Monday, February 26, 2007

Gettin at the real costs of so-called Trident 

So the (in my view) totally misnamed ‘Trident’ debate enters its vital week for the LibDems. I am shoving some thoughts up on Nick Harvey’s live blog and also on the Harvey posting on LibDem voice. I hope a wide range of others do as well.

I suspect as far as cost are concerned our Nuclear Systems represent an Olympic marathon of a never-ending stream of Millennium Domes.

I copy below one of my questions to Nick Harvey. The thought behind it is that the UK ‘Nuclear weapons’ system is the ultimate in nationalised industries. Huge projects go forwards pushed on by local power groups within ‘the system’, budgets are set and exceeded without reference to realistic costs, and while discussions may take place on one part of the system, decisions are usually made elsewhere in the system that pre-empt realistic choice on the question allegedly being debated. Debate on real alternatives by those within the system is suppressed because everyone knows what the results are supposed to be.

Precisely because there is no need to take a renewal decision on the Vanguard subs now, we have the chance to force a debate on the whole financial and military cost of the UK having a nuclear posture.

It is a debate that should be welcomed by all working to abolish the UK Nuclear forces, whether of unilateralist or so-called multilateralist tendency.

My question to Nick Harvey on costs:

The cost of maintaining so-called Trident in not only the cost of renewing the Vanguard submarines and upgrading the missiles.

Other costs include maintaining and upgrading Faslane, and also maintaining and upgrading
warhead research and production facilities at Aldermaston and elsewhere.

There are also the opportunity costs of dedicating conventional defence resources to protecting ‘nuclear assets’. For example, providing a fleet of attack submarines with no other real role in any time of extreme warfare than protecting whatever Vanguard sub is at sea. Most of these ‘nuclear arms related’ costs are obscured from public view and decisions on them taken outside public debate.

Should we insist that as a minimum any decision to renew Vanguard-carried Trident missiles include an open statement of these overall costs and a justification of these against (for example) alternative patterns of defence procurement? Should we refuse to back Vanguard now, regardless of fiddling with warhead numberes, in order to force such a properly grounded debate?

In short, multilateralist or unilateralist, just vot NO now to force a real choice. Action not fence-sitting.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Slick oil deal or an oil slick? 

Can someone with more background in the voodoo of oil economics explain how the London-Venezuela oil deal actually adds up?

Just a few queries in my mind, let us say.

In the real world of refining, you don’t get your oil just from one hole. The quality of oil from different fields varies tremendously. Libyan crude for example has a low level of impurities while Venezuelan crude is loaded with impurities.

I have heard that this makes it possible to use Libyan crude in rugged diesel engines without further refining – so for example Ghadaffi in the past has used Libyan supplies as a political lever in some African countries by shipping them crude at a subsidised price, by-passing western refineries. This for example is historically why every vehicle in Sierra Leone is diesel powered. Same quality point goes for some Siberian crude oil.

Venezuelan crude however can only be used straight from the well in basic heating applications (and pretty polluting ones to boot). It must be refined before going into busses, in London or elsewhere.

Refineries work most efficiently if the quality of crude oil input is fairly constant (otherwise production controls need expensive adjustments). One way to do this is to buy oil from a variety of sources. Venezuelan crude is often purchased to mix with ‘cleaner’ crude (such as North Sea Oil) to give a constant input stream for the refinery. This means that Venezuelan crude may actually be less valued (or a capitalists say, have a lower price) than oil from some other sources, but it does has a definite market niche.

So what exactly is London buying? Is there a refinery tuned just into dealing with Venezuelan oil? Where? What are the supply implications?

And what are the Fair Trade implications in all this? London is still a wealthier place than Venezuela. If London is buying oil below even the normal market price for Venezuelan output this is actually the opposite to all those earnest efforts to pay (for example) banana and coffee producers fair prices.

Have I got all this wrong? I await the detailed explanations with much interest.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The breath of musical culture from India - and related matters 

Always something new to learn - and to appreciate the compex of cultures around us. Apparently one reason for the number of songs in Bollywood films is as a substitute for 'bedroom scenes'. Just watch out for the number of times a pregnancy is part of the plot shortly afterwards. More information on the Metafilter for February 14th on Love, Bollywood Style, together with YouTube clips of notable Bollywood numbers.

Another clip linked in this item is of an evocation of the Indian National Anthem 'Jana Gana Mana' - and here the comments attached to the YouTube clip are also sadly interesting. Includes some vicious invective against India from non-Indians, giving a sad background to our UK debates on areas of tension in other parts of the world, and how this could shape our UK security policies.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Turkeys, Trident and lessons of the Iraq war fiasco 

Dealing with Bird Flu and the deployment of Nuclear Weapons by the UK. Both are situations involving high risks and (sometimes) taking decisions under stress.

