Why is America getting a new $100 billion nuclear weapon?

Elisabeth Eave
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 8, 2021

America is building a new weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear missile the length of a bowling lane. It will be able to travel some 6,000 miles, carrying a warhead about 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It will be able to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single shot. The U.S. Air Force plans to order more than 600 of them.

On September 8, the Air Force gave the defense company Northrop Grumman an initial contract of $13.3 billion to begin engineering and manufacturing the missile, but that will be just a fraction of the total bill. Based on a Pentagon report cited by the Arms Control Association, the government will spend roughly $100 billion to build the weapon, which will be ready to use around 2029.

To put that price tag in perspective, $100 billion could pay 1.24-million elementary school teacher salaries for a year, provide 2.84-million four-year university scholarships, or cover 3.3-million hospital stays for COVID-19 patients. It’s enough to get to Mars.

For now, the missile goes by the inglorious acronym GBSD, for “ground-based strategic deterrent.” The GBSD is designed to replace the existing fleet of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Like its predecessors, the GBSD fleet will be lodged in underground silos, widely scattered in three groups known as “wings” across five states. The official purpose of American ICBMs goes beyond responding to nuclear assault. They are also intended to deter such attacks, and serve as targets in case there is one.

Under the theory of deterrence, America’s nuclear arsenal — currently made up of 3,800 warheads — sends a message to other nuclear-armed countries. It relays to the enemy that U.S. retaliation would be so awful, it had better not attack in the first place. Many consider American deterrence a success, pointing to the fact that no country has ever attacked the United States with nuclear weapons. But this is faulty logic. The absence of a nuclear attack on the United States doesn’t prove that 3,800 warheads are essential to deterrence. And for practical purposes, after the first few hundred, they quickly grow redundant.

Deterrence is the main argument for having a nuclear arsenal at all. But America’s land-based missiles have another strategic purpose all their own. Housed in permanent silos spread across America’s high plains, they are intended to draw fire to the region in the event of a nuclear war, forcing Russia to use up a lot of its arsenal on a sparsely populated area. If that happened and all three wings were destroyed, the attack would kill more than 10-million people and turn the area into a charred wasteland, unfarmable and uninhabitable for centuries to come.

The GBSD’s detractors include long-time peace activists, as well as many former military leaders, and their criticism has to do with those immovable silos. Relative to nuclear missiles on submarines, which can slink around undetected, and nuclear bombs on airplanes, America’s land-based nuclear missiles are easy marks.

Because they are so exposed, they pose another risk: To avoid being destroyed and rendered useless, they would be “launched on warning,” that is, as soon as the Pentagon got wind of an incoming nuclear attack. But the computer systems that warn of such incoming fire may be vulnerable to hacking and false alarms.

During the Cold War, military computer glitches in both the United States and Russia caused a number of close calls, and since then, cyberthreats have become an increasing concern. An investigation ordered by the Obama administration in 2010 found that the Minutemen missiles were vulnerable to a potentially crippling cyberattack. Because an error could have disastrous consequences, James Mattis, the former Marine Corps general who would go on to become the 26th U.S. secretary of defense, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015 that getting rid of America’s land-based nuclear missiles “would reduce the false alarm danger.” Whereas a bomber can be turned around even on approach to its target, a nuclear missile launched by mistake can’t be recalled.

Residents of Hawaii received notifications like this on January 13, 2018, a false alarm that went uncorrected for thirty-eight minutes.

Given the expense, doubtful strategic purpose, and lack of popularity, why is Washington spending so much to replace the Minuteman III? The answers stretch from the Utah desert to Montana wheat fields to the halls of Congress. They span presidential administrations and political parties. They come from airmen and farmers and senators and CEOs.

The reasons for the GBSD are historical, political and, to a significant extent, economic. Many people in the states where the new missile will be built and based see the jobs as a lifeline. Their elected officials take campaign donations from defense companies, to be sure, but are also trying to deliver jobs in a political environment that has been hostile to government spending on anything but defense. Defense is the safety net where other options are few.

A lot of people, even some of those whose livelihoods depend on them, would like to see the number of nuclear weapons gradually reduced until they’re gone. The United States stands no chance of making them disappear, though, until more people understand why they exist — and how little some nuclear weapons programs have to do with national defense.

– PeaceMeal, March/April 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Aging electronics may limit nuclear weapons reliability

Steven Aftergood

The use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic parts in nuclear weapons systems may reduce the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal over time as the electronics age in ways that are hard to predict, according to a newly disclosed report from the JASON science advisory panel.

