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As US Modernizes Its Nuclear Arsenal, Costs and Risks Soar

Trump’s $2 trillion makeover for the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal is certain to trigger a deadly new arms race.

Trump's $2 trillion makeover for the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal is certain to trigger a deadly new arms race.

On July 16, 1945, the U.S. detonated the first-ever nuclear device in the New Mexico desert. Less than a month later, it dropped two more atomic bombs, destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing and injuring more than 200,000 civilians.

Today, 74 years later, President Donald Trump has elbowed his way to the precipice of war threatening fire, fury and obliteration against one state that has nuclear weapons (North Korea) and one that doesn’t (Iran). In June, shortly after Trump reportedly called off a military strike against Iran with just 10 minutes to spare, he lashed out on Twitter: “Iran cannot have Nuclear Weapons!”

Meanwhile, the United States is pushing forward with plans to modernize, upgrade and rebuild its own aging nuclear stockpile. Over the next 30 years, the U.S. will spend at least $1.2 trillion on maintaining and modernizing nuclear weapons. With inflation, cost overruns and common under-estimation of weapon systems, the final cost of the U.S. nuclear enterprise could be as high as $2 trillion.

Trump’s 2020 budget alone calls for $16.5 billion (an increase of 8.3 percent over 2019) for the Department of Energy (DOE)/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) which maintains the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

When President Obama delivered his landmark Prague speech in 2009, he spoke of a U.S. commitment “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” but quickly adopted the language of the NNSA: “As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

A decade later, the U.S.’s nuclear triad — weapons based on land, air and sea — is being granted a life extension, fueling a boon to the weapons industry and prompting opponents to warn of an expensive, potentially deadly new nuclear arms race.

The Trump Administration Plans Make Nuclear Arsenal More Lethal

The idea of modernizing the stockpile was born, in part, from the decision to end nuclear weapons explosive testing in 1992. The resulting Stockpile Stewardship Management Plan modernizes existing nuclear weapons through life-extension programs, modifications and alterations in order to maintain a nuclear deterrent.

While “life extension” is meant primarily as a means of refurbishing specific nuclear weapons, it is also a prime driver for nuclear delivery vehicles (missiles, submarines, bombers) to be newly redesigned as more capable, faster, stealthier systems, making the overall nuclear arsenal more lethal.

The NNSA did not agree to speak to Truthout for this story, but an NNSA spokesperson did confirm by email that it is currently executing five major nuclear weapons modernization programs. Those programs include a gravity bomb and an air-launched cruise missile whose nuclear yield can be dialed up or down (adjusted), allowing for greater flexibility.

Among the modified warheads is the W76-2, a lower yield (5-7 kilotons) version of the earlier more powerful (100 kiloton) W76-1. By comparison, the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were around 15 and 20 kilotons respectively.

The first W76-2 warhead was completed in February at the United States’s only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility, the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. However, in June, House Democrats blocked funding for deployment of the W76-2 onto submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Opponents of new low-yield “mini nukes” argue that bombs with an adjustable selective yield option can produce less radioactive fallout, and may thereby lower the threshold for using them, making a nuclear conflict more likely. Currently, the U.S. stockpile includes around 1,000 warheads with selective yield options, some believed to be as low as 0.3 kilotons (exact yields are classified).

“Even the lowest yield is a very large explosive force compared to even the biggest conventional weapons that humans have been able to build,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

He points out that the U.S. is not alone in modernizing and upgrading its nuclear arsenal. All nine nuclear states have their own version of modernization reflecting the maturity of their program. The idea that Russia, for example, is modernizing, and the U.S. is “falling behind” is a mischaracterization of the real situation, says Kristensen.

“All countries use that [argument] to their advantage,” Kristensen told Truthout.

Modernization proponents include Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who said in a May press release, “Congress must invest in the modernization of our nuclear triad and the additional low-yield capabilities called for in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. These investments are critical to America’s ability to provide credible deterrence and rein in China and Russia.”

In the same release, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton argued future arms-control agreements should take into account Russia and China’s own nuclear expansion and modernization efforts.

Planning to “Win” a Nuclear War

Plans to use nuclear weapons are not just an abstraction for U.S. military planners. As the FAS’s Steven Aftergood reported, the Joint Chiefs of Staff posted an updated version of U.S. nuclear policy that included the passage: “Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability … specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.” FAS noted that the original document was quickly taken offline (but not before being preserved).

