Quotulatiousness

December 5, 2014

Ross Perot (of all people) and one of the earliest real computers

Filed under: History, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

At Wired, Brendan I. Koerner talks about the odd circumstances which led to H. Ross Perot being instrumental in saving an iconic piece of computer history:

Eccentric billionaires are tough to impress, so their minions must always think big when handed vague assignments. Ross Perot’s staffers did just that in 2006, when their boss declared that he wanted to decorate his Plano, Texas, headquarters with relics from computing history. Aware that a few measly Apple I’s and Altair 880’s wouldn’t be enough to satisfy a former presidential candidate, Perot’s people decided to acquire a more singular prize: a big chunk of ENIAC, the “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer.” The ENIAC was a 27-ton, 1,800-square-foot bundle of vacuum tubes and diodes that was arguably the world’s first true computer. The hardware that Perot’s team diligently unearthed and lovingly refurbished is now accessible to the general public for the first time, back at the same Army base where it almost rotted into oblivion.

ENIAC was conceived in the thick of World War II, as a tool to help artillerymen calculate the trajectories of shells. Though construction began a year before D-Day, the computer wasn’t activated until November 1945, by which time the U.S. Army’s guns had fallen silent. But the military still found plenty of use for ENIAC as the Cold War began — the machine’s 17,468 vacuum tubes were put to work by the developers of the first hydrogen bomb, who needed a way to test the feasibility of their early designs. The scientists at Los Alamos later declared that they could never have achieved success without ENIAC’s awesome computing might: the machine could execute 5,000 instructions per second, a capability that made it a thousand times faster than the electromechanical calculators of the day. (An iPhone 6, by contrast, can zip through 25 billion instructions per second.)

When the Army declared ENIAC obsolete in 1955, however, the historic invention was treated with scant respect: its 40 panels, each of which weighed an average of 858 pounds, were divvied up and strewn about with little care. Some of the hardware landed in the hands of folks who appreciated its significance — the engineer Arthur Burks, for example, donated his panel to the University of Michigan, and the Smithsonian managed to snag a couple of panels for its collection, too. But as Libby Craft, Perot’s director of special projects, found out to her chagrin, much of ENIAC vanished into disorganized warehouses, a bit like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lost in the bureaucracy

An ENIAC technician changes a tube. (Photo: US Army)

An ENIAC technician changes a tube. (Photo: US Army)

November 15, 2014

Another hidden ecological disaster from the Cold War

Filed under: Europe — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

I’d heard that the Soviet navy had dumped some potentially hazardous nuclear wastes in the Arctic, but I didn’t realize just how much they’d dumped:

While Russia’s nuclear bombers have recently set the West abuzz by probing NATO’s air defenses, a far more certain danger currently lurks beneath the frigid Arctic waters off Russia’s northern coast — a toxic boneyard for Soviet nuclear ships and reactors whose containment systems are gradually wearing out.

Left to decay at the bottom of the ocean, the world is facing a worst case scenario described as “an Arctic underwater Chernobyl, played out in slow motion,” according to Thomas Nilsen, an editor at the Barents Observer newspaper and a member of a Norwegian watchdog group that monitors the situation.

According to a joint Russian-Norwegian report issued in 2012, there are 17,000 containers of nuclear waste, 19 rusting Soviet nuclear ships and 14 nuclear reactors cut out of atomic vessels at the bottom of the Kara Sea.

Soviet nuclear waste in the Arctic

The K-159 went down in 2003 while it was being towed to the town of Polyarny — home of Russia’s primary shipyard used for servicing and decommissioning nuclear powered vessels — for dismantling. Nine sailors died trying to keep it afloat when a storm hit, ripping off makeshift pontoons welded to the side to ensure the porous rusting hull didn’t sink en route. Estimates place around 800 kilograms of spent uranium fuel aboard the K-159, according to Bellona.

Soviet nuclear submarine K-159 before she sank

“Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there are currently no concrete plans to raise [radioactive] objects, and potentially raising the submarine is a Russian responsibility,” said Ingar Amundsen, head of the section for international nuclear issues at the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA), a governmental body tasked with keeping watch over the nuclear threats in the Arctic.

