September 27, 2013

The day World War III didn’t happen

Filed under: History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:59

In The Register, Iain Thomson takes us back to the depth of the Cold War, when it nearly turned very hot indeed:

Computer problems are an annoyance for us all, but thirty years ago a fault in the Soviet Union’s ballistic missile early warning system very nearly caused nuclear war, if not for the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces.


in the early hours of the morning on the September 26, there was panic when the Soviet early warning system Oko, a monitoring system of geostationary satellites and ground stations designed to spot ballistic missile launches, reported that the US had fired off a missile against the Soviet Union. Then four more launches were reported by the system in quick succession.

“An alarm at the command and control post went off with red lights blinking on the terminal. It was a nasty shock,” Petrov told Moscow News in 2004. “Everyone jumped from their seats, looking at me. What could I do? There was an operations procedure that I had written myself. We did what we had to do. We checked the operation of all systems — on 30 levels, one after another. Reports kept coming in: All is correct.”

Petrov, then the officer in command of the Oko system at a bunker near Moscow, had the responsibility of informing the Soviet high command in the event of a US missile launch. Although he didn’t have launch control of the USSR’s huge nuclear arsenal, he was the first responder, and given the scant minutes available in the event of a surprise attack, his word would most likely have been accepted by the Soviet leadership.

But Petrov didn’t make the call. He knew that the Oko system, which had only gone live the year before, was buggy. He also later described how logically such a move made no sense. While a first strike by the US wasn’t out of the question, if the capitalists were to do so they’d launch everything they had, not a few missiles at a time, he reasoned.

January 23, 2013

UK considering alternatives to Trident

Filed under: Britain, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:15

The Royal Navy operates four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines equipped with the Trident nuclear missile. The coalition government is internally divided over the decision to order replacement submarines to come online when the current subs reach their designed end-of-life. The Tories (at least for public consumption) are in favour of a replacement on a one-for-one basis, while the Liberal Democrats would prefer to eliminate nuclear missiles from the British arsenal.

In the Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak explains why the one-for-one replacement is the least likely outcome:

Mr Alexander, the Chief secretary to the Treasury, dismissed Tory demands for a new continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent and warned that the Treasury does not have “a magic pot of money” to pay for a new generation of submarines.

In an interview with the Guardian he insisted that there are “potential alternatives” to Trident.

The Liberal Democrats have repeatedly clashed with Conservatives who are calling for an upgrade to the fleet of Trident submarines.

The Lib Dems insisted on an official review into Trident, which is due to report in June, as part of the Coalition agreement in 2010.

[. . .]

“Is it right in the 21st century that we still need to have submarines at sea, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months of the year? All those things are ripe for being reviewed and considered, and alternatives presented.”

Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, last year said that upgrading Trident would probably be cheaper than any alternative nuclear deterrent proposed by the Lib Dems.

He said the Trident missiles and warheads have “many, many years of life in them” and will only need new submarines to carry them by 2028.

Any attempt to create a whole new nuclear deterrent system is unlikely to be economic, he said.

Ballistic missile submarines are very expensive to design and build (and to operate), and shifting to a smaller number of hulls would save very little money. As I put it back in 2010, “Army, RN, RAF, and Trident replacement: pick any three“. Trident is nearly as expensive as an entire arm of the military all on its own, and it’s no surprise that the Liberal Democrats would love to eliminate it if they could get away with it.

January 12, 2013

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 years on

Filed under: Americas, Books, History, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz looks at the myths and realities of the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States over Cuba in 1962:

