On the atomic bombing of Japan

The bombs were justified, but this doesn't make it any less of a tragedy
The debate rages on 70 years later

The debate rages on 70 years later

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the first time that a nuclear weapon had been used in combat. According to the most reliable estimates, around 90,000 people – most of them civilians – were killed (70,000 died three days later when Nagasaki was bombed), and thousands more would suffer from the effects of radiation in the years/decades to come. The sight of a massive mushroom cloud over a completely pulverized city has since been etched into humanity’s collective consciousness, serving a terrifying reminder of the horrors of war and of the apocalyptic potential of nuclear warfare. But the most uncomfortable questions remain: was it necessary? Was it justified? These questions have divided opinions for decades. On one hand, there are those who believe that dropping the bomb was essential for bringing World War II to a quick end, thus saving countless more lives. However, there are those who believe that the use of such a powerful weapon against a defenseless civilian population is a crime against humanity irrespective of anything else.

Here is my view regarding some of the most common arguments.

The atomic bombings ended the war quickly and saved more lives

It’s quite hard to counter-argue this point. At the time of the bombings, the US and its allies had already planned a two-part invasion of the Japanese home islands, starting with Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu scheduled for November 1st 1945 (X-Day). The forces assembled for this operation dwarfed those that took part in the Normandy landings a year earlier: 42 aircraft carriers, 24 battleships, and 400 other warships would cover an invasion force of 14 combat divisions. Before this, the Japanese islands would be relentlessly pounded by air attack (aided by the re-deployment of many of the air forces based in Europe), increasing the devastation compared to what Japan had already experienced. In fact, the deadliest single aerial bombardment in history was not Hiroshima or Nagasaki but a conventional attack against Tokyo by 334 B-29 bombers on the night of March 9th 1945. The ensuing firestorm destroyed a large part of the capital and killed at least 100,000 people (and left a million homeless). Continue reading

To Trident or not to Trident

The dilemma of nuclear deterrence in the age of austerity
The last line of defense?

The last line of defense?

How does a middle power remain relevant? One of the most important aspects of global power in the post World War II period is the possession of nuclear weapons. Although only two nations on Earth – the US and Russia – possess nuclear arsenals capable of practically annihilating the planet, the nuclear arsenals of the UK, France and China are large enough to deter any potential adversary from daring to attack it with nuclear weapons itself. Such an exchange between the US and Russia was known as MAD: mutally assured destruction. Although a country like Britain could not conceivably assure the destruction of a country as vast as Russia or China, it could indeed wipe out most of their large cities and lay waste to a significant part of the country’s economic and military infrastructure…

…with just one submarine.

We’ve all heard of Trident but few people really understand the way it works. The Trident is a US-designed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) that is carried on the US Ohio-class subs as well as the UK Vanguard-class. Each sub carries various silos (16 on the Vanguard, 24 on the Ohio) that launch the missiles while submerged. The missiles the rise out into orbit like a rocket to the moon, at which point the tip of the missile opens and lets out a number of independently-targeted warheads (known as MIRVs) fall back to Earth. There are 8 British-designed MIRVs on each Trident carried on the Vanguard subs (the US Tridents carry up to 12) which means that each Vanguard sub armed with a full complement of 16 Tridents can theoretically destroy 128 targets from practically anywhere in the world. Continue reading

The greatest aviation duels in history

Forget Top Gun, here's the best combat rivalries from World War I to today
Spitfire versus Messerschmitt in the skies above Britain

Spitfire versus Messerschmitt in the skies above Britain

Aviation has captured the imagination of humanity since the Wright brothers took to the skies for the first time in 1903. But like every other great human invention, it would not take long before some military use would be found for it. When World War I began in 1914 most air forces consisted of a few scouts, but by the time it ended in 1918 the air arsenals of the great powers would be composed of thousands of fighters and bombers. World War II would see air power reach its full maturity; the war would see the first battle waged entirely in the skies (the Battle of Britain), thousand-bomber raids over Europe, the first jets, and most ominously, the dropping of an atomic bomb by an aircraft. Air technology expanded by leaps and bounds during the Cold War as each of the two superpowers strove to achieve a technological edge over its rival. By the end of the 20th Century, air technology would finally make it possible for a war to be won by air power alone, as shown by the 1991 Gulf War in which a US-led air armada laid waste to Saddam Hussein’s vaunted armies, which had once been considered the fourth most powerful in the world.

