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The Radioactive Blast In The South China Sea
By Yoichi Shimatsu
Defense analysts have reached a split verdict over online reports of a nuclear explosion off the Paracel Islands in the contested region of the South China Sea. A brief Russian news report indicated that on November 20 sensors along China's southern coast picked up moderately high radioactive readings of twice the human-safety level. Citing unnamed American military sources, the Hal Turner website pointed to the cause of the radioactive spike being an undersea explosion of an estimate 10-20 kilotons, or on the scale of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima (relatively small compared with modern nuclear payloads).
Responding to the contrary, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists derided the online claim, labeling it a conspiracy theory from a rightwing racist, or at least that's how the Southern Poverty Law Center derisively described Mr. Turner along with hundreds of other supporters of the Second Amendment. This denunciation was repeated at Gizmodo. What firearms owned by citizens have to do with nuclear warheads is either a stretch of overheated imaginations or the sign of an official cover-up.
The Bulletin, as an opportunistic voice of the nuclear physics establishment that personally profits from atomic power while moralistically condemning its use in warfare, resorted to "killing the messenger" rather than seriously assessing the validity of his message. The South China Coast, along with adjoining areas of the East China Sea, has the world's greatest concentration of nuclear-armed submarines, and therefore holds the greatest potential for a related nuclear accident due to misfiring or test firing of a prototype weapon system, now more than ever since the introduction of hypersonic missiles that are accelerated by radioactive isotopes. It is no secret that China, Russia and the USA have been testing of this accident-prone new class of nuclear weapon, which flies at 5 times the speed of sound or Mach 5.
Here, working on the assumption that if the scant data is factual indeed (or even if exaggerated), I show that the mysterioous radioactivity source conforms to new type of defensive weapons system designed to nullify current antisubmarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, which are being deployed in increasing numbers to the South China Sea by the U.S. Navy and its Japanese and Australian allies.
Naval Power in Transition
My journalistic and personal experience during a brief residency in the city of Yokosuka, home port of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and a long sojourn as a journalism professor and editorial advisor to online news sites in China and Hong Kong, tends to affirm the veracity of the reports from Turner's sources and the Russian initial findings. The scant reports claim that an explosion occurred at an estimated undersea depth of 50 meters or more than 300 feet (the estimate persumably based on sonic readings picked up by underwater microphones), which was followed by dosimeter readings of 0.23 microSieverts, or double the human-health safety level, at two or more monitoring points along the middle reaches of the South China coastline. (While there has been radioactivity venting from nuclear reactors further south, this part of the coastal region has not suffered any such releases.)
The blast site is estimated to be somewhere southeast of the Paracel Islands (controlled by China although claimed also by Vietnam) in the direction of the disputed Spratley archipelago. Notably, that maritime zone is nearly equidistant from the Fujian coast, the major military deployment hub against Taiwan, and Hainan island, the main base for the submarine fleet of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The site, which is off-limits to Vietnamese boats, is safely away from the main merchant shipping channel skirting the Spratleys.
The most telling data, due to its total absence, is any seismic readings from the seafloor on November 20 and the following week. On the same day, a minor quake in Laos was registered, followed in the next few days by a temblor in the southern Philippines. What to make of this noticeable absence of a nuclear blast that should have rocked the seafloor? The lazy thinker's alibi is that "nothing happened" or, as put by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, oh that it's just anothe conspiracy theory, yawn. So go back to sleep, folks.
The Shape of Things to Come
Deduction, my dear Watson, informs us otherwise. How is it that a nuclear blast did not leave a telltale signature picked up by seismic sensors in nearby Vietnam, Philippines, China and Taiwan, while at the same time leaving sonic traces on the microphone network attached to the seafloor?
Observers tend to consider a nuclear blast to be an expanding sphere, based on films and animations of explosions at test sites. An asymmetrical blast movement is possible under certain conditions. A fast forward-moving warhead could leave behind a cone-shaped flare, which continues to be propelled forward due to the momentum of its hot particles. The only projectile with sufficient speed is the new class of hypersonic rockets, although slower than Mach 5 in a dense medium like seawater rather than air. This forward-and-upward motion could therefore focus the blast wave toward the ocean's surface and not rumble the seafloor (depending on the depth of water).
Sea Eagle Versus Dragon
The absence of seismic data therefore leaves only one possibility, which is that the nuclear-involved blast relatively close to the sea surface probably originated during a field trial of submarine-launched countermeasures against anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters equipped with cable-linked undersea drones. OK, that's a mouthful of marbles. So let's begin with an attack submarine hidden at a some depth firing a small hypersonic torpedo toward a ASW helicopter that's just picked up its presence.
