The Threat of Nuclear Weapons to America

W.J. Astore

Did you know the U.S. has built nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945? Did you know the U.S. Air Force lost a B-52 and two hydrogen bombs in an accident over North Carolina in 1961, and that one of those H-bombs was a single safety-switch away from exploding with a blast equivalent to three or four million tons of TNT (roughly 200 Hiroshima-type bombs)?  Did you know a U.S. nuclear missile exploded in its silo in Arkansas in 1980, throwing its thermonuclear warhead into the countryside?

nuclear_explosion_AP
On more the one occasion, the U.S. has come close to nuking itself

That last accident is the subject of a PBS American Experience documentary that I watched last night, “Command and Control.”  I highly recommend it to all Americans, not just for what it reveals about nuclear accidents and the lack of safety, but for what it reveals about the U.S. military.

Here are a few things I learned about U.S. nuclear weapons and the military from the documentary:

  1. During the silo accident, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) general in charge of nuclear missiles was a pilot with no experience in missiles.  His order to activate a venting fan during a fuel leak led to the explosion that destroyed the missile and killed an airman. (Experts from Martin Marietta, the military contractor that built the Titan II missile, advised against such action.)
  2. Airmen who courageously tried against long odds to mitigate the accident, and who were wounded in the explosion, were subsequently punished by the Air Force.
  3. The Air Force refused to provide timely and reliable knowledge to local law enforcement as well as to the Arkansas governor (then Bill Clinton) and senators. Even Vice President Walter Mondale was denied a full and honest accounting of the accident.
  4. Nuclear safety experts concluded that “luck” played a role in the fact that the Titan’s warhead didn’t explode.  It was ejected from the silo without its power source, but if that power source had accompanied the warhead as it flew out of the silo, an explosion equivalent to two or three megatons could conceivably have happened.
  5. Finally, the number of accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons is far greater than the military has previously reported.  Indeed, even the nation’s foremost expert in nuclear weapons development was not privy to all the data from these accidents.

In short, the U.S. has been very fortunate not to have nuked itself with multiple hydrogen bombs over the last 70 years.  Talk today of a threat from North Korea pales in comparison to the threat posed to the U.S. by its own nuclear weapons programs and their hair-raising record of serious accidents and safety violations.

Despite this record, President Obama and now President Trump have asked for nearly a trillion dollars over the next generation to modernize and improve U.S. nuclear forces. Talk about rewarding failure!

Threatening genocidal murder is what passes for “deterrence,” then and now. This madness will continue as long as people acquiesce to the idea the government knows best and can be trusted with nuclear weapons that can destroy vast areas of our own country, along with most of the world.

To end the insanity, we must commit to eliminating nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan saw the wisdom of total nuclear disarmament.  So should we all.

An Addendum: In my Air Force career, I knew many missileers who worked in silos. They were dedicated professionals.  But accidents happen, and complex weapons systems fail often in complex and unpredictable ways.  Again, it’s nuclear experts themselves who say that luck has played a significant role in the fact that America hasn’t yet nuked itself.  (Of course, we performed a lot of above-ground nuclear testing in places like Nevada, making them “no-go” places to this day due to radiation.)

Update (4/27/17): I’d heard of Air Force plans to base nuclear weapons on the moon, but today I learned that a nuclear test was contemplated on or near the moon as a way of showcasing American might during the Cold War.  As the New York Times reported,  “Dr. [Leonard] Reiffel revealed that the Air Force had been interested in staging a surprise lunar explosion, and that its goal was propaganda. ‘The foremost intent was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States.’ It was a P.R. device, without question, in the minds of the people from the Air Force.”  Dr. Reiffel further noted that, “The cost to science of destroying the pristine lunar environment did not seem of concern to our sponsors [the U.S. military] — but it certainly was to us, as I made clear at the time.”

The U.S. military wasn’t just content to pollute the earth with nuclear radiation: they wanted to pollute space and the moon as well.  All in the name of “deterrence.”

Two pictures of above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada in 1955

Atom Bomb Blast

Atom Bomb Blast
Here’s a tip, ladies: Wear light-colored dresses during a nuclear war.  They absorb less heat

Trump: A Worrisome Commander-in-Chief

Trump holds a rally with supporters at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, U.S.
He doesn’t speak softly, even as he now inherits a very big U.S. military stick. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

W.J. Astore

I’d never watched a U.S. presidential candidate who scared me – truly scared me – until the Republican debate on March 3, 2016.  This candidate literally gave me the creeps.  As a historian and as a retired U.S. military officer, his answer to a question on torture and the potential illegality of his orders if he became the military’s civilian commander-in-chief horrified me.  The next day, I wrote a short blog post in which I argued that this candidate had disqualified himself as a candidate for the presidency.  That candidate’s name was Donald Trump.

