For nuclear security, eliminate land-based ‘doomsday’ missiles

David Krieger and Daniel Ellsberg

President Obama and other world leaders gathered in March at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, to address threats posed by unsecured nuclear material. If Mr. Obama is truly concerned about nuclear safety, he should do away with our 450 land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles that are ready to fire at Russia on a moment’s notice.

In February, we were among 15 protesters who were arrested in the middle of the night at Vandenberg Air Force Base for protesting the imminent test flight of a Minuteman III ICBM. The Air Force rationale for doing the test was to ensure the reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent force; but launch-ready, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are the opposite of a deterrent to attack. In fact, their very deployment has the potential to launch World War III as a result of a false alarm and precipitate human extinction.

These nuclear-tipped missiles are first-strike weapons that would not survive a nuclear attack. In the event of a warning of a Russian nuclear attack, there would be an incentive to launch all 450 of them before the incoming enemy warheads could destroy them in their silos. If the warning turned out to be false and the U.S. missiles were launched before the error was detected, World War III would be underway. The Russians have the same incentive to launch their land-based missiles upon warning of a perceived attack.

Both U.S. and Russian land-based missiles remain constantly on high-alert status, ready to be launched within minutes. Because of the 30-minute flight times of these missiles, the presidents of both the U.S. and Russia would have only about 12 minutes to decide whether to launch their missiles when presented by their military leaders with information indicating an imminent attack.

That’s only 12 minutes or less for President Obama to decide whether to launch a global nuclear war. While this scenario has a low probability, it is definitely possible. There have been many false warnings in the past on both sides, and presidents have repeatedly rehearsed the scenario. It cannot be ruled out due to the extreme gravity of its potential consequences.

Russia came close to launching its missiles against us based on a false warning that came January 25, 1995. President Boris Yeltsin was awakened in the middle of the night and told a U.S. missile was headed toward Moscow. Fortunately, he was clear-headed enough to judge that the U.S. would not launch an attack with only one missile. It turned out that it was only a weather sounding rocket from Norway, whose trajectory was similar to that of a missile coming over the North Pole from the United States. Disaster was narrowly averted.

The really compelling part of the story is that, if all 450 of our Minuteman III missiles with thermonuclear warheads were ever launched at Russia — with many of the targets in or near cities, as now planned, most Americans would die as a result, along with most of humanity. Our own weapons would contribute as much or more to the deaths in America and the rest of the globe as any Russian warheads launched. This is because the enormous firestorms created by even a “successful” U.S. nuclear first-strike would produce a dense stratospheric smoke layer that would quickly surround the planet. The result, according to peer-reviewed studies done by atmospheric scientists Alan Robock (Rutgers), Brian Toon (University of Colorado-Boulder), Richard Turco (UCLA) and colleagues, would be a catastrophic “nuclear winter” — global Ice Age climate conditions leading to global famine.

Along with other effects, including prolonged destruction of the ozone layer, most complex life on Earth could be destroyed. Scientists say the event would be similar to when an asteroid hit the Earth some 65 million years ago, raising a global dust cloud that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and an estimated 70 percent of the Earth’s species. The cause of our extinction would not be an external, celestial event, but rather the launching of thermonuclear weapons we ourselves had created for our own supposed “security.”

Even the smaller existing nuclear arsenals of India and Pakistan threaten global disaster. Professor Robock and his colleagues have estimated that in a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan in which each side used 50 Hiroshima-size bombs, the smoke rising into the stratosphere could cause a global reduction of sunlight and destruction of ozone leading to crop failures and global famine. By comparison, the launch-ready thermonuclear forces of the U.S. and Russia have roughly 500 times the explosive power of those 100 atomic bombs.

Nuclear weapons do not make the United States or the world more secure. If we did away now with our land-based missile force, we would still have 288 invulnerable, submarine-launched ballistic missiles at sea — armed with approximately 1,152 warheads — to act as a retaliatory threat to a nuclear attack. But it would no longer have targets in the continental United States for Russia to strike preemptively in a time of tension or in the event of a false warning of attack.

Now is the time for the people of the United States and other nations of the world to stand up against the potential extinction of the human species and demand that political leaders aggressively pursue the path to a world free of nuclear weapons.

We should begin with two steps: first, a commitment by the existing nuclear weapon states to forego launch-on-warning and first use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances; and second, good faith negotiations for a new treaty for the step-by-step, verifiable and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in Santa Barbara CA. Daniel Ellsberg, the former U.S. national security advisor who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, is a member of the advisory board of NAPF. Their article is edited from The Christian Science, posted March 27, 2012, and reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2012.

