Trump insists North Korean intercontinental missile ‘won’t happen,’ berates China

The Washington Post reports: President-elect Donald Trump contended Monday night that North Korea would not be able to develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States, despite its claims to the contrary, and berated China for not doing enough to help stop the rogue state’s weapons program.

Trump’s declarations on Twitter came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s address that the country had reached the “final stages” of testing its first intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States.

“It won’t happen!” Trump tweeted.


The president-elect — who spent Monday with advisers at Trump Tower in New York following his holiday respite in Florida — did not specify what, if anything, the United States might do under his command to stop North Korea from developing the missile. [Continue reading…]

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Trump will ‘take action’ against North Korea, but most Americans lack confidence in his crisis management skills

Gallup reports: As Donald Trump prepares to take the presidential oath on Jan. 20, less than half of Americans are confident in his ability to handle an international crisis (46%), to use military force wisely (47%) or to prevent major scandals in his administration (44%). At least seven in 10 Americans were confident in Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in these areas before they took office. [Continue reading…]

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China has more interest in Trump’s policies than his tweets

The Wall Street Journal reports: Addressing questions about Mr. Trump’s tweets [on North Korea] during a regular press briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that China’s efforts to solve the North Korean nuclear issue “are clear for all to see.”

Mr. Geng pointed to China’s convening of six-nation talks aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear program, as well as its support for United Nations sanctions against its ally. He added that any problems in the economic relationship between the U.S. and China should be “properly addressed through dialogue and consultation,” but avoided commenting on whether Mr. Trump’s use of Twitter helped or hindered diplomatic discussions.

“We don’t pay attention to the features of foreign leaders’ behavior. We focus more on their policies,” he said.

Members of China’s U.S.- and North Korea-watching community also largely shrugged off Mr. Trump’s tweets.

Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University, said U.S. frustration with Beijing over North Korea is nothing new. “Trump’s comments regarding China’s perceived passivity on North Korea’s nuclear program are very much in line with the overwhelming consensus view in U.S. diplomatic circles,” said Mr. Shi.

Although Mr. Trump, as a presidential candidate, signaled a more conciliatory approach toward Mr. Kim, including the possibility of a face-to-face meeting, the president-elect will find it difficult to honor this promise without significant concessions from Pyongyang, Mr. Shi said.

Mr. Trump’s hostile tone may damp optimism in Pyongyang about dialogue with the new U.S. administration and it may “adjust its position accordingly,” said Wang Sheng, a professor at China’s Jilin University who studies China-North Korea relations. [Continue reading…]

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Dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea

Evans J.R. Revere writes: North Korea’s leaders long ago concluded that the United States would not attack a country that has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. North Korean interlocutors have said as much in unofficial dialogues with American experts, and also declared that the DPRK was determined “not to become another Libya or Iraq.”[1] The belief that the only way to defend against American military power is to possess nuclear weapons was a central theme of DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly on September 23, 2016.

Meanwhile, a second motivation for North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is now clear. DPRK representatives have said privately to American interlocutors that they have the United States “deterred.” They believe they have neutralized the U.S. ability to bring its conventional and strategic capabilities to bear against the North. They assert that the United States and the international community must now live with, if not formally accept, a permanently nuclear-armed North Korea. They have declared that the DPRK’s possession of a deterrent means the United States should now accept Pyongyang’s longstanding demand to negotiate a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice agreement.

North Korean officials have also reaffirmed privately what the DPRK has declared publicly: North Korea will not, under any circumstances, give up its nuclear weapons. They have made clear that the DPRK is prepared to use its nuclear assets to strike regional targets and the United States, preemptively if necessary. And they have emphasized the DPRK’s intention to further strengthen its nuclear and missile arsenals, a point Foreign Minister Ri also made in his address to the U.N. General Assembly.

