imagesWe just don’t fear nuclear weapons enough anymore.

While the global fear of nuclear war has receded, the threat of nuclear war is a very real and fast-growing danger.

Lacking a healthy global uptick in appreciation of the consequences of nuclear conflict–a fear that both endows nuclear weapons with value while helping to prevent their use–the world is ripe for catastrophic miscalculation.

Time Is Short

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock has been sitting at Five Minutes to Midnight since 2012–a grim status only beaten between the rough Cold War patches of 1981 through 1988 and the frightening span between 1949 and 1960.

What’s sad is that few in the U.S.–one of the most fearful, fret-prone nations in the world–paid the latest Doomsday Clock reset any attention.

And that should worry everybody.

You don’t need to go commission a Pew Survey. It’s quite clear that atomic weapons and the prospect of a nuclear confrontation just aren’t as frightening to the average American anymore.

If anything, America’s collective shrug at the Doomsday Clock is a symptom of something larger…that we–as a planet–are getting awfully cavalier about nuclear weapons. Too many leaders out there dismiss the threat with a fatalist shrug–it’s just another threat in a world where life is often nasty, brutish and short.

Trident II

For the U.S., survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki–those grim reminders of America’s real-world atomic bomb use–are disappearing.  The scary “hide under your desk” era of the Cold War is being forgotten. In the West, my generation was the last to experience collective, community-wide scares like “The Day After” and other cultural events that attempted to hammer home the reality of nuclear warfare (And it worked, too. Remember how 100 Million folks watched that show?).

Younger generations have been shaped by the COIN and Terror era, a conflict far removed from the grim Game Theory days of yore.

The errors and excesses of the Cold War are a misty, gauzy memory for far too many.

In certain circles there is a far greater apatite for applying nuclear weapons to problems–not in using nukes as savvy geopolitical tools in the comparatively subtle (!!) “Reagan-era” model–but as the ultimate hammer to solve, in an unrealistic no-muss-no-fuss way, knotty non-proliferation issues, crazy rogue leaders or any tough geopolitical problem manifesting at the moment. That’s a volatile trend, particularly when combined with the globe’s apparently greater tolerance for brinkmanship and risk-taking these days.

We Americans are getting far more focused on the immediate gratification (BOOM–Yay! The Iranian centrifuge plant is destroyed! POW–Woo! North Korea will trouble us no longer!) and neglecting the longer-term political, economic, environmental and humanitarian consequences of such actions.

Ignorance, forgotten history, lack of experience, a failure to appreciate the consequences…these are all things that heighten the risk of miscalculation.

This isn’t an exclusively American phenomenon. The rest of the world is not in much better shape.

With that in mind, there should be a far, far larger national investment in educating the nation’s public and policymakers–and, for that matter, the rest of the world–on the very real risks and consequences posed by nuclear war.

The time to do this is now. America is teetering on the brink of a Cold Warish-esque engagement with China, most of Asia is eying nuclear weaponry, the Iran/Israel/Saudi Arabia and Pakistan/India mini-Cold Wars are still grinding along while North Korea sits out there as wild card. Then there’s Russia, quietly nursing grudges and perceived slights. And then, off in the distance, is South America…

It’s a grim, scary future out there. But what is an interested and engaged American Administration to do?

empReinvigorating Nuclear Nonproliferation

New Blood Needed: First, America needs to work on completely reinventing and reinvigorating the resident non-proliferation community. As it is now, the community is dominated by a sclerotic bunch of old Cold War dinosaurs who are, as a whole, far too fond of bilateralism, looting their resident non-profits and enjoying far more comforts of the rubber chicken circuit than is healthy for the field.

Nobody would care if many of the lions of the old order disappeared tomorrow. As it is, too many of these Cold War relics are too bound by convention, preach only to the converted and have essentially marginalized themselves into irrelevance.

So we need a new cadre of nonproliferation leaders–ones that can reach out and make new audiences understand and care about the threat of nuclear warfare.

New Frontiers in Nonproliferation Needed: If reinventing the nuclear non-proliferation community is a worthwhile goal (it is!), the government needs to start taking steps that inject some life and excitement into the field of nuclear nonproliferation, extending the field into new areas. (Look, I know Iran, North Korea and India/Pakistan are great, worthwhile areas to focus upon, but they’re also old issues, with policy set pretty much in amber until, one day, a transformational crisis erupts.)

