An assassination in Moscow and the continually escalating crisis

First some brief comments on the progress of the “Special Military Operation” or Invasion of Ukraine, depending on your perspective. The “fog of war” is incredibly thick. There are no reliable public sources of information – it seems to me that even “insiders” are being duped by their own narratives and are being driven as much by their desires rather than facts on the ground. That seems to apply much more to the pro-Ukrainian side than the pro-Russian side, and while both public faces are pushing competing narratives the US, NATO, Ukrainian side seems outright delusional. So where do things stand? For what it’s worth, here’s my “multi-source integration” perspective …

The forces of the Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics, supplemented with Russian troops and backed by huge amounts of Russian supplied indirect fire (artillery, rockets, air strikes) continue to grind down the NATO backed forces in Ukraine. Russia isn’t by any stretch “all in”; it does not seem they have committed the bulk of their military to this operation. The US/NATO aid is increasing Russian casualties (and resentment) and slowing things down, but not really changing the ultimate outcome. Advances on the ground may seem small, but Ukraine has spent eight years digging in on this front line, and was supposedly preparing for an invasion of Donbas according to some reliable sources so had large forces on that front. Ukrainian advances have the feel of “Lucy and Charlie Brown kicking the football” – Russian and allied forces pull back, Ukrainian forces are pushed to leave their trenches as much for propaganda purposes as military strategy, then get mauled by indirect fire, and Russian allied forces advance. So be a bit skeptical of Ukrainian “counterattacks” – aside from the areas reoccupied after Russia’s initial feints towards Kiev in the beginning of conflict, on the Donbas front Ukrainian “counter attacks” appear to have been fairly quickly reversed, leaving the Ukrainian forces worse off than before. It appears a new Russian allied offensive started yesterday, so things may lurch forward after a somewhat quiet period.

This kind of war isn’t like any faced by the US since Korea, so even if they weren’t embedded in the narrative machine, the vast majority of US analysts (much less reporters) who do not have a long historical view don’t really have a good grasp on the conflict in military terms. This is an old school ground war of attrition, and Ukraine (and indirectly NATO at large) are arguably bleeding out faster than Russia and allies (LDR/DPR). At some point Ukrainian organized military resistance is likely to collapse. Once past the fortified areas, movement across the areas of Ukraine that Russia wants to ultimately occupy should be rapid (which again contrary to belief in the west, probably isn’t the whole country). That’s not to say all is wonderful in Mother Russia: as I have said previously, the hoped for initial collapse didn’t happen, the slog is more costly and isn’t going as fast as Russia would like, but it’s still progressing toward their objectives. What are they? I suspect the re-integration of historical and economically important and viable “novorossiya.” When? I would guess by winter, although it could well drag in to next year.

Could the narrative above be wrong, and Ukraine doing as well, and Russia as poorly, as the Western governments are saying? Possible, but what independent data there is says otherwise. I think there is a 60% chance the above is reasonably correct, and only a 10% chance the prevailing media narrative in the US correct. That leaves maybe a 30% chance something else is going on.

But the military conflict is only one part of the picture, and maybe not even the most important part. This conflict is mostly an economic and resource war, and in that respect it’s hard to come to any conclusion except that Russia is inflicting severe damage on the “West”. We tend to focus on Europe and Japan, but far from being isolated, the rest the world continues to do business as usual with Russia either directly or indirectly. The sanctions have arguably failed, and the Russian economy seems stable. Contrast this with the run away inflation in the US and Europe, looming recession, and pending collapse of energy markets this winter that have the potential to cause major unrest across Europe.

Worst, from the US perspective, parallel financial systems are being put in to operation that bypass US and European financial structures, and are decoupled from the dollar while linked to hard resources. In that context, the “go slow” approach that Russia seems to be using makes more sense. As one Russian analyst said, loosely translated, why end this before winter when it is likely the US led financial system will collapse if it continues? If that is the strategy, it’s an interesting one, potentially successful, but playing with fire – the longer this goes on, the greater the potential for an “Archduke Ferdinand” moment and miscalculation. Which brings me to the main point of this post.

Darya Aleksandrovna Dugina

The attempted assassination of Alexander Dugin, resulting in the death of his daughter Darya, may be an inflection point in the conflict. I never met her, but those who know her said she was an intelligent, vibrant young woman with a bright future in either journalism (her current field) or politics. Was she herself the target? Was it from a Russian government or internal dispute? I seriously doubt it, but some have floated that idea, most likely to muddy the water. Was this terrorism, or collateral damage from a justified target, and how does it fit within the wider war? Complex issues. I would argue he was not a legitimate target (she certainly was not), and this was terrorism. The Ukrainian Nationalists are obsessed with her father in some ways, so I can see elements of Ukrainian intelligence (with, perhaps, the support of some misguided NATO operatives) as the most likely scenario. Either way, what concerns me here is what the coverage says about western understanding of Russian internal politics and where this is going.

I know quite a bit more about her father than Darya Aleksandrovna. Alexander Dugin was good at self promotion outside Russia, but it does not seem he was so respected within and was considered a bit of an extremist. It seems that most of the people in the west commenting on Dugin’s writings and philosophy haven’t actually read any of his works. I have two of his books on my Russian Bookshelf, Основы геополитики (Foundations of Geopolitics) and his most infamous work, Четвертая политическая теория (The Fourth Political Theory). The first is used as a University textbook and studied in Russian military circles, and is somewhat respected, (although not of course in the West, where it is seen as a blueprint for Russian Manifest Destiny). The second is a bit more rambling and polemic, and more popular with various nationalist groups across Europe. In 2014 his colleagues at Moscow State University rebelled at Dugin’s proposed appointment to as Head of the Department of Sociology of International Relations due to his extreme comments over Crimea and Ukraine, and the appointment was withdrawn. Rumors are that Putin was behind his rejection, but any time anything happens in Russia people attribute it to Putin (often incorrectly) so that’s not diagnostic one way or the other. It is clear he is not part of Putin’s inside circle, although some of Putin’s advisors and supporters do adhere to some of Dugin’s philosophies.

