Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everybody. And a happy New Year too.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Space Show Appearance

As scheduled, I appeared on Dr. David Livingston's Space Show yesterday afternoon, where we spoke about the place of space in literature-including, but not limited to, science fiction.

You can have a listen here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Space Show Notice

Just letting you know: I am scheduled to appear on The Space Show again this Sunday, December 21st, at 12 noon Pacific time, 3 PM East Coast time.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ, by Richard Dooling

New York: Harmony Books, 2008, pp. 272.

The way it seems to me, not very much has been added to the theorizing of the "technological Singularity" since the rush of books and articles around the turn of the millennium (Hans Moravec's Robot, Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines, Bill Joy's "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us," etc.). Nor have we seen much rigorous testing of the most recent developments in technology against the claims that by then had been very clearly stated and argued. (Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, for instance, was a distinct disappointment for me on that score.)

I picked up Dooling's book hoping that it would be different, but instead we get the usual round-up of what others (like Kurzweil and Joy) have already said about the matter. As related in Dooling's voice, the result is a robust and at times entertaining discussion that many newcomers to the subject will find worth their time, but it still left me waiting for that really serious reappraisal of what is for a great many futurists nothing less than The Argument.

The Situation in Greece: Update

This article in today's Guardian provides some additional, useful background to, and clarification of, the events in Greece I have been following on this blog.

Some interesting points the article raises:
*The Greek police are running out of tear gas, and contacting Israel and Germany for fresh stocks, a testament to the scale and length of the clashes-or, depending on how you look at it, how unprepared the authorities were for a situation like this.
*The recent police shooting of a fifteen year-old youth was not a unique occurrence, but only unique in that the victim was an ethnic Greek, rather than an immigrant or Roma, whose deaths "do not make the media." Additionally, the scene of the shooting has long been "aggressively policed."
*While some have drawn attention to the strength of the "extreme left in the country," as the spokesman for the French Interior Ministry put it in a statement that much of the media has been quick to quote, it would be a mistake to overlook the strength of the extreme right. As the article notes, "the populist Orthodox Rally won 10 seats in parliament for the first time last year, and the neo-fascist Golden Dawn organisation is known to have supporters inside the police."
As the article also notes:
The teenagers and twenty-somethings who have come close to toppling the Greek government are not the marginalised: this is no replay of the riots that convulsed Paris in 2005. Many are sons and daughters of the middle classes, shocked at the killing of one of their own, disgusted with the government's incompetence and corruption, enraged by the broken promises of the education system, scared at the prospect of having to work still harder than their exhausted parents . . .
Anarchist groups dreaming of revolution played a key part in the first waves of destruction, but this week's protests were not orchestrated by the usual suspects, who relish a good bust-up and a whiff of teargas. There's been no siege of the American embassy, no blaming Bush, very few party slogans.
Though the spectacular violence has dominated the news, thousands have also set out to join in peaceful demonstrations, among them parents worried for their children's future. Linked by the internet, by twitter and text messages, many are trying to distance themselves from the destruction, which they attribute to "extremists, idiots and provocateurs."
That fact may not be comforting, but it would be a grave error to overlook it, especially because, as the sympathy for the protests has evoked in other countries demonstrates, Greece is far from being the only country in such a bind.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Return of the Russian Navy

While the plans for it got quite a bit of publicity a few months ago, it seems that the Russian-Venezuelan naval exercises (which included the participation of the Russian battle-cruiser Peter the Great) drew little attention when they actually took place at the start of the month.

Incidentally, the exercises were followed up by the Russian navy paying a visit to Nicaragua before heading east via the Panama Canal, the first time Russian warships have used the canal since 1944. Next up for the Peter the Great is a trip to the Indian Ocean, where it is to take part in exercises with the Indian navy and help in "maintaining a regular [Russian naval] presence" off the Horn of Africa. According to the Times of India this will be the fourth Indo-Russian exercise since 2003, which included one in the Sea of Japan last year.

And of course, there are all the more unlikely stories, like the idea of relocating the Black Sea fleet to a base in Syria (at which point, it would of course need to be renamed).

One has to wonder what to make of all this. Today's Russia is not the Soviet Union, nor can it seriously hope to be. Where the Soviet Union in the late 1980s had perhaps 6 perhaps of the world's population and accounted for 12 percent of global GDP (to say nothing of having its troops sitting on half of Europe), today's Russia has a little more than 2 percent of the world's population (and shrinking in absolute as well as relative terms), maybe 3 percent of global GDP-and that because of oil price rises that have been falling since July. (Believe it or not, today's Russia is actually less industrialized than it was in the Soviet period.)

I expect oil prices to rebound, perhaps in the not too distant future, but even were they to do so, oil alone cannot sustain a superpower's ambitions (and anyway, the benefit Russia derives may be undercut by its peaking production, the worries of foreign investors and the country's own consumption growth), while at the same time, being likely to hobble the country's continued development with a well-known "resource curse." (I discussed the issue at some length in an analysis of the Russian economy for the Space Review back in November.)

In short, the power base isn't there. In fact, as the strain of defense spending on the Soviet economy showed, it wasn't really there even then. The result is that it looks more than anything else like grandstanding off of old military-industrial capital and new petrodollars to score some prestige points (and in cases, prop up a few friends and clients), while hoping that the limited positive signs seen to date will lead to a more substantial recovery enabling it to really fill that enlarged role.

Right now that looks like a longshot, and in any case, it would seem that the money (while admittedly limited next to what the Soviets spent on their military) would be much better spent on rebuilding infrastructure, restoring public health and making other desperately needed investments at home. For that matter, it might have been expended reforming the horrendous conditions faced by Russian conscripts during their national service (or better still, ending conscription, and moving to an all-professional force).

The Situation in Greece

The unrest in Greece (which has included peaceful protests and strikes as well as the highly publicized street fights) is a week old now, and the event itself is increasingly internationalized. A new Reuters article, "Angry young Greeks give wake-up call to Europe"-incidentally, the most comprehensive piece on these events that I have seen so far-describes "sympathy protests from Moscow to Madrid, some quickly organised over the Internet or by SMS message, as many young people feel leaders are ignoring their frustrations." Some were violent, the article citing incidents in Spain, Italy, Denmark and even Russia, as well as the setting afire of two cars outside a Greek consulate in France.

While the Reuters article goes into the issue in somewhat more depth, the journalistic coverage in general increasingly acknowledges the economic factors in these events, echoing much of what I blogged about on Wednesday. These include high youth unemployment (Generation 700 Euros describes "Young Greeks, even those up to the age of 35, make up a silent majority of overworked, underpaid, debt-ridden and insecure citizens," 56 percent of Greeks under 30 earning less than that amount per month), high levels of poverty (20% of households living on less than $7,300 a year), an exceptionally ineffective (mismanaged?) welfare system (highlighted by the government's inadequate poor relief this winter), and inflation that has been worse than the "faked reported values" used by the country's leaders to meet the criteria for accession to the eurozone. The government's combo of a neoliberal hard line and generous corporate welfare (in particular a highly controversial financial bail-out (relative to the size of the Greek economy, equivalent to a $1.5 trillion package in the U.S.)) has not exactly increased the confidence of a public which already views the nation's leadership as corrupt and incompetent (its handling of last year's wildfires a particular sore point).

When I first looked at the situation, I thought of the anomalousness of Greek politics (its radicalization by the junta years of 1967-74, etc.), but given the economic context it occurred to me that if Greece is vulnerable, then a lot of other countries are too. It now seems others are saying the same thing, as the Reuters article shows. Check out this excerpt from it about Nicolas Sarkozy's reaction:

"Look what is going on in Greece!" French President Nicolas Sarkozy told members of his UMP party, rejecting budget proposals which would have cushioned the wealthy from losses.

With memories fresh of weeks of suburban rioting in 2005, Sarkozy expressed concern the anti-government backlash could spread to France: "The French love it when I'm in a carriage with Carla, but at the same time they've guillotined a king."

The man's pretensions to being a latter-day Sun King never cease to amaze me, emerging even in this attempt to sound conciliatory, but I am even more amazed at the imagery he evokes in this comment. Especially when one considers that much of Europe is in roughly the same position as Greece with regard to slowing growth, high unemployment (in general, but particularly among the young) and unpopular neoliberal reforms, it is clear that the potential for such outbursts has been underestimated in the media's preoccupation with immigration and culture wars.

Yet, there is also a danger of overreaction. This is not the French Revolution, and it would be highly regrettable if governments across the continent were to use this as an excuse to engage in repressive measures (hinted at in the anxiety expressed by the authorities in this Wall Street Journal article), rather than considering and addressing their pressing domestic problems.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In The News (Fusion, the Moon, Iran)

The latest update of includes a story on recent developments in fusion power, and a new article revisiting the old issue of property rights as they may (or may not) apply on the moon.

It also includes a piece in (surprisingly enough) The Washington Times offering an update on last year's intelligence report regarding the state of Iran's nuclear program. As it informs us, Thomas Fingar continues to stand by its assessment, specifically its finding that Iran suspended its weapons program in 2003-which is certainly something to think about given the alarm surrounding the subject.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Nanotechnology Culture War?

An interesting new study of public opinion regarding nanotechnology finds that broad political attitudes make a great deal of difference in how the tech is perceived. Put simply, those who are pro-business see opportunity, while those concerned about economic inequality are more apt to see it as dangerous.

I see little mystery here, or much reason for surprise in the findings. We are long past the point where people imagine technology is likely to fix the world or correct its injustices all by itself. Certainly there are technologies about which the left is more enthusiastic than the right (like renewable energy production from wind, solar and other such sources), but all other things being equal, those who lean left, given the experience of the last few decades (if not longer), have plenty of reason to doubt the likely outcome of such developments-not only in their implications for social justice, but ecology as well. Those who lean right (at least, on matters of commerce and science), being rather more sanguine about the social order, are more optimistic.

In The News (Space Solar Power Again)

Check out this article regarding the possibility of using space-based photovoltaics to supply energy to forward-deployed military forces.

Back in my article in Parameters in 2006 I recommended military investment in renewable energy technology as an aid to logistics efforts for forces deployed overseas, particularly where electricity supplies are inadequate or unreliable:
One advantage is the potential that renewable sources offer for distributed power. Given the prospect that US forces will increasingly be based in less-developed regions like the Middle East, Central Asia, and even sub-Saharan Africa, not being dependent on local power grids can be an advantage . . . At the same time, the unique needs of military programs make them a logical starting point for at least some research in this area. Running information-age campaigns with industrial-age logistical systems is already problematic, and renewable energy sources or conservation technologies might provide a partial solution.
I have to admit, though, that this is one approach I didn't expect to see considered. I think there's plenty of reason to be skeptical about space-based solar power production (given launch costs, construction headaches, the hazards of an orbital environment, and the fact that improvements in photovoltaic tech translate to the Earth-based production with which space-based approaches must compete), but this may be one area where the usual economic considerations don't apply quite so much. Still, all things considered, I have to see this idea as a comparative longshot.

The Rising Cost of Military Force

By Nader Elhefnawy

An examination of the defense picture in the advanced states instantly presents the onlooker with a host of contradictions. The military establishments of the major countries appear both massive and strained, important grand initiatives coming to naught, their efforts to rein in costs continually frustrated. The technological Revolution in Military Affairs appears to promise leaps in capability-but perhaps at such leaps in cost that virtually no one can actually afford them, perhaps not even the collective members of the European Union, commonly criticized by American observers as a laggard in this regard.

