Quotulatiousness

May 5, 2014

Dien Bien Phu and the end of French Indochina

Filed under: Asia, History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:16

BBC News Magazine looks back 60 years to the end of French colonial government and the military defeat at Dien Bien Phu which made it inevitable:

Sixty years ago this week, French troops were defeated by Vietnamese forces at Dien Bien Phu. As historian Julian Jackson explains, it was a turning point in the history of both nations, and in the Cold War — and a battle where some in the US appear to have contemplated the use of nuclear weapons.

“Would you like two atomic bombs?” These are the words that a senior French diplomat remembered US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asking the French Foreign Minister, Georges Bidault, in April 1954. The context of this extraordinary offer was the critical plight of the French army fighting the nationalist forces of Ho Chi Minh at Dien Bien Phu in the highlands of north-west Vietnam.

The battle of Dien Bien Phu is today overshadowed by the later involvement of the Americans in Vietnam in the 1960s. But for eight years between 1946 and 1954 the French had fought their own bloody war to hold on to their Empire in the Far East. After the seizure of power by the Communists in China in 1949, this colonial conflict had become a key battleground of the Cold War. The Chinese provided the Vietnamese with arms and supplies while most of the costs of the French war effort were borne by America. But it was French soldiers who were fighting and dying. By 1954, French forces in Indochina totalled over 55,000.

[...]

Saturday 3 April 1954 has gone down in American history as “the day we didn’t go to war”. On that day Dulles met Congressional leaders who were adamant they would not support any military intervention unless Britain was also involved. Eisenhower sent a letter to the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warning of the consequences for the West if Dien Bien Phu fell. It was around this time, at a meeting in Paris, that Dulles supposedly made his astonishing offer to the French of tactical nuclear weapons.

In fact, Dulles was never authorised to make such an offer and there is no hard evidence that he did so. It seems possible that in the febrile atmosphere of those days the panic-stricken French may simply have misunderstood him. Or his words may have got lost in translation.

Dien Bien Phu map

“He didn’t really offer. He made a suggestion and asked a question. He uttered the two fatal words ‘nuclear bomb’,” Maurice Schumann, a former foreign minister, said before his death in 1998. “Bidault immediately reacted as if he didn’t take this offer seriously.”

According to Professor Fred Logevall of Cornell University, Dulles “at least talked in very general terms about the possibility, what did the French think about potentially using two or three tactical nuclear weapons against these enemy positions”.

Bidault declined, he says, “because he knew… that if this killed a lot of Viet Minh troops then it would also basically destroy the garrison itself”.

In the end, there was no American intervention of any kind, as the British refused to go along with it.

March 19, 2014

This isn’t Cold War 2.0, it’s a return to historical norm

Filed under: Europe, History, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:31

Jonah Goldberg asks everyone to stop talking about a new Cold War, because the old one was a unique event (or event-chain) and what we’re seeing now is more like history unfolded before the Cold War came along to freeze geopolitics for a few decades.

… the Cold War was far more than a conflict with Russia. Everyone should agree on that. Communism, anti-Communism, and anti-anti-Communism divided Americans for decades, particularly among academic and media elites. Right and Left may still argue over the merits of those divisions, but no informed person disputes that the topic of Communism — the real version and the imagined ideal — incited riots of intellectual and political disagreement in the West for a half-century.

Meanwhile, Putin’s ideology holds little such allure to Americans or the populations of the European Union. With the exception of a few cranky apologists and flacks, it’s hard to find anyone in the West openly defending Putin on the merits. And even those who come close are generally doing so in a backhanded way to criticize U.S. policies or the Obama administration. The dream of a “greater Russia” or a “Eurasian Union” simply does not put fire in the minds of men — non-Russian men, at least — the way the dream of global socialist revolution once did. And that’s a good thing.

[...]

Many have called the decade between the fall of the Soviet Union and the attacks of 9/11 a “holiday from history.” The truth is closer to the opposite. The Cold War years, while historic in a literal sense, were something of a great parentheses, a sharp departure from historical norms. Communism was a transnational ideology imposed on nationalist movements. That’s why every supposedly Communist movement eventually became nationalist once in power. Still, the rhetorical and psychological power of Communist ideology, combined with the fear of nuclear war, made international relations seem like a sharp break with how foreign affairs worked before 1945 — or 1917.

