Sunday, June 25, 2017

Nuclear accident: Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Nuclear weapons are immensely powerful, with the potential damage from an explosion being of much higher levels than all previous such weapons. The explosions of a nuclear weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan that caused the end of the second world war showed the immense power of nuclear weapons, and those were on the smaller scale. Modern nuclear weapons, especially the hydrogen bombs, are of a scale that is much more powerful than the ones that were used in Japan. And the number of these weapons (stored in missile systems) are in the thousands, spread all over the country. Most people staying near to these missile silos are totally unaware of how close they live to such destructive power; although these warheads are supposed to be designed that they will not explode unless a specific series of processes are carried out, and hence the risk of detonating accidentally is ruled out.
This book showcases that while even a powerful explosion next to the warhead did not explode it, there is always some amount of uncertainty when dealing with such a weapon. Even the fact that the missile has a large amount of very dangerous fuel adds to the complication in dealing with such matters.




The Titan missiles were a significant part of the US strategic missile fleet and were mated to a 9 megaton warhead, the most powerful warhead in the US stockpile of nuclear weapons. These were sited in silos across many parts of the country and were loaded with a fuel that was more stable than previous (although stability is always a relative measure - these propellants were far more dangerous and unstable than the petrol or gasoline we use in our normal vehicles). One of these silos was near Damascus in rural Arkansas, close to Little Rock. A missile is essentially a metal pipe that contains a lot of high explosive power propellant with a much more explosive warhead on top.
Imagine a regular maintenance of the missile, and a socket drops from the personnel who are doing the maintenance. They watch in horror while the socket plummets down into the silo, finally hitting the body of the missile and cause the fuel to start gushing out from the hole. From then on, it becomes like a real life high speed film, with disaster starting everyone in the area, conflicting scenes of responsibility, local authorities knowing that some disaster is unfolding but not having control of the area (that control was with the military), and finally sending in volunteers to control the situation, followed immediately by such a huge explosion that the warhead was thrown some distance away (and recovered).
The incident has been covered in books and in documentaries, and when you see the documentary, the theory that a warhead is totally safer even under these circumstances seems like theory, not something that you really want to see being under test.

Eric Schlosser - Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Monday, June 5, 2017

Israel and the Bomb - By Avner Cohen (1999) - The fascinating story about the Israeli bomb

Israel is a very small country in the Middle East, a country that was formed soon after the Holocaust saw millions of Jews in Europe to be murdered in hideous ways, using the official state machinery of Nazi Germany. It caused a huge upheaval in the politics of the Middle East, with large migrations of Jews from all over Europe to the Middle East with a demand for a country of their own, where they would not be subjected to extermination. However, safety of the new nation was not easy, with it being invaded by its neighbors as soon as it was formed, and struggled to defeat them. There was nothing easier for a neighboring dictator (or democratically elected leader) to become popular than to promise the defeat of Israel and force the population to the ocean (and with the size of Israel and its width), this was no empty threat. 
As a result, the safety for the Israeli nation was in having a military that was far superior to the combined might of its neighbors (or in terms of tactics, such as destroying the standing Egyptian Air Force in a quick attack in a war); and a weapon that promised a much superior capability was the atomic weapon (and Israel has not flinched from attacking those who also sought to develop nuclear weapons, such as its attacks on nuclear reactors in Syria and earlier, in Iraq). However, for developing a nuclear weapon, you need a strategy, you need technology and you need nuclear material. This book seeks to explain all of those, including the development of the Israeli nuclear effort and its attempts to hoodwink the French and US Governments over a period of time. 




