Accidental leak, or timed disclosure? From a strategic standpoint, it doesn't really matter, because the weapons system itself is what counts here.

Accidental leak, or timed disclosure? From a strategic standpoint, it doesn’t really matter, because the weapons system itself is what counts here.

It caused quite a stir today when it was announced that the Russians had accidentally released some details of a proposed submersible weapons system (the Status-6, or Статус-6 in Russian) when television coverage of a conference among defense chiefs broadcast a document being held by one of the participants. This was first brought to my attention by a BBC story, Russia reveals giant nuclear torpedo in state TV ‘leak’. The BBC story led me to Russia may be planning to develop a nuclear submarine drone aimed at ‘inflicting unacceptable damage’ by Jeremy Bender, which in turn led me to Is Russia working on a massive dirty bomb? on the Russian strategic nuclear forces blog, which latter includes inks to a television news segment on Youtube, where you can see (at 1:48) the document in question. A comment on the article includes a link to a Russian language media story, Кремль признал случайным показ секретного оружия по Первому каналу и НТВ, that discusses the leak.

This news story is only in its earliest stages, and there are already many conflicting accounts as to exactly what was leaked and what it means. There is also the possibility that the “leak” was intentional, and meant for public consumption, both domestic and international. There is nothing yet on Janes or Stratfor about this, both of which sources I would consider more reliable on defense than the BBC or any mainstream media outlet. There is a story on DefenseOne, Russia: We Didn’t Mean to Show Everyone Our Massive New Nuclear Torpedo, but this seems to be at least partly derivative of the BBC story.

The BBC story suggested the the new Russian torpedo could carry a “dirty bomb,” or possibly a Colbalt bomb, as well as suggesting that it could carry a 100-megaton warhead. These possible warhead configurations constitute the extreme ends of the spectrum of nuclear devices. A “dirty bomb” that is merely a dirty bomb and not a nuclear warhead is a conventional explosive that scatters radioactive material. Such a device has long been a concern for anti-terrorism policy, because the worry is that it would be easier for terrorists to gain access to nuclear materials than to a nuclear weapon. Scattering radioactive elements in a large urban area would not be a weapon of mass destruction, but it has been called a “weapon of mass disruption,” as it would doubtless be attended by panic as as the 24/7 news cycle escalated the situation to apocalyptic proportions.

At the other end of the scale of nuclear devices, either a cobalt bomb or a 100-megaton warhead would be considered doomsday weapons, and there are no nation-states in the world today constructing such devices. The USSR made some 50-100 MT devices, most famously the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated, but no longer produces these weapons and is unlikely to retain any in its stockpile. It was widely thought that these enormous weapons were intended as “counterforce” assets, as, given the technology of the time (i.e., the low level of accuracy of missiles at this time), it would have required a warhead of this size to take out a missile silo on the other side of the planet. The US never made such large weapons, but its technology was superior, so if the US was also building counterforce missiles at this time, they could have gotten by with smaller yields. The US arsenal formerly included significant numbers of the B53, with a yield of about 9 MT, and before that the B41, with a yield of about 25 MT, but the US dismantled the last B53 in 2011 (cf. The End of a Nuclear Era).

Nuclear weapons today are being miniaturized, and their delivery systems are being given precision computerized guidance systems, so the reasons for building massively destructive warheads the only purpose of which is to participate in a MAD (mutually assured destruction) scenario have disappeared (mostly). A cobalt bomb (as distinct from a dirty bomb, with which it is sometimes confused, as both a dirty bomb and a cobalt bomb can be considered radiological weapons) would be a nuclear warhead purposefully configured to maximize radioactive fallout. In the case of the element cobalt, its dispersal by a nuclear weapon would result in the radioactive isotope cobalt-60, a high intensity gamma ray emitter with a half-life of 5.26 years — remaining highly radioactive for a sufficient period of time that it would likely poison any life that survived the initial blast of the warhead. The cobalt bomb was first proposed by physicist Leó Szilárd in the spirit of a warning as to the direction that nuclear technology could take, ultimately converging upon human extinction, which became a Cold War touchstone (cf. Existential Lessons of the Cold War).

The discussion of the new Russian weapon Status-6 (Статус-6) in terms of dirty bombs, cobalt bombs, and 100 MT warheads is an anachronism. If a major power were to build a new nuclear device today, they would want to develop what have been called fourth generation nuclear weapons, which is an umbrella term to cover a number of innovative nuclear technologies not systematically researched due to both the end of the Cold War and the nuclear test ban treaty. (On the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty cf. The Atomic Age Turns 70) Thus this part of the story so far is probably very misleading, but the basic idea of a nuclear device on a drone submersible is what we need to pay attention to here. This is important.