It turns out, the Berlin Wall wasn’t blocking us from a new world order, it was holding back the tide of history. Western Europe was especially slow to realize this. Its politicians and intellectuals persuaded themselves that they had created a continental “zone of peace” through diplomacy, when in reality they were taking U.S. protection for granted. They let their militaries atrophy to the point of being little more than ceremonial.

The end of the Cold War fostered the illusion that the “guns or butter” argument had been permanently settled and we “wouldn’t study war no more”. The peace dividend was always an illusion — a very attractive illusion to politicians who wanted to spend money on things that would get them re-elected — and voters rewarded them appropriately. It’s going to be psychologically difficult for the countries of the West to come to terms with the return of the traditional forces of history.

October 26, 2013

NATO after the cold war

Filed under: Europe, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:15

Austin Bay looks at the latest re-invention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO):

As the Cold War faded in the early 1990s, “end of NATO” prognosticators argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union would lead to the collapse of the military alliance forged to defeat it. They maintained that intra-alliance political frictions, no longer checked by the threat of Soviet tanks and nuclear weapons, would inevitably fracture the complex organization.

Moreover, Western Europe, re-cast as the European Economic Community and preparing for life as the European Union, could do it alone, militarily and economically. According to these seers, the outbreak of peace in Europe meant Europeans no longer needed to fret with those overbearing Americans.

However, European peace didn’t break out, not quite. Instead, Yugoslavia broke up, a USSR in Balkan miniature, its dissolution sparking a series of dirty wars on European soil.

U.N. peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans failed to prevent massacres like Bosnia’s Srebrenica genocide. When Kosovo exploded, the Clinton Administration, Britain and France sidestepped the U.N. To fight the Kosovo War, they used a democratic political alliance capable of waging war on behalf of a better peace: NATO. By doing so, they reinvented NATO as a global actor for the North Atlantic democracies.

Balkan troubles still plague Europe, but NATO’s Kosovo intervention staunched the bloodshed. European diplomats also quickly learned that (excepting Serbia) the ex-Yugoslav Balkan states regarded NATO and the European Union as classy clubs. Diplomatic clout is one of NATO’s continuing utilities. Membership has prestige. Dangling NATO and European Union membership still encourages better, if not quite good, Balkan behavior.

[...]

The “deep goal” of this new round of reinvention is to insure that the alliance can fulfill its NATO treaty Article 5 obligation to current members. Article 5 commits every NATO nation to the defense of a member suffering attack by a non-NATO member. NATO invoked Article 5 after the 9-11 terror attacks on the U.S. The 9-11 Article 5 invocation and the Kosovo War were predicates to NATO’s “beyond Europe” involvement in Afghanistan and in Libya 2011.

NATO’s demise is anything but imminent. Evolving threats have seeded closer cooperation.

October 5, 2013

Reckoning military strength is more complex than counting tanks, ships, or noses

Filed under: Britain, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:44

Sir Humphrey is back from his honeymoon and posts about the unfailing media habit of nostalgically looking back at the military of the Cold War era and contrasting it with the much smaller military of today:

When one looks back over the last 150 years, the possession of large military forces by the UK has been somewhat of an aberration. If you ignore WW1 & WW2, then the only period in which large forces were sustained was from 1945 until the end of the Cold War. This could only be done by relying firstly on large numbers of conscripts, then having to provide very low pay after the end of National Service. It is telling that once military wages began to catch up with, then overtake civilian roles, manpower quickly became increasingly unaffordable. Similarly it is easy to forget that this period is one of the very few in UK history where there was a clearly defined opponent, where UK forces had a clear role to play (e.g. maintain BAOR, defend the home base, conduct ASW) as well as support wider non NATO commitments. It is much easier to justify the retention of larger armed forces when you have a specific role in mind for them, and not just being held at readiness as a contingency.

