Monday, February 16, 2009

Nuclear submarines collide: madness and logic

Nuclear submarines collide in Atlantic, Guardian:

A Royal Navy nuclear submarine and a French vessel have been damaged in a collision deep below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant, which were both said to have been carrying nuclear missiles, are believed to have crashed while submerged on 3 or 4 February, according to reports. The submarines had a total of around 250 sailors on board

Defence officials said the two submarines collided in what they said was an extraordinary accident.

'They can't see each other in the water,' an official said. The collision raises questions about the submarines' sonar and radar and why they did not detect one another.

The Ministry of Defence said the Vanguard returned to its base in Faslane, Scotland, with only 'scrapes'. A spokesman said: 'We can confirm that the UK's deterrent capability has remained unaffected at all times and there has been no compromise to nuclear safety.'"

So that's all right then. At no time was the ability of George Brown to choose to crush, blast, rip apart, destroy, burn, maim, malform and cause lingering disease to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in any way affected.

We can only wonder at the probability of two submarines equipped with the best technology in the known universe to "scrape" each other when they have the whole Atlantic ocean to play in.
They must have been relating to each other. Maybe the crews were bored, and decided to get together to see if they could trade pots of Marmite for a round of Camembert.

One explanation given is that nukes, like conger eels, like to hide themselves in holes in the ocean floor to avoid detection. Since there are a limited number of holes to lurk in, one of them chose a hole that was already occupied. Lucky it was a bump between two NATO allies: if it had been a Russian - NATO collision, it could have ended in tears.

Two Doctors pick up on Steve Bell's take on the incident.

This brings up the whole insanity of the nuclear deterrence posture. Nobody in Parliament dares seriously to question the multi-billion Trident replacement programme, despite the fact that Henry Kissinger is joining with other Cold Warriors to call for a nuclear free world.

Nuclear weaponry is an emotionally charged topic, and debate usually creates more heat than light. However, it is possible to bring logic to bear on the topic. Here goes. Again.

Nuclear Deterrence and Logic

In principle, if the consequences of the failure of a system would be infinitely destructive to a civilisation, it is reasonable for that civilisation to use that system if and only if the probability of its failure are zero. The argument here is that there is a greater than zero chance of nuclear deterrence leading to nuclear war, and that war would be infinitely destructive of human civilisation, leading to the conclusion that the world needs to scrap nuclear weapons absolutely and completely.

The possession of nuclear weapons by a number of states in the international community does constitute a system, that is, a group of interrelated parts forming a whole.

Can the system fail? Nuclear deterrence is a complex arrangement of electronic sensors embedded in a command and control network composed of humans working to hard protocols that are interwoven with pattern judgments and valuations which are affected by the emotional state of the individuals and groups that make the judgments. The groups themselves, particularly the supreme decision making groups, are isolated from the common body of humanity, and are known to be susceptible to a condition known as group think – defined as A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.[i] Moreover, the interplay of decision makers is now far more complex than in the days of the cold war, with players coming on to the field who might not view the destruction of the prevailing world civilisation as a thing to be avoided at all costs, and other players already on the scene who believe that nuclear weapons could be used tactically without risking a strategic exchange.

In short, it is entirely reasonable to judge that the probability of failure of the nuclear deterrence system is greater than zero. [ii]

Would the breakdown of the nuclear deterrence be infinitely destructive? This is point that must be settled by a value judgment. First, would it be possible to get away with a limited exchange, or would one nuclear detonation inevitably escalate into an all out global nuclear war?

It is impossible to give a definitive answer to that question, but the safest assumption to make is that if one weapon is detonated, they will all be fired. The reason for this lies in the doctrine of first strike, which aims to destroy the opponent’s weapons before they can be fired. Once it is known that an opponent has detonated a nuclear weapon, the pressure will be on for supreme commanders to fire all their nuclear weapons before they lose them to a first strike. In view of this, although we cannot say that any exchange would inevitably lead to a first strike, it would be the height of folly for anyone to assume that they could use weapons in a limited tactical strike and believe that matters would then be allowed to rest by the opposition. Unfortunately this is the prevailing nuclear doctrine of the United States of America. They consider that nuclear weapons could be used tactically, as an extension of a conventional military campaign. In doing so, they may trigger an all-out nuclear war.

