Tag Archives: Nuclear weapons

What to read on the Iran nuclear talks

Iran nuclear cartoon (The Economist)

A variety of perspectives on the Iranian nuclear talks from the past week:

Jeffrey Lewis (FP):

As best I can tell, under the original draft agreement, the Iranians committed not to bring the reactor online during the interim agreement. They could, however, continue to install equipment at Arak and manufacture fuel for the reactor, bringing it to the brink of operation during negotiations. The Iranians have now indicated that they are behind schedule, and will not have a load of fuel for the reactor before August 2014. In other words, the draft agreement would have allowed Iran to do everything it planned at Arak over the next six months, then start accumulating leverage in the form of plutonium if the terms of the deal were not acceptable …

The French have been here before — and with Hassan Rouhani. In 2004, Rouhani negotiated something called the “Paris Agreement” with the E3, under which the Iranians agreed to suspend their conversion and enrichment of uranium for a few months, while talks continued. The suspension was later extended. Although the suspension included “all tests or production at any uranium conversion installation,” Iran continued installing equipment at its Esfahan conversion facility. In fact, work never stopped. The commitment to refrain from tests or production was largely symbolic, since Iran was not yet ready to do either — it was still installing equipment. In 2005, when Iran was ready to start up the Uranium Conversion Facility at Esfahan, the talks stumbled. Iran indicated that it would continue to forego enrichment, but that it would begin the conversion process, producing uranium hexafluoride that could later be enriched. The Iranian talking point was that conversion was never really part of enrichment, anyway. The Europeans realized that the Iranians had gotten the better of them. Frustrated with Rouhani, the Europeans stalled to see whether the Iranian presidential election improved the negotiating environment. Surprise! The Iranians elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Upon taking office, Ahmadinejad replaced Rouhani and moved quickly to restart the nuclear program. Of course, he was able to do this because Rouhani had arranged the suspension to inflict the minimum delay. The Europeans were not very happy.

Bruno Tetrais (WPR):

So what are the real reasons for France’s Iran policy? The obvious ones are also the most important. Paris believes that a nuclear Iran would be a threat to Europe as well as to the Middle East … There is also a sense of ownership of the Iranian nuclear issue, in which Paris has been invested since June 2003, when it initiated European diplomacy with Tehran. Since then, a tough stance on the Iranian nuclear issue has been shared by all French negotiators and many experts; some of them have been dealing with Iran for a decade and hold important advisory positions today.

Also, compared to the United Kingdom and Germany, its European partners also involved in the talks, France has historically had a more cautious approach to the Iranian regime. This is informed by the brutal shadow war that opposed the two countries in the 1980s: The settlement of Shah-era financial disputes, French support for Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War and Paris’ preoccupation with the stability of Lebanon were all key reasons behind Iranian attacks against French interests at the time. Paris also vividly remembers the ill-fated deals struck with Tehran in 2003 and 2004, which failed to solve the nuclear crisis and are taken as evidence that Iran should not be trusted a priori.

Mark Fitzpatrick (IISS)

The debate in the nuclear areas is the most pronounced. The ‘inalienable right’ stated in Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes clashes with the controls applied by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and by UN Security Council resolutions directed against countries such as Iran. Article IV does not refer to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. The negotiating history shows that this omission was purposeful; several efforts to introduce explicit language were rejected …  Note that NPT Article III says safeguards should not hamper the international exchange of ‘equipment for the processing, use, or production of nuclear material’, which would mean enrichment and reprocessing. The passage would seem to rest on the premise that there is a right to such technologies. It is sometimes overlooked, however, that the rights in Article IV are conditional on conformity with the non-proliferation obligations of Articles I and II …

The proposal to Iran by China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, the US and the EU of 14 June 2008, which remains on the table, stated their readiness ‘to treat Iran’s nuclear programme in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear Weapon State Party to the NPT once international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme is restored’. Since no other party to the NPT (save for North Korea, whose NPT withdrawal is not universally accepted) is prohibited from developing enrichment and reprocessing, the conditional right to these technologies is implicit in the proposal. At some point in the negotiations, the six powers may wish to make this recognition explicit, and to specify what is required to restore international confidence … The most objective criteria would be faithful implementation of the safeguards Additional Protocol …

New York Times:

“I think there is a way to navigate it,” the senior administration official said when asked if a compromise might be found on Iran’s claim of a right to enrich uranium. The official did not detail the potential compromise. But one solution, Western diplomats say, would be for an interim accord to affirm that Iran would be entitled to all of the rights of signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iran and world powers would then agree to disagree on how to interpret that treaty. “I am sure that whatever gets agreed to in this document, Iran will argue that they have the right to enrichment,” the senior administration official said, referring to the interim accord now under negotiation. “And we will argue, as I am sure the document will make clear, that nothing has been agreed as to the final dimensions of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program once it can assure the international community that it is peaceful.”

Arash Karami (Iran Pulse):

Zarif said: “Iran’s right to enrichment does not need to be officially recognized because it is a right that according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty is an inseparable right. What we expect is respect for components of these rights. In the previous years, Iran has applied this right, but unfortunately it was not respected.” Rather, he added, it led to sanctions. “We have reached an extremely sensitive point of the negotiations and I don’t want to discuss the specifics,” Zarif said. “We have officially stated that enrichment certainly has to exist in any framework of an agreement; but how, what methods and where is an issue we are currently negotiating.” Zarif continued: “Not only do we see the right to enrichment as nonnegotiable, we do not see any necessity for it to be identified as a right, because this right is inseparable, and all of the countries should respect this.”

Sam Cutler (The National Interest):

Appearing on CNN’sState of the Union, Netanyahu warned that “if all of a sudden you take off the pressure, everybody will understand that you are heading south. You’re really going to be in danger of crumbling the sanctions regime.” However, the idea that firms would deliberately violate existing U.S. and EU sanctions, under the assumption that enforcement actions would not be forthcoming, stretches the bounds of credulity. Companies would need to unlearn the recent and painful lessons taught to them by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and state regulators such as the New York Department of Financial Services.

