Trump’s nuclear weapons decisions incoherent so far

Sharon Squassoni

The Trump administration has no shortage of new approaches to old problems, but the impatience exhibited by the commander- in-chief appears to make it difficult for the administration as a whole to follow through on policies that do not yield immediate results. The degree of the administration’s ability to think through the longer-range implications of broad policy choices it makes now about the U.S. nuclear arsenal, arms control, and efforts to deter nuclear proliferation will affect world strategic stability far into the future.

Were it not for nuclear weapons, the political journey that Donald J. Trump embarked upon in January as the 45th president of the United States might display a “Through the Looking-glass” kind of charm. Turning the world upside down for a short while, however, is a less than charming exercise to watch when that world includes weapons with the power to end civilization.

Every U.S. president since 1945 has had to consider the care and feeding of the American nuclear arsenal. Whether the issues are financial, organizational, structural, doctrinal or diplomatic, decisions about nuclear weapons are momentous and deserve significant deliberation.

Allies and adversaries alike closely watch what the United States says and does in regard to nuclear weapons and respond accordingly. So, American presidents need to consider not just U.S. interests, but also the wider ramifications of their nuclear choices. They might also consider (if so inclined) actions to reduce the risks that nuclear weapons pose, either through unilateral reductions, bilateral or multilateral arms control, or non-proliferation efforts.

Donald Trump is no different from presidents before him in this regard. But he has bristled in response to North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapons tests and responded with fiery rhetoric. Even more important than the North Korea imbroglio are relationships with Russia and China. In all these issue areas, however, the Trump administration is hampered by a deficit of expertise, of patience in the White House, and of deference for the normal workings of government.

The most important relationship for nuclear weapons equilibrium in the 21st century — the one between the United States and Russia — is on rocky ground. Relations plummeted sharply with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military operations in eastern Ukraine in 2014, prompting economic sanctions by the United States and its allies. Since then, the United States and Russia have pursued different and often conflicting policies on Iran, North Korea and Syria and traded allegations of noncompliance with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, complicating diplomacy before Trump entered the White House. He clearly inherited a downward-spiraling relationship with Russia and has not yet been able to set it right.

A few developments in 2017 have contributed to worsening relations. First, a web of White House connections to Russian interests has added layers of complexity to even the simplest interactions between U.S. and Russian officials. Concerns about alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and alleged Trump campaign involvement in that meddling has led to a highly publicized Justice Department investigation that has grown to include many Trump advisers and the president’s own financial activities. But U.S.–Russia relations are fraught for reasons separate from the Trump administration’s legal difficulties.

A scarcity of experts in the U.S. government to negotiate with Russia on nuclear weapons — the result of the administration’s disjointed transition and staffing efforts — has made it difficult to engage in dialogs that are immensely important to the relationship. High-level Russian officials have complained that they would like to discuss extension of the New STARTtreaty with U.S. officials, but there is no one empowered in the State Department to do so.

Extension of New START, which is set to expire in 2021, should be one bright spot in US–Russia nuclear affairs. The treaty, signed by presidents Putin and Obama in 2010, requires both sides to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear forces to no more than 1500 warheads and 700 delivery systems by February 2018. The treaty may be extended for an additional five years, and President Putin offered such an extension in January. But President Trump declined, saying that it was a “bad treaty.”

Trump also has consistently expressed his dislike of the nuclear deal with Iran, while twice certifying to Congress that Iran has complied with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That multilateral agreement, which includes Russia, China, France, Germany and the United Kingdom, has reduced Iran’s fissile material stockpiles, capped the amount of material it can produce, capped its production capabilities, and converted a reactor that could have been a source of weapon-grade plutonium. In September, the International Atomic Energy Agency once again declared that Iran was complying with the agreement.

Nevertheless, the administration completed its Iran policy review in mid-October with predictably flamboyant but inconclusive outcomes. Trump will not certify Iran’s compliance and hopes Congress will somehow change the terms of the deal to his liking. Congress has 60 days to pass relevant legislation on an expedited basis.

The ultimate fate of the JCPOA is far from clear. Even if the United States fails to live up to its commitments, Iran could choose to continue to implement the deal, since it stands to gain economically if the other five parties to the agreement also do so. In that case, the United States would lose considerable credibility. A United States decision to walk away from the JCPOA would also essentially guarantee that North Korea never negotiates another nuclear deal with United States. Even those who believe that negotiated solutions are not possible with North Korea should be wary of hamstringing U.S. ability to negotiate deals with other countries in the future.

