Peace Is Not Our Profession

The Madness of Nuclear Warfare, Alive and Well in America

W.J. Astore

(Here’s my latest for TomDispatch.com; If you haven’t subscribed, you should!)

Hey, cheer up because it truly is a beauty! I’m talking about this country’s latest “stealth bomber,” the B-21 Raider, just revealed by Northrop Grumman, the company that makes it, in all its glory. With its striking bat-winged shape and its ability to deliver a very big bang (as in nuclear weapons), it’s our very own “bomber of the future.” As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put it at its explosive debut, it will “fortify America’s ability to deter aggression, today and into the future.” Now, that truly makes me proud to be an American.

And while you’re at it, on this MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) world of ours, let that scene, that peculiar form of madness, involving the potential end of everything on Planet Earth, sink in. As a retired Air Force officer, it reminded me all too vividly of my former service and brought to mind the old motto of the Strategic Air Command(SAC), “Peace Is Our Profession.” Headed in its proudest years by the notorious General Curtis LeMay, it promised “peace” via the threat of the total nuclear annihilation of America’s enemies. 

SAC long controlled two “legs” of this country’s nuclear triad: its land-based bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. During the Cold War, those Titans, Minutemen, and MX “Peacekeepers” were kept on constant alert, ready to pulverize much of the planet at a moment’s notice. It didn’t matter that this country was likely to be pulverized, too, in any war with the Soviet Union. What mattered was remaining atop the nuclear pile. A concomitant benefit was keeping conventional wars from spinning out of control by threatening the nuclear option or, as was said at the time, “going nuclear.” (In the age of Biden, it’s “Armageddon.”)

Luckily, since the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the world hasn’t gone nuclear again and yet this country’s military continues, with the help of weapons makers like Northrop Grumman, to hustle down that very path to Armageddon. Once upon a time, the absurdity of all this was captured by Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, the satirical 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, which featured a “war room” in which there was no fighting, even as its occupants oversaw a nuclear doomsday. Sadly enough, that movie still seems eerily relevant nearly 60 years later in a world lacking the Soviet Union, where the threat of nuclear war nonetheless looms ever larger. What gives?

The short answer is that America’s leaders, like their counterparts in Russia and China, seem to have a collective death wish, a shared willingness to embrace the most violent and catastrophic weapons in the name of peace.

Nuclear Bombers and ICBMs Return!

There’s nothing magical about the nuclear triad. It’s not the Holy “Trinity,” as a congressman from Florida said long ago. Even so, it’s worshipped by the U.S. military in its own all-too-expensive fashion. America’s triad consists of bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons (B-52s, B-1s, B-2s, and someday B-21s), those land-based ICBMs, and that most survivable “leg,” the U.S. Navy’s Trident-missile-firing submarines. No other country has a triad quite as impressive (if that’s the word for it), nor is any other country planning to spend up to $2 trillion over the next three decades “modernizing” it. The Air Force, of course, controls the first two legs of that triad and isn’t about to give them up just because they’re redundant to America’s “defense” (given those submarines), while constituting a threat to life on this planet.

Recently, when the Air Force unveiled that B-21 Raider, its latest nuclear-capable bomber, we learned that it looks much like its predecessor, the B-2 Spirit, with its bat-like shape (known as a “flying wing” design) driven by stealth or the avoidance of radar detection. The Air Force plans to buy “at least” 100 of those planes at a projected cost of roughly $750 million each. Count on one thing, though: with the inevitable delays and cost overruns associated with any high-tech military project these days, the flyaway cost will likely exceed $1 billion per plane, or at least $100 billion of your taxpayer dollars (and possibly even $200 billion).

Four years ago, when I first wrote about the B-21, its estimated cost was $550 million per plane, but you know the story, right? The F-35 was supposed to be a low-cost, multi-role fighter jet. A generation later, by the Air Force’s own admission, it’s now a staggeringly expensive “Ferrari” of a plane, sexy in appearance but laden with flaws. Naturally, the B-21 is advertised as a multi-role bomber that can carry “conventional” or non-nuclear munitions as well as thermonuclear ones, but its main reason for being is its alleged ability to put nuclear bombs on target, even without Slim Pickens (“Major Kong” in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangeloveriding down on one of them.

