Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No Nukes is Good Nukes.

With the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki receding faster than a middle-aged mans hair line it becomes important to once more use the event to talk about an ignored subject. No, not the monster multi-megaton devices perched on missiles ready at short notice to turn over the globe to the cockroaches but the even less discussed issue of tactical nuclear weapons.

The very term tactical nuke is a misnomer. Let us pick up a dictionary and define the word “tactics.” tactics - the branch of military science dealing with detailed maneuvers to achieve objectives set by strategy. (http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=tactics) also from the same source “a plan for attaining a particular goal” Thus tactics are the deep into the weeds things one does to achieve the much bigger goal or idea of strategy. It is the nuts and bolts acts one does to achieve a military victory.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are excellent examples of how the “tactics” of using nuclear weapons plays out. One of the dirty little secrets hidden in plane view about tactical nukes is that the two bombs used on those Japanese cities are now considered quite small. Fat Man, the device that flattened Nagasaki was “only” a 21 Kiloton device. Please note that a kiloton is roughly the explosive power of a cube of TNT ten yards on each side.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TNT_equivalent) If an average citizen wants to truly understand the disconnect between military and more normal thinking they can start at this fact: military planners consider a device that delivers a destructive force equivalent to twenty-one thousand tons of TNT “small.” . We are well beyond Alice in Wonderland and in the court of a monarch much less grounded in sanity than the Red Queen on one of her “off” days.


It takes a very special type of person to work in this particular niche of national policy. It take an even more special type of person to glibly talk about the necessity of thinking in a “tough” and “hard edged” way about the supposed utility of tactical nuclear weapons. It takes an ivory tower intellectual with serious issues with his own masculinity to beat his small, cadaverous chest in this way. It takes a man who spent most of his high-school years stuffed into his locker by jocks to have to “prove” himself in this manner.


For the rest of us who are not overcompensating for their disastrous adolescence this type of “tough thinking” looks patently insane. That is because it is patently insane. The very thought that is wrapped up in the term “tactical nuclear weapons” is the product of a warped mind.


Let’s drill down and try to take the idea on its supposed merits. First let’s look at the weapon itself, specifically let’s look at the “bunker buster” that was the apple of the Bush Administration's eye. Let us go into Dick Cheney’s undisclosed location and spy on him stroking his “precious” the B-61 Mod 11 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robust_Nuclear_Earth_Penetrator). In dead-eye Dick’s warped mind the device is quite “small,” “only 500 Kilotons.” That is almost 23 times as large as the Nagasaki bomb. Still Dick has a point it is “smaller” than the Nine Megaton device, the B-53, that preceded it. That device was more than 600 times the size of the device that flattened Hiroshima. What might Dick be planning to do with this “smaller” device?


Dick and his sock puppet W claimed they needed the bunker buster to take out a “hardened” site some future tin-pot dictator might set up. This would set up a “clean” kill of that site that more conventional tactics could not offer. The nuke would prevent the casualties a conventional ground assault would inflict on American troops. We just fly in, release the big boom and be safely back home to watch Idol on TV the same day.


It was a nice story and like most stories told by Bush and Cheney a big fairy tale. First off most hardened sites do not sit in out-of-the-way pristine surroundings. They sit near other stuff, stuff like major population centers, stuff like other non-military buildings. The use of these weapons would incur considerable “collateral damage” that is dead, innocent, civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Since we are talking about collateral damage let’s look at what happens to the ground that the device is penetrating. It is being blown up into the sky and irradiated. Gravity being what it is and air currents being what they are that means tons and tons of irradiated dirt being scattered far and wide. That means even more luckless civilians becoming casualties. Thus at best while American casualties may be few our opponent will be in for a major hurting.


How will that fact play out in the broader, non-military world? The U.S. zaps a hardened site in some third world or at least non-nuclear nation killing not only the “bad guy” directly but also thousands of innocent civilians. The number of civilians both directly and indirectly maimed by the bomb could easily be in the hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions. How does world opinion look after such an act? Throw in the fact that the U.S. is still the only nation to use nuclear weapons in anger and it used the device on a non-European nation and how do we look then? Even by the crassest of political considerations the use of a bunker-buster for its supposed function is a no-go.


There is however a “strategic” reason to have these weapons. They are a perfect “first strike” weapons. At least they seem to be at first blush. Ground based missiles are the “perfect” target for a bunker-buster bomb. They are high value fixed targets that be easily identified and hit. This is why the bunker-buster is such a danger to stability. The apathetic American public may be fooled by the talk of taking out tin-pot dictators but the Chinese and especially the Russians know what particular bulls-eyes these bombs are aimed at.


The Russians, who are world class paranoids in the best of times, are particularly “concerned” by the direction our nuclear thinking is proceeding. Our pursuit of a new set of tactical nukes is viewed with deep distrust by the Russians—as it should be.


We should share their deep misgivings about these “new and improved” weapons. The advertised reason for having them in the first place is deeply suspect. They can not be used against the hardened military sites of a nuclear power. At best they are a form of blackmail to be used against Russia or China, “that’s a nice hardened command and control center you have there; it would be a shame if some one dropped a bunker buster on it.” If we bluster with our bunker buster that way it turns our nation into nothing better than an out-sized Mafia Don. At worst we might have to actually back up the threat by really using the weapon and who knows what happens after that?


That is the real danger of these weapons; they are a gate-way weapon. Because they are “tactical” planners come up with tactics that employ them. There is always a danger that some future president might actually employ those tactics for some short-term goal. The weapon is just lying around so why not use it? The temptation will always be there. Because there is a chance that the “tactical” weapons will be used there is a chance that the “limited” strike will spiral wildly out of control bringing about an exchange of the really big booms of the Strategic nuclear weapons. Don’t believe such a scenario would ever play out? Three words for you: President John McCain. Or try these words: President Sara Palin. We were only one economic (and candidate) meltdown away from that possibility.


That is why it should be not only one of Obama’s top priorities but one of our top priorities that we do something serious about non-proliferation. Cutting the strategic nukes is a good idea, getting rid of the tactical nukes is an essential act of sanity.

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