Such developments make it plausible that Joseph Tainter's observation that modern societies are seeing diminishing marginal returns for investment in complexity also applies to their militaries.1 Indeed, if one accepts Tainter's theory as basically valid, the odd thing would be if militaries did not parallel society at large in suffering from that trend.

Military establishments are certainly not exempt from the increases in the costs of key goods and services that affect other sectors of the economy. A rise in the price of energy will necessarily mean that militaries pay more for their own energy consumption. Additionally, even specifically military purchases and programs are broadly susceptible to broader trends affecting the civilian economy (even if more problematic for military establishments because of certain considerations). A number of these are listed below:

* A tendency toward diminishing returns on technological investment in recent decades, particularly in areas like aerodynamics, hydrodynamics and propulsion.2 For instance, the same technological issues which kept the size, speed, capacity, operating altitude and range of civil aircraft roughly constant since the 1960s also apply to military aircraft, which have not significantly changed in these respects either. While information technology is supposed to be an exception, and its centrality to the "Revolution in Military Affairs" may suggest this translates to the defense sphere, its impact may well have been overrated, not least because of IT's limitations with respect to tasks requiring eye-hand coordination.3 It is also worth noting that avionics have long comprised the area of greatest cost increase in the prices of fighter aircraft.4
* The divorce between designers and users of technology, which diminishes the efficiency of design processes, one reflection of which is the pursuit of features of limited utility by engineers (a process which has been referred to as "gold-plating" in military context).5 Exaggerating the problem is the tendency of customers of high technology to pursue the newest for fear of falling behind, rather than carefully weighing costs and benefits.
* The tendency of the unreliability of systems to rise along with their complexity, encouraging redundancy as a compensating approach, driving up costs further.6
* The increased need for collaboration on the part of multiple buyers, whether branches of one nation's armed forces, or several governments, which may have different goals and priorities, as a result of the price of developing and producing a major system. Historically this has resulted in expensive design compromises.7
* Just as there are fewer customers, there are also fewer suppliers, given the size and specialized nature of the industrial entities which alone can produce many of the needed services and systems; and the political sensitivity of military supply chains. The consolidation of the defense industry, not just in the U.S. but Europe as well, has slashed the number of participants in the market still further.8 This leaves customers with fewer practical option, diminishing the room for market forces to operate, and exacerbates a problem raised in a recent study of the fighter aircraft market by, namely that "aircraft prices . . . like those of other manufactured goods, are determined as much by how much the market can bear as by their actual development and production costs."9
* The problem of amortizing the costs of system development, given shortening production runs. As a result the bill for research and development (an increasingly large part of the total) has to be recouped from a smaller number of sales, driving up unit cost.10 At the same time, the short runs make it more difficult to exploit economies of scale.11 It does not help that the weapons procurement process is subject to major, politically-driven work stoppages and restructurings, which lengthen the program and add to its costs.12
* Political corruption. This is difficult to quantify, especially over time, but the widely perceived "privatization of politics," dramatically described in books like Thomas Frank's recent The Wrecking Crew, makes a strong case that the situation has worsened.13 Additionally, the fact that governments are the sole buyers for major weapons systems makes this more of a factor in setting the price than other, dual-use goods with large non-governmental markets.
* The graying of populations, particularly in the industrial world. While the full consequences of this on economic performance have yet to be determined, given the possibility of extending healthy working life; changes in the nature of work; and the present looseness of the labor markets; the particular reliance of militaries on the young makes them more vulnerable to such a trend than other sectors. Put simply, smaller youth cohorts mean more difficulty filling a given number of billets.

However, it is also arguable that a number of problems unique to militaries are contributing to this trend.

System Senility and Technological Uncertainty
For decades now it has been argued that the weapons systems predominating in modern arsenals (aircraft, armored vehicles, warships) are increasingly "senile."14 That is to say, the weapon continues to perform its core, offensive function, but only with the aid of continual incremental modifications, simply to insure their survival in a more dangerous environment, or enable them to retain their effectiveness in the face of similarly upgraded opponents, which drive up their cost.

Tanks and battleships alike progressively moved through a cycle of thicker armor, more powerful engines to accommodate the extra weight and bigger guns for penetrating that thicker armor, without becoming dramatically more effective on the battlefield-and indeed, less so given that their function increasingly becomes their fighting other tanks.15 In recent decades, tanks have also become larger and heavier, complicating their mobility and ease of deployment (such as the M1A2 Abrams), so much so that in the case of the U.S., there has been great interest in pursuing lighter armored fighting vehicles (like the Stryker) specifically to compensate for this problem (without notable success). There is also more emphasis on their integration with other systems to this end, diminishing their effectiveness in the offensive (as with the surrounding of carriers with escorts, and the devotion of an increased proportion of their air wings to group protection).16 In the process, they also impose a greater strain on the logistical systems supporting them.17

However, this is not to imply that investment in "revolutionary" systems is an unproblematic matter. Senility is not obsolescence, and a convenient replacement does not necessarily exist for the major systems discussed above. It was fashionable in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to imagine aerospace power and light infantry working in concert to defeat any conceivable enemy.18 Yet, the "thunder runs" of the Iraq war a year and a half later were widely regarded as affirming the traditional value of armor. Similarly, despite the publicity given Predator drones, there was also no real sense that unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise missiles were on the verge of fully replacing air forces consisting of expensive manned aircraft (even if there was room for doubt about the necessity of F-22s), or "street fighter" warships doing away with carrier groups.

Meanwhile, the overselling of new technologies and tactics of even more limited kinds has led to costly disappointments, as with Harlan Ullman's "shock and awe" theory.19 Of course, it may be pointed out that shock and awe was simply a repeat of the claims theorists have made for air power since Giulio Douhet.20 Nonetheless, given the ambiguity of the post-Cold War strategic situation, and the emergence of "capabilities-based planning" (which shifts the focus from the need to respond to tangible threats, to the pursuit of whatever capacities modern technology might offer as almost an end in itself), there may be a greater susceptibility to this kind of thinking, with the effects on budgets and priorities all too obvious.21

At the same time, the advanced capabilities purchased so expensively have, in many real-world military situations, appear superfluous, raising the issue of whether or not older systems would have performed the task just as well, if not more cheaply. In the air defense environment of Afghanistan, for instance, it was not clear that the B-2 justified its high selling price.22

"War Amongst The People"
Additionally, whatever the costs and benefits of advanced weapons systems, it may be that contemporary political reality means they can only achieve so much. Conventional warfare, while still the technological and budgetary focus of the major defense establishments, has been increasingly rare since the end of World War II.

Many arguments have been offered for why this is the case (the dangers of armed conflict in the nuclear age, the diminished profitability of territorial conquest, the world's growing economic interdependence, etc.), and consistent with this disagreement about the causes, there has been disagreement about how long this pattern will continue into the future. A great many observers continue to anticipate large-scale conventional warfare among major powers, for instance, a Sino-American conflict over Taiwan.

Nonetheless, the decreasing frequency and duration of conventional, interstate conflict in the last half century has not been in doubt, or the trends observed in the fighting that did take place irrelevant to the thinking on the issue. And increasingly, when conventional fighting does take place, as in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the battlefield victories appear to count for less since these wars are, in the phrasing offered by General Rupert Smith, fought "amongst the people."23 What this means is that rather than actors achieving political ends by destroying the forces of an enemy state and seizing its territory, doing those things (while still necessary) is only a way of creating conditions in which other "means and levers of power" are brought to bear on individuals and societies to achieve those ends-often, over the very long term.

In other words, the conventional phase, instead of essentially settling the conflict, is merely the opening portion of a longer, often costlier "mission other than war." Complicating matters further, it may be more rather than less difficult for the most advanced military forces to execute those tasks today.24

As a result, the value advanced conventional systems bring for the money spent on them is increasingly in question. Indeed, where counterterrorism is concerned, many experts hold military force should support police and intelligence efforts, rather than be the principal instrument. The result is that conventional forces may be seen as competing with them for priority in policy and budgeting (just as they are demanding more money themselves). In cases, an ill-judged use of military force may even worsen the problem by producing a political backlash-a charge repeatedly made against the conduct of the War on Terror, particularly by observers outside of the United States.25

The emphasis on missions other than conventional warfare has also meant that when the major states exercise military force, they tend to do so for vaguer objects and more ambiguous interests. Especially given the absence of old-fashioned territorial threats (certainly, to the homelands of most of the advanced industrial countries), this may have helped to depress traditional tendencies to identify patriotism with military service. Martin Van Creveld has also gone so far as to offer the argument that it is the irrelevance of conventional warfare that has permitted major weapons programs to become as politicized, protracted and costly as they have.26

The Pursuit of "Strength Against Madness"
Finally, there is the pursuit of an unprecedentedly high level of security in a key respect, namely the making of defense policy around the presumption of actors unconstrained by rational deterrence, an object sociologist Zaki Laidi describes as "strength against madness."27 The existence of weapons of mass destruction, and the risk of certain destruction in the event of their use, has enlarged the danger that such actors are seen to present, as with the scenario of a "rogue" state willing to launch a devastating nuclear attack in spite of the certainty of its annihilation in a retaliatory strike.28

Assuming an undeterrable opponent, and the devastating consequences of the attack, the sole approach becomes either to deny them access to the weapon entirely, or to fully neutralize that capability, with all the challenges involved. Permanently denying other actors the possession of whole classes of weapon requires an extraordinary degree of political (and sometimes, military) commitment that may ultimately be unsupportable-especially when one considers the demands of preventive war. Neutralizing those weapons once they do have them may be even less feasible, as the demands of ballistic missile defense and, even more ambitious, space dominance, make clear.29

However, it should be noted that this kind of threat is viewed as chimerical by many observers. Martin Van Creveld in particular has made a strong case against such thinking in The Future of Nuclear Proliferation, where he showed that, where at least states are concerned, such claims of irrationality (regarding the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China under the "mad" Stalin and Mao, or the supposed irrationality of Pakistan and India) ultimately did not hold water.30

It appears that modern militaries are seeing diminishing marginal returns on investment in complexity. This is partly due to broad technological, economic, political and demographic trends affecting advanced societies in general ways, from which militaries simply are not exempt. However, changes in the security environment-particularly the "senility" of the major weapons systems and the diminution of the conventional war-fighting around which militaries are organized (and the emphasis placed on the prospect of irrational actors presenting existential threat) also play an important role.

While much of the cause for the rising cost of defense is not neatly separable from the problem facing modern societies at large, some amelioration might be found in more cautious decision-making regarding both the level of security sought, and particular decisions regarding the mission orientation and technological acquisition of military forces.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This article was originally part of an early draft of my article, "Societal Complexity and Diminishing Returns in Security," which appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of International Security. It has since been heavily revised and updated.