Under the terms of the purported interim deal, the U.S. would offer Iran under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including approximately $3 billion in Iranian oil proceeds held in escrow accounts as mandated by the 2012 Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act (IFCA). Sanctions on auto sales, petrochemicals, aircraft parts, and precious metals like gold would also be relaxed. The most devastating banking and oil sanctions, which have effectively cut Iran off from the global financial system, would remain in place pending a final deal … Any firm that rushed back into the Iranian market beyond the scope of existing sanctions would then be left with significant regulatory exposure, having to explain itself in a political atmosphere poisoned by the failure of the P5+1 talks. Newer, tougher sanctions would surely follow, along with calls to redouble efforts to identify and punish violators. Even if punishment would not be immediate in every case, the international business community knows that OFAC has a long memory. The massive penalties levied in recent years were not usually the result of recent actions; for the most part, these fines were in response to offenses that occurred years earlier.

Robert Einhorn (Brookings):

Some members, wanting to be constructive, suggest that, instead of imposing new sanctions immediately, Congress should enact a law that provides for tough new sanctions but delays their imposition for several months to see if diplomacy succeeds. According to supporters, this approach would provide the necessary leverage without lowering the boom unless it becomes necessary. While this approach is neat in theory, Tehran is unlikely to grasp the nuance. Iranian opponents of a deal, and there are many, will argue that this would amount to negotiating with a gun to their heads, and they could succeed in reining in Iran’s negotiators and sabotaging any likelihood of a deal. Members of Congress should keep in mind that existing sanctions are having a devastating impact on Iran’s economy and providing plenty of incentives for Iran to reach agreement on terms acceptable to us. Still harsher sanctions will not add decisively to that leverage, but they run the risk of undermining the talks and increasing the difficulty of sustaining broad international support for sanctions.

Daryl Kimball (Arms Control Today):

But in the absence of a meaningful, realistic deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program, Iran will likely continue to increase its capacity to enrich uranium and expand its other sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle projects. That, in turn, will increase the risk of Israeli military strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites. Such an attack would only delay, not stop, Iran’s nuclear pursuits, would lead to a wider Middle East war, and likely push Iran’s leaders to openly seek the bomb. In the absence of a negotiated “first phase” agreement to pause Iran’s nuclear program, some U.S. legislators may seek further sanctions against Iran, but such sanctions would take many months to have an effect, they could strain international support for implementing the existing sanction regime, and such efforts would not halt or eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons potential. Now is the time to finally secure a meaningful first phase agreement and quickly move to negotiate a longer-term final phase agreement on the basis of realistic and achievable goals.

Emily Landau and Michael Herzog (BICOM):

However, the interim six month deal is likely to create a platform for continued arguing with the Iranians over every article and clause within the interim agreement. There is a likely danger that as a result of arguing over clauses in the interim agreement, negotiators will be distracted from fixing the parameters for a permanent agreement …

Whilst it is clear the Iranians know what they want, the P5+1 powers have failed to agree among themselves on a clearly defined endgame to the talks. Certainly there is no agreement with regional actors such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and others. The P5+1 should have started with a defined end game and the interim deal should work towards it, but this has not happened. For instance, with regard to the Plutonium reactor at Arak, if the endgame is that Iran should have no Plutonium reactor, then why negotiate over its construction? …

If there is an interim six month deal, Israel can do very little about it for now. It will likely fix its sight on the end of the six month period. If there is an endgame deal after six months, Israel will evaluate it and make its decisions. If there is no deal after six months, Israel will be in a position to say it gave the process a chance but it failed, and that it can rely on diplomacy no longer.


[Outgoing NSA] Mr [Yaakov] Amidror, when asked whether Israel’s military capability included the ability to strike Iran’s underground nuclear installations, said: “including everything”, but declined to elaborate. “We are not bluffing,” Mr Amidror said. “We are very serious – preparing ourselves for the possibility that Israel will have to defend itself by itself.” He said Israel’s preparations for possible conflict included long-range flights to ready Israeli pilots for possible missions to Iran. “From here to Iran, it is 2,000km, and you have to be familiar with such destinations,” Mr Amidror said. He added: “All those who have radar cover of the Middle East know what we are doing.” He said that the flights had been taking place “for a few years”.

And, a crazy one to end on … Uzi Mahnaimi (Sunday Times):

As part of the growing co-operation, Riyadh is understood already to have given the go-ahead for Israeli planes to use its airspace in the event of an attack on Iran. Both sides are now prepared to go much further. The Sunni kingdom is as alarmed as Israel by the nuclear ambitions of the Shi’ite-dominated Iran. “Once the Geneva agreement is signed, the military option will be back on the table. The Saudis are furious and are willing to give Israel all the help it needs,” said a diplomatic source. The source added that Saudi co-operation over the use of rescue helicopters, tanker planes and drones would greatly assist an Israeli raid.

The context to the Saudi-Pakistan nuclear relationship

On Tuesday, the BBC’s Mark Urban cited a ‘a senior Nato decision maker’ who ‘had seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery’, and that this reporting was based on ‘Israeli information’. I am largely sceptical of this latest reporting, not least because Saudi Arabia has every incentive to play up this issue as nuclear diplomacy with Iran advances. Julian Borger has a good piece to that end.

Nevertheless many people are unfamiliar with the extent of security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. David Kenner yesterday reported that Saudi Arabia sought Pakistani assistance in training two brigades of Syrian rebels, although it was earlier reported by Yezid Sayigh that Pakistan had been ‘reluctant or unable to meet a previous Saudi request to provide special forces training’.

But the relationship goes back a long way. Pakistan assisted the Royal Saudi Air Force to build and pilot its first jet fighters in the 1960s, and Pakistani personnel flew Saudi aircraft during a Yemeni cross-border war in 1969.[i] In subsequent decades, as many as 15,000 Pakistani troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia, ‘some in a brigade combat force near the Israeli-Jordanian-Saudi border’.[ii] In 1986, Pakistan’s Saudi presence comprised one division (roughly 13,000 troops), two armoured and two artillery brigades (approximately 10,000 troops), along with naval and air force personnel.[iii] Pakistani forces reportedly ‘fill[ed] out most of the 12th Saudi Armored Brigade’ based at Tabuk.[iv] This brigade reportedly left in 1988, after Saudi Arabia demanded that Pakistan send only Sunni personnel.[v] It is unclear how many Pakistani personnel remain in Saudi Arabia, but Pakistan does provide assistance and personnel to Bahrain and to other GCC members for internal security.[vi]

For a fuller account of this and the nuclear dimension to the relationship, I look at the issue in some depth in my RUSI Whitehall Paper on Iran Permanent Crisis, available here. A short extract of the relevant pages is available here (PDF).

[i] Nadav Safran, Saudi Arabia: The Ceaseless Quest for Security (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 202.