I am not surprised by this development, because I predicted it. In WMD: The Submersible Vector of January 2011 I suggested the possibility of placing nuclear weapons in drone submersibles, which could then be quietly infiltrated into the harbors of major port cities (or military facilities, although these would be much more difficult to infiltrate stealthily and to keep hidden), there to wait for a signal to detonate. By this method it would be possible to deprive an adversary of major cities, port, and military facilities in one fell swoop. The damage that could be inflicted by such a first strike would be just as devastating as the first strikes contemplated during the Cold War, when first strikes were conceived as a massive strike by ICBMs coming over the pole. Only now, with US air superiority so far in advance of other nation-states, it makes sense to transfer the nuclear strategic strike option to below the world’s oceans. Strategically, this is a brilliant paradigm shift, and one can see a great many possibilities for its execution and the possible counters to such a strategy.

During the Cold War, the US adopted a strategic defense “triad” consisting of nuclear weapons deliverable by ground-based missiles (ICBMs), jet bombers (initially the subsonic B-52, and later supersonic bombers such as the B-1 and B-2), and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Later this triad was supplemented by nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, which represent the beginning of a disruptive change in nuclear strategy, away from massive bombardment to precision strikes.

The Russians depended on ground-based ICBMs, of which they possessed more, but, in the earlier stages of the Cold War Russian ICBMs were rather primitive, subject to failure, and able to carry only a single warhead. As Soviet technology caught up with US technology, and the Russians were able to build reliable missile boats and MIRVs for their ICBMs, the Russians too began to converge upon a triad of strategic defense, adding supersonic bombers (the Tu-22M “Backfire” and then the Tu-160 “Blackjack”) and missile boats to their ground-based missiles. For a brief period of the late Cold War, there was a certain limited nuclear parity that roughly corresponded with détente.

This rough nuclear parity was upset by political events and continuing technological changes, the latter almost always led by the US. An early US lead in computing technology once again led to a generational divide between US and Soviet technology, with the Soviet infrastructure increasingly unable to keep up with technological advances. The introduction of SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) threatened to further destabilize nuclear parity, and which in particular was perceived to as a threat to the stability of MAD. Long after the Cold War is over, the US continues to pursue missile defense, which has been a remarkably powerful political tool, but despite several decades of greatly improved technology, cannot deliver on its promises. So SDI upset the applecart of MAD, but still cannot redeem its promissory note. This is an important detail, because the weapons system that the Russians are contemplating with Status-6 (Статус-6) can be built with contemporary technologies. Thus even if the US could extend its air superiority to space, in addition to fielding an effective missile defense system, none of this would be an adequate counter to a Russian submersible strategic weapon, except in a second strike capacity.

As I noted above, there would be many ways in which to build out this submersible drone strategic capability, and many ways to counter it, which suggests the possibility of a new arms race, although this time without Russia being ideologically crippled by communism (which during the Cold War prevented the Soviet Union from achieving parity with western scientific and economic strength). A “slow” strategic capability could be constructed based something like what I described in WMD: The Submersible Vector, involving infiltration and sequestered assets, or a “fast” strategic capability closer to what was revealed in the Russian document that sparked the story about Status-6, in which the submersibles could fan out and position themselves in hours or days. Each of these strategic assets would suggest different counter measures.

What we are now seeing is the familiar Cold War specter of a massive nuclear exchange displaced from our skies into the oceans. If the Russians thought of it, and I thought of it, you can be certain that all the defense think tanks of the world’s major nation-states have thought of it also, and have probably gamed some of the obvious scenarios that could result.

It is time to revive the dying discipline of nuclear strategy, to dust off our old copies of Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War and On Escalation, and to once again think the unthinkable.

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Addendum Added Sunday 15 November 2015: In what way is a nuclear-tipped drone submersible different from a conventional nuclear torpedo? Contemporary miniaturization technology makes it possible to have a precision guided submersible that is very small — small enough that such a weapon might conceivably bury itself in the mud on the bottom of a waterway and so be impossible to detect, even to be visually by divers alerted to search for suspicious objects on the bottom (as presumably happens in military harbors). Also, the Status-6 was given a range of some 6,000 nautical miles, which means that these weapons could be released by a mothership almost anywhere in the world’s oceans, and travel from that point to their respective targets. Such weapons could be dropped from the bottom of a ship, and would not necessarily have to be delivered by submarine. Once the drones were on their way, they would be almost impossible to find because of their small size. The key vulnerability would be the need for some telecommunications signaling to the weapon. If the decision had already been made to strike, and those making the decision were sufficiently confident that they would not change their minds, such drones could be launched programmed to detonate and therefore with no need to a telecommunications link. Alternatively, drones could be launched programmed to detonate, but the detonation could be suppressed by remote command, which would be a one-time signal and not an ongoing telecommunications link to the drone. This presents obvious vulnerabilities as well — what if the detonation suppression signal were blocked? — but any weapons systems will have vulnerabilities. It would be a relatively simple matter to have the device configurable as either fail-safe or fail-deadly, with the appropriate choice made at the time of launch.