“Most of the electronic materials and components within a weapon system are electrically inactive for a majority of the system lifetime” — which in a nuclear weapon can last for decades. “Determining the reliability of successfully executing a highly demanding, short-duration, operational sequence for systems that have been dormant over extended time periods challenges our ability to model, predict, and meet system performance requirements,” the JASON report to the National Nuclear Security Administration said. “A goal of reliable performance after 40-60 years of unmonitored storage poses difficult, and perhaps unrealistic, challenges for electronic components to electrical subsystems and systems, whether or not COTS materials are utilized.”

The JASON panel offered 15 recommendations for identifying and detecting electronic failure modes and validating electronic reliability under the long-term conditions of the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

The characteristic failure modes of electronics that are dormant for decades differ from those that are in regular use. But the concern for reliability is not unique to nuclear weapons. “The aeronautics, aerospace, automotive, and medical device industries face similar design and assembly challenges — to ensure reliable performance and extremely low failure rates in electronics built with commercial components, often for high-consequence applications,” the report noted.

Accordingly, the JASONs said, NNSA should partner with the Department of Defense, NASA and others to share relevant knowledge and to undertake a “forward-looking program of focused materials research and development. . . . This will remain important as long as consumer electronics continue to change rapidly; there is no one-and-done solution that will solve the challenges associated with materials aging and reliability of COTS electronic systems with long dormancy.”

In the meantime, NNSA should also pursue “component and subsystem designs that enable regular monitoring through subsystem testing done in the field, in order to ensure reliable functioning of the electronics components.”

The systematic adoption of COTS electronics within military programs was driven in part by a 1994 memo from then-Defense Secretary William Perry, “Specifications & Standards — A New Way of Doing Business,” which encouraged DoD to increase reliance on commercial technology.

In the past, electronic components were specifically designed and fabricated for each weapon system, the JASONs noted. “Traditionally, in weapons systems, custom parts were used and strong control was exerted over the part manufacturers; reliability still had to be assessed.” But today, “The military remains only a small fraction of the electronics market and so cannot alone be expected to drive new products, enforce quality, or improve reliability.”

As a result, “NNSA should view with skepticism expectations of long-term stability and reliability when adopting COTS electronic components whose design and manufacture were predicated on applications in commercial products with limited service lifetimes,” the JASONs said.

The JASON report was released by NNSA on March 9 under the Freedom of Information Act with redactions of certain deliberative information “regarding the future of the Nuclear Weapons Program.

– Federation of American Scientists, March 11, 2021
PeaceMeal, March/April 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


U.K. expands nuclear arsenal in biggest shift since Cold War

The United Kingdom plans to bolster its stockpile of nuclear weapons to counter growing threats around the world, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced as he unveiled a major over-haul of defense and foreign policy. Under a blueprint for the next decade, the U.K. will cut troop numbers, tanks and some fighter jets, according to a person familiar with the matter, while increas-ing its arsenal of nuclear warheads potentially by more than 40%.

The first stage of the plan is contained in a 110-page report which Johnson’s officials are billing as the most wide ranging re-evaluation of the U.K.’s security and place in the world since the end of the Cold War. In the March 16 report, the government warned the U.K. is under threat from rogue states, terrorists and even big tech companies, arguing that British military capabilities and international alliances must be reshaped in response.

The decision to bolster the U.K.’s nuclear weapons capability immediately proved controversial, calling time-out on the gradual disarmament that marked the end of the Cold War. Officials believe the move is necessary because other countries are “increasing and diversifying their nuclear arsenals,” deploying “novel” technologies, according to the document.

“We remain committed to maintaining the minimum destructive power needed to guarantee that the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent remains credible and effective against the full range of state nuclear threats from any direction,” the document said.

Leader of the opposition Labor Party Keir Starmer told Johnson the U.K. had violated the goal of successive governments to reduce the nuclear stockpile without explaining “when, why or for what strategic purpose.”

Later, Johnson’s spokesman Jamie Davies denied the point made by many MPs in Parliament that the U.K. could be in breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It “doesn’t require us to reduce the number of warheads,” Davies told reporters in London. The maximum limit to the number of nuclear warheads the U.K. maintains will rise from 180 to 260.

A Green Party member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas, called the increase a “provocative, illegal and morally obscene use of resources.