Perhaps the Trump administration, as it matures, will create a coherent and consistent set of policy guidelines a range of nuclear issues. Until then, allies and adversaries alike must navigate their way through the confusing and sometimes contradictory state-ments and actions that have characterized U.S. nuclear weapon policy during the first nine months of the Trump presidency.

 Sharon Squassoni has directed the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies since 2010. She previously served in nuclear nonproliferation and policy planning positions at the State Department and at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Her article is edited from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2017.

(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.)

Senate hearing on the President’s authority to launch a nuclear attack

On November 14, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the president’s unilateral authority to launch a first-strike nuclear attack. Senator Ed Markey, co-president of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, had requested Republican Senator Corker, chair of the Committee, to agree to hold the hearing. Markey had previously introduced draft legislation (S.200) that would bar the president from launching a preemptive nuclear strike without authorization of the Congress. Increasing concerns in Congress about the unpredict-ability of President Trump in nuclear conflicts, such as with North Korea, prompted Senator Corker to agree to the hearing.

In his comments, Senator Markey said this: “Absent a nuclear attack upon the United States or our allies, no one human being should have the power to unilaterally unleash the most destructive forces ever devised by humankind. Yet under existing laws, the President of the United States can start a nuclear war — without provocation, without consultation, and without warning. It boggles the rational mind.

“I fear that in the Age of Trump the ‘cooler heads’ and ‘strategic doctrine’ that we once relied upon as our last, best hope against the unthinkable seem less reassuring than ever.

“In other areas of government, our Constitution’s system of checks and balances ensures that the President does not have sole power to make extreme decisions without some level of national consensus. But on the President’s sole authority to start a nuclear war, even in the absence of a nuclear attack, no one can tell the President ‘no.’ ”

– edited from the Basel Peace Office, November 26, 2017
PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2017

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Soviet soldier credited with averting nuclear war dies

Stanislav Petrov.jpg (18106 bytes)A Soviet soldier credited with saving the world from nuclear holocaust has died at age 77. Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer monitoring an early warning system from a bunker outside Moscow on September 26, 1983, when the radar screen suddenly appeared to depict a missile inbound from the United States.

“All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic,” Petrov told the Russian news agency RT in 2010. “I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences.”

The alert siren wailed. A message on the bunker’s main screen reported that four more missiles had been launched, he said. Petrov had 15 minutes to determine whether the threat was real and report to his commanders.

Petrov, thinking that any U.S. attack should have involved even more missiles to limit the chance of Soviet retaliation, told his Kremlin bosses the alert must have been caused by a mal-function. He persuaded Moscow not to shoot back. It was later determined that Russian satellites must have mistaken sunlight reflecting off clouds for nuclear missiles.

In 2013, Petrov was awarded the Dresden Peace Prize. In 2014, Kevin Costner starred in a docu-drama The Man Who Saved the World, detailing Petrov’s story.

A German activist who helped globalize the news of Petrov’s deed called to wish him a happy birthday and was in informed by Petrov’s family that he had died in May amid little fanfare.

– edited from USA Today, September 18, 2017
PeaceMeal, Sept./October 2017

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Nuclear weapons experts team up to advise world leaders on how to avoid nuclear war

A global coalition of nuclear weapons experts has teamed up to try to advise world leaders on how to avoid a nuclear war. The Nuclear Crisis Group, which formally launched the first week in May, will particularly focus on President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in world affairs.

“Not only is the U.S.-Russia relationship on much more shaky ground, but the whole political environment has deteriorated,” said Richard Burt, one of the group’s leaders. “The issue of nuclear weapons has strangely kind of receded from people’s consciousness,” added Burt, who served as former President George H.W. Bush’s chief negotiator of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. "We must remind people in these different crisis situations that there is a nuclear danger and it needs to be addressed," he said.

 The organization is made up of former military leaders and diplomats from a least eight major nations. It will serve as a “shadow security council,” offering advice to world leaders on how to reduce the chances of nuclear conflict. It is an outgrowth of Global Zero, a nonpartisan campaign founded in 2007 seeking to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Derek Johnson, Global Zero’s executive director, said recent events have forced the group to refocus on “what we can do to stop one of these things from going off.”

President Trump said in February he wants to keep America’s nuclear arsenal at “the top of the pack,” alleging that the United States has “fallen behind on nuclear weapon capacity,” whereas the New START treaty in force sets limits that apply equally to both the U.S. and Russia.