So the US media depiction of Dugin as “Putin’s Brain” is absurd; an analogy might be saying someone like Derrick Bell (one of the creators of Critical Race Theory) is “Biden’s Brain” because some of his circle or supporters use CRT based interpretations of society to inform their worldview.

In context trying to assassinate Dugin seems to me to be one of the more idiotic things Ukraine (or their supporters) could possibly do. I can see why elements might feel it is justified, Dugin was vehement that Ukraine should cease to exist and that “Ukrainians” should be destroyed. Assassinating him would certainly would be popular among Bandaraists and ultrnationalists, as well as certain segments in the West who see Dugin as a boogie man. But it reflects a serious and potentially dangerous misconception of Russian internal politics and may end up making things worse for Ukraine and the world.

At the risk of simplification of a complex set of dynamics, throughout his career in order to maintain power Putin has been trying to balance three broad foreign policy groups, as well as trying to keep the Oligarchs who back and profit from these groups under control. First there are the “Europeanists” who wanted closer ties with the West. While Putin was originally one of these, they have been increasingly marginalized since 2008 and became mostly irrelevant after 2014. The second, currently largest force are the “Pragmatists” who feel a measured approach balancing improved internal self sufficiency, military ops (like the SMO) where essential, avoiding provocations while only responding to western provocations where also essential. This is where Putin has been since probably the 2004 time frame.

Then there are the Nationalists. They argue Russia is in an existential battle with the west, both over values as well as practically. Dugin is a significant figure with some in this movement, and Darya was becoming more popular. It should be noted that Dugin was demoted from his position at Moscow State University supposedly on Putin’s “suggestion” because he was encouraging too many radicals, and stirring up trouble for a stronger move in Ukraine post 2014. They want to go all-out against NATO, reclaim Ukraine using all available force – and the Baltics as well. The most radical want to create a Russian hegemony from “Dublin to Vladivostok”, but these are a fraction of a fraction. Originally the smallest of the three groups, they have grown over time as it has become increasingly clear that the West will never accept an economically strong and independent Russia. Since 2014 Putin has had to constantly watch his nationalist flank as their criticism of his lack of more forceful responses – including strong words from Dugin himself – have started to resonant in certain circles.

This assassination by a terrorist attack in the heart of Russia may have given the Nationalists a boost, worse than if the Ukrainian agents had succeeded in killing Alexander Dugin himself. In one sense Darya is just another young victim in a cynical geopolitical game. But she risks becoming a highly emotional symbol; “За Дарья” – for Darya – slogans have appeared within the Russian military. It has certainly put Putin in a bad place. A key misunderstanding in the US is that in compared to what many believe, Putin has been restrained in Ukraine as well as in other conflicts and has been criticized for being too timid. Against those (like Dugin) who were pushing him to invade Ukraine in 2014, he only did the minimum he felt required to preserve Russia’s key strategic interests (the bases in Crimea) and tried for eight years to negotiate (Minsk/Minsk II accords). He has been trying to avoid going “Full Chechnya” on Ukraine, but now will probably have little choice but to escalate. He can’t risk terror attacks in Moscow, stopping the wave of terror attacks in the early 2000’s is why he is in power. If he doesn’t respond with a major, violent, action, Putin won’t be around much longer, and his replacement will certainly be likely to be more confrontational, and less restrained.

Added Note: Just to be clear, again, I think the Ukraine situation is a tragedy that should never have happened. The above comments on the progress of the conflict aren’t what I hope happens, they are what I think is happening. The ship carrying my hopes with respect to Ukraine and Eastern Europe was torpedoed, crashed in to a rock, exploded, and sank a long time ago, circa 2008. At this point all we can hope for is one of the least bad outcomes that leaves the world less unstable than it is at the moment. As for Dugin, no, I don’t agree with his philosophy. But some do, and it is important to understand them. And you can’t do that without reading and trying understanding that perspective … as I constantly harp, understanding is not sympathy or agreement.

Signaling virtue, or just ignorance?

With PTC1/Alex on the prowl I didn’t have a chance to comment on this, but the City of Savannah posted this photograph last week to signal the start of Pride Month. Notice anything? Yep. The Ukrainian Flag is backwards.

How to signal your ignorance.

Sadly, ignorance/incompetence isn’t just limited to the City of Savannah … here’s a screen capture from a Pentagon briefing a week or so ago. The fact this briefing was for Defense Industry contractors looking to cash in on the $40 Billion windfall masquerading as aid puts this firmly in the “you can’t make this stuff up” realm …

Assistant SecDef for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia Laura Cooper (left), Defense Secretary (center), Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (right), with upside down Ukrainian Flags.

The Savannah thing is absurd. The Progress Pride flag I understand (it’s a domestic policy issue, the City has an advocacy office and well known positions, etc.), but why is the City displaying the Ukrainian Flag? Did the City put together a policy justification for why the City Government, as representatives of the Citizens of Savannah, should be signalling its support for either side of this war? Does the Mayor, anyone on the City Council, or anyone in City Government have the necessary background and expertise to understand the situation, or are they just jumping on a popular bandwagon? And even if this was a carefully thought through policy, didn’t anybody bother to look up how to properly display the Ukrainian Flag? Ten seconds on Wikipedia would have done the trick. The blue band is on top if flown as a flag, and on the left if displayed as a banner.

As any reader of this blog knows, I strongly feel the situation in Ukraine is a tragic mess, one we bear significant responsibility for starting and inflaming. I think that sending weapons in to this conflict is dangerous, and ultimately causing more harm than good. Expressing support for the present Government of Ukraine by flying its flag is not as simple as some might think. I have to wonder if the Mayor of Savannah is aware of what senior officials of the Ukrainian Government have said about people of color (much less, given the Progress Pride flag now displayed in the rotunda, the LGBTQ community). Almost certainly not.

But that’s not really the point of this post. If you do feel that support of the Ukrainian Government is justified, at least fly their flag right side up.

