Holding the Government Accountable

A Nuclear-Weapons Halloween

Their haunted history requires a reckoning, and a recalibration
A B-2 bomber, a key element of the U.S. nuclear triad, sips fuel from a KC-135 tanker over the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brian Kimball)

Last week, we flirted with ghouls, ghosts, goblins—and Global Thunder. Yep, the U.S. military flexed its nuclear muscles starting the day before Halloween.

Did you notice?

If you did, were you scared…or reassured?

Global Thunder is an annual war game using a “notional, classified scenario,” according to the Pentagon. “These exercises achieve the vision of a unified team, integrating all the capabilities of U.S. Strategic Command across the globe wherever and whenever needed,” says Air Force General John Hyten, today’s Curtis LeMay. “We need to integrate our strategic capabilities in order to deliver multi-domain effects against any adversary, anywhere in the world, at any time.” It’s designed to test the levers and pulleys of the nation’s nuclear forces to ensure they’ll work if ever needed in a real-world nuclear war. The logic is simple: the more limber and responsive the system is seen to be, the greater its deterrence (although its highly-classified results work against that).

Then, the next day—Halloween!—the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that current plans to modernize and operate the Pentagon’s strategic nuclear forces over the next 30 years will cost $1.2 trillion, a 20 percent hike over earlier projections (and don’t forget inflation, which boosts the total to $1.6 trillion).

A new Congressional Budget Office report estimates the costs associated with the nuclear triad over the coming 30 years.
A new Congressional Budget Office report estimates the costs associated with the nuclear triad over the coming 30 years. (Source: CBO)

Somehow it’s fitting that this nuclear fallout is happening around All Hallow’s Eve. After all, test versions of the most powerful nuclear bomb ever used in war—the “Fat Man” the U.S. dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, killing up to 80,000—were officially known as pumpkin bombs. But like November’s pumpkins, it’s fair to ask if such weapons have begun to wither and rot. And we’re not talking only of the aging B-52 nuclear bombers older than the pilots now flying them.

It’s long past time for the nation to have a serious sit-down about its nuclear arsenal and figure out the best way forward. The military-industrial complex has decided to continue its Cold War-era strategy on auto-pilot, relying on the long-standing triad of bombers, submarine-launched missiles, and ground-based ICBMs to assure future American security.

That made sense when the post-World War II superpowers had a duopoly on atomic weapons. But that has steadily eroded. As it has, debates have begun swirling over the utility of the 20th Century’s most fearsome weapon in the 21st.

But not at the White House or Pentagon. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who wondered aloud in 2015 if it were time “to reduce the triad to a dyad,” has come around to the Pentagon’s groupthink that the triad is sacrosanct.

But that $1.6 trillion triad is a legacy of the Obama administration, which sought further reductions in nuclear weapons before doing an about-face sparked by Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and a resurgent Russia. In 2010, the U.S. and Russia agreed to trim their long-range nuclear weapons to 1,550 each, a 30 percent cut. It’s unlikely Trump is going to rubber-stamp his predecessor’s nuclear blueprints. More, better, smaller—“more usable” in the atomic vernacular—U.S. nuclear weapons seem on the horizon.

Trump has called for growing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which peaked at more than 30,000 in the late 1960s, but that is a bad bargain given how much firepower the U.S. currently has. Researchers have estimated the U.S. could decimate China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Russia and Syria with less than half its current stockpile. Can you say “making the rubble bounce”?

Mattis and Trump are exploring low-yield nukes that might have more utility for battlefield commanders, more flexible language governing their use, and that wholesale rebuilding of triad. “There’s no greater force for peace in the world than the United States nuclear arsenal,” Vice President Mike Pence said four days before Halloween during a trip to North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base—the lone U.S. outpost that is home to a pair of legs of the nuclear triad: its 25 B-52s ready to fly and 150 Minuteman missiles buried in silos polka-dotted across the remote plains.

Yet a former Pentagon chief believes it is time to amputate one leg of the triad.

Then-Defense Secretary Bill Perry told me more than 20 years ago that the U.S. needed to ensure the North Korean nuclear arsenal was limited to the one or two weapons U.S. intelligence suspected Pyongyang possessed in 1994. But even as North Korea’s nuclear arsenal grew, he told me in 2015 that it was time to scrap the triad’s 400 land-based missiles. “It’s not necessary,” said Perry, a math whiz who knows the odds. “Any reasonable definition of deterrence will not require that third leg.”