The field needs new issues and approaches to enliven it.

The avenues available to shake things up are many–for example, the Administration might try urging some of our friends to consider shedding their nuclear capability.  Sweating the UK (Does the UK really need a second-strike capability right now?) or other friends a bit over their nuclear programs (declared or not) might be an interesting way to catch people’s interest.

Engaging China in a meaningful way BEFORE the country starts recapitalizing their existing (and, I might add, a very cost-effective and strategically smart) minimal means of reprisal might be quite worthwhile. Striving to better understand the implications of old, bilateral agreements in a multi-polar world is another.

virginia_1Or, if tougher “realpolitik” standards apply, the Administration could follow the Reagan-era playbook (a playbook I believe in) and try creating change by destabilizing–by, say, really focusing on China’s nuclear short range and medium range missiles, or by openly mulling the deployment of medium-range sub-launched ballistic missiles via the Virginia Payload Tubes (yes, yes, I know there are treaties here, but it would certainly be a way to help get nuclear weapons back on the wider public agenda).

Recapitalizing Old Resources: At the end of the day, the Administration–at every level–needs to start reminding folks that nuclear weapons are woefully inefficient weapons, really only useful for killing us all very, very quickly. The Administration (this one and the next and the one after that) need to be out there, reminding us all that regional Cold Wars are unstable things and that regional nuclear war will mean not just the end of the participants, but the end of the world–or at least carry a disproportionate impact upon those countries least prepared to withstand grave, system-wide impacts (China/India/Pakistan).

That leads to the third point–to communicate threats the Nation needs to mount a wholesale recapitalization and reinvestment of their nuclear nonproliferation infrastructure. I see a lot of tools, government organizations and U.S. infrastructure built for assessing and popularizing the impact of nuclear war out there struggling for relevancy–working to find funding and relevance from Climate Change studies or other avenues–and then loosing funding because of it.

The Administration would be wise to reinvigorate funding for a number of those now threadbare and somewhat forgotten Cold War institutions–and reminding Congress that these institutions and infrastructures are anchored in national security, and that, for a world hurtling into a complex rat’s nest of multilateral mini-Cold Wars, it is vital for America to better understand and socialize the potential catastrophic consequences of such events. If modeling things like Climate Change helps build fidelity for modeling the impact of nuclear war on the survival of the United States, then, by gosh, we should do it, Climate Deniers be darned!

American security and diplomatic specialists need to get back out there and work really, really hard at re-awakening the world’s fear and loathing of nuclear weaponry and nuclear warfare. That means empowering the nation’s non-proliferation community to work on, say, consequence management–followed by wider efforts to publicize their work and get it into the mainstream.

A perfect example is in the recent Popular Science. Government climatologists modeled the consequences of a small nuclear war–and then, a few months later, helped mainstream writers translate the researcher’s dry science into accessible language everybody understands. More of this needs to happen–not less.

ThedayafterWhy Does This Matter To The Navy?

Ultimately, this is a wakeup call for the Navy. The Navy must help reinvigorate the nuclear non-proliferation community. The Navy must help educating the public and policymakers on the horror of nuclear war.

Navy engagement makes a certain amount of sense–after all, it is about helping to better define and shape the world the Navy is going to operate in over the coming decades.

It is in the Navy’s interest to have a nation fully “engaged and educated” on the threat of nuclear war and to help promote and support the growth of national infrastructures required to distribute honest, robust and public real-world assessments of nuclear risks.

The Navy must get nonproliferation right. The Navy and Administration are in the middle of generating a new set of naval strategies, recapitalizing the Navy’s portion of the nuclear triad, and struggling to determine where a limited amount of money is gonna go–and if the Navy is going to need to ask the public for funding to “operate forward” in a nuclear armed–and likely contaminated world–then, yeah, public awareness and interest in nuclear nonproliferation is gonna be an important determinant of the Navy’s future.

The U.S. Navy–unlike any other service–operates right at the front lines of nuclear nonproliferation–and not just in nuclear weaponry. The Navy advances energy, too. With the US Navy focusing on petrochemical energy conservation and energy weapons, the strategic and tactical utility of nuclear combatants may well see a renaissance. In time, the Navy may again lead the way in nuclear power plant design–and give the Navy (and nation) an opportunity to help direct the world toward nuclear power-plant designs that are safer and tougher to bend towards production of bomb-ready material.