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Note Added Saturday 14 November 2015: Since writing the above, an article has appeared on Janes, Russian state TV footage reveals ‘oceanic multi-purpose’ torpedo-based nuclear system, by Bruce Jones, London, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, though it doesn’t add much in addition to what is already known.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Atomic Age Turns 70

6 August 2015


“1945-1998” by Isao Hashimoto

Five Years ago on 06 August 2010 I wrote The Atomic Age Turns 65, on the 65th anniversary of the use of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan — the first atomic bomb of the first nuclear war. Now, five years later, the Atomic Age has reached its three score and ten, and we have another five years of historical perspective on what it means to live in the Atomic Age.

In this previous post on the 65th anniversary of the Atomic Age I discussed the failure of philosophers to think clearly about nuclear weapons and nuclear war. This is no more glaring that the failure of politicians, or of any other class of society, except that it is less forgivable in philosophers, because philosophers should be more aware of political and ideological bias, and therefore better able to avoid it. The few individuals who did think clearly about nuclear weapons and nuclear war — most notably Herman Kahn — were often demonized for “thinking the unthinkable.” How many years, how many decades, how many generations before we can think dispassionately about our ability to destroy ourselves?

07 October 1963  President Kennedy signs the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. White House, Treaty Room. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

07 October 1963 President Kennedy signs the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. White House, Treaty Room. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, White House, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

While the atomic bombs that ended the Second World War did not trigger an age of atomic warfare (at least, not yet), it did trigger a period of the development of atomic weapons, and this led to a period of intensive atomic testing that continued until the pace of atomic testing was slowed somewhat by the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The period of the most intensive testing of nuclear weapons corresponded with the period of the highest tensions of the Cold War. This suggests that the Cold War not only consisted of proxy wars in Third World nation-states, but also the proxy war of nuclear testing — nuclear warfare at one remove. The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty has not come into force officially, but most nation-states have chosen to abide by its provisions nevertheless. The only nuclear tests in recent years — in recent decades — have been those of India, Pakistan, and North Korea, all of which were undertaken in the face of significant international disapproval. The Cold War is over and nuclear weapons testing has slowed to a trickle.

We are very slowly and gradually putting the nuclear age behind us. Once nuclear weapons were developed, it was often said that the nuclear genie could not be put back in the bottle. That is true, in so far as we have the knowledge and the technology of nuclear weapons. Moreover, each year this knowledge and technology is more widely distributed and more available. Now deliverable nuclear weapons are seventy years old; in another ten years, nuclear technology will be eighty years old, and not long after that nuclear weapons technology will “celebrate” a centennial. Assuming that human civilization remains intact, the knowledge and the technology will not only remain intact, but will be more widely available than ever. Nevertheless, we have reason to hope that we can exercise rational control over our nuclear weapon technology and avoid a second nuclear war. This hope is certainly not a certainty, but it is based on evidence, and there are historical parallels that could be adduced.

Herman Kahn and escalation

If we had cultivated the ability to think clearly and dispassionately about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare instead of heaping shame, scorn, and disapproval on those who did so — driving it underground into secret military and government think tanks — we would be capable of a more clear-headed assessment of where we are seventy years into the Atomic Age. Instead, we have the hopeful record of controlling this technology coupled with silence and discomfiture with plain speaking when it comes to this hopeful accomplishment — a mixed record, but at least a mixed record that is consistent with the continuing existence of our civilization.

I expect this mixed record to continue, despite provocations. If we can prevent nuclear war for seventy years, we can continue to prevent it for another seventy years. If, despite the desire of many nation-states to possess nuclear weapons, non-proliferation efforts can make this possession expensive and difficult, we can continue to make proliferation expensive and difficult. More nation-states will join the “nuclear club,” but they will do so with untested arsenals, knowing that their conventional weaponry is probably more effective and does not involve pariah status in the international community. And we have to diffuse the tension the constant and continual low-level conventional fighting that is taking place around the world. This may sound like a less-than-ideal, less-than-optimal nuclear future, even a cynical future, but it is, again, a nuclear future consistent with the continued existence of civilization. And until we think our way through to clarity about nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare, this remains the closest to an ideal and optimal future that we can reasonably hope to have.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Lenins tomb with missiles

Often when I write about emerging strategic trends I consider the long term future and make a particular effort to stress that little of the trend will be glimpsed in our lifetime, but at present I will consider the development of a strategic trend that is likely to be realized in the near- to mid-term future, i.e., a strategically significant technology that may develop into maturity or near-maturity within the lifetime of those now living. The technology is precision munitions and weaponry, and the strategic capability that mature precision weaponry will make possible is what I will call qualitative strikes. Before I come to qualitative strikes proper, I want to review the military and strategic context out of which the possibility of qualitative strikes has emerged.