Of course, “reasonable” and “Washington” rarely make an appearance at the same time in the same place.

On Halloween, Perry joined with retired Marine general James Cartwright in a letter to Trump urging him to rethink his nuclear strategy. “The United States should review plans to replace its ground-based ICBMs,” Perry and Cartwright, who oversaw the nation’s nuclear forces as chief of U.S. Strategic Command from 2004 to 2007, said. “These plans are unaffordable.”

But that’s not true. The nation used to spend a lot more on its nuclear forces, and can do so again. The nation currently spends about 4.5 percent of its $600 billion annual defense budget on nukes, a slice that will rise to about 8 percent under existing plans. But that only makes sense if the threat is still there, and if nuclear weapons are the best way to address that threat. Given those caveats, rebuilding the entire nuclear arsenal is nonsense.

It’s long past time for the nation to have a serious sit-down about its nuclear arsenal and figure out the best way forward.

It’s worth noting that severing a leg of the triad isn’t going to save that much money. Regardless of how many legs there are, the immense production complex that builds the warheads, and the command systems that governs their use, account for about a third of the CBO’s $1.2 trillion price tag. Doing away with the ICBM leg would only save about 10 percent of that sum.

But as atomic arms have oozed around the globe, there is a more pressing question: are nuclear weapons doing more harm than good today? Nuclear weapons do some good—let’s be clear about that. Ever since they ended World War II with a pair of bangs, shocking the world with their destructive might, atomic arms have stayed the hands of those who have them. The span of peace among the world’s great powers over the past 70 years never would have been possible without the nuclear arsenals of the U.S., which was the globe’s first nuclear power in 1945, followed by the Soviet Union in 1949. The club grew with the admission of Britain (1952), France (1960) and China (1964). But other members—India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan—have pushed their way in.

The nuclear triad is of no value to deterring these latecomers. But that doesn’t sway the theologians, who are forever fomenting fear. “Our five bomber and submarine bases are…soft targets, ones that can be easily destroyed,” writes Peter Huessy, a defense analyst with a permanent seat in the atomic amen corner. “While submarines at sea are highly survivable today, future advances in technology may change that, making a robust ICBM force a key insurance policy and critical to maintain deterrence now and into the future.”

Perry and Cartwright argue that bombers are sufficient insurance against U.S. nuclear submarines being blown out of the water, a constant refrain from triad-and-true believers. “We support a strong U.S. nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons are held by other nations,” they wrote to the president. “But we do not support rebuilding every weapon in the arsenal just because we have that weapon now.”

How refreshing! It brings to mind the heady days of 1991 when the first President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev wiped out thousands of nuclear weapons without a treaty in a matter of weeks—and the world survived.

God bless the men and women of the U.S. military who have kept these most dangerous weapons unfired since Nagasaki. But the longer we have them, and the more legs the triad has, the chances grow that our luck will run out.

We’ve seen evidence of that.

In 2006, the U.S. mistakenly shipped four nuclear fuses (without their warheads) to Taiwan, instead of the helicopter batteries that had been ordered. Then there were the six nuclear cruise missiles that went MIA in 2007 at that North Dakota base Pence just visited (they surfaced in Louisiana 36 hours later, none the worse for wear). Three years ago, the Air Force discovered widespread cheating among those responsible for launching its ICBMs. And who could forget the drunken antics of the Air Force major general in charge of all of the service’s land-based missiles in 2013?

Thankfully, these are not the norm. But just like the Nov. 1 revelations of Navy stupidity that led to the deaths of 17 U.S. sailors aboard a pair of warships in the Pacific earlier this year, humans inevitably make mistakes. Those are the odds—and not the notion that some foe will be able to see submerged U.S. “boomer” subs as naked targets—that should concern us.

The triad is yesterday’s answer to yesterday’s challenge. Last Tuesday, we witnessed today’s—and tomorrow’s. Sayfullo Saipov chose to kill eight innocents enjoying a sunny fall day on the Hudson River Park Bikeway in his rented truck. He figured the New York City path, a 21st Century Manhattan project, would be crowded with those celebrating Halloween.