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 Russian Reaction Blog / Nuclear WeaponsTeasers

I once wrote a long article about a Korean War II.

But this one chart tells essentually the same tale.

korean-military-balance

I suspect it will be a harder nut to crack than Iraq in 2003, or even 1991. It is an ultranationalist (not a Communist) regime with a formidable secret police, so you’re not going to be buying any generals off. North Koreans have higher IQs than Iraqis (so more competent), do not practice inbreeding (so more cohesive), and a have a lot more hills, mountains, and tunnels (which partially negate South Korean/American technological predominance).

Still, the gap is too vast for the ultimate result to be in doubt. (Unless China gets involved. Then things get complicated.)

And this is why it’s isn’t going to happen.

I do think that Kim Jong Un enjoys the good life, as do the elites he’s fostered in Pyongyang the past decade – according to Andrey Lankov, one of the foremost experts on North Korea, living standards are now far higher than during the grim 1980s or the dismal 1990s – and would prefer to keep things that way. If there is a limited strike on Nork nuclear facilities in the coming days, I doubt we will see anything more substantial than outraged rhetoric.

China will probably be just fine with that. There is very little love lost between Kim Jong Un and the current Chinese leadership. Xi Jinping recently noted that whereas his father had visited China four times, the son had yet to do so, which is a rather open criticism by demure Chinese standards. This was understandable, since Kim Jong Un has spent the last few years suppressing pro-Chinese factions in his country, including members of his own family (executed uncle, assassinated half brother). I suspect the Chinese are fine with Kim Jong Un receiving a demonstrative slapdown, and wouldn’t mind seeing his nuclear program set back a few years. After all, Beijing is considerably closer to Pyongyang than is Tokyo, to say nothing of Honolulu, and there is no telling what North Korea would do in a truly serious future crisis.

Why not get Donald “I Make the Best Deals” Trump to give Kim Jong Un a good beating, especially when he’s also offering to throw in some excellent trade deals for free. It’s a bargain!

 

Here:

“Nuclear weapons should be completely prohibited and destroyed over time to make the world free of nuclear weapons,” Xi said, according to an official translation.

There’s just a few problems:

(1) In a world without MAD, China will eventually become an unrivalled military hegemon, by dint of its unrivalled industrial capacity.

(2) Of more immediate pertinence, does this include the couple thousand plus nuclear warheads that China might have tucked away in its 2,500km network of underground tunnels?

karber-chinese-nukes This was the theory proposed by Phillip Karber and his students in a 2011 study [big pdf], which analyzed Chinese fissile materials production and concluded that its nuclear arsenal was an order of magnitude bigger than claimed – perhaps 3,000 warheads.

There’s been a lot of criticism of Karber’s methodology, but its worth pointing out that around the same time, the former head of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, Viktor Yesin, came out with very similar figures. In a 2012 article for a Moscow military think-tank (pp. 25), Yesin posited China could have some 1,600-1,800 warheads.

This would be a pretty clever strategy on the part of the Chinese – quietly build up nuclear parity with the US and Russia, then strike up a progressive pose to build up stress cred with American leftists and “civilized” Yuropeans who will push for disarmament with gusto now that the Oval Office will be occupied by someone whom they view as a crazed General Ripper character.

This seems to be a concrete strategy the Chinese have adopted. They are now also talking a lot more about their love for renewable energy, their respect for small nation sovereignty, and about how Trump is a big fat ignorant idiot in general, all topics bound to resound well with the besuited latte-sipping IYI class of D.C., New York, and Brussels.

Most conveniently, the Americans might even take Russia along for the ride. Not only has nuclear disarmament traditionally focused around the Russia-US relationship, but Trump has also gone back on his old promise to upgrade the US nuclear arsenal, and is now linking the removal of Russia sanctions to nuclear downsizing.

A US with fewer or no nukes sees only a modest hit to its relative global power, at least in the medium-term, before the arrival of Chinese primacy.

But a Russia with far fewer or no nukes becomes a sidenote to world politics, and the Chinese threat to its Far East – currently entirely fictive – becomes quite germane.

I am by no means a Sinophobe, and as a country that practices realism, it is perfectly understandable for China to be doing what it is.

But it also has to be acknowledged that a world in which the US and Russia disarm while China potentially retains a huge, hidden nuclear complex will be a more dangerous and undesirable one. Now that China is beginning to stake out an “activist” position on this issue, it would be well warranted – before the beginning of any further serious talk about nuclear disarmament – to devote much more serious publicity and research to clarify whether Karber’s and Esin’s theories on the true size of China’s nuclear arsenal are, in fact, correct.

If it emerges that they do in fact have merit, then all future nuclear discussions must become a trilateral affair.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: China, Nuclear Weapons 

Another (possibly abortive) North Korean nuclear test, another round of hyperbolic headlines about how Kim Jong Un is going off his rockers. Admittedly, this is an impression North Korea’s state media – perhaps the closest approximation we have to a Real Life troll – is always happy to feed.

But hystrionics aside, the reason for North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrant can be encapsulated in one graph, using my Comprehensive Military Power index.

korean-military-balance

Throughout the 1970s to early 1980s, North Korea had substantial military preponderance over South Korea, although even then it had no realistic chance of making a breakthrough due to the US presence. Their two lines converged by the waning years of the Cold War. After the withdrawal of Soviet support and the collapse of the North Korean economy, the military balance swung sharply and irrevocably in favor of the South, to the extent that South Korea by itself is now approximately four times as powerful even as it spends a mere 2.5% of its GDP on the military (the figure for North Korea is unknown but might be around 20%). Add in the US presence and the discrepancy becomes all the more extreme.

Recall that due to the exponential nature of Lanchester’s Laws even modest differences in force ratios will, all else equal, result in increasingly crushing victories for the more powerful faction. As such, the goals of North Korea’s prodigal militarization have long shifted from entertaining scenarios in which they could conveivably “win” to merely keeping the costs of South Korean/US preemptive aggression sufficiently high as to forestall them. But this is a race which they cannot win, and indeed, have constantly been slipping behind in.

Maintaining a huge army, which amongst other things has to man the ~10,000 artillery pieces in hardened dugouts close to the DMZ which are to flatten Seoul in the first hours of conflict, is a very expensive and suboptimal security solution. If you can get a nuclear bomb, or ten, to fulfill essentially the same deterrant function, then hundreds of factories can be converted to non-military production and hundreds of thousands of troops can be demobilized back into the civilian economy. This is called “nuclear substitution” in IR theory jargon.

This would fit in well with Kim Jong Un’s demonstrated priorities. Without much fanfare, market relations have been sprouting, and the post-collapse depression has long come to an end. Though this is not saying much, ordinary North Koreans have never lived better; though predictably marked by corruption and rising inequality, today things are vastly better than in the spartan 1970-80s, to say nothing of the famine-wracked 1990s. (This is not just my opinion but that of Andrey Lankov, one of the world’s foremost experts on North Korea).

It appears that Kim Jong Un wants gradual integration into the global economy but only on North Korea’s own terms – not America’s, to be sure, but not China’s either (his uncle thought differently on the latter, which is the ultimate reason why he was executed). It is telling that North Korea’s condition for stopping its nuclear tests is a formal peace treaty with the US. It is probably better to take it as opposed to further sanctions because a better deal isn’t on the horizon. The pursuit of nukes is almost certainly done for this end, as opposed to any bellicose intentions, and its fiery but predictable rhetoric regardless.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Military, North Korea, Nuclear Weapons 

I always thought it weird China had the smallest arsenal of the world’s five NPT nuclear-weapons states. In broad strategic terms, this would make it very vulnerable to the US, especially given the latter’s development of ABM technologies, which would potentially give it the choice of an annihilating first strike.

In late 2009, China went public with the news that it has a 5,000km system of tunnels, known as the Underground Great Wall (地下长城). This did not get much attention in the West apart from a small article at Jamestown, until a student group at Georgetown University compiled a long report on the 2nd Artillery Division’s tunnels which got wide coverage in the MSM. One of the most critical implications is that the PLA’s nuclear arsenal may well be underestimated by an order of magnitude, numbering about 3,500, with profound consequences for US – Russia disarmament talks. You can read about it, look at photos, or you can watch the video below which has the added bonus of featuring inspiring Chinese patriotic music.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGweDRqj1iU]

The skeptics such as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and FAS* argue that such estimates are alarmist, hurt the case of disarmament, and implausible. China doesn’t have enough highly enriched uranium, and indeed, China’s tunnel system reflects its strategic weakness i.e. the lack of a proper nuclear triad and vulnerability of its land-based forces to an American first strike, hence the need to dig in deep. Project head Karber addresses most of these criticisms, noting that plutonium from civilian reactors hasn’t been converted and remains unaccounted for, and that in any case the Chinese constructed an underground reactor during the Third Front period. As for delivery, missile production isn’t all that technically complex and it is certainly feasible to build them underground far away from prying satellite cameras.

To me the idea that China would have 3,000 as opposed to 300 nuclear weapons sounds far more intuitive. I mean why else would you build so, so many tunnels? Besides, there’s the elementary issue of guaranteeing strategic security, and truly establishing itself as a superpower in nuclear terms, in addition to its already existing prominence in economics and international politics.

Even if one were to disregard this Sino Triumphalist perspective however the photos below will surely be of interest to many China watchers and military buffs.

Digging tunnels.

Beginning to look well-formed.

The workers look very disciplined.

Imagine having a civilization like this at your disposal!

Oh snap what have we here?

The Underground Great Wall, shining bright like a subterranean milky way!

The rail junctures will come in handy if hostile action severs one of the tunnels, in which case the rail car carrying the missile will take another route.

The heroes of the 2nd Artillery division, admiring their work… or more likely wargaming thermonuclear war?

Missile truck emerging from a tunnel portal onto an outdoors launch pad.

* It should also be noted that FAS / The Bulletin have a vested interest in opposing the idea that China has many more nuclear weapons than it admits to, as (1) it would mean they were very wrong for a long time; and (2) it would torpedo disarmament talks with Russia, as doing so would just mean ceding nuclear primacy to China. That said, also note that on its own website, FAS writes: “due to the emphasis that China has placed on concealment of its special weapons capabilities, it is doubtful whether any other country, perhaps even including the United States, has identified all of China’s special weapons related facilities.”

(Reprinted from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 

The recent sinking of a South Korean (ROK) corvette, with the probable deaths of several dozen sailors, brings to focus the fraught situation on the Korean peninsula. Now the cause of this incident – North Korean (DPRK) torpedo or tragic accident – is not yet clear. Moreover, the two sides have a long history of border clashes – the current hot-spot over the Northern Limit Line, claimed by the ROK but disputed by the DPRK, has already seen three armed clashes in 1999, 2002, and 2009. The Korean War never really ended (the DPRK actually withdrew from the 1953 Armistice in 2009), and the North has pursued a strategy of periodically ratcheting up tensions to extract concessions from South Korea and the US. So this latest near-crisis is neither unexpected nor exceptionally destabilizing. As with the Cold War nuclear standoff, though the chances of any one trigger setting off an escalation to all-out war are small, they do accumulate over time.

Welcome to North Korea!

The Democratic People’s Republic is, as is well known, neither democratic (elections are fixed), popular (it is run by a small clique), or even a republic (Kim Jong-il succeeded his father Kim Il-sung to become “Supreme Leader”, and his son Kim Jong-un is slated to take over in 2012). Its political economy is essentialy based on the Asiatic mode of production – “held in thrall by a despotic ruling clique, residing in central cities and directly expropriating surplus from largely autarkic and generally undifferentiated village communities” (Martin & Wigen, 1997). These surpluses are used to buy the loyalties of the ruling elites who plan the DPRK’s self-sufficient economy (Juche) and uphold the “military first” (Songun) policy, as a result of which the DPRK is by far the most militarized state in the world – around 5% of its population are in the Korean People’s Army, on which the state has lavished a third of its entire gross product since the 1970′s. What emerges is an apotheosis of industrial totalitarianism, a “hermit kingdom” that manages to develop ballistic missiles and nukes, but can’t even feed its people – permanent dearth occasionally dips into outright famine, such as in 1995-98 when around 12% of its population starved to death.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that the DPRK is weak or unstable. Though its system of personal rule is brittle, a combination of coercion and legitimizing propaganda suppresses popular uprisings from below and open struggles amongst the elites. Consumer poverty has not preempted the sustenance of a 1.1mn-strong military, with some NBC capabilities, that is nearly twice the size of its southern adversary (not only in manpower, but also tanks, artillery pieces, warships, and fighters). This military buildup serves two complementing imperatives of the regime – 1) preserve the political dominance of the ruling elites centered around the Kim dynasty and upper echelons of the Party and military-industrial complex, and 2) pursue Kim Il-sung’s policy of “reunification through military force under DPRK conditions” that consitutes the legitimizing basis of the regime’s permanent war economy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FJ6E3cShcVU

["Welcome to North Korea" documentary about the extent to which the Kim family's personality cult has taken over society].

Contrary to popular opinion, the North Korean regime is essentially stable. It survived its baptism of fire in 1950-53, the collapse of the Soviet Union (and of its subsidies) in the early 1990′s, and a devastating famine in 1995-98. It is merely authoritarian regimes, like Iran or China, which tend to be the most unstable. On the other hand, North Korea is a throughly totalitarian society, in which all information about the outside world is limited and dissenting voices are sent off to vast political prisons. Though hardship, dearth, and black markets may undermine the DPRK, there is always China to provide a last bulwark against disintegration. China has no interest in seeing the DPRK collapse, since doing so 1) may unleash a destabilizing flood of refugees and 2) much more importantly, its successor state will probably align with, or be absorbed by, South Korea, which is a regional rival and a firm ally of the US. The Chinese will do everything in their power to avoid a scenario in which a united Korean peninsula points like a dagger into their heartlands. Hence, as long as the DPRK’s rulers are united in their will to perpetuate the system, it will not collapse of its own accord.

This simple equilibrium, however, is complicated by outside Powers and the DPRK’s strategic culture. As Nicholas Eberstadt notes, North Korea is “deeply dissatisfied with the current configuration of the international chessboard and fundamentally committed to transforming it”, and the pursuit of nuclear weapons is one way to further these objectives. First, they help the regime legitimize itself domestically. Second, they are believed to deter South Korea and the US from launching preemptive strikes (senior figures in the DPRK have acknowledged outright that the example of Iraq is a great incentive to acquire nuclear arms).

Third, some elements of the Korean leadership may believe that nukes would deter the US and Japan from interfering in a renewed Korean War. Though the DPRK must realize their technological inferiority before South Korea, they may believe that in the absence of US reinforcements and airpower, their own advantages in sheer mass, special forces and infiltration, and NBC weapons may enable them to break through the DMZ and overrun the South. Unlikely? Maybe. But North Korea’s penchant for brinkmanship and unclear level of rationality means that the possibility must not be discounted. Really, all it takes is one low-level hothead to unfreeze the Korean War.

There is no question that North Korea is, if not planning, at least actively preparing for war. Despite its permanent economic hyper-depression, military mobilization remains as high as ever. Nationalism is cultivated, the South portrayed as a “puppet” of American imperialism. North Korea’s side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has 500-600 SCUD missiles, which can deliver chemical agents, and 11,000 artillery pieces in hardened dugouts, capable of firing up to 500,000 rounds per hour. This volume of fire is capable of leveling much of Seoul, potentially causing hundreds of thousands of casualties (millions if nuclear weapons are used), and severely damaging the first of the South’s three defensive lines. Whereas in 1994 some 45% of Korea’s military manpower was located at the DMZ, by 1998 it had grown to 65% (and 80% of firepower) and more than 70% today. Tunnels have been dug underneath South Korea fortifications and the North boasts a 100,000-strong special forces, the biggest in the world. At least in public, the DPRK unwaveringly believes in its own military superiority.