North Korean representatives have said the United States and the DPRK should now engage in “arms control” talks. One goal of such talks would be removing the U.S. “threat,” which the North Koreans, when asked, define as the end of the U.S.-ROK alliance, the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, and the removal of the U.S. “nuclear umbrella”—the centerpiece of the extended deterrent that helps defend South Korea and Japan.

DPRK representatives clearly do not understand that none of their beliefs or assertions are true or possible. Nor does it seem that Pyongyang comprehends the unacceptability of its demands of the United States.

Pyongyang appears to believe its nuclear and missile forces have fundamentally changed the dynamics of U.S.-DPRK relations. Significantly, North Korea may also think it can compel the United States to enter a dialogue that would achieve its long-sought goals of ending the U.S.-ROK alliance and removing the U.S. extended deterrent. If Pyongyang were to succeed in doing this, it would open the way for the DPRK to achieve its ultimate goal: the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on its terms.

The DPRK may also believe that the mere existence of its nuclear capabilities will complicate U.S.-ROK alliance crisis management decisionmaking, and give the United States and its allies pause before responding to a conventional provocation.

By threatening the actual use of nuclear weapons, Pyongyang is signaling its preparedness to risk more in trying to achieve its goals than the United States and the ROK are willing to in defending their interests. Put another way, Pyongyang’s message to the United States is: “We are willing to risk nuclear war to achieve our goals, are you?”

This thinking represents a unique challenge to the U.S.-ROK alliance and to the credibility of the U.S. commitment to deter North Korea and defend South Korea. The belief that it has changed the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula makes the danger posed by North Korea all the more destabilizing. It requires the United States, its allies, and partners to find a better way to deal with the North Korean threat.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s actions and rhetoric are also designed to make the United States’ choices as stark and difficult as possible. By closing off options that the United States might prefer, Pyongyang hopes to leave the United States with no alterative but to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea on its terms.

The DPRK has declared denuclearization dead, and with it, any possibility of a dialogue on the subject. To reinforce this point, both the DPRK’s foreign minister at the U.N. General Assembly and individual North Korean representatives in informal dialogues have stressed not only North Korea’s intention to retain nuclear weapons, but also its plan to expand its nuclear arsenal and refine the capabilities of its ballistic missile delivery systems.

By making clear what North Korea is prepared to risk, the DPRK seeks to force the United States to choose between accepting a nuclear-armed North or risking war to prevent Pyongyang from realizing its nuclear ambitions.

As the next American president mulls options, he or she will need to take into account the evolution of China’s position on North Korea.

There are signs that the United States may have reached the limits of Beijing’s willingness to do more to isolate and pressure the DPRK. Beijing’s distaste for sanctions, its opposition to unilateral measures, and its concern that excessive pressure could lead to the collapse of the regime are well-known. These Chinese concerns have not abated as Beijing sees growing U.S., ROK, and Japanese interest in taking sanctions and pressure to a new level.

Even after the latest nuclear test, China has resisted demands that it do more against Pyongyang. On September 14, the Communist Party-controlled People’s Daily rejected U.S. suggestions that China take further steps, saying that the United States bears primary responsibility for the current situation. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson had already weighed in along similar lines on September 12, saying that the North Korea issue was a “dispute between the DPRK and the United States” and expressing opposition to the role of sanctions in dealing with North Korea.

China’s Premier Li Keqiang managed to avoid mentioning sanctions at all in his September 21 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly used a September 14 telephone call with his Japanese counterpart to convey opposition to unilateral sanctions on North Korea.

China is trying to have it both ways on North Korea. Beijing’s leadership continues to stress the importance of friendly China-DPRK ties, while China avoids directly challenging North Korea’s assertions about its nuclear ambitions. Constant attentiveness to North Korean sensitivities characterizes China’s approach to dealing with its troublesome neighbor and ally, even as Pyongyang’s actions threaten regional stability.

