Strategic Principles of Arms Control

  1. Arms racing is the suboptimal outcome of a prisoner’s dilemma (all competitors feel compelled to over purchase security).

  2. The prisoner’s dilemma is created by absence of coordination among competitors with a shared interest (states are better off planning for national security according to real rather than systemic considerations [though I’m not sure that the real/systemic distinction is tenable — at some point the system is the real]).

  3. Arms control is the coordination among strategic competitors that allows an escape from the best-bad outcome reasoning of a prisoner’s dilemma.

The Fourth Generation Warfare Reason to Ditch the “War on Terrorism” Analogy

Gulliver and the Lilliputians

After the underwear bomber incident, all together too many people are talking about how Yemen is now the central front of the war on terrorism and preemptive action is necessary and if Yemen’s dysfunctional government can’t do what needs to be done then the U.S. should step in and do it for them (as usual, Senator Lieberman can be counted on as the go-to guy for idiotic pronouncements here). To me the events of recent days really show what’s wrong with the U.S. reaction being dominated by the notion of a “war on terrorism,” and the superiority of the strategy of treating terrorism as an issue of law enforcement as enunciated by, among others, John Kerry throughout 2004.

What we’re facing is the classic squeezing a balloon problem: the United States can deploy 112,000 solders to Iraq and another 98,000 to Afghanistan, and thousands more throughout Central and Southeast Asia and in the Pacific Islands and the terrorists just pick up their laptops, sell their Range Rovers and relocate their operation to the Horn of Africa, or the outer reaches of the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile the U.S. is stuck for the next decade in whatever country owing to the weight of tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tones of heavy metal.

We are engaged in a fourth generation-type struggle with an opponent employing the classical tactics of asymmetric warfare. The object for the opponent on the presumptively disadvantaged side of the asymmetry is to adopt a strategy whereby the seeming advantages of the preponderant power are transformed into weaknesses. The war on terrorism is a contest of strategic dexterity and in this case the very weight, size and overwhelming capability of the U.S. military has become its greatest liability.

The game that has been played by al Qaeda et al. is that of miring the U.S. in regions of declining strategic importance. Terrorists are Lilliputians and the U.S. Gulliver. Only in this story Gulliver ties himself down. The Lilliputians only have to indicate where he should sink the stakes and he applies the lashes to himself.

While I am deeply skeptical of black ops, secret programs, plausible deniability, assassination, et cetera, I generally agree with the idea that the only time counter-terrorist actions should make the news is when something has gone wrong. The Predator drone and special forces operations that are being conducted along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border seems correct in conception, if still problematic in execution, to me. And of course this level of militarization is still awfully high. The FBI is the U.S. government agency with the largest presence abroad after the Pentagon and the State Department. Treasury is quickly following suite. Counter-terrorism should only become subject to special forces means under extreme circumstances. The rest of the time it should be dealt with by the various legal investigative agencies.

Whatever the case, our reaction to terrorism needs to be in kind: nimble, dynamic, human not territory oriented, multifaceted.

A strategic studies acquaintance commented the other day that he can’t wait for the reigning generation of the foreign policy establishment to retire, because they are a bunch of Cold War relics, mired in the mindset of a bygone era. The idea of stateless actors is beyond their comprehension. In this regard one of the most seminal moments in the U.S. reaction to mass-casualty terrorism was Paul Wolfowitz’s 13 September 2001 press conference, where he said the following (DoD News Briefing, The Pentagon, Arlington, VA):

I think one has to say it’s not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism. And that’s why it has to be a broad and sustained campaign. It’s not going to stop if a few criminals are taken care of.

I believe that in some ultimate sense Paul Wolfowitz has been right about Islamic extremism: that it is not our war, that we cannot fight it, that it is not a war that can be won in the realm of strictly materialist forces, but that it is a struggle of ideology, that it can only be settled among those most immediately concerned, that the most the U.S. can do is indirectly effect this outcome through the opening of a space where moderate, modernist, liberal Islam can flourish. This was Secretary Wolfowitz’s idea for Iraq: that it would become the Islamic “city on the hill.” That he could simultaneously have been so wrong makes Paul Wolfowitz one of the tragic figures of the post-11 September period.