Preparing for War

Assume the recent naval incident spirals out of control in the next few weeks. I’m not saying it will – that’s very unlikely, based on past precedent – but let’s just assume it. Though North Korea is as opaque as ever, there are indications that domestic crisis is brewing. Recent attempts at currency reform have failed, triggering what may be imminent hyperinflation (the mastermind behind this reform is rumored to have been executed). Furthermore, there are the challenges of the upcoming leadership transition. An increasingly paranoid DPRK leadership, facing the specter of unrest and renewed famine, decides that a war may be the way out of their increasingly untenable predicament. They begin to prepare a blitzkrieg against the South.

Though the military balance on the Korean peninsula was tipped towards North Korea throughout the Cold War, the situation was reversed in the early 1990′s as the ROK acquired new, modern equipment that was no longer needed by NATO on the Central European Plain. Even as South Korea’s economy continued its relentless surge into a leading global position, the North’s collapsed into a hyper-depression from which it has not emerged twenty years later. By 1998 it was estimated that though North Korea had the equivalent of 5 heavy US divisions, compared to South Korea’s 3.75, this slight margin was more than closed when one accounted for the latter’s better logistics, support equipment, and prepared defensive positions (not to mention 37,000 US troops and aeronaval forces). The tables had turned and it is like that by then the South could have defended itself even without outside support.

Fast forward another ten years to today. The North is now slightly better off than it was in the crisis-wracked 1990′s, having transitioned from militarized Marxism-Leninism to militarized neo-feudalism (nowadays, the Party has withered away and it is the Army that runs the economy). The gap between North and South is greater than ever. The ROK is now an advanced industrial economy, with the region’s third most powerful economy and military (behind China and Japan). On the other hand, the DPRK is the apotheosis of the late Industrial Age national security state – it has plenty of tanks, schools, spies, radios, bunkers, patriotic songs, etc, but lacks the information infrastructure that is indispensable for remaining competitive in the Information Age. As long as it retains its Juche system, it will continue slipping ever further behind.

However, one (dis)advantage of being disconnected and living in a personality cult is that you become pretty confident about your own strength. So back to our scenario of North Korea’s war preparations in April 2010. They will conduct a campaign of strategic deception, or maskirovka, to conceal their true intentions. Even as stockpiles of fuel, munitions, and spare parts are built up on the DMZ, relations with the South will appear to be better than ever.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the DPRK has the dubious distinction of being America’s “most watched” country. American reconaissance satellites keep a permanent watch on the hermit kingdom and target lists are continuously updated. The primary concern nowadays is to detect North Korean missiles being prepped and fueled, so that the US is capable of intercepting them before launch if it so chooses. But suspicious signs of the buildup will likely be detected, and confirmed for certain hours, if not days, in advance.

The DPRK’s air defense system is extremely dense, and many artillery positions are concealed and/or hardened. However, the system’s obsolesence makes it ineffective against stealth or high-flying warplanes, and it can be easily jammed by modern electronic countermeasures. Though hardened, the ensuing lack of mobility makes them easy game for the precision-guided bunker busters that the US has in abundance. And it is doubtful that concealment will do the North Koreans much good when any armchair general can identify hidden artillery positions on Google Earth!

Pyongyang has over 150 AAA positions, making it by far the most defended city in the world, though the guns and fire-control radar are of 1950′s/60′s Soviet vintage. Source.

What may happen is that an hour or two before North Korean tanks are slated to begin rolling south, on receiving confirmation of an imminent invasion, the USAF and Korean Air Force will launch massive spoiling attacks on North Korea’s DMZ artillery positions, C&C nodes, airfields, critical infrastructure, and supply depots. Below is one scenario of a “Surgical Air Strike” from the 2003 report Stand-Off with North Korea: War Scenarios and Consequences by two analysts from the Center for Defense Information that gives some idea of the immense significance of US air power.

Six B-2s each armed with 80 500-lb JDAMs sequentially launch from Guam. The strike is coordinated with several divisions of B1-s with 12 JDAMs per aircraft and F-117s with two laser-guided precision-guided weapons per aircraft, taking off from other bases in the region. These strikes would be deconflicted with the launch of more than 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the various cruisers and submarines positioned in the Pacific. Six additional B2s, flying out of their homebase in Missouri, time their arrival closely behind – loaded with 24 1,000lb JDAMs or 16 2,000lb JDAMs. One thousand targets could be destroyed prior to sunrise. This would prepare the battleground for ground forces to rapidly sweep to the North under a protective close air support umbrella of tactical aircraft from two carrier battle groups and other aircraft and assault helicopters in the South.

The F-117 was retired in 2008, but is now being replaced by the much more capable F-22 Raptor. The scenario remains valid. However, it actually referred to a long-planned surgical strike designed to take out the North’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and decapitate its means for artillery retaliation. Obviously, the overall damage will not be as crippling to the North if the US and ROK have advance notice of only a few hours. Nonetheless, America’s bomber forces are at permanent readiness, there is an uninterrupted carrier battle group (CVBG) presence near the Korean peninsula, and the their target lists are always up to date. The preemptive air strikes will substantially weaken the Northern assault given their poor air defense and logistics.

At this point, control of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) of the ROK and the US is transferred onto an American general from Korea. (Though there is an agreement to let South Korea have wartime control from 2012).

Korean War 2.0 – The Tanks roll South

It begins. As North Korean generals become aware that their adversaries have jumped the gun on them, they will order the DMZ artillery to immediately open fire on the South’s first defensive lines, which has 8 out of its 19 divisions, and on Seoul, so as to create a flood of panicked refugees that would clog nearby roads, hampering resupply efforts and reinforcements. There may be initial wave of poor-quality troops (e.g., perhaps conscripted from its 200,000 political prisoners) to clear the minefields and soften up the ROK’s defense lines. Special forces units begin infiltrating the enemy rear, with the help of incursion tunnels beneath the DMZ.

Soon after, the DPRK’s four pre-positioned Army corps begin to move south along the “two major avenues of approach that lead toward Seoul, via Kaesong and Munsan nearer the west coast, and Chor’won and Uijongbu further inland”, as well as smaller operations “along the east coast from Kansong to Sokch’o as well as the Taedong mountains further inland”. Heavily influenced by Soviet military philosophy of the 1970′s-80′s, the North Korean plan is to use infantry supported by armor – emphasizing strategic surprise, mobility, and concentration of firepower, in tandem with special forces operations in the enemy’s rear – to rapidly overrun the South’s defense lines and reunify the peninsula “under DPRK conditions” within 30 days, before the ROK can fully mobilize or bring in heavy American reinforcements.

North Korean attack plan. Source.

North Korean attack plan. Source.

The breakthrough will be very hard for the KPA to accomplish, since they will face multiple prepared, unbroken, and amply manned defense lines across the DMZ. They will be continuously reinforced by an allied operational reserve that includes the US 2nd Infantry Division and two of the three South Korean mechanized divisions. A rapid North Korea breakthrough is very unlikely – historically, “advance rates were rarely more than four to five kilometers a day… when armies in World War II tried to drive through prepared defenses”.

As noted previously, the war will be very costly, in both blood and dollars. In 1994, when war seemed imminent, senior US military leaders estimated that in the first ninety days there would be “52,000 US military personnel killed and wounded, along with 490,000 South Korean military casualties… as well as ‘enormous’ DPRK and civilian casualties”. Furthermore, up to 80,000-100,000 American citizens could be killed, the war would cost the US 100bn $, and “the destruction and interruption of businesswould cost a trillion dollars to the countries involved and their immediate neighbors”. And this assumed that North Korea didn’t go nuclear, in which case costs would rise by another order of magnitude.

This was back in 1994. Sixteen years later, South Korea and the US have greater potential for minimizing their casualties thanks to technological developments, such as the following:

The United States has been working upon this problem for some years, and an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) was mounted on the Peninsula in 1996-97 for this very purpose. The Precision/Rapid Counter – Multiple Rocket Launch ACTD, completed in 1997, apparently successfully developed and demonstrated all weather, day/night “precision deepstrike capability” to neutralize the rocket launchers and heavy artillery deployed north of the DMZ.

Whatever the costs of the war, however, it is almost certain that North Korea will fail to attain its objectives. Given the much better equipment, training, surveillance assets, and battlespace knowledge of the Combined Forces, as well as the parlous state of the North Korean military (e.g. its fighter pilots only get 10 hours of training per year, as opposed to 200+ hours for American pilots), its antiquated weapon systems (e.g. the main North Korean battle tank is based on the Soviet T-62), and its economic base (only has enough fuel reserves to sustain operations for 2-3 months), there is little doubt that South Korea will hold its defensive lines. Perhaps a few vanguard KPA detachments will penetrate to within sight of Seoul’s suburbs – where they will be bewildered at the puppet state’s relative prosperity – but that is the best that North Korea can realistically expect.

What if North Korea uses tactical nukes to break through the South Korean defense lines, similar to some Warsaw Pact plans for the conquest of Western Europe? This is a possibility, though not a particularly high one. Both DPRK nuclear tests “fizzled”, i.e. they were unsuccessful, indicating that their nuclear devices are quite primitive and not properly weaponized. (Building a nuclear device is pretty easy, making it reliable and mating it to a robust delivery system is the hard bit). This does not bode well for them given that most estimates indicate that the North only possesses a dozen or so bombs. More importantly, any offensive use of nukes by the DPRK will likely be met by a devastating response from the US; certainly that is the case if they manage to strike Japan or Hawaii (though that is a very remote prospect given that DPRK missiles are liquid-fueled, easily-detectable, and take a few days to “prep”, making them sitting ducks for the USAF). So despite the rhetoric, the DPRK is only probably going to “go nuclear” when it begins to feel it is losing – for instance, in a last-ditch attempt to seize Seoul before the South launches a strong counter-offensive with American reinforcements, or by “nuclear mining” the road to Pyongyang .

“Given the mass of combat power the U.S. and South Korea have available, both in forward stationed forces and in reserve, exposed invasion forces that became slowed or halted would be in dire straits from the defense lines in front of them and to their flanks, as well as indirect fire from artillery”. The Combined Forces will rapidly achieve full air superiority over the North Koreans, and will be able to inflict a lot of damage with minimal interference. US reinforcements will pour in by sea and air, and advance elements of heavy divisions will appear by Day 30. This will set the ground for the third phase of the war – the conquest and destruction of the DPRK as a political entity.

Korean War 2.0 – The March to Pyongyang

The allied war plan, Operations Plan 5027, calls for a “regrouping phase after halting the initial invasion” (expected within 7-10 days of the start of the North Korean offensive), around the “layered defense lines north of and around Seoul”, to be followed by a full-scale counteroffensive whose ultimate objective is Pyongyang and the reunification of the peninsula under the Republic of Korea. This invasion will be preceded by heavy B-1 and B-52 bombardment before the allied advance and the use of amphibious Marine operations to “cut the DPRK’s narrow band in two”.

This advance is expected to encounter fierce resistance. Practically every adult in North Korea has military training and the country has been devoting the bulk of its resources to defense since the 1970′s. Finally, much of the North Korean terrain is mountainous and less favorable to America’s hi-tech assets than the flat deserts of Iraq. Below is a summary of the views of one Chinese military analyst, Zhen Xi, writing in the 1990′s, on how he believes North Korea can defend itself.

NORTH KOREA CAN DEFEAT AMERICA

Chinese military authors also appear to devalue the effectiveness of U.S. forces in a future Korean scenario. According to a colonel at AMS, several factors ensure U.S. defeat “if in the next few years a Korean War erupted.” His main points are:

  • The United States will not have 6 months to deploy and train forces. Instead, “the Korean People’s Army will surprise attack South Korean air bases, ports and communication lines.”
  • “U.S. casualties will not be as low as in the Gulf War. . . . On the Korean peninsula, the population is dense, with river networks and mountains, roads are few, unsuitable to armor . . . casualties will be extremely high.”
  • “North Korea’s mountains are wrapped in clouds and mist; it will be difficult for the U.S. Air Force and high-technology weaponry to give full play to their vast superiority.”
  • Temperatures of negative 40 degrees centigrade “provide excellent conditions” for guerilla warfare.
  • North Korea will not allow the United States to land in the rear.
  • U.S. forces lack numerical strength. During the Korean War, U.S. troops reached over 400,000, but the result was not victory. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the Vietnam War American forces were 663,000 and had great technical superiority, but the result also was defeat. U.S. forces in year 2000 will be 70 percent of today.

These are all more-or-less valid points, but there are a number of caveats that must be taken into account in such an analysis.

First, it should be borne in mind that the bulk of the military mass will now be provided by South Korea, which has around 5mn men in the reserves and a massive industrial base of its own. The most important US contribution will be its surveillance and reconaissance capabilities, air and naval power, and amphibious operations. Such a single-minded emphasis on the US is misplaced.

Second, whereas in the 1980′s the KPA was a motivated and able force, it is far from clear whether that is still the case. There are numerous reports of metastasizing corruption within the DPRK reaching to the highest levels of government. As happened in 2003 Iraq, it may even be possible to bribe some North Korean generals into non-interference or surrender.

Third, likewise it is not at all clear that the general North Korean population will willingly fight for the regime, at least not with the fanatic zeal one sees in DPRK propaganda. Yes, the hermit kingdom remains, by and large, a very closed society. However, hundreds of thousands have emigrated into China, and millions have now been exposed to videos of life in South Korea. Since the early 2000′s, VCR’s have become accessible to better-off North Koreans, along with black-market DVD’s of South Korean dramas and films. Observers report a (relative) relaxation of social controls – not for lack of effort, but simply because the resources available for surveillance have plummeted along with everything else – and increasing disillusionment with the government.

Fourth, another very important thing is that the DPRK’s fertility rate has been at or below the replacement level rate of 2.1 children per woman since the 1990′s. Historically, only high-fertility nations have been able to sustain intense guerilla campaigns or “people’s wars“, since the death of a son is far more tragic – and economically ruinous – when he is your only one. Moreover, most of the troops invading North Korea will be fellow Koreans – yet another disincentive for waging an uncompromising resistance struggle.

Fifth, the importance of the allied technological edge must not be underestimated. When you are losing five or ten soldiers for every one of the enemy’s, the will to fight becomes incredibly sapped. And those are the likely ratios when low-category North Korean units come up against the advancing Combined Forces.

I am not saying that the march to Pyongyang will be like a walk in the park. At least initially, the Korean People’s Army and its military reserves will put up a fight, and as mentioned above, facing the certainty of its own demise, the regime may not shy away from unleashing any nuclear capabilities they may have. Nor are the South Koreans going to be particularly restrained – one authority on the matter informs me that the South Korean officer class hates the Northern elites, and will probably “take no enemies, anyone associated with the party (which means all officers) will be eliminated”. However, there is no way that even a big guerrilla army – poorly trained, logistically-challenged, and armed with antiquated 1950′s/60′s-era Soviet weaponry – will be able to halt the advance of a modern military enjoying advanced space-based surveillance systems and complete air and naval superiority. An eventual Combined Forces victory is assured, unless…

The Specter of Escalation

Crossing the DMZ with the intention of toppling the DPRK and replacing it with a government allied with or integrated into South Korea will put a whole set of new dynamics into play. Though China has no intention of aiding North Korea in aggression, it views the establishment of an American bridgehead on its Manchurian border with trepidation and may intervene under extreme circumstances, such as an all-out American and South Korean drive for “regime change” in Pyongyang.

