Learning to Love — and Use — the Bomb
Exclusive: The endless demonizing of Russian President Putin is the new fun game in Official Washington as neocons dream about “regime change” in Moscow and military contractors drool over huge profits from “modernizing” America’s nuclear arsenal, with few thoughts about the heightened risk of nuclear annihilation, writes Jonathan Marshall.
By Jonathan Marshall
At a time when America’s public sector is apparently too strapped financially even to provide safe drinking water for some of its residents, the Obama administration plans to commit the nation to spending at least $1 trillion over the next three decades to improve our ability to fight a nuclear war. That’s right, an almost unthinkable war that would end up destroying much of the habitable portion of the globe.
That wasn’t the message President Obama conveyed in April, 2009 when he declared in Prague, “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. Generations lived with the knowledge that their world could be erased in a single flash of light. Just as we stood for freedom in the Twentieth Century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the Twenty-first Century.
“And as . . . the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
How times change. Today, warns former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, “we are now on the verge of a new nuclear arms race” based on a return to Cold War thinking. “Moreover, I believe that the risk of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War — and yet our public is blissfully unaware of the new nuclear dangers they face.”
Russia shares some of the blame, with its ostentatious talk of developing new weapons like a giant nuclear-tipped torpedo designed to “cause guaranteed devastating damage to the country’s territory by creating wide areas of radioactive contamination.”
But a far greater risk to global security is the Obama administration’s so-called nuclear “modernization” program, which the Pentagon is promoting at the same time U.S. policymakers are incessantly demonizing Russia as the chief threat to the United States and its allies.
In theory, the administration aims merely to ensure that America’s nuclear deterrent remains “robust”, that is, credible enough to dissuade any other nuclear power from contemplating an attack on U.S. forces, or installations, or cities.
But U.S. nuclear forces are currently sized with only one potential enemy in mind: Russia. The United States has an estimated 1,900 nuclear weapons deployed, versus 1,780 for Russia. The next largest nuclear power is France, with just 290 deployed weapons. The total U.S. nuclear stockpile of 7,200 warheads is 28 times bigger than China’s.
Apparently all that isn’t enough to let top Pentagon officials sleep at night. President Obama’s new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that he believes Russia poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security, “an existential threat” no less. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming,” he declared.
Curtis LeMay Redux
Lest Russia launch an all-out attack, for reasons unknown, the Obama administration proposes building 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, 100 long-range strategic bombers armed with a new class of bombs, 400 silo-based ballistic missiles, and 1,000 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. It’s almost as if Air Force General Curtis LeMay were still running the show.
An authoritative study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimates the full cost of this program over 30 years at more than $1 trillion, with no allowance for cost overruns, delays, or clean-up and decommissioning costs.
But cost may be the least of the problems with Obama’s agenda. One common if disguised element of these “modernization” programs is their ability to make nuclear “war-fighting” more, not less, conceivable by increasing the targeting flexibility of these weapons and, in some cases, reducing their yield so they resemble very large conventional weapons rather than the all-or-nothing nukes of old.
For example, as the New York Times reported, the recently tested B61 Model 12 nuclear bomb has steerable fins that permit pin-point accuracy and configurable yields to as little as two percent of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima. General James E. Cartwright, retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former head of the United States Strategic Command, said “what going smaller does is to make the weapon more thinkable.”
Similarly, the proposed new Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, a vastly upgraded nuclear cruise missile, “is designed for nuclear warfighting,” states Stephen Young, a senior analyst in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Unfortunately, for that very reason, deploying this weapon will actually make the United States less secure.”
Moving to a nuclear war-fighting capability violates the official U.S. policy outlined in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which called for steps to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attack, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons.”
Once policymakers start seriously considering “limited war” scenarios in which nuclear weapons might come in handy, the risk of war shoots way up. At the same time, the acquisition of war-fighting capabilities will prompt the other side to follow suit.
Easing into Nuclear War
As James Doyle, a former nonproliferation analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory, put it, “Lowering the threshold of nuclear war poses the very real threat of rapid escalation in a conflict potentially resulting in the use of many, more destructive nuclear weapons.”
Russia certainly views the Obama administration’s current nuclear program as upsetting the stability of traditional deterrence. Following a recent test of the new B61-12 bomb, Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, denounced it as “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.”
Russia is also gravely concerned about another development that could, in theory, make the United States contemplate a “limited” nuclear war: the expansion of the U.S. ballistic missile defense network in Europe. President Vladimir Putin called that “an attempt to undermine the existing parity in strategic nuclear weapons and essentially to upset the whole system of global and regional stability.”
The biggest risk from all these developments isn’t a planned nuclear war, but an unplanned nuclear exchange triggered by a false alarm in an atmosphere of mutual paranoia. Both the United States and Russia have hundreds of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to “launch on warning” lest they be destroyed in a sneak attack. Our survival thus far is thanks in part to luck; scholars have documented at least 20 accidents that might have started an accidental nuclear war in years past.
There’s no guarantee that our luck will hold out, however. Thanks to growing fears of being wiped out without warning by stealthy U.S. weapons, “Russia has shortened the launch time from what it was during the Cold War,” according to Bruce Blair, a nuclear security expert at Princeton. “Today, top military command posts in the Moscow area can bypass the entire human chain of command and directly fire by remote control rockets in silos and on trucks as far away as Siberia in only 20 seconds.”
The priority of U.S. nuclear policy today should not be investing in staggeringly expensive new technology that makes us less secure by making nuclear war more thinkable and thus more unpredictable. It should be overwhelmingly focused on nuclear risk reduction: lowering the threats perceived by each nuclear power, eliminating launch-on-warning policies, and exploring other confidence-building measures. Our greatest security task is to modernize our thinking about nuclear weapons, not our nuclear weapons technology.
Jonathan Marshall is an independent researcher living in San Anselmo, California. Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “Neocons Want Regime Change in Iran”; “Saudi Cash Wins France’s Favor”; “The Saudis’ Hurt Feelings”; “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Bluster”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; and “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War.” ]