Nuclear Mangos

This blog is intended to provide reliable technical analysis of nuclear issues with non-state actors and nuclear beginner states. Some technical issues have important policy implications that citizens in a democracy should be able to make informed decisions about. The motivation for the blog has been the incredible amount of lies & hyperbole on the Iran situation of early 2006. The blog title is to remind you constantly of the quality of minds in charge of our nuclear security today.

Location: MA

Until recently I was a physics professor at Harvard, where I taught the nuclear and particle physics course, among others. I've recently left that position to work as an R&D physicist in security applications. I have never done classified weapons work.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Kyl-Lieberman and HR 1400

The big Iran news of the day is the passage of the Kyl-Lieberman admendment. (nb there was an earlier version that was even more offensive that did not pass--make sure you're looking at the final language!) It is primarily a sense-of-the-Senate resolution regarding Petraeus' and Crockers' testimony about Iran, which I highlighted earlier during Liebermans' questioning of them. (Please note: this looks and smells highly preplanned, which does a lot to dash my hopes that Lieberman was freelancing.)

There's a great deal of ceremonious blather. Also, much of the most offensive parts of it were gutted (for instance, an earlier version included explicit support for use of US military instruments). But I want to focus in on two snippets from it. First:

the United States should designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act and place the IRGC on the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists, as established under the Inteational Emergency Economic Powers Act and initiated under EO 13224

This gives the Cheney Administration a place to hang their hat should they decide to attack Iran.

Seond, I wanted to compare the last line of this legislation to the Lieberman Amendment that was passed 97-0 recently. I could not find the amended Amendment (some changes were agreed to in colloquy), so here is the unamended version.

Included in the amended version of the Lieberman Amendment was that:

[that nothing in this measure] shall be construed to authorise or otherwise speak to the use of armed forces against Iran

On the other hand, the last line of the Kyl-Lieberman amendment was:

the Department of the Treasury should act with all possibly expediency to complete the listing of those entities targeted under UNSC Resolutions 1737 and 1747 adopted unanimously on Dec. 23, 2006 and March 24, 2007, respectively.

Combined with the first snipper, the failure to include the disclaimer I think gives the Cheney Administration a very strong claim that Congress could have stated this was not an authorization, but chose not to do so.

If there were any general wondering if they might have Constitutional grounds to disobey an order to attack Iran, I think the Senate has just taken that option away from them.

I also want to point something out. Nowhere in the text of the bill do they mention Iran's nuclear program. I've pointed out before that there seems to have been something of a rhetorical shift with respect to Iran; and this amendment shows it in blazing lights. They've laid down the WMD as a dark whisper. But since it's not front and center, it will never get properly debunked, and it won't bite them as much when Tehran's program isn't really as advertised. I'm impressed in a perverse way.

The vote was 73-22. Two Republican Senators, including the Ranking Member (and former chair) of the Foreign Relations committee, voted against it.

At the same time, the House passed HR 1400 , "The Iran Counter-Proliferation Act", by an overwhelming 397-16 margin (h/t selise ). Even my hometown Congressman Capuano, who is normally very good on all things Iran, voted for it. And HR 1400 is very squarely about the Iranian nuclear program.

I am waiting for a call back from my Congressmans' office to see if there's any subtlety I should know about here. The bill basically calls for sanctions on Iran and those who do business in Iran, on account of the nuclear program. Two snippets on a somewhat lighter note:

United States concerns regarding Iran are strictly the result of actions of the Government of Iran

I think this is particularly interesting in light of Pat Buchanon's (yes, that Pat Buchanon!) words recently on Hardball (h/t Glenn Greenwald ):

BUCHANAN: Chris, to your point, he said two things. The Western nations invented chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The Americans used them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they were used on our people in the war against Iraq, where you all supported Iraq against Iran. Now, all those are statements of fact, and they‘re very, very persuasive in the Arab and Islamic world in making his case.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, gentlemen, about human nature. It seems to me that the whole third world case against the first world is that we have humiliated that part of the world, manipulated their governments, used the CIA to put people like the Shah -- by the way, the Shah's not from royal blood or anything. They just created that throne for him. The CIA put him in there against the democratically elected prime minister. We have exploited that country for its cheap oil. We've taken advantage of that country. And now we say we want justice.
Is there not an Iranian case against the United States and the West, Mr. Weprin, or do you say they're dead wrong, the country's just wrong and we‘re right?
[. . . ]
BUCHANAN: Look, there's an Iranian case against the West and an American case against Iran. That's why we ought to sit down and put it all on both sides of the table. And I think we do have things where we disagree profoundly, but we have issues on which we agree. We both -- neither of us wants the Taliban back. Neither of us wants the Sunni Ba'athist dictatorship back. Neither of us wants an all-out war. Those are common interests.