[ii] Bruce Riedel, ‘Saudi Arabia: Nervously Watching Pakistan’, Brookings Institution, 28 January 2008.

[iii] C Christine Fair, ‘Has the Pakistan Army Islamized? What the Data Suggest’, Working Paper 2011-13, Mortara Center for International Studies, Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, September 2011.

[iv] Anthony H Cordesman, Western Strategic Interests in Saudi Arabia (London: Taylor and Francis, 1987), p. 139.

[v] C Christine Fair, Pakistan: Can the United States Secure an Insecure State? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010), p. 121. Thomas Lippman claims that the forces left because ‘oil prices hit historic lows and the Saudis could no longer afford them’; see Thomas W Lippman, ‘Nuclear Weapons and Saudi Strategy’, Middle East Institute Policy Brief No. 5, January 2008, p. 8.

[vi] Mujib Mashal, ‘Pakistani Troops Aid Bahrain’s Crackdown’, Al Jazeera, 30 July 2011.

The Afghan Missile Crisis (That Wasn’t)

From the Washington Post, on 11 November 2001:

Pakistani fears of an Indian attack on its nuclear sites were so great in the summer of 1999, after Pakistani-supported guerrillas invaded Indian territory, that military officers here secretly contacted Taliban officials about the possibility of moving some nuclear assets westward to neighboring Afghanistan for safekeeping, according to a recently retired Pakistani general officer familiar with the talks.

”The option was actively discussed with the Taliban after some indications emerged that India may open hostilities at the eastern border,” the retired official said. ‘‘The Taliban accepted the requests with open arms.”

The former official said the talks were ”exploratory” and said that no nuclear-related assets were placed in Afghanistan. At the time, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services had close relations with the Taliban, providing training, weapons and other support.

The story appears not to have been corroborated by other outlets, and it doesn’t have a named byline. I can’t find anything on this episode in the authoritative books on Kargil. But an interesting counterfactual: what if the nuclear weapons had been present in Afghanistan in September 2001? 

Trident Alternatives Review: a summary

Despite opposition from the Ministry of Defence, the Trident Alternatives Review (PDF) has been published. It looks at alternative systems and postures for the UK’s nuclear weapons. Some key passages:

The menu with prices:

Trident alternative costs

Comparing costs: notice the big yellow chunks.

Why non-Trident alternatives cost so much:

The cost driver for the Trident missile options is the construction of the SSBN submarines: we already have the missiles and the cost of designing and producing a new Trident warhead is judged smaller and less risky than any other option. The cost driver for all non-Trident based options is the warhead. Not only is the cost of a new warhead for a cruise missile or free-fall bomb very considerable (£8-10Bn, compared to £4Bn for a new Trident warhead, all at 50% confidence), but the length of time it is judged to take means that 2 new Successor SSBNs need to be constructed to fill the gap before a cruise-based deterrent is available. It is the need for these 2 Successor SSBNs that makes the cost of the alternatives more expensive overall than a 3 or 4-boat Successor SSBN fleet. Even if they were not needed, all options considered other than the Successor options would require additional submarine orders to avoid the loss of the UK‟s sovereign capability to build future submarines. (p8) … transitioning to any of the realistic alternative systems is now more expensive than a 3 or 4-boat Successor SSBN fleet. (p11; see also pp44-46)

Other implications of a cruise missile based system:

Operating a cruise missile-based system is likely to require the UK to deploy nuclear capable systems in different geographical regions than it does today, potentially requiring third party agreement. Any uncertainty about the UK‟s sovereign ability to use its deterrent would diminish the deterrent effect. There are no legal constraints in relation to international airspace and international waters. Forward basing is not permissible if the proposed location is within a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. (p9) … Whether the cruise missile-based systems amount to a credible alternative to Trident would depend on a political judgment on whether the UK was prepared to accept: a reduction in whom it could deter unilaterally in all circumstances (major nuclear powers might only be deterred if UK acted with its nuclear allies); a significant increase in the vulnerability of any alternative system compared with an SSBN (as a result of not being able to deploy covertly and/or not being able to sustain an assured second strike capability through-life); and significantly increased operational complexity, especially if Forward Operating Bases were required. (p10)

The key judgements therefore revolve around how long a future crisis that engaged the UK‟s nuclear deterrent might last and in extremis whether it would be acceptable to rely upon collective deterrence in any situation in which the UK‟s deterrent was not available. (p24)

For the maritime options, “choke points” become a critical factor in determining the route nuclear-armed platforms might take. There would be significant force protection and diplomatic challenges with attempting to pass through them and, therefore, they would probably need to be avoided. Similar constraints for replenishing supplies/crew in overseas ports would be faced, unless an ally or third party was willing to permit entry to their territory. As such, routing and basing becomes difficult for nuclear-armed platforms, particularly at a time of heightened tension. These constraints have a considerable impact on the logistical and maintenance burden associated with sustaining a nuclear presence at distance from the UK. The diplomatic impact of creating a Forward Operating Base to help ease the burden and its vulnerability to disruption or attack would need detailed consideration. (p28)

Issues with using fewer boats and abandoning Continuous At-Sea Deterrence (CASD):

Choosing to operate the SSBNs in a non-continuous posture depends upon the level of political confidence that: a potential aggressor would not launch a no-notice pre-emptive attack when the UK was at a lower posture with no boat deployed; that, with sufficient warning, the UK could re-constitute back-to-back patrolling before a potential period of heightened tension arises (covering the availability of equipment and suitably trained and motivated civilian, military and industrial personnel); and that such back-to-back patrols could then be sustained long enough to cover any emergent crisis. (p10)

Operating a non-continuous posture might theoretically be an incentive to conduct a first strike on the UK aimed at preventing the UK from being able to deploy its nuclear forces, but the potential adversary would need to be sufficiently certain that the UK would have no remaining capability and that our allies would not come to our aid. (p32)

The issue of readiness:

The readiness of UK nuclear forces becomes more critical as hostilities rise. Changing the readiness of forces during a crisis can be challenging. Whether intended or otherwise, an adversary could perceive changes in posture or readiness as a sign of firm hostile intent. As a result, changes in posture in a crisis could contribute to miscalculation. Because of the fear of how changes might be perceived by an adversary, a government could find itself inhibited. This is not unique to alternative systems, however. This problem applies to all non-continuous postures. (p23)

The end of Mutually Assured Destruction?