The above passage provoked concern because people saw it as a greater willingness to consider the use of nuclear weapons. “Rattling the nuclear sword a little more explicitly,” Kristensen said, noting that the language was consistent with half a century of nuclear strategy, but he was struck by the bluntness of the message at a time when the Trump administration is seeking low-yield nuclear weapons.

“To me, those things coinciding is a worrisome trend that we may be seeing signs here that … what you could call nuclear war planning operations are becoming a little more active than they were before,” Kristensen said.

Proponents argue modernization is essential to maintaining a “safe, secure, and effective” arsenal, but modernization can represent many different things. It may be something relatively simple, such as replacing components to extend the life of a warhead, to highly complex redesigns that carry the risk of introducing uncertainty and reducing confidence that a weapon will work.

Kristensen says it may be possible that at some point, a military commander could say they lack confidence that the weapon will function as intended. “The United States, therefore, could back itself into a corner where it would be forced to conduct a reliability test — a live nuclear test of that warhead to figure out it if really worked,” Kristensen said. To do so, he warned, would set off a cascade of nuclear tests around the world.

“Incredibly Dangerous Killing Machines”

Tom Collina is the director of policy for the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation seeking to reduce nuclear risks. He calls the modernization of the U.S. arsenal “excessive and dangerous,” and argues that an adequate deterrence can be achieved with far fewer missiles than the U.S.’s more than 6,000 warheads.

“The more [nuclear weapons] that you build beyond what you need, not only is it very expensive — billions and billions of dollars — but it encourages Russia to build up as well so you create a new arms race,” Collina told Truthout.

According to Collina, the combination of rebuilding the U.S. nuclear stockpile and Trump’s efforts to pare down and withdraw from arms control agreements suggest a dangerous new arms race against Russia is in the making.

“We are planning our whole nuclear policy against the possibility of an intentional attack from Russia — a bolt from the blue,” Collina says. Rather, the U.S. should be more concerned about bumbling into a nuclear war through miscalculation, poor judgment by the president, or a false alarm.

Doubling down on Cold War-era threat perceptions, spending up to $2 trillion to rebuild nuclear weapons based on the past actually increases the danger of an accidental war, Collina argues. “Today we have a very different threat and we’ve never adjusted.”

Collina distinguishes between replacing components that remain unchanged and designing new parts that will result in a new, untested (currently untestable) weapon. “This is the danger when you give these assignments to the weapons laboratories (Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos) because these people like to design stuff. They like to make new things. They like to improve things — it’s kind of their nature,” he says.

In contrast to the positive “safe, secure and reliable language used by the nuclear weapons industry, Collina offers a more sobering description, calling them “incredibly dangerous killing machines … these are weapons that annihilate women and children.”

He continues, “This is why nuclear weapons are different from any other weapon in the U.S. arsenal…. They do not discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, between civilians and military. They kill anyone, anywhere, nearby. This is why they are not weapons of war. They are weapons of mass destruction.”

Ban the Bomb

After more than 135 nations adopted the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

ICAN’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, told Truthout that while the overall global number of nuclear weapons continues to gradually decline, those that remain are being modernized, upgraded and given new missions.

“The total number keeps going down very slowly … but they are also making these upgrades and alterations of nuclear weapons, which means that the qualitative impact of using them is not going down; rather the opposite — they’re planning for new types of nuclear warfare scenarios,” Fihn said. “It shows that they are expanding on the type of scenarios where they think that nuclear weapons can be used.”

As technology advances at a pace with which humans are struggling to keep up, Fihn worries that artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, autonomous weapons systems and other emerging technologies increase nuclear risks exponentially.

According to Fihn, the nuclear weapons industry has very successfully used the highly technical and complex nature of nuclear weapons to keep the general public in a state of feeling helpless and completely removed from the decision-making process.

In pursuing the nuclear ban treaty, ICAN is following the examples of successful campaigns that have led to the prohibition of biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions. Fihn says there’s a need to strip nuclear weapons of the mystique of being viewed as a security tool with almost magical powers.

“As long as governments believe nuclear weapons are the ‘ultimate security guarantee,’ they won’t be abandoned,” says Fihn, adding that the commonly accepted notion that it’s necessary to maintain and modernize nuclear stockpiles runs counter to the idea of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

To argue in favor of “keeping nuclear weapons until they are gone” is an incoherent argument, she says. To do so is to never give up nuclear weapons, Fihn argues. She believes nuclear weapons, like other weapons of mass destruction, need to be delegitimized.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Fihn says, “is the vehicle where we stigmatize and reject nuclear weapons so that they are seen as unattractive, problematic, dangerous — what they actually are is a security threat to anyone who has them.”