Reuters: Korea Nuclear escalation likely

Reuters: Any new Korean war could quickly escalate to catastrophe.

Since “catastrophe” embraces everything from a plumbing break to the  Black Death plague, the word is reasonable. But the second paragraph is not good journalism:

Any new military conflict with North Korea would likely escalate quickly to the use of nuclear weapons…former U.S. defense officials and experts say.

Extensive analysis predicts all kinds of bad things. But by assertion of the specific of nuclear weapons use, Reuters leaps out in front of most of the models.

Ample material exists  in open source, for example, (CNN) The U.S. vs. North Korea: Inside a Pentagon war game. Reuters owes it to the public to do more work. In this case, there is every reason to use identified sources.

Usually, I criticize CNN for this kind of laxity. Now Reuters joins the club. Do the work. Plenty of information is to be had for a little digging.


North Korea’s Miniaturized Nuke Part 2

We continue from  North Korea’s Miniaturized Nuke Part 1.

The Pakistan nuclear program had the benefit of many years of scientific exchange with the U.S. This created the intellectual depth required for design that, while not clean-sheet, was at least capable of some innovation. North Korea has not had this benefit. Open sources suggest that plans and parts were acquired directly from Abdul Qadeer Khan, “father” of the Pakistan program.

Since North Korea has had virtually no legitimate scientific contact with the outside world, the proliferation channel for miniaturized weapons may have been different. Khan’s transfer was many years ago. But the miniaturized warhead is new. This suggests another transfer source, with exploitation delayed relative to the transfers of Khan.

If you want to know a specific fact that happens to be hidden by an adversary, espionage and secret technical collections of the U.S. intelligence community are typically superior to open sources. We may not know for many years, if ever, how this presentation relates to the ultimate truth. Sometimes a phrase leaks here and there. Keep your eye out for “linear implosion.”

I’ve omitted the word “alleged” everywhere it should be used.

With the assumption that North Korea wanted the fastest path to a warhead, they chose replication, not independent design. Of the nuclear powers, the former Soviet Union was most accessible to illicit transfers. The easiest thing to transport is something with a handle on it.

Googling quickly leads to conspiracy theories and survivalist blogs. My contribution to the genre is North Korea’s Plutonium, Iran’s Uranium / Suitcase Nukes. The subject inspires so much fear that mainstream media recoils in the opposite direction. I’ve been searching for a quote of George Tenet,  in which he wonders why the mainstream dismisses the possibility. An example  is (ABC) Suitcase nukes closer to fiction than reality, It’s not deliberate manipulation, but contamination of objectivity by an attitude of denial. The alarmists take the most dire view, which is that the devices still exist, and still work.

Middlebury Institute offers a paper, “Suitcase Nukes:” A Reassessment. Quoting, “First, the probability that any portable nuclear devices were lost prior to or after the breakup of the Soviet Union appears low;…” A quick summary of the argument, which relies heavily on impugning  Alexander Lebedev and (NTI) Alexei Yablokov, the primary Russian sources:

  • Lebedev and Yablokov have ulterior motives.
  • The Russians can’t keep a secret. Existence  would have leaked.
  • Never mind that Yablokov corroborates Lebedev.
  • Never mind that the U.S. had the SADM.
  • Ergo,  the claim that suitcase nukes exist is highly dubious.

The paper shows  that with a scholarly tone and a good bibliography, you can tilt the tables as much as a pinball player scrounging for nickels.

The one argument worth paying attention to is that they haven’t been used by terrorists, people with notorious inability to resist impulse. Now we can tighten the brackets formed by alarm and denial. They may exist, but don’t work anymore. A third source, Stanislav Lunev, is quoted (Wikipedia):

Stanislav Lunev, the highest-ranking GRU defector, claimed that such Russian-made devices exist and described them in more detail.[10] The devices, "identified as RA-115s (or RA-115-01s for submersible weapons)" weigh from fifty to sixty pounds. They can last for many years if wired to an electric source. In case there is a loss of power, there is a battery backup. If the battery runs low, the weapon has a transmitter that sends a coded message either by satellite or directly to a GRU post at a Russian embassy or consulate. According to Lunev, the number of "missing" nuclear devices (as found by General Lebed) "is almost identical to the number of strategic targets upon which those bombs would be used."[10]

Maybe you think these guys are a bunch of fakes. You have permission to dismiss one of the three. When asked about suitcases, a fourth,  retired General Vladimir Dvorkin, said (Frontline)

Not that I'm aware of. Both United States and Russia of course built tactical nuclear weapons that were quite small in size ... . We had, for example, what we called atomic demolition munitions, that were designed to be carried in a backpack. ... I doubt that there was ever anything that was specifically designed to be carried in something that looked like a suitcase, though I couldn't rule it out. 

