Lost in 7

  • There’s a good interview with Lee Smolin at Quanta on his relational view of nature, which you can also find in his Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. His view is inspired by Leibniz’s metaphysics in The Monadology, and it reminds me of the Ladyman and Ross thesis that “everything must go” which is also a relational and naturalised metaphysics. I’ve got some sympathy with Smolin’s view, and it’s worth exploring as a hypothesis and seeing what insights it might provide us. Beware, though, that we’re in our minds but that doesn’t prevent us from doing cognitive science. Smolin’s view about being stuck in the universe is not unlike the impulse that drove behaviourist psychology. I’d slightly, perhaps you might say significantly, tweak the relational idea. Perhaps it’s better not to see it as an ontological or metaphysical theory, of how the world is, rather to think of it as an epistemological thesis. Science is relational, however the world might fundamentally be, to the extent that a lot of it is based on discerning mathematical relationships holding between entities, concepts, variables, and so on. It is that relational aspect that enables us to make predictions, even if nature is ultimately hidden from us. Say there are two physical entities x and y whose fundamental nature is mysterious, but the relationship between the two we nonetheless discern through mathematical and empirical reasoning. Knowing the relationship means we can make predictions, and even make applications based on that predictive power without ever really knowing what x and y fundamentally are. Recall the way Turing invoked applications in debate with Wittgenstein in favour of a realist view of science. Science is full of equations, and what do equations do if not relate one side of an equation with the other, so we’ve got “the unreasonable effectiveness of equations in the sciences.” Consider Wheeler’s famous pithy encapsulation of Einstein’s field equations of general relativity; “Space tells matter how to move. Matter tells space how to curve.” What’s space and what’s matter? The jury is still out on that, but we’ve got the relationship and so we can make predictions and develop applications. Question; is the relation thereby real? Good question, no answer I’m afraid. Our theories of nature are relational, and their relational because their mathematical, and it could be that it is our minds that are mathematical not nature. The inverse square law is a relationship, but it’s no longer the relationship fundamental to our understanding of gravitation. That also applies to Einstein’s field equations, presumably, given the overwhelming majority of physicists subscribe to the view that general relativity must make way for quantum gravity. Which brings us back to the question; are these relationships real?  The relational aspect to nature that Smolin sees could be an insight into how we construct scientific theories and how those theories come to make sense to us, which would be more an epistemological than a metaphysical philosophy. But relations, it seems, are not enough. For the mind to develop relations linking or networking concepts it first requires concepts, and I don’t see how a concept can be construed as a relation. I notice that Smolin has just published a book on quantum mechanics, where he defends a realist interpretation. I have not read the book but have seen a lecture he delivered at Perimeter. I have, however, recently read Philip Ball’s Beyond Weird which is one of those books that is so fuckin’ good it awakens one from one’s dogmatic slumbers. What a tour de force! I shall review it here at some point (alongside Karl Sigmund’s history of logical positivism Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science and Peter Hylton’s Quine both which I have also recently read). Consider the appearance of Einstein in Smolin’s title, which is often repeated in texts that take a realist view of QM. We should remember a simple point; Einstein was a man, not an angel, and that makes him fallible. Consider his “greatest mistake”, his words, namely the cosmological constant. That mistake came from a preconceived idea, or a prior intuition, of how nature ought to be. Einstein’s intuition was formidable but not infallible.
  • Massimo Pigliucci has just published a little essay on beauty in physics, and how it can lead us astray, at Aeon which reaffirms Sabine Hossenfelder’s popular thesis that “the trouble with physics,” to borrow from Smolin, is that it is “lost in math.” The trouble of which Pigliucci writes comes from theories that have no predictive power, even in principle, such as the multiverse or cosmic landscape but which provide a conception of nature that is mathematically beautiful and simple. Because we so cherish beauty and simplicity we too readily allow ourselves to be seduced and bedazzled by theories that show us how we think nature ought to be rather than how she really is. To paraphrase David Hume, one cannot derive an is from an ought as much as one cannot an ought from an is. The mathematician Peter Shor, however, has a good rejoinder in an interview with John Horgan at Scientific American I think that the physicists have been led astray, but I would disagree that what led them astray is their obsession with beauty. Rather, I think that what has led theoretical physicists astray is that they are no longer grounded in experiment.” Mathematicians have always been in this position and “they learned this over the years by trial and error, discovering that if you try to do mathematics without relying on rigor, you are likely to be led astray by your intuition.  The culture of physics doesn’t have this constraint.” This then leads to a cultural and sociological process, what Roger Penrose called “fashion, faith and fantasy,” and “this sociological process leads high-energy physicists to collectively accept ideas prematurely, when there is still very little evidence in favor of them.  Then the peer review process leads the funding agencies to mainly fund people who believe in these ideas when there is no guarantee that they are correct, and any alternatives to these ideas are for the most part neglected.” This is surely correct, and there’s a similar phenomenon at work, one with more obvious human consequences, that is in economics. Here you have highly mathematical models of general equilibria, closely connected to neoliberal ideology and policy, that are said to follow on from considerations of mathematical beauty and simplicity. Here we have rational and efficient markets, yet we know that markets are hardly rational or efficient. Economics, that is neoclassical economics, is thereby also “lost in math.” This is a criticism often made, but it’s fallacious all the same. The problem with economics isn’t that it is based on notions of mathematical beauty and simplicity, rather the issue lies in ideological preconceptions about the nature of capitalist society which themselves are reflective of the interests of the dominant centres of economic and political power. So, you end up having, to borrow from Shor, “funding agencies who fund people who believe in these ideas” whatever reality and justice might say of the matter. Pigliucci begins his article by arguing that Feynman was a bad philosopher. I rather think Feynman was a good philosopher, and one whose (reported) insights are too often neglected. Invoking Feynman in the context of “the trouble with physics” is at any rate odd, for Richard Feynman was one of the earliest and most vocal critics of superstring theory and that precisely on experimental grounds. Richard Feynman does not deserve to be put in the company that Pigliucci implicitly puts him.
  • The Hong Kong protests continue to attract attention, if only for their impressive scale and daring actions. The protest movement is clearly animated by ideas of democracy and freedom. It is a movement which opposes an authoritarian order based on a very tight nexus between centralised state power wielded by a political elite, beholden to the boss in Beijing, and large corporations owned and managed by an economic elite beholden to global capital. Nobody on the Left that values democracy can find themselves in opposition to the Hong Kong protesters. The Hong Kong protests are a very visible manifestation of a trend sweeping the world over, in both societies considered democratic and authoritarian. Don’t forget that a key feature of neoliberalism in practice is the reorganisation of society by a state-corporate nexus, which by design is reflective of the interests and concerns of corporate managers and investors. The opposition to all this, pretty much everywhere, doesn’t so much concern the material as it does democracy. That’s extremely interesting, and it tells you something about the nature of human beings. What is at the centre of concern is democracy, self governance, and dignity. People yearn to live in a world that is of their making, not one moulded for them by power in the interests of privilege. Neoliberalism can trace its origins to the Manchester School of political economy, to the agitation of Malthus, Ricardo and others to repeal the poor and corn laws in the 19th century, rather than to Adam Smith and other pre-capitalist classical political economists. The Chartist movement, which arose in reaction to the ravages of 19th century capitalism, was an organised working class movement whose central concern, like today’s protest movements including that in Hong Kong, was democracy. It was the Chartists who invented the strike, especially the general strike, waged for political purposes. This is what we are missing today. We are missing Chartism. The democracy movements must think about opening a new front in the arena of struggle against state-corporate power, that is into the workplace through pickets, strikes and occupations that have essentially political objectives. Workers must strike a new charter for democracy. If you look at the pro democracy demonstrations and insurrections of today, you’ll see that the Chartist weapon of the political strike is sorely lacking. Imagine if, in Hong Kong, the same two million people organised and mobilised in a leaderless and decentralised fashion on the streets qua citizens were similarly organised and mobilised in their workplaces qua workers? We need a decentralised and leaderless working class movement striking for a democratic society. The established trade and labour unions are not up to the task, even if they wanted to be.
  • The protesters that stormed into the Hong Kong legislature can be faulted not for their forcible entry into the Legislative Council but for their leaving. A protest movement takes hold of a parliament to the extent that it is serious about revolution, anything less betrays uncertainty about both objective and strategy. This is the point the Serb sociologist, Jovo Bakic, made when protesters a couple of months ago stormed into the premises of the Serbian public broadcaster. The obvious lack of a political strategy let alone a follow on plan, enabled the regime of Aleksandar Vucic to engage in a propaganda offensive, which helped to take the wind out of the sails of an 8 month pro democracy movement. That movement diminished in scale not long thereafter (the storming and leaving of state TV was not the only factor), but it is picking up steam again and shows no sign of going away anytime soon. Dragan Janjic has a good article here on the protests, but there are two weaknesses to the analysis. Firstly, Janjic does not point out, in an article that speaks much of Bakic’s analysis of affairs, that an important factor accounting for the problems of Serbian society arises from its place in the periphery of the world capitalist system. Bakic is noted for seeing matters thus. Secondly, Janjic claims that the “international community” is opposed to Vucic’s rule. That is false. Indeed, one of the more important reasons why the pro democracy movement has struggled to achieve any real political change is because the “international community” supports Vucic. That too is a point often made by Bakic. Indeed, we can go one further. What we today call Aleksandar Vucic, the former ultranationalist turned Eurocrat that has learnt the errors of his ways, was created by “the international community.” It is well known that Western embassies, especially the German, helped to siphon Vucic away from Vojislav Seselj and his ultranationalist Serb Radical Party. The idea being that Vucic would provide for a more stable neocolonial dependency than then President Boris Tadic (a social democrat whose government engaged in Yeltsin style privatisations, even though he himself was and is clean). The Vucic regime is based, to an important though not total (see point above about privatisations), degree on the remnants of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. The lesson learnt is pretty clear; just say yes to the boss without so you can do as you please within. That’s the essence of the contract. The remnants of the Milosevic era have retained their political culture, it is their stance toward what Janjic calls “the international community” that has changed.
  • The tax cuts of the Morrison government will now pass through both houses of Parliament, with the “Liberal” party securing the support of the crossbenches in the Senate. The Labor Party has hitherto opposed the last, third, tranche of the government’s tax cuts, however there has been more than a little wavering on their part. It is still not clear that they will firmly oppose the passage of the third tranche. This is the tranche that is by far the biggest, and which takes the most out of government revenue. It is the third tranche which seeks to fundamentally reform Australia’s income tax system toward a regressive flat rate regime that would further entrench rising inequality. Watching and reading Australia’s corporate media, but also the public broadcaster the ABC, has been an interesting exercise. The dominant position has been that Labor must support the third tranche, a good indication of how the corporate media in capitalist society is used as a tool to discipline Labor. For this reason the episode serves as a good indication of how friend, formerly comrade, Anthony Albanese’s leadership of the Labor Party will swing. Thus far the signs are that friend Albanese will be a good boy who’ll take his instructions from Bellevue Hill and Point Piper. That was the message of the 2019 Federal Election; class war is a matter reserved for the rich. On the third tranche specifically friend Albanese’s negative comments have been instructive. He has referred to them as the “triumph of hope” over experience. What does that mean? It means that friend, formerly comrade, Albanese hopes that the tax cuts can be delivered in full, however experience shows that it’ll probably lead to a budget deficit in future. See how the concern isn’t that the tax cuts are skewed toward the rich, and that they’ll entrench a regressive flat rate component to Australia’s income tax system? In fact, friend Albanese “hopes” that this can be done, but alas pesky experience suggests otherwise. There’s a good, critical, article at the ABC webpage today on the Morrison tax reforms, but notice it takes an Albanese character to it. Most of it by far is devoted to the likely effect on the budget bottom line. Only at the end does it begin to discuss how the tax cuts function as a form of tax reform in the interests of the rich. It’s buried at the end, “lost in math,” and has no bearing on the title. That’s as far as criticism can go in the mainstream media. The whole thing is like Bob Hawke and Brian Howe’s (of the “socialist left” faction) opposition to John Hewson’s Fightback! neoliberal reform package. Their criticism was that the “feral abacus” got his sums wrong. Presumably, if the feral abacus got his sums right the package had much to commend it. Yet Fightback! was a highly ideological vision founded for, of, and by the rich and that applies all the same to the Morrison tax reform (not tax cuts). But that’s not why friend Albanese opposes them (for now). Neoliberal reforms in Australia cannot take an indefinite and permanent form without bipartisan support, and friend, formerly comrade, Albanese shows little sign that Labor is prepared to withdraw that bipartisan support. Which, of course, brings us back to Chartism. It’s said that democracy in Australia, such as it is, came to no small degree with the Eureka Stockade. Don’t forget the Chartists were front and centre at Ballarat.

Update: As I wrote news broke that friend Albanese announced that Labor would not oppose the full tax reform aka tax cuts package in the Senate. What a fuckin’ turd.

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Is Donald Trump a Chollima Rider? On the Kim-Trump Meeting at the DMZ.

What but a mysterious force could propel the Chollima horse to speeds of 1,000 ri a day? Could it be the very same mysterious force that Kim Jong-un says brought Donald Trump and he together at the DMZ? Or is there some other “spooky action at a distance” at work? KCNA cites Kim Jong-un as saying a mysterious force is weaving its magic here

“Kim Jong Un said that it was the good personal relations with President Trump that made such a dramatic meeting possible at just a one day’s notice, noting that the relations would continue to produce good results unpredictable by others and work as a mysterious force overcoming manifold difficulties and obstacles in the future, too.”