But this idea, that states and territory are what is important, this was the commanding idea of the early Bush administration. But the strategy of militarily occupying every square mile of lawless territory on the Earth and engaging in nation building in every failed state is beyond our capability. It is how the strength of a great power will be sapped.

When Realpolitik and Principle Converge

Apropos my two previous posts about keeping non-proliferation goals in the mix with democracy permotion, Matthew Yglesias spells out the logic for why this is probably not tenable (“Engagement With a Post-Crackdown Iran,” Think Progress, 23 June 2009):

The hope behind an engagement strategy was that the Supreme Leader might be inclined to side with the more pragmatic actors inside the system — guys like former president Rafsanjani and former prime minister Mousavi. With those people, and most of the Iranian elites of their ilk, now in open opposition to the regime, any crackdown would almost by definition entail the sidelining of the people who might be interested in a deal. Iran would essentially be in the hands of the most hardline figures, people who just don’t seem interested in improving relations with other countries. Under the circumstances, the whole subject of American engagement may well wind up being moot.

So maybe the realpolitik and the principled position have converged here. All-in with the dissidents may be the only option that can produce progress on the nuclear issue at this point.

The Approaching Moment of Decision

A terrible moment of decision is rapidly approaching where the outcome of the revolution in Iran will be determined. It has been said — and I largely agree — that the fate of Iran is for the Iranians and there is little that the United States can do. But little is not nothing and should the prospects of the dissidents begin to dim, that little will become much greater in stature. The Obama administration faces a dilemma here — a real dilemma that leaders in the real world face (discouragingly, one must add this last qualification because on the right there is no acknowledgement that our means are limited and our objectives trade-off here). The United States presently has two objectives with respect to Iran:

  1. We would like to do reach an agreement regarding their nuclear program. The best situation would be that they abandon enrichment altogether, but one where they pursued a nuclear energy program, but verifiably ruled out weaponizing their nuclear material would suffice.

  2. We would like to see a liberalized, less theocratic Iran. This is in part the traditional, principled position of United States, but it is also practical. A liberal democratic Iran will have a moderating effect on the rest of the Middle East, that epicenter of that global war on terrorism that we are fighting. And a liberal democratic Iran will presumably be less likely to provide support to militant elements in Palestine.

Presumably if two obtains, that will be progress toward one. A new, popular, modernizing régime looking to distinguish itself from its predecessor will be much more willing to deal with the United States and the Obama administration will have much less problem with its domestic constituents in dealing with such an Iran.

Alternately, no matter what the United States does, should President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei succeeded in their bid to retain power, it will have become considerably more difficult for the President — any president for some time to come — to make progress on the nuclear issue. However, should the United States throw its weight behind the second objective and the Iranian dissidents fail, then the prospects for future progress on the nuclear issue will be even worse still than if we hadn’t — perhaps lost altogether. Not only will it be extremely difficult for any U.S. administration to deal with Iran, the Iranian government will return to the siege mentality of the 1980s and will perhaps — evidence that foreign powers will act to destroy the régime in hand — conclude that a nuclear deterrent is a necessity if the régime is to survive.

I have generally agreed with the position of restraint that the administration has taken. This is the Iranians’ struggle and strong words only make us feel puffed up — they do nothing for the Iranians. But that time may be coming to a close. Indications are that the Iranian government is moving with increasing forcefulness to suppress the dissidents. This is an effort that the government will win. Dissidents can route the police when it’s rocks versus batons. When the machine guns come out, it will be a different story. We cannot decide this conflict, but we can tilt the balance. The international community can make the government of Iranian aware that the consequences of suppressing its citizens extend beyond its own domestic politics. And perhaps — perhaps — this could bring them to the tipping point, or cause them to draw back from what they are about, or change the calculus of costs where a compromise solution becomes desirable.