For Israel, the nuclear weapon remains an enigma; the Government has never admitted having one; anybody in Israel who seeks to expose any details finds the full might of the Israeli state descending on him; and because of its internal politics, the US Government and political class have not had any discussion on this topic for decades now. Neighboring countries also do not try to talk about it, since that would admit to their people that they cannot seek to defeat the Israelis and that their own leaders are impotent in developing a counter nuclear weapon. However, the Israeli nuclear weapon has come close to being used twice, in the 1967 and the 1973 (the position in the 1973 war more dire, and Golda Meir, the Israeli PM, had apparently felt that the war position was very adverse and had considered the option of using 13 nuclear weapons unless Israel became safe again).
The book provides a history of the 2 decades that led to the development of nuclear weapons in Israel, the period of the 1950's and 60's. It was David Ben-Gurion, the warrior leader of Israel, who authorized and started the process of this development; collaborating with France and the United States for getting the technology and the material, but without them really believing that Israel was upto this (or in the case of the US, by the end, tacitly admitting the program - to the extent that it was supposed to be stolen material from a US nuclear reactor that was used for many of the weapons developed by Israel). 
Some of this was at a time when the US administration (especially under President Kennedy) was against nuclear proliferation besides those who had already had the weapons and hence was trying to figure out what Israel was doing. But other administrations in the United States struggled with how hard to push, till the Nixon administration finally gave it up, with the understanding that Israel would not test the bomb, and the US would not ask about the bomb.
The book is worthy reading, and is not a boring thesis, but more like a novel, making for interesting reading for a wider audience.

Israel and the Bomb - By Avner Cohen (1999) - The fascinating story about the Israeli bomb

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Price of Politics - Would the US fall over the fiscal cliff ?

In the current atmosphere of the 2016 presidential elections, the tension between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is extremely high, there is almost no sign of any civility between these 2 opposing parties. Politics is a total gridlock, the public impression of Congress is at an all time low and people want some kind of change.
The hostilities between the 2 parties is something that has been there for many years (nay, decades). However, there has been cooperation between the parties, there has been compromise. Previous Presidents have worked with Congress controlled by the opposition parties and managed to get new laws and bills passed. However, the 2010 rise of the Tea Party movement and the election of a set of new representatives in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate is pushing a move towards fiscally responsible principles. Overall, the Republican Party has been seen to be more fiscally conservative, with the concept of keeping 'giveaways' in check, and there has been a large section of the population who believe that if they can keep their finances in check, why can't the federal Government, a Government which they believe has gone out of control.




And who is to be blamed for fiscal irresponsibility ? Why, the current President, Barack Obama under whose policies the overall debt of the US has ballooned, where there is no control of the finances of the Government and the Government itself seeks to expand rather than trying to keep control of itself. On the other side, the Democrats and the President believe that the 2008-2009 financial disaster was something that could put the US into a deep recession which would be very painful, and there was a need to try to rise out of this morass, if this required suspending some of the measures of trying to put a hard check on rising finances. So there was Government support for major financial entities whose collapse could hurt sentiment and the economy, and all of this money had to increase the debt.
By the time of the entry of the Tea Party representatives, there was a push to not let this wasteful increase of finances keep on going on, somebody needs to push to prevent any further increase of the debt. As a result, by mid 2011, there was a hard line that was being reached. The US had reached a limit about how much the debt of the US could be, and Congress needed to increase the debt ceiling. And this was just one of the battles that were being fought between the 2 opposing parties. There was almost no compromise between the opposing parties, since there was a clash of ideologies. What hung in the balance was the fiscal condition of the US, and indeed the world, since if the debt ceiling was not raised, there was the danger of a worldwide loss of confidence in the US economy and the Government. The other main battle was about the healthcare law called Obamacare, and it was tagged in almost every bill that was making its way through Congress. The dispute showcased a high amount of rigidity at the highest political level, and reading this makes for horrific reading - how can the people elected to work for the betterment of the US and its citizenry be so unwilling to work with each other to resolve crisis ? Get an insight into the people involved in all these discussions through this book.

The Price of Politics - Would the US fall over the fiscal cliff ?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

History - A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East (Published in 2009)

The current state of the Middle East seems like a total mess. From the time of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, it would seem that everything is going topsy-turvy. However, the region has been in a state of turmoil for decades (maybe even a century) - can one forget the turmoil between the Jews and the Arabs during the 1930's and 1940's, which increased with the end of the Second World War and the push towards getting a Jewish homeland. On the other side, the Ottoman Empire was ending, and leading to a push by the various communities for power through the area. Ibn Saud was battling to conquer the land of Arabia and setup Saudi Arabia. There were powers to be everywhere; and the ever present Shia-Sunni conflict would rear up its ugly head.
However, if you were to look at the current political structure of the Middle East, there is the emphasis on one particular event which seems to be the grand-daddy of all the chaos that is currently there, the precursor to the various nations that have been setup (so, for example, if you look at Syria, it is an amalgamation of many different tribes and communities and the scope for chaos, ruthlessly put down all these years, has risen so fast that the future of the country seems totally at risk with other similar examples) - this was an arrangement between the colonial powers of a century ago, France and Great Britain. This was the Sykes - Picot agreement (named after the good gentlemen who negotiated the agreement from both sides), and the agreement delineated the spheres of control for both countries once the Ottoman Empire was defeated at the end of the First World War (link to Wiki site for the agreement).



