Thursday, October 27, 2011

Two Steps Forward But Three Steps Backward

...Or how I learned to stop worrying about the bomb.

Humans have spent over five-thousand years engaging in organized conflict fighting over such things as resources, religion, and political ideology continually developing larger and more destructive weapons systems along the way in an effort to stay ahead of the “enemy.” In the dusty and stranger regions of my mind, I somehow picture this all beginning with your average Joe Caveman looking down and finding a nifty sharp and pointy rock on the ground. After picking it up, he studies the stone with all his cave man intellect and suddenly realizes that if he attaches it to the business end of his trusty wooden spear it will be a whole lot easier to kill the jerk living in the cave on the other side hill preventing him from taking his woman. Since then it has been a never-ending arms race to build the next awesome weapon.

Hell, in a way I am sure even during cave man days the need for those “high tech” spears was justified in similar terms we use today such as “national security” and “protecting peace through strength” because some nearby tribal bogeymen were surely out to harm God’s true people. Of course, back then some very nasty critters with long claws and jagged teeth were always looking to have Fred and Wilma Flintstone on the menu, which made having a sharp spear an extreme necessity.

Speaking strictly about dangerous and threatening humans it would be severely naïve not to believe that there were times when some primitive version of Hitler did try to dominate the local scene in the name of Lebensraum or some even greater abstract glory like Manifest Destiny. In fact, some people got so good at their empire building they went down in history like the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and several others.

But the weapons used back then were far less destructive and with the world a much larger place the consequences of some glory hound organizing an army with the purpose of conquering the world, while terrible did not endanger the entire planet. The development of our modern versions of spears during the Cold War, nuclear-tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles changed all that.

Now understand while no reasonable or intelligent person could ever considered the leaders of the United States as saints in world affairs the Soviet Union was never govern by innocent and peace-loving men and women either. As much as some rightly condemn American Imperialism, the Soviets were just as power hungry having bathed themselves fully in the blood of countless atrocities in their own country and the repression of Eastern Europe. So in a way I truly believe nuclear deterrence during the Cold War did keep the peace by forcing the more rational individuals in both Washington and Moscow to keep those with a desire for conquest and glory in check.

But like all conflicts the Cold War eventually ended and as amazing as it may seem nuclear stockpiles in both the United States and Russia have been steadily declining even though the number of active nuclear warheads in both countries remains insanely high. So, I have to admit I greeted the news of the United States dismantling the last of its most powerful nuclear weapons with glee.

The nuclear beast, a thermonuclear device designated B-53, had a yield of nine megatons and was designed to destroy command and control bunkers built deep underground. While I have not researched the issue given previous arms control treaties and the one recently ratified in the United States Senate, despite fanatical politically inspired obstructionism from Republicans, I am confident similar dismantling activities are occurring in Russia.

Even with the world still endangered by an overabundance of nuclear weapons it is a very small step in the right direction. Yes, before anyone busts a gut eager to shoot down my humble essay I understand there are still some very dark clouds on the proverbial horizon that have become a greater threats to the planet and humanity than nuclear war.

For me the main danger to the planet does not come from warheads and other weapon systems sitting in some heavily guarded bunker gathering dust. Sure, the money that went to purchase and maintain most of those weapons would have seen far better use in other areas but I believe the threat comes from a mindset hopelessly mired in the caveman mentality equating security with the ability to kill or at least enslave anyone not part of the right tribe or nation.

It utterly amazed me to hear some jackleg blather on about the United States being the greatest, freest, most super-duper special place that God ever graced on Earth. Do not get me wrong, even with an overabundance of idiots and morons messing up the works and refusing to address real problems the country faces it is a damn fine place to live. I just believe that with seven billion people on the planet we have long passed the point of the nation-state being a viable independent political system.

The problems of environmental degradation, pollution, climate change, over population, poverty, and the threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction long ago became global issues that individual nations do not have the will or funds to solve alone. Personally, I have to throw in multinational corporations as being a unique global problem in a league all by themselves. With a lot of corporations having operating funds far greater than that of many nations and on average possessing less morals and ethics than that of 19th century European imperial powers they are a threat that would make most gun-wielding terrorists turn green with envy.

So while I am feeling some serious warm fuzzies about the slow but steady dismantlement of nuclear arsenals given the current global situation we seem to be in a position of having taken two steps forward only to have fallen three steps backward. All told, given the size and scope of the problems we now face the 21st century will be even more dangerous and uncertain making the worst parts of the 20th century look like the good old days.

U.S.-made 'monster' nuclear warhead B53 dismantled
from USA Today
The B53 nuclear bomb was made to deliver a 9-megaton blast about 600 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.

Starting in 1962, about 300 of the 10,000-pound, minivan-size bombs were made, meant to be carried on bombers kept on 24-hour alert at the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions.

