2018 Nuclear Posture Review: Dr. Strangelove in the Pentagon

The new Trump Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report is remarkably different in tone and tenor from its 2010 predecessor, which emphasized nuclear terrorism and nonproliferation as threats. The 2018 NPR places the emphasis on the nuclear forces themselves. It lays out a long-term plan for the United States to develop, test and deploy new nuclear weapons and delivery systems: a new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a new long-range bomber, and new air-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles. Included are the nuclear command, control and communication network (NC3) and the plutonium, uranium and tritium production facilities overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration. The size of the nuclear stockpile is also to be increased. In total, it adds up to a new arms race with other world powers.

The Obama-era predecessor to Trump’s NPR contained an entire section entitled “Reducing the Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons.” It outlined “a narrow set of contingencies in which such weaponry might still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW [chemical or biological weapons] attack against the United States or its allies and partners.” But in 2010, to obtain Senate ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty President Obama signed with Russia, he agreed to pour $1 trillion over three decades into the “modernization” of the nuclear triad. That pledge shaped his 2017 defense budget request, leaving Trump a costly nuclear legacy which his new Nuclear Posture Review fleshes out and expands.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the United States devoted $611 billion to its military machine in 2016. That was more than the defense expenditures of the next nine countries combined, almost three times what second-place China spent. Yet reading the NPR, you would think the United States is the most vulnerable country on Earth. Threats lurk everywhere and, worse yet, they’re multiplying, morphing, becoming ever more ominous. The more Washington spends on glitzy weaponry, the less secure the U.S. turns out to be, which, for any organization other than the Pentagon, would be considered a terrible return on investment.

The Trump NPR unwittingly paints Russia as the epitome of efficient investment, so numerous, varied and effective are the “capabilities” it has acquired in the 17 years since Vladimir Putin took power. Though similar claims are made about China and North Korea, Putin’s Russia comes across in the NPR as the threat of the century, a country racing ahead of the U.S. in the develop-ment of nuclear weaponry, even though it has an annual military budget of only $69 billion — $10 billion less than what Congress just added to the already staggering 2018 Pentagon budget.

The Nuclear Posture Review also focuses on Russia’s supposed willingness to launch “limited” nuclear strikes to win conventional wars, which makes the Russians seem particularly insidious. Of course, the United States has no reason to fear a massive defeat in a conventional war. And what country would attack the American homeland with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and not expect massive nuclear retaliation?

Russian nuclear weapons, however, are not the Nuclear Posture Review’s main focus. Instead, it makes an elaborate case for a massive expansion and “modernization” of the U.S. arsenal so that an American commander-in-chief has a “diverse set of nuclear capabilities that provide… flexibility to tailor the approach to deterring one or more potential adversaries in different circumstances.”

The NPR insists that future presidents must have advanced “low-yield” or “useable” nuclear weapons to wield for limited, selective strikes. The stated goal: to convince adversaries of the foolishness of threatening or, for that matter, launching their own limited strikes against the American nuclear arsenal in hopes of extracting “concessions” from us. This is where Strangelovian logic and nuclear absurdity take over. What state in its right mind would launch such an attack, leaving the bulk of the U.S. strategic nuclear force — some 1,550 deployed warheads — intact?

The document gets even loonier. It seeks to provide the commander-in-chief with nuclear options for repelling non-nuclear attacks against the United States or its allies, even to punish massive cyberattacks. Presidents, insists the NPR, require “a range of flexible nuclear capabilities” so that adversaries will never doubt that “we will defeat non-nuclear attacks.” But if Washington were to cross that nuclear boundary and launch a “limited” strike during a conventional war, it would be entering unknown territory. Concepts like “limited nuclear war” and “nuclear blackmail” may be interesting to kick around in war-college seminars, but trying them out in the real world could produce disaster.

The Trump-era Pentagon — the NPR’s protests to the contrary — seeks to lower the threshold for use of nuclear weapons. “Selective,” “limited,” “low yield”: these phrases may sound reassuring, but no one should be misled by the antiseptic termino-logy and soothing caveats. Even “tactical” nuclear weapons are anything but tactical in any normal sense. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki might, in terms of explosive power, qualify as “tactical” by today’s standards, but would be similarly devastating if used in an urban area. But not to worry, the NPR’s authors say, their proposals are not meant to encourage “nuclear war fighting” and won’t have that effect.