Via Matt Fay, a very concise statement (PDF) of Daryl Press’ and Keir Lieber’s arguments regarding the end of nuclear “stalemate”, published in the Strategic Studies Quarterly:

[T]he same revolution in accuracy that has transformed conventional warfare has had equally momentous consequences for nuclear weapons and deterrence. Very accurate delivery systems, new reconnaissance technologies, and the downsizing of arsenals from Cold War levels have made both conventional and nuclear counterforce strikes against nuclear arsenals much more feasible than ever before. Perhaps most surprising, pairing highly accurate delivery systems with nuclear weapons permits target strategies that would create virtually no radioactive fallout, hence, vastly reduced fatalities. (p3)

The same models that were used during the Cold War to demonstrate the inescapability of stalemate—the condition of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD—now suggested that even the large Russian arsenal could be destroyed in a disarming strike. Furthermore, the dramatic leap in accuracy—which is the foundation for effective counterforce—is based on widely available technologies within reach of other nuclear-armed states, including Russia, China, Pakistan, and others. (p4)

And why counterforce is a desirable capability:

Fielding powerful counterforce weapons may help deter adversary escalation during war— by convincing enemy leaders to choose a “golden parachute” rather than escalation—and would give US leaders better response options if deterrence failed … the United States should retain and develop nuclear weapons that bring together three key characteristics of counterforce: high accuracy, flexible yield, and prompt delivery (p7)

(An aside: ‘High accuracy, flexible yield, and prompt delivery’ certainly characterizes the direction in which South Asian arsenals are headed, even if at a crawl)

Richard Betts on deterrence, Iran, and ambiguity

Richard Betts, in a long Foreign Affairs essay on deterrence, talks about Iran:

Nevertheless, rather than planning to deter a prospective Iranian nuclear arsenal, the United States and Israel have preferred preventive war. Although many still hope to turn Iran away from nuclear weapons through sanctions and diplomacy, the debate within and between the United States and Israel over what to do if Iran moves to produce a bomb is about not whether to attack but when. U.S. President Barack Obama has firmly declared that he has not a “policy of containment” but rather “a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” and other administration officials have repeatedly emphasized this point. As promises in foreign policy go, this one is chiseled in stone. Backing down from it when the time comes would be the right thing to do but would represent an embarrassing retreat.

The logic behind rejecting deterrence is that Tehran might decide to use nuclear weapons despite facing devastating retaliation. The risk can never be reduced to zero, but there is no reason to believe that Iran poses more danger than other nasty regimes that have already developed nuclear weapons. The most telling example is North Korea. Although the American public has not paid nearly as much attention to North Korea, Pyongyang’s record of fanatical belligerence and terrorist behavior over the years has been far worse than Tehran’s.

Refusing to accept an iota of risk from Iran ignores the massive risks of the alternative of initiating war. Leaving aside the danger of being blind-sided by unanticipated forms of Iranian reprisal — for example, the use of biological weapons — the obvious risks include Iranian retaliation by overt or covert military means against U.S. assets. The results of the initially successful assault on Iraq in 2003 are a reminder that wars the United States starts do not necessarily end when and how it wants them to. Indeed, the records of the United States and Israel suggest that both countries tend to underestimate the prospective costs of the wars they enter. Washington paid fewer costs than expected during the Gulf War but faced a far higher bill than anticipated in Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the second war against Iraq. Israel suffered less in the 1967 Six-Day War than expected but was badly surprised by the costs of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon war, and the 2006 war against Hezbollah.

Launching a war against Iran would also have negative spillover effects. First and foremost, short of an accompanying ground invasion and occupation, an air attack could not guarantee an end to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons; it could guarantee only a delay and would almost certainly drive the Iranians to commit more fervently to building a bomb. If Iran’s capabilities were only temporarily degraded but its intentions were inflamed, the threat might become worse. Striking first would also fracture the international coalition that now stands behind sanctions against Iran, undercut opposition to the regime inside the country, and be seen throughout the world as another case of arrogant American aggression against Muslims.

Those costs might seem justifiable if launching a war against Iran dissuaded other countries from attempting to get their own nuclear deterrents. But it might just as well energize such efforts. George W. Bush’s war to prevent Iraq from getting nuclear weapons did not dissuade North Korea, which went on to test its own weapons a few years later, nor did it turn Iran away. It may have induced Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi to surrender his nuclear program, but a few years later, his reward from Washington turned out to be overthrow and death — hardly an encouraging lesson for U.S. adversaries about the wisdom of renouncing nuclear weapons.

One reason U.S. leaders might be reluctant to apply deterrence these days is that the strategy’s most potent form — the threat to annihilate an enemy’s economy and population in retaliation — is no longer deemed legitimate [...] But that inhibition should hardly be a reason to prefer starting a war, nor does it cripple deterrence. An acceptable variant would be to threaten not to annihilate Iran’s population but to annihilate its regime — the leaders, security agencies, and assets of the Iranian government — if it used nuclear weapons. Although in practice, even a discriminating counterattack of that kind would result in plenty of collateral damage, U.S. planners could credibly make the threat and could reinforce it by pledging to invade Iran as well — a step that would be far more reasonable to take after an Iranian nuclear strike than it was against Iraq in 2003. And even if legal concerns constrained the United States from massively retaliating against Iranian civilians, Israeli leaders would surely be willing to do so if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, since Israel’s national existence would be at stake. Those mutually reinforcing threats — that the fruits of the Iranian Revolution and even Iranian society itself would cease to exist — would be an overwhelming restraint on Tehran.

A nuclear-armed Iran is an alarming prospect. But there is no sure solution to some dangers, and this challenge presents a strategic choice between different risks. There is simply no real evidence that war with Iran would yield any more safety than handling the problem with good old deterrence.

Fine as far as it goes, but it misses what is now the more relevant debate over what will happen if Iran stays below the American red line in perpetuity.

Last week, The Economist reported that “[Obama] has told [Netanyahu] that America is now closer to the threshold for taking such a step” – that step being “an ultimatum to Iran that it must reach a deal on halting enrichment within months or face military action” – and “that he [Obama] is not prepared to allow diplomatic negotiations to run beyond this year without a big change in Iran’s attitude”.

If that is so, and I am somewhat sceptical that Obama would have been so committal, then we run into a problem identified by Betts earlier in his essay:  “the deterrent warning must be loud and clear, so the target cannot misread it. Deterrence should be ambiguous only if it is a bluff”.

Iran is unlikely to take any obvious steps towards weaponisation – say, enrichment beyond 20% or the expulsion of inspectors. So what will that ultimatum look like? There will be considerable ambiguity over where other red lines should be drawn if the talks fail and Iran continues its nuclear advances: introduction of IR2s at Fordow? A certain number of cascades?