What did candidate Trump say that so horrified me?  He said this: They [U.S. military leaders] won’t refuse [my illegal orders]. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.  After again calling for waterboarding and more extreme forms of (illegal) torture, as well as not denying he’d target terrorists’ families in murderous reprisal raids, candidate Trump then said this: I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

As I wrote at the time, “Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by ‘The Leader.’ Our military swears an oath to the Constitution.  We swear to uphold the law of the land. We don’t swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.”

“Trump’s performance … reminded me of Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: ‘When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.’ No, no, a thousand times no.  The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to.  No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.”

“And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.”

Yes, I wrote those words just before the Ides of March.  And yet here we are, with Trump as our president-elect and, come January 2017 the U.S. military’s next commander-in-chief.  What the hell?

Confronted with criticism of his remarks that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality, Donald Trump soon walked them back.  But for me his dictatorial instincts, his imperiousness, and, worst of all, his ignorance of or indifference to the U.S. Constitution, stood revealed in horrifyingly stark relief.  Little that Trump said or did after this major, to my mind disqualifying, gaffe convinced me that he was fit to serve as commander-in-chief.

Here’s what I wrote back in March about the prospect of Trump serving as commander-in-chief:

Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief.  Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect.  His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination.  Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.

Another disturbing tack he took was to suggest that he’d clean house among the military’s senior ranks — apparently, America today doesn’t have enough men like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump’s all-time favorite generals.  Patton was a notorious hothead, and MacArthur was vainglorious, egotistical, and insubordinate.  Leaving that aside, Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the president is not a dictator who can purge the military officer corps. Officers are appointed by Congress, not by the president, and they serve at the will of the American people, not at the whim of the president.

Combine Trump’s ignorance of the U.S. Constitution with his cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and you truly have a combustible formula.  Clearly, Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad was during the Republican primary debates, but few people in the media seemed to care.  (Gary Johnson, meanwhile, was pilloried by the press for not knowing about Aleppo.)  Trump gave statements that seemed to favor nuclear proliferation, and seemed to suggest he saw nuclear weapons as little different from conventional ones.  He also repeated that hoary chestnut, vintage 1960, that some sort of “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and Russia: the lie that Russia was modernizing its nuclear forces and the USA was falling hopelessly behind.  Again, there was little push back from the press on Trump’s ignorance and lies: they were enjoying the spectacle and profits too much.

When it comes to nuclear war, ignorance and lies are not bliss.  Can Trump grow up?  Can he become an adequate commander-in-chief? America’s future, indeed the world’s, may hinge on this question.

On Nuclear Weapons, Trump is Nightmarishly Scary

ohio6
An Ohio-class nuclear submarine

W.J. Astore

Much of the post-debate analysis I’ve read from last night’s presidential debate has focused on Donald Trump’s crudeness, his threat to prosecute and jail his political opponent, the way in which he stalked her on the stage, looming in the background and crowding her, and finally his non-apology apology about “locker room banter.”  Yes: Trump is most definitely lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable, but that’s hardly the worst of his qualities.

His worst quality?  His sweeping ignorance to the point of recklessness when it comes to matters of national defense, and specifically America’s nuclear arsenal.

This is what Trump had to say last night about the U.S. nuclear deterrent:

But our nuclear program has fallen way behind, and they’ve gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good. Our government shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We’re tired. We’re exhausted in terms of nuclear. A very bad thing.

This is utter nonsense.  First off, nuclear weapons are not people.  They don’t get “tired” or “exhausted” or “old.”  Second, the U.S. nuclear program has not “fallen way behind” the programs of other nations, certainly not Russia’s.  Third, even if portions of Russia’s nuclear program are “new” (whatever that means), that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the United States.  “New” in this case may mean safer and more reliable systems that are less prone to catastrophic error.

Here’s an undeniable fact: The U.S. nuclear arsenal is by far the world’s most powerful and advanced.  The key aspect to nuclear capability is survivability, and nothing is more survivable than America’s force of Trident nuclear submarines.  Virtually impossible to detect, America’s Trident force is essentially capable of destroying the world.  One submarine carries enough missiles and warheads to devastate every major city in Russia (or any other country, for that matter).  What more is needed as a deterrent?

Specifically, an Ohio-class Trident submarine can carry up to 24 nuclear missiles, each with up to eight nuclear warheads, each warhead equivalent to roughly six Hiroshima bombs.  That represents a potential for hitting 192 targets, each with six times the impact of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (which killed up to 200,000 people). That’s 1152 Hiroshimas from one submarine — a rough calculus, I know, but accurate enough to show the awesome might represented by a small portion of America’s nuclear force.

