Making Nuclear Weapons Menacing Again

Making Nuclear Weapons Menacing Again

The Pentagon plan to overhaul the US nuclear arsenal is as costly as it is dangerous.


There is no higher priority for national defense,” the Pentagon declared last year, than for the United States to “replace its strategic nuclear triad and sustain the warheads it carries.” In plain English, this means spending an estimated $1.7 trillion to rebuild every component of the US nuclear arsenal: the entire three-legged strategic “triad” of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range bombers. Military officials claim the existing force has become obsolete and inflexible, and thus unable to deter potential adversaries. In order to eliminate any doubt that America has the will and the capacity to wreak catastrophic retribution, they argue, we need to replace our current atomic weapons with even more terrifying ones. “To remain effective [as a deterrent force],” explained then–Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in February 2018, “we must recapitalize our Cold War legacy nuclear forces.”

“Recapitalize,” “modernize,” “replace”: These are the anodyne terms being used by the Pentagon and the Trump administration to describe their exorbitant plans to overhaul America’s nuclear arsenal. With great-power conflict now the defining theme in US military strategy, the administration seeks weapons that can overawe Russia and China. At the same time, White House officials—led by National Security Adviser John Bolton—seek to extinguish any remaining arms-control agreements that might constrain US arms-acquisition efforts. Bolton has already orchestrated the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which covers short- and medium-range missiles, and has reportedly set his sights on scuttling the last remaining curb on intercontinental weapons, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), when it comes up for renewal in 2021.

Refurbishing the nuclear arsenal and exiting arms-control agreements are all part of a White House effort to restore the coercive power of the US stockpile. At the height of the Cold War, no one doubted America’s nuclear forces. From the early 1960s to the late ’80s, this country possessed some 25,000 nuclear warheads—more than enough to eradicate every city, town, and village crossroads in the Soviet Union many times over. But with the Cold War receding farther into the distance, the idea of employing such weapons in combat has become less credible. In 2009, President Barack Obama proclaimed his intent to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,” and the following year he signed the New START agreement with Russia, resulting in a 50 percent reduction in the number of deployed US warheads.

While bringing relief to those of us who feared the devastating consequences of nuclear war, the move provoked dismay among hawkish Republicans and military leaders who view nuclear arms as the ultimate tool of national power. These policy-makers believe that vast stores of doomsday bombs and missiles allow the United States to threaten and intimidate countries that either lack such weapons or rely on the US for its “nuclear umbrella”—as do most NATO powers and Japan. American leaders also insist on holding out the threat of nuclear-weapons use to scare off an array of potential non-nuclear attacks on the US and its allies, such as a large-scale conventional Russian assault on NATO. For the United States to retain its status as the world’s paramount power, therefore, it must restore the fear-inducing nature of its nuclear arms.

The Pentagon’s radical approach is spelled out in its most recent Nuclear Posture Review. Released in February 2018, it was the first official statement of US strategic policy since the April 2010 NPR. Whereas the earlier document promised to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in military strategy, the 2018 version reasserted their vital importance. And whereas the Obama-era NPR foresaw a gradual contraction of the US atomic arsenal, the Trumpian iteration calls for its modernization and expansion. Not only does the new NPR envision the replacement of all existing weapons with more capable systems; it also authorizes the acquisition of several new types of “low-yield” munitions, supposedly intended for use against conventional forces.

In making the case for a complete atomic overhaul, the NPR advances two broad claims: first, that the strategic triad’s current components have become old and untrustworthy; and second, that potential adversaries—notably Russia and China—have taken advantage of America’s complacency to modernize their own arsenals and acquire new classes of weapons, including some intended for potential use against NATO forces in Europe. “Over the past several decades,” the NPR claims, “the US nuclear weapons infrastructure has suffered the effects of age and underfunding.” Not so, it continues, for America’s rivals. “While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction. They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, [and] increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans.”

One can easily dispute this. To begin with, Russia, like the United States, has reduced the number of its deployed nuclear warheads in accordance with New START, while China has only made incremental upgrades to its relatively small stockpile. More to the point, the Pentagon has steadily improved the accuracy, durability, and destructive capacity of its own arsenal during this period, at a cost of many billions of dollars—spending some $7 billion, for example, on upgrades to the Minuteman III ICBM, and another $15 billion on improved variants of the Trident D5 SLBM. Nevertheless, the perception that the United States has somehow fallen behind in the nuclear-arms race remains pervasive within Washington’s elite circles.

