War – It’s Not What It Used To Be

It was one of those internet features, written for The Fiscal Times to tweak curiosity and lure me to distracting ads. But this one was relevant, I thought, to the Syrian Red Line crisis. The title was, “12 Weapons That Changed Everything”. What they came up with was this:

1. Club (bone, stick, rock) (Cave-man era)
2. The Greek phalanx, spear/shield formation (750 BCE)
3. Gladius, short sword (400 BCE – 300AD)
4. English longbow (600 AD – 1600 AD)
5. Gunpowder (900 AD)
6. Rifled gun barrel (invented 1500, not widely used until 1848)
7. Colt revolver (1836 to present)
8. Belt-fed machine gun (20th Century).
9. The tank (1916 – present).
10. Atomic bomb (1945).
11. AK-47 (1947).
12. Drones (present day).

960903-N-8202E-003 DDG Tomahawk Launch

960903-N-8202E-003 DDG Tomahawk Launch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my opinion the unknown author missed at least four very important weapons, the submarine (Civil War), poison gas (WW I), the intercontinental ballistic missile (Cold War), and the satellite-guided cruise missile.

The technologies to perfect the cruise missile came together during the Cold War, including its efficient gas turbine engine, GPS navigation system, and terrain-hugging radar. It is widely advertised that the accuracy of these weapons is within 15 feet of an intended target, something that is extra useful because advanced intelligence satellites can identify and pinpoint targets with great precision.

As we can see from the list above, the advance of technology until the mid 20th Century entailed making weapons ever larger, faster and more powerful. But something radically changed when nuclear, chemical and biological weapons were developed. The instant destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the horror of nuclear weapons of mass destruction and ironically motivated nations to decline their use. The use of poison gas in WW I had a similar effect on its use and it was banned from war by protocol in 1925. Nerve gas, a particularly nasty form of the weapon, was discovered in 1936 and was in production by Nazi Germany at the end of WWII, but wasn’t used in any significant way until the 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system. And of course, Saddam Hussein used poison gas on Iraqi Kerds in the 1980’s, but that was mustard gas.

The change from broader and more massive weapons design to more precision-guided types seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the public. This is consistent with the changed nature of war itself. The Vietnam war was likely the last in which sheer number of troops was as important to the fighting function as the technology, and it was the last war in which conscription was used. Today’s combatants are far fewer in number but are much better trained and equipped.

A Raytheon Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile du...

A Raytheon Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile during a U.S. Navy flight test at NAWS China Lake, California (Nov. 10, 2002) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The question of whether it is practical for the U.S. to be the world’s policemen ought to be seen by the Congress in this new context. President Obama has seen the potential for precision-guided drone weapons and has used them to greater effect than any president before him. He sees the same potential in them for holding the line on poison gas as well. But if Congress is to support him on this, two things are needed.  They and their constituents need to understand that warfare has fundamentally changed, and that this same technology, including satellite intelligence, now makes it possible to enforce a ban on WMD’s. Something tells me they don’t. Hope I’m wrong.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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23 Responses to War – It’s Not What It Used To Be

  1. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: Excellent piece, especially in light of present-day situations. But for all the development of more and more lethal weapons, the individual warrior remains essentially the same, and everything depends on what he can achieve, learn, or overcome. Three of the last four of the items on your list as well as your four additions, insightful contributions as they are, would seem to be limited in their effectiveness by the abilities of their wielders. Of course, the same might be said of the other weapons as well, but I think it is particularly true of the specified seven.

    When I was an instructor of Communications and Cryptography in Marine Corps Schools, K-Bay, TH, I had doubts about the ability of a number of our students to perform well under stress. This has led me many times to wonder when the first faulty encryption or decryption of a crucial message would lead to drastic circumstances, or when the first ICBM would be mistakenly launched, the first Cruise missile from a submarine, or the first “accidental ” release of chemical or biological gas
    None of these considerations, of course, in any way detract from the veracity of your observations, but I suspect that they may point toward a flaw in the system.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Good insight, Bud, and I agree that the crucial human link in weapons systems has not changed. In fact, the increased precision makes that link even more important, doesn’t it? If an artillery barrage were to frag nearby civilians in the old days, it was “collateral damage”, but with precision guided weapons, any error carries more blame. This happened in 1999 when NATO guided bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and killed three. Oops.