(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.)

No need for U.S. nuclear testing

The United States is in a better position today than at any time since the dawn of the nuclear era to ensure the reliability and safety of its nuclear weapons without the need for underground testing, a National Academies of Science committee has concluded. The U.S. also is well-equipped to detect clandestine efforts by other nations to test nuclear weapons, using its own military and intelligence capabilities or a separate international monitoring system.

Seismic, hydroacoustic, radioisotopic and satellite technologies for detecting nuclear detonations have improved markedly in the 10 years since the National Academies last advised on the possibility of tests going undetected. The committee judged that, to clandestinely test a nuclear device, a country located in the Northern Hemisphere would have to limit the explosive yield to below 1 kiloton in order to have a 90% probability of the test going undetected.

The U.S. has observed a moratorium on testing since 1992. The Senate, however, rejected ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. The Obama administration has indicated that it will put the CTBT before the Senate again.

“Provided that sufficient resources and a national commitment to stockpile stewardship are in place, the committee judges that the United States has the technical capabilities to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable stockpile of nuclear weapons into the foreseeable future without nuclear-explosion testing,” the report concluded.

(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.)

doom_clock_5.gif (2567 bytes)Doomsday Clock moves forward to five minutes to midnight

The keepers of the “Doomsday Clock” — a symbol of Earth’s vulnerability to man-made catastrophe — moved its hands forward by 2 minutes on January 10 to reflect worsening nuclear and climate threats to the world. The iconic clock, maintained by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, is now set at 5 minutes to midnight, with midnight marking global catastrophe. It returns to the closest the clock has been to midnight since the Cold War.

Despite the promise of a new spirit of international cooperation and reductions in tensions between the United States and Russia, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin believes that the path toward a world free of nuclear weapons is not at all clear, and leadership is failing. Failure to act on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by leaders in the United States, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel and North Korea and on a treaty to cut off production of nuclear weapons material continues to leave the world at risk from further development of nuclear weapons. The world still has approximately 19,500 nuclear weapons, enough power to destroy the Earth’s inhabitants several times over.

Obstacles to a world free of nuclear weapons remain. Among these are disagreements between the United States and Russia about the utility and purposes of missile defense, as well as insufficient transparency, planning and cooperation among the nine nuclear weapons states to support continuing disarmament. The resulting distrust leads nearly all nuclear weapons states to hedge their bets by modernizing their nuclear arsenals. While governments claim they are only ensuring the safety of their warheads through replacement of bomb components and launch systems, as the process of arms reduction deliberation proceeds, such developments appear to other states to be signs of substantial military build-ups.

The challenges of nuclear weapons proliferation also are unresolved. Ambiguity about Iran’s nuclear power program continues to be the most prominent example of this problem: centrifuges can enrich uranium for both civilian power plants and military weapons. It remains to be seen how many additional countries will pursue nuclear power, but without solutions to the dual-use problem and without incentives sufficient to resist military applications, the world is playing with an apocalyptic explosive potential.

The potential for nuclear weapons use in regional conflicts in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and particularly in South Asia is also alarming. Ongoing efforts to ease tensions, deal with extremism and terrorist acts, and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in international relations have had only halting success. International diplomatic pressure as well as burgeoning citizen action will help political leaders to see the folly of continuing to rely on nuclear weapons for national security.

The disaster at Fukushima, Japan — the full-meltdown of three nuclear power reactors and damage to three more — dramatically shows the need to develop safer nuclear reactor designs and for more stringent training and oversight.

In the area of climate change, the global community may be near a point of no return in efforts to prevent catastrophic changes in Earth’s atmosphere. The International Energy Agency projects that, unless societies begin building alternatives to carbon-emitting energy technologies over the next five years, the world is doomed to a warmer climate, harsher weather, droughts, famine, water scarcity, rising sea levels, loss of island nations, and increasing ocean acidification. Since fossil-fuel burning power plants and infrastructure built in 2012-2020 will produce energy — and emissions — for 40 to 50 years, the actions taken in the next few years will set us on a path that will be impossible to redirect. Even if policy leaders decide in the future to reduce reliance on carbon-emitting technologies, it will be too late.