This ambiguity may even be realistically irresolvable. Setting a specific date, as Israel wants and The Economist suggests might have occurred, is deeply problematic: true, it is unambiguous (2014 comes when it comes), but it is also entirely non-credible, because Iran could temporarily trim down capabilities, undercut the objective basis for any military action, and slowly build back up to those levels.

More likely is a Schelling-esque approach: that the trigger for any future red line(s) is unambiguous (a specific date) but that the response is left ambiguous. But this still leaves open the possibility that, as Betts warns, Iran interprets this as a bluff.

Nuclear strategy and deterrence stability in Asia

Two new papers on South Asian nuclear weapons, both part of a Stimson series.


Michael Krepon’s Pakistan’s Nuclear Strategy and Deterrence Stability is a stock-take of Pakistan’s nuclear forces:

The pacing and output of these programs suggest that it will be increasingly difficult for Pakistani (and Indian) spokespersons to assert that they will not engage in an arms race. The Pakistan-India dynamic is certainly the most pronounced nuclear competition since the Cold War ended, made even more complicated because New Delhi must factor in China’s nuclear weapon-related capabilities. Since Beijing’s nuclear posture can be affected by US ballistic missile defense programs, the interactive nature of the nuclear competition in southern Asia is even more complex and difficult to dampen than during the Cold War (p.15) [...] If reports are true that Pakistan is leading India in warhead numbers and operationally-ready missiles, and if the stewards of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal continue along current programming trajectories, New Delhi is likely to accelerate stockpile growth and hasten the transfer of missile programs from the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to the military services (p.5)

On Pakistan’s red-lines:

[T]he most likely threshold for first use relates to significant losses of Pakistani combat aircraft in the event of hostilities. There are several reasons for this conjecture. The disparity in purchasing power between the Indian and Pakistani Air Forces is particularly evident, and the timelines for growing disparity in this sector are shorter than with respect to ground forces. Moreover, Indian leaders may be more inclined to use airpower than ground forces if faced with another highly provocative mass-casualty attack by members of a group with a history of connectivity to Pakistan’s intelligence services (p.12)

On Pakistani tactical nuclear weapons:

[H]owever one calculates the lay-down of tactical nuclear weapons against tanks in the field, requirements appear to be expansive, as well as a poor allocation of plutonium, even for Pakistan’s expanded production capacity. Moreover, Pakistan lacks the real-time surveillance capabilities to destroy armored columns, except where they are funneling into bridge crossings of water barriers (p.20)

On Pakistan’s higher nuclear management:

Pakistan’s nuclear requirements are set by very few military officers and one retired officer, Gen. Kidwai, with very little civilian oversight or ability to question military requirements. This absence of checks and balances is reminiscent of the Pentagon’s nuclear planning until the arrival of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Alain Enthoven, and the “whiz kids” in 1961. The civilian whiz kids have yet to arrive in Pakistan. (p.25)

On crisis management:

The probability of Indian military ripostes and Pakistan’s first use of nuclear weapons would be reduced considerably if Pakistan’s military and intelligence services undertook greater efforts to prevent triggering events. (p.12) [...] While Pakistani leaders no longer trust the United States as an intermediary with India, no substitute to Washington is in clear view. Crisis management could therefore become even more challenging in the event of more spectacular attacks on Indian targets by individuals based and trained in Pakistan. (p. 30)


The second paper, The Non-Unitary Model and Deterrence Stability in South Asia by George Perkovich, historian of India’s nuclear weapons, picks up on the question of nuclear crises induced by terrorist attacks:

If in fact Pakistani authorities do exert influence or control over organizations that have conducted terrorist operations in India (and elsewhere) and are merely denying it for tactical reasons, Pakistani authorities can fairly be treated as the authors of the signals that are sent by these actors. India can then seek to manage pre-conflict and intra-conflict deterrence according to the traditional model, while still facing severe challenges of escalation control [...] The graver problem arises if and when Pakistani leaders are not in control of the perpetrators of violence emanating from Pakistani territory. In that case, when faced with an attack, India would conclude that deterrence had failed or was inapplicable, but that if India did not retaliate, it would encourage further attacks and do nothing to compel Pakistani leaders to assert control over violent actors. But if India did retaliate, Pakistani leaders, feeling that they had not authorized aggression against India, would feel that India was initiating war. It is widely recognized that victims of aggression – defenders – are more highly motivated to retaliate because they have suffered an injustice. Knowing this, Pakistani defenders would feel that their threats to escalate in response to an Indian attack would be more credible than if they had been the initiators of the conflict. Indians, of course, would feel that this logic rewards Pakistani authorities for not exercising a monopoly on the legitimate use of force emanating from their territory, precisely the situation they want Pakistan to correct. (pp.13-14) [...] “because leaders of adversarial states must put any immediate conflict in the context of longer-term relations, they must think how their action or inaction today could raise or lower the risk of inviting more violence from the adversary in the future. Thus, forbearing counter-attack in one crisis, can be seen to weaken deterrence of future violence” (p.8)

On state unity and rationality:

The rationality requirement in deterrence is obviously challenged if and when terrorists, nihilists, or ecstatically violent actors are the opponent. A core assumption of rationality in nuclear deterrence is that actors seek self-preservation. Terrorists do not generally fit this model. Nor do state leaders who are unwilling or unable to control terrorists or who are willing to “bring down their own house” if in the process they can destroy their enemies (pp.6-7)

The most important part of Perkovich’s paper is the question of how Pakistan could limit what Krepon called “triggering events”, and how Pakistani steps might in the future be verified:

Moreover, if they decided to do so [crack down on jihadists] without careful preparations and public education, they would prompt attacks against the security establishment itself, as happened after the operation against the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007. Fortunately, Indian (and American) officials recognize the latter problem. What they most want is for Pakistani leaders to demonstrate not only in words but also in constant deeds a determination to delegitimize violence against India and arrest and prosecute actors who violate the law. Perfection in accomplishing this objective would not be expected, but clear and uncompromising effort would be. (p.15)

On verification:

Even if Pakistan were prepared to commit itself genuinely to make all feasible efforts to curtail the actions of groups that seek to export violence, what are reasonable ways to verify this commitment? This is extremely important insofar as it is possible that even in the midst of concerted state efforts to “disarm” militant actors some may persist and carry out attacks. To maintain stability, the recipient of such attacks (and the international community) would need some basis for judging that the attacks did not reflect the intention of the state whence the attackers originated (p.22)

