Cohen on the purpose of Dimona

The scope of the Israeli request for French technological assistance, the details of which Shimon Peres spelled out in Paris in 1956/1957, was tantamount to a national proliferation commitment. Enough is now known about the extent of the Dimona deal to appreciate how determined Ben-Gurion was to pursue it. The Dimona nuclear complex was designed to include all the technological components required for a plutonium-based nuclear-weapons infrastructure. The project’s scope and purpose were evident in the facility’s sanctum sanctorum, the deeply dug underground reprocessing facility designed to extract plutonium from spent uranium rods. Nothing is more indicative of Israel’s initial commitment to build a nuclear-weapons capability than this supersecret and costly facility. From the beginning, Israel hoped that [sic] within a decade or so to have enough fissile material to build its own nuclear device.

Cohen, Avner. The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb. Columbia University Press, 2010. p. 57–8


AUKUS and nuclear-powered subs for Australia

In September, the US, Australia, and the UK announced the trilateral AUKUS security pact, a key element of which is for the US and UK to provide nuclear propulsion technology for Australian submarines. From an arms race and proliferation perspective, the development is somewhat worrying.

To limit their size and maximize the time period between refuelling, nuclear submarines use highly enriched uranium (HEU) which could be redirected for use in a bomb. It will be important to see whether the US and UK provide the reactors as sealed packages or whether Australia will develop uranium enrichment technology. Either way, providing the submarines would position Australia to be close to being able to build a crude uranium bomb. Especially if HEU is transferred to Australia without strong IAEA safeguards, this sort of technology transfer could end up as a mechanism for placing more countries a few screwdriver turns away from a basic nuclear weapon.

The creation of the pact also seems like a classic example of ‘the security dilemma’: China feels threatened from being surrounded by potentially hostile US allies so they feel justified in a major military build-up; that build-up in turn alarms those neighbours and justifies their own further armament, which closes the cycle and makes China feel threatened and justified in building more arms.

Berger on the failure of bin Laden’s strategy

On a global level, bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks set the course of U.S. foreign policy for the first two decades of the twenty-first century and reshaped the Muslim world in ways that bin Laden certainly didn’t intend and that few could have predicted in the immediate aftermath. The Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed days after 9/11, allowed President Bush to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, or harbored such organizations or persons.”

This authorization sanctioned “forever wars” that lasted for two decades after 9/11. Three presidents as different from each other as Bush, Obama, and Trump used this same authorization to carry out hundreds of drone strikes against groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Shabaab, and the Pakistani Taliban. Few of these strikes had any connection to the perpetrators of 9/11. The authorization was also used to justify various types of U.S. military operations in countries around the world, in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. And, of course, 9/11 provided much of the rationale for George W. Bush to invade and occupy Iraq two years later.

The was exactly the opposite of bin Laden’s aim with the 9/11 attacks, which was to push the United States out of the greater Middle East, so its client regimes in the region would fall. Instead, new American bases proliferated throughout the region, in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda—”the Base” in Arabic—lost the best base it ever had in Afghanistan. Rather than ending American influence in the Muslim world, the 9/11 attacks greatly amplified it.

Bin Laden later put a post facto gloss on the strategic failure of 9/11 by dressing it up as a great success and claiming the attacks were a fiendishly clever plot to embroil the U.S. in costly wars in the Middle East. Three years after 9/11, bin Laden released a videotape in which he asserted, “We are continuing with this policy of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” There was no evidence that this was really bin Laden’s plan in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 was a great tactical victory for al-Qaeda—the group inflicted more direct damage on the United States in one morning than the Soviet Union had during the Cold War—but ultimately it was a strategic failure for the organization, just as Pearl Harbor was for Imperial Japan.

Bergen, Peter. The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden. Simon & Schuster, 2021. p. 242-3

Related: The success of bin Laden’s strategy

The CIA didn’t fund al Qaeda during the Soviet Afghan war

It’s worth mentioning here that there is simply no evidence for the common myth that bin Laden and his Afghan Arabs were supported by the CIA financially. Nor is there any evidence that CIA officials at any level met with bin Laden or anyone in his circle. Yet the notion that bin Laden was a creation of the CIA is widespread. For instance, the American film-maker Michael Moore has written, “WE created the monster known as Osama bin Laden! Where did he go to terrorist school? At the CIA!” The real problem is not that the CIA helped bin Laden during the 1980s, but that the U.S. government had no idea about his possible significance until 1993, when he first started to appear in internal U.S. intelligence analyses describing him as a financier of Islamic extremist groups.