The Trident missiles are also incredibly accurate, with a circular error probability of less than 150 meters.  And the U.S. has 14 of these submarines.  (Not all are on patrol at any one time.) These highly sophisticated and ultra-powerful submarines are further augmented by land-based ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and bomber planes (the “air-breathing” element), forming the other two legs of the American nuclear triad. Again, when it comes to redundancy, accuracy, and survivability, no other country comes close to America’s nuclear capability.

This awesome nuclear force is not a sign the U.S. is “old” and “tired” and “exhausted.” It’s a sign that the U.S. is incredibly powerful, and, if you’re a foreign leader, incredibly dangerous, especially if America’s next commander-in-chief is undisciplined, thin-skinned, and in possession of a scattershot knowledge of military matters.

Back in March of this year, Trump boasted at a debate that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  In this latest debate, he yet again revealed that he has no real knowledge of America’s nuclear capability and how modern and powerful (and scary) it truly is.

Sure, Trump is crude, lewd, and sexist, but those qualities won’t destroy the world as we know it.  Ignorance about nuclear weapons, combined with impetuosity and an avowed affection for he-man wild-card generals like George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, is a recipe for utter disaster.

Ignorance and Dishonesty: Trump, Hillary, and Nuclear Genocide

castle-romeo-573x720
Some honesty, please!

W.J. Astore

Should the United States reject the “first use” of nuclear weapons?  That question was put to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during their first debate.  Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich asks us to take their answers seriously in his latest insightful essay at TomDispatch.com, which I urge you to read here in full.

Trump was asked to respond first, and his rambling answer, I thought, showed the evidence of someone who had crammed for a test.  He was desperate to show he knew something – anything – about America’s nuclear forces (here some may recall how Trump obviously knew little about America’s nuclear triad during the Republican primary debates).  So Trump rambled on about obsolete B-52s flown by the sons and grandsons of previous pilots, a non sequitur since the B-52 has been continuously upgraded with new engines, advanced avionics, the latest in high-tech weaponry, and despite their age they’re still more than capable of doing the job.  But somebody must have told Trump to use the B-52’s age as a talking point, and he was determined to get it in.

As confused and incoherent as Trump’s reply was (read more about this at TomDispatch.com), at least he tried to grapple with the issue.  Trump did reject First Strike.  He did refer to the terror of nuclear war, even as he got lost in other talking points about North Korea, Iran, and allegations about how weak on national security Obama is.

By comparison, Clinton’s response was classic Hillary.  Avoid and evade.  Try to be all things to all voters.  Bloviate, in other words, as Warren G. Harding did in 1920.  In essence, Hillary ducked the question.  She refused to address the issue of first use of nuclear weapons; indeed, she didn’t address nuclear strategy and policy at all.  Instead, she drew a contrast between her experience and predictability versus Trump’s inexperience and unpredictability.  Her message was clear: I’m not talking about nuclear weapons or policy, except to say you shouldn’t trust Trump with the nuclear launch codes.

Who won on this question?  Bacevich is right to say neither candidate won, but it’s clear who lost: the American people.  And the world.

It’s shameful that this country hasn’t rejected the first use of nuclear weapons.  It’s also shameful that instead of working to eliminate nuclear weapons, the U.S. is actually planning to spend nearly a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to upgrade that arsenal.  For what possible strategic purpose, one must ask?  America’s current nuclear deterrent is the most powerful and survivable in the world.  No other country comes close.  There’s no rational reason to invest more money in nuclear weapons, unless you count the jobs and money related to building new nuclear submarines, weaponry, bombs, and all the other infrastructure related to America’s nuclear triad of Trident submarines, land-based bombers, and fixed missile silos.

Neither Trump nor Hillary addressed this issue.  Trump was simply ignorant.  Hillary was simply disingenuous.  Which candidate was worse?  When you’re talking about nuclear genocidal death, it surely does matter.  Ignorance is not bliss, nor is a lack of forthrightness and honesty.

Next time, Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton, let’s have some rigor, some honesty, and some wisdom on the issue of nuclear weapons.  Not only America deserves it – the world does.

Senator Tom Cotton: Bomb Iran — It’s Easy!

A Panel from Tom Tomorrow lampooning Tom Cotton.  Love the R-Lunacy designation!
A panel from Tom Tomorrow lampooning Tom Cotton. Love the R-Lunacy designation!

W.J. Astore

Would a war against Iran take “only a few days“?  According to Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a few days of precision bombing would be enough to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability.  Oh, there might be a few (thousand) innocent Iranians killed.  And perhaps some radiation spread about.  But wouldn’t some dead and irradiated (Iranian) bodies be worth it?

Despite his military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Senator Cotton is a proponent of imaginary war.  You know, war like in a video game, where you drop bombs on target, witness a few explosions, and then it’s game over, with victory for Play Station America.  When you view war like this, as a game, it’s easier to think of it as “inevitable,” which is precisely the word Cotton uses: War with Iran, he says, is inevitable, so let’s flatten them now before they have nukes.