– edited from Bloomberg, March 16, 2021
PeaceMeal, March/April 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Doomsday Clock close as ever to midnight in 2021 over COVID, nukes, climate change

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has left the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, its closest point to midnight ever, signaling a continued concern at the highest level about existential threats to humanity. In addition to civilization-ending threats of nuclear weapons and climate change, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin, a group of experts who determined the setting of the clock, cited failures to sufficiently address the worsening COVID-19 outbreak.

Rachel Bronson, president and CEO of the Bulletin, pointed to COVID-19 as a sign that the world remained woefully ill-equipped to deal with potentially apocalyptic threats. And many of the group’s experts found that the United States has played a unique role in endangering the world as we know it.

Former California Governor Jerry Brown, who serves as executive chair of the Bulletin, addressing the United States, Russia and the world’s other nuclear powers, said, “It’s time to eliminate nuclear weapons, not build more of them. Likewise, with climate change: the U.S., China and other big countries must get serious about cutting lethal carbon emissions — now.”

Robert Rosner, a University of Chicago astrophysicist who serves as chair of the Science and Security Board also weighed in. “I would say that the U.S. has played a major role in increasing the risks to humanity,” he said. Compounding on former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from major agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, as well as his failure to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), Rosner pointed to his administration’s contribution to “the erosion of the information ecosystem.”

Many analysts saw President Joe Biden taking office as having a positive effect on the U.S. contribution to international security. In seven days, Biden had already restored Washington’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement and set the stage for a New START extension. He also previously promised to restore U.S. commitment to the nuclear agreement with Iran.

But Biden’s commitments also had their limits. The U.S. has remained silent in the face of the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) going into effect, a ban outright dismissed by most major nuclear powers and endorsed by none.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons saw New START as just the beginning of what Biden could potentially do for non-proliferation, should he choose to prioritize it. “It took President Biden just two weeks to make more progress on disarmament than Trump did in four years,” she said. “Imagine what the new administration could accomplish with strong and sustained commitment — with nuclear weapons elimination as an end goal.”

– edited from Newsweek, January 27, 2021
PeaceMeal, January/February 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Arms Can Bring No Security

Albert Einstein
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1950

The idea of achieving security through national armament is, at the present state of military technique, a disastrous illusion. On the part of the United States this illusion has been particularly fostered by the fact that this country succeeded first in producing an atomic bomb. The belief seemed to prevail that in the end it were possible to achieve decisive military superiority.

In this way, any potential opponent would be intimidated, and security, so ardently desired by all of us, would be brought to us and all of humanity. The maxim which we have been following during these last five years has been, in short: security through superior military power, whatever the cost.

This mechanistic, technical-military, psychological attitude had inevitable consequences. Every single act in foreign policy is governed exclusively by one viewpoint.

How do we have to act in order to achieve utmost superiority over the opponent in case of war? Establishing military bases at all possible strategically important points on the globe. Arming and economic strengthening of potential allies.

Within the country—concentration of tremendous financial power in the hands of the military, militarization of the youth, close supervision of the loyalty of the citizens, in particular, of the civil servants by a police force growing more conspicuous every day. Intimidation of people of independent political thinking. Indoctrination of the public by radio, press, school. Growing restriction of the range of public information under the pressure of military secrecy.

The armament race between the USA and the USSR, originally supposed to be a preventive measure, assumes hysterical character. On both sides, the means to mass destruction are perfected with feverish haste—behind the respective walls of secrecy. The H-bomb appears on the public horizon as a probably attainable goal. Its accelerated development has been solemnly proclaimed by the President.

If successful, radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere, and hence annihilation of any life on earth, has been brought within the range of technical possibilities. The ghostlike character of this development lies in its apparently compulsory trend. Every step appears as the unavoidable consequence of the preceding one. In the end there beckons more and more clearly general annihilation.

Is there any way out of this impasse created by man himself? All of us, and particularly those who are responsible for the attitudes of the U.S. and the USSR, should realize that we may have vanquished an external enemy, but have been incapable of getting rid of the mentality created by the war.

It is impossible to achieve peace as long as every single action is taken with a possible future conflict in view. The leading point of view of all political action should therefore be: What can we do to bring about a peaceful co-existence and even loyal cooperation of the nations?

The first problem is to do away with mutual fear and distrust. Solemn renunciation of violence (not only with respect to means of mass destruction) is undoubtedly necessary.

