Not since the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, have most Americans been jittery about the prospect of a nuclear holocaust. Back then, it seemed like such an immediate possibility that suburban families were constructing fallout shelters and schoolkids were subjected to bomb drills. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, atomic war came to feel like an abstraction, the stuff of sci-fi movies. Then, during the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton started talking about Trump having “access to the nuclear codes,” which has turned out to be more than simple campaign fearmongering. As recently as two weeks ago, the 45th president effectively called for a new nuclear-arms race, and he’s also threatened to revoke the nuclear agreement with Iran and to invade North Korea on account of its recent nuclear tests. Of all the threats Trump poses, surely the gravest (if, let’s hope, the most far-fetched) is that he could set off a firefight that would incinerate the globe.
Atomic-weapons expert Philip Coyle was the head of nuclear-weapons testing under President Bill Clinton and an adviser to the Carter and Obama administrations. And as a scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California, he spent 30 years helping design both nuclear arms and the only anti-missile weapon ever deployed by the U.S. Now mostly retired and living in Sacramento, he consults for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a group that lobbies for arms reduction. In other words, there are few people better equipped to explain just how terrified we should be of global annihilation. Below, he discusses the best way of responding to North Korea, why we should be concerned about India and Pakistan, and his own worst nightmares of our nuclear future.
Is there anything about nuclear weapons that would keep us up at night if we knew about it?
Well, for one thing, because I’m old enough, and because of the work I used to do, I’ve actually seen nuclear weapons go off. It’s an amazing, amazingly powerful thing. Once you’ve seen it … It’s something you don’t ever want to see happen during war.
I would watch from miles away. If it’s in a place like the Nevada test site, then you’re in a bunker, protected. Or if it’s underground, then you see the ground heave, which is amazing. If it was in the Pacific, you would watch, perhaps, from a Navy ship. I was the director of the largest underground test the United States ever did — five megatons — in Alaska. On the web, you can see pictures of the ground rising as the explosion goes off. It just goes up and up and up, and it looks like it’s never going to stop. We begin to get an idea [of what it’s like] in violent storms, tornadoes. Violent landslides. But it’s just not the same.
What do you think of the outlook for the Trump administration’s nuclear policy?
It’s a little hard to tell. President Trump has said that nuclear weapons are terrible, or awful, something like that. But on the other hand, he told Mika on Morning Joe, ‘Bring on an arms race!’
Trump has gone back and forth on whether he supports a “No First Use” doctrine. Could you explain what this means and the ramifications?
Yes. It means we pledge we will never be the first to use nuclear weapons. If the other side does, we might use them in retaliation, but we would never start a nuclear war. It’s a way of adding security and stability to the peace process. It has always been set by the president. We don’t know yet what President Trump’s view is.
What was the significance of the North Korea nuclear test, the one in January, that Trump responded to from his Mar-a-Lago dinner table?
North Korea has tested nuclear weapons several times now, and while some of the early tests appeared to be fizzles, the more recent tests look like they have actually achieved relatively small nuclear devices. By ‘small,’ I mean about the size of Hiroshima. They’re not the big thermonuclear weapons of the sort that the United States, Russia, France, and China have. And they don’t have many. And they don’t have many. Congress estimates 10 to 16; other estimates are less than 10—but essentially, a handful. But they’re continuing to test them, and also testing missiles that might carry those weapons. So far, North Korea does not have a missile that can reach the United States, but people worry that given enough time, it could develop one.
The significance [of the January test] was that it was about the same size as the previous one, so it appears they can do it twice in a row. And the previous test may — we don’t know this for sure — may have helped them make some progress toward making their nuclear device smaller. That is, more easily mounted on a missile of some kind.
Mostly their problem so far has been that their missile tests simply haven’t been intercontinental-range. They’ve been short-to-medium range. So they don’t even have the capability to reach Hawaii, let alone the continental United States. However, they certainly are a threat to South Korea and Japan. They’ve tested missiles with enough range to reach either of those countries.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Trump administration is considering military action and regime change in North Korea, among other options, for dealing with the nuclear threat there. What’s your take on that news?