Dvorkin’s denial that any military nukes are missing is quoted in (San Diego Union-Tribune) “How threat of loose Soviet nukes was avoided.” But his own reasons for certainty are weak. The article authors assert that if there were loose nukes, we would have seen some uses. But,

  • Although Russian military nukes are not nearly as safe as ours, arranging for one to explode is not  trivial for a terrorist. And with a few years of waiting, the tritium goes stale.
  • Nukes of all kinds would have been eagerly bought by Pakistan or North Korea, so the unaccounted would never reappear.
  • The suitcase nukes were under the control of the KGB, not the military. With Soviet compartmentalization, Dvorkin might have not known.
  • At the peak, in 1988. the Soviet Union had about 45,000 nuclear warheads.  It is down to about 7000. Not a single  RA-115 suitcase nuke has been volunteered by the Russians as having been destroyed. The Russian line is they never existed. So if they did exist, what happened to them?

So we’re down to the style of the style of luggage. This can be answered at the next Fashion Week. But can a roller-nuke outlast the zippers and wheels?

The statement has been made that the shelf life of Russian nukes is short compared to U.S. ones. This is not open source. But the basics are simple:

  • Plutonium emits neutrons, which cause all kinds of materials to fall apart. Special materials, produced only by the U.S., can reduce this. Standard explosives are used, possibly with additive stabilizers.
  • The plutonium itself tends to fall apart. Alloys help. Secret alloys may help more.
  • Electronics  tends to fail. Spacing/shielding within the complete gadget is not adequate to prevent this.The problem extends to parts not normally thought of as sensitive. The U.S. makes rad-hard parts that others do not.
  • The tritium in a boosted weapon, which these days means all of them, has to be periodically flushed and replaced.

But there are many ways to skin a cat. North Korea makes tritium. Lunev stated that the Soviet RA-115 could survive for many years. Semiconductors are not essential. Tubes have been used in the past, and some special types, like the sprytron, still are.

Suppose you have a few samples of a non-optimal, miniature implosion device, such as a Soviet RA-115. It’s non optimal because it uses linear implosion. But it gives you precise geometries, and you know that it worked. It may still work if  the tritium is flushed and the explosives are replaced. You might be able to scale it up a bit. Remember that everything about a North Korean rocket is a little shoddy. It’s heavier than it should be. The motor is not efficient. It’s not accurate. But it’s hardly the point to make a thing of beauty.

Is it?

Philippines’ Duterte to Tillerson, “Your humble friend”

(Reuters) Philippines’ Duterte to Tillerson: ‘I Am Your Humble Friend’.

Against the background of badmouthing the U.S., Duterte’s comment may have real meaning. It was accompanied by expressions of sympathy regarding Korea and China.

Previously, Duterte’s anti-Americanism seemed so set in his bones, he vowed to go it alone, even in the face of regional threats.  The official version is provided by The Diplomat:

…First, in an apparent reference to president’s speech in China, is the “seperat[ion] [of Philippine] foreign policy from the U.S.” Sta. Romana was quick to point out that it “does not mean that we totally cut off from the U.S.” Rather, it means lessening Manila’s dependence on Washington while maintaining the “historic alliance with the U.S.” Second, an independent foreign policy requires “improvement of relations with China.” Finally, Sta. Romana emphasized “the improvement of relations with non-traditional partners,” including Russia, Japan, and India.

But given Duterte’s actual tenor towards the U.S., the above is not accurate. In one month of continuous rage against the U.S. he ripped the country out of the U.S. orbit with a vengeance.   Perhaps he was inspired by the Nonaligned Movement, many members of which consistently sided with the Soviets.

