Nuclear brinkmanship: back with a vengeance

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Bad news about the renewed nuclear arms race has been pouring in torrents. The Trump administration is pulling out of the decades-old nuclear Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, a development that came after the administration had trashed the nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The latest bad news is the production of the W76-2, a “low-yield” nuclear warhead that soon may be on board of the submarines produced by General Dynamics Electric Boat in Rhode Island.

Former Secretary of War Mattis spoke to Congress about a year ago and said:

I don’t think there is any such thing as a ‘tactical nuclear weapon.’ Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game-changer.

The my-button-is-bigger brawl between Trump and Kim Jong-un, which took place a little over a year ago, may create the impression that all of these developments were caused by the current administration. However, after its initial phase in the 1940s, the nuclear arms race, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been mostly on techno-auto-pilot with branches of the military taking turns in providing self-serving arguments for the need of more and bigger weapons. The the war industry rakes in huge profits.

President Kennedy ran his senate and presidential campaigns on a non-existent missile gap. Indeed, politicians typically go along with latest fictions. They may exploit these for roughly the same reasons that doctors tend to prescribe antibiotics to patients demanding them: to avoid criticism and other negative consequences.

Lisbeth Gronlund exposes the falsities of congressional claims and shows that America already has “user-friendly,” low-yield nuclear warheads. She ends her memo to Congress with:

You have to admit, though, the W76-2 will nicely fill in the gaping hole between 5 and 10 kilotons in the figure below.

Not shown in this chart are the thermonuclear devices such as Castle Bravo with a yield of a thousand times that of the Hiroshima bomb.

As to the abrogation of nuclear arms treaties, Russia may have violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), but the U.S. appears to have done the same. As Postol writes (also see this article in The Nation):

The need for truth in missile defense. In placing Aegis-ashore installations in Eastern Europe, the Obama administration—possibly failed by its technical and policy advisors—made an epic blunder, surpassed in negative consequences for global nuclear stability, in my opinion, only by the Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Both of these political decisions were made with bipartisan indifference to technical merit or long-term consequences.

Particularly disconcerting is the destabilizing “nuclear modernization” that started in 2009.

The US nuclear forces modernization program has been portrayed to the public as an effort to ensure the reliability and safety of warheads in the US nuclear arsenal, rather than to enhance their military capabilities. In reality, however, that program has implemented revolutionary new technologies that will vastly increase the targeting capability of the US ballistic missile arsenal. This increase in capability is astonishing—boosting the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three—and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.

This January’s issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is devoted to “nuclear modernization” to which it refers as “a euphemism covering a wide range of activities that constitute, in the view of many observers, a new and dangerous global nuclear arms race.”

William J. Perry served in the Pentagon under Presidents Carter and Reagan before and as Secretary of War during President Clinton’s first term, One would have to be wilfully blind to argue with Perry when he says:

We stand today, I believe, in greater danger of nuclear catastrophe than we faced during the Cold War.

Millions of dollars of state funding for Electric Boat


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About Peter Nightingale 8 Articles
Peter Nightingale is a theoretical physicist and teaches at the University of Rhode Island. He strives to leave behind a more just, peaceful, and sustainable post-capitalist world for future generations, and for his children and grandchildren in particular.