The 2018 United States Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is out, and there is much conversation surrounding it. The new NPR is, of course, more formal justification for the U.S. to continue the status quo of being the world’s dominant nuclear power. Yet, beyond the status quo, this NPR contains new and dangerously destabilizing developments in U.S. nuclear weapon planning and policy.
The press conference announcing the release of the 2018 NPR was a classic study in Doublespeak.
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan set the (Orwellian) stage by saying, “To the American people, this administration’s highest priority is your safety and security.”
He further stated that, “Every day at DOD we ask, how can we give our diplomats leverage so that they can always speak from a position of strength? The National Defense Strategy directly supported by the 2018 NPR is our answer.”
Shanahan finished his intro by saying that, “The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear policy is deterrence, and continues our clear commitment to non-proliferation and arms control… Modernization is necessary, affordable, and long overdue.”
Where to begin? Well, to start, there is absolutely no “safety” or “security” in our reliance on nuclear weapons as tools of foreign policy. Our nation’s continuing reliance on, and modernization of, our nuclear weapons forces, coupled with our failed (military-centered) foreign policy around the world has only served to increase the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and thereby decrease both safety and security of not only the U.S., but the entire world.
The very statement that “we give our diplomats leverage,” and tying that leverage to nuclear weapons is an obvious admission that nuclear weapons are a central tenet of U.S. foreign policy. And although nuclear weapons have, since their inception, been at the heart(lessness) of our foreign policy, the Trump administration has taken it to a new high (or low, depending on how you see it) with the gutting of the State Department that is massively overshadowed by a bloated Pentagon.
As for “modernization” being “necessary, affordable, and long overdue,” let’s look at that more carefully.
Modernization would not be “necessary” had the U.S. changed its posture toward the Soviet Union once the Berlin Wall fell and we were handed the “Peace Dividend.” We desperately held on to our nuclear weapons, and quickly found a new cause to pump dollars into the Military-Industrial Complex – the War On Terror.
As for affordability, the massive investment (currently estimated at $1.7 trillion, adjusted for inflation) in the U.S. nuclear weapon program over three decades will be a major theft from programs necessary to take care of human needs at home and overseas, while making weapons makers far richer than ever. And ultimately, humanity cannot afford the risk of the unspeakable – nuclear war that could end civilization as we know it, and possibly cause human extinction.
As Pentagon and State Department spokespersons said at the NPR announcement, Russia figures prominently in the 2018 NPR. We are moving quickly into a posture very much like that of the previous Cold War. And this newly developing Cold War is shaping up to be much more tenuous than the previous one (if that is possible). With the huge numbers of nuclear weapons currently deployed by both the U.S. and Russia, a nuclear war between the two nations would certainly be the END!
The Executive Summary of the 2018 NPR states (on Page 1) that: “It [the United States] has reduced the nuclear stockpile by over 85 percent since the height of the Cold War and deployed no new nuclear capabilities for over two decades… While the United States has continued to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, others, including Russia and China, have moved in the opposite direction. They have added new types of nuclear capabilities to their arsenals, increased the salience of nuclear forces in their strategies and plans, and engaged in increasingly aggressive behavior, including in outer space and cyber space.”
Our fact checker gives this a “pants on fire” rating. While the U.S. has technically reduced the total number of warheads since the height of the Cold War, the vast majority of these weapons were outdated and did not fit with current nuclear strategy. The weapons remaining, for the most part, are the pre-eminent weapons involved in threatening Russia, which we never stopped doing after the Cold War.
The majority of the remaining warheads are fielded on our Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs, also known as “Minuteman”) and Submarine Launched “Trident” Ballistic Missiles.
As for modernization being “long overdue,” that is laughable. Modernization was already made a certainty by the Obama administration. And, as evidenced by Trident, the U.S. certainly has developed new nuclear capabilities, thus countering the false statement in the 2018 NPR that the U.S. has developed “no new nuclear capabilities.”
Just last year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists blew the lid off what the US government has euphemistically called it’s “Life Extension Program” for the W76 thermonuclear warhead deployed on the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile. The article, “How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating super-fuze,” shows how the US military, under the guise of what it calls a “life-extension program” – allegedly intended to increase safety and reliability of nuclear warheads – has vastly increased the ability of warheads to detonate closer to their intended targets.
Specifically the heart of the rebuilt W76 and its increased kill capacity is the new MC4700 arming, fuzing and firing system. This new system essentially gives the W76 capabilities it never had before; that is the capability to hit hardened targets – specifically Russian ICBM silos – with three times greater accuracy than before. If that’s not a “new nuclear capability,” then I don’t know what is!
The development and deployment of the “super-fuze” was a huge development that has only served to drive the Russians to work for nuclear parity (or superiority), thereby seriously undermining strategic stability and increasing the risk of nuclear war.
In addition, the very planning and development of the Navy’s new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, the Columbia Class, which has been in the works for a number of years, is, at very least, a vastly improved nuclear capability.
Of all the crazy ideas in the 2018 NPR, and there are a few, the most insane of all is the plan to field a low-yield warhead on the Trident II D5 missiles deployed on the OHIO Class “Trident” ballistic missile submarine fleet. This would be done by modifying the existing W76 warhead to reduce its explosive yield. Of course, Trident was designed for one purpose – to threaten the Soviet Union with total annihilation (and with a definite first-strike capability). Mixing low-yield and high-yield warheads on Trident (a new capability) makes absolutely no strategic sense and changes Trident’s mission significantly.
There is so much more to say about the 2018 NPR, but for now, I think it safe to say that it is deeply troubling on every level. It signals a return to a dangerous Cold War mentality and introduces new, destabilizing concepts (such as low-yield warheads on Trident).
Ultimately, the 2018 NPR pays lip service to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and denigrates the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. Ironically, Article VI of the NPT, which states that, “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control,” is not even on the radar here.
As the U.S. accuses other nations – notably Russia, Iran and North Korea – of violating various treaty obligations, it would do well to look in the mirror. It is not a pleasant vision, yet it is one that we avoid at our own, and the world’s, peril.
Humanity cannot afford another Cold War.