The Strategic Triad

So what exactly are the pentagon’s plans for rebuilding the US arsenal? To begin with, we are speaking here of “strategic” nuclear weapons—that is, weapons aimed at the homeland of another nuclear-armed power. (The United States also possesses “nonstrategic” nuclear weapons, consisting mainly of gravity bombs stored in Europe for air delivery against enemy ground forces and installations.) This strategic arsenal is supposedly intended to deter an adversary from mounting nuclear or nonnuclear attacks on the US or its allies by threatening cataclysmic vengeance. And if “deterrence fails” (as such a nightmare scenario is usually worded), American weapons are designed to obliterate an adversary, including the destruction of as many of its launch capabilities as possible, thereby minimizing the number of American cities incinerated by retaliatory strikes. Bear in mind that any such outcome, even with reduced US urban annihilation, would result in a nuclear winter—a planet-wide dust cloud blocking the sun for years or even decades, which would likely bring human civilization to an end.

To ensure that America’s deterrent capacity is never in doubt, the United States has long relied on the triad, that tripartite combination of retaliatory weapons systems: ground-based ICBMs, submarine-borne SLBMs, and long-range bombers. Even if one or two of these systems were lost to an enemy first-strike attack, the argument goes, the remaining one would still be able to retaliate on a massive scale, hence eliminating the temptation for an aggressor to ever mount such an assault. Missile-carrying submarines are considered particularly effective in this respect, as it’s almost impossible to plot their locations in real time; the locations of ICBM launch facilities and bomber bases, however, are well established.

With the end of the Cold War, some nuclear strategists have questioned the need for a triad of retaliatory systems, arguing that two (or even one) would be sufficient, so long as it includes submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Nevertheless, Pentagon officials insist on the vital necessity of a three-legged deterrent. “Eliminating any leg of the triad would greatly ease adversary attack planning and allow an adversary to concentrate resources and attention on defeating the remaining two legs,” the NPR asserts. This is nonsense; no current or potential adversary possesses the ability to locate and destroy America’s missile-carrying subs while they’re at sea, and so the prospect of “defeating the remaining legs” of the US deterrent—and thereby escaping obliteration—is a total fantasy. Nevertheless, the triad remains an article of faith among US defense planners, and the Pentagon’s plans for nuclear modernization encompass all three of its component systems.

In accordance with New START, the US strategic arsenal (like Russia’s) is constrained in the number of nuclear-armed missiles and strategic bombers that can be deployed. When that treaty came into full effect in February 2018, the United States was limited to a maximum of 700 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and nuclear-armed long-range bombers. From the inventories compiled by the Arms Control Association and the Federation of American Scientists, we’ve learned that the Pentagon has allocated these weapons as follows:

§ 400 silo-based Minuteman III ICBMs, each carrying one warhead;

§ Up to 280 multiple-warhead Trident II D5 SLBMs carried aboard 12 Ohio-class submarines, each capable of firing 20 missiles (two additional subs and their missiles are usually out of commission at any given time for repairs and modernization); and

§ 20 B-2 stealth bombers, each capable of carrying 16 gravity bombs, plus up to 46 B-52H bombers, each capable of delivering 20 nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missiles.

Under the Pentagon’s current plans, every one of these systems will be replaced over the next few decades, at massive taxpayer expense. Preliminary research and design work on some of these replacement systems began during the Obama administration—a concession that Obama made to secure Senate ratification of New START—but full-scale development only commenced after Trump took office, and the real expense of production and procurement lies ahead.

Other Weapons Programs

In addition to seeking upgraded replacements for all existing systems, the Trump administration also plans to acquire an array of so-called low-yield weapons (powerful enough, say, to destroy Hoboken, New Jersey, but not all of New York City) for use against enemy combat formations, command centers, and other battlefield components. Two such munitions were proposed in the 2018 NPR: a low-yield warhead to be fitted on some existing SLBMs, and a nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile.

These weapons are needed, the NPR insists, because Russia has acquired its own low-yield munitions and believes they can be used to defeat superior NATO conventional forces in Europe without provoking nuclear retaliation by the United States, because—or so it is claimed by Trumpian analysts—an American president would hesitate to employ the massively destructive nuclear weapons currently in the US arsenal, and thus risk reprisal in kind. If, however, American leaders possessed slightly less destructive weapons, the Russians could have no such confidence in US restraint and therefore would not be tempted to use their own low-yield nukes. This whole argument is malarkey: No Russian leader could ever assume an American president would refrain from retaliating with nuclear arms against a Russian nuclear strike (however “low yield”), and in any case the US already possesses low-yield nonstrategic bombs in Europe that offer precisely this option.

Aside from its lack of strategic relevance, the administration’s plans to acquire new low-yield weapons is troubling because it suggests an intent to make nuclear weapons more “usable”—if not in practice, then as a coercive tool. Threats involving smaller nuclear arms may possess greater credibility—or so Pentagon analysts appear to think. As explained by Mattis, the NPR “calls for the diverse set of nuclear capabilities that provides an American president flexibility to tailor the approach to deterring one or more potential adversaries in different circumstances.” Cut through this gobbledygook, and we’re talking about using nuclear weapons in a wide range of potential circumstances: Among those explicitly cited by Pentagon officials was a cyberattack on US command-and-control facilities.

