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Keeping the US Nuke Complex Afloat


President Barack Obama has never been a creature to avoid contradiction. Some would call it hypocrisy, but the more generous might simply consider it the extensive ability to juggle two difficult and even contradictory aims at once. For a person who aggressively campaigned against the existence of the Guantanamo Bay facilities, he firstly staggered then endorsed its retention. For a person keen to chide President George W. Bush for infractions against the liberties of US citizens, Obama has been happy to take the shredder to an assortment of them (surveillance and extra-judicial killings come to mind).

Then, there is that great problem of problems, the long view, the dangerous view, the curse of international relations. It is the nuclear option, or as the amoral or woolly headed have come to term it, nuclear deterrence. The term in itself is meaningless, as it is, like the Freudian unconscious, unprovable and unascertainable. We assume that having such weapons deters a certain form of behaviour while compelling other forms, but it is difficult to prove something in the absence of its existence. The empirically-minded have been left high and dry in the mind games of the nuclear establishment.

Certainly, Obama was keen to initially leave some food on the table for those who thought that nuclear disarmament, at least in small steps, was around the corner. In his 2009 Prague address, the president spoke about ending that “Cold War thinking” that had plagued policy for decades. “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.”

In the US Department of Defense’s “Report on the Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States” (Jun 12, 2013), the Pentagon found that the revised nuclear strategy was “consistent with the fundamentals of deterrence that have long guided US nuclear weapons policy, but with appropriate changes to meet today’s strategic environment.” How little has changed.

The US Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, sums up the problems without perhaps realising it. On Wednesday, after touring Sandia National Laboratories and Kirtland Air Force Base, he made the trite observation that, “To modernise your nuclear weapons stockpile and assure that they continue to stay secure and safe, it takes money, it takes resources.” It follows that, as long as there are nuclear weapons, there will be safety issues, resource issues and broadly speaking, security issues.

There is, for one, the issue of cost, and excessive cost, at that. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in December that plans to modernise the nuclear weapons stockpile would cost upwards of $355 billion over the next decade.

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies came up with a more breathtaking figure, taking into account the next 30 years. Its estimate came in at a staggering $1 trillion. According to Jerry Lewis, one of the co-authors of the report, “It’s just not real. It’s inconceivable to me that we will execute anything like the plan that they say they’re going to do” (Global Security Newswire, Jan 8). For Lewis, the budget constraints suggest that any implementation of the programs contemplated would result in cancellations.

The update would cover the US triad of nuclear-armed bomber aircraft, submarines and ground-based missiles. But it would only cover the maintenance, replacement and upgrading the current system. Special pointers on the modernisation program will include upgrading the B-61 gravity bombs stationed in Europe and the creation of a new system of interoperable warheads that would replace the multiple weapons being used in the current US arsenal. The nuclear weapons forces are being streamlined at ever greater cost.

There is ample suggestion that neither Congress nor the White House actually have any clue about the costs incurred in the process of maintaining the nuclear forces. A Government Accountability Office is certainly making such suggestions. A 2005 study by the GAO, according to the CNS, found that “the United States does not know with any accuracy how much it spends annually on its nuclear deterrent, or how much it will cost to replace the current triad.”

The US nuclear force have also shown themselves to be prone to a different set of errors. The fingers have proven to be on different triggers. In October, Major General Michael Carey found himself in hot water when he was dismissed as head of the 450-weapon US intercontinental ballistic weapons force. The affair had been a juicy one, and all too savoury for the forces: Carey, it seems, had been drunk and carousing with Russian women while leading a delegation to Moscow for talks on nuclear security.

So, in some disarray, the US nuclear security establishment continues to move into a costly environment with minimal strategic focus. And with Obama at the helm, it is proving to be, like much of his presidency, small changes tempered by stuttering moves and small gestures.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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