Soviet Yangel R-16 two stage ICBM in its silo.

Soviet Yangel R-16 two stage ICBM in its silo.

In the early stages of the Cold War when nuclear weapons were primarily ballistic missiles and ballistic missiles were the most accurate of nuclear delivery vehicles, the nightmare scenario (featured in many films of the era) was a NORAD alert that hundreds of thousands of Soviet Missiles were already launched and were on their way over the pole to targets in North America. The US would then have less than thirty minutes to decide whether or not to launch a massive retaliatory strike of its own, and it could not wait until the missiles actually landed and nuclear strikes were confirmed because that would be too late. This was the Atomic Age parallel to the First World War dilemma of putting troops on trains that could not be recalled because the scheduling of transportation was so precise. Once the missiles flew, there was no calling them back. If you launched, MAD was initiated, so you needed to be sure you were responding to the real thing.

norad war room

The essence of Cold War MAD doctrine was this massive nuclear exchange. Cold War targeting lists were almost indiscriminate in their presumption of mass annihilation; many major cities had a dozen or more warheads targeted for them, as though the intention were simply to “make the rubble jump,” as Churchill said of the Nazi bombardment of London. A massive nuclear exchange involved mutually assured destruction for the powers involved in the exchange, and since MAD was understood to be a guarantor of Cold War peace — since it would literally be madness to allow a massive nuclear exchange to take place — the very idea of either anti-ICBM “counter-force” targeting or of developing a “second strike” capability was interpreted as a hostile act of one power against the other.

Strategic bombing during the Second World War demonstrated the possibility of leveling cities; nuclear strategy was simply an extension of this.

Strategic bombing during the Second World War demonstrated the possibility of leveling cities; nuclear strategy was simply an extension of this.

We think of the end of these developments in nuclear warfighting strategy as a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, but this phase of nuclear strategy would be ended anyway, regardless of the fate of the Cold War. If the Soviet Union were still in existence today, we would no longer be talking about MAD — or, if we were, it would only be because traditionalists were clinging to a doctrine that no longer had strategic relevance. While many nation-states have land-based ICBMs, these weapons systems are already relics. They belong to a age of indiscriminate and massive attacks that emerged from the strategic bombing of the Second World War. If the bombers of the Second World War had had the capability to execute precision strikes, they would have done so. But this technology was not yet available. As the next best strategy, the only possible strategy, “area bombing” for the purpose of “de-housing” enemy populations became the norm. Once planners, strategists, air crews, and populations became inured to the routine of leveling entire cities, the atomic bomb was simply a cheaper, quicker, more efficient way to do the same thing.

General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command.

General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command.

The only subtlety at the stage of nuclear strategy brought to maturity during the Cold War — if it could even be called a subtlety — was whether any nuclear capacity would remain on either side to deliver a second strike after the initial massive exchange (a “second strike” capability). Cold War strike capacity did not lie exclusively in ICBMs. In addition to ICBMs, there was the Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Curtis LeMay, who learned his trade during the Second World War. While LeMay was perhaps the most renown American advocate of strategic air power, it was Arthur “Bomber” Harris of the RAF who presided over the strategic bombing of Germany, with the mantra that, “The bomber will always get through.” Again, the Second World War was the template for what followed.

Air Marshal Arthur (Bomber) Harris.

Air Marshal Arthur (Bomber) Harris.

The ultimate guarantor of second strike capability was the ballistic missile submarine. With dozens of submarines submerged deep in the world’s oceans, each submarine with a dozen missiles or more, and each missile with a MIRV with a dozen or so warheads, a single surviving submarine had the capacity to deliver a devastating second strike. Moreover, a submarine could sneak up close to the coast of an enemy’s territory and let loose its ballistic missiles from short range, leaving the enemy with only minutes to respond — and no real assets that could respond to a strike less than 15 minutes away. The traditional “triad” of Cold War deterrence consisted of land-based ICBMs, strategic bombers, and missile boats, but all of this took time to develop; it was not until the early 1960s that both the US and the USSR had a fleet of operational missile boats. When both sides in the Cold War possessed the nuclear triad, and therefore a second strike capability, the MAD equation continued to hold good.


In the strategic context of MAD, nuclear strikes were quantitative strikes, and each side in the Cold War was motivated by the competition to assemble the quantitatively largest arsenal in order to deter the other side. The Cold War was a numbers game — cf. Kennedy’s “Missile Gap” — and this numbers game escalated with predictable results: tens of thousands of nuclear warheads perpetually maintained in readiness. The agreements to limit nuclear weapons only institutionalized the overkill of MAD doctrines.


