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    Front Page
     Oct 23, 2008
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Soaring, cryptography and nuclear weapons
By Martin Hellman

Let's face it, nuclear weapons are the elephant in the room that no one likes to talk about. So let's approach the issue from the less threatening perspective of the awesome picture of the glider.

The glider looks like it's suspended above the runway, but in reality it's screaming toward the photographer at over 200 kilometers an hour in a maneuver known as a high-speed low 

 
pass. The pilot starts about 2,000 feet (609 meters) high and over a kilometer from the runway. He then dives to convert altitude into speed and skims the runway. Next, he does a steep climb to reconvert some of that speed into altitude so he can turn and land.
Given that the glider has no engine, you might wonder how the pilot can be sure he'll gain enough altitude in the climb to safely turn and land. The laws of physics tell us exactly how altitude is traded for speed and vice versa. While there is a loss due to the air resistance of the glider, that is a known quantity which the pilot takes it into account by starting from a higher altitude than needed for the landing phase.

But it's important to read the fine print in that guarantee provided by the laws of physics. It only applies if the air is stationary. If there's a slight wind the difference is negligible, but if the air movement is unusually strong all bets are off - which is what happened to a friend of mine who had safely executed the maneuver many times before. But this time he hit an unusually strong, continuous downdraft. The laws of physics still applied, but the model of stationary air was no longer applicable and he had no way of knowing his predicament until he approached the runway with much less speed than needed for a safe landing. He managed to land without damage to himself or his glider, but was so shaken that he no longer does that maneuver.

While most experienced glider pilots sometimes do low passes (and some race finishes require them), I've opted not to because I regard them as a 99.9% safe maneuver - which is not as safe as it sounds. A 99.9% safe maneuver is one you can execute safely 999 times out of 1,000, but one time in 1,000 it can kill you.

Even though they are clearly equivalent, one chance in 1,000 of dying sounds a lot riskier than 99.9% safe. The perspective gets worse when it's recognized that the fatality rate is one in 1,000 per execution of the maneuver. If a pilot does a 99.9% safe maneuver 100 times, he stands roughly a 10% chance of being killed. Worse, the fear that he feels the first few times dissipates as he gains confidence in his skill. But that confidence is really complacency, which pilots know is our worst enemy.

A similar situation exists with nuclear weapons. Many people point to the absence of global war since the dawn of the nuclear era as proof that these weapons ensure peace. The MX missile was even christened the Peacekeeper. Just as the laws of physics are used to ensure that a pilot executing a low pass will gain enough altitude to make a safe landing, a law of nuclear deterrence is invoked to quiet any concern over possibly killing billions of innocent people: Since World War III would mean the end of civilization, no one would dare start it. Each side is deterred from attacking the other by the prospect of certain destruction. That's why our current strategy is called nuclear deterrence or mutually assured destruction (MAD).

But again, it's important to read the fine print. It is true that no one in his right mind would start a nuclear war, but when people are highly stressed they often behave irrationally and even seemingly rational decisions can lead to places that no one wants to visit. Neither US president John F Kennedy nor Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev wanted to teeter on the edge of the nuclear abyss during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, but that is exactly what they did.

Less well known nuclear near misses occurred during the Berlin crisis of 1961, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) Able Archer exercise of 1983. In each of those episodes, the law of unintended consequences combined with the danger of irrational decision-making under stress created an extremely hazardous situation.

Because the last date for a nuclear near miss listed above was 1983, it might be hoped that the end of the Cold War removed the nuclear sword hanging over humanity's head. Aside from the fact that other potential crises such as Taiwan were unaffected, a closer look shows that the Cold War, rather than ending, merely went into hibernation. In the West, the reawakening of this specter is usually attributed to resurgent Russian nationalism, but as in most disagreements the other side sees things very differently.

The Russian perspective sees the United States behaving irresponsibly in recognizing Kosovo, in putting missiles (albeit defensive ones) in Eastern Europe, and in expanding NATO right up to the Russian border. For our current purposes, the last of these concerns is the most relevant because it involves reading the fine print - in this case, Article 5 of the NATO charter, which states that an attack on any NATO member shall be regarded as an attack on them all.

It is partly for that reason that a number of former Soviet republics and client states have been brought into NATO and that President George W Bush is pressing for Georgia and the Ukraine to be admitted. Once these nations are in NATO, the thinking goes, Russia would not dare try to subjugate them again since that would invite nuclear devastation by the United States, which would be treaty bound to come to the victim's aid.

But, just as the laws of physics depended on a model that was not always applicable during a glider's low pass, the law of deterrence which seems to guarantee peace and stability is model-dependent. In the simplified model, an attack by Russia would be unprovoked. But what if Russia should feel provoked into an attack and a different perspective caused the West to see the attack as unprovoked?

Just such a situation sparked World War I. The assassination of Austria's Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist led Austria to demand that it be allowed to enter Serbian territory to deal with terrorist organizations. This demand was not unreasonable since interrogation of the captured assassins had shown complicity by the Serbian military and it was later determined that the head of Serbian military intelligence was a leader of the secret Black Hand terrorist society. Serbia saw things differently and rejected the demand. War between Austria and Serbia resulted, and alliance obligations similar to NATO's Article 5 then produced a global conflict.