Behind the new policies to make nuclear weapons more “useable” lurks a familiar urge to spend taxpayer dollars profligately. A November 2017 Congressional Budget Office report projects that President Trump’s nuclear modernization plan will cost $1.2 trillion over three decades, while other estimates put the full price at $1.7 trillion. The NPR’s case for a three-decade spending spree rests on the claim that the “flexible and tailored” choices it deems non-negotiable don’t presently exist, although the document itself concedes that they do. The NPR actually touts the lethality, range and invulnerability of the existing U.S. arsenal of missiles and bombers — an admission that the colossally expensive nuclear modernization program it deems so urgent isn’t necessary for United States national security.

If the Pentagon turns its Nuclear Posture Review into reality, the first president who will have some of those more “flexible” nuclear options at his command will be none other than Donald Trump. We’re talking about the man who, in his debut speech to the United Nations last September, threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and later, as the crisis on the Korean peninsula heated up, delighted in boasting on Twitter about the size of his “nuclear button.” He has shown himself to be impulsive, ill informed, impervious to advice, certain about his instincts, and infatuated with demonstrating his toughness, as well as reportedly fascinated by nuclear weapons and keen to see the U.S. build more of them.

Should a leader with such traits be given more nuclear “flexibility”? Making it easier for Trump to use nuclear weapons isn’t, as the Nuclear Posture Review would have us believe, a savvy strategic innovation. It’s insanity.

Edited from an article by Rajan Menon on TomDispatch.com, February 25, 2018, and reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2018. Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, and Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

(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.)


How a nuclear attack order is carried out now

If the president is not at the White House or other location with secure communication, he or she would use the so-called “nuclear football” to order the use of nuclear weapons. The football, or Presidential Emergency Satchel, contains items including a book laying out various attack options—from striking a small number of military targets to launching an all-out attack against Russian nuclear forces, military installations, leadership facilities, military industry and economic centers. The football is carried by a military aide who stays near the president at all times.

The president carries a card called the “biscuit,” with a code that changes periodically and would be used to authenticate a launch order. To order the use of nuclear weapons, either a first strike or in retaliation, the president would call the Pentagon’s National Military Command Center—known as the War Room, read the code on the biscuit to confirm that he or she is indeed the president, and specify what attack option to use.

After confirming the president’s identity, the Command Center would send an encrypted launch order to aircraft pilots, the underground crews that launch land-based missiles, and/or the submarine crews that launch submarine-based missiles.

For land-based missiles, it would be a matter of minutes from the presidential order to when missiles would leave their silos. If the War Room is unable to function during a crisis, the War Room’s role is taken over by Strategic Command.

To prevent a rash and catastrophic judgment by a president, a proposal has been made to require approval of a nuclear attack order by two officials in the line of presidential succession.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 23, 2018
PeaceMeal, March/April 2018

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


Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight

2018 Doomsday Clock.JPG (9810 bytes)The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight, indicating that the world is the closest to possible nuclear Armageddon since the height of the Cold War in 1953.

The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin, a group of experts who made the adjustment to the clock, pointed to rising nuclear tensions between the United States and North Korea, specifically “hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions on both sides.” The group, which was founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists, specifically notes “the decline of U.S. leadership and a related demise of diplomacy under the Trump administration” as a global concern and a reason for this year’s step closer to midnight.

In addition, major nuclear actors are on the cusp of a new arms race, one that will be very expensive and will increase the likelihood of accidents and misperceptions. Across the globe, nuclear weapons are poised to become more usable rather than less usable because of nations’ investments in their nuclear arsenals.

The Doomsday Clock adjustment highlights the need for nuclear risk reduction measures, such as those being advanced by Senator Ed Markey, co-president of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. Markey has introduced legislation into the Senate (with companion legislation introduced in the House) to restrict the authority of the President to launch a nuclear attack without first consulting Congress.

Markey has also organized joint congressional letters to the U.S. Secretaries of State, Defense and Energy calling on the current Nuclear Posture Review to include measures to lower nuclear threat postures, reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use, and advance the goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons.

In May, the United Nations General Assembly will hold the first ever High-Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament. In light of the increased risks of nuclear war, this conference has become even more important than when it was first proposed to the U.N. five years ago. World leaders participating in this event should be encouraged — and will be expected — to take action to reduce these risks and advance nuclear disarmament.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 25, 2018
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2018

(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.)


