By Gerry Dionne
Fulfilling a goal outlined in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report, the Trump administration acknowledged last month that the United States has deployed for the first time a low-yield nuclear warhead on some U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
This adds unconscionable danger to this planet’s international war footing. The measure comes as the administration is proposing to increase spending to more than $44 billion next year to continue and, in some cases, accelerate programs to replace and upgrade all the major elements of the bloated U.S. arsenal. Unless curtailed, the plan, which departs in important ways from long-standing U.S. policies, will accelerate global nuclear competition and increase the risk of nuclear war.
The arms control architecture of the Cold War, involving tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, was laboriously designed over years of hard-fought negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. The elaborate treaties helped keep the world from nuclear annihilation.
Today, those treaties are being abandoned by the United States and Russia just as new strategic competitors not covered by the Cold War accords; like China, North Korea and Iran; are asserting themselves as regional powers and challenging American hegemony.
As if to underscore the dangers of the administration’s strategy, the Defense Department led an exercise last month simulating a limited nuclear war. According to the Pentagon, “The scenario included a European contingency…. Russia decides to use a low-yield, limited nuclear weapon against a site on NATO territory,” and the United States fires back with a “limited” nuclear response. The U.S. response presumably involved the low-yield sub-launched warhead, known as the W76-2.
The exercise perpetuates the dangerous illusion that a nuclear war can be fought and won. The new warhead, the first new design in thirty years, packs a five-kiloton explosive yield. That’s powerful enough to destroy a city and kill most of its citizens. It would be delivered on the same type of long-range ballistic missile launched from the same strategic submarine that carries missiles loaded with one hundred-kiloton strategic warheads. The significance of the delivery system? Russian military leaders would be hard pressed to know, in the heat of a crisis, whether the missile was part of a “limited” strike or the first wave of an all-out nuclear attack.
Nevertheless, Trump officials insist that the president needs “more credible” nuclear use options to deter the possible first use of nuclear weapons by Russia. In reality, once nuclear weapons of any kind are detonated in a conflict between nuclear-armed adversaries, there is no guarantee against a cycle of escalation leading to all-out global nuclear war. Lowering the threshold for nuclear use by making nuclear weapons “more usable” takes the United States and Russia and the world in the wrong direction.
In addition to the proposed expenditures above, the Defense Department is seeking $28.9 billion next year, for programs to sustain and recapitalize the existing nuclear arsenal, a thirty percent increase.
The Pentagon’s nuclear modernization spending binge includes $4.4 billion to begin construction of a fleet of twelve Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines (the Ohio-class replacement); $2.8 billion for the new B-21 stealth bomber program (the B-2 replacement); $1.5 billion to start work on a new ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile system; and $500 million to continue development work on a new nuclear-armed, air-launched cruise missile.
The administration is also demanding a twenty-five percent boost for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons budget, to $15.6 billion, to cover the growing cost of nuclear warhead refurbishment, design, and production work. This includes expanding the capacity to build plutonium warhead cores to at least eighty per year—an unrealistic and unnecessary goal.
The administration’s grandiose proposals not only would contribute to a dangerous global qualitative nuclear arms race, but they are excessive and unaffordable. Over the next thirty years, these and other nuclear weapons programs are estimated to cost taxpayers at least $1.5 trillion.
Worse yet, the Trump administration’s program of record would sustain deployed strategic warhead numbers at levels thirty percent higher than the Pentagon itself determined in 2013 is necessary to deter nuclear attack. Taken together, Trump’s policies to “greatly strengthen and expand” the U.S. nuclear capability and his failure to engage in good faith negotiations to end the arms race and pursue disarmament are a violation of U.S. obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
It doesn’t have to be this way. First, the Trump administration needs to listen to reason from military officials, U.S. allies, and bipartisan national security leaders who advocate that we accept Russia’s offer to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by five years before it is due to expire early in 2021. Without the treaty, the doors to an open-ended global nuclear arms competition will swing open. The Trump administration shows no sign of having learned from history; there are no winners in an arms race.
Second, the Congress, and perhaps a new president in 2021, must rein in the exploding cost and scope of the U.S. nuclear modernization program, particularly the efforts to develop “more usable” nuclear weapons. Hundreds of billions of dollars can be saved by delaying, trimming, or eliminating major elements of the current plan while maintaining a devastating nuclear deterrent. This would allow for those monies to be redirected to other, more urgent national security projects and domestic programs that address real human need.
Parents in every nation cherish their children. A government that purports to represent the welfare of its citizens should ask whether or not placing the future of life on Earth in mortal peril is a legitimate, or even a sane, pursuit. The Republicans seem to wonder why some of us think the current president is a danger to us all. His boastful, hubristic militarism is Exhibit A.
Sources: The Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment: 2018 Nuclear Posture Review; Defense News — Inside America’s newly revealed nuclear ballistic missile warhead of the future by Aaron Mertha 2/24/20; Arms Control Association Newsletter — March 2020; New York Times “Are We Headed for Another Expensive Nuclear Arms Race? Could Be.” by Steven Erlanger 8/8/19.
Gerry Dionne is a writer, musician and coffee-table philosopher who moved to our area when he was 18. He’s in his 70s now, so y’all give him a break.