– edited from The Hill, May 4, 2017
PeaceMeal, May/June 2107

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An open letter to Presidents Trump and Putin: The world needs Nuclear Zero

David Krieger, Richard Falk, Noam Chomsky, Jody Williams, Daniel Ellsberg, Medea Benjamin and Mairead Maguire

This may be the most dangerous time in human history.

In a dramatic recent decision, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved its iconic Doomsday Clock ahead from three minutes to only two-and-a-half minutes to midnight.

Humankind faces two existential challenges of global and potentially apocalyptic scope: nuclear weapons and climate change. Our focus here is on nuclear dangers, but we strongly encourage you, Presidents Trump and Putin, to undertake in a spirit of urgency all necessary steps to avert further global warming.

As the leaders of the United States and Russia, the two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals, you have the grave responsibility of assuring that nuclear weapons are not used — or their use overtly threatened — during your period of leadership.

The most certain and reliable way to fulfill this responsibility is to negotiate with each other, and the other governments of nuclear-armed states, for their total elimination.

The U.S. and Russia are both obligated under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to engage in such negotiations in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for complete nuclear disarmament. Your success in this endeavor would make you heroes of the Nuclear Age.

Initiating a nuclear war, any nuclear war, would be an act of insanity. Between nuclear weapons states, it would lead to the destruction of the attacking nation as well as the nation attacked. Between the U.S. and Russia, it would also destroy civilization and threaten the survival of humanity.

There are still nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world, of which the United States and Russia each possess some 7,000. Approximately 1,000 of these weapons in each country remain on hair-trigger alert — a catastrophe waiting to happen that could be prevented with the stroke of a pen.

If nuclear weapons are not used intentionally, they could be used inadvertently by accident or miscalculation. Nuclear weapons and human fallibility are an explosive combination, which could at any moment bring dire consequences to the U.S., Russia and the rest of humanity. The world would be far safer by negotiating an end to policies of nuclear first-use, hair-trigger alert and launch-on-warning. Further, negotiations need to be commencedon the phased, verifiable and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear deterrence presupposes an unrealistic view of human behavior if projected over time. It depends on the willingness and ability of political leaders to act with total rationality in the most extreme circumstances of stress and provocation. It provides no guarantees of sustained security or physical protection. It could fail, spectacularly and tragically, at any moment.

The further development and modernization of nuclear weapons by the U.S., Russia and others, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries, would make for an even more dangerous world. It is important for the sake of regional peace and the avoidance of future nuclear confrontations to uphold the international agreement that places appropriate limitations on Irans nuclear program, an agreement that has the support of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

Your nuclear arsenals give each of you the power to end civilization. You also have the historic opportunity, should you choose, to become the leaders of the most momentous international collaboration of all time, dedicated to ending the nuclear weapons era over the course of a decade or so. This great goal of Nuclear Zero can be achieved by negotiating, as a matter of priority, a treaty to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.

We, the undersigned, implore you to commence negotiations to reduce the dangers of a nuclear war, by mistake or malice, and immediately commit your respective governments to the realizable objective of a nuclear weapons-free world. It would be the greatest possible gift to the whole of humanity and to all future generations, as well as of enduring benefit to the national and human security of Russia and the United States.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Richard Falk is professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University. Noam Chomsky is professor emeritus at MIT. Jody Williams is the chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative and is a Nobel Peace Laureate. Daniel Ellsberg is a former Pentagon consultant and a well respected author. Medea Benjamin is co-founder of social justice movement CODEPINK. Mairead Maguire is co-founder of Peace People in Northern Ireland and is a Nobel Peace Laureate. Their article is from The Hill, February 16, 2017 and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, March/April 2017.

(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.)

Why our nuclear weapons can be hacked

Bruce G. Blair

It is tempting for the United States to exploit its superiority in cyberwarfare to hobble the nuclear forces of North Korea or other opponents. As a new form of missile defense, cyberwarfare seems to offer the possibility of preventing nuclear strikes without the firing of a single nuclear warhead.

But as with many things involving nuclear weaponry, escalation of this strategy has a downside: United States forces are also vulnerable to such attacks. Imagine the panic if we had suddenly learned during the Cold War that a bulwark of America’s nuclear deterrence could not even get off the ground because of an exploitable deficiency in its control network.

We had such an Achilles’ heel not so long ago. Minuteman missiles were vulnerable to a disabling cyberattack, and no one realized it for many years. If not for a curious and persistent Pres. Obama, it might never have been discovered and rectified.