Hawaii false alarm hints at thin line between accident and nuclear war

Nuclear experts are warning, using some of their most urgent language since President Trump took office, that Hawaii’s false alarm, in which state agencies alerted locals to a nonexistent missile attack, underscores a growing risk of unintended nuclear war with North Korea. To understand the connection, which might not be obvious, we need to go back to the tragedy of Korean Air Lines Flight 007.

In 1983, a Korean airliner bound from Anchorage to Seoul, South Korea, strayed into Soviet airspace. Air defense officers, mistaking it for an American spy plane that had been loitering nearby, tried to establish contact. They fired warning shots. When no response came, they shot it down, killing all 269 people on board.

But the graver lesson may be what happened next. Though it was quickly evident that the downing had been a mistake, mutual distrust and the logic of nuclear deterrence — more so than the deaths themselves — set Washington and Moscow heading toward a conflict neither wanted.

The story illustrated how imperfect information, aggressive defense postures and minutes-long response times brought both sides hurtling toward possible nuclear war — a set of dynamics that can feel disconcertingly familiar today.

Nuclear-armed missiles had recently achieved a level of speed and capability so that one power could completely disarm another in a matter of minutes. This created what’s called first-strike instability, in which firing first — even if you think you might be firing in error — is the only way to be sure of preventing your own obliteration.

The result was that the United States and the Soviet Union repeatedly went to the brink of war over provocations or even technical misreadings. Often, officials had mere minutes to decide whether to retaliate against seemingly real or impending attacks without being able to fully verify whether an attack was actually underway. In the logic of nuclear deterrence, firing would have been the rational choice.

That dynamic is heightened with North Korea, which is thought to have only a few dozen warheads and so must fire them immediately to prevent their destruction in the event of war.

“Today’s false alarm in Hawaii is a reminder of the big risks we continue to run by relying on nuclear deterrence/prompt launch nuclear posture,” Kingston Reif, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, wrote, referring to the strategy of firing quickly in a war. “And while deterring/containing North Korea is far preferable to preventive war, it’s not risk free. And it could fail.”

If similar misunderstandings seem implausible today, consider that an initial White House statement called Hawaii’s alert an exercise — though state officials say it was operator error. Consider that 38 minutes elapsed before emergency systems sent a second message announcing the mistake. If even Washington was misreading events, the confusion in Pyongyang must have been far greater.

Had the turmoil unfolded during a major crisis or period of heightened threats, North Korean leaders could have misread the Hawaiian warning as cover for an attack, much as the Soviets had done in 1983. American officials have been warning for weeks that they might attack North Korea. Though some analysts consider this a likely bluff, officials in Pyongyang have little room for error.

Unlike in 1983, no one died in Hawaii’s false alarm. But deaths are not necessary for a mistake to lead to war. Just three months after the airliner was shot down, a Soviet early warning system falsely registered a massive American launch. Nuclear war may have only been averted because the Soviet officer in charge, operating purely on a hunch, reported it as an error.

North Korea is far more vulnerable than the Soviet Union was to a nuclear strike, giving its officers an even narrower window to judge events and even greater incentive to fire first. And, unlike the Soviets, who maintained global watch systems and spy networks, North Korea operates in relative blindness.

For all the power of nuclear weapons, scholars say their gravest dangers come from the uncertainty they create and the fallibility of human operators, who must read every signal perfectly for mutual deterrence to hold.

William J. Perry, a defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, called the false alarm in Hawaii a reminder that “the risk of accidental nuclear war is not hypothetical — accidents have happened in the past, and humans will err again.”

Mr. Reagan concluded the same, writing in his memoirs, “The KAL incident demonstrated how close the world had come to the nuclear precipice and how much we needed nuclear arms control.”

Mikhail Gorbachev, who soon after took over the Soviet Union, had the same response, later telling the journalist David Hoffman, “A war could start not because of a political decision, but just because of some technical failure.”

Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Reagan reduced their country’s stockpiles and repeatedly sought, though never quite reached, an agreement to banish nuclear weapons from the world.

But Mr. Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, remain locked in 1983, issuing provocations and threats of nuclear strikes on push-button alert, gambling that their luck — and ours — will continue to hold.

– edited from an article by Max Fisher in the New York Times, January 14, 2018
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2018

(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.)