Barack Obama made a speech early in his presidency in which he described his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. From the hopeful view of a world free of the awesome threat of a nuclear weapons exchange, President has gone in the opposite direction, with his only significant departure being a New START treaty with Russia, reducing both nation’s nuclear warheads.
The Department of Energy (D0E) and the Department of Defense (D0D) jointly oversee all of the country’s nuclear weapons activities. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNCA), a branch of the DOD, is responsible for management and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.
“Modernization” has become the watchword for enhancing nuclear weapons capabilities. The NNSA has proposed new facilities in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Kansas City, Missouri. These new facilities would increase nuclear warhead building capacity from 20 to 80 warheads a year. The new facilities would make it easier for a future president to gin up nuclear weapons production at full speed.
Previous scientific studies have shown that the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile is assured for decades without the need for any major upgrading. President Obama added billions of dollars to the modernization program in order to try to entice enough votes from Senate Republicans to ratify the New START treaty with Russia. Elimination of the projected $85 million for infrastructure modernization and the $100 billion for delivery system modernization would save $185 billion over a ten-year period.
President Obama has also bought into the remnants of former President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy by which there would be an anti-ballistic missile umbrella over the United States. By doing away with the highly questionable feasibility of a shoot-’em-down defense system, Obama could save a projected $86 billion in costs over the next ten years.
Besides these projected modernization and anti-missile defense system costs, another $110 to $120 billion is scheduled to be spent on a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines to be operational by 2030 –a projected $350 billion cost over a 50-year lifespan. Also on the drawing board is $55 billion for 100 new bombers equipped to carry nuclear warheads.
An Obama action that virtually no Americans likely know about is that he has pushed back the 2022 deadline for finishing the dismantlement of nuclear warheads, as provided for in prior START treaties.
While continuing the George W. Bush policy of pressuring Iran to halt any activity that can lead to Iranian development of a nuclear bomb, President Obama has been silent about Israeli possession of what is widely believed to be an arsenal of 80 to 200 nuclear warheads. Obama has never taken off the table a threat to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, even with the possibility that the U.S. could use nuclear weapons to try to destroy deeply dug-in Iranian nuclear facilities. A computer model shows that hitting these facilities with nuclear bombs could cause as many as three million deaths from the resulting radioactive clouds.
The United States has committed itself to a course which will lead to the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons arsenal without undue delay. Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) binds the U.S. to such a course of action. President Obama is heading the nation in the opposite direction.
What Should Obama Have Done
Besides the kind of cost savings already described, there exists a bold proposal for reduction of U.S. nuclear warheads. Three Air Force strategists and scholars published an article in the Strategic Studies Quarterly calling for a reduction to 311 in U.S. nuclear warheads. They concluded that “the actual marginal utility of additional forces is quite small.” The warheads would be deployed in a triad model, as follows: 100 single warheads would be deployed in silos; an ICBM carried by 19 of the 20 B-52s or 20s — one bomber would be assumed to be in maintenance at any one time — and the remainder deployed in nuclear-equipped submarines.
Previously, the Institute of Air Power Studies called for eliminating the nuclear bomber leg of the U.S. nuclear triad.
The 311 warheads would provide the equivalent of 1,900 megatons of explosive power, or nine and one-half times the amount that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued in 1965 could incapacitate the Soviet Union by destroying “one-quarter to one-third of its population and about two-thirds of the industrial capacity.”
Professor Larry Wittner, who teaches in Albany, New York and writes extensively on nuclear weapons issues, puts the U.S. nuclear warhead arsenal at 8,500 and calculates it could instantly massacre 2.88 billion people.
The next blog will examine President Obama’s stance on nuclear power and will briefly discuss where he stands on landmines and cluster bombs.