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April 24, 2015

Bulletin 204: Nuclear weapons modernization: assuring destruction forever

Dear friends and colleagues –

We are pleased to announce a new briefing book from Reaching Critical Will, published just in time for the NPT Review Conference, Assuring Destruction Forever: 2015 Edition. The chapter on the U.S., all too brief, was produced here at the Study Group.  We learned new things doing it and maybe you will too.  We are looking forward to reading the other chapters.

From the Introduction, adding emphasis:

Modernisation is driven largely by the quest for military advantage. Nuclear “deterrence” requires the threat of the use of nuclear weapons to be credible, and preparations for such use, legitimate.  Modernisation, especially if new “military characteristics” are created, refreshes the perceived utility and credibility of nuclear use, both technically and politically. At the same time, modernisation, and specifically the investments necessary for it, is also a legitimacy-making exercise. The greater the investment and sacrifices necessary, the greater the perceived legitimacy of nuclear weapons in national policies.

Yet modernization, sooner or later and to greater or lesser degree, is inevitable as long as nuclear weapons exist.

Like other machines, nuclear warhead components and delivery systems do age, fail, or become incompatible with other modernised weapon system components. Having a nuclear weapon system at all implies modernisation and new capabilities to a greater or a lesser degree, sooner or later. Most weapon system components must eventually be replaced, and decades-old components will invariably be replaced by modern ones. These must sometimes be produced in one-of-a-kind facilities, which themselves must be renewed. Obsolete technologies will not be, and often cannot be, used. Meanwhile some of the skills involved are unique to the nuclear weapons enterprise and require years of training. Maintaining nuclear weapons means that these skills must be developed, maintained, and transmitted to new workers, which in turn implies some kind of continuous real work, certainly including evaluation, design, maintenance, production of some sort, and dismantlement. In short, maintenance, replacement, and upgrading are synonymous with long-continued possession of nuclear weapons.

The only way to fully avoid modernization altogether is to retire the weapons, a choice which should be seen as quite “modern,” indeed as the ultimate form of true modernization.

It is important to emphasize that the evolving risk posed by continual and comprehensive modernization cannot be analyzed warhead-by-warhead.  Neither is it strictly a matter of engineering, management, early warning, or military command and control.  The risk of nuclear war is also a product of the political context, of the actions of multiple other states and non-state actors (none of whom are controllable), and of the prior conditioning, beliefs, and character of people in the chain of command.  The quest for military advantage through nuclear weapons, which is very much underway, plays into these complex and unpredictable factors in ways that nuclear decisionmakers do not understand and cannot understand.

Furthermore the risk to humanity posed by nuclear weapons is not all in their possible detonation, as terrible as even just one detonation would be.  (And one is surely not the most likely number of detonations in a nuclear war.)  As the Pope has emphasized in his call to ban nuclear weapons, postures of mutual threat undercut the cooperation we need to address common problems, some of which are existential crises already.  Heavy “collateral damage” is thus occurring from nuclear deterrence all the time.  It is falling, and it will fall, quite unequally on humanity.

For this reason alone arms control discourse, which denies the urgency of radical political change, falls into the “exterminist” category of thought.  It praises nuclear weapons by faint damnation, and fatally temporizes the investments we need to avoid climate and resource catastrophes.

Ted Postol, former Pentagon missile expert and now professor emeritus at MIT, explains as clearly as he can in this short video the sort of overt nuclear danger we are creating by seeking military advantage with nuclear weapons.  (Thanks to John Hallam for sending this.)  I cannot emphasize enough how right I believe Dr. Postol is about the danger of carrying over habits of thought from conventional military war-fighting to nuclear war-fighting, an oxymoronic phrase.   In my limited experience that is precisely what I hear from U.S. generals and colonels: how to threaten better; how to create a nuclear war-fighting advantage.  There is no such thing!

Many U.S. nuclear weapons modernization programs can and should be criticized on this basis by all actors, both inside and outside government.  The heart of the modernization beast in the U.S. is the desire by contractors, captive members of Congress, and nuclear ideologues to maintain a large nuclear weapons workforce, a workforce which at the Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories is far in excess of needs.  This is the semi-hidden rationalization for many otherwise poorly-justified programs.  They’re created in part to keep the main flywheel, which was made during the Cold War, turning.  It’s too big, even for the program of record.