As a lead component of America’s nuclear triad and the pointy end of the spear for eliminating other countries’ underwater deterrence, nuclear non-proliferation is a big deal for the Navy. To be healthy–and to prepare appropriately for the future–the Navy stands to benefit from an engaged public that is more aware of the real costs of nuclear proliferation and nuclear war. It makes fiscal and strategic sense for the Navy to really get engaged here.

But it is also why the Navy should be really quite concerned about America’s ambivalence over the Doomsday clock’s inexorable march towards midnight. If American taxpayers can’t muster much of a care about their national survival, they sure as heck won’t pay for much of a Navy.

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Mines Are Coming To The South China Sea

by admin on July 10, 2014

navy-recruitment-mine-small-78530Mine Warfare in the South China Sea is inevitable.

Look at the players. On one side, we have China, a country boasting an enormous, sophisticated arsenal of mines with a resurgent Navy holding a set of offensive Mine Warfare doctrines that are simply begging to be tested.

On the other, we have Vietnam, the Philippines and the rest of the region who are desperately “looking for a win” against the big, expansion-minded regional powerhouse. These tiny regional navies are casting about for any cost-effective means to level a playing field dominated by large numbers of aggressive Chinese combatants and encroachment by grand-scale commercial equipment–rigs, dredges and other craft.

For all parties, mines offer a pretty painless way to tactically advance their various agendas.

Now, if the South China Sea was an isolated corner of ocean, a little intramural dalliance with mine warfare might pass relatively uneventfully, but the South China Sea is one of the busiest transit-routes for Asian commercial trade, making nearby mine warfare a regional–even a global–economic threat. And believe me, when mine warfare starts in the South China Sea, it’ll make the old Iranian efforts in the Strait of Hormuz look like child’s play.

mine warfareAm I being alarmist?  No. As somebody who has tracked at-sea violence in this region for almost a decade, this region tolerates a far higher level of violence than the West is used to seeing.  Cold War-era “fishing wars” off of Iceland–where an occasional trawler got “bumped” by a patrol boat–would provoke banner headlines on the New York Times.  Until recently, whole Vietnamese fishing boats could disappear in a hail of gunfire with little-to-no notice in the American press. Folks play for keeps in China’s near seas–it’s where “dignified” western norms of behavior don’t apply.

But that regional apatite for confrontation means things could get out of hand very, very quickly.

Mark my words.

Mine Warfare will make an appearance in the South China Sea–unless the key users of this ocean–Japan, Singapore, South Korea, etc.–start taking the threat of South China Sea escalation into mine warfare seriously. Key users need to model out the consequences of mine warfare (military, economic, environmental, political, etc.), start regularly flowing mine-clearing assets into the region and begin to demand, right now–TODAY–that key commercial transit lanes be kept clear and that freedom of navigation be maintained.

But, for these regional players who are struggling for territory, the temptation to use mines is going to grow.

tagos engagedChina will be increasingly eager to restrict outside access to areas full of sea features and “starve out” the small, pesky garrisons that pepper the region. Rather than take the confrontational route of chasing down and halting (or sinking) small resupply boats, China can simply declare a small area “closed”, throw mines down, offer one-way flights out to the garrisons and then sit back and watch as the Philippines and Vietnam struggle to decide how to cross into the mined areas.

There’s also a real temptation to experiment. Some in the PLA(N) will likely see the South China Sea as an unparalleled “real-world” incubator for tactical innovation or as a testbed for larger mine warfare operations against future threats like Taiwan, Japan or Korea.

As an added benefit, any threat of mine warfare would be enough to temporarily usher large U.S., Japanese and other “interested” combatants/observers out of the area–so if China wanted to do something more dramatic (say, seize an island or two) without the fear of intervention/interruption by outsiders, the threat of mine warfare will be the way it’ll all start.

Spratlys_42215cOn the other hand, the small, hard-pressed navies of Vietnam and the Philippines would like nothing better than to force China’s large fleet to “back off” and to make Chinese agents of commercial encroachment think twice before sending large capital investments into the South China Sea (economically speaking, using a $100,000 dollar mine to disable a billion-dollar exploration rig isn’t a bad tradeoff at all). Mines are cheap, can be distributed easily, and might make China think twice about committing their new and shiny Navy to a gritty IED-ridden area.

On a larger scale, the smaller countries might gamble with the innate “plausible deniability” of mine warfare, distribute mines freely, and hope that China, if it suffered a loss, would over-react and suffer disproportionate economic and political impact from that over-reaction. Internationalization of the conflict benefits the little guys–and mines are an easy–and maybe the only–way to escalate without suffering a loss.