      War-fighting will never be flawless, that’s for sure. It differs from other activities in that regard, I think, only because the consequences of error, by definition, have to do with violence. But this leads to an opportunity to emphasize the point of the post, thanks to you. Why should the discriminate and unintentional killing of three Chinese lead to more angst and a $4.5 million dollar settlement when the indiscriminate and reckless killing of over 400 children goes unanswered?


  2. ansonburlingame says:

    Good thoughts, in the blog and comments above. I would point out Jim, that you and others left airplanes off the list. Sort of important as one considers technology and warfare. But that is just a nit.

    I will point out an old maxim however. War is hell, technology notwithstanding. People get killed in war. With precision guided weapons some believe war is not as much hell as it used to be. Wrong in my view. And if if I am incorrect in such an assumption, I can at least make the point that the WEALTH required to conduct modern war has gone out of site, even “limited” wars.

    Which brings to bear the issue of “limited wars”, wars conducted to create “less hell”. I only point out since WWII, when American led “limited wars” have been conducted, we lose the damn things, by and large. We still have not figured out how to fight a “limited war” and win, consistently, to achieve reasonable National Objectives.

    Not ignoring Henry’s concern over inadvertant release of …………, I submit that since Sept 1945, when we have either gone to (limited) war (only) OR put forces in place to effectively deter war, the “boots” have in fact done a superb job. Henry for example has no detailed understanding of “two man control”, modern communications technology, etc. to PREVENT ANY inadverant release of just about anything, including just “water” from a critical reactor plant sitting within two mile of downtown San Diego, as only an example.

    By and large, with only limited mistakes and no mistakes creating real hell, if you will, we have only “put stuff” where we want to put it and are legally ordered to do so. That is a credit to the men and women that have served over the last 60 years, paranoia on the part of some citizens being acknowledged but refuted, by me at least. No Henry, I do not in any way call you paranoid, either. Yours is a reasonable concern but one that can be “explained” as not “much” to “really” worry about,

    But I am not complacent either. Recent Air Force nuclear inspections failures concern ME, a lot, for example. Such failures suggest to me a degrading trend in performance in our military. I point to Snowden (who was kicked out of the military but…..), Manning and the Crazy Major as only tips of that concern on my point on that matter.

    ONLY the “fat cats” (throughout history, a long history) that order people into war but not engage themselves “want” wars. But not wanting war and actually preventing war is a dilemma human beings have yet to figure out how to resolve, as well. Technology has increased the risk of the failure of deterrence, but …………..

    Sadly, but pragmatically, I also point out that “moral deterrence” has never really worked when aggressors are “immoral”. Many today even think that America is and has been immoral in even TRYING to conduct “limited wars” (but not being very successful in doing so over 60 plus years).



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      The airplane. Good catch, Anson. As for your take on “deterrence”, I acknowledge the failures of that in the past but assert my confidence that the maturing of cruise-missile and satellite technology makes enforcement of just WMD bans more viable than they have ever been before. What this country is about to decide will stand as a looming precedent for a long time, no matter which way it goes.


      • ansonburlingame says:

        Jim, quick observation,

        Cruise missiles and GPS are now “old” technology. During my command tour (1981-1984) Tomahawk cruise missiles were carried on submarines. That is 30 plus years ago. And America has used them many times in the last 20 plus years while the world watched the power of such, then new, technology.

        Think many countries have been working hard to figure out how to defend against such things over that at least 20 year period? You bet they have, particularly big ones like Russia and China and maybe some European ones as well. We have too, I hope. Think of the Akula (Russian submarine) lurking in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, armed with a dozen or so cruise missiles.

        Someday, maybe now in Syria, we MAY find defenses, credible defenses to at least mitigate such attacks. Sure some will get “through” but no longer all of them shot at “defensless countries”, lacking the technical means to shoot down some of those missiles.

        War has always been a contest of both technology AND resolve. Today, my goodness, look how fast technology changes, worldwide now. The old “game” of ECM and CECM, the “electronic war” in our day, has become MUCH faster today, for sure, and much more deadly as well.



