Nuclear Follies

If the Russian army makes the bold decision to invade Germany, we can just nuke those damn communist soldiers into oblivion with the 200 tactical nuclear weapons we deploy in Europe. Oh, they're not communists any longer? Oh, Germany and Russia have excellent relations at the moment? Oh, the Cold War has been over for two decades?

So, why do we still have tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe?

As with so much having to do with nuclear weapons, U.S. policies have an odor of mothballs to them. But with a new Nuclear Posture Review, a recent nuclear summit attended by 47 world leaders, and an updated arms control treaty with Russia, the Obama administration is attempting to bring nuclear policies into the 21st century. Are we in the process of giving up our nuclear addiction, or is this just flimflam from an addict who refuses to go cold turkey?

Before we answer that question, let's test your nuclear knowledge.

1) Under the new START arms treaty between the United States and Russia, a B-52 bomber loaded with 20 nuclear warheads is considered:

a) 20 nuclear weapons
b) One nuclear weapon
c) An unforgivable waste of money

2) The new Nuclear Posture Review commits the United States to a no-first-use of nuclear weapons, except against:

a) Non-members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
b) Countries that really really piss us off
c) Countries that forget to say "Mother, may I?"

3) The recent nuclear summit in Washington accomplished the following:

a) Secured the nuclear material of major threats like Canada and Mexico.
b) Eliminated a portion of the 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world
c) Taught the leaders of Iran, North Korea, and Syria a major lesson by not inviting them to sit through two days of stultifying speeches and pointed condemnations

First, let's go to the numbers. Under the peculiar counting rules of the START Treaty, the 20 nukes that a B-52 bomber can carry are considered only a single nuclear weapon. Through this amazing sleight of hand, the United States and Russia can pretend that they are dramatically reducing their arsenals of deployed nuclear weapons by 30 percent. And yet, as Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists explains, "with the 'fake' bomber counting rule the United States and Russia could, if they chose to do so, deploy more strategic warheads under the New START Treaty by 2017 than would have been allowed by the Moscow Treaty by 2012." Moreover, START doesn't even touch the 20,000 stockpiled nuclear weapons that constitute humanity's hidden suicide pill. To win conservative support for the treaty, the Obama administration has backed nuclear modernization, upping the budget for labs and stockpile maintenance by 10 percent. Not only are we not reducing the stockpile, we're giving it a 21st century makeover.

This has always been the problem with nuclear arms control. It provides limits but has rarely led to actual reductions. Of course, START is important in many ways. It builds trust between two countries that haven't exactly been best buds, even after the end of the Cold War. It strengthens verification requirements, which can set the stage for better treaties in the future. And it shows that the Obama administration is willing to take steps, albeit very modest ones, toward its stated goal of nuclear abolition. But START is to nuclear abolition like clearing your throat is to giving a speech.

Which brings us to the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Obama offered a no-first-use policy that has as many exceptions as a health care plan. I understand the conceptual importance of a no-first-use policy. But generally the United States has done whatever it has felt necessary in the name of "national security," so I can't imagine that a clause in the NPR would tie the hands of the president. More important would be to remove the "hair-trigger" status of nuclear weapons, and gradually increase the amount of time between fallible finger and irreversible launch. At the moment, there's a four-minute window for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Personally, I would sleep better at night knowing that the president had more time than it takes to soft-boil an egg to rescind an order that might destroy the planet. Another item that didn't make the NPR's final cut was eliminating one leg of the air-sea-land nuclear triad, a proposal seriously discussed in the Pentagon.

Finally, at last week's nuclear summit, 47 world leaders scrambled to get as much face-time with the U.S. president as they could and, in between such efforts, discuss ways to keep bomb-grade nuclear material out of the hands of the wrong people (al-Qaeda, the tea party movement). But even as the president urged the world to secure stocks of bomb-grade material -- enough to build 120,000 nuclear weapons -- the United States has not been doing enough on the homefront. "In April 2008, government mock terrorists tested the security at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, defeated the protective guard force, and succeeded in both stealing simulated bomb-grade material and using it to create a mock nuclear device," write Peter Stockton and Ingrid Drake of the Project on Government Oversight. "And just last year, the amount of bomb-grade material Los Alamos could not account for 'exceeded alarm limits,' according to the Department of Energy."

The world leaders bemoaned the risks of nuclear proliferation, most of them were eagerly touting nuclear energy. As the case of Iran demonstrates, it's not always so easy to distinguish between a nuclear program that produces energy and one that produces bombs. "The NPT enshrined nuclear power as the ultimate carrot to be exchanged for nonproliferation," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Frida Berrigan in The New Anti-Nuclear Movement. "It didn't work. And, just as importantly, nuclear power is not clean, green, or cheap. As uranium mining begins again under Obama, one need only visit Grand Canyon, Arizona (where uranium mining is once again under way) or Cane Valley, Arizona (the site of a uranium reprocessing plant) to be immediately disabused of that nuclear power industry propaganda."

One final item that received little media coverage amid all the nuclear hoopla was the Prompt Global Strike, a long-range missile with a conventional warhead the Pentagon has been developing over the last decade.

There are several problems with this replacement for deterrence. It's not so easy for other countries to tell whether we're firing a nuclear-tipped or conventionally armed missile. Former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld argued that "everyone in the world would know that [the missile] was conventional after it hit within 30 minutes." And I would suppose that everyone in the world would know that the counterforce launched in our direction was nuclear within 30 minutes as well. Then there's the cost issue. Spending on nuclear weapons is only a fraction of the overall military budget, at most around 10 percent if you factor everything in. That's a lot of money, but we spend more on conventional weaponry. And as we reduce nuclear deterrence, the Pentagon will make strong arguments that we'll need to spend even more on Prompt Global Strike and the like to compensate.

As monsters go, nuclear weapons are definitely in the Godzilla category. They're an existential threat to the planet against which we must all certainly band together to fight. But we can't forget the lesser, more conventional monsters that wreak havoc on a daily basis. Nuclear weapons give us nightmares. The conventional monsters terrorize us during the day.

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