In 2010, 50 nuclear-armed Minuteman missiles sitting in underground silos in Wyoming mysteriously disappeared from their launching crews’ monitors for nearly an hour. The crews could not have fired the missiles on presidential orders or discerned whether an enemy was trying to launch them. Was this a technical malfunction or was it something sinister? Had a hacker discovered an electronic back door to cut the links? For all the crews knew, someone had put all 50 missiles into countdown to launch. The missiles were designed to fire instantly as soon as they received a short stream of computer code, and they are indifferent about the code’s source.

It was a harrowing scene, and apprehension rippled all the way to the White House. Hackers were constantly bombarding our nuclear networks, and it was considered possible that they had breached the firewalls. The Air Force quickly determined that an improperly installed circuit card in an underground computer was responsible for the lockout, and the problem was fixed.

 But President Obama was not satisfied and ordered investigators to continue to look for similar vulnerabilities. Sure enough, they turned up deficiencies, according to officials involved in the investigation.

One of these deficiencies involved the Minuteman silos, whose internet connections could have allowed hackers to cause the missiles’ flight guidance systems to shut down, putting them out of commission and requiring days or weeks to repair.

These were not the first cases of cybervulnerability. In the mid-1990s, the Pentagon uncovered an astonishing firewall breach that could have allowed outside hackers to gain control over the key naval radio transmitter in Maine used to send launching orders to ballistic missile submarines patrolling the Atlantic. So alarming was this discovery, which I learned about from interviews with military officials, that the Navy radically redesigned procedures so that submarine crews would never accept a launching order that came out of the blue unless it could be verified through a second source.

Cyberwarfare raises a host of other fears. Could a foreign agent launch another country’s missiles against a third country? We don’t know. Could a launch be set off by false early warning data that had been corrupted by hackers? This is an especially grave concern because the president has only three to six minutes to decide how to respond to an apparent nuclear attack.

This is the stuff of nightmares, and there will always be some doubt about our vulnerability. We lack adequate control over the supply chain for nuclear components — from design to manufacture to maintenance. We get much of our hardware and software off-the-shelf from commercial sources that could be infected by malware. We nevertheless routinely use them in critical networks. This loose security invites an attempt at an attack with catastrophic consequences. The risk would grow exponentially if an insider, wittingly or not, shares passwords, inserts infected thumb drives or otherwise facilitates illicit access to critical computers.

One stopgap remedy is to take United States and Russian strategic nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert. Given the risks, it is dangerous to keep missiles in this physical state, and to maintain plans for launching them on early indications of an attack. Questions abound about the susceptibility to hacking of tens of thousands of miles of underground cabling and the backup radio antennas used for launching Minuteman missiles. They (and their Russian counterparts) should be taken off alert. Better yet, we should eliminate silo-based missiles and quick-launch procedures on all sides.

But this is just a start. We need to conduct a comprehensive examination of the threat and develop a remediation plan. We need to better understand the unintended consequences of cyberwarfare — such as possibly weakening another nation’s safeguards against unauthorized launching. We need to improve control over our nuclear supply chain. And it is time to reach an agreement with our rivals on the red lines. The reddest line should put nuclear networks off limits to cyberintrusion. Despite its allure, cyberwarfare risks causing nuclear pandemonium.

Bruce G. Blair, a research scholar in the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, is a founder of Global Zero, a group that works for abolition of nuclear weapons. His article is from The New York Times, March 14, 2017, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, March/April 2017.

(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 arsenal costs ballooning by billions of dollars

WASHINGTON DC — America’s nuclear arsenal is getting billions of dollars more expensive with each passing year, according to a recent report to Congress by the Obama admini-stration. The report shows how nuclear weapons costs are beginning to crest as the Pentagon and the Energy Department move into a $1-trillion modernization effort over the next three decades. From fiscal 2017 to 2026, it will cost $342 billion, including inflation, to buy and maintain new nuclear submarines, aircraft, missiles, bombs, warheads and associated computers, according to the report — $22 billion more than reported a year ago. It is the biggest looming issue in the defense budget.

The rise in costs is due partly to some new or expanded plans, but mostly it is a function of programs moving into more expensive phases of late development or early production.

The cost of the nuclear arsenal could balloon further still if President-elect Donald Trump makes good on recent promises. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump tweeted on December 22. The next day, he told MSNBC, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”

The high and rising cost of maintaining and expanding U.S. nuclear weaponry will be a major debate in Congress in the near term. The two parties take contrasting approaches to the issue.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee which funds Energy Department nuclear programs, said that the swelling cost of nuclear arms is “devastating for everything else” in the budget. “As this goes up, it just smashes against the other things that should be done,” she said.