The main arguments for expensive nuclear bombers are that they can be launched as a show of resolve but also, unlike missiles, recalled, if necessary. (Or so we hope anyway.) They have a “man in the loop” for greater targeting flexibility and so complicate the enemy’s defensive planning. Such arguments may have made some sense in the 1950s and early 1960s, before ICBMs and their sub-launched equivalents were fully mature technologies, but they’re stuff and nonsense today. If nuclear-capable nations like Russia and China aren’t already deterred by the hundreds of missiles with thousands of highly accurate nuclear warheads in America’s possession, they’re not about to be deterred by a few dozen, or even 100, new B-21 stealth bombers, no matter the recent Hollywood-style hype about them.

Yet logic couldn’t matter less here. What matters is that the Air Force has had nuclear-capable bombers since those first modified B-29s that dropped Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the generals are simply not about to give them up — ever. Meanwhile, building any sophisticated weapons system like the B-21 is sure to employ tens of thousands of workers. (There are already 400 parts suppliersfor the B-21 scattered across 40 states to ensure the undying love of the most congressional representatives imaginable.) It’s also a boondoggle for America’s many merchants of death, especially the lead contractor, Northrop Grumman.

A reader at my Bracing Views Substack, a Vietnam veteran, nailed it when he described his own reaction to the B-21’s unveiling:

“What struck me in my heart (fortunately, I have a great pacemaker) was the self-assured, almost condescending demeanor of the Secretary [of Defense], the Hollywood staging and lighting, and the complete absence of consideration of what cognitive/emotional/moral injuries might be inflicted on the viewer, never mind experiencing exposure to the actual bomber and its payload — add in the incredible cost and use of taxpayer money for a machine and support system that can never actually be used, or if used, would produce incalculable destruction of people and planet; again, never mind how all that could have been used to start making America into a functioning social democracy instead of a declining, tottering empire.”

Social democracy? Perish the thought. The U.S. economy is propped up by a militarized Keynesianism tightly embraced by Congress and whatever administration is in the White House. So, no matter how unnecessary those bombers may be, no matter how their costs spiral ever upwards, they’re likely to endure. Look for them flying over a sports stadium near you, perhaps in 2030 — if, that is, we’re still alive as a species.

As the Air Force buys new stealth bombers with your tax dollars, they also plan to purchase a new generation of ICBMs, or a “ground-based strategic deterrent” in Newspeak, to plant in missile silos in garden spots like rural Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The Air Force has had ICBMs since the 1960s. Roughly 1,000 of them (though that service initially requested 10,000) were kept on high alert well into the 1980s. Today’s ICBM force is smaller, but ever more expensive to maintain due to its age. It’s also redundant, thanks to the Navy’s more elusive and survivable nuclear deterrent. But, again, logic doesn’t matter here. Whether needed or not, the Air Force wants those new land-based missiles just like those stealth bombers and Congress is all too willing to fund them in your name.

Ka-ching! But hopefully not ka-boom!

Just as the purchase price for the B-21 project is expected to start at $100 billion (but will likely far exceed that), the new ICBMs, known as Sentinels, are also estimated to cost $100 billion. It brings to mind an old saying (slightly updated): a hundred billion here, a hundred billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money. In a case of egregious double-dipping, Northrop Grumman is once again the lead contractor, having recently opened a $1.4 billion facility to design the new missile in Colorado Springs, conveniently close to the Air Force Academy and various other Air and Space Force facilities. Location, location, location!

Why such nuclear folly? The usual reasons, of course. Building genocidal missiles creates jobs. It’s a boon and a half for the industrial part of the military-industrial-congressional complex. It’s considered “healthy” for the communities where those missiles will be located, rural areas that would suffer economically if the Air Force bases there were instead dismantled or decommissioned. For that service, shiny new ICBMs are a budget bonanza, while helping to ensure that the real “enemy” — and yes, I have the U.S. Navy in mind — won’t end up with a monopoly on world-ending weaponry.

In the coming decades, expect those “Sentinels” to be planted in fields far from where most Americans live under the guiding principle that, if we keep them out of sight, they’ll be out of mind as well. Yet I can’t help but think that this country’s military is out of its mind in “planting” them there when the only harvest can be of mass death.

It’s a MAD Old World

As MAD magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman would undoubtedly have said, “What, me worry?”