"Obviously, this was one of the largest weapons we had. It was a big one," says Greg Cunningham of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration's Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. At the plant, a ceremony marked the removal of high explosives from the last of the final 50 B53 bombs held in a reserve after the weapon's 1997 retirement.

"Monster really is the word. It would have created a fireball several miles wide," says noted nuclear history author Richard Rhodes.

"The world is a safer place with this dismantlement," said NNSA chief Thomas D'Agostino, in a statement. "The B53 was a weapon developed in another time for a different world."

The B53 was a thermonuclear device: An atomic bomb set off a larger hydrogen one, creating a tremendously powerful blast intended to annihilate Russian command bunkers deep underground. It was replaced by smaller, more accurate "bunker buster" weapons.

Uranium from the dismantled bombs will be sent to the Energy Department's Oak Ridge, Tenn., facility.

"The good news is we are taking some of our old nuclear weapons apart," says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a national security think tank based in Washington, D.C. "On the other hand, it's not like we still don't have plenty." Bomb dismantlement work at the Pantex plant, scheduled until 2022, he notes, has been slowed by weapon modernization work underway there.

Under 2010 treaty obligations, U.S. active strategic nuclear warheads will drop to 1,550 by 2018. About 5,000 nuclear weapons now remain deployed by the U.S. military, Kristensen notes.

Although President Obama has called for lowering nuclear weapons numbers, the administration urged a Senate committee this month to support efforts to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons, an estimated decade-long $85 billion commitment.

"We're not losing any military capability with this (B53) weapon's disappearance," says nuclear security expert Micheal Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.


Lowandslow said...

The B53 existed because back in it's day we didn't have the accuracy to hit a pinpoint target buried deep in the earth, such as the Soviet's command, control, communications hub. It took a 9-megaton bomb capable of blowing up a HUGE city to be sure we could take out the desired target. Today we can do the same job with a much smaller but more accurate warhead. Dismantleing the last B53's does not diminish our capabilities. And it would have had to be delivered by a B-52. Haha! Impossible in this era of layered air defenses.

I agree the phasing out of many of our nuclear warheads is a good thing, but unfortunately we're never going to be able to put the Genie back in the bottle. Now lots of countries led by crazy people (think Achmed Dinnertatter of Iran) want AND WILL SOMEDAY HAVE nuclear weapons. Smaller, cruder weapons, but much more likely to be used. Fewer nuclear weapons does NOT make the world a safer place.

Basically we're just pissing into the wind.


squatlo said...

Love the ode to Dr. Strangelove in your post title ("How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb")
Look at the caveman analogy in suburban terms. Most of us have weaponry in our own homes. Pistols, shotguns, rifles, and I imagine some of us have automatic weapons... and always because the "boogie man" is at the gate and we must be prepared. The arms race isn't a government thing, it's a human thing.
I own a Crossman air rifle and use it to discourage squirrels from snarfing down the sunflower seeds I put out for songbirds... and it's the most inaccurate weapon on the planet. You could put your hand over the end of the barrel and miss it completely.
But every now and then I get caught up in the home "protection" mania and consider buying a real gun. Need one, right? Everyone else has one, so I need one too?

heavy sigh...

lime said...

yeah, i'm jaded enough to say they are only dismantling this thing because there are even more efficient and horrifying means of desection.

Akelamalu said...

How did it all become necessary? :(

Mr. Charleston said...

Aaaarrrrgh! Just what I needed to cheer me up... A doomsday machine.

Beach Bum said...

Low: This essay was never about "putting the Genie back in the bottle" and if you had actually read the post I clearly stated that nuclear deterrence prevented war during the worst days of the Cold War.

You are absolutely right, nuclear weapons are not going anyplace but I do believe that the ability to blowup the world more than two or three times is getting a little ridiculous.

The other part of my post dealt with what I feel are now greater issues the world faces and that nation-states do not have the resources, the ability, or even the will to face them.

Squatio: I actually own a Sig Sauer P226 for no other reason that the possibility of "what if." Would it be effective in anyone else's hands but me, probably not since I have forbidden my son to touch it except for the few times I could get him to a firing range. My wife refuses to learn and I have the ammo hidden along with the actual pistol in two separate places in my house to prevent my daughter from touching it.

I have always the believed the right to self-defense can never be denied.

Lime: Yeah, they have more accurate bombs, of smaller size, in the inventory but I will not look a gifted horse in the mouth. The world is a better place with that monster gone.

Akelamalu: Because humans are idiots with a seemingly intense desire to self destruct encoded in our DNA.

Mr. Charleston: Well look at it this way we are long overdue for a nasty killer pandemic so Mother Nature might eventually cull us back enough to force us to start over.

Windsmoke. said...

After all the nuclear arsenals are dismantled what happens next? :-).

Lowandslow said...

