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I have always been fascinated by nuclear war. Mountain bunkers, missile gaps, MAD, – what is there not to like? So this post will be devoted to the doomsday weapons which continue tantalizing us with visions of post-nuclear nirvana. Because yes, despite the post-Cold War reduction in the Russian and US arsenals (consisting mostly of warheads being removed from missiles and stored in bunkers), the cessation of live testing, and overall better relations untinged by ideological confrontation, nuclear weapons and their associated delivery systems and C&C systems haven’t gone anywhere. That isn’t going to change any time soon. If anything, in an overpopulated world under increasing pressure from limits to growth, NBC weapons may re-assume their old primacy in strategic thinking.

This post will be divided into the following sections: 1) a partial list of nuclear war scenarios, 2) a description of nuclear weapons basics and the current nuclear balance of power, and 3) myths about nuclear war – the most prominent being that a large-scale nuclear war is an extinction-level event, or even unwinnable (Herman Kahn and the other sons of Strangelove really do make valid points).

1. Things you might want to read for fun

First, here is a collection of nuclear war scenarios that are available online. I would also highly recommend watching the film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – it is a true classic of American comedy / satire.

The Effects of a Global Thermonuclear War – a reasonably realistic late-1980′s nuclear war scenario stemming from a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict in central Europe, but consequences are probably too apocalyptic than would be the case in a real nuclear war.

The Consequences of Nuclear Conflict between India and Pakistan – given their small arsenals, even a total nuclear war involving ground bursts over populated cities will leave 99% of Indians and 93% of Pakistanis alive. Their military forces remain intact and the demographic losses are made good in just a few years.

Australia Nuclear War Scenario – rather unrealistic scenario involving Australia getting nuked in an unfolding world war between the US and China / Russia.

What A Russian Nuclear Attack on the US Could Look Like (1999) – another rather unrealistic scenario in which Russia disrupts US communications networks by exploding EMP-emitting nuclear-armed satellites, decapitates the US leadership, and invades it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MCbTvoNrAg

Threads – a good British movie from the late 1980′s about the aftermath of a nuclear war (see plot), of which it takes a bleak picture – though around 80% of the population survives the initial blasts, it is quickly whittled down to medieval levels (4-11mn) by the mid-1990′s due to the nuclear winter (famine), disease, and destruction of the ozone layer.

2. Things you should know

A. History

Nuclear weapons revolutionized the theory of war. Before, states tended to fight (relatively) long wars and could only begin to exercise unrestrained coercion – or the credible threat of it – once they had destroyed the hostile armies and conquered the enemy territory. Now, the two superpowers, the US and the USSR, had the ability to unleash unprecedented violence against each other’s society within hours, well before their armies clashed on the battlefields of central Europe.

The US was the first to test a nuclear bomb (and to use it), in 1945, though the USSR followed up in 1949, in large part thanks to its successful military-industrial espionage. Though the US enjoyed a brief period of nuclear primacy in the 1950′s thanks to its massive bomber forces, factors such as the development of the ICBM, the SLBM, and growing Soviet warhead numbers made a disarming US first strike increasingly unrealistic. Both powers having acquired survivable deterrents, a “balance of terror” set in (MAD).

The introduction of MIRVed warheads in the 1970′s placed more incentives on making a first counterforce strike and tilted the cost-exchange ratio away from ABM, thus destabilizing the situation even as the two nuclear arsenals equalized in their overall destructive potential (the Soviets reached rough parity with the US during the 1970′s). Furthermore, apart from adding redundancy to the nuclear force, the SLBM was also destabilizing by increasing the chances of a decapitating strike against the leadership. As such, there were more efforts aimed at managing the nuclear standoff, such as the Moscow-Washington hotline, the construction of hardened complexes (Cheyenne, Yamantau), and a panoply of mobile C&C hubs to decrease nuclear commanders’ vulnerability.

Despite the development of a substantial nuclear capability during the Cold War by the UK, France, and China – and their consequent proliferation to Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea – to this day the US and Russian arsenals remain the world’s largest by at least an order of magnitude. Russia is also believed to keep 16,000 tactical nukes in storage, which it plans to use as its conventional forces retreat before a NATO or Chinese ground invasion. (Here are some aggregates estimates of warhead numbers from the Guardian).

Though there have been arguments by Lieber and Press that the 2000′s saw a return of US nuclear primacy, their conclusions have been hotly disputed. It is probably true that today the US has the ability to completely neutralize China’s means of nuclear retaliation in a first strike, because any surviving Chinese retaliation can be mopped up by sea-based Aegis/SM-3 assets in the Pacific and the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) installations at Vandenberg, California, and Fort Greely, Alaska. However, the same cannot be said of Russia, which has a much bigger and comprehensive nuclear arsenal and early warning system.

B. Nuclear Weapon Development

Contrary to popular opinion, building a workable nuclear weapon mated to a robust delivery system is extremely hard. It is a highly complex synthesis of some of the most advanced technologies known to man, not a terrorist DIY job.

A nuclear weapon… is a robust, reliable and miniaturized nuclear device (a warhead) that has been combined with a similarly robust and reliable delivery system. The importance of this synthesis should not be underestimated. Deliverability is a key feature of a nuclear weapon — and it must be a practical, militarily efficient means of delivery with a high probability of success. The challenges of achieving this synthesis are extensive. For a nuclear device to be deployed as a ballistic missile warhead, as a cruise missile warhead or as a gravity bomb, a series of very significant technical hurdles must be surmounted, including nuclear physics, materials science, rocketry, missile guidance and the like.

The nuclear bit.

The fabrication of fissile material alone — the one true limiting factor in the development of a nuclear device — presents significant challenges. The concept of separating a heavier isotope of uranium from a lighter isotope of uranium in order to enrich the stock to higher than 80 percent U235 — sufficient for use in weapons — is well understood. Separating something heavier from something lighter in a gaseous state is not all that hard. But doing it on a sufficiently refined level to separate two isotopes differentiated by only a few subatomic particles is extremely difficult. The alternative, reprocessing plutonium, is a chemical process not nearly as challenging as enrichment but it is extremely nasty, producing deadly levels of radioactivity, and it can only be done after plutonium has been created inside a nuclear reactor. … [see here for more on uranium enrichment].

Compared to the challenges of enrichment, the fabrication of a simple gun-type device like Little Boy is comparatively simple, though precise and extensive calculations are still required. But only uranium can be used in a gun-type device; plutonium requires the far more complex method of implosion, which presents numerous challenges, including the precise “lensing” of high-grade explosives. The purity of the lenses, their arrangement and the timing of the detonation must all be carefully crafted and coordinated to create a perfectly symmetrical explosion that compresses the plutonium core to a supercritical mass. Again, theoretically, it is a fairly understandable concept. In practice, however, it requires a great deal of knowledge and expertise. The creation of even the most primitive implosion device during the Manhattan Project challenged the best scientific minds and technology available at the time.

The fabrication of fissile material and the development of either a gun-type device or an implosion device is a process that only nine or 10 countries in the world have accomplished. …

The delivery system bit.

First, delivery systems must be devised and both the bomb design and the payload capacity for the delivery system appropriately tailored. The delivery system itself — whether air-drop, cruise missile or ballistic missile — involves significant technological challenges, including aircraft design, subsystems integration and the development of complex guidance and propulsion systems. Indeed, these remain developmental challenges for many established nuclear powers. Ballistic missile design is an especially complex undertaking — to say nothing of mating such missiles with a submarine for undersea launch.