The torpedo, which uses radioactive ions in two ways, to amplify the thrust from its rocket engine and also to stream out charged-gas bubbles over its nose to reduce drag (from friction with water). Fired out of the submarine from a safe distance from a considerably lower and therefore safer depth, the high-speed torpedo accelerates along an upward incline, adding on momentum. Around 300 feet below the sea surface, its explosive charge is detonated, which then overheads the radioactivity-enhanced fuel, causing a mega-blast. This expanding cone breaks the sea surface like the trident of Neptune, creating a waterspout of up to 50 meters in the air toward the target drone (a larger version of the 6-propeller consumer drones), standing in for an ASW helicopter. The mix of seawater, gases and radioactive isotopes toss the drone like a rag doll into the sky, and then the water rains down to the sea surface, leaving a huge vacuum, meaning the drone tumbles and crashes into maelstrom, which sucks it down into the depths. As the vortex closes, the helicopter is gone without a trace while the attack submarines glides unimpeded toward its naval target.
The "mystery" blast indicates China's submarine fleet now has an effective countermeasure against its primary nemesis, the antisubmarine warfare (ASW) helicopter, with its cable-mounted array of sonic, infrared and electromagnetic detectors and its air-dropped torpedoes. The hypersonic helicopter-killer is the means from now on to penetrate the picketline of ASW helicopters that protects U.S., Japanese and British aircraft carrier groups. Without that ASW shield, attack submarines are easily launch swarms of missiles, torpedoes, sea mines and long-distance drones against carriers and their main escorts, like sharks in a feeding frenzy against dolphins.
Who Let the Sharks Out?
So that "conspiracy theory", upon closer analysis of scant evidence, when considering the rapid advances in hypersonic rocket technology, has toppled the strategic balance of seapower worldwide. As so the higher-ups in the U.S. Navy do what they've always done in the past, which hide their heads in the sand. Innovations like the German U-boats and Imperial Japanese aircraft carriers literally blew the American warships out of the water or under it with air-dropped torpedoes. The admirals of the high command were enraged by an outspoken Billy Mitchell who prophesized the imminent eclipse of the world's navies due to the rise of airpower, a prediction which was fulfilled to their shock and dismay at Pearl Harbor.
At this dangerous moment at the low point in U.S.-China relations, the emergence of the hypersonic threat means that the American strategic posture and geopolitical assumptions must move toward a more dynamic engagement with China and Russia, along with a revision of defense procurement by the Pentagon away from expeditionary corps toward technologies and strategies to interdict, deflect and down hypersonic delivery systems.
In terms of diplomacy and strategic gamesmanship, hypersonic weaponry has basic flaws to be exploited in bilateral or trilateral talks, since thus far these out-of-control radioactive weapons have already posed as enormous health threat to the Russian and Chinese populations. So far America is winning the struggle by default, but the luck cannot last. No government seriously wants to develop these blunderbusses, but do so out of fear of American militaristic bullying and braggardy out of Congress.
Teddy Roosevelt said it best: "Speak softly and carry a big stick". If ever there's a moment to lower the volume and show potential adversaries that, by courtesy, one means business. The time for a shift in tone and posture is now, before the Seventh Fleet is decimated, with thousands of sailors and airmen massacred by sea-launched nuclear missiles and atomic torpedoes, bringing on the Final War, mutually assured suicide for the human species.
Shooting Fish in a Barrel
In the relatively narrow and reef-studded South China Sea, firing hypersonic torpedoes and anti-ship rockets at naval targets is like "shooting fish in a barrel". It's more a blood sport than warfare. Of course, the "flying fish" can make a difference, if adapted to evade hypersonic countermeasures.
That said, what about the tactical situation in the South China Sea? For the Chinese it would be a mistake to assume that hypersonic countermeasures will completely nullify the sub hunters from the navies of the USA, UK-Australia, Japan and South Korea. The very development of hypersonic-based countermeasures is itself proof of the ever-increasing capability of the Allied anti-submarine warfare program.
At present, the U.S. Navy's sub-killer force should be able to track and neutralize China's ballistic missile behemoths. Meanwhile, the rise of the "Third Anglo-Japanese Alliance" is rapidly upgrading Japan's underwater detection capability with British-designed state-of-art electronics for the Japanese fleet of helicopter carriers and destroyers fitted with helicopter decks. The Maritime Self-Defense Force (J-MSDF) is planning to acquire US-produced drone helicopters to multiply its sub-hunting capabilities.
While PLAN has some 60 submarines, its frontline force for naval defense relives on about 30 in total new Song-class and Yuan attack submarines, which are designed for forward battle against the U.S. Seventh Fleet's aircraft carrier groups. Armed with nuclear-capable missiles, torpedos and self-propelled sea mines/drones, these attack subs are urgent targets of the Western allies' anti-submarine warfare program, a daunting task in a maritime region crawling with noisy merchant vessels, oil tankers and fishing fleets. The rapid advances in acoustic thin-film filters have enabled new levels of signals analysis to pick up the hum of electric motors, used instead of the noise-emitting diesel engines, in attack mode. The battlefield space of the South and East China seas is relatively small and partitioned due to the many archipelagoes, which have since long ago been thoroughly charted with depth soundings by the Royal Navy. In shallower waters, submarines are detectable by Earth observation satellites.Drones, helicopters and undersea vehicles, are also affecting the naval balance, since these have long endurance on their own or teamed with manned helicopters and patrol vessels can act as a swarm of eyes and sharp teeth, with the advantage of being more expendable than manned craft.
