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WorldWatch - July 24, 2005 - Weapons of Mass Destruction - The Ornery American

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card July 24, 2005

Weapons of Mass Destruction

A week before the London bombings, I was in England for a US Defense Department-sponsored conference on the future of weapons of mass destruction.

It was held in Sussex, as part of the Wilton Park conference series, which is well attended by diplomats and military people from many European and Middle Eastern countries.

This time, they also brought along some science fiction writers, in the hope that we would actually know something about the future.

(Whether we delivered on that hope is another question. The other guys did great. As for me: I warned them in advance that I wouldn't be much use, but they brought me anyway. Caveat emptor.)

The deal was that nothing in the meetings was classified, so we can talk or write freely about the ideas we discussed -- but we can't cite any particular person as the source of anything.

So none of the information I'm talking about is a secret, but the sources are.


What Is a "Weapon of Mass Destruction"?

Traditionally, we use the term to refer to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

But why is this the list? It isn't really about the number of people you can kill with each weapon.

After all, if you send up some bombers you can kill a lot more people than if you use poison gas.

And if it's sheer awfulness that puts a weapon on that list, I think napalm and flame throwers are every bit as appalling.

War kills people and maims many a survivor for life. War kills civilians from time to time, and nations that think of themselves as decent have targeted civilians deliberately and called it a just war.

And, just to put things in perspective, four jet airplanes were turned into weapons that killed thousands of people and made a highly symbolic statement on 9/11 four years ago, while just last month a few bombs on subway trains and buses managed to kill a few people and tie up traffic in London for a day.


Here's why the list of WMDs consists of CBN -- chemical, biological, and nuclear:

Chemical weapons are on there because they were the first weapon that everybody agreed to ban after World War I. And the ban was more or less successful -- even in World War II, nobody used chemical weapons against each other's armies. (Germany used mustard gas against civilians under its own control, of course, but that wasn't, technically, a violation of the treaty.)

True, the U.S. and the USSR both developed potent nerve gases, but they were never used on the battlefield -- again, the only known use was by Iraq against its own civilians.

We loathe chemical weapons primarily because we breathe them right in and we can't get away. It's like the last plague in the movie The Ten Commandments. It can seep in and get us unaware.

But then, so can a car bomb that goes off in front of our house. (Well, it doesn't seep, but it can kill us in our sleep and there's no defense against it.)

Several hundred years ago, the same complaints could have been made about muskets and cannons and grenades. And in its day, the bow and arrow was a vicious, unfair weapon.

But nobody was able to ban those weapons. Why? Because they worked.

Chemical weapons were successfully banned because they don't work.

Not in a way that gives them any military value. First, there's the problem of blowback. It's hard to deliver poison gas against a massed enemy without running the risk of the wind blowing the poison gas back on you.

Second, you can only use it effectively once -- then your enemy will have gas masks and the soldiers will use them faithfully, so your gas will stop working.

Chemical weapons, then, have little battlefield value. That's why the ban worked. We could also ban chariots, if we wanted to, and everybody would stick to the ban.

Biological Weapons are another matter. Potentially, nature can unleash such a weapon against us at any time. Given our vast, packed-in populations and our swift transportation, a plague could sweep through the world in a very short time.

And if the modern equivalent of the Black Death were to strike today, killing half of the people it infected or more, the results would be devastating.

In fact, the reason the Black Death didn't kill more than it did was quite possibly because people lived in more of a spread-out pattern. Because those with genetic resistance to the disease were far fewer than half the population.

We aren't spread out. There's nowhere to hide. And if we were struck by an airborne version of Ebola, killing ninety percent or more, it's likely that our infrastructure would be unsustainable.

Civilization could collapse, and the survivors would have to relearn skills we left behind generations ago.

But that's a natural disaster that affects all nations more or less equally. As a military matter, biological weapons aren't very useful.

You can't make military use of a disease that spreads itself, or you have to immunize your own population first. And how do you stop it from spreading to neutral countries?

So the only weaponized biological agents are those that kill only where you want them to. That means you need something like anthrax -- and you need a particular strain of anthrax that your target won't have immunized his soldiers against.