The hopeful news is that alternatives to burning coal, oil and uranium for energy continue to show promise. Solar and photovoltaic technologies are seeing reductions in price, wind turbines are being adopted for commercial electricity, and energy conservation and efficiency are becoming accepted as sources for industrial production and residential use. Many of these developments are taking place at municipal and local levels in countries around the world. In California, for example, the state government is placing caps on carbon emissions that industry will be required to meet. While not perfect, these technologies and practices hold substantial promise.

On the other hand, the pace of change may not be adequate, and the transformation that seems to be on its way will not take place in time to meet the hardships that large-scale disruption of the climate portends. The major challenge at the heart of humanity’s survival in the 21st century is how to meet energy needs for economic growth in developing and industrial countries without further damaging the climate, without exposing people to loss of health and community, and without risking further spread of nuclear weapons.

The challenges to rid the world of nuclear weapons, harness nuclear power, and meet the nearly inexorable climate disruptions from global warming are complex and interconnected. In the face of such complex problems, it is difficult to see where the capacity lies to address these challenges. The political processes in place seem wholly inadequate to meet the challenges to human existence that we confront.

The Board is heartened by the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements, political protests in Russia, and by the actions of ordinary citizens in Japan as they call for fair treatment and attention to their needs. Whether meeting the challenges of nuclear power, or mitigating the suffering from human-caused global warming, or preventing catastrophic nuclear conflict in a volatile world, the power of people is essential. Together, ordinary citizens can present the most significant questions to policymakers and industry leaders and advocate for solutions that are urgently needed.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 10, 2012
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2012

(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.)

If we don’t end nuclear weapons, they will end us

Editorial, National Catholic Reporter, 20 July 2011

“Viewed from a legal, political, security and, most of all, moral, perspective, there is no justification today for the continued maintenance of nuclear weapons.” With these words spoken in Kansas City, Mo., the Vatican’s ambassador to the United Nations, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, reaffirmed his church’s teaching on nuclear weapons and deterrence — teachings totally rejected by the nuclear-armed nations, including our own government.

In 2002, Chullikatt told a U.N. committee working to prepare for the 2005 review conference of the nuclear weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty: “There can be no moral acceptance of military doctrines that embody the permanence of nuclear weapons. ... Nuclear weapons are incompatible with the peace we seek for the 21st century; they cannot be justified. These weapons are instruments of death and destruction.”

The Vatican diplomat stressed that this is the moment “to begin addressing in a systematic way the legal, political and technical requisites for a nuclear-weapons-free world.”

Today, nuclear deterrence has become a permanent, pernicious part of global life. Out of sight, out of mind — except among those who plan new weapons and assign others to keep their fingers on the buttons that can end life on the planet as we know it.

Yes, the U.S. and Russia have made substantial cuts in their nuclear overkill. But instead of moving dramatically toward nuclear disarmament — and despite promises by President Obama to work to rid the world of nuclear weapons — the slow pace of these collective efforts have had an opposite effect, making their presence a permanent, and seemingly acceptable, element of modern warfare.

Defying imagination and reason, the U.S. is moving forward fast, not in ridding ourselves of nuclear weapons, but instead beginning to build a new round of them, driving the nuclear arms race forward. Pure and simple, this is immoral policy and demands our strongest condemnation.

As long as we maintain our weapons and plunge forward in upgrading current systems — we call it “stewardship” — our nation has no moral authority to demand that other nations abandon their own ambitions.

Earlier this year, the U.S. government approved $80 billion over the next decade to bolster its nuclear weapons systems. Every dollar of the $80 billion is an assault against humanity; every dollar represents a sinful rejection of life and God’s creative plan.

Archbishop Chullikatt came to Kansas City because it is the site of a massive new plant for manufacturing nuclear weapons components, the first to be built in the U.S. in 33 years. He said, “The thought of pouring hundreds of billions of additional dollars into the world’s nuclear arsenals is nothing short of sinful.”

More than 20 years after the Cold War ended, the United States continues headlong down the nuclear weapons path. Now more than ever, we need to attend to the messages of the often marginalized peacemakers among us. We may not have many more chances to heed their warnings. If we don’t end nuclear weapons, they will end us.

– PeaceMeal Sept/October 2011

(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.S., Russia agree to cut nuclear arsenals

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev finalized a new arms control treaty on March 26 that will pare back the still-formidable Cold War nuclear arsenals of each country. Ending a year of sometimes tough negotiations, the two presidents sealed the deal in a telephone call, confirming resolution of the last outstanding details. They then announced they will fly to Prague to sign the treaty on April 8 in a ceremony designed to showcase improved relations between the two countries.

