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Belmont Club

Bootleggers and Fleets-in-Being

April 10th, 2013 - 1:43 pm

In 1690, “Lord Torrington, commander of the Royal Navy forces in the English Channel, found himself facing a stronger French fleet. He proposed avoiding a sea battle, except under very favourable conditions, until he could be reinforced. By thus keeping his ‘fleet in being’, he could maintain an active threat which would force the enemy to remain in the area and prevent them from taking the initiative elsewhere.”

The phrase “fleet in being” has come to represent the influence of potential, rather than actual strength in military affairs. During World War 2, for example, the Nazi battleship Tirpitz hardly left port. But the British were obliged to keep a force many times strong in readiness to intercept in case she did. A fleet in being is like Casey At the Bat, more formidable in the anticipation than in actual use.

Fleets in being of a different kind are emerging in Asia.  Henri Solski at the National Review online notes that “Japan may open a plant that can produce eight tons of plutonium a year — enough to make 1,000 to 2,000 nuclear weapons annually. That’s at least as many weapons as are in the entire U.S. operationally deployed nuclear force. … Japan already has ten tons of nuclear explosive plutonium stockpiled on its soil from previous reprocessing activities.” Not to be outdone South Korea is joining the game.

South Korea also wants to make plutonium-based nuclear fuels from imported U.S. power-reactor assemblies. In a Foggy Bottom press conference with secretary of state John Kerry on April 2, South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se made it clear that he wants to revise South Korea’s current nuclear cooperative agreement with the U.S. in order to allow Seoul to make such fuel. Kerry said he hoped to resolve the matter soon. He will visit South Korean president Park Geun-hye in Seoul later this month.

The parallels between the “fleet in being” concept and Japan and Korea’s reported build up of weapons grade nuclear material are obvious. It’s a giant potential arsenal that can be actual very quickly. It’s a massive Tirpitz that can sail at short notice.  Neither Japan nor Korea may have an actually assembled bomb.  But given their technological and industrial prowess the Japanese and Koreans can turn these materials into actual nuclear weapons in a very short period. How short a period?  The Institute for Science and International Security estimates that given 25 kg of material, Iran could “sprint” to an actual bomb in 2 to 3 weeks.

Producing fissile material is the most technically demanding step in building a nuclear bomb, and the hardest to hide. According to IAEA officials, Iran already knows enough to create the non-fissile parts of a basic nuclear bomb. With this knowledge, a country such as Iran could manufacture nuclear weapon components, or even assemble complete bombs, in small, secret facilities. That is one reason why U.S. intelligence was surprised by how quickly China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and the Soviet Union obtained nuclear weapons—and underestimated Iraq’s progress in 1990 and overestimated it in 2002.

How short would Iran’s fissile-material dash need to be so as to be undetectable? Currently, the IAEA inspects two Iranian enrichment facilities on average once a week, and a third facility every two weeks on average. With this rate of inspections, Iran would need to produce 25 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium (enough for one bomb) from its stockpiles of lower enriched uranium in less than one week. The window might be widened to two or three weeks if Tehran blocked one or two inspections on the pretext of an “accident” or a “protest.”

If 25 kg and Iran’s relative crude manufacturing capability might produce a weapon in under a month, what can Japan do with 10 tons?  Probably more. And South Koreans are no slouches either. A South Korean program would obviously doom President Obama’s dream of a “nuclear zero”.

Solski asks what exactly Kerry can do to dissuade the Koreans from embarking on a production program. The Obama administration is in the ironic position of having to undo the results of its own feckless policy. The arms race  is at least partially of its own making;  the result of the breakdown of US hegemony. Obama’s efforts to reduce US military dominance, to defund “unproven missile defense systems”; never to build future combat systems and create a “world without nuclear weapons” have created a a vacuum, i.e. a Japan and the Republic of Korea that no longer believe in the Administration’s nuclear guarantee.

And therefore they are looking to themselves for security guarantees. There is no other reason for their embarking on the creation of these gigantic, nuclear “fleets in being”. The mere fact that the Koreans want to use American raw material may itself be a concession. A courtesy for old time’s sake.  Because the alternative to getting US cooperation on stockpiling fissile material is that the ROKs may proceed without Kerry’s cooperation. They can go on with Kerry or they can go on without Kerry.

At all events, the nuclear fleets in being are rapidly taking shape. And who’s been active in this area? France.

What the secretary will offer President Park, though, is still unclear. If he says yes to Seoul, Japan will be dead set on opening its plant at Rokkasho. This, in turn, is likely to prompt China to up its atomic ante. Beijing has been coy about what its true nuclear capabilities are, but it has been toying with the idea of having the French build it a plutonium-extraction plant nearly identical to the one in Japan. China wants to build the plant adjacent to one of its major military nuclear-production sites in Jiayuguan.