Oh, MAD old world that has such nukes in it! Color me astonished, in fact, that America’s nuclear weapons mix hasn’t changed much since the 1960s. That sort of world-ending persistence should tell us something, but what exactly? For one thing, that not enough of us can imagine a brave new world without genocidal nuclear weapons in it.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev actually did so. They came close, in fact, to reaching a deal to eliminate nuclear weapons. Sadly, Reagan proved reluctant to abandon his dream of a nuclear space shield, then popularly known as “Star Wars” or, more formally, as the Strategic Defense Initiative. Since Reagan, sadly enough, U.S. presidents have stayed the course on nukes. Most disappointingly, the Nobel Prize-winning Barack Obama spoke of eliminating them, supported by former Cold War stalwarts like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, only to abandon that goal, partly to solidify support in the Senate for a nuclear deal with Iran that, no less sadly, is itself pretty much dead and buried today.

If saintly Reagan and saintly Obama couldn’t do it, what hope do ordinary Americans have of ending our nuclear MADness? Well, to quote a real saint, Catholic peace activist Dorothy Day, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” It’s hard to think of a system more filthy or rotten than one that threatens to destroy most life on our planet, so that this country could in some fashion “win” World War III.

Win what, exactly? A burnt cinder of a planet?

Look, I’ve known airmen who’ve piloted nuclear bombers. I’ve known missileersresponsible for warheads that could kill millions (if ever launched). My brother guarded ICBM silos when he was a security policeman in SAC. I sat in the Air Force’s missile-warning center at Cheyenne Mountain under 2,000 feet of solid granite as we ran computerized war games that ended in… yep, mutually assured destruction. We were, at least individually, not insane. We were doing our duty, following orders, preparing for the worst, while (most of us, anyway) hoping for the best.

A word of advice: don’t look for those within this nightmarish system to change it, not when our elected representatives are part of the very military-industrial complex that sustains this MADness. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, with real freedom, could act to do so for the benefit of humanity. But will we ever do that? 

“We’re going backwards as a country,” my wife reminds me — and I fear that she’s right. She summarized the hoopla at the B-21’s recent unveiling this way: “Let’s go gaga over a mass-murder machine.”

Collectively, it seems that we may be on the verge of returning to a nightmarish past, where we lived in fear of a nuclear war that would kill us all, the tall and the small, and especially the smallest among us, our children, who really are our future.

My fear: that we’ve already become comfortably numb to it and no longer can take on that culture of mass death. I say this with great sadness, as an American citizen and a human being.   

No matter. At least a few of us will have profited from building new ultra-expensive stealth bombers and shiny new missiles, while ensuring that mushroom clouds remain somewhere in our collective future. Isn’t that what life is truly all about?

Copyright 2022 William J. Astore

Stop the MADness

W.J. Astore

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is making a comeback as the Pentagon hypes a new Cold War with China and Russia. Threat inflation is a big part of this “new” war, just as it was in the old one. So too is greed. There’s much money to be made (a trillion or more dollars, perhaps) in building new nuclear missiles and bombers, even though these weapons represent incipient holocausts.

We need to stop this MADness. There is no need for a new Cold War, and there is no need for new nuclear weapons, weapons that could very well destroy human civilization and most of life on our planet.

This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com. What follows is an excerpt. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety here.

Stop the MADness. Seriously.

Only Fools Replay Doomsday

In the early 1960s, at the height of America’s original Cold War with the Soviet Union, my old service branch, the Air Force, sought to build 10,000 land-based nuclear missiles. These were intended to augment the hundreds of nuclear bombers it already had, like the B-52s featured so memorably in the movie Dr. Strangelove. Predictably, massive future overkill was justified in the name of “deterrence,” though the nuclear war plan in force back then was more about obliteration. It featured a devastating attack on the Soviet Union and communist China that would kill an estimated 600 million people in six months (the equivalent of 100 Holocausts, notes Daniel Ellsberg in his book, The Doomsday Machine). Slightly saner heads finally prevailed — in the sense that the Air Force eventually got “only” 1,000 of those Minuteman nuclear missiles.

Despite the strategic arms limitation talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the dire threat of nuclear Armageddon persisted, reaching a fresh peak in the 1980s during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. At the time, he memorably declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire,” while nuclear-capable Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles were rushed to Europe. At that same moment, more than a few Europeans, joined by some Americans, took to the streets, calling for a nuclear freeze— an end to new nuclear weapons and the destabilizing deployment of the ones that already existed. If only…

It was in this heady environment that, in uniform, I found myself working in the ultimate nuclear redoubt of the Cold War. I was under 2,000 feet of solid granite in a North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) command post built into Cheyenne Mountain at the southern end of the Colorado front range that includes Pikes Peak. When off-duty, I used to hike up a trail that put me roughly level with the top of Cheyenne Mountain. There, I saw it from a fresh perspective, with all its antennas blinking, ready to receive and relay warnings and commands that could have ended in my annihilation in a Soviet first strike or retaliatory counterstrike.