As for the Pentagon, I don’t even know where to start. Whenever I have been involved in activities at this level annoying but essential protocol officers were scurrying around making sure flags were right side up, seating was correct, and that I didn’t cause yet another international incident by asking for ketchup at a state dinner thrown by the President of France like that first time. That the DoD official responsible for Ukraine didn’t instantly recognize the problem is simply unbelievable, and for the SECDEF to be seen surrounded by upside-down flags is a major national embarrassment.

This is sadly yet another symptom of how US Diplomacy has collapsed over the last thirty years. This 2020 RAND corporation study (link) describes elements of that decline, but I think there is a deeper problem with the overall level of education in the US, ignorance about the rest of the world, and the self-centered, “exceptionalist” view of that world. Fẹmi Akọmọlafẹ, a journalist from Ghana, wrote the following recently comparing the competence of foreign diplomats from the major powers:

Western officials, on the other hand, attack the world as haughty, naughty, ill-mannered, ill-educated, uncultured, provincial, and narcissistic imbeciles. They lack the elementary decorum necessary to engage peers in respectful manners. Ok, superciliousness, fueled by racist arrogance, might partly explain why they behave so, but we cannot discount the possibilities that they simply lack the education, the culture, and the home training required for civilized behavior, especially in encounters with other cultures. The question needs to be asked how the Collective West ended up with the current gaggle of clowns holding positions of responsibility? … It didn’t use to be like this. The West was once great. I should know; I studied there.

Harsh, but an interesting perspective. A key difference between the US and some major countries is that in the US the top levels of the State Department are political appointees. Having watched career US diplomats first hand, there are some fantastically knowledgeable people working in that field, able to balance US interests with an understanding of history and a concern for the legitimate interests of other peoples. But unfortunately that does not extend to political appointees, who by and large lack those skills and tend to view everything through the lens of domestic politics. It’s a complex problem (yeah, I say that a lot), and one a serious President and Congress would try to address and find a better balance between political accountability, the ability of a President to direct foreign policy, the long term interests of the US, and the essential skills, knowledge, and experience that only comes from years – even decades – of experience.

PS – Please don’t use this space to debate the Progress Pride or Pride flags and domestic policy issues. Such posts will be deleted unless they are respectful and relevant to the Ukraine/Foreign Policy realms.

Flirting with Armageddon: is #Ukraine leading to nuclear war?

Yesterday a Pew Research poll was released that indicated a stunning 35% of those polled, roughly equal percentages in each political party, said that the US should intervene in Ukraine even if it risked a nuclear war (link to poll). Indeed, many politicians are advocating policies that could easily lead to a nuclear confrontation with Russia such as a “no fly” zone or even direct military intervention by NATO or NATO countries individually.

I had a short discussion with Nate Hagens about this subject on his excellent podcast, “Frankly …” (link to podcast). This post is some additional background and thoughts to support that discussion. I hope you’ll give it a listen if you have time, and read on and consider that we may well be entering, and living through, the most dangerous period in human history, on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

For someone who came of age in the 1980’s and studied nuclear war professionally this poll is nearly unbelievable. I am afraid that both the general public and our leadership have forgotten what the consequences of a nuclear war might be, and how one might start. Sadly this is not a uniquely American phenomena. Even the German Green Party, founded in large part as peace party opposing nuclear weapons, has essentially abandoned their opposition to nuclear weapons. Green Party co-leader (and now German Foreign Minister) Annalena Baerbock said last December “We stand by our responsibility within the framework of NATO and the EU and also for nuclear participation;” the removal of nuclear weapons from Germany is no longer a key demand.

In America I suspect three main forces are at work that have mitigated concerns over conflicts escalating into a nuclear exchange, and obscured the potential impacts of a nuclear war:

  1. Americans have been insulated from war, and are seeing the war in Ukraine as they haven’t seen recent wars, especially the impact on civilians of urban warfare. Such imagery was deliberately downplayed during US interventions in Iraq and recent wars such as Libya, Syria, Yugoslavia, or the nearly daily slaughter in Yemen taking place even today, much less the ongoing carnage of the eight year long civil war in Donbas that, according to Russia, this “Special Military Operation” is trying to bring to an end. These heartbreaking images are provoking an emotional reaction and pressure to “do something” without fully considering if that “something” is making things worse, or potentially leading to catastrophe.
  2. I suspect the leadership of this country is wrongly thinking that nuclear weapons are more manageable, and that the nuclear threshold is not a bright line, but that a nuclear exchange can be kept tactical or even limited without becoming strategic (tactical, limited, and strategic are terms of art described below). This is primarily due to the availability of lower, selectable yield weapons (even sub-kiloton devices) in concert with precision delivery systems. That, in concert with doctrines (plans) for their use, has lowered the threshold and, in the minds of US planners, created multiple thresholds that can be managed.
  3. Americans have forgotten what a nuclear war might be like. The days of movies like “The Day After” or “War Games” are 40 years ago, much less the “duck and cover” exercises of the 50’s and 60’s, and after 1991 and the “end of history” and the fall of the Soviet Union, a general nuclear war became an abstract concept. When we think of nuclear weapons at all, it is as as one-off terrorist devices or a couple from a rogue state, not a peer-on-peer conflict.

I don’t want to start another argument on how we got here, and if or how responsible the West is or isn’t for the betrayal and tragedy of Ukraine. You can read my other blog posts on that if you haven’t already, starting at this link. The first point above, that this conflict is being played up in ways comparable or worse conflicts have not, is also way too complex to delve in to here. Let’s just look at points two and three because they are the most immediate issues. I have discussed the problem of the lowering of the nuclear threshold before, and the deployment of the W-76-2 warhead on our nuclear missile submarines (link). That post also discusses the schools of thought around nuclear weapons employment (MAD and NUTS) and a critical aspect that seems to be missing from the discussion: how Russia will react. One flaw I have seen repeatedly over the last two decades of dealing with Russia (as well as other countries) is the implicit assumption that their priorities and worldview are the same as ours. Often they aren’t.

