Making Sense Of That Nuclear Agreement With Saudi Arabia


The United States is trying to develop a nuclear cooperation agreement (123 agreement) with Saudi Arabia. The stories (another) focus on whether such an agreement would limit Saudi Arabia’s access to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, two technologies that can produce materials for nuclear weapons.

Let’s look at two other factors. 1) Although Saudi Arabia has had big ambitions for nuclear power, starting from sixteen reactors and now down to two, it is not clear that they can afford those reactors and have no administrative support for them. 2) Westinghouse, the company being pushed by the United States, is in no position to build those reactors. Read more

Stephen Walt Agrees With Me

On the Nuclear Posture Review. He goes on about more aspects of it than I did yesterday, but his conclusions in that area are very similar to mine.

Moreover, I find the elaborate scenarios that nuclear strategists dream up to justify new weapons to be both militarily and politically unrealistic. They tend to assume that complex military operations will go off without a hitch the very first time they are attempted (and in the crucible of a nuclear crisis), and they further assume that political leaders in the real world would be willing to order the slaughter of millions for something less than existential stakes. My main concern has been that some gullible politician would actually believe that one of these elaborate scenarios would actually work and might therefore be tempted to try it. Just as bad: An adversary might think the United States thought it could win such a war and might decide it had no choice but to try to hit it first.

I also find the obsession with matching capabilities at every rung of some hypothetical “escalation ladder” to be slightly absurd. Is it realistic to think that U.S. leaders defending vital interests against a possible Russian threat would be stymied because they didn’t have a capability that exactly mirrored whatever Russia had or was threatening to do? Would a top advisor really say to the president: “Oh dear, sir, Russia just threatened to attack with a nuclear weapon with a yield of 7.2 kilotons. We have lots of 5-kiloton bombs and lots of 11-kiloton bombs all ready to go, but if we use the little one, they’ll think we’re wimps, and if we use the big one, then the onus of escalation will be on us. I guess they’ve got us over the whing-whang, sir, and we’ll just have to do whatever Putin says. If only we had built more 7.2 kiloton bombs than they did!

His second question and answer are good.

Question 2: Why doesn’t the United States have more faith in nuclear deterrence?

Answer: Because threat-inflators are more numerous than threat-deflators.

It’s easier in today’s Washington, DC, to say “We don’t know that Russia/China/North Korea isn’t beefing up their arsenal so as to get an advantage on us” than it is to work out what the situation most likely is in a real world with real constraints. So you’ll see again and again that North Korea could have 60-80 nuclear weapons ready to go. That derives from a statement of estimated fissile material, divided by the amount that might be needed for a bomb, both very uncertain numbers. It ignores the time and facilities it takes to build the weapons. I did a more realistic estimate a while back.

There’s also a macho edge that we have to have more/better than anyone else, exacerbated by Trump’s insecure masculinity. Chest-pounding is IN.

Walt’s article is longer than mine, but very worth reading.


Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.


Levels of Deterrence

The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) mentions some variant of “deter” 279 times. Deterrence is supposedly what today’s nuclear arsenals are about. The idea is that we have enough nuclear weapons so that if an enemy attacked us, we could still destroy them. That standoff, established after the nearly world-ending Cuban Missile Crisis, seems to have worked. Or it’s possible that the reason for no nuclear war in the past 56 years is that nations recognize that destroying the world is in nobody’s interests. Read more

Nuclear Policy In The Trump Administration


A couple of weeks ago, the administration released its Nuclear Posture Review. All administrations like to put their stamp on policy. The last review was in 2010.

There are lots of things in this one to talk about, and many articles out there about them. I’ve been trying lately to stand back from the trees and look at the forest. So, as a former project manager, some of the first questions I come up with have to do with budgets and timelines. Things like resource availability and scheduling. I wrote that up for Physics Today.

Short version: Looks to me like they can’t do what they want with the resources they’ve got. Plus it will take a decade or more to build the nukes they want, so maybe diplomacy can achieve our ends faster.


Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.

North Korea Has A Parade

Another live event starts at around 7:30 Eastern time. In honor of (or to upstage) the start of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, North Korea will parade some of its military might. Wonks love this, because North Korea frequently uses their military parades to show off new missiles. Or, with screen caps and close examination, the wonks can learn details of existing missiles.