And, finally, on the scale of the threat:

The challenge is enormous, obviously, but it is not impossible due to the vital fact that India does not harbor offensive intentions toward Pakistan. India does not covet territory that Pakistan controls. India does not wish for Pakistan to be dismembered. Indian leaders recognize that it is in their country’s interest for Pakistan to develop economically, to democratize politically, and to live in peace. India does not want Pakistan’s problems to spill over into its territory or restive Muslim populations. The two countries diverge in their visions for an ideal political outcome in Afghanistan, but could settle for an Afghan state that does not allow itself to be a base for hostile actions against Pakistan and India. The fundamental point is that India will not be a military or security threat to Pakistan if Pakistan will cease pursuing offensive strategies (albeit of a low-intensity nature) against it. (p.19)

All in all, a thoughtful paper. But I cant help but feel that one of the clauses – “if in fact Pakistani authorities do exert influence or control over organizations that have conducted terrorist operations in India” – is a little redundant, and that the underlying premise of “non-unitariness” is therefore a dubious one.

I can’t imagine any serious scholar or analyst who would suggest that Pakistani authorities do not, at the least, “exert influence” over the relevant groups. The more interesting discussion pertains to, first, the cost of changing that relationship (I can’t think of an academic paper on this subject) and, second, the scale of policy shift that would be necessary to persuade the US and India that a “de-coupling” had in fact taken place (i.e., that this really was a non-unitary state). As of now, we’re a long way off.


Pakistan, NATO, and tactical nuclear weapons: two of a kind?

The Davy Crockett tactical nuclear weapon, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in March 1961.

There has been growing interest in Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapons. Here’s Gurmeet Kanwal:

The Pakistan army’s continuing efforts to arm the 60-km Hatf-9 (Nasr) short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) with nuclear warheads will adversely impact deterrence stability on the Indian subcontinent as tactical nuclear weapons are inherently destabilising and invariably escalatory. The Nasr missile was first tested in April 2011 and then again in May 2012 and is reported to be a replica of the Chinese M-20.

On this subject, see also A.H. Nayyar and Zia Mian from 2010, Jeffrey Lewis and Rajesh Basrur last year, and Michael Krepon. The rationale for Pakistan’s use of such weapons is familiar to most, and often invokes NATO’s nuclear doctrine. It is worth understanding how exactly NATO’s nuclear thinking applies to Pakistan, and what this implies for how its arsenal might develop and how India might respond to this.

The most lucid explanation of NATO’s doctrinal precepts are to be found in the late Michael Quinlan’s 1997 RUSI Whitehall Paper, Thinking About Nuclear Weapons. Its available free online, and formed part of a longer book in 2009 (the book includes a chapter on India and Pakistan). The bolded sentences highlight the parts most strikingly relevant to Pakistan today:

Especially, though not only in the particular setting of the Cold War confrontation, plans and capabilities have had to provide options for use that could be credible; and this has meant, for example, developing weapons of greater accuracy and lower yield, and plans for more limited use and more constrained targeting, than might feature in an uncontrolled apocalyptic holocaust


The [NATO nuclear] doctrine was built around the Alliance’s strategic concept of flexible response, formulated during the 1960s. That concept has been much misunderstood and even caricatured. It did not, for example, envisage a pre-determined sequence of moves – an ‘escalation ladder’ – to be followed in the face of aggression; and though it did not rule out first use or early use of nuclear weapons, it was far from prescribing or assuming either. The core of the concept was always the timely use of the minimum force, whether conventional or nuclear, adequate to deny an aggressor success in his objective. Aggression against so broad and diverse an entity as the North Atlantic Alliance could have a wide variety of forms and scales; and providing a capability for apt and credible application of minimum effective force to fit any scenario therefore meant that there had to be plainly available a substantial range of military options from which the Alliance could choose both for initial resistance and for how best to proceed if the first option did not succeed. A narrow set of prescriptions for response, or a rigid doctrine for the order or number of follow-on options to be entertained, would have been the antithesis of flexibility, at odds both with the realities of the Alliance’s political, geographical and strategic diversity and with the deterrent merit of uncertainty.

NATO thinking was always clear that a major conflict was not to be conducted in sealed compartments, whether of territory or of force category, and still less in sealed compartments imposed by an aggressor to suit his strengths and preferences. The idea of possible escalation, in the sense of being ready to change the terms of the encounter in scope or intensity beyond what the aggressor had chosen, was essential, But NATO recognised also that the prospect of having abruptly to cross a wide gulf in these respects could scarcely be either acceptable to its own peoples or credible to a determined adversary. Deterrence required making it as hard as possible for any adversary to form the view that NATO would shrink from decisions on raising the conflict’s intensity, or to dare act on such a view.

The range of options available must therefore be an unmistakable continuum without huge gaps. That in turn meant that there had to be nuclear forces, backed by will and doctrine for their possible use, intermediate between conventional forces (NATO had no large offensive chemical armoury) and the ultimate strategic nuclear capability - the more so since, especially in the earlier days, that capability often entailed high weapon yield, low accuracy and uncertain penetrativity, so that precisely-limited use might not have been easy. From NATO’s inception the judgement was widely accepted that NATO’s non-nuclear forces might find themselves unable to repel or even arrest a large-scale and determined attack upon NATO territory. NATO, as a grouping of free sovereign states, could not espouse plans envisaging the ready surrender of any member’s territory and must therefore adopt a posture – ‘forward defence’ – that was was by no means optimal for military effectiveness.

Besides the overwhelming general fact of virtually inexhaustible destructive power in the hands of the postulated adversary, substantial studies of possible scenarios brought out – in retrospect, unsurprisingly – a more particular conclusion: that if, finding itself losing in a conventional conflict in Europe, NATO were to use nuclear weapons for military effect and the adversary then responded more or less symmetrically, it must be expected (with all due allowance for the uncertainty in such evaluations) that NATO would still, save perhaps in one or two narrowly specialised settings, find itself losing. In other words, NATO could not count on its nuclear weapons to substitute military victory for military defeat.