In each case, the physics package (the components of the bomb that actually initiate a nuclear explosion) must be significantly miniaturized to one degree or another. A modern re-entry vehicle is a steep conical shape shorter than a human being that contains an even smaller physics package weighing only a few hundred pounds. Getting a warhead down to this size is no easy task. It requires, among other things, precision manufacturing, exceptional quality control and a keen understanding of nuclear physics. Then there are the decades of testing and practice necessary to ensure detonation upon delivery, national command authority controls and the like. Indeed, U.S. national laboratories still use some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers to model the effects of age on the current U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Developing a nuclear weapon is not simply a matter of money, resources and brains. It also is the product of decades of testing (now frowned upon by the world community), design experience, numerous fielded weapons and a sustained annual investment of billions of dollars.

As such, the only countries that have large, varied, nuclear forces – or have the technical capability to build up one – can be counted on the fingers of one’s hand: The US, Russia, France, Japan, Germany, the UK, China, S. Korea, Italy, and *perhaps* Taiwan, India, Israel, Brazil, and a handful of others. But for the latter the costs will be prohibitive in the extreme. For instance, in Iran’s case:

Uranium nuclear fuel enrichment consists of four main steps. The first involves extracting uranium ore and processing (also known as milling) it into uranium oxide, commonly known as yellowcake. Second, most enrichment efforts — including Iran’s — then subject the yellowcake to a series of chemical reactions to create toxic uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which is useful for a variety of enrichment techniques. Third, in many cases — again including Iran’s — the UF6 then is run through “cascades” of centrifuges, or long chains of individual centrifuges connected together in a vacuum in gaseous form. Through this process, the percentage of the fissile isotope uranium 235 is increased to the point where the uranium can be used for power production. (Iran reportedly has aimed for an enrichment level of 3.5%, which is considered low-enriched uranium.) Fourth and last, once the uranium has been enriched to the desired level, it is then converted into fuel rods or pellets for use in a reactor.

It is important to note that low-enriched uranium is not the same thing as highly enriched uranium (which is considered to be greater than 20%) — or uranium enriched to levels of 80-90% uranium 235 — which is considered sufficient for use in a crude nuclear device. Producing highly enriched uranium is not simply a matter of running the cascade cycle describe above over and over again. As the uranium becomes more enriched, the technology becomes increasingly delicate. Fine separation of the UF6 molecules and the minute calibration of the centrifuges necessary to carry this out, is required for this, and it is not clear that Iran’s centrifuges are of sufficient quality to attain these high levels of enrichment.

See Nuclear Weapon Nations and Arsenals for a detailed discussion of national nuclear capabilities.

C. Future Prospects: ABM, Scramjets, and Hypersonic Bombers

Although building a few dozen simple nuclear weapons is relatively easy and has even been mastered by the likes of Pakistan, acquiring the panoply of hundreds or more thermonuclear devices mounted on a triad of delivery systems (bombers, ICBM’s, SLBM’s) is highly complex and open to a few states. However, doing so imparts near-strategic invulnerability. In a ever more unstable world of limits to growth, it is likely that nations like Germany and Japan will nuclearize, or at least intentionally build up the foundations for effecting a rapid, massive buildup of nuclear arms.

There is one major development that is going to seriously undermine the effectiveness of nuclear weapons, necessitating the development of much more advanced and complex delivery systems. That is anti-ballistic missile defense (ABM).

The country with the most advanced ABM program as of today is the United States:

There are four mature BMD systems that are operational or in the process of being made operational: Aegis/Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) and Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD).

The Aegis/SM-3 system is capable of intercepting ballistic missiles during parts of the ascent and descent phases. This system has already been deployed on 18 American guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, and two Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces warships and is operationally proven (though as an anti-satellite weapon rather than a BMD interceptor). The Aegis/SM-3 has been one of the most successful BMD programs in the U.S. inventory, and Gates’ proposal would increase funding for the SM-3 program and upgrade an additional six warships with the system (double the three announced earlier this year for the Atlantic fleet).

The THAAD system is mobile (designed to be deployed anywhere in the world) and is capable of intercepting a ballistic missile in its final midcourse descent and in its terminal phase, both inside and outside the atmosphere. The first THAAD battery — Alpha Battery of the 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment at Fort Bliss in Texas — was activated last year and is in the process of being fully equipped. Meanwhile, testing continues at the Pacific Missile Range in Hawaii (a test there in March marked the system’s latest success). After poor test performance in the 1990s, the program restarted testing in 2005 and has shown marked improvement. It is now considered technologically mature.

The Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system is a terminal-phase intercept system that was operationally deployed and successfully used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is also currently operational at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and is slated for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, although deployment of the system is encumbered by the requirement for fixed facilities, including concrete silos. …

The Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system is a terminal-phase intercept system that was operationally deployed and successfully used in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is also currently operational at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and is slated for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, although deployment of the system is encumbered by the requirement for fixed facilities, including concrete silos.

Although as of today its scope is still limited to the rather modest task of defending against missile attacks from “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea, in the future it is not unfeasible to upgrade the American BMD to provide a substantial blanket even against Russia’s arsenal. Furthermore, as these technologies mature the BMD system will move into space – rhetoric to the contrary, the presence of military surveillance satellites, anti-satellite weapons testing, and GPS (which the US uses for everything from squad level maneuvers to JDAM’s), means that space is already for all practical purposes weaponized except for the fact that the actual projectiles are not yet located there.

… And for strategic, intercontinental BMD, space is inherently superior to terrestrial basing for interceptors in terms of coverage, flexibility and response time. Put another way, while near-term funding for such projects remains questionable, those projects are the logical ultimate trajectory of the deliberate pursuit of BMD now underway.

But BMD aside, the Pentagon intends to dominate space the same way it dominates the world’s oceans: largely passively, allowing the free flow of international traffic, but with overwhelming and unchallenged military superiority. That will include not only defending assets in space, but holding those of a potential adversary at risk. Currently, Washington can do much of this from the ground; it is not only able to destroy a satellite with a BMD interceptor, it is also honing the technology to deny and disrupt access to space systems.

Thus, as long as the American military-industrial complex remains lavishly funded – which is open to question – it will continue to develop a multi-tiered ABM shield, introduce new technologies like the Airborne Laser (ABL), Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI), and Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE), and reinforce its MASINT dominance.

One particular interesting concept in the works is a so-called plasma shield:

In the 90’s the Russian physicist Rimily Avramenko proposed this method for taking out ballistic missiles:

Their action is based on focusing beams of electromagnetic energy produced by laser or microwave radiation into the upper layers of the atmosphere….A
cloud of highly ionized air arises at the focus of the laser or microwave rays, at an altitude of up to 50 kilometers. Upon entering it, any object–a missile, an airplane, is deflected from its trajectory and disintegrates in response to the fantastic overloads arising due to the abrupt pressure difference …What is fundamental in this case is that the energy aimed by the terrestrial components of the plasma weapon–lasers and antennas–is concentrated not at the target itself but a little ahead of it. Rather than “incinerating” the missile or airplane, it “bumps” it out of trajectory
.

The Russians refer to such balls of plasma as plasmoids. Although there is some speculation that their high-power radar could produce plasmoids in the upper atmosphere for defensive use, this has not been proven. (Just, please, don’t mention HAARP.) But the laser system used in PASS has been proven.

Alex Long, CEO of Stellar Photonics, which makes the PASS laser, tells me that future systems will have much greater range than the current laser. The focusing requirements are much simpler than for high-power energy weapons like the Airborne Laser (or ABL, a ray gun-equipped 747 jet), making longer ranges more feasible.

The technology which produces small plasma detonations in PASS could put larger plasmoids in the path of missiles and aircraft high in the atmosphere. Rather than using massive amounts of energy to burn through the missile’s casing, just a small amount of laser-created plasma could turn the missile’s own speed against it, tripping it up in a piece of cosmic judo. A small, low-energy pulse laser may turn out to be more effective for missile defense than the giant chemical laser in the $7.3 billion ABL.