1 For a discussion of Tainter's theory, see Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988). Also see T.F.H. Allen, Joseph Tainter, and Thomas W. Hoekstra, Supply-Side Sustainability (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
2 Michael O'Hanlon, Technological Change and the Future of Warfare (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), p. 194.
3 Robert J. Gordon, "Does the 'New Economy' Measure up to the Great Inventions of the Past?" Journal of Economic Perspectives 14.4 (Fall 2000), pp. 49-74.
4 Dr. Richard P. Hallion, "A Troubling Past: Air Force Fighter Acquisition Since 1945," Airpower Journal 9.4 (Winter 1990), pp. 4-23.
5 Gene I. Rochlin, Trapped in the Net: The Unintended Consequences of Computerization (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 29-34.
6 Chris C. Demchak and Patrick D. Allen, "Technology and Complexity: the Modern Military's Capacity for Change," in Conrad C. Crane, ed., Transforming Defense (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2001), p. 110.
7 Mary Kaldor, The Baroque Arsenal (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), pp. 20-26.
8 For an examination of the less-discussed situation in Europe, see Rachel Epstein, "Divided Continent: Globalization and Europe's Fragmented Security Response," in Jonathan Kirshner, ed., Globalization and National Security (New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 231-257.
9, "Sticker Shock: Estimating the Real Cost of Modern Fighter Aircraft," occasional report, Jul. 12 2006, p. 2. Accessed at
10 According to one study, the ratio of R & D costs to production costs went from 5 percent in 1945 to 47 percent in 1989. Thomas L. McNaugher, New Weapons, Old Politics (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute, 1989), pp. 98-99.
11 McNaugher, pp. 179-80. To give one recent example, it was calculated that whereas three to four Los Angeles-class submarines could be manufactured annually for $6-800 million each, each submarine would cost $1.5 to $2 billion each if produced at the rate of one a year. David Lewis, "Is the DD-21 Another Seawolf?" Proceedings 127.8 (Aug. 2001), pp. 54-57.
12 Indeed, the Defense-Aerospace report cited above emphasized the role of discontinuous development in cost overruns., "Sticker Shock," p. 4.
13 According to the work of Mancur Olson, long political stability tends to permit the growth of special interests which undermine economic performance. The postwar situation, particularly with respect to the defense establishment, may be a case in point. See Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).
14 George and Meredith Friedman, The Future of War: Power, Technology and American World Dominance in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Crown, 1996). You can find my review of that book here.
15 Additionally, senile systems increasingly reply on collaboration with other systems to preserve their effectiveness, diminishing the flexibility and autonomy that make them effective in the offensive. Also see Martin Van Creveld, Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present (New York: Free Press, 1989), pp. 280-282.
16 Van Creveld, Technology, pp. 280-282.
17 More expensive weapons systems mean higher costs for training, spare parts and other support functions all too likely to be short-changed, with a negative impact on readiness. McNaugher, pp. 98-99.
18 Edward Luttwak, "Power Relations in the New Economy," Survival 44.2 (Summer 2002), pp. 16-17.
19 This also extends to the overselling of other kinds of policies, like the privatization of military services, and the savings and other benefits that were supposed to accrue from it. See Peter Singer, Corporate Warriors (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003).
20 See Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (New York: Coward-McCann, 1942).
21 For a trenchant critique of capabilities-based planning, see Frederick Kagan, Finding the Target: The Transformation of American Military Policy (New York: Encounter, 2006). It is worth noting, however, that it had an antecedent in the "follow-on" system of the Cold War era. See Kaldor, pp. 65-74.
22 According to one estimate, a B-2 cost over $2 billion, compared with $42.9 million for the B-52 bombers which also saw service in the conflict. Stephen I. Schwartz, "Stealth Bomber is Latest in a String of Failures," New York Times, Sep. 26, 1997.
23 You can read the theory of "war amongst the people" in Smith's The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007). I also offer a summary of his idea in my review of the book for Strategic Insights, accessible here.
24 Territorial occupations in the developing world, for instance, increasingly mean policing a larger, more urbanized and more socially mobilized population, while advanced militaries increasingly substitute technology for manpower both for advantage and necessity. See Nader Elhefnawy, "Are Territorial Military Occupations Becoming More Difficult?" The Rambling Man, Nov. 13, 2008. Accessed at
25 Michael Howard, "'9/11' and After: A British View," Naval War College Review 55.4 (Autumn 2002), pp. 11-22; International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), The Military Balance 2003-2004 (London: IISS, 2003).
26 Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (New York: Free Press, 1991), p. 209.
27 Zaki Laidi, A World Without Meaning, trans. June Burnham and Jenny Coulon (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 105-122. For a discussion of such thinking, see Keith Payne, Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age (Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1996).
28 A related concern is the worry that such strikes may be staged in such a way that their culpability is not immediately obvious (as with a state which chooses to smuggle a bomb into a target city rather than using military means in the attack), or, particularly where non-state actors like terrorist groups are concerned, retaliation is impossible for lack of an appropriate target.
29 Robert S. Litwak, "The New Calculus of Pre-emption," Survival 44.4 (Winter 2002-03), pp. 53-80. For an overview of the relevant discussion of space policy, see Nancy Gallagher and John D. Steinbruner, Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2008). Also see Nader Elhefnawy, "Four Myths About Space Power," Parameters 33.1 (Spring 2003), pp. 124-132.
30 Martin van Creveld, The Future of Nuclear Proliferation (New York: Macmillan, 1991). For the response to the arguments of this sort made prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, see John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, "An Unnecessary War," Foreign Policy 134 (January/February 2003), pp. 50-59.

Reconsidering the IT Revolution's Place in History

By Nader Elhefnawy

Contrary to the common claims that we live in a time of accelerating technological progress, many observers have pointed to slow and often disappointing progress in fields ranging from commercial air travel, to energy production, to medicine and longevity. Several plausible explanations have been offered for this:

* An intellectual property regime that has got out of control, so that it is now stifling innovation.1
* Falling R & D spending in an age of "financialization" and "short-termism."2
* Diminishing returns on investment in established areas of technology.3
* Slow economic growth since 1973 since, according to many long wave theorists, slow growth historically favors the continued use of "sustaining" technologies over the exploitation and proliferation of "disruptive" ones.4

The great exception to this stagnation is usually held to be information technology, which is widely credited with driving recent increases in productivity.

There is, of course, little question as to the significant impact technologies like the personal computer and Internet access have had on our way of life. Yet, it may be the case that they have had far less impact at the macroeconomic level. During the 1980s and early 1990s, a "productivity paradox" (known as the Solow paradox) in which the investment in information technology failed to produce improvements in productivity was widely noted. While the situation appeared to improve by the mid-1990s (when the rate of productivity growth increased from 1.3 to 2.5 percent a year or more), one study indicates that the gains were all in the information technology sector, failing to materialize in other areas.5

One economist, Robert J. Gordon, has offered three arguments as to why the computer's impact may have been underwhelming.6 These are

* The weak impact of information technology on activities requiring eye-hand coordination thus far.
* The "rapid decline in the marginal utility of computing power," improvements early on ceasing to be meaningful and becoming instead a pursuit of features largely for fear of falling behind rather than any practical gain they offer. A good example is the features on word processing programs.7
* The likelihood that computers have been less helpful in letting businesses do new things than offering new ways to do old ones. In most cases it has merely substituted for or duplicated ongoing commercial activities, and in doing so often raised the cost to a company of defending its market share. A good example of this is brick-and-mortar bookstore chains which have been forced to open web sites to keep up with the market after the appearance of

Of course, one could argue that Gross Domestic Product has its limitations as a unit of measure, and that it may simply have failed to count in many real gains these technologies afford their users. However, it can be pointed out that GDP is at least equally inadequate at taking stock of the full costs of information technology at the macroeconomic level. These include

* The rapid depreciation of IT capital (i.e., software and computers).
* The costs of computer crime, which the OECD recently estimated to be in the range of $100 billion a year; and the cost of the computer security services purchased to help check such crime.8
* Certain one-time problems, like the Y2K bug, which is estimated to have cost as much as $600 billion during the late 1990s ($780 billion in 2008 dollars, or roughly 1.5 percent of global GDP at the time).9

According to economist Roland Spant, the failure to include such depreciation in Gross Domestic Product may mean growth rates have been overstated by as much as 0.5 percent a year in the 1995-2000 period in some advanced economies.10 Similarly, Gross Domestic Product registers the services purchased to deal with problems like crime and Y2K as gains rather than costs.

This warrants a reconsideration of much of what is taken for granted about recent economic history. It certainly throws into doubt a common explanation given for the fall of the Soviet Union, namely that it was simply unable to keep up with "New Economies" turbo-charged by the microchip. (After all, computerization only generated meaningful productivity increases after the Soviet collapse, and even then may have been comparatively minor.11) It also throws into doubt the sources of U.S. growth in the late 1990s, and contributes to suspicions about the reality of that growth in the years since, much of it centered on a suspected understatement of inflation.

Of course, none of this necessarily rules out greater future impact. One notable study indicates that such modest contributions have been the historical norm in comparably early phases of other technological revolutions, like steam and electricity.12 The advent of "strong" artificial intelligence, especially in combination with robotics, would explode the constraints that have hitherto existed on applying computing power to economic productivity. Consequently, it may be that the ultimate significance of the computer revolution depends on the success or failure of technologists to realize those possibilities.

1 Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans (New York: Random House, 2008), pp. 122-144.
2 See James Crotty, "The Neoliberal Paradox: The Impact of Destructive Product Market Competition and Impatient Finance on Nonfinancial Corporations in the Neoliberal Era," Policy Economic Research Institute, Research Brief (Jul. 2003); John R. Graham, Campbell R. Harvey, and Shivaram Rajgopal, "The Economic Implications of Corporate Financial Reporting," Journal of Accounting and Economics 40 (2005), pp. 3–73.
3 W. Brian Arthur, "Increasing Returns and the New World of Business," Harvard Business Review 74.4 (Jul.-Aug. 1996), pp. 100-109. Also see Michael O'Hanlon, Technological Change and the Future of Warfare (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), p. 194.
4 While Joseph Schumpeter viewed upswings in the cycle as driven by the innovation of "leading sectors," other theorists, like Nikolai Kondratiev, or Ernest Mandel, argued that other economic stimuli led to the capitalization on technology. For a discussion of technological innovation and growth in long wave theory, see Joshua S. Goldstein, Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 21-98. For a discussion of disruptive and sustaining technologies, see Clayton Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fall (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). The energy sector in particular seems to reflect such patterns. See Marshall Goldberg, "Federal Energy Subsidies: Not All Technologies Are Created Equal," Renewable Energy Policy Project, Research Report, Jul. 2000, p. 2; Robert M. Margolis and Daniel M. Kammen, "Underinvestment: The Energy Technology and R & D Policy Challenge," Science 285 (Jul. 1999), pp. 690-692; Margolis and Kammen, "Energy R & D Innovation: Challenges and Opportunities for Technology and Climate Policy," in Stephen Schneider, Armin Rosencranz, and John-O Niles, eds., A Reader in Climate Change Policy (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2001).
5 Christine Cooper, "The Persistence of the Productivity Paradox," Jul. 2001. Accessed at
6 Robert J. Gordon, "Does the 'New Economy' Measure up to the Great Inventions of the Past?" Journal of Economic Perspectives 14.4 (Fall 2000), pp. 49-74.
7 The problem may be exacerbated by poor decision-making on the part of consumers in this area, often characterized a drive to acquire the newest (and "best") rather than cost-benefit calculations. Rochlin, Trapped in the Net: The Unintended Consequences of Computerization (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 29-34.
8 "Cybercrime toll threatens new financial crisis," New Scientist, Nov. 20 2008. Accessed at .
9 For a discussion of Y2K, see William M. Evan and Mark Manion, Minding the Machines: Preventing Technological Disasters (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), pp. 58-79.
10 However, it may also understate the rate of growth in some other countries. See Roland Spant, "Why Net Domestic Product should replace Gross Domestic Product as a Measure of Economic Growth," International Productivity Monitor 7 (Fall 2003), pp. 39-43. Accessed at
11 This claim was recently reiterated in Max Boot's War Made New. A far more likely explanation would seem to be the Soviet government's slashing economic investment in the 1970s in an attempt to maintain consumption while continuing to run its arms race with the West. The economic weakness that resulted (exacerbated when the price of oil dropped after the mid-1980s), and Mikhail Gorbachev's particular strategy for redressing that weakness, created an opening for dissenters (particularly among Soviet elites) which ultimately led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union. See David Kotz and Fred Weir, Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System (New York: Routledge, 1997).
12 Nicholas Crafts, "The Solow Productivity Paradox in Historical Perspective," Nov. 2001. Accessed at

In The News ("World at Risk," Greece in Crisis)

A new report about the risk of a WMD attack has cropped up in the headlines, The World At Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism the actual text of which you can find here.