Yet, to be honest, I didn’t give much thought to the possibility of Armageddon. As a young Air Force lieutenant, I was caught up in the minuscule role I was playing in an unimaginably powerful military machine. And as a hiker out of uniform, I would always do my best to enjoy the bracing air, the bright sunshine, and the deep blue skies as I climbed near the timberline in those Colorado mountains. Surrounded by such natural grandeur, I chose not to give more than a moment’s thought to the nightmarish idea that I might be standing at ground zero of the opening act of World War III.  Because there was one thing I knew with certainty: if the next war went nuclear, whether I was on-duty under the mountain or off-duty hiking nearby, I was certainly going to be dead.

Then came 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over! America had won! Rather than nightmares of the Red Storm Rising sort that novelist Tom Clancy had imagined or Hollywood’s Red Dawn in which there was an actual communist invasion of this country, we could now dream of “peace dividends,” of America becoming a normal country in normal times.

It was, as the phrase went, “morning again in America” — or, at least, it could have been. Yet here I sit, 30 years later, at sea level rather than near the timberline, stunned by the resurgence of a twenty-first-century version of anticommunist hysteria and at the idea of a new cold war with Russia, the rump version of the Soviet Union of my younger days, joined by an emerging China, both still ostensibly conspiring to endanger our national security, or so experts in and out of the Pentagon tell us.

Excuse me while my youthful 28-year-old self asks my cranky 58-year-old self a few questions: What the hell happened? Dammit, we won the Cold War three decades ago. Decisively so! How, then, could we have allowed a new one to emerge? Why would any sane nation want to refight a war that it had already won at enormous cost? Who in their right mind would want to hit the “replay” button on such a costly, potentially cataclysmic strategic paradigm as deterrence through MAD, or mutually assured destruction?

Please read the rest of my article here.

Beware of China!

W.J. Astore

Threat inflation is always a lead feature at the Pentagon (how better to justify enormous budgets?), and just today I caught this story at FP: Foreign Policy.

At the Jiangyan shipyard near Shanghai, the Chinese navy is busy building up its next crown jewel. The Type 003 Carrier—boring name aside—showcases China’s growing naval ambitions and poses one of the greatest new challenges to U.S. naval supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. 

China isn’t saying much about its new carrier, but satellite imageryanalyzed by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week shows it is making “considerable progress” on the carrier, with its flight deck, superstructure, and sponsons “nearly complete.” 

The carrier, about 318 meters in length, will be the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) most technologically advanced and largest yet—and the largest non-U.S. carrier to be constructed in decades. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command estimates China could have four carriers by 2025, with potentially one more to come by 2030. It’s a sign China, already the world’s largest shipbuilder, wants to use that industrial might to supercharge its massive navy. 

What the new carrier means. “The trend is that China is attempting to build a blue water navy, and that’s what this third carrier and plan beyond that represents,” said Eric Sayers, an expert with the American Enterprise Institute and former advisor to the commander of U.S. Pacific Command. “That’s not for its near seas. … That’s more for projecting power into the Indo-Pacific and beyond.” 

China’s carrier upgrades and other investments in its navy have some experts worried Beijing could be getting more capable of showdowns with U.S. carrier strike groups in the region or launching a military assault on Taiwan, which top military officials have predicted could come within the next six years. 

PLAN of attack. “I think they’re going to become more confrontational,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and former U.S. Defense Department official. “With their carriers, they may think that they’re going to be able to establish sea control for long enough that they can pull off an amphibious assault.” 

Aha! The Chinese are just like us! “Confrontational.” They’re building a navy that’s all about “projecting power,” perhaps even beyond the Pacific. How dare they! I wonder what the U.S. should do in response? Perhaps build even more aircraft carriers and an even bigger “blue water” navy? I wonder…

The U.S. Air Force is getting into the threat inflation act as well. I saw a report that suggested China is building sites (possibly dummy ones) for nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Guess which service has its own plans to build new ICBMs? Yes, it’s the U.S. Air Force, and the Chinese “threat” is being used to justify the huge expense of new, stationary, nuclear missiles based on land. (Those ICBMs, if deployed, will probably end up costing at least $100 billion, and perhaps double that.)