The pursuit of low-yield nuclear weapons and America’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty also hint at a larger goal of Trumpian strategy: to enable the United States to conduct attacks on critical Russian and Chinese military assets. Prior to the signing of the treaty in 1987, the US possessed ground-based weapons capable of striking Soviet battle formations and command centers with very little warning. Under the INF Treaty, all of these weapons (and their Soviet equivalents) were destroyed. Now, White House officials want new, far more advanced cruise and ballistic missiles with targeting purposes similar to those banned by the treaty. Even if armed with conventional warheads (the Pentagon is vague about the eventual payload of these proposed systems), any attack with these weapons would pose a threat to the Russian or Chinese homeland and so could prompt them to adopt a launch-on-warning posture for their own nuclear missiles. On March 13, the Pentagon indicated that it is preparing to flight-test two such weapons starting in August, assuming (as is expected) that the INF withdrawal has taken effect by that time.

Stopping the Rush to Nuclear Enhancement

The price tag on all of this is staggering. when the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office tallied up the costs of designing, producing, deploying, and maintaining (over a 30-year period) the nuclear weapons and support systems currently sought by the Department of Defense, it arrived at the figure of $1.2 trillion in 2017 dollars. At the current rate of inflation, this will entail public expenditures of at least $1.7 trillion, not including cost overruns, which are always to be expected. Even by Pentagon standards, this is a lot of money.

For some, this will be a debate about dollars: Why spend so much money on new nukes when those dollars are more urgently required elsewhere? Certainly, the extravagant cost of replacing all existing nuclear weapons is a good enough reason to oppose the Pentagon’s plan. But while cost is a significant factor in the debate over nuclear-weapons modernization, it is essential to question the underlying strategic logic for replacing these weapons—or, for that matter, retaining the existing ones.

For many in the United States and around the world, any use of nuclear weapons, however “limited,” would produce a humanitarian catastrophe so vast as to outweigh any conceivable advantage from their deployment. It was this argument, more than any other, that persuaded the delegates to a July 2017 United Nations conference to adopt a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which bans the production, possession, deployment, and use of such munitions. The United States and the other nuclear-armed states have not signed the Ban Treaty (as it is called), but groups around the world are working to mobilize support for it and for the elimination of nukes in general, including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Back From the Brink, and NuclearBan.US.

Alongside these efforts to secure passage of the Ban Treaty and move toward a nuclear-weapons-free world, many concerned activists and politicians seek to reduce the size of existing arsenals and prevent the acquisition of new, more dangerous weapons. As discussed earlier, many of the weapons sought by the Trump administration are more accurate and flexible in their potential utilization than the ones they are replacing. If deployed, they could increase the likelihood of early use in a crisis situation, while also stoking fears among America’s adversaries of a US first strike. Resistance to the Pentagon’s replacement plan, then, represents more than just opposition to nuclear arms in general; it also means opposition to a dangerous shift in US nuclear strategy toward greater reliance on nukes as an instrument of war and intimidation.

Among those leading the charge against the Pentagon’s replacement plan is Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), the chair of the House Armed Services Committee. “Nothing endangers the planet more than nuclear weapons,” he told Arms Control Today in December 2018. Speaking of the administration’s call for low-yield munitions, Smith warned: “If you introduce them, you cannot predict what your adversaries are going to counter with, and an all-out nuclear war is the likely result, with the complete destruction of the planet.” Smith is also highly skeptical of the need for a three-legged deterrent system and for a nuclear stockpile as large as the one we currently possess: “There’s a compelling argument to be made that a submarine-based nuclear weapons approach alone gives us an adequate deterrent.” But in any case, he added, “we could meet our needs from a national security standpoint with a lot fewer nuclear weapons.”

In the weeks and months ahead, Smith and his colleagues on both the House and Senate Armed Services committees will be grilling Pentagon officials on these issues and introducing bills to block funding for new munitions. On March 12, the Department of Defense handed Congress its proposed budget for fiscal year 2020, including $31 billion for upgrades to the strategic triad. Peace and antinuclear advocates will thus have multiple opportunities to question the cost and morality of US nuclear strategy and to campaign against dangerous additions to the arsenal. Concerned citizens can call or write their congressional representatives to voice support for such efforts. To keep abreast of news in this area, contact the Arms Control Association, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Peace Action, or the Union of Concerned Scientists.

We cannot afford to leave nuclear-weapons policy to the “experts” in Washington or the few dedicated activists who have been keeping track of these fearsome developments over the years. We have entered a new era—one in which the use of nuclear weapons has become far more likely—and it is crucial that we all become more familiar with these matters and their deadly implications.

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