If this were to happen, all bets are off. China will probably be able to roll back the invasion forces to the DMZ. After all, it managed to do this in the 1950′s, when it was much more militarily backwards relative to the US. Now, it will have a big preponderance over land, while its new “carrier-killing” ballistic missiles, submarines, cruise missiles, and Flanker fighters are now, at some level, able to deny the seas off China to the US Navy, while its anti-satellite tests and cyberwar prowess means that the American dominance in space and information ought not be taken for granted either. Now I am not saying that the People’s Liberation Army comes anywhere close to matching the American military; however, it might well already have the ability to defeat it in a local war on China’s borders. If China is successful, it will re-establish North Korea as its own protectorate, although under someone more rational and reliable than Kim Jong-il (though needless to say this will also completely sever its economic relationship with the US and cause a severe, but temporary, economic contraction due to the collapse of its export sector).

There will be a cascade of consequences elsewhere. Taiwan may use the opportunity to declare independence, provoking a second war in the region. Though the US says that it will not come to Taiwan’s aid if it does this unilaterally, America will probably change its mind if it is simultaneously embroiled in an intense local war with China on the Korean peninsula! Other actors opposed to American hegemony may view this as a chance to undermine the overstretched superpower. For instance, Russia could orchestrate a new war against Georgia and China may even persuade Iran to mine the Strait of Hormuz in exchange for security guarantees and technology transfer. All these dominoes going down may even precipitate the collapse of the increasingly fragile Pax Americana.

But this is all speculation. I will end this article on something a lot more fundamental – the fact that North Korea is running out of time. Having abandoned the aptly-named “sunshine policy” (1998-2008) towards the DPRK, today’s South Korea has ambitious plans for a military modernization designed to achieve full-spectrum superiority over its northern neighbor by 2020. This involves making the ROK Army more network-centric, acquiring top-end ABM and space capabilities, and increasing automization (e.g. gun sentries). North Korea is digging underground to conceal its military assets, but these efforts are in a race against improving bunker-busting bombs and underground imaging technology. On current trends, it is quite likely that by the 2020′s, North Korea will even lose its ability to pose a credible threat to Seoul. Even if, against all odds, the DPRK manages to develop nuclear-tipped, solid-fuel ballistic missiles – i.e., which can be prepped for launch within a few minutes – they will be rendered irrelevant by the proliferation of advanced ABM systems in the Western Pacific. This means that North Korea’s “window of opportunity” to reunify the peninsula is closing fast (if it was ever open in the first place). If it is to have the smallest, non-zero chance of success, it has to strike very soon. Is North Korea’s recent bellicosity and abrogation of the 1953 Armistice mere coincidence?

Now I should stress again that the scenario I have painted is not likely to unfold as I predict. Quite simply, for all its bluster, the North Korean regime may well simply be too fearful of its domestic position, too satisfied with its creature comforts, too post-ideological and disillusioned, to risk undergoing the ultimate trial of its own strength and intelligence – war. But it is not impossible.

(Reprinted from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 

This post is about the future of military technology and war strategy in a world of informatization, resource scarcity, and renewed ideological turbulence. Be forewarned: while some of what I write here corresponds to the conventional wisdom, some is well off the beaten tracks, and some will sound like it’s straight out of a sci-fi dystopia.

The post-Cold War era was, for many, a lovely time. As the Soviet Union imploded, so did the risks of mutual destruction in a global thermonuclear war. At the end of history, the conventional wisdom now regarded rogue states, loose nukes, and transnational terrorists as the main challenges to the brave new world created by globalization. As Thomas P.M. Barnett argued in The Pentagon’s New Map, the primary challenge faced by the US military would no longer consist of planning for a traditional Great Power war with its erstwhile socialist foes, Russia and China. Instead, it would be wiser to focus on policing and “civilizing” the equatorial belt of instability known as the “Gap” – the impoverished, conflicted region stretching roughly from Central America through Africa and the Eurasian Dar al-Islam – in cooperation with fellow stakeholders in stability like Europe, China, India, Russia, and Japan.

However, one of the main assumptions of this blog is that this state of global affairs will not last, if it was ever really valid in the first place. First, many people in the pre-1914 era – an older golden age of globalization and shared international values – also believed that technical progress and increasing interconnectedness had made war obsolete, or at least unbearably damaging if it were to continue for any longer than a few months. They would be disillusioned by the First World War, the genesis of modern total war. Second, the international system today is unstable amidst the shifting winds of change, characterized as it is by a faltering US hegemon beset by challengers such as an expansionist Iran, a resurging Russia, and a robust China intent on returning to its age-old status as the Celestial Empire. Third, peak oil production, probably reached in 2008, is but one of the first harbingers of our Limits to Growth predicament – in the decades to come, the world’s grain belts will begin to dessicate, high-quality energy sources will become depleted, and ever more human effort under the knout of state coercion will have to be requisitioned to sustain industrial civilization against the mounting toll of energetic shortages, climatic disruption, and system instability.

The weak states will fail, while the strong – the US, China, Russia, France, Turkey, Japan, Germany, etc – will bunker down within their new fortress-empires, both physically and psychologically. Facing social pressures, economic decline, and mounting waves of eco-refugees, their philosophers will invent new totalitarian ideologies, defined by a reaction against rationalism. It is not unreasonable to posit that their adherents will take over at least one of the major poles in the future international system, thus creating the specter of the Last War of industrialism. I will look at future war based on these fundamental assumptions: the return of history, the harsh realities of the geopolitics of scarcity industrialism, and the system strains and rising chaos that will form the prelude to global collapse.

Before we start, a few disclaimers. I have no professional or academic knowledge of military affairs, just a sense of curiosity and propensity to look ahead. Hence don’t be surprised if some ideas are totally off the ball to those in the know (though I would like to point out that the two best forecasters of what the next war would be like prior to 1914 happened to be amateurs – Ivan Bloch, a Warsaw financier, and Friedrich Engels, the social theorist). Second, I won’t be making any specific predictions – just a general overlook. Third , I won’t only be considering the low intensity conflicts typical of today, such as the unending war against terrorism or “gunboat” / policing actions like the invasion of Iraq. The prospect of a total war, fought between the leading military-industrial Powers (e.g. the US, China, Russia, etc), is treated as a serious scenario.

Finally, perhaps the most necessary disclaimer is that I do not personally wish for World War Three – although I enjoy perusing weapon system specs and reading historical narratives on the subject as much as the next person, I’m a much bigger fan of All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque) than of Germany and the Next War (Friedrich Von Bernhardi). And now that that’s gotten out of the way, let’s return to the future…

I have no professional or academic knowledge of military
affairs, just a sense of curiosity and propensity to look ahead. Hence don’t be surprised if
some ideas are totally off the ball to those in the know. Secondly, I won’t be making any
specific predictions – just a general overlook.

The Military Balance, Today and Tomorrow

The primary reality of the current military situation is US military dominance – it is the world’s leading superpower possessing a full panoply of military capabilities unmatched by any other Great Power. In particular, it has 75% of the world’s military naval tonnage (including almost all the aircraft carrier groups and amphibious ready groups) backed up by the most advanced space surveillance system and C4ISR capabilities. As such, US power projection capabilities are second to none. The US Navy is one of the three pillars of the the system of “neoliberal internationalism” supported by Pax Americana (the others are cheap oil and the $), whose strategic value was demonstrated by the takeover of Iraq and its relatively little-exploited oil reserves in a likely futile bid to postpone peak oil.

The US is also at the forefront of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) – a theory of future war placing stress on concepts such as robust networking; deep systems integration; precision strikes; high-bandwidth p2p information sharing; shared battlespace awareness; self-synchronization; space-based surveillance; decentralized C&C; swarming, etc (see Power to the Edge by Alberts and Hayes, 2003). The surveillance, precision, and optimization capabilities unlocked by its interconnectedness and dominance of space give the US military a power multiplier unparalleled by that of any other nation, allowing it to defeat non-networked forces fighting on linear principles with ease.

However, US military power is afflicted by a number of problems and adverse trends – a defense death spiral, an uncertain fiscal future, the development of asymmetric and “assassin’s mace” counters, and challenges from the Chinese industrial powerhouse and a resurgent, energy-rich Russia. Thus I am very skeptical as to the US ability to keep its decisive military lead far beyond 2020.

By that time, the US would have very likely been overtaken by China in terms of real GDP, which would by then possess an extremely potent technical-industrial base. China’s mercantile ambitions in a world of “scarcity industrialism” (characterized by aggressive competition for resources), in tandem with the precipitous decline of American power, will give China the impetus to effect a rapid military “breakout” in an attempt to catch up to and surpass US capabilities. China used the 2000′s to build up a “string of pearls” network of naval bases on its offshore islands and friendly nations like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan so as to be able to protect its long, vulnerable coast and energy supply routes. It is now in the midst of a massive naval expansion that could see the PLA Navy surpass the USN by number of military vessels within the decade. Furthermore, the conventional wisdom of Chinese technological inferiority is gradually becoming outdated thanks to its efforts in military R&D and industrial espionage. A recent RAND study indicated that China is already be able to establish air superiority over Taiwan in the event of a hot war over the straits, and elements of the PLA believe they will be able to pose a direct military challenge to the US by 2020.

While Russia’s GDP cannot conceivably approach that of the US on any meaningful timescale, Kremlin dreams of economic modernization may yet be realized, and in any case Russia is fully capable of leveraging its energy wealth to reconstitute and modernize its dormant military-industrial potential. As of today, it is implementing a major military reorganization and modernization, most recently displayed by its demonstration of the PAK-FA “Firefox” prototype, the first 5th-generation fighter produced outside the US. Russia’s fundamental energy and food security, as well as its comparative immunity to the malign effects of climate change (it will actually benefit from AGW, at least for moderate rises in temperature) will enable it to achieve the high per capita surpluses necessary to compete effectively with otherwise larger and wealthier blocs.

India’s socio-economic and human capital lags China’s by several decades. However, it does enjoy better ties with both Russia and the West, which can be and are translated into military-technical cooperation. Assuming it can stave off stagnation and Malthusian crisis, it may evolve into a potent check on Chinese expansion into the Indian Ocean, especially if allied with Japan and Korea in the east. Speaking of which, Japan is technologically advanced and is acquiring potent naval, space and ABM capabilities under US patronage. However, the aging of its population and its almost total dependence on imported energy and raw materials severely curtail its ability to play an independent role, and its strategic vulnerability means that Japan will be eclipsed as soon as the PLA Navy equalizes with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

The European Union can become a major military power, but only if it acquires a common foreign policy and streamlines military procurement and R&D. However, in the long-term meaningful European integration is unlikely to survive under the strain of economic stagnation, energy insecurity, rapid aging, and collapsing welfare states. Brazil will achieve military hegemony in South America and the South Atlantic, but will remain a regional power with few global ambitions.

Finally, the nuclear weapons sphere is dominated by the US and Russia, both of which maintain a robust nuclear triad with thousands of warheads. Although Russia’s capability degraded after the Soviet collapse, it is now being revamped at an accelerating rate (as is the rest of its military). Though it is decisively outmatched by the US and by now probably also China in conventional terms, as long as Russia retains its vast nuclear arsenal, it also retains full strategic immunity from encroachment by China or other resource-hungry Powers (at least as long as the latter do not have access to effective BMD). After the two nuclear superpowers come France, Britain, China, and Israel, each possessing hundreds of warheads and a more limited set of delivery systems. Finally, although formally against nuclear weapons, there exist “virtual nuclear weapons states” like Japan, Germany and Italy that could, if they embarked on crash programs, build up massive, robust nuclear arsenals within a decade.

The Promise and Peril of BMD

Since the 1950′s, nuclear weapons have been the ultimate guarantors against the resumption of Great Power wars. However, this may cease to be the case a decade or two down the line, when effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems are developed. When they become effective and universalized across the world’s Great Powers, the utility of MRBM and ICBM forces – and to a lesser extent, of submarine and strategic bomber nuclear forces – will be severely undermined. The deterrence system based on mutually assured destruction (MAD) that arose during the Cold War will come to its demise, and so will the realist checks on international aggression that emerged out of it.

Today, the US has a commanding lead in BMD technologies, with four mature technologies operational or nearly so (though around two dozen other countries are seriously pursuing BMD programs, with Russia, China, Israel, India, and Japan being particularly advanced). Below I summarize each one, before outlining the course of future developments.

Aegis/Standard Missile-3 (SM-3): Proven anti-satellite system, intercepts ballistic missiles during parts of ascent and descent phases, and is already deployed on 18 USN guided-missiles destroyers and cruisers and 2 Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force warships.

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD): Mobile truck-based system capable of ballistic missile interception in the final midcourse descent and in its terminal phase, both endo and exo atmosphere; it has performed successfully in recent tests.

Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3): A terminal-phase intercept system (like the Russian SA-10 / S-300), it has been given the baptism of fire during the Gulf War. It performed poorly, but since then 20 years have passed and it is now far more capable. The system has recently been installed in Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar and Oman, along with BMD-capable USN warships in the Persian Gulf, in a message to Iran.

Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD): A fixed, silo-based system for the midcourse phase, as implied by the name. It is a mature technology and installations exist in Fort Greely, Alaska and Vanderburg, California – more than enough to contain any ballistic missile threat from North Korea, and by now perhaps even enough to neutralize China’s “minimal” nuclear arsenal. US attempts to expand it to Central Europe have caused major frictions with Russia – not because Russia actually fears it in a military sense, but because it hopes to use it as a bargaining chip with the US elsewhere.

This array of systems gives the US a multi-tiered, overlapping BMD capability. However, there is pressure for developing boost phase intercept capabilities, because midcourse and terminal interception may need to deal with decoys, MIRV, and other countermeasures. One interesting idea is the Airborne Laser (ABL), which is mounted on a modified Boeing-747 airliner. It can be used to shoot down ballistic missiles in boost phase and even satellites in low-earth orbit. It has recently had its first successful test.

Two common objections to BMD are that it is 1) technologically ineffective – along the lines of “you can’t hit a bullet with another bullet”, and 2) far too expensive to be fielded in quantities sufficient to deter anyone but backwards “rogue nations” like North Korea or Iran. Both are invalid.

Calculating an ICBM’s ballistic trajectory is easy, if you understand Newtonian mechanics, so in theory the interceptor missile doesn’t even need an autonomous guidance system to achieve a kill. In principle, a reliable BMD system was possible even from the 1950′s, albeit it was only under Reagan that the US acquired the strategic focus to begin seriously working on it. (The USSR did have a working BMD system from the 1970′s defending Moscow, though the interceptor missile relied on a nuclear blast to ensure reliability). However, following the end of the Cold War the US dropped its “Star Wars” program, and has since focused on ostensibly easier objectives such as guaranteeing itself from attacks by “rogue states” with emerging long-range missile capabilities. In this it has been successful, with each layer of its global BMD system now predicted to have a kill rate of 90%+.

Now about cost. By far the biggest expense, around 90%, is incurred in the construction of the Missile Defense Ground Environment (MDGE) – the sensors, C&C networks, launchers, maintenance depots, supply chains, etc. The missiles themselves are rather cheap, coming in at 10% or less. Therefore, once the MDGE is ready, “thickening” the missile screen is relatively easy and inexpensive. So once the US has established a firm shield against nations like North Korea, it would then, in principle, be able to effect rapid “breakout”, in which it massively increased the numbers of missile interceptors to make itself invulnerable to China or even Russia before they can respond by increasing by increasing their offensive missile forces. (This calculus also applies in reverse: building the Offensive Missile Ground Environment (OMGE), such as airfields for bombers, SSBN’s for SLBM’s, and silos for ICBM’s, is much more expensive than the actual missiles).

This implies that even with today’s BMD technologies, creating a massive, multi-layered missile shield that could render a Russia-sized nuclear arsenal is neither infeasible nor prodigiously expensive for the US. And again, I should emphasize that this is not limited to the US. More than two dozen countries are seriously pursuing missile defense, either directly or as partners. Many of them should start coming online by 2015, and will have proliferated to the extent of making traditional ICBM’s largely obsolete by 2025.

