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Twice lucky, or thrice? On dodging nuclear fireballs

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — two Russian secular saints — and an Australian ]
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It seems we’ve been lucky twice —

saved-twice

Read their two stories, and weep.

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27 October 1962

Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war

If you were born before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov saved your life. It was the most dangerous day in history. An American spy plane had been shot down over Cuba while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace. As these dramas ratcheted tensions beyond breaking point, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear weapon.

The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that the depth charges were non-lethal “practice” rounds intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface. The Beale was joined by other US destroyers who piled in to pummel the submerged B-59 with more explosives. The exhausted Savitsky assumed that his submarine was doomed and that world war three had broken out. He ordered the B-59’s ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.

If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporised the Randolf, the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations – more than half the UK population would have died. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s SIOP, Single Integrated Operational Plan – a doomsday scenario that echoed Dr Strangelove’s orgiastic Götterdämmerung – would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-belligerent states such as Albania and China. [ .. ]

The decision not to start world war three was not taken in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the sweltering control room of a submarine. The launch of the B-59’s nuclear torpedo required the consent of all three senior officers aboard. Arkhipov was alone in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov’s reputation was a key factor in the control room debate. The previous year the young officer had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to save a submarine with an overheating reactor.

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September 26, 1983

The Man Who Saved the World by Doing Absolutely Nothing

It was September 26, 1983. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty at Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker outside Moscow. His job: to monitor Oko, the Soviet Union’s early-warning system for nuclear attack. And then to pass along any alerts to his superiors. It was just after midnight when the alarm bells began sounding. One of the system’s satellites had detected that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles. And they were heading toward the USSR. Electronic maps flashed; bells screamed; reports streamed in. A back-lit red screen flashed the word ‘LAUNCH.'”

That the U.S. would be lobbing missiles toward its Soviet counterpart would not, of course, have been out of the question at that particular point in human history. Three weeks earlier, Russians had shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space. NATO had responded with a show of military exercises. The Cold War, even in the early ’80s, continued apace; the threat of nuclear engagement still hovered over the stretch of land and sea that fell between Washington and Moscow.

Petrov, however, had a hunch — “a funny feeling in my gut,” he would later recall — that the alarm ringing through the bunker was a false one. It was an intuition that was based on common sense: The alarm indicated that only five missiles were headed toward the USSR. Had the U.S. actually been launching a nuclear attack, however, Petrov figured, it would be extensive — much more, certainly, than five. Soviet ground radar, meanwhile, had failed to pick up corroborative evidence of incoming missiles — even after several minutes had elapsed. The larger matter, however, was that Petrov didn’t fully trust the accuracy of the Soviet technology when it came to bomb-detection. He would later describe the alert system as “raw.”

But what would you do? You’re alone in a bunker, and alarms are screaming, and lights are flashing, and you have your training, and you have your intuition, and you have two choices: follow protocol or trust your gut. Either way, the world is counting on you to make the right call.

Petrov trusted himself. He reported the satellite’s detection to his superiors — but, crucially, as a false alarm. And then, as Wired puts it, “he hoped to hell he was right.”

He was, of course. The U.S. had not attacked the Soviets. It was a false alarm. One that, had it not been treated as such, may have prompted a retaliatory nuclear attack on the U.S. and its NATO allies. Which would have then prompted … well, you can guess what it would have prompted.

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Oh, and the Australian. I came by this topic via an article about this man, Professor Des Bell:

des-ball

A strategist with books — he’s the sort of chap this blog thrives on! And he, too, seems to have saved us from a fiery furnace of our own devising:

Des Ball: the man who saved the world

THAT America could launch a limited nuclear strike against Russia was a fashionable belief in US strategic theory of the 1970s. Policymakers thought that if Cold War tensions boiled over, they could hit selected Soviet targets in a way that controlled further escalation and forced Moscow to back down.

It took the iconoclastic Australian security scholar Des Ball to point out that the theory was bunkum. In his influential essays of the early 1980s, Ball argued that reasoned strategic theory was likely to go out the window once the missiles started flying.

Among the first targets would be the other side’s command and control centres – its eyes and ears. Once blinded, a superpower – consisting of real people responding with human instincts – would not distinguish a ”controlled” strike from a full-scale attack and would retaliate with everything it had.

Thrice lucky? I prefer to call it grace.

