Avner Cohen and William Burr write: On the dawn of September 22, 1979, a U.S. Vela satellite used to detect nuclear explosions spotted a double flash somewhere in the South Atlantic. Normally characteristic of nuclear detonations, the double flash quickly set off a panic within the U.S. national security apparatus: Had a nation really detonated a nuclear weapon, possibly in violation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty? And if so, who had done it? Or was it simply a technical malfunction, or even a reflection of a natural cosmic phenomenon?
Over the months that followed, U.S. scientists and intelligence experts launched a series of investigations to determine what happened, but the results were never conclusive. While White House science advisers officially maintained that the double flash was a result of a technical malfunction, others in the government believed that it was a nuclear test, possibly by South Africa or more likely Israel. Today, U.S. government officials appear more interested in preserving secrecy about the incident than shedding light on what it might have known at the time.
What the Vela 6911 satellite actually detected on September 22 is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the nuclear age, and probably will remain so as long as significant intelligence reports on the Vela flash remain classified. But thanks to a new trove of declassified documents at the National Archives (from the files of Ambassador Gerard C. Smith, President Jimmy Carter’s special representative for non-proliferation matters) and a few items from the Carter Presidential Library — all published today for the first time by the National Security Archive — we are able to discover more about what really happened that morning, how the Carter administration reacted and why many in the intelligence community never accepted the official White House narrative. [Continue reading…]
Alex Wellerstein, a historian of nuclear weapons, writes: Sometime in the next few weeks, Donald Trump will be briefed on the procedures for how to activate the U.S. nuclear arsenal, if he hasn’t already learned about them.
All year, the prospect of giving the real estate and reality TV mogul the power to launch attacks that would kill millions of people was one of the main reasons his opponents argued against electing him. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” Hillary Clinton said in her speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. She cut an ad along the same lines. Republicans who didn’t support Trump — and even some who did, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — also said they didn’t think he could be trusted with the launch codes.
Now they’re his. When Trump takes office in January, he will have sole authority over more than 7,000 warheads. There is no failsafe. The whole point of U.S. nuclear weapons control is to make sure that the president — and only the president — can use them whenever he decides to do so. The only sure way to keep President Trump from launching a nuclear attack, under the system we’ve had in place since the early Cold War, would have been to elect someone else. [Continue reading…]
Bruce Blair writes: I was the former nuclear missile launch officer who in October appeared in a TV advertisement for Hillary Clinton, saying: “The thought of Donald Trump with nuclear weapons scares me to death. It should scare everyone.” The ad featured various quotes from Trump’s campaign rallies and interviews, in which he says, among other things: “I would bomb the shit out of ’em,” “I wanna be unpredictable,” and “I love war.” As I walked through a nuclear missile launch center in the ad, I explained that “self-control may be all that keeps these missiles from firing.”
We will see all of our fears—and the new president-elect’s self-control—put to the test over the next four years. When Trump takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2017, there will be no shortage of combustible tensions around the globe. And Trump will need to make some critical decisions quickly — including whether he truly wants, as he suggested during the campaign, a world in which there are even more nuclear powers than we have today.
These tensions are present even now and show no signs of easing. For starters, U.S.-led NATO and Russian military forces are shadow boxing with increasing intensity. The mutual intimidation is steadily escalating, and Trump’s soft commitment to NATO’s defense has not helped. Rather than assuaging the Russians, it has only stoked insecurity in Europe and perhaps tempted Russia to intervene in the Baltic states. In other words, appeasement only makes matters more unstable.
In East Asia, meanwhile, a mercurial and belligerent leader of North Korea will soon be able to brandish nuclear-armed missiles to credibly threaten South Korea, Japan and the U.S. homeland with nuclear devastation. The timeline for this threat to materialize is very short — months or a low number of years. (Trump himself mentioned the threat in his “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday.) Kim Jong Un’s provocations combined with Trump’s soft-pedaling of the U.S. defense commitment in Asia have put the entire region on edge and provoked South Korea to consider acquiring a nuclear arsenal in self defense.