The scale of the potential is illustrated by this report from the Japan Times:

Since 1969, Japanese utilities have entrusted Britain and France with reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from their nuclear plants to produce MOX fuel, which had been considered a key part of Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling policy, which remains in place despite the Fukushima meltdown disaster and widespread domestic opposition to continued use of atomic energy.

The inconsistency in Japan’s stance has raised concern about nuclear proliferation, as the use of surplus plutonium generated in reprocessing remains unspecified.

At present, Japan has 44 tons of plutonium in the country and abroad. Of that amount, 30 tons is fissile material that could be used to produce about 5,000 nuclear weapons.

The real effect of 25 kg of weapons grade material in Iran or North Korea’s hands isn’t the 25 kg. It’s the massive response that it will elicit from its threatened neighbors. It’s the pebble that starts the landslide. The Dreadnought that has to be countered by neighboring countries that heretofore have avoided building one. The cost of allowing proliferation is that sooner or later it starts a process of universal armament that replaces the system of American hegemony.

The world had a choice of two security models. In the first only the cops could carry the guns; the “Scotland Yard Model”. In the second, the cops refuse to come out of the precinct house. With the Scotland Yard model dead everyone is forced  to carry. This can be called the “Tombstone Territory” model where “your future’s just as good as your draw.”

Perhaps the Obama administration meant well by declaring a World Without Nuclear Weapons and starting by melting down it’s shootin’ irons. But instead of Scotland Yard,  we are now on the way to Tombstone Territory.

If Pakistan, North Korea and Iran cannot not be stopped from proliferating, the US faces the position of Chicago in the era of Al Capone. When Prohibition failed to stop the bootleggers the only way to destroy them was to sell liquor legally.  The speakeasies go out of business if you can sell alcohol in the corner liquor store. So if  Iran, Pakistan and North Korea open a cheap nuclear grog shop, look for the Made in Japan label on your next shopping expedition.

If AQ Khan opens his bazaar, sooner or later someone will go him better with a nuclear Wal-Mart. If Obama cannot stop proliferation by rogue states then inevitably countries like France and perhaps other pacifist European countries will start selling nuclear materials technology to China, Taiwan, Singapore and others.  If you can’t beat them, join them. The South Korean meeting with Kerry really represents an opportunity to get into the controlled nuclear proliferation business at the ground floor or leave the market to AQ Khan and Kim Jong Un.

There is one more thing to remember. Fleets in being can one day become part of a general “fleet engagement”.  For years people complained about the cost of maintaining the peace. But maybe the cost of being the hegemon wasn’t really so big when you consider the alternative.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

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All Comments   (43)
All Comments   (43)
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Ya gotta read Gordon Chang's excellent post at PJM ' China sides with North Korea". The kill shot:

"Why would Beijing back the world’s most ruthless regime? The answer lies in China’s fraying political system, which is allowing generals and admirals to cement control over policymaking.

Chinese flag officers gained influence last year as feuding civilians sought military support for their bids for promotion as the Communist Party retired Fourth Generation leaders, led by Hu Jintao, and replaced them with the Fifth, under the command of Xi Jinping. The People’s Liberation Army, which may now be the most powerful faction in the Party, has traditionally maintained its pro-Pyongyang views, and it is apparently using its enhanced standing to push Beijing closer to Pyongyang.

The rise of the military has had consequences. For instance, the PLA has sold the North Koreans at least six mobile launchers for their new KN-08 missile, which can hit the U.S. These launchers substantially increase Pyongyang’s ability to wage a nuclear war and are the primary reason the Obama administration decided last month to go ahead with the 14 missile interceptors in Alaska."

Ooops. Big Time Ooops. Says it all. We are in some deeep sheeeet.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, it was let slip today that the classified DIA assessment is that the DPRK ALREADY has a nuclear warhead small enough to to be launched on a ballistic missile. Seems that somebody mismarked a section of a DIA report and a congressman asked about it.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If the Japanese and RoKs haven't already built the components of a deliverable Nuclear weapon and a delivery system they are fools.
11/2009 should have been a wake up call for self survival because the Japanese and RoKs cannot trust Obama and the democrats for umbrella coverage.
"HELL, I'm an American and I don't trust Obama and the democrats nor republican's either!"
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Japanese and RoKs are for the most part, more intelligent than us (that doesn't say much). I'm sure they are looking at Obama with considerable despondency. However walking away from the American nuclear umbrella and creating their own represents a huge cost. Also, after they walked away, it would be very difficult for them to come back. Japan's economy is right on the hairy edge of imploding. I have no idea where the Japanese could come up with the additional money to manage their own defense. I suspect if Japan's economy was as strong as it was in the early 1980s, they would have recognized us as complete flakes and kissed us off the moment after Obama was elected President. As it stands, they're super-glued on the deck of the USS Titanic and don't have the option of jumping ship.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment

What will be the civil architecture of a nation be once nuclear weapons are not only commonplace, but frequently used? I suggest that centralized cities will quickly become a thing of the past. In the U.S. there has already long been a drift to the suburbs. The next stage will likely be a further drift to small, scattered, towns. (I live in a town forty miles from an urban center.)

Originally the benefit of large cities was ease of communication and concentration of manufacturing. The internet, personal computing, long haul trucking and automated manufacturing eliminate this advantage.

For example, since the beginning of World War Two distributed manufacturing in the aircraft industry has been the norm rather than the exception. This was especially true in Germany where aircraft production rose continuously throughout the war despite intensive bombing of cities.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I have always contended that North Korea nor Iran would never had gotten this far without the explicit approval of Bejing and Moscow. The so-called rogue state proliferation puts a fork in any notion of a Non-Proliferation Treaty from the get go. Just the fact that Obama is pursuing a zero-nukes policy shows that he is reliving his fathers dreams in antiquated leftest cant.

The best defense is a strong offense and the US should be embarking on a program of muscular counter-proliferation. The US fears unilateral military actions yets seems to have no issue with unilaterally losing in trade and arms limitations. Perhaps the whole impasse is aided and abetted by the Green movement that has sought to limit the proliferation of nuclear power which would have been the only rational framework to control the nuclear proliferation problem. Yet what you see is the state department wants to put themselves in the middle of the action with jaw-jaw whilst the NRC and the EPA want to protect mother Gaia from the John Q. Public. It is a matter of pandering to special interests tha we will all lose in the end. No where is an American self-interest bargained for in these equations.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"...Obama is pursuing a zero-nukes policy shows that he is reliving his fathers dreams in antiquated leftest cant."
A very astute observation, Mouse. It points out that progressives are, to paraphrase the old cliche, fighting the last war in all arenas, political, social, civil and military.
Since I can't help it, I have to ask what do we 'Tired Old Clingers' have to offer GOING FORWARD other than our grandchildren?
Time. We have time. LLIII offers an idea. We can joust windmills if we are unfortunate enough to live where the left blocks the sun, but jousting distracts them.

Since a massed drone attack (Drone Alpha Strike) is too complex for the Admin, our only hope is electoral.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We had better get the hell off this rock before an asteroid or crazy man sends it up in smoke.
My wag is that it won't be much before 2050 before large scale off world migrations begin. Hard to say when/if the next nuke goes off. But its certain that both Iran and the Norks mean to make sure nukes become part of every country's flag about like every country has a state supported airline.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The fleet in being model doesn't really fit. North Korea could destroy Japanese and RoK capabilities in minutes. They have to have the weapon and delivery system in place before they are threatened.

US policy over the years assumed that no one like Obama would ever enter the White House so we actively discouraged are allies from developing an independent deterrent. (There was one world leader who understood that possibility – Charles de Gaulle) Now with North Korea threatening the region and an administration that does not really want to defend our traditional friends and allies Japan and the RoK are in precarious position. Kim could simply threaten them with nuclear attack if they attempt to build a counter. China is now the power broker that can ensure their safety. The US is no longer an effective deterrent to aggression. If Obama were really as smart as he claims, he would transfer nuclear weapons and delivery systems to South Korean control so they can buy time to build their own program. Everybody knows that won't happen.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Interesting idea, and not without precedent. With Project Emiliy, U.S. suppled SM-75 Thors and nuclear warheads were based in England, with RAF crews and marked with RAF roundels. But as I understand it, they could not be launched without both UK and US permission.

At that time the problem was the SS-6 Sapwood, which theoretically had the capability to hit the USA. With our Atlas ICBMs not yet operational, we needed a counter.

You know, we still had 4 of those very missiles available last I heard. Would be neat to set up the same deal as Project Emiliy with the ROK. And the ROK took a course on how to launch a Delta II back in the 90's.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
N.Korea and Japan have Aegis systems now equipped with Block 3 missiles, plus extensive computerized and networked surveillance capability. Surface radar, airborne radar, and satellites are all interconnected. Also the number of Harpoons and Tomahawks they have in inventory gives them a considerable offensive punch. S. Korea has it's own brand of cruise and short and intermediate ballistic missiles in addition to short range gps guided mobile rocket launchers.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I hope North Korea doesn't have Aegis systems.