Then you have the very difficult problem of delivering it to exactly the spot where you want it to start spreading. This is very hard to do, and the payoff isn't as high as you'd think.

For one thing, you have to wait until the enemy gets sick. And while they're busy dealing with the medical emergency, what's to stop them from moving in replacement troops to cover the affected area?

Like chemical weapons, the only use of biological agents is for terrorism -- for attacks against an undefended population.

The anthrax scare in the fall of 2001 was frightening, yes ... but it didn't kill any of its actual targets, only innocent clerical workers. And look at the numbers. Can we really call it a weapon of mass destruction?

A guy with a rifle shooting out of the trunk of his car killed more people and disrupted a region of the country more effectively than those anthrax-filled envelopes.

Nukes, though. Those are weapons of mass destruction no matter who sets one off or where -- as long as it's in a place where fallout can spread. And if there are a lot of people living at ground zero ...


Are There Worse Weapons Coming?

There are some scary possibilities coming down the pike.

Nanotechnology, if it ever actually works, has the possibility of delivering killing power into places that are supposedly immune.

Imagine you have a swarm of tiny flying robots that don't show up on any radar. Each one carries about a firecracker's worth of explosives.

When they are released from their carrier in the vicinity of a bunker deep underground, they find their way through the ventilation system, cutting holes where filters are designed to keep them out.

Then they reassemble, combining their explosive power, and set themselves off simultaneously. Boom.

That's a weapon which, if it can ever be built, has a serious military use.

It can also be defended against fairly easily (debilitating electrical fields, for instance), if you know it might be coming.

And there is a nightmare scenario -- nanobots that can replicate themselves from ambient materials.

That is, they can chew up cars or bicycles for their constituent elements and build tiny new robots out of them and program them on the spot.

The problem here is like the problem with bioweapons: Once something like that gets unleashed, it simply eats up everything in its path.

Sure, you've programmed them to switch off when you give a certain signal -- but all it takes is one self-replicating nanobot with a tiny defect that makes it disobedient to your command, and you've got the Sorcerer's Apprentice. It just keeps duplicating itself until it has used all the available elements and the surface of the earth is just a thick swarm of nanobots.

Don't worry. It probably can't be done, and even if it could, who'd be stupid enough to do it?


The Only Real Weapon of Mass Destruction

Most of the other technologies we discussed were either improvements in existing weapons concepts, sabotage of infrastructure, too farfetched to worry about (yet), or so destructive they could not be targeted selectively enough to achieve any rational goal.

In other words, don't worry about somebody going out into space, finding an asteroid, and redirecting it so it will smash into Earth. Any nation with the means to do that would be among those to suffer most if it happened. So it won't happen.

That's why nobody will put up a solar power collector in space that might beam a killing ray down onto the surface without absolute failsafe security. (The obvious security is to have the device powered by a small ricochet beam -- if the beam ever wanders off its collection point on Earth, it will stop receiving power from Earth and will automatically shut off.)

There's only one weapon of mass destruction for the foreseeable future that lives up to the name: It can be targeted like a weapon against a specific target, and it will kill huge numbers of people.

We're talking about nukes.

That's why we've been trying not to allow them to proliferate.

The theory of nukes is widely known -- I learned about how to build an atomic bomb in junior high, and how to build a thermonuclear device in high school.

But the practical engineering of it isn't quite so easy.

1. You have to get special nuclear fuel -- enriched uranium or its derivatives, and for a fusion bomb, deuterium and tritium as well.

2. You have to find exactly the right solution to many intricate engineering problems; if your solution is off by a little, you'll quite likely have dud. But since it will be a dud that everyone knows dudded, you get all the blame for having tried to set off a nuke without any of the bang for your buck. That's part of the reason why nations test their weapons -- so they'll know they work, and so their enemies will believe you have a working weapon.

3. It takes a very high-level technology to produce the parts needed for every stage of the process, and very few nations have the capability. So you either have to develop the capability yourself, in secret, or acquire the parts you need from countries that can build them -- without anybody knowing.