On October 16, 1962, John F. Kennedy and his advisers were stunned to learn that the Soviet Union was, without provocation, installing nuclear-armed medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. With these offensive weapons, which represented a new and existential threat to America, Moscow significantly raised the ante in the nuclear rivalry between the superpowers — a gambit that forced the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. On October 22, the president, with no other recourse, proclaimed in a televised address that his administration knew of the illegal missiles, and delivered an ultimatum insisting on their removal, announcing an American “quarantine” of Cuba to force compliance with his demands. While carefully avoiding provocative action and coolly calibrating each Soviet countermeasure, Kennedy and his lieutenants brooked no compromise; they held firm, despite Moscow’s efforts to link a resolution to extrinsic issues and despite predictable Soviet blustering about American aggression and violation of international law. In the tense 13‑day crisis, the Americans and Soviets went eyeball-to-eyeball. Thanks to the Kennedy administration’s placid resolve and prudent crisis management — thanks to what Kennedy’s special assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. characterized as the president’s “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that [it] dazzled the world” — the Soviet leadership blinked: Moscow dismantled the missiles, and a cataclysm was averted.

Every sentence in the above paragraph describing the Cuban missile crisis is misleading or erroneous. But this was the rendition of events that the Kennedy administration fed to a credulous press; this was the history that the participants in Washington promulgated in their memoirs; and this is the story that has insinuated itself into the national memory — as the pundits’ commentaries and media coverage marking the 50th anniversary of the crisis attested.

Scholars, however, have long known a very different story: since 1997, they have had access to recordings that Kennedy secretly made of meetings with his top advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the “ExComm”). Sheldon M. Stern — who was the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library for 23 years and the first scholar to evaluate the ExComm tapes — is among the numerous historians who have tried to set the record straight. His new book marshals irrefutable evidence to succinctly demolish the mythic version of the crisis. Although there’s little reason to believe his effort will be to any avail, it should nevertheless be applauded.

[. . .]

The patient spadework of Stern and other scholars has since led to further revelations. Stern demonstrates that Robert Kennedy hardly inhabited the conciliatory and statesmanlike role during the crisis that his allies described in their hagiographic chronicles and memoirs and that he himself advanced in his posthumously published book, Thirteen Days. In fact, he was among the most consistently and recklessly hawkish of the president’s advisers, pushing not for a blockade or even air strikes against Cuba but for a full-scale invasion as “the last chance we will have to destroy Castro.” Stern authoritatively concludes that “if RFK had been president, and the views he expressed during the ExComm meetings had prevailed, nuclear war would have been the nearly certain outcome.” He justifiably excoriates the sycophantic courtier Schlesinger, whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts — “profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive” — were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.

January 4, 2013

North Korea adopts maskirovka to conceal rocket preparations

Filed under: Asia, Military, Pacific — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:09

Strategy Page on the most recent North Korean hoodwinking of western intelligence agencies:

Western intelligence agencies are a bit embarrassed that they were not able to predict the exact day that North Korea recently launched a long-range rocket. Even though North Korean announced the two week period during which the launch would take place last December, and several nations had photo satellites flying over the launch site regularly, the actual launch came as a surprise. The North Koreans apparently took advantage of the regular schedules of these spy satellites to move equipment around the launch site at the right time to conceal just how close the rocket was to takeoff. Many intel analysts had not seen this sort of thing at all (if they were young) and the older ones had not seen it done to this degree since the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was still around and using their maskirovka (“masking”) agency to carry out large scale deceptions of photo satellites. The Russians taught the North Koreans many things, and maskirovka was apparently part of the curriculum.

In addition to concealing weapons, their performance and movements, the Soviets also used satellite deception to mislead the west on how their troops would operate in the field. Several times a year, the Soviets would hold large scale maneuvers. Each of these exercises would involve many divisions, plus hundreds of aircraft and helicopters. Satellite photos of these maneuvers were thought to reveal tactics the Soviets were going to use in future wars. But the Soviets knew when American satellites were coming over and sometimes arranged displays of tactics they had no intention of using. Naturally, this made it more difficult for the Western intelligence analysts to figure out exactly what the Soviets were planning. This, of course, was the sort of confusion the Soviets wanted to create with these little deceptions.

