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Nukes in Space: the Extinction Rebellion Yet to Be

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

An article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently argued that more species are going extinct due to human activity than occurred 66 million years ago, when an asteroid or similar hit the Earth.

Much less discussed is US President Donald Trump’s (read: the military-industrial-complex’s) Space Force, which Trump again championed at a recent address to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Space domination is “America’s destiny,” he told the audience. Referring to the protests that broke out across the US and the world, triggered by the slow suffocation on camera by a white cop of the unarmed, handcuffed black man, George Floyd, Trump said: “I will not allow angry mobs to dominate”—unless they are angry mobs of police.

But what about calm mobs? The mob of military corporatists setting US weapons policy is calmly seeking to dominate space and thus the world. Trump went on to say: “we will ensure a future of American dominance in space.” This comes at a time when the US taxpayer is predicted to spend nearly half a trillion dollars over the next decade upgrading America’s aging nuclear weapons. The Space Force is integrating in various ways–tracking, surveillance, sensing–with the triad of nukes on land, in the air, and at sea.

PAVING THE WAY

In January 2017, the newly-unelected President Trump (he lost the popular vote by 2.9m), ordered the Department of Defense to conduct a Nuclear Posture Review. The document published a year later makes clear that the US possesses nuclear weapons, in part, so that “our diplomats continue to speak from a position of strength on matters of war and peace.” The Nuclear Posture Review cites Russia as the evil menace against which the US must defend by renewing its nuclear stockpiles.

But a Congressional Research Service report cites the view of US nuclear strategists who think that “Russia has adopted an ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy, where it might threaten to use nuclear weapons if it were losing a conflict with a NATO member, in an effort to convince the United States and its NATO allies to withdraw from the conflict.” It notes that Russia’s modernization program began in the early-2000s. We might add that this was a couple of years after the US committed itself Full Spectrum Dominance of land, sea, air, and space. It was also around the time that the Bush II administration (2001-2009, which also lost the popular vote by half a million) pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty 1972.

Arms Control Today reports that Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty 1987 “leaves just the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in place to limit U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons deployments.” It notes that START 2010 “is due to expire in February 2021.” Moscow professed to want to negotiate instead of having the US simply withdraw. It then reiterated Russia’s commitments to match any US modernization and expansion of nuclear weapons. This is great for the US and Russian arms industries, but not so good for the prospects of human survival.

Part of the reason for withdrawing from the INF, according to US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, is to develop weapons to threaten China; though, of course, Esper puts it in different words, speaking instead of how great the development of “an intermediate-range conventional weapon would be to the [Pacific Command] theater.”

NUKES IN SPACE

On February 4th-5th, the Air Force Global Strike Command and 30th Space Wing test-launched the nuclear-capable Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile. The Space Force describes the ICBM as “a unique portion of the Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) nuclear enterprise.”

First deployed in 1979, the W78 nuclear warhead is being renewed at a cost to US taxpayers of $8.6 billion. The renewal program began under Obama in 2010. It is scheduled for deployment in 2030 and will be renamed W78-1. The W78-1 is designed to be carried by the Minuteman III ICBM, recently tested by the AFGSC in collaboration with the Space Force and 30th Space Wing. Meanwhile, there are other ominous developments afoot.

In 2019, the Missile Defense Review advocated for placing “interceptors,” which can equally mean first-strike missiles, in space: “Space-basing may increase the overall likelihood of successfully intercepting offensive missiles,” the document claims. It can “reduce the number of U.S. defensive interceptors required to do so, and potentially destroy offensive missiles over the attacker’s territory rather than the targeted state.”

At the end of May 2020, Raytheon’s Missiles and Defense branch offered a job with secret clearance to engineers with expertise in radiation effects. The job calls for “radiation hardening designs for missile defense interceptors.” Interceptors are well-known by strategists to be, dual-use, potential first-strike weapons. “We are executing programs and investing in systems designed to work in nuclear weapons and space environments,” the document says. The job description mentions interceptors, which, if the authors of the Missile Defense Review have their way, could end up being based in space.

