Scientific Knowledge and Power Politics


James A. Chisem

James A. Chisem is an contributor at British Online Archives. He has previously written for the BBC, The Times, and Reuters. He has also appeared on the Sunday Politics, Sky Sports, and BBC Radio 5 Live.

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29 Responses

  1. Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

    Excellent post! The intersection of science and public policy has been quite contentious so many times before climate change came about.Report

  2. Avatar Kolohe says:

    What is more, the report argued that even if the Soviets successfully developed their own ‘super’—which was by no means a foregone conclusion—Strategic Air Command’s large arsenal of atomic bombs would still provide a credible deterrent against the Kremlin’s threats.

    Did the people involved have any premonition that intercontinental ballistic missiles would make the deterrence value of manned long range bombers obsolete within a decade?Report

    • Avatar notme in reply to Kolohe says:

      Long range bombers must still have some value since they still exist.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe in reply to notme says:

        First of all, you know as well as I do just because something exists in the military, doesn’t mean it’s entirely useful. Especially if it hasn’t been tested in actual battle.

        But specifically, I’m talking about the deterrence value of an all bomber nuclear force. This is trivially countered by a missle nuclear force, sea or land based, as the first strike time is measured in 10s of minutes, while the counterforce time is measured in hours.

        Long range bombers have an irreplacable use today, but its pretty narrow – taking out enemy air defenses. And their only advantage over sea based TLAMs in this regard is you can just execute from Guam or Missouri or wherever, instead of at least a week of platform prepositioning.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to notme says:

        Bombers have value because they permit visible displays of capability without expending expensive ICBMs in testing or revealing the location of submarines (whose value as a platform depends on their covert deployment).

        Visible displays of capability are a vital part of the game-theory calculation that stops nuclear war from happening. If you don’t know how good someone is, then you might get the idea that you can kill them, and the instant you get the idea that you can kill them then you have to do it before they decide to do it to you.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Kolohe says:

      IIRC, we had the rockets, but not the guidance systems at the time, so I’m not sure if it had occurred to them (although I am willing to bet that someone in the Pentagon had an eye towards that, just waiting for the tech to mature enough).Report

      • Avatar notme in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        A poor guidance system just means you need a larger warhead to make up for the circular error probable (CEP)Report

        • Avatar Kolohe in reply to notme says:

          But a larger warhead means you need a more powerful rocket to overcome the gravity well. This is why Best Korea still ain’t a playa in The Game; they have yet to figure out how to big badaboom in a small enough package.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to notme says:

          It wasn’t terminal guidance that was the issue, but initial and transit guidance. We could do it with single rockets because ground crew could observe navigational telemetry and affect course corrections. An ICBM had to be able to do that all on it’s own, because the human crew might be dead, or very busy doing other things.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to notme says:

          Also, they didn’t bother with larger warheads, but more of them (MIRV).Report

          • Avatar notme in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            Before MIRVs the only choices were more missiles or bigger warheads.Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to notme says:

              Before advanced guidance systems, the only choice was terminal ballistics, which is why we had strategic bombers.

              Seriously, launch trajectories that are hitting the upper atmosphere/LEO are, you know, rocket science. Your launch vehicle has to be able to tell when it’s off course, right now, and be able to make the necessary course corrections, right now, so that it can reach the correct point above the earth necessary to release the warhead such that terminal ballistics can get the job done.

              It doesn’t matter how big your warhead is if you shoot for Moscow and hit the Rybinsk Reservoir instead because high altitude winds pushed you off course.

              ETA: I know the old saying is that close only counts in horseshoes and thermonuclear warfare, but high altitude ballistics have extremely small margins for error at the top of the arc.Report

              • Avatar notme in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                For pinpoint accuracy yes, only bombers would do. The first real Soviet ICBM, the SS-7 had maximum range of 11,000 km with a 5-6 Mt thermonuclear warhead and 13,000 km with a 3 Mt warhead. The missile had a circular error probable (CEP) of 2.7 km. This is exactly why you needed such a large warhead.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to notme says:

                Right, and the SS-7 was another 12 years after the event in the OP. The guidance system itself probably wasn’t even developed until 1960 (since the organization that built it was started in 1959). Remember that the 50’2 & 60’s were something of a heyday for electronics, as the first operational transistor had just been built in 1947.Report

    • I think the report’s authors had some idea about the potential for rocket/missile technology to significantly change the strategic environment. But I’d say that it was ethical matters, rather than strategic matters, that were foremost on their minds.Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    Wonderful post, fascinating. I confess, I am dubious that any wording of the report would have prevented the building of the thermo’s. Can we think of any time when humanity has achieved the technological capacity to build something but then hasn’t built it?Report

  4. Well done post.

    There is a current parallel with the debate on autonomous weapons. This too contains a moral aspect that tends to overshadow the technical issues. Notable in this debate are the 2013 Human Rights Watch report Losing Humanity, and the 2015 open letter against AW signed by various science and AI luminaries.

    As with the H bomb debate the “can we” question tends to overshadows the “should we”. The Russians are apparently working on an autonomous bomber capable of making the jump to space to deliver nuclear weapons.

    So any historical lessons we can learn have the potential, if not likelihood, of informing current issues.Report

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