Would an all out strategic nuclear exchange be infinitely destructive? There are estimated to be at least 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world held by at least eight countries, 96 percent of them in the possession of the United States and Russia. [iii]

The effects of all-out nuclear war were well studied in the 1980s. Physically, the most interesting possible effect is the so-called Nuclear Winter, where atmospheric soot cuts off sunlight for a period of weeks or months.[iv] When the sunlight returns, the effects of city and forest fires will have been to increase the atmospheric CO2 load, thus exacerbating global warming. Species loss will increase, secondary to habitat loss. Of these, the loss of bees will be most important, since cessation of their pollination services will lead to failure of such crops as survivors may try to plant. Ironically, rats and cockroaches are resistant to radiation, and so will flourish, given the plentiful quantities of human and animal carrion available.

To say the least, economic growth after a nuclear war would be unlikely. In fact a global economic recession or even a depression is almost inevitable, and to be replaced by a survival economy based around obtaining water, food, warmth and shelter for the group. Life will be short, and cancers plentiful, but health services would be rudimentary, and analgesics in short supply. Gangsterism will flourish, and self interest is likely to become the norm.

In summary, it is entirely reasonable to expect that an all out nuclear exchange would lead to the end of western civilisation. It would therefore be infinitely destructive.

In terms of the model set out at the beginning, the consequences of the failure of a nuclear deterrence system would indeed be infinitely destructive to our civilisation, the probability of its failure is greater than zero, and therefore it is illogical for our civilisation to use that system.

Since the syllogism contains a value judgment, and there will inevitably be others who take a different view. However, they are compelled to argue either that the deterrence system is perfectly safe, which is manifestly not the case, or that a tactical weapon would not lead to an all-out nuclear war, which is clearly not provable, or that an all-out nuclear war would not destroy civilisation, which is clearly unreasonable.

In the circumstances, however, because of the uncertainties involved, it is safer to take a precautionary view. The great majority of humanity view the possibility of all out nuclear war with a great deal of distaste. They should be helped to understand that the nuclear deterrence system is not infallible, and that these weapons are quite capable of being used in anger. This should then motivate them to exercise their democratic right and duty to remove from political office anyone who believes that it is reasonable for any state to possess nuclear weapons.

Dr Richard Lawson

[i] Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972, page 9.

[ii] Lachlan Forrow and others, "Accidental Nuclear War --A Post Cold War Assessment," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 338, No. 18 (April 30, 1998), pgs. 1326-1331

[iv] Nuclear winter: Physics and physical mechanisms," R. P. Turco, O. B. Toon, T. P. Ackerman, J. B. Pollack and C. Sagan, Ann. Rev. Earth and Planet. Sci., 19, 383-422 (1991).


Anonymous said...

"We can only wonder at the probability of two submarines equipped with the best technology in the known universe to "scrape" each other when they have the whole Atlantic ocean to play in."

I always thought that the idea of a submarine was to be undetectable. So if the Royal Navy boat was undetectable by a French boat then doesn't that mean that it has achieved what it set out to do? Of course we couldn't see the French boat either! I would expect the French to have similar or equivalent technology.

DocRichard said...

I understand that Nuclear terror subs do not use active sonar, because that would give their position away. They can use passive sonar to listen for the noise of other subs' screws.

So maybe neither was using its propulsion, and they both drifted into one another accidentally. Hmmm... Difficult to believe.

I reckon they were trying to manoever together. Not necessarily for a Marmite/Camambert swap. Maybe Stever Bell was right, they were trying to mate. Or not.

Whatever. I do not suppose that we are going to be told the truth anytime soon. Maybe in 50 years.

DocRichard said...

More here:
From John Large, who is a reliable source.
"Both navies want quiet areas, deep areas, roughly the same distance from their home ports. So, you find that these nesting grounds, these station grounds, are pretty, have got quite a few submarines. Not only the French and Royal Navy submarines, but also from Russia and from the United States," he said.