China is more direct and often critical when it has something to say about the U.S. position on North Korea. This reflects longstanding Chinese misgivings about Washington’s preference for sanctions and pressure. But Beijing’s opposition to tougher steps on North Korea is increasingly being driven by broader, geopolitical concerns, especially China’s strategic rivalry with the United States in East Asia. [Continue reading…]

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Kim says North Korea close to testing inter-continental missile

The Washington Post reports: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country is in the “last stage” of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, refusing to slow his nuclear-arms development as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office in Washington.

Kim made his remarks in a New Year’s televised address as he outlined his country’s military achievements for the past year, the country’s official Korean Central News Agency said Sunday. North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests under Kim and launched long-range rockets.

North Korea “will continue to strengthen its ability based on nuclear might to mount a preemptive attack,” Kim said during a half-hour speech that touched on a variety of issues, including economic policy and relations with South Korea.

Since taking power in late 2011, the North Korean leader has concentrated on developing nuclear-armed missiles that could reach the United States. The country has refused to accept U.S. demands to freeze its arms development before the two sides can resume international disarmament talks.

Trump, who takes office Jan. 20, likened Kim to a “maniac” during his campaign while suggesting that he could meet with the North Korea leader for nuclear talks. While Kim made no mention of Trump in his speech, his comments released Sunday signal that North Korea might seek to test-fire a long-range missile around the time of the U.S. presidential inauguration to raise stakes ahead of potential talks with the Trump administration. [Continue reading…]

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In reaction to fake news, Pakistani minister directs nuclear threat at Israel

The New York Times reports: A fake news article led to gunfire at a Washington pizzeria three weeks ago. Now it seems that another fake news story has prompted the defense minister of Pakistan to threaten to go nuclear.

The defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, wrote a saber-rattling Twitter post directed at Israel on Friday after a false report — which the minister apparently believed — that Israel had threatened Pakistan with nuclear weapons. Both countries have nuclear arsenals.

“Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh,” the minister wrote on his official Twitter account, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too.”


Mr. Asif appeared to be reacting to a fake news article published on awdnews.com.

That story, with the typo-laden headline “Israeli Defense Minister: If Pakistan send ground troops to Syria on any pretext, we will destroy this country with a nuclear attack,” appeared on the website on Dec. 20, alongside articles with headlines like “Clinton is staging a military coup against Trump.” [Continue reading…]

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World War Three, by mistake

Eric Schlosser writes: On June 3, 1980, at about two-thirty in the morning, computers at the National Military Command Center, beneath the Pentagon, at the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), deep within Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, and at Site R, the Pentagon’s alternate command post center hidden inside Raven Rock Mountain, Pennsylvania, issued an urgent warning: the Soviet Union had just launched a nuclear attack on the United States. The Soviets had recently invaded Afghanistan, and the animosity between the two superpowers was greater than at any other time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

U.S. Air Force ballistic-missile crews removed their launch keys from the safes, bomber crews ran to their planes, fighter planes took off to search the skies, and the Federal Aviation Administration prepared to order every airborne commercial airliner to land.

President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asleep in Washington, D.C., when the phone rang. His military aide, General William Odom, was calling to inform him that two hundred and twenty missiles launched from Soviet submarines were heading toward the United States. Brzezinski told Odom to get confirmation of the attack. A retaliatory strike would have to be ordered quickly; Washington might be destroyed within minutes. Odom called back and offered a correction: twenty-two hundred Soviet missiles had been launched.

Brzezinski decided not to wake up his wife, preferring that she die in her sleep. As he prepared to call Carter and recommend an American counterattack, the phone rang for a third time. Odom apologized — it was a false alarm. An investigation later found that a defective computer chip in a communications device at NORAD headquarters had generated the erroneous warning. The chip cost forty-six cents.