The notion that the CIA aided the rise of the Afghan Arabs is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the agency supported the Afghan war effort. First, it was overseen by a tiny group of CIA officers in Pakistan. Vincent Cannistraro, who helped coordinate CIA support to the Afghans during the mid-1980s, explained there were only six CIA officials in Pakistan at any given time, and they were simply “administrators.” Secondly, CIA officers in Pakistan seldom left the embassy in Islamabad, and rarely even met with the leaders of the Afghan resistance, let alone Arab militants. That’s because the CIA officers provided American funding to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which, in turn, decided which among the Afghan mujahadeen groups would receive this funding.

Bridadier Mohammad Yousaf, who ran the ISI’s Afghan operations, explained that it was “a cardinal rule of Pakistan’s policy that no Americans ever became involved with the distribution of funds or arms once they arrived in the country. No Americans ever trained or had direct contact with the mujahadeen, and no American official ever went inside Afghanistan.” Mark Sageman, a CIA officer who worked on the Afghan “account” in Pakistan during the mid-1980s, recalls “we were totally banned” from going into Afghanistan, for fear it would hand the Soviets a great propaganda victory if a CIA officer was captured there.[“] The CIA’s Milt Bearden says the agency “never recruited, trained or otherwise used Arab volunteers. The Afghans were more than happy to do their own fighting—we saw no reason not to satisfy them on this point.” No independent evidence of the CIA supporting al-Qaeda has emerged in the four decades since the end of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.

In short, the CIA had very limited dealings with the Afghans, let alone the Afghan Arabs. There was simply no point for the CIA and the Afghan Arabs to be in contact with each other, since the agency worked through Pakistan’s military intelligence agency during the Afghan War, while the Afghan Arabs had their own sources of funding. The CIA did not need the Afghan Arabs and the Afghan Arabs did not need the CIA.

Bergen, Peter. The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden. Simon & Schuster, 2021. p. 42-3

Secrecy and safety in complex technological systems

In Rhodes’ energy history I came across an interesting parallel with the 1988 STS-27 and 2003 STS-107 space shuttle missions, in which the national security payload and secrecy in the first mission may have prevented lessons from being learned which might have helped avert the subsequent disaster. Specifically, the STS-27 mission was launching a classified satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and as a result they were only able to send low-quality encrypted images of the damage which had been sustained on launch to the shuttle’s thermal protective tiles. Since the seven crew members of STS-107 died because the shuttle broke up during re-entry due to a debris impact on the shuttle’s protective surfaces on launch, conceivably a fuller reckoning of STS-27 might have led to better procedures to identify and assess damage and to develop alternatives for shuttle crews in orbit in a vehicle that has sustained damage that might prevent safe re-entry.

Rhodes describes Belorussian leader and nuclear physicist Stanislav Shushkevich’s analysis of the Chernobyl disaster:

By Shushkevich’s reckoning, the Chernobyl accident was a failure of governance, not of technology. Had the Soviet Union’s nuclear power plants not been dual use, designed for producing military plutonium as well as civilian power and therefore secret, problems with one reactor might have been shared with managers at other reactor stations, leading to safety improvements such as those introduced into US reactors after the accident at Three Mile Island and the Japanese reactors after Fukushima.

Rhodes, Richard. Energy: A Human History. Simon & Schuster, 2018. p. 335

This seems like a promising parallel to draw in a screenplay about the STS-27 and STS-107 missions.

The origin of ceramic reactor fuel

I’ve noted before the exceptional and enduring influence Hyman Rickover (‘father of the nuclear navy’) has had over the subsequent use of nuclear technology. Richard Rhodes’ energy history provides another example:

At the same time, Rickover made a crucial decision to change the form of the fuel from uranium metal to uranium dioxide, a ceramic. “This was a totally different design concept from the naval reactors,” writes Theodore Rockwell, “and required the development of an entirely new technology on a crash basis.” Rockwell told me that Rickover made the decision, despite the fact that it complicated their work, to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation: it’s straightforward to turn highly enriched uranium metal into a bomb, while uranium dioxide, which has a melting point of 5,189 ˚F (2,865 ˚C) requires technically difficult reprocessing to convert it back into metal.