Recognition of this conclusion infused the work of the NPG [Nuclear Policy Group] for most of the later years of the Cold War. NATO nuclear doctrine had to concentrate upon the use of weapons to convey effectively to the adversary the message that he had mistaken NATO’s political tolerance and underrated NATO’s will to resist, and that for his own survival he must therefore back off. Much NPG work centred upon questions of targeting principle (it did not attempt detailed target selection) to fulfil this basic war-termination concept. The purpose would inherently be to convey a political message and induce a political response; but it was generally accepted that achieving this would require action with some substantial material effect going beyond just the shock, severe though that might be in first use, inherent in any nuclear action. ‘No-target’ demonstration – the detonation of a weapon over the Baltic, say – was occasionally canvassed, and the option continued to be recognised; but it found little real support. It was judged, surely rightly, that this might well suggest precisely a lack of the tough resolve that it would be the whole aim of the action to demonstrate. The heart of the judgement required would be to find the right balance between doing too little to drive home the message and doing so much as to provoke a ferocious reaction in rage or spasm.

It was usually thought that for most situations targets should preferably, though not with absolute necessity, be military ones with some bearing upon the non-nuclear operations in progress, so that the aggressor could not immediately sustain those operations unchecked but would be compelled at least to pause and address fresh and dangerous decisions.


One such consideration held that non-strategic war-termination strike (or ‘pre-strategic’ or ‘tactical’ or ‘theatre’ strike-the terminology never quite settled upon a uniformly-accepted usage differentiating among these) ought to be carried out by delivery systems evidently separate from the ‘strategic’ ones The argument ran that unless this distinction was maintained the Soviet leaders might mistakenly interpret the action as just the initial salvo The weight of this argument always however seemed questionable. NATO would undoubtedly accompany any ‘war-termination’ nuclear action by a major effort in explicit communication to convey what its purpose was and was not – this was indeed a major theme of study in the NPG’s work.

These problems – conventional inferiority, a lack of strategic depth (stemming from politics in NATO’s case, but territory and infrastructure in Pakistan’s), a fear that limited war would create “sealed compartments, whether of territory or of force category” and neutralize nuclear weapons – are directly and highly applicable to Pakistan.

But many of these subtleties are not brought out in the Pakistani context. This is especially as regards the very limited battlefield effectiveness of such weapons, and hence their role as political signals to compel de-escalation rather than military instruments to physically and durably block an offensive. The use of the descriptor”tactical”, rather than “non-strategic” or “sub-strategic”, has contributed to this confusion, although some (Nayyar and Mian, Tellis)  have tried to explain the surprisingly limited effects of nuking tanks.

Quinlan even addresses the issue of the safety of tactical nuclear weapons, a problem that often comes up in discussions of Pakistan (like that of Kanwal, excerpted above):

It used sometimes to be suggested that the forward deployment of nuclear delivery units on West German territory posed, in face of a postulated Warsaw Pact offensive, a ‘use-or-lose’ dilemma which, whether as inescapable fact or even as deliberate stratagem, could drive the timing of NATO nuclear action and so set the ‘threshold’. This was, however, in no way part of NATO’s doctrine or planning (and forward commanders had neither the authority nor, at least in later years, the physical power to launch nuclear weapons without political clearance).

Even if Quinlan is right (and Paul Schulte suggests otherwise, claiming that in the 1950s NATO “seems to have supported a temporary policy of U.S pre-delegation of very short-range battlefield nuclear weapons, including Atomic Demolition Munitions, especially on the Central Front in Germany”), then there are still some significant differences with Pakistan – the primary one being that Pakistan’s lopsided civil-military relations look very different to NATO’s.

In 2005, for instance, Feroz Hassan Khan, a senior official in Pakistan’s nuclear secretariat, the Strategic Plans Division, explained that “partial pre-delegation” of weapons would be an “operational necessity because dispersed nuclear forces as well as central command authority … are vulnerable” (see here, p.15).

A second difference is that NATO gradually placed less and less emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons (withdrawing more and more after 1979 as part of the “dual-track” policy), because of the “eventual improvement of its conventional capabilities that, spurred by Warsaw Pact equipment improvements and doctrinal innovations, resulted from Western technical and, especially American, electronic advantages”. (Schulte, p.53). Pakistan, by contrast, is conventionally falling behind in terms of military spending and technological edge (see this KSG report, p.10). This suggests its reliance on nuclear weapons will grow, not diminish.

A third difference lies in the response to tactical nuclear weapons: “the Soviet General Staff, led by Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, seems to have concluded in the late 1970s that their most effective option against NATO would be conventional but extremely rapid deep operations conducted, after massive aerial surprise attacks, by operational maneuver groups” – so far, apart from the qualifier “deep”, this blitzkrieg-like approach should remind you of India’s own evolving limited war doctrine, dubbed Cold Start (Cold Start is, of course, supposed to entail shallow incursions).

But the similarity ends there: “Ogarkov knew that many in NATO doubted that their political leaders would agree quickly to use nuclear weapons”. The Soviets would fight “the war in such a way as to delay NATO taking the decision to use nuclear weapons until it was too late for them to be able to influence the outcome of the war” (Kelleher, cited in Schulte, p.53). Whereas NATO was a multinational alliance with a variety of perspectives on where the nuclear threshold ought to lie, Pakistani decision-making – whatever its pathologies – is certainly simpler and more responsive. India cannot rely on Pakistani hesitation, even though it, India, would surely calibrate the level of force so as to make any Pakistani decision a difficult one.

If Pakistan does place increasing stress on limited nuclear options, and tactical nuclear weapons in particular, then understanding the differences from the NATO precedent – the ones discussed here, and plenty of others – will be as important as seeing the similarities.

Iranian nuclear weapons: dubious reporting, dubious red lines

In an interesting if thinly sourced piece on how Iran is withdrawing IRGC special forces from Syria, The Sunday Times threw in this nugget at the end, as if it were no big deal:

Western intelligence officials see the next few months as a race between Iran’s programme to build a nuclear bomb and sanctions intended to ruin its economy.

This is a remarkable and, if untrue, irresponsible claim.

Both the United States and Israel continue to believe that Iran has not yet decided to build a nuclear bomb (which is distinct from conducting activities relevant to the fabrication of a bomb). This is a clear and widely-sourced claim. See Jeffrey Lewis here, Micah Zenko here, the chief of staff of the IDF here, Haaretz reporting here, and DNI James Clapper, here (“we don’t believe they have actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon”).

There is a debate over when Iran would acquire enough uranium enriched to 20% required for one bomb, and whether and how quickly Iran could securely and/or secretly further enrich that to weapons-grade. But these debates are are all hypotheticals. In fact, Iran’s conversion of 20% enriched uranium to fuel plates actually makes it harder and slower to produce a bomb (for some strange reason, the media has only picked up this story a few days ago despite it being obvious from the IAEA’s August report).

