Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, has expressed confidence in Pakistan’s nuclear security arrangements. These comments were made to the media, and echo sentiments previously expressed by him.

Although comments from administration officials wax and wane on the topic depending on the circumstance.

For example at the nuclear security summit the risk of nuclear terrorism was made out to be “high” and furthermore that high risk level was said to be “increasing.” The US executive does not appear to have a consistent narrative on these topics. This should invite speculation from objective analysts as to whether the perception of risk is being manipulated depending on the political needs of the moment.

A few days ago GSN featured comments from Bradford University researcher Shaun Gregory. He is perhaps the leading academic expert on the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the weapons complex, and has really done a lot of good work on the topic. He is involved with Bradford’s impressive Pakistan Security Research Unit. Gregory is cited by GSN as stating

The increasing size of the Pakistani nuclear weapons complex increases the challenges in keeping all the assets secured against militants operating in the country, one analyst said in a National Public Radio report on Thursday…

…”The more nuclear weapons you have, the more nuclear weapons storage sites you have to have, the more nuclear weapons in transit at various times you have to have,” said Shaun Gregory, of the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, who studies Pakistani nuclear security. He added that this also requires “more people involved in the safety, security, manufacture, deployment, [and] preparedness for use you have to have.”…

Now notice that Admiral Mullen was reflecting on the current nuclear security regime in Pakistan. He did not tell us what he thinks about the implications that an increased Pakistani nuclear arsenal, and the associated ramping up of fissile material production and so on, would have for the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

What might we say about this?

I tend to adopt the position articulated by the late Wolfgang Panofsky. In an address at Fermilab, which I can’t find a link for, Panofsky stated that there is no logical correlation between the size of a nuclear arsenal and its security.

Panofsky is correct. When was the Soviet nuclear weapons complex at its most insecure? Under Andropov in the early 1980s or under Yeltsin, Kuchma and so on in the 1990s? Surely the latter.

If the Pakistani nuclear weapons complex has very tight security procedures then I do not believe that an increase in the size of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal increases the risk of nuclear terrorism. Mullen states that the security regime is pretty good. Should that be so Panofsky’s reasoning applies.

What I think we should focus on is something else. There exists a certain trade-off between nuclear deterrence and nuclear security/safety. If a state places a very high salience on nuclear deterrence, say through Launch on Warning or Predelegation, then we might have a problem with diminished security and safety.

When it comes to Pakistani nuclear security and safety the thing to focus on is the deterrence-safety trade off. Imagine, for arguments sake, if the Pakistan Army becomes so concerned with Indian military doctrine and capabilities that it predelegates launch authority to ground commanders at the Corps level or something. That increases the weight placed upon deterrence in the deterrence-safety trade off.

What is Pakistan doing doctrine wise? What is Pakistan doing nuclear deployment wise and nuclear operational planning wise to counter Indian ambitions for combined arms operational level warfare? These are the questions to consider.

A terrorist group could seek to trigger a nuclear mobilisation in South Asia by conducting a terrorist atrocity in India. This need not lead to nuclear war; the idea would be to just trigger a mobilisation. In crisis situations the temptation would be to put a higher value on deterrence over safety; now size becomes an issue. That could create an opening for nuclear terrorist action, if militant Islamist groups are so inclined (which I doubt).

Permissive Action Links are one way in which the advanced nuclear weapon states have sought to transcend the deterrence-security trade off. It is rumoured that the US has provided some assistance to Pakistan on PALs using previous arrangements with France as a precedent (given the NPT). Some documents on Franco-US nuclear weapons design and security collaboration have been released recently by the National Security Archive. They make for interesting reading.

However, judging by a recent article by Sig Hecker in Physics Today the lab-to-lab relationship between Pakistan and the US doesn’t appear to be that deep

After I left Los Alamos in 2005 and joined Stanford University, I began to expand my outreach to India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. The Stanford “Five-Nation Project” brought together political and physical scientists, along with current and former government officials, from Pakistan, India, Russia, China, and the US in an effort to defuse the tensions and control the dangers resulting from India’s decision to conduct a series of nuclear tests in 1998, which were followed by Pakistani nuclear tests two weeks later. Those tests and the ensuing nuclear buildup between the two historic rivals make South Asia the most likely place for a nuclear confrontation.