The aspect of the report that has attracted the most attention is, predictably, the estimate in the Executive Summary that

The Commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013 (xv).
There is no explanation in the report as to why 2013 should be thought of as some significant benchmark, and while most of the press seems to have uncritically swallowed the claim, experts Donald Henderson and Michael Krepon have appropriately criticized the report for what looks like an attempt to hype up its findings.

It is also noteworthy that the report seems to totally ignore chemical weapons, the authors saying in the preface that they focused on nuclear and biological weapons because "they pose the greatest peril" (x), and leaving it at that. There is no mention of the sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrkyo cult in Matsumoto in 1994, which killed seven and sickened six hundred, and in Tokyo in 1995, which resulted in over six thousand casualties. (Instead the only mentions of Aum's activity, despite its lengthy record of activity in this area are in relation to a single botched anthrax attack on Tokyo (on pages 10 and 11).) Partly because of this, the report tends to give the impression that WMD use by terrorists, certainly in a mass-casualty attack, is unprecedented, though clearly it is not (this report itself citing the Rajneeshee cult's 1984 bioterror attack, which sickened over 700 people, with the anthrax attacks of 2001, and the full range of Aum's bioweapon activities, worthy of mention).

These are serious deficiencies which have attracted too little attention in the press, too accustomed to simply reporting what the People In Suits Say, instead of scrutinizing it.

Speaking of lousy journalistic coverage, consider the treatment of the crisis in Greece, into which a general strike has just factored. The spark for this was the shooting of a youth by police, but the larger background to the situation seems to be long-running clashes between police and "anarchists" (I never know exactly what to make of that label here, given its vulnerability to abuse), and wide discontent with the corruption, incompetence (the mishandling of the wild fires of 2007, the fiscal mismanagement), and economic reforms (read: IMF-recommended neo-liberal measures, like privatizing the state telecommunications company and taking a hard line with labor), of the unpopular conservative government of Kostas Karmanlis.

One should note that Greece is not a Third World country. It is a member of the euro zone, with a $30,000 per capita GDP, putting it right between Taiwan and Italy for 2007. Its Gini score is 33, and its ranking in the Human Development Index is 24th in the world. It has problems with unemployment, debt, inflation, somewhat worse than Western Europe as a whole, but on the whole they do not seem to be very much so (the sizable current account deficit aside, partly due to the high energy prices now on the wane), and the country's growth has actually been comparatively robust (frequently clocking 4 percent a year these last several years, despite worries about slipping competitiveness).

In short, it is not the sort of place where things like this are "expected" to happen (like Latin America, for instance). Nonetheless, the numbers discussed above seem to miss some of the facts on the ground. These include youth unemployment, generally higher and in this case over 26 percent in 2006 according to Eurostat. Nor do they seem to reflect the actual poverty level, a recent study putting one in five households below that line (when the line is drawn at 470 euros a month, or about $7,300 a year), and attributing it to a relatively well-funded but exceptionally ineffective (mismanaged?) welfare system. Official inflation figures tend to understate the actual hardship for consumers of price shocks everywhere, but this is perhaps especially the case in countries which made the transition to the euro, with Greece in particular known to have "faked reported values of inflation in the run-up to accession of the monetary union in order to meet Maastricht criteria" according to this study by Milan Vyskrabka.

Simply put, this means things are worse than they look, and in some critical ways. The slowdown of growth, the promises of still more neoliberalism (keep in mind the country has a large public sector, so that the proportion of the citizenry directly affected will be comparatively large), and skimpy poor relief-justified on the grounds of a lack of money right after the Greek government provided the banking system with a generous and highly controversial financial bail-out (relative to the size of the Greek economy, equivalent to a $1.5 trillion package from the U.S.)-could not possibly be helping the political situation.

Looking at all this data, rarely touched on in the coverage of the riots, my guess would be that the causes of the current crisis are in large part economic, with the anomalousness of Greek politics perhaps playing a role as well. Following World War II the country went through a civil war, and in 1967-74, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship. The radicalization that resulted from it does not seem to have fully disappeared today-one expression of which is the size of the Communist Party (number three in parliament, with an eight percent share), and an opposition to U.S. foreign policy strong even by European standards (though those who see the world through Sam Huntington's "clash of civilizations" lens may also point to the country's Greek Orthodox religious identity). Immigration does not seem to be the "wedge" issue it has been in West European countries, helping to bouy conservative policies in spite of their rarely popular economic components. And the centrality of Athens as a center of Greek life (literally half the country's population lives there) adds to the government's vulnerability.

Nonetheless, with the world struggling through a financial crisis and economic slowdown so sharp as to evoke the "D" word from commentators who would ordinarily never dare let it slip past their lips, and energy prices on the wane now but perhaps poised to rebound even higher (Kevin Phillips speculating on C-SPAN2 yesterday about their going back to over $200 in just a few quarters), and the daily news offering one blast from the pre-neoliberal past after another, the way things are playing out in Greece may hint at the dangers to security and stability that other nations could face in the coming years. When even a eurozone member has this kind of trouble, other, poorer countries are unquestionably vulnerable, and it stands to reason that other affluent countries, many of which are in the same boat with regard to the problems discussed above, may not be totally exempt.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Thoughts on a Book Sale

Over the weekend the local Friends of the Library had their annual book sale. While the books on sale were fairly diverse (including many hard-to-find, out-of-print titles), surplus bestsellers were very prominent in the stock, making it a good representative of the market of recent years, and seeing it reminded me of two things:

1. How much of the section of books devoted to "Business and Economics" consisted of self-help nonsense.
2. How many of the "big" books on public affairs, politics and the like have appallingly short lives before they cease to be of significance to anyone but historians wondering "What were they thinking back then?" In my mind, the prize for this sort of ephemeral writing goes to Dick Morris for his anticipation of the 2008 presidential election, Condi vs. Hillary, but Kenneth Pollack's The Threatening Storm (about which I'd forgotten until my eye fell on a copy there) certainly fits the bill.

Despite all its flaws, the publishing industry gets out a fair number of good books. Unfortunately, the trash-to-gold ratio is very high, and probably worsening, especially in this area. But what else could you expect given the direction of the business, and the dominance of public intellectual life by the lobotomized punditry of television and radio?

Friday, December 5, 2008

On the Use of the "D" Word

I noted in an earlier comment that the word "Depression" is rearing its head in the mainstream commentary on business and economics.

When people use it, however, most listeners assume the word to simply mean a Very Bad Thing, with little concept as to the magnitude of the event-let alone how our situation since has compared with it.

According to the National Income and Product Accounts Tables of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. economy shrank by roughly a third between 1929 and 1933. It recovered afterward, to its 1929 level, by 1936. From 1936 to 1940 the economy then grew at an average rate of 4.7 percent a year above its 1929 level.

In other words, for the decade thought of as the Depression as a whole, U.S. GDP expanded at an average of 1.7 percent a year during the 1929-1940 period-or 0.93 per cent per capita.

That is only very slightly less than the 1 per cent per capita growth the U.S. saw during the 1973-1995 period as a whole, which virtually no one in the mainstream refers to as a Depression. Growth improved after that (1995-2006 seeing 1.6 per cent per capita growth), but the figures for the 2000s have been frequently criticized for understating inflation, with some suggesting little or no real GDP gain in the years since the '90s boom had run its course; and even the official data now has the U.S. in a recession from December 2007 on.

Put plainly, the period since 1973 has, when taken as a whole, seen a rate of economic growth roughly comparable to that of the 1929-1940 period.1

Now, the idea that we have been in something like a Depression for so many decades may seem ridiculous, and it would be a mistake to overlook some important differences. One is that nothing like the sharpness of the shock of 1929-1933 has been evident since 1973. Rather than a sharp, deep drop in output, followed by a period of rapid growth later, these years have seen prolonged, very slow growth.

Another reason is the severity of the blow to private investment as a share of GDP during these years. It fell from 16 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 1929 to a mere 2.2 percent of it in 1932. By the end of the decade, it still hadn't returned to its earlier level, returning to just 13.4 percent by 1940.

Instead, the growth of the late 1930s reflected the massive expansion of the U.S. government. Government expenditures went from $9.4 to $15 billion between 1929 and 1940, nearly doubling in real terms (from $119 to $232 billion in today's dollars). In particular it was a matter of the growth of Federal spending and investment, which nearly quintupled from $22 to $100 billion, after adjustment for inflation-expenditures paid for by borrowing that raised the ratio of national debt to GDP from 16 percent in 1929 to 52 percent by 1940 (which, of course, enlarged the demand that enabled and propped up the recovery of private investment, unsteady and incomplete as it was).

Private investment has never fallen as low in the post-1973 period as it did then, the worst moment perhaps 1991, which roughly matched the level of 1940, at the Depression's tail end. Nonetheless, government has been about twice as big a part of the economy as it was in 1940, the Federal government three times as big, a factor that should not be underestimated in any attempt to draw a parallel between the two situations. Some observers argue that the only reason things have not been worse is because of these large public shares, and particularly the stabilizing effects of the transfer payments they facilitate (an idea Paul Bairoch mentions in his book Economics and World History). And both the public and private investment of recent decades have entailed a massive, Depression-scale accumulation of debt.

One might also point to the employment picture. The figures provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that 24.9 percent of the labor force was out of work in 1933, and still 14.6 percent in 1940-figures with no recent parallel. Official postwar unemployment only ran in the double digits between September 1982 and June 1983, peaking at 10.8 percent in November and December 1982. In October this year, it was a mere 6.5 percent.

However, "unofficial" estimates of American unemployment since the 1970s commonly produce much higher figures than that. Simply including BLS statistics on marginally attached workers (who recently had a job and want another one but are not looking), discouraged workers (who are not seeking work because of the state of the market), and part-timers ("who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule") raises the October 2008 figure to 11.8 percent. Much more expansive definitions are possible, and these commonly result in Depression-level numbers.

In short, the idea that we are in a quasi-Depression is not totally groundless-or unprecedented. Such a view is a commonplace among long wave theorists, whose work frequently recognizes an analogy between the post-1973 period and the 1920s and '30s.