Let’s consider, for a moment, the worst-case scenario: Iran conspires successfully to gain a nuclear weapon in seven years.  What would Iran do with such a weapon?  Iran would face a regional neighbor, Israel, which possesses roughly 200 nuclear weapons. Iran would face a superpower, the United States, which has more than 2000 active nuclear warheads with another 3000 or so in reserve.  Any use of nuclear weapons by Iran would lead to overwhelming retaliation by Israel and/or the United States, so it’s extremely unlikely that Iran would ever use such weapons, unless Iran itself was faced by invasion and destruction.

And there’s the rub.  Relatively weak countries like Iran know that acquiring WMD is a potential game-changer, in the sense that such weapons can deter aggression by the United States.  An Iran with a nuclear weapon is a country that’s less easy for the U.S. to bully.  And Iran has regional rivals (India, Pakistan, and of course Israel) that already possess nuclear arsenals.

Look at what happened to Gaddafi in Libya.  He gave up his WMD (chemical weapons and nerve agents) and the next thing he knew he was being overthrown by a U.S.-led coalition.  We came, we saw, he died, cackled Hillary Clinton.  But would “we” have come if Gaddafi could have threatened a coalition with WMD?

(This is not an argument for WMD or for nuclear proliferation.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, I’d like to see the complete elimination of nuclear weapons on our planet.  They are genocidal weapons, pure and simple.)

It’s all well and good for the U.S. and its partners to work to eliminate any chance of Iran acquiring nukes, but the U.S. needs to go one giant leap further and work to eliminate all nuclear weapons everywhere.  If we did that, maybe Iran wouldn’t want one so much.

In the meantime, Senator Cotton needs to stop imagining how clean and simple it would be to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.  Dropping lots of bombs on Iran while hoping for an imaginary “happy ending” for the U.S. is more than facile thinking.  It’s lunacy.

Update (4/17/15): After I wrote this, I came across Jon Schwarz’s “Seven Things You Didn’t Know the U.S. and its Allies Did to Iran” at The Intercept.  Schwarz also makes the point about the Iranian desire for a nuke as a deterrent against U.S. aggression, and he notes other prominent American leaders who’ve threatened Iran with bombing and/or obliteration.  From his article:

U.S. leaders have repeatedly threatened to outright destroy Iran

It’s not just John McCain singing “bomb bomb bomb Iran.” Admiral William Fallon, who retired as head of CENTCOM in 2008, said about Iran: “These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them.” Admiral James Lyons Jr., commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the 1980s, has said we were prepared to “drill them back to the fourth century.” Richard Armitage, then assistant secretary of defense, explained that we considered whether to “completely obliterate Iran.” Billionaire and GOP kingmaker Sheldon Adelson advocates an unprovoked nuclear attack on Iran — “in the middle of the desert” at first, then possibly moving on to places with more people.

Most seriously, the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review declared that we will not use nuclear weapons “against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” There’s only one non-nuclear country that’s plausibly not in this category. So we were saying we will never use nuclear weapons against any country that doesn’t have them already — with a single exception, Iran. Understandably, Iran found having a nuclear target painted on it pretty upsetting.”

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.

 

What Americans Value

There's no shortage of tanks in the USA
There’s no shortage of tanks in the USA

W.J. Astore

A sentiment attributed to Vice President Joe Biden is, Show me what’s in your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.  These words resonate with me whenever I consider the yearly budget for the Department of Defense (DoD), Homeland Security, the Department of Energy (which handles nuclear weapons), and the various intelligence agencies (roughly 17; that’s why they form a community).

When you add up what we spend on defense, homeland security, “overseas contingency operations” (wars), nuclear weapons, and intelligence and surveillance operations, the sum approaches $750 billion dollars each and every year, consuming more than two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary spending.

Here are some figures for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15):

Defense: “Base” budget of $496 billion

Afghan War (not part of “defense”): $85 billion

VA: $65 billion

Homeland Security: $38 billion

Nuclear Weapons: $12 billion

FBI and Cyber Security (part of Justice Department budget): $18 billion

Total: $714 billion

Some of the budget of the State Department and for foreign aid supports weapons and training (“foreign military sales”), bringing us to roughly three-quarters of a trillion dollars, each and every year, on the military, intelligence, security, weapons, and wars.

How much do we spend at the federal level on education, interior, and transportation?  Roughly $95 billion.

When a government spends almost eight times as much on its military, security, wars, weapons, and the like as it does on educating its youth, fixing its roads and bridges and related infrastructure, and maintaining its national parks and land, is there any question what that country ultimately values?

Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.  Sobering words. Sobering — and scary.