Such renunciation, however, can only be effective if at the same time a supra-national judicial and executive body is set up empowered to decide questions of immediate concern to the security of the nations. Even a declaration of the nations to collaborate loyally in the realization of such a “restricted world government” would considerably reduce the imminent danger of war.

In the last analysis, every kind of peaceful cooperation among men is primarily based on mutual trust and only secondly on institutions such as courts of justice and police. This holds for nations as well as for individuals. And the basis of trust is loyal give and take.

What about international control? Well, it may be of secondary use as a police measure. But it may be wise not to overestimate its importance. The times of prohibition come to mind and give one pause.

Albert Einstein won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect” but is best known for his development of the theories of special and general relativity. His article was published in the wake of President Harry Truman’s announcement that the United States would pursue development of a hydrogen bomb. It was reprinted in PeaceMeal, January/February 2021.


USAF plans to expand nuclear bomber bases

Hans M. Christensen

The U.S. Air Force is working to expand the number of strategic bomber bases that can store nuclear weapons from two today to five by the 2030s. The plan will also significantly expand the number of bomber bases that store nuclear cruise missiles from one base today to all five bomber bases.

The expansion is the result of a decision to replace the non-nuclear B-1B bombers at Ellsworth AFB and Dyess AFB with the nuclear B-21 bomber over the next decade-and-a-half and also reinstate nuclear weapons storage capability at Barksdale AFB. The Air Force previously planned for the B-21 to replace the B-2A no later than 2032 and the B-1Bs no later than 2036

The expansion is not expected to increase the total number of nuclear weapons assigned to the bomber force, but to broaden the infrastructure to “accommodate mission growth,” Air Force Global Strike Command Commander General Timothy Ray told Congress last year.

The Air Force announced in May 2018 that the B-21 would replace the B-1B and B-2A bombers and be deployed at Ellsworth AFB, Dyess AFB, and Whiteman AFB.

Since the B-1B was replaced in the nuclear war plan by the B-2A in 1997 and all B-1B bombers were denuclearized in 2011, the effect of the B-21 bomber program is that nuclear bomber operations will increase from the three bases today to five bases in the future. The modernization plan also appears to significantly expand the location of nuclear cruise missiles from one base today (Minot AFB) to all five bomber bases by the late-2030s. The Long Range Stand Off Weapon (LRSO) is a nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile scheduled to begin entering the arsenal in 2030.

A key element of the base upgrades to operate the B-21 involves the construction of a new nuclear weapons storage facility at each base: a Weapons Generation Facility (WGF). The new facility is different than the Weapons Storage Areas (WSAs) that the Air Force built during the Cold War as it will integrate maintenance and storage mission sets into the same facility. The Air Force says the WGF will be “unique to the B-21 mission” and designed to provide a “safer and more secure location for the storage of Air Force nuclear munitions.” A WGF is also under construction at F.E. Warren AFB for storage of ICBM warheads.

The B-21 bomber program is expected to increase the overall size of the U.S. strategic bomber force. The Air Force currently operates about 158 bombers (62 B-1B, 20 B-2A, and 76 B-52H) and has long said it plans to procure at least 100 B-21 bombers. That number now appears to be at least 145, which will increase the overall bomber force by 62 bombers to about 220. There are currently nine bomber squadrons, a number the Air Force wants to increase to 14 (each base has more than one squadron).

During an interview in April, General Ray reportedly said the 220 number was a “minimum, not a ceiling” and added: “We as the Air Force now believe it’s over 220.” Whether Congress will agree to pay for that many B-21s remains to be seen.

The fielding of large numbers of nuclear-capable B-21 bombers has implications for the future development of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Under the New START treaty, the United States has declared it will deploy no more than 60 nuclear bombers. Although the treaty will lapse in 2026 (after a five-year maximum extension), it serves as the baseline for long-term nuclear force structure planning.

Unless the Air Force limits the number of nuclear-equipped B-21 bombers to the number of B-2As operated today, the number of nuclear bombers would begin to exceed the 60 deployed nuclear bomber pledge by 2028 (assuming an annual production of nine aircraft and two-year delay in deployment of the first nuclear unit). By 2035, the number of deployed nuclear bombers could double compared with today.

It is difficult to imagine a military justification for such an increase in the number of nuclear bombers — even without New START. One would hope that the number of nuclear B-21s will be limited to well below the total number. Although the New START treaty would have expired before this becomes a legal issue, it would now send the wrong message to other nuclear-armed states about U.S. long-term intentions, deepen suspicion and “Great Power Competition,” and could complicate future arms control talks.