“With this agreement, the United States and Russia, the two largest nuclear powers in the world, also send a clear signal that we intend to lead,” Mr. Obama said in front of reporters at the White House. “By upholding our own commitments under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we strengthen our global efforts to stop the spread of these weapons and to ensure that other nations meet their own responsibilities.”

Moscow also hailed the accord in a Kremlin statement that said, “The presidents agreed that the new treaty marks a higher level of cooperation between Russia and the United States in the development of new strategic relations.” The treaty will re-establish an inspection and verification regime, replacing one that expired in December.

The treaty will reduce the binding limit on deployed strategic nuclear warheads by more than one-fourth, and on launchers by half — reductions that amount to a continuing evolution rather than a radical shift in the nuclear postures of both countries. It will lower the legal limit on deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 each, from the 2,200 allowed under the previous treaty and will limit launchers to 800 from the 1,600 now permitted. Ballistic missiles and heavy bombers will be capped at 700 each.

The United States currently has 2,100 deployed strategic warheads and Russia 2,600, according to the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council, so each side will have to cut hundreds within seven years after the treaty is ratified. But both sides have been cutting launchers unilaterally for years, with the United States already down below 1,200 and Russia already at the 800 level permitted in the new treaty. The treaty does not limit the thousands of tactical nuclear bombs and stored strategic warheads each side has.

And while the pact recognizes the dispute between the two countries over U.S. plans for a missile defense system based in eastern Europe, it will not restrict the United States from building such a defense. Instead, the two sides each drafted separate non-binding statements reiterating their positions on missile defense. The United States asserted in its statement that it would develop missile defense as it saw fit, but offered assurance that the program was not aimed at Russia nor at undermining the security balance between the two countries. Russia warned in its statement that it reserved the right to withdraw from the new treaty if it decided that American missile defense plans were developing in a way that threatened its security. The Kremlin statement suggested that Russia would continue to push for a formal missile defense treaty.

The new treaty marks the opening of a broader campaign to counter the emerging threats of the 21st century. While it will require that hundreds of weapons be shelved or destroyed, perhaps more important are the tangible evidence it offers of a new partnership with Russia and the momentum it creates toward an improved nuclear security regime.

Mr. Obama hopes that signing the treaty with Mr. Medvedev will strengthen his hand to push toward the nuclear weapons-free world he envisions by forging an international consensus to limit the spread of weapons and secure materials that could be vulnerable to terrorists.

However, Peter Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis, a national security consulting business criticized the new treaty. The notion that “this is somehow great news or a breakthrough” in fact “is hardly the case,” he said. As a matter of percentages, Mr. Huessy noted that the treaty cuts warheads only half as much as the Treaty of Moscow signed in 2002 by President George W. Bush did. “What did we get out of the deal?” he asked. “Nothing that I can see, and I have been doing nuclear stuff, including arms control, since 1981.”

The Obama administration readily acknowledges the limitations of the new treaty. But from the beginning, the White House described it as an effort aimed especially at building a foundation of trust with Moscow and establishing an inspection regime to replace the one that expired in December along with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). After a successful first round, Mr. Obama plans to open another round of negotiations to cut arsenals even further, including stored warheads and tactical weapons. And eventually he envisions bringing other nuclear powers like China, Britain and France into negotiations.

To go into effect, the new treaty will have to be ratified by both the U.S. Senate and the Russian legislature, the Duma.

– edited from The New York Times, March 26, 2010
PeaceMeal, March/April 2010

(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.)

Shifting from a nuclear weapons triad to a nuclear dyad

Jeff Richardson

A serious debate is underway in policy circles, the national weapons laboratories and government about how to reshape and reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal. If the United States decides to maintain some nuclear weapons capability for the foreseeable future, decisions will have to be made regarding the size and composition of the force structure and nuclear weapons complex. The option explored here envisions the United States moving from a strategic triad of nuclear weapon systems — submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), strategic bombers (B-52s) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) — to a strategic dyad of SLBMs and bombers. This configuration would prove more cost-effective than the current arrangement and would provide latitude for the United States to address threats to national and international security for which nuclear deterrence is irrelevant. The two main reasons a strategic dyad would be an attractive option for U.S. defense planners are cost and the changing nature of threats facing the United States.

The Department of Energy is planning a long-term effort to convert its Cold War nuclear weapons complex to a smaller, more secure and less expensive nuclear weapons capability — one that will support continuation of the U.S. strategic triad. The size of the future U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure, however, is dependent on the formulation of the White House’s strategy. It remains to be seen how President Obama will adjust policy regarding nuclear weapons following release of the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review.