I think the administration is simply considering the options, and that’s not so surprising. I think every administration looks at the options. Some will be more attractive than others. The main thing North Korea wants is for the United States to stop threatening it. Instead, just last week, the U.S. started military exercises in South Korea.
Is the nuclear threat at a level that could warrant an action like regime change?
Certainly it’s a threat that we should be very concerned about. But threatening regime change — all that does is threaten them even more with the very thing they’re worried about. That’s not going to work. What North Korea wants is for us to stop threatening them and to talk with them, and to sit down and try to reach an agreement, perhaps with the help of other countries: namely, South Korea, Japan, and China. When we’ve done that in the past, it has produced salutary results. North Korea has followed the agreements that we’ve made until we do something to break them.
For instance, the Clinton administration had reached an agreement with North Korea, which they were following. The guidelines were not exactly parallel with what has recently happened in Iran, but conceptually they were the same. Then President George W. Bush was elected and immediately began threatening North Korea — and the deal had been that we wouldn’t do that.
So North Korea stopped abiding by the terms as well?
Yes. And that’s the problem with these agreements: They’re very fragile, and it doesn’t take much from either side to trigger an overreaction.
Besides North Korea, which countries should we be most concerned about?
There are also Pakistan and India. People worry that they could get into a regional conflict involving nuclear weapons that would bring in the rest of the world, and all hell would break loose. It could involve large nuclear-weapon states like Russia and China picking sides. Pakistan is estimated to have about 130 nuclear weapons, and India about 120. They tend to match each other. They’ve done exactly the same number of nuclear tests. They keep track and deliberately don’t do more, in order to avoid setting off an imbalance.
Are there any areas where our fears are overblown?
I don’t think you can be too concerned, where nuclear weapons are involved, because they’re so destructive.
You’ve criticized our nuclear defenses for the way they focus on intercepting “limited” attacks. Could you explain what this means and why it’s inadequate?
The missile-defense system that we’ve deployed in Alaska and California involves interceptors which would fly out into space and try to hit, head-on, a missile coming from, say, North Korea. The trouble is, that system has done very poorly in flight-intercept tests — and it’s been getting worse over time, when it ought to be getting better. If you go back over each test since, say, 2000, and look at why it failed, the reasons have varied. A couple failed because the interceptor never got off the ground; a couple failed because the interceptor never separated from its rocket booster.
It’s one of the most difficult things the Pentagon has ever tried to do. You’re trying to hit an enemy target that’s going 15–17,000 miles an hour. You’re going so fast that if you miss by an inch, you can miss by a mile.
Meanwhile, what our development of this intercept system is doing is encouraging other countries to build better offense systems, so that they can overwhelm our missile defenses. Typically in the tests, there’s only one target. You’re trying to shoot down one missile with another missile. There’s no reason why, if Russia were intent on attacking the United States, they would do it that way. They wouldn’t just shoot one missile out of the blue and see what happened — they would fire large numbers of them.
Recently Russia tested an intermediate-range missile that could be nuclear — that could hit Europe, let’s say. If Russia builds a bunch of those, the missile defenses we’re building in Europe right now, in conjunction with NATO will be overwhelmed also. Our system in Europe has interceptors deployed in Romania, and proposed to be deployed, in a year or two, in Poland. Russia hates it because they think it’s aimed at them, and conservative members of Congress say it ought to be aimed at Russia — just reinforcing what Russia worries about. So Russia’s inclination is to be able to overwhelm that system by building more and more missiles.
So it’s a vicious cycle?
Yes, that’s how it works out. If Russia were deploying missile-defense systems in Cuba or Mexico, close to our borders, in the way that Romania and Poland are close to their borders, we wouldn’t like that either. And if the numbers got very large, we’d be just as concerned as Russia is.
What is your worst nightmare of a nuclear disaster?
I have two. One is that somebody builds or steals a nuclear weapon, overseas somewhere. A military faction, for instance. William Perry, the former secretary of Defense under Clinton, has a video outlining how this could happen.