Pakistan is also at the top of my list of nuclear risks because it is the most likely place in which fissile materials could find their way out of the hands of government and into those of terrorists. However, it is also the most difficult place to do science diplomacy. The five-nation dialog facilitated discussions with Pakistani officials on nuclear materials security and the proliferation activities of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. But Pakistan’s nuclear scientific community is not accessible, and the problems are difficult and extremely sensitive politically…

Hecker can only reflect on his own personal experiences as a former Los Alamos director. We do not have detailed knowledge of any official lab-to-lab collaboration on nuclear weapons security.

I’d like to make two comments as asides.

The first is that Hecker in his article offers the thesis that science diplomacy helped to end the cold war. That is a conclusion that realist approaches to theoretical international relations might take issue with. However, I think Hecker is right. Matthew Evangelista had published a book length study on this topic, which is quite persuasive.

Secondly, many are focusing on Pakistani nuclear security following a recent militant attack on a Naval air base in Karachi. The reporting of this attack by Syed Saleem Shahzad has resulted in his gruesome murder. It is alleged that the ISI was involved in this. I took to reading Shahzad’s articles in Asia Times Online, that is how I had learned of Operation Lionheart and other matters, and I had bought his book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11. Those interested in knowing about “Af-Pak” in the West will miss his work. In his book, nonetheless, he gives al-Qaeda too much operational credit, I felt. Despite that it has a lot of really interesting information.

The attack on the Naval air base is instructive. It is cited by those who raise the alarm about nuclear security in Pakistan. But the Naval air base attack followed the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden. Now that event is also seen through the prism of nuclear security because it is argued that it shows al-Qaeda has pretty good connections with the Pakistan Army.

Yet the naval air base attack is seen as a militant revenge attack against the military in response to the death of bin Laden. Gee, the Pakistanis just can’t take a treat in Western strategic discourse.

I think that Shahzad is the real face of Pakistan; not the Pakistani Taliban.

The Iran UD3 based neutron trigger story seems to suggest the following. China used such a trigger to generate neutrons for its early nuclear weapons programme. It would seem that China then passed an early nuclear design over to Pakistan. This would, of course, have included an integrated design for an entire nuclear weapon. We know that China passed on such info to Pakistan and that in turn the AQ Khan network would have passed along some, if not all, of that info on to Iran (and Libya).

In commentary on the UD3 story a nifty little photo of AQ Khan in front of a blackboard showing a crude schematic of a nuclear weapon is depicted. In the photo you will see that a UD3 neutron initiator is depicted at the centre.

This has attracted a lot of attention for its suggests a design heritage for an Iranian bomb; from China to Pakistan and from Pakistan to Iran via the AQ Khan network.

However, let’s take a look at that photo again. You can see it at the ISIS analysis on the UD3 story and at a blog post at the ArmsControlWonk

See the reference to UD3? It’s hard to miss.

What I would like you to focus on is something else. Look at AQ Khan. Actually, look at what he is holding. He is holding a soccer ball (football; I don’t know how Americans can get away calling NFL “football”).

Why a football?

As the ACW explains

AQ Khan graces the cover, holding a soccer ball (which is basically the size and configuration of the shell of high explosives in a nuclear weapon), standing in front of a blackboard showing a nuclear weapon diagram. The most shocking detail is the notation “Uran Deuteride Initiator.”

Wiki has a good little discussion on this

The Fat Man bomb had two concentric, spherical shells of high explosives, each about 10 inches (25 cm) thick. The inner shell drove the implosion. The outer shell consisted of a soccer-ball pattern of 32 high explosive lenses, each of which converted the convex wave from its detonator into a concave wave matching the contour of the outer surface of the inner shell. If these 32 lenses could be replaced with only two, the high explosive sphere could become an ellipsoid (prolate spheroid) with a much smaller diameter

There might be a bit of a contradiction in all these leaks about Iranian weaponisation.

I am referring to two-point implosion. Global security.org has a good little primer on two-point linear implosion. The football reference here is to what Americans call a “football”.

The two ends of a cylinder, or an ovoid, could be driven toward each other to create a high-density sphere. This two-point detonation greatly reduced the diameter and the weight of the primary.
A linear implosion allows for a low density, elongated non-spherical (football shaped) mass to be compressed into a supercritical configuration without using symmetric implosion designs. This assembly is accomplished by embedding an elliptical shaped mass in a cylinder of explosive. The explosive is detonated on both ends, and an inert wave shaping device is required in front of the detonation points. Extensive experimentation was needed to create a workable form, but this design enables the use of Plutonium as well as Uranium

For two-point spherical implosion, which is actually more relevant, see the link to Wiki above.

It has been alleged that Iran has a two-point implosion based weaponisation programme.