It also suggests strongly that we have been on the wrong track economically these past several decades, in the U.S., and around the world (where the picture has not been much better, and similarly evocative of the '30s in many commentaries). One theory, espoused by many (though by no means all) of the aforementioned long wave economists, is that the revival of growth commonly requires active state intervention, perhaps of a Keynesian type-exactly the opposite direction to the "courtesan state" practices pioneered by Augusto Pinochet's Chile, Margaret Thatcher's Britain and plain old Reaganomics.2

Given the changed rhetoric of recent weeks, it may be possible that the sorts of policies which, in this reading of economic history, get growth going again, will be enacted by governments. However, it would be a real mistake to jump the gun on that score. Following the fad for neo-mercantilism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, the bursting of the tech bubble and associated corporate scandals, the end would be declared-and yet, the TINA ("There Is No Alternative") mentality soldiered on.

So it might again after the sense of crisis has passed.

1 It is worth noting that measures other than GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), report poorer performance than that. According to the 2006 report by Redefining Progress, U.S. GPI stagnated in the area of $15,000 per capita in 1978, the U.S. economy as a whole making no meaningful progress in three decades. It is also worth noting that according to Alan Freeman's analysis in 2003's "Globalisation: economic stagnation and divergence," even going by GDP the world economy was static between 1980 and 2002, and actually shrank between 1988 and 2002.
2 I explore that idea in a somewhat more academic manner here, in my article, "A Long-Term Trend Toward the Depletion of Fiscal-Macroeconomic Slack in the World Economy?", where I argue for the wage-productivity gaps, financialization, short-termism and resource misuse fostered by neoliberal policies as the causes of the stagnant growth and mounting debt seen since the 1970s.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Future of War: Power, Technology, and American World Dominance in the 21st Century, by George and Meredith Friedman

New York Crown Publishers, 1996, pp. 464.

The grandiosely if uncreatively titled The Future of War does not concern itself with insurgency and terrorism; with state failure, peacekeeping or nation-building; with rogue states and organized crime; with resource conflict and environmental security; with biological weapons and computer warfare; with the growth of the private military sector.

Rather this book's focus is squarely on conventional, interstate warfare, and even then its focus is not on making predictions about the balance of power in the international system, or laying out specific conflict scenarios (for instance, there is little on the rise of China), but on the theoretical and historical (their single geopolitical prediction, that the future will be an "American epoch," aside).

Simply put, the Friedmans posit that the modern (post-1500) era was the age of firearms, centered on the massing of explosive power. This culminated in the dominance of the battlespace by "hydrocarbon-driven, gunned weapon platforms" like battleships, tanks and planes. These systems, however, are increasingly "senile," meaning that the measures taken to insure their survival on the battlefield are overwhelming their offensive value.

The reason: the precision-guided munitions which will dominate the coming epoch as surely as the gun dominated the one preceding it. The ultimate expression of these will be hypersonic, intercontinental-range cruise missiles with the versatility of manned bombers (their discussion of missiles shading into what we today commonly term drones).

Meanwhile, the world's military center of gravity is shifting skyward, to space, global dominance meaning space dominance, to be won by manned command platforms in space, and fleets of space vehicles that can see and attack anything on the surface.

There will be little place for tanks, warships and traditional combat aircraft in this new military order, or even for massed infantry because while "boots on the ground" will still be necessary for close-in combat and holding territory, they will more and more resemble the "starship troopers" of Robert Heinlein-small, elite units whose individual members have been made far more deadly by advanced armor, sensors, communication systems and weapons.1

In short, the book is an explanation of the then-fashionable thinking about what is commonly called the "Revolution in Military Affairs," albeit a very thorough, comprehensive and accessible one. Indeed, it made quite a strong impression on my own thinking about these subjects when I first read it back in 2000, and much of my early writing and publication cites its ideas.

I find myself looking rather more skeptically at the book now, however. While we have perhaps gone overboard in the degree to which we have overlooked great power politics in the last decade or so, this book's focus is too narrow, not only in its considering just one level of warfare while ignoring all the others, but in its particular technological focus. It was not the gun which gave Europe its ascendancy, but industrialization, and that ascendancy was also briefer and more precarious than the half millennium suggested here.2 Their vision of a "European epoch" based on the mastery of a particular weapons technology therefore seems a poor basis for arguing for a similarly founded American epoch extending far into the future (even without considering today's much more rapid technological diffusion).

Additionally, where the key technologies themselves are considered, this is at best a long-range vision, rather than a guide to practical policymaking. The day when militaries serious about fighting conventional wars can finally dispense with their tanks and warships is still a long way off. The space dominance visions described here remain technically and economically infeasible, and can be expected to remain so for decades.

Even precision-guided munitions seem likely to make much slower progress than they imagined. There has been surprisingly little progress toward really fast, really long-range cruise missiles in the decade since they wrote their book, and it is not really that surprising. Many of the areas of technology relevant to realizing the idea (like propulsion systems) have been seeing fairly slow progress for quite some time. Besides, the PGM itself might become senile sooner than imagined, if directed-energy weapons become ubiquitous, an outcome that may be in real doubt, but still seems more likely than the realization of the space capabilities envisioned here.

The authors are also too dismissive of the importance of mass in future warfare, erroneously predicted so many times before-not least, by Basil Liddell Hart after World War I. Even if armies get smaller because of the cost of their equipment, numbers will still count, and the political units able to raise the resources to support those numbers will count for a great deal. Indeed, the size of the space forces necessary to achieve really workable, continuous coverage of the whole planet will be staggering.3

While this is said with all the advantage of hindsight, the book remains more interesting as an expression of the thinking on these topics in its day, and for the thoroughness of its extrapolation from a (flawed) theory, than as a comment on contemporary concerns, or a fully-rounded vision of things to come.

1 As for nuclear weapons, these will remain, but as a factor of declining significance-simply guarantees of state survival, and as checks on the nuclear weapons held by other actors-enabling the conduct of limited wars. (Notably, the authors count both the world wars as having been limited conflicts.)
2 After all, Asia had its own gunpowder empires, which did much to limit (and at points, even reverse) European expansion at the expense of India, China and the Ottoman Empire until late in the eighteenth century and often after; while Russia and Japan successfully resisted colonization.
3 One study indicates that as many as 1600 interceptors may be needed to stop a single ICBM. See American Physical Society, Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense: Scientific and Technical Issues (College Park, MD: APS, 2003). Cited in Nancy Gallagher and John D. Steinbruner, Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2008), pp. 66-67. It has also been estimated that as many as 1200 satellites would be needed simply to image every point on the planet once an hour. Gallagher, p. 69.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

In The News (The Space Business, John Arquilla on Carriers, and Ethical Robots)

Once again, the latest updates of include plenty of interesting stuff. Particularly noteworthy are these articles on the impact of satellite longevity on recent sales; Professor John Arquilla on future naval acquisition plans; and a new argument on behalf of robot soldiers, interesting in its rootedness in ethics rather than military efficiency.

On The Prospects For a "New" New Deal
In The News (Bailing Out the Big Three)
The Way Forward on Energy
Putting the Bailout into Context

On The Prospects for a "New" New Deal

Check out this article by Ralph Nader in the Christian Science Monitor outlining a "new" New Deal for America.

I don't think it will happen. The last election was no referendum on neoliberalism, and the Democratic Party certainly has not abandoned Clintonomics, which were really not much different from Reagonomics, except in their comparative fiscal discipline. (After all, the Clinton administration's most significant economic legacies were free trade-NAFTA and GATT, welfare reform-the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and business deregulation-the 1996 Telecom Act and the repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act in 1999. He reappointed Ayn Rand devotee Alan Greenspan to another term at the Fed. There was never a shortage of corporate welfare, not the least of it big bailouts like the peso rescue of 1994-5. I could go on, but you get the picture, the results of which we're all living with now.)

Even were things different, despite all the hoopla, the election of 2008 was not some profound realignment of the kind Kevin Phillips describes in his books. The popular vote went 52-47, and for the most part the red states stayed red, the blue states blue, the main difference the tipping left of "swing states" like Florida (which went for Obama by less than 3 percent) and Ohio (which did the same by less than four). The Democrats have a majority in Congress, but not an overwhelming one, and anyway they don't exactly have an impressive track record of uniting behind liberal initiatives-something certainly not changed by their conduct in the last two years. And Obama's recent appointments (yet more Clintonomics, including an actual Clinton!) don't exactly point to the "change" endlessly promised.

On balance, the evidence says that those who hoped the 1992 election would reverse the legacy of Reagan-Bush I should expect another four years of disappointment-while hoping dearly that I'm wrong.

In The News (Bailing Out the Big Three)
The Way Forward on Energy
Putting the Bailout into Context

In The News (Bailing Out the Big Three)

The CEOs of GM, Ford and Chrysler are back in Washington again, asking for a hand-out.

I don't think I can say anything that hasn't already been said about this latest, particularly conspicuous example of what Gore Vidal famously called "free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich" (or, what Vladimir Lenin, some seventy years earlier, called "socialism with capitalist appropriation"), except that it's interesting that Chrysler (from 1998 to 2007, a Mercedes property) became American "again" just in time to hit up the Federal government for cash.

The Way Forward on Energy
Putting the Bailout into Context

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Way Forward on Energy

Last week in "The Falling Price of Oil," I discussed the fall-off in prices, which I argued does not invalidate the concerns about energy production and use that got a new hearing as a result of the 2003-08 price shock.

Any attempt to deal with those problems will have to follow three broad avenues.

1. An across-the-board pursuit of energy efficiency. Small sacrifices on the part of individuals (like turning off the lights when they leave the room) do no harm, but are also not enough. "Lifestyle" changes can be very ephemeral, and in any case generate only limited savings. Rather the emphasis should be on the technology defining those small choices, which can provide more robust, structural, lasting savings. Zero-energy housing and the modernization of electric grids, for instance, offer significant possibilities. So does a turn to alternative forms of transport and communications, like new car concepts, or the widened use of telecommuting. Those efficiencies will make demand easier to meet with shorter oil supplies, and still-developing alternatives.

2. The reduction of the use of fossil fuels in electricity production, an area where alternatives are relatively well developed, and still have considerable potential. Despite chronic underinvestment, particularly from the 1980s on, wind and solar are an increasingly practical way of meeting a large part of the energy needs of even advanced societies (as Denmark, Germany, Spain and others are demonstrating).

3. A shift of the energy base of our transport system away from fossil fuels, to alternatives, a more problematic thing than simply producing electricity from alternatives. Hydrogen, at least, when produced through electrolysis, is not an energy source but an energy carrier, dependent on a massive increase of electrical production (and the same goes for a shift to electric cars). The economics of very large-scale ethanol production remain to be proven, especially given anticipated pressure on agricultural production as a result of global warming; the salination and waterlogging of irrigated land; and population growth in the coming decades. However, it seems there is at least enough wriggle room for some mix of these to produce a partial solution.

Unconventional oil and nuclear energy may have their part to play, too, but oil, and nuclear energy (at least so long as this is provided by Generation III atomic reactors) should be seen as highly problematic stopgaps rather than permanent fixes. (And in any event oil, unconventional and otherwise, is also needed for non-energy purposes like the production plastics, pharmaceuticals and fertilizers, at least until commercially viable substitutes can be found.)

Furthermore, it is an indulgence in market romanticism to think the private sector can do this all by itself, or even take the lead. The post-1973 era has been one of slow growth and rampant "short-termism," a business climate which is far from conducive to the kind of investment that rebuilding the world's energy base requires.

Besides, it is worth recalling that the current place of fossil fuels and nuclear energy was built on massive energy subsidies-over $600 billion since 1950 in today's dollars according to one study, and perhaps far more than that.1 Those who want to let the market solve the issue simply ignore the ways in which the playing field has been, and continues to be, unfairly tilted in favor of established and politically influential energy producers.

