Biden’s Decisions This Year Will Determine US Nuclear Weapons Policy for Decades

ICBMs on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force. Photo: US Air Force.

Nuclear weapons policies and the trillions of U.S. dollars proposed to fund them come into sharp focus this month and through next year as Congress and the Biden Administration engage the nuclear weapons threat.

A threat viewed as existential by bombmakers, presidents, and arms control activists since the first nuclear weapons were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, nuclear weapons deployed today have a capacity to destroy all life on Earth.

Salvaging U.S. nuclear policy from the wreckage left by the Trump Administration, President Biden quickly renewed for five years the New START Treaty which limits the number of deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550 each for the U.S. and Russia

President Biden has also entered negotiations with Iran to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or the Iran nuclear deal) which Trump abrogated in 2017. The JCPOA had been negotiated by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — China, Russia, France, Great Britain, the U.S. plus Germany –all of whom remain committed to it.

All this is a good beginning on the nuclear front for the new Administration, but historic leadership will be required of Biden and members of Congress in the coming months, as Appropriations Committees consider spending up to $1.5 trillion on “modernizing” the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The Fiscal 2022 budget scheduled for presentation May 24 will include provision for a newly designed Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, GBSD—which could wind up costing more than $140 billion, and $250 billion over three decades.] The GBSD, would replace the Minuteman III ICBM’s currently deployed in silos in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming

Democratic Senator Ed Markey (Massachusetts) and Representative Ro Khanna (17th District, California) have filed bills in Congress to transfer funds from the new ICBMs toward research for universal vaccines against the Novelcorona virus. The Investing in Cures Before Missiles (ICMB) Act, according to Markey, “makes clear that we can begin to phase out the Cold War nuclear posture that risks accidental nuclear war while still deterring adversaries and assuring allies, and redirect those savings to the clear and present dangers posed by coronaviruses and other emerging and infectious diseases. The devastation sown by COVID-19 would pale in comparison to that of even a limited nuclear war. The ICBM Act signals that we intend to make the world safe from nuclear weapons and prioritize spending that saves lives, rather than ends them.”

Proponents of GBSD including its general contractor Northrop Grumman and major sub-contractors have spent at least one hundred nineteen million dollars of lobbying Congress in 2019-2021; the military industrial complex on parade.

Other initiatives would remove from “hair trigger alert” status controlling the four hundred Minuteman III missiles currently deployed in western States. “Hair trigger alert” and “launch on warning” are relics of the Cold War which give decision makers at most ten minutes to evaluate the validity of the warning of a nuclear attack, and to launch hundreds of the U.S. ICBMs before the enemy’s missile reach their targets.

Dozens of false warnings have scrambled B-52 jets loaded with megatons of nuclear bombs, raised Minuteman missiles to highest alert, roused sleeping presidents out of bed, or caused low ranking military personnel to disobey command and control orders to defuse a frantic but false alarm.

Such false warnings consist of flocks of flying swans, a bear climbing a missile pad security fence, the rising moon, the sun’s reflection on an unusual cloud formation, a defective computer chip costing twenty-five cents, and practice tapes of a nuclear attack unwittingly communicated in Hawaii as “This is Not a Drill”.

China has removed “launch on warning” status from its three hundred nuclear armed missiles. China’s Director of Arms Control, Fu Cong, in 2019 called for all nuclear armed nations to remove their nuclear armed missiles from hair trigger alert, which China considers too risky. The consequences of an accidental launch of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic. Standing down thousands of nuclear weapons from “launch on warning” makes all the sense in the world and could bolster the U.S.’ bona fides in nuclear weapons reduction negotiations going forward.

George Schultz, former Secretary of State, and editor of “The War That Should Never Be Fought”, advised that our adversaries are not always wrong, the U.S. is not always right, and verifiable nuclear weapons treaties are the only alternative to escalating nuclear weapons competition and eventual calamity. Nuclear weapons negotiation can bridge intractable geo-political conflicts, build mutual trust, and save taxpayers trillions of dollars.

American administrations rejected Soviet President Gorbachev’s offer to eliminate all nuclear weapons. President George Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, spawning a new nuclear arms race, and Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, returning Europe to a no man’s land vulnerable to tactical nuclear weapons.

No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, could provide a logical first step away from the fifty- year policy of “deterrents” and mutually assured destruction, universally referred to by the most appropriate of acronyms — MAD. MAD is designed to discourage adversaries from attacking by assuring that the aggressor, principally the Soviet Union/Russia, or vice versa the U.S. would suffer devastating retaliation. In his inimitable style Robert McNamara calculated the level of assured strategic destruction to be thirty percent of Russia’s population, and seventy percent of Russia’s economic capacity, ie. one hundred million Russian dead etc. QED, Quite Easily Done.

No First Use of nuclear weapons eliminates the need or rationale for a significant part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Much of the huge cost associated with the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal pertains to the survivability and retaliatory response to a nuclear attack. Yes, NFU means the U.S. is taking a pre-emptive nuclear first strike “off the table”

No First Use is also the subject of legislation filed in this year’s Congress (117th) by Senator Elizabeth Warren MA and Representative Adam Smith, WA. Smith chairs the influential House Armed Services Committee and describes the NFU bill as, “The United States should never initiate a nuclear war. This bill would strengthen deterrence while reducing the chance of nuclear use due to miscalculation or misunderstanding. Codifying that deterring nuclear use is the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal strengthens U.S. national security and would renew U.S. leadership on nuclear nonproliferation and disbarment.”

