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 says:

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

      • Avatar Kolohe 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 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 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 says:

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

        • Avatar Kolohe 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 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 says:

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

          • Avatar notme says:

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

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon 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 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 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

    • I think you’re right. In many ways the report was a formality, a hoop that had to jumped through before getting down to business. The powers that be weren’t looking for a political or philosophical opinion, they were looking for a scientific/technical opinion. It’s no wonder they ignored the former.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        It also alludes to the fundamental drawback of technocracy as you address in the post (good post, btw, should have said that before)

        In a democracy, the powers that be derive their power from the consent of the people. Only they that are directly accountable to the people should have the authority to balance ‘scientific truths’ with moral & ethical values – and futhermore balance competing moral and ethical values.

        Experts of all sorts can and should have input into the process, but the final decision must only be made by the politiicans who are elected – or the people themselves individually.Report

      • Avatar notme says:

        Why should they care about Oppy’s moral whinging ?Report

        • Avatar Chip Daniels says:

          He was invoking his religious freedom to refuse to approve a practice that he found abhorrent.Report

          • Avatar notme says:

            How odd a socialist academic suddenly finds religion.Report

            • Avatar Don Zeko says:

              That’s the best part of religious freedom claims: deeply felt moral convictions only matter if you can find support for it in the right old book.Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon says:

                Have you read those things? Pretty sure I can find support for all manner of horrors without even trying hard, and I’m as irreligious as they get!Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                Oh sure. If you want the Bible to endorse some thing you’re doing, you can find support for it somewhere for literally all values of “some thing.”Report

            • Avatar James A. Chisem says:

              It wasn’t just ‘socialist academic[s]’ who found the notion of the H-Bomb morally repugnant. George F. Kennan was one of its fiercest opponents. If you look hard-nosed realism up in a dictionary you’ll find his mugshot sitting pretty next to it.Report

    • Avatar Francis says:

      Many states that have the economic wherewithal to fund a nuclear program have chosen not to do so.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        For sure, and for eminently rational economic, military or ethical reasons but humanity as a whole? Not that I can think of.Report

        • Avatar Patrick says:

          Right, this.

          There are probably more than a few of those countries that don’t bother to have them because there are missiles owned by somebody else they reasonably infer are buddies parked close by aimed at folks they currently believe to not be buddies. Why take on the cost of nukes if you don’t need them for deterrence?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