Three terms of art need to be defined here. In simple terms, a “tactical” nuclear weapon (or use of a nuclear weapon in a tactical context) means battlefield use, targeting only direct combatants. It has the potential to change the battle space fairly radically; an adversary can no longer mass forces as those become a convenient target. It also can change the geography of the battlefield with cratering and residual radiation that makes movement difficult. A “limited” nuclear exchange is generally assumed to mean somewhat wider use – strikes deeper into an adversaries territory at key logistic sites, airfields, or ports, but avoiding (as much as possible) targets where large numbers of civilians might be directly harmed, but of course “indirect” harm becomes increasingly a factor. A general or strategic exchange is what most people think of as a nuclear war – with large, 200 kiloton or greater devices employed against entire cities, with the goal of destroying the target society.

The problem is, of course, that the lines between these three general levels are pretty gray in places, especially when it comes to a theoretical US(NATO) vs Russia conflict. Very few Russian aircraft, for example, have actually entered Ukrainian airspace; they are using standoff weapons and even artillery and surface to surface missiles are firing from inside Russia itself. Consider that in order to be effective any intervention in Ukraine by the US would require striking inside Russia itself. Some of these sites would be difficult to neutralize using conventional weapons, and the temptation to use one of the new generation kiloton or smaller weapons would become enormous as US casualties mounted. Even a conventional weapons strike inside Russia would, according to Russian doctrine, trigger strikes on US bases in the US in reply (it is unreasonable to think the US could hit Russian territory without them responding in kind, yet that is what some US planners assume!). And they have a number of weapons systems capable of doing that, either conventionally or nuclear.

Shortly after becoming President, the Reagan Administration conducted a highly classified exercise that has only recently become somewhat public. Known as “Proud Prophet 1983,” it had a profound impact on President Reagan and his team. What this war game discovered was that every scenario attempting to limit a nuclear conflict ended up in a general, strategic exchange at some point. In other words, tactical use led to limited use and from there a general nuclear war ensued. It so disturbed the administration that they changed their public rhetoric around the confrontation with the Soviet Union, and ultimately help lead to the INF treaty and a stable end to the Cold War. You can read more about “Proud Prophet” and its impact here on Wikipedia. It’s a fascinating story, one that is even today not well known or told in its entirety. The point here is that it is hubris to expect we can prevent a tactical nuclear exchange from escalating into a general exchange.

Castle Bravo test, 15 Megaton thermonuclear test in March, 1954.

As for how bad a nuclear conflict might be, and why nuclear weapons are different, this summary by MIT is worth reading. Even a limited nuclear exchange would prove catastrophic for our societies, and potentially the entire planet. I fear the hard lessons of the Cold War with respect to both the impacts of nuclear wars, and how to manage conflicts in a bi-polar or multi-polar world, have been forgotten. No matter how terrible you think the situation in Ukraine has become (and make no mistake, the suffering of civilians in urban war zones is utterly horrific – I know, I’ve been in them), they pale in comparison to the impacts of even a tactical nuclear exchange. We must also consider that such an exchange would probably unravel what little stability is left in global supply chains, the financial system, international relations, and so forth. The consequences are to an extent unforeseeable – but almost certainly horrific.

In conclusion, even assuming that everything that is being said about Ukraine in the western narrative is true, our leaders should be acting in such a way as to avoid a nuclear confrontation. The consequences of even a limited nuclear exchange with Russia are just too extreme. I suspect that is why Biden has so far said a no-fly zone is off the table, but unfortunately he is playing a dangerous game by giving in to pressure (and prolonging the agony of Ukrainian civilians) by continuing to provide lower levels of weapons, support, and the hope of future intervention. If you fully accept the US version of events, or believe it is a bit more complex and nuanced doesn’t matter at this point: we have to deescalate and avoid a nuclear conflict.

Deescalation does not mean “allowing further Russian aggression”. Assuming you accept the US position and “narrative”, it makes a lot more sense to do something we never actually did in Ukraine: draw a very bright line and say “no farther,” and putting substantial US forces on the line. Of course that line already exists: the existing NATO countries, and those deployments are underway. An “Iron Curtain 2.0” will descend, with a “Cold War 2.0” along with it, and it won’t be good for either side, but strategic stability would return with it.

So as upsetting as the imagery and narrative from Ukraine is, realize a nuclear conflict is nearly infinitely worse. Make sure our leaders know that must be the priority.

Why the joint statement on #NuclearWeapons doesn’t matter

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) issued a joint statement on nuclear weapons this Monday. I haven’t seen much coverage on it here in the US, but it did get coverage in Europe and Russia, and China. As readers of this blog know, I consider a geopolitical conflict leading to nuclear war to be the greatest threat facing both humanity and the environment – greater than climate change (not to minimize the threat from that). But this didn’t change things. Here’s why I think you’re still doomed with respect to this issue …

For the record this is the full text from the Kremlin, and the same from the White House. It is important to note that, contrary to the self-important title of the document (“Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapons States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races”) this does not include the more volatile nuclear states such as Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, so it’s not the leaders of all the countries with known nukes. Several of the more likely nuclear exchange scenarios involve India and Pakistan, and with Iran about to join the club a pre-preemptive strike by Israel is more likely now as well. Since even a few dozen nuclear weapons could seriously disrupt the climate in the northern hemisphere, not having these nations signing on reduces the impact of the document significantly.

But far worse is the fact that the US has been extremely hypocritical about nuclear weapons for a long time, something the vast majority of Americans are completely unaware of.

In the intelligence world, like other endeavors where you’re trying to figure out human behavior, you can break down the process in to three aspects to evaluate:
1) What do they say they are going to do;
2) What capacity do they have;
3) What are they actually doing.

From that you can try to infer “intent” with respect to future actions, and what those consequences might be. In the case of the United States, there is a big problem: while the statement said “We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” the US continues to develop weapons and doctrine that makes nuclear war easier (“lowering the nuclear threshold”, in the language of doom). So while it says it doesn’t want a nuclear conflict, the US is in fact doing a lot of things to make one easier. It is vital to realize that this is not a partisan issue: both Republican and Democrat administrations, as well as the vast majority of Congress of both parties, support these policies. Yet, again, the average American is blissfully unaware of what is being done in their name.