The other two legs of the nuclear tripod, SSBN’s and strategic bombers, will then have to shoulder more of the burden. No wonder that Russia is so desperate to get the advanced Bulava SLBM working, as well as resuming production of the Tu-160 strategic bomber and developing the next-generation PAK DA. The US has much more ambitious goals in mind with the concepts of a “Blackswift” hypersonic global strike bomber… which although repeatedly canceled, refuses to really die. Needless to say, China too is working along similar lines, albeit they yet have major technological hurdles to overcome.

But BMD will continue to evolve too. There’s the rapid developments in laser technology, which are already becoming militarily usable and might become the primary defense system used by warships. Railguns may become operationally deployable by 2020 in the USN. Finally, there are even more exotic concepts such as the Russian “plasma shield“:

[The plasma shield] 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.

This system would have a longer range than the ABL, be much easier to aim, and cost much less per shot. So the following defensive system can be envisioned as 2040 approaches. Pulse lasers mounted on mobile bio-mechanical constructs providing near-perfect point defense powered by space-based solar power and optimally coordinated by an automated ground environment, and further reinforced by an “iron phalanx” of railguns and older GBI missiles to add redundancy.

Now at this point you may be forgiven for thinking that I’m beginning to go crazy, or have read too much sci-fi. But that is inevitable when projecting as much as 30-40 years ahead. I am fairly confident in the earlier predictions that the maturation of BMD technologies will make the ICBM increasingly irrelevant within the next two decades. Obviously, there is no certainty whatsoever over DEW-based missile defense, the plasma shield, or especially the military biomechanical constructs. But neither are they totally out of the pale based on historical experience and the research and technology trends in place today.

The Third RMA

Here is a non-technical, almost philosophical definition of the ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs (Strategy and the RMA From Theory to Policy by Metz & Kievit).

During the “First Wave” of human development, production was primarily agricultural, so war sought to seize and hold territory. During the “Second Wave,” industrial production dominated, so war was often a struggle of attrition where belligerents wore down their enemy’s capacity to feed, clothe, and equip armies. Following this logic, “Third Wave” warfare will seek to erode or destroy the enemy’s means of collecting, processing, storing, and disseminating information. Since the more dependent an enemy is on information the more vulnerable it would be to information warfare, this would seem to have potential as a counter to an advanced, peer threat.

As with most spheres of the human existence – the economic base, the class structure, the status of women, etc – the nature of warfare is intrinsically tied to the environment it is fought in. Back when humanity was one with the biosphere, primitive wars were fought within territorially small spaces for a particular ecological niche and were characterized by incredible levels of per capita violence. In the Malthusian, pre-industrial phase of human civilization, war sought to gain territory because in the absence of long-term industrial growth, controlling land and the taxable peasants it supported were the only means of extracting the wealth to support a ruler’s megalothymia (lavich courts, powerful armies, etc). Industrial warfare was sustained by industrial production, so undercutting its material base while expanding your own lay at the heart of any war-winning grand strategy: blockading Imperial Germany’s access to phosphates, bombing Nazi factories to curb the (late and belated) growth of its total war economy, the US containment strategy of economic pressure on the USSR during the Cold War. However, the principles of the First Wave remained valid – actually conquering territory by putting boots on the ground remained indispensable, whereas industrialism provided the means.

From the 1970′s, the world has been on an exponential runway into the noosphere, embodied in the cyberspace that is overspreading the biosphere, just as the biosphere once overspread the geosphere, the bare rock bones of the Earth. This environment is based on information and its creation, manipulation, and destruction, and it will form the defining environment in which future wars are fought. Below is a summary of the defining features of network-centric warfare.

Contrary to most theoretical writings on the subject, the growing significance of information does not mean that the industrial or territorial phase is diminishing into insignificance. The main reason for the surgical cleanliness with which the US won its wars with Iraq was because of the sheer mismatch between a power at the forefront of RMA exploitation and one still firmly rooted in the older industrial age of centrally-coordinated movement and mass (during the Gulf War, the Iraqi military was cripplied early on by the neutralization of its few C&C nodes) – and US network-centric capabilities continue advancing at a blistering pace. As Lt Gen Harry Raduege of the Defense Information Systems Agency noted:

Net-centric warfare’s effectiveness has greatly improved in 12 years. Desert Storm forces, involving more than 500,000 troops, were supported with 100 Mbit/s of bandwidth. Today, OIF forces, with about 350,000 warfighters, had more than 3,000 Mbit/s of satellite bandwidth, which is 30 times more bandwidth for a force 45 percent smaller. US troops essentially used the same weapon platforms used in Operation Desert Storm with significantly increased effectiveness.

However, a total war between two powers exploiting the RMA will prove to be as much a test of systems resilience as previous total wars – not only of their information systems, but of their industrial systems (their resilience, hardening, dispersion, level of optimization of physical throughput, etc) and their agricultural(-industrial) systems. Furthermore, the coercive means for mobilizing the home front opened up by the emerging possibilities of “cybernetic totalitarianism” (electronic surveillance, universal databases, pattern recognition software, ubiquitous propaganda, sousveillance, ultra high-bandwidth wireless networks, etc) are historically unprecedented in their totality. The total wars fought in the cybernetic age have the potential to be far more total than anything seen before. But more on the social aspects of future war later…

The RMA will continue and possibly accelerate, in particular the network-centric warfare component. To repeat the points made above, this basically involves connecting all components of a modern army so as to improve every component’s situational awareness, optimize decision-making and multiply the effective strength even of small units. This goes in tandem with continuing improvements in precision technology, as striking particularly vulnerable enemy nodes is much more damaging than striking with a bigger tonnage but not aimed at anything in particular. All in all, military forces will become much more robust, resilient and intelligent (thanks to the innate crowd wisdom of a more democratic / dispersed decision-making process). Obviously, as Iraq as early as 1991 showed, traditional conventional “linear” armies that are poorly networked will stand as little chance against a well-supplied networked force as the clumsy feudal armies against the Mongols or the Poles against the Nazis in 1939.

However, there are two counters to a networked force – another good networked force, or rather paradoxically, a technologically retrogade dug-in fighters with just AK’s and RPG’s – as the Chechens showed in 1994-96 and Hezbollah demonstrated in 2006, even relatively small numbers of dedicated fighters armed with old-school weapons can blunt the advance of a modern mechanized force. Indeed, their power can become terminal if they have access to EMP’s or the means of taking out or corrupting networked satellites, drones and other surveillance/information systems. A networked force whose computers no longer work is just another ordinary rifle army, presumably also quite a demoralized one.

As Charles Perrow of the National Defense University noted in May 2003:

Our incipient NCW [network-centric warfare] plans may suffer defeat by [adversaries] using primitive but cagey techniques, inspired by an ideology we can neither match nor understand; or by an enemy who can knock out our vulnerable Global Positioning System or use electromagnetic pulse weapons on a limited scale, removing intelligence as we have construed it and have come to depend upon. Fighting forces accustomed to relying upon downlinks for information and commands would have little to fall back upon.

As such, in the case of absolute war between two technologically advanced blocs, the outcome will be determined by the outcomes between these two elements, the hi-tech NCW / “networked” element and the low-tech 4GW / “guerilla” element. However, these elements will inevitable lose their distinctions. The “guerillas” will themselves become networked, while the “networked” will adopt “guerilla” tactics in search of a new, optimal equilibrium. Those who are slow to find this equilibrium, relying either a) too much on small sized networked forces, which although very robust are vulnerable to attacks on critical nodes which will render them helpless, or b) on very low-tech forces that can be annihilated easily by hi-tech forces, will lose.

Weapons of Network-Centric Warfare

Munitions. Three types of ordinance will increase in importance: EMP’s, precision weapons, and fuel-air bombs. Though military C&C nodes can be (and are) hardened against EMP strikes (though the effectiveness of this hardening hasn’t yet been tested under fire), doing the same for the civilian infrastructure is prohibitively expensive. All it takes is one nuclear explosion high up in the atmosphere, and an entire continent can go black. (Needless to say, this will severely affect the enemy’s military-industrial potential). Precision weapons can be used to destroy key enemy C&C nodes without excessive expenditures of energy and firepower, albeit they are no panacea because of the concurrent trends towards dispersion.

In future wars, soldiers and industry will be digging in to conceal themselves from ever better surveillance and much of the fighting will take place in urban areas; fuel-air bombs, or thermobaric weapons, are near optimal when used against tunnels, bunkers, and enclosed spaces. Using nanotechnology, they will be miniaturized into lighter artillery munitions and grenades, giving even low-level platforms like individual soldiers immense destructive power.

Naval. As of today, the aircraft carrier appears to be going the way of the battleship of the 20th century. It appears to be a huge liability – it’s size and profile are so big that it is simply going to get saturated by enemy firepower (supercavitating torpedoes, hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles), no matter it’s defences – the priority will be to avoid being seen. However, the development of all-electric destroyers and cruisers hosting FEL weapons and railguns – especially if they were to be mated with a source of space-based solar power (and assuming said source can be defended) – may mean that the aircraft carrier will remain viable on some level as long as it is protected by its retooled carrier battle group (CVBG). At the very least, it will remain very useful for the kind of gunboat racketeering we are likely to see the Great Powers employ towards militarily-weak, resource-rich nations in the coming age of scarcity industrialism.

Nonetheless, the dominant trend at sea will be towards smaller, lighter, stealthier craft, – increasingly equipped with advanced weapons, optimized for swarm tactics, and preferably submersible. They will be the bane of maritime supply routes, if not the the retooled aircraft carrier battle groups that will be providing fixed point defense (the “iron phalanx”) and power projection capabilities (via VSTOL scramjet drones).

The ekranoplan, a Soviet chimera combining the sea-hovering effects of a hovercraft and the speed of a conventional plane, is likely to make its debut as a new major component in naval warfare. It is very fast, very suitable for transport and can carry a large amount of missiles and other ordnance. Flying low, just about the water, it is largely invulnerable to radar. It will be able to interdict supply routes and launch nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from off the coast of a hostile Power.

Space. Due to the spread of satellite-dependent network-centric warfare, control of space will become ever more important: for communications, surveillance, and electronic spying in low-earth orbit (LEO); comms and navigation constellations like GPS, Glonass, and Galileo in medium-earth orbit (MEO); and Beidou and systems like the US global infrared launch-detection capability in geostationary orbit (GEO).

[Source: Space Security 2007].

Furthermore, it is possible that in the coming decades of resource depletion, space will acquire a new strategic significance because of its potential for space-based solar power (SBSP). The specs indicate that though initial investments will have to be very substantial (though even they can be substantially reduced by constructing a space elevator), the payoffs will be tremendous. Since the Sun shines all the time, space-based solar has both much higher flux and can provide base load power, unlike solar photovoltaics on Earth, the system’s ultimate EROEI will be much higher and may constitute the new energy source to which industrial civilization will try to transition to from its current, unsustainable hydrocarbon dependence. From the National Space Society:

The magnitude of the looming energy and environmental problems is significant enough to warrant consideration of all options, to include revisiting a concept called Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) first invented in the United States almost 40 years ago. The basic idea is very straightforward: place very large solar arrays into continuously and intensely sunlit Earth orbit (1,366 watts/m2), collect gigawatts of electrical energy, electromagnetically beam it to Earth, and receive it on the surface for use either as baseload power via direct connection to the existing electrical grid, conversion into manufactured synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, or as low-intensity broadcast power beamed directly to consumers. A single kilometer-wide band of geosynchronous earth orbit experiences enough solar flux in one year to nearly equal the amount of energy contained within all known recoverable conventional oil reserves on Earth today.

Obviously, this will have great military implications, because armies and navies will be transitioning from fossil fuels to electrical sustenance, because of hydrocarbon depletion, better electric battery technology, and the new emphasis on DEW weapon systems. The energy received by the SBSP installations can be converted to microwave radiation and transmitted down to any military antennas within range.

However, the concurrent proliferation of Earth-based anti-satellite capabilities (blinding by lasers, DEW weapons, etc) will make space denial, in most cases, much easier than space control. The BMD technologies I talked about are essential elements of space denial, since Powers possessing them are capable of blasting satellites out of LEO (the US, Russia, and China have demonstrated the capability) – and with them go the best reconaissance, MASINT, and SIGINT. Furthermore, once you destroy a few satellites, there could be a runaway effect called an ablation cascade which could rapidly clog up the lower-Earth orbits and close it off to human exploitation for a few centuries. Reconaissance would shift towards UAV’s and perhaps more exotic inventions like tiny robotic insects and “nanodust” (not making this up, take a look at DARPA’s plans, the Pentagon’s mad science division that gave us the Internet).

(For now, higher orbits remain safe, such as where GPS resides, though they remain vulnerable to jamming. If successful, the satellite becomes useless. One idea suggested by George Friedman is to construct heavily-defended “Battle Stars” in geosynchronous orbit and move C&C into deep space so that during a war they can continue to direct military forces down below even if (especially if) other satellites and communication networks are incapacitated or destroyed by kinetic kill vehicles, pulsed lasers, EMP’s, particle beam weapons, and whatever other forms of anti-satellite weapons are developed).

There are other exotic avenues of exploration such as wars for the lunar surface, Lagrange points, and over geoengineering projects in space such as a solar sunshade. I do not foresee these becoming overly relevant to military strategy until 2050.

Air Force. The fighter will be displaced by UAV’s, as it limits the range of manoeuvres it can do, and besides, a computer with the appropriate software will execute any operation much better than a human (g forces aren’t an issue with unmanned vehicles). By the 2020′s, we will see the first serious hypersonic scramjet drone prototypes, which will be far more capable of penetrating the thickening air defense shields which will by then be proliferating around the world. Though they will have direct control links, they will also contain autonomous AI programs in case their connection with the human controlled is destroyed or interrupted.

AWACS aircraft will remain essential, providing massively boosted radar coverage and stealth to the friendly aircraft around it. In the case of a big war by the 2040′s, air forces are likely to be made up of: 1) a core of hypersonic strategic bomber drones with advanced armaments including nuclear weapons, 2) a few legacy 5th generation fighters, 3) many cheap, lightly-armed reconaissance UAV’s, and 4) commercial airliners converted to serve as ABL’s, AWACS, and military transports.

Army. Tanks will probably survive in a similar form to today, but they will become smaller, lighter, stealthier, more modular and will lose their human presence. Their overall utility is going to decline in the face of advances in RPG’s; see Chechnya-Russia or Hezbollah-Israel, where small units operating from urban or entrenched positions were surprising successful at checking armored forces.

The biggest changes will occur at the level of the individual soldier. Below is an illustration of US plans for a Future Force Warrior.

They are going to feature: advanced sensors to keep the body comfortable and at homeostasis; helmets showing real-time maps with positions of goodies and baddies (battlespace awareness), excellent networking capabilities, and firearms integration (so you can shoot around corners or over a ditch without exposing your head); an exoskeleton that increases speed and multiplies your strength; advanced body armor and camouflage. In sum, future warriors will experience what is call “augmented reality” and become cyborgs, making them very effective individual weapons platforms. Their “vision” of the battlefield will converge to that of today’s shoot-em-up video gamer, with the major exception that losing HP will have bad, real-life consequences.

The assault rifle will likely remain the standard infantry weapon, because the prospects of developing effective infantry-level laser or “beam” weapons are unrealistic for the foreseeable future. I recommend something along the lines of the innovative Heckler & Koch G11, which uses caseless ammunition, or the FN 2000, which is a pleasure to handle. The lethality of munitions will increase thanks to the likely development of “smart bullets” and munitions of enhanced explosive power (see above).

Medical technology will become much more advanced, including even the regeneration of spinal tissue, which would heal otherwise disabling wounds. This will cause the casualty : KIA ratio to increase further, since so many wounded would be able to rejoin the action.

