Monday, January 5, 2015

Nuclear Weapons and Social Mood

Nuclear Family by Dayle Kornely hosted at

The lead article in the November 2014 Socionomist, "Putin's Dark Side" by Alan Hall, discusses the rising tensions between the U.S./NATO and Russia.  It also contains a lengthy overview of how nuclear weapons may factor into the next round of negative mood on the world stage.

This caught my attention for a number of reasons.  First, my day job is in the nuclear sector (reactors/isotope production, not weapons) and second, part of the reason FutureJacked has been on Pause for so long was I've been writing a book on Nuclear War and other Nuclear Emergencies (I'm a few weeks out from publication, more details to come). The article was serendipitous, to say the least.

Unfortunately, now seems as good a time as any to look at the potential for nuclear warfare in the coming years.  I fully expect to see many of the structures put in place during this long era of Good Feelings to be trashed, such as free trade agreements, civil liberties, and most importantly peace between Great Powers.  During the Cold War, which occurred in the context of a Supercycle upswing in mood, there was much talk of nuclear weapons and nuclear war.  During this Supercycle downturn, we can expect to see talk turn to action.

Yes, I anticipate we will see the use of nuclear weapons in war before this era plays itself out.  It won't come out of nowhere, though, so let's wargame some of the things we might expect to see.

The Complacency of Positive Mood

Alan Hall generated a very interesting graphic in Putin's Dark Side which I have recreated here (my graphics and a slightly different date range, full credit to Mr. Hall for the original as Figure 5 in the November 2014 edition of The Socionomist).

Google Ngram Viewer Results of "nuclear weapon" for 1940 - 2014
A second Ngram graphic, using the term "nuclear war" between 1940 and 2014 gives an even better view of the complacency which has set in over the past two decades (remember, this is a relative scale from the percentage of books published):

Google Ngram Viewer Results of "nuclear war" for 1940 - 2014
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the final ascent of U.S. hegemony, worries over nuclear war collapsed.  Stockpiles of nuclear warheads decreased, though disarmament by no means was achieved.  Other results of this reduction in tensions led to problems with the U.S. nuclear missile force, at least in the Air Force.  Nuclear missile force readiness experienced a stagnation, leading to a deterioration in the culture and a perception that for officers, nuclear weapons work was a dead-end for their career. It reached the point where it was accepted as "the way we've always done it" to have only one of the toolkits necessary to install a nuclear warhead on a Minuteman Missile available between three bases and 450 missiles.

The Air Force is now revamping its nuclear missile force structure.  When negative mood reasserts itself, it may do so quickly and violently.  We shall see if the changes will have taken root when the prospect of nuclear war rears its head.

A war scenario is not the only thing impacted by U.S. nuclear force readiness.  There have been multiple occasions in the past where nuclear weapons came close to detonating by accident. A socionomic link between markets, mood, and aircraft accidents is apparent.  Were this same negative-mood dynamic to play out in a nuclear missile force with poor morale, we in the United States could be on the receiving end of a massively damaging self-inflicted wound.  Were such an accident happen at the wrong place or the wrong time, it might even set off an accidental nuclear exchange.

This is another case where positive mood eras help create the dysfunctions which can make negative mood eras so damaging.

The Rehabilitation of Nuclear Weapons and De-escalation via Nuclear Strike

Nuclear weapons might one day soon return the arsenal of Great Power saber rattling and I believe one of those saber rattling events could turn hot, with nuclear weapons being used once again in anger. The interplay between Russia and the U.S. is a critical dynamic to watch as the bulk of nuclear weapons are held by these two states.

As the late, great positive mood era wheezed to a close 15 years ago, the U.S. stood as a lone "hyperpower." This continued in the post 9/11 world, which found the U.S. fighting wars in the Middle East, and continuing to project its forces and influence deeply into what had historically been Russian areas of influence (the Balkans, Georgia, the Baltic states, and most recently, Ukraine).  Time after time, it appeared there was little Russia could do to restore her primacy in the region.

