Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Economist on "Banning the Bomb" in 2009

Speaking of bringing the discussion of nuclear abolition to the mainstream, I recently learned of another terrific article by Peter Craig on the topic in The Economist’s “The World in 2009” that came out a couple of days ago. (h/t Masoud Shafaee)

One prediction about 2009 can be made with absolute confidence: nuclear weapons will not be abolished. However wonderful it may be in theory to remove the threat of nuclear annihilation once and for all, the idea of simply banning the bomb has long seemed like so much pie in the sky. But here’s a paradox. Talk about abolition is going to grow louder. And the talkers will not be only the usual dreamers. Some hard-headed practitioners of realpolitik will be joining the fray.

Oddly enough, what will drive the growing talk about outright abolition is the world’s failure to achieve the much more modest objective of preventing new countries from joining the nuclear club. George Bush made stopping “evil” regimes such as North Korea and Iran from getting the bomb a big part of his presidency. In neither case did he succeed. North Korea let off some kind of bomb in 2006, and nobody is certain that it will honour a later promise to disarm. Iran has meanwhile ignored United Nations resolutions (and sanctions) calling on it to stop enriching uranium, which many governments think, despite Iran’s denials, it intends to use for a nuclear weapon.

If dangerous-looking countries such as Iran and North Korea build nuclear weapons, why should the official nuclear-armed powers (America, Russia, Britain, France and China), let alone the “unofficial” ones (India, Pakistan and Israel), give up theirs? They won’t. But their recent failure to halt actual proliferation in North Korea and potential proliferation in Iran has taught the nuclear powers a lesson. The haves have learnt that unless they start at least to talk about their own eventual disarmament they will find it hard to get many of the have-nots on their side when it comes to preventing further proliferation.

Click here for the full article.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Boston Globe on “No Nukes”

The Boston Globe published an interesting piece yesterday on the growing support for nuclear abolition. Though not exactly groundbreaking, it is noteworthy in that the idea is moving from an inside the beltway discussion towards a mainstream debate.

FOR MANY AMERICANS, the idea of a world without nuclear weapons is a bit like the idea of a world without war or disease - it would be nice, but, contra John Lennon, it's hard to imagine.

That's not to say lots of people haven't devoted themselves to the cause. As the atomic age was dawning, Gandhi was already demanding its end, and today Pope Benedict XVI echoes that call. A host of international organizations, from Greenpeace to Mayors for Peace to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to the German Green Party, are dedicated to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Many of them have been at it for decades.

The movement, however, has always carried utopian associations, and been conflated in the popular imagination with pacifism. The leaders of the world's nuclear powers, their global stature buttressed by their atomic arsenals, have, with a few exceptions, shown little real interest in the idea.

This is changing. Total nuclear disarmament - "getting to zero" in the arms-control argot - has become a mainstream cause. Voices from the heights of the American foreign policy establishment have begun to argue that, in a world of inevitably unruly globalization, increasing interest in nuclear energy, incomplete alliances, ambitious suicide terrorists, and ever-present human fallibility, it will never be enough to improve controls on the world's nuclear weapons, or to reduce their numbers. We have to commit to eliminating them altogether.

These arguments are being made not by popes and mahatmas and Greens but by former secretaries of state and secretaries of defense, by generals and nuclear scientists, Democrats and Republicans. The leaders of the new no-nuke movement are George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, four of the most respected figures in American foreign policy circles. Over the past two years, they have, in speeches, at arms-control conferences and, most prominently, in two widely circulated op-ed pieces, lent their authority to an idea that is still seen as fairly radical.

And there is evidence that these arguments are being taken seriously by the people who are going to be making decisions about nuclear policy in the new administration. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama repeatedly committed himself to a nuclear-free future. One of his key foreign policy advisers, Ivo Daalder, coauthored an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, a leading foreign policy journal, laying out a plan for how to get there.