">Many defense policy makers and observers argue that the United States needs to maintain a capability conceptually similar to what was in place during the Cold War in order to provide future flexibility. But the United States simply cannot afford to replace even a substantial fraction of the Cold War “bombplex” that was responsible for manufacturing the many parts that go into nuclear weapons. Only Russia has a dedicated nuclear weapons complex comparable to that of the United States. Other nations, such as Britain and China, maintain adequate nuclear deterrents with a much smaller capability. Now is the time to appropriately size the U.S. nuclear complex for the future, based on a rational expectation of need rather than a desire to maintain existing capability as a hedge against future uncertainty.

">Reliability and performance are cornerstones to a credible nuclear deterrent. As the number of weapons and weapon systems is reduced, it is even more important to have confidence in the systems in place. Ageing and cost of replacement are issues confronting currently stockpiled nuclear weapons and their associated delivery systems. That is the case especially with the B-52 bomber and Minuteman III ICBM, whose service lives have already been repeatedly extended.

">There are few compelling reasons to maintain the third triad leg, the ICBMs. The Air Force has already dismantled all MX (Peacekeeper) ICBMs and put on hold its plans for a future land-based strategic deterrent to replace the Minuteman. The industrial infrastructure that supports the manufacture of ICBMs has atrophied. The basic Minuteman infrastructure dates back to the 1960s, and the Minuteman III is now on its last major life extension. After planned refurbishments, the Minuteman III is expected to remain in service through 2030.

">The development time for a new bomber to replace the B-52 is long and the expense is large. More importantly, the number of weapons in this leg of the triad is modest, and they are not meant to deter Russia or China. However, there would be significant operational advantages to maintaining a portion of the U.S. nuclear capacity to be delivered via aircraft. Only air delivery provides the option to recall weapons once orders are given to deploy. Also, while possible attack scenarios are limited because air delivery requires aircraft to have a high likelihood of penetrating enemy airspace, the option would still provide visible and credible deterrence values.

">SLBMs always have been the most robust of the triad legs. The United States has embarked on a life-extension program for the W76 nuclear warhead used on Trident ballistic missile nuclear submarines. This will extend the warhead’s usable lifetime by 20–30 years, without requiring any new facility for production of plutonium pits. The extended life of the W76 warhead coincides with that of the Trident D5 missiles and expected lifetime of the 14 huge submarines.

">The Navy has a substantial, largely effective infrastructure to manage the operation of its Trident fleet and missiles. However, the baseline infrastructure to maintain the submarines at sea is considerable and costly. Nevertheless, the SLBM fleet remains the U.S’s most cost-effective countervalue deterrent. [“Countervalue” is the targeting of an enemy’s cities and civilian populations, in contrast to “counterforce,” which refers to the targeting of an enemy’s military personnel, forces and facilities. – Editor’s note]

">All parties should recognize that the end state of the nuclear arsenal should mitigate possible risk and provide a hedge against potential scenarios, but also acknowledge that it is impossible to eliminate all risk and that financial resources are limited. A total stockpile on the order of 500 warheads would satisfy the principle objectives of strategic nuclear deterrence in “rational” scenarios where strategic deterrence is a useful concept. This size stockpile would pose the threat of certain destruction in the event of an escalating exchange, and it would provide a flexible response and the potential for incremental use [i.e., “limited” nuclear war] in cases of extreme military or political necessity. It would be credible in both the continental United States and forward-deployed scenarios and could be sustained with a reduced nuclear weapons complex.

">The end state described above will provoke debate from certain camps, most notably the pro-nuclear camp that feels unconstrained by fiscal resources and strives for a risk-free world. In response to those who suggest that a low level of nuclear forces invites Russian superiority and Chinese parity, I would argue that reducing its force levels in the manner described above would provide the United States with the opportunity to lead by example, while not significantly sacrificing national security. In the final analysis, both Russia and China will do what is best for them, and U.S. actions are only part of the equation. The negotiation of a START follow-on treaty with Russia is a positive step in this regard.

">I would add that Russia and China have coexisted for decades along a contentious border with a large mismatch in conventional and nuclear forces. From this situation, strategists have learned that it is more important to have a sufficient deterrent than an equal deterrent. China, Britain and France all have, from their viewpoint, sufficient nuclear deterrence with several hundred warheads each.

