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
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
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