Now the waters of the Pacific are cold. Duterte is challenged by the  twin challenges of ISIS and China. But he seems to be an incomplete authoritarian, blaming himself for the troubles of ISIS. If he is an authoritarian, he has a flip side, which he has just shown to Rex Tillerson.

Perhaps Duterte is simply being appreciative. But his dalliance with the Nonaligned may be over, and he may want to be a U.S. ally again. Geography makes the Philippines the crucial missing player in the western Pacific. But there is a problem.

In five years time, the military challenge of China will greater. At some point, the handicap of U.S. projection of power over long distances will become critical. An innovative, disseminated basing scheme is probably needed to provide survivable forward basing. The history of the closed base at Subic Bay suggests that local occasional friction, including occasional crimes by U.S. service personnel,  would be inevitable.  It was a major affront to dignity, significant to the closure.

In various posts, I’ve suggested that the U.S. is overextended in the China Sea. Much of this has to do with the absence of the Philippines.  Projection of power all the way to the western Pacific  is is currently within U.S. capability. But it has a time horizon. Five, ten, or twenty years hence, we may discover that China has played a waiting game.

We may not be able to negate the time horizon, but we can push it out, with secure and extensive basing arrangements in the Philippines and elsewhere. This is a hard sell. But the alternative is to ignore the contraction of a sphere of effectiveness as time passes.

The current U.S. approach to the nations in the western Pacific is a treaty without the paperwork. It fosters the illusion that Uncle Sam will come to the rescue, when nothing of the sort is possible. China just kicked Vietnam off the offshore drilling Block 136/3,  west of the Spratlys, a location far from what we thought was  China, and close to Vietnam.  How is a port call to Vietnam by a U.S. aircraft carrier going to change that?

Bases evoke colonial memories. An argument to which Duterte might be sympathetic would stress not unbeatable U.S. strength, but U.S. limitations. Putting  U.S. servicemen in harms way on Philippine lands should compensate for inevitable frictions.

This may not be enough. Power  projection without economic rationale is the eventual negative fate of all empires. A way to couple the two might actually be essential. But no voluntary client state has ever agreed to align its trade for that purpose.

North Korea’s Miniaturized Nuke Part 1

What follows is all public knowledge to physicists, with whom it used to be a popular lunch time topic. The only exception I have found to this is in the dining room of the Trinity Beverage Company in Los Alamos. While dining on one of their delectable “Fat Man” or “Little Boy” burgers, I got dirty looks when I gave a high school level explanation to my companion.

  • Miniaturized nuclear weapons have two branches, the artillery shell/suitcase device, and the transportable device.. The shell/suitcase is optimized for minimum volume. The transportable device is optimized for minimum weight, and is very similar to the warhead problem.
  • The most simple form of the shell/suitcase, a uranium core in two pieces, weighs a lot, is easy to make, and has a skinny shape. It can fit in a suitcase. At the very low end of yield, it might be luggable  by a strong man without breaking his hand. Modern roller luggage takes care of this.
  • A more advanced form of the shell/suitcase is the linear implosion device, which is similar to the device described with the next bullet, but is thinner.
  • The  guts of a  transportable device optimized for weight  is a sphere of some diameter containing a unitary plutonium core, and ancillary gadgetry. The external package is typically a can.  It could fit in a very extended backpack, but not in a suitcase.  It can be “boosted” with tritium, increasing the yield, without significantly increasing the weight. The U.S. luggable, the SADM, is pictured here. It’s  a little bulky to roll through Penn Station. I would hope someone would notice.
  • At the level of North Korea’s effort, the transportable device is almost identical to a package for a missile.

The development of a miniaturized warhead has two parts:

  • The physics. For the top-tier powers, the design of a new warhead can now be done entirely by supercomputer. The extensive experiments of the Manhattan project, and those that followed in the 50’s and 60’s,  were needed to check the then primitive theory, and fill in the gaps.
  • Building it. This involves the actual making of parts and piecing them together, skills of  metallurgy, chemistry, fabrication, and electronics. For the transportable device, using plutonium, all these problems are hard.
  • Hydrogen bombs are not part of this discussion.

