speaking as a scientist, I could see no virtue whatsoever in sticking to a decision if new events threw a different light on the matter. In fact, as enunciated by the American philosopher Charles Peirce, and by Karl Popper, science progresses by continually correcting itself, falsifying its hypotheses by trial and error, and admitting its own mistakes. Such a philosophy could usefully be applied more widely, but the audience was unimpressed and I lost the argument decisively.

This attitude of the scientist towards trial and error and admitting mistakes unhesitatingly constitutes an important distinction between scientists and politicians, but there are exceptions to this rule.

Senator John Kerry, the US presidential candidate, is by all accounts an intelligent and thoughtful person and frequently changes his mind on political matters. All strength to his elbow, say I, but President Bush's campaign team has homed in on Kerry's changes of mind and portrayed him as a "flip-flopper", that is a weak and vacillating candidate. So effective has this campaign been that only 37 per cent of US voters say they believe Kerry sticks to his position, whereas 84 per cent say that Bush does.

Bush's superiority in this dubious competition is confirmed by Paul O'Neill, the former Secretary of the Treasury, who, in his memoir describing his two frustrating years in the Bush Administration, recalled that Bush was rigid on policy and often stated, "I won't negotiate with myself." What this implied, according to O'Neill, was that once the President had taken a position, it was set in concrete and no one should expect to revisit its rationale. We also know from O'Neill, and the Bob Woodward interviews, that in the weeks following 9/11 Bush had decided to go to war against Iraq. Having made the decision, there was no turning back.

A difference in readiness to admit mistakes is not the only characteristic that separates scientists from politicians. There is the matter of scientific knowledge. Many of the important decisions that leading politicians have to take, particularly in relation to defence, involve scientific and technological matters of considerable complexity. In Britain, the Prime Minister and his ministers can, of course, consult the government's chief scientist and they have access to the learned societies.

What we do not have is an individual scientist of great distinction who is prepared to tackle a whole range of science-related issues and a journal that is prepared to publish his articles even when they are controversial and of considerable length and tackle complex issues.

America is more fortunate; it has the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg and the New York Review of Books . In fact, Weinberg's most recent book, Glory and Terror: The Growing Nuclear Danger , consists simply of two of his NYRB articles: "The growing nuclear danger" (July 16, 2002) and "What price glory?" (November 6, 2003), with the addition of a short preface by former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis. However, the importance of his subject and the quality of his writing justifies a separate review.

Weinberg begins with an account of the US nuclear arsenal, comprising, as it does, about 6,000 operationally deployed nuclear weapons, most of which are thermonuclear, which are considerably more powerful than the fission bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He poses the question, what on earth are all these nuclear weapons for? No country in the world could threaten America's submarine-based deterrent, and only Russia could threaten more than a fraction of the US' land-based deterrents.

Russia has a nuclear arsenal of similar size, though with a different mixture of delivery vehicles. Weinberg is not impressed by the Bush-Putin treaty signed on May 24, 2002, which requires a reduction in operationally deployed nuclear weapons on both sides to about 3,800 in 2007, and to between 1,700 and 2,200 in 2012.

He points out that it falls short of the Start III agreement, announced (but not signed or ratified) by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, which would have achieved a reduction in arms in 2007 equivalent to that proposed for 2012 by Bush and Putin. More importantly, unlike previous agreements, it does not call for the destruction of missiles or bombers, only for the removal of their nuclear warheads or bombs.

Even more regrettably, the Bush Administration has rejected Russian requests that the nuclear weapons withdrawn from deployed missiles and bombers should be destroyed. In fact, the US Defense Department's plans for nuclear weapons were revealed, in a document dated January 9, 2002, as calling for the retention of about 7,000 intact warheads and a large number of plutonium "pits" (the fission bombs that trigger a thermonuclear explosion).

Of course, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and Russian nuclear weapons too will not be destroyed but stored, nor will their plutonium pits, and there are no restrictions on Russian tactical nuclear weapons. It follows that one consequence of the Bush-Putin treaty is an increased probability that some Russian nuclear weapons or fissile material will fall into the hands of terrorists or rogue states.