And this from the legislation is very lovely:

the American people have feelings of friendship for the Iranian people, regret that developments of recent decades have created impediments to that friendship, and hold the Iranian people, their culture, and their ancient and rich history in the highest esteem.

I am quite sure that Soviet legislation routinely attached such riders; if I get energetic I will see if I can go back and see if I can find some examples.

So there you have it. The Senate "finds" that Iran is attacking our boys. The House "finds" Iran has a threatening nuclear program. Lieberman wasn't freelancing; this is careful and coordinated. The advertising campaign has launched.

I called my Senator's office and asked what we needed to be doing out here in the provinces to keep this movie from ending the same way as the last one. The staffer said to call Senators and Reps. As if I didn't last time around...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Good News, Bad News

Via Josh Marshall, General Abizaid (formerly CENTCOM commander) says we "can live with a nuclear Iran." He goes on to say:

"There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran," Abizaid said in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. "Let's face it, we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union, we've lived with a nuclear China, and we're living with (other) nuclear powers as well."

"I believe the United States, with our great military power, can contain Iran _ that the United States can deliver clear messages to the Iranians that makes it clear to them that while they may develop one or two nuclear weapons they'll never be able to compete with us in our true military might and power," he said.

If General Abizaid would find my plot useful, he is welcome to it.

On the other hand, there is ominous news from, of all quarters, the French:

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's warning Sunday that the world should brace for a possible war over the Iranian crisis.

"We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war," Kouchner said in a French radio and television interview. Kouchner called the nuclear standoff "the greatest crisis" of present times and said: "We will not accept that the bomb is manufactured," and hinted that military plans were on the way while insisting that a negotiated settlement was the priority.

"we will not accept" is diplomat-speak for "we will go to war over this."

I am hoping Mr. Kouchner is a little new to his job and maybe has a level of diplomat-speak mastery similar to that of George W. Bush.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

2 and 20

Oil hit $80 a barrel this week, which means if you'd taken my January advice you'd be at an annualized gain of over 60%.

nb These observations are for entertainment purposes only.

The Heritage Wargame

The Heritage Foundation (a notably right-wing institution) has recently completed a wargame/simulation of an attack on Iran, including macroeconomic impacts and mitigation via crisis response. I will summarize and write more on it later, but they have produced a very accessible report.


armscontrolwonk reports Russia has just tested a gigantic air-delivered conventional bomb.

Russian bombers have recently restarted long-range patrols.

Russian bombers penetrated Finnish, NATO, and UK airspace this weekend.

They buzzed the UK several weeks ago, as well.

Russian bombers recently buzzed Guam.

What's going on here? Time speculates , to paraphrase, that Russia is "acting out" because they aren't getting enough attention. This leaves me underwhelmed, as if there might not be some very real thing at stake. Somehow, with ex-KGB in charge, I find pop psychology a tiny bit unlikely as an explanation, compared to, say, great-power calculation. Though I did like this quote, about how the Bush people viewed Russia:

Cohen says, the U.S. has long misconceived the nature of a post-Soviet Russia. "They thought that Russia would just be a larger, colder France..."

This quote I think starts getting more at the heart of things, but it's left unexplored:

One response has been to cozy up to China — a strategic rival during the Cold War — through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which recently held a war game in Russian involving 6,500 troops. The six-year old group, sometimes called a "club of dictators" — its members also include the authoritarian governments of former Soviet republics Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — is seen by some in the U.S. government as a retooled Warsaw Pact that could serve to balance NATO. The SCO rejected Washington's request for observer status, while welcoming Iranian participation. The SCO "is an incipient counterweight" to the U.S. and NATO, Kupchan says. "If they spike it with Iran, you've got something ugly."

Emphasis mine.


I know that I've read, but cannot seem to find a link to, that what tends to happen in "grand strategy" wargames concerning Iran, is that once a US strike starts to look inevitable, the Russian players tend to commit military forces to Iran as a tripwire.

RANK SPECULATION could Putin be trying to make that a viable option?