The path of proliferation suggests that the physics knowledge was not independently developed. Every proliferation derived some information from Manhattan.  Additional information was obtained by expat and exchange scientists, and by theft. Because the breadth of the industrial base required to make a nuke is so broad, bits and pieces of the technology are widely distributed. Even when such information is classified, the extent of distribution resulted in ineffective protection. Making a bomb is largely a part of industrial sleuthing. Quoting the NY Times,

It required more than three decades, a global network of theft and espionage, and uncounted millions for could not have happened without smuggled Chinese technology and contradictory shifts in American policy...

In case you’re blocked by the paywall, you can get something from the Huffington Post: Who Created Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal?

Open source suggests that the main stream of proliferation (with side channels and additions) was China–>Pakistan–>North Korea.  The side channel is typified by (NY TImes)

The United States provided Pakistani nuclear scientists with technical training from the 1950's into the 1970's. And it turned a blind eye to the nuclear weapons program in the 1980's, ...

The tinier the weapon, the more distant from the knowledge that became quasi-public after the Manhattan project. De novo development  is difficult for a primitive country.  Did  proliferation proceed identically for Pakistan and North Korea? Was it  by walk-and-talk and paper plans, or was there a specific example?

To be continued shortly.

Revolution in Venezuela

On April 22, I wrote Two Candidates for Revolution: Venezuela and North Korea, in which I wrote,

Venezuela is a good fit for existing theories of revolution.
North Korea requires a novel approach.
I will develop this in articles to be posted in a few days.

With the recent events in Venezuela, it’s time to write some more. The theory of revolutions has spawned a lot of literature, but it has not been  useful for the most-asked question, which is, when will it occur? But The Anatomy of Revolution, by Crane Brinton, is a perennial favorite. Instead of trying to squeeze it into social theories, Brinton relies on a broad analogy, supported by good writing that makes the reader his own observer, with Brinton as the helpful tour guide. His broad analogy is “fever”, when a person may experience delirium, excitement, and heightened emotions.

All revolutions are not the same. Colonial revolutions are entirely different. But the references of Brinton’s book, mostly to the Russian and French,  are actually apropos Venezuela, which has a broad, active political spectrum. One can almost see, in the remnants of the National Assembly, arising ofJacobin clubs. The Venezuelan locus is urban, as it was in France.  But a principal drag is the reported popularity of Maduro in rural areas.

Brinton remarks on the role of economic decline as a cause, but expresses skepticism at the importance given by others. In the examples of his book, popular conditions were only a little more miserable than in preceding years. But  in the early 60’s, J.C. Davies. in  “Towards a Theory of Revolution” described the “J-curve”, actually an inverted J, of a period of rapid economic growth followed by sharp reversal.  Though Brinton gives the J lukewarm endorsement, it fits Venezuela to a T.

Brinton’s tone is tolerant to phenomenological analogies, while avoiding scientific scorn. His analogy of “fever” is very appealing, and inspires my own. We want landmarks for timing. Staying loose, we can see some possibilities:

  • The Role of Force, (page 86, Vintage ed. 1965).  Critical is whether the authorities will respond competently. One sign that they may not is that at the level of the street, the enforcers are themselves urbanites, stressed by the same factors as those in rebellion.
  • The Rule of the Moderates, Chapter 5. In Brinton’s revolutions, this occurs after authority has transferred to the revolutionaries. Let’s adapt this to before the revolution, with the now dissolved National Assembly.
  • The Accession of the Extremists, Chapter 6. With the same adjustment, this corresponds to popular disillusionment with the fragmented National Assembly, with similarities to the opposition in the early stages of the Syrian civil war. The theft of arms can be identified as an early step by the “extremists.”

As noted, the accession of the extremists would be facilitated by rural sanctuary.  But “melting away” of the rebels into the countryside may be hindered by rural majorities of Maduro supporters. Open sources do not illuminate. This exhausts Brinton analogies. Here’s a new one, the development of the tornado.

A tornado is a self-organizing system that seems useful as a companion analogy to Brinton’s “fever.”  In both tornado and revolution, energy/unrest is drained from the environment, resulting in a more stable arrangement of air or people. Various theories have tried to pinpoint how a tornado forms. But in the same manner of frustration as predicting revolutions, there is no one way. The most common way a tornado forms is from a mesocyclone high in the sky, the funnel descending to earth.