From this point, it would have been difficult to escalate any further, except for technologies that were viewed as inherently destabilizing because they might shift the balance and make one side or the other believe that they were no longer subject to the MAD calculation. It is of the essence to understand that global Cold War stability depended centrally on the inescapability of MAD. The Reagan-era “Star Wars” missile defense initiative was just such a destabilizing factor, but by this time the Soviet Union was already in terminal decline. Anti-missile defense systems had been designed and built prior to this, but clearly the initiative still law with the offense; the technology simply did not yet exist to bring down an ICBM.

Soviet decline coupled with the emergence of technologies that would make missile defense a viable possibility led to the end of the Soviet Union and MAD and the Cold War. Not only are these Cold War ideas dated by subsequent political developments, they are also dated by subsequent technological developments. Even if the Soviet Union had survived intact to the present day, the nightmare MAD scenario of Cold War planners would no longer be relevant because weapons systems have moved on.

One of the greatest of the revolutions in military affairs (RMA) has been the introduction of precision-guided munitions, and the eventual issue of converting to a “smart” arsenal means a transition from quantitative strikes to qualitative strikes. The shift in emphasis from nuclear to conventional armaments with the end of the Cold War facilitated the speed of this transition. Nuclear strategy suddenly went from being a top priority to barely making the list of priorities, and defense dollars began to flow into conventional weapons, and here there were opportunities for improvement that were not understood to be politically destabilizing.

The idea of qualitative strikes is not at all new. One could say that qualitative strikes have always been the telos of military operations. The air forces of the Second World War aspired to precision bombing, but this was not yet possible. During the Cold War, some missiles were targeted according to a “counter-force” strategy, i.e., they were targeted at enemy ballistic missile silos, but this only played into the MAD calculation, because it meant that to wait meant to lose one’s primary strike capability. If you could completely wipe out your enemy’s ballistic missile silos in a age when ICBMs were the primary nuclear deterrent, you would leave your enemy with the uncomfortable choice of retaliating massively on civilian population centers or accepting defeat. A successful counter-force attack would constitute a qualitative strike, and qualitative strikes pose political dilemmas such as that outlined. This is why such ideas were considered inherently destabilizing. But this level of technology was not practicable during the time when ICBMs were the primary nuclear deterrent.

Although the press today reports civilian casualties as if they were disproportionately high, in historic terms both civilian and military casualties are at the lowest levels ever. With the industrialization of war the technologies of warfighting experience an initial exponential growth in lethality, but as precision begins to outpace sheer quantitative destructive power, the warfare of industrial-technological civilization passes The Lethality Peak and casualties fall as strikes converge upon qualitative precision. In other words, the rapid emergence of precision guided munitions in the battlespace has been effective. They work. And they’re getting better all the time. The efficacy of precision guided munitions suggests the possibility of a complete shift away from quantitative destruction to qualitative strikes, i.e., strikes that selectively pick out a certain kind of target, or a certain class of targets. This is already a reality to a limited extent, but it will take time before it is fully translated into policy and doctrine.

In A Glimpse at the Near Future of Combat I mentioned a Norwegian satellite that will track all ships (over 300 gross tons) in Norwegian coastal waters. Most ships have transponders, indicating basic identification information for the vessel. In the near future of autonomous vehicles, it is likely that most vehicles will have transponders on them. Most individuals carry cell phones, which are essentially transponders, and we know the the Snowden leaks about the NSA surveillance program how thoroughly “big data” applications can track the world’s cellular phone calls. Fixed assets like cities and industrial facilities are even easier to map and track than mobile assets like ships, planes, vehicles, and people.

What we are looking at here is the possibility of computer systems sufficiently sophisticated that almost everything on the surface of the earth can the identified and tracked. To have a total system of identification and tracking is to have a targeting computer. Couple a targeting computer with precision guided munitions that can pick out small targets in a crowd and be assured of destroying these targets with a near-total absence of collateral damage, and you have the possibility of a military strike that does not depend in the least upon quantitative destruction, but rather upon picking out just the right selection of targets to have just the right effect (political or military, keeping in mind Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the pursuit of politics by other means). This is a qualitative strike.