In the short term, the incoming Biden administration should commit the United States to not increase the number of nuclear bombers beyond those planned under the New START treaty, and it should urge Russia to make a similar declaration about the size of its nuclear bomber force.

Hans M. Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. His article is edited from Federation of American Scientists, November 17, 2020, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, November/December 2020.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)


Trump’s COVID infection shows why it’s time to retire the nuclear football

Tom Z. Collina

President John Kennedy took powerful pain medications. President Richard Nixon was a heavy drinker. President Ronald Reagan had dementia. And now President Donald Trump has had the coronavirus. These conditions can significantly impair one’s ability to think clearly. And yet, as president, each had — or, in Trump’s case, still has — the unilateral authority to launch U.S. nuclear weapons within minutes.

President Trump is followed 24/7 by a military aide that carries the “football,” the briefcase that holds all he would need to order the immediate launch of up to 1,000 nuclear weapons, more than enough megatonnage to blow the world back into the stone age. He does not need the approval of Congress or the secretary of defense. Shockingly, there are no checks and balances on this ultimate executive power.

President Trump took the nuclear football with him to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he received treatment for COVID-19. According to Trump’s doctor, the president’s blood oxygen levels had dipped. And this, according to independent health experts, can impair decision-making ability. He was taking dexamethasone, which can cause mood swings and “frank psychotic manifestations.” Yet as far as we know, at no point did the president transfer his powers to the vice president, as allowed under the 25th Amendment.

To state the obvious, we should not entrust nuclear launch authority to someone who is not fully lucid. (Reagan transferred authority temporarily before planned surgery, as did President George W. Bush before a medical procedure that required his sedation.) A nuclear crisis can happen at any time, including at the worst possible time. If such a crisis takes place when a president’s thinking is compromised for any reason, the results could be catastrophic.

For example, imagine that the president is alerted to an incoming nuclear missile attack. He would have just minutes to decide what to do before the attack, if real, would land. Even in the best of circumstances there would be tremendous pressure to launch land-based ballistic missiles (which are highly vulnerable) immediately. He would need all of his wits about him to understand that he should not launch these weapons. Why? Because any alert of a nuclear attack is likely to be a false alarm, and once launched, our missiles cannot be recalled. If the president orders an attack in response to a false alarm, he would have started nuclear war by mistake.

If the president or his advisors have reason to believe that Trump’s thinking may be compromised, nuclear launch authority should be transferred to the vice president, Mike Pence. If Pence also gets COVID, the football could then be passed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, President Pro Tempore of the Senate Chuck Grassley, and the secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, in that order.

But kicking the football down the line does not solve the problem — and in fact shows why the system is broken. Does anyone really believe that the president pro tem of the Senate or the Treasury Secretary has spent much time preparing for nuclear war? And even if they had prepared, the central dilemma remains: All humans are imperfect, and we should not trust the fate of the world to any one person.

The whole concept of giving the president unilateral nuclear authority is built on the false assumption that Russia might launch a surprise first strike. In fact, Russia has never seriously considered a first strike against the United States for a simple reason: It would be national suicide. Both sides have to assume that an attack would provoke an unacceptable nuclear retaliation. Both nations, and much of the rest of the globe, would be obliterated. Starting such a war would be insanity.

Yet by facilitating a quick launch, we are making it more likely that the president will blunder into Armageddon. In a crisis, we should be seeking to give the president more decision time, not less. Maintaining an effective deterrent does not require us to rush into a nuclear war. We have hundreds of nuclear weapons deployed on submarines at sea that would survive any attack. So, rather than argue about who should have the football, let’s make the process safer and more democratic.

The Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress, not the president. Thus, a presidential decision to initiate the use of nuclear weapons — the ultimate war declaration — would be unconstitutional. The next president can rectify this situation by declaring that he would share the authority to start nuclear war with Congress. He could also state that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter their use by others. Vice President Joe Biden has declared his support for such a “sole purpose” policy, which is essentially the same as a commitment to not use nuclear weapons first.

It is time to retire the nuclear football. The only thing standing between us and nuclear holocaust is one man with COVID on heavy meds. That is the plan? Ending sole authority is better than entrusting it to any individual.

In a vibrant democracy, no one person should have the unchecked power to destroy the world.

– Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 6, 2020
PeaceMeal, November/December 2020

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)