The other is that the United States and Russia will get into another nuclear-arms race and create a much more dangerous world than we’ve had heretofore. You see this in Congress, where various members are calling for new nuclear capabilities on the part of the United States — which, obviously, Russia and China would feel they had to respond to. You see it also in a recent Defense Science Board report, where they recommend low-yield nuclear weapons as a way of deterring Russia — the idea being that, because they’re low-yield, it’s more believable that we would actually use them. But, of course, if the idea is to make them more usable, that makes them more dangerous — because they might actually get used!
There’s a new bill Congress is working on called the Intermediate-Range Forces Treaty Preservation Act. It’s ironic that they call it that. It would be more accurate to call it the Violation Act, because the things it recommends would all be violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty [a 1987 agreement that the U.S. and Russia would eliminate all their ground-launched missiles with a certain range capacity]. It hasn’t been voted on or anything, so maybe it will never happen. But for example, they’re calling for a dual program of a dual-capable — meaning they could be nuclear or nonnuclear — road-mobile missile-launch system, with ranges between 500 kilometers and, say, 6,000 kilometers. Obviously, if the United States did something like that, Russia and China would feel very concerned and feel they had to respond.
So this kind of sword-rattling could ultimately make the world a much more dangerous place.
By and large, Americans aren’t viscerally afraid of nuclear war in the way they were in the 1950s and ’60s. But how close are we actually to the threat of a nuclear holocaust, compared to the situation during the Cold War?
Until very recently, I would have said that we were moving farther and farther away from nuclear war, because the U.S. and Russian stockpiles have been going down, and because other countries that have nuclear weapons have been restrained. They could have built many more than they have so far. And because of this general attitude that nuclear weapons are simply not acceptable anymore, as a moral matter, and that no sane U.S. president would ever use them. But more recently, with the sword-rattling we are talking about, I’ve become more concerned.
You mean since the last campaign cycle began?
US State Department approves resumption of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia
Move provides early indication of the new administration’s more Saudi-friendly approach to the conflict in Yemen
Washington: The State Department has approved a resumption of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, a potential sign of reinvigorated US support for Riyadh’s involvement in the neighboring ongoing civil war in Yemen.
The proposal from the State Department would reverse a decision made late in the Obama administration to suspend the sale of precision guided munitions to Riyadh, which leads a mostly Arab coalition conducting air strikes against Iran-backed Al Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s approval this week of the measure, which officials say needs White House backing to go into effect, provides an early indication of the new administration’s more Saudi-friendly approach to the conflict in Yemen, and a sign of its more hawkish stance on Iran.
It also signals a break with the more conservative approach of Obama’s administration about US involvement in the conflict.
The move takes place as the Trump administration considers its approach to the Yemeni war, which has pitted US and Saudi-backed Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi against an alliance of ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Al Houthi rebels.
Al Houthis have received substantial support from Iran which Saudi Arabia has long complained of and the US has confirmed.
Iran has provided money, weapons and even training to Al Houthi rebels despite repeated calls by Saudi Arabia and other regional players to stop interfering in the domestic afairs of Arab countries.
While the US military has provided support to the Saudi-led air campaign since 2015, including aerial refueling for Saudi jets and a US advisory mission in the Saudi operations headquarters, the Obama administration sought to scale back that support last year amid a series of alleged Saudi strikes in which civilians were killed.
Despite Saudi hopes that the conflict would quickly restore Hadi to power, it is now approaching its third year.
As of January, the conflict had led to the deaths of at least 10,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.
“It has become a quagmire in which we were deeply involved but had very little influence,” said Tom Malinowski, who served as the top human rights official at the State Department under President Barack Obama.
“That was not a good deal for the United States.”
Pressure increased on the Obama administration in October of last year, when Saudi jets hit a Yemeni funeral hall, killing more than 100 people.
An investigation team with the Saudi-led Arab coalition said wrong information led to strike ordered that victims’ families be compensated.
At the end of a review prompted by that strike, the Obama White House made the decision to halt the planned sale of roughly $390 million worth of precision munitions guidance systems to Riyadh.
At the same time, officials reaffirmed other kinds of military support, part of a carrot-and-stick approach, reflecting US eagerness to smooth things over with a crucial Middle Eastern ally that was sharply critical of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Now, President Donald Trump, who has also voiced opposition to the nuclear deal, has an opportunity to recalibrate that support and reset ties with Riyadh.