Click here for the full article.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Obering’s Missile Defense Exaggerations

Last week, Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. General Henry Obering gave a press briefing that involved numerous exaggerations about the capabilities of U.S. missile defense. The Center's John Isaacs responded with a keen analysis that identifies where Obering went wrong.

Gen. Obering: Our testing has shown not only can we hit a bullet with a bullet, we can hit a spot on the bullet with a bullet. The technology has caught up. (CNN)

Reality: A common public relations tactic employed by the MDA is to talk about “missile defense” as a monolithic whole so that it can ascribe achievements to the entire enterprise that should really only apply to specific programs. During Fleet Exercise Pacific Blitz on November 1, the Navy scored one hit and one miss with the Aegis missile defense system. Aegis is one of the most promising missile defense programs, but it cannot “hit a bullet with a bullet” every time. The U.S. missiles planned for installation in Poland involve an untested two-stage interceptor that is derived from the systems presently deployed in Alaska and California – systems that regularly fail even heavily-scripted flight tests. Gen. Obering cannot say whether or not European missile defense “technology has caught up” because the system hasn’t been tested at all.

Gen. Obering: We have come a hell of a long way since 2000. Our primary objective is going to be just, frankly, educating [people] on what we have accomplished, what we have been able to do…Not only are [current U.S. ground-based and sea-based systems] workable, they've been proven in combat. (AP, Washington Times)

Reality: First, there is no current U.S. missile defense system than can neutralize a ballistic missile threat that employs even simple decoys. Knowledgeable defense scientists believe missile defense will never be able to defeat countermeasures that any nation capable of fielding complex intercontinental ballistic missiles will be able to employ with ease. This refutes Gen. Obering’s assertion that missile defense is ready for combat.

Second, any accomplishments claimed by Gen. Obering have more to do with moving the goalposts than legitimate technological breakthroughs. Upon entering office, the Bush administration gave the MDA unprecedented latitude by exempting it from standard budgeting and reporting requirements. In a January 2008 report, the Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation noted that a recent increase in operational realism in tests “has uncovered unanticipated deficiencies that will require additional development and testing.” A February 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that tests completed to date “are developmental in nature and do not provide sufficient realism” to determine whether the system “is suitable and effective for battle.” Given these assessments, Gen. Obering’s confidence is off-base.
Find John's complete analysis, including rebuttals to Obering's assertions that the third missile defense site would undermine U.S. leadership in NATO and that Russia's concerns are invalid, here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cirincione on Obama’s Nuclear Future

The National Journal’s Lost in Translation has a great interview with Joe Cirincione on President-elect Obama’s nuclear future here.

The interview includes further potential reductions with Russia, prospects for the CTBT, missile defense, and de-alerting nuclear weapons.

Good stuff. Check it out.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Analysis on Nuclear Terrorism

The Center’s Travis Sharp and Erica Poff published a new policy briefing on November 14 titled “Understanding and Preventing Nuclear Terrorism.” Read the whole thing here.

Below are some excerpts:

Since the creation of the atomic bomb, government officials, scientists, and concerned citizens have been aware that weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of dangerous terrorist groups or rogue regimes. The rise of Al Qaeda and the events of September 11, however, brought the threat of nuclear terrorism into a whole new light for the United States. Suddenly, the detonation of a crude nuclear device in a major American metropolitan area no longer seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. Indeed, as President-Elect Barack Obama said during the 2008 presidential campaign, nuclear terrorism is “the gravest danger we face.”


It is not the odds but the consequences of such an attack that propel nuclear terrorism to the top of the U.S. national security agenda. A March 2003 report by Harvard University’s Project on Managing the Atom found that if a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon, approximately the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, were detonated at Manhattan’s Grand Central Station in New York, it would instantly kill over 500,000 people, injure hundreds of thousands, and cause over $1 trillion in direct damages.