        • Jim Wheeler says:

          @ Anson,

          Tomahawks and GPS may be “old” technology and, yes, it makes sense that defenses would have improved in the last 30 years, but I would like to think that our military would have refined the offensive technology as well. In fact, I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t have, and particularly in the capabilities of intel satellites. I noticed in the news just last week that the NRO had successfully launched a massive new spy satellite from California.

          It used to be said more than 30 years ago that they could read license plates from space. I can only imagine what is possible now using the entire electromagnetic spectrum. That is the reason I’m thinking that this “old” technology can be quite effective now. It’s important to recognize that the U.S. controls the essential GPS navigation/guidance system and can electronically deny its use by an enemy. And yes, I am aware that Russia has a comparable system in GLONASS, but I believe no other nation has married the various technologies into cruise-missile weapons systems as effectively as we have.


    • Jeff says:

      “Sadly, but pragmatically, I also point out that “moral deterrence” has never really worked when aggressors are “immoral”.”

      I agree completely and in fact, just found a couple articles to underscore this point.



      “Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated,” Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television.

      “This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities,” she added, speaking in Italian.”

      We should avoid bombing Syria for the same reason we don’t take blind people to a shooting range (No offense intended toward blind people). We simply have no idea what we will hit with those weapons and the only people who are telling the US public what we are actually hitting are busy getting sentenced to 35 years in prison as a thank you for that service.


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    This is sort of “deep” and probably a blog of its own, but I will give it a shot herein.

    Simply because I am an American I believe every war ever fought by America has a MORAL basis of “goodness”, even Vietnam, to “save the Vietnamese from communism”. Hell I would like to save the whole world from that terrible form of governing, anywhere.

    And for about 180 years or so, all the “morally correct wars” were won by America, up to and including WWII. Each ‘war” since then has had some form of “moral basis”. Some agree, some disagree, but the debate has been held and we went to “war” several (many?) times since Sept 1945. But most of them we have lost or failed to at least achieve the goals intended at the start.

    Moral issues are seldom flat out won or lost, at least around the world. Hell we can’t even resolve such issues domestically, with each side trying to take and hold the moral high ground. You and I can argue such all the time with no ultimate winner or loser.

    Wars at least can and are won by somebody. But POWER decides such fates, not God or morals in and of themselves. Essentially geopolitical fights, short of war, are won and lost based on Power as well, not the legitimacy of moral arguments which can always be argued but never outright won, in most matters.

    To make that point, anecdotally, just go read the inane comment on Duane’s recent blog (Syria) wherein Jane Reaction, my favorite “idiot”, clearly called America “warmongers”!!! Such a comment receives no response from me, other than laughter in the privacy of my office!!



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Anson said,

      Simply because I am an American I believe every war ever fought by America has a MORAL basis of “goodness”, even Vietnam, to “save the Vietnamese from communism”.

      A deep subject indeed, and one I have pondered as well. I think though that the last “good” war was WW II, and by “good”, I refer not to the motives of the Americans fighting it but to the motives of those who approved it and set us on the course of waging it. Pearl Harbor says it all.

      Then there’s Korea. There the prevailing motive was the Domino theory, the notion that if Vietnam fell to Communism, then the rest of Southeast Asia would follow, and then . . . us. This was accelerated by fear because the Iron Curtain had descended. Russia had ruthlessly taken over Eastern Europe and the Red Chinese had crushed all democratic opposition in China. And, of course, it didn’t help that they stole the Atomic bomb from us. Scary as hell.

      It is politically necessary, I submit, to emphasize the humanitarian benefits of any war. Some call it “leadership”. It was necessary in Korea, both for troop morale and because we wanted the Koreans to have the same benefits of the democracy (small “d”) that we ourselves so esteem, but let’s not kid ourselves. The primary motivation for that war was a fear of Communism that threatened America, not just South Korea. Vietnam, the war that was built on the lie that was the Gulf of Tonkin “incident”, was similar.

      Altruism is never enough motive by itself for any war, even though it is comforting to think so. The real motive for war has almost always been either fear or aggrandizement. Until lately, that is. Altruism has been creeping in, in Kosovo, in Libya, and now, Congress willing, in Syria. Will we embrace it or shun it? This is an historic choice.


      • ansonburlingame says:

        Wow, I really AGREE with that, Jim.

        WWII turned out to be a “good” war, first because we won it, big time. Had we lost my goodness, consider the “bad”. No argument at all on that count.