This book provides a good reference for the events of that time. There was a huge amount of politics in that area ongoing, and during the course of the First World War, Britain and France had decided that in the event of winning the war, the Ottoman Empire would be distributed among the victorious parties in terms of mandates and regions of influence. At the same time, there was a Turkish upheaval that was against the Ottoman Empire and who wanted their own set of power and authority at the end of the war, there was the demand for a homeland for the Zionists, there were other influential figures whose support was needed by Britain and France, and yet they also felt like a kind of parental authority for the region, that they had the best interests for everybody in the region. If you go through the book and see the flow of history, you would start to see some of the background for the problems that have occurred now, especially the way that the nation states have been setup in that region. Even the 2 colonial powers who had made the agreement, were constantly jealous of the authority of the other, and especially when territory was won in the war, there was a lot of reluctance to honor previous agreements. A great deal of the background between the animosity between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine, and even the fight between the Jewish underground militias and the British authority in Palestine (modern day Israel) could be traced to a slow boil that started in the first and second decade of the 20th century.

History - A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East (Published in 2009)

Monday, May 23, 2016

WW2 - True Story of Wing Commander Tommy Yeo-Thomas - Published in 1997

There are actually 2 books written on the heroics of this awesome man. During the Second World War, Nazi Germany was on the warpath. By 1940, it had already run over the Low countries of Holland and Belgium, and also taken control of France, making it an occupied land. Bereft of supporters, Britain was alone in the fight against the Nazis. Russia was still in a no-war pact with Germany, the US was determined to stay out of this European war, and it seemed that Germany was preparing to attack Britain so as to ensure that the whole of Europe was under the grip of the Nazis.
At that time, it was pretty clear to Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, controlling a Government under siege, that there needed to be some sort of offensive against the Germans. Obviously, after the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) was walloped and had to be rescued from Dunkirk (having left all their heavy weaponry behind), there was no way that Britain could attack directly (in fact, there was little chance of even getting a beach head on continental Europe). But there were resistance movements starting to happen in the occupied countries, with the traditional enmity between France and Germans leading to the start of a vigorous resistance movement (however, the Gestapo was powerful and very determined to crush any means of resistance) - the call by Charles De Gaulle was a powerful one to oppose the Nazis.

Winston Churchill had also given the command to setup an organization that would work behind the scenes to keep the Nazis busy with sabotage, resistance and damage. The objective of the setting up of the Special Operations Executive was to 'set Europe ablaze'. The objective of the Wing Commander was to obstruct Nazi operations in France, and he soon realized that the French resistance was just not receiving enough support and sought a meeting with Churchill where he explained the need for more support for the resistance (they were the ones who could really play a role against the Nazis in occupied France). He made multiple trips to France but was captured finally by the Gestapo after being betrayed, and in turn, was tortured so that he could betray others. He refused and was tortured again and again, and still tried to escape multiple times, wherever he was kept in confinement and was finally able to make his freedom just before the end of the war in Europe. He was given multiple medals for bravery and valor; and the role he and fellow SOE agents played in Europe had a key role in finally ending the war and defeat for the Nazis.

