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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.

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

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

1. Things you might want to read for fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Things you should know

A. History

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

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

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

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

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

B. Nuclear Weapon Development

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

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

The nuclear bit.

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

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

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

The delivery system bit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Nuclear War – Myth and Reality

Major sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, two more things of importance in nuclear warfare.

What of the economy?

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

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

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

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

EMP bursts

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

Civil Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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