An ongoing Yemen policy review is also a chance for Trump to demonstrate a tougher approach to Iran and its activities throughout the Middle East. Trump and some of his top advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have called Tehran a chief threat to American security.
A senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the Trump administration hopes to roll back Iranian influence in large part in Yemen.
“We’ll be looking for ways to blunt Iranian malign influence in the region. And we’ll be looking for all the tools that the US government has,” the official said.
“In that context, I think you have to look at Yemen.”
Trump has already supported the expansion of a separate military campaign in Yemen, one that US forces are now waging against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a potent militant group that has grown stronger amid Yemen’s instability.
It is not yet known how the new administration will approach the beleaguered Yemen peace process, one that Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, tried unsuccessfully to push toward a peace deal.
Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen, said that allowing Saudi Arabia to purchase the precision weapons would make sense. “My own view is that we should be able to sell these,” said Feierstein, who now directs the Center for Gulf Affairs at the Middle East Institute.
Feierstein and other advocates of the sale argue that precision munitions are preferable to unguided or “dumb” bombs and are less likely to cause civilian casualties when used properly.
“We should provide more help, more support,” Feierstein said. “We should not cut off all the tools that would enable them to do this the right way.”
If the White House gives its blessing to the new State Department position, the administration would then notify Congress about its intent to move forward with the sale.
March 13, 2017 Features, Opinion & Analysis
Martin Jay Correspondent
Donald Trump’s campaign promises may have included “bombing the hell out of ISIS,” but does he really want to defeat the terrorist organisation? It seems he is hoping US journalists will be spoon-fed a dose of his own fake news from the Middle East. Winning Mosul is just the start of a propaganda campaign, which aims to airbrush away important facts about who are the real terrorists in the region; and who is actually killing them.
“Low hanging fruit” is a term, which springs to mind when thinking of America’s short-term goals in Iraq. The rise of ISIS in many ways can be attributed to failed US policies going back to 2003 when George W. Bush took the spectacular decision to stop paying the salaries of some 500 000 largely Sunni soldiers.
They were left without jobs and pay in the post “liberated” phase of early occupation by US troops in the country. Fast forward to 2008 when Obama trumped the mistake with an even better one — for US soldiers to pull out of Iraq — and two key events unfolded which in part go some way in explaining why Trump’s unfettered focus on crushing ISIS in Mosul is so important.
But not necessarily for the reasons, he states. Firstly, what is considered ISIS today emerged from Mosul, as the ancient town was always a bedrock for Saddam Hussein’s hardcore supporters who formed Al-Qaeda, which controlled the city as early as 2012. So, the location itself has special significance as the birthplace of regional terrorism. Secondly, consequently, Iraq became almost immediately an Iranian satellite as, buckling under pressure from hardcore Shiite leaders, Prime Minister Abadi had little choice other than to accept the hand of support from Tehran when quite suddenly a great part of the country — mainly the Sunni western flank — became occupied by the extremists.
It’s important to remember that in the early days, ISIS had more support from civilians in Mosul, Ramadi, and Falluja than at present. And it’s this last point which might explain why Iraqi special forces fighting ISIS in Mosul do not want to allow humanitarian corridors as they are afraid that many ISIS fighters might use them themselves — but more importantly that ISIS sympathisers will also flee.
What is often overlooked by the media is that Mosul is important for Trump as his grand scheme in the Middle East is to weaken Iran methodically — and in Iraq, he has found in Prime Minister Abadi, a willing partner who shares the same viewpoint. The Iraqi leader is floundering politically and badly needs to assure Sunnis there that Iran — and the influential Shiite leaders — will no longer wield the power that they had in the period from 2008 to present as Iraq is about to go back to being a US partner geopolitically. It’s not a huge triumph by any stretch of the imagination, more a cheap victory for Trump to take.