In the UK we are perhaps guilty of looking back on the Cold War period as halcyon era where we had large armed forces, while forgetting that they existed to do very specific roles, and also encourage other nations to pull their weight too. The post Cold War era wasn’t some wonderful period where UK forces roamed the globe in glorious isolation emulating Palmerston’s views, but a period when the UK had to contribute to an international coalition and work with our partners against a common enemy. This is important to remember, for the argument that 30 years ago we had X frigates, Y jets and Z tanks compared to today’s paltry number is actually misleading. In reality much of this equipment was fully committed to NATO forces, and wasn’t easily available to support wider UK national interests beyond the NATO area. So yes, the UK had capabilities, but they were borne to meet a specific external threat, and not a general role.

Similarly, if one looks at availability, it becomes clear that in real terms UK capability for purely national tasks now isn’t far off what it was at the end of the Cold War. Speaking to a Naval friend who joined in the late 1980s, he pointed out that of the 47 escorts when they joined, nearly a third were usually tied up in refit. Add to this the tasking and working up of escorts for things like NATO commitments, and support to the South Atlantic, and suddenly that’s the best part of another 15 escorts committed. At best there would be a margin of some 10-15 hulls available for national discretionary deployments — not much more than is available today.

Yes, yes, but what about tiny Obscuristan with their 500 tanks? Britain is much bigger than Obscuristan, shouldn’t the British army have more tanks than them? And Fantasia has more ships in their navy than the Royal Navy does!

It is also important to realise when looking at these sorts of papers that nations have very different defence requirements. It is one thing to say we have less soldiers than say, South Korea, but we forget that we do not have a nuclear armed neighbour on our border with a leader who is not always a completely rational actor. It is entirely logical that some nations will have more military personnel than the UK — they have direct ground threats, or their need for manpower for other jobs means it is politically helpful to keep a large army to hand. For instance many states still conscript their troops, meaning on paper their army is vastly larger than the British Army, but this is only achieved through a ready pool of manpower who can be paid a pittance and employed on duties which are often as much about support local agriculture by working on farms, or support public order as it is about being a military force.

There are also many nations out there who on paper have large stockpiles of equipment (particularly in the Middle East) and this can easily be turned into a headline about how a tiny nation has more tanks than the UK. The reality though is that these purchases are little more than an insurance policy designed to coax the nations into feeling an obligation to support the purchaser in a real crisis. If one views defence sales to the Middle East as a means of these nations buying support through economic largesse then that’s probably not far off the mark. Many of these equipment buys are in fact often stored in the desert and left to rust without ever being used. The author has heard many tales of armouries full of weapons never removed from packing crates, or trained on and often forgotten about. On paper this is a capability, and in reality it is little more than a box of life expired spare parts. One difference between the UK and many other nations is that the UK is willing to genuinely use and ‘sweat’ its assets to get the most from its equipment purchases. Just because some nations have impressive arsenals does not equate to a genuine ability to use them to best effect.

September 27, 2013

The day World War III didn’t happen

Filed under: History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 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.

July 29, 2013

Why Germany is the venue for the loudest denunciations of NSA surveillance

Filed under: Europe, Government, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:14

Alex Harrowell explains the deep suspicions among Germans which long predate the NSA surveillance revelations:

Obviously, privacy and data protection are especially sensitive in Germany. After the Stasi, the centrality of big databases to the West German state’s response to the left-wing terrorists of the 1970s, and the extensive Nazi use of telephone intercepts during the seizure of power, it couldn’t really be otherwise. Privacy and digital activism is older and better established in Germany than anywhere else — in the US, for example, I consider the founding text of the movement to be the FBI vs. Steve Jackson Games case from 1990 or thereabouts, while the key text in Germany is the court judgment on the national census from ten years earlier. But the UK has a (strong) data protection act and no-one seems anywhere near as exercised, although they probably should be.

So here’s an important German word, which we could well import into English: Deutungshoheit. This translates literally as “interpretative superiority” and is analogous to “air superiority”. Deutungshoheit is what politicians and their spin doctors attempt to win by putting forward their interpretations and framings of the semirandom events that constitute the “news”. In this case, the key event was Snowden’s disclosure of the BOUNDLESS INFORMANT slides, which show that the NSA’s Internet surveillance operations collect large amounts of information from sources in Germany.

The slides don’t say anything about how, whether this was information on German customers handed over by US cloud companies under PRISM orders, tapped from cables elsewhere, somehow collected inside Germany, or perhaps shared with the NSA by German intelligence. This last option is by far the most controversial and the most illegal in Germany. The battle for Deutungshoheit, therefore, consisted in denying any German involvement and projecting the German government, like the people in question, as passive victims of US intrusion.

