Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Why bother about the leakage of thermonuclear weapons design information?

As indicated in the earlier posts [1][2], the intentional or unintentional leakage of design information on a TN weapon can pose a serious concern. Clearly over the decades since the first TN burn demonstration, there has been significant release of information and it has become progressively easier to come up with a TN design.

That being said - one might very well ask - "What is the big deal about a design?" - "I mean a design of a weapon is not like having an actual weapon!". You might think that is a seemingly rational stance to take on the issue.

You'd be wrong. That might have been true in the decades past, it is no longer true. And here is why....

In the past it was possible to focus exclusively on the spread of nuclear materials (a favorite past time in the non-proliferation community) ... but now with the spread of various nuclear extraction technologies and the black market in nuclear materials, the materials issue no longer limits as it once used to.

In the days of old, nations tested nuclear weapons in large atmospheric explosions. These explosions allowed weapons designers to carefully examine the interplay between design issues and engineering issues. Similarly military effects of an atmospheric explosion (which is closest to potential use-cases) could actually be studied and correlation between design yields and actual damage could be established.

No one does that kind of thing anymore. Very few nations actually test anymore.

The few that do - test underground - and require complex models to capture the actual device yield. They rely on simulations or archival data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to capture potential military effects.

The majority of nuclear weapons states do not test. Instead they rely extensively on simulations at their national labs to explore design issues and device yields. As things stand today in the US and Russia, the number of real weaponeers who have actually designed a nuclear weapon from a blank piece of paper, seen it turned into a test device in an actual test (underground, overground, or underwater) and then subsequently supported its development and deployment into an actual arsenal - can be counted on your fingers. This most critical knowledge base is shrinking as most of these people are aging. A vast number have retired and passed on. There is no plan to replace this manpower - LANL and LLNL which cranked out 50 some designs before 1990, have since generated exactly two full designs. There are no publicly stated plans to replace the losses to the "Grey Tsunami" and physics education in mission critical fields in the US is declining.

The situation in Russia is no better. Between the economic contraction of the 90s and slow economic recovery over the last decade, the entire Russian weaponeering community has faced a major contraction due to lost funding and brain drain to more lucrative professions.

Stockpile stewardship in both countries poses significant challenges. Keeping existing weapons in good shape and designing replacements for aging elements of older designs consumes a lot of funding. Little is left afterwards for actual physical testing.

This is making both great nuclear powers heavily reliant on simulations for new design evaluation. The economics of other powers lower down on the nuclear totem pole is comparably worse. As arsenal sizes based on "simple designs" grow - the resources available for new design development shrink. (Hint Hint India and Pakistan).

This is why leakage of TN design information is a critical issue worthy of deeper exploration.

In the environment where no one can really afford to test a full yield device, the ability to demonstrate design simulation capabilities lends a sense of parity with established nuclear powers that can't be denied off hand. 

If you just try to dismiss the claim off hand - the resulting media fracas will do more to damage your national security image than it will hurt the person/persons/state making the claim. 

Now that one has explored the "why" of this - I will focus on the "how" aspect of the issue.


At 7:27 PM, Blogger Nanana said...


Perkovich saying India should not develop tac nookes

At 5:08 AM, Blogger maverick said...

Hello Nanana,

It is a good article. I do not know if I entirely support the conclusion that India should eschew tactical nuclear weapons, but I was quite pleased with the evolution of the discussion on escalation dominance.

At some point people will start to recognize that any sense of escalation dominance is very limited to a specific region in space and time. And that each escalation basically carries with it an equally local cost function. IMO the shape of this cost function is constrained to some degree by the psychological perception of "the eruption of violence" (Kahn) but also by other factors like the apparent loss of face when "they do this and we don't do anything".

It is critical for people to understand that given the disparity in ambient violence levels discussed in my reply to P. Kotasthane et al. there is no way to use nuclear escalation dominance to change the Pakistani cost function for terrorism. As per Kahn's description - Pakistan will always be the entity with more to lose and therefore it will have a cost function that is weighted towards escalation.

It is certainly true that if India develops tactical nuclear weapons (an idea that several Indian PMs have stayed away from), then it will achieve parity with Pakistan but when you couple the vast expansion of India's nuclear weapons deployment facilities with tactical nuclear weapons, Pakistan will find itself at a use-or-lose threshold.

Again - on the one hand - putting Pakistan to the edge of the blade may seem like an ideal thing for India to do, because you will physically alter the shape of their cost function at from that point forever but see the thing is - you can't predict what Pakistan will do when put to the blade. No one can predict that. It is an extremely high risk strategy which could either succeed big or result in the outbreak of nuclear war.

Again I wish to emphasize that even though the color picture book version of this strategic stuff looks well aligned and pretty - the details are very tricky and can alter how things turn out.

Perhaps the correct analogy is porn, i.e. pornography and real sex are two entirely different things - and so it is with strategy porn and real world implementation of strategic goals.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home