WW2 - True Story of Wing Commander Tommy Yeo-Thomas - Published in 1997

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The currents of space (Written by Isaac Asimov) - Published in 1952

Isaac Asimov was a prolific writer, somebody who write fiction and non-fiction in vast numbers, starting with writing science fiction stories that magazines would scoop up (although sometimes if one magazine rejected it, another would take it). He has even written science textbooks, and during a period in his career, was so interested in writing non-fiction books that he practically stopped writing his science fiction. Over his long career, he is most famous for 2 specific series of science fiction books, these being the books about robots (in fact, there is this logical set of laws called The three laws of robotics that he introduced in his books), and the Foundation series (about a massive galactic empire of the future, and how it starts to fail because it is too big and full of inertia, and needs to be replaced by The Foundation).
The Currents of Space is one of his early novels, having been published in 1952, before the first spaceship went into orbit and before a lot of research into space had really been conducted. Although it is to be said, Asimov's novels are not so much about science fiction as they are about describing societal behavior of human societies of the future, their problems, their evolution, and so on. If you read these books and love them, you will love all the Asimov books, even the ones which are not his best (such as The Currents of Space),



Part of the future as per Asimov is where mankind has gone through several rounds of settlement in planets outside the solar system, with society either using robots or totally staying away from robots. Now, millions of world have been settled, and the Galactic Empire, based at Trantor as the center, is slowly forming, absorbing worlds in order to grow. There are planets which are independent, although there are political games happening between Trantor and these planets. One of these planets is Sark, which rules another planet called Florina. The reason to keep Florina subjugated is that for some reason, a wonderful fiber called 'kyrt', grows here, and here only. All attempts to grow it elsewhere to the level found on Florina have failed. Continued capture of Florina ensures that Sark has the market for 'kyrt' and earns massively. Sark has setup a captive bureaucracy on Florina and rules with an iron hand (this entire set is based on the concept of Southern slave-owners having slaves to work on their cotton fields).
The novel starts with a person trying to communicate a major discovery, but is captured and a psychic probe is applied, which ensures that the person will reveal their secret, but also loses a large portion of mental capacity and becomes like a child. That is Rik, who is found on Florina and is struggling to get mental capacity back. A girl in Florina takes care of him, even though she works in a mill and has quotas to meet, helped by a local Florinan official, who seemingly works for Sark. The story spins further and further, with Sark trying to determine exactly what is happening, agents for Trantor trying to put their own finger here, and the ever growing memory of Rik and his realization that something serious is about to happen to Florina.
Read this novel; it's not very long but is decently interesting.

The currents of space (Written by Isaac Asimov) - Published in 1952

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

World War 2 Book - The Day of Battle (Authored by Rick Atkinson)

For most people, their knowledge of the Second World War in terms of action are some battle scenes - Pearl Harbor, the African theatre, Battle for Stalingrad, Dunkirk, and the Normandy landings. One of the largest theaters of action during the 1943-44 phase (besides the Russian offensive on the Eastern front) was the action in Sicily and Italy. If you were to ask people besides historians about what happened in Italy during the Second World War, most people can only talk about Mussolini, but not too many more details. The Italian campaign was a significant campaign, involving men from many different countries (British, British commonwealth and territories, the Poles, and the American army). For the American army, it was significant. Their introduction into the African battle theater was not very positive, since the German army out-fought them. In the European theater, called the Fortress Germany because the Nazis controlled most of the continent, attacking the Italian theater would bring in the Nazi war machine to defend Sicily and Italy.



Another massive advantage that this entire theater brought to the American army was the blooding that it did to the army. It exposed it to war where it defeated the German war machine at many fronts, forced the development of tactics. At the same time, it also exposed them to the problems of war, with fierce German resistance preventing the movement at many fronts. The landings of Anzio provides lessons to armies even now.
The advantage of this book is about the research that has gone into providing the details of the various battles and confrontations that happened during this stage. The defeat and push back of the German armies from Sicily and evacuation from the entire island was a series of skirmishes and battles, with the German armies not being a pushover, fighting hard and also being intelligent thinkers. During the entire campaign, the German army essentially took over the Italian war campaign from the Axis side, with the Italian army not being too much in the picture.
During these battles, not everything was positive. There were failures from the various army leaders and generals, some of these were removed from their command positions during the course of these battles, and the person who developed a great reputation during these battles was also forced to relinquish his command and go into exile (this being General Patton, who slapped 2 soldiers for what he believed was cowardice and had to face severe problems when these slaps became public knowledge).
The book provides a lot of details of the entire campaign, something that a student of the war effort, or one who wants to read about this entire campaign. A must read book.

World War 2 Book - The Day of Battle (Authored by Rick Atkinson)