        I also believe the each and every American military engagement had “good” intentions, honest intentions to achieve more “good” somewhere. I don’t believe for a minute that any American military engagement has been construde by “war mongering fat cats” with ulterior motives. Obama is honestly and openly persuing military solutions to a huge problem today.

        Bush on the other hand knew “the problem” in 2003 was still only in Iraq. But given the holocaust of 9/11 he thought a preemptive war was needed to mitigate the spread of war, again, to America. Initally, given 9/11, Americans supported him. After the statue came down, had all gone according to plan, well, no outrage from most Americans. But as Henry notes below, “people make mistakes”, honest mistakes all with good intentions, but still mistakes due to personnel error.

        In Bushes case, the “boss”, we the people had a chance to fire him for his “personnel error”. But the boss reelected him thus the offense or error was not considered, in 2004, to be “firable”, by the “boss”.

        As you wisely note above as well, “Altruism is never enough motive by itself for any war,”

        I am deeply concerned about the slaughter of innocent men and women, anywhere, for sure. But my American interest is to prevent such for Americans as a VITAL interest. If I thought for a moment that the Syrian conflict would come to America, in ANY form of conflict, cyber, missile, conventional or nuclear, well you know full well what I would call for, Congress or no Congress.

        I MIGHT even go so far as to include strong allies under that umbrella, maybe and sometimes.

        But WAR (violating any peace with military power) IN SYRIA, for Syrians, well I really have to think hard and know more, about that one, altruistic,


        PS: I apolgize for cluttering up your blog with Henry. I “honestly” thought he was concerned about matters nuclear and thus you saw the result. Such was not in any way your theme in the blog, that I could tell, but if I sense someone exaggerating the dangers of “nuclear things” I usually react against such exaggerations, as I at least see them. Too many people are scared of a great source of energy and to me that becomes a big deal. Your perseverance is appreciated.



        • Jim Wheeler says:

          Bush on the other hand knew “the problem” in 2003 was still only in Iraq. But given the holocaust of 9/11 he thought a preemptive war was needed to mitigate the spread of war, again, to America. Initally, given 9/11, Americans supported him. After the statue came down, had all gone according to plan, well, no outrage from most Americans.

          I cannot let your remarks on Bush go without comment, Anson. No way do I believe Bush intended the fiasco that Iraq became but he deserves the censure of history for his failure of judgement and for letting his personal animosity for Saddam Hussein affect that judgement. The CIA failed, but they failed because W. let them know the answers he was looking for. As for his re-election, it takes years for history to render its judgement and now it has. One need look no farther for the evidence of that than what so many in Congress are now expressing as their reason for saying “no” to Syria.

          And finally, having affairs in Iraq go “according to plan” was never even a possibility for two reasons:

          1. The political schism between Sunni’s and Shiites was never properly assessed and presented.
          2. There was no plan for post-war Iraq. Bush only cared about the shock and awe.


          • ansonburlingame says:


            Bush, with Congressional and public approval, invaded Iraq. The purpose was regime change and we all know. Regime elimination happened in less than a month with the statue coming down as the media moment for such. “Mission Accomplished”, getting rid of Hussein, was achieved, BUT ……..

            Bush, Rumsfeld, etc. all thought Iraq would respond with open arms and …….. Not so and there was zero back up plan. Huge miscalculation for sure and we are clearly paying the price today for such misjudgment.

            Keep in mind however, in Iraq it was Sunnie vs. Shia. The strongarmed Bathists were gone. Chaos until the surge, then less chaos but still civil strife, close to civil war still prevails in Iraq, today. Of course we can wonder at least, had an adequate Status of Forces agreement been reached in Iraq, well who knows?

            Regime removal is Obama’s desire as well or he said so, at least. Sunnie, Shia, Hezbolla, Al Qaeda, Russia, etc. are all involved in Syria however. I submit that Iraq was complicated, but Syria, well I search for a word to describe it. As well, and I repeat myself, Syria has air defenses unlike anything we have faced in 60 years.

            Condemn Bush all you like. But we should not repeat such mistakes, for sure, as well. Are we getting ready to do so?

            When (maybe IF) Assad goes, what next?