Mystery exists as to how the third encounter between Kim and Trump was arranged. Trump himself attributed it to a surprise Friday tweet inviting Kim to the DMZ for a meet and greet, Kim Jong-un has also asserted this, and the claim has been widely reported in the media. The two, however, recently exchanged letters and Donald Trump indicated beforehand that he would be bringing both Mike Pompeo and Stephen Biegun to South Korea after the Osaka G20 Summit in Japan. That led to discussion among analysts and commentators into the possibility that moves were afoot for the arrangement of a third summit. That third meeting ended up coming much quicker than anyone anticipated, with Chollima speed if you will. It could well be that the DMZ meeting was not as spontaneous as hitherto assumed, and if so the recent revival in relations (assuming no back channel) was a function of Kim Jong-un’s letter to Donald Trump, marking the first anniversary of the Singapore summit, rather than Trump’s predilection for Twitter.

I am not in possession of information to be definitive either way, and we will need more information prior to making a firm judgement.

The other interesting detail regards President Trump’s brief foray north of the Military Demarcation Line into the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, the first of a sitting US President. That has not been lost on the North Koreans themselves, who have emphasised this point domestically. That functions as a type of recognition of the DPRK as a state, and Pyongyang may positively see it as something that falls within the ambit of the Singapore Declaration where the US agreed to abandon what North Korea calls its hostile policy toward it. Was this Kim’s price for a DMZ meeting or was it Trump’s idea? Trump has stated that should Kim have rejected the entreaty contained in his Friday tweet it would have made him look a fool so Kim could have used that leverage to extract a waltz to the North. Even should Trump have offered stepping across the MDL into the North, he surely would have done so on the understanding that such a gesture was needed to get Kim’s agreement to a meet and greet at the DMZ.

My initial impression of the optics was that Kim allowed Trump to make him look like an idiot, something akin to an exotic zoo exhibition paraded before the world’s media. Trump got his media blitz, just as the Democrat’s began their presidential primary debates in earnest, and the western media could indulge some more at the altar of the Trump bump. But Kim got his waltz across the DMZ, and that (also revival of working level talks, more of which later) saved him some face.

That’s interesting, recall also the mysterious force above, because critical commentary of the DMZ meeting has emphasised that Trump, dangerously, has too personal an outlook on denuclearisation diplomacy with North Korea. He thinks a personal chemistry exists between he and Kim, and that this can overcome obstacles rather than the slog and minutiae of working level meetings. But we may ask whether that really applies the other way around, that it is Kim Jong-un that has too much invested in Trump’s supposed willingness and ability to act as a political gadfly raising a new dawn in US-DPRK relations.  I can’t help but have the feeling that it is Trump that has had Kim, not Kim Trump.

North Korea’s post Hanoi policy is that it is giving the US until the end of the year to change its calculation, as it puts Washington’s insistence on CVID, so one could argue that Kim’s presence at the DMZ was in accord with its previously announced policy stance. But, then again, there have been North Korean statements saying that there would be no third meeting between Kim and Trump until Washington changes its calculation. The DMZ meeting has changed nothing in that regard. The US is still committed to CVID before all else and North Korea is still committed to the Hanoi position of shutting down Yongbyon in return for the lifting of UN sanctions targeting the civil sectors of its economy as the next step in a reciprocal step-by-step process. Yet, despite no apparent change in Washington’s calculation Kim agreed to the DMZ meeting. Which brings us back to the question; did Trump make Kim look like an idiot, a bit like Gaddafi when Tony Blair paraded the exotica before the world’s cameras after the former signed on to the so called Libya model? That’s a comparison the North Koreans would wince at.

That’s where the business of the possible resumption of working level meetings, at below the head of state level, enters the picture. Both Pyongyang and Washington have stated that this is the most concrete outcome of the DMZ meeting. That would be a positive and welcome development, as from before Hanoi, a point I have belaboured here, we have been riding an escalation ladder with North Korea and the resumption of working level talks arrests that process. We should be careful, however, because working level meetings after Singapore achieved little and, moreover, they were mischaracterised in deceptive ways by Biegun.

The New York Times reports that there have been discussions within the Trump administration about “changing its calculation” as Pyongyang puts it. The New York Times reports that Washington may offer Kim a modified version of North Korea’s Yongbyon offer made at Hanoi. In exchange for a fissile material production cutoff, where North Korea shuts all its fissile material production facilities not just those located at Yongbyon, the United States would support partial sanctions relief. That would be, in effect, a nuclear freeze agreement. The sanctions relief would be significant not just intrinsically, but also because it would allow North and South Korea to deepen economic cooperation.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, the freeze agreement would include, according to The New York Times report, an intrusive inspections regime in North Korea something, it appears, even beyond the Additional Protocol to the IAEA model safeguards agreement. It is hard to see North Korea agreeing to this, and, secondly, the prospect of an aggressively intrusive verification regime could be a mechanism developed by Bolton and Pompeo to scuttle future working level meetings all the while blaming North Korea for the collapse of diplomacy. Hawks in the Republican establishment have long used the politics of verification to scupper arms control processes they don’t like. Inspectors roaming North Korea reminds one of the UNSCOM saga in Iraq, which if repeated in North Korea could lead to a crisis. A repeat of Operation Desert Fox would lead to nuclear war.

What could be offered, instead, is North Korea’s declaring its fissile material production facilities, if not all its fuel cycle facilities, a commitment to cease fissile material production, and the use of national technical means of verification to monitor North Korea’s end of the bargain. This is not the same as dismantlement, but the problem with dismantlement, as the Iran case shows, is that sanctions are more readily reversible than dismantlement. The declaration would not represent a target list for American planners, as after Hanoi (if not before), Pyongyang would be aware of how much Washington knows regarding its fissile material production facilities. The target list that matters is real time information on the crown jewels of the KPA strategic rocket forces. But that would be to ask more than what Pyongyang offered at Hanoi, so more than partial, reversible, sanctions relief would need to be offered in return. That additional item could be a declaration of the end of the Korean War. North Korea has previously emphasised that a declaration of its fissile material production facilities needs to be reciprocated by a declaration of the end of the Korean War, a declaration-for-declaration deal as it were.

Whether the Kim-Trump dalliance at the DMZ leads to anything substantive, that it amounts to more than reality TV, depends on what happens at the subsequent working level meetings, and that in turn depends on whether Washington has changed its calculation. The New York Times reports Biegun as saying the US position has not changed, which is to say that a nuclear freeze agreement involving the shutting down of all North Korea’s fissile material production facilities in exchange for sanctions relief is not on offer. If true, Biegun is effectively saying that the DMZ meeting was another episode of Love Island. My own view is that these things are best influenced than predicted. The extent to which Trump’s meeting with Kim is reality TV depends on whether you stop watching and enter the set as an actor influencing developments on the stage. The public should not allow itself to be spectators, rather the public should demand rational policy outcomes and act to achieve them should those demands fall on deaf ears. Taking the Yongbyon offer made at Hanoi was just such a rational approach, as it provides for a measure of strategic stability and opened the prospect of formally ending the Korean War. North Korea’s nuclear disarmament in one fell swoop is not realistic, but the rational approach is the approach that just so happens to be suppressed in the public sphere by the corporate media. The nuclear threat emanating from North Korea comes from the Korean War the continued reality of which forecloses anything other than the forceful nuclear disarmament of North Korea.

We should also note that the US is a global power, and what it does in one area is rarely thought of in discrete terms. Washington’s manner of calculation, to borrow from Pyongyang, usually considers the impact of policy in other regions or other policy concerns. The United States could be offering North Korea working level meetings designed not to achieve a serious outcome, so keeping Kim Jong-un on his best behaviour, while it swings its attention to a conflict of its own making with Iran.

Critics, but not just critics, of the DMZ meeting continue to be focused on a debate regarding the extent to which North Korea is committed to denuclearisation. That’s the wrong question. The right question to ask is; is the United States committed to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula? North Korea is committed to denuclearisation understood as lowering the salience of nuclear deterrence in its international relations. That’s not disarmament, but it was never considered as such by North Korea. The nuclear weapon states regard denuclearisation to be a process short of disarmament, as something involving deemphasising the importance of nuclear weapons in their declaratory policy, and North Korea has simply taken a leaf out of their book. Is the United States willing to place matters other than nuclear weapons at the centre of its relationship with North Korea? Both sides to the debate, liberals and neocons on the one hand and Trump and friends on the other, show little sign of a commitment to denuclearisation. The more Americans indulge their nuclear obsession, ironically, the more likely nuclear war with North Korea becomes.

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The Twin Paradox of Denuclearisation Diplomacy with North Korea

June 12 marked the first anniversary of the Singapore summit between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, and the period thereafter has seen some suggest preparations are afoot for a third summit. Kim Jong-un sent a letter to Trump to mark the occasion, Trump declared it to be “beautiful,” and KCNA cited Kim saying that the Chairman will “seriously contemplate” Trump’s reply given its “interesting contents.” That reply had some underlined passages, it is not clear whose, but they appear to be Trump’s. One report has suggested, from The Japan Times, that North Korea is dangling the prospect of shutting five uranium enrichment plants, two we know of and three we do not (assuming there’s five), in return for unspecified concessions. That report is not confirmed and is based on remarks by a North Korean diplomatic defector residing in the United States.

We have also seen President Xi Jinping of China make an official state and party visit to North Korea, the fifth Kim-Xi summit. These summits have come before and after top level US and North Korea meetings. Furthermore, President Trump is due to arrive in South Korea and coming along for the ride is the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and his envoy to North Korea Stephen Biegun. All of this has led to speculation regarding the possibility of a third summit meeting between Kim and Trump. This activity comes as the US is engaged in an escalatory process in the Persian Gulf with Iran. It is possible that Washington wants to keep the Korean front quiet whilst it swings its force to the Iranian front. Ribbentrop and Molotov knew how that works.

We shall have to wait and see, although it is better for us to influence developments than wait upon them. One thing we certainly can see is evidence that North Korea continues to work on its strategic nuclear programmes in the absence of integrated all system testing of them (i.e. nuclear tests and flight tests of long range missiles), and the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency has reaffirmed an assessment that North Korea is not ready to disarm (the expression “denuclearise” was used by Lt General Ashley, which strictly speaking is not true in this context).

You might want to argue that there has hitherto obtained a sort of “twin paradox” at play regarding the denuclearisation talks between Washington and Pyongyang. These are not two discrete paradoxes, rather two deeply interconnected ones. I call them paradoxes to the extent that they confound our understanding of what has been happening since Singapore. The first regards the denuclearisation talks themselves, the second concerns what those talks tell us about patterns of dependency in Northeast Asia.

The Paradox of Denuclearisation

Let us start with the first. What have the denuclearisation talks achieved? President Trump likes to point to the absence of North Korean testing as a key achievement, he stated prior to the Hanoi summit that this was the most important thing for him. Yet that is not the result of Singapore. North Korea announced its decision to suspend testing of nuclear weapons and long range missiles at an April 2018 plenary session of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea. That is, after the process of North-South rapprochement kicked off following Kim’s January 1,2018 new year address and before the June 12 summit at Singapore. For its part Pyongyang appears to have achieved little, certainly it has achieved little by way of sanctions relief. It is said that the parties have laboured over competing understandings of the concept “denuclearisation,” with Pyongyang adhering to a gradual step-by-step process short of disarmament and Washington adhering to complete and irreversible dismantlement of the North’s strategic weapons programmes.

One could argue, however, that for both parties the talks weren’t about nuclear weapons. For North Korea, it appears, the Singapore process came about unexpectedly and was a means of providing space for its interlocutor in Seoul, the liberal government of Moon Jae-in, the necessary political space to engage in détente. It is not possible for Seoul to engage in détente with the North without appearing to address the concerns of Washington, something both Seoul and Pyongyang understood. So long as the denuclearisation talks continued Moon and Kim went from summit to summit. But now that they have stalled, the process of détente too has stalled. That shows you their importance for that process. Secondly, the denuclearisation talks were a means for Pyongyang to leverage its strategic capabilities to improve relations with the US and extract economic, diplomatic, and security concessions from Washington. Put all that together and you get a picture suggesting that for Pyongyang the denuclearisation talks had little to do with the nuclear question.

For the United States, it appears, the matter of nuclear weapons was front and centre. Discourse on North Korea, as on nuclear proliferation more broadly since the 1990-1991 Gulf War, has been dominated by the prospect of an irrational actor acquiring the ability to launch nuclear strikes against US forces, US allies, and the US homeland. The denuclearisation talks, on the surface, appear to be devoted to addressing that threat. They have done nothing toward that end, and not just because of North Korean attitudes and actions. Could we argue, then, that for Washington the denuclearisation talks weren’t about the nuclear dimension. Rather, Singapore arose, in part (the external part), from a concern that Washington would be isolated from developments in the Korean peninsula should it have stuck to the traditional stance of the hawks of no high level negotiations until Pyongyang unilaterally concedes to US demands. In that sense, Washington has achieved much from the denuclearisation talks. Instead of being isolated from one of the world’s most promising political developments, the United States has shown itself to be “the indispensable nation” without which nothing of consequence in this world can happen. The denuclearisation talks have led to a situation whereby peace on the Korean peninsula needs to go through Washington first, and in scuttling the denuclearisation talks (that’s my reading of Hanoi) Washington has prevented further advances toward North-South rapprochement that challenges its overall strategic vision for Northeast Asia.

On June 12, 2018 most declared Kim to have played Trump. But it appears on June 12, 2019 it is Trump that has played Kim. So, we have our first paradox. Despite word “nuclear” being dropped with abandon over the past year we might come to the paradoxical conclusion that the talks over North Korea’s nuclear programme weren’t about nuclear weapons. The dominant idea is that lack of progress can be attributed to the two sides somehow misundersting what the other regards “denuclearisation” to mean.  After a year of to-and-through that idea is starting to wear thin, or at least it should.