A similar storm, the gustnado, forms from the ground up. But if it reaches the cloud base of a mesocyclone, the two phenomenon become a true tornado.  The disturbances in Venezuela are at ground level.  The mesocyclone high in the clouds is missing. Might the genesis of it be civilian or military?  The National Assembly shows no signs. Open sources describe the higher levels of the military as corruptly involved with Maduro’s establishment. But generalities cannot speak for everyone.

The mesocyclone could arise in two ways. It could grow out of the wreckage of the National Assembly, as the more radical members divest themselves of moderate connections. Or it could arise as the “man of the moment”, a kind of new Simon Bolivar.

Watch for the mesocyclone.






CNN: Trump’s biggest nightmare? China and Russia’s new friendship Part 2

On our way to bombard Atlanta, the battleship HMS Ridicule has detoured to the Baltic Sea for reconnaissance. Unlike the Russia-China joint exercise, we will not fire our big guns. We’ll just throw some garbage overboard, and empty the bilges.

China has a grudge against Russia. In a series of “Unequal Treaties”, beginning with the Li-Lobanov Treaty of 1896, Russia annexed Chinese territory from what is now Outer Manchuria. For this reason, the Siberian population of Russia, aware that some of their most populous centers are on what was Chinese land, have a deep-rooted fear of China. The Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969 reinforces this fear.

Until the Russian Empire annexed Siberia in the 17th Century, the bulk of it was occupied by primitive tribes, and the rest by the Khanate of Sibir. All were considered by China to be primitive savages. But the Russian Empire was different. Highly organized and partly Western, it practiced the coercive colonial imperialism-backed-by-force that was in vogue at the time. Russia and Japan were the among last powers to take a bite out of China. And unlike the others, Russia still has what it bit off.

This kind of grudge has been such a potent fuel for the conflicts of nations, it has a name: irredentism. In many cases, governments have been upset by irredentists, who gain power by promising to throw the young men into the meat grinder to regain the land. The Franco Prussian War of 1870 is classic. It’s arguable that this war, not the Treaty of Versailles, was the root cause of World War II. The French lost, and with it, Alsace-Lorraine. This painting depicts kids being brainwashed into dying to get it back.

Irredentism is a tool of political demagoguery. But uniquely to China, it is a stable political doctrine. Mao expressed to Kissinger that a hundred years was soon enough to regain Taiwan. The Chinese may pretend to forget about Outer Manchuria. Unlike European irredentists, they aren’t beating the drum for war.

But there are other ways to address the Unequal Treaties. Russian subversion in Europe, facilitated by the strong links between the Kremlin and the current crop of oligarchs, has an analog in historical China policy. The borderlands of Russia, what are now the swath of former Soviet states, including the Russian border itself, were once the objects of sophisticated manipulation by the Celestial Kingdom. A template is ready at hand.

To defend, Russia has the doctrine of first-use of nuclear weapons, and stockpiles of Novichok. This won’t help them a bit. Unlike the quick tempered bellicosity of Western irredentists, China’s approach is a foreign policy doctrine about 500 years old. The play of it will extend beyond our lifetimes. Eventually, Vladimir Putin’s descendants will be fluent in Standard Mandarin.

The tactic used against the borderland savages was to corrupt them with luxury. This has direct application in Russia, where loyalty has a strong relationship to financial benefit. Putin’s slush fund exists for this purpose. Although control in Russia has many facets, including politics and coercion, they work best when not in conflict with the desire of loyalty to go with the highest bidder. Russia has lost that battle before, during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.

A government has lost the fight against corruption when civil authority can no longer resist the tide of money. Putin is gambling that he can prevent the progression. But over time, economic cooperation becomes interdependence. As contact between societies breaks the bounds of formality, the opportunities to suborn the Russian state multiply. One day, Putin, or more likely his successor could wake up, and discover the fate of a sci-fi horror movie: the Siberian Russians have been replaced by Pod People.