  4. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: Anson comments on the superb job boots have done since 1945. He should refer to Wikileaks, “List of Military Nuclear Accidents,”‘ for its recitation of the over sixty nuclear accidents since 1950, and that is just nuclear accidents. See the listing “U.S. Military Mishaps” for a greatly expanded list of non-nuclear incidents perpetrated by our troops. And why would he assume that I “have no detailed understanding of ‘two-man control,” “modern communications technology,” etc. to PREVENT ANY(sic) inadvertent release of just about anything . . .? Does he think that we were not familiar with nor practice the concept of “two-man control” back in the ancient period of the fifties, when I served? And I note here that all of the security practices that he enumerates here failed to prevent 60 nuclear accidents and hundreds of non-nuclear accidents.

    Next, I am aware that modern cryptographic methods involve computers rather than the clunky machinery common in my day, but today, as then, sending an encrypted message, requires one lonely individual, a human being, encrypting and sending the message and one individual, another human being, receiving and decrypting it. This process still involves at least three opportunities for error, resulting In possible disastrous misunderstandings.

    I in no way disparage “boots.” I was one. But the point of my comments is that, no matter what modern technology does to alter warfare, the individual warrior is still essentially the same as he was at the Battle of Troy. And that creates a possible weak link in the chain.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      . . . the point of my comments is that, no matter what modern technology does to alter warfare, the individual warrior is still essentially the same as he was at the Battle of Troy. And that creates a possible weak link in the chain.

      I agree, Bud. To err is human. I still remember one of my electrical engineering instructors, a Marine Major. He and would often give pop quizzes of only a few questions and was a holy terror on accuracy as well. In those days we did our calculations on slide rules, not calculators, and his tolerances were specified in black and white terms, no gray. I’m convinced my grades would have been way higher if not for that. If you missed because of a couple of hundredths, it was still wrong, wrong, wrong. The story that went around was, he was like that because some human being miscalculated an artillery shot and caused unintended death. I think we learned as much about attention to detail in that class as we did about electricity.


  5. ansonburlingame says:


    Not once in my 23 years did I hear of a “broken arrow” report, at least from the Navy. That is the flash traffic released when a BIG nuclear “accident” happens, But even then no major release of radioactive material, certainly no explosions, even of convention charges surrounding a nuclear device, etc. happened given such a report of a “nuclear accident”.

    As I can best recall an Air Force plane actually DROPPED (over water not land), inadvertantly a nuclear BOMB, which simply sank to the bottom of the ocean and later recovered, safely. No explosions of any sort and no release of radioactivity to worry about.

    Another such more recent example was an Air Force bomber CARRYING nuclear weapons but the pilot was unaware they were on the plane.

    Of course such events are big deals, things that should not happen. And yep men under arms are as you say, prone to mistakes just as at Troy. No argument from me on that.

    But I took you concerns as being of an unauthorized nuclear weaon being released with intent by the shooters for such to explode the device somewhere. I still maintain that “ain’t gonna happen” unless our forces degrade to such a terrible extent. Crimson Tide was a great FICTIONAL movie of a close call in that regard. But Henry, it was fiction, for sure.

    The Navy alone, for which I can speak with some experince, loaded thousands of nuclear weapons, moved them around all over the ships, piers, weapons stations, etc. NEVER was the public or even a potential enemy at risk for harm in such decades long handling of such weapons.

    I can also tell you, Henry, that the execution of the concept of two man control changed radically while I was serving in the Navy long after you either participated in or observed or “heard of ” such control around the time of the 1950’s. My guess it is even tighter, more restrictive now than in my days.

    I don’t know for sure, but my guess is the idea of two man control started on submarines rigging for dive long before nuclear weapons existed. Yet sometimes ships got some water in the people tank as a result of failures of such control, by two different men rigging a ship for dive. But I NEVER heard of a submarine actually sinking as a result of such failure (of two man control), either, certainly not on “my watch” for 23 years in submarines. And you better believe when water got into the people tank as a result of failure of rig for dive, BOTH men got their heads and careers handed to them on a plate. THAT I have seen happen.

    A “dropped weapon on a pier” even if a “low order detonation” occurred is for sure a nuclear accident. I never heard of such in 23 years but maybe it happened. I do know we ran drills “forever” to train to respond to such events, however. Certainly a “broken arrow” flash message would be in the air soon thereafter, minutes. But a nuclear explosion, no way, can’t happen, technically, period. And even if such happened (dropped weapon with low order detonation) at some Naval pier, NO ONE in the general public would know about it OR be harmed in any way.