">Others will argue that reusing existing stockpile components would undermine the transformation of the weapons complex and infrastructure of the arsenal. Yet, in the absence of strong military or policy requirements, and in a climate of stockpile reduction, it is hard to justify large expenditures for an industry leaning toward obsolescence. Yes, the United States has to guard against a potential breakout capability or technological surprise, but a newly configured weapons complex that manufactures weapons in the absence of concrete requirements is not a fiscally prudent insurance policy.

">A properly sustained national laboratory system provides the first bulwark against technological surprise. The second is trickle production of nuclear weapons [an existing capability at Los Alamos].Trickle production can ensure the existence of a domestic manufacturing capability by diversifying the U.S. production base to include commercial suppliers for non-nuclear components. Coupled with a total stockpile — deployed plus reserve — of well less than 1,000 warheads, a trickle production capability centered at the national laboratories and involving the private sector will provide a sustainable strategy for the future.

Jeff Richardson is a senior scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, the second U.S. nuclear weapons lab. In his 35 years at LLNL, he has worked on both nuclear weapons programs and nonproliferation activities. The views expressed are his own and do not represent official positions of his employer or the United States government. This article is edited from a longer article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September/October 2009.

– PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2010

(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.)

Strategic failure: Congressional Strategic Posture Commission report

The Congressional Strategic Posture Commission report published May 6 is definitely not where President Obama or the nation should look for new ideas on how to lead us to a world free of nuclear weapons. The report comes close to dismissing the President’s vision — and the enthusiastic support it has generated worldwide — as a utopian dream. Even for a compromise document written by a diverse group, it is a work of deeply disappointing failure of imagination. The recommendations can be summarized as: the nuclear world should stay pretty much the way it is but at slightly lower force levels; incrementalism in arms reduction is the most we can hope for; and even that should be approached very cautiously.

 The United States should retain a viable nuclear deterrent indefinitely, the report says: “The conditions that might make the elimination of nuclear weapons possible are not present today and establishing such conditions would require a fundamental transformation of the world political order.” The Commission surrenders to the nuclear problems of the world rather than recommending a proactive way forward out of the mess.

While President Obama believes the United States should “put an end to Cold War thinking” and “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same,” the Commission offers little support for this approach or analysis of what it would mean. Indeed, while the report concludes that, “... as long as other nations have nuclear weapons, the U.S. must continue to safeguard its security by maintaining an appropriately effective nuclear deterrent force,” the Commission fails to ask fundamental questions about what nuclear weapons are for and what their character should be.

In describing the role of deterrence, the Commission glosses over many important developments that have shaped U.S. nuclear policy, strategy and doctrine over the years. Likewise, the report does not describe the development after the end of the Cold War, when U.S. nuclear targeting policy was actually expanded under the Clinton administration from Russia and China and their satellite states to also deterring the use of chemical and biological weapons by countries that do not have nuclear weapons.

One of the most important conclusions in the Commission report is that the “tradition of non-use [of nuclear weapons] serves U.S. interests and should be reinforced by U.S. policy and capabilities.” But what that implies for policies and capabilities is not explained.

Without examination of the mission of nuclear weapons, how can we say what their characteristics should be? Even if nuclear weapons are for deterrence, how do they deter? What are their targets? If we do not answer, or even ask, those questions, how can we say that we need high levels of reliability? How can we say we need land-based missiles that can be launched on a moment’s notice? How can we say we need a vast nuclear weapons complex to design thermonuclear weapons with hundreds of kilotons of yield? There are other issues as well, about reliability, safety and so on, that presume missions for nuclear weapons that simply should not be presumed. After nearly two decades of the Clinton and Bush administrations insisting that Russia is not an adversary, the Commission admits that Russia is largely what drives U.S. nuclear posturing: “The sizing of U.S. forces remains overwhelmingly driven by the requirements of essential equivalence and strategic stability with Russia.”

The report seems to accept that we are locked in an arms race with Russia and it is surprisingly cautious about how to free ourselves from it. Overall, the Commission asserts that the United States should “retain enough capacity, whether in its existing delivery systems and supply of reserve warheads or in its infrastructure, to impress upon Russian leaders the impossibility of gaining a position of nuclear supremacy over the United States by breaking out of an arms control agreement.”

Based on many assumptions, the Commission concludes that the United States should retain the Cold War nuclear force triad — land, air and sea-based nuclear weapons — because the three legs have unique characteristics that are all needed. But even during the Cold War it was argued persuasively that the “safest” and smartest way to deter a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union was to have submarine-based nuclear weapons only. Land-based ICBMs only serve as fixed targets for an adversary to attack.