None of these developments will go unchallenged. The dependency of qualitative warfare upon computer systems points to the centrality of cyberwarfare in the integrated battlespace. If you can confuse the targeting computer of the weapons’ guidance systems, you can defeat the system, but systems can in turn be hardened and made redundant. Other measures and counter-measures will be developed, and escalation will be an escalation in precision and the possibility of qualitative warfare (since those who attack precision warfighting infrastructure will need to be equally precision in their attempt to defeat a precision weapons system) in contradistinction to the escalation of quantitative warfare that defined the twentieth century.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Carl Sagan’s Dream

10 December 2012


cosmos 1

I have finally watched the whole of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey television series. I have in earlier posts expressed my admiration for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, which I have watched numerous times, but, until now, Sagan’s Cosmos had eluded me. (And I didn’t even include it in my post Documentaries Worth Watching — because I hadn’t yet watched it when I wrote that.)

cosmos 02

While the Cosmos series is ostensibly a popular exposition of cosmology — and even, we could say, Big History before big history was known as such, since Sagan insistently places human beings in their cosmological context — the Cold War, strangely, is never far from the surface. Sagan had evidently felt so sharply the existential threat of nuclear war that he returns to this human, all-too-human theme in several places in his exposition of the grandeur of the essentially impersonal, and therefore inhuman, cosmos.

cosmos 3

This concern for nuclear war reaches its zenith in the final episode, “Who Speaks for Earth,” when Sagan recounts the narrative of a dream of nuclear war ending our terrestrial civilization. This dream sequence does not appear in the book version of Cosmos — perhaps it was included in the television series in order to give human interest to such a difficult topic.

cosmos 4

Sagan narrates a dream sequence of visiting a planet that is home to an alien civilization. Gazing down on the planet from space, he sees the lighted night side of the planet, but as he watches, the whole world goes dark. He checks the “Book of Worlds” — what in an earlier episode he called the Encyclopedia Galactica, which I wrote about in Cyberspace and Outer Space — and finds that the world was rated as having less than a one percent chance of survival for the next hundred years.

cosmos 5

As the narration continues, Sagan comforts himself for this loss by listening to radio and television broadcasts from Earth. Most of the snippets of news in this aural montage feature stories of atomic weapons or political tension. As he is listening, the broadcasts from Earth are interrupted and fall silent. Disturbed by this, wondering why the broadcasts from Earth suddenly stopped, he looks up the entry for Earth in the Book of Worlds, and reviews it. He finds that Earth, too, was given a chance of survival of less than one percent over the next hundred years. “Not very good odds,” as Sagan observes. He sees that terrestrial civilization has been destroyed by a full nuclear exchange, and he then recites a melancholy litany of things that will be no more with the end of human civilization.

cosmos 06

Sagan uses this device of his dream of terrestrial civilization extinguished by nuclear war to introduce his theme of the episode — who speaks for Earth? After the dream narrative, Sagan then describes nuclear war again, in less personal but still horrific terms, and then asks, “We know who speaks for the nations, but who speaks for the earth?” This, then, allows Sagan another summary of his history of science, this time noting the dark underside of science as a part of human civilization. Sagan returns to the Library of Alexandria, where some of the first moments of the series are set. Thus Sagan comes full circle, in a nice narrative closure.

cosmos 7

Sagan’s final recap of the history of science in this last episode mirrors an earlier theme from episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” in which he discussed two distinct traditions of ancient Greek civilization, one that he traces to Democritus and Aristarchus, that is about the sunny uplands of the human intellect as revealed by the best science of which human beings are capable, which is then followed by an almost malevolent account of a counter-tradition that he traces to Pythagoras and Plato, in which the pursuit of knowledge gets caught up in mysticism, obscurantism, and superstition. Even from the earliest beginnings of the Western tradition, it seems, we are dogged by the dialectic of eros and thanatos.

cosmos 8

In episode eight, “Journeys in Space and Time,” Sagan offers us a counter-factual history in which the early beginnings of science in ancient Greek civilization develop continuously and are never interrupted and derailed by the Dark Ages. Sagan speculates that we might now be going to the stars, in spaceships emblazoned with Greek letters, if we had not experienced a thousand year hiatus in the development of science. This idea reappears in a subtle way in Sagan’s dream narrative: when describing the alien civilization that falls silent he suggests that they might have come through a similarly dark time, that they were survivors of past catastrophes, only to be later destroyed by forces they could not control — like us. For Sagan, industrial-technological civilization is its own worst enemy.

cosmos 9

It is interesting and instructive to compare Sagan’s historical perspective to that of Kenneth Clark, who begins his Civilisation: A Personal View in the midst of the European dark ages in order to make the point that civilization made it through this period, as Clark says, by the skin of our teeth. Sagan clearly thought that we are now only making it through by the skin of our teeth. The ever-present threat of nuclear war could end our civilization at any time, and that would be it for all of us. Another way to formulate this would be to say that, for Clark, the “great filter” of human civilization was the dark ages, while for Sagan the great filter is now.