    Same applies by the way at Rocky Flats where thousands of warheads were manufactured for 50 plus years. That place handled TONS AND TONS of warheads and NEVER was one even close to “exploding”. And Rocky Flats was a far cry from the Navy, in terms of nuclear safety, but in terms of protecting the public it was “safe enough” . Anti-nuclear marchers dressed like monks will aruge that point with me but they were never “there”, inside the facility to see what REALLY went on in terms of safety. When I got there in 1990, Rocky Flats was a “mess” indeed. But again NEVER was the public in danger unless you care to show me some former worker dying of cancer 30 years after leaving Rocky Flats. Then the doctors can argue over such “accidents” and their causes.

    But I agree, if we are too fearlful of nuclear weapons that systems must be 100% positive to prevent “dropping one” (on a pier) then we better eliminate all nuclear weapons just on “our side” to prevent such fear. But then what I wonder in terms of deterrence?



  6. henrygmorgan says:

    Anson: If you took my remarks to mean that my concerns dealt with the “the unauthorized nuclear weapon being released with intent by the shooters for such to explode the device somewhere,” you clearly misread my comments and miss the point of my original post. I know this may be difficult for you, but if you will carefully read my two posts on this subject, you will see that never, not once, in any way did I suggest a conspiracy of traitors bound to do harm to the country was the subject of my remarks.

    To the contrary, my remarks, beginning with my fears of some of my students in the Communications and Cryptography class not being up to the task under stressful situations, my concerns dealt with the fitness of individuals to perform the tasks assigned them. I started this line of thought by mentioning to Jim that individual warriors have not changed regardless of technological advancements. I view that as a truism about warfare. In short, my entire post dealt with the prospect of personnel screwing up. Further, you dismiss the 60 cases of nuclear accidents on the grounds that there was no release of radioactive material. Did I ever posit that as the baseline that concerned me?

    Lastly, you claim that the troops have done a “superb job” since 1945. It would seem to me that the 60 cases of nuclear accidents plus the hundreds of non-nuclear military mishaps would seem at the very least to cast some doubt on that claim.

    I don’t mind engaging with you in these on-line discussions, but I would prefer that you take issue with what I actually say rather than your usually erroneous interpretations.


  7. ansonburlingame says:

    OK, Henry, we can move the discussion, a good one that might be of interest to people less familiar with nuclear weapons (actually anything “nuclear” that scares many people).

    People make mistakes. They always have and always will do so. When dangerous and new technology comes on the scene, new ideas of “control” must come into play. For centuries the world had no concept of “electrical safety” but today, ………

    One way to increase safety, with any new technology, is to redefine the word “mistake”. What must a single person, or group of people, do before a “mistake” is noted and corrective action is taken? In the military’s “nuclear world” what would seem trivial to the unfamiliar (in terms of mistakes) can cause major upheaval within a command, a squadron of planes, a wing of aircraft, or in some cased the whole “nuclear navy”. People get fired, (from “grunts” all the way to multi-starred flag/general officers) when “little things” happen. I have seen just such events happen, significant “personnel actions” when things go wrong.

    When you or others speak of 60 nuclear accidents (over maybe 60 years of handling weapons) the image to the public is “60 Chernoblys” (or TMI, or Fukishima). My point is that the 60 “things” you refer to are not in any way such events, not even close to them, remotely close to them. In the case of the military, “mistakes” (accidents) are defined at such a low threshold of safety violations that the likelihood of release of material, explosions, etc. creating really grave and real harm are still very, very remote. 100% safety is never possible, with electricity, nuclear material or water sking. But the “margin to safety” with dangerous technology is very broad indeed.

    Engineers use the term “design margin to safety”. That is fairly easy to grasp by non-engineers, in concept at least. A pressurized system holding water is designed to operate at say 1000 psi. But it is DESIGNED to remain intact at say 2000 psi. And in fact, when things really go wrong, such a system probably will remain intact up to say 2500 psi.

    Submarine “test depth” is exactly such a concept. A submarine can go down to test depth once a day for the entire life time of the ship with no adverse effects. Yet the design for such a ship is to allow that ship to go to 1 1/2 times test depth and remain intact. And in wartime we saw submarines go much deeper than “design test depth” take a depth charge attack and survive to fight another day.