Pity the Nation

What of the second, related, paradox? This would be more centred upon the Korean nation itself. As the superb American historian, Bruce Cumings, has long pointed out the Korean War was, indeed is given it has yet formally ended, first and foremost a Korean affair. But it became intertwined with the Cold War, and so has taken on a significance beyond that of the Korean nation and something subject to the interests and concerns of the great powers. That is how things are for the small nations of the world when they find themselves at the intersection of competing great powers. Both North Korea and South Korea have sought to wean themselves from external dependency. Following emancipation from Japanese imperial rule, Pyongyang has sought this through its own brand of self-reliant “socialist construction” known as Juche, whereas Seoul has sought this through economic modernisation and growth.

The Singapore process seems to have underscored that Korea remains a nation divided and one that remains dependent upon external powers who put their, not Korean, interests first. For Pyongyang one gets the impression, in part, that its strategic nuclear weapons programme was about guaranteeing regime survival by lowering strategic dependence upon China. Yet the failure of the Singapore process, and the consequent continuance of “maximum pressure” economic sanctions, has underscored its material dependence upon China. One gets the impression that continued Chinese support, just enough for the rudiments of survival nothing more mind you, helps keep North Korea afloat. One can see a certain cynical calculation on Beijing’s part here. Support enough for survival keeps Pyongyang dependent, which provides Beijing some leverage with Washington, and enables North Korea’s continued economic exploitation by China. Nothing quite grist’s the mills like cheap labour, even for comrades. That’s a situation not in North Korea’s interest, but it is in China’s as it is enough to prevent regime collapse in Pyongyang without jeopardising China’s position in the world as a responsible great power.

During the Kim-Putin summit earlier this year the President of Russia said something of interest, but quickly passed over by analysts and the media alike. Putin stated that South Korea “suffers from a deficit of sovereignty.” The South cannot boldly pursue rapprochement and détente with the North, despite the lack of progress in the denuclearisation talks which has much to do with US approaches and actions, because despite its economic modernisation and impressive economic growth it remains, perhaps even more so, dependent upon the United States. South Korea has pursued the East Asian development model of export led industrialisation, and that by a political economy characterised by strong links between the state and industrial-corporate conglomerates known, in the South Korean case, as the Chaebol. While it is true that Moon needs to address threats to his flanks domestically, conservative elements in the South remain hostile to diplomacy with the North, it is also true that Washington has a lot of economic leverage over the North and the Chaebol at the centre of the South’s political economy. For example, the prospect of secondary US economic boycotts, especially secondary boycotts against Seoul’s financial system, should South Korea pursue joint economic projects despite lack of progress in the denuclearisation talks, has constituted a most significant roadblock to Seoul’s moving further on détente and rapprochement with the North.

The Singapore process, like the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, has underscored that South Korea, despite its impressive modernisation and economic growth, remains dependent upon the United States. South Korea has a subordinate position in the world capitalist system, how else to interpret Seoul’s not doing what Seoul wants to do?

Despite liberation from Japanese imperialism, a brutal civil war, a drive for industrial self reliance in the North, the North’s balancing between Moscow and Beijing, modernisation in the South, the struggle for democracy in the South, despite all that the Korean nation is where it was at the beginning of its modern history. Divided and dependent upon the great powers. Pity the nation. It is possible to argue that this is because the North and the South, despite their vast differences, share one essential feature in common. The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea, each in their own way, crushed a nascent Korean revolution centred upon autonomous and democratic peoples’ committees following emancipation from imperial rule. The Korean nation will be the master of its destiny when democracy, in the fullest sense of the term, comes to Korea. That, like the denuclearisation talks, remains a work in progress.

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Weekly Thumbprint

  • The business about the DIA’s assessment, it is not clear that this assessment is shared by the US IC as a whole, continues to attract attention. Likely this is related to a push from within the US nuclear weapons complex for testing nuclear primary hydrodynamics using scaled plutonium primaries. Experiments in nuclear primary hydrodynamics at full scale, i.e. the full size and geometry of a fissile primary, employ metal other than plutonium. But as a, brief, report by the JASONs (mandated by Congress) states these metals do not support a neutron chain reaction thus, “the material properties of surrogates differ from those of Pu so that surrogate experiments require extrapolation and interpretation; they complement rather than replace subcritical experiments in Pu.” The United States, like other nuclear weapon states more broadly, does conduct hydrodynamic experiments with very small and very thin quantities of plutonium known as subcritical hydrodynamic tests. A scaled nuclear hydrodynamic experiment uses a scaled model of a plutonium primary, that is smaller but of the same geometry, and it additionally uses plutonium metal. The Union of Concerned Scientists has reported that the National Nuclear Security Administration would eventually like to do scaled experiments with models 70% the size of a full scale plutonium primary. Because the amount of plutonium used in a scaled experiment is not sufficient to sustain an explosive chain reaction, scaled hydrodynamic tests do not produce a nuclear yield. The JASON letter to Congress on scaled plutonium primary testing states, “Subcritical experiments are integrated experiments, which are valuable because they test all the processes together and provide a check on the overall design and construction of the primary.” That’s important in the context of the LEP for the W78 Replacement Warhead (which arms the Minuteman III ICBM and formerly known as Interoperable Warhead 1 under the Obama stockpile plan. Note usage of “replacement warhead” to which we return), currently in Phase 6.2 development, as it seeks to provide an inter operable warhead compatible with the Minuteman III Reentry Vehicle, the Trident II D-5 SLBM Reentry Vehicle, and the RV for the planned successor of the Minuteman III the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. The plutonium pit is that of the W78, but many of the other components of the primary are new. You can see why the quote from the JASON letter is important in this context. It becomes even more important in the context of the BM-Y and BM-Z Ballistic Missile Warhead envisaged for the replacement of the Minuteman III ICBM and the Trident II D-5 SLBM respectively. Little is known about both, even to the extent whether it will be based on an existing plutonium pit. According to the JASON letter, “For all weapons in the current stockpile, at the present time margins are adequate and uncertainties are within margins, both for normal operation and for nuclear safety should accidents occur.” But, and it is an important but for our purposes, “future aging of these weapons and their remanufacture may increase uncertainties, and JASON finds that scaled experiments in Pu may significantly reduce uncertainties that may arise in the future due to aging, or in certification of weapons through future life extension programs (LEPs) or alterations (ALTs), or through remanufacture or reuse of weapon components.” This is likely relevant to the W78 Replacement Warhead and it is certainly relevant to the BM-Y and BM-Z. The FY2019 stockpile management plan calls for developing, “an operational enhanced capability (advanced radiography and reactivity measurements) for subcritical experiments by the mid-2020s.” Scaled hydrodynamic testing of nuclear primaries requires investing in more enhanced diagnostic equipment, and the statement just quoted is of direct relevance to experiments employing scaled plutonium primaries. According to the JASON letter, “Only x-rays of sufficiently high energy can penetrate the Pu and produce a radiographic image. JASON has reviewed the required penetration (in report JSR-11-340, in subsequent technical interchanges with the physics labs, as well as in the present study) and concurs that an electron energy above 10MeV is required for useful radiography at late times. In particular, the two existing CYGNUS sources (2.2 MeV) at U1a, while performing as designed and useful for other experiments, are inadequate for late-time subcritical experiments in Pu.” I suspect that hawkish elements in the nuclear weapons community would like the BM-Y and BM-Z warhead programme to resemble the Bush era Reliable Replacement Warhead (recall change of nomenclature for W78 LEP).The JASON group concluded the conservative design chosen for the first of the Reliable Replacement Warheads, the WR-1, could not be certified without explosive testing to a nuclear yield. So, I think the matter of unsubstantiated allegations of Russian nuclear yield testing is related to the push for scaled experiments in the US, and potentially a resumption of the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme. At the outer edge of speculation, a resumption of nuclear testing by the United States, and the other nuclear weapon states, opens up the prospect of work on new enhanced radiation weapons. Intelligence going back to the 1990s, publicly available, has suggested that the development of low yield enhanced effect weapons has been a desire of hawkish elements within the Soviet (now Russian) weapons complex. You know the same holds in the US, given the manufacture of a kerfuffle over EMP effects from time to time by hawkish elements. Don’t forget that full scale nuclear testing can be conducted for either of two purposes, the first to validate designs, the second to gauge weapons effects, or a combination thereof. If the DIA assessment is related to a push for scaled experiments in the US then the DIA could have shot the hawks in the foot. That’s because if the assessment is demonstrated to be both false and based on the view that Russia has conducted scaled experiments then the allegation functions as a recognition that scaled experiments are contrary to the CTBT and the memorandum of understanding on zero yield testing between the established nuclear states. That would make acquiring approval for scaled testing that more politically difficult, given the need to appropriate for enhanced diagnostic equipment among other things.
  • On June 13 The Drive reported that the US conducted the first captive-carry flight test (on a B-52) of the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), which is an air launched hypersonic boost glide weapon. No picture of the ARRW was released. Most discussions of US hypersonic weapons focus on the other two planned types, the Tactical Boost Glide hypersonic weapon and the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept. It would be good to get a look at the dimensions of the business end of the ARRW. The ARRW is designed to be accelerated by a booster rocket to hypersonic speed whereupon it will be able to glide to its target with a quasi-ballistic flight profile. Hypersonic weapons like the ARRW will enable planners to strike time urgent targets, such as command and control and any strategic assets whose location is known, in a very prompt fashion with little to no warning, and they’ll be able to beat missile defences. When North Korea tested the KN-23 SRBM, a solid fuelled missile able to manoeuvre on a quasi-ballistic trajectory, beat missile defences, and promptly hit time urgent targets on the Korean peninsula, it was widely reported that “missiles like these will start the war.” One effect of hypersonic weapons is that they’ll encourage further research and development in missile defence technologies, something not often discussed, which will encourage further investment in new nuclear delivery technologies. A RAND report on hypersonic weapons argued that there’s a 10 year window for arms control efforts to arrest the dangerous potential effects that hypersonic weapons will have for strategic stability. The thing here is that arms control has a poor track record of curtailing technological, qualitative, advances in weaponry systems.
  • Let’s change tack and deal with a more uplifting theme. Quanta has a good article, invariably one gets nothing but quality fare at Quanta, on Hartle-Hawking no boundary proposal or “the wavefunction of the universe” theory on the origin of the universe. This Hawking developed in collaboration with James Hartle in the 1980s. Everybody that has read, as opposed to making it a lounge room ornament, Hawking’s popular A Brief History of Time knows of it. I like this snippet from the Quanta article

“Likewise, Hartle and Hawking expressed the wave function of the universe — which describes its likely states — as the sum of all possible ways that it might have smoothly expanded from a point. The hope was that the sum of all possible “expansion histories,” smooth-bottomed universes of all different shapes and sizes, would yield a wave function that gives a high probability to a huge, smooth, flat universe like ours. If the weighted sum of all possible expansion histories yields some other kind of universe as the likeliest outcome, the no-boundary proposal fails.”

This is a reference to Feynman’s path integral, or sum over histories, approach to quantum mechanics. Now the interesting thing here is that the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, in the 1990s, is not something that the no boundary proposal predicted. The model was based on the universe that we knew in the 1980s (same goes for inflation). Therefore, the no boundary proposal, as originally formulated, yielded a universe as being the most likely which subsequent experiment showed cannot possibly be the most likely. So it was wrong. But, one implication taken from the Quanta article, is that the no boundary proposal has degenerated from being wrong to being not even wrong. Lakatos might have something to say at this point.  The no boundary proposal was not the only quantum cosmology developed in the 1980s. That became a bit of a cottage industry. The idea one might regard as being puzzling. The empirical evidence on the accelerated expansion of the universe is consistent with a small, albeit nonzero, value for the cosmological constant. Quantum mechanics produces a value for the vacuum energy, i.e. the cosmological constant, that is many orders of magnitude off from experiment. Quantum mechanics is seen as complete, that is as a consistent and complete theory of physics, but it cannot be so long as this mismatch with experiment obtains. It is hoped that a quantum theory of gravity would remedy this, but “dark energy” is not gravity rather its opposite, and at any rate a quantum theory of gravity involves a unification of the quantum with general relativity where the latter is modified whilst quantum mechanics remains unsullied given the assumption of completeness. Perhaps “quantum gravity” is not quite the right label for thinking about these things, better would be “quantum spacetime.” If cosmology indicates to us that quantum mechanics is incomplete, whence then “quantum cosmology?” We are in a situation just like before Newton; our cosmology is at variance with our physics, and it is our physics that must bend to make our world whole again. Anyway, I think the question of the origin of the universe demonstrates how science is based on a faculty of the mind that produces a range of admissible hypotheses, a hypothesis space, so we end up with the same ideas; a singular origin, cyclic universes, steady states, eliminativism. The no boundary proposal could be seen as a type of eliminativism (so goes with inflationary cosmology). A verifiable hypothesis that lies outside of a cognitively permissible, for humans, hypothesis space cannot be formulated, so therefore would be beyond science.  That is how it might be with the question of the origin of the universe.