The Guardian had a good story on Iran and two-point implosion

The UN’s nuclear watchdog has asked Iran to explain evidence suggesting that Iranian scientists have experimented with an advanced nuclear warhead design, the Guardian has learned.The very existence of the technology, known as a “two-point implosion” device, is officially secret in both the US and Britain, but according to previously unpublished documentation in a dossier compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iranian scientists may have tested high-explosive components of the design. The development was today described by nuclear experts as “breathtaking” and has added urgency to the effort to find a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis…

…Documentation referring to experiments testing a two-point detonation design are part of the evidence of nuclear weaponisation gathered by the IAEA and presented to Iran for its response

The Guardian also notes

The first implosion devices, like the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, used 32 high-explosive hexagons and pentagons arrayed around a plutonium core like the panels of a football. The IAEA has a five-page document describing experimentation on such a hemispherical array of explosives

If the UD3 story is true, that Iran might have resumed an active weaponisation programme, then the two-point implosion story might be false. This is because this story basically alleges that Iran is working on a nuclear weapon initially designed by the Chinese and handed down to Pakistan which in turn was handed to Iran.

AQ Khan is holding a football/soccer ball (the number of panels in the actual Chinese design is irrelevant).

That’s not two-point implosion.

Perhaps Iran has dabbled with both and has given two-point implosion away as being too risky. Perhaps Iran is using a UD3 trigger for its own design based on two-point implosion or perhaps the two-point implosion story is false.

If the latter, then at least one of the documents much discussed in the context of Iranian weaponisation is baloney.

As matters currently stand we are in no position to determine which of these possibilities is correct.

As someone who characterises himself as being just about as Left as they come, and despite that someone who actually gets published at Online Opinion, it was only all too natural that my interest should have been piqued by Clive Hamilton’s strong critique of Online Opinion. Hamilton upbraids Online Opinion for increasingly airing the viewpoint of climate change sceptics.

Hamilton’s main charge is that Online Opinion has been captured by climate change denialists and that, in fact, it is actively promoting a denialist agenda. He points to the disproportionate number of denialist articles published in recent times and a possible connection between the Australian Environment Foundation, which he states was set up to disseminate dis-information on global warming. The implicit assumption is that a relationship, perhaps of a financial or personal nature, has developed between the two entities which accounts for the rise of denialist articles.

I believe that the conclusions Hamilton reaches are unwarranted, based on the evidence that is before us. To establish a case for bias Hamilton would need to establish that the discrepancy exists, if it indeed does exist, because denialist articles are published and climate change articles are thrown into the rubbish bin, but Hamilton does not provide any such evidence.

Based on the available evidence it would be possible to infer that denialist articles are published because denialists continually submit them. Hamilton strongly suggests that they are an organised movement. Continually submitting articles for publication is what such movements do. Many Green groups, in my view correctly, no longer engage in this debate moving on to the more important issue of solutions. However, there is a much bigger issue here and it is worth putting all this within a broader framework that goes to the very nature of the Australian media.

He states that Online Opinion does not meet the standards that one expects of a newspaper op-ed article. That is indeed the case.

Rare it is that Online Opinion would provide space for such frivolous garbage as “Sheila’s with wobbly bits”, a pathetic disquisition on the term “c**t” or pop-psychoanalysis on “rites of passage” and Brazilian bikini waxing. This type of hairhead nonsense is regular fare on the Op-Ed pages at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Pathetic pop-cultural analysis of this nature is designed to generate hits so Fairfax can sell advertising space on its websites. They are invariably written by staff reporters, which lowers labour costs. These articles also provide a more pernicious purpose, which is to divert people from the issues and have us all concentrate on matters of no great moment.

The opinion articles published in Australia’s “quality newspapers”, if they do find space on their august opinion pages for topics of a serious nature, usually fit within a very narrow spectrum of opinion. You will have to try very hard to find an article that questions the corporate domination of Australian politics (save for Mark Latham’s pieces in the Australian Financial Review that dare use the term “socialism.”); that points out that business has a privileged role in policy planning; that politics is the shadow cast by big business over society; that the ALP and the Liberal Party are increasingly two factions of the same pro-business party; that the “free-market” is for the poor and powerless not the rich and privileged.

You won’t see that because, far from being neutral, Australia’s major media outlets are corporations and it would be difficult to imagine that Australia’s “quality media” should question the corporate domination of Australian politics, economics and society. We also need to consider that they generate a profit by selling audiences to other corporations and it is simply inconceivable that media outlets so financed would question the corporation’s privileged position in society on pretty much the same grounds that the official organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union did not question the leading role of the Party in Soviet society. This is of no small moment given the corporation’s evolution from an institution chartered by the public sector for moral ends into a top-down tyranny dominated by the profit motive.