Other nations will counter by developing their own ABM systems, on current trends lagging the US by a decade or two, while acquiring new capabilities like ICBM‘s and SLBM‘s with advanced evasive measures and decoys, as well as next-generation strategic bombers and eventually, scramjet-based hypersonic weapons. If the latter are actualized and retain a high degree of survivability in an era of improving SAM technology, bombers may yet again come to dominate nuclear delivery systems, as they first did in the 1950′s.

3. Nuclear War – Myth and Reality

Major sources:

One of the basic popular misconceptions of nuclear warfare is that it is a true Doomsday event leading to human extinction, or at the very least the collapse of global civilization. However, this is not backed even by primitive calculations that assume all the world’s urban areas (home to 50% of the world population) get blanket bombed, neglecting that a sizable portion of nuclear weapons will get eaten up by counter-force strikes (e.g. the missile silos of North Dakota), or will fail to launch / get taken out by enemy ABM / etc.

° Myth: Because some modern H-bombs are over 1000 times as powerful as the A-bomb that destroyed most of Hiroshima, these H-bombs are 1000 times as deadly and destructive.

° Facts: A nuclear weapon 1000 times as powerful as the one that blasted Hiroshima, if exploded under comparable conditions, produces equally serious blast damage to wood-frame houses over an area up to about 130 times as large, not 1000 times as large.

For example, air bursting a 20-kiloton weapon at the optimum height to destroy most buildings will destroy or severely damage houses out to about 1.42 miles from ground zero.6 The circular area of at least severe blast damage will be about 6.33 square miles. (The explosion of a 20 kiloton weapon releases the same amount of energy as 20 thousand tons of TNT.) One thousand 20-kiloton weapons thus air burst, well separated to avoid overlap of their blast areas, would destroy or severely damage houses over areas totalling approximately 6,330 square miles. In contrast, similar air bursting of one 20- megaton weapon (equivalent in explosive power to 20 million tons of TNT) would destroy or severely damage the great majority of houses out to a distance of 16 miles from ground zero.6 The area of destruction would be about 800 square miles – not 6,330 square miles.

° Myth: Overkill would result if all the U.S. and U.S.S.R, nuclear weapons were used meaning not only that the two superpowers have more than enough weapons to kill all of each other’s people, but also that they have enough weapons to exterminate the human race.

° Facts: Statements that the U.S. and the Soviet Union have the power to kill the world’s population several times over are based on misleading calculations. One such calculation is to multiply the deaths produced per kiloton exploded over Hiroshima or Nagasaki by an estimate of the number of kilotons in either side’s arsenal. (A kiloton explosion is one that produces the same amount of energy as does 1000 tons of TNT.) The unstated assumption is that somehow the world’s population could be gathered into circular crowds, each a few miles in diameter with a population density equal to downtown Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and then a small (Hiroshima-sized) weapon would be exploded over the center of each crowd. Other misleading calculations are based on exaggerations of the dangers from long-lasting radiation and other harmful effects of a nuclear war.

Nor will everyone die by lingering radiation – the critically-affected areas will be limited to areas downwind of ground bursts.

° Myth: Fallout radiation from a nuclear war would poison the air and all parts of the environment. It would kill everyone. (This is the demoralizing message of On the Beach and many similar pseudoscientific books and articles.)

° Facts: When a nuclear weapon explodes near enough to the ground for its fireball to touch the ground, it forms a crater. (See Fig. 1.1.)

Fig. 1.1. A surface burst. In a surface or near-surface burst, the fireball touches the ground and blasts a crater. ORNL-DWG 786264

Many thousands of tons of earth from the crater of a large explosion are pulverized into trillions of particles. These particles are contaminated by radioactive atoms produced by the nuclear explosion. Thousands of tons of the particles are carried up into a mushroom-shaped cloud, miles above the earth. These radioactive particles then fall out of the mushroom cloud, or out of the dispersing cloud of particles blown by the winds thus becoming fallout.

Each contaminated particle continuously gives off invisible radiation, much like a tiny X-ray machine while in the mushroom cloud, while descending, and after having fallen to earth. The descending radioactive particles are carried by the winds like the sand and dust particles of a miles-thick sandstorm cloud except that they usually are blown at lower speeds and in many areas the particles are so far apart that no cloud is seen. The largest, heaviest fallout particles reach the ground first, in locations close to the explosion. Many smaller particles are carried by the winds for tens to thousands of miles before falling to earth. At any one place where fallout from a single explosion is being deposited on the ground in concentrations high enough to require the use of shelters, deposition will be completed within a few hours.

The smallest fallout particles those tiny enough to be inhaled into a person’s lungs are invisible to the naked eye. These tiny particles would fall so slowly from the four-mile or greater heights to which they would be injected by currently deployed Soviet warheads that most would remain airborne for weeks to years before reaching the ground. By that time their extremely wide dispersal and radioactive decay would make them much less dangerous. Only where such tiny particles are promptly brought to earth by rain- outs or snow-outs in scattered “hot spots,” and later dried and blown about by the winds, would these invisible particles constitute a long-term and relatively minor post-attack danger.

The air in properly designed fallout shelters, even those without air filters, is free of radioactive particles and safe to breathe except in a few’ rare environments as will be explained later.

Fortunately for all living things, the danger from fallout radiation lessens with time. The radioactive decay, as this lessening is called, is rapid at first, then gets slower and slower. The dose rate (the amount of radiation received per hour) decreases accordingly. Figure 1.2 illustrates the rapidity of the decay of radiation from fallout during the first two days after the nuclear explosion that produced it. R stands for roentgen, a measurement unit often used to measure exposure to gamma rays and X rays. Fallout meters called dosimeters measure the dose received by recording the number of R. Fallout meters called survey meters, or dose-rate meters, measure the dose rate by recording the number of R being received per hour at the time of measurement. Notice that it takes about seven times as long for the dose rate to decay from 1000 roentgens per hour (1000 R/hr) to 10 R/hr (48 hours) as to decay from 1000 R/hr to 100 R/hr (7 hours). (Only in high-fallout areas would the dose rate 1 hour after the explosion be as high as 1000 roentgens per hour.)

Fig. 1.2. Decay of the dose rate of radiation from fallout, from the time of the explosion, not from the time of fallout deposition. ORNL.DWG 78-265

If the dose rate 1 hour after an explosion is 1000 R/hr, it would take about 2 weeks for the dose rate to be reduced to 1 R/hr solely as a result of radioactive decay. Weathering effects will reduce the dose rate further,’ for example, rain can wash fallout particles from plants and houses to lower positions on or closer to the ground. Surrounding objects would reduce the radiation dose from these low-lying particles.

Figure 1.2 also illustrates the fact that at a typical location where a given amount of fallout from an explosion is deposited later than 1 hour after the explosion, the highest dose rate and the total dose received at that location are less than at a location where the same amount of fallout is deposited 1 hour after the explosion. The longer fallout particles have been airborne before reaching the ground, the less dangerous is their radiation.

Within two weeks after an attack the occupants of most shelters could safely stop using them, or could work outside the shelters for an increasing number of hours each day. Exceptions would be in areas of extremely heavy fallout such as might occur downwind from important targets attacked with many weapons, especially missile sites and very large cities. To know when to come out safely, occupants either would need a reliable fallout meter to measure the changing radiation dangers, or must receive information based on measurements made nearby with a reliable instrument.