Did I mention that this is UNSUPPORTED SPECULATION?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Nuclear Mangos

For those who don't recall the heady days of March, 2006, let me explain how the title of this blog came to be.

From Dan Froomkin (via Taylor Marsh):

In addition to all the predictable reactions (pro and con) to the landmark nuclear agreement reached in India yesterday, a powerful and unexpected new concern has emerged based on a last-minute concession by President Bush. It appears that, to close the deal during his visit, Bush directed his negotiators to give in to India's demands that it be allowed to produce unlimited quantities of fissile material and amass as many nuclear weapons as it wants.

From Businessweek:

The details were sewn up at 10:30 a.m. this morning, barely two hours before Bush and Singh made a joint public statement of success. The nuclear deal will give foreign businessmen the opportunity to provide 20,000 megawatts of nuclear power for India -- business worth an estimated $60 billion. Optimism over the deal drove the Bombay exchange to an all-time record high.

But the real rewards of the agreement are the deeper feelings of cooperation that the effort has fostered. The success of Bush's trip stems from the quiet and determined work done by the U.S. Trade Representative's office and India's Commerce Ministry.

FRUITS OF DIPLOMACY. You could call it mango diplomacy. Mangoes as a diplomatic tool? Don't laugh. Thanks to the efforts of U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman and Indian Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, much smaller and far more significant and sustainable business opportunities were opened today -- starting with the import of Indian mangoes into the U.S.

From the Times of London, "New Friends Set Seal on Historic Nuclear Deal":

Among the deals announced was the lifting of a 17-year-old ban on Indian mango exports, hailed by Mr Bush. Raising a laugh, he said: “The United States is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes.”

And Madhur Jaffrey, in the New York Times 3/12/06:

WHATEVER anyone else might say, America’s new nuclear and trade pact with India is a win-win deal. India gets nuclear fuel for its energy needs and America, doing far better in what might be called a stealth victory, finally gets mangoes.
For details, armscontrolwonk has been all over the nukes-for-mangos deal. As it says up above--I just use it to remind you what kind of people are in charge right now.

Trouble in River City

Occam's Hatchet at dkos has written a nice triple fugue on Iran, Iraq, and The Music Man.

From the closing:

Okay, okay: so they were wrong - unbelievably, breathtakingly wrong - about Iraq. So what? To insist that they were "wrong" is to utterly miss the point.

Right, wrong or indifferent, THOSE WHO FLIM-FLAMMED THE AMERICAN PUBLIC INTO BUYING AN ILLEGAL INVASION AND OCCUPATION OF IRAQ GOT IT EXACTLY RIGHT - they sold their scam, they made their money, and they're on to the next scam.

Which reminds me of a Jonathon Kozol quote I keep coming back to whenever I think about this Administration. Sadly I can't find the original, so I have to paraphrase: "Whenever you look at an institution and wonder to yourself how it could have survived with such a record of failure at its mission, you probably have not correctly understood its actual mission."

The Fox Report

There are reports going about that the administration has decided to attack Iran, now that Germany has blocked UN sanctions. These reports are based on, not interviews with WH sources (even anonymous ones), but on the opinion of an analyst at Fox News:

"A recent decision by German officials to withhold support for any new sanctions against Iran has pushed a broad spectrum of officials in Washington to develop potential scenarios for a military attack on the Islamic regime," Fox reported on Tuesday.

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Thomas McInerney told Fox, "Since Germany has backed out of helping economically, we do not have any other choice. ... They've forced us into the military option."

"I think the option should initially be tit-for-tat," McInerney went on. "For every explosively formed projectile from Iran that goes off in Iraq, two go off in Iran, no questions asked."

McInerney has a long history, apparently, as a shill for attacking Iran. He is not a policymaker, but a military analyst for Fox.

I understand that Fox is the GOP "house organ", but I don't think we need to exercise ourselves too much about McInerney. I'm sure he feels his manhood stirring at the thought that his army can pop off twice as much as Iran's, but that's no reason to think he's the one setting policy. The "we" of his quote is a delusion.