Bum...I DID read your entire post. You say that you are "feeling some serious warm fuzzies about the slow but steady dismantlement of nuclear arsenals given the current global situation". How in the world can you get a warm fuzzy when crazies like Iran, possibly Pakistan, and who knows who else, not to mention rogue terrorist groups, have or soon will have nuclear weapons? Phasing out some old obsolete nuclear weapons with no possible means of delivery does NOT reduce the chance of nuclear war. It's just putting lipstick on the pig.

Your points about environmental degradation are all valid for sure, but I'm afraid people will see the headline "nuclear weapons dismantled" and take their eye off the ball and think we're somehow safer, while everyone knows we can all do SOMETHING to improve the environment, and results are easily quantifiable. IMHO, both are equally dangerous.


Beach Bum said...

Windsmoke: See my comment below.

Low: Obviously you missed this segment of a sentence in the tenth paragraph:

I CLEARLY wrote: "...and the threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction long ago became global issues that individual nations do not have the will or funds to solve alone."

You also missed my comment earlier this morning about how I acknowledged that yes, the genie was clearly out of the bottle. Once again here is what I wrote in my earlier comment:

"You are absolutely right, nuclear weapons are not going anyplace but I do believe that the ability to blowup the world more than two or three times is getting a little ridiculous."

Once again so you understand fully, I never once mentioned anything about complete disarmament, just that stockpiles very much need to be reduced.

Now lets fix your assumptions. Yes, Iran is clearly TRYING to develop nuclear weapons with Dubya and his friends claiming they were " a year away from having a workable weapon" since 2006. Just because I am a nice guy I'll not bring up how Dubya, Cheney, and all the neocons got worked up into a panic about Iraq having WMD's but somehow Saddam must have waved his magic wand sending them into some parallel universe.

I have no idea if you know that Iranian nuclear develop facilities are extreme spread out with many underground. While nuke strikes would take them out everyone with even a hint of sanity realizes that is not an option. So short of a ground invasion WHEN Iran finally develops a bomb it is something we will have to live with.

As for our good "friends" in Pakistan, they actually have nuclear weapons and with their intelligence agency, the ISI, is in bed with the Taliban and several other terroist organizations are a greater threat than Iran could hope to be right now.

Ultimately my post was NOT about nuclear disarmament but how the problems we face have become greater than the ability of nations to solve.

Cloudia said...

good things are stirring!!!

Aloha from Honolulu

Comfort Spiral

> < } } ( ° >

Randal Graves said...

You ain't fooling anyone, BB, I know damn well you're hiding a lost nuke in your basement and you just don't want anyone else to have them!

Thumbs up to your thumbs down on nation-statery, but then I don't believe in any -ism or -chy. If humans are a variable, the equation's eventually gonna equal zip.

Beach Bum said...

Cloudia: Right now, just something loose in my head.

Randal: Shhhhh! Homeland Security ain't happy with me now. I could end up with a long duration Caribbean vacation at Gitmo.

Red Nomad OZ said...

Maybe the real question is WHY? Why would someone be crazy enough to want to blow up the good guys? Why are less developed nations developing nuclear weapons? Why would they use them??

Understanding and addressing the 'why' would ultimately eliminate the need for ANY country to have weapons of mass destruction. But it would also take time and a maturity I'm not seeing.

Sorry, but the 'crazies' argument works both ways ...

Pixel Peeper said...

Not sure what would be the better scenario - some of those seven billion getting killed off by a nuclear bomb, a huge flu pandemic, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But whatever it is, if I'm one of them, I want it to be quick!

Beach Bum said...

Red Nomad: The fear of terrorists gaining nuclear a weapon is real but so is a couple of hundred other doomsday ideas. Some of them have a far greater chance of happening.

Pixel: I have been doing my best to isolate a more exacting point for this post and your mentioning the soon arriving seventh billion person did it. Back when the world lived under the threat of total nuclear doomsday I am forced to say things were far "simpler." The planet had far fewer people and political alliances between nations had everything in a strict black verses white situation.

Now the waters have been greatly muddied and things are far more complex. I simply do not believe very many people understand teh degree to which the world has changed. The global problems we now face defy the old nation-states ability to answer.

Once Known as The Badger said...

Where can I buy one of these? I have a dog in the neighborhood that barks incessantly...

Beach Bum said...

Badger: Love to use one on a few of my neighbors.

Marja said...

I can't stop laughing seeing in my mind these caveman being dorks.
But unfortunately we still live in a crazy and dangerous world

Liberality said...

I read this post earlier and thought I had commented upon it. Maybe blogger ate my comment or it is in limbo somewhere. Anyway, yes, I thought about the old cold war and how things are better is some small ways and way worse in other ways. Neocons should be forbidden to lead because they are not leaders--just paranoid freaks of nature :)

Beach Bum said...

Marja: The bad thing is that guys still act that way.

Liberality: Yeah, Blogger is eating a good number of my comments as well. Over these last few years I've heard several people mention they miss the "simple days" of the Cold War. Crazy I know but I understand in a way.