Edging closer to the end of civilization, one bomb at a time …

Over the last two years the US has put in to production two potentially destabilizing weapons systems. The W76-2 warhead was deployed on Trident missile carrying submarines two years ago. As I noted in this blog post (link), this move is tremendously destabilizing. Now the US has put into production the B61-12, a nuclear bomb that can be carried on a wide variety of aircraft, with the first production unit rolling off the assembly line in November. The B61 mod 12 is an especially dangerous development. If a potential adversary sees a group of aircraft approaching carrying this device, you don’t know for sure if it is a conventional or nuclear attack, and if nuclear what the yields are – tactical low yield or more significant (upwards of 50kt). The accuracy and yield are such it makes the device a first strike weapon, and expands the number of targets and situations where a US President or military leader might think they can get away with using one. For example, take a US deployment in Ukraine, where a US force is on the verge of being overwhelmed by a larger Russian attack. It would be tempting to use a small scale nuclear device to “level the playing field.” Of course, as noted in the above blog post, the problem with this theory is that the Russians have said in no uncertain terms if they are attacked with a nuclear weapon they will respond with one. These small scale weapons have also been suggested as a counterforce strike against Chinese nuclear missiles – which, of course, would force them to adopt a “launch under attack” plan, something nuclear planners know is risky because of the increased potential for accidental launch.

Again, note the bi-partisan consensus on lowering the nuclear threshold: the plans for both of these systems were started under W. Bush, developed under Obama, with the W76-2 deployed by Trump and the B61-12 under Biden. Why? Like most things it’s complicated, and largely involves money, power, and America’s distorted view of its place in the world (article by Michael Brenner, a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh).

So maybe this guy shouldn’t be in charge of nuclear weapons strategy …

Capacity is one thing, but it is the area of doctrine where the capacity (high accuracy, low yield weapons) and planning come together as to how the US intends to use these new weapons, and it’s scary. The US remains the only major power to refuse to state it will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. In fact, the US has said it will use nukes in response to a variety of circumstances, some of which seem to be nothing short of insane. For example, one use proposed by the US in its Nuclear Posture Review is that the US may use nuclear weapons to respond to cyber attacks. It is hard to see how that is justified, and as noted in the link, when asked Americans are against such a low threshold. But as noted above Americans are largely unaware of these developments.

Taken together, these new systems combined with the stated US doctrine that tactical nuclear weapons can be used in a wide range of circumstances, including offensive operations and as a response to non-nuclear attacks, has significantly lowered the threshold under which nuclear weapons can be used. Again, this is especially dangerous and destabilizing when the two major potential adversaries, especially Russia – have said that once nuclear weapons are in use rapid escalation is inevitable.

So, going back to our three evaluation criteria:
1) What the US says in public is contradictory;
2) It is creating more usable tactical nuclear weapons;
3) It is lowering the nuclear threshold with doctrine to go along with those new weapons.

So, sad to say, the US signing on to the statement on nuclear weapons is for all intents and purposes not only worthless, it is being seen in the international community as further evidence of the hypocrisy of US Foreign Policy. We’d have been better off not signing; of course, it would be even better for global stability if we didn’t develop new classes of nuclear weapons, or plan to use them in situations that, to any rational mind, are a dangerous and unwarranted response.

Don’t look in the mirror …

Last night we watched the new Netflix movie “Don’t look up.” It was a bit of a surreal experience. It’s billed as a “dark comedy” or “parody”, but to me it was more than that. The critics don’t like it much, I suspect because
a) it hits too close to home; and,
b) the critics probably don’t get it.

Parody or Documentary? Marketing shot for Don’t Look Up by Netflix.

The scariest thing to me is that despite the obvious attempts to be “over the top” it was far too often “close to the mark.” I won’t do any real spoilers here, except this brief note from the first few minutes of the film: the scientists discovering an urgent threat are bundled up and flown to Washington DC to brief government officials (including the President). They they wait outside the oval office, are finally sent to stay in a hotel overnight as political stuff came up, and have to come back the next day. They are then misunderstood and ignored, and go home on the train. Been there, done that. Except I got stuck paying for my own hotel room due to a paperwork screwup.

Pick a topic: foreign policy/nuclear war, climate, resource depletion, economics, pandemic, whatever, and the attitudes in Don’t Look Up are played out in our society every day. Scientists getting hijacked by the DC/Media Culture, ratings driven “news” stories, the “if it didn’t come from the Ivy League it can’t be worth much” worldview, politicians with one eye on the polls and the other on their billionaire backers, it’s all here. And far too real.

Doomwatch give this five stars. It does for the current politics/media/high-tech-billionaire society what Dr. Strangelove did for the Cold War. A lot of people won’t like it, and certain political parties will take offense by thinking it is about them, and the “other side” will smugly make the same assumption, rather than in fact about the whole system. But give it a try, and consider if you too are “feeding the beast” and try to think of ways of changing our society to get away from this train wreck. Because even if you avoid the end of the world, you might be eaten by a Bronteroc.

Here’s DiCaprio discussing the movie …

The Last Flight of #PanAm

Thirty years ago today (December 4th), Pan American Airways Clipper Goodwill made Pan Am’s last flight, from Bridgetown, Barbados to Miami Florida (DW article). 1991 was a landmark year in so many ways, with so much changing in foreign policy, politics, economics, and society that I’m sure that historians will use 1991 as the end of one chapter and the beginning of another in human history.

Some Cold War Relics from the Enki archives (Enki Research Photo)

For most of its existence Pan Am was known as the unofficial “Flag Carrier” of the United States. I spent many hours on Pan Am aircraft in the early/mid 1980’s. This was after the “glory days” of the airline, and the toll of deregulation, restructuring, and bad business decisions by management were beginning to tear the airline apart. But it was still used quite a bit by various US Government agencies. There were rumors that some of the stewardesses (today known as Flight Attendants) were CIA agents, especially on the runs in and out of Berlin. I wouldn’t know anything about that, but PanAm was instrumental in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet among other things.