Hamilton points out that the institutional affiliation of authors, in contrast to the mainstream press, is not given at Online Opinion which has the affect of masking bias. This is, at best, a minor issue. One can expect every week multiple articles from John Roskam, from the slavishly pro-corporate Institute of Public Affairs agitprop unit, on Australia’s newspaper opinion pages, but you will struggle to find its Left equivalents. In other words, the affiliations are listed but the favourable bias toward minor servants of the rich and privileged obtains all the same.

Moreover, let us consider an article published by The Age in recent times by former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans on the need to implement the “doctrine” of “humanitarian intervention” in international relations. This would have been considered an article of great gravitas but the appropriate response would be to crack up in ridicule at another example of the contrast between the much vaunted Evans intellect and reality. It would not have been of surprise to see Australia’s culturally connected intellectual classes node sagely at the power of the Evan’s thesis.

Nowhere would it have been explained, however, that Evans was one of the most important supporters of the “Jakarta Lobby” during Suharto’s reign, when the Indonesian Army was rampaging its way through East Timor. Nor would it have been pointed out by the editors that the Government in which Evans served provided De Jure recognition of Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor. It would have been inconceivable for the pompous intellect to cite Iraq as a case example of a humanitarian crisis requiring a “responsbility to protect;” protection from us that is.

This is not a mere academic point for it demonstrates the critical support provided by a biased media for imperial ventures. Let us consider Afghanistan. Rarely is the war in Afghanistan questioned on moral grounds in the Australian press. To the contrary, the war in Afghanistan is taken as a paradigm example of a just war. However, Afghan society is being systematically destroyed as a result of the conflict and the fact that no opinion to the contrary is allowed to appear in the mainstream media provides an important structural role in sustaining a conflict being waged by liberal democracies, such as Australia.

The point that Hamilton implies, that the mainstream media is objective (hence the statement on affiliation and bias in his article) whereas Online Opinion is not is fallacious. In fact, the systematic bias shown by the mainstream press provides the critical support needed by imperial power in places such as Afghanistan, where people are dying and living in misery because of the depredations unleashed by military power with the critical support provided by a biased media and an obedient intellectual class.

So, we wait with baited breath for Hamilton to cease reading The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. However, I predict it won’t be long before Hamilton submits an opinion piece for both publications despite their systematic bias in favour of power and privilege.

If consistent, we expect Hamilton to write an op-ed piece in these publications upbraiding them for their bias and announcing his desire to have nothing to do with them. I submit that such consistency is highly unlikely.

For the record, let me begin where I began. As I noted I consider myself to be as Left as they come. Yet, I have never encountered publication problems at Online Opinion on grounds of content. I have had articles that question US policy in Iran; that provide a moral critique, rather than a pragmatic one, of the Iraq War and yes I have even had one published on climate change emphasizing the link between climate change and human survival.

I believe that there is a good reason for this. It is quite evident, to me at least, that at Online Opinion one can read articles that are “outside the box” and which question received wisdom, including on climate change. I, for one, celebrate its diverse opinion and commitment to free thought, which means supporting the airing of views that one despises and that precisely appear “loopy”.Of all the people in the media that I have dealt with I have found the editor, Susan Prior, to be the most courteous and helpful.

We know that progress in the sciences occurs on the basis of the continual questioning of received wisdom even if that questioning appears loopy. The noted physicist C.P. Snow long ago observed that there are “two cultures” with the sciences on one side and the humanities on the other. In the humanities what matters is who you know rather than what you know, and how many people know you given the emphasis on academic celebrity (the reason why the Monash University Faculty of Arts provides a daily list of media commentary by staff members no matter how trivial). The most important quality that one can posses is “collegiality”. Yet, generally speaking, the “loopy” questioning of dominant “modes of discourse” by the cantankerous in the sciences is actively encouraged, as it should in any domain characterised by rich intellectual content.

In short, the systematic bias of the mainstream media is of greater human consequence than any alleged bias here. Hamilton would do well to ponder the human consequences of the mainstream media’s bias toward big business and imperial violence and his choice to continue supporting the corporate media at the expense of a smaller media outlet, albeit not perfect and not without flaws, that does show a greater propensity to air viewpoints outside of the spectrum of respectable opinion than generally appears elsewhere, certainly a greater propensity than appears in the corporate media.