They also neglect the fact that even if oil has benefited from a "fantastic favoritism" (as John Kenneth Galbraith put it in The Liberal Hour) in the degree of such support it has received, the fact of government support for rising industries is not at all exceptional. One does not have to probe very deeply to find major subsidies in the background of every technological revolution in American history, from the railroads, to aerospace, to computing (much as it may irk the libertarian-conservative ideologues who have come to dominate economic debate). And there is no denying that renewable energy has never received anything close to such support, not only in the U.S., but even in other countries more favorable to them, like Germany, the underinvestment in renewables at every level from R & D on being an international problem as scholars Daniel Kammen and Robert Margolis have pointed out.2

Indeed, given the time scale involved in making the transition (and the added pressure climate change is placing to speed things along), I suspect it will take more than properly targeted subsidies to achieve a "green" economy in a timely way, even in the relatively limited form of a shift to other energy sources. Calls for anything resembling public planning remain unfashionable, but nonetheless, to the end of making substantial, rapid progress, goals must be set and met. Sweden has declared a commitment to a fossil fuel free economy by 2020. This may prove overambitious, but considerable progress is not, and even if the U.S. (larger and less politically cohesive) may not be able to match it, it is something to aspire after nonetheless. Indeed, the differences among countries (particularly the much more profound ones between developed and developing economies) warrant not only national policies, but international collaboration and cooperation on a scale not yet seen.

1 Robert H. Bezdek and Robert M. Wendling, "The U.S. Energy Subsidy Scorecard," Issues in Science and Technology 22.3 (Spring 2006). Bezdek and Wendling estimate that of $644 billion in total Federal energy subsidies from 1950 to 2003, $63 billion went to nuclear energy. However, direct subsidies have been estimated at $115 billion for the 1947-1999 period, with another $145 billion in indirect ones for the same years-$260 billion in all, before adjustment for inflation, or nearly 4-5 times as much as in the Bezdek and Wendling estimate. See Alexander Likhotal and Jean-Michel Cousteau, "Are We Asking the Right Questions?" The Green Cross Optimist (Spring 2006), p. 1. U.S. military expenditures on securing the Persian Gulf, if viewed as an oil subsidy, would by themselves explode the figures given above, raising the figure into the trillions. See Michael Klare's Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (New York: Holt, 2002) and Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum (New York: Holt, 2005).
2 See Robert M. Margolis and Daniel M. Kammen, "Underinvestment: The Energy Technology and R & D Policy Challenge," Science 285 (Jul. 1999), pp. 690-692; Margolis and Kammen, "Energy R & D Innovation: Challenges and Opportunities for Technology and Climate Policy," in Stephen Schneider, Armin Rosencranz, and John-O Niles, eds., A Reader in Climate Change Policy (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2001).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Putting the Bailout Into Context

The total bill for the bailout of the U.S. financial system is now widely estimated to be over $8 trillion-even by mainstream sources like

This is not all in the form of the straight hand-outs that have got so much attention, which actually form only a small part of the total. (The larger part of it seems to come in the form of loan programs and guarantees.) Nonetheless, they hint at a potentially vast final bill, and even if they do not, the sheer largeness of the sums is enough to give one pause.

For the sake of comparison, keep in mind that the country's defense bill for the years 1941-1946-essentially, what it cost to fight World War II-was a comparatively paltry $3.75 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Of course, even when adjusted for inflation, the fact remains that the U.S. economy today (at least going by official GDP figures) is about 9-10 times the size of the U.S. economy in 1940, so one could argue that proportionally the effort is smaller.

Nonetheless, this remains a very substantial commitment indeed, with few parallels in American history, and I have to admit that when I was thinking about whether or not the country really could handle the kind of economic strain that the Second World War imposed on the country (a line of speculation which drove me to write this article, which ran in the quarterly of the U.S. Army War College in 2004, a more developed version of which argument you can find in this newish piece, here on my site for the first time ever), it never occurred to me that the challenge would take this precise shape-even if I have long shared the worries of many dubious about the idea that trade deficits can be run forever without consequence, that it is a good idea to treat your house like an ATM, that any of what is regarded as the conventional wisdom (so conventional, so rarely wise) made the least bit of sense.

In writing that article back in 2003-4, I didn't pretend to have a hard and fast answer about how much strain the economy could take, much to the irritation of a rather smug, snide and amazingly repetitive business professor who didn't let missing the point of my article (that public finances were rather more constrained than in the World War II era, and that we could not count on the kind of post-war growth surge which proved essential to keeping the U.S. afloat despite the war debt, and the expenses of the subsequent Cold War) keep him from shooting his mouth off on a message board.

I don't pretend to have an answer now, and for that matter I'm not sure I know of anyone else who can give one. But where earlier I was astonished by how little people seemed to realize this isn't just another bit of "this quarter" news, by how the enormity of such numbers was failing to get through the short-termist superficiality prevailing in business journalism, I am now astonished to see the "D" word everyone usually steers clear of (they just say "worst [fill in the blank] since the 1930s") making appearances in the mainstream media, not least in this piece in the Los Angeles Times-penned by a Clinton-era deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury and professed neoliberal no less, one J. Brad DeLong-who incidentally finds himself recommending an old-fashioned Keynesian stimulus package.

Nor does it stop here. American coverage of the crisis is parochial as ever, but this is a global problem, and similar action is being taken around the world. Britain, too, has seen a nearly trillion-dollar bailout (relative to the size of its economy, almost as big as the one the U.S. is now seeing), just one country in Europe to do so, Germany engaging in a large venture of similar type, and the EU's finance ministers are now talking about a $250 billion stimulus plan, while Canada's opposing parties are proposing a similar measure. (Nor is the trend confined to the developed world. China is now poised to deliver a $600 billion stimulus to its own economy. India, more constrained by giant deficits, may follow suit in a more modest way.)

Earlier this year I saw an article by Ian Bremmer in the June issue of Survival titled "The Return of State Capitalism." My thought was that it was easy to make too much of the moves in this direction on the part of most of the relevant states. Russia and Venezuela, for instance, could do what they liked because of high oil prices, while China's size makes it exceptional, and in any case, the trend there has long been toward more open markets. Besides, this kind of movement historically, as Harold James wrote in The End of Globalization, depends on a clearly articulated, alternative idea taking hold (and appearing to operate successfully in) a major state (like Bolshevik Russia or Nazi Germany), and that certainly has not been the case to date.

Now I am beginning to wonder. While the American version of bailout looks like just another corporate giveaway Kevin Phillips charges in books like Wealth and Democracy and Bad Money has been routine since the 1980s (despite measures that look an awful lot like nationalization), the bailouts in Britain and Germany (while those countries remain ostensibly devoted to increased privatization) give government more control over the institutions in which they are investing. And some of the stimulus packages proposed or even underway outside the U.S. have a more classically Keynesian quality to them.

Are we seeing the beginning of a tectonic shift in economic thinking, the sidelining of the Thatcherism that has served the world so poorly in these last, anemic decades? Perhaps. But their end has been announced many a time before, each time prematurely, the latest round of free-market mania having proved its durability beyond every expectation. And sticking the major governments with so much debt can play right into the hands of advocates of "starve the beast" fiscal policy of the kind Thomas Frank described in his recent book The Wrecking Crew. Might the repeal of Social Security end up happening on Barack Obama's watch?

I hope not, but I wouldn't rule it out.

The Next Wave of Nuclear Proliferation

Originally published in PARAMETERS, Autumn 2008, pp. 36-47
©2008 Nader Elhefnawy

Republished at SSRN on July 12, 2018.

In recent years record oil prices, long-term concerns about fossil fuel supplies (particularly oil), and worries about the contributions of fossil fuels to the accumulation of greenhouse gases such as carbon and methane have helped revive interest in nuclear energy production.1 Indeed, it has become commonplace to advocate renewed investment in nuclear energy production in the United States. There has been, however, little consideration as to what a global turn to nuclear energy on an enlarged scale would actually entail, let alone the security implications of such.

This article's concern, accordingly, is with what a globally expanded use of nuclear energy would mean for nuclear proliferation specifically (as opposed to the issues of nuclear waste disposal or the risk of catastrophic accident, which also merit serious consideration), and this topic as it centers on state actors (rather than nonstate actors such as terrorist groups). In doing so it will, first, examine what an enlarged use of nuclear energy would look like; second, what risks such a changed volume and distribution of nuclear energy production might entail; and third, what the options are for ameliorating those risks.

Expanding Nuclear Energy Use
A large-scale expansion of nuclear energy production would affect not only its sheer volume, but the distribution of such production around the world, an issue which has rarely drawn comment. These two matters are discussed below.

The Scale of Nuclear Energy Production, Present and Future
There are currently some 440 nuclear reactors operating worldwide, which as of 2006 produced 2,660 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity every year.2 This comes to roughly 16 percent of global electricity consumption, and five percent of the world's total energy consumption.

Significant as this is, it leaves enormous room for growth not only given today's overall portfolio, but the economic expansion anticipated in the coming decades. The World Bank recently estimated world gross domestic product (GDP) would grow to $140 trillion by mid-century, a 160 percent rise.3 Such a growth rate would significantly outpace any previous improvement in energy efficiency (the trend having been about ten percent a decade since 1970). Even assuming recently observed rates of progress hold, this will translate into an 80 percent increase in energy consumption.4

For nuclear energy to simply keep its position in the world's energy portfolio, production equivalent to 800 of today's reactors would be needed. The very reason, however, for much of the interest in nuclear energy is concern about the scarcity of fossil fuels (particularly oil, but also coal and natural gas), so it can be expected that nuclear energy will be called on to play a greater role than it has to date—at the very least, generating a larger share of the electricity the world uses. France currently gets 77 percent of its electricity through this medium. Were the entire world to follow a similar path, it would mean more than a quadrupling of output, with more than 2,000 reactors required to meet current needs, and between 3,000 and 4,000 reactors plausibly online by 2050. Were nuclear energy to become more important in areas where it has previously played a minor role, such as transportation—for instance, by powering fleets of electric vehicles or large-scale hydrogen fuel production—then the demand could rise even beyond current expectations, with one observer estimating that simply to compensate for the absence in increased fossil fuel production (rather than absolute decreases), some 5,000 to 6,000 reactors would be required by mid-century.5

Global Distribution of Nuclear Energy Production
It is rarely noted that the vast majority of the nuclear power plants currently operating in the world are concentrated in a handful of industrialized nations. Nearly half (218) are in just three countries—the United States (104), France (59), and Japan (55). Russia (which has 31 plants), the United Kingdom (23), South Korea (20), Germany (18), Canada (17), and Ukraine (15), with another 124 reactors between them, account for another 28 percent of the total.

This puts three-fourths of the world's reactors, and 83 percent of its electricity production from nuclear energy, in nine countries with just 46 percent of the world's GDP, and 48 percent of its electrical production and consumption.6 Another 47 reactors, and ten percent of capacity, are concentrated in just seven more countries—Sweden, Spain, Belgium, Taiwan, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, accounting for 16 nations controlling 93 percent of the world's nuclear-generated electricity.7 By contrast there are no such plants in operation in the Middle East or Australasia as of this writing. On the entire African continent, there are only the two plants operating in South Africa, and there are just six in all of Latin America and the Caribbean, with two each in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina.