December 29, 2011

Alternatives to ordinary houses: former missile silos

Filed under: History, Military, Randomness, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:16

A former US Air Force missile silo (with a house and other buildings on the land above) was put on the market earlier this month at a low-low price of only $750,000:

Boing Boing has come across a cozy little place that any future super-villain would be happy to call home on Sotheby’s International Realty website. Situated in the scenic Adirondack Mountains of New York, this silo and air park were operational for a short time in 1961. Hundreds of these Atlas F missile silos were built across the U.S. in the 1960’s in anticipation of attacks on the country.

As if the promise of moving into your very own missile silo isn’t tempting enough, Sotheby’s has recently dropped the price from $4.6 million USD to a mere $750,000. Not a bad deal if you’re looking to save money on your lair so you can splurge on that death ray you’ve always wanted.

In addition to the house perched atop the missile, you may also be interested in the adjoining air craft hanger, seven buildings spread out over neighbouring acres of land and an additional log cabin with runway access. To get the whole package, it’ll cost you $1.76 million USD.

The article also linked to this related video:

June 2, 2011

When shipyards produce pork instead of effective ships for the Navy

Filed under: Military, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:07

Shipbuilding for the navy has traditionally been a good source of pork for politicians to dole out as their political fortunes require. The US Navy is having monumental problems with the quality of ships, but the problem isn’t easy to fix:

The U.S. Navy continues to have serious problems with shoddy shipbuilders. The latest incident involved a support ship, the 12,000 ton, 172 meter (534 foot) long radar ship, the Howard O. Lorenzen. The ship recently failed its acceptance tests. The Lorenzen was built to carry a special, billion dollar, radar used to track ICBM tests. This tracking activity also supports verification of missile and nuclear weapons treaty compliance. The Lorenzen replaces a similar ship that is over 30 years old. The acceptance tests found serious problems with the steering, electrical system, damage control, anchor control, and aviation (helicopter) facilities. The yard that built the Lorenzen, VT Halter Marine, builds military and civilian ships, and has had problems with some of the other military ships it has built recently. Like the Lorenzen, the other ships were late, over budget and suffered quality control problems.

[. . .]

While the admirals are correct in blaming the shipyards for many of the problems, the navy shares a lot of the blame as well. It is, after all, the navy that draws up the contracts, and supplies inspectors during construction. However, inspectors are regularly deceived and lied to (about the quality of work and supervision and known defects being fixed). While Congressional interference can be blamed as well, in the end, it’s the navy that has the most to say, and do, about how the ships are built. The problem is, admirals who stand up and take on the contractors and politicians put their careers on the line. The ship builder deploys a large number of lobbyists and has many key politicians as allies.

[. . .]

The problems with nuclear subs and carriers were minor compared to the LPD 17 travails. Still, the sheer extent of the problems, across so many ships, is very disturbing. This may be why a growing number of admirals are willing to take career risks, and try for some fundamental reform, and finally fix the “system” that turns out more problems than warships. Victory is not assured. The shipyards and their suppliers have powerful allies in Congress. All that money translates into votes that gets incumbent politicians reelected. Congress is not inclined to attack this kind of patronage and pork, since nearly all members of Congress depend on it. The admirals can openly complain, but offended legislators can quietly cripple the careers of those critics. The smart money is betting against the good guys here. So far, the smart money is right. But the bad builder mess is so vast, expensive and messy that even many politicians are calling for some fundamental changes.

The poster children for defective ships is the San Antonio LPD 17 class of amphibious ships.

September 22, 2009

More on the ABM decision

Filed under: Europe, Military, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:50

Following up from last week’s post on cancelling ABM systems for Poland and the Czech Republic, Jon sent the following comment:

I was wondering about this sort of thing when the announcements were first made, but thought that “No, Obama is indeed evil enough to do this just for kicks.” Is is possible, thought, that the Polish and Czech installations are being cancelled as they are being replaced with something else?

Have you read anything to that effect anywhere?

I assumed colossal ignorance and ineptitude, rather than deliberate provocation, but maybe I’m just too naive. I had read something about the SM-3 BMD at Taylor Empire Airways (yes, this time I’m sure it was Chris Taylor). He indicates that it does have a better track record than competing systems and it can be deployed much faster, but that there are also some caveats.

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