We know relatively little about the control and risk avoidance systems embedding our nuclear weapons systems. Some bits of it however cast shadows in public. This includes the political evaluation of risks and the decisions on appropriate responses to perceived threats.

Our systems for dealing with infectious diseases are being market tested for real right now. We have found some inadequacies. That is to be expected of any control system. Let us hope the breakdowns are not fatal for humans and that we learn how to do these things a little better.

Our systems for dealing with live nuclear threats have never been market tested in quite this rigorous live way, as far as we know in public. But thanks to the fiascos over Iraq War justification ‘intelligence’ we know something about how our political control systems can malfunction and this country can get involved in a war through wilful political blindness and manipulation of the decision making process – to keep it polite.

If we are truly to evaluate what is involved in being a ‘nuclear weapons power’ we need to use whatever evidence we can glean about how our systems work. For example, the systems taking in intelligence on possible risks of nuclear exchanges and providing justifications for possible live use of our weapons.

I suggest it is incumbent on those suggesting we renew our nuclear weapons capabilities to demonstrate that the lessons of the Iraq fiasco have been learnt, absorbed and acted on.

Any talk about sophisticated control systems should also deal with the fiascos of the Child Support Agency computer system, The Passport Agency computer system and the upcoming mega-mess of the Identity Card national database. Our big-project civilian Information Technology decisions have been ludicrous and damaging. Why should the complex of military and political evaluation systems be any different?

The burden of proof on this lies with the renewers not with those taking a stand on principle against nuclear weapons.

It is a pity that our internal debates on nuclear matters have been sidelined into the usual tribal dances about ‘Trident’, which diverts attention from so many relevant issues.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Top Gearist extremism and other distracting stereotypes of justifying violence 

OK it is totally unfair to link the current spate of letter bomb attacks on establishmenst inimical to Unrestricted Motoring* with the kind of rhetoric sometimes used on the Top Gear TV show.

Though that issue of fairness wouldn't stop some commentators doing minute forensic examination of 'Islam' if 'Islamic Extermism' could be used as a peg for a story in parallel circumstances.

For my part, I think a root of the problem is the legitimisation of violence as a political process available and justifiable by any sufficiently self-indulgent interest group. We legitimise this at a state level, for example, when we too easily use the rhetoric, and indeed the fact, of War.

The Association of British Drivers issued this statement:

...it makes us feel a bit guilty that we haven't campaigned hard enough on the legitimate front against the things that we oppose, to do with criminalising and bullying motorists and because of our failure to campaign hard enough, somebody's had to resort to this.

No, present or absence of 'legitimate campaigning' nobody 'has to resort to this'. Period.

*Congestion Charge Office, Speed Camera adinistrators and the DLVA, so far.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Dealing with the cards - the international importance of our ID debates. 

The horrible details of how the Identity Cards Act of 2006 will actually impact our lives can be gleaned from the Blackstones Guide just published. This makes the point that most countries that have ID cards introduced them when they were Colonial Dependencies or Dictatorships, or at War, or experiencing a State of Emergency. ID cards are for these countries even when they ahve become democracies at peace, just an accepted, undebated fact of life.

This means that there is little precedent in terms of national debate over the aims or purposes of ID card schemes as few democratic, non-colonial countries have attempted to introduce them during peacetime. (Blackstone 2006, para 2.05, in part)

So our continuing debates have quite wide resonances. It may help other countries reflect on what thay have got themselves into.

For my part I welcome the dawning realisation amongst some Tories that this issue is important and that ID cards need to be opposed. If it makes it more difficult for us LibDems to campaign distinctively on this issue, well that is the price of being so glaringly right on an issue that others have to come onto our territory.

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Dudes, we have been here before - US Friendly Fire before the courts 

The current uproar is not the first time US ‘Friendly Fire’ has come before the scrutiny of a British Coroner. The story of how US aircraft attacked UK troops during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and how the US obstructed proceedings and for a long time couldn’t even muster an apology for the parents of the dead Brits, is told with burning restraint by Geoffrey Robertson QC in his book ‘The Justice Game’.

The Coroner at that 1990's hearing recommended that UK armed forces should refuse to serve in combat with US armed forces until the US introduced proper front-line fire control discipline. Not something of course within his powers to enforce but does show his opinion of the matters before his court.

Robertson’s book by the way also covers a number of important Civil Rights cases in which he appeared. The account of how a senior defence barrister mimed the presentation of certain defence evidence in the ‘Romans In Britain’ obscenity case is on its own worth the price of purchase. And as for the Matrix Churchill, the connections with Iraq and possible consequent corruption threads... yes this is a book that need re-reading, definitely.

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