Republicans generally have a different perspective. “If we’re going to be the No. 1 power in the world militarily, we’re going to have to pay for it,” said Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby in an interview. “We’ve got to modernize our nuclear arsenal.”

Several programs account for most of the higher 10-year nuclear cost estimate. A dozen new nuclear-armed subs will cost $8.4 billion more than was projected last year. A planned new ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile to replace the existing Minuteman III would cost $4.8 billion more. The Long Range Standoff Cruise Missile would cost $900 million more. Nuclear command and control systems will cost $3 billion more. The Energy Department’s nuclear weapons stockpile and supporting infrastructure will cost $4.3 billion more.

Some new programs are also included, such as a $2.7 billion initiative to replace aging Huey helicopters that ferry security forces charged with protecting ground-based ICBM fields scattered across hundreds of miles in the northern Great Plains.

The report may understate the full cost of nuclear moderniza-tion. It does not include a likely new submarine- launched missile program that has yet to get started. Furthermore, the report does not reflect the likelihood of historical rates of cost growth.

The Trump administration and the new Congress have options for cutting costs on nuclear modernization, the Congressional Budget Office reported last month. The government could save tens of billions of dollars over the next 10 years alone by reducing the number of new nuclear submarines, ground-based missiles and deployed warheads. Another options for savings is canceling the proposed new nuclear cruise missile, CBO said.

Kingston Reif, an expert on nuclear budgets with the Arms Control Association, said of the report, “This snapshot captures the beginning of the major planned ramp-up in spending on nuclear forces, but even larger bills are still to come. The current approach is unnecessary and runs a high risk of forcing damaging cuts to higher priority national security programs if pursued to completion.”

– edited from an article by John M. Donnelly in Congressional Quarterly Roll Call, January 9, 2017
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2017

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Doomsday Clock advances

2017 Doomsday Clock.JPG (3023 bytes)The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of the “Doomsday Clock” — its iconic symbol of how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction — to only 2 minutes to midnight. The Clock was changed in 2015 from 5 to 3 minutes to midnight, the closest it had been since the arms race of the 1980s.

In the accompanying statement, the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board noted that world leaders have failed to come to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats: nuclear weapons and climate change. Disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons made by President Donald Trump, as well as the expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change by both Trump and several of his cabinet appointees, affected the Board’s decision.

Publisher Rachel Bronson said: “This year’s Clock delibera-tions felt more urgent than usual as...trusted sources of information came under attack and words were used by a President-elect of the United States in cavalier and often reckless ways to address the twin threats of nuclear weapons and climate change.”

– PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2017

Trident missile test failure covered up

A missile test involving Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent system ended in failure off the coast of Florida last June, a U.S. defense official with direct knowledge of the incident told CNN on January 23. The incident, which happened in an the area used by the United States and the United Kingdom for missile tests, did not involve a nuclear warhead.

It had been reported that the submarine-launched Trident II D5 missile veered toward the U.S. coast, but the unnamed U.S. official said the trajectory was part of a self-destruct sequence that diverted the missile into the ocean — an automatic procedure when missile electronics detect an anomaly.

Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper reported that the U.S. government pressured the U.K. not to divulge details of the failed missile test. The Times quoted a British military source as saying that officials from the Obama administration asked then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s office not to comment on the malfunction.

“The U.S. administration may have been worried that there could be similar problems on other missiles,” the source said. “The British submarine successfully carried and launched the missile. The bit that went wrong was the U.S. proprietary technology.”

The newspaper said that both the British and the U.S. Trident missiles originate from the same stockpile, built and maintained by Lockheed Martin.

A month after the test, the U.K. parliament, unaware of the failure, voted by a 3-to-1 majority to approve the renewal of the Trident program at a cost of 40 billion ($50 billion U.S.). On January 22, British Prime Minister Theresa May was asked four times during a BBC interview whether she knew of the missile failure before the vote. May refused to answer.

Forced to make a statement on the controversy in the House of Commons on January 23, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said he had “absolute confidence” in Trident but refused to give “operational details” about the test.

Mary Creagh, of the opposition Labor Party, demanded to know why he would not give any further details. Citing CNN’s story, she said: “The Secretary of State has advised us not to believe everything we read in the Sunday newspapers, but should we believe the [U.S.] official who, while we’ve been sitting here debating, has confirmed to CNN that the missile did auto- self-destruct off the coast of Florida? And if that is the case, why is the British parliament and the British public the last people to know?”

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “This is a hugely serious issue. There should be full disclosure of what happened, who knew what/when, and why House of Commons wasn’t told.”