The radiation dose that will kill a person varies considerably with different people. A dose of 450 R resulting from exposure of the whole body to fallout radiation is often said to be the dose that will kill about half the persons receiving it, although most studies indicate that it would take somewhat less.1 (Note: A number written after a statement refers the reader to a source listed in the Selected References that follow Appendix D.) Almost all persons confined to expedient shelters after a nuclear attack would be under stress and without clean surroundings or antibiotics to fight infections. Many also would lack adequate water and food. Under these unprecedented conditions, perhaps half the persons who received a whole-body dose of 350 R within a few days would die.2

Fortunately, the human body can repair most radiation damage if the daily radiation doses are not too large. As will be explained in Appendix B, a person who is healthy and has not been exposed in the past two weeks to a total radiation dose of more than 100 R can receive a dose of 6 R each day for at least two months without being incapacitated.

Only a very small fraction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki citizens who survived radiation doses some of which were nearly fatal have suffered serious delayed effects. The reader should realize that to do essential work after a massive nuclear attack, many survivors must be willing to receive much larger radiation doses than are normally permissible. Otherwise, too many workers would stay inside shelter too much of the time, and work that would be vital to national recovery could not be done. For example, if the great majority of truckers were so fearful of receiving even non-incapacitating radiation doses that they would refuse to transport food, additional millions would die from starvation alone.

° Myth: Fallout radiation penetrates everything; there is no escaping its deadly effects.

° Facts: Some gamma radiation from fallout will penetrate the shielding materials of even an excellent shelter and reach its occupants. However, the radiation dose that the occupants of an excellent shelter would receive while inside this shelter can be reduced to a dose smaller than the average American receives during his lifetime from X rays and other radiation exposures normal in America today. The design features of such a shelter include the use of a sufficient thickness of earth or other heavy shielding material. Gamma rays are like X rays, but more penetrating. Figure 1.3 shows how rapidly gamma rays are reduced in number (but not in their ability to penetrate) by layers of packed earth. Each of the layers shown is one halving-thickness of packed earth- about 3.6 inches (9 centimeters).3 A halving- thickness is the thickness of a material which reduces by half the dose of radiation that passes through it.

The actual paths of gamma rays passing through shielding materials are much more complicated, due to scattering, etc., than are the straight-line paths shown in Fig. 1.3. But when averaged out, the effectiveness of a halving-thickness of any material is approximately as shown. The denser a substance, the better it serves for shielding material. Thus, a halving-thickness of concrete is only about 2.4 inches (6.1 cm).

Fig. 1.3. Illustration of shielding against fallout radiation. Note the increasingly large improvements in the attenuation (reduction) factors that are attained as each additional halving-thickness of packed earth is added. ORNL-DWG 78-18834

If additional halving-thicknesses of packed earth shielding are successively added to the five thicknesses shown in Fig. 1.3, the protection factor (PF) is successively increased from 32 to 64, to 128, to 256, to 512, to 1024, and so on.

Finally, sorry to disappoint our armchair nihilists, but “nuclear winter” or the destruction of the ozone layer certainly won’t do in civilization, let alone the human species.

° Myth: Blindness and a disastrous increase of cancers would be the fate of survivors of a nuclear war, because the nuclear explosions would destroy so much of the protective ozone in the stratosphere that far too much ultraviolet light would reach the earth’s surface. Even birds and insects would be blinded. People could not work outdoors in daytime for years without dark glasses, and would have to wear protective clothing to prevent incapacitating sunburn. Plants would be badly injured and food production greatly reduced.

° Facts: Large nuclear explosions do inject huge amounts of nitrogen oxides (gasses that destroy ozone) into the stratosphere. However, the percent of the stratospheric ozone destroyed by a given amount of nitrogen oxides has been greatly overestimated in almost all theoretical calculations and models. For example, the Soviet and U.S. atmospheric nuclear test explosions of large weapons in 1952-1962 were calculated by Foley and Ruderman to result in a reduction of more than 10 percent in total ozone. (See M. H. Foley and M. A. Ruderman, ‘Stratospheric NO from Past Nuclear Explosions”, Journal of Geophysics, Res. 78, 4441-4450.) Yet observations that they cited showed no reductions in ozone. Nor did ultraviolet increase. Other theoreticians calculated sizeable reductions in total ozone, but interpreted the observational data to indicate either no reduction, or much smaller reductions than their calculated ones.

A realistic simplified estimate of the increased ultraviolet light dangers to American survivors of a large nuclear war equates these hazards to moving from San Francisco to sea level at the equator, where the sea level incidence of skin cancers (seldom fatal) is highest- about 10 times higher than the incidence at San Francisco. Many additional thousands of American survivors might get skin cancer, but little or no increase in skin cancers might result if in the post-attack world deliberate sun tanning and going around hatless went out of fashion. Furthermore, almost all of today’s warheads are smaller than those exploded in the large- weapons tests mentioned above; most would inject much smaller amounts of ozone-destroying gasses, or no gasses, into the stratosphere, where ozone deficiencies may persist for years. And nuclear weapons smaller than 500 kilotons result in increases (due to smog reactions) in upper tropospheric ozone. In a nuclear war, these increases would partially compensate for the upper-level tropospheric decreases-as explained by Julius S. Chang and Donald J. Wuebbles of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

° Myth: Unsurvivable “nuclear winter” surely will follow a nuclear war. The world will be frozen if only 100 megatons (less than one percent of all nuclear weapons) are used to ignite cities. World-enveloping smoke from fires and the dust from surface bursts will prevent almost all sunlight and solar heat from reaching the earth’s surface. Universal darkness for weeks! Sub-zero temperatures, even in summertime! Frozen crops, even in the jungles of South America! Worldwide famine! Whole species of animals and plants exterminated! The survival of mankind in doubt!

° Facts: Unsurvivable “nuclear winter” is a discredited theory that, since its conception in 1982, has been used to frighten additional millions into believing that trying to survive a nuclear war is a waste of effort and resources, and that only by ridding the world of almost all nuclear weapons do we have a chance of surviving.

Non-propagandizing scientists recently have calculated that the climatic and other environmental effects of even an all-out nuclear war would be much less severe than the catastrophic effects repeatedly publicized by popular astronomer Carl Sagan and his fellow activist scientists, and by all the involved Soviet scientists. Conclusions reached from these recent, realistic calculations are summarized in an article, “Nuclear Winter Reappraised”, featured in the 1986 summer issue of Foreign Affairs, the prestigious quarterly of the Council on Foreign Relations. The authors, Starley L. Thompson and Stephen H. Schneider, are atmospheric scientists with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. They showed ” that on scientific grounds the global apocalyptic conclusions of the initial nuclear winter hypothesis can now be relegated to a vanishing low level of probability.”

Their models indicate that in July (when the greatest temperature reductions would result) the average temperature in the United States would be reduced for a few days from about 70 degrees Fahrenheit to approximately 50 degrees. (In contrast, under the same conditions Carl Sagan, his associates, and the Russian scientists predicted a resulting average temperature of about 10 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, lasting for many weeks!)

Persons who want to learn more about possible post-attack climatic effects also should read the Fall 1986 issue of Foreign Affairs. This issue contains a long letter from Thompson and Schneider which further demolishes the theory of catastrophic “nuclear winter.” Continuing studies indicate there will be even smaller reductions in temperature than those calculated by Thompson and Schneider.

Soviet propagandists promptly exploited belief in unsurvivable “nuclear winter” to increase fear of nuclear weapons and war, and to demoralize their enemies. Because raging city firestorms are needed to inject huge amounts of smoke into the stratosphere and thus, according to one discredited theory, prevent almost all solar heat from reaching the ground, the Soviets changed their descriptions of how a modern city will burn if blasted by a nuclear explosion.

Figure 1.6 pictures how Russian scientists and civil defense officials realistically described – before the invention of “nuclear winter” – the burning of a city hit by a nuclear weapon. Buildings in the blasted area for miles around ground zero will be reduced to scattered rubble – mostly of concrete, steel, and other nonflammable materials – that will not burn in blazing fires. Thus in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory translation (ORNL-TR-2793) of Civil Defense. Second Edition (500,000 copies), Moscow, 1970, by Egorov, Shlyakhov, and Alabin, we read: “Fires do not occur in zones of complete destruction . . . that are characterized by an overpressure exceeding 0.5 kg/cm2 [- 7 psi]., because rubble is scattered and covers the burning structures. As a result the rubble only smolders, and fires as such do not occur.”