May 5, 2014

Dien Bien Phu and the end of French Indochina

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

Fukushima, radiation, and FUD

Filed under: Environment, Japan, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:54

James Conca on a recent UN report that isn’t getting attention:

It’s always amazing when a United Nations report that has global ramifications comes out with little fanfare. The latest one states that no one will get cancer or die from radiation released from Fukushima, but the fear and overreaction is harming people (UNIS; UNSCEAR Fukushima; UNSCEAR A-68-46 [PDF]). This is what we’ve been saying for almost three years but it’s nice to see it officially acknowledged.

According to the report, drafted last year but only recently finalized by the U.N., “The doses to the general public, both those incurred during the first year and estimated for their lifetimes, are generally low or very low. No discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members of the public or their descendants. The most important health effect is on mental and social well-being, related to the enormous impact of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident, and the fear and stigma related to the perceived risk of exposure to ionizing radiation. Effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms have already been reported.”

In addition, the report states, “Increased rates of detection of [thyroid] nodules, cysts and cancers have been observed during the first round of screening; however, these are to be expected in view of the high detection efficiency [using modern high-efficiency ultrasonography]. Data from similar screening protocols in areas not affected by the accident imply that the apparent increased rates of detection among children in Fukushima Prefecture are unrelated to radiation exposure.”

So the Japanese people can start eating their own food again, and moving back into areas contaminated with radiation levels similar to many areas of the world like Colorado and Brazil, which includes most of the exclusion zone. Only a few places shouldn’t be repopulated.

But if you want to continue feeling afraid, and want to make sure others keep being afraid, by all means ignore this report on Fukushima. But then you really can’t keep quoting previous UNSCEAR policy and application of LNT (the Linear No-Threshold dose hypothesis) to support more fear.

Note – LNT is a leftover Cold War ideology that states all radiation is bad, even the background radiation we are bathed in every day, even the 3,200 pCi of radiation in a bag of potato chips (yes, potato chips have the most radioactivity of any food, but they taste sooo good!).

Of course, if you’ve been actually following the events from three years back, this report will contain few surprises.

January 18, 2014

How “safe” is your safe?

Filed under: History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:44

Safe manufacturers generally ship their products with a factory-standard combination. Many people fail to change them once the safe is in use:

In England many years ago, chatting with a locksmith while he worked, I learned the following thing: One of the country’s leading manufacturers of safes shipped all its products set to a default opening combination of 102030, and a high proportion of customers never reset it.

He: “If I need to open a Chubb safe, it’s the first thing I try. You’d be surprised how often it works.”

This came to mind when I was reading the story about Kennedy-era launch codes for our nuclear missiles:

    …The Strategic Air Command greatly resented [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara’s presence and almost as soon as he left, the code to launch the missile’s [sic], all 50 of them, was set to 00000000.

I use a random-string generator for my passwords and change them often. I guess safeguarding my Netflix account is more important than preventing a nuclear holocaust.

November 5, 2013

Camelot? Not so much…

Filed under: Government, History, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 16:38

Gene Healy thinks that after fifty years, it’s time we stopped pretending that John F. Kennedy was a great president:

In a December 1963 interview, the president’s widow gave a name to the Kennedy mystique, telling journalist Theodore White of Jack’s fondness for the lyric from the Lerner and Loewe musical about King Arthur: “Once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

Much more than a “moment,” Camelot has proven an enduring myth.

JFK places near the top 10 in most presidential ranking surveys of historians, and in a 2011 Gallup poll, Americans ranked him ahead of George Washington in a list of “America’s greatest presidents.”

Kennedy’s murder was a national tragedy, to be sure, but an honest assessment of his record shows that our lawless and reckless 35th president was anything but a national treasure.

[…]

Indeed, JFK rarely let legal specifics deter his exercise of presidential power. At his behest in 1961, the Internal Revenue Service set up a “strike force,” the Ideological Organizations Project, targeting groups opposing the administration.