Yet the Commission could not come up with a specific structure or size for the U.S. nuclear force, even though it was asked to do so by Congress. The issue is too complex, the authors concluded, and really should be left for the President to deal with in consultation with the military.

The Congressional Strategic Posture Commission report disappointingly fails to offer anything helpful to change the status quo. The crucial task at hand is how to challenge the role of nuclear weapons, not perpetuate it.

– edited from an article by Ivan Oelrich and Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (, May 6, 2009
PeaceMeal, July/August 2009

(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.)

Nuclear weapons at a crossroads as Obama takes office
Modernized warheads and new production facilities are on hold

As a new administration promising change takes office, the future of nuclear weapons and of the weapons complex are arguably less certain than at any time since the end of World War II. Thousands of nuclear warheads have been or are being dismantled or mothballed. Such authorities as former defense secretary William Perry, former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, and former senator Sam Nunn have endorsed the goal of global nuclear disarmament. Even Linton Brooks, the former head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), recently acknowledged that the number of nuclear weapons required for deterring a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies is “almost certainly” fewer than 1700 — the low-end of the range of warheads that Pres. George W. Bush and Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin established under the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

President Barack Obama has enumerated a 12-point action plan to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons or materials. Those points include negotiating directly with nuclear aspirants Iran and North Korea, strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency, reducing numbers of weapons, and securing weapons-usable materials at vulnerable sites worldwide within four years. The plan also calls for establishing an international nuclear fuel bank and “fuel cycle centers” to meet an anticipated explosion in demand for nuclear power, while simultaneously containing the dual-use technology needed to manufacture the fuel. A recent State Department report identified 32 nations that have no experience with nuclear power but are expressing serious interest in acquiring it.

Apart from a pledge to seek further deep reductions in numbers of warheads through negotiations with Russia, Pres. Obama has yet to enunciate his plans for addressing a drifting U.S. nuclear weapons policy. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is staying on in that post in the new administration, has indicated where he stands. “As long as other states have or seek nuclear weapons — and potentially can threaten us, our allies, and friends — then we must have a deterrent capacity that makes it clear that challenging the United States ... could result in an overwhelming, catastrophic response,” he said in a November speech.

For its part, Congress rejected repeated attempts by the Bush administration to begin updating the aging nuclear arsenal, which makes the United States the only declared nuclear weapons nation not modernizing its forces, according to Gates.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), who chairs the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said that any proposals to replace aging weapons with safer, more secure, and more reliable designs won’t be considered for at least another year. That delay is to give the Obama administration time to prepare the new nuclear weapons policy that Congress ordered in 2007 legislation. And NNSA’s ambitious and expensive plan to shrink and modernize its weapons production complex will also have to wait, she told a conference on deterrence in early December.

The new nuclear weapons policy is to consider recommendations due next April from a bipartisan commission co-chaired by William Perry and John Foster, a former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who favors a strong nuclear arsenal. “We can’t do anything until we have been informed by a significant set of facts and we have a bipartisan agreement on how to move forward,” said Rep. Tauscher, whose district includes LLNL.

In an interim report released December 15, the commission warned that if Iran and North Korea are allowed to build nuclear arsenals, proliferation will be at a “tipping point,” with a cascade of other nations likely to follow suit and a corresponding increase in the risk of a weapon or fissile materials winding up in terrorist hands. The report also affirmed the importance of DOE’s science-based approach to maintaining the U.S. stockpile, saying that high confidence in the deployed weapons will allow bigger reductions to be made in the thousands of warheads that are kept as backups.

Today’s nuclear weapons stockpile has been cut in half since Bush took office, NNSA administrator Thomas D’Agostino told the conference. The actual numbers are classified, but D’Agostino said NNSA is on course to beat by two years the 2200-to-1700-weapon ceiling that the Moscow Treaty sets for 2012. Both he and his predecessor Brooks emphasized that having fewer weapons increases the need for those remaining to be reliable. Air Force General Kevin Chilton, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said the reductions do not lessen the imperative to modernize the arsenal or the complex that manufactures and maintains it.

A recently completed white paper from a joint task force of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies urged the U.S. to reestablish its leadership in nuclear nonproliferation matters by, among other things, ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. John Browne, a member of the task force and a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that the U.S. “gave up a high-ground position” in nonproliferation when it rejected the CTBT in 1999. Since then, the system for monitoring and detecting underground explosions has been refined to the point where cheating is nearly impossible anywhere in the world, Browne said.