I have a perfect strategy for China to win any struggle against the U.S. Make noises about something that you know will set off America’s military-industrial complex, such as aircraft carriers, ICBMs, even ambiguous plans about attacking Taiwan. Then watch as America’s military wets its pants before Congress, calling desperately for money and weaponry to meet the Chinese threat. A few billion spent here and there by China should goad America’s military enthusiasts into spending trillions to meet the threat that, to be frank, they very much want to see from China. It’s truly a win-win for China, and perhaps a win as well for America’s military-industrial complex, but it’s a huge loss for the American people.

Speaking of Taiwan, I’ve even heard talk of the U.S. Army getting into the act by basing “tripwire” forces there, much like our “tripwire” forces in South Korea, the idea being if Mainland China dares to attack Taiwan, they know it’ll be a cause for war as they’ll have to “trip” over, and presumably kill, U.S. troops. What a comforting thought.

Chinese hysteria is reaching its peak in America, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com, so much so that strategic miscalculation is more possible than ever as both sides–but especially America–see hostility as the other side makes moves to counter perceived aggression.

I know the title of my article is “Beware of China,” but of course my real message is beware of America, specifically its military leaders and corporate profiteers who are always happy to exaggerate threats in the cause of securing more money and power.

“Only Americans can hurt America,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower. We had best keep that in mind as various men in uniform hyperventilate about China and the threat it poses over the next few years or decades. Indeed, as Andrea Mazzarino noted in a fine article at TomDispatch.com today, the cancer of never-ending war is killing our democracy. Forget about being afraid of China. It’s time to be afraid of our leaders and all their democracy-killing schemes.

OMG! China might be building silos! You know, those things we’ve had for 60 years? Take cover!

The Nuclear Triad Is Not the Holy Trinity

An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles
An Ohio-Class Submarine, armed with Trident nuclear missiles

W.J. Astore

America’s nuclear triad of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sub-launched ballistic missiles (Ohio-class nuclear submarines), and nuclear-capable bombers is a relic of the Cold War.  The triad may have made some sense in a MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) way in the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the Cold War with the USSR.  But it makes no strategic or financial (or moral) sense today.  Nevertheless, the U.S. is investing $10 billion over the next six years to update land-based ICBMs, missiles that should be decommissioned rather than updated precisely because they are both outdated and redundant.

The most survivable leg of the nuclear triad remains the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines, which carry Trident II missiles with multiple warheads.  These submarines are virtually impossible for any potential American foe to locate and sink in any timely fashion, therefore ensuring a survivable nuclear deterrent that is more than sufficient in any conceivable crisis.

Indeed, it’s arguable whether the U.S. needs any nuclear deterrent, given the size of the U.S. military and the power of its conventional military forces.  Even old Cold War warriors like Henry Kissinger have come out in favor of eliminating nuclear weapons from the earth, as did Barack Obama when he first ran for president in 2008.

But morality and common sense quickly disappear when politics and fear-mongering intervene.  States where nuclear missiles are currently based, such as North Dakota and Wyoming, want to keep them in their silos so that federal dollars continue to flow into local and state economies.  Fearful “hawks” point to the existence of nuclear missiles in China or Russia (or even Pakistan!) as the reason why the U.S. needs to maintain nuclear superiority, even though no country comes close to the power and survivability of the U.S. Navy’s Trident submarines.

And let’s not, of course, forget morality.  With Christmas coming, I recall something about “Thou Shall Not Kill” and loving thy neighbor.  Spending scores of billions (maybe even a trillion dollars!) to update America’s nuclear arsenal, an arsenal that has the capacity to unleash genocide against multiple enemies while plunging the planet into nuclear winter, seems more than a little contrary to the Christian spirit, whether at Christmas or indeed any time of the year.

The decision to “invest” in outdated and redundant land-based ICBMs says much about the American moment.  It’s almost as if our government believes the nuclear triad really is the Holy Trinity.  Heck — why else did our country choose to anoint genocidal nuclear missiles as “Peacekeepers“?

It should sadden us all that some American leader of the future may yet utter the line, “We had to destroy the planet to save it.”  Such is the horrifying potential and maddening logic of our nuclear forces.