Fig. 1.6. Drawing with Caption in a Russian Civil Defense Training Film Strip. The blazing fires ignited by a surface burst are shown in standing buildings outside the miles-wide “zone of complete destruction,” where the blast-hurled “rubble only smolders.”

Translation: [Radioactive] contamination occurs in the area of the explosion and also along the trajectory of the cloud which forms a radioactive track.

Firestorms destroyed the centers of Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo. The old-fashioned buildings of those cities contained large amounts of flammable materials, were ignited by many thousands of small incendiaries, and burned quickly as standing structures well supplied with air. No firestorm has ever injected smoke into the stratosphere, or caused appreciable cooling below its smoke cloud.

The theory that smoke from burning cities and forests and dust from nuclear explosions would cause worldwide freezing temperatures was conceived in 1982 by the German atmospheric chemist and environmentalist Paul Crutzen, and continues to be promoted by a worldwide propaganda campaign. This well funded campaign began in 1983 with televised scientific-political meetings in Cambridge and Washington featuring American and Russian scientists. A barrage of newspaper and magazine articles followed, including a scaremongering article by Carl Sagan in the October 30, 1983 issue of Parade, the Sunday tabloid read by millions. The most influential article was featured in the December 23,1983 issue of Science (the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science): “Nuclear winter, global consequences of multiple nuclear explosions,” by five scientists, R. P. Turco, O. B. Toon, T. P. Ackerman, J. B. Pollack, and C. Sagan. Significantly, these activists listed their names to spell TTAPS, pronounced “taps,” the bugle call proclaiming “lights out” or the end of a military funeral.

Until 1985, non-propagandizing scientists did not begin to effectively refute the numerous errors, unrealistic assumptions, and computer modelling weakness’ of the TTAPS and related “nuclear winter” hypotheses. A principal reason is that government organizations, private corporations, and most scientists generally avoid getting involved in political controversies, or making statements likely to enable antinuclear activists to accuse them of minimizing nuclear war dangers, thus undermining hopes for peace. Stephen Schneider has been called a fascist by some disarmament supporters for having written “Nuclear Winter Reappraised,” according to the Rocky Mountain News of July 6, 1986. Three days later, this paper, that until recently featured accounts of unsurvivable “nuclear winter,” criticized Carl Sagan and defended Thompson and Schneider in its lead editorial, “In Study of Nuclear Winter, Let Scientists Be Scientists.” In a free country, truth will out – although sometimes too late to effectively counter fast-hitting propaganda.

Effective refutation of “nuclear winter” also was delayed by the prestige of politicians and of politically motivated scientists and scientific organizations endorsing the TTAPS forecast of worldwide doom. Furthermore, the weakness’ in the TTAPS hypothesis could not be effectively explored until adequate Government funding was made available to cover costs of lengthy, expensive studies, including improved computer modelling of interrelated, poorly understood meteorological phenomena.

Serious climatic effects from a Soviet-U.S. nuclear war cannot be completely ruled out. However, possible deaths from uncertain climatic effects are a small danger compared to the incalculable millions in many countries likely to die from starvation caused by disastrous shortages of essentials of modern agriculture sure to result from a Soviet-American nuclear war, and by the cessation of most international food shipments.

Finally, two more things of importance in nuclear warfare.

What of the economy?

In his (in)famous book On Thermonuclear War, Herman Kahn calculated that the complete destruction of the US top 53 metropolitan areas would result in serious economic damage, but would not terminate its industrial base. Substantial capacities would survive and will be able to be rebuilt quickly, especially if there are prewar preparations and the postwar government enforces savings on the population.

Below is an edited table I’m reproducing from the book, which shows the 1954 output capacity of different sectors of the US economy, and the percentage of that capacity and the existing capital stock located outside the top 53 metropolitan areas and (kind of) expected to survive a large-scale nuclear war.

Industrial Base 1954 Output Capacity (1956 billion $) % Surviving Capacity % Surviving Capital Stock
Instruments 4 20 20
Transportation eqp. 73 23 23
Electrical eqp. 32 23 23
Primary Metal ind. 36 23 28
Fabricated metal prods. 35 28 28
Rubber prods. 6 29 29
Machinery (except electrical) 50 34 34
Petroleum & coal prods. 18 36 36
Chemicals prods. 25 42 42
Pulp & paper prods. 14 54 54
Food prods. 68 57 57
Construction 91 60 60
Textile prods. 20 69 69
Lumber 9 86 86
Mining 20 89 89
Agriculture 92 95 95
Electric public utilities ~ 54

Today, the spread of suburbia means that more of the strategic industries will have migrated outside the inner-city cores. This is bad for the US environment and the current account, but an advantage in surviving and rebuilding after a nuclear war. There is also a huge and strategically significant IT industry, soon to be supplemented by biotech and nanomanufacturing – however, most of the key facilities would again be located on the peripheries of the big cities.

EMP bursts

Exploding a nuclear weapon high over an adversary’s territory can produce an EMP effect disabling most of the non-hardened electronics over vast continental swathes, crippling the economy at a single stroke. In the US, almost all civilian and even some tactical-military systems are unhardened. The threat has grown since the early days of the Cold War, when electronics used vacuum tubes that were far more resistant to EMP effects than today’s integrated circuits.

Civil Defense

A good civil defense system (blast shelters underneath municipal buildings, grain stockpiles, urban metro systems, widespread EMP hardening, widespread distribution of Geiger counters & potassium iodide pills, prewar planning, dispersed machine tool stockpiles, air raid / missile strike warning sirens, etc) will vastly improve the survivability of a population and enhance the speed and scope of its postwar recovery. A good example of a prepared society is modern Switzerland, which has a nuclear shelter in almost every building, and to a lesser extent the late Soviet Union.

In conjunction with an advanced ABM and SAM system, a society with a good civil defense system is probably capable of surviving, and fighting, a prolonged nuclear total war.

What will a big nuclear war in the future look like?

Since a (non-accidental) nuclear warfare is very unlikely today, fast forward to 2030-50, a time of incessant resource wars, climatic chaos, and new totalitarian ideologies – a world in which the weak states fail and wither away, while the strong erect barriers round their new empires (the US, China, Russia, France, etc).

In this case, it might be instructive to look at what people though would happen if the Cold War had turned hot, especially if the superpowers introduced the nuclear element.

Had everything managed to remain conventional to this point, it is here we see the point at which the survival of civilization as we know it hangs in the balance. The temptation on the American president would be enormous to start wiping out these gargantuan Soviet armies with the equally vast American nuclear arsenal. Equally, the temptation on the Soviet leadership would be substantial to trade queens with her great adversary, through counterforce first strike on American nuclear forces. Were the US to strike tactically against the Soviet invasion force, escalation to countervalue strikes (against economic and population centers), was Soviet retaliatory doctrine itself, and the entire war would enter a new phase of global mass murder, as the Americans inevitably retaliate when their cities are vaporized by Russian rocketry.

In the post-nuclear novel and movie, this is the point at which World War III ends and we are all reduced to wearing bearskins and roaming around stateless post-technological deserts. But the reality was probably a substantially worse world. If anything, disaster and mass murder tends to increase the authority of the state over populations, not collapse it. Was the power of the Nazi state more or less complete when her cities were smoldering ruins? In such situations people are rendered completely dependent on even a damaged state, when all other sources of power have been disrupted or destroyed…and in our scenario here, these are states which would not be inclined to give up the war having already lost so much. As the pre-war nuclear stockpiles are expended (mostly canceling each other out, rather than falling on cities), much of the population of both the United States and the Soviet Union would survive. Particularly if the build-up was a conventional escalation, allowing for the inevitable panic evacuation of dense urban areas.