There are other crises brewing as well, including in the South China Sea and the Middle East. As China lays claim to nearly all of this sea in part to create safe bastions for its new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, the U.S. has intensified its air, sea, and undersea surveillance and anti-submarine warfare operations, increasing the chances of hostile encounters. In the Middle East, U.S. and Russian forces are operating in very close and not-so-friendly quarters in the Syrian theater, and the specter of a region going nuclear looms larger than ever as Trump warns he will tear up and re-negotiate the hard-won Iranian nuclear deal. This ill-advised move would set Iran free to resume its nuclear program, while spurring Iran’s enemies to follow suit, as well as re-opening the debate over U.S.-Israeli pre-emptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. [Continue reading…]
Anna Nemtsova writes: Managers of the Zenit Arena, a giant half-built stadium in St. Petersburg, received an official letter from the Ministry of Emergency Situations last week demanding that they immediately create shelter facilities for wartime. The stadium, under construction for the upcoming World Cup 2018, is located outside of the city boundaries, the letter said, but in case of nuclear attack it is in the potential “zone of war destruction and radiation fallout.“
The last time Russians heard authorities talk like this about a potential mobilization for a nuclear strike was 20 years ago, and it all seemed highly improbable. Now, it appears, the Kremlin is not joking. Up to 40 million people participated in the recent civil defense exercises all across the country, learning about how to hide and where exactly to run to in case of a nuclear war.
But whether the motive behind this is self-defense, an implied threat to the West, a means to mobilize and control public opinion, or all of the above, is not entirely clear. [Continue reading…]
Quartz reports: Blockchain technology has been slow to gain adoption in non-financial contexts, but it could turn out to have invaluable military applications. DARPA, the storied research unit of the US Department of Defense, is currently funding efforts to find out if blockchains could help secure highly sensitive data, with potential applications for everything from nuclear weapons to military satellites.
The case for using a blockchain boils down to a concept in computer security known as “information integrity.” That’s basically being able to track when a system or piece of data has been viewed or modified. DARPA’s program manager behind the blockchain effort, Timothy Booher, offers this analogy: Instead of trying to make the walls of a castle as tall as possible to prevent an intruder from getting in, it’s more important to know if anyone has been inside the castle, and what they’re doing there.
A blockchain is a decentralized, immutable ledger. Blockchains can permanently log modifications to a network or database, preventing intruders from covering their tracks. In DARPA’s case, blockchain tech could offer crucial intelligence on whether a hacker has modified something in a database, or whether they’re surveilling a particular military system. [Continue reading…]
Jeffrey Lewis writes: The other day, a little present arrived in the mail. It was book, or rather a pair of doorstops. Titled Doomed to Cooperate, the massive two-volume set is about 1,000 pages of essays, interviews, and vignettes from more than 100 participants in the remarkable period of cooperation between the nuclear weapons complexes of the United States and Russia in the immediate post-Cold War period. Siegfried Hecker, who edited the volumes, titled them after the remark of a Soviet scientist, who said of the shared danger that nuclear weapons pose, “Therefore, you know, we were doomed to work together, to cooperate.” Not everyone got the message, certainly not Vladimir Putin. Set against relations between Washington and Moscow today, the incredible stories in Hecker’s two volumes seem to be from another era entirely. On Monday, Putin issued a decree suspending a plutonium disposition agreement with the United States due to its “unfriendly actions.” (An unofficial translation is available from the Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow, as is a draft law submitted by the Kremlin.) Putin’s decree ends one of the last remaining forms of cooperation from that remarkable era.
“Plutonium disposition” is a fancy sort of phrase, the kind of term of art that, when I drop it at a cocktail party, sends people off to refill their drinks. But plutonium is the stuff of which bombs are made. After the Cold War, the United States and Russia agreed to dispose of tons of plutonium to make sure it could never be put back into bombs. So believe you me, when the Russians decide that maybe they should just hang on to that material for a while longer, it’s not so boring.