Is Proliferation Inevitable?

Let's please remember that the United States was the first nation to successfully build a nuke, and we used it -- twice. There is a sound ethical case for each of those two uses, but frankly, they both depend on this: Our enemy didn't have a defense against the weapon, and didn't have an equivalent weapon to use against us.

So the only rational course of action for any nation that thought of the United States as its enemy was to develop its own nukes and a credible delivery system.

Naturally, we would have preferred it if we remained the only nation with nuclear weapons. And we proved our relatively benign nature by the fact that during that brief window when we and only we possessed nukes, we did not use them against the Soviet Union in order to force compliance with our national will.

Though perhaps there were a few million Poles and Hungarians and Czechs, not to mention the millions suffering in the Gulag, who might have wished we hadn't been such decent folks.

Then the USSR got the bomb, and it was a different game.

We protected Europe with our "nuclear umbrella," which was a doctrine that absolutely promised that we would use nuclear weapons first if the USSR ever invaded Germany.

The trouble was, Britain and France didn't quite believe we would use our nuclear weapons to protect Europe, when it was sure to bring down a rain of nukes upon our own country. So they developed their own nuclear weapons -- in Britain's case, with our complete cooperation -- in order to make the threat of first use by the West more credible.

Soon, though, it came down to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction to keep either side from using nukes at all. Both sides had to believe that the other side would be insane enough to use their nukes; both sides had to try to build a force of nuclear missiles that could ride out a first attack and still have the capacity to respond; and any anti-missile system that could reduce or remove the threat of first use by the other side would mean that the side with the missile defense could use nukes with relative impunity. It was very complicated, but nobody set off a nuke in anger for two generations.

The trouble was, the East and the West weren't the only ones with nuclear ambitions. First China felt it needed its own nukes for the very good reason that they didn't think that America would come to their defense if the USSR decided to nuke them.

And once China got nukes, India had no choice but to pursue its own nuclear program. After all, Chinese troops had already shown themselves quite willing to cross those passes in the Himalayas (am I the only one who remembers that little Chinese demonstration back in my youth?).

People keep saying that China has no ambition to conquer other nations, but to the Indians, Tibet and Taiwan look like obvious warnings.

But once India got nukes, what choice did Pakistan have but to develop a nuke in order to keep the Indian military from using their nukes to prevail in the constant struggle between Urdu-speaking Muslims and Hindi-speaking Hindus across that permeable and blood-soaked border?

Meanwhile, in another little corner of Asia, Israel may or may not have developed a nuclear weapon. They've never tested one, so officially the U.S. doesn't "know" whether Israel has such a weapon; but at the same time, the rumor that they have one works as a powerful deterrent against those nations that like to talk a lot about wiping Israel off the face of the earth.

Of course they have one. Of course it works, tested or not. Even those who like to tell terrible lies about how horrible Jews are absolutely believe that Jews are smart enough to build anything they want to build.

And then in 1989 the world changed. The Soviet Union crumbled. And now the Soviet missile fleet was divided among three nations: Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Of these, only Ukraine decided to dismantle its nuclear capability. And though there are doubts about how long a shelf life the Kazakhstani nukes might have, we still have to consider them a nuclear power.

Now North Korea claims -- without proof, but with considerable credibility -- that it has a working nuke. Nobody wants to bet on its being a dud.

And Iran is working on its own weapon, with a high likelihood of success within a few years.

The only reason Iraq was not already on the list was a certain raid by the Israeli Air Force a few decades ago. That and the fact that after the Gulf War, Saddam decided that instead of building a nuke, he'd buy one, and nobody had yet sold him one when we toppled him from power.


Is Deterrence Working?

Which brings us to the big question about proliferation:

So what?

The nuclear "club" now has nine proclaimed members, eight of them with proven weapons (all but North Korea), and one stealth member (Israel) which may soon be joined by another (Iran).

Yet in all these years, nobody has blown up anybody's city, and any fallout deaths were the result of ignorance about the danger of nuclear testing. Nobody has used a nuke as a weapon since 1945.