How much of your career have you spent in the nuclear arms business?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I wonder about the “Thinking the Unthinkable” aspects.

Presumably, North Korea would use a Counter-Value targeting approach, since their purpose is to terrorize. Japan and South Korea would use a Counter-Force targeting approach, since the DPRK has nothing of “value” to target. That would make a pre-emptive strike against the DPRK much more likely, given the Dear Leader Jr’s apparent mental instability, frequent bombastic threats, and the country’s history of unprovoked attacks.

The one stabilizing factor is the very thing the Left said was so destabilizing: Missile Defense. If there is a pretty good probability of intercepting the incoming missile, you might bet on that and not pre-empt the launch by nuking it.

However, the best way to do missile defense is with nukes. Forget hit-to-kill or lasers and just vaporize the incoming warhead 100 miles up. Okay, so then you need more nukes, and smaller and better nukes as well. If you expect 1000 incoming warheads that’s a problem, but for just a few the situation with high altitude explosions is acceptable.

If we do intercept a DPRK or Iranian missile – or try and it fail- I sure hope that somebody will do a long heartfelt diatribe against the people who tried to sabotage SDI – and name names – I can offer a few suggestions for that.

By the way, for the PJ sign in, here are a few tips I have found:

1. Sign in at the Richard Fernandez page, rather than at a specific article.
2. If you have a problem with the Sign In page giving you access to enable you to type in your e-mail address and password, just hit the “Sign In” button anyway. It will come back with an error message and that will give you the ability to sign in.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The likelihood of the use of a nuclear weapon is undoubtedly a function of how many countries have them. The more command structures are involved in the decision making, the more likely it is that one of them will conclude that the use gives them an advantage. Or, I should have said, the more likely that one of them will make a tragic mistake.

We are now backed into a position where the rest of the so-armed nations need to launch a massive, nation-killing counterstrike on any country that employs first use. That's the only way I can see to deter use once everyone has them, and of course terrorists won't be bound by this. This may sound outrageous now, but once the nukes start flying and death toll climbs, it won't seem that extreme. There's no doubt now that it will happen; the only open question is the matter of time.

So, how many years do we have til the first nuke goes off over some city, somewhere? Or should we measure the time in months?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What Blert is saying is that the problem of separating Plutonium isotopes from each other is very much a non-trivial problem- it would require a gigantic cascade series based on minute enrichment of the fissible Pu-239.

With Uranium this can be done by several methods: gaseous diffusion of Uranium Hexaflouride through a specially manufactured filter, dissolve a Uranium compound in water and run it through tall towers of flowing water, or use a mass-spectrograph - sending ions of Plutonium through a magnetic field in which the field deflects the lighter Pu-239 more than most of the other sister isotopes (anyhow, they would all be deflected to a different degree...)

I don't know enough about Plutonium chemistry to know whether it could be separated by such processes, except to be able to say that isotope separation is ALWAYS a mechanical process based on the miniscule differences in isotopic mass, because all the isotopes will react more-or-less identically in chemical processes.

All of these methods are slow and expensive on a scale that only a rich nation could afford. If memory serves, the Plutonium produced in the sorts of reactor blert describes - the graphite or heavy-water moderated types - yield higher proportions of the weapons-grade Pu-239 than other reactor types.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
There was technology development program at Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) that was tasked with the problem of plutonium isotope separation from power reactor plutonium, refer to:

Key quote from page 29:

"In early 1990, the Secretary of Energy announced a decision to indefinitely postpone construction of the plutonium AVLIS production plant ... This action was based entirely on the changed national needs for plutonium, not on any short comings of the AVLIS technology."

Translation: After proving the AVLIS technology worked, the Secretary of Energy realized that opening a Pandora's Box was a stupid thing to do.

The Japanese and Koreans are technically at least as smart as we are. In heavy industry and consumer electronics, I would dare say the Japanese and Koreans are considerably smarter than we are. The Japanese could easily reproduce the AVLIS technology and probably did so several years ago.

I might add that our stupid government continually deludes itself in thinking that it can stuff genies back into bottles after the genie has been set free. This was the case with both ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Final comment on this: If you ever have the chance to talk technical with a nuclear weapons designer, try to shift the conversation over to the metallurgy and material science of plutonium bomb pits. The fun comes in watching them tie themselves up in knots. A considerable amount of clever material science went into plutonium bomb pits. These guys would love to brag about it but can't because it's all classified.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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