In 1962, outraged that American steel manufacturers had raised prices, he ordered wiretaps, IRS audits and dawn FBI raids on steel executives’ homes.

In 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning national security journalist Thomas E. Ricks opined that JFK “probably was the worst American president of the [20th] century.”

In foreign policy, Ricks said, “he spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco.”

True enough, after being buffaloed into the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation by the CIA, Kennedy helped bring the world to the brink of thermonuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis — not because Soviet missiles in Cuba altered the strategic balance of power (they did not), but because, as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later admitted, the missiles were “politically unacceptable” for the president.

Moreover, Kennedy’s aura of vitality and “vigah” depended on deliberate lies about his medical fitness for office: “I never had Addison’s disease … my health is excellent,” JFK told a reporter in 1961.

As Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves notes, JFK, who “received the last rites of the Catholic Church at least four times as an adult,” was “something of a medical marvel, kept alive by complicated daily combinations of pills and injections,” including a psychiatrically dangerous cocktail of painkillers and amphetamines regularly administered by celebrity physician Max “Dr. Feelgood” Jacobson.

Update, 6 November: Nick Gillespie assigns the blame (for the still-going hagiography) on the boomers in a piece titled “JFK Still Dead, Baby Boomers Still Self-Absorbed”

Indeed, by the early 1970s, what American over or under 30 didn’t agree with the sentiments expressed in a 1971 New York Times Magazine story on youth politics co-authored by Louis Rossetto, the future cofounder of Wired magazine? “John F. Kennedy, one of the leading reactionaries of the sixties, is remembered for his famous line, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,’” seethed Rossetto and Stan Lehr. “Today, more and more young people are instead following the advice of [author] David Friedman: ‘Ask not what government can do for you… ask rather what government is doing to you.’”

But boomers were so much older then, they’re younger than that now, right? Despite the raft of revelations not just about governmental abuses of power generally but those involving JFK specifically, boomers just can’t quit him (or their airbrushed image of him) as their own mortality comes into focus. Here’s Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott, known for an “artful nastiness that’s long disappeared from his peers’ arsenal,” still going weak in the knees for Jack:

    I remember the light at the end of the school hallway reflecting off the floor as word went round and the weight in the air the days after. For kids my age, it was like losing a father, a father who had all of our motley fates in his hands…

As Splice Today’s Russ Smith — himself a boomer old enough to remember where he was when Kennedy was shot — notes, this is pure overstatement: “It wasn’t ‘like losing a father,’ and to suggest so is an affront to all the children who actually did lose their own father at a tender age.” Smith, who as the founder of the Baltimore and Washington City Papers and The New York Press knows a thing or two about reader appetites, is “betting that most of these books bomb, mostly because for most Americans those tumultuous days in 1963 are ancient history. Kennedy’s assassination might as well have occurred in the 19th century. Save for ascending and budding historians, where’s the audience for yet another encore of Camelot?”

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.

July 5, 2013

And now, a five-minute sales pitch for Thorium nuclear reactors

Filed under: Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:13

A short video of Kirk Sorensen taking us through the benefits of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, a revolutionary liquid reactor that runs not on uranium, but thorium. These work and have been built before. Search for either LFTRs or Molten Salt Reactors (MSR).

FAQ
The main downsides/negatives to this technology, politics, corrosion and being scared of nuclear radiation. Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors were created 50 years ago by an American chap named Alvin Weinberg, but the American Government realised you can’t weaponise the by-products and so they weren’t interested.

Another point, yes it WAS corrosive, but these tests of this reactor were 50 years ago, our technology has definitely improved since then so a leap to create this reactor shouldn’t be too hard.

And nuclear fear is extremely common in the average person, rather irrational though it may be. More people have died from fossil fuels and even hydroelectric power than nuclear power. I added this video for a project regarding Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, watch and enjoy.