On the other hand, Snowden’s support-network in the Berlin digital activist world, centred around Jacob “ioerror” Applebaum, strove to imply that in fact German agencies had been active participants, and Snowden’s own choice of further disclosures seems to have been guided by an intent to influence German politicians. Der Spiegel, rather than the Guardian, has been getting documents first and their content is mostly about Germany.

In this second phase, the German political elite has shifted its feet; rather than trying to deny any involvement whatsoever, they have instead tried to interpret the possibility of something really outrageous as being necessary for your security, and part of fundamental alliance commitments which cannot be questioned within the limits of respectable discourse. The ur-text here is Die Zeit‘s interview with Angela Merkel, in which Merkel argues that she knew nothing, further that there was a balance to strike between freedom and security, that although some kinds of spying were unacceptable, the alliance came first. The effectiveness of this, at least in the context of the interview, can be measured by astonishingly uncritical questions like the one in which she was asked “what additional efforts were necessary from the Germans to maintain their competitiveness”.

H/T to Tyler Cowen for the link.

July 7, 2013

America’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit

Filed under: Europe, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:36

Rick Falkvinge looks at an interesting appropriate pairing: the former German Democratic Republic’s Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Stasi) and the American NSA:

If you were to compare the evil, reprehensible Stasi to the NSA side by side in a visual comparison, who’s the worse surveillance hawk? The people over at OpenDataCity have put together a nice visual guide with astonishing results. We tend to think of Stasi-scale surveillance as the epitome of evil surveillance, and have completely lost track of what today’s governments are doing to their people.

When you go to this page (in German), you are presented with a nice map that compares the size of the Stasi archives — a large building in Berlin — with the corresponding NSA archives. It’s clear that the NSA’s archives — if used with Stasi technology, for an apples-to-apples comparison — would be quite a bit larger:

Comparison of the Stasi and NSA archives. The Stasi archives were a building in Berlin, the NSA archives seem to be more like a couple of entire blocks.

Comparison of the Stasi and NSA archives. The Stasi archives were a building in Berlin, the NSA archives seem to be more like a couple of entire blocks.

Keep reading … it’s like a “powers of ten” exercise.

June 29, 2013

1948 and the “Black Friday” of cryptanalysis

Filed under: History, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:05

In Salon, Andrew Leonard looks at the early years of the NSA:

On Oct. 29, 1948, the Soviet Union suddenly changed all its ciphers and codes. What later became known as “Black Friday” delivered a huge shock to the two U.S. intelligence agencies that had conducted the bulk of American code-breaking efforts during World War II and its immediate aftermath. Before Black Friday, the Army’s SIS and the Navy’s OP-20-G complacently assumed that they had acquired the keys to most of the world’s encrypted communications. But with a flip of the switch the U.S. was once again in the dark — just as the Cold War was heating up.

“One of the gravest crises in the history of American cryptanalysis,” writes historian Colin Burke, led directly to the 1949 merging of the SIS and OP-20-G into the Armed Forces Security Agency. Three years later, another bureaucratic shuffle transformed the AFSA into the National Security Agency. A sense of panic induced by the “Soviets’ A-Bomb, the Berlin Blockade, the forming of the satellite bloc in Eastern Europe, the fall of China, and the Korean War” — all of which “were not predicted” by the intelligence agencies — encouraged the U.S. government to authorize the NSA to spend tens of millions of dollars on computer research, in the hope that technological advances would help crack the new Soviet codes.

Colin Burke is the author of It Wasn’t All Magic: The Early Struggle to Automate Cryptanalysis, 1930s-1960s. Burke completed his history in 1994, but until last week, his volume of crypto-geekery had only a handful of readers. Part of a series produced by the NSA’s Center for Cryptological History, It Wasn’t All Magic was considered classified material until May 2013, and was only made available online on June 24.

Nice timing! With the NSA currently occupying its highest public profile in living memory, a look back at its early history is quite instructive. It is useful to be reminded that the mandate to spy and surveil and break codes was absolutely critical to the early growth and evolution of computer technology. Some things never change: The immense effort required to crack German and Japanese codes during World War II are an early example of the intimidating challenges posed by what we now call “big data.”