Following Trump’s perverse logic: “Why have nuclear weapons if you cannot use them?”, the Sea Launched Cruise Missile-Nuclear, and low yield submarine launched cruise missiles- nuclear were created. The SLCM-N is considered redundant, provocative, and costs more than ten billion dollars. Senator Chris Van Hollen, Md, and Representative Joe Courtney, CT, have recently filed bills to defund the SLCM-N. “Installing so-called ‘tactical’ nuclear warheads on Virginia-class attack subs is a money drain that will hinder construction of three Virginia-class attack submarines per-year—which both the Obama and Trump shipbuilding plans endorsed,” said Courtney.

Literally and figuratively at the core of the plan to “modernize” the U.S. nuclear arsenal are projects to manufacture new plutonium pits for the next generation of nuclear weapons. Tens of billions of dollars would initially fund construction of plutonium bomb plants at Savannah River Site, S.C., and Los Alamos, N.M. These funds flow through the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration. NNSA FY 2021 budget request of nearly twenty billion dollars is more than one-half the entire Department of Energy budget request. Whether new nuclear bombs take precedence over new clean energy technologies should be questioned in Congressional committee hearings in the coming weeks.

Regarding plutonium pit production, the DOE estimates the legacy clean- up cost of plutonium manufacture since the Manhattan Project during WWII at one trillion dollars. Some sites like Hanford WA and Rocky Flats CO are deemed polluted beyond remediation and are ruined forever.

Were Congress and the Biden Administration to pause, review or even defund any or all of the nuclear weapon programs they would also pause the nascent nuclear arms race stalking future generations. President Biden could and should send a clear signal to his deputies who will soon write the Nuclear Posture Review issued every five years. Quoting Ronald Reagan, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” should be the mantra of the Biden Nuclear Posture Review.

By introducing the American public to taboo issues such as “No First Use” of nuclear weapons, taking ICMB’s off “hair trigger alert”, debating the “sole authority” of the President to order a nuclear attack, and working for the eventual verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons, the Biden Administration would enhance its standing in the world’s arms control community–standing squandered by Trump. Biden could save hundreds of billions of dollars by transferring funds from nuclear armed missiles to research to prevent the next pandemic, or cybersecurity. And maybe, if our luck still holds, he could avoid destroying human civilization and much of life on Earth.

Another arena for Biden administration action is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — the cornerstone of nuclear arms control. Signed in 1968, it is reviewed every five years, this year in Vienna in August. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and U.S. arms control negotiators will bring enhanced credibility to the table if they eschew Trump’s jingoistic nuclear weapons policies.

Article VI of the NPT commits all signatories to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons from their arsenals. The massive nuclear arms build-up the U.S. is considering defies the spirit and letter of NPT’s Article VI.

Since the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, eminent scientists like Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, philosophers like Bertrand Russell, religious leaders like the Dalai Lama and many Catholic Popes, Quakers and Imams—in fact, the great majority of the world’s nations and peoples–have demanded that international treaties curtail and eliminate nuclear weapons from the Earth.

Their efforts have led to decreasing nuclear weapons from 70,000 to the current 16,000, ninety percent of which are held in Russian and U.S. arsenals Forty percent of the world’s population now live in the five Nuclear Weapons Free Zones established under Article VII of the NPT. And nuclear weapons are now illegal in the fifty- four countries that have ratified the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, TPNW, entered into force February 2021.

Still ominous warnings about the renewed nuclear arms race are rising. “The likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than during the Cold War, and the public is completely unaware of the danger,” says former Secretary of Defense William Perry. The Biden Administration has quickly reached an inflexion point for U.S. nuclear weapons policy: either double down on new weapons for decades into the future or seek verifiable consequential nuclear weapons treaties.

According to Rutgers Professor Alan Robock, even a fraction of the nuclear weapons currently deployed–one hundred–could create a nuclear winter dispersing high in the atmosphere enough soot to block sunlight and make agriculture impossible, leading to famine for billions of people.

Corresponding with Albert Einstein in 1932, Sigmund Freud remarked that humans have a propensity for violence, and an instinct to kill and destroy. Only multi-lateral laws could abate man’s “death wish,” the two agreed. Such laws do exist in the form of nuclear treaties, like New START, the NPT and TPNW.

Ridding the world of these horrific weapons is not fantasy but is an imperative for world leaders. Biden stated as Vice-President, “The spread of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat facing the country and, I would argue, facing humanity. And that is why we are working both to stop their proliferation and eventually to eliminate them”.

The next few weeks and months will determine the course of nuclear weapons policy for the U.S. and the world. There are only two choices: expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal or reduce it, agree on verifiable nuclear weapons treaties with Russia and China or threaten catastrophic war, spend trillions of dollars on demonic weapons or on medicine, schools and art… life or death.

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