No, it would not collapse the economy… just like the use of uranium reactors didn’t… neither did coal… This is because you wouldn’t have an instant transition from coal… oil… everything else to thorium. We could not do that. Simply due to the engineering. Give it 50 years we might be using thorium instead of coal/oil (too late in terms of global warming, but that’s another debate completely), but we certainly won’t destroy the earths economy. Duh.

And yes he said we’d never run out. Not strictly true… bloody skeptics … LFTRs can harness 3.5 million Kwh per Kg of thorium! 70 times greater than uranium, 10,000 greater than oil… and there is over 2.6 million tonnes of it on earth… Anyone with a calculator, or a brain, will understand that is a lot of energy!!

H/T to Rob Fisher for the link.

May 4, 2013

Why the terror-through-shipping-container threat has not materialized (yet)

Filed under: Business, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:11

Strategy Page explains why the much-discussed threat of terrorists smuggling in weapons of mass destruction using the ubiquitous shipping container has not actually happened:

A decade ago there was much talk about how vulnerable the United States was to a terror attack via shipping container. It never happened. It’s also unlikely because of the large number of variables the terrorists face. The problems associated with using cargo containers to move a nuclear or conventional bomb are manifold. The big problem is that these containers often don’t arrive right on schedule. Sometimes the ship breaks down or encounters bad weather. This last event leads to thousands of containers a year falling off cargo ships and going to the bottom with their cargo. Sometimes containers get lost “in the system.” More frequently containers get robbed or opened by mistake. Customs officials open a small percentage (this varies by port) for inspection. Another problem, whether the bomb goes off or not, is the fact that containers have to have documentation like bills of lading and such. These can be faked, but the problem is that a paper trail is being created and that can lead to terrorists getting arrested. All containers must officially belong to someone, they are tracked and any that aren’t being tracked tend to get noticed. Many countries do scrutinize containers coming from certain countries in an attempt to catch people smuggling drugs or arms. Large bombs, be they nuclear or conventional, are relatively fragile and may not survive (in working condition) the punishment received during a long sea voyage. If all that weren’t enough to make terrorists nervous, container ships can be delayed when trying to enter a port because of congestion. This can delay arrival by days, or even weeks.

April 17, 2013

Within the Hermit Kingdom

Filed under: Asia, Military, Pacific — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

“Sir Humphrey” posted this a few weeks ago, but given the ongoing weirdness emanating from North Korea, it’s still fully valid:

North Korea is one of the most unusual and terrifyingly Orwellian states on the planet. Imagine a nation where every member of the population has spent the last 60 years being told that they live in a paradise, and that they have the greatest living conditions on earth. Add to this complete state control of the media and broadcast, a network of spies and informants and a gulag archipelago that would make Stalin jealous. Presiding over this nation of some 23 million utterly indoctrinated and militarized people is a tiny elite who enjoy a pampered and privileged lifestyle which provides them with any manner of goods and services. At the very top of this is the ruler Kim Jong Un, who has inherited his position from his father Kim Jong Il. The Kim dynasty are treated almost as gods, and no criticism of any form is officially tolerated.

[. . .]

It is telling that there have been multiple photos of Kim appearing in the media while making visits to the armed forces. Kim Jong Il used to do something similar, whereby he would make a regular ‘guidance’ visit to various KPA units and reiterate advice on how things could be done better (a trait of Kim Jong Il was his unerring ability to be a world expert at whatever he turned his mind to apparently). If anything Kim Jong Un has been more prominent in these sorts of visits, where he seems determined to establish his credentials as a military leader. Not a military man by background, and with no real party power base to speak of, he needs to ensure that he can count on the loyalty of the armed forces to support his regime. Photos of him delivering guidance may appear somewhat hammed up to the Western audience, but in North Korea they serve as evidence that Kim has an understanding of the threat and is prepared to meet it.

The use of the rhetoric against South Korea and the US is important — it provides a unifying theme and helps focus attention on repelling the long expected attack. At the same time, the attempt to conduct a crude form of ‘nuclear blackmail’ by conducting tests of devices and rockets helps demonstrate Kims credentials as a credible world leader, with the most advanced technology and the ability to dictate terms to the wider world. The problem though is that as Kim is discovering now, it is difficult to back down from the pedestal when the other side don’t react as you expect them to.