– edited from CNN, January 23, 2017, and International Business Times, January 24, 2017
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2017

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Risky U.S. nuclear bomb gets green light

Len Ackland
Center for Investigative Reporting

The most controversial nuclear bomb ever planned for the U.S. arsenal — some say the most dangerous, too — has received the go ahead from the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. The agency announced on August 1 that the B61-12 — the nation’s first guided, or “smart,” nuclear bomb — had completed a four-year development and testing phase and is now in production engineering, the final phase before full-scale production slated for 2020.

The announcement comes in the face of repeated warnings from civilian experts and some former high-ranking military officers that the bomb, which will be carried on stealth fighter jets, could tempt use during a conflict because of its precision. The bomb pairs high accuracy with explosive force that can be regulated.

The B61-12 — at $11 billion for about 400 bombs the most expensive U.S. nuclear bomb ever — illustrates the extraordinary power of the nuclear wing of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex,” which has now rebranded itself the “nuclear enterprise.” The bomb lies at the heart of an ongoing modernization of America’s nuclear weapons, projected to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

President Barack Obama has consistently pledged to reduce nuclear weapons and forgo weapons with new military capabilities. Yet the B61-12 program has thrived on the political and economic clout of defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

In late July, 10 senators wrote Obama a letter urging that he use his remaining months in office to “restrain U.S. nuclear weapons spending and reduce the risk of nuclear war” by, among other things, “scaling back excessive nuclear modernization plans.” They specifically urged the president to cancel a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile, for which the Air Force is now soliciting proposals from defense contractors.

While some new weapons programs are farther down the road, the B61-12 bomb is particularly imminent and worrisome given recent events such as the attempted coup in Turkey. That’s because this guided nuclear bomb is likely to replace 180 older B61 bombs stockpiled in five European countries, including Turkey, which has an estimated 50 B61s stored at Incirlik Air Base. The potential vulnerability of the site has raised questions about U.S. policy regarding storing nuclear weapons abroad.

But more questions focus on the increased accuracy of the B61-12. Unlike the free-fall gravity bombs it will replace, the B61-12 will be a guided nuclear bomb. Its new Boeing Co. tail kit assembly enables the bomb to hit targets precisely. Using dial-a-yield technology, the bomb’s explosive power can be adjusted before flight from an estimated high of 50 kilotons of TNT — more than three times the explosive power of the Hiroshima atomic bomb — to a low of 300 tons.

“If the Russians put out a guided nuclear bomb on a stealthy fighter that could sneak through air defenses, would that add to the perception here that they were lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons? Absolutely!” said Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.

And General James Cartwright, the retired commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told PBS NewsHour last November that the new capabilities of the B61-12 could tempt its use. “If I can drive down the yield, drive down, therefore, the likelihood of fallout, etc., does that make it more usable in the eyes of some president or national security decision-making process? And the answer is, it likely could be more usable.”

Len Ackland is a former newspaper reporter and editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His article, edited here, was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2016.

(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.)

The U.S. H-bombs in Turkey

Among the questions still unanswered following the coup attempt in Turkey in July is one that has national-security implications for the United States and for the rest of the world: How secure are the U.S. hydrogen bombs stored at a Turkish airbase?

The Incirlik Airbase in southeast Turkey houses NATO’s largest nuclear-weapons storage facility. Underground vaults at Incirlik hold about fifty B-61 hydrogen bombs. More are stored at bases in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy, guarded by the troops of their host countries.

Incirlik does not have any aircraft equipped to deliver them. The bombs simply sit at the base, waiting to be used or misused.

The base hosted American fighters, bombers, tankers and U-2 spy planes during the Cold War. Today, the symbolism of the H-bombs is far more important than their military utility. Missiles carrying nuclear warheads reach targets much faster, more reliably, and with much greater accuracy.

Opponents of retaining the H-bombs at Incirlik call them “absolutely senseless” and an inviting target for terrorists. The proximity of the base to rebel-controlled areas in Syria and the rash of terrorist acts in Turkey are troubling to their security.

In 2010, peace activists climbed over a fence at the Kleine Brogel Airbase in Belgium, cut through a second fence, entered a hardened shelter containing nuclear-weapon vaults, wandered the base for an hour, and posted a video of the intrusion on YouTube.

With a few hours and the right tools and training, you could open one of NATO’s nuclear-weapons storage vaults, remove a weapon, and bypass the coded switch inside it. Within seconds, you could place an explosive device on top of a storage vault, destroy the weapon, and release a lethal radioactive cloud.