As we note in our part of Assuring Destruction, nearly all U.S. arms control and disarmament NGOs supported the entire modernization program just five years ago as the “deal we made” (quoting a lobbyist for one organization) for New START ratification.  As a result it is much harder to stop today.  It was important for Walter Pincus to write in the Washington Post this past Monday that “The treaty may have been a step forward to Obama’s goal of a weapons-free world, but the price he paid has turned out to be two steps backward.”  Add quote marks to Obama’s goal indicating its insincerity, and that sentence becomes just right.

It’s important to comment briefly on the cover story on nuclear modernization in that flagship of U.S. establishment thought, Foreign Policy, written by John Mecklin, editor of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, entitled “Disarm and Modernize.”  Its subhead says, “In terms of warhead numbers, the nuclear arms race may be over. But massive weapons upgrades now underway challenge the entire disarmament regime.”

That last bit really threw me.  There is no disarmament regime.  What on earth could Mecklin mean?  As it turned out the article was very well-written.  Besides providing an overview of the modernization issue, it also illuminates some of the shibboleths of that particular community of readers.

As I read I began to understand.  It is most of all the myth or representation of a disarmament regime that is said to be threatened.  It’s therefore a diplomatic and propaganda problem, a sales problem, one that affects the credibility of the NPT regime.  That is the main story, and that is how Mecklin has packaged nuclear modernization for a U.S. foreign policy audience.

The themes he uses to tell the story are actually quite common in mainstream U.S. nuclear discourse.  First, as the State Department always does, there is the required reference to the “bad old days” of the Cold War and how many weapons the U.S. had in 1963.  Since today’s arsenal is so much smaller than that, we have been disarming all along.  It is truly amazing to see the progress we have made.  (See how easy that was?)  This is an audience that likes to feel good about itself, so buy-in is established with a story about how absurd things were then, with atomic demolition munitions and all.  People were so stupid then, weren’t they?  We’re much smarter today!  We have iPhones.

The “left” end of the window of acceptable discourse is subtly established (“The critics argue that strategic missiles posted in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, along with missiles on nuclear submarines, provide more than enough deterrence against any Russian aggression.”)  That makes people comfortable.

This begins the now-obligatory Russia-bashing bit, which mercifully avoids demonizing Putin personally (a rare degree of discretion) but does mischaracterize events in Ukraine.

The main theme is introduced: the plan to modernize U.S. weapons “has inflamed debate about the depth of the U.S. commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France to have nuclear weapons if they promise to eventually disarm.”

That is not what the NPT says, or how the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has interpreted Article VI, which is as a binding obligation to disarm.  Much more than a “promise” is involved even in the plain meaning of the text, which requires “good faith” efforts, not a "promise."  The permissive element inserted here is also debated.

But that’s a side point here, however important it is in actual diplomacy.  The main point is that the real problem with modernization described, around which this article circles, is that “inflamed debate.”  As John says, modernization is expensive, and that’s a good point, but the bigger problem is that modernization is “challenging the aging underpinnings of the NPT itself.”  Not that it’s bad in itself, you see.

As John explains in detail, “The standard narrative of disarmament asserts that…continued arms-control efforts will led to ever-shrinking arsenals, thereby saving governments enormous amounts of money and improving global security.”  This ‘standard narrative’ is threatened by modernization.  As you can see, global security is still being assured by ever-shrinking nuclear arsenals, with the same countries doing the assuring.  But now, with U.S. and Russian arsenals “not so much headed toward zero as plateauing for the foreseeable future,” and both states modernizing everything in sight, we have a problem with that narrative.

Toward the end of the article Mecklin, like Obama, conflates disarmament with “stopping the spread of” or “controlling” nuclear weapons, reminiscent of the joke that arms control just means that we control the arms.  At the very end, John returns to his main point: the non-nuclear countries “will have increasingly legitimate reasons to ask how they benefit from being part of the NPT – and why they shouldn’t go their own way.”

It’s a good and valuable article but also watch out: much of what passes for substantive policy discussion in the U.S. is now, on every subject, really a concern about optics, and what can be sold.

Greg Mello

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