Therefore if you want a true retrofuturist nightmare-scape, imagine a nuclear World War III, but one in which after the horrendous nuclear exchange is largely over, you haven’t the saving grace of a desolate but free world and the end of the war. Imagine suffering a nuclear attack and yet the war going on…in a newly mass mobilized and utterly militarized and depopulating society….potentially for years, even decades. That was probably the real nightmare we escaped, now that these maps have thankfully become lost visions in a vanished dream of global war.

In particular, the Soviet Union planned to fight a WMD war, especially using tactical nukes and chemical weapons to achieve a breakout in West Germany – while also developing an extensive biological weapons capability, presumably for strategic use against the farther-off US population.

With its collapse, the specter of Armageddon has receded, but not completely; and as pointed out, it may yet return.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
With increasing signs of economic collapse, military overstretch and political problems, is the US doomed to go the way of the late USSR?
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Inspired in no small part by the political charade over the bail-outs and boondoggles that plague the TV screens and electronic ether, I’ve compiled a top 10 list of ways in which the US increasingly resembles the collapsing Soviet Union for your information / despair / entertainment / Schadenfreude / ridicule / etc.

A list of how Russians screwed up and Americans are repeating their mistakes step by step. A list that may provoke much needed debate and change that we can really believe in.

10

An alcohol epidemic from the 1960′s on that kept Russian life expectancy flat ever since.

Dietary catastrophe resulting in historically unprecedented obesity and diabetes rates.

9

Hated and feared for human rights violations, invasion of Afghanistan and Communist rhetoric, and its socialist model discredited.

Hated and feared for use of torture, invasion of Iraq and post-Cold War triumphalist arrogance, and its neoliberal model discredited.

8

Military overstretch, economic distortion and disaster in Afghanistan.

Imperial overstretch, runaway military budget and return to the “graveyard of empires”.

7

Wasteful investments into infrastructure, bloated bureaucracy and inefficient industry.

Decaying infrastructure, misplaced investments into suburbia, bloated financial system and hallowing out of industry.

6

Collapse in morality, bloated bureaucracy and soaring corruption.

Regulatory capture, bloated special interests and legalistic mafia.

5

Suppression of statistics and silencing of dissent.

Manipulation of statistics and ignores dissent.

4

Dependence on foreign credit from debts and oil sales.

Dependence on foreign credit from debts, “dark matter” and the $’s status as global currency reserve.

3

Young reformer takes power and talks of glasnost and perestroika while avoiding real reform.

Young “outsider” wins the elections and talk of change and hope…

2

Ethnic nationalism and separatist tendencies.

Tax revolts and state rights.

1

More and more people began to predict Soviet collapse in the late 1980′s.

More and more people are beginning to predict an American collapse now…


10) The first disturbing similarity is the rapidly deteriorating health of the population. From the 1960′s, an alcohol epidemic began to sweep Russia as binging graduated from something done on holidays to a monthly and then a weekly affair. The drinking epidemic spread to women and younger people, and intensified amongst middle-aged men. Once subjected to the cheap alcohol and social dislocations of the post-Soviet world, an already stagnating average life expectancy plummeted.

As late as 1990, not a single state in the Union had an obesity rate of greater than 15% of the adult population; today, not a single state (with the marginal exception of Colorado) has an obesity rate of less than 20%. The national obesity rate soared to 34%. The percentage of American adults suffering from diabetes is now 11%, and another 26% have impaired glucose tolerance. Although improvements in US life expectancy haven’t stalled, change has been slower than in most other developed countries and even then was mostly accounted for by improved medical technology, and successes in reducing tobacco smoking and overconsumption of animal fats. An economic collapse now would trim the vastly expensive healthcare system and almost certainly result in a mortality spike – especially considering that the baby boomers are now nearing retirement age.

Both the Russian and American epidemics affect poor, middle-aged people the most; a difference is that the alcohol epidemic affected men more than women, whereas in the US obesity is slightly more prevalent amongst women than men. Vodka sales made good profits for the state (via taxes) during the Soviet period and good profits for private distilleries in the post-Soviet period; the American diet makes good profits for fast food outlets and the parasitic “food processing” companies that degrade good corn into corn syrup. Perhaps the most poignant comparison is in the kinds of TV adverts that dominate the airwaves in both countries. In Russia after 9pm, every third commercial suddenly becomes about some or another kind of beer (that’s an improvement over the 1990′s, when they ran all day); in the US, day or night, every third commercial praises the virtues of some kind of meretricious fat-soaked starchy thing.

9) Throughout the early Cold War, the USSR was a source of inspiration to leftist Western intellectuals and Third World countries looking to throw off the imperialist yoke and modernize quickly. But by the early 1980′s, pressure was being applied to the Soviet Union on account of its violations of the human rights treaties it was a signitary to. Central planning remained an alien ideology to all Western societies, increasingly so as its failures became clearer. It was condemned for its invasion of Afghanistan (in reality, an intervention at the request of its new socialist government to defend them from Islamists).

The United States gained a great moral victory from the collapse of the USSR (despite it being a result of internal dynamics) and enjoyed it during the 1990′s. However, this came to an end after 2001 due to the hypocritical and immoral way it went about waging the Orwellian-sounding “war on terror”. Preemptive war on made-up pretenses, extraordinary renditions of terrorist suspects and the neocons’ incessant freedom-rhetoric was something the world by and large couldn’t square together. This resulted in its poor showing in international approval ratings and its repeated “victories” in the “world’s greatest threats to peace” category with Iran, Israel and North Korea as regular runner-ups and after party company. Although the fairness of such characterizations can be disputed, they are ultimately immaterial since it is perceptions that matter – not right or wrong, however defined.

The central planning model of the USSR was fully discredited by the 1980′s; neoliberalism is similarly on en route to the ashcan of history.

8) The USSR was spending about 25% of its GDP on the military by the 1980′s. Not only did this squeeze consumption and contribute to stagnant real incomes from around the mid 1970′s, it divested resources from investment into renewing the capital stock, civilian R&D and improvement of human capital via education and healthcare. However, official figures were ridiculously low – around 2.5% or so of GDP – due to statistical fudging and giving purely military enterprises funny names like the Chelyabinsk Tractor and Machine Building Factory (invented example).

The US maintains unrivaled power projection capabilities, a global network of 700 military bases and the world’s most technologically advanced military force – but it comes at a steep price. While the official military budget for FY2008 is around 520bn $, to this must be added the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (170bn $), interest on past military expenditures (170bn $), nuclear weapons (30bn $), veterans (70bn $), “homeland defense” (70bn $) and other spending on their lavish healthcare and education entitlements, military foreign aid and “black projects”. (And btw, the figures for interest, nukes and veterans are from 2005). Therefore, it is probably entirely reasonable to double the entire military budget to better appreciate its true magnitude – i.e., quite possibly close to 10% of GDP. Add in the distortions – military production has the smallest multiplier effect on the economy (machine building has the biggest), and its claim on skilled workers (something like half of R&D outlays in the US are for military applications), and you get a superpower severely hobbled by its arms’ burden.