Despite the destructive nature of air power, it has nevertheless been romanticized throughout the years as evidenced by the glamorous image of the fighter pilot. So much that the US Navy set up recruitment booths outside movie theaters following the success of Top Gun back in 1984! But Tom Cruise’s heroics on the silver screen pales in comparison to reality. So without further ado, here are the 10 most legendary true air combat rivalries in history. Continue reading

Israel’s denial of history

Why the Middle East's longest conflict won't be resolved anytime soon

“Everyone has their Jews. For the Israelis they are the Palestinians.”

– Primo Levi (author and Auschwitz survivor)

History seems to have been forgotten in the rubble of the latest Gaza assault

History (and common sense) seems to have been forgotten in the rubble of the latest Gaza assault

It’s been a while since social media exploded with such fury as I have witnessed over the past month regarding the outbreak of conflict in Gaza. Perhaps what has been new (to me at least) has been the vitriolic response by the pro-Israel crowd, which in the past has appeared more muted and drowned out by the voices of Palestinian supporters. For as long as I can remember, the Palestinian cause has been one of the calling cards of the left, be it because leftists typically gravitate towards the underdogs but also because Israel has been able to count on the unconditional support of the US: the perennial enemy of the Chomsky-worshipping, capitalism-hating crowd. Turning the old adage around, the friend of my enemy is also my enemy.

I am a bit uneasy about taking sides myself. As I will explain below, the conflict is fundamentally religious in nature and being an antitheist (that’s one step above atheism btw), both sides are equally “wrong” to me in the grander scheme of things. I also find it hard not to feel considerable sympathy and admiration for a nation (Israel) surrounded by mortal enemies that decided to build a liberal democratic state, educate its people, become a technological powerhouse, and achieve a level of prosperity that puts it well within developed nation status. In those same 70 years, Israel’s Arab neighbors have remained as monarchies, dictatorships or unstable factionalism-ridden democracies, squandered their resources on inept militaries and corrupt regimes and in the most extreme of cases (Syria) have made a total mess of their existence. A cynical (and ignorant) leftist will say that Israel did this thanks to US support which is partly true, but during the Cold War the Arabs received an equal amount of Soviet aid and did little to show for it. Israel has made the desert bloom; the Arabs have made it bleed.

Despite this, ultimately I am disgusted by the way that the pro-Israel crowd has ignored history to support an absolutely appalling and unjustified military operation in Gaza. My Facebook feed has seen a non-stop flow of disinformation that appears far more fitting for a Stalinist propaganda machine that from educated people that should have the common sense of knowing when their government has crossed a line. After all, when practically the entire Israeli (and Jewish abroad) population supports an unprovoked war with the death toll consisting mostly to innocent civilians, you get a feeling that some tiny bit of humanity has been lost to modern Israeli society, all the more sad considering they know better than any other people on earth what it is to be the oppressed.

So here goes my attempt at debunking some of the “arguments” (I say this very loosely because the bar has been set quite low by both sides) of the pro-Israel crowd, in the hopes that they can see the responsibility that their leaders have had in creating this mess, and that blindly supporting their military actions will not make Israel safer in the long run. Continue reading

Putin’s new Crimean War

The penninsula is Russia's for the taking if it wants to
The Crimea: a 21st century Sudetenland

The Crimea: a 21st century Sudetenland

Leave it to Vladimir Putin to spoil what had otherwise been one of the few truly positive developments in global politics of the past few months. It’s not often that you get a corrupt power-hungry goon like Viktor Yanukovych out of power through the most democratic means possible: mass protests. But when it happens in a nation that borders Putin’s increasingly assertive and imperialistic Russia there’s bound to be trouble, especially when the guy who got ousted was the guy who was pushing for closer links between his country and his former overlords. Add when said nation holds one of the most coveted pieces of geo-strategic real estate in the Black Sea area, the Crimean peninsula, then things start getting ugly. Add to this the West’s inability to deal with Putin, then you have the potential for disaster.