It is inconceivable that anything like this distribution will continue in a world turning heavily to nuclear energy, a fact that has already laid the foundation for a broadening of production and use in East and South Asia.8 We should also expect a large-scale, rapid establishment of nuclear energy production in areas where it has been virtually absent, for example, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. To approximate France's current level of nuclear energy reliance, for instance, Iran alone would require roughly 18 operational reactors; Saudi Arabia, 20. More extensive substitution of nuclear energy for other sources of power, or future economic expansion (such as described above), will require a commensurate growth in the number of reactors.9

All of this may sound abstract, but moves in this direction are already well under way. Some 40 developing nations have expressed interest in starting nuclear energy programs, and many have moved beyond vague statements of intentions.10 The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has already struck a deal for two reactors, just one of 11 nations in this region (thus far) to have announced such plans.11

Assessing the Danger
As outlined above, a future in which the world as a whole turned to nuclear energy will mean not just an expansion of nuclear energy production, but substantial changes in production impacting mainland Asia, Africa, and Latin America. An assessment of the associated proliferation risk involved devolves basically into an examination of two dimensions, capabilities and intentions—what widened nuclear energy use will mean for the access of these states to nuclear weapons technology; and the impact that this new environment will have on a government's motivation to actually use that access to produce nuclear weaponry.

Technological Access
The increase in nuclear energy production described above will mean greater production, trading, and consumption of the fissile materials and other technologies that are part of the nuclear fuel cycle. The specifics differ according to reactor type, but every reactor uses uranium in the production of its fuel and produces plutonium in its waste, extractable in the fuel reprocessing procedure, and in such a manner that every type of reactor poses a measure of proliferation risk.12 Gas-cooled and heavy-water reactors use natural uranium as fuel, but are ideal for producing weapons-grade plutonium. "Fast-neutron" reactors use fissile material (such as highly enriched uranium or plutonium) at the very start of their fuel cycle, and Fast Breeder Reactors in particular produce more fissile material than they consume.

Even Light Water Reactors (LWRs), which have been described as "proliferation-resistant" (and two of which were provided to North Korea under the Agreed Framework on those grounds), are no exception.13 They use low-enriched uranium, which is not useful for making weapons, but which is produced in the same enrichment process used to manufacture weapons. Additionally, low-enriched uranium can be seen as halfway to weapons grade, since it can be more rapidly enriched to the needed level than stock natural uranium. At the same time, while these reactors produce relatively smaller quantities of lower quality plutonium than other types, it has been estimated that a 1,000-megawatt LWR can still generate enough "weapons-usable" plutonium for up to 50 bombs a year.14

The response on the part of those seeking to limit proliferation has, accordingly, been to encourage as many nuclear energy users as possible not to develop the entire fuel cycle; that is, to forgo building up their own fuel enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. Instead, they are persuaded to buy fuel and reprocessing services on the world market, as proposed in the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership of February 2006.

There are, however, widespread doubts about the initiative's likely cost and effectiveness, concerns articulated in a letter signed by a number of arms control organizations, including the Federation of American Scientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Arms Control Association.15 Their objections, however, fail to include one important point—that states have been partly dissuaded from developing the full nuclear fuel cycle for economic reasons, a rationale that may not remain operative in a massive expansion of nuclear energy use.

Simply put, it is cheaper for a small nuclear program to buy nuclear fuel on the world market than to build and operate the facilities required to enrich uranium domestically. This has resulted in only eight of some 30 states operating nuclear reactors for electricity generation actually engaging in enrichment on an industrial scale.16 The same is true for fuel reprocessing facilities, especially given the relatively low cost of newly mined uranium, so that only a handful of states (Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and India) actually practice civil reprocessing.17

Any significant growth in nuclear energy production would change those economics. Many of today's "small" programs would become equal in size to those now considered large-scale, and for that reason their investments in enrichment and reprocessing less impractical. Additionally, with more programs large and small operational, there would be a larger, more lucrative market for fuel production and fuel recycling services, the latter in all likelihood growing more attractive as enlarged uranium consumption tightens supplies and drives up prices. (Indeed, as the situation currently stands, many uranium exporters not regarded as likely proliferators—including Australia and Canada—are interested in enrichment technology because enriching their uranium before export would increase profitability.18) Certainly if uranium prices were to rise, there would be more interest in Fast Breeder Reactors, which one analyst suggests can extract more than 60 times as much energy per ton of mined ore as a "conventional" nuclear plant when operated in a closed circuit with thermal reactors and reprocessing facilities.19

In short, the economic incentives for states to refrain from developing the full nuclear fuel cycle will almost certainly weaken, while the particularly worrisome fast-neutron reactors will become more attractive. At the same time, the heightened dependence on nuclear energy, and the experience of energy scarcity, will continue to reinforce the search for "energy independence" and "energy security," contributing to the pressure that the nonproliferation regime is already experiencing, as the result of being a "ratifier" of unequal access to nuclear technology.20 In any event, such changes enormously increase the already substantial burden of monitoring and securing the storage and movement of the supplies associated with nuclear power generation, not to mention the political costs of maintaining the regime.21

As outlined previously, any plausible combination of political arrangements and technological innovations is likely to have untoward results from a non-proliferation standpoint. Determined states are likely to find it easier to acquire the means for producing fissile material, which raises the other key dimension of the issue—the motivation for acquiring these weapons in the first place.

Long-established research strongly indicates that the motivation to build nuclear weapons is more of a factor than simply achieving the technological capacity.22 Indeed, it is due to this excessive focus on capacity that earlier predictions about the speed and the extent of nuclear proliferation (which projected 25 to 50 nuclear-weapon states by the year 2000) proved wrong.23 The relative ease with which the weapons might be built is proof of this; a program to develop a minimal capability from scratch could cost as little as $500 million, less than the price of a modern warship.24

In short, were capacity the only issue, there would be far more nuclear powers in the world, though of course access to the means cannot be ruled out as a factor in decisionmaking. When much of the infrastructure for developing a nuclear arsenal is already in place, as may be the case in several advanced countries, the decision to do so entails lower costs; and given the speed with which these programs can be initiated, the nations in question are also less susceptible to preventative action than countries starting from scratch.25 A particular danger is that having such facilities in place provides them with the option of diverting material from the fuel cycle for covert weapon programs.26

The rationale driving the shift to nuclear energy in the first place (energy and climate stress) will increasingly translate into greater motivation on the part of some actors to pursue a nuclear capability. Broad economic disruption is nearly certain as the result of the tightening of oil supplies and the climate changes this scenario anticipates. Politically, this may translate into changes in the distribution of international power depending on individual states' ability to cope (into which wealth and energy efficiency will factor), or even profit from these conditions (such as oil exporters); while the most vulnerable states may collapse, creating even greater problems for the international community (havens for crime, terrorism, or refugee flows).27 Intensified conflict over territory and waters rich in energy and other resources will become increasingly likely.

Alliances, trading relationships, and other arrangements will be in flux, and when combined with the associated anxiety and vulnerability may exacerbate a desire on the part of certain states to minimize their vulnerability-a goal which nuclear weapons have long been viewed as a cheap way of achieving. The "nuclearization" of a single state can induce a chain reaction across a region. The nuclearization of China spurred India and in turn Pakistan to follow suit, and the Argentinean and Brazilian nuclear programs each drove the other forward. Today the possibility that a nuclear North Korea may lead South Korea or Japan to acquire nuclear weapons is often discussed.28 In the Middle East there are signs that Saudi Arabia is reviewing its nuclear options, and a nuclear-armed Iran may encourage the Saudis and others in the region to continue down this path.29

With nuclear technology more widely available these actions can be taken much more rapidly and at less cost. Those pursuing this course of action will find it a simple matter to amass large stockpiles of nuclear weapons. It is also worth noting that even were the development of actual nuclear weapons to remain a rarity, "virtual arsenals" could be more common, leaving the nuclear weapons status of a longer list of countries uncertain, in many cases deliberately so, with a detrimental impact on the security environment.30

Possible Responses
It would be a mistake to focus excessively on any one track for ameliorating the risk of proliferation. When all is said and done, the current monitoring mechanisms will remain, and so will the maintenance of a stable security environment. Individual cases will require tailored solutions. Nonetheless, the spread of nuclear energy production means a significantly enlarged number of countries will have access to the full nuclear fuel cycle. There are then two primary ways to ameliorate the associated threats. One is to seek methods of nuclear energy production that are inherently proliferation-proof, as may be the case with "Generation IV" nuclear reactors. The other is to reduce the need for nuclear energy production, by making overall energy consumption more efficient, and by increasing production from alternative, nonfossil fuel sources.

New Reactor Designs
Some experts argue that the next-generation (Generation IV) reactor designs will reduce the proliferation risks associated with nuclear energy production. Advocates of next-generation fast-neutron reactors argue that they could provide more efficient energy production. This would enable them to recover up to 99 percent of the energy from their fuel, allowing them to use smaller quantities and a greater variety of fuel types, including natural uranium and possibly even depleted uranium.31 They would also generate less waste (perhaps only one percent of what they do today), containing only trace amounts of the transuranics needed for weapons manufacture, than other reactors of similar capacity.32 This would also help by permitting "pyroprocessing," a different, possibly cheaper, approach to reprocessing fuel that is less suitable for weapons manufacture.33 Finally, these different procedures will permit onsite fuel fabrication, fuel recycling, and waste processing, something current reactor fuel cycles do not allow, reducing the transportation and security problems.

While appearing to be a panacea for nuclear power's problems, these designs will not be commercially viable until at least 2030. Additionally, despite their obvious advantages, pressuring states to adopt reactors of any given type raises many of the same political issues as the schemes associated with restricting a potential proliferator's access to nuclear fuel—especially given the fact that established nuclear powers, based on their intention of retaining their current nuclear arsenals, are almost certain to continue operating their existing reactors.

Improved Energy Efficiency
As previously noted, a trend toward more efficient energy use has been evident in recent decades. Running at roughly ten percent a decade, this move to greater energy efficiency is inadequate to compensate for the increases in economic growth. It has, however, been a factor in reducing the rate of energy consumption.

There are some real reasons for concern that this trend will not be sustainable. In fact, it may be that the law of diminishing returns has already set in. Relatively energy-efficient nations, for example Italy and Japan, have since the 1980s seen the rate of improvement in their energy efficiency stagnate.34 It is the less-efficient states such as the United States and Britain that have witnessed the most significant gains, enabling Britain in particular to catch up to the more efficient nations.35

The gains of even the most inefficient of the advanced countries were generally dwarfed by those of less-developed states, particularly those classed as "lower middle income" economies (per-capita GDPs of $906 to $3,595 a year). According to World Bank statistics, the energy demand of these economies dropped by half in the period 1990 to 2003 (compared with a ten percent reduction for the high-income countries).36

As more states move beyond current income and efficiency levels, it stands to reason that future gains will be even less dramatic. This is not to say, however, that gains beyond the current levels are impossible, or strictly hypothetical, as Denmark, Ireland, and Hong Kong have more than adequately demonstrated.37 It is only fair to note that the decade of the 1990s was a period of relatively cheap energy, and that future energy markets and greater political pressure to pursue ecologically sound policies will encourage greater efforts at efficiency in this area. It may also be possible for revolutionary technologies to permit gains in efficiency outpacing economic growth. In the scenario sketched in the "Factor Four" study by Ernst von Weizacker, et al., the high projection for global economic growth mentioned previously—160 percent—might be realized with even less energy than the world economy consumes today.38

Alternative Energy Sources
There is a very real possibility that what energy the world does consume may be increasingly derived from alternatives to both fossil fuels and nuclear energy. The rapidly growing array of renewable sources is only beginning to be exploited.