This is not a good situation, but not critical either. Yes, it ties down a big chunk of the economy in unproductive pursuits and contributes to the institutional corruption and runaway spending that is typical of military-industrial complexes. I happen to consider that most of the procurement programs currently being pursued are useless, from unproven missile defense to the overhyped F-35 (just build a few hundred much superior F-22′s instead) to the shiny new surface warships and aircraft carriers that are of dubious value in our era of advanced cruise missiles, UAV’s and supercavitating torpedos. (But this for another post). Most poignantly, Obama is now preparing to withdraw from Iraq (where stability is not yet assured, and which is far more strategically important) to free up troops for Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires…and ignoring Soviet veterans’ warnings of what might await them. And the economy is nowhere near as dominated by the priorities of the Armed Forces as was the case in the USSR. Nonetheless, huge military spending and foreign adventures do not necessarily lead to collapse – by themselves. However, the other economic and confidence problems now facing the US now make that a realistic possibility.

7) The Soviet Union invested vast resources into industrial development. However, they were frequently inefficient, wasteful and of questionable quality; and in any case were being severely undercut by the arms burden by the 1980′s.

Although the US built up a world class public infrastructure prior to the 1980′s, since then investments in this area have dropped off. The roads in California are frequently cracked and potholed – vastly inferior to what one might find in Germany, and not much better than in Russia. One quarter of bridges are structurally deficient, in most cities the water pipeline system is a century old and the electrical grid befits a Third World country.

Even worse is that much of the “infrastructure” that was built up in the past few decades consisted of lavish homes in sururbia requiring massive inputs of cheap energy to function normally. When oil is at 10$, spending an hour driving to work is monetarily (if not spiritually) sustainable; as we pass the oil peak and other resources (almost certainly) fail to make good the gap in time, this will change as petrol soars in price, even assuming it will remain available on the open market. Due to the “psychology of preveious investments” (see James Kunstler’s work) it is unlikely Americans will summon the will to scale down its suburbia before the laws of economics and geology force them into it.

Soviet industry was inefficient and was destroyed when subjected to market forces. American industry has already been hallowed out; high productivity growth masks a huge decline in quantity and complexity of its “industrial ecosystem”. US vehicle production fell from 13.0mn to 10.8mn from 2000 to 2007, held up only by the (doomed in the long-term) SUV market which is the only sector in which the Big Three made any profits. (During the same period, Germany increased production from 5.5mn to 6.2mn and Japan from 10.1mn to 11.6mn). Its machine tool building industry has for all intents and purposes collapsed. The only marginally healthy manufacturing industries left are in aerospace and defense. This is going to have very bad consequences when inflows of cheap credit from abroad can no longer sustain the US consumption boom; the manufacturing sector that could potentially have led to a quick revival simply no longer exists.

6) Whatever the faults of the USSR in its early years, there was genuine enthusiasm for building socialism relatively untainted by corruption. This began to change rapidly for the worse from the 1970′s. The elites became exclusively concerned with their own power and wellbeing, ultimately leading to the “insider buyout” that probably best describes what happened in its dying days. The size of the bureaucracy exploded and its effectiveness plummeted. A small change for the better under Gorbachev in the mid to late 1980′s led to catastrophic collapse, endemic corruption under Yeltsin, and some improvements under Putin from a very low base. Blatant self-enrichment of the elite at society’s expense became an accepted norm.

How does this translate to the US?

Collapse in ethics, quoting Buiter in Fiscal expansions in submerging markets:

… Financial regulation and supervision was weak to non-existent, encouraging credit and asset price booms and bubbles. Corporate governance, especially but not only in the banking sector, became increasingly subservient to the interests of the CEOs and the other top managers. There was a steady erosion in business ethics and moral standards in commerce and trade. Regulatory capture and corruption, from petty corruption to grand corruption to state capture, became common place. Truth-telling and trust became increasingly scarce commodities in politics and in business life. The choice between telling the truth (the whole truth and nothing but the truth) and telling a deliberate lie or half-truth became a tactical option. Combined with increasing myopia, this meant that even reputational considerations no longer acted as a constraint on deliberate deception and the use of lies as a policy instrument. As part of this widespread erosion of social capital, both citizens and markets lost faith in the ability of governments to commit themselves to any future course of action that was not validated, at each future point in time, as the most opportunistic course of action at that future point in time – what macroeconomists call time-consistent policies and game theorists call ’subgame-perfect’ strategies.

Under bloated special interests, I put the bloated financial services industry, the legalistic mafia, the healthcare industry and the prison-industrial complex. Finance as a share of GDP doubled in the last 30 years, transforming it from a service industry to a rent-seeking one. The proliferation of lawyers amidst amidst burgeoning legalism in society is another example of a self-serving mafia feeding on the blood of the citizenry, as are the “justice” systems and prisons that have gone together with them (the US has an incarceration rate that is unprecedented amongst anything but totalitarian societies). Finally there’s the healthcare industry, perversely regulated in such a way as to make it far less efficient than if it were nationalized or completely private and delivering one of the worst results for the buck in the world – and like a metastasizing cancer, it’s share of GDP has also exploded in the past few decades.

5) Since the 1970′s real wages for workers in the Soviet Union ceased growing, pressed down by the demands of the military-industrial complex. When statistics began to show that the average life expectancy was stagnating and infant mortality rising, they ceased publishing them.

Real median income in the US slowly increased from 35,000$ in 1967 to 46,000$ in 2005; however, the rate of increase slowed and for the first time in modern history it didn’t exceed the level reached at the peak prior to the last recession in 2000-2001 during the growth years of the Bush Presidency. In reality however the situation is even worse because since the time of Reagan the definition of inflation used by the government was being continuously reworked to make the figures appear better than they otherwise would have been, using substitutions and hedonics to spruce up the figures (i.e. adjusting for consumers switching to other products when similar products become expensive, and trying to put values on quality improvements). If the BEA (Bureau of Economic Analysis) continued using its old measuring standards, then a) the economy would have been in stagnation during the 1990′s and recession in the 2000′s, b) inflation would have been steadily increasing to a peak of nearly 14% in 2007 and c) median incomes would have been in steep decline. According to this thesis, then, the only reason the US avoided a big fall in living standards was due to the massive expansion in credit…which brings us to the next point.

4) The Soviet Union grew rapidly in the 1950′s and 1960′s because it was easy to move plenty of rural farmhands into relatively low-skilled industrial jobs. However as labor stocks became limited and focus shifted towards improving technology and productivity, GDP growth slowed and eventually stagnated. Collapse was delayed by the onset of high oil prices, which allowed the USSR to more easily import food products, machinery and technologies. When that collapsed in the mid-1980′s, the state was forced to run up huge debts to maintain mounting entitlement obligations, an overgrown military and bail out its East European satellites. Corruption and hidden inflation overtook the state and broke it.

According to Willem Buiter writing in Can the American economy afford a Keynesian stimulus?, America is a nation in fundamental disequilibrium. It can finance its continuous double deficits by giving its foreign investors an atrocious rate of return. In prior times, they accepted this because of America’s status as the largest economy, sole superpower and global financial center. This was presumed to reduce risk, so investors traded profits for security. From 2000-2004, it is estimated that the US exported some 559bn $ of this “dark matter“, or some 5% of its GDP at the time (the UK was second with 234bn $, or a stunning 15% of GDP). It also draws immense strength from the $’s role as the global reserve currency, for instance by allowing it to comfortably buy oil at $-denominated prices even when the currency is weak.

Due to its imperial overstretch, moribund financial system and frozen credit markets prepped up only by the federal government means that American alpha is almost certainly going to disappear in the next few years. The US fiscal deficit is going to be more than 12% of GDP in 2009 and will remain in the red for at least the next few years. Once global flight to quality ceases, the US will experience difficulties borrowing due foreign f ear of American reluctance to commit to servicing their external obligations without inflation. The interest rates on them are going to be punitive and so a greater amount of resources will have to go towards servicing the debt, thus triggering a potential debt crisis. Buiter predicts a global dump of US dollar assets including Treasury bonds within the next two to five years as investors lose faith in the ability of the US Federal government to generate the primary surpluses required to service its debt without selling much of it to the Fed on a permanent basis, or that the nation as a whole will be able to generate the primary surpluses to service the negative net foreign investment position without the benefit of “American alpha”.