The task force also called for serious negotiations with Russia toward a follow-on arms control agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires at the end of 2009, with the goal of further reductions in the stockpiles of both nations.

– edited from Physics Today, January 2009
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2009

(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.S. hydrogen bomb never recovered from Greenland

B28_H-bomb.jpg (14011 bytes)Photo: This B28 hydrogen bomb (right) was recovered from the Mediterranean Sea 80 days after a January 1966 midair collision between a B-52 bomber and a KC-135 aerial refueling tanker over Palomares, Spain. This photo was among the first ever published of a U.S. H-bomb.

Based on declassified documents obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, BBC news has revealed that the United States abandoned a hydrogen bomb lost near Thule, Greenland in 1968, following the crash of a B-52 bomber. At the time, the Pentagon reported that four bombs on the plane had been “destroyed” but did not reveal that parts of only three were recovered.

During the Cold War, Thule Air Base was of huge strategic importance to the United States because its location allowed radar to scan for missiles coming over the North Pole from the Soviet Union. The Pentagon believed the Soviets would take out the base as a prelude to a nuclear strike against the U.S., and so began flying “Chrome Dome” missions in 1960. Nuclear-armed B-52 bombers continuously circled over Thule, where they could head straight to Moscow if they witnessed the base’s destruction.

On January 21, 1968, one of those missions ended in disaster. A B-52 carrying four B28 hydrogen bombs caught fire in the air and crashed onto the solidly frozen bay 7 miles off Thule after the crew ejected. The conventional high explosives in the four bombs detonated on impact, spreading radioactive material over a large area. Mercifully, the nuclear devices themselves, which had not been armed by the crew, did not detonate. Models of the B28 had explosive yields up to 1.45-million tons of TNT.

 The heat generated as 112 tons of aviation fuel burned for the next 5 to 6 hours melted the ice sheet, causing some wreckage and bomb parts to sink to the ocean floor. Military personnel, local Greenlanders and Danish workers (Greenland is a self-governing province of Denmark) rushed to the scene to help. In the following months, a major operation unfolded to recover thousands of pieces of debris scattered across the frozen bay, as well as to collect more than 500 million gallons of ice, some of it containing radioactive debris, that was shipped to the U.S. for disposal.

The released documents make clear that, within weeks of the crash, investigators piecing together the fragments realized that only three of the H-bombs could be accounted for. One document talks of a blackened section of ice that had re-frozen with shroud lines from a bomb parachute. The document reads: “Speculate something melted through ice, such as burning primary or secondary,” referring to the nuclear fission and thermonuclear fusion parts of the bomb.

By April 1968, a decision had been made to send a Star III submarine to the base to look for the lost bomb, but the purpose of the search was hidden from Danish officials because the U.S. was storing nuclear weapons at Thule in violation of Denmark’s nuclear-free zone policy.

A similar submarine search off the coast of Palomares, Spain, two years earlier had succeeded in recovering another B28 bomb from a depth of 2,850 feet in the Mediterranean Sea, following the collision of a B-52 with an aerial refueling tanker at an altitude of 31,000 feet. But the Greenland underwater search was beset by technical problems and, as the melted ice began to freeze over again, the documents recount something approaching panic setting in.

The missing bomb parts not only contained uranium and plutonium, they were highly classified because they revealed nuclear weapon design. The declassified documents make clear that it was not possible to search the entire area where debris from the crash had spread, and eventually the search was abandoned.

William H. Chambers, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory who once ran a team dealing with accidents, including the Thule crash, interviewed by BBC News, stated: “It would be very difficult for anyone else to recover classified pieces if we couldn’t find them.”

After the disastrous accident, “Chrome Dome” flights were permanently cancelled. By the time the site cleanup operation concluded, a team of 700 specialized personnel from both countries, including over 70 U.S. government agencies, had worked for nine months. Danish workers were not given any protective clothing or equipment and their health was not subsequently monitored. A 1987 epidemiological study by a Danish medical institute showed that the Thule workers were 50 percent more likely to develop cancers than other members of the Danish military. Some workers have brought legal claims of long-term damage to their health.

– edited from BBC News, Nov. 10, 2008; In These Times, Aug. 20, 2001; and Wikipedia
PeaceMeal, Nov/Decembar 2008

(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.)