At present, wind appears to be the renewable energy resource with the greatest potential, given the current state of the technology. As is often noted, the United States could meet its entire energy needs with current power generation technology simply by harnessing the wind energy of the Dakotas.39 Affluent, densely populated Denmark, the world leader in wind energy when production is measured on a per-capita basis, gets nearly 25 percent of its electricity from wind.40 Innovations such as windmills based on floating platforms may revolutionize the field with their mobility, flexibility, and potential for tapping high-speed winds at sea, as might the still more radical "flying windmills."41

Photovoltaic solar energy is also an ever-increasing source. Its more efficient land use and comparatively easy set-up is an asset, and when incorporated into energy-efficient buildings, can actually turn them into net energy producers.42 There are also a number of ideas related to large-scale electricity production from photovoltaics. One of the more well-known is a recent plan to build solar power stations in North Africa, transmitting the electricity generated to Europe via underwater cable.43

While long overlooked due mainly to high capital costs, tidal energy holds potential that is comparable to wind. One projection even indicates that Great Britain could meet a fifth of its current energy needs through the use of tidal technology.44 Biofuels (e.g., ethanol) production also has potential as a substitute for fossil fuels, though the degree to which it can succeed depends heavily on the particular crops and agricultural techniques used to produce them.45 These are qualitatively as well as quantitatively notable solutions, because they incorporate the prospect of reducing transportation burdens on electrical power generation. There are other developing technologies that hold similar possibilities, such as the biological techniques for generating hydrogen and other fuels.46

The worst-case scenario is one in which the global throughput of the nuclear fuel cycle is enlarged by an order of magnitude or more, and dispersed globally, at a moment of rising economic, ecological, and political strain. While plausible, this scenario is not inevitable. Ultimately, the risk of nuclear proliferation during the twenty-first century will have as much to do with how the world copes with the problems posed by scarcity and the ecological impact of fossil fuels. Were nuclear energy used to substantially compensate for the shortfall in oil and other fossil fuels, it holds the possibility for taxing the current nonproliferation regime's surveillance and enforcement mechanisms beyond their breaking point. Consequently, every effort should be made to curtail the need to increase nuclear energy production, at least until many of the problems associated with it are significantly ameliorated (as Generation IV reactors may do).

In the meantime we should focus our efforts on investment in improving energy efficiency and increasing energy production from nonnuclear, as well as nonfossil, fuel sources. This process is already under way, but history has shown that if it is to be successful, rapid, large-scale development requires maximum government support, not only on the domestic front, but also internationally.47

This is not to say there may not be legitimate reason to increase the production of nuclear energy, as would certainly be true if fossil fuel production were to drop more rapidly than we could compensate for with improved energy efficiency and production. Nor is this to say that more conventional steps to secure nuclear energy production against proliferation need not be taken. Rather, what we should take away from this analysis is that it is best to minimize the expansion of nuclear energy production (especially in its current forms) during this century as part of the broader strengthening of the nonproliferation regime.

1. Nader Elhefnawy, "Toward a Long-Range Energy Security Policy," Parameters, 36 (Spring 2006), 101-14; "The Impending Oil Shock," Survival, 50 (April/May 2008), 37-66.

2. US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, "World Net Nuclear Electric Power Generation, 1980-2006," 29 September 2008,

3. World Bank, "World Bank Urges More Balanced Global Approach to Development," News Release, 21 August 2002,

4. A calculation using World Trade Organization data on economic growth for this period, and Energy Information Administration data on energy consumption, suggests a 35 percent drop in energy-intensity during this time (10 percent for the 1970-1980 period, 12 percent for the years 1980-1990, and another 10 percent for 1990-2000). See World Trade Organization, International Trade Statistics 2001 (Geneva: World Trade Organization, 2001), Table II.1; US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, "World Primary Energy Production by Source, 1970-2005," Annual Energy Review 2006, 27 June 2007, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated a similar 33 percent improvement for the 1970-2004 period. See Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007—The Physical Science Basis (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), 3.

5. James Muckerheide, "How to Build 6,000 Nuclear Plants by 2050," Twenty-First Century Science and Technology, 18 (Summer 2005), 36-53.

6. World Nuclear Association, "World Nuclear Power Reactors 2006-08 and Uranium Requirements," 14 January 2008,

7. Ibid.

8. As of 2006 China, not included here, generated some 51 billion kilowatt-hours from 11 plants, with five more plants under construction, 30 planned, and a staggering 86 proposed in all. Ibid.

9. Generally speaking, the Energy Information Administration projects growth rates of 2.3 to 2.4 percent a year in primary energy consumption across Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East for the 2004-2030 period, roughly doubling over three decades. The rate of growth in China, India, and the developing nations of Asia is expected to average more than three percent a year. See US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, International Energy Outlook 2007, Table A1, "World Total Primary Energy Consumption by Region, Reference Case, 1990-2030," May 2007.

10. Joby Warrick, "Spread of Nuclear Capability is Feared," The Washington Post, 12 May 2008, A1.

11. Ibid.

12. The current procedure for reprocessing nuclear fuel, plutonium uranium extraction, was specifically designed to produce plutonium for nuclear weaponry.

13. William H. Hannum, Gerald E. Marsh, and George S. Stanford, "Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste," in David L. Green, ed., Oil and the Future of Energy (Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2007), 100. Also see Victor Gilinsky, Marvin Miller, and Harmon Hubbard, A Fresh Examination of the Proliferation Dangers of Light Water Reactors (Washington: Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, 2004).

14. Gilinsky, Miller, and Hubbard, 13. The difference is in the higher radioactivity of the plutonium, making it more difficult to work with, and its lower reliability in achieving a given yield, due to the lower quantity of plutonium-239 in the substance. Charles D. Ferguson, "Risks of Civilian Plutonium Programs," Nuclear Threat Initiative, Issue Brief, July 2004, Improving weapons technology may make the unreliability issues minor for most purposes. Gilinsky, Miller, and Hubbard, 29-33.

15. Alfred Meyer, et al., "Letter to Senators Byron L. Dorgan and Pete V. Domenici (Subcommittee on Water and Energy Development, Senate Appropriations Committee)," Union of Concerned Scientists, 31 October 2007,

16. Joseph Cirincione, "Controlling Iran's Nuclear Program," Issues in Science and Technology, 22 (Spring 2006), 75-82.

17. David Albright, "Shipments of Weapons-Usable Plutonium in the Commercial Nuclear Industry," Institute for Science and International Security, 3 January 2007,

18. Ian Bellany, Curbing the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 2006), 23.

19. World Nuclear Association, "Supply of Uranium," Briefing Paper 75, June 2008, There may even be a revival of the "plutonium economy" schemes of the 1970s un-


der the circumstances. See Harold A. Feiveson, Theodore B. Taylor, Frank von Hippel, and Robert H. Williams, "The Plutonium Economy," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 32 (December 1976), 10-21, 46-55.

20. Jaswant Singh defended India's May 1998 nuclear tests with the argument that "India's nuclear policy . . . [is] committed to a basic tenet . . . national security lies either in global disarmament or in exercise of the principle of equal and legitimate security for all." See Singh, "Against Nuclear Apartheid," Foreign Affairs, 77 (September/October 1998), 41-52. An examination of the ethical issues at stake can be found in Steven Lee, "Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Entitlement," Ethics & International Affairs, 9 (March 1995), 101-31.

21. John M. Deutch and Ernest J. Moniz, "The Nuclear Option," in Green, 112.

22. Stephen M. Meyer, The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), 141.

23. Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener, The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-three Years (New York: Macmillan, 1967).

24. Meyer's estimate was $210 million in 1982 dollars, which is approximately $473 million in 2007 dollars. Meyer, 40. Adjusted for inflation this approximates the low estimate of the cost of South Africa's nuclear program: $300 million to $600 million in early 1990s dollars, or $450 million to $900 million today. Mitchell Reiss, Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995), 15.

25. Meyer, 149-50.

26. A nuclear program the size of Belgium's can generate a bomb per year by diverting one percent of the uranium consumed by its reactors. See John Holdren and Matthew Bunn, "Blocking the Terrorist Pathway to the Bomb," Nuclear Threat Initiative, 25 November 2002,

27. See Elhefnawy, "The Impending Oil Shock," 42-53.

28. Jon B. Wolfsthal, "Asia's Nuclear Dominos?" Current History, 102 (April 2003), 170-75.

29. Gawdat Bahgat, "Nuclear Proliferation: The Case of Saudi Arabia," The Middle East Journal, 60 (Summer 2006), 421-43. Also see Warrick.

30. Saira Khan, Nuclear Proliferation Dynamics in Protracted Conflict Regions: A Comparative Study of South Asia and the Middle East (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2002), 59-75.

31. Hannum, Marsh, and Stanford, 104. This eliminates the need for uranium enrichment, and diminishes the problem of uranium scarcity.

32. Ibid., 98-106.

33. Ibid., 105.

34. For each dollar of GDP (as measured in year 2000 dollars) they produced in 2005, Japan needed 6,500 British Thermal Units (BTUs), Italy 5,800. US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, "World Energy Intensity—Total Primary Energy Consumption per Dollar of Gross Domestic Product Using Market Exchange Rates, 1980-2005," International Energy Annual 2005, June-October 2007,

35. According to World Bank estimates, the United States saw a 21 percent gain in the 1990-2003 period, the United Kingdom 20 percent. By contrast, this data set posts a seven percent improvement for France through the whole decade, and the progress of Japan and Italy is flat. World Bank, World Development Indicators 2006 (Washington: World Bank, 2006), 158-60. As of 2005, the United States used 9,100 BTUs for each dollar of GDP, the United Kingdom 6,000. US Department of Energy, "World Energy Intensity."

36. World Bank, World Development Indicators 2006, 160.

37. Denmark got by on 5,200 BTUs to the dollar, Ireland 4,900, and Hong Kong, 4,200. US Department of Energy, "World Energy Intensity."

38. Ernst von Weizacker, Amory B. Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, The New Report to the Club of Rome (London: Earthscan, 1997).

39. William Hoagland, "Solar Energy," in Green, 203.

40. Wendy Williams, "Blowing Out to Sea," in Green, 209.

41. Ker Than, "Floating Ocean Windmills Designed to Generate More Power," LiveScience, 18 September 2006, Flying windmills exploit the wind stream and return the energy produced from it to electrical grids on the ground through a tether. W. Wayt Gibbs, "Plan B for Energy," in Green, 214-15.

42. Daniel M. Berman and John T. O'Connor, Who Owns the Sun? People, Politics, and the Struggle for a Solar Economy (White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing, 1996). Also see Andrew Murr, "No More Electric Bills," Newsweek, 15 August 2005, 43.

43. Robin McKie, "How Africa's Desert Sun Can Bring Europe Power," Guardian, 2 December 2007,

44. Gibbs, 220.

45. Daniel M. Kammen, "The Rise of Renewable Energy," in Green, 198.

46. See Sam Jaffe, "Mutant Algae is Hydrogen Factory,", 23 February 2006,

47. Elhefnawy, "Toward a Long-Range Energy Security Policy" 108-10.

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