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.
This entry was posted in International Relations and Global Security, Philosophy and Science, Politics and Economics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.