Never Mind the Nightmares, Reality’s Hard Enough: The Bomb by Stephen M Younger

What kind of nuclear capabilities do the Russians, Chinese, and other longtime members of the nuclear club have, how are they deployed and for what apparent purposes, and what more are they building?  What are Pakistan’s, India’s, and North Korea’s real nuclear capabilities? What is the real threat of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack?  How far along is the technology for remotely detecting nuclear weaponry and materials on site or in transit?  How secure are nuclear weapons depots in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere?  How hard would it be to steal and use a nuclear weapon?  How practical is ballistic missile defense?  What technical hurdles do new nuclear states have to overcome before their weapons would be usable?

And what about us? How many and what kind of nuclear warheads and delivery systems does the US currently possess, how powerful are they, how accurate are they, and what has to happen – legally and technically – for us to use them? How many bombs and warheads should we possess and of what types? Does Mutually Assured Destruction still underlie our nuclear posture? Is that a problem? Is there anything we can do about it if it is?

While we’re at it, how do nuclear weapons work, and what really happens when they go off?

Oh, and how did we get here, and where are we going?

Stephen M. Younger is among a handful of individuals in the world equipped to answer these questions comprehensively and authoritatively.  Indeed, as he on occasion is compelled to point out, he knows more than he’s permitted to say.  As a former chief of nuclear weapons R & D at Los Alamos and a former director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency at the Department of Defense – in other words a senior nuclear weapons researcher as well as a senior official dealing with WMD threats – he actually knows what he’s talking about, unlike, it must be said, many people around the world with very strong opinions on the same subjects.

That situation may change a bit for the better, however, if Younger’s little black book finds its way onto the desks of politicians, wonks, pundits, bloggers, and creative writers – at least those who hope to ground their ideas and arguments in the facts rather than in widely distributed misinformation, yesterday’s Hollywood techno-thrillers, or popular “nightmare scenarios.”

Younger clearly possesses his own opinions on the US nuclear arsenal and on proliferation and disarmament issues, but The Bomb is not a polemical work.  The author’s objective isn’t to name names or to take down reputations or careers.  Nor does he set out either to frighten us or to offer false re-assurance.  Here, for instance, is how he addresses the EMP scare scenarios that have recently taken up a lot of pundit space, that have provided the background for a just-published novel (by frequent Newt Gingrich collaborator William Forstchen), and that regularly turn up in the mass media and the blogosphere:

Contrary to media reports, it is not true that an EMP attack from a typical strategic weapon would completely shut down the electronics within a country.  First, the effect is statistical in nature – some systems will not notice the pulse at all while identical counterparts will be affected.  Second, the most likely effect from an EMP attack is “upset” rather than destruction, that is, a temporary scrambling of the memory of a computer or the frequency of a communication device, something that is easily corrected by rebooting or resetting the device.  (Upset can, however, have catastrophic consequences if the computer is the flight controller of an aircraft or another time-critical system.)  Third, the EMP output from a typical device is degraded by several design isues so that few, if any, weapons currently deployed in military stockpiles will produce the maximum possible effect.  Of all the nuclear effects, EMP seems the most prone to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Those determined to preserve the EMP scenario for their books, screenplays, op-eds, and “we’re all doomed” blog comments may construct clever or fancifully nightmarish workarounds to the series of obstacles put before them by Younger’s sober assessment both here and in additional discussion.  In the real world, however, it becomes much harder to see why this threat should be especially worrisome for us compared to more “conventional” ones, or why preparing it would be an especially productive use of a would-be evildoer’s time, resources, and energy.

Blackmail or terror or both by possessors of stolen nukes is another favorite element of nightmare scenarios.  Again, Younger doesn’t pretend to be able to extinguish all conceivable concern, but he does carefully explain why, for instance, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the existence of all those widely discussed badly rundown nuclear depots didn’t lead to a plague of real world True Lies or 24 situations, including the loss of a major city or at least a suburb or two.  After dismissing the “suitcase bomb” rumors that were “chronic during the 1990s” (and that the late and greatly missed blogger Dean Barnett used to delight in taking apart), and after explaining that those Russian depots, which he’d personally toured, were much more well-secured than press accounts and photographs implied, he gets technical about what a real world version of Crimson Jihad would really have had to cope with:

In contrast to what is shown in movies, nuclear weapons do not have a red button on their side with an LED display counting down the seconds to detonation.  Most are tightly sealed packages with only a single electrical connector serving as their interface to the outside world.  Looking at such a connector provides no indication of what wire does what – some send coded signals that prepare the weapon to detonate, but others might simply report details of weapon status.  Dismantling the weapon (not always an easy task) would provide more insight, but here again, most subsystems are sealed in their own cases so that it is sometimes difficult even for an expert to identify what component does what.  Of course, a weapon could be completely disassembled and then rebuilt with a new control system, but this would require extreme care, and in most cases an intimate knowledge of the weapon’s design in order to avoid destroying key components.

After listing some additional practical hurdles, Younger concludes that “[o]nly a few people in the world have the knowledge to cause an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon.”

Younger doesn’t happen to mention whether he himself is one of those few.  Nor does he go on to claim that the problem is no threat at all.  In conjunction with his examination of related detection and design issues, his discussion does however throw a goodly quantity of cold water on the categorical assertion, which you will frequently encounter on the internet, that a loose nukes catastrophe of some kind is “inevitable.”  Impossible?  No.  Probable?  Not currently – and, it seems, not really close.  Inevitable? Well, no – not at all – not when you look at the facts and think them through.

A generation ago, it was fashionable in the anti-nuclear protest movement to declare that nuclear war – and the end of civilization – was “inevitable” under then current circumstances, without heroic efforts (such as donating to your local chapter of the Alliance for Survival or Jobs for Peace).   The famous clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, stuck several some minutes to midnight for a couple of generations now, has likewise suggested an aura of inevitable doom.  It turns out, however, that the Bomb is a complicated, and, ironically enough, in crucial respects fragile technology, full of uncertainties for possessors and would-be possessors as well as for potential targets, and, so far – knock on wood, salt over the shoulder, etc. – demonstrably accessible to the governance even of imperfect, emotional, rivalrous, and contentious human beings.

Younger’s expertise and experience have not led him to believe that we are free to live as though the world did not change in some respects fundamentally, almost exactly 64 years ago.  He is quite aware of the awesome destructiveness of nuclear weapons, and in particular of the unique threat they pose to the US, which, by far and away the world’s leader in conventional arms, would have the most to lose strategically by a lower threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, or by their broad proliferation.  Yet neither has his knowledge led him to despair.  In de-mystifying the Bomb, he offers to turn us away from primitive nightmares and toward grappling like adults with problems that, though complex and uncertain, might be solvable, or solvable enough, in the light of day.

The Bomb: A New History
Stephen M. Younger
256 pages
Ecco, January 6, 2009


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