  • In the first rendition of my weekly imprints, on a range of topics of interest to me, I began with an observation about Jovo Bakic, the most popular public intellectual in Serbia who, incidentally, regards himself to be a libertarian socialist. Since that post he has been called into questioning by the police, after a routine interview with a leading current affairs weekly and not long after the President, the former ultranationalist disguised as a Eurocrat who is improving, Aleksandar Vucic challenged him to a physical duel. The calling in for questioning was clearly an act of intimidation, and to the extent that the police is at the beck and call of the political whims of the President we can conclude that it functions, in part, as a type of political police. Recently a former leading police official, in an interview with media that monitor corruption, charged that the Minister for Health and the former State Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior both have links to the criminal underground including that faction responsible for the 2003 assassination of then Prime Minister or Premier, Zoran Djindjic, known as the “Zemun Clan.” In a recent lecture, where he showed off his non-existent PowerPoint skills (a virtue not a vice), on the Belgrade on the Water development, designed as a gated enclave for the rich and powerful on the standard third world model, as a case example of urban planning in the periphery of the world capitalist system, where the former Yugoslavia now finds itself, he made the point that authoritarianism and neoliberalism are intimately connected. This was just before his calling into questioning by the police, which serves as a type of empirical validation of the themes of his lecture. That doesn’t just apply to the periphery. In Australia, right after the May 2019 federal election which saw the Liberal government of Scott Morrison returned to power, the Australian Federal Police raided the premises of a journalist and the Australian Broadcasting Service in what the, government appointed, director of the ABC called “an act of intimidation.” The AFP conducted both raids in relation to reports of plans to enhance government surveillance of citizens and of alleged war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan. The Government showed itself to be in no hurry to share information regarding both to what democratic theory takes to be its master, namely the citizenry. There’s a neat symmetry here. The first deals with plans to enhance the power of the state within Australia, the second with concealing evidence of war crimes from the public so protecting the state’s prerogative to act externally unconstrained by its most feared deterrent which isn’t international law. This is about protecting the internal and external sovereignty of the state. In that sense the AFP functions, in part, much as the police has shown itself, in part, to do in kleptocratic Serbia, that is as a type of political police. That demonstrates that enhanced state power over the individual, that is authoritarianism, is strongly correlated with neoliberal rule. The people of Hong Kong have shown, in their millions, that a people has rights to the extent that they are prepared to rise up to defend them. News that one’s police functions as a type of political police cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged, and should be greeted by throngs in the millions on the streets at least it would be by those who value their freedom.
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Taking the Standoff Between Iran and the US in the Gulf as a Controlled Experiment

The escalating crisis in the Persian Gulf between Iran and the United States and its allies is about as close as one can get to a controlled experiment in international relations. On the hand the crisis promises to tell us something about the credibility of Europe and the relative decline of US power. On the other about the role of nuclear weapons in international relations.

Today’s news is dominated by Iran’s announcement that it will breach a cap on its stock of low enriched uranium (3.67% U235) in 10 days. According to the annex of the JCPOA Iran cannot exceed a *stockpile* limit of 300kg LEU for 10 years after the ratification of the deal. Technically, exceeding the 300kg LEU stockpile limit is a JCPOA violation however the immediate effects on non-proliferation are limited as 300kg of LEU enriched to 3.67% doesn’t represent a credible breakout scenario. Iran’s nuclear activities prior to the JCPOA coming into force gave it a stockpile of 7154kg of LEU. In February 2013 Iran had 15800 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow.

A breakout scenario involving IR-1 centrifuges would consist of a four step progressive enrichment programme involving about 5000 centrifuges, some estimates go as high (PDF) as 5832. According to the latest (31 May 2019) IAEA report on verification and safeguards implementation in Iran the Iranians have 5060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and 1044 at Fordow. That’s in accord with the JCPOA provisions on enrichment. The IAEA reports that UF-6 feedstock has not been fed into the centrifuges at Fordow under the lifetime of the agreement.

The 5060 figure represents the standard estimate for a one year breakout scenario employing a feedstock of natural uranium in the form of uranium hexafluoride gas (UF6). “Breakout scenario” refers to the production of one nuclear weapon from a declared enrichment plant after Iran “breaks out” from its NPT obligations. That figure of 5060 IR-1 centrifuges, assuming a feedstock of 1053kg of UF-6 enriched to 3.67% U235 (the amount needed as feedstock to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons grade uranium assuming standard estimates for a Significant Quantity nb not the same as an advanced weapon design), comes to a three month breakout scenario. A 1.6 month breakout scenario requires about 9000 IR-1 centrifuges again assuming a feedstock of 1053kg of LEU.

The near term implications of Iran’s announcement that it would exceed the 300kg limit for nuclear weapons proliferation are therefore limited. But the thing to watch for isn’t breakout scenarios, it never has been in my view, but rather news regarding Iran’s advanced centrifuges, especially the IR-6, that have a significantly greater separative capacity than the IR-1. Because of this it might be possible for Iran, in a situation where the Additional Protocol to the model IAEA safeguards agreement is no longer in force (the Additional Protocol in the Iran case came with the JCPOA), for Iran to attempt to build a clandestine enrichment plant requiring fewer centrifuges, less energy input, and so thereby a smaller footprint. Remember that North Korea’s Kangson enrichment plant was the first dedicated fissile material production plant for weapons purposes to go undetected prior to its going operational (2003). The Kangson enrichment plant should be called the Bolton enrichment plant as it was the scuttling of the Agreed Framework, to no small degree because of the actions of the hard line neoconservatives in the Bush administration prominent among whom was John Bolton, that gave Pyongyang a strategic incentive to construct Kangson (Bolton).

Don’t forget the Arak research reactor, which Iran recently stated might return to its original design specifications which was ideal for producing weapons grade plutonium. Arak, however, represents an easy target for US air power.

The danger with Iran is that we could end up getting ourselves a possible third or fourth Bolton enrichment plant (depending upon how many Boltons North Korea has). According to the latest IAEA report on Iran and the JCPOA the Iranians have installed 33 IR-6 advanced centrifuges. They have feed 10 of these with UF-6 gas. Western diplomats have set a definite redline here. Namely, it is reported that western diplomats have said if Iran feeds UF-6 gas in all 33 of its IR-6 centrifuges then it would have crossed a red line. The consequences of Iran’s doing so are not clear, but military action is certainly one option that is always spoken of as being on the table. The enacting of that option would almost certainly lead to a Bolton or two or three.

The weekend, of course, was dominated by the attack on two commercial ships in the Persian Gulf, which the United States has attributed to Iran and the Pentagon has provided what it regards as evidence establishing this charge. I don’t want to go into the minutiae of that as many have, looking for a smoking gun pointing to US malfeasance. The evidence presented by the Pentagon to me seems prima facie plausible. My fellow comrades on the Left, I think, are making a mistake when they engage in the minutiae of open source intelligence analysis on this point. Firstly, because most aren’t OSINT experts. The internet has this tendency to encourage people to think they are OSINT experts after surfing the web for an hour. OSINT analysis is a highly technical skill requiring real dedication to master and, furthermore, access to specialised equipment. I’m not an OSINT expert but I have over the years developed a knack for knowing what analysis others have developed that is good and which is shit.  Secondly, and more importantly in my view, concentrating on video analysis misses the forest for the trees. The current situation in the Gulf is a direct consequence of Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA, the escalating graduated economic and financial sanctions it has places on Iran and secondary parties, and the beefing up of military firepower in the region. These actions are designed to back Iran into a corner, and Iranian counteractions such as the possible Iranian weekend attacks on Gulf shipping, are welcomed by Trump-Bolton-Pompeo. They’re welcomed because they make it easier for Washington to marshal an international coalition supportive of its escalating confrontation with Iran. They’re welcomed because they provide propaganda points at home justifying the confrontation with Iran, important given the growing opposition to war in general among the American public.

It could even be possible that US actions are designed to elicit harsh Iranian actions on precisely those grounds. The Reagan and Bush the Patrician administrations, for example, in the 1980s backed Nicaragua into a corner when they were waging a terror war against the Sandinista’s. The goal was to turn Nicaragua into a Soviet client so justifying its actions given what the US political class called “the Vietnam syndrome” (ordinary folk not liking war, basically). When Nicaragua was compelled to purchase a small number of fighter aircraft, MIGs, from the only source available to it this led to veritable euphoria. One can imagine Trump-Bolton-Pompeo greeting the news of an Iranian attack on Gulf shipping on the weekend with similar euphoria.

It is the fact of escalating tensions, and Trump’s responsibility for them, that should be the focus of Left analysis and action not the minutiae of video analysis. Indeed, that analysis presupposes the view that if Iran did attack the two vessels in the Gulf then it is responsible for the situation in the Gulf. There’s an interesting historical precedent here. In 1987 Iraq, when Bolton and co regarded Saddam Hussein as a moderate who is improving, attacked the USS Stark killing 37 US sailors in the Gulf President Reagan blamed Iran not Iraq. His reasoning was that, allegedly, Iran was responsible for the “Tanker War.” In fact, the Tanker War, like the Iran-Iraq war itself, was started by Iraq. But if you apply the reasoning used regarding the USS Stark, that the state responsible for the overall situation in the Gulf bears ultimate responsibility, then according to Ronald Reagan it is Donald Trump that is fundamentally responsible for the Iranians attacks in the Gulf.

One might say that the USS Stark attack was an accident whereas the weekend attacks were deliberate. However, there is evidence suggesting that the attack on the Stark was deliberate just as there is evidence to suggest that the only other time a state attacked a US naval vessel and got away with it, the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, was also deliberate. We should recall that the Tanker War ended when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft killing all on board. Controversy remains about whether that act was an accident or deliberate, yet it is beyond doubt that Bush the Patrician refused to apologise for it and the two top officers of the vessel received medals for their “meritorious service” in the Gulf. It was after that shooting down that Ayatollah Khomeini agreed to the “poisoned chalice” that ended the war the moderate who is improving started. The occurrence of similar incidents in the current standoff involving civil, commercial or military assets cannot be excluded.

The US strategy is to create instability in order to create stability, whereby stability is meant what we say goes. Iran is the most significant state in the Middle East that refuses to adhere reflexively to US demands, and which falls outside of the regional framework of power with Washington as the recognised and undisputed hegemon. What we saw on the weekend, whatever its provenance, is a direct consequence of a policy the very objective of which is the sowing of instability. Analysis and action needs to be directed here.

Which brings us back to our experiments. The first concerns the credibility of Europe. The Europeans have promised Tehran that they would provide economic and financial relief to compensate for US sanctions. Thus far the Europeans have promised more than what they have delivered. The Iranian financial press reports that France, Germany and the UK have announced that they will soon deliver the first instalment on the INSTEX programme, a Special Purpose Vehicle facilitating non-dollar dominated trade with Iran. A big problem with the US sanctions is the secondary boycotts on firms doing business with Iran. If the Europeans fail to meet their commitments, or provide real tangible relief for Iran, it will tell us something important about the subordinate role that Europe plays in world affairs and the continued relevance of the US as the world’s preponderant power despite all the talk of relative decline. Recall the point about Washington regarding the Middle East as a region where it must maintain hegemony and where that status needs to be duly recognised by other states. Washington will do its best to undermine European policy, whatever it proves to be. This dynamic is something well worth watching, and you can beat that the chancelleries of the world are watching this little controlled experiment carefully. I suspect that Europe will subordinate itself to US power, even at the expense of its own credibility.

The Iranian announcement that it will exceed its holding of LEU beyond 300kg in 10 days should be seen in this context, as a measure designed to put pressure on the Europeans to deliver their end of the bargain. The US ambassador to the IAEA at the latest Board meeting made an interesting statement not without relevance here; “Attempting to generate negotiating leverage 1 kg of uranium at a time will not bring sanctions relief.” We shall see.

The second controlled experiment arises with a comparison to North Korea. It is clear, especially after the death of Kim Jong-il, that the North Koreans calculated that the way to guarantee the security of the state and to gain leverage with the United States is to present Washington with a credible nuclear deterrent. The Iranians went the other way, striking a deal with Washington short of the development of a declared nuclear deterrent. The North Koreans themselves made that bet in earlier times most notably with the Agreed Framework. The Iranians, it has been widely reported, have developed a strategy of waiting out the Trump administration. The North Koreans continue to invest in their nuclear deterrent, even while engaged with denuclearisation talks with Trump. But if history records that Tehran adopted the wrong strategy whereas Pyongyang adopted the right one then the demonstrated salience of nuclear weapons in international relations is greater than many have given them credit for.

That too, sadly, would be something that wouldn’t go unrecognised in the chancelleries of the world.

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Back to the Future: US Ups the Ante on Russian Nuclear Weapons Testing at Novaya Zemlya

A lot of the new nuclear weapons systems that have been discussed from the 1990s onward, but never realised, have origins that can be traced back to the US and Soviet weapons labs of the 1980s. The end of the cold war and the arms control agreements that came with it, especially the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, put a hold to those plans. There have been attempts, nonetheless, to escape those constraints, most notably with the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme in the US case, but they did not reach fruition. In many respects the nuclear relationship between Washington and Moscow is taking us back to where we would have been had the cold war not ended in 1990.

So why wouldn’t the nuclear weapons complex and their most assiduous political supporters not dust off those plans and take us back to the future? That’s how I think we should interpret the claim, made by the Defense Intelligence Agency, that Russia has conducted a nuclear weapons test above a zero yield at Novaya Zemlya. The DIA claimed last month that Russia “probably” conducted a zero yield test. Now it has explicitly stated that it has conducted a test with a nuclear yield, which is contrary to the CTBT and a memorandum of understanding between the NPT recognised nuclear weapon states. The accusation is very similar to an episode that occurred in 1997. Then there was agitation from within the nuclear weapons complex, and its supporters, for research and development of low yield earth penetrating nuclear weapons. In the summer of 1997 (Northern Hemisphere, I’m in the South) US intelligence detected heightened activity at Novaya Zemlya, that is nuclear weapons related experiments, and seismic activity at about the same time. Advocates of new nuclear weapons, more so than most, jumped on this and claimed that Russia was violating the zero yield memorandum of understanding on nuclear testing, which led the CIA to commission an independent investigation [PDF]. That investigation found that the seismic activity was epicentred in the Kara Sea 130km southeast of the test area, so therefore the accusations of Russian nuclear testing were false.

The Russians have denied Trump administration claims that it has engaged in a nuclear test resulting in a nuclear explosion (the established nuclear states do subcritical hydrodynamic testing of plutonium primaries), the DIA has not provided any evidence to support its claim nor has it been clear as to why the assessment has changed from “probably” to a direct accusation either. There doesn’t exist any seismic evidence in the public domain pointing to a test, the CTBTO hasn’t called a Russian violation, and imagery doesn’t suggest heightened activity at Novaya Zemlya. We are seeing here, it would appear in the absence of evidence to the contrary, an attempt to undermine the CTBT in a way that opens the door for the nuclear weapons complex and its supporters to realise some of their long held desires. They have attempted to realise those desires with every post cold war administration, and it shouldn’t surprise anybody that they would give it another crack with *this* administration.