A similar false alarm had occurred the previous year, when someone mistakenly inserted a training tape, featuring a highly realistic simulation of an all-out Soviet attack, into one of NORAD’s computers. During the Cold War, false alarms were also triggered by the moon rising over Norway, the launch of a weather rocket from Norway, a solar storm, sunlight reflecting off high-altitude clouds, and a faulty A.T. & T. telephone switch in Black Forest, Colorado. [Continue reading…]

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Trump would welcome a new nuclear arms race

The New York Times reports: President-elect Donald J. Trump on Friday welcomed a new nuclear weapons arms race, vowing in an off-camera interview with a television host that America would “outmatch” any adversary. The comment came one day after he said in a post on Twitter that the United States should “strengthen and expand” its own nuclear capabilities.

The president-elect escalated his comments about nuclear weapons with the show of bravado during a brief, off-air telephone conversation from his estate in Florida, according to Mika Brzezinski, a co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

“Let it be an arms race,” Mr. Trump said, according to Ms. Brzezinski, who described her conversation with the president-elect on the morning news program moments later. Mr. Trump added: “We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”


[Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin agree: Let’s revive the nuclear arms race

Philip Bump writes: Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech Thursday in which he praised his country’s military operations on behalf of the government of Syria and made a case for how Russia could be stronger moving forward.

“We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces,” he said, according to an Agence France-Presse translation, “especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.” In other words, Russia needs to ensure that its arsenal of nuclear weapons can avoid interception by the enemy.

The primary enemy that might intercept those missiles is, of course, the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The language echoes old Cold War rhetoric: Our missiles must be able to serve as a deterrent to usage, by existing as a threat to enemies. If NATO and the United States felt confident that Russia’s incoming nuclear weapons could be stopped before reaching their targets, the weapons do not hold the same power for Russia.

You can’t have a new nuclear arms race, of course, without someone to run against. Enter President-elect Donald Trump.


On Wednesday, Trump tweeted about how he “met some really great Air Force GENERALS and Navy ADMIRALS,” a conversation during which the subject of nuclear weapons may have come up. It seems more likely, though, that Trump or someone on his team saw the Putin speech or was briefed on it, and Trump chose to respond with the comment above.

The trend since the late 1980s has been in the opposite direction, winding down the stockpiles of weapons held by the United States and Russia. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times, reporting on Trump’s tweet noted: “He did not elaborate.”

Indeed, such is the nature of Trump’s statements on Twitter, or “Twitter posts” as the paper refers to them, unwilling, as yet, to introduce into its style guide the phrase “tweet.” Maybe for the Times only birds are allowed to tweet — but I digress.

The problem with reporting on the views of a president or president-elect when those views are expressed in throwaway remarks is that that’s exactly what they are: throwaway remarks that may get revised, reversed, or deleted within minutes.

Plus, just because it says @realDonaldTrump, how do we actually know these are Trump’s words? How do we know it isn’t Barron Trump playing with his dad’s phone — or Ivanka or any of an unknown number of people who might have access to Trump’s Twitter account?

Wouldn’t it be better if the media, with the lead let’s say of the New York Times and the Washington Post, started boycotting Trump’s tweets?

Treat his tweeting for what it is — idle chatter.

When he has something serious to say he should get expansive and craft it into several sentences, or even a paragraph or two. He could even hold a press conference or give a speech.

Just because Trump has chosen to bypass the press by using Twitter, the press isn’t obliged to facilitate that move by treating his tweets seriously.

The Daily Beast gets responses from a few experts who will definitely have informed responses if or when Trump actually has something to say on nuclear issues.

“We’re treating him like he’s a normal human being whose utterances have symbolic meaning, but I don’t know,” said Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “I don’t know that this is any particular window into his policy or future.”

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What the U.S. government really thought of Israel’s apparent 1979 nuclear test

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…]

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No one can stop President Trump from using nuclear weapons. That’s by design

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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…]

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Trump could face a nuclear decision soon

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…]

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Russia is building fallout shelters to prepare for a potential nuclear strike

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…]

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Even the U.S. military is looking at blockchain technology — to secure nuclear weapons

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…]

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The United States and Russia are prepping for doomsday

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…]

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Powell acknowledges Israel’s nuclear arsenal

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…]

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