In any case, it is not at all clear that Germany has in fact blocked sanctions.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Lieberman, Petraeus, and Iran

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) yesterday questioned General Petraeus about Iran. You can read a full transcript, below is the entire exchange concerning Iran:

SEN. LIEBERMAN: Thank you for that answer, which I take to be a negative to an earlier accelerated reduction of troops to switch the mission earlier. I want to go to Iran. Both of you have focused on the very destructive role that Iran is playing through its Qods Force in Iraq, by most counts, responsible for the murder of hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians and soldiers. Ambassador Crocker, I know you've met twice with the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad. I know that some of my colleagues and others have called for a diplomatic surge with Iran, to engage in negotiations with them. In your view, based on those two meetings, are the Iranians responding to that diplomatic initiative that you commenced with them?
AMB. CROCKER: Sir, we have seen nothing on the ground that would suggest that the Iranians are altering what they're doing in support of extremist elements that are going after our forces as well as the Iraqis.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: General, do you feel that you have all the authorities you need from a military point of view to deter, disrupt and respond to the Iranian attacks on our troops in Iran's efforts to destabilize Iraq?
GEN. PETRAEUS: I do, Senator, again, keeping in mind that my area of responsibility is limited to Iraq. So it does not include going into Iran.
SEN. LIEBERMAN: Let me ask you about that, because I know your military spokespeople in Baghdad have made very clear that we have evidence that Iran is taking Iraqi extremists to three training camps outside of Tehran, training them in the use of explosives, sophisticated weapons, sending them back into Iraq, where they are responsible for the murder of American soldiers.
Is it time to give you authority, in pursuit of your mission in Iraq, to pursue those Iranian Qods Force operations in Iranian territory, in order to protect America's troops in Iraq?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Sir, I think that really the Multinational Force Iraq should just focus on Iraq and that any kinds of operations outside the borders of Iraq would rightly be overseen by the Central Command, the regional combatant command.

Emphasis mine.

As I pointed out some time ago--the nuclear angle has been at least temporarily abandoned (though I fully expect it to return.) So the rhetoric has shifted to Iran's role attacking American troops.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Few Words for Today

On today's anniversery, I thought it fitting to recall the words of three soldiers, one-and-a-half of them fictional:

Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough, if we know we are the King's subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.
General George S. Patton
Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You win it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.
Admiral James Webb
Like so many other Americans, today and throughout our history, we serve and have served, not for political reasons, but because we love our country. On the political issues those matters of war and peace, and in some cases of life and death, we trusted the judgment of our national leaders. We hoped that they would be right, that they would measure with accuracy the value of our lives against the enormity of the national interest that might call upon us to go into harm's way.
We owed them our loyalty, as Americans, and we gave it. But they owed us sound judgment, clear thinking, concern for our welfare, a guarantee that the threat to our country was equal to the price we might be called upon to pay in defending it.

The men and women who serve our country, can be left with no stain of crime for their obedience. Their sacrifice cannot be said to have been without honor, or without nobility.

Yet the general reminds us, poorly used, their sacrifice might well be said to have been without use. It is not a path to victory for us to praise the fallen, merely for their fall. As the admiral reminds us, our leaders must be sure that the threat was equal to the sacrifice, and that the sacrifice, might be balanced well against our country's gain for it.

It is no betrayal of our soldier's honor to ask whether their lives are being asked for, in a cause that is just, and in a way that their sacrifices will have mattered. It is no lack of support for them, to ask whether the generals and Presidents who lead them, have correctly assessed the cause and the way. It is no failure to respect their sacrifice, to suggest that the leaders can have failed to measure with accuracy the value of their lives.

And a last soldier, replying to Bates:

But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopp'd off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, "We died at such a place"; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it.

There were heroes that day, none greater than the passengers of Flight 93. But many are the black matters that have flowed from it.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What's the Risk?

As a gruesome homework problem, just what was the expected fatality risk that the errant B-52 flight presented?

The flight from Minot to Barksdale is about 1200 miles as the crow flies. The airplane death rate is about 1.9 deaths per 100 million miles; if the average crash kills 19 people (to keep the numbers easy), the crash rate is once per billion miles. So the odds of a crash are about one in 800,000.

Suppose that the plane leaves a swath of destruction 0.1 square miles in size. By eye, the average population density along the path is about 30 per square mile.

What is the radiation risk in a crash? There are several ways to estimate it.

1. One is the "worst case" calculation, which assumes the plutonium is perfectly evenly dispersed in respirable particles through the atmosphere of the planet, where it remains until breathed in by a human. There were 6 warheads on the plane. An oft-cited number is 6kg of Pu for a warhead; and the fatal respirable quantity is about a microgram. This upper limit gives 36 billion people killed. A more stringent upper limit can be estimated by simply noting that the human population of the planet is only 6 billion people.

