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Biden Nuclear Posture Review Must Examine Ballistic Missile Defense

The Biden Administration begins its Nuclear Posture Review amidst growing threats of nuclear weapons conflict, described by many experts as more dangerous than the Cold War.

The U.S. Department of Energy current budget for nuclear weapons is already double it Cold War budget. The NPR will lay out the course for future expansion of the nuclear arsenal—or its reduction.

The Biden Nuclear Posture review is the fifth iteration of nuclear weapons planning since the first in 1994.

In general terms these NPR’s detail the necessity of maintaining a credible nuclear threat that could retaliate against an adversary’s nuclear first strike. Further, they propose new designs for nuclear bombs and the bombers to deliver them, new nuclear-tipped missiles and the submarines to launch them, and new Inter-Continental Missiles to carry newly fashioned nuclear warheads to their destination.

The Bush-Cheney 2002 NPR differed in that it drafted plans for nuclear weapons attacks on seven countries, including Russia, China, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya (portions of the Bush-Cheney NPR remain classified).

The Obama 2008 NPR differed in that it called for “reducing the role of the U.S. nuclear weapons in national security strategy”.

Trump’s 2018 NPR called for a vast modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, creating new classes of nuclear weapons that require new untested technologies at a cost of trillions of dollars over the next three decades. The ambitions and cost estimates proffered by the National Nuclear Security Agency, NNSA, are graded by the General Accountability Office as unrealistic. Many arms control experts consider Trump’s nuclear weapons plan provocative, destabilizing and grossly underfunded.

If the most tangible result of the Biden-Putin Summit in Vienna last June was their joint declaration that “A nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought” (quoting Reagan and Gorbachev, Vienna 1985), then Biden’s new Nuclear Posture Review could transform that wise phrase into substantive nuclear policies.

If Biden’s nominees for his NPR seek alternatives to  Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) the center of our nuclear posture, then they might consider Mutually Assured Survival, and the five  tenets from the Back from the Brink Movement: 1) Pursue Verifiable Elimination of Nuclear Weapons Worldwide, 2) Renounce First Use of Nuclear Weapons, 3) End Sole Authority of the president to launch nuclear weapons, 4) End “Hair Trigger Alert for U.S. ICBM fleet, 5) Cancel Enhanced Nuclear Weapons programs.

Hundreds of national and international organizations including The Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sierra Club, American Friends Service Committee, Pax Christi, and The U.S. Conference of Mayors plus many more have endorsed Back from the Brink (BftB).

It is time for President Biden to recommend to his NPR appointees nuclear policies designed to avoid a nuclear conflagration. Instead of expending trillions of dollars on the blind hope that we can survive a nuclear war, we can emphasize the importance of diplomatically negotiated treaties with our adversaries to reduce the existential risk posed by our nuclear faceoff.

China’s nuclear arsenal of 350 nuclear weapons is dwarfed by the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, 5,500 and 6,500 nuclear weapons respectively. China professes a No First Use of nuclear weapons and has separated its nuclear warheads from the missiles that deliver them, to avoid any chance of accidental launch and ensuing retaliation.

Back from the Brink promotes these policies and Biden’s NPR could staunch the growing tensions between China and the U.S. by adopting them as well. Avoiding the unimaginable destruction of nuclear war should be the goal of the NPR.

Adopting any one or all of these BftB initiatives would greatly enhance our chances of survival.

Given the general staff’s “can do spirit at any cost” and repeated intelligence failures from Saigon to Kabul, the future U.S. nuclear weapons posture cannot be left solely to the military experts. State Department experts in arm control such as Bonnie Jenkins, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control should be afforded an equal voice in the writing of Biden’s NPR.

The Role of Ballistic Missile Defense: Back to the Future

One component of the U.S. nuclear strategy that has caused major conflict between China, Russia and the U.S. is the relentless pursuit of national Ballistic Missile Defense systems in the Pentagon. Though both China and Russia have in separate and in joint statements warned the U.S. that Ballistic Missile Defense destabilizes the strategic security for their countries, the U.S. continues to integrate and upgrade its missile defense capabilities.

Nuclear weapons expert Daniel Ellsberg describes U.S. missile defense development as provocative. “China and Russia’s nuclear escalation is clearly in response to the U.S. Anti-Ballistic Missile program,” said Ellsberg in a recent Zoom meeting.

Ellsberg’s work for the RAND Corporation in 1961 uncovered top secret classified report s that predicted the deaths 500 million Russians and Chinese if the U.S. nuclear war plans were launched.

Even a regional nuclear exchange  involving hundreds of nuclear weapons, creating the “nuclear winter” scenario described by Ellsberg in his recent book, The Doomsday Machine.

Yet, in the Department of Defense Doctrine on Nuclear Operations,  April 2020, the Pentagon promises “decisive results through nuclear strikes, and prevailing in conflict.” Can the Pentagon “win”  with nuclear strikes while the president  says a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought?

The Pentagon justifies its readiness for nuclear confrontation by citing the prospective buildup of the Chinese nuclear arsenal to as many as four hundred nuclear weapons, or Russia’s development of advanced technological weapons like the hypersonic glider.