But the United States and the Obama administration have to carefully weigh its principles and its objectives, its possibilities of success versus its consequences of failure. I’m not going to game it out here, but the range of options, consequences and rewards and probabilities attaching to each one should be fairly obvious. The nuclear issue is real and momentous and it would be terrible to sacrifice what possibility for progress exists chasing pie in the sky. But our principles are real too. It would be terrible for us to sacrifice them to cynical realpolitik over meager tactics when another world is possible. But not everything is possible and the future is uncertain. Judgment and luck are all that there is.

Note on a Leftist Apologia for Military Studies

I’m a leftist, though sufficiently idiosyncratic of one that many others so identifying look askance at such a claim on my part. One factor in my intellectual homelessness is that one of my primary concerns is the martial.

America abounds in the sort of gear head who revels in military tech divorced of any consideration of the context in which it came to be, or the kind of person who believes in honor and thrills at tales of gory sacrifice. The entire business model of the History Channel is built around bring together these people with endless re-edits of stock footage of the Second and Vietnam wars. I am not a person who so thrills. At this point, I intend to devote myself to issues military, but if I could turn my life into something greater than a few thousand calorie-a-day contribution to the heat death of the universe, it would be the first principle of the Charter of the United Nations, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

But the question remains, why the obsession with war? Why the minutia and the machines and the faux generalship?

The left has eschewed any consideration of the nuts and bolts of military issues in favor of wholesale condemnation, no further consideration required. The outcome of this position is that having nothing to say that resonates with voters is an abdication to the military thoughts of less scrupulous elements of the polity. In the hurly-burly of politics, time is the most scarce commodity. Having a plan at the ready when the moment strikes is the better part of victory in politics. And in those last three principles, operative to the determent of the left, can be found the whole explanation for the present imbroglio of the United States in the Middle East.

To effectively shunt war aside, the left must possess a minimum of military credibility. We must be able to deal with war in its own terms.

I think there is a Hegelian unfolding of the world spirit in the political-military happenings of the world where there is no around, only through (the truth of the flower is as much in the bud as the blossom). War will not halt, it can only be dampened. It is not merely enough to condemn nuclear weapons. It will be a varied and arduous road between world-ending arsenals and total disarmament. It is a road that must be plotted in detail, traversed along the whole of its track. There is no substitute for the compromising and half-measures of disarmament. To hate and fear something so much, one must also love it, revel and writhe in it.

Most consider strategy and military studies an entirely instrumental practice, whether pursued for the ends of national power, or for the excise of war as a scourge of humanity. I think there is more to it than that. There is something, many things, profound in war and violence.

In so far as society and its precepts are not optional, there is a continuity between force and violence and civilization. War is everywhere, even amidst peace. War is the substrate of peace. War is natural and peace an artifice.

What has me thinking in this direction is the excerpting by James Marcus (“Turning a Page,” History News Network, 5 November 2008) of a few lines from Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War:

It’s the close call you have to keep escaping from, the unending doubt that you have a right to your own life. It’s the corruption suffered by everyone who lives on, that henceforth they must wonder at the reason, and probe its justice.

Our thoughts on morality and justice, taken amidst the consolations of society, are pat and facile, so unfamiliar with the whole gamut of relevant circumstances of life are the majority of us. It is only from this side of the wall separating civilization from nature that someone could assert something so stupid as a right to life. Forces of the universe assert otherwise. Very few of us have been caused to fundamentally doubt this. And not merely to doubt in the abstract, but in the concrete of concrete: do I have a right to my life?

In the martial is more than machines and terrain and maneuver. There is a weltanschauung to be found there. It ought to be explicated.

The Singularity is Near

June 2008, Top Department of Energy Supercomputing Performance in Teraflops, RoadRunner tops one petaflop

Via ArmsControlWonk, the Department of Energy supercomputer called RoadRunner has become the first to achieve sustained petaflop performance. In scientific notation that’s 1015 floating operations per second. In little kid numbers that’s a thousand trillion floating operations per second (Lewis, Jeffrey, “RoadRunner,” 10 June 2008; “U.S. Department of Energy’s New Supercomputer is Fastest in the World,” U.S. Department of Energy press release, 9 June 2008).

