How nukes are like toys still in their boxes on 'Antiques Roadshow'


“We have reached the point where the senior military generals responsible for nuclear forces are advocating, more vocally, more vehemently, than our politicians, to get down to lower and lower weapons.”
General Eugene Habiger (Ret.), former head of U.S. nuclear forces, in 2000

Not exactly the kind of talk we’re used to hearing from a high-ranking member of the military, is it? Nor was this, four years earlier, by Gen. Charles Horner, who commanded the aerial forces of the United States and its allies during the first Gulf War:

I came to the realization that nuclear weapons had very little utility during the Gulf War, when I realized that even if Saddam Hussein used a nuclear weapon on us, we would have to retaliate on a conventional basis. And then later, when I became the owner, so to speak, of the land-based ICBM force, and I saw the vast amount of money and resource that was involved in maintaining the large Cold War level of nuclear weapons, I said there’s got to be a better way.

Then, in June of last year, renowned national security analyst and one-time assistant secretary of defense Lawrence Korb echoed the comments of Generals Habiger and Horner in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and expanded on them:

From its creation as a separate service at the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force was first among equals amid the nation’s. . . four armed services. [It’s] dominance was due primarily to its leading role in developing and deploying strategic nuclear weapons, which were deemed key to the country’s survival.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union:

Strategic nuclear deterrence was no longer seen as central to U.S. security and the attention and resources of the policy makers in general and the air force in particular began to shift. … toward traditional air missions. Rather than the Bomber Barons, the air force in the post-Cold War era was led by the Fighter Mafia. … Only when current Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed stopping production of the F-22 at 182 planes did the air force roll out its propaganda machine [to object].

Still, it’s not as if the air force and the military are actually lobbying for an end to nuclear weapons. I’ve yet to be able to find more instances of contemporary military brass venting about nuclear weapons as a white elephant they’re stuck with.

In fact, at Wired’s Danger Room, Nathan Hodge recently wrote:Speaking Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Gen. Kevin Chilton, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, said: “When looking into the future a basic question is … will we still need nuclear weapons 40 years from now? I believe the answer to that question is yes.”

Interviewed by Melanie Kirkpatrick in the Wall Street Journal, the general said that nuclear weapons were, “designed for about a 15- to 20-year life” which worked fine when “we had a very robust infrastructure . . . that replenished those families of weapons at regular intervals.” But now, “they’re all older than 20 years . . . . The analogy would be trying to extend the life of your ’57 Chevrolet into the 21st century.”

Travis Sharp works on defense spending, among other things, for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. We asked him for his reaction.

Gen. Chilton has repeatedly made comments that blur the line between responsible execution of the nuclear mission and questionable advocacy on behalf of nuclear modernization. I wouldn’t take Gen. Chilton’s statements as being representative of the Air Force’s or U.S. military’s broader attitudes toward nuclear weapons. After all, Gen. Chilton’s role at STRATCOM gives him a strong bureaucratic interest in maintaining, or even enhancing, the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Hans M. Kristensen, the director of the Federation of American Scientists’s Nuclear Information Project, responded as well.

There’s a difference between the belief in nuclear weapons at the top level and the management level; the first tends to say they’re really important while the second group is less interested because nuclear weapons are useless for the kind of operations the military are involved in on a day-by-day basis. The second group might accept that nukes are needed for now, but they tend to see them as competition for funding and personnel and not very relevant to their priorities.

He then points out the irony in Gen. Chilton’s 40-year timeframe:

Chilton’s remark is interesting because he used to say, just one year ago, that we needed nuclear weapons throughout this century. By that standard he has come considerably closer to president Obama’s message.

Steve Hynd of Newshoggers adds:

No branch of the services ever cared about costs or ease of use. The true war is the one between departments and agencies for budget share and bureaucratic power. Control of the nuke arsenal is an essential part of the Air Force’s “clout” in that war.

Independent nuclear scholar Ward Wilson pointed out to us that it’s been decades since the likes of Gen. Curtis LeMay openly advocated advocated nuclear war.

Starting in the Johnson Administration, there just are no examples of military men who are so gung ho for nukes that it makes your hair stand on end.

When Reagan wanted to get rid of all the nuclear weapons in Iceland. . . it wasn’t military men that prevented the deal from going through. There weren’t members of the Joint Chiefs stepping forward saying, “Mr. President, this is an essential weapon and you can’t think of getting rid of it.” The voices of caution come from Weinberger and Shultz.

It’s the Sherlock Holmes thing about the dog that didn’t bark in the night.

As well, Gen. Chilton seems oblivious to the likelihood that, in an interim as lengthy as the 40 years to which he referred, nuclear weapons would most likely have been used in an act of war or detonated by accident. The latter, like Chernobyl, might have kick-started disarmament; the former may have blasted the political landscape — not to mention the earth’s — into something unrecognizable.

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Meanwhile, at Foreign Policy in Focus, under the category of Watch Out What You Wish For, Frida Berrigan writes (emphasis added):

Congress gave $68 million to the Boeing Corporation to accelerate the purchase and development of 10-12 “massive ordnance penetrators [MOPs].” … These 30,000 pound bombs carry 6,000 pounds of high explosives.

The MOP. … replaces a nuclear weapon that Congress was unwilling to fund over the past few years — the robust nuclear earth penetrator [intended] to burrow deep into enemy lairs and deliver a nuclear wallop. [In other words, who needs] nuclear weapons to deliver massive destruction. … As we begin to reduce our nuclear capabilities, watch out for a lot of pressure to ramp up conventional weapons procurement.

If you’ve ever watched Antiques Roadshow, you know that collectible toys which remain packed in their boxes greatly surpass in value those that have been removed and used for play. Like those toys, nuclear weapons sit, neatly wrapped, on a shelf. Some generals cast covetous eyes at them; others just want toys that they can play with.

First posted at the Faster Times.

Categories: War/Security

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