cosmos 10

Clark’s decision to begin in the dark ages was an elegant solution to the problem of how to tell the story of Western civilization without spending all 13 episodes on the Greeks and the Romans — something I would be tempted to do. The solution was to avoid classical antiquity altogether, and to begin with the pitiful remnants of the dark ages and how these gradually grew into a new civilization. Sagan approached this differently, distributing expositions of past and possible dark ages throughout his narrative, so that it appears in the first and the last episode and several of the episodes in between — as I said above, the spirit and the existential angst of the Cold War is never far below the surface of Cosmos.

cosmos 11

Is the history of ancient science any less essential to Western civilization than the history of ancient art? I don’t like to admit it, but I don’t think so. I think that ancient art and ancient science are equally essential and implicated in the world today — and for that reason, equally dispensable. Sagan, then, could have adopted the same “solution” as Clark: avoid classical antiquity altogether, and start with the rebuilding of Western civilization after its early medieval nadir. But Clark got the dark ages out of the way, and, once finished with them, did not return to the theme of the end of civilization. For Sagan, the potential end of civilization is an ever-present menace, so that it could not be taken up in the first episode and then forgotten.

cosmos 12

Another theme that appears in a subtle way in several episodes of Sagan’s Cosmos is that of the social responsibility of scientists. Sagan does not pose this in a strong or an explicit way, but it does come up from time to time, entangled as it is with the development of science and technology. If we recall one of antiquity’s greatest scientists, Archimedes, we remember that Archimedes was known for constructing engines of war for the defense of Syracuse, and that Archimedes himself was a victim of war, struck down by a soldier because he refused to leave his mathematical work.

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In episode seven, “The Backbone of Night,” mentioned above for its contrast between the traditions of Democritus on the one hand and Pythagoras on the other (i.e., the contrast between science and mysticism), Sagan discusses how many philosophers of antiquity — including the greatest among them, Plato and Aristotle — defended retrograde institutions like slavery, and how they served tyrants. (This is, in essence, a Marxist argument that Plato and Aristotle were creating an ideological superstructure to defend the economic infrastructure of the society of which they were a privileged part.) I assume that this reference to tyrants was an oblique reference to Plato’s brief foray into practical politics when he visited the tyrant Dionysius II of Syracuse (yes, the same Syracuse) in the capacity of what we would today call a political adviser. Even Plato was insufficiently brilliant to transform the dissolute Dionysius II into a philosopher king.

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This unsuccessful intervention in Syracuse is recounted in Plato’s seventh letter, and in the famous seventh letter Plato made in quite clear that he was doing exactly that he presented as the duty of the philosopher in his famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of Plato’s Republic: after the philosopher has, by his own effort, raised himself out of the cave of shadows and eventually come to look at the blinding form of The Good, he has an obligation to return to the cave of shadows to try to make those still chained below understand their bondage to mere appearances. Plato wrote that he did not want to be considered a mere man of words, and so he undertook his mission to Syracuse, although he was rebuffed and unsuccessful, as most philosophers who return to the cave of shadows are rebuffed by those they seek to enlighten.

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Plato, then, took the responsibilities of the philosopher seriously — so seriously that he undertook a mission likely to fail. But who most needs our intervention? Should we preach to the choir, or should we attempt to pursue our intellectual ministry among the philosophical equivalents of prostitutes, beggars, and thieves? So Plato was no stranger to the social responsibility of the intellectual, and Plato’s mentor, Socrates, took the social responsibility of the intellectual so far as to die for it. Sagan has some harsh words for Plato, and perhaps some of them are deserved, but Plato lived in a dark time, after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian war, and all his efforts must be seen in this context. Could he have done more? Perhaps. Could Socrates have done more? I think not. Socrates gave all.

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In the last episode of Cosmos, “Who speaks for Earth?” that includes the dream narrative recounted above, Sagan says that he really has no idea why ancient civilization failed and gave way to barbarism, but that he would make one observation: that no scientist working at the Library of Alexandria ever questioned the injustices of the society of which he was a part. This is a echo of his earlier criticisms of Plato and Aristotle for defending the institution slavery. And despite disowning knowledge of why Greek civilization failed, he adds another explanation, related to the previous: that ancient science was an elite undertaking that did not broadly involve the mass of the people of antiquity.