This is not a value judgement of Russian culture. My roots are in Eastern Europe, including Russia. Some of my ancestors were “radicals.” One of my greatest pleasures is to argue with a Russian intellectual. In that spirit, Russians might take a look at their culture and prune it a bit. Some of it, the “darkness”, stands in the way of the vitality of a modern society. The part that makes arguing with a Russian intellectual such a pleasure, they ought to keep.

We are saving our massive 16″ shells, loaded with ridicule, for Atlanta. Full speed ahead!

Trump Wants to Fire U.S. Commander in Afghanistan

Reuters: Trump, frustrated by Afghan war, suggests firing U.S. commander: officials.

This would be a big mistake. It would be impossible to find a better person. There are bed rock basic reasons why U.S. policy in Afghanistan has failed, and they have nothing to do with the competence of General John Nicholson. They have to do with the nature of government.

There have been many conceptions of government. Originally, the headmen of the tribes would get together and talk. In Afghanistan, this is called a jirga. Sometime in the distant past, the most impressive headman was distinguished as someone special. It took till the 18th century for Afghanistan to acquire a king with the domain of the modern political map.

The above has nothing to do with modern theories of government. The bare-bones boiled-down essence of modern government is just a few things:

  • Raise revenue by taxation.
  • Use at least some of the taxes to provide services.
  • Facilitate commerce.
  • The services provided justify the taxes enough for popular acquiescence.

You can add all the bells and whistles. But it’s the irreducible minimum. Anything less, and it becomes a protection racket.

Afghanistan has no legitimate economy. Mullah Omar’s gang used to joke that the country couldn’t even make glass. The only trade is underground, opium, immune to civil taxes. But opium makes money for the Taliban. Indirectly, they can tax it, by shaking down the farmers.

The services that the government can afford to provide are negligible.  In areas of high population density, a government can provide a lot of low-tech service, like waste disposal, food distribution and utilities. But Afghanistan is mostly rural, so these possibilities  do not exist outside the cities.  Since the only current export product Afghanistan is opium, the opportunities to facilitate commerce are dwarfed by illegal alternatives.

So the model of the Kabul government, representing all our good intentions, is not organic in Afghanistan. Because it is not organic, it cannot displace the Taliban, replacing them with itself.  The Taliban is organic, so it can grow, occupy space, and displace the government.

This is not a value judgment. The Kabul government has many positive aspects. It is inclusive, the factions attempt to work together, and it has had a peaceful transition of power. But it is not organic.

The current situation is not remotely the result of military incompetence.  The U.S. military is the best in the world, and has performed very well in Afghanistan. So the possible improvement gained by change of command is negligible.

During World War I, someone, possibly Will Rogers, came up with a solution to the German submarine menace. He said, “Boil the oceans, and the submarines will come to the surface.” When asked, “How do you boil the oceans?”, he replied, ‘That’s your problem.”

Here, the equivalent of boiling is to transform Afghan society. The Soviets tried this, and failed. But what happens to Pakistan as part of China’s Silk Road project bears watching. China is a highly ordered society. Pakistan, though not a failing state, is a poorly functioning one.  Maybe China will make things better. Maybe Pakistan will become a debt slave.  Check back in 20 years.

The only reason we stay in Afghanistan is to prevent it from becoming a terrorist haven. This is a very good reason. But it seems to have indefinite cost and duration. So what can we do? Ideally, we would give away the problem, to countries of the region.  This would not be a quick fix, but neither is a 16-year conflict without an exit strategy.

The secular aspects of Afghan culture are more influenced by India than Pakistan. Both China and India stand to benefit from Afghan minerals. But while the Wakhan Corridor connects Afghanistan to China, India has no common border. But China is hampered by starkly different ethnicity.

Let’s consider how the future may solve the Afghanistan problem, with a  “future history”, twenty years hence:

  • The impact of Silk Road on Pakistan is highly positive, unshackling a nation from violent domestic conflict, with some hybridization of culture.
  • Pakistan’s energies redirect in more creative, entrepreneurial ways.
  • Since Pakistan’s ethnicity blends well in Afghanistan, Pakistan and China cooperate to jointly exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources.
  • Social development flows into Afghanistan from both directions.

This is how a good history reads. There are many others. But how natural it seems, compared to an endless campaign to support civil government, in a land whose principle product is the opium poppy.

Perhaps this future history can inspire.