Finally, one more interesting military development that we may see within twenty years, once 1) bioengineering advances, 2) the costs of DNA sequencing slip further down the Carlson Curve, and 3) artificial womb-like environments are developed (slated to become realizable within the next five years), it may become possible to build bio-mechanical constructs that combine robot endurance and controllability, with biological flexibility and resilience. Cutting edge research is already incorporating the biological features of many lifeforms, which have been optimized for whatever their tasks by evolutionary eons, for commercial exploitation. The military will surely follow suit.

Cybernetic Reprimitivization

What will the numbers be like? Historically, the number of troops in armies has generally increased. This has usually been accompanied by a) increases in state resources and control and b) newer technologies that give a premium effect when diluted amongst the many rather than concentrated amongst a few (e.g. having lots of gunpowder-using units is better than a few elite, cold-steel cavalry units).

For instance, medieval armies were smaller than classical armies, because knights became key actors during the medieval period and as is well known equipping them cost a fortune. On the other hand, improvements in tactics and gunpowder weapons made heavy cavalry no longer economical and it became a better use of resources to equip more with arquebuses than less with warhorses and heavy armor. For all the talk of the death of the nation-state, the flat world, rise of the multinational corporation, etc, the fact remains that historically the state has never been stronger. Some of the European welfare states take more than 50% of GDP in taxes. This is a level that was before only reached during wartime, e.g. the US in WW2. And before the twentieth century even during warfare this percentage fell well short. So, if even today in peacetime and a liberal world order, some states can milk half of a country’s GDP, what can they achieve in conditions of total war?

Some commentators talk about the huge spiral in weapons costs, which will supposedly make total war far too expensive and lead to economic collapse very soon. Firstly, the exact same arguments were made even in the prelude to WW1. Then, few people realized the sheer productive power of a modern industrial complex turned over completely to military purposes. Secondly, with standardization; mass production levels and economies of scale; and optimization between hi-tech and numbers (see above), weapons and networking costs are going to come down a lot, by an order of magnitude.

Other commentators have voiced the opinion that since the US and other advanced industrial nations have in fact become deindustrialized or “hallowed” out, they will not be able to support big production volumes. However, the extent of this deindustrialization should not be exaggerated. US industrial output by physical volume today is no smaller than it was in 1970, the apogee of its industrial phase; it’s just that since then, the main focus of its development has shifted towards services and technological improvements. Much fewer people now work in manufacturing in the developed nations, but this is primarily because labor has been substituted by capital, not because they are producing less. That is actually a positive development from the point of view of waging total war. Less people in the factories equals more people available for service of a more directly military nature, not necessarily in the frontline but also in logistics, transport, construction, etc. In this respect the US is actually in a better position than, say, China. Even better of in this respect are the most capital-intensive nations, like Japan and Germany (though in practice they are weak because they are unable to guarantee their energy supplies).

Now about how the Armed Forces themselves will change. Basically, everything will be about the optimization between quantity and quality. Today, in the US and many other countries, the premium is on quality, since they only expect quick wars against technologically inferior forces like Iraqis or Chechens or Palestinians, and where big losses are politically unacceptable. However, in a total war, even the best networked forces will suffer attritition and rapid annihilation if the systems they rely on are disabled; after that, how do you continue to fight?

This means that future wars will not necessarily be, as imagined by most commentators, affairs involving small, high-tech elite warriors, as was the case in medieval Europe’s focus on knights. To the contrary, they may more resemble a cybernetic “people’s war“, characterized by the networking of hi-tech and guerrilla forces and tactics, strict political control, and cybernetic planning to optimize the resource flows and output of a mobilized war economy.

Women will play much bigger roles. They are physically, on average, perhaps 40-50% weaker than men, so in the age of cold steel they would have been of limited use on a battlefield (plus traditional social mores stood against their active involvement). Today, however, they account for around 10% of the personnel of many of the most advanced armies (albeit mostly in support roles). In WW2, there were around 2 support personnel for every fighter in the US Army in the European theatre. Obviously, there is no reason women cannot be of use in that sphere. They can also participate in the new realm of information war – intelligence analysis, planning, cyberwar, etc.

Another thing is that the premium of physical strength itself is in decline. Equipment is continuously getting lighter. Exoskeletons will make the issue immaterial. Although physically weaker, women are probably no worse and perhaps better than men at aiming and shooting, if Soviet female snipers in WW2 are anything to go by. As such, the next total war will probably see the mass mobilization of women, including for front-line duty. Of course, there remain entrenched social attitudes and men’s proclivity to protecting women. Hence, battalions and lower are unlikely to go mixed. Involving women in such a way will not, of course, guarantee victory; but states which effectively exploit womanpower as well as manpower will somewhat increase their chances of winning.

As noted above, production in a future total war is going to be massive and on a scale dwarfing that seen in the WW2 (when industrial output by volume was about three to four times lower than even today). However, the industrial base is going to become much more vulnerable to hostile disruption and destruction. Massed attacks of hypersonic global nuclear bombers may be able to evade missile defences and drop their deadly nuclear payloads on major industrial concentrations. Ekranoplans can fly close to the enemy coastline and launch cruise missiles at harbors. Likewise, missile defence may not be fully effective against SLBMs.

It is a myth that nuclear war will lead to the extinction of the human race or even the collapse of civilization.

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.

In WW2, bombing significantly disrupted Germany’s war production, both by outright destruction and by forcing production to move to underground, dispersed factories. In modern total war, both sides will thus force the other to curtail their war production. Tragically, the distinction between civilians and military will become even more blurred than in WW2. Perhaps it will vanish altogether.

In the prelude to war, special ops will be carried out on enemy territory. WMD may be smuggled into the nation’s major cities and political centers, so as to execute decapitating strikes at the outset of hostilities. Terrorism will whip up an atmosphere of panic and divert attention from real intentions. In general espionage activities and “maskirovka” will play a more important role than in previous conflicts. War will be waged on many fronts – not only conventional and strategic, but informational, psychotronic, assymetric (involving use of WMD), etc.

One of the most intriguing prospects is climate war. By the 2020′s, the nations of the world will realize that there is no way they can prevent runaway climate change through global emissions reductions, and so geoengineering research will be massively stepped up. Many insights as to how the change the weather and climate will be gained, and it will doubtlessly be adaptable to military purposes. Artificial droughts; regional dimming; triggering of submarine slides (causing tsunamis) and catastrophic release of ocean methane hydrates; geo-techtonic disasters; … all these and more may be exploited. From the book Unrestricted Warfare (see here for html excerpts) by PLA colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui:

Ecological war refers to a new type of non-military warfare in which modern technology is employed to influence the natural state of rivers, oceans, the crust of the earth, the polar ice sheets, the air circulating in the atmosphere, and the ozone layer. By methods such as causing earthquakes and altering precipitation patterns, the atmospheric temperature, the composition of the atmosphere, sea level height, and sunshine patterns, the earth’s physical environment is damaged or an alternate local ecology is created. Perhaps before very long, a man-made El Nino or La Nina effect will become yet another kind of superweapon in the hands of certain nations and/or non-state organizations. It is more likely that a non-state organization will become the prime initiator of ecological war, because of its terrorist nature, because it feels it has no responsibility to the people or to the society at large, and because non-state organizations have consistently demonstrated that they unwilling to play by the rules of the game. Moreover, since the global ecological environment will frequently be on the borderline of catastrophe as nations strive for the most rapid development possible, there is a real danger that the slightest increase or decrease in any variable would be enough to touch off an ecological holocaust.

Finally, there’s also chemical and biological warfare. Their effectiveness is very uncertain, since they have not been widely used in anger (especially in recent decades). Chemical munitions have historically been mostly ineffective, mostly just a psychological weapon, though the most recent generations, novichok nerve agents delived by “binary munitions”, are an unknown quantity.

Potentially far more devastating than chemical weapons, maybe even nuclear weapons, are biological weapons. And you no longer even need a large state-funded efforts like Biopreparat to create lethal biological agents; according to Paul Boutin, just a DNA synthesizer and a few spare millions $ will do. Since bioweapons have the annoying quality that they can eventually “blow back” onto your populations and armies, it is thought that the main threat would come from millennarian terrorist movements. At the moment the world is every bit as vulnerable to biowar / bioterror / bioerror, as it is to a new flu pandemic. Not surprisingly, the main state-backed biowar efforts no longer relate to weaponization, but to biodefense.

Visioning Future War

Another way of imaging future war. Linear, infantry wars fought with rifle armies resembled checkers – relatively simple, one-dimensional, almost intuitive. The “combined arms” / 3rd-generation warfare that saw its apogee in WW2 and Cold War planning for WW3 on the plains of Germany resembled chess – one had to know how to use exploit time and space effectively with a variety of different units (infantry, mechanized, armored, air) to effect critical breakthroughts, encircle enemy units to enable for defeat in detail, and to know how to defend in depth. All of these are of course major elements in chess.

Future iWar is going to be like the Chinese game go – which despite the relative uniformity of platforms / pieces, is in practice far, far more complex than chess (computers aren’t advanced enough to “brute force” win in the game of go, unlike in chess, due to the sheer number of possibilities; skill is based on pattern recognition). It is characterized by extreme dispersion and inter-meshing of allied and enemy forces; strong point defences (see “iron phalanx”) with tenuous lines holding them together that are vulnerable to concerted assault; extreme mobility; and catastrophic bouts of attrition when large groups are surrounded and captured (equivalent to asymmetric attacks that disable large networks). No “King” that you have to defend at all costs because of the networked aspects; each unit is its own platform.

Responses to Criticisms

1. But we are in the era of globalization, spreading democracy, and world peace!

This won’t last due to the coming collapse of Pax Americana (the current global order founded on cheap oil, globalization, international rule of law, etc, and guaranteed by the US military / NATO), which will usher in the age of scarcity industrialism / the world without the West (characterized by economic statism, Realpolitik, resource nationalism, mercantile trade relations, etc).

Though on paper Russia’s military spending is only 4% of US GDP, in reality hidden subsidies, “structural militarization”, black budgets, etc, indicate that more like 15-20% of its techno-industrial potential is geared towards defense (20% of manufacturing output are armaments, 75% of Russian R&D has defense applications). In the US, real military spending is closer to 10% rather than the headline 5%. The figure is probably similar for China.

2. Given how much you talk about peak oil and collapse, what makes you think all these cool military technologies will ever be developed?

However, there are still plenty of unconventional gas reserves (coal seam gas, shale gas) and coal that will be able to sustain industrial civilization for another generation. (Of course by the 2030-50 period there will appear incredible stresses on the system if 1) climate change is bad and geoengineering is not attempted or is unsuccessful, and / or 2) if global industrial civilization had not managed to transition to a non-hydrocarbons dependent development regime). So whereas the US global empire will soon go, the global industrial system still has a substantial life ahead of it.

This time period, c.2010-2030/2050, will be characterized by an apolar, anarchic international system based on Realpolitik and resource nationalism. The three most powerful blocs are going to be the China-East Asia bloc, the America-Atlanticist bloc, and the Russia-Eurasian bloc. In times of stress and international competition, resources are diverted to the military sector and the military-industrial complex, including R&D. Since armed forces are the coercive foundations upon which any state is kept together and preserved, they are going to get preferential resources from the state they serve up until the very end of said state. This will be occuring in tandem with the continuation of the explosion in computer power, electronic networks, AI, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics.

BTW, the process of ramping up the share of productive resources dedicated to the military sector has been rising at the global level since around 2000, bringing to an end the post-Cold War “peace dividend”. Despite commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has accelerated the development of BMD under Bush; after 20 years of declining military spending as a percentage of GDP to free up resources for economic development, Chinese military spending began to grow faster than GDP; and Russia has revamped military spending from its post-Soviet nadir, is reforming its army and beginning fifth-generation rearmament, and plans to resurrect high-volume military production from 2011.

3. The range of technological, doctrinal, and social changes you describe as regards a total war is so radical that I cannot imagine it happening.

The citizen, soldier, and general of 1914 could have no way of knowing that in another half-century, the world of frontal infantry advances and quick, clean campaigns would be transformed into battles of industrial production, mass mobilization, “total war”, combined arms tactics, Blitzkrieg (infiltration-envelopment-annihilation), defense in depth, strategic bombers, ICBM and SSBN forces, etc.

Likewise, the early Cold War era strategist would have had to be very imaginative to envision nuclear planning losing its primacy, with the focus shifting from planning for massive tank battles on the Central European Plain, to today’s world of precision-guided munitions, stealth aircraft, the RMA, 4GW, and cyberwar or iWar.

The appearance of limits to growth, together with continuing developments in informatics and military technology, will lead to equally drastic changes in the nature of future war in the next few decades.

4. I’m a bit confused on the chronology, this essay is rather rambling. Can you please clarify?

Yes, I agree it’s rambling. Sorry, lots of ideas, not enough time or discipline. I’ll try to clarify and summarize in chronological order.

2010′s: Just as the US is in the midst of developing next-generation weaponry (scramjets, laser BMD) and finalizing the foundations for its global BMD system, the collapse of Pax Americana, economic crisis, and political instability will bring much of its military-industrial activities into dormancy (as happened in 1990′s Russia). Russia and China continue their military modernizations uninterrupted, reaching the US fifth-generation level of 2005-2010 by 2020. In particular, China will have then acquired a real blue water navy, which will by then be larger and newer than the US Navy. Many middle-rank Great Powers acquire advanced, assymetric, “area denial” weaponry (anti-ship missiles, supercavitating torpedoes, silent diesel submarines, UAV’s, drones). With the global US empire now a shell of its former self, nuclear proliferation will increase.

2020′s: The US will have more or less stabilized from its fall by now, and will resume where it left off in the early 2010′s. Drawing on R&D work it did not have the opportunity to previously actualize for lack of funds, it will resume upgrading its now downsized military forces (Future Force Warrior, all-electric ships, scramjets, laser ABM shields, railguns). However, by now China will be a real peer competitor and increasingly ascendant, even in qualitative terms. The spread of neo-colonialism and resource wars will intensify, the globalized world of yesteryear having dissolved into apolar anarchy and regional blocs centered around Great Powers (e.g. China, the US, Russia, France, Turkey, Brazil, Germany, India). Due to the stagnation of its military-industrial complex, Russia gets “locked in” to the fifth-generation paradigm and does not advance much farther than perfections of what were essentially late-Soviet systems, like the S-500, PAK FA, Borei, and T-90; adequate for dominating the Near Abroad, but no longer enough to go toe-to-toe with China or the US. By this time, both China and the US will have fully brought online mature ABM technologies based on kinetic interception. There are moves to move some C&C functions into deep space, black projects are launched in geowar and psychotronic warfare, and serious research begins on biomechanical, nanotechnological, and autonomous AI applications to military affairs.

2030′s: The increasing power and prevalence of cybernetic technology will enable unprecedented levels of wartime mobilization. The efforts initiated in the 2020′s are beginning to pay off, with the development of very powerful laser ABM systems that drastically reduce the value of nuclear arsenals (by now, only massed swarm attacks of hypersonic bombers have a chance), as well as the perfection of the Future Force Warrior, etc. Perhaps by this time military forces will be transitioning from reliance on hydrocarbons to space-based solar power and electric batteries: certainly China will be capable of an industrial-scale buildup in space, and the US-Atlanticist bloc too if it has the political will. Developments in biodefense will massively decrease the time needed to prepare vaccines against biological agents. The results of the exotic research projects of the 2020′s will begin to be implemented, for instance, biomechanical constructs to serve as resilient, versatile and autonomous platforms for energy and kinetic weapons; “nanodust” sensors; new technologies for waging ecological warfare; enhanced “smart”, EMP, and fuel-air munitions. These may shift the advantage back to the offensive.

2040′s: Probably the make or break decade. By now either humanity has managed to avert collapse (through technological singularity or some kind of “ecotechnic transition“), or it will be approaching collapse with no salvation in sight. Perhaps collapse will be preceded or accompanied by a last war of industrial civilization. One in which the weapons, doctrines, and social constructs of future war will be exploited for the first and last time.

