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Nuclear Insecurity

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The fourth Nuclear Security Summit, hosted by President Obama, has just ended.  The focus was on terrorism, a perfectly reasonable topic.  But the larger question, not taken up by the conference, is why the US, Russia (which did not attend), and seven other countries still regard nuclear weapons as central to their national-security strategies, especially when they have no role in deterring or fighting terrorists.

Obama did comment on his administration’s achievements toward creating a nuclear-free world, he said:

The United States and Russia remain on track to meet our New Start Treaty obligations so that by 2018 the number of deployed American and Russian nuclear warheads will be at their lowest levels since the 1950s. Even as the United States maintains a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal to deter any adversary and ensure the security of our allies, I’ve reduced the number and role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. I also have ruled out developing new nuclear warheads and narrowed the contingencies under which the United States would ever use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.

At best, this claim distorts the reality of nuclear weapons in our time and probably in our children’s time.  The truth is that the US and other nuclear-weapon states have failed to reduce nuclear arsenals to a bare minimum, reach agreement to confine and reduce the roughly 2,000 pounds of fissile materials now held worldwide, or find meaningful common ground on nuclear security issues.  There remain more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, more than 14,000 of them under US and Russian control.  Just when we thought otherwise, nuclear winter is back in the news. Two specialists who were among the first to identify the nuclear winter phenomenon recently pointed out that if war were to break out between India and Pakistan, use of just 100 of their combined 250 nuclear bombs would have catastrophic effects on global temperatures, the global food supply, and the ozone layer.  In other words, a US-Russia nuclear war is not needed to produce nuclear winter worldwide.

Instead of working toward nuclear abolition, as these two writers propose, we have the United States investing (contrary to Obama’s statement) in a new nuclear weapon, the B-61-12, that will, according to its supporters, result in less radiation and fewer lives lost than existing nuclear weapons.  At nearly $29 million apiece, and $11.5 billion in total program spending, it’s the most expensive weapon in the US arsenal—part of a $19 billion modernization of nuclear weapons in Obama’s 2017 defense budget that also includes funding of two more nuclear submarines.  To the president, this is a matter of “striking the proper balance” between arms reductions and a “safe and reliable” nuclear stockpile.  Some balance!

The B-61 is being presented as a more responsible force for deterrence.  Where?  In Europe, of all places, where the B-61 would upgrade some 200 nuclear weapons still stationed in Germany and elsewhere.  The weapons will be available to theater commanders for use “as a last resort.”  Such thinking takes us all the way back to the Eisenhower years, when nuclear weapons were considered to represent “more bang for the buck” and usable in warfare.  I’m also reminded of the rationale behind another “economical” weapon, the neutron bomb, which was supposed to leave buildings alone and merely “take out” people.

The Obama administration has also missed opportunities to reduce the proliferation danger presented by highly enriched uranium.  To be sure, since 2009 several countries have entirely given up their civilian HEU, starting with Ukraine; and the nuclear deal with Iran is praiseworthy indeed.  Moreover, the number of countries with bomb-capable nuclear fuel has dropped from 52 in 1991 to 25 in 2014.  But even as some countries have upgraded their nuclear security, the possibility of theft by a terror group remains strong—witness Belgium, which was praised in the above report for improving nuclear security, only to have a few nuclear plant workers defect to ISIS, raising the risk of vulnerability.

In keeping with the double standard that often appears in discussion of nuclear weapons, the US is reportedly disturbed about Pakistan’s development of small nuclear weapons—as though US weapons such as the B-61 are under perfect control.  US safeguards are in fact suspect, as reports come in throughout the year of loose surveillance at power plants.  A “60 Minutes” program that aired on July 13, 2014 found several deficiencies on nuclear safety following a reporter’s visit to an underground missile site.  Even the telephones don’t work properly, the soldiers said; it’s hard to hear commands.  Alcoholism, cheating on tests, and psychological problems among military personnel have been uncovered at several US nuclear bases.  The Associated Press documented these since 2013; the incidents, which probably represent only a portion of the actual number, have led to the removal of officers and men—the most recent just last month at a base in Wyoming where fourteen airmen came under investigation for drug abuse.

There are many dimensions of the nuclear danger: the possibility of accidents, the potential for miscalculation in “the fog of war,” the reliance on hair-trigger alert status, the excessive numbers, and the ongoing refinements of the weapons to make them ever more accurate, reliable, and invulnerable.  In July 1961, just several months into his presidency, John F. Kennedy received his first briefing on nuclear weapons.  It described the likely consequences of a Soviet preemptive strike on the US, followed by a US retaliatory strike.  Tens of millions of people would be killed instantly and then by radiation, Kennedy was told.  He turned to his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and said: “And we call ourselves the human race.”

Every US president in the nuclear era has found, on assuming office, that a nuclear-weapon exchange would be inconceivably horrific. Yet all of them wound up adding to the weapon arsenal, if not in numbers then in refinements of targeting, weapons capabilities, and deployment.

Nothing quite explains as well as the concept of the military-industrial complex why presidents have been unable to reverse these trends.  The B-61 has actually been around since the 1960s, and has survived by being constantly adapted to replace retired nuclear weapons.  Since 2002 the Pentagon has argued the need for revitalizing the US nuclear weapons program, and now, as Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund reports, “The Obama administration is planning to spend over $1 trillion in the next 30 years on an entire new generation of nuclear bombs, bombers, missiles and submarines to replace those built during the Reagan years.”  Not only does this planning give new life to the B-61; it also provides for a new generation of strategic bombers, cruise missiles, and submarines, all armed with nuclear weapons.  The Russians, of course, are not standing still either: among the new nuclear weapons in their plans is a hydrogen bomb torpedo!  So much for the end of the Cold War.

The President spoke in 2009 of the country’s “moral responsibility” to work for a nuclear-free world, but evidently that is no match for the military-industrial complex’s bureaucratic mission to keep developing new nuclear weapons, even if they meet no plausible strategic need.

By the number:

RUSSIA 7,300 | Download report

USA 6,970 | Download report

FRANCE 300 | Download report

CHINA 260 | Download report

UK 215 | Download report

PAKISTAN 130 | Download report

INDIA 120 | Download report

ISRAEL 80 | Download report

NORTH KOREA < 15

RUSSIA 7,300 | Download report

USA 6,970 | Download report

FRANCE 300 | Download report

CHINA 260 | Download report

UK 215 | Download report

PAKISTAN 130 | Download report

INDIA 120 | Download report

ISRAEL 80 | Download report

NORTH KOREA < 15

More articles by:

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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