The Sunday Times is saying is that Iran is racing for a bomb, which directly contradicts this very large and diverse mass of reporting and analysis.

My guess is that they did not mean to make this claim. But it is staggeringly poor journalism, and a very dangerous claim in the current environment. American newspapers were chastened by their experience of interpreting and reporting on WMD intelligence prior to the Iraq War, and have responded impressively and maturely. British newspapers – with a few honourable exceptions – have shown poor judgment, repeatedly made alarmist claims, and failed to convey the nuances of this technically complex subject.

Moreover, if Iran were racing for a bomb, which it is very obviously not, then the constraint would not be sanctions. Sanctions, however severe, are not going to bring down the regime in the space of the (at most) eight month period in which Iran could, if it wanted, have more than adequate 20% enriched uranium for one or more bombs. The constraint is instead  the risk of detection and vulnerability during breakout. A dash for a bomb can easily outrun sanctions, which operate only over a longer period. Saddam hung on for 12 years, even as sanctions inflicted a devastating toll on civilians (“near apocalyptic” as early as 1991). But it would still run into the other obstacles.


Red lines:

On a related note: as it’s a day of the week ending in “y”, Israel has thrown out a new red line for Iran’s nuclear programme. Netanyahu’s UNGA speech appeared to place his desired red line at the point at which Iran obtains enough 20% enriched uranium for one bomb, a point he estimated would arrive during the spring or summer of 2013 (this seems reasonable, but it ignores the possibility that Iran will keep converting some to fuel). This Netanyahu line differs from the presumptive American red line(s) insofar as Iran would cross this one even before making any decision to enrich beyond 20%.

Now,  according to Special Envoy for the Israeli Prime Minister Zalman Shoval, “the red line for Israel is when the Iranians have produced enough fissionable material from which they can produce at least a dirty bomb within a short time”.

This is an even more incoherent red line than many of those suggested earlier, for the simple reason that enriched uranium is not used in dirty bombs:  “these materials, perhaps counterintuitively, are not radioactive enough. Their radioactive emissions don’t travel far and are blocked by simple barriers, including skin and clothing. A dirty bomb would use small amounts of highly radioactive materials such as cesium or cobalt, not uranium”. If Iran did use uranium in a dirty bomb, it wold need “some 1,400 tons of uranium – when all Iran has now is 6 tons total”.

British nuclear weapons and non-deployment: misunderstanding the “Japan option”

The Guardian’s top story is on the future of British nuclear weapons, based on comments by former Lib Dem minister, Sir Nick Harvey. It indicates a less-than-stellar understanding of the subject by the paper:

Harvey said past policy on Trident had been dictated by the 1980s view that the only deterrent to a nuclear attack from the then Soviet Union was the belief that the UK could “flatten Moscow” in retaliation. This led to the UK building Trident and having at least one armed submarine at sea every hour of every day since.

This phrasing misses the point about “Continuous at Sea Deterrence” (CASD). The point of CASD was not that it was necessary to inflict a certain amount of damage, but that “a surprise attack on Western Europe by the Soviet Union was a central driver for UK force planning” (Chalmers, p2).

Nick Harvey’s suggestion that “the Russia of the 21st century [...]  might find all sorts of damage to be unacceptable short of flattening Moscow” is both reasonable and slightly besides the point : CASD is not about what Britain needs to inflict on Russia, but what assumptions are made about what Russia can and might do to Britain.

As Malcolm Chalmers points out (see piece cited above), the assumption is indeed changing in favour of the view that “the UK homeland does not face a significant threat of attack by other states. Nor, it is assumed, could one emerge without an extended period of strategic warning”. The point, in other words, is not that Russia is more deterrable today, but that the prospect of a Russian first strike has receded.

The second problem with the article is its discussion about the prospect of a non-deployed arsenal:

Instead of replacing Trident with a like-for-like 24-hour nuclear armed submarine presence at sea after the current system is due to be taken out of service in 2028, cheaper alternatives are being considered. These range from stepping down the patrols, to designing missiles to be launched from aircraft, surface navy ships or land, to a delayed launch system on the model employed by other countries, including Japan.

Er, what? “Delayed launch system”? There are all sorts of strategic, technical and financial reasons why alternatives to Trident might be problematic. But, regardless of where one stands in that debate, the comparison to Japan is just bizarre. The paper explains Harvey’s suggestion like this: “the UK would store the warheads in a secure military location, from where they could be removed, put on the tip of a missile and put to sea within weeks or months”.

This is nothing like Japan. In fact, this passage demonstrates a serious confusion between (1) nuclear latency, (2) a rapid breakout capability, and (3) a non-deployed arsenal.

(1) Japan is latent because it has “made large investments in a civilian nuclear power industry, without developing the sort of expertise that would allow the quick assembly of a nuclear device, or the production of delivery vehicles”. Its access to plutonium, technological sophistication, and satellite launch experience mean that it could hypothetically build a deliverable nuclear bomb – but we’re talking years. Clearly, this isn’t what Harvey means.

(2) Rapid breakout refers to the possibility of quick assembly, but minimal attention to delivery systems and the suchlike. An example would be India in the late 1980s and 1990s. From ~1986 onwards, it is presumed that India could easily and quickly put together a bomb. But it couldn’t properly drop this from a plane, or put it on the tip of a missile. India only carried out its first “fully instrumented aircraft drop test” of a bomb in 1994, roughly eight years after preparing a bomb. I don’t think Harvey is suggesting that Britain just wings it like this.

(3) A non-deployed arsenal is similar, but it requires a higher degree of integration and preparation e.g. the fissile core might be stored separately to the warhead, as Pakistan claims of its arsenal, but the warhead would otherwise have to be ready to go (“for a rainy day”, as Harvey quaintly puts it). This is what Harvey means by “put on the tip of a missile”. He envisions the possession of bombs that are basically together, and fully functioning delivery systems – including options like cruise missiles.

Depending on the delivery system, this requires a far higher degree of weapons development [1] and operational planning for alerting procedures than is suggested by the comparison with Japan. The analogy is fundamentally misleading.


[1] E.g. “Any programme to develop and manufacture a new cruise missile would cost far more than retaining the Trident D5 missile. In capability terms, cruise missiles are much less effective than a ballistic missile [...] Therefore it was clear that, in terms of both cost and capability, retaining the Trident D5 missile is by far the best approach” – Defence White Paper: The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, December 2006, p25