The machine was built in conjunction with IBM. It consists of somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,500 compute nodes with each node consisting of two AMD dual core Opterons, four PowerXCell 8i processors for extra floating point capability and 24 GB of RAM. Overall the machine consists of 6,912 AMD Opterons, 12,960 IBM PowerXCell 8is and 80 terabytes of RAM. It will have access to a file server with 2,000 terabytes of hard disk storage. Roadrunner occupies approximately 12,000 square feet and cost $133 million. The AMD Opterons are a common desktop PC processor and the PowerXCell 8i is the processor from a Sony PlayStation 3. It runs RedHat Linux as its operating system. As Robin Harris from ZDNet points out, because the better part of this machine is off-the-shelf components, this really represents the commodification of supercomputing (“PS3 Chip Powers World’s Fastest Computer,” Storage Bits, ZDNet, 10 June 2008; “Roadrunner’s Backing Store,” StorageMojo, 11 June 2008).

RoadRunner will be housed at the at Los Alamos National Laboratory and will be used by the National Nuclear Security Administration to perform calculations to certify the reliability of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile through highly detailed simulation rather than conducting nuclear tests. Mr. Lewis at ArmsControlWonk has more on the implications of this for the U.S. nuclear testing regime. He points out that questions about the ability of the NNSA to certify the U.S. nuclear stockpile using simulation were a central issue in the Senate rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. So maybe reconsideration of the CTBT will be on the agenda for the next President and Congress?

But this is all detail. The important point is the graph of peak computing performance of DOE supercomputers. It is clear that the singularity is near.

As Mr. Lewis points out, the fastest supercomputer used in nuclear weapons simulations has, not coincidentally, historically also been the fastest supercomputer in the world. This tight coupling between computing and nuclear weapons is striking. It’s worth noting that the first computer, ENIAC, though not yet tethered to the nuclear establishment, was constructed during the Second World War for the purpose of calculating ballistics trajectory tables for Army artillery units. As J. Robert Oppenheimer said,

In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.

It is not just the physicists that have known sin. The computer scientists have known sin as well. From this coupling hithertoo, it should be fairly obvious that the first androids and the first general artificial intelligence will be military in purpose. That is, the first androids and the first general artificial intelligence will be innately aggressive.

The singularity is near. It is more likely that it will be a cataclysm than a boon.

Global Versus Bilateral Nuclear War: The Good News (And Some Bad)

People persist in saying things like that the post September 11th security environment makes us pine for the simpler, more straight forward time of the Cold War or that the nuclear danger is worse now. The simple answer is that one madman trying to smuggle a poorly constructed, untested, low-yield weapon into the United States is a word of improvement over the second most powerful country in the world with 30,000 high-yield weapons on hair-trigger alert.

But prospects are better in another way, even in the face of more widespread nuclear proliferation. Consider what would happen if there actually was a nuclear war. The Cold War was global, with each country having drawn a security perimeter and established hundreds of red lines. The United States and the Soviet Union had scores of counties under their nuclear umbrella through what was called extended deterrence. “Credibility” was on the line. The crossing of any red line by the other would have initiated an escalatory path that could have lead quickly to the outbreak of full scale nuclear war. And were war to ensue, the targets would be global, preemptory and without provocation. The SIOP up through the late Nixon administration called for the destruction of targets throughout the communist block, including Eastern Europe and China, regardless of the cause of war. If the Soviet Union invaded Saudi Arabia, we were going to destroy Beijing, Warsaw and Pyongyang later that day, no matter what. Similarly, if the United States went to war with China over Taiwan, the Soviet Union could have ended up destroying Paris, Tel Aviv and Ottawa.

People talk today as if North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Brazil or Argentina possessing or acquiring nuclear weapons is a cataclysmic problem. The fact is that these countries aren’t involved in global struggles with their strategic competitors. Were nuclear war to break out between any such pair, the target list would be limited not just by technological capability, but by political consideration. Were India and Pakistan to come to nuclear war over Kashmir or some other border dispute, they would concentrate their fire on one another. India may keep some weapons in reserve to prevent China from taking advantage of the situation, but they wouldn’t simultaneously launch attacks on 50 additional countries. Similarly, hypothetical hostilities between Israel and Iran would remain regional, provided a certain third power could keep a lid on its apocalyptic enthusiasms.

