Obama pursues nuclear ‘modernization’ —not disarmament

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment this week issued a report on the Obama administration's planned "modernization" of the US nuclear arsenal, finding it could cost $704 billion between 2015 and 2039. The biggest chunk will likely be borne by the Navy to develop a replacement for the Ohio-class nuclear submarines. Together with maintaining the warheads themselves, this will amount to some 70% of the cost estimate. The Air Force will see costs break $4 billion a year between fiscal 2029 and 2031 to bring online the next-generation Long Range Strategic Bomber. (Air Force Times, Aug. 5)

On July 1, the Air Force and National Nuclear Security Administration carried out the first test of a controversial update to the B61-12 nuclear bomb, which has been in use since the 1960s, at Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. The gravity bomb in the test was a "safe" version, without a nuclear warhead. The tests are being done to achieve a longer lifespan for the bomb, with upgrades on some of the weapon's components. "This test marks a major milestone for the B61-12 Life Extension Program, demonstrating end-to-end system performance under representative delivery conditions," said Don Cook, deputy administrator for defense programs at the NNSA. The updated B61-12 will be replacing the current B61-3, B61-4, B61-7 and B61-10 nuclear bombs. (Tech Times, July 9)

Yet critics are calling the new B61-12 the most dangerous bomb in the US arsenal. In terms of sheer destructive capability, it is nowhere near the most formidable a-bomb, with a maximum yield of just 50 kilotons, equivalent to 50,000 tons of TNT. By contrast, the B83 nuclear bomb has a maximum yield of 1.2 megatons (1,200 kilotons or 1,200,000 tons). What makes it dangerous is its "usability"—deriving from a combination of its accuracy and (ironically) low yield. As stated by an analysis on The National Interest (no peaceniks, to be sure): "In practical terms, all this means that the more accurate the bomb, the lower the yield that is needed to destroy any specific target. A lower-yield and more accurate bomb can therefore be used without having to fear the mass, indiscriminate killing of civilians through explosive force or radioactive fallout."

In other words, it lowers the threshold for making the unthinkable thinkable. And for crossing the terrible line that, despite numerous close calls, the human race has managed to avoid since Aug. 9, 1945: use of nuclear weapons in war.

The United States currently maintains a nuclear arsenal of some 2,000 deployed warheads, with many more awaiting dismantlement (totaling some 7,000). Russia is in possession of a roughly equal number. France is in the number three position with some 300 deployed warheads, followed by China with 250, and the United Kingdom with 225. China is the only "internationally sanctioned" nuclear weapon power currently increasing its stockpile.

Then there are the nuclear outlier states: India and Pakistan (not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty) with about 100 warheads each, and also both now increasing their stockpiles as well as expanding their delivery systems; Israel (also an NPT non-signatory), with an "unconfirmed" arsenal of perhaps 400 warheads; and North Korea, which dropped out of the NPT in 2003 and has perhaps 20 warheads

The US stockpile peaked at some 30,000 warheads in 1960s, and the Russian (then Soviet) at some 40,000 in the 1980s. This was enough to destroy the world several times over. However, the US and Russia are each still in possession of enough warheads to destroy the world once. A minimum of 1,000 warheads is critical to bring about nuclear winter (if they were all used) and end life as we know it—probably wipe out the human race and most large mammals; certainly destroy civilization. And destroying the world more than once is a mere redundancy, because we only have one world. (Arms Control Association, Arms Control Association, Federation of American ScientistsNuclear Darkness)

Despite his early promises to seek a nuclear-free world (and his Orwellian Nobel Peace Prize), Obama has taken no steps to retreat from nuclear winter status. On the contrary, he is taking steps toward the threshold of the unthinkable.

We take heart from the glimmer of hope represented by South Africa. Nelson Mandela was the only world leader to ever abandon his own nation's nuclear weapons. Since North Korea joined the "nuclear club" in 2006, the world has had nine nuclear-armed states, including the "secret" nuclear power Israel. But it is not the first time the number has stood at nine; with Israeli help, South Africa developed "secret" nuclear arms in the 1980s—to threaten the "frontline states" of southern Africa that supported the anti-apartheid struggle. Under Mandela, South Africa became the first and only nation on Earth to willingly dismantle its atomic weapons, without any pressure from the outside world. In doing so, Mandela called on the great powers to pursue nuclear disarmament. (BBC, May 4, 1999)

The five "declared" nuclear nations are obliged by the NPT to seek disarmament. Since the treaty went into force in 1970, we have seen the massive bloating of nuclear arsenals in the Reagan Cold War, the grossly insufficient reductions since then—and now a "modernization" of the US arsenal that actually makes nuclear war more likely.

  1. Perry warns of increased nuclear threat

    The New York Times on Jan. 11 took the occassion of the media frenzy around North Korea's supposed testing of a hydrogen bomb to note that last year the US carried out its first test of the B61 precision-guided nuclear bomb in Nevada. Russia did note the test, calling it "irresponsible" and "openly provocative."

    Writes the Times: "The United States military is replacing the fixed tail section of the B61 bomb with steerable fins and adding other advanced technology. The result is a bomb that can make more accurate nuclear strikes and a warhead whose destructive power can be adjusted to minimize collateral damage and radioactive fallout." And critics fear this could lower the moral threshold for its use: "The Federation of American Scientists, a Washington research group, argued that the high accuracy and low destructive settings meant military commanders might press to use the bomb in an attack, knowing the radioactive fallout and collateral damage would be limited."

    The AP on Dec. 19 ran a feature on former defense secretary William Perry, who said in a recent speech: "We are facing nuclear dangers today that are in fact more likely to erupt into a nuclear conflict than during the Cold War."