It is there to be taken, though. All of what we have seen in recent weeks, from the James Mattis’ visit to US soldiers being posted to the front line, to high-level talks with Abadi and other top officials, and even the more recent U-turn on banning Iraqis from traveling to the US, is all about this small but important first geopolitical step that Trump must take: Get Iraq back. Aside from the hysteria about a war with Iran, which Trump knows he cannot win as the number of body bags being shipped home to the US would destroy him politically, focusing on destabilising Iran’s influence in the region is more likely to be the sober approach which he will prefer to take. US special forces operating in Yemen just recently is a glimpse of the future, as are American soldiers leading a multinational force in Syria in the future, euphemistically referred to as the ‘safe zones’ plan which is still yet to be unveiled, but believed to be complete.
Trump’s master plan will be to undermine and chip away at Iran’s power in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, with Iraq being the easiest one to start with as nailing ISIS in Mosul should be relatively straightforward and buy him tomes of PR coverage back home: “I said I would hit ISIS. I just hit ISIS.” But the US president is less bothered with the terrorist organisation.
Despite the fanfare, I would argue that ISIS is not at all important, per se, as the subject of the focus of getting rid of ISIS is more about creating fake news about Iran and its proxies and producing ‘alternative facts’ for sloppy journalists in the US. ISIS was never a focus of the Obama administration rather than the removal of Assad, a mindset mirrored by the Trump team: Assad is part of Iran’s power base which Trump and Mattis are so threatened by, according to a bevy of recent reports in the US media.
From what we have seen, ISIS is still not a focus for America in Syria, despite news this week of a force of a few hundred soldiers to be sent to Iraq. Put into context, George W Bush sent 130,000 US troops to Iraq in 2003. What probably irks Trump is that in almost every other battlefield across Iraq and Syria it is Russia, Syria and in particular Iran which has been hitting ISIS the most – a point made by many geopolitical analysts, like Professor Mohamed Morandi who recently said as much on BBC’s Hardtalk show.
The Iranian academic, who studied in the US, makes a strong case, no doubt one which must not jar well with the recent statement by Mattis: “Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism.” If Trump can maneuver Iran out of the ISIS war, then this incorrect assertion, a triumph of absurdity, which is up there with his preposterous claims about rising US crime levels and climate change, will have more gravitas than it presently does with the American public.
Incredulously, most American media outlets lap the Iran line up. ‘State-sponsored terrorism’ is supposed to be a ‘geopolitics for dummies’ one-fits-all explanation for Hezbollah having the nerve to defend themselves against Israel in 2006 – and give the Israelis a bloody nose. Western media doesn’t even try and grasp that Hezbollah (Iran’s proxy) is at war with Israel.
And it’s just so much easier to call the army which is Uncle Sam’s buddy and which is the highest recipient of US military aid a legitimate sovereign state and Hezbollah ‘terrorists’, right? The Trump viewpoint on Iran and its activities in the region is even more absurd and blinded by dogma.
What few journalists will even bother to check, let alone report on, is that Mosul is a gift from the Iranians whose militias did all the really tough fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah before Mosul, which became the extremists’ last chance saloon; in the period while those other towns were fought over and liberated, US soldiers trained an elite Iraqi antiterrorism unit which is doing the lion’s share of the fighting in Mosul today.
It’s seldom reported that Iran and Hezbollah gave the Americans the time they needed so they could have their one PR triumph in Mosul. Abadi in Iraq would not be in a position to deny the Iranians the prize of Mosul if they insisted on taking it. But they stepped back, and Obama filled the void in his last months in office.
It’s news that you could hardly makeup, it’s so odd: Mosul’s victory was crafted by Obama and given to Trump on a plate by Iran and Hezbollah. In fact, it’s a similar story in Syria. Most of the key battles which kept Assad in power and denied the country being taken over by extremists like ISIS and Nusra were fought by Iran and Hezbollah, starting off with Al-Qusair in 2013. But many more after that. Naturally, that’s not a straightforward fact which Trump’s people neither like nor acknowledge: ISIS and Nusra would be running Syria if it weren’t for the Iranians and Hezbollah who have probably killed more ISIS and Nusra terrorists than anyone else.