If the United States and countries around the world are serious about preventing a nuclear attack by a terrorist group, efforts to contain the threat at its source need serious attention. According to the Partnership for a Secure America, the biggest problem is the lack of coordination on counter-nuclear terrorism efforts across federal agencies. Congress tried to remedy this shortcoming in 2007 with H.R. 1, the 9/11 Commission Act, which created a White House Coordinator for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. Unfortunately, the Bush administration chose to ignore the law and never filled the position. Failures in coordination are similarly reflected at the international level, where bilateral and multilateral engagement to prevent nuclear terrorism is equally fragmented.

Read the full briefing for five key recommendations the U.S. government ought to incorporate into a comprehensive strategy to prevent nuclear terrorism.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Lost US Nuclear Bomb in Greenland

Using declassified documents obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, BBC news released details this week about a story of a missing US nuclear bomb.

No, not the 1,000 misplaced nuclear missile components from June.

Not the six armed nuclear cruise missiles that were shipped from North Dakota to Louisiana either.

Or the mistaken shipment of nuclear missile nose cone fuses to Taiwan.

This is a different scenario: a missing nuclear bomb we lost after a 1968 plane crash in Greenland. (Click here to watch a short video on it.)

The story? On January 21, 1968, a United States nuclear-armed B52 bomber, flying a routine "Chrome Dome" mission over Thule Air Base in northern Greenland, crashed just a few miles from the base.

From the BBC,

A remarkable operation would unfold over the coming months to recover thousands of tiny pieces of debris scattered across the frozen bay, as well as to collect some 500 million gallons of ice, some of it containing radioactive debris.


The high explosives surrounding the four nuclear weapons had detonated but without setting off the actual nuclear devices, which had not been armed by the crew.

The Pentagon maintained that all four weapons had been "destroyed".

This may be technically true, since the bombs were no longer complete, but declassified documents obtained by the BBC under the US Freedom of Information Act, parts of which remain classified, reveal a much darker story, which has been confirmed by individuals involved in the clear-up and those who have had access to details since.

The documents make clear that within weeks of the incident, investigators piecing together the fragments realised that only three of the weapons could be accounted for.

Even by the end of January, one document talks of a blackened section of ice which had re-frozen with shroud lines from a weapon parachute. "Speculate something melted through ice such as burning primary or secondary," the document reads, the primary or secondary referring to parts of the weapon.

By April, a decision had been taken to send a Star III submarine to the base to look for the lost bomb, which had the serial number 78252. (A similar submarine search off the coast of Spain two years earlier had led to another weapon being recovered.)

But the real purpose of this search was deliberately hidden from Danish officials.
The original underwater search was abandoned because of technical problems, and soon, winter began and the ice froze over. The search was abandoned.

According to former Los Alamos nuclear weapons designer William Chambers, who previously dealt with accidents, including this crash, "It would be very difficult for anyone else to recover classified pieces if we couldn't find them."

Not exactly a comforting national security story, given that, they contained uranium and plutonium, and "the abandoned weapons parts were highly sensitive because of the way in which the design, shape and amount of uranium revealed classified elements of nuclear warhead design," reports BBC - Not to even mention the health and environmental impact of the released radioactive material.

Read the full report here.

Friday, November 7, 2008

APCO on Future Obama Foreign Policy

Lobbyists and consultants are busy trying to figure out what an Obama administration will mean to their business interests. Although largely a recap of old news, APCO has a great rundown of Obama’s foreign policy that includes an emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation.

Obama has outlined the following key foreign policy priorities: secure loose nukes from terrorists; pursue tough, direct diplomacy without preconditions to end the threat from Iran; and renew American diplomacy.

As much as these are driven by the political requirements of a presidential election, they also signal clearly a sincere concern about nuclear safety and a desire for collaborative diplomacy. Obama also emphasized his intention to end the war in Iraq responsibly and to work hard with the Iraqi leadership to achieve political consensus. He also noted that addressing the Israeli-Palestinian issue, stopping the genocide in Darfur and engaging China are priorities as well. In his discussions of foreign affairs, he often mentions that he will undertake smart diplomacy and will try to address problems by rallying international support for collaborative American leadership.