– edited from The New Yorker, July 17, 2016
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2016

(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.)

Human extinction from nuclear war isn’t that unlikely

Nuclear war. Climate change. Pandemics that kill tens of millions. These are the most viable threats to global civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbuster movies but they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.

In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the non-profit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.

Partly that’s because the average person will not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.

The risk of human extinction due to climate change — or an accidental nuclear war — is much higher than that. The Stern Review, the U.K. government’s premier report on the economics of climate change, estimated a 0.1 percent risk of human extinction every year. That may sound low, but it adds up when extrapolated to century-scale. And that number probably underestimates the risk because The Stern Review only calculated the danger of species-wide extinction. The Global Challenges Foundation, which is concerned with all events that would wipe out more than 10 percent of the human population, estimates a 9.5 percent chance of human extinction within the next hundred years.

So what kind of human-level extinction events are these? The report holds catastrophic climate change and nuclear war far above the rest, and for good reason. On the latter front, it cites multiple occasions when the world stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation because of errors.

In November 1979, the computers at North American Aerospace Defense Command’s site in Cheyenne Mountain, the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center, and the Alternate National Military Command Center in Fort Ritchie, Maryland, all showed a Soviet nuclear strike aimed at the United States. Launch control centers for underground Minuteman missiles received preliminary warning of the attack. A threat assessment conference of senior officers at all three command posts reviewed data from early-warning satellites and radars around the country. None showed any launch of attacking missiles and the alert was canceled. It was later determined that a realistic training tape inadvertently had been inserted into the computer running the nation’s early-warning system.

More recently in 1995, Russian systems mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for a potential nuclear attack from the United States. Russian President Boris Yeltsin retrieved launch codes and had his nuclear suitcase open. Thankfully, Russian leaders decided the incident was a false alarm.

Climate change also poses its own risks. Veterans of climate science now suggest that global warming will spawn continent- sized superstorms by the end of the century. Sebastian Farquhar, the director of the Global Priorities Project, said that even more conservative estimates can be alarming: U.N.-approved climate models estimate that the risk of six to ten degrees Celsius of warming exceeds three percent, even if the world tamps down carbon emissions at a fast pace. “On a more plausible emissions scenario, we’re looking at a 10-percent risk,” Farquhar said. Few climate adaption scenarios account for swings in global temperature this enormous.

Other risks won’t stem from technological hubris. Any year, there’s a finite chance of a super-volcano erupting or an asteroid smashing into the planet. Both would devastate the areas around ground zero, but they would also kick huge quantities of dust into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight and sending global temperatures plunging. Most climate scientists agree that the same phenomenon would follow any major nuclear weapon exchange.

Yet, natural pandemics may pose the most serious risks of all. In fact, in the past two millennia, the only two events that experts can certify as global catastrophes of this scale were plagues. The Black Death of the 1340s felled more than 10 percent of the world population. Eight centuries prior, another epidemic of the Yersinia pestis bacterium—the “Great Plague of Justinian” in 541 and 542—killed between 25 and 33 million people, or between 13 and 17 percent of the global population at that time.

No event approached these totals in the 20th century. Only the Spanish flu epidemic o1 the late 1910s, which killed between 2.5 and 5 percent of the world’s people, approached the medieval plagues. The two World Wars did not come close: About one percent of the global population perished in World War I, about three percent in World War II.

Nearly all of the most threatening global catastrophic risks were unforeseeable a few decades before they became apparent. Forty years before the invention of the nuclear bomb, few could have predicted that nuclear weapons would come to be one of the leading global catastrophic risks. Immediately after World War II, few could have known that catastrophic climate change would come to pose such a significant threat.

Farquhar conceded that many existential risks were best addressed by policies catered to the specific issue, like reducing stockpiles of nuclear warheads or cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. But civilization could generally increase its resilience if it developed technology to rapidly accelerate food production. If technical society developed less sunlight-dependent food sources, for example, there would be a lower chance that a particulate winter from a volcano or nuclear war would have global catastrophic consequences.

– edited from The Atlantic, April 29, 2016
PeaceMeal, July/August 2016

(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.)

Scale back U.S. nuclear weapons and stop a new arms race

Gael Tarleton and Joe Cirincione

In late March, Washington Democratic U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray wrote to President Obama urging him to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by one-third. It was part of a larger proposal on reducing the risk of nuclear weapons they sent to the president with four of their Senate colleagues, including Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

A fine idea, but what does it have to do with the state of Washington? More than you might think.