(Reprinted from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 

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.

(Reprinted from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 

I am going to start off by looking at Europe, defined as the region under the influence of Western Christianity and/or the European Union (not Russia or Turkey, which will be covered in a later Eurasia Report).

The Big Questions

  1. Demographic problems: aging, low fertility and Eurabia?
  2. The unsustainability of the modern welfare state?
  3. Cultural decline & reaction against liberal rationalism?
  4. The return of Great Power politics? (e.g. Mearsheimer 1990), & the decline of the EU and growing centrality of Franco-German relations, – or will the EU survive, and if so in what form?
  5. National trends: a secure, “flourishing” France; a troubled but powerful Germany; Poland beset on two fronts; marginalized Britain, Spain & Italy, all in decline; Sweden as preeminent Baltic power; on the outskirts, both Russia and Turkey increase their power – realistic?
  6. The retreat into authoritarianism and militarism? Europe as a Black Continent?

European Trends

Without much exaggeration, demography is Europe’s central issue for the foreseeable future. Just to keep the labor force constant, the EU needs 1.6mn immigrants annually (current population: 500mn); to maintain a 3:1 ratio of labor force to retirees, it will need 3.1mn immigrants yearly to offset the aging of the population. These kinds of numbers are probably unrealistic due to (justified?) European xenophobia, especially in the east and center.

The root explanation is Europe’s post-1970 fertility collapse, especially pronounced in Germania, the Mediterranean (Spain, Italy, etc), and the Visegrad region (East-Central Europe). It is most severe in Germany and Austria (both TFR = 1.3), where the total fertility rate (TFR) fell below the replacement-level rate of 2.1 children per woman in the early 1970′s; since the Germans have not been reproducing themselves for a full generation now (and have no desire to start doing so, as even the desired TFR is at a low 1.8), they will inevitably fall into a death spiral.

The situation is similar in the Mediterranean nations and Visegrad (TFR around 1.3), with the exception that their fertility falls came a decade and two decades after Germany’s, respectively. However, much like Russia, Visegrad still has chances of effecting a demographic recovery, assuming their fertility collapse was primarily a result of “transition shock” instead of “social modernization”. Much better off are France (TFR = 2.0), the UK (TFR = 1.9), and the Nordic countries like Sweden (TFR = 1.7), whose fertility rates are all within a manageable distance of the replacement level rate.

However, conservatives who fear the coming of a Muslim Europe – “Eurabia” – are going to be happy. That theory rests on the assumptions that a) the size of the Muslim minority in Europe is severely underreported, b) the Muslim minority retains its extreme religiosity, c) “reversion” to Islam will increase, and that d) the high fertility rates of first-generation Muslims and e) high levels of Muslim immigration will continue indefinitely in the face of rising European xenophobia. All of these assumptions are very much open to question. The far likelier possibility is that the trans-European Muslim community will be scapegoated by a declining continent rediscovering its old geopolitical faultlines.

Napoleonic France introduced pensions for civil servants, Bismarck’s Germany invented the social security system, and Sweden developed the modern welfare state in the 1930’s – a system that reached its apogee on the European continent on the back of the post-war economic miracle and demographic expansion. Both have come to an end, and so too may the modern welfare state as we know it.

Due to their fertility crises, Europeans will find it increasingly difficult to maintain their generous welfare states. Sweden will likely soldier on with its “social-democratic welfare state”, given that it lies at the heart of its identity (social mobility, egalitarianism, progressivism); a (relatively) youthful France will also find it manageable to retain the extensive perks, privileges, and niceties of its dirigiste system. Though demographically healthy, Britain has an array of other critical problems that will force it to strip down the bloat and return to its traditionally minimal “liberal welfare state”. In low-fertility Europe, raising the retirement age and cutting down the “corporatist welfare state” to the spartan standards of the earlier 20th century is now the only realistic solution, the alternatives being one or two more decades of decay followed by fiscal and social collapse. The rightist wave sweeping the European elections of 2009 may be a subconscious realization that it’s time for taking responsibility.

The wealth, social solidarity, and geography of European nations means that overpopulation, pollution and climate change will not have quite the same critical impact as in other regions like the Middle East or China – though an inundating Holland, desertifying Spain and burning Greece may beg to differ. (This applies to the period until 2030; after that, all bets are off everywhere).

European Regions

Germany has a robust industrial ecosystem manned by a well-educated population, powered by a triad of coal, natural gas and renewable sources of energy, and underpinned by advanced technologies and a potent machine-building sector. It constitutes Europe’s economic and commercial powerhouse. However, it is artificially reliant on exports to provide the savings needed for its rapidly aging population – short of a mortality crisis, an irreversible problem compounded by the most intractable demographic crisis of any major European nation. This reliance is dangerous, given the imminent waning of globalization. Facing a sub-par energy future, the loss of global export markets, and the rediscovery of a conservative nationalism bizarrely married to environmentalism, Berlin will again turn its baleful gaze to East-Central Europe.

In addition to the manifold soft power tools at its disposal, Germany is already beginning to unshackle itself from its post-WW2 military constraints. Though the Bundeswehr is of Cold War vintage with minimal power projection capabilities, Germany has the technologies and industrial potential to once again become a leading European land power. Its status as a “virtual nuclear weapons state” means it has the capability to develop and field a small arsenal of deliverable nuclear weapons within months of commencing a crash program. Thus, Germany has both the dormant potential and the incentives to return to the Reich, expanding into Visegrad to acquire captive markets and to guarantee Russian hydrocarbons supplies – and reigniting its old, paranoia-fueled duel with France for European hegemony.

Unlike in the first half of the 20th century, it is France that will be the more potent competitor this time around. Its fertility rates are the healthiest on the European continent – though its population of 62mn is smaller than Germany’s 82mn, it already has a higher number of annual births. Though they have a restive 10% Muslim minority in the deprived banlieues, French Muslims are culturally more integrated than their co-religionists in Germany or Britain. The French economy is versatile, productive, and robust, suffering little during the 2008 economic crash – though scolded for dirigisme and S&M business regulations that stymie employment, its dirigisme is arguably superior to Germany’s export dependency, the Mediterranean’s fiscal holes, and Britain’s bubble economy.

On the strategic level, France is a powerful independent actor. With 80% of its electricity generation coming from nuclear power, its industrial and residential infrastructure is invulnerable to gas disruptions – be it Russian “energy blackmail” or Ukrainian intransigence. The country is underpopulated relative to the rest of Western Europe. France possesses Europe’s sole fully-autonomous military-industrial complex, producing the whole panoply of weapon classes from helicopter carriers to fighter jets; it has substantial power projection capabilities; and its extensive nuclear infrastructure supports the world’s third largest strategic nuclear stockpile, the bulk of its 300 warheads mounted on MIRVed SLBM’s held on four ballistic missile submarines.

All these factors put it in good stead for a symbiosis with its former North African colonies. Algeria is a major oil and gas producer, while Morocco has 2/3 of the world’s rock phosphate reserves – “a critical component in global fertilizer supply”. Facing a demographic “youth bulge” and shrinking agricultural yields under the stress of global warming and an advancing Saharan desert, the Maghreb nations may feel compelled to offer energy & phosphate supply guarantees to France in exchange for its commitment to a high immigration quota and protection of Muslim rights. Further afield, it has a strong military and neo-colonial presence in energy-rich West Africa. Occupying an enviable geostrategic location from a position of immense strength – demographic, economic, and strategic – there can be little doubt that France will be the predominant European power of the next decades.

On the surface, Britain appears to be a strong contender for European preeminence in the coming decades. It has respectable demographic indicators and, at least so far, a relatively low level of sovereign debt. The island nation occupies the most strategically secure location on the European continent – it has never been successfully invaded since 1066, largely thanks to its efforts to maintain a continental balance of power, spoiling attacks on potential European hegemons, and as a last resort, the English Channel. The island nation hosts significant power projection capabilities and a robust SSBN-based nuclear deterrent (much like France); furthermore, it also maintains a “special relationship” with a United States that shares its fundamental goal of stymieing the rise of a European hegemon. At the same time, London is not averse to profiting from European markets and the pursuit of its neo-colonial interests further abroad, as befits the descendant of an empire on which the sun never set. As the sun sets on Pax Americana, could its British satrapy continue its legacy on the old continent?

The answer is almost certainly not. Despite its ostensible strength and vigor, the United Kingdom faces a set of imminent, interlinked challenges – economic, fiscal, energy, and nationalities – that could not only preclude its rise to preeminence, but put at peril its very existence as a federated state.

Britain has seen accelerating deindustrialization since the neoliberal revolution of 1980′s Thatcherism, culminating in the false boom of the 2000′s driven by construction and finance. At the same time, government spending increased as Britain moved to implement a social-democratic welfare state – partly because of the need to satiate the emerging victims of market fundamentalism, and partly because of a general expansion of state power relative to the citizenry (surveillance, databases, etc). However, it should be noted that unlike in Scandinavia, this development did not lead to higher socio-economic mobility, which remains the lowest in Europe.

Even before the current crisis, government spending (purchases and transfers) was approaching 50% of GDP, with the figure rising to 56% in Scotland, 72% in Wales and 78% in Northern Ireland. With the discrediting of the neoliberal model, soaring budget deficits (12%+ of GDP), plummeting foreign investor confidence, and widespread indebtedness stymying a consumer-led recovery, Britain finds itself locked into a predicament, between the Scylla of inflationary fire and the Charybdis of a painful fiscal retrenchment and deflationary “debt trap”. Though on current trends the former seems to be the more prevalent, the likely triumph of the Conservatives in the 2010 elections may herald a sea change in favor of the fiscal restraint championed by their middle-England electoral base.

This fiscal predicament is compounded by its energy woes, in which the absence of a long-term energy policy, mindless liberalization, and above all the rapid depletion of the North Sea gas and oil fields, may see it enter a period of Third World-style blackouts by the mid-2010′s. Britain’s growing need for gas imports will necessitate costly investments in LNG terminals, put its current account further into the red, and even develop a German-style dependence on Russia. This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – forced into buying expensive energy supplies and suffering from power disruptions, the British economy will go into stagnation or outright decline. This cannot be squared with the level of requisitions needed to support the metastasizing British welfare state, and it will have to give.

Finally, Britain’s latent separatist pressures will come to the forefront – no one wants to remain on a sinking ship. Scotland is a viable nation with a substantial industrial base and still significant North Sea hydrocarbons deposits – given independence, it will resurrect its Auld Alliance with France. Similarly, there will be less enthusiasm for maintaining Northern Ireland on the English dole; once ditched, it will inevitably drift to the hearty embrace of the Republic of Eire. Only Wales is likely to remain within the new Republic of England & Wales (the Queen will have moved to Scotland). Though England will retain the vast bulk of the UK’s population, economic, and military assets, their general degradation during this time period will have relegated it to the status of a secondary European Great Power like Italy or Spain. However, its longer-term prospects are slightly brighter due to its relatively healthy (current) demography and preparedness for global warming.

Not even that can be said about the Mediterranean nations, however, which suffer from all the challenges facing Germany, France and the UK – collapsed fertility rates (TFR = 1.3), social immobility, sclerotic economies, unsustainable welfare states, debt traps, and imminent fiscal collapse thanks to the ECB depriving them of the ability to engineer a currency depreciation (their traditional solution to fiscal crises).

Italy is sinking back into political cronyism, the level of corruption is astounding for a First World nation, and its artisanal manufacturing is being destroyed by Chinese competition. There remain huge gaps between the advanced Nord and the Mafia-riddled, poverty-stricken Mezzogiorno – thus, opportunities for domestic tensions abound. As for Spain, it is facing an excruciating bust as the foreign credit flows pumping up its construction-fueled economy subside; furthermore, it faces an uncertain energy future (despite its impressive expansion into renewables, the scale is still far too small), exponentially-rising damage from global warming, and separatist tensions from the Basque region.

The performance of their education systems (both basic and tertiary), spending on R&D, and levels of corruption, are all far behind their north European neighbors. Too preoccupied with their manifold domestic challenges and isolated by the Alps and the Pyrenees from the North European Plain, these two nations have neither the incentive nor the capability to play a major role in future European power politics. They are likely to succumb to an accelerating, self-reinforcing decay, eventually culminating in the emigration of millions of young Spaniards and southern Italians to France and the US (being whites, xenophobia will not play a big role).

Finally, there are two European nations that are currently marginal, but may assume a much more prominent role in future decades – Poland and Sweden. Let us start with the former. Poland has a balanced, protected, and fast-growing economy that was little affected by the 2008 crisis (relatively speaking); a strong sense of national unity; and although it suffered from a sharp fall in fertility from the early 1990′s along with the rest of the socialist bloc, it may have a chance of recovery for the same reasons as Russia, i.e. because there is evidence to suggest its demographic decline was a result of the “transition shock”, i.e. not permanent. However, the likelihood of that occuring is smaller because a) its desired fertility (around 2.1) correlates with those of the low-fertility Med nations, whereas Russia’s is higher (around 2.5), and b) its transition shock was much less pronounced than Russia’s, but unlike Russia from 2006 it has yet to see any firm signs of demographic recovery. And although it does not have Russia’s mortality crisis, the main impact of that will be to put more pressure on the Polish pensions system, on which it already spends more than 10% of GDP (i.e. a figure similar to the rest of “old Europe”).

As such, it is hard to give credence to credence to George Friedman’s (Stratfor) prediction that Poland will become a Great Power any time soon. That said, as the strongest barrier between Germany and Russia – and hence a bulwark against the emergence of a European hegemon – much of the rest of the continent, especially France, England, and Sweden, as well as the US, will find it in their interests to extend technical and military aid. And should the resurgent Russia Empire collapse and wither back into its Muscovite heartlands, the recreation of a modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, encompassing much of Visegrad and western Ukraine, beckons.

With its cold climate and poor internal communication lines, the Scandinavian Peninsula’s population was always concentrated along the southern coasts. This is where Sweden first emerged as a maritime Power based on riverine trade within the Hanseatic / Baltic region – and that is where its modern interests lie. It naturally dominates energy-rich Norway and its maritime traditions enable a flexible military posture in Europe, while Finland serves as an excellent buffer against Russian expansionism. Sweden exerts financial domination over the Baltic nations, maintains friendly relations with NATO, and hosts an advanced military-industrial complex. As such, Swedish power is incommensurate with its small population, though overall it remains, and will remain, a minor player. Global warming will open up more of its lands to sustainable settlement, which coupled with its respectable demography and immigration from climatically-stricken zones from Europe and farther abroad will ensure the continued growth of its relative power. Finding a natural ally in Poland to contain German ambitions and Russian revanchism, the two could prove to be a potent combination.

Demo. Econ. Energy Mil. Clim. Power
England 55+ 4- 3– 4- 4-
France 65++ 4 3+ 4 4+
Germany 80– 5- 2 3+ 4
Italy 55– 3– 2 2- - 3–
Poland 40 2+ 2 2+ + 2+
Russia 140 4+ 5+ 5 ++ 5++
Sweden 10+ 2+ 2+ 2 ++ 2+
Spain 45- 3– 2 2- - 2–
Turkey 80++ 3+ 2 3+ - 3++

Above is a rough table summarizing my view of the current relative strengths (mostly 1-5) and future prospects (+ and -) of the current European Powers in population / demographic structure; economic-technological strength; energy reserves, sustainability and/or security of supply; climate effects; and overall hard power. For obvious reasons these are very rough estimates and subject to a wide degree of error.

Europe’s Geopolitics

Having outlined the general trends and regional idiosyncrasies of the European continent, I am now going to try to bring it all together and paint a picture of how European geopolitics and metapolitics are going to develop in the decades ahead.

