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More Nukes = More Chances For Mistakes

Just how long can America’s atomic luck last?
An unarmed test of the Air Force’s Minuteman III nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile in California in May 2017. (Photo: USAF / William Collette)

How appropriate that the Pentagon rolled out its latest Nuclear Posture Review on Groundhog Day (after all, it could have been April 1st). All kidding aside, the latest U.S. atomic blueprint reads like the classic Bill Murray movie, where he lives the same day over and over again. Only this time it’s Dr. Strangelove—and it’s not a movie.

The U.S. military has skillfully juggled thousands of on-alert nuclear weapons for 75 years without dropping a single one. Now, like a petulant bully in the schoolyard, President Trump wants to toss more into the air for them to handle, even as the command-and-control network that keeps them all humming and primed for the end of the world grows increasingly creaky and unreliable.

This is not a recipe for success. It’s rather like buying the biggest gun you can afford and skimping on the safety.

But like it or not, that’s where we find ourselves. And whether through snafu or sabotage (smart bets are on the former), U.S. control of its nuclear weapons can’t remain perfect forever.

God bless the airmen and sailors who have kept the nation’s nuclear weapons holstered since Aug. 9, 1945. But in all the commentary on Trump’s embrace of atomic arms, I’m taken aback that no one seems to have asked when they’re going to stumble into the same nightmare as that hapless state employee who sent thousands of Hawaiians running for their lives Jan. 13 when he flashed word that a ballistic missile was bearing down on their island paradise. Or during the Super Bowl Feb. 4 when your screen went black for nearly 30 seconds. Or when that Amtrak trained ended up on the wrong track the same day—or when a second fell apart two days later at 125 miles an hour on its high-speed run from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Or the erroneous alert via mobile phones the same day that a tsunami was approaching the east coast of the United States.

All were mistakes—one of them, unfortunately, deadly—caused by human error of one form or another.

President Trump wants to toss more into the air for them to handle, even as the command-and-control network that keeps them all humming and primed for the end of the world grows increasingly creaky and unreliable.

But that will never happen with U.S. nuclear weapons, advocates say. Yet their confidence carries a whiff of the hubris we all shared before 9/11. Until that day, no one is the U.S. government with authority to prevent it saw those terror attacks coming. But that attitude instantly changed following the attacks that killed nearly 3,000: “How could we have been so stupid?”

The Pentagon wants a nuclear toolbox filled with all kinds of less-explosive “tactical” atomic weapons. The Defense Department, for a change, is actually seeking less bang for the buck. It wants new cruise and ballistic missiles, and bombs for the F-35, to create a force field of nuclear deterrence around the nation. Think of it as nuclear nuance. The policy is intended to put potential foes on notice that Washington could retaliate with atomic finesse.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says a tinier bomb—roughly the size of the weapon that vaporized Hiroshima—is needed for leverage against nations like North Korea. “That nation could assume that if they used, in a conventional fight, a small-yield [nuclear] bomb, we would not respond with a very large-yield bomb,” he said Feb. 7. “Our response to this is to make a small-yield [nuclear] bomb and say: `Don’t miscalculate.’”

This is the fantasyland of nuclear-war planning. “The weapons are real, and their destructive power is cataclysmic,” nuclear author Fred Kaplan writes on the Slate website. “But the countless attempts to harness this destruction into an elaborate war-fighting strategy are excursions into metaphysics, not the hard-boiled realism that its purveyors like to believe.”

U.S. nuclear forces generally date back to the Reagan era, and need updating. But to do this across the board blows a chance to craft a nuclear force more in tune with the 21st Century. While today’s nuclear arsenal is down an impressive 85 percent since its Cold War peak, the U.S. retains nearly 7,000 of them, many on hair-trigger alert. Even with 2,800 of them in retired status, that’s enough to destroy the world as we know it several times over.

The nuclear triad is a Cold War leftover, its trio of bombers and land-and-sea based missiles ill-suited for the varied threats the U.S. faces today. Former defense secretary William Perry has declared it is past time to junk the Air Force’s ICBM leg of the triad, and he’s hardly alone. “In the Wild West, rarely did cowboys carry three guns,” defense analyst Harlan Ullman noted in a letter to the Washington Post Feb. 8. “Two were usually enough.”

Even Mattis wondered about its wisdom before he joined the Trump administration last year. "Is it time to reduce the triad to a diad, removing the land-based missiles?” the retired four-star Marine wondered aloud to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015.

But in the latest 74-page Nuclear Posture Review, Mattis embraces that three-legged stool of nuclear deterrence. It “provides diversity and flexibility,” it says, without actually spelling out why three is the right number. Why not four (even more flexible!) or two (less Gumby-like, but still able to hold the world at risk).

More critical is the infrastructure that warns of an impending nuclear attack on the U.S. and lets the U.S. fire back. “While once state-of-the-art, the [nuclear command, control and communication] system is now subject to challenges from both aging system components and new, growing 21st century threats,” the nuclear review says. This system of systems has “atrophied” in recent years, warns General Robin Rand, chief of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command. “It’s 107 different things but we have bundled it into 13 different categories,” he said in November.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated in October that rewiring the communication and detection links of the nation’s nuclear forces will cost $184 billion between now and 2046. But that omits many required, but as-of-yet unpriced, upgrades. “Plans to do so are generally not yet well defined,” the CBO said in its dryly understated prose. “Additional modernization programs, if included, would increase those costs.”

This is the seam in the U.S. nuclear infrastructure, if history is any guide, most likely to split apart.

NPR headline nuke test
The Pentagon’s new Nuclear Posture Review has led to headlines like these atop a photograph from a 1955 U.S. nuclear test in Nevada. (Photo: U.S. National Archives)

Perry had known false alarms from his time as an analyst before he was Secretary of Defense. “I was awoken at 3 o’clock in the morning by a phone call from the watch officer at NORAD telling me that his computers were showing 200 ICBMs on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States,” he told me in 2015. “Now that really gets your attention, especially when you’re living at ground zero,” he said of the 1979 scare. “It was, of course, a false alarm.”

False alarms travel both ways. In 1983, a Soviet watch officer saw his computers light up with warnings that five U.S. ICBMs had been launched toward his country. For five minutes, Moscow’s air-defense forces wondered if American missiles were incoming. Lieut. Colonel Stanislav Petrov finally concluded it was a false alarm. “When people start a war,” he’d say years later, “they don’t start it with only five missiles.” It turned out that the Soviets’ early warning system had apparently mistaken light from the Sun—the solar system’s ultimate nuclear weapon—bouncing off clouds as missile launches.

It seems that in this post-Cold War world, we are entering a chapter where the horror of a nuclear attack is more likely to begin by mistake than by rational (!) decision. “A fateful error—rather than intentional aggression—is the most likely catalyst to nuclear catastrophe,” atomic veterans Ernest Moniz (President Obama’s energy secretary from 2013 to 2017) and Sam Nunn (Democratic senator from Georgia from 1972 to 1997) warned Feb. 1. “Do we really believe we can prevent a nuclear catastrophe indefinitely in a world with nine states with nuclear weapons and significant suspicion and hostility in many of their mutual relationships?”

Good question. Too bad the U.S. doesn’t have a better answer.