It’s actually quite surprising that it took the Soviets until 1948 to change their codes: from 1942 or so, Britain and the US were sharing their Enigma decryptions of top-secret German messages with the Soviet Union. Even if the information was provided without the original text, the Soviets were fully aware that this was the fruit of decryption, not human spy reports. At the end of World War 2, that Anglo-American expertise would obviously have been redeployed to other ends … and reading Soviet message traffic clearly would be one of the more interesting sources of data.

January 12, 2013

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 years on

Filed under: Americas, History, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 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 Russon @ 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 14, 2012

40 years ago today, man last walked on the moon

Filed under: History, Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:51

At sp!ked, Patrick West notes an under-observed anniversary:

It is a fine testament to NASA’s Apollo programme that of all the world-shaking events in living memory, men landing on the moon is the only one that doesn’t involve death. As Andrew Smith, author of Moon Dust (2006), notes, everyone remembers where they were when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Princess Diana died, or on 9/11. Most people, if they were alive at the time, also vividly recall when a man first walked on the moon on 20 July 1969.

Few, however, will remember what they were doing when the last man walked on the moon. That was 40 years ago today.

As he fired up the engines of Apollo 17‘s Lunar Module, Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, delivered a final message to the world: ‘America’s challenge has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind.’ On this date, many of us lament that we haven’t gone back to the moon. Others won’t, citing the vast expense of this Cold War sideshow, equivalent to roughly $130 billion in today’s money.

We certainly aren’t likely to return to the moon in such cynical and pessimistic times, of Mayan prophecies, omens of economic stagnation and environmental catastrophe, Frankie Boyle misanthropy and books called Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?. In other words, everything the Apollo programme didn’t represent. America’s race to the moon may have been partly a means of getting one over the Soviets, but it also embodied the spirit of adventure and progress, as encapsulated by Neil Armstrong’s first words from the moon.

September 2, 2012

Margaret Thatcher and the British intelligence organizations

Filed under: Britain, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

An interesting post at the official website for Prime Minister David Cameron talks about former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her relationship with the Joint Intelligence Committee during her time in office:

Soon after taking office a new Prime Minister receives special briefings from the Cabinet Secretary. One is on the ‘letters of last resort’, which give instructions to the commander of the British submarine on patrol with the nuclear deterrent, in the event of an attack that destroys the Government. Another briefing outlines the structure and control of the intelligence machinery, including the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in the Cabinet Office. Sir John Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary in 1979, briefed Margaret Thatcher on the intelligence structure, including counter-subversion activities, the day after her election victory of 3 May.

Thatcher had started a programme of visits to Government departments to see first-hand what some of the 732,000 officials inherited from James Callaghan’s administration actually did. In September, during a routine briefing by Brian Tovey, the Director of GCHQ, Thatcher showed great interest in the way in which intelligence was collated and assessed by the JIC, stressing that assessment should be free from policy (or political) considerations. She also expressed a wish to attend a JIC meeting. It would be the first time a Prime Minister had attended the JIC since its creation in 1936.

It fell to Sir John Hunt, a former Secretary of the JIC, to make the arrangements, but there were complications. First, the JIC Chairman, Sir Antony Duff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), had also been made Deputy Governor of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after the British Government assumed direct rule of the rebellious colony. He was a key participant in the Lancaster House Conference, aiming finally to settle the Rhodesian problem, and could not be sure to attend the JIC until after its conclusion. Second, the JIC normally met on Thursday mornings in 70 Whitehall, which was also when the Cabinet met in 10 Downing Street, so a special JIC meeting would need to be arranged.

August 17, 2012

The plight of Russian submariners

Filed under: History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:36

An update from Strategy Page on how far the Russian nuclear submarine threat has diminished from its peak during the cold war:

Three years ago two Akulas were detected (by the U.S. Navy) off the east coast of the United States, in international waters. Russia admitted two of its Akula class boats were out there. This was the first time Russian subs had been off the North American coast in over a decade. This spotlights something the Russian admirals would rather not dwell on. The Russian Navy has not only shrunk since the end of the Cold War in 1991, but it has also become much less active. In the previous three years, only ten of their nuclear subs had gone to sea, on a combat patrol, each year. Most of the boats going to sea were SSNs, the minority were SSBNs (ballistic missile boats). There were often short range training missions, which often lasted a few days, or just a few hours.