    ANY submarine, during peacetime, that exceeds test depth, by any margin whatsoever (a few feet on the depth gage) will find itself in GREAT trouble, personnel wise. Someone’s or lots of someone’s head(s) will roll, administratively for such an error, a “personnel error”. On the “nuclear end” of a submarine, the propulsion plant (reactor, turbines, etc.) “incidents” happen from time to time and written reports (very hard to write for sure) go all the way to the four star level, EVERY TIME they happen. Sometimes COs, XOs, Engineer Officers, Chiefs and even some sailors get all sorts of administrative action taken against them.

    Wonder why “nukes” (the men operating such things) get almost unbelievable training, long before they go to the first ship, must be trained again for months on that ship before being allowed to operate almost anything, and then are supervised 24/7 when so “qualified”. The stress is huge on a routine basis, in peacetime, even inport when all nuclear systems are “shutdown”. Wonder thus why “nukes” get big bonus checks as long as they operate professionally and with great attention to little details, 24/7 for a multi-year or decades even, career?

    Design margin to safety is very complex, as an engineering discipline and as a “human factors engineering” discipline as well. As a trained “nuke” I have confidence, great confidence in that entire “system” of which the MOST important part is the people, not the equipment or materials. I will also tell you, from long experience in “nuclear matters” incompetant people do not last long, for sure. As well, I have never seen incompetance rise to the level of a real danger to anyone, including the people “right next to” reactors, weapons, etc. of the nuclear sort, at least within the military.

    But when I first went to Rocky Flats (a DOE nuclear weapons manufacturing facility operated by a civilian work force), well what I saw WORRIED (but did not SCARE) me a lot as well. Toughest job I ever had was bringing modern nuclear safety practices to an old, almost defunct nuclear facility, one being operated by a poorly trained and supervised work force. On the other hand, today, Rocky Flats is a “green field” with no danger to anyone, today.(actually since around the year 2005 or thereabouts). It got “taken care of” and an adequate margin to safety was sustained while doing so.



  8. henrygmorgan says:

    Anson: “Ok,Henry, we can move the discussion …” I have no interest in moving the discussion. I am delighted that you have this vast body of knowledge, but very little of what you say here has any relevance to anything that I’ve said. The subject is the inherent vulnerability of any military action that depends on individual human beings, and since all military plans depend on individuals, all are inherently vulnerable. Any argument that does not address that subject is “shucking and jiving.” as far as a discussion of my points goes.. If you want to start another post on another topic, be my guest, but try, really, really try to confine your response to what I say to what I say.


  9. ansonburlingame says:

    Hmm!! People make mistkaes, and the military is made up of people. Therefore………….???

    I won’t discuss such or argue about it for sure!!!



  10. henrygmorgan says:

    Anson: You are the master of the Strawman argument . When you don’t like the subject at hand, you merely change it to one you prefer. At least that gives you a subject you can address rather than the one under discussion. As you said “I won’t discuss such or argue about it for sure.” Me too!


  11. ansonburlingame says:

    As you may have seen, Henry, I apologized to Jim for cluttering up his blog with my attempt to refute your concerns expressed initially over matters nuclear. You injected the 60 nuclear accidents topic into the discussion and I reacted to such. I agree it was not the point of the blog.

    Believe you me, if I thought you were only saying that military power is questionable because people make mistakes, well I would never have bothered refuting such an inane observation.

    So I apologize to YOU, for bothering you.



  12. ansonburlingame says:

    i hope the spat with Henry does not cause this comment to go unnoticed. Go to http://ansonburlingame.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/international-punishment/.

    It is a blog to consider something not yet offered, in our discussions about Syria. Why not use the rule of law, is the basic issue, discussed on my own blog. I will post the same link on the EC discussion as well. It is something liberals might consider and even “like” to some degree and thus I link it on liberal blogs.



  13. Jeff says:

    FYI – The Excellent Speaking Freely series goes off of live streaming at Netflix in a week. Sometimes they come back shortly thereafter, but in case they don’t, I would recommend checking them out. John Perkins, Susan George, Ray McGovern, Chalmers Johnson, and Hugo Chavez discuss the American political position in the world based on their own stories.


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