With many of Russia's nuclear submarine fleet immobilised and their land-based mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) kept in fixed garrisons, America's unnecessarily large nuclear arsenal will generate fears in Russia of a US pre-emptive strike. These fears, however irrational, will be exacerbated if the US proceeds with its planned National Missile Defense programme. The response is likely to be that Russia keeps its ICBMs on hair-trigger alert (according to Russian sources, it now takes 15 seconds for the Russians to target their ICBMs and then two or three minutes to launch).

Missiles on hair-trigger alert, coupled with Russia's decaying detection system, make an accidental nuclear exchange more probable. Weinberg recalls the Norwegian research rocket launched from an American submarine in the Norwegian Sea that was mistaken by the Russians for a hostile missile, with near-cataclysmic consequences. He goes on to give further examples of near-catastrophic mistakes made by US strategic forces during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Of the many doubtful initiatives taken by the Bush Administration, the most unwise must be a further proposal made in January 2002 in its Nuclear Posture Review. It is almost beyond belief that the US, with its vastly superior conventional armaments, should be the first to revive the idea of nuclear weapons for use, rather than solely for deterrence. Yet the review proposes the development of low-yield, earth-penetrating nuclear weapons designed for attacks on underground facilities. Apart from the practical shortcomings of such a proposal, ably identified by Weinberg, such a development might well be coupled with a resumption of nuclear testing.

Indeed, money has been set aside to reduce the time needed to resume testing from the current two or three years to one year or less. Such developments, if put into practice, might well destroy the Non-Proliferation Treaty, with devastating consequences for global stability.

All this is, of course, profoundly depressing, especially as we are now only weeks away from America's presidential election, when the polls are showing that the likely outcome is a Bush victory.

Weinberg's second essay, "What price glory?", begins with a series of excursions into history in which he attempts to draw parallels with contemporary affairs, not always convincingly. He relates how Britain nearly lost the First World War because of German U-boats, and how things improved when ships started to sail in convoy. He discusses why the Tokugawa shoguns banned guns, why foot soldiers disappeared from European battlefields in the Middle Ages, and why the B17 was a fairly useless aircraft. He returns to discussing the contemporary scene towards the end of the essay where one learns with dismay that the initiative for developing mini-nukes may have come from scientists in Sandia and Los Alamos laboratories who wanted to improve their job prospects. (They were ably assisted in this endeavour by their senator, Pete Domenici, who just happens to be chairman of the subcommittee that deals with appropriations for nuclear programmes.) Earth-penetrating nuclear weapons are also supported by the US Air Force, which is looking for something new to drop.

I was dismayed to learn that the current Administration is set on repealing the 1993 Spratt-Furst Amendment, which banned development of nuclear weapons with yields of less than the equivalent of 5,000 tons of TNT. Maybe mini-nukes are a possibility after all. I join Weinberg in regretting the Administration's unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and am disappointed to see that it is resurrecting the discredited National Missile Defense programme. In response to Secretary Rumsfeld's assertion that the so far low-key programme "is better than nothing", Weinberg points out that it is actually worse than nothing because it will discourage Russia from taking its missiles off ready alert and encourage China to increase its missile forces.

To attempt to summarise Weinberg's position is difficult. He is not, as I understand him, calling necessarily for a smaller defence budget, but rather that the money be directed to more sensible objectives. In particular, to provide further assistance towards making Russia's fissile materials secure. His other priorities are: to decrease the threat of nuclear attack by mistake; to improve US port security; to train more people for emergency responses to terrorist acts; and to bring effective government to Iraq and Afghanistan. In none of these, he concludes, do our leaders find sufficient glory.

Jack Harris is vice-chairman of British Pugwash. He spent 35 years working in Britain's civil nuclear power industry and is a fellow of the Royal Society.

Glory and Terror: The Growing Nuclear Danger

Author - Steven Weinberg
Publisher - New York Review Books www.nyrb.com
Pages - 71
Price - $7.95
ISBN - 1 59017 130 6

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