The true measure of a fleet’s combat ability is the number of “combat patrols” or “deployments” in makes in a year and how long they are. In the U.S. Navy, most of these last from 2-6 months. Currently U.S. nuclear subs have carry out ten times as many patrols as their Russian counterparts. Russia is trying to catch up, but has a long way to go.

Russia has only 14 SSNs (nuclear attack subs) in service and eight of them are 7,000 ton, Akulas. These began building in the late 1980s and are roughly comparable to the American Los Angeles class. All of the earlier Russian SSNs are trash, and most have been decommissioned. There are also eight SSGN (nuclear subs carrying cruise missiles) and 20 diesel electric boats. There is a new class of SSGNs under construction, but progress has been slow.

[. . .]

The peak year for Russian nuclear sub patrols was 1984, when there were 230. That number rapidly declined until, in 2002, there were none. Since the late 1990s, the Russian navy has been hustling to try and reverse this decline. But the navy budget, despite recent increases, is not large enough to build new ships to replace the current Cold War era fleet that is falling apart. The rapid decline of Russia’s nuclear submarine fleet needed international help to safely decommission over a hundred obsolete, worn out, defective or broken down nuclear subs. This effort has been going on for over a decade, and was driven by the Russian threat to just sink their older nuclear subs in the Arctic Ocean. That might work with conventional ships, but there was an international uproar over what would happen with all those nuclear reactors sitting on the ocean floor forever. Russia generously offered to accept donations to fund a dismantling program that included safe disposal of the nuclear reactors.

June 13, 2012

John Kay on the Finnish frontier

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:58

Finland had a very chancy time over the last hundred years. John Kay is visiting now, and reflects on how Finland survived to today:

The Finnish border is an anomaly. In 1918 the Finns won independence for a state that extended to the gates of St Petersburg. Russia captured territory in the 1939-40 Winter War. Finland then fought on the losing side in the second world war and did not remain neutral in the cold war. So the once thriving Finnish industrial city of Viipuri is today the depressed Russian outpost of Vyborg.

A cynical commentator on 20th-century history might observe that the political ineptitude of Kaiser Wilhelm and subsequently of Adolf Hitler brought America in on the opposite side of Germany’s quarrel with Russia in 1917 and 1941. Only when the democratic politicians of modern Germany made the rational alliance did Finland achieve the favourable political and economic outcomes it now enjoys. To pass the watchtowers and barbed-wire fences on the Finnish-Russian border is to be reminded of how fragile, and how recent, are the stability and security we take for granted today.

[. . .]

That observation is evident on the Finnish-Russian border. The razor wire kept Russian citizens in when the living standards of planned societies and market economies diverged. But now the border is easy to cross and the gap in per capita income has narrowed, though not by much. The very different income distributions of egalitarian Finland and inegalitarian Russia can be seen in the car parks and designer shops of Lappeenranta.

In the Soviet era, Finland produced Marimekko; Russia made no clothes any fashion-conscious woman would want to buy. Post-Communist but still autocratic Russia made surveillance equipment; democratic Finland led the world in mobile phones. Today Russia’s geeks hack into your bank account, while those of Finland develop Angry Birds.

The pristine countryside of Finland contrasts with the degraded physical state of much of Russia: a demonstration of the unexpected finding that regulated democratic capitalism preserves the environment more successfully than any other system of government.

March 30, 2012

The mystery of Le Pain Maudit (Cursed Bread) finally solved

Filed under: Europe, History, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:01

In a twist that will delight conspiracy theorists everywhere, it really was a CIA plot:

In 1951, a quiet, picturesque village in southern France was suddenly and mysteriously struck down with mass insanity and hallucinations. At least five people died, dozens were interned in asylums and hundreds afflicted.

For decades it was assumed that the local bread had been unwittingly poisoned with a psychedelic mould. Now, however, an American investigative journalist has uncovered evidence suggesting the CIA peppered local food with the hallucinogenic drug LSD as part of a mind control experiment at the height of the Cold War.

The mystery of Le Pain Maudit (Cursed Bread) still haunts the inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit, in the Gard, southeast France.

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