And this arrangement may be systematic. In the past, a war might have caused peripheral powers to come running to the conflagration, thinking that they too might have some interest served by tilting the outcome one way or the other. But nuclear war is so devastating that only powers with a direct mortal interest in the struggle would participate. Peripheral powers might be sent scrambling, doing everything in their power to cordon off and avoid involvement in such a struggle. They might be totally preoccupied with limiting the problems of fallout, refugees and other passive damage.

The bad news is that the nuclear danger has become much more chaotic and laden. The world is more shot-through with it. The good news is that should the danger be realized, the number of weapons and the portion of the world under threat in any particular conflict is significantly less. The potential for the escalation of any given nuclear war to global war has decreased. In other words, though the probability of war may have risen, the consequences have been greatly reduced.

The key to keeping these struggles and their potential wars limited and regional, is to avoid the trap of extended deterrence. External powers may feel tempted to try to manage these regional struggles by enhancing the deterrent power of one country over another. This should be avoided, for extended deterrence creates the network by which a regional problem spreads. It’s the geopolitical analogue to the problem of fourth generation warfare, where a weak adversary can use the tight systems integration of its stronger opponent as a force multiplier. An otherwise localized attack is spread far and wide by networks (e.g., power, communication, fuel distribution, etc.).

The Cold War was a worldwide ideological struggle between two powers whose reach spanned the globe. The strategy employed on both sides was the construction of a preponderant alliance and global encirclement. Extending deterrence to the pawns and over the battlefields of the world made sense. Kashmir is not such a situation. In trying to bring home the problem of extended deterrence, strategists used to ask, “Will the United States really trade New York for Paris?” The aim of the question was to underline the difficulty of asserting that the answer was “yes.” In the case of the question of whether the United States will trade Los Angeles for Riyadh, the answer should be easy: absolutely not. If Saudi Arabia and Iran destroy each other we will bare the burden of high energy prices before we risk the sting of losing a city.

What nuclear weapons do afford these regional powers is capability against their regional competitors, but also neutralization of an opponent’s network of allies; that is, deterrence against the involvement of external powers. And the primary external power that most nuclear aspirants have in mind is the United States.

That the United States will no longer be able to afford getting involved in every dispute, managing the strategic balance of every sector of the world, bending each to our advantage, is the real reason for the manic urgency of writers who see the likes of Iran and North Korea as such a problem. That it threatens U.S. global primacy is the cause for the hysteria. It is also the case for the urgency of a U.S. anti-missile system. ABM is the top-line U.S. primacy-preserving weapons system. Without it, U.S. hegemony withers and dies; with it, it can be extended a few more decades.

It is also the cause of the continuing enhancement of U.S. nuclear capabilities: global strike, the OPLANs, enhancements to yield, accuracy and fusing for hard-target kill, the reliable replacement warhead program. Whatever other factors idealists may identify, the hard calculation of interest and history — and the cynicism engendered of folly — suggests continued modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, even if carried out under the guise of numerical reduction. There is wide agreement that the current goal of the U.S. nuclear establishment is to achieve a high level of confidence in the conduct of a disarming first strike. And the political cause of this objective is to avoid being locked out of regional conflicts. These are not the tools of national security, but of continued meddling and foreign adventure.

The policy preferences of the United States are probably moot here, as the forces in play are larger than can be controlled by any country. We’re going to be run out of certain regions, whether gracefully or humiliatingly, like the British and the French after the Suez crisis of 1956. Most likely the latter. The notion of a unified global order is breaking down to one of regions, regional powers and internecine conflict. And nuclear weapons will be of a piece with this transformation.

(Sorry, the title promised good news with some bad as a caveat; it turned out to be mostly bad news. At least the whole world isn’t under threat all at once anymore!)