Pan Am was instrumental in creating a global airline system that we take for granted today. Worldport, their terminal complex at JFK, was a beautiful structure. Sadly, despite attempts at preservation, it was demolished in 2014. If you’re interested in a bit more on the history of Pan Am, try the PanAm Historical Foundation (link). The history of Pan Am, and how the airline industry has changed after deregulation, is interesting and I think sad in many respects. It’s worth reflecting on what we’ve gained, but also what we’ve lost.

Why #climate change isn’t the problem.

With the COP26 meetings starting today, lots of angst will be generated about the state of Earth’s climate system and human impacts. Although this post talks a lot about climate, it may surprise you that at this point I’m not really “worried” about it; like the pandemic, at this point I’m much more worried about how badly world leaders are screwing up the response. By far the greatest threat to humanity is our flawed system of governance and, in particular, the collapse of the US as a superpower. That is a much more immediate threat to the planet than the most likely climate change scenarios. So you’re still doomed, just not because of anthropogenic climate change. Here’s why …

What clouds might look like …

If you’re not familiar with my background and position on all this, you might want to start by reading a couple of previous posts. If you’re too impatient to do that, I’d gently point out that this is a very complex subject that involves politics, economics, engineering, and science, and you’re going to have to work to create an informed opinion. The climate problem isn’t an existential crisis, but it isn’t a hoax either. Be very careful of hand waving and simplistic points of view that exist in sound bites. As for my background and views …

The post in that last link discussed things from the perspective of COP25 and the US withdrawal under Trump, but Democrats often are equally problematic, and so far the Biden Administration has followed the destructive trends of prior (pre-Trump) administrations such as Obama, Bush II, and Clinton. I’ll add that the current US positions in most international organizations are (as always) more about internal US politics than the actual global problem. But that would be another long blog post.

With respect to the science, our understanding continues to improve. There is no doubt humans are altering our climate system. But the key is what is going to happen in the future; that will drive, in part, our solutions. The future scenarios used by the IPCC and echoed by decision makers and activists are weighted towards more extreme carbon production and economic activity than is possible given resource and growth limitations. That is a complex issue, but it’s not likely that most of the scenarios (“Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” or SSP’s) are even possible; they are certainly not likely for the medium to distant future (50-100 years). We know the models “run hot,” so that is another potential bias. Forming policy around extreme scenarios is always dangerous, especially when based on modeling. Some of the better performing configurations with respect to history combined with reasonable scenarios do not forecast nearly the severe outcomes that are being repeated and promoted by advocates for radical action on climate (not that they don’t forecast Bad Things, just not Horrific Things). So I’m increasingly skeptical about the more extreme outcomes.

Cloud microphysics is a vital component of climate modeling. Here at the top of the cloud, where water droplets, ice crystals, sunlight and clear sky meet are extremely important and complex small scale processes that have to be parameterized since they can’t be simulated from first principles. Small changes in these assumptions and models can cause huge swings in predicted temperatures.

This weighting towards extreme scenarios has a toxic effect on any attempts to do something about the real problem. First, it opens the door to both healthy skepticism and unhealthy dismissal of the reality of the problem as ideological. Second, it pushes potential solutions away from those that are practical and less disruptive towards more radical and harmful economically actions, which is therefore unacceptable to the majority of people and countries. But it fits in well with the current mode of human governance, where in order to get anything done, it has to be a “crisis,” and somebody (preferably the existing oligarchs) need to profit.

To be clear, we have and continue to alter the earth’s climate system, and we need to stop it. But I don’t think the climate problem is a “crisis” or “emergency” that requires (or is even amenable) to radical immediate action in and of itself – especially if those actions are themselves not sustainable or risk destabilizing societies and economies. It is intimately entangled with politics, economics, and therefore lifestyle. Solving these interrelated aspects will take long range, multidecadal, multilateral, consistent and careful action (action that should have started 20 years ago). Unfortunately, that kind of planning and action is impossible in the US political system which is incapable of looking beyond the two year election cycle in the House of Representatives. And if it is impossible in the US, it is even more impossible globally given the fact that the US is so vital to the global system of governance, and the dis-functionality of the US political system means that humanity itself is at risk, in part from climate, but more so from geopolitical instability and the threat of global war, including something we thought left in the 1960’s but is now more likely than ever, nuclear war.

In the US, “solutions” to problems often boil down to two competing narratives believed with almost religious fervor by the bases of each party, neither of which is true, and more often than not neither of which will actually solve the problem. So climate change is either Crisis or Hoax. The political objective is the next election cycle – and the “news” media is an enabler because they profit from that system, and horse race reporting with two sides yelling at each other is easier than trying to explain cloud microphysics. Social media didn’t start this, but it is making things worse. So an emotionally driven deeply split and angry electorate with mutually exclusive policy positions are the “optimal” way to win election cycles and keep ratings high. But they make it nearly impossible to govern. And policy radically swings depending on who is better able to scare the fraction of the electorate that changes sides from year to year, and is thus able to seize power. This is catastrophic since almost all of the problems we face require a consistent approach measured in years or decades, not election cycles. Even if the Biden Administration had policies that would work (TLDR: they don’t), it wouldn’t matter: the political pendulum will likely swing, and they will be scuttled, just as the Trump Administrations policies (also bad) are being scuttled.

To sum up, just like what happened last year with the pandemic, any estimates I might make as a scientist about the potential impacts of climate change will more than likely be totally swamped by the impacts of the horrible decisions and policies implemented by human leaders, based on short term thinking, lack of understanding of the complex technical issues, and their greedy and narcissistic values based on gaining and holding power.

The Chinese Hypersonic Vehicle Test

(Note for tropics watchers – nothing active anywhere, nothing expected in the next five days.)

There was a surprising flood of media attention over the weekend about a Chinese hypersonic missile test supposedly conducted a couple of months ago …

Hmmm … single source report echoed in multiple places?