This assumption may also be dubious on the grounds that is suggests plutonium is more dangerous if it does not initiate a nuclear explosion, but merely hits the ground with a big thud. If true, that would make X-Division's life much easier!

2. However, this is not a very realistic assumption. Most of the Pu will be in unrespirable particles, most of which settle to the ground quickly and form a radiation hazard over a few hundred meters from the site. This is messy, but unless you're right in this area, not fatal. "Plumes" of a few square miles with sufficient concentration might possibly form.

This gives an estimate at the outside of say ten square miles per warhead, or sixty square miles. On average over the flight path this is about 1800 fatalities.

3. As a third "upper limit" (i.e. number we know the value must be less than), we may take the expected number of casualties from a nuclear explosion at the worst point along the flight path, which surely must be near Kansas City. Note I do not think the path passes over KC! This is just for estimation's sake. A detonation over KC might bring 200,000 fatalities.

So we need to weight the outcomes by their probabilities, which as we saw above was about 1 in 800,000. So the expected "badness" of the flight was

1. In the ultimate planet-killing worst case upper-limit, the expected fatalities per flight are less than 7500.
2. Given the "best estimate" available on what Pu actually does, the expected fatalities per flight is probably in the neighborhood of 0.002.
3. Given another extreme upper limit, as if the warheads actually initiated a thermonuclear explosion in Kansas City, the expected fatalities per flight are less than 0.25 . (nb in principle I ought to reweight this downward by a large factor since KC is only a small part of the flight path, but then we'd have to do a horrible sum over the flight path which I'd prefer to avoid if it's just a very loose upper limit.)

So the best available estimate probably gives about 0.002 fatalities per flight; and the number is surely less than 0.25 per flight.

0.002 fatalities actually doesn't sound as low as I might like for any activity that might be regular. But the practice of flying nuclear warheads on B-52's is no longer a regular activity.

Update: CKR points out that this has actually happened! A B-52 crashed in Palomares, Spain, in 1966, with four hydrogen bombs. One fell into the Mediterranean Sea, three on land. Of the three on land, two had their conventional explosives detonate--precisely a classic "dirty bomb". 2 square kilometers were contaminated, and no fatalities were attributed to the crash.

According to Milnet:

By 1969, a U.S.Commission had settled 522 claims by Palomares residents totalling $600,000. It also gave the town of Palomares the gift of a desalting plant, which cost about $200,000 to build.

There was also a crash at Thule Air Base in Greenland in 1968, in which a B-52 crashed, and all four weapons were destroyed by fire:

After it was abandoned, the plane did a 180 degree turn and crashed onto the ice of North Star Bay, seven and one-half miles southwest of Thule, whereupon it skidded across the ice in flames and exploded. It is believed that the high explosives in the outer coverings of the four 1.1 megaton H-Bombs aboard detonated, releasing radiation from the plutonium in the bombs and causing fires which destroyed all four. Wreckage of the plane was widely scattered in an area about 300 yards on either side of the plane's path, much of it in "cigarette box-sized" pieces.

Again, no fatalities were attributed to the crash.

In both cases there were substantial cleanup operations lasting many months.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Mathematics of Cherry-Picking

Intuitively, I think most of us understand that if you're allowed to choose the best out of a set, you'll get better results than if you randomly pick one from the set. This is the classic form of "cherry-picking" in "data-based" arguments: choose the data that best support your argument.

As I'll show in what follows, suppose there is a situation in which there is no true progress. And you have a set of five different measures of the "progress", each of which is imperfect and contains some uncertainty, sometimes showing positive progress, sometimes showing negative. Then if you look through and choose the measurement that shows the largest progress, then due solely to the fact that there is margin of error, with 98% certainty the chosen metric will demonstrate apparently statistically significant progress, despite the fact that the underlying process is known to have no progress at all.

Or, even shorter: cherry picking introduces a bias that can be quantified. And when there are five or more choices, the bias appears as if the result is statistically significant.

Any similarity, real or implied, to current arguments about the Iraq "surge" is not entirely coincidental. And any bamboozling techniques they perfect in Iraq, they will with certainty find a way to use for Iran.

The first plot here shows the following case. There is some situation where, in reality, there is an average of zero (i.e. true progress of zero). However, your set of measurements, due possibly to intrinsic uncertainty, are sometimes positive, sometimes negative. Of course, overall they average out. The average value is shown as the blue vertical dotted line.