First, a word about the European Union. It is the quintessential “end of history” project – as Fukuyama himself noted, its “attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a “post-historical” world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military”. This utopian pursuit is, however, dependent on social stability, which is what underpins Europe’s historically recent embrace of liberal democracy and rules-based mechanism for resolving disputes.

But considering the interlinked and growing economic, energetic, demographic, and climatic challenges to this social stability covered above – and bearing in mind that for all its pomp and splendor, the EU remains weak and peripheral relative to the twenty-seven European nation-states that will collectively decide its destiny – the EU’s disintegration, “withering away”, or “expansion into irrelevancy”, is almost inevitable. Powerful Eurosceptic elements in Britain, Poland and the small European states do not want to give away their national sovereignty and are suspicious of European federalism, which they perceive to be nothing more than a new, covert hegemonic project. Nor is it likely that it will be replaced by a “Europe of two speeds” based on accelerated Franco-German integration; the interests of these nation-states are simply too divergent for that to happen.

As for NATO, if it can be undermines by an issue as small as Afghanistan now – it has no chance of surviving the coming earthquakes in any meaningful form. Britain, France, and Poland will likely remain closely allied with the US, but beyond that the dominant paradigm will be a return to 19th century-like Great Power politics. Facing a subpar energy future, the loss of export markets in a more protectionist world, a rapid demographic decline, and an unprecedented fiscal crisis, Berlin will again look east, as it usually does in times of national stress. It is in its strategic interests to draw closer to Moscow, given the mutual desirability of setting up a bilateral relationship based on trading Russian commodities (natural gas) for German machine tools and technology, as occurred so often in the past. (For instance, in the Treaty of Rappallo (1922), the two international pariahs signed a peace agreement, forgave each other’s debts and signed a free trade accord. Russia also helped Germany circumvent the Treaty of Versailles by allowing Germany to use its territory to continue military-related R&D and weapons testing, far from the prying eyes of Western observers). Furthermore, Russia could make use of a neutral-to-friendly Germany as a shield to consolidate its power over the post-Soviet space.

Once again, Poland will stand in the way of this Russo-German relationship. Russia is interested in pushing American influence out of East-Central Europe, converting the region into a neutral buffer for its empire. Germany will be interested in 1) furthering its economic penetration of the region, given the losses of many of its other export markets, and 2) in preventively blocking Russia’s further expansion into Europe proper, which in the end would seriously endanger German national security. In addition, there’s also its traditional craving for Lebensraum.

The region of Visegrad will therefore become a vortex of geopolitical competition between Germania, Eurasia, Scandinavia, and the Atlanticists. Poland will be supported directly by France, which has a direct interest in guaranteeing Polish sovereignty in order to prevent the rise of a German-dominated Europe (or of a contiguous Russo-German bloc, which would amount to the same thing). Despite its likely retreat from active Eurasian power politics in the face of mounting domestic crises, the US too will likely contribute to Polish security, since preventing the rise of a Eurasian hegemon will still figure amongst Washington’s priorities. Interestingly, a weakened Britain (or England) will probably try to maintain neutrality and good relations with all sides: its desire to support France and Poland in order to preempt the rise of a united European hegemon will be partially counterbalanced by its growing energy dependence on Russia.

However, the alliance between Germany and Russia will be far from rock-solid, considering that it is based exclusively on shared interests. Germany does not want a Russia that is too strong, and as such will try to maintain a modicum of good relations with the Atlantic powers as a hedge, as well as making geopolitical inroads and alliances beyond Europe proper. Boxed in by seas to the north, a powerful France to the west, the Alps to the south, and an Atlanticist-supported Poland to the east, Germany will push its influence into the Balkans in conjunction with Turkey, a country with which it will resurrect its traditional alliance, and more importantly, a country that will be able to keep Russia’s attention diverted to its unstable south (the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans – areas where Turkey already has substantial cultural and economic influence). Furthermore, Turkey would provide Germany with an additional supply of gas independent of Russian control sourced from Azerbaijan, Central Asia (if they remain outside Russia’s overt control) and possibly even Iran (if it reconciles with the West), and assuming that the necessary pipelines get built. In exchange, Germany will transfer the technologies Turkey needs to build a self-sufficient military-industrial complex that will complement its already formidable military power.

France will seek a close alliance with the Visegrad nations and Sweden to keep Germany and Russia occupied, while focusing most of its energies on securing its regional dominance. Flooded with younger immigrants from Spain and Italy – and perhaps the Maghreb, should it agree on the energy-for-immigration deal mooted above – its population will grow even more rapidly than projected, perhaps reaching 80-90mn souls by the 2030′s. This will result in the division of its electorate into three major groupings – the French conservatives and nationalists; the internationalist moderates; and the hard left, which will include the Islamist groups.

These internal divisions will be the cracks through which its weaker neighbors, especially Germany, will try to undermine it; however, ironically, those same divisions may lead to the long-term survival of multiculturalism and liberal democracy on French soil, even as Germany returns to the Reich, Italy reverts to its regionalistic capo governing traditions, Turkey revives its Ottoman imperial legacy, and Russia reacquires its Eurasian empire. Along with the British isles and various enclaves (Sweden, Switzerland, Czechia, Ireland, Poland?, etc), France will remain a light in a continent rapidly turning black with fascism, militarism, collapse – and perhaps war. War? Yes, I’m serious. Once effective ABM shields are developed and proliferate – and that’s not especially far off – the deterrence power of nuclear weapons will fall dramatically.

As mentioned above, both of the major Mediterranean powers will be too absorbed by domestic affairs to give serious heed to geopolitical jockeying. Though they might try to revive their colonial-era relations with North Africa – Spain in Morocco, Italy in Libya – they do no have the carrots to enjoy sustained success, and will be outmanoeuvred by France. Though Poland holds some promise, it is locked into a geopolitical vice and will remain too weak to play a truly independent role in Europe. And though Sweden is a formidable and growing Baltic power, its population and industrial base is simply too small to play a true Great Power role.

[A possible future European alliance / categorization system. Black - the expansionist Germans, Turks and Russians. Dark gray - France and its allies, Poland and Sweden. Gray - the relatively weak "balancing powers": Britain will lean more towards France, Italy more towards Germany, but none want to see a European hegemon. Light gray - too weak to really matter].

Conclusions

As a result of the epochal shifts in the global balance of power brought on by peak oil and the waning of Pax Americana, within the next decade the geopolitical structure of Europe will experience a profound transformation. The post-historical EU project will die when history returns to Europe. As Britain weakens and splinters into its constituent parts, and as the Mediterranean powers retreat under the weight of their manifold demographic, fiscal, and economic problems, the old struggle between France, Germany and Russia for European hegemony will resume.

This will entail a complex balance of power system. A powerful France will seek to encircle an ailing but still formidable Germany by allying itself with Visegrad and Sweden, while maximizing its own power by asserting itself in its Mediterranean backyard. Germany will make a wary alliance with Russia, and try to break free of its encirclement by threatening Poland, undermining France, and hedging with a Turkish alliance. Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey may come into intense geopolitical competition over the fate of the Balkans, Caucasus and Central Asia; however, should Turkey focus its expansion into the Middle East, their relations will likely be quiescent. (But this issue is for the Eurasia SSR). As the world energy and climate crisis worsens with every passing decade, Europe will return to its future – the Black Continent.

(Reprinted from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 

This is the second article of a three-part series about the Iranian Question – that is, the question of how the world is going to deal with the Islamic regime’s pursuit of a nuclear bomb, which is likely to be one of the defining processes of global geopolitics in the next five years. The first part, The Approach of the Next Persian Empire, attempted to paint a picture of the internal structure, trends and divisions within the country. This article will analyze the geopolitics of the region from the perspectives of the key players (Iran, the US, Israel and Russia) in greater depth and will try to assess the chances of dissuading Iran from going nuclear. This effort will likely fail, in which case Israel will probably decide it has no choice but to strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The consequences of this, which will draw in the US into a full-fledged aeronaval war with Iran, will be explored in the third part. Read the Conclusions at the bottom if you don’t want to slog through this rather quickly and poorly-written text.

The Iranian Regime and Its Strategic Culture

To recap from the first article, the most important things to know about the Iranian political system is the following: a) it is “a unique hybrid of Velayat-e Faqih (rule by Islamic jurists) and modern parliamentary democracy”, b) it is deep, murky and highly factionalized along the following lines: The old, corrupt clerical elites centered around Rafsanjani (chairman of the Assembly of Experts), the conservative technocrats represented by Larijani (Majlis speaker), and the Islamist hardliners represented by President Ahmadinejad, to whom answer the Armed Forces (Artesh) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) paramilitary / militia / intelligence service, c) these factions are supposed to be balanced by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, but his sympathies clearly tilt towards the hardliners – which partly explains why they have been in the ascendant since Ahmadinejad’s electoral win in 2005, d) this ascendancy was reinforced by the state’s paranoia over the abortive “Green Revolution” in support of the defeated Mousavi in 2009, who is Rafsanjani’s creature and e) pro-Western liberals have next to no backing or popular support, media hype to the contrary – though Rafsanjani’s and Larijani’s cliques are more enthusiastic about reaching an accommodation with the US, all political forces strongly support the development of an indigenous nuclear infrastructure and pushing Israel into the sea (so to speak). As such, an understanding with Israel is almost certainly out of the question.

[The dense, complex labyrinth of power in Iran. Source: Stratfor]

Iran’s strategic culture – the sum of beliefs and assumptions shared and used by its political elite uses to formulate a foreign policy – can be defined by the following elements: a need for a strong centralized state with competent security forces to preempt ethnic separatism, the conception of Shia Islam as bedrock of the national identity, belief in Iran as a leader of Islamic civilization against Western encroachment (at times verging on the millenarian), a striving for regional hegemony and an acute sense of vulnerability and encirclement by the US (which has troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf States) – which gives Iran an incentive to exaggerate its real military strength to dissuade an attack. This sense of vulnerability is especially acute because Iran is not a monolithic state – though its internal, Persian heartlands, walled in by mountains from all sides, are secure, it has three potential chinks in its armor.

The above map shows Iran’s nationalities and Sunni minorities. Though Persians constitute the majority at around 55-65% of the population and occupy the heartlands of Iran’s mountain fortress, there are potential flashpoints of separatist unrest in Balochistan (Balochs), Khuzestan (Arabs) and the northwest (Kurds). And although the Azeris are tightly integrated into the Iranian nation-state – the Supreme Leader, Khamenei, is himself half-Azeri, as was the failed 2009 Presidential candidate Mousavi – they still make up 20-25% of the population, occupy a geographically coherent position bordering Azerbaijan (whose pan-Turkic elements look up to Turkey), and have a moderately different political outlook (in the recent elections, the race between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad was much closer in majority-Azeri areas than it was in majority-Persian). In the case of a full democratization and rejection of its Islamist legacy, it is perhaps not unlikely to expect a “velvet divorce” between the Persians and Azeris in Iran. (It should also be noted that tellingly, all Iran’s major nuclear facilities are within the Persian heartlands, just like the USSR tended to concentrate WMD development within Russian or at least Slavic areas).

Iran’s Pursuit of the Nuclear Bomb

There are credible reports that the US has tried to stir up ethnic insurrections against Tehran since the Islamic Revolution, including by providing them with weapons and intelligence, and rumors that its intelligence services use Azerbaijan as a base to stir up Azeri dissent within Iran. In this secret war, Iran counters by maintaining powerful internal security and intelligence forces, assassinating perceived traitors abroad and maintaining a siege mentality. This starts a circle of confrontation with the US – from manipulating religious and ethnic fault lines in Iraq to force the US to the defensive (though not eschewing cooperation on shared interests like defeating the Taleban), to the ultimate bone of contention – Iran’s pursuit of an indigenous nuclear weapons production capacity and delivery systems. If it is successful in this, then it will severely undermine the US position in the strategically-critical Persian Gulf region since a) the moderate Arab states will observe the American lack of resolve and will move to guarantee their own security through self-help – perhaps ditching the US in the process or swapping it for other partners, and b) it will make Iran near strategically invulnerable to military attack because of the threat of nuclear retaliation. For this reason, it is hard to see the US – not to even mention Israel – ever allowing an Iranian bomb.

[Blue diamonds = uranium mining, read diamonds = nuclear research facilities]

Unlike Iraq’s or Syria’s nuclear weapons programs, which are / were relatively simple and limited, Iran seems to be pursuing the bomb on a larger scale, aiming to develop an indigenous capability over the entire nuclear fuel cycle and maintaining redundant, hardened nuclear facilities. It should be noted that developing nuclear weapons is rather hard, since they have to be robust, reliable, miniatured and married to delivery systems (gravity bombs, cruise missiles or ballistic missiles launched from platforms ranging from truck beds to nuclear subs). Iran has been having problems with mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, and most current estimates indicate it is still around five years from acquiring its first nuclear weapon.

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.

One of the advantages of uranium is that it is easier to build a working bomb with it, since it can do with a simple gun-type explosion to create a critical mass of fissile material needed to produce a nuclear blast – but as written above, acquiring Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU) is difficult. That is not so much the case for plutonium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors whose enrichment can be accomplished through a simpler chemical reaction (instead of very precise calibration of centrifuges). However, there are two problems in this direction: a) you need a near perfectly symmetrical implosion to compress plutonium core to supercritical mass, necessitating “the precise “lensing” of high-grade explosives” – unlike for HEU, which can do with a simple gun-type design, and b) even though Iran has got the reactor at Bushehr up and running, producing plutonium as a byproduct, it is supposed to be repatriated back to Russia and be subjected to international monitoring – diverting part of the flow will be tricky.

Iran continues to have problems in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, relying on the 600 tons of yellowcake it bought from S. Africa three decades ago (now 75% depleted) and Russian deliveries of low-enriched uranium (subject to disruptions and even full cessation depending on the status of Russian-American relations). Iran is hobbled by poor-quality uranium reserves – its mine at Saghand contains 3000-5000 tons of uranium oxide at a density of just 500 ppm, well below the 750 ppm usually thought to be the limits of commercial viability, and there has been a slowdown in both yellowcake conversion into UF6 at Isfahan and centrifuge installation at Natanz. There have been reports that the slowdown is partly attributable to Iran’s loss of high-quality bearings imports for its centrifuges under US pressure on the suppliers, forcing it to rely on lower-quality domestic ones.

On the other hand, there are many sources saying that Iran’s activities are at a more advanced stage than generally believed:

…Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had 6,000 centrifuges operating at its uranium enrichment facility at the underground Natanz facility, double the number operating less than a year ago, a worrisome development that shows the progress Iran has made toward developing a nuclear weapon (Washington Post, July 26, 2008). The August 2009 IAEA report said the number of centrifuges had grown to 8,300 (Haaretz, August 31, 2009). El Baradei, the director general of the IAEA, told the group’s 35-nation board that Iran had not stopped enriching uranium or answered lingering questions about its nuclear program (New York Times, September 7, 2009).

In September 2008, IAEA officials reported that enough enriched uranium to make six atom bombs (if processed to weapons grade level) disappeared from the main production facility at Isfahan. The officials suspect the material may have been moved to one of the installations spotted by American spy satellites, which intelligence officials believe are being used for covert research (Telegraph, September 12, 2008). …

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security said in 2008 that Iran has solved many of the problems it had with its centrifuges and they are now “running at approximately 85% of their stated target capacity, a significant increase over previous rates.” The IAEA’s 2008 report said Iran has produced nearly 1,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium; Albright says it needs a minimum of 1,500-pounds for a simple nuclear bomb, a figure it could reach in six months to two years (AP, September 24, 2008). …

The IAEA reported on November 19, 2008, that Iran had produced 1,390 pounds of low-enriched uranium suitable for nuclear fuel. That milestone is enough to produce a single nuclear weapon, about the size of the bomb dropped by the U.S. on Nagasaki according to Thomas B. Cochrane of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He noted, however, that they still needed the technological knowhow to purify the fuel and produce a warhead (New York Times, November 19, 2008). …

On September 25, 2009, it was disclosed that it had a second fuel enrichment plant. The United States was apparently aware of the facility, but it was hidden from weapons inspectors (Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2009). Meanwhile, Iran’s exiled opposition movement reported the day before that it had learned of two previously unknown sites in and near Tehran that it says are being used to build nuclear warheads (Agence France-Presse, September 25, 2009).