What the Pentagon is not saying:  China and Russia are expanding their nuclear capabilities in direct response to the U.S.  development and deployment of Ballistic Missile Defense Systems around the world.

Both Russia and China regard the U.S. ABM program as “destabilizing” and possessing both defensive and offensive capabilities.” Indeed, a former Chinese People’s Liberation Army Commander has warned, “Emphasizing missile defense strength would quicken the danger of nuclear war and also elicit a new nuclear arms race”.

Adversaries of the U.S. have concluded that U.S. regional missile defense systems will eventually integrate into a world-wide ballistic missile defense network that could neutralize their nuclear deterrence and embolden the U.S. to launch a nuclear first strike.  In a joint 2013 statement Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping warned, “Unilateral unlimited strengthening of missile defense harms strategic stability and international security”.

Is it possible that the prospect of U.S. expansion and integration of its regional ballistic missile defense systems is provoking the buildup of Chinese and Russian ICBM’s which the missile defenses are designed to destroy?

“We believe China is expanding its nuclear forces in part to maintain a deterrent that can survive a U.S. first strike in sufficient numbers to defeat U.S. missile defenses,” wrote Jeffrey Lewis, Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Today’s iteration of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, is the Missile Defense Agency. The MDA is requesting  billions of dollars for a “layered national missile defense”, a New Generation Interceptor whose operational lifetime cost will exceed $18 Billion for a decade, and research and development of a missile defense system against hypersonic missile threats. (The hypersonic missile was Russia’s response to U.S. missile defense!)

Congress has periodically shown some skepticism toward missile defense during defense budget deliberations. As recently as February 2021 Congress reduced Missile Defense Agency’s “layered missile defense” budget by $228 million, or 75 percent.

According to the Government Accountability Office, MDA has failed to perform any successful tests of its Ballistic Missile Defense Systems under “operational conditions” and the “successful” Aegis Standard Missile-3 “ was executed under highly favorable conditions.” GAO also reported that MDA had failed to conduct any satisfactory tests of its cyber security since 2017.

The outlandishly expensive Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative, “Star Wars,” cost upward of $800 Billion and produced no tangible protection against Soviet ICBM’s. The SDI program was finally defunded by Congress in 1986 when among many others, Republican Senator Jacob Javits said “We should remove obstacles to peace posed by Reagan’s SDI”.

The Strategic Defense Initiative was announced by President Reagan in 1983 without consultation from his science or defense advisors. The inspiration for Reagan’s SDI remains uncertain, though both H-Bomb inventor Edward Teller and or libertarian science fiction novelists Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have claimed they helped Reagan conceive of “Star Wars”.

The sheer enormity of the cost of SDI was not the only nor even the biggest price the U.S. has paid.  “Star Wars” would have violated the Outer Space treaty banning nuclear weapons in outer space, broken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, and subsequent SDI programs like Brilliant Pebbles and Radiant Energy Lasers like Excalibur would have abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, 1972.

Soviet President Gorbachev offered Ronald Reagan the total elimination of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, if the U.S. would reciprocate and halt the SDI program. Reagan declined, at incalculable cost.

Despite fantastical cost overruns, persistent test failures, cynicism from the scientific community, warnings that Ballistic Missile Defense can be easily defeated with chaff and camouflage technologies, bi-partisan opposition, and credible charges that Missile Defense has renewed a nuclear arms race, BMD finds its place in the Defense Authorization Act year after year.

One prime reason is the vast lobbying power of defense contractors, especially Missile Defense contractors like Boeing, Lockhead Martin and Raytheon.

Defense contractors spent $58 Million in the first six months of 2021 lobbying Congress to fund defense and missile defense contracts. These contractors were also some of the first to make PAC contributions to Members of Congress who had refused to ratify Joe Biden’s election after the January 6 insurrection.

Scandals have plagued missile defense projects for decades leading to whistleblower lawsuits, FBI investigations and prison for members of Congress and lobbyists alike.

If President Biden is as good as his word, he will “reduce the reliance of the U.S. on nuclear weapons” and adopt a No First Use of nuclear weapons policy.

If President Biden is as good as his word he will halt the nuclear arms race, restarted by the U.S. and its provocative Ballistic Missile Defense programs.

Before more billions of dollars are expended on sketchy missile defense projects, let us have a proper audit of the Defense Department and the National Nuclear Security Agency, which has never been accomplished.

“We are stumbling into an arms race that is largely driven by the U.S, investments in missile defense,” wrote Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute. “A nuclear arms race is to be condemned as an act of aggression against the poor, and a folly which does not provide the security it promises,” wrote Pope John Paul II.

Now that the Nuclear Posture Review for 2021 has begun, its first priority should be “mutually assured survival” and not our current posture of “mutually assured destruction”. It is time for Members of Congress to live up to the “Honorable” prefacing their names by ending meetings with defense contractor lobbyists who are pitching provocative and improbable  projects, not in the name of national security but in the name of their munitions corporations’  profits.

Will Biden emphasize in his upcoming NPR the importance of verifiable nuclear weapons reductions?

Will the Biden Administration reaffirm the U.S. commitment to reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons agreed in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

Will President Biden prioritize nuclear arms control reduction, and the elimination of nuclear arms instead of expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal?

Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review will soon answer those questions.