The emphasis on detection discloses the importance of the immediate prelude to and earliest phase of sea battle. A naval war between China PLAN and the U.S.-UK-Japan-Australia combined fleet, therefore, boils down to which side wins the initial skirmishes, the Chinese attack subs or the ASW helicopters, which would fulfill the ancient Hindu myth of the battle of the swooping giant eagles against the powerful "naga" sea serpents. At this point prior to hypersonic deployment, the Allies are also trying to expand their technological edge in detection technologies to foil a sneak attack.
Another Anglo-Japanese Naval Alliance
Due to the USN's big-carrier mindset, a residue of the World War II battles against the Imperial Japanese Navy, the decisive edge in this confrontation is held by Britain's smaller but technologically advanced ASW force, which combines the AugustaWestland Future Lynx and Wildcat helicopters, which operate BAE electronic weapons system, the world's most advanced. The Japanese navy, still known as the Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) is currently upgrading its ASW capability, through Kawasaki aircraft's cooperation with AW, and conducting pilot and ASW training at a secret base in Australia. The UK-built Merlin is still in service. Sikorsky is the single name in American ASW with its Romeo and Seahawk.
Neither side is guaranteed success. If accurate hypersonic missiles and torpedoes are produced in number, then it is possible for an otherwise inferior PLAN to decimate the Allies frontline shield of ASW helicophers, to unloose attack subs to move in and launch nuclear cruise missiles at the big carriers and their escort vessels, scoring what would go down in future history on par with the Lord Howard-Drake-and-Hawkins surprise victory over the Spanish Armada.
For Chinese on the mainland, their PLAN submarine crews are seen as frontline heroes for national sovereignty, especially now after the embarassment caused by Hong Kong's misguided youth, who have been fighting against an undfair judicial system rooted in the UK Official Secrets Act and a postcolonial police force left behind by their former British masters under the anti-democratic rubric of "Rule of Law" as "those who rule make the laws". As with most other former British colonies, the appreciation of American democratic values came much too late and without the necessary values and sacrifices to achieve true freedom. Most of Hong Kong's political problems are due to the basic lack of core values in the population in a former Crown Colony, whereas its economic woes are due to a lack of competitiveness with the mainland Chinese economy partnered with major U.S. multinational corporations such as Microsoft, Dell, GE, Amazon, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley..
Decolonization around the world has proven "democracy" to be more a myth than a workable set of social norms and political standards, as shown in the Republic of China, now based in Taiwan, which was a cradle of democracy in Asia thanks to the Hawaii-educated Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, but soon decomposed into warlordism, factionalism, the greed of merchant-families and opposition from the deposed nobles. The 4,000 years of Chinese history, none of it democratic, in the unfortunate foundation for the continuing frustration of ideals adopted from the Western experience. The prewar American support of the ROC was important to history but quickly evolved into overbearing mentorship and then abandonment of client governments, as compared with the sectarian missionary hypocrisy over similar support never being extended to Basque, Catalan or Scottish patriots who've been farther along the political curve toward constitutionalism.
Coldly put, American support for "democracy" in Asia provided a convenient foreign target for takeover by communist parties, militarists or authoritarian regimes. A war for liberating the Chinese from China is and has always been a lost cause from the jump. This may sound cynical but I will not go so far as saying that people get the government they deserve, however that may ring true. This harsh assessment arises not from political theory but the horrifying experiences of the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War, which ended in the annihilation of heroic ideals and the rise of cynicism as now expressed on both sides of the U.S.-China rivalry. Of course, it's all so disappointing, especially for those who had high hopes for representative government and popular sovereignty, raising hard questions about cultural difference and human nature, while at the same time making many of us, myself included, seem like deluded fools.
The fact remains that it will be regional players Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines that have a directself-interest in deterring Chinese expansionism over the long run, and their national survival is possible only if the United States does not provide China with advanced military techology, as the US has done with secret nuclear technology transfers to the Chinese, including atomic bomb technology, even before George H.W. Bush served as ambassador to Beijing or a young CIA officer named Joe Biden was sent to the PLA listening post in the Tianshan mountains to monitor Soviet nuclear tests done at Semipalatinsk in the Kazahk SSR. Hypersonic technology, another case in point, was invented by Americans and gifted to Russia and China at conferences of nuclear engineers and physicists like those on the governing board of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Why would atomic scientists on contract with the Department of Energy (DOE) be in denial of continuing strategic weapons-technology transfers to adversaries? To understand how is it that NASA's hypersonic accelerators that propel rockets at five times the speed of sound are now powering Russian and Chinese cruise missles aimed at American cities, a short chapter of modern history needs review. For the present boomer-generation of science policymakers, the ill-gotten lucre goes back to the gut-wrenching Arab oil boycott that started in 1973, when the American economy collapsed and Ph.D. graduates from nuclear physics departments couldn't get a job, even as janitors. After all, who needs nuclear physicists other than the enemy? Treason is a simple equation. T = $.