Has nuclear disarmament outlived its shelf life?

Between the end of the Cold War and a president perceived as an architect of disarmament, nuclear weapons have lost their status as an “existential threat.”

BantheBombFrom the Partial Test-Ban and nuclear Non-Proliferation treaties through Reykjavík in the eighties to START I in 1991, arms control was beginning to look like it might corral nuclear proliferation by other countries and on our own soil. Instead, institutional blockades have slowed its pace while the nuclear-industrial complex has found a rhythm that it’s capable of keeping up for the long haul.

Worse, those of us advocating for disarmament can’t help but be prone to thoughts that we’re fighting yesterday’s fight. Some of us who advocate disarmament feel as if we’re viewed like figures from others eras who fought for unions, and women’s and civil rights. Those are battles perceived as long since won, however much those three causes remain under assault via attacks, respectively, on collective bargaining, abortion, and voter identification.

Alternately, viewed in today’s context, it’s as if we’re trying to organize our workplace when most of our co-workers, though ill-paid, have bought into the prevailing mood of contempt for unions. Or it’s like we’re trying to introduce a defined benefit plan (pension) into our workplace, when the horse of the defined contribution plan (401[k]) has long since left the barn.

Other reasons beside the slow pace of both arms control and disarmament (for which their advocates can be forgiven if it sometimes makes them feel like relics) are:

1. Much of the public believes that nuclear weapons are under control. We think:

a. The end of the Cold War meant a significant downgrade in the threat level.

b. A disarmament-friendly president is on the case.

c. As existential issues go, it’s been surpassed by an economy that seems increasingly like a house of cards waiting for the first ill wind to blow it down ­­– ­­ which might well result from another issue that seems to be more pressing than nuclear weapons: global warming.

2. Nuclear weapons have been around for 70 years and, aside from their use in World War II for which they were ostensibly intended, none have been used since. Maybe the world is a more rational place than we thought and they’re working as intended in the service of…

3. Deterrence, whose sheer logic is irrefutable to most and thus almost impossible to root out.

Nevertheless, it’s ironic that the hottest weapon in the world (over 180 million degrees plus) can’t crack the “What’s Hot, What’s Not” list of issues. At its peak in the late sixties, the U.S. nuclear arsenal numbered over 30,000 warheads. Its numbers are much reduced, but as of July of this year, according to the Arms Control Center, it still comprises 1,950 deployed strategic (the big ones) weapons and 7,700 undeployed strategic, as well as tactical (so-called battlefield nukes), weapons. Russia’s numbers, meanwhile, stand at 1,800 and 8,500, respectively.

Worse, according to a Ploughshares Fund report in September 2012, over the next decade, “The United States Government is on track to spend approximately $640 billion … on nuclear weapons and related programs [which includes] all costs associated with nuclear weapons production, operation, maintenance, clean up, and defense, as well as the prevention of nuclear proliferation.”

One can be forgiven for suspecting that, like a company downsizing, the United States and Russia have used reducing the numbers as a way to retrench and fortify the industry in perpetuity.

Nukes Are Off Our Radar (Well, Not Literally)

The sketch that follows is bound to make disarmament activists feel even older than they are – and newcomers to the field even more like outliers than they already might. You’ll recall that in July 2012 three members of Transform Now Plowshares broke into the Y12 nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they staged a demonstration. Convicted of damaging a national defense facility, they face up to 20 years in prison when sentenced on September 23. One, Sister Megan Rice, was 82 at the time of the incident and her co-defendants, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, were 63 and 57, respectively.

To the surprise and delight of anti-nukes advocates, the Washington Post pulled out all the stops a week before the trial was concluded with a lushly illustrated feature article. At one point author Dan Zak reported on the three meeting with young members of a progressive Christian group. He describes Sister Megan (as she’s known) “chatting with music student Chris Hickman.”

“I know nothing about the anti-nuclear movement,” Hickman tells her. “I was born in ’92, and it’s kind of an afterthought for my generation.”

True, the nature of the Transform Now Plowshares three action may be representative of an earlier generation of activists. But disarmament activists today can’t help but experience the young man’s comment as a blow to the gut.

Paralleling how nuclear weapons have slid completely off the radar of much of the public today is how they appear to be losing favor in the military. At about the same time as the Transform Now Plowshares trial, Robert Burns of the Associated Press reported:

The Air Force stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to control — and, if necessary, launch — nuclear missiles after a string of unpublicized failings, including a remarkably dim review of their unit’s launch skills.

