Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Unstoppable force?

I and the public know
What all school children learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.--W.H. Auden

Sec. Rumsfeld says:

``We need to put Iraq and Afghanistan in that context so that those people in our country who are deeply concerned about Iran, which is understandable, recognize that success in Afghanistan and success in Iraq is critical to containing the extreme impulses that we see emanating from Iran,'' Rumsfeld said according a transcript released by the Department of Defense.
And this:

In an interview on the Pentagon's internal television channel Rumsfeld said those who believe the cost of the war in Iraq is too high should consider how failure would ``advance'' the cause of the Iranian government, which the U.S. says is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
So, in the interest of providing context, I found this at Bunker busters would be the weapon of choice in this battle, since we don't have the boots on the ground to invade Iran. But apparently "bunker busters" are another chimerical idea that keeps running into the immovable object of the physical universe:

The Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review for 2001 laments that the B61-11 “cannot survive penetration into many types of terrain in which hardened underground facilities are located.” This is a generous analysis: the “terrain” referred to is the hard rock under which valuable targets are almost always buried. When dropped from a height of 40,000 feet, the B61-11 was able to penetrate three meters at most into the Alaskan tundra, and not at all into hard rock (that is, without self-destructing).

The inadequacy of the B61-11 is due not to a particularly poor construction but rather to the basic limitations of bomb-making steel. In the test drops performed in Alaska, the B61-11 reached roughly 300 meters per second at impact. In order to penetrate reinforced concrete, it would need to be traveling at approximately 500 meters per second. At around 900 meters per second, the shock wave generated by the missile’s slamming into the ground will deform it severely; at 1,200 meters per second, the missile will in most cases break into pieces. To penetrate granite—ubiquitous in mountainous bunkers, and believed to be common above any truly valuable bunker—a penetrator would have to attain upward of 3,000 meters per second, at which speed it would certainly be crushed. Robert Nelson of Princeton University has demonstrated that because of the limitations imposed by the yield strength of the steel used in casings, no bunker buster can ever go fast enough to penetrate reinforced concrete deeper than five times its length without destroying itself in the process; and even this number is too high for any real-world scenario. What is more, the length of the bomb cannot be increased much, for two reasons: there are no aircraft capable of carrying a weapon much longer than the ones that are currently deployed; and as length increases, so does the tendency of the bomb to snap in two on impact.
I especially like the image of the bunker buster skipping across the ground like a rock skimmed over a pond. And then imagine it with a nuclear warhead:

The most stubborn part of the fantasy is that a “low-yield” bunker buster could be employed as a “clean” nuclear weapon, whose explosion and fallout would be contained underground. This aspiration is most explicitly laid out in a report from the Defense Department Science Board entitled “Future Strategic Strike Forces,” which imagines that “[p]enetration [by a nuclear bunker-buster] to a depth of 50 to 55 meters would enable disablement of 100-meter-deep underground facilities by contained 400-ton explosions.” Let us, for the moment, forget the fact that 50 meters is more than twice the depth it is physically possible for any penetrator, real or idealized, to burrow into rock. According to the government’s own guidelines, drawn up during the decades in which it tested nuclear weapons under the Nevada desert, a 400-ton explosion would have to occur a full 600 meters underground in order to be “contained.” These guidelines also stipulate a carefully sealed burial shaft to contain the blast, not a maw. Even the B61-11, at its current, inadequate impact speeds, does not burrow a clean rabbit-hole in the ground but rather kicks up a crater like a meteorite; any faster-moving penetrator would do so to a still greater degree.

Even supposing that the missile’s point of entry were miraculously neat, a nuclear blast at the depths a real missile could attain would invariably breach the surface of the earth, expelling a hot fallout cloud in what is known as a “base surge.” Base surges are more dangerous than traditional fallout clouds because they are more toxic, containing irradiated particles of dirt and rock. They also spread more quickly, sweeping across the surface of the earth in every direction, outward rather than upward. Bunkers are usually built in urban areas, so many thousands of deaths would be a virtual certainty. Even a 1-kiloton bunker buster—a relative firecracker, with a tiny fraction of the explosive power of the high-yield RNEP—detonated at fifty feet underground could eject about 1,000,000 cubic meters of radioactive soil.
The article ends noting that, during the Cold War, it became apparent that nuclear weapons could never be used, and existed only as a deterrent. That was the grim logic of Mutually Assured Destruction. But now?

Deterrence remains the government’s public justification for building more nuclear weapons, but the term has undergone semantic drift. What today is passed off as deterrence by proponents of low-yield bunker busters and the RNEP is not, as it once was, the demonstrable ability of nuclear weapons to prevent nuclear war but the unproven power of unworkable weapons to bully other countries into abjuring any action at all deemed offensive by the United States.
And the easily anticipated result in international affairs?

If we are developing nuclear weapons that our government says we might use, there is no incentive for smaller countries not to go after their own weapons as quickly and quietly as possible—down in the very bunkers we are unable to destroy.
This article was published in December, 2004. Zbigniew Brzezinski published his thoughts on the invasion of Iran more recently (but, tellingly, in the International Herald Tribune, not a U.S. daily), and while the highlight would seem to be the unconstitutional nature of such an action, this is probably the more realistic brake:

3. Oil prices would climb steeply, especially if the Iranians cut their production and seek to disrupt the flow of oil from the nearby Saudi oil fields. The world economy would be severely impacted, with America blamed for it. Note that oil prices have already shot above $70 per barrel, in part because of fears of a U.S./Iran clash.
But here's the real issue:

2. Likely Iranian reactions would significantly compound ongoing U.S. difficulties in Iraq and in Afghanistan, perhaps precipitate new violence by Hezbollah in Lebanon, and in all probability cause the United States to become bogged down in regional violence for a decade or more to come. Iran is a country of some 70 million people and a conflict with it would make the misadventure in Iraq look trivial.
And the solution is really quite simple:

The choice is either to be stampeded into a reckless adventure profoundly damaging to long-term U.S. national interests or to become serious about giving negotiations with Iran a genuine chance to be productive. The mullahs were on the skids several years ago but were given a new burst of life by the intensifying confrontation with the United States.

The U.S. strategic goal, pursued by real negotiations and not by posturing, should be to separate Iranian nationalism from religious fundamentalism. Treating Iran with respect and within a historical perspective would help to advance that objective.
Sadly, though, this White House doesn't seem to "do" history.

So we turn to the Congress. Can we have the discussion now about Sy Hersh's story? Please?

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