And we’re talking about a lot of plutonium here. If you recall the dark days of the Cold War, or maybe just read about them in a book, the United States and Soviet Union each had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. That’s sort of insane if you think about what just one nuclear bomb did to Hiroshima and another to Nagasaki. But the United States and the Soviet Union each built stockpiles in excess of 30,000 nuclear weapons at their peak, massive arsenals of nuclear weapons that vast exceeded any conceivable purpose. And at the beating heart of the vast majority of those bombs were tiny little pits of plutonium.
Washington and Moscow have made great strides in reducing their vast nuclear arsenals, although we still have more than enough nuclear weapons to kill each other and then make the rubble bounce. The United States, for example, has reduced its stockpile from a peak of 31,255 nuclear weapons in 1967 to 4,571 in 2015. Let’s just say Russia’s stockpile is comparable, though perhaps not quite as modest.
Of course, retiring a nuclear weapon requires it to be dismantled. In the United States, a backlog of thousands of weapons awaits dismantlement. That queue stretches to 2022, and few experts think the United States will meet that target. And even once a weapon is dismantled, that still leaves the plutonium. As long as the plutonium exists, it can be turned back into a nuclear bomb.
The United States and Russia have lots and lots of plutonium left over from the Cold War. Neither country makes new plutonium anymore, or at least no weapons-grade plutonium, but don’t worry — there’s still more than enough to keep you up at night. The International Panel on Fissile Materials, at Princeton University, estimates the stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium at 88 metric tons for the United States and 128 metric tons for Russia. To give you a sense of how much plutonium that is, it is an unclassified fact that a nuclear weapon can be made with as little as 4 kilograms of plutonium. It’s a slightly touchier subject that this is the average in the U.S. stockpile — one can make do with less. But let’s do the math: Even at 4 kilograms per nuclear weapon, 88 metric tons represents enough material for 22,000 nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]
Eli Clifton reports: According to hacked emails reviewed by LobeLog, Former Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged Israel’s nuclear arsenal, an open secret that U.S. and Israeli politicians typically refuse to acknowledge as part of Israel’s strategy of “nuclear ambiguity.” Powell also rejected assessments that Iran, at the time, was “a year away” from a nuclear weapon.
The emails, released by the hacking group DCLeaks, show Powell discussing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech before a joint meeting of Congress with his business partner, Jeffrey Leeds.
Leeds summarizes Netanyahu as having “said all the right things about the president and all the things he has done to help Israel. But basically [he] said this deal sucks, and the implication is that you have to be an idiot not to see it.”
Powell responded that U.S. negotiators can’t get everything they want from a deal. But echoing a point that many Iran hawks have questioned, Powell said that Israel’s nuclear arsenal and rational self-interest make the construction and testing of an Iranian nuclear weapon a highly unlikely policy choice for Iran’s leaders. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: North Korea will have enough material for about 20 nuclear bombs by the end of this year, with ramped-up uranium enrichment facilities and an existing stockpile of plutonium, according to new assessments by weapons experts.
The North has evaded a decade of U.N. sanctions to develop the uranium enrichment process, enabling it to run an effectively self-sufficient nuclear program that is capable of producing around six nuclear bombs a year, they said.
The true nuclear capability of the isolated and secretive state is impossible to verify. But after Pyongyang conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test last week and, according to South Korea, was preparing for another, it appears to have no shortage of material to test with.
North Korea has an abundance of uranium reserves and has been working covertly for well over a decade on a project to enrich the material to weapons-grade level, the experts say. [Continue reading…]
In a review of Command and Control, which starts showing in theaters on September 14, Michael Mechanic writes: The film—which opens on a scene in September 1980, as young maintenance guys suit up to work on a Titan 2 missile in Damascus, Arkansas—features great archival footage and reenactments shot in a decommissioned silo complex. Command and Control dutifully follows the book’s basic outline. The central narrative thread involves a technician’s mistake at a Titan 2 silo that ended with the explosion of a missile whose warhead was more powerful than all the bombs America dropped in WWII combined, the nukes included. (The warhead didn’t detonate, obviously, but at the time nobody knew that it wouldn’t.)