However, suppose you take five measurements. Each is "drawn" from the parent blue distribution--meaning some are higher than zero, some lower than zero. However, suppose you pick only the best one of these five measurements. The distribution of the "best one" (supposing you repeated this five-measurement procedure many times, and recorded the best one each time) is shown in pink. And the average value of this pink one is nearly always (98% of the time) positive. In fact, it is positive to the extent often considered "statistically significant" in politics, businesses, and social sciences. However, the truth, as shown by the blue distribution, is that there is nothing positive at all--the progress is really zero, it's only your imperfect measurements that are non-zero.

This is what (until recently) was a relatively quiet realm of statistics known as "order statistics". It sometimes goes under the name "extremal events". Given global warming and recent spates of hundred-year floods, hundred-year hurricanes, hundred-year mudslides, hundred-year fiscal liquidity crises, etc, insurance and finance companies are starting to get quite interested in these distributions.

For the more mathematically inclined readers, I'll say a couple more words relating the sample probability distribution function f(x) to the distribution function of the largest drawn value out of n samples. The cumulative distribution function CDFmax/n(x) for the maximum value out of n samples is perforce equal to the probability that all n samples are less than x. This, in turn, is straightforwardly F(x)^n, where F(x) is the cumulative distribution function of f(x). So one finds

and the PDF of the maximum is simply the derivative of the CDF of the maximum. The order statistic of the second largest can be found by finding the CDF for all but one of the samples to be larger than x--an exercise I'll leave to the reader.

And finally, if you think for a while, you'll recognize that the median value of the largest value can be proven larger than the median value of the parent distribution. This is intuitively obvious, but again, always nice to know it can be proven.

It works because for any positive n, the nth root of any number less than one (such as, for instance, 1/2) is larger than the original number, and all CDF's are monotonically increasing.

And I've another set of fun mathematical facts running around in my head, but I'll leave it for another day. But the basic question is: will journalists ever discover the error bar? (It's too much to hope they'd be able to assign the correct values to it...)

Update: a comment I made at EW's place led me down the path of thinking about all of this.

Update II: this finding can be restated as "the top-ranked is nearly always overrated." Any resemblance to NFL draft observations is not coincidence.

Update III: Mike the Mad Biologist has some more observations about the statistics.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Fun Math Facts

There are (at least) two kinds of "impossible": physically impossible, and administratively impossible. The former is fairly widely understood. The latter means there are strict rules, procedures, and customs designed to prevent something from happening, usually with numerous backup plans.

When people say "impossible" about most things, it's very rare (except, I guess, if you hang out with physics crowds like, say, me) that they mean physically impossible. They really mean administratively impossible. And on projects I've worked on in my life, if I had a dollar for every administratively "impossible" thing that I'd seen happen--well, I'd probably still have to work for a living, but I might get to Chez Henri a couple more times a year.

Of course, things that are physically possible but administratively "impossible" depend, on their impossibility, for humans to behave as they should. Which is to say, they aren't impossible at all. At best, they are very unlikely.

The equation of this post can be translated as, "anything that's not physically impossible, no matter how unlikely, is guaranteed to eventually happen if you keep swinging at it."

I've no doubt thousands, probably tens of thousands, of absolutely correct, by-the-book handlings of nuclear warheads have taken place over the years. And when you do something without error ten thousand times, you start to get the idea that the you're perfect at doing that something. But purely from the point of view of measuring your error rate, you've only really established that it's less than about 2 parts per ten thousand. You might very well make a mistake sometime into your next ten thousand.

Of course, I don't know either P or n for accidentally loading nuclear cruise missiles onto bombers. So in that sense my use of the equation is a little glib. But I've read in a lot of places that unknowingly carrying nuclear missiles is "impossible". I just want to point out that's an administrative "impossibility", and as such, it can certainly happen.

Update: Wikipedia has a startling list of nuclear accidents, and acw links to a hair-raising list of nuclear war near-misses, and also to a book I should read, "The Limits of Safety".

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Loose Nukes

Recently, a B-52 flying to Barksdale AFB was found, upon landing, to have had loaded unauthorized nuclear warheads in the cruise missiles it was carrying.

As Barksdale is also a staging center for Middle East operations, this has led to speculation that there is more to the story than a simple "accidental" transport, and that perhaps it is preparation to attack Iran with nukes.