I suspect that this might have something to do with the failed Reliable Replacement Warhead programme of the Bush administration. That programme envisaged a significant expansion of the US nuclear weapons complex and the development of new nuclear weapons designs, most especially innovative weapons based on newly designed plutonium pits. Nothing beats designing a Rolls Royce Phantom rather than maintaining a has been Corniche.  The RRW, in part, was integrated to ideas of “tailored deterrence” that dominated Bush era thinking about nuclear strategy. Tailored deterrence is at the core of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review.

There were two hurdles the RRW couldn’t overcome. The first was opposition in Congress, in part the result of activist grassroots groups especially in the areas located near the major installations of the nuclear weapons complex. This is a story that hasn’t been told, but I remember all that very well. The second, of course, was the CTBT and concerns about the need to engage in renewed nuclear testing led the National Nuclear Security Administration to choose a conservative design for the first RRW, one based on an existing plutonium pit. The idea was to get the first RRW warhead through the door without nuclear testing. Advocates for the RRW made many arguments for the programme one being that new designs were needed, and the infrastructure to support them, because of plutonium pit ageing. Plutonium pit ageing, it was argued, made the legacy stockpile prone to catastrophic failure thus depriving Washington of a nuclear deterrent. This led to the commissioning of a JASONs report (the JASONs are an independent group of scientists) on plutonium pit lifetimes that concluded that plutonium pits can have lifetimes of at least 85 years and up to 100.

As we know the Trump administration has recently moved to disband the JASONs and the reactionary Republican congresswoman, Liz Cheney, has recently, absurdly, stated that plutonium pits will soon be 100 years old. That’s clearly a reference to the JASONs study on plutonium pit ageing. It appears that there’s a push for reviving the ideas that underpinned the RRW concept. Walking away from a commitment not to test nuclear weapons makes the most sense when viewed through the prism of innovative nuclear weapons design. There’s an interesting passage in The Washington Post report linked above

“A senior Trump administration official said that as a result, the CTBT doesn’t expressly stipulate a zero-yield standard because of the lack of clarity, opening the door for Russia and China to conduct tests, while the United States, Britain and France adhere to a stricter interpretation.”

Back in the day of the RRW debate there was some talk about nuclear weaponeering shifting from an empirical art to a theoretical science. The kerfuffle over the CTBT suggests that nuclear weapons research and development remains an empirical art, if it were a theoretical science nuclear testing wouldn’t be needed, but the passage above seems to imply that, should testing resume, we’d be talking little bangs not big bangs. That could be because planners want new low yield nuclear weapons. However, low yield options do already exist in the legacy stockpile. Research and development into new nuclear weapons that meet the strict damage expectancy criteria of strategic planners, one reason for the tight margins of nuclear weapons design, without full yield testing might bring us just that bit closer to a theoretical science. That could be just the point.

Don’t be thinking that there not licking their chops at Sarov (Arzamas-16) either. One thing Soviet scientists in the 1980s wanted to develop were low yield directed energy weapons, something they have argued for into the Russian Federation since 1990. So thus we come back to the future the 1980s would have given us bar for Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Weekly Impressions

  • Jovo Bakic is perhaps the only left wing, by that I mean genuinely socialist, public intellectual in the Serbian public sphere. That’s most unfortunate, however, there is a flip side to this. Although Bakic, who describes himself as anarchistic, is not in good company among his fellow intellectuals he is by far the most popular public intellectual in Serbia. That tells you something about the anti-oligarchic and anti-systemic mood that pervades the society. Bakic argues that the regime of Aleksandar Vucic is a clientelist-authoritarian regime rooted in a sort of state-mafia nexus. That, he argues, follows on from Serbia descending, post Yugoslavia, into the periphery of the world capitalist system. The Vucic regime is functional for that system to the extent that Serbia, like the rest of the Balkans, remains a stable neocolonial dependency. That has always been my impression.  I disagree with Bakic on two things, however. Bakic has often called for the formation of an activist left party consisting of cadres rather than mass membership to confront the Vucic regime. His argument for this at first blush seems plausible; membership of political parties in Serbia is clientelist with people changing parties depending upon which way the wind blows and the benefits flow. To arrest the danger of a left party being dominated by opportunists it should be cadre based, Bakic argues. However, there really is very, very, very little that a cadre party would be able to achieve in a society like that of Serbia today. In the dispute between Bakic and Borko Stefanovic (of The Left Party which Bakic helped form prior to his disassociation with it) on this question, I think Stefanovic has the better of the argument.

That said, Bakic is noted also for making the argument that the real opposition to the regime in Serbia consists of activist groups based in the cities which engage in mutual aid, solidarity actions with the poor especially those facing evictions, actions against privatisations of public corporations and utilities, actions against grand neoliberal white elephant schemes of glitz and glamour that favour the tiny oligarchic elite, and the like at the local level where their voice and presence can be prominently seen and felt. Such groups can be found most especially in Belgrade, Nis, Novi Sad, Valjevo, and Zrenjanin.  They are dominated by young, intelligent, and energetic activists who adhere to ideas of autonomous self-governance.   These groups could develop into a political party to be sure, better not cadre if so, but the astute reader can detect here more than a whiff of the anarchism of Murray Bookchin.  In Serbia such ideas have a long tradition going back to the rural self-governing communes known as the Zadruga (like the Russian Zemstvo)

The other area of disagreement I would have with Bakic, perhaps disagreement is too harsh a word, is with his frequent calls for revolution. I think he is definitely right to make those calls, however we might argue about the character of that revolution. Bakic argues that a clientelist-authoritarian regime, especially one that draws roots to the mafia, does not relinquish power voluntarily. The regime of Aleksandar Vucic, which controls the state, the media, and much else besides, needs to be chased on the streets. Even if they lose an election they won’t leave voluntarily, as the regime knows jail beckons. A revolution, or better still an insurrection, is necessary, I agree, however it is not sufficient. What is needed is action in the workplace, that is action motivated by the same ideas and same ethos of the municipal activist groups. There’s a certain misreading of the October 5, 2000 revolution that overthrew Milosevic which still retains currency and that colours, in part, Bakic’s call for insurrection. Milosevic fell not just because of the mobilisation on the streets but because of the widespread worker occupations of industry. The directors and the wealthy elite around Milosevic feared that they would lose the source of their wealth and power, and so they turned on him.  The regime should be chased on the streets, yes, but also in the workplace.

  • Graham Farmelo has written a book that explores why nature is mathematical that is attracting reviews. The book is entitled The Universe Speaks in Numbers: How Modern Maths Reveals Nature’s Deepest Secrets. The title gives you a flavour of the argument. The nature of mathematics is something that has interested me for most of my life and there’s been a lot written lately about the interface between mathematics and nature. There’s the ideas of Max Tegmark and Nima Arkani-Hamed, for instance, that see the universe as being essentially mathematical in nature. Then there’s critiques of the role that mathematical beauty has played in theoretical physics most especially coming from Sabine Hossenfelder. She argues that ideas of mathematical beauty have led physicists astray to be “lost in math” as she puts it. That argument has been made before, in the context of general relativity. It’s been argued that French physicists, unlike their American, British, and Russian counterparts, did not make signal contributions to the renaissance of general relativity because they too were “lost in math.”  Of course, at the time French mathematics was dominated by axiomatic programmes such as that of the Bourbaki group. It would appear that rubbed off on the physicists. Others argue that exploration of the underlying mathematical structure of general relativity and quantum field theory might provide insight into how theoretical physics might be made more consistent.  That’s kinda ironical as one is reminded of the great French mathematician Alexander Griothiendeck (also an anarchist) who uncovered many of the deep structures of algebra and that during the hey day of the renaissance in general relativity. My own view is that we are asking the wrong question when we look at these matters. The question shouldn’t be why nature is mathematical but rather why physics is mathematical. Those questions appear the same, but they are subtly different. Physics does not reveal nature’s deepest secrets. They remain in that obscurity to which they ever were and ever shall remain, to borrow from David Hume. Physics gives us theories of the world that are understandable to us, and it is mathematics to no small degree that makes our theories understandable. It is not then that we might say of the universe that it speaks in numbers, rather it is we that speak in numbers and to make ourselves understood we naturally speak in our language not the universe’s. Of the all the positions spoken above it is the search for shared mathematical structure underlying fundamental theory that is the most consistent with the view I have just articulated.

“The world’s seed-bearing plants have been disappearing at a rate of nearly 3 species a year since 1900 ― which is up to 500 times higher than would be expected as a result of natural forces alone, according to the largest survey yet of plant extinctions.”


“A map of plant extinctions produced by the team shows that flora in areas of high biodiversity and burgeoning human populations, such as Madagascar, the Brazilian rainforests, India and South Africa, are most at risk.”

We should remember that the most significant impact of global warming upon diversity, both flora and fauna, is projected for the future. On the one hand we marvel at the patterns, structures and subtleties of nature yet on the other we are destroying nature. Go figure.

I’m sure we’ve seen the stories about the recent deaths of climbers on Mount Everest, largely due to the large standing lines from base camp up to the summit. The reports emphasise how this follows on from the commercialisation of the mountain, in which case Mount Everest has become a type of commodity, not just a geological structure, the climbing of which has been turned into a fetish. That’s a type of commodity fetishism. The deepest point in the Earth’s oceans is the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, where deep sea explorers not long ago found plastic waste. That’s a neat symmetry that symbolises the Anthropocene. One of the most important questions we face is; what are the most appropriate social, political, economic, and cultural forms for the era of the Anthropocene and how might we bring them into being?

  • Finally, events post the 2019 federal election support my contention, made in a post to more detail below, that its central message was that class war is reserved for corporate power and wealthy investors not for workers and the poor. They also underscore the further Americanisation of Australian society. I’m not speaking here just of the role of religion, and miracles, in Australian politics. The Morrison Government’s proposed tax cuts have two interesting, and revealing, features to them. Firstly, the tax cuts represent a significant shift toward instituting a regressive flat tax regime in Australia. The third tranche of the tax cuts seek to bring about a 30% flat rate for incomes from $45,000 to $2000,000 per year. Flat income taxation has always been associated with hyper Reaganite flat taxers like Grover Norquist in the United States. That third tranche is geared toward the rich, and by far most of the Government’s proposed tax cuts come from that regressive third tranche. The politics of this also comes straight out of the Republican playbook, for example George W Bush instituted his administration’s regressive tax “reform” in stages by first offering modest cuts for low income and wage earners before bringing on the big party for the rich. The Liberal Party, notice, is doing the same thing. Secondly, economic growth in Australia is below expectations which means that budget forecasts of a surplus might not eventuate even in the absence of tax cuts. Now the Liberal Party in its election propaganda emphasised that it’s the more responsible economic manager on grounds that the Liberals are superior to Labor when it comes to balancing the budget. Putting aside the false equation of the government budget with the household budget, what we see here is the Government’s determination to go ahead with its tax cuts skewed toward the rich despite the likely impact on the budget bottom line. It is low income earners and wage earners that must disproportionately sacrifice their interests for the budget not the rich. The common good is for you not for them. That’s class war precisely, yet we’re told the 2019 election represented a rejection of class war. Actually, the message was; class war is for us not for you.

On top of all that the financial press, but also the corporate press and the ABC more broadly, has been dominated by various calls for what can be termed supply side economics to boost productivity. As noted, the Australian economy is growing below expectations, and the demand is for supply side measures such as tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, flexible work arrangements, and infrastructure spending to kickstart productivity. What is being explicitly rejected is redistributive measures to low income earners and workplace laws giving labour more bargaining power to encourage economic growth through greater spending (the economy is in a retail recession). Not only is that Reaganite voodoo economics, notice how the tax cuts for the rich in this scheme functions as a type of trickle down economics, but it so obviously is class war. A feature of the neoliberal era has been rising labour productivity but a lower take for wages in the wages-profits share. The proceeds of rising labour productivity go disproportionately to corporate profits and wealthy managers and investors. That’s class war, and one important reason for rising inequality. What much of commentary has been calling for since the election is boosts to labour productivity but not in ways that lead to higher wages for workers and more spending on the poor through the social wage. That’s because class war is for us not for you.

A big debate in Australia focuses on US-China rivalry in the Asia-Pacific and what that means for Australia. Must Australia choose between America and China, asks Hugh White. What that all ignores is that we are more and more becoming America.

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North Korea’s KN-23 SRBM and Strategic Stability

North Korea’s test of the KN-23 SRBM has provoked some pretty good discussion and analysis as to its origins, its capabilities especially with reference to ballistic missile defence, and its impact on strategic stability. I’m interested in all three here, but I’m really interested in the impact on strategic stability. The KN-23 bares a resemblance, both physically and in terms of its quasi ballistic trajectory, to the Russian Iskander-M SRBM.

The debate on the origins of the KN-23 concerns the indigenous nature of the missile. Did the North Koreans illicitly procure an Iskander or its components and reverse engineered the missile or is it a home brewed missile that North Korea’s defence science and engineering complex developed on its own?  That resemblance has seen more than a few observers, especially early on, conclude that the KN-23 is a replica of the Iskander-M and so therefore more likely based on illicit procurement than indigenous research and development. Straight after the May 9 test (the first was on May 4) I had stated here in a previous posting that the evidence does not necessarily support a finding of illicit procurement or reverse engineering.