USS_Avenger;ShocktrialIt’s all an awfully risky game.

And America certainly isn’t ready. The mine-hunting Littoral Combat Ship program has been thrown under the bus, and the larger mine warfare community has been so regularly sacrificed at the “Blue Water Church of Missile Defense and Aircraft Carriers”, there’s simply nothing left (Seriously–go to the local library, pull out an old ’60s–even a ’70s!!–era Janes’ and look at how many mine warfare ships and craft were in the inventory). The mine losses of the Iraq war have been ignored, and the U.S. Navy has forgotten the very real and very hard lessons learned off the coast of Korea in the ’50s. America is just not serious about mine warfare.

Now, what would be very interesting is if some of the big regional players–who both depend on free passage of the South China Sea AND are more prepared for mine warfare than the U.S.–declared that South China Sea mine warfare was an existential threat and moved unilaterally (or as a coalition) to make sure that such a step won’t happen. We’ll see.

Like it or not, mine warfare is coming to the South China Sea. And we all had better be ready, because, when it does happen, it’ll be a complex geo-political challenge that could easily cascade into a global crisis.

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How America’s Expanding Pacific National Monuments Irk China

July 7, 2014

Here’s a challenge for my friends in the media, my resident China-Watchers, and those passers-by of the high intelligence set: How is China responding–if at all–to the White House’s quiet June 16 imposition of American control over millions of kilometers of strategic seabed? I’m willing to bet that this expansion of American authority in the […]

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What To Do When China Has All The Blueprints?

June 30, 2014

Back in early 2013, the Washington Post reported that China had acquired data and plans for several programs, including plans for the Littoral Combat Ships. If that is the case, what is a Navy to do when the “opposition” has all the blueprints? With cyber espionage becoming an increasingly appreciated risk, then there must be […]

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Pentagon Oh-Too-Quietly Ranks Navy Suppliers

June 19, 2014

For an Agency that loves pomp and circumstance, the Pentagon’s ceremony last week to “name and shame” both their good–and their bad–contractors was uncharacteristically muted. If the Pentagon wants to make the Superior Supplier Incentive Program into something that spurs institutional change, a low-profile Friday announcement and the promise of future incentives to the victors […]

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MSC–Far Busier Than The Navy (and Navy Times) Expects!

June 16, 2014

David Larter over at Navy Times has an interesting story up, detailing the average time Navy combatants have spent at sea over the past three years. Go take a look. The data, apparently acquired from the Center for Naval Analyses, is good stuff–you can break it down to the individual ship level for almost every […]

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Why General Dynamics Shipbuilding Is Crushing The Competition

June 9, 2014

In naval shipbuilding, General Dynamics is crushing the competition. They are simply outthinking and out-maneuvering everyone. It’s not a twist of fate, either–they’re reaping the rewards of a lot of solid strategic thinking and years of strategic positioning. They’re hitting at all cylinders. Over at today’s Defense News, Chris Cavas gives us all a lesson on […]

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The Coming Fight Over The Navy’s Fighting Ferries

June 4, 2014

The future U.S. Navy is full of ferries. And the Nation should not only tolerate them, but embrace them, and accept them for what they are–good, capable, handy-sized ships of civilian origin. In the right CIVMAR hands, ferries are do-anything, economical “environmentally-friendly” platforms, capable of putting right-sized forces in the right place at the right […]

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Military Sealift Command News: CIVMARs To Operate JHSV

June 3, 2014

In a rare–and long overdue–victory for strategic realists, the normally business-first Military Sealift Command (MSC) has abruptly cancelled plans for the JHSV fleet to be operated by civilian contractors. The Green-Eyeshade crowd–the annoying folks who think that war should be run like a modern, “lean” and “just-in-time” business–lost big today. I couldn’t be happier. What’s […]

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Is The Future Of Naval Stealth Just…Hiding In Plain Sight?

May 27, 2014

Stealth! Low observables! Reduced signatures! Wake reduction! It’s all the rage in naval warfare…Modern navies just won’t leave home without a full suite of pricey features deemed necessary to make a 16,000 ton DDG-1000 dwindle away to a rowboat-sized radar blip. But…outside of that uncomfortable moment when, say, an anti-ship missile starts seeking your vessel, […]

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