But Trump is unlikely to acknowledge that when, in the coming months, Mosul finally falls and he can take the credit for America’s ‘victory’ over ISIS. Iraq must be liberated not only from ISIS but also Iran’s firm grip which in the short-term Mosul will allow to happen. In the long run though, Trump will have to work out a new PR strategy of fake news and alternative facts when America’s own troops get caught in yet more crossfire in Iraq when Shiites under the powerful cleric Muqtada al-Sadr lose their patience with a new US ‘occupation’ and, inevitably, drag the US into yet another regional conflict.
If Trump leaves a good number of US soldiers in Iraq to help Abadi contain the threat of a new ISIS emerging in the Sunni heartlands, then American soldiers being killed is a price Trump should be prepared to pay even though there is so little to glean in the longer term.
And so far, there are indications that he is willing to pay it. In the meantime, despite trying to imitate a Middle East despot by treating journalists with this splenetic contempt which is normal in many of the failed states in this part of the world, he needs to re-write the history books, so will be looking for some ‘call-center’ journalists in DC to help him with manufactured fake news about Iran, of which there are many. Take your pick. – Russia Today
Alexander Gates, a geology professor at Rutgers-Newark, is co-author of ”The Encyclopedia of Earthquakes and Volcanoes,” which will be published by Facts on File in July. He has been leading a four-year effort to remap an area known as the Sloatsburg Quadrangle, a 5-by-7-mile tract near Mahwah that crosses into New York State. The Ramapo Fault, which runs through it, was responsible for a big earthquake in 1884, and Dr. Gates warns that a recurrence is overdue. He recently talked about his findings.
Q. What have you found?
A. We’re basically looking at a lot more rock, and we’re looking at the fracturing and jointing in the bedrock and putting it on the maps. Any break in the rock is a fracture. If it has movement, then it’s a fault. There are a lot of faults that are offshoots of the Ramapo. Basically when there are faults, it means you had an earthquake that made it. So there was a lot of earthquake activity to produce these features. We are basically not in a period of earthquake activity along the Ramapo Fault now, but we can see that about six or seven times in history, about 250 million years ago, it had major earthquake activity. And because it’s such a fundamental zone of weakness, anytime anything happens, the Ramapo Fault goes.
Q. Where is the Ramapo Fault?
Q. Did you find anything that surprised you?
A. I found a lot of faults, splays that offshoot from the Ramapo that go 5 to 10 miles away from the fault. I have looked at the Ramapo Fault in other places too. I have seen splays 5 to 10 miles up into the Hudson Highlands. And you can see them right along the roadsides on 287. There’s been a lot of damage to those rocks, and obviously it was produced by fault activities. All of these faults have earthquake potential.
Q. Describe the 1884 earthquake.
A. It was in the northern part of the state near the Sloatsburg area. They didn’t have precise ways of describing the location then. There was lots of damage. Chimneys toppled over. But in 1884, it was a farming community, and there were not many people to be injured. Nobody appears to have written an account of the numbers who were injured.
Q. What lessons we can learn from previous earthquakes?
A. In 1960, the city of Agadir in Morocco had a 6.2 earthquake that killed 12,000 people, a third of the population, and injured a third more. I think it was because the city was unprepared.There had been an earthquake in the area 200 years before. But people discounted the possibility of a recurrence. Here in New Jersey, we should not make the same mistake. We should not forget that we had a 5.4 earthquake 117 years ago. The recurrence interval for an earthquake of that magnitude is every 50 years, and we are overdue. The Agadir was a 6.2, and a 5.4 to a 6.2 isn’t that big a jump.
Q. What are the dangers of a quake that size?
A. When you’re in a flat area in a wooden house it’s obviously not as dangerous, although it could cut off a gas line that could explode. There’s a real problem with infrastructure that is crumbling, like the bridges with crumbling cement. There’s a real danger we could wind up with our water supplies and electricity cut off if a sizable earthquake goes off. The best thing is to have regular upkeep and keep up new building codes. The new buildings will be O.K. But there is a sense of complacency.
Photo: Alexander Gates, a Rutgers geologist, is mapping a part of the Ramapo Fault, site of previous earthquakes. (John W. Wheeler for The New York Times)