So, is this what it appears? Was US Intelligence “surprised”? Let’s see what Bender has to say:

It is unimaginable that there was any surprise over this within the community – if any analyst was surprised, they should be fired. Immediately. In fact, any journalist who did not immediately ask “how is it possible to be surprised by this??” should also be sacked. And any editor who would let such a headline through to distribution without more context and questions should be sacked. While the USIC isn’t what it used to be, it’s not that utterly incompetent, so obviously there is something else going on. Let’s look a little deeper …

Hypersonic weapons systems are a hot topic right now. The phrase covers a lot of territory, from short range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to land attack weapons and ICBM based systems that can hit targets anywhere in the world within minutes. Hypersonic refers to the speed – generally to be considered hypersonic is to fly faster than Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound). At the high end (literally and technically) are a class of vehicles that fly into space and return. These can range from boost-glide vehicles to vehicles that combine boost-glide with supersonic combustion ram-jet engines (SCRAM jets). There are a lot of technical aspects and considerations in how vehicles are designed, and how altitude and velocity are traded for maneuvering, avoidance, and range.

The first hypersonic boost-glide vehicle was designed in … the early 1940’s. The Silbervogel (“Silver bird”) project was part of the advanced weapons development associated with the V-2 rocket development. After the war, the designers came to America and these concepts were used in everything from the X-20 Dynasoar project (one of the sad, great “what if” projects in history) and the Space Shuttle, as well as modern similar projects like the X-37 today. In terms of weapons development, there were numerous cold war era projects with varying degrees of classification that I will leave to the interested reader to Google so I don’t get in trouble. The Soviets and now Russians have developed and tested – and in recent years deployed – hypersonic boost-glide and fractional orbit bombardment systems such as Авангард (Avangard) that are on combat duty, as well as an array of other hypersonic weapons such as anti-ship and land attack missiles (Циркон, кинжал).

What about the Chinese in particular? Well, the DF-ZF boost-glide vehicle was deployed by the Chinese military and declared operational on … October 1st, 2019. Two years ago – with known tests years before that. They too have hypersonic anti-shipping missiles such as the DF-21, which was supposedly operational as early as 2010.

So even based on public information it’s inconceivable any serious analyst would be surprised by the existence of this thing, therefore there is something else going on aside from the obvious fact that the journalists writing the above news articles are clueless and gullible. While the US has had multiple hypersonic weapons projects over the years, there is an impression it has been lagging well behind Russia for some time. The AGM-183A has had testing problems and is not in deployment, while the Prompt Global Strike program also seems (at least in public) to still be mired in development, although the common hypersonic glide body was successfully tested last year.

So, this isn’t really new. It’s obviously a placed leak for some reason, Why? Probably several reasons: First, at least on paper (and probably in reality) the US is behind in hypersonic weapons system deployment. That is in fact a serious strategic problem, especially for the Navy, as it renders most large navy assets (like Carrier Battle Groups) extremely vulnerable. It also has the potential to negate most of the existing anti-missile systems like the Patriot and render close-in defense systems ineffective. So it makes sense to play up the red threat to get Congress to shovel some more money into these programs, after the huge amounts always already shoveled into these programs, hopefully this time to get some practical results.

Second, there is increasing nervousness over the situation with Taiwan, and the potential for China to move to reassert sovereignty over the island. The “correlation of forces” is already pretty unfavorable for the US to be able to defend the island, so again it makes sense to push potential threats to try to get more funding, redirect assets towards the West Pacific, etc.

And globally China is increasingly asserting itself, with projects not only across Asia but in Africa and Central/South America. So as a strategic threat, China is clearly number one.

In summary, this seems to be an incremental test by the Chinese. If it did in fact miss by “two dozen” miles as reported, that is actually a pretty significant failure in many ways. It makes me wonder about the capacity of systems like the DF-ZF, and how advanced their development really is. For the flood of articles to hit the press this way is a clear indication of an agenda. That’s potentially the real story, and it is distressing that the “news” media doesn’t have the depth to see it.

9/11 plus 20

The post-9/11 world is such a huge chunk of my working life, and 20 years is a milestone and worth some reflections, so I guess I should write something about it. I wasn’t in the country on that day – I was returning home from a mission in the Caribbean, and was waiting in Puerto Rico for my flight to Miami as the first airplane hit the World Trade Center.

Green Iguana. Why is he in a 9/11 post? Story at the end …

I have stories about trying to get home (it took some string pulling and four days), and of course all that has followed from the US reaction to that day, from getting frantic calls for information on Afghanistan (I had been there in the late 1980’s), to helping with aspects of the Iraq invasion planning, and so many other episodes. But, to be honest, I think the time for those kinds of stories has long past.

In the days after the attack I was involved in a position paper pointing out that overreacting had the potential to cause more harm than the original attack. It was pointed out that in terms of deaths, the terrorist attack was a blip in our yearly murder rate (therefore Americans are better than killing ourselves that the jihadis). That this wasn’t, as was being alleged, a failure in intelligence – we had all the pieces, and some analysts had put them together, it just wasn’t communicated to the right people for action. It wasn’t really even a major failure in security – minor changes in procedure could and should have caught the hijackers. The Taliban were open to turning over those thought to be directly behind the attacks – and of course those ultimately responsible, the Wahhabi extremists and their financial backers in the Saudi government, were well known. So maybe we shouldn’t over react, but just kill the planners in some suitably public and messy way, quietly (but equally messily) take out a couple Saudi princes who were supporting the spread of Wahhabism to make that point, tweak what needed tweaking, and move on.

But tweaking and minor fixes isn’t the American way. Neither, apparently, is moving on.

War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War in Syria. US forces engaged in open combat across the horn of Africa. Proxy wars across the region. A new, dystopian “Department of Homeland Security” with intrusive and expensive security theater. Militarization of civilian police forces. Fear. Paranoia.

Was it an over-reaction, and was it worth it? Consider: the US has almost certainly killed over TWO HUNDRED times more civilians – CIVILIANS – in its response to 9/11 than were killed in the original attacks. We have directly inflicted several thousand times – probably as much as 10 thousand times, and if you include secondary factors, an eye watering thirty thousand times – as much economic damage on ourselves and the world as was inflicted on us on that day 20 years ago.