Well, not really. We in the nuclear club have actually used nukes constantly as weapons -- weapons to deter other nations from taking military actions we don't want them to take.

Israel might well owe its continued existence to that nuke is might or might not have.

India probably hasn't punished Pakistan for supporting terrorism against them because Pakistan has that nuke.

Russia never disciplined China for its disobedience -- partly, at least, because China had a nuke.

So nuclear weapons have done one of the jobs that military power is designed to accomplish: prevent the enemy from carrying out its will, because of the fear of effective retaliation.


Deterrence Breakdown

The more that nukes spread, the more dangerous they become.

The Iranian nuke, for instance, might be regarded as one more in the chain of proliferation from Russia to China to India to Pakistan -- each nation acquiring a nuke solely to deter a known enemy from using theirs. Shi'ite Iran, after all, sits right next to Sunni Pakistan, a nation they have no love for.

And it is quite possible that Iran will be just as slow to use nuclear weapons as Pakistan and India and China have been.

Isn't our real reason for wanting to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon because they are our enemy, actively supporting terrorism? It's not that they would give a nuke to a terrorist group. It's that their having a nuke would keep us from invading them in order to stop them from supporting terrorism.

We can imagine a world in equilibrium, sort of, with Iran having a nuclear weapon.

Though of course Turkey would need to acquire one next.

The real point of breakdown is in North Korea, where there is already a madman running the government. There is no government on earth, with the possible exception of Zimbabwe, that is governed as badly by leaders as insane as those ruling North Korea.

And North Korea doesn't need a cause. They have only to decide that it's time to get even with Japan for its crimes against the Korean people and lob a missile onto Tokyo.

That would, of course, be the last nuclear weapon North Korea ever fired ... but the maddening thing is that we don't want even that first one to go off. Japan already paid for its crimes by what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But to the madmen of Korea, it won't count until the nuclear weapon comes from Korean soil, making a Korean statement.

And that's one of the most difficult things about dealing with North Korea's nuke: Too many South Koreans regard it, not as the nuclear weapon of the madmen in the north, but as the Korean National Weapon.

They trust (though not for any good reason) that Pyongyang would never use their nuke against South Korea.

They believe (again, not for any good reason) that soon both Koreas will be united, and then the possession of a nuclear weapon will give prestige and power to all Koreans.

So for us to invade North Korea and take away their nukes, even if China agreed to stand back and allow us to do it, would be extremely unpopular in South Korea. And without South Korean backing, exactly where would we launch this "invasion" from?

It's a stalemate that only China can break -- and, possessing nukes themselves, they believe (again without any good reason) that they will never be threatened by North Korea's nuke. So why should they save Japan or South Korea? Let us twist in the wind, they say.

In other words, we are now living in a world where madmen control nukes and we can't easily stop them from using them without committing the unthinkable act of making an unprovoked nuclear attack against North Korea.

No other weapon we possess can reach them without the help of allies and the consent of opponents. And there ain't no way any U.S. government is going to use nukes.

So I guess we'd better visit Tokyo soon, or not go at all.

Or else we'll trust that nations that possess such terrible power will somehow manage to keep their leaders from using it.

Too bad that Saddam in Iraq and Assad in Syria already proved that there is no act so barbaric you can't find people willing to carry it out.

The one bright spot in all this is that no nation that possesses nukes is likely to turn them over to terrorists ... knowingly, anyway. Especially to unconditional terrorists like Al-Qaeda, who might very well want to set off a nuke any old where, because they love the idea of civilization coming to a collapse in nuclear chaos. They think it would give God such a lovely chance to show his power.

Which brings us to Kazakhstan, with all those old weapons. It's a majority Muslim country. Their security on those nuclear sites is not the best. There might be people in that impoverished country who think that they could make a buck by selling nukes that probably won't work anyway.

There are still plenty of genies to be let out of bottles.

What is the future of the one real Weapon of Mass Destruction?

Nukes will spread. And someone, somewhere, someday, is going to set one off.

The real questions are:

Are there any steps the U.S. and its few allies might take that could realistically lessen the chance of that happening?

And if there are, will we take them?

Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.

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