April 5, 2013

Is the North Korean government crazy like a fox or just plain crazy?

Filed under: Asia, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:47

Tim Worstall has actually had dealings with North Korean military officials. On the basis of those experiences, he’s much more worried that things will go very, very wrong:

My experience comes from working in Russia. The Norks had a special deal on freight rates on the railways. So, if you had a metals deal that would only work if you got cheap rail freight (say, aluminium alloy from Chelyabinsk in the Urals to Japan) then you’d chat to the local Nork KGB guy and cut them in on the deal. Which is how one day I ended up wandering through the Nork embassy, past the mural of Kim Il Sung standing on the mountain top, to present $10,000 in fresh $100 bills to my freight rate fixer.

Do note this was a couple of decades ago when such shenanigans were indeed legal. Not necessarily moral, but legal. This then led to more contacts, including being asked to rewrite into real English the collected works of Il Sung (at $100 a volume, not me, matey) and a request to provide aluminium alloy into N Korea itself for “window frames”. That the purchasing commission for these “window frames” was to go to three generals made us think that perhaps the windows were going to be on the rockets that you can also make from aluminium alloy. Fortunately my lust for lucre was never really tested as this sovereign nation was unable to come up with a Letter of Credit for $250,000 as required. Their “western” bank simply didn’t think they were good for the cash so refused to issue it. Which is one interesting little fact about the place.

But it was that long-ago meeting with those generals that makes me worried about what the Norks might do now. For they were entirely, completely and totally unaware, ignorant, of how the wider world worked. Even my demand for an LoC surprised them. But surely I would just do what the State desired of me? And who could doubt that the State would indeed pay me if it was in my or the State’s interest to do so? Umm, yeah, right.

We’ve all heard of groupthink, even of brainwashing. And the problem is that the people at the top of this State really do seem to believe their own propaganda: that the world really is out to get them; that their army, were they to unleash it, would sweep all before them; and even that lobbing a nuclear bomb at wherever would make all quail before their mighty power. They seem not to have considered the option obvious to the rest of us: that doing so would turn Pyongyang into a shiny glass parking lot for the assembled armies of the world.

Update: Just a bit of context from Wikimedia:

North Korean missile ranges

March 27, 2013

North Korea breaks off remaining communication channels

Filed under: Asia, Military, Pacific, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:23

The North Korean government continues to escalate the tension level:

Reclusive North Korea is to cut the last channel of communications with the South because war could break out at “any moment”, it said on Wednesday, days after warning the United States and South Korea of nuclear attack.

The move is the latest in a series of bellicose threats from North Korea in response to new U.N. sanctions imposed after its third nuclear test in February and to “hostile” military drills under way joining the United States and South Korea.

The North has already stopped responding to calls on the hotline to the U.S. military that supervises the heavily armed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Red Cross line that has been used by the governments of both sides.

“Under the situation where a war may break out at any moment, there is no need to keep north-south military communications which were laid between the militaries of both sides,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted a military spokesman as saying.

March 8, 2013

Kim Jong-un tells North Korean troops to be ready “to annihilate the enemy”

Filed under: Asia, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:25

North Korea continues to rattle the sabre:

North Korea has dissolved the agreement that ended the Korean War in 1953, as it simultaneously ramps up its military presence along the border with South Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appeared before military troops positioned near the border and told them to that they should be ready “to annihilate the enemy,” reports The Telegraph.

This latest rallying cry comes after Kim threatened missile attacks on Washington the previous day, saying the American capital city would become a “sea of fire.”

The move towards brinkmanship is in response to a decision by the United Nations Security Council to impose further sanctions on North Korea after it conducted a third nuclear test in February. The UN resolution was unanimously approved by all 15 member countries siting on the council. The sanctions are financial and will also increase efforts to prevent North Korea from shipping banned goods into the country.

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, 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.

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