Cold War and Political Fire: Speculation on the State of Sinology

Monday, June 8th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

China HandJohn Paton Davies 

Our newest ZP team member, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage blog has reposted two very thoughtful essays on the Chinese strategic tradition and its interpretation that can be found in modern Sinology. They are excellent and I encourage you to read them in full.
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In his second post, T. Greer raises many questions regarding the state of Sinology, as well as topics for future investigation yet unexplored that would represent in equivalent fields, the fundamentals. Given that China represents not just a nation-state and a potential near-peer competitor of the U.S. but thousands of years of a great civilization, it is remarkable that the professional community of Western Sinologists is so small. The number of USG employees with the highest level of conversational fluency in Chinese who are neither native speakers nor children of immigrants would probably not fill a greyhound bus.
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Why is the state of Sinology relatively parlous?

I think the poor state of Sinology is traceable primarily, albeit far from exclusively, to the Cold War for two reasons:

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First, Mao’s tumultuous, totalitarian rule cut off access to Chinese sources and China to Western scholars for roughly a generation and a half. This in itself, coming on the heels of almost forty years of revolution, warlordism, foreign invasion and civil war, was enough to cripple the field. Without access to in-country experience, archival sources and foreign counterparts, an academic field begins to die.  Furthermore, Mao’s tyrannical isolation of mainland China was  far more severe than the limited access for Western scholars of Russian history and journalists imposed by the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin, in contrast to Mao, was partially a great Russian chauvinist and the Soviet dictator demanded  certain aspects of Russian history, culture and the reigns of particular Tsars be celebrated alongside the Marxist pantheon . Mao’s feelings towards traditional Chinese culture were much more hostile and ideologically extreme.  Stalin’s worst abuses of Russian history in demolishing a historic Tsarist cathedral for a never-built, gigantic Soviet labyrinthe pale next to the mad vandalism of the Cultural Revolution .

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Secondly, the fate of “the China hands” like John Paton Davies and the “Who Lost China” debate during McCarthyism rendered Sinology politically radioactive in America. It is true that many of the China hands like Davies combined a realistic strategic assessment of Kuomintang/Chiang Kai-shek shortcomings with politically naive or wishful thinking about Mao and the Communists, but the field was dealt a blow from which it never recovered in American universities. Davies was not a Communist or even a leftist (though some China Hands were fellow travelers) but that nuance was lost on the public  in a period that saw in swift succession Alger Hiss, the Berlin blockade, the the Fall of China, the Soviet A-Bomb, Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs and the Korean War. It seemed at the time that the Roosevelt administration had been infiltrated with Soviet spies and fellow travelers (largely because it had been) and in that atmosphere of Red-baiting, Davies was subsequently scapegoated, smeared and fired.  This McCarthyite political cloud over Sinology was curiously juxtaposed with the simultaneous robust funding of studies of the USSR, Russian culture and the training of Slavic linguists in the 1950’s to 1991 by the USG. For academics, going into Sinology could become a professional dead end and carried (at least in the early fifties) an odor of disloyalty.

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There are certainly other and more contemporary reasons for American  Sinology being more of an esoteric field than it deserves, to which someone else with expertise can address but all fields need to attract talent and funding and until Nixon’s “China opening”, American Sinologists struggled against the political current.

Of dualities, contradictions and the nonduality II

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — notes towards a pattern language of conflict and conflict resolution: bridging divides in Baghdad 2013, Netherlands 1888 and the Germanies 1961 ]
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I’ll be collecting examples of “dualities and the non-dual” here, because they give us a chance to consider the pattern that underlies “conflict and conflict resolution” and much else besides. This post picks up on an earlier post on the same topic: I’ll begin with three tweets that came across my bows this last week…

First, a vivid glimpse of sectarianism in today’s Iraq:

Second: sectarianism in the Netherlands, 1888:

And last, unexpected but charming, the divided Berlin of 1961:

It’s obvious once you think about it — thought we don’t always remember, such is the mind’s propensity to distinguish, divide, and argue from just one half of the whole — that human nature embraces both conflict and conflict resolution.

On Eric Hobsbawm

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

I was going to comment on the death of the famed historian who was the Soviet Union’s most venerable and shameless apologist, but I was beaten to it in a brilliant piece by British blogger and fellow Chicago Boyz member, Helen Szamuely:

A great Communist crime denier dies

On my way to and from Manchester yesterday and today I read Anne Applebaum’s latest book Iron Curtain about the subjugation of Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1956. Ms Applebaum’s knowledge and understanding of the European Union is not quite what it ought to be, given that she usually appears in the guise of one of our leading political commentators but she does know the history of Communism and what it did to the countries and peoples who, for various reasons, found themselves under its rule. The first few chapters describe in some detail the brutality, violence, whole scale looting and widespread rapine that marked the Red Army’s route across Eastern and Central Europe, regardless of whether they were in enemy or friendly countries, with soldiers or civilians, men or women, adults or children, friend or foe. And then came the NKVD and the organized violence and looting. How many people know, for instance, that several of the Nazi camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald included, were reopened by the Soviets for their own purposes? Not a few of the people they imprisoned there had been liberated only a few weeks previously.