We don’t know what tonight’s (Friday’s in North Korea) parade will bring. If there’s a live feed, I’ll update this post with it.

A number of experts on North Korean missiles usually tweet their comments on the parades. Here’s a good list to start:











Don’t forget the hashtag.

I’m not a missile expert, but I occasionally add something to the discussion. I’ll post tweets with trenchant comments or interesting pictures in the comments.

Here’s a photo from an earlier parade. I’m sure the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff will be watching to help plan the next big military parade in Washington.


Update: I am told that the parade will be streamed on this channel or on YouTube, although there doesn’t seem to be a way to embed it. Livestream from North Korea breaks up regularly.  So don’t blame me.

If Adam shows up and can figure out how to embed the video, please feel free to edit this post.


Victor Cha Won’t Be Trump’s Ambassador To South Korea

Victor Cha has been mentioned as ambassador to South Korea. He is the chair of the Korea program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is director of Asian studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He served as Asia director at the NSC under George W. Bush and participated in the Six-Party talks with North Korea as the deputy head of the U.S. delegation. But today it was announced that the administration no longer wants his services.

Cha is on the hawkish side toward North Korea. But apparently not hawkish enough for Donald Trump or someone on his staff. Cha believes that tearing up the South Korea trade agreement is a bad idea, and that attacking North Korea probably worse.

His appointment had gone as far as the administration asking South Korea for its agreement. This is a standard step in appointing ambassadors, and withdrawing the name afterwards is extremely bad form. As South Koreans woke up, they learned of the move, and they are not happy.

The administration has handled the rest of the interaction with their usual grace and charm. Read more

The Protection Racket

Trump has a pattern: take something that is working well – DACA, S-CHIP, JCPOA (the Iran nuclear agreement) – break it just a little, then “negotiate.”

So much of the current crisis atmosphere is due to his love of chaos and his mistaking a protection racket for negotiating.

He broke DACA and set up a six-month timetable for Congress to do something about it. The Republicans in Congress refused to reauthorize S-CHIP.

One of the concessions to the Republicans in Congress in the JCPOA was that the president would have to certify that Iran was in compliance every three months. Trump has used that to call into question the United States participation in the deal. Meanwhile, opponents of the deal are explicitly using Trump’s position as a protection racket to get the Europeans to take steps that would damage the deal.

They are particularly active today on Twitter, perhaps because a helpful article by Philip Gordon and Robert Malley was just published. It’s stuff like this:

It’s others, not them, of course, who want to “blow up the deal.” What Dubowitz and others advocate is a “fix” to the “fatal flaws” of the deal enacted by Congress, with no consultation with Iran or the other parties to the JCPOA. That’s not how it works. What Dubowitz and his allies want Congress to do is to enact a bunch of things that will put the US in violation of the deal. They believe, and are tweeting, that this will give Donald Trump leverage to destroy the deal unless the other parties accede to their demands.

Nice store you got there. Would be a shame if it got trashed, the windows broken.

They also are peddling a bunch of lies.

You can find lies on Dubowitz’s timeline too. The US harbors a bunch of people, evil or stupid, who back the deal because they want to “give” (they often use that word) Iran a “massive nuke capability”. Well, no.

They object to a number of things about the JCPOA. That it was not negotiated for all eternity, as no other agreement ever has been. That it does not take every vestige of nuclear technology from Iran. That it does not punish Iran for whatever it is they feel a punishment is warranted.

Those conditions would have made the JCPOA impossible to negotiate. Iran was a party to the negotiations, and no nation will give up everything.

What is it these opponents of the deal want? Ultimately, it looks to me like they want Iran gutted and laid out to die. In the more immediate future, they are moving toward a war with Iran, although they strenuously deny that.

The IAEA inspectors find no breaches by Iran of the agreement. The other parties to the agreement – Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the EU – are satisfied with that. Additional agreements can be negotiated on missiles (explicitly not a part of the JCPOA, because there never would have been an agreement), further nuclear issues, and other issues of concern. But the opponents focus on “fixing” the JCPOA by destroying it.

Looks to me like some bad faith there.

The article by Gordon and Malley is worth reading for more specifics on the JCPOA and its opponents. I recommend it.


Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.