“The NK-Iskander is envisaged to play a similar operational role to the Russian Iskander and the South Korean Hyunmoo-2 SRBM, and so the physical and engineering problems faced by North Korean scientists would be no different to their Russian and South Korean counterparts hence their solutions likely wouldn’t be too different either. To cite the physicist Julian Schwinger, in an entirely different context, “gentleman we must bow to nature” and she is the same in North Korea as she is elsewhere.”

The most detailed case that it does rest on illicit procurement rather than indigenous research and development can be found in this article by Michael Elleman at 38North.

Elleman writes that the external physical characteristics are very similar to the Iskander-M, the Hyunmoo-2 SRBM of South Korea which, we know, does have Russian origins, and the Ukrainian Grom SRBM currently in development. Elleman writes,

“All four missiles appear to share the same external dimensions and features, with only minor differences in the shape of the nose cones. Iskander is known to be equipped with at least three different nose cones, so the variations across the four missiles may not be determinate.”

Elleman goes on,

“The more likely explanation relates to the direct import of Iskander from either Russia or a third party. Pictures from the test launch support this explanation. As shown in Figure 5, and highlighted originally by German missile-specialist Markus Schiller, the debris generated by the launch in North Korea is a virtual match of a launch of Iskander conducted by Russia. This coincidence is compelling and fully consistent with the importation of a Russian-produced Iskander.”

However, researchers at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies have developed a model of the KN-23, based on analysis of imagery from the North Korean tests, that demonstrate important physical differences compared to the Iskander-M. Jeffrey Lewis of MIIS has published the findings of the CNS-MIIS model building emphasising that it supports the view that the KN-23 was indigenously developed. Two features that Lewis points to are obviously there and the significance that Lewis attaches to them is also well supported by the evidence provided. The first is an elongated cable raceway that extends beyond the top of the solid fuel motor and the second are differences in the jet vanes at the bottom which enable the KN-23 to be manoeuvred in flight. Have a look and see for yourself. The evidence is pretty strong in my opinion. The cable raceway is interesting because

“The most likely explanation is that the guidance system is forward of a payload with a fixed diameter that the cabling must bypass externally, such as a nuclear warhead. The KN-23 may, therefore, be a designed as a dual-capable system of delivering conventional and nuclear payloads.”

The cable race way shows that the KN-23 is modular, that is it’s not designed just for one strategic mission like BMD busting. The KN-23 supports the mission set of just about the entire Iskander missile series. That’s important, as we shall see below when we look at the matter of strategic stability.

The modelling also supports the conclusion that, according to Lewis, “overall, the KN-23 appears to be indigenous, although its design appears to have been inspired by the Iskander-M and other, similar missiles, such as South Korea’s Hyunmu-2B.” Have a look at the evidence that Lewis identifies and describes of the jet vanes in this context. It’s pretty compelling.The modelling also is suggestive of the KN-23’s performance characteristics

“Initial modeling of the missile’s performance using three programs—AGI’s Missile Tool Kit, Missile Flyout, and a CNS-developed program—suggests that it should be able to deliver a 500 kg payload to approximately a maximum range of about 450 km on a minimum energy trajectory.”

Elleman has also stated that,

“The missile tested last week, if domestically designed and produced, even with extensive foreign assistance would be in an early development phase, years away from operational deployment, and years removed from being a precision-guided missile.”

That’s on a par with recent statements from US planners at the annual Shangri La Asia-Pacific security dialogue in Singapore that North Korea is “close” to acquiring the capability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear warhead. What we see is a persistent denial of North Korea’s scientific and technical capabilities, which is odd and something that requires explanation. A further reminder of this came quite recently with a geological analysis of the available data on North Korea’s September 2017 thermonuclear weapon test or hydrogen bomb test if you will. The analysis increases the yield estimate from those commonly used in popular discourse (themselves based on reported intelligence community analysis).

Let me put the explanation bit aside for now. I would argue that this discounting of North Korea’s technological capabilities, once again evident with the KN-23 as shown, in itself is deleterious for strategic stability. That’s because the denial of North Korea’s technical abilities provides support for those arguing, both within and without the Trump administration, that disarming military strike options exist for dealing with the strategic nuclear threat posed by North Korea. President Trump’s former national security adviser, General McMaster, still publicly says such options feasibly exist. This is a dangerous delusion for North Korea’s demonstrated scientific and technological capacities demonstrate that it can make its hydrogen bomb reach its designated targets like right now (note the 500kg payload estimate for the KN-23 above). The other thing is that the delusion also provides a measure of succour for the “we can wait out the North Koreans” position regarding the stalled, if not collapsed, denuclearisation talks. North Korea’s growing technical capabilities, rather, support the view that if there’s a rational time to talk it is now. Not only that but Pyongyang’s growing technical capabilities also suggests that the more rational goal of denuclearisation diplomacy should be achieving strategic stability rather than wholesale dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The speed and quasi ballistic flight profile of the Iskander-M are designed to defeat ballistic missile defence. Analysis of the KN-23 supports the contention that this is a salient factor that applies here too. Elleman wrote of two important aspects at play, firstly

“In-flight maneuverability, in addition to substantially enhancing accuracy, also complicates and compromises ballistic-missile defenses. Defenses can no longer precisely predict Iskander’s post-boost flight path, making it more difficult for the fire-control radar to calculate an anticipated interception point, without which the interceptor cannot be aimed with precision.”


“Finally, Iskander can exploit gaps in South Korean and American missile-defense coverage. While the exact numbers are secret, Patriot missile-defense interceptors are believed to have an engagement ceiling of about 40 km. The upper-tier or exo-atmospheric interceptors employed by THAAD and Aegis missile defenses have an engagement floor of roughly 50 km attitude. This creates a 10-km interceptor effectiveness seam at altitudes between 40 and 50 km. The seam almost perfectly coincides with Iskander’s flight path prior to its sharp dive toward ground-based target.”

Recall that the KN-23 has an apogee of 50km.

Both points certainly apply to the Iskander-M and there’s strong evidence to suppose that the KN-23’s flight and performance characteristics were chosen by North Korean planners so that it could perform the same missile defence busting mission as the Iskander-M. I would suggest that this design feature demonstrates the extent to which missile defence is strategically destabilising, a point scientific, strategic, and arms control analysts have been making for decades now. That analysis doesn’t somehow apply everywhere else but mysteriously ends when we turn our gaze to the Korean peninsula. There’s a certain a intellectualism at work here, likely borne of ideological and power considerations. Secondly, missile defence is really a first strike weapon and that also applies in the Korean context as missile defence is integrated into a war planning system that emphases preemptive strikes such as South Korea’s Kill Chain and Korean Air and Missile Defence (KAMD) concepts. Missile defence is there for any residual and poorly coordinated and executed second strike. Let us recall that the Hyunmoo-2 is a key part of South Korea’s decapitation strategy as exemplified by Kill Chain. That is, missile defence is supportive, and is meant to be supportive, of preemptive strikes.

However, the strongest statement on the deleterious impact of the KN-23 on strategic stability comes from Duyeon Kim and Melissa Hanham in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The article, frankly, is horrid. Kim and Hanham write that several characteristics of the KN-23, such as survivability and mobility, demonstrate the destabilising impact of the missile. For example, they write

“South Korea and the United States have to use a lot of resources to continuously monitor the locations of these mobile missiles, which are inherently more difficult for the United States to preemptively strike.”

Now previous to that line they wrote,

“Indeed these may be the first weapons used in a large scale conflict that could pull allies in. They cannot be regarded simply as part of a sovereign country’s right to develop arms.”

Recall the point about the Hyunmoo-2, which is directly derived from the Iskander-M.

When the United States and South Korea plan, long before the KN-23 mind you, preemptive strikes as part of their strategic concepts for a second Korean war and, further, seek to develop a capability to do precisely so that’s not strategically destabilising. That’s a right too, presumably. What’s destabilising is making it more difficult for the United States to preemptively strike.

Kim and Hanham argue that the solid fuelled KN-23 is destabilising because that means, relative to liquid fuelled missiles, that the KN-23 is mobile and it also has a lower footprint on the ground which both complicate the task of US planners. There have been arguments made previously that the solid fuelledPpukguksong-2 MRBM is destabilising also on account of its being propelled by solid fuels.  But not many would say in other contexts, for example with SSBNs on patrol with solid fuelled SLBMs or the Topol road mobile solid fuelled ICBMs, that mobility and survivability are destabilising. To the contrary, traditional deterrence and arms control theory associates both with stability precisely because stability arises, according to the theory, when both sides are denied preemptive strike options. But for Kim and Hanham instability on the Korean peninsula comes about when the United States is denied a preemptive strike option.

There’s a sense in which this denial of a US preemptive strike option appears to underpin the KN-23’s rationale. The US strategic posture, not just with regard to Korea, is based upon the idea of dominance across the full spectrum of operations known as “full spectrum dominance”. There’s a sense in which full spectrum dominance merges with the cold war era concept of dominance on all the rungs of the escalation dominance. The May 4 and May 9 KN-23 tests were accompanied by test firing of two distinct Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and, definitely on May 9, with firing of self propelled artillery to boot. This suggests a measure of operational integration or jointness to use Pentagonese. Both occurred on distinct, East and West, possible axes of the pincers of OPLAN 5027, the US operational plan for a second Korean war. That plan, reportedly, envisages pincering Pyongyang in offensive operations to end the North Korean regime and, presumably, the North Korean state. First a Blitzkrieg and then an Anschluss as it were.

Preemptive strike options in a crisis would, presumably, feature in such a plan. We know of South Korea’s Kill Chain and KAMD concepts, for instance. The KN-23 could well be Pyongyang’s way of saying that in this spectrum of conflict Washington does not have a viable preemptive strike option. That is on this rung of the escalation ladder North Korea can go toe-to-toe with Washington and Seoul so thus denying the Pentagon full spectrum dominance. The KN-23 might also be concerned with Anti Area/Access Denial, through attacks on massed land and maritime forces, so complicating the drawing of the pincers of OPLAN 5027. My reading of the KN-23 goes something like this; the United States wants to retain escalation dominance on the Korean peninsula and North Korea wants to deny Washington that capability.

It’s that mutual dynamic that is destabilising not North Korean actions alone. The conception of stability that Kim and Hanham have is the standard, widely shared, imperial one that equates stability with the ability of Washington to engage in escalatory strikes of its own so that it might impose its will upon an adversary at low cost.

Consider the policy recommendations that Kim and Hanham make. They call for,

“While it will be challenging to garner Chinese and Russian support, the Council should now take a stronger stand, strengthening enforcement of existing sanctions (including coal, petroleum, seafood, textiles, minerals, and overseas labor) because of the threat posed by these missiles.”

There are parts of North Korea not far from famine, and the food situation in the country is not what is to be associated with human dignity. Yet Kim and Hanham’s suggestion would make that situation worse, note the part about seafood which calls for tightening restrictions on food explicitly. I’ll leave it to the reader to consider further the moral odiousness of a call to make life for hungry North Koreans tougher because their government has developed a missile which makes it “inherently more difficult for the United States to preemptively strike.”

It is obvious to anyone that has been paying a milliseconds worth of attention to the situation on the Korean peninsula that a further tightening of sanctions will only escalate the current standoff. That is, Kim and Hanham’s suggestion will increase instability and in itself is destabilising. However, on the operative concept of stability which equates that concept with US freedom of action then what Kim and Hanham are calling for makes perfect sense. It’s long been a staple of US imperial power that from time to time Washington needs to create instability in order to create stability. By stability of course is meant in the operative, not literal, sense.

If you want what Kim and Hanham call “a great big nuclear war” just follow their recommendations, you can’t go wrong.

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Class War Is For Us Not For You: Australian Labour and the 2019 Election

The Australian Labor Party lost the 2019 federal election because it is a victim of its own success. It was, after all, the Labor Party that initiated the neoliberal reforms that have increased inequality, led to the further concentration of media ownership, seen the significance of unions decline sharply, and facilitated the hollowing out of the Labor Party into a centralised electoral machine dominated by mediocrities like Bill Shorten.

In the election that just passed Labor offered a tepidly mild redistributive agenda something that would barely dint the coffers of the well to do. The mega rich, who Wayne Swan correctly argued in a seminal essay for The Monthly have an outsized influence on Australian politics, would have none of it. They were determined to put Labor in its place as they had done previously with the mining tax and that they did. It is they who rule Australia, and they don’t won’t you to forget it. The instant commentary on election night that had the “ambitious” policy agenda of Labor at fault was essentially correct although not for the reasons cited. It was said that Australians were too dumb arsed to understand it, when in reality the oligarchs understood full well that power and privilege can brook no compromise unless forced to. The election of 2019 was therefore dominated by class war, but that was joined by the oligarchs and their lackeys not the Labor Party. That the consensus appears to be that Labor lost the election because it was too given to class war is not a descriptor of reality but rather signifies that Labor must bend its knees and kiss some North Shore and Manhattan arse before its allowed to have the keys to The Lodge.

Bill Shorten admitted as much when he blamed the election loss on big spending oligarchs and the corporate media, especially the Murdoch press. The oligarchisation of Australian politics is a natural consequence of the rising inequalities in Australian society made possible by the neoliberal reforms Labor itself began and which the Liberals took further. For the sharp political operators of the Liberal Party, evidence for this goes back at least to the 1980s, one of the key rationales of neoliberal restructuring was that it would make it difficult for Labor to win elections on a redistributive platform as power progressively shifts even more toward capital. You can see here how neoliberalism has functioned to further entrench the traditional political and economic hierarchies of Australian society as they came under increasing challenge in the late 1960s and 1970s by the new social movements and a resurgent labour movement after the Clarrie O’Shea general strike. One of those facets of the traditional order is the Liberal Party as the “natural party of government,” something both the Labor Party and the ACTU themselves helped recreate. In 1983 Australians did not vote for a neoliberal programme but that is what both the ALP and the ACTU gave them.