As I was reading this horrible tale I got a text message from somebody who saw on the news that Professor Eric Hobsbawm, the best known apologist for Stalin and denier of Communist crimes, has died. We are entering a period of unrestrained mourning for this man who has on various occasions been described as the greatest living historian and one of the most influential ones. Sadly, the last part of it is true. He has been influential.

While Holocaust deniers are rightly excoriated Professor Hobsbawm has been treated in life and will be in death with the greatest adulation. Channel 4 lists some of the misguided souls who are pronouncing sorrowfully on the demise of this supposedly great man and asks rather disingenuously whether he was an apologist for tyranny.

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he was….

Read the rest here.

 

Infinity Journal: The Foundation of Strategic Thinking

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

I first heard Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper speak at the Boyd ’07 Conference at Quantico and came away impressed. General Van Riper has a new article posted at Infinity Journal (registration required but always free….):

The Foundation of Strategic Thinking 

….While Clausewitz alludes to this nonlinearity through much of his opus On War, he speaks to it directly in Book One, Chapter 1, Section 28. This section, which hardly takes up half a page, summarizes many of the essentials of Clausewitz’s theory of war. He begins the section noting: “War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.”[vii] His use of a biological metaphor indicates war is not mechanistic and therefore not a controllable or predictable phenomenon. He then lays out the dominant tendencies of that phenomenon, which strategists often sum up as passion, probability, and reason. He mentions that most often the three tendencies are the concern of the people, army, and government.[viii] Continuing, Clausewitz makes a strong claim: “A theory that ignores anyone of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.”[ix]

In other words, to be valid any theory of war must incorporate war’s intrinsic dynamism. He goes on to say: “Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies like an object suspended between three magnets.” This analogy points to a cutting-edge scientific experiment of his era, that demonstrates the nonlinearity of any system where there is freedom of movement among three or more elements.[x] The virtual impossibility of duplicating the path of a pendulum as it moves among three equally spaced magnets tells us that despite our desire to balance passion, probability, and reason—the three central tendencies of war—it is simply not possible.[xi] War is a nonlinear phenomenon.

As with all nonlinear phenomena, we can only study war as a complete system, not as individual parts. Clausewitz is clear in this regard claiming that, “. . . in war more than in any other subject we must begin by looking at the nature of the whole; for here more than elsewhere the part and the whole must always be thought of together.”[xii] This advice runs counter to Americans’ preference for using an engineering approach to solve all problems. Reductionism tends to be part of the national character. We persist in using linear methods even when the evidence shows their limitations.

John Lewis Gaddis described the difficulties this approach has caused the U.S. national security community in a ground-breaking article questioning why political scientists failed to forecast the end of the Cold War.[xiii] His convincing conclusion is that while members of the physical and natural sciences were incorporating the tools of nonlinear science into their various disciplines those in political science were adopting classical linear practices, which blinded them to the dynamics that led to the Soviet Union’s demise. In the end, we confront the reality that as with war, international relations is nonlinear. Indeed, so also are most things that flow from it, including strategies and strategic thinking. […]

Read the rest here.

I particularly liked Van Riper’s later comment as going to some of what ails us:

….Good strategists know how nonlinear systems such as nation-states, non-state actors, international relations, politics, economics, wars, campaigns, and a host of others work in the real world. More importantly, they use this knowledge of a nonlinear world when they ponder strategic questions or recommend strategies. Good strategists don’t depend on analytical tools to uncover the future security environment or potential enemies. Rather, they look to history and economic and demographic trends to inform their judgments of what might happen in a nonlinear world.

If you look at the biographies of the men who were “present at the creation” or made the transition from World War to Cold War – Stimson, Acheson, Harriman, Marshall, Bohlen, Kennan, McCloy, Forrestal, Nitze, Eisenhower, Dulles, Lovett – they had overlaps of background in international business, diplomacy, banking, law and war. While this did not mean policy harmony – for example Acheson, Kennan, Bohlen, Harriman and Nitze had disagreements among themselves in regards to the Soviets  – they possessed a shared understanding of strategy and the historical context in which they operated.

Today, high level discussions of strategy between the military, policy and political worlds are too often exactly that – communications between different planets rather than a dialogue within one small world.


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