Separating the truth from the spin is amazingly hard, considering that Iran has motives for both exaggerating (to dissuade Israel / the US from attacking it if they know that they will fail to destroy its nuclear program anyway) and concealing (to not invite an attack, duh!, and to give propaganda ammunition to its defenders) its true strength.

The American Strategic Dilemma

As mentioned previously, the US has no intention of allowing Iran to get the bomb. If that were to happen, the new Persian empire would soon displace the US as the regional hegemon in the Middle East – the keystone of the global oil system whose cheap, liquid energy flows underwrite the trinity of globalization, US military predominance and Pax Americana. The moderate Arab states will be spooked into either setting up their own nuclear programs (permanently dooming the anti-proliferation system) or bandwagoning with the new power. Iran will be strategically invulnerable as rarely before, protected not only by its mountain walls but by the threat of nuclear retaliation – this will allow it to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors far more aggressively than it had previously dared (by supporting Hezbollah and Shia militants around the Gulf) and suborn a vulnerable Iraq to its will.

However, bombing Iran will not solve problems either. First, its nuclear program is built around deception, redundancy and hardening. Like the recent revelation of a second enrichment built under a mountain on a military base at Qom, Iran only admits to covert efforts at nuclear weaponization when it realizes its cover has been blown. Speaking of which, the facility at Qom also illustrates another feature – the amount of redundancy in its nuclear program. Since the US knew of Natanz, having a second site would have also made sense (and perhaps a third, and fourth, etc, whose existence has not yet been revealed). That way, limited bombing sorties of the sort that crippled the nuclear programs of nations like Syria or Iraq would not work in Iran. They make sure to harden these facilities against US bunker-busters, allowing a margin of safety to account for any black US capabilities. However, in the final analysis the main issue relates to how good US intelligence is on the Iranian nuclear program – if you don’t know the precise coordinated of an underground, hardened target, then no bunker-buster is strong enough to destroy it. Though the US has excellent space-based reconnaissance capabilities, they cannot pick up everything, since “research and development associated with a limited, clandestine nuclear weaponization effort can be smaller and better concealed than industrial-scale facilities for nuclear-power generation”. That would require a sophisticated human intelligence effort in Iran itself, in which the US is rather weak and relies on Mossad. Besides, the Iranians have a plethora of experienced intelligence agencies and are proficient at anti-espionage.

Second – and much more important – are the tools of retaliation at Iran’s disposal. This includes destabilizing Iraq through the use of Shia proxies, activating Shia sleeper cells in Saudi Arabia to attack its oil exporting infrastructure, missile attacks against US military bases and Gulf oil infrastructure, coordinating renewed attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, and most importantly blockading the Strait of Hormuz by anti-ship missile batteries and having its big fleet of patrol boats lay down mines. Iran’s production of 3mn barrels per day will vanish overnight, and even a few successful attacks on the 20 oil supertankers leaving the Gulf per day could in effect cut the flow of oil out of the Gulf by dramatically raising insurance rates. Considering that 17mn barrels per day, or 40% of the world’s oil exports pass through the Strait – a figure that accounts for 20% of world oil consumption – even small disruptions will be catastrophic.

Not surprisingly, Washington would prefer to first try everything possible to reach a diplomatic solution. The initial signs were seen during the past year, when Obama tried reaching out to Iran and Muslims in general (Cairo speech), but like all idealistic projects there have been no real, positive effects. If anything, Iran’s hostility hardened after what the hardliners perceived as the Western-incited unrest following Ahmadinejad’s summer electoral victory. Having failed in getting the Iranians around him in a circle singing Kumbaya (although Obama did create an impression of benign moderation (liberals) or weakness (conservatives)), things are now going to get more serious.

This will be on display in the P5 + 1 (UN Security Council and Germany) talks with Iran in Geneva from 1 October. If the Iranians refuse to budge on the nuclear issue, the US plans to impose “crippling” gasoline sanctions, for which it has been laying the framework for the last several months. It is believed this will put pressure on the Iranian regime, which massively subsidizes gasoline (to the huge detriment of its public finances) and whose automobile ownership has exploded in the past decade. However, the argument could be made that this would just reinforce Iran’s siege mentality and make it more aggressive.

Alternatively, the sanctions can be rendered ineffective. Russia appreciated the US giving up on its ABM plans for Poland, but realized it for the symbolic concession it really is and has no desire to reciprocate by handing over its leverage over Iran by cooperating with Washington on sanctions. To ditch Iran, Russia will need more concrete moves like Washington dropping support for Ukraine’s and Georgia’s membership in NATO, halting its plans for Polish military modernization and informally acknowledging Russia’s sphere of influence over the post-Soviet space. As long as these conditions aren’t met, Russia can easily supply Iran’s gasoline needs by pressuring Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

Similarly, China is unimpressed with rising US protectionism (e.g. recently introduced import tariffs on tires) and also has the spare refining capacity to help bust gasoline sanctions on Iran. Even France has recently voiced reservation after a flurry of high-level meetings between the two, a surprising twist given that France has moved much closer to Washington since 2007 under Sarkozy – though given France’s hardline anti-Iranian position, this may simply be showing its displeasure over Obama’s lack of resolve.

Then there is also the question of Afghanistan and Israel. The Taleban have a deep-rooted presence in Afghanistan and are convinced the Americans will have to leave eventually, just like the Greeks, British and Soviets before them. The idea that this place could be pacified and built into a model liberal democracy is nonsensical to say the least. Meanwhile, it is a drain on US military and fiscal resources that benefits Russia and Iran before anyone else, and one that is going to increase as NATO pulls out and if the US increases its troops there. Continuing the campaign in Afghanistan is a strategic blunder and after a face-saving surge the US will likely begin to pull out.

The Centrality of Israel

First, even as Obama superficially tried to improve relations with the Muslim world by pressuring Israel on halting the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, he made some in Israel question the strength of the US commitment to Israel’s security (despite the fact that this issue has little bearing on it). Second, Israel cannot and will not accept an Iranian bomb, not even if it leads to a clash with the US – to the US, it would be a major annoyance; to Israel, an existential risk, even despite its strengths in ABM. If Iran continues to progress on its nuclear and missile development, an Israeli strike is almost certain. And who can blame them?

If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave any thing in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world… in the future it will be the interests of colonialism that will determine existence or non-existence of Israel… Jews shall expect to be once again scattered and wandering around the globe the day when this appendix is extracted from the region and the Muslim world.

Not Ahmadinejad (he of the Holocaust denial) or Khamenei. Rafsanjani, 2003 (chairman of Assembly of Experts and main supporter of Mousavi).

Israel doesn’t care if Russia regains hegemony over the former Soviet. It doesn’t care if East-Central Europe becomes Finlandized. And though it faces the prospect of attacking Iran and facing retaliation from Hezbollah, spiking oil prices and renewing its status as an object of hatred in the Islamic world with trepidation, all that is nonetheless dwarfed by the prospect of Iran attaining a nuclear bomb.

Most commentators believe Iran is around three to five years behind the bomb, which allows Israel time to stay quiet and let the US indulge in diplomacy and arm-twisting. But this will not be the case indefinitely. There will come a critical point when it judges the Iranian program to be too far advanced already, based on information conveyed by Israel’s extensive human intelligence apparatus in Iran. And it will make the decision to strike, unilaterally if need be, but preferably involving the US at the earliest possible date to a) maximize the damage to Iran’s military infrastructure and hence constrict its ability to close the Strait and b) to more thoroughly damage Iran’s nuclear program. In any case the Israelis will have to fly over Iraqi airspace controlled by the US, and since it’s not exactly going to shoot them down, the world will believe the US was complicit in the strike on Iran anyway whatever it does. Hence the rational American response would be to coordinate the attack with Israel from the very start. It’s entirely possible this will be preceded by false-flag operations against American military or even civilian targets that will be blamed on Iran.

This gives the impression that the US is going to be prodded into this by Israel, but the reality is that by the early 2010′s its intentions may well have shifted in favor of an attack on Iran by themselves due to domestic unrest (economic problems, Obama’s “socialism”, etc), continuing Iranian intransigence (pursuit of a bomb, closer relations with Russia), Russia’s resurgence (probably) and Chinese expansionism (perhaps). At this point, it will become clear that the optimal strategy for the US would be to a) ease its imperial overstretch by pulling out of Afghanistan, b) deal with the Iranian challenge for Middle East hegemony once and for all, and c) use the resulting freeing of resources to focus more attention on containing its two aforementioned peer competitors, by rerouting military assets to East-Central Europe / the Black Sea region to counter Russia or reinforcing its presence in East Asia to counter China – whichever is perceived to be the more pressing threat to US interests at the time. With time, the US elites will realize the logic of this strategy, and will embrace it.

Potential Pitfalls of a Strike

However, there are two negative factors that might end up making an attack on Iran extremely damaging for US global power. By then, Russia will be getting more paranoid about US intentions, assuming it refuses to make real concessions on granting Russia a sphere of influence over the post-Soviet states and continues arming Poland and trying to draw Ukraine, Georgia, Central Asia, etc, closer into its orbit. Russia may up the ante by helping Iran modernize its generally obsolete military equipment, even at a commercial loss, e.g. by arming Iran with modern AA systems such as upgraded S-300, which could make life difficult for all but the most advanced, stealthy and expensive US aircraft like the F-22 Raptor and B-2 bomber (Iran already has 29 Tor M-1 systems, which have a relatively limited engagement envelope but are otherwise very good), or the latest anti-ship cruise missiles, which can pose a significant threat even to the American CVBG’s Aegis defense systems (let alone lumbering oil tankers). Today, as a militarily weak nation Iran makes a show of strength to dissuade hostile powers like the US from attacking it; tomorrow, its strength may become more real than illusory.

Second, the consequences of a shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz will only deteriorate even independently of improvements in Iran’s military potential. The reason is that world oil output peaked and will decline relentless after 2011. Meanwhile, the world economy will “recover”, pulled along by the monetary torrent unleashed during the economic crisis. This will again put immense upward pressure on oil prices, which can be expected to rise back up to around 150$ by 2011 or higher (also note that the US dollar will be weakening). The world economy will not long be able to withstand such prices; a war in the Gulf may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Conclusions

This is an extremely convoluted issue which revolves around the complex interactions of a number of key actors, foremost amongst them the US, Israel, Iran and Russia, whose policies are shaped by domestic trends, ingrained strategic cultures and their perceptions of the actions, words and thoughts of other actors in the Middle East arena. The idea that the more you know the less you know, and that the only true predictions is that there will be no true predictions, is especially valid in this case.

Iran is unequivocally pursuing a nuclear bomb. The military program is camouflaged by a genuine civilian endevour and is highly redundant and hardened against attack, though it faces problems and is still 3-5 years behind maturation. Iran hopes that by acquiring the bomb and mating it with reliable delivery systems (ballistic missiles), it can obviate its chronic sense of insecurity and reinforce its claim to Islamic leadership – a claim that will acquire more credence if backed by the gun.

Unlike the US, Israel sees no big difference between Iran’s factions (both viewpoints are justified – though Rafsanjani’s clique is better disposed to the US, all favor nuclear power and the end of Israel). Understandable, Israel is adamantly against the idea of an Iranian bomb, viewing it as an existential threat, and it has made it quite clear that it will strike if Iran does not cease and desist. By necessity, this will also pull in the US into a general aeronaval confrontation with Iran. Considering the threat Iran poses to the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40% of the world’s exports pass, the US sees war as the last resort; however, the prospect of a nuclear Iran is no better, because it would fatally weaken its position amongst the moderate Arab states.

Hence, the US will try its best to solve this without resorting to war. Obama’s early charm offensive, grounded in idealism, was unsuccessful and gained him approval from the Kumbaya crowd and a reputation for weakness amongst realists. Unfortunately for him, the Iranians, the Russians, and indeed all serious nations, are ruled by realists. Meanwhile, its perceived support of Iranian “reformists” in the June elections – that is of Rafsanjani’s protégé, Mousavi – enraged the revolutionary-conservative hardliners centered around Ahmadinejad and the IRGC, further reinforced their political ascendancy and drove Iran closer to Russia.

Failing to resolve these issues diplomatically, the US will now push for “crippling” sanctions on Iran’s gasoline imports, with the quiet approval of an Israel that is feeling increasingly spurned by the US on other matters (but which likewise wants to avoid war unless everything else fails). What will happen next on this front will be decided within months at the latest, and their success or lack thereof will depend on the actions of states whose interests are if not opposed, then at least orthogonal, to those of the US. The chances of success of presenting a united stance on sanctions on the part of the “international community” are minimal – too many different actors with different goals for multilateral cooperation.

The Russian President, Medvedev, in the Aesopian language typical of Russia’s rulers, said on 23 September, “sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable”. The irony is that Medvedev will be the one who decides, to a large extent, whether the sanctions will lead to “productive results” – however you define that. He is interested in getting the US to recognize its sphere of influence over the former USSR and back off from militarizing Poland. It is likely that Russia will agree to the sanctions in principle (to give the US the incentive to accede to Russia’s aforementioned wishes in its Near Abroad) – hence their “inevitability”, but considering that Russia believes the US is unlikely to give those concessions, it will likely end up not honoring those same sanctions it agreed to – hence his observation that sanctions “rarely lead to productive results”.

This is because, despite America’s problems and quagmires, it is unlikely in the extreme to give Russia the breathing space for recreating a Eurasian empire – a construct it spent half a century trying to contain and undermine (“though Washington is maneuvering considerably now, balancing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a resurgent Russia, an intransigent Iran and a global economic crisis, Poland remains a long-term priority”). As such, any US-sponsored sanctions regime will be torpedoed by Russia, which can use its influence over Turkmenistan or Azerbaijan to circumvent any sanctions – and the results of the sanctions will be productive neither for the US (Iran will still get its gasoline) nor for Russia (no fundamental reversal of US policy towards its resurgence).

Even if Russia refrains from helping out Iran and honors the sanctions, it could still realistically hope for help from China, which has enough spare gasoline refining capacity to supply Iran’s needs, or it could cut its subsidies. This would be uncomfortable for a regime that buys social stability with gasoline subsidies, amongst other things. This is unlikely to lead to revolution by itself, however – if anything, Iran will try to diminish unrest by increasing the national sense of siege and becoming more aggressive.

Whatever the result of the sanctions, Iran is unlikely to renege on its nuclear program. This is unacceptable to Israel, and it will become ever more unacceptable for the US too. The latter will have its hands more untied by the gradual removal of troops from Iraq (plans are to leave just four “superbases” behind after a decade of occupation) and from Afghanistan (if it’s rational), and increasing domestic troubles (economic, government intrusions, etc) may push Obama towards a more bellicose foreign policy to compensate. The US will come to the conclusion that the time has come to strike. And Russia would be perfectly happy to see the Gulf burn, considering that it would massively set back Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons (it doesn’t want that) and lead to a massive spike in oil prices (it doesn’t mind)…

The third and last blog post on the Iranian Question will be a fictionalized account of how a US-Iranian military conflict will pan out, the weapons that will be used and how they will perform, how players like Iranians, Israelis, Saudis, Americans, Russia, etc will perceive it, the decisions taken by political leaders, and its economic and geopolitical consequences.

(Reprinted from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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.