The labour movement is not what it once was, namely a social movement organically arising from the Australian working class whose broad active support it once enjoyed and could rely on.  That is not to say that the working class does not vote for Labor, a point to which we return, but it is to say that the working class does not campaign for Labor.

When the political wing of the labour movement ceases to be a mass based working class party then its hollowed out version becomes dependent on capital to dispense its message and finance its activities. That has the effect of making it vulnerable to attacks, capital strikes, of the type seen in the 2019 election campaign. The Labor Party is a party that relies on corporate donors and access to the corporate media to engage voters, not an army of committed grass roots activists working hard in communities to spread the word. When its industrial wing is reduced to door knocking among the toffs of Kooyong, rather than organising its members and countering demagogic attacks from the Right during election time at the point of production, where most workers are union members to boot, then it also becomes much easier for capital to dominate electioneering free of the countervailing power of a vast and mobilised labour movement engaged in communities and workplaces to oppose its self-serving, manipulative, and demagogic propaganda.

The Labor Party has shown signs since the election defeat that it has learnt its lesson and will obediently heed what Adam Smith referred to as the masters of mankind. The newly appointed, the term is used literally, Labor leader Anthony Albanese has signalled as much. Friend, formerly comrade, Albanese has stated that Labor needs to be more business friendly. Friend Albanese has also stated that Labor needs to better connect with what corporate media pundits like to refer as “aspirationals” which is code for financial and real estate market spivs who adhere to what Adam Smith called “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind” namely “all for ourselves and nothing for other people.” Presumably those who are not “aspirationals,” that is people who aren’t looking to make a racket through exploitation and chicanery, are vegetables hamming it up in the age of entitlement. By using the Lathamite expression Albanese signals to the oligarchs that redistribution with social justice at the core will not be Labor’s abiding concern. Friend Albanese further signals to the masters of mankind that Labor has got the message when he says Labor must place “growth” and “jobs” at the centre of its policy platform for both terms are Orwellian terms meaning “profits,” which is of course why the blue rinse set of the Liberal Party is so fond of them too.

The US Embassy is another source of power in Australia that needs its concerns addressed. The Labor Left has historically had a critical attitude toward US imperial power and Australia’s participation in US imperialist interventions abroad, however the Labor Party here too has supported the reassertion of the traditional order in Australia as shown by its support for the new Australian militarism that came with the Howard but which had its antecedents in the Hawke era. At ALP National Conferences friend Albanese has made leftist speeches on foreign policy, calling for Australia, for example, to join the Nuclear Ban Treaty. When the Wikileaks affair broke there were some interesting cables on Labor politics, most especially concerning friend Gillard. Some of those exulted at her no longer having left wing views “sorry, no lefty ALP leaders” the cables relayed back to the imperial masters in Washington. Is the US Embassy cabling to Trump and Bolton that, again, “sorry, no lefty ALP leaders?” One must be careful of speeches at Labor Party conferences. When friend Albanese and friend Doug Cameron hold forth they usually do so to rally the troops in the branches knowing full well they don’t have the numbers to affect policy. What will friend Albanese do on foreign policy? Watch this space closely, for if you see signs of a shift accommodative of imperial power you’ll know the shift toward the right across the policy spectrum will be in play.

We should recall that the new Labor leader comes from the “Socialist Left” wing of the Party. The appointment of Anthony Albanese represents the peak of neoliberalism in Australia. The masters of mankind so dominate Australian politics that we now have a Labor leader from the Left, the first in generations, who appears firmly ensconced in their pockets. The appointment of Albanese completes a long process whereby the Left has progressively accommodated itself to power and made its peace with the neoliberal order. At the 1984 ALP National Conference the delegates of the Left opposed tooth and nail both the neoliberal and pro US, read pro imperial, agenda pursued by the Party establishment led by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating class traitors both. Motion after motion the Left was defeated, and it left the conference floor bloodied and mauled.

The Left responded by gradually accommodating itself to the internal party power structure, first joining the Hawke ministry then the inner sanctums of cabinet when Hawke was supporting further neoliberal attacks despite the severity of the recession of the early 1990s that those very policies created, and now it has reached the pinnacle of power. But the Left is not what it once was. Previously it was a social movement enabling Robert Ray to charge that it had a curious relationship with the Party for it simultaneously was both without the Party and within it. Ray’s broadside was made in criticism of course but it should be viewed as a compliment. It was, both within the Party and the unions, the most significant forces in society opposed to the hierarchies of Australian society.  It was not the most consistent nor in reason the best, but it was the most significant. As the neoliberal era progressed and as the Labor Left increasingly accommodated itself to the neoliberal order the Left became a run of the mill and highly institutionalised party faction, a series of client-patron networks reliant on state funds and union resources to grease the wheels of patronage. It could not therefore become the locus of resistance to neoliberalism in Australia for patrons have clients to the extent that they have power. Instead the Labor Left has become one of the instruments of the neoliberal order, at one point even providing in Lindsay Tanner a “socialist” minister for financial market deregulation.

The appointment of friend Albanese was widely reported as the parliamentary party gathering together to prevent a leadership ballot going to the members out in the branches. Clearly, this was a preventive strike against a Corbyn or Sanders style insurgency gathering steam amongst the membership so therefore a statement saying it should have the prerogative of deciding the Labor leader, an indication of what the caucus would like to do to the Rudd reforms, but also a statement about the need to keep to neoliberal, that is masters of mankind, friendly policies. There is some irony here as under the Rudd rules Albanese ran against Shorten for the Labor leadership after the 2013 election where he won hands-down with the members but the Labor oligarchy rallied in the parliamentary party to ensure a Shorten victory for no greater reason than to prevent a further outbreak of democracy. It didn’t matter that Shorten was an odious dud for whom Australians, wisely, have little affection.

Elections in Australia are pretty much like US presidential style elections decided not by policies so much as by well funded marketing campaigns run by advertising agencies whose MO is turning people into misinformed voters making irrational decisions. That too is a feature of neoliberal society as it is important to erode functioning democracy lest the rabble form dangerous ideas about the right of the masters of mankind to rule. A good way of doing this is to turn an election into an episode of Married at First Sight. The Liberal Party, naturally given the sinking of the Party brand in recent years, concentrated its campaign upon the personality of the leader thus successfully turning the election into a vacuous personality contest. The odious dud was not a match even for the hapless Scott Morrison, but the Labor Party oligarchy stuck with the dud all the same because its privileges come first and they thought they could get away with winning the election despite the evident unpopularity of Tiberius with a mobile.

Commentators have focused on what they regard to be the erosion of support for Labor among working class voters. Evidence for this is Labor failing to win electorally significant seats where working class voters reside, especially in Queensland and western Sydney. Critics charge that this tells us little about which voters voted for Labor and which for the Coalition within those electorates. They argue that the Cooperative Australian Election Survey, of 100000 voters across the three weeks of the campaign, indicates low income Australians voted mostly for Labor. I am not in a position to make a definite judgement on this, but a persistent problem for the Labor Party in the neoliberal era has been a low primary vote and that was a factor on May 18 whatever its social basis.

In 1966 and 1975, when Labor suffered historic landslide defeats, its primary vote was about 40% and 42% respectively. To be sure there weren’t as many minor parties then, you did have of course the DLP that helped to keep Labor out of office for decades, yet the difference with the primary vote today is striking with Labor winning 33% of the vote on May 18. This is partly because the ALP is no longer a mass party based on a working class which is well organised across most Australian workplaces. Previously the ALP relied on union donations for its election campaigns and faced an overwhelmingly hostile corporate media yet still, even in crushing historical defeats no less, it was capable of a 40% primary vote. That’s because it was a movement that was able to address the problem of corporate power through grass roots campaigning. The historic decline of the Labor primary vote began in 1987 and that amongst working class voters. In 1990 Labor relied on a last week preference strategy to win. In 1993 the working class came back given the free market fundamentalist policies of the Liberals. It is the hollowing out of the ALP and its shift to the right, responsible to no small degree for the rise of the Greens, that has seen a secular decline in its primary vote again whatever its social basis might be. The political scientist, Andrew Scott, has long argued that this secular decline is due to the, two way, fading loyalties exhibited by Labor and the working class. It is too early to be firm about what role working class voters played on May 18 itself. The aggregate data, like in the US in 2016, show voters did split on class lines (most low income voters for Clinton most high income for Trump) but enough working class voters in electorally significant places, like in the US, may have flipped on May 18. This could account for defeats in the seats Labor needed to win to gain office. It is not possible to be firm here, but it is something that is worth further careful study and one based on a well supported understanding of class as a concept.

The election loss has also led to much soul searching among the industrial wing of the labour movement. The “Change the Rules” campaign led by the ACTU has clearly failed. This was an attempt to help Labor win the election so that it would change the rules of the industrial relations system when in office. It was hoped the new rules would make it easier for unions to strike and campaign for better wages and working conditions. Here too there’s irony as the current rules were largely crafted by friend Gillard when she tepidly modified the industrial relations changes instituted during the Howard era themselves a continuation of the assault on arbitration and centralised wage fixing waged by the aforementioned class traitors with the assistance of the ACTU who could be relied upon to discipline the working class as the process proceeded.

Labor’s election loss means the ACTU has twice failed to institute significant change to the industrial relations system in ways that provide much greater structural power for labour through electioneering. Remember that when the current ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus, was elected she stated her aim was no less than the end of neoliberalism itself. That first campaign, the “Your Right’s at Work” campaign in response to the Howard Government’s Work Choices legislation did help to elect a Rudd Labor government that took the nasty parts out of the  system but the Gillard laws did not lead to greater structural power for labour in the workplace. Indeed Rudd as Prime Minister distanced himself from the labour movement refusing to attend meetings of the Australian Labor Advisory Council. But most importantly the stagnation of real wages and the attack on penalty rates in recent years has occurred under the backdrop of the Gillard system, and these are two key reasons why “Change the Rules” was instituted in the first place.

The “Your Rights at Work” campaign is widely seen as successful because it assisted in Labor’s 2007 victory, but that is not how the campaign should be judged. Other than upending the harsh measures of Work Choices the campaign has still left Australia’s workers with an industrial relations system stacked against them. That means the Commonwealth of Australia has its resources and its coercive powers stacked against the bulk of the population, the Australian working class no less, and that at the behest of the masters of mankind who use the Commonwealth to stifle the aspirations of Australians who live in a penal colony to the extent that the labour movement is weak and rudderless in the face of global capital.

A good part of the “Change the Rules” campaign was based on the “We Are Union” campaign of the Victorian Trades Hall Council in the 2014 Victorian state election. Then that campaign, which saw union members knocking on doors in marginal electorates explaining to voters the effects of the state Liberal Government’s attacks on working people and emergency services, was novel and in its novelty always had a limited life span. Of course, it was successful, but it was evident, at least to me who participated in it, that the more such campaigns are waged the more voters would come to see the union campaigners as an appendage of the Labor Party.  The “We Are Union” campaign urged voters to put the Liberals last, making no preference between Labor and the Greens, but at the election night party when a Greens MP was elected those gathered treated the fact with indifference. When a Labor MP was elected jubilation. When a Greens candidate defeated a Labor candidate in a two corner race indifference if not booing was the norm, but the other way around jubilation. I’ve always wondered whether I was the only one to notice how this conflicted with the non preferential message the campaign sent to voters and many of its campaigners too.

But there’s a flip side here. The more these electoral campaigns are waged the more workers, including union members themselves, will come to see their unions intrinsically, not just during elections, as appendages of the Labor Party, as instruments in the hands of Labor Party affiliated cadres who have interests often at variance with workers. Should such views become entrenched the result cannot be positive for the labour movement as a whole. Some in the labour movement, such as the Secretary of the National Union of Workers, have roundly criticised such election campaigns as the best way for unions to arrest the neoliberal tide in the interests of a more just and democratic society. The criticisms made by the NUW are spot on, but the suggested remedy isn’t. The NUW is attempting an amalgamation with United Voice to create a bigger union. Yet another amalgamation creating yet another centralised and bureaucratic behemoth is not the correct industrial strategy, because that makes unions more distant and members more passive. What is needed is not a top-down industrial strategy but a bottom-up industrial strategy whereby Australia’s unions are restructured such that they become a federation of unions organised on a workplace-by-workplace and industry-by-industry basis with decision making made on a bottom up democratic and federative basis. That means workers organised together across trades in a workplace which then federate upon an industry wide basis would become the organic unit of the Australian working class. Such a reorganisation of the Australian labour movement would have an obvious democratising effect upon the Labor Party itself, and it is expected that the officials of the union movement and the Labor Party would oppose this vigorously. If there’s one thing the history of neoliberalism in Australia has shown it is that the officials of the labour movement are class collaborationist who prefer their own privileges to the end of the neoliberal order. That means such a reorganisation can only come about after an insurgency conducted by a grass roots rank and file network engaging in class struggle both within and without the labour movement. The officials themselves will not create a grass roots union movement organically developed from below.

When the army of labour so becomes reorganised then we can think of joining battle with the masters of mankind and that at the place where they most fear us. At the very source of their profits.

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It Takes Two Baby: North Korea’s Second Iskander Like SRBM Test and Strategic Stability

On the 23rd of March I wrote a post here arguing that we’re riding an escalation ladder with North Korea, and that we have been doing so from before the Hanoi summit. Subsequent events have underscored that early analysis, and the events of the last week most certainly have done so.

At the centrepiece of the week’s events, or better still at the centre of the representations of the week’s events, has been North Korea’s operational testing of a solid fuelled short range ballistic missile, twice over it must be said, which looks an awful lot like the Russian Iskander SRBM. Henceforth I shall refer to the North Korean version as the NK-Iskander (until an agreed nomenclature is established).

Melissa Hanham, of the Datayo research project, was quoted in a Reuters report of the NK-Iskander that “missiles like these will start the war.” This is because, if the NK-Iskander is anything like its Russian original, it will be able to manoeuvre to its target and evade missile defence in South Korea so enabling following on or simultaneous missile strikes against time urgent targets.