Obama is likely to undertake an early initiative to form a genuine consensus with Europe – through NATO, the European Union and bilaterally – on a variety of issues, starting especially with the financial crisis, but including: global social issues (poverty, health, water, narcotics, trafficking in persons); security issues (nuclear weapons, terrorism, arms control); and governance (rule of law, corruption, political choice, media freedom, human rights, religious tolerance). He will press hard for greater European participation in addressing these problems, especially as they manifest themselves in Afghanistan and Pakistan. NATO member states can expect to be pressured strongly and early to contribute more substantially to the effort in Afghanistan.

Obama has signaled that he will turn to addressing issues with Russia once he has built a clear consensus with Europe on the way ahead. It will no longer be easy for the Russian leadership to split Europe and the United States on energy, climate change, missile defense, democracy and human rights, and nuclear safety. While this probably means trade-offs and some compromises to achieve consensus on some issues, do not expect a weakening of core U.S. principles.


Obama maintains that he will deploy tough, direct presidential diplomacy with Iran without preconditions, offering WTO membership, investment and normal diplomatic relations in exchange for abandoning its nuclear program and support for terrorism. Failure to take this path will result in increased economic pressure and political isolation. He would strengthen the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty to provide for international sanctions against countries such as North Korea and Iran if they break the rules. Obama also wants to secure existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials and to negotiate a global ban on the production of nuclear weapons material, principally to keep these out of the hands of terrorists. His ultimate goal is a nuclear-free world. This is the issue on which Obama concentrated while in the Senate, and he has gathered around him individuals with considerable technical expertise and political weight on this issue.

(via Politico)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


If you’re reading this and haven’t yet voted, click here to find your nearest polling place.

Before you head out, if you’re still curious where Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain stand on arms control, click here for a side-by-side comparison of 15 key issues.

Now go vote!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dueling Articles on Candidates’ Positions on Missile Defense

James Hackett of the Washington Times and Shelby Spires of the Huntsville Times both put out dueling pieces on the positions of Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain on missile defense today.

Hackett opines:

The effort to defend against Iran's missiles took a new turn in late September when Washington delivered an X-band radar manned by 120 U.S. personnel to the first permanent U.S. military base in Israel.

Iran's missiles are a real and growing threat to U.S. forces and allies in the Middle East. Add the nuclear weapons Tehran is determined to acquire and Iran's longer-range missiles will be a threat to Europe and even the United States. The choice next Tuesday is between a candidate who supports missile defense and one who does not.


We do not have the luxury of waiting for Iran to get such weapons before fielding defenses, which take years to get in place. Deploying an X-band radar and other defenses in Israel and around the Middle East is prudent. And installing an X-band radar in the Czech Republic and ground-based interceptors in Poland is equally important, to protect NATO bases and cities in Europe and the United States.

Sen. John McCain has said he supports a strong missile defense, including the planned bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Sen. Barack Obama has made it crystal clear he will cut missile defense spending. When asked what he will cut in the whole federal budget, he mentions missile defense. The choice is clear.

Shelby, by contrast, reports:

Continued support for missile defense programs seems a lock for either a John McCain or Barack Obama White House given their campaign statements, says a defense expert, but programs still on the drawing board could be slashed.


In campaign speeches and online policy statements, McCain and Obama support overall missile defense and continued testing.

Obama's statement says the Democratic nominee's support comes with the reservation that he will "ensure that it is developed in a way that is pragmatic and cost-effective, and, most importantly, does not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public."

McCain's statement says the Republican nominee "strongly supports the development and deployment of theater and national missile defenses" to deter attacks on America, allies and military units.

The statement continues, "Effective missile defenses are also necessary to allow American military forces to operate overseas without being deterred by the threat of missile attack from a regional adversary."

Apparently the choice isn’t so clear after all.