But this situation will not, and cannot last.  Propelled by perceived national interest and impelled by increasingly negative social mood, Russia has revamped its nuclear forces and rethought the use of nuclear weapons.  In 2000, at what could be considered the height of U.S. power, confidence, and social mood, Russia issued a new military doctrine which changed its stance on the use of nuclear weapons from "in case of a threat to the existence of the Russian Federation" to:
The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and (or) its allies, as well as in response to large-scale aggression utilizing conventional weapons in situations critical to the national security of the Russian Federation.
As analyst Nikolai Sokov wrote, this also introduced the idea of "de-escalation" via limited nuclear war:
The doctrine introduced the notion of de-escalation—a strategy envisioning the threat of a limited nuclear strike that would force an opponent to accept a return to the status quo ante. Such a threat is envisioned as deterring the United States and its allies from involvement in conflicts in which Russia has an important stake, and in this sense is essentially defensive. Yet, to be effective, such a threat also must be credible. To that end, all large-scale military exercises that Russia conducted beginning in 2000 featured simulations of limited nuclear strikes.
De-escalation rests on a revised notion of the scale of nuclear use. During the Cold War, deterrence involved the threat of inflicting unacceptable damage on an enemy. Russia’s de-escalation strategy provides instead for infliction of “tailored damage,” defined as “damage [that is] subjectively unacceptable to the opponent [and] exceeds the benefits the aggressor expects to gain as a result of the use of military force.” The efficacy of threatening tailored damage assumes an asymmetry in a conflict’s stakes. Moscow reasoned when it adopted the policy that, for the United States, intervening on behalf of Chechen rebels (for example) might seem a desirable course of action for a variety of reasons. But it would not be worth the risk of a nuclear exchange. Russia, however, would perceive the stakes as much higher and would find the risk of a nuclear exchange more acceptable. Indeed, in the early 2000s, Russian military experts wrote that US interference in the war in Chechnya could have resulted in a threat to use nuclear weapons.
Emphasis mine.  That analysis, in my opinion, remains spot-on and could become very relevant if the conflict in Ukraine were to broaden into a more general U.S./NATO vs. Russia conflict.  Whereas the U.S. might regard the ripping of Ukraine from Russia's orbit as a good thing for its geopolitical position, Russia might regard the idea of foreign troops in a former Soviet Republic a little over 450 miles from Moscow as an existential threat.  Russia very well might be willing to turn to extreme measures in such a case.

If your conventional weapons do not get the attention or respect of your enemies, then you may decide the only way to deter them is to actually use a nuke.  That makes a statement if nothing else.

What might "tailored damage" look like?

Here we enter into the world of speculation, but I do not like discussing macro-scale topics without finding a way of relating the concept to a scenario which could unfold in the world.  We need guideposts in these soon-to-be-very-troubled times, not more fear porn.

Were Ukraine to move firmly into the Western orbit and the eastern provinces crushed (unlikely as of this writing, but were NATO to provide enough "advisors" and weaponry, you could see a shift in the balance), Russia would then be faced with a dramatically changed strategic position.  One could see a grim meeting in the Kremlin where the Russian leadership decides the West must be made aware a "red line" has been crossed. A nuclear weapon, they might agree, is now the only thing NATO will respect.

But how to escalate without sending the globe up in the fires of a nuclear holocaust?  What sort of "tailored damage" would send a strong message but hopefully not prompt an all-out nuclear response?

This would seem to rule out an attack in the heart of Europe or in North America.  If the goal is to inflict severe damage, but without the horrors of a strategic nuclear strike on a major city, what targets might suffice?

Considering the U.S. military presence spans the globe, a number of options present themselves.  These might include:
  • An airburst over a nuclear carrier group
  • A nuclear attack on Guam, a significant U.S. Navy base
  • An airburst over Diego Garcia, a U.K. territory hosting a major U.S. base
Of the choices, Diego Garcia would probably be the best bet.  Guam is a U.S. territory and Russia might assume there also remains a strong emotional tie from the memories of its involvement in World War II.  Attacking a full carrier group successfully might be "too successful" and be seen by the U.S. as a humiliation one of the key pillars of its global policing assets, a humiliation that could not remain unpunished.

It is my opinion an attack on Diego Garcia would inflict the kind of severe damage that would get the attention of the U.S., U.K., NATO, et al, but possibly not tip things over into a full nuclear exchange.  At least you can see how the case could be made and how military planners in Russia (or elsewhere) could come to that conclusion.

A 300 kT airburst over Diego Garcia, courtesy of NUKEMAP:

Diego Garcia's remote location, combined with an airburst, would result in minimal radioactive fallout and far less harm to civilian populations than a strategic attack over a city.  The mushroom cloud and severe damage to a critical base would certainly get the attention of the Western military leadership cadres, but without having that devastation wrought on one of the great cities of Europe or America.

Would such "tailored damage" stop there?  Or would it lead to the escalation expected during the Cold War, with the U.S. hitting a remote Russian base or installation in Siberia?

What would the political ramifications in the U.S. be, suffering such a blow?  Especially with a generation of U.S. leaders who have pushed U.S. hegemony successfully throughout the world, never experiencing a significant defeat.  How would they react to a world player who was able to strike back? When all you have known is success, how will you react when your first failure is colossal, punctuated by a mushroom cloud?

The knock-on effects would depend on the time, place, and political realities of the day.  This is provided only as an example of how you might see nuclear weapons used short of all-out nuclear war.

A Trend to Look For

It is probable you will have many signposts along the road to nuclear war.  Besides the general geopolitical tensions and socionomic indicators to watch, one clear sign the taboo against nuclear weapons use is breaking down would be a resumption of underground nuclear testing.

EWI shows on occasion a striking graphic, showing the inverse relationship between nuclear tests and the DJIA.

Annual Nuclear Weapon Tests Worldwide (source: Elliott Wave Int'l)
When you read that Russia has conducted a new series of underground nuclear tests in order to "manage their stockpiles effectively" or the U.S. has resumed underground tests in Nevada in order to "confirm computer modeling of nuclear weapon designs" or "ensure effectiveness of aging fissile material stocks" and you see the numbers of those tests track the decline in the DJIA or S&P 500, then you may want to consider brushing up on your nuclear war survival skills...

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