In conclusion, the only reason the US can afford to have both guns and butter is that the outside world is willing to provide it with cheap credit. This will no longer be the case as soon as global panic subsides, and the US will face the real possibility of a debt-and-currency crisis which it will have to inflate its way out of (on which they seem to be making a good start). The 2010′s will see plummeting global oil extraction and sky-high prices. If the $ were to collapse, the imports of oil that fuel the economy will plummet and may lead to a post-Soviet-scale drop in GDP (unless the US uses its military clout to lock in Iraqi and Saudi production – however, given its fiscal problems, questions about political unity and rhetorical commitment to human rights, that would be hard to achieve).

America can take consolation in one thing, however – the collapse in Britain, which is three times as reliant on “dark matter”; which is a much bigger energy importer relative to production; whose industry is in a far more decayed state; and where real breakup is far more likely because of ethnic tensions, will be much worse.

3) When Mikhail Gorbachev (the youngest member of the Politburo) came to power he talked of increasing transparency (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika). Yet the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it starts to reform. In reality the Soviet system was already very probably unsalvageable by then, partly because even the leader himself continued to be a part of the system, beholden to dominant interests (in the Soviet case, to the military-industrial complex, the nomenklatura and workers) and steeped in delusions of grandeur. Even as he attempted to liberalize and solve many interlocking social and economic problems at once, social entitlements were increased, new weapons systems ordered and foreign borrowing increased. Half-measures and reckless credit giveouts to save the system led to massive waste, insider plunder and the start of the disintegration of the economy by the late 1980′s.

The similarities with Obama are striking. Obama is one of the youngest Presidential candidates ever, and talks of hope and change. He comes after the zastoi, deterioration in political and civil liberties and reckless foreign military adventures of Bush II. Like Gorby, he is immensely popular throughout the world. He plans on expanding healthcare and other social entitlements, burdening the economy with farcical green schemes* and is intent on rescuing the troubled financial system by massive infusions of credit, with no regard for the future inflationary consequences. His advisors are the same clique of insiders under previous administrations, especially the Clinton one. He is beholden to the financiers and industrial lobbying groups that fund him and the middle classes that are the bedrock of American political power (as were Soviet workers), which are now being whittled down by the collapse in credit and repossessions. Major cuts in funding for the the Armed Forces and sustainable retreat are simply not envisioned. *As anyone who reads this blog nows, I consider global warming one of the greatest challenges faced by civilization. The problem is that schemes to fund “clean coal” or implement carbon trading are too little, too late, too costly and too unreliable.

Obama is steeped in the Pax Americana mindset (just as Gorbachev was steeped in scientific socialism), which is complacent and rests on its laurels; and as such the possibility of collapse simply cannot seriously enter his mind or considerations. Therefore the truly revolutionary reform that is needed to preserve the current system is unlikely to be contemplated, if its even possible.

2) As economic and political difficulties mounted in the USSR, they were further reinforced by disintegration on ethnic lines, diverting administrative and economic resources away from what should have been more pressing matters.

Recently New Hampshire formally requested a casus foedoris with the other states of the union separately from the federal government in a RESOLUTION affirming States’ rights based on Jeffersonian principles.

That this State does therefore call on its co-States for an expression of their sentiments on acts not authorized by the federal compact. And it doubts not that their sense will be so announced as to prove their attachment unaltered to limited government, whether general or particular. And that the rights and liberties of their co-States will be exposed to no dangers by remaining embarked in a common bottom with their own. That they will concur with this State in considering acts as so palpably against the Constitution as to amount to an undisguised declaration that that compact is not meant to be the measure of the powers of the General Government, but that it will proceed in the exercise over these States, of all powers whatsoever: that they will view this as seizing the rights of the States, and consolidating them in the hands of the General Government, with a power assumed to bind the States, not merely as the cases made federal, (casus foederis,) but in all cases whatsoever, by laws made, not with their consent, but by others against their consent: that this would be to surrender the form of government we have chosen, and live under one deriving its powers from its own will, and not from our authority; and that the co-States, recurring to their natural right in cases not made federal, will concur in declaring these acts void, and of no force, and will each take measures of its own for providing that neither these acts, nor any others of the General Government not plainly and intentionally authorized by the Constitution, shall be exercised within their respective territories; and

That the said committee be authorized to communicate by writing or personal conferences, at any times or places whatever, with any person or person who may be appointed by any one or more co-States to correspond or confer with them; and that they lay their proceedings before the next session of the General Court; and

That any Act by the Congress of the United States, Executive Order of the President of the United States of America or Judicial Order by the Judicatories of the United States of America which assumes a power not delegated to the government of United States of America by the Constitution for the United States of America and which serves to diminish the liberty of the any of the several States or their citizens shall constitute a nullification of the Constitution for the United States of America by the government of the United States of America. Acts which would cause such a nullification include, but are not limited to:

I. Establishing martial law or a state of emergency within one of the States comprising the United States of America without the consent of the legislature of that State.

II. Requiring involuntary servitude, or governmental service other than a draft during a declared war, or pursuant to, or as an alternative to, incarceration after due process of law.

III. Requiring involuntary servitude or governmental service of persons under the age of 18 other than pursuant to, or as an alternative to, incarceration after due process of law.

IV. Surrendering any power delegated or not delegated to any corporation or foreign government.

V. Any act regarding religion; further limitations on freedom of political speech; or further limitations on freedom of the press.

VI. Further infringements on the right to keep and bear arms including prohibitions of type or quantity of arms or ammunition; and

That should any such act of Congress become law or Executive Order or Judicial Order be put into force, all powers previously delegated to the United States of America by the Constitution for the United States shall revert to the several States individually. Any future government of the United States of America shall require ratification of three quarters of the States seeking to form a government of the United States of America and shall not be binding upon any State not seeking to form such a government; and

That copies of this resolution be transmitted by the house clerk to the President of the United States, each member of the United States Congress, and the presiding officers of each State’s legislature.

New Hamphshire isn’t isolated. States rights bills are being pushed in nine states this year and almost half the states’ legislatures have plans to pass similar resolutions. While most are addressed to Congress or the President to back off from further violating state’s rights, New Hampshire is appealing for solidarity from other states to develop a casus feodoris / alliance to develop a counter-weight to the federal government in case it increases interference in state matters or moves towards authoritarianism to manage the consequences of the economic crisis. The incidence of tax revolts are growing.

This is all still very far from the situation in the USSR, where after all half the population wasn’t even Russia whereas the US is a nationally homogeneous nation. Nonetheless, the trends are ominous. There is no visible horizon to the end of the economic crisis, and even as late as 1989 no Soviet republic except the Baltics wanted out.

1) Economist Willem Buiter believes there will be a global dumping of $ assets within two to five years. Financial advisor James West writing in SeekingAlpha believes a US debt default and dollar collapse are “altogether likely”. Russia fund investor Eric Kraus has been lamenting the unsustainability of American disbalances for years and predicted the US will fall into a debt trap last November. The economist Nouriel Roubini, one of the few to have foreseen this crisis, predicts this recession will be far longer and deeper than any other post-war recession. Even the Economist mentioned the possibility of a US debt-and-currency crisis in one of its recent issues.

Dmitri Orlov explicitly compares the US to the USSR, and concludes that the collapse will be worse, at least in social terms, in the former. The Russian economist Mikhail Khazin predicts a 25-40% drop in American GDP. Future and trends analyst Gerard Celente, who succesfully predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, now foresees an unprecendented fall in US economic output, tax rebellions and food riots. Russian professor Igor Panarin sees disintegration and civil war as soon as this year.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.