Rhodes, Richard. Energy: A Human History. Simon & Schuster, 2018. p. 286

Examples like this illustrate the phenomenon of path dependence, where at a certain junction in time things could easily go one way or the other, but once the choice has been made it forecloses subsequent reversals. Examples abound in public policy. For instance, probably nobody creating a system from scratch would have used the US health care model of health insurance from employers coupled with the right to refuse coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, yet once the system was in place powerful lobbies also existed to keep it in place. The same could be said about many complexities and inefficiencies in nations’ tax codes, which distort economic activity and waste resources with compliance and monitoring but which are now defended by specialists whose role is to manage the system on behalf of others.

See also: Zircaloy is a problem

Will China invade Taiwan?

This week’s issue of The Economist has Taiwan on the cover and describes it as the “most dangerous place on Earth”.

It is widely reported that a central purpose behind China’s military buildup and particularly the acquisition of naval and amphibious warfare capabilities is the country’s ambition to conquer its democratic neighbour. The implications thereof could be profound, including in terms of China and Taiwan’s domestic politics, Taiwan’s crucial global role as a microprocessor manufacturer, and the confidence of America’s regional allies in America’s security guarantees. If their confidence is sapped by a Chinese takeover, increased regional militarization and perhaps nuclear proliferation are plausible.

China’s conduct toward Taiwan may also be illustrative of its long term geopolitical role as it continues to rise in affluence and military strength, potentially going beyond maintaining an oppressive, nationalistic, and militarist system at home into the actual domination or conquest of foreign territory (though China’s government asserts that Taiwan has been part of China all along).

The question of China and Taiwan also influences domestic national security policy in countries including China. Based on recent decades of use, the likely role for new military platforms like the ships being built for the navy and next-generation fighter jets long under contemplation would be a combination of continental defence under NORAD (arguably with no nation states as plausible enemies in this sense) and expeditionary use in multilateral coalitions for peacekeeping or (as in Afghanistan to begin with) warfighting. If China is developing into a threat that western countries will need to meet with military force, however, it will be indispensable to have advanced weapons and forces capable in their use ready before the conflict begins.


Would Scottish independence mean an end to the UK deploying nuclear weapons?

Britain’s Armageddon weapon are their four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines: Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant, and Vengeance. Since decomissioning their aircraft-dropped bombs in 1998, the subs have been the only means of delivery for British nuclear weapons, with each possessing 16 ballistic missile tubes for Trident D5 missiles, each built to carry as many as 14 of some warhead types.

Oddly, and despite the obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for existing weapon states to work toward disarmament, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in March that as part of his government’s ‘Global Britain’ agenda they will raise the cap on the number of warheads deployed on submarines from 180 to 260.

All of the British subs are headquartered at Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Clyde at Faslane in Scotland. Today, The Guardian is reporting that if Scotland chooses to secede from the UK it would raise difficult questions about what to do with the subs, in part because building an equivalent facility in England or Wales would be very costly and would provoke intense opposition.

Even if done out of constraint rather than principal, it would be encouraging to see a nuclear weapon state stop deploying its weapons. As Richard Rhodes summarized in his fourth volume on nuclear weapons:

It followed, and follows, that there is no military solution to safety in the nuclear age: There are only political solutions… The impossibility of resolving militarily the new situation that knowledge of how to release nuclear energy imposes on the world is the reason the efforts on both sides look so desperate and irrational: They are built on what philosophers call a category mistake, an assumption that nuclear explosives are military weapons in any meaningful sense of the term, and that a sufficient quantity of such weapons can make us secure. They are not, and they cannot.

Threatening to use or using nuclear weapons in warfare has always been highly questionable under international law. However they are used they would have downwind consequences which would not distinguish between combatants and civilians, and it will always be questionable whether the use of such weapons is proportional to any provocation or whether it would serve a purpose of military necessity. A mass nuclear exchange literally threatens the existence of humanity, since smoke from burning cities would rise high into the stratosphere and cause drastic global cooling with appalling agricultural and humanitarian consequences.

Keeping such weapons for the sake of national prestige, and thus running all the associated risks of miscalculation or accidental or unauthorized use, is neither prudent nor justifiable in a world where a nuclear arms race is already apace.