Wednesday, July 23, 2008

While America Slept . . . .

. . . . a Second Cold War with Russia was creeping up on them.

This is only one of many reports over the last few years indicating that Russia, now flush with oil and gas revenues and run by ex-KGB, plans on shouldering it's way back onto the world stage, and regaining its former superpower status. This punchy former heavyweight may be down but he isn't out. Whether a militarily-overextended and economically battered U.S. is prepared to meet the challenge remains to be seen.

The American general quoted in the story, warning that Russian bomber flights to Cuba may cross some "red line," sounds like he's spewing empty bravado. The mental picture this paints is of the blustering George C. Scott character in the move Dr. Strangelove -- only without the will or wherewithal to actually go toe-to-toe with the "Russkies."

The Russians have taken steps to modernize their nuclear systems and armaments, while ours are mostly mothballed (and possibly slipping into disrepair), with Congress refusing to fund significant upgrades or modernizations, based on the comfortable but dangerous delusion that this chapter in history closed in 1989. Our leaders refuse to even consider a return to nuclear testing, abiding by a test-ban treaty we never ratified, fearing that doing so will send the "wrong" signals to aspiring members of the nuclear club. Most serious nations act out of self-interest, not peer-group pressure. What these folks will say when Russia resumes testing -- as it undoubtedly will before long -- will be interesting to see. Perhaps this will serve as the Sputnik moment that shakes America awake.

Computer models are helpful. But without real-world testing, it's difficult to predict the reliability of future warheads -- and the dependability and safety of the aging (arguably even decrepit) models we have sitting in mothballs. One expert I saw quoted years ago offered a good analogy. He likened what America's doing to buying a brand new Ferrari and parking it in the garage for 25 years -- and assuming it will roar to life and perform flawlessly in some future emergency.

Will these highly complex systems work in a crisis? Are they aging gracefully, or becoming safety hazards? Testing is the only way to really be sure. But with that off the table, we're left to guess. The Department of Energy's "Stockpile Stewardship" program has taken on the ambitious task of monitoring and maintaining our aged arsenal without the benefit of many critical testing tools.
If it's failing in that mission, would average Americans know about it? Probably not, given the shroud of secrecy in which such efforts are cloaked.

What seems to be happening in the United States is nuclear disarmament by neglect.

The Russians evidently don't intend to let their military muscle atrophy in this way -- and they obviously aren't concerned about being provocative.

One minor gripe with this story is the reporter's evident ignorance of the fact that Russians were routinely flying Backfire Bombers to Cuba during the First Cold War, tracing the contours of the U.S. eastern seaboard. My recollections of the era aren't so hazy that I've forgotten that.

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