This part of the story is related onscreen by the same former airmen, commanders, journalists, and politicos who appear in the book—largely men who were there or otherwise involved. Among them is then-Senior Airman David Powell, who was a teenager on an Air Force maintenance team when he dropped a nine-pound socket head down the silo shaft, puncturing the missile’s fuel tank. (To get a taste, read the scene as it appears in Schlosser’s book.) What comes after serves as a potent illustration of the breakdown of the military’s command-and-control structure, designed to prevent such accidents and deal with them effectively should they happen. Spoiler alert: Bad decisions are made by know-nothings up the chain of command, and bad things result. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: North Korea’s fifth nuclear test is ominous not only because the country is slowly mastering atomic weaponry, but because it is making headway in developing missiles that could hurl nuclear warheads halfway around the globe, threatening Washington and New York City.
The reclusive, hostile nation has been rushing to perfect missiles that are small, fast, light and surprisingly advanced, according to analysts and military officials. This spring and summer, Pyongyang successfully tested some of these missiles, while earlier efforts had fizzled or failed.
“They’ve greatly increased the tempo of their testing — in a way, showing off their capabilities, showing us images of ground tests they could have kept hidden,” John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and expert on North Korea’s missile program, said in an interview on Friday. “This isn’t something that can be ignored anymore. It’s going to be a high priority for the next president.”
Military experts say that by 2020, Pyongyang will most likely have the skills to make a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile topped by a nuclear warhead. They also expect that by then North Korea may have accumulated enough nuclear material to build up to 100 warheads. [Continue reading…]
Gordon G Change writes: North Korea is hailing a “successful” fifth nuclear test, which it carried out Friday morning local time.
The device tested, which created a 5.3-magnitude tremor at its Punggye-ri test site, was reportedly in the 20- to 30-kiloton range, much more powerful than the North’s previous detonations. The last test, in January, yielded only about seven to nine kilotons.
The North Koreans have been ready to test this device since May. So why did they wait until now? Some are suggesting the detonation celebrated North Korea’s Foundation Day, marking the 68th anniversary of the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But from all indications, the Kim regime tested at this time because it realized China would not impose costs for the detonation.
The test took place three days after Pyongyang’s nuclear envoy traveled to Beijing. Choe Son Hui, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s U.S. affairs bureau, arrived in the Chinese capital on Tuesday.
We don’t know what Choe — who was deputy chief envoy to the six-party denuclearization talks, which have been dormant since 2008 — and her interlocutors said this week. Nonetheless, it was evident that the North Koreans were confident of the Chinese reaction.
At the moment, Beijing is far more upset with Seoul than Pyongyang.
In July, South Korea and the United States announced they would deploy the American-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system on South Korean soil. Beijing is worried that THAAD’s high-powered radars will reach into China and could help the U.S. shoot down Chinese missiles. Washington denies that is the case and has been willing to share technical information, but Beijing has not been mollified. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: Iran has deployed a Russian-made S-300 air defense system around its underground Fordo nuclear facility, state TV reported.
Video footage posted late Sunday on state TV’s website showed trucks arriving at the site and missile launchers being aimed skyward. It did not say whether the system was fully operational.
Gen. Farzad Esmaili, Iran’s head of air defense, declined to comment on the report in an interview with another website affiliated with state news. “Maybe if you go to Fordo now, the system is not there,” he was quoted as saying Monday. He added that the S-300 is a mobile system that should be relocated often.
Russia began delivering the S-300 system to Iran earlier this year under a contract signed in 2007. The delivery had been held up by international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, which were lifted this year under an agreement with world powers. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Iran said on Sunday that a person close to the government team that negotiated its nuclear agreement with foreign powers had been arrested on accusations of espionage and released on bail.
The disclosure, reported in the state news media, appeared to be the latest sign of the Iranian leadership’s frustration over the agreement, which has failed so far to yield the significant economic benefits for the country that its advocates had promised. Iranian officials have blamed the United States for that problem.
Despite the relaxations of many sanctions under the accord, which took effect in January, Iran faces enormous obstacles in attracting new investments and moving its own money through the global financial system.
The Iranians are still blocked from using American banks, an important transit point for international capital, because of non-nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States. [Continue reading…]