UPGRADES

Under the Stockpile Stewardship Program, Los Alamos no longer detonates nuclear weapons to test them, relying instead on non-nuclear tests and computer simulations. The Lab maintains old nukes via the Life Extension Program: ironic, given that the weapons do little other than threaten death. The LEP involves the analysis, replacement, and refurbishment of components.

The B61-3, -4, -7, and 11 nuclear gravity bombs are deployed to US and NATO bases. The B61 has been in “service” for 50 years, “making it the oldest and most versatile weapon in the enduring U.S. stockpile.” Designed and engineered at Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, the Life Extension Program will keep the device in service for an additional 20 years. The B61-12 “is being certified for delivery by current strategic and dual-capable aircraft, as well as future aircraft platforms.” If we are interested in survival as a species, the dual-use element is problematic because Russian, Chinese, or other adversaries can never be sure whether the given bomber plane in or near their airspace is carrying nuclear weapons. This puts their militaries on high-alert and increases the likelihood of escalation through misunderstanding.

The W88 nuclear warhead’s Life Extension Program (LEP) started in 2012, again under Obama. The W88 came into “service” in 1988 with the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile. The LEP will replace the arming, firing, and fusion system, and “refreshes the weapon’s conventional high explosives,” for safety reasons, of course. The LEP is compartmentalized across several labs. Los Alamos is in charge of W76-2 mod, a LEP for another Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile.

The W76-1 produces a high-yield and is, counterintuitively, safer for the world in some ways because enemies know that they will be obliterated and are therefore less likely to engage in the kind of warfighting that can lead to escalation. First produced in 2019 at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, the W76-2 on the other hand produces a lower-yield explosion, blurring the lines between nuclear and non-nuclear war. Lower-yield weapons are more tempting for commanders and world leaders to use, but they risk retaliation from states with high-yield weapons and thus uncontrollable nuclear escalation. Los Alamos describes the W76-2 mod as a “milestone in support of a national security initiative requested by the president in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.”

The W80-1 is being extended at Lawrence Livermore via the W80-4, which will be ready by 2031. The scientists explain that the insensitive high explosive, triaminotrinitrobenzene (TATB), “will be used for the warhead’s main charge.” Engineers and chemists at Lawrence Livermore “are helping to restart the TATB production process after 30 years of dormancy.”

In April 2020, Raytheon won the contract to develop the Long Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) for the US Air Force, on which the W80-4 will be placed. The LRSO will be “capable of both nuclear and conventional strikes,” says Defense News, which means that Russia and China will be on high-alert and prone to escalation in error, as the article later admits.

CONCLUSION: DIRECT THAT ENERGY

As Extinction Rebellion largely obeys COVID lockdown, Black Lives Matter and other solidarity groups take to the streets nationally and internationally. Militarized police push young, unarmed women to the ground, use their shields to knock over old men, and even fire their paint guns at people standing in their doorways filming. We have an out-of-control, predatory neoliberal economic system, a powder keg of 40 million unemployed Americans, a climate heating up by the day, causing wildfires in the Arctic, and a grim swing towards a new kind of buffoonish authoritarianism, with Bolsonaro in Brazil, BoJo the Clown in the UK, and the manic Narcissist-in-Chief in the White House running the most powerful nation on Earth.

As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, world-threatening nukes are being modernized and incrementally based in space. We need a broad left coalition of Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, and a revived anti-nuclear campaign to team up with anti-space-weapons networks to, if not end this madness, at least mitigate it. Unless we succeed, we might not be here to rebel against our extinction.

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T. J. Coles is director of the Plymouth Institute for Peace Research and the author of several books, including Voices for Peace (with Noam Chomsky and others) and  Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia (both Clairview Books).

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