And the result? Near East Asia is in far worse shape today than it was twenty years ago. American society has fractured, I think in significant part due to the self inflicted stresses and distorted priorities the last twenty years have brought. So while those with a vested interest in not being overly reflective on all this will talk about heroics (and there was much) and loss (again, there was much), I can’t help but think we turned a tragedy into a catastrophe.

I will close with one 9/11 related story, the reason for the picture of the Iguana. I was on the first airplane to depart Luis Munoz Marin International Airport that was allowed to return to the US. We had problems getting take-off clearance. Not security, or paperwork, on any of the usual reasons.

But because there had been no traffic for several days, the Iguanas had taken over the runways and taxiways, the tarmac staying warm overnight, and it being a perfect place to bask in the morning sun. This a problem at SJU on normal days, but on Friday September 14th, 2001, it was extreme. A truck had to preceded our airplane as we taxied out with line crews jumping out and shooing the lizards out of the way; then did the same to clear the runway. We were told they ran back to their spots as soon as we took off, and it took days for things to return to normal.

A Blatant Lie, and the potential consequences

Unlike most hard-core partisans or overly cynical observers, I’m reluctant to accuse a politician of outright lying. Usually politicians manage to find some shred of truth in which to wrap their falsehoods, and many statements are assumption dependent, so you while you can often say something is wrong or false, you have to be careful about saying something is a lie, which goes to intent. Accusing a politician of lying is also inflammatory and doesn’t help the public discourse. But there is little room for nuance here: President Biden lied when he said Afghanistan was “never about nation building.” It was *always* about nation building, and he was an integral part of developing that policy.

The proof is easily seen in the October 2001 Bonn Agreement, which was the key legal basis for our intervention. That agreement is cited in UN Security Council Resolution 1386 and other documents authorizing the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and specifically says in the list of requests, to …

Urge the United Nations, the international community, particularly donor countries and multilateral institutions, to reaffirm, strengthen and implement their commitment to assist with the rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction of Afghanistan, in coordination with the Interim Authority;

Multi-billion dollar legislation such as The Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-327, S. 2712) that was passed by Congress on November 15, 2002 and signed by the President (Bush II) on December 4, 2002 went through Biden’s senate committee. While many of the press releases have been lost or scrubbed from official USG web sites, some are still out there in various forms such as as at this State Department release from 2003, at a reliefweb link. Note the extensive list of reconstruction and capacity building projects. Resource inventories were made, roads and buildings constructed, institutions created.

from “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan”, U.S. Dept. of Defense, June 2008

So it seems the intervention was explicitly about “Nation Building” from the very beginning. Of course it was; the problem with Afghanistan all along was that it had no functional central government that could prevent groups like Al Qaeda from using it as a base. Biden, as a Senator and Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2001-2003, knew this. As Vice President during Obama he was involved in many of the additional capacity building efforts (aka “nation building”) during that period, such as the creation of a US style Central Bank system. Unless he is becoming senile (which would be a different, perhaps worse concern), there is little room to wiggle here: he lied.

Before someone points to all of Trump’s lies, that’s sort of irrelevant. He didn’t campaign on being a reality based leader. Even Trump’s followers admit he has a sometimes difficult relationship with the truth, so when he said something that was clearly false, it’s not like he ever actually promised to tell the truth. Most rational people had no hope or expectation that Trump would be truthful; and, of course, the media has been harping on Trumps “lies” for years. With Biden there may not have been a lot of hope, but there was an expectation of some level of honesty with respect to the big things. And the really sad part is Biden didn’t have to lie about this. He could (and should) have just concentrated on how the current situation got out of hand, and left the big picture of why the nation building didn’t work to a more appropriate occasion. But I guess he (or his speechwriters) just couldn’t resist trying to shift the blame. It was an opportunity to be a statesman. He failed.

I’ve been a bit surprised at the negative coverage of Biden’s performance this last week (even CNN has been harsh), we’ll see how long this new media fairness remains. But fair or not, the collapse of the US intervention in Afghanistan, and the President’s clearly self-serving and misleading statements have made a bad situation in the US worse: mistrust of politicians.

Over the last 20 years I have done numerous flights for Veterans Airlift Command (aka “Hero Flights”) taking wounded vets and their families back and forth to specialized medical treatment (since our Government can’t be bothered to do that), not to mention suffering the effects of TBI’s myself partly due to service in places like Afghanistan and Iraq nearly 40 years ago. It’s nice people say “thank you for your service,” but what those who serve in the military/foreign service/intelligence world really want and deserve is for their sacrifice to mean something. They want the world to be a better place because of what they – and more importantly those who lost their lives – went through.

The betrayed feeling among military veterans has been building, and the last 72 hours poured gas on it. Biden’s speech Monday obviously didn’t help. Will that have political and social impacts? I don’t know, but it certainly could both directly and indirectly. The Soviet involvement in Afghanistan has often been cited as one of the elements in the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the bitterness of the Afgansty (Afghan Vets) were an important social factor in that collapse. The state of Afghanistan on their departure is arguable; the Soviets certainly made a better job of it than the US has. The Soviets left in 1989, the government didn’t fall for three years, whereas our client state fell before we were even out of the country. In the Soviet Union, the impacts at home due to the perceived loss of credibility and treatment of veterans, coming on top of the mistrust created by events like Chernobyl, were all factors in destroying the credibility of the Party and when the economic stress of reform hit home the system collapsed.

Is COVID America’s Chernobyl? Is Afghanistan America’s, um, Afghanistan? As Mark Twain is alleged to have said, “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.”

Somehow trust in our key political institutions must be restored. I’m not sure how that can happen given the deep endemic corruption in both political parties, fed by the ratings driven media system. But ultimately it’s up to you, the voters, to not stand for having leaders like Trump and Biden on the ballot – much less in office. Politicians won’t change until they are punished more for being misleading than they are for being honest. Demand the truth – not just from the other side, but especially from your own, and be adult enough to realize that often you won’t like it.