CNN: Trump’s biggest nightmare? China and Russia’s new friendship Part 1

David A. Andelman has written (CNN) Trump’s biggest nightmare? China and Russia’s newfound friendship. For a guy who wrote about Versailles, there’s a lot to disagree with.The article panders to our fear, the creation of a world-dominating Goliath in the combination of China and Russia. Encouraging this fear, the article cites these public demonstrations:

  • (CNN) “Chinese warships joined the parade of Russian naval vessels Quotin the sea off the Port of Kronstadt in St. Petersburg as President Vladimir Putin looked on proudly. “
  • live-firing of big guns in the Baltic Sea “
  • “…this new reality should not have come as a surprise.”
  • “…given comfort to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “
  • “That the two powers are joining forces can only give comfort to …”
  • “…$10 billion worth of other agreements, as both leaders grinned and shook hands.

The words are treacled with fear, and laden with the presumption of a “new reality”. Good writing works on the emotional level, and this is good writing. It evokes the emotions, directly with “frightening new guest”, indirectly with reference to the disgusting character of Assad. In a piece where logic should prevail, logic is swamped by style.

Everything in the above list, except for the $10 billion, is a PR event. Nobody fires big naval guns anymore for military reasons. Naval guns were big in the time of the Versailles conference, the subject of Andelman’s book. But the act does not carry the same meaning, or threat, as it did then. Big guns are a military weapon of negligible importance. Their value to Putin is the noise they make.

The world is currently fixated on handshakes. Here’s an education on handshakes: Molotov and Ribbentrop seal the deal. The deal was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, an evil deal between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, consecrated in August 1939. Ribbentrop and Stalin also shook hands. The world renowned Handshake Scoring System predicted enduring permanence of the deal between two dictators. It lasted just short of two years. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Handshakes are less important than milkshakes.

In the spirit of triteness, here’s a zinger for Mr. Andelman, Michael Corleone’s inspired paraphrase of Sun Tzu. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” On second thought, we could leave Sun Tzu out of it and attribute to the great philosopher Mario Puzo.

Mr. Andelman seems totally mislead by the visible. And Putin is somewhat of a stage magician. The events call for Penn & Teller to tell us what we’ve actually seen. I’ll sub in their absence. Let’s proceed to a deeper level.

The unfinished Amur River bridge project will be the only bridge to cross the Russia-China border. China built the large part, while the small Russian part languishes. A NY Times article describes work on the Russian side with a shovel and digging with the hands. Russians who were solicited for opinions expressed fear that the bridge would facilitate passage by Chinese tanks. According to, it will be completed in 2018. The bridge may be completed, but the sentiments will remain. There are probably special Russian preparations for destruction of the bridge.

China has ten times the population, and about 6 times the GNP of Russia. Russia has problems of demographic decay. Aging of the population in China, induced by policies for population control, is strictly voluntary. In every measure of societal health, China exceeds and dwarfs Russia. Throughout history, shared borders between countries such as these has resulted in war and annexation by the stronger power. The current situation is a notable exception. The one new factor  is the advent of nuclear weapons. If it were not for this, China would absorb Russia with no more trouble than the belch resulting from  a dish of moo goo gai pan.

The above is part of an organic argument, based in generalities of foreign affairs that have been demonstrated countless times. The power is in fact and logic, not playing with emotions.   Scoring with a Star Wars sound track  should not be necessary. No world leader should allow the emotions to dominate, and neither should you.

This was just my opening salvo. I will hose down the gun barrels of the HMS Ridicule,  reload with shells, powder, and coal, and set course up the Chattahoochee River to bombard Atlanta directly.

I shall return.

North Korea & Trump’s Mental Rubicon; Smuggling Nukes?

Most of this is just interpretation of recent comments by Graham and Mattis. But if you read to the end, there is a sinister hypothesis of North Korea intentions.

If Lindsay Graham is correct, Trump has crossed a mental Rubicon, the river of no return. Quoting (CNN) Lindsay Graham,

“You’re making the President pick between regional stability and homeland stability,” Graham said on “Today.” “There will be a war with North Korea over the missile program if they continue to try to hit America with an ICBM. (Trump has) told me that. I believe him.”