When this article was first written in May 2008, little noticed coverage of a dispute between Russia and Georgia reported that "both sides warned they were coming close to war". As it was being revised, in August, the conflict had escalated to front page news of a low-intensity, undeclared war. If Bush is successful in his efforts to bring Georgia into NATO, we would face the unpleasant choice of reneging on our treaty obligations or threatening actions which risk the destruction of civilization. A similar risk exists between Russia and Estonia, which is already a NATO member.

Returning temporarily to soaring, although I will not do low passes, I do not judge my fellow glider pilots who choose to do them. Rather, I encourage them to be keenly aware of the risk. The pilot in the photo has over 16,000 flight hours, has been doing low passes at air shows for over 30 years, will not do them in turbulent conditions, ensures that he has radio contact with a trusted spotter on the ground who is watching for traffic, and usually does them downwind so that he only has to do a "tear drop" turn to land. The fact that such an experienced pilot exercises that much caution says something about the risk of the maneuver. The danger isn't so much in doing low passes as in becoming complacent if we've done them 100 times without incident.

In the same way, I am not arguing against admitting Georgia to NATO or suggesting that Estonia should be kicked out. Rather, I encourage us to be keenly aware of the risk. If we do that, there is a much greater chance that we will find ways to lessen the true sources of the risk, including patching the rapidly fraying fabric of Russian-American relations. The danger isn't so much in admitting former Soviet republics into NATO as in becoming complacent with our ability to militarily deter Russia from taking actions we do not favor.

Substates
Part of society's difficulty in envisioning the threat of nuclear war can be understood by considering Figure 2.
The circle on the left represents the current state of the world, while the one on the right represents the world after a full-scale nuclear war. Because World War III is a state of no return, there is no path back to our current state. Even though an arrow is shown to indicate the possibility of a transition from our current state to one of global war, that path seems impossible to most people.

How could we possibly transit from the current, relatively peaceful state of the world to World War III? The answer lies in recognizing that what is depicted as a single, current state of the world is much more complex. Because that single state encompasses all conditions short of World War III, as depicted below, it is really composed of a number of substates - world situations short of World War III, with varying degrees of risk:

 
Society is partly correct in thinking that a transition from our current state to full-scale war is impossible because, most of the time, we occupy one of the substates far removed from World War III and which has little or no chance of transiting to that state of no return.

But it is possible to move from our current substate to one slightly closer to the brink, and then to another closer yet. As described below, just such a sequence of steps led to the Cuban missile crisis and could lead to a modern day crisis of similar magnitude involving Estonia, Georgia, or other some other hot spot where we are ignoring the warning signs.

The Cuban missile crisis surprised Kennedy, his advisors and most Americans because we viewed events from an American perspective and thereby missed warning signs visible from the Russian perspective. Fortunately, that view has been recorded by Fyodr Burlatsky, one of Khrushchev's speechwriters and close advisors, as well as a man who was in the forefront of the Soviet reform movement. While all perspectives are limited, Burlatsky's deserves our attention as a valuable window into a world we need to better understand:
In my view the Berlin crisis [of 1961] was an overture to the Cuban missile crisis and in a way prompted Khrushchev to deploy Soviet missiles in Cuba ... In his eyes [America insisting on getting its way on certain issues] was not only an example of Americans' traditional strongarm policy, but also an underestimation of Soviet might ... Khrushchev was infuriated by the Americans' ... continuing to behave as if the Soviet Union was still trailing far behind ... They failed to realize that the Soviet Union had accumulated huge stocks [of nuclear weapons] for a devastating retaliatory strike and that the whole concept of American superiority had largely lost its meaning ... Khrushchev thought that some powerful demonstration of Soviet might was needed ... Berlin was the first trial of strength, but it failed to produce the desired result, [showing America that the Soviet Union was its equal] . [Burlatsky 1991, page 164]

[In 1959 Fidel Castro came to power and the US] was hostile towards the Cuban revolutionaries' victory from the very start ... At that time Castro was neither a communist nor a Marxist. It was the Americans themselves who pushed him in the direction of the Soviet Union. He needed economic and political support and help with weapons, and he found all three in Moscow. [Burlatsky 1991, page 169]

In April 1961 the Americans supported a raid by Cuban emigrees ... The Bay of Pigs defeat strained anti-Cuban feelings in America to the limit. Calls were made in Congress and in the press for a direct invasion of Cuba ... In August 1962 an agreement was signed [with Moscow] on arms deliveries to Cuba. Cuba was preparing for self-defense in the event of a new invasion. [Burlatsky 1991, page 170]

The idea of deploying the missiles came from Khrushchev himself ... Khrushchev and [Soviet defense minister] R Malinovsky ... were strolling along the Black Sea coast. Malinovsky pointed out to sea and said that on the other shore in Turkey there was an American nuclear missile base [which had been recently deployed]. In a matter of six or seven minutes missiles launched from that base could devastate major centers in the Ukraine and southern Russia ... Khrushchev asked Malinovsky why the Soviet Union should not have the right to do the same as America. Why, for example, should it not deploy missiles in Cuba? [Burlatsky 1991, page 171]

Continued 1 2

 


1.
Pay-up time for Lehman swaps

2. It's all go for moonstruck India

3. Gobbled up by the derivatives monster

4. Theater of the fiscally absurd

5. Lessons from the war in Georgia

6. Ukraine goes from orange to red

7. NATO reaches into the Indian Ocean

8. Sharansky's mistaken identity

9. Hit and miss with Afghan air strikes

10. In China, reporters without orders

11. Pulses race in Pyongyang

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Oct 21, 2008)

 
 



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