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It was precisely Plato’s desire to initiate the masses into what he called the “dear delight” of philosophy that inspired Plato to write so beautifully in a popular style (he wrote in dialogue form), and to convey his ideas in parables and allegories that are as enchanting as stories as they are compelling as philosophical analysis. Plato did what he could, but in a society in which there was no broadly-based moral revulsion of slavery, and in which literacy was quite low compared to the level of contemporary expectations, it was inevitable that much of what Plato and Aristotle said fell on deaf ears. Bertrand Russell, in discussing Aristotle’s disproportionate influence over medieval scholasticism pointed out that this was not Aristotle’s fault, but the result of Aristotle having produced his comprehensive body of work at the end of an intellectually creative period.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The End of a Nuclear Era

26 October 2011


Yesterday the US dismantled the last B53 nuclear bomb, which was the largest yield nuclear weapon in the US nuclear arsenal, with a yield of about 9 megatons. This was not the highest yield US nuclear weapon ever fielded. This distinction belonged to the B41, with a yield of about 25 megatons. The last B41 was dismantled in July 1976. While the B41 was a very high yield bomb by any measure, it was not the highest yield nuclear device ever built. This distinction belonged to the Soviet-made AN602, commonly known as the Tsar Bomba. The highest yield US bomb ever exploded was the Castle Bravo test, which surprised its builders by an explosion of about 15 megatons, three times the expected yield of 4-6 megatons. The Tsar Bomba was a relatively “clean” bomb, while the B41 was the most efficient production-line nuclear bomb in terms of yield to weight ratio.

The B53 had a very long service life — nearly fifty years. With the end of the B53 we see the symbolic end of an era in strategic nuclear weapons. A bomb like the B53 or the B41 (or the Soviet RDS-9) could have, with a single blast, annihilated a contemporary megalopolis. It is interesting to note that the vastly expanded cities of today began to emerge at about the same time as nuclear weapons were invented, so that in this admittedly bizarre sense, the means of civilization to destroy itself perfectly kept pace with the scope and extent of the expanding urbanization of civilization. Of course, a contemporary megalopolis could be destroyed by multiple warheads, and most missiles and many other delivery systems are MIRVed and therefore have many warheads at their disposal, there is a certain elegance to the strategic calculus of one bomb, one city — this the ethos of the sniper — one shot, one kill — put into practice on a macroscopic scale.

It should be obvious that, had the US and the Soviet Union chosen to continue to design and build bigger nuclear weapons, that this capacity was technically within their grasp. Perhaps it would be possible to build a bomb with a yield of 500 megatons, or perhaps even a gigaton bomb. But there was nothing large enough to destroy to make it worth the while to attempt to build such devices. And then the paradigm or war began to shift. Ultimately, even nuclear weapons design began to incorporate features of precisification. Mature experimentation with nuclear weapons design included innovative shaped charges and miniaturization.

The age of the nuclear weapon as a purely strategic device is passing. Technologies of precisification and miniaturization are useful; you can do something with a precise or miniaturized nuclear device. It may sound odd to remark that a weapon is useful, but we must remember that throughout the Cold War nuclear weapons were strictly useless, present only to guarantee mutually assured destruction. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that nuclear weapons had only a strategic use. If the nuclear powers chose not to build bigger bombs, and eventually chose to decommission and dismantle their largest warheads, this tells us that the strategic situation has changed, and that the strategic calculation has changed with the strategic situation.

The limitation of the size of nuclear weapons and the decommissioning of larger weapons did not come about as a result of political pressure. While the B53 was old, there was no political pressure to eliminate it from the arsenal. The same cannot be said, for example, of the neutron bomb, which was not built for political reasons, or the Swedish nuclear weapons program, which was ended for economic reasons. These strategic decisions were strictly voluntary on the part of strategic planners, and as such they represent the purest expression of strategic thought.

More than a year ago in The Atomic Age Turns 65 I wrote about the 65th anniversary of the Hiroshima nuclear blast. There I observed that, “What we now usually call the Second World War was also the First Nuclear War.” I also noted that there has been no Second Nuclear War. In the same spirit of unfamiliar periodization, we could call this period of time from the first use of nuclear weapons to the dismantling of the largest bomb the First Nuclear Age, which lasted less than seventy years. During the First Nuclear Age, bigger was better. Now bigger is no longer better, and we have entered the brave new world of the Second Nuclear Age, in which the proliferation of nuclear weapons seems likely and the concern of nuclear terrorism is a much greater danger than a massive decapitation strike in the form of ICBMs, bombers, and SLBMs.

As the strategic logic of the Second Nuclear Age continues to unfold, nuclear doctrine will continue to change and adapt itself to changed circumstances. In the long term, these changes will eventually be concretely manifested in the nuclear arsenal. Given the slow pace of transition from doctrinal development to weapons production, the fact that world nuclear arsenals are already changing points to the reality of strategic change and confirms the End of a Nuclear Era.

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Nuclear Narratives

What the Cold War Taught Us

Existential Lessons of the Cold War

Status-6 and Nuclear Strategy Beyond the Triad

How Kim Jong-un Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the H-Bomb

The End of a Nuclear Era

The Atomic Age Turns 70

Circumventing Consent: Nuclear Risk and Self-Deception

Nuclear Ambiguity

The Atomic Age turns 65

The Tradition of Non-Use

WMD: The Submersible Vector

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Grand Strategy Annex

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