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31 August 2015


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Of some relevance, I think, is the opening of a review by Bruce Blair of the 2013 study: 'Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety' by Eric Schlosser.

'For public consumption, the official narrative of the Cold War celebrated nuclear weapons as the bulwark of US security. By deterring the Soviets from initiating a nuclear attack, and vice versa, the superpowers built strategic stability on a solid foundation of mutual terror. By credibly threatening devastating retaliation by survivable nuclear forces under the firm control of the US president and his Soviet counterpart, nuclear war would be prevented. And although the US and Soviet operational postures ran risks of accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, the public and the major institutions of government and society were solemnly assured that they were negligible risks.

'Eric Schlosser offers a compelling repudiation of this entire narrative. His investigation shows definitively that the risks were far greater than officially admitted. The perceived need for nuclear weapons to be readily usable overrode concerns for their safety, and a combination of human and technical factors led to near disaster countless times. Thick secrecy, fact twisting about the US nuclear arsenal, and subterfuge aggravated the risks and allowed them to escape the control of the democratic process, and even to escape notice and remedial action within the inner precincts of the government. Even defense secretaries and presidents often floundered in the dark, unaware of the variety and magnitude of the dangers. A cloistered nuclear priesthood, largely unaccountable, created an illusion of safety that masked the systematic potential for tragedy on a monumental scale.'

(See http://www.globalzero.org/files/bb_mad_fiction_2014.pdf .)

Before becoming one of the world's leading academic experts on nuclear command and control, Blair had been a Minuteman launch control officer in the Seventies. The starting point of his work was that, if indeed U.S. force employment policy was what the academic theorists said it was, he should have been practising launch following a Soviet nuclear attack. But instead the whole focus of their exercises was on getting their missiles off before they were hit.

Accordingly, the Fachidioten were blind to two central facts. The first is that the whole notion of strategic stability based upon a secure second strike retaliatory capability was a load of old cobblers, in particular because it presupposed command and control which is robust under thermonuclear attack. The second, that a suspicious Soviet observer would be eminently prone to conclude that the United States was actually envisaging a 'first strike'.

(For links to many of Blair's writings, see his Wikipedia entry, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_G._Blair .)

I would have only one quibble with William Polk's characteristically admirable reflections. He writes:

'We are moving back toward a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. And, while Russia is not so formidable as it appeared a generation ago, it still has a nuclear arsenal as large and as deployable as ours.'

Actually, in one sense the situation is more dangerous. In late Soviet times – again, contrary to the conventional wisdom among many of the academic Fachidioten – Soviet operational planning was based upon the premise that 'first use' of nuclear weapons was to be eschewed. Unsurprisingly, given the collapse of their conventional power, their Russian successors have moved to Western-style strategies of nuclear 'deterrence'.

Ironically, as so often, the Fachidioten were quite precisely wrong. When the Russian Government shifted to strategies of 'first use', one of the leading theorists behind late Soviet military strategy, Makhmut Akhmetovich Gareev – an old Tatar cavalryman from Chelyabinsk, apparently Sunni Muslim by religion – had more or less to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting the change. From a 1995 discussion of his views by the invaluable Jacob W. Kipp, then with the U.S. Army's Foreign Military Studies Office:

'Gareev strongly disagrees with the new Russian military doctrine's open proclamation of possible first-use of nuclear weapons and points out the serious political dangers associated with such a declaratory policy. Dismissing the need for such actions against a wide range of states and noting the terrible risks associated in the use of such weapons against another nuclear power, Gareev concludes that a defensive military doctrine and first use of nuclear weapons amount to a dangerous contradiction. It can lead to confusion in times of crisis that could result in dangerous miscalculations. The path to stable deterrence is to be found through "the rejection of the concept of global nuclear war and through planning only deterring nuclear strikes."'

(See http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/rusrma.htm .)

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