On Saturday May 4 North Korea tested what now looks to be two NK-Iskander SRBMs, alongside the firing of multiple launch rocket systems including the new KN-09 MLRS. On Thursday May 9, to great surprise, North Korea doubled up and launched what now is reported to be three NK-Iskander SRBMs, with at least one of those from a tracked rather than wheeled TEL, again alongside the firing of multiple launch rocket systems and modernised self propelled artillery. The images of the May 9 operational test included SP artillery, and it is likely that the May 4 operational test also included SP artillery.

The North Korean test on May 4 was quickly followed by a US test of the Minuteman III ICBM. That was likely unrelated, although US officials have been quoted as not minding the coincidence and the perceptions it might engender in Pyongyang. US ICBM tests are routine, but one of the reasons why are worth reflecting upon. US strategic nuclear war planning is based on a first strike counterforce nuclear strategy, which is dependent upon very high damage expectancy criteria that need to be met by the warheads themselves and their means of delivery. US ICBMs, therefore, must be highly reliable and relatively frequent testing to ensure confidence in their reliability is partly a function of first strike counterforce. China from 1981 to 1989 did not test its DF-5 ICBM (it doesn’t have a counterforce strategy).

The Minuteman III and “missiles like these will start the war.”

On May 6 Lockheed Martin released its conception of the Hypersonic Airbreathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The HAWC is to travel in the atmosphere at speeds greater than Mach 5, that is hypersonic speeds, and will also be able to manoeuvre to the target. The HAWC will initially be powered by a rocket accelerating it to approximately Mach 5 whereupon it will be powered by a scramjet engine.  The HAWC, according to The Drive article linked above, will have “the ability to conduct game-changing short- or no-notice strikes against time-sensitive and other critical targets.” Furthermore, “hypersonics can also manoeuvre within the atmosphere, following a more unpredictable flight path compared to other traditional long-range weapons, such as ballistic missiles, making it harder for an opponent to defend against them.”

Missile like these will start the war, in other words.

According to the article HAWC is envisaged, that is budgeted in the DARPA portion of the defence budget, to be flight tested in FY 2020 which begins on October 1 2019.  The F-35 is a stealthy fighter bomber, and the HAWC concept released by Lockheed Martin seems to show that each F-35 will externally carry two HAWC missiles. That will increase the radar profile of the F-35, but it is an interesting question whether North Korean sensors are sensitive enough to pick up HWAC armed F-35s should any enter North Korean airspace. The HAWC can be fired as stand-off weapons and still reach their designated targets promptly, it must be stressed. It is doubtful whether Pyongyang’s sensors would see them coming. The F-35 plays an important role in South Korea’s “kill chain” strategy which seeks to decapitate North Korean command and control and strategic weapon systems early in a crisis, we must add and to which we must also return. Perhaps Seoul will get a slice of the hypersonic pie. The HAWC might also be carried by other air and maritime assets such as the F/A 18 Super Hornet.

Weapons like the HWAC, to the extent that they cannot be picked up by North Korean sensors prior to hitting their targets, provide planners in Pyongyang with an incentive to adopt an Operation RYaN type early warning system. It was RYaN that featured in the centre of the Able Archer ’83 war scare which, it would seem, almost inadvertently led to World War Three. Concerns about decapitation and prompt strikes, combined with a paranoid strategic expectations not unlike exist in Pyongyang, were crucial to the development of RYaN.

The May 6 North Korean operational drill involving multiple NK-Iskander SRBMs came at the same time as a US test of the Trident II D5 SLBM, which is seen as the mainstay of extended nuclear deterrence in the Asia-Pacific. As we know the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review called for the modification of some W76 warheads, one of the Trident D5 SLBMs warhead types, to a low-yield version designated as the W76-2. Reports indicate that the W76-2 will have a yield of approximately 6 KT. There’s little question that low yield nuclear weapons, fired by SLBMs from SSBNs which can patrol relatively close to their targets and fire their missiles on depressed trajectories, are meant to provide more “useful” nuclear strike options in a crisis. US nuclear war planning has long been dominated by intra-war deterrence which seeks to maintain a deterrence relationship even as the threshold of nuclear war has been crossed. Intra-war deterrence is a type of escalation control what is sometimes called “escalate-to-deescalate” when used in opprobrium against others.  Low yield nuclear weapons fit into intra-war deterrence like a hand fits into glove, and they are seen by critics as lowering the threshold of nuclear war, especially during a crisis, because their employment carries less political and strategic costs and so provides planners with relatively more rational first strike options.

What to say other than, “missiles like these will start the war.”

Despite what I have just written, it is the NK-Iskander that has dominated the world’s headlines and precisely because it is seen as a strategically destabilising weapon system. Far less attention has been given to the destabilising aspects of the Minuteman III ICBM, the HAWC hypersonic missile, and the Trident D5 W76-2 armed SLBM even though this week gave us plenty of reason to do so.

The NK-Iskander

That’s not to say that the NK-Iskander is to be dismissed with a sweep of the hand, Trump administration style. The first thing I would like to focus on is the exhaust plume. What you see in the KCNA released image below is a clear contrail implying a high quality composite of solid propellant and oxidiser.

Furthermore, the NK-Iskander, if it performs much like its Russian version (the one for domestic Russian use not just the export version) will travel at high speeds. The Iskander-M (the Russian domestic version) has a burnout speed of Mach 5.9. That’s important because, firstly, velocities along those lines give North Korea the ability to promptly strike time urgent targets throughout the theatre of engagement and throughout South Korea too, which is to say it gives Pyongyang its own version of “kill chain.” The NK-Iskander would be like the HAWC, for in addition to the above features the tracked TEL gives it robust mobility. Secondly, the high velocity means the NK-Iskander employs a highly energetic solid propellant. That’s crucial because highly energetic solid propellants are difficult to engineer and they are critical to developing an ICBM that uses solid, as opposed to liquid, propellants. As stated in my previous post on the May 4 test if 2017 was the year of the LPE 2020 might be the year of the SRB.

What’s also interesting is that the North Korean operational drills involving the NK-Iskander, especially the first one, saw a revival of the old “North Koreans are scientific and technical duds” argument. Despite everything that has happened over the last six years that thesis just refuses to die. In this case it was pointed out, through careful analysis of the imagery made available by North Korea, that the NK-Iskander looked an awful lot like the Russian Iskander so (a) North Korea somehow illicitly procured its design information at best or got key components if not an entire missile from rogue Russian elements (b) it’s looking like an Iskander does not mean it has the capability of an Iskander.

Regarding (a) it is indeed true that the NK-Iskander looks pretty much like the Russian Iskander. It also, however, looks like the South Korean Hyunmoo-2 SRBM and the Chinese DF-12 SRBM. It is not possible to conclude that the NK-Iskander was not indigenously developed because it looks like the Russian mother ship. That suggests the hypothesis that it wasn’t indigenously developed, but it cannot establish it and those who conclude that the point is established are engaged in an unsupported leap of reasoning from mere imagery alone. The NK-Iskander is envisaged to play a similar operational role to the Russian Iskander and the South Korean Hyunmoo-2 SRBM, and so the physical and engineering problems faced by North Korean scientists would be no different to their Russian and South Korean counterparts hence their solutions likely wouldn’t be too different either. To cite the physicist Julian Schwinger, in an entirely different context, “gentleman we must bow to nature” and she is the same in North Korea as she is elsewhere.

Regarding (b) although the information publicly available to us on the May 4 operational drill could only vouchsafe that the NK-Iskander looked like the Russian Iskander, the May 9 drill demonstrated that the NK-Iskander has the same flight characteristics as the Russian Iskander. That’s because the reported apogee of the missiles tested and their reported ranges were not consistent with a ballistic trajectory, but rather a pseudo ballistic trajectory involving manoeuvres in flight. Jet vanes at the base of the NK-Iskander booster further lend credence to this view, as does the appearance of external fins at the bottom of the booster. The Russian Iskander is also terminally guided, as may the NK-Iskander be which would provide relatively high accuracy.

The NK-Iskander could well be indigenously designed and developed, in which case it further demonstrates North Korea’s technical capabilities in this area and is suggestive of future potentialities (read solid fuel IRBM and ICBM), can manoeuvre in flight to evade theatre missile defences, and can promptly strike high value targets to greater precision and range than previously.

All up that makes the NK-Iskander a bit of a big deal. It gives the same capability that the Hyunmoo-2 gives South Korea, namely a prompt precision strike capability against time urgent targets like command and control, field headquarters, and missile defence. Missiles like these can indeed start the war. In the past couple of weeks we have seen media reports suggesting that some in the Trump administration, like H.R. McMaster before, think that they possess a military option against North Korea, that it cannot be ruled out and, indeed, remains an option and that provided by stealthy and prompt precision strike capabilities. The NK-Iskander should give pause to such notions, and the two drills may well be designed precisely with that in mind. The dismissal of North Korea’s technical capabilities, just like before, provides succour for those who think disarming and decapitation precision strikes are feasible.

Operational Significance and the Escalation Ladder

The operational context to the North Korean drills has not been discussed at all, with all the attention given to the NK-Iskander. Don’t forget that the NK-Iskander launches were conducted in the context of military drills involving multiple rocket launch systems and self propelled artillery and that on two distinct axes. US war planning for a second Korean war is built upon an Operational Plan (as opposed to a Contingency Plan) known as OPLAN 5027. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall that plan was less focused upon an active defence, as previously, and became more pivoted upon an air-land-sea combined arms counter offensive designed to pincer Pyongyang on three definite axes and so ending the regime.

There are heaps of maps out there that give you the gist of OPLAN 5027. Here’s one (the DMZ is the central axis).

Now of the May 4 drill KCNA stated

“The purpose of the drill was to estimate and inspect the operating ability and the accuracy of striking duty performance of large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons by defence units in the frontline area and on the eastern front.”

Of the May 9 drill KCNA stated

“The drill for mobility and assault strike designed to inspect the rapid response of the defence units in the frontline area and on the western front successfully showed the might of the units which were fully prepared, in the flames of the practical actual exercises kindled by the Party, to proficiently carry out any operation and combat.”

The exercises featured the operational testing of the NK-Iskander SRBM, multiple launch rocket systems, and self propelled artillery fired concurrently on all three axes of the pincers of OPLAN 5027.  Those pincers would involve large concentrations of land and maritime combined arms engaged in what the Pentagon likes to call operational level warfare. Operational art and the large scale lodging and manoeuvre on distinct axes of operational level combined arms is crucial to the successful implementation of OPLAN 5027 (in so far as we know of it). It is widely regarded that in any future Korean war North Korea would lose because the Korean Peoples Army would not be able to prevent the US-ROK pincers from closing in on Pyongyang. However, the NK-Iskander might give North Korean strategic planners an option to complicate the plans of their counterparts in Seoul and Washington. The Russian version is nuclear capable, reportedly it can be armed with a 50 KT nuclear warhead. Should North Korea possess a nuclear warhead capable of delivery by the NK-Iskander or go on to test such a warhead in future, then North Korea would have the ability to strike large concentrations of US-ROK military assets so significantly complicating the implementation of OPLAN 5027. Don’t forget also that North Korea has been working to develop the KN-08, reportedly a terminally guided MaRVed version of the Scud-ER for hitting carrier strike groups and naval concentrations at sea. Whether Pyongyang’s sensors can see US carrier strike groups coming is another matter, but if not we come back to RYaN.

I wrote a post making similar points quite a while ago, in 2017 already. The United States from the 1990-91 Gulf War onward has been able to concentrate military firepower in theatre unopposed and to manoeuvre unopposed once hostilities began. The strategic planners of the KPA would want to deny both to Seoul and Washington in a second Korean war, and the two drills this week underscore this point I would argue.

What’s interesting here is that on March 7 KCNA responded in the following fashion to US-ROK drills after Hanoi (truncated it must be said but still they went ahead and are going ahead)

“South Korea and the U.S. announced that the drill Alliance is the one replacing the former Key Resolve and it will continue until March 12. As for joint military drill Foal Eagle, they said they would stage it without codename round the year in the form of small-scale field mobile drill involving units smaller than battalion.

They said that the on-going drill aims at examining wartime operation plan through computer-aided simulation of “the north’s all-out invasion of the south” and increasing the capabilities to fight a war.”

What’s been said above is that these drills are simulating OPLAN 5027.

As stated at the outset we are riding an escalation ladder with North Korea, and I put it that the events of the week should be seen in that context as well as the context of OPLAN 5027. I have argued that the escalatory dynamics come about because North Korea seeks sanctions relief to support its economic development goals, and to alleviate the food shortages that are affecting the population, and which are exacerbated by external sanctions. In return North Korea is offering what it calls denuclearisation, that is a lowering of the salience of deterrence but something less than disarmament so hence a measure of strategic stability. North Korea has an incentive to increase external perceptions of risk so long as its economy and population continues to be squeezed by sanctions. The United States, on the other hand, is the global hegemon and it is concerned, firstly, with its credibility as a global power. What matters for Washington is power and prestige. It does not want to be seen as acceding to Pyongyang’s terms just because a tin pot state, Melos like, has acquired the hydrogen bomb and the means to deliver it. Athens wants to teach Melos the facts of life.

Washington has an incentive to keep the squeeze on until Pyongyang bends to its will or appears to do so. When its power and prestige is on the line Washington has shown throughout the nuclear age that it is prepared to tolerate a high risk of nuclear war. That means Kim needs to keep strutting away until Washington starts to pay him serious attention again.

The game is irrational and dangerous, should be called out for the insanity it is, and most importantly of all put a stop to. The people of North Korea can’t do that by pressuring Kim Jong-un. The butcher’s knife awaits them if they so much as even hint at it. That means the burden falls on us.

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