In the road to commit, the choice between U.S. security, and the costs incurred by others, particularly South Korea, has the greatest moral difficulty . If Graham is correct, Trump has surmounted this mental obstacle. The chief remaining obstacle is given by General Mattis,  in his statement that this would be the worst war we’ve seen since 1953. With Vietnam to compare, this is quite a statement.

So why can’t this be an air war, or a surgical intervention? North Korea’s missile industry/deployment complex is extensively hardened, buried in the mountainous terrain. A “mow the grass” strategy is possible, which would involve slowly digging out, or merely degrading the complexes as they become discoverable. This low intensity approach would be of indefinite duration. But two factors go against the lower intensity options.

Massive quantities of artillery are embedded in the mountains north of the DMZ, within range or partial range of Seoul. For decades, these guns have been the stuff of myth. They were formerly thought to be huge in number. They were impregnable except to counter battery fire,  When a gun fires, the projectile is tracked on radar, disclosing the gun position to retaliation, either by modern precision weapons, or by precisely aimed artillery. But the digging out process takes time, too slow, according to the myth, to prevent the flattening of Seoul.

More  recently, studies (see Nautilus) have replaced the myth with a a much smaller assessment of the damage these guns can do. But this is cold comfort. Mattis knows that unless the gun emplacements are physically occupied, the North Koreans will replenish the positions, and shell Seoul indefinitely.

And missiles, or other aerial methods are not the only way a rogue state can deliver. George Tenet fears unconventional delivery of nuclear weapons. I wrote about it in North Korea’s Plutonium, Iran’s Uranium / Suitcase Nukes. Aside from Tenet and myself,  the suitcase nuke is widely thought to be a myth. Or if they once existed, they have aged to the point of non functionality. But North Korea is in a unique position to refurbish them.

This increases concern related to: (CNN) US detects ‘highly unusual’ North Korean submarine activity’.  Quoting,

US officials also noted that a North Korean Sang-O submarine was operating in the Yellow Sea and the length of its deployment was notable. Two Romeo submarines were detected in the waters off Japan — each one operating in the area for about a week….


Carried out on land at Sinpo Naval Shipyard, Sunday’s ejection test is the third time this month — and fourth this year — that North Korea has conducted a trial of the missile component that is critical to developing submarine launch capabilities, according to the US defense official.

The ejection tests could be in the service of missile development, but could have an immediate sinister purpose. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how a nuclear device arrives at a target. Whether it is North Korea indigenous or suitcase refurb, It can be driven, smuggled, shipped, dropped in  the ocean and left to drift, or given it a little motor to help it along. It can be covered to make it look like flotsam. A missile tube is a very convenient way to deploy such a floating device from a submarine.

The opinion of General Mattis that this would be a serious conflict is likely related to this concern. While “mowing the grass”, or targeting infrastructure would frustrate further technological progress by North Korea, it would also create a festering desire by North Korea to blackmail, or for unsymmetrical retaliation, including the unconventional delivery of nuclear weapons.

This  prioritizes land occupation, for thorough accounting and destruction of nuclear facilities and materials. And this is likely why Diane Feinstein said,

“My reaction is that Lindsey Graham should get a classified briefing like the ones I have had,” the California Democrat told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “It is all classified. But we know much more about these weapons and where they are. And what the difficulties are. That’s all I can say.”

Feinstein likely learned that not everything can be hit from the air. Some things are buried too deep.  A nuclear reactor cannot be hit from the air once in operation, because of the likelihood of large releases of radioactive substances.

There certainly exist unconventional or nonlinear  possibilities that could change this fight into something less awful.   But we must assume the worst.

From Time Magazine:

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during World War II, he met with paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division in order to boost morale as D-Day drew ever closer. He must have known that the odds were stacked against his men — indeed, he expected the casualty rate for the 101st Airborne to run as high as 70%. “I’ve done all I can,” he’d told them. “Now it is up to you.” Later, as reported in Michael Korda’s biography Ike: An American Hero, Eisenhower stood on the roof of the nearby headquarters, with tears in his eyes, saluting each and every plane as it left for France.

I would like to say to General Mattis something like, “I share you pain.” But it’s impossible. For him, it’s personal.