The Crimea in history

A little history first. The Crimean peninsula has been throughout human history, one of the most important cross-roads of empires from East and West. The Greeks had founded settlements there, and it became a Roman province during the Empire’s heyday. Subsequently, the Byzantines maintained a presence on the peninsula but this gradually gave way as the Italian city states grew more powerful, and their commercial interests began spreading far from the Mediterranean. First it was the Venetians, later the Genovese, who controlled numerous coastal cities, although by this time most of the peninsula was ruled by the Golden Horde (the Mongol Khanate that ruled over much of present-day European Russia). It is here where an interesting nugget of history took place: the outbreak of plague in the 14th century while the Horde was laying siege to the Genovese city of Kaffa. The Genovese sailors who escaped the siege would bring the plague back to Italy where it spread like wildfire over the next few years, killing a third of Europe’s population and altering the continent’s history forever. Continue reading

The future of air power

How China is getting even, and Europe falling behind
The Chinese dragon takes wings

The Chinese dragon takes wings

Since their debut in the closing months of World War II, jet fighters have represented the zenith of aviation technology for nearly 70 years and a nation’s air power is intrinsically linked to the quantity and the quality of its fighter arsenals. In those seven decades, fighters have evolved into sophisticated weapons of war, capable of flying day and night in all weather faster than the speed of sound, of performing a myriad of duties such as bombing, electronic warfare and reconnaissance, and of incorporating technologies that only yesterday would have seemed straight out of a science fiction movie such as stealth and helmet-mounted sights. More importantly, they’re friggin’ awesome, as the droves of moviegoers who tried to enlist in the US Navy after watching Top Gun proved. If you’re still not convinced, just go to an air show to hear the roar of jet fighter’s engine, or the crack of its sonic boom, and you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.

But aside from its glamor, air power has evolved into an essential component of modern warfare since World War II, to the point that many strategists consider it to be capable of winning wars on its own (I disagree but this is another story). Certainly the four-day ground campaign which defeated the Iraqi Army in the first Gulf War would have not been so quick and overwhelming had the US and Coalition air forces not pounded it into near-submission for various weeks. But what does the future behold for air power? Will the West’s technological lead over its adversaries, so dramatically shown in the recent conflicts in the Middle East and Yugoslavia, endure in the coming decades or is the balance of power and technology shifting elsewhere? What better way than to see the evolution of fighter aircraft since the first jets took to the skies. Continue reading

The war against Iran: a game theoretical perspective

If Israel goes solo, expect the US to get dragged in anyway
For Iran, escalation might actually work

For Iran, escalation might actually work

With the world still slugging through the second act of the Great Recession, few scenarios cause more chills to run down the spines of Washington policymakers than a potential war with Iran. Although it is difficult to envision Iran emerging victorious from such a conflict, the outcome would be all but pyrrhic for the US: oil prices (potentially reaching $200 per barrel) would grind the economy to a halt, and the only hole bigger than the ones made by the USAF’s bunker-busting bombs, would be the budget hole caused by another hot war in the Middle East, one which in the worst case scenario would be bigger, longer and bloodier than those being waged in Iraq or Afghanistan. But perhaps what scares the pants off the Obama administration is the war’s total unpredictability: it only takes one surprise attack by Israel to launch a series of events which could lead into an unmitigated disaster. Many people have wondered whether such a scenario could be “contained”; that is, leave Israel and Iran slugging it out among themselves. Certainly that would limit the diplomatic fallout, and leave the US to worry on more important domestic matters during a crucial election year.

But as I will show in this post, such a scenario appears unrealistic. Once the first bomb falls, the US will be sucked in it, just like a limited tactical nuclear strike during the Cold War would have inevitably escalated into all out exchange. My analysis will be capped by a simple game theoretical model which will make the outcome clearer for those of you who are more numerically inclined. Continue reading