Myself, I lean to the explanation that this was in fact a simple but terrible screw-up. There are surely already plenty of American nuclear weapons on board subs and carriers in the Middle East, and even if some new ones were needed, there are plenty of ways to get them there without flying them loaded on B-52's across the country, and subsequently having the news leaked. I honestly believe they have the operational capability to carry out the real thing in secret. (I can't totally dismiss the idea that this was meant as a message, though usually sending such messages do not involve imposing radiation risk on civilian areas of the United States.)

Hans Kristensen at the FAS makes what seems to me the really important point on this:

The really important implication is beyond the immediate: The United States is in the beginning of a transition to a deep integration of nuclear and conventional capabilities. The Navy has already proposed, and the Air Force is about to propose, replacing some nuclear warheads on long-range ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. From outside the weapons will look the same.

If the B-52 incident tells us that the military's command and control system cannot ensure with 100% certainty which weapons are nuclear and which ones are not, imagine the implications of the wrong weapon being used in a crisis or war. "Sorry Mr. President, we thought it was conventional."

And to be something of a broken record on the point: command-and-control issues related to nuclear weapons are not simple, and states do not come up with robust frameworks overnight. As we see here, even a state with a long history of experience with the weapons can occasionally lose operational control of the weapons. New nuclear states, such as Pakistan, may have considerably less robust mechanisms.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Existential Threats

I really don't have time for this, but reading these comments at Greenwald's place about Ledeen's new book made me want to spit:

Ledeen's book, says McCarthy, "is required reading for anyone -- which ought to mean everyone -- desirous of understanding the existential threat we face and why its beating heart is Tehran."

So rather than spit, I made this plot this morning, comparing a variety of fairly standard markers of developmental advancement and international power. The data are taken from the CIA world factbook for all but the last column. The last column is Separative Work Units, the standard unit for measuring uranium enrichment capability. Estimates for national capacity come from Krass83 for the US, and from Lewis for Iran. Since you can't see the Iranian quantity in the plot, I will inform you it is 0.00015.

By international standards, Iran is a poor, underdeveloped country with substantial infrastructural lacks. If such a country is indeed an existential threat to ours, it can only be the result of some mighty serious mismanagement of American power.

Updated with some minor wording changes.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

An LSO Speaks

Now I just might be a lot more seriously worried...

This kos diary , if true, does more to set off my alarm bells than everything else combined--and everything else combined was already enough to get me fired up again...

A couple of quote paragraphs:

[A]n LSO on a carrier attack group that is planning and staging a strike group deployment into the Gulf of Hormuz. (LSO: Landing Signal Officer- she directs carrier aircraft while landing) She told me we are going to attack Iran. She said that all the Air Operation Planning and Asset Tasking are finished. That means that all the targets have been chosen, prioritized, and tasked to specific aircraft, bases, carriers, missile cruisers and so forth.

"We are shipping in and assigning every damn Tomahawk we have in inventory. I think this is going to be massive and sudden, like thousands of targets."

Updated: while the author is well-known at kos, considerable questions have arisen about the truthfulness of the diary. Like anything else, take with appropriate salt.

Also, two British academics have conducted an open source intelligence study. They conclude that low-level warfare is already underway:

Some form of low level US and possibly UK military action as well as armed
popular resistance appear underway inside the Iranian provinces or ethnic
areas of the Azeri, Balujistan, Kurdistan and Khuzestan. Iran was unable to
prevent sabotage of its offshore-to-shore crude oil pipelines in 2005.

Update: an article from the Times of London: Pentagon ‘three-day blitz’ plan for Iran:

THE Pentagon has drawn up plans for massive airstrikes against 1,200 targets in Iran, designed to annihilate the Iranians’ military capability in three days, according to a national security expert.

Alexis Debat, director of terrorism and national security at the Nixon Center, said last week that US military planners were not preparing for “pinprick strikes” against Iran’s nuclear facilities. “They’re about taking out the entire Iranian military,” he said.

Debat was speaking at a meeting organised by The National Interest, a conservative foreign policy journal. He told The Sunday Times that the US military had concluded: “Whether you go for pinprick strikes or all-out military action, the reaction from the Iranians will be the same.” It was, he added, a “very legitimate strategic calculus”.

From a purely military perspective, this calculus may be correct. But if you're the King of Saudi Arabia trying to sell inaction to your people (or president of say, Turkey, trying to sell active support for the action), do you think the reaction would be the same?