If Washington state were a sovereign nation, it would be the third largest nuclear-weapon state in the world.

Naval Base Kitsap is home to more than half of the U.S. Navy’s ballistic-missile submarine force. There are some 1,350 nuclear weapons based there. Each one is six to 30 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

Kitsap plays an important role in the state’s economy, with some 14,000 civilian and 13,000 military positions. That is a lot of jobs and an important reason why many officials support the base and support building new weapons for the fleet.

But there are other important factors we must weigh, including moral ones. Pope Francis says, “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations.” The Pope condemns the indiscriminate nature of these weapons, their potential for mass- killing and says we must all reject any strategy based on nuclear weapons, including deterrence of attack from other nations.

Defense experts worry that our building more weapons would stimulate arms programs in other nations. “We are now on the verge of a new nuclear arms race,” warned former Secretary of Defense William Perry. “We are drifting back to a Cold War mentality.” Here is his worry: The Pentagon is planning to spend $1 trillion on new nuclear bombers, missiles and a fleet of 12 new nuclear missile submarines in the late 2020s. Other nations would struggle to keep pace.

There is another problem: The Navy cannot afford to build the nuclear fleet it has designed. In fact, the Navy would need to cut 32 other ships to pay for the nuclear subs, the Congressional Research Service calculates.

These conventional ships are needed around the world every day to protect our nation and serve our troops deployed in war zones. They launch strikes against the Islamic State, patrol the South China Sea and interdict pirates around the Horn of Africa.

Our National Guard depends on these ships to respond to the call to active duty. Organizations providing humanitarian relief efforts around the world use them to carry food, medical facilities and equipment.

Do we ignore these pressing national security risks and push for more nuclear weapons? There may be a middle ground: Keep the nuclear fleet, but reduce its numbers.

“We’re holding far more nuclear weapons than are necessary, and the cost is undermining other national security priorities. It’s time we take a long look at how we can responsibly reduce our stockpile,” wrote Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California recently.

Feinstein, Cantwell and Murray are in good company: The Joint Chiefs of Staff have already concluded that we can cut our nuclear force by a third and still have an effective deterrent. Some, including Perry, say we could safely eliminate all our land-based missiles. We could consider modestly reducing the sea-based force to eight submarines (half or more based at Kitsap). With that number, we could still keep 1,000 warheads at sea, more than enough for any conceivable military mission. Kitsap would continue to have a mission and the thousands of jobs that come with it.

If Washington’s political and business leaders support respon-sible reductions in the nuclear force and developing other vital defense missions for the base, they could provide a model for the rest of the nation on how to adjust a Cold War legacy to the security needs of the 21st century.

State Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle, is a former senior defense intelligence analyst and holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s national-security studies program. She is a member of the board of directors of Ploughshares Fund. Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. Their op-ed appeared in The Seattle Times, May 3, 2016, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, July/August, 2016.

(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.)

Navy builds underground nuke storage facility near Seattle

The U.S. Navy has quietly built a new $294-million underground nuclear weapons storage complex at the Strategic Weapons Facility Pacific (SWFPAC), a high-security base in Washington state that stores and maintains the Trident II ballistic missiles and their nuclear warheads for the strategic submarine fleet operating in the Pacific Ocean. The complex, originally estimated to cost $110 million, was completed in 2012.

The SWFPAC and the eight Ohio-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) homeported at the adjacent Bangor Submarine Base are located only 20 miles from downtown Seattle. The SWFPAC and submarines are believed to store more than 1,300 nuclear warheads with a combined explosive power equivalent to more than 14,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.

A similar base with six SSBNs is located at Kings Bay in Georgia on the east coast, which houses the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic ( SWFLANT).

To bring public attention to the close proximity of the largest operational nuclear stockpile in the United States, the local peace group, Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, has bought advertisement space on 14 transit buses. The buses will carry the posters for eight weeks.

Bangor_poster_small.jpg (106631 bytes)

Over the next couple of years the navy will “convert” four of the 24 missile launch tubes on each SSBN. The conversion will remove the capability to launch missiles from the four tubes, which no longer count under the New START treaty. The 384 excess warheads associated with the 24 missiles will likely be dismantled, leaving roughly 1,000 warheads at SWFPAC.

In the longer term (the 2030s), the Navy plans to build a new fleet of 12 SSBNs that will replace the current 14. The Navy plans to operate nuclear-armed, ballistic missile submarines at Naval Base Kitsap at least through 2080.

– edited from Federation of American Scientists, June 27, 2016
PeaceMeal, July/August 2016

(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.)