Monday, 19 April 2010

The MADness of nuclear disarmament

It's kind of natural to get agitated about the issue of nuclear arms. And I felt naturally inspired to write about it by a compelling set of circumstances. With an ambition to start a controversial geeky blog I could hardly pick a first topic better than a threat that could wipe out the whole world, or at least as we know it.
And the moment is ripe to bring this issue to attention. Russia and the US finally signed another nuclear arms reduction treaty -
At the same time, the evil genius Zach Weiner from SMBC also addressed the the problem, albeit in a humorous way:

At first sight, it may seem that the author has entertained the idea just for it's comic value but this has a much deeper meaning as will be revealed shortly.

My fascination with the prospect of nuclear war actually started earlier. It was thanks to this girl that I had the delight to spend some time with, that not only was gorgeous but also fell asleep during Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb for three consecutive nights, so guess what I did - watched it three times :-D it's not a film that you can stop and go asleep, no matter what. And it takes about three times to get both the bigger picture and all the little things.
As I understood later, Kubrick read 50 books about nuclear war to fully grasp the concept. I definitely haven't gone so far but still I got really excited about the issue and more importantly, I arrived at some conclusions that may now seam totally obvious but can be counter-intuitive at first.

The most important one is pretty simple. Nuclear disarmament is dangerous. Here is why:

At first one may wonder why do the US and Russia need so much nuclear weapons a make so much of a fuss about reducing it to 1500 warheads. After all this is enough to destroy the world many times over.
However, the nuclear peace worldwide during the cold war, and to a much lesser degree even now, was/is supported by the so called MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) strategy. The major nuclear powers (US and Russia) have nuclear arsenals advanced enough so that if one of the powers attacks first the other one has the capability to destroy the other entirely, this way discouraging the other to attack in the first place.

It's quite clear that the drama about the signing of the recent treaty is more of a diplomatic dance rather than serious strategic negotiations. But at some point one of the sides passes a critical point and longer possesses the coveted second strike capability. Some even think this has happened already, e.g. Keir Lieber and Daryl Press ("The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006) stated that "the United States could carry out a nuclear first strike on Russia and would have a good chance of destroying every Russian bomber base, submarine, and ICBM." Not everyone agrees but one of the sides will pass the tipping point sooner or later, and I'm convinced that the Russian side is more likely to do so first, knowing the chronic mismanagement that plagues the state-sponsored soviet-turned-Russian enterprises.

Who passes the critical point first is not relevant - the big issue is the fragility of the balance should global tensions arise considerably to levels close to the ones from the cold war. And another big issue is that this strategy works only if in control of nuclear weapons are states with rational governments i.e. ones that are totally unlikely to undertake steps that will wipe their whole nations out.

And some more controversy for the ending - what should we do if a nation or organization that does not qualify as "rational" is about to acquire nuclear weapons? I'd rather say that we need to stop them at any cost; being convinced pacifist, I would support a conventional military strike, given that it's practical for preventing such an outcome and there are not other options.
There are so many things that can go wrong with a non-democratic state with nuclear capabilities. Corrupt governments may fail to prevent terrorists from obtaining a bomb; hastily developed nuclear programs can be error prone - after all in 1983 the world was this close to a nuclear war because of a false alarm from the Russian early warning system that leads to an automated response. The colonel that deviated and stopped the attack - Stanislav Petrov, is widely regarded as preventing a war.
And this was a well-funded system developed by a team of leading scientists. Now imagine what the dodgy North Korean nuclear technologies are capable of!

1 comment:

  1. Curious, just the next day BBC started from where I left:

    So the options about attacking Iran are on the table, the big question is if such an approach is pursued, what will Russia and China do about it.