By way of explanation, Bruce Blair, the co-founder of Global Zero and one-time launch control officer, told Burns:

“The nuclear air force is suffering from a deep malaise caused by the declining relevance of their mission since the Cold War’s end over 20 years ago. … Minuteman launch crews have long been marginalized and demoralized by the fact that the Air Force’s culture and fast-track careers revolve around flying planes, not sitting in underground bunkers baby-sitting nuclear-armed missiles.”

In a follow-up article, Burns wrote:

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley … acknowledged in congressional testimony that he worries that talk of further shrinking the nation’s nuclear force is having a “corrosive effect” on his troops. [And] Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said at the same congressional hearing that it’s understandable that young missile officers may be demoralized by the realization that theirs is a shrinking field.

Blair, consulted for this article as well, elaborated on his remarks in the earlier article.

“This dead-end career is not the result of shrinking nuclear arsenals, but rather because the Cold War ended decades ago and because so few senior commander jobs exist within the missile specialty. … Most crews can’t wait to transfer out of missiles into faster-track careers such as space operations, but the Air Force doesn’t make it easy.”

Or as Christopher Ford, now Republican Chief Counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, wrote in 2010:

Already, for instance, it would appear that the gradual [reduction] of the perceived importance of nuclear missions within the U.S. military — and the degree to which nuclear specialties have gone from being considered a badge of elite distinction to a career backwater relative to “real” warfighting or exotic emerging arenas such as outer space and cyberspace — has helped produce a more accident-prone culture in the nuclear components of the U.S. military.

This applies to civilian jobs in the national nuclear laboratories as well. For a Huffington Post piece I wrote in 2011 titled Nuclear Weapons Just Not Sexy Anymore, I quoted chemist Cheryl Rofer of Nuclear Diner about her experience working at Los Alamos National Laboratory:

Per nuclear weapons work… we saw that people in their 30’s were leaving and other people were not accepting positions when offered. From what I have heard — the reasons are: [Los Alamos] has moved from a place of high technology, pushing-edge science, creative thinking and engagement — to compliance [meeting regulatory requirements] and not on performance.

Another individual who worked there and who preferred to remain anonymous offered an additional reason.

When they moved the lab to private contractors they put in place a fee-based performance contract… based upon meeting environmental and safety and security [and] the way [they’re] paid is to have the least amount of mistakes and what is the best way to get the least amount of mistakes — to do the least amount of work.

Though it’s from 2003, this San Francisco Chronicle article brings us full circle back to the young man who spoke with Sister Megan.

Bruce Goodwin [the head of the weapons program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory] admits he often meets with puzzled stares when he tells young people he designs nuclear bombs for a living and tries to recruit promising scientists, as though he had emerged from an outdated science fiction fantasy.

“People will say to us, ‘My God, you still work on nuclear weapons?'” said Goodwin. … “I would say, ‘Yes, we do.’ But it is still a surprise.”

“It has become more difficult over the past 10 years to attract the right people.”

But it’s not just that young officers and designers no longer see nuclear weapons as a promising career choice, the military command is becoming disaffected with their actual utility for “warfighting.” Earlier this year, in the New York Times, David Sanger wrote (emphasis added):

… White House officials are looking at a cut that would take the arsenal of deployed weapons to just above 1,000. [The President] “believes that we can make pretty radical reductions — and save a lot of money — without compromising American security in the second term. And the Joint Chiefs have signed off on that concept.”

The Air Force is actually okay with reducing our nuclear arsenal? In a 2008 article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled “The U.S. Air Force’s indifference toward nuclear weapons” (behind a pay wall), Lawrence Korb explained why he believes the U.S. military “sees this large nuclear stockpile as an albatross around its neck.”

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 three military departments and four armed services [due] primarily to its leading role in developing and deploying strategic nuclear weapons. … But with the Soviet Union’s collapse. … Strategic nuclear deterrence was no longer seen as central to U.S. security and the attention and resources of … the air force began to flow toward traditional air missions. Rather than the Bomber Barons, the air force in the post-Cold War era was led by the Fighter Mafia.”

Nukes are just no fun anymore. Why, you can’t even set the damned things off in tests. Besides, now that fighters are, to some extent, being replaced by drones, it only makes sense for the Air Force to be drawn to acquiring weapons such as Prompt Global Strike of which it can make actual use instead of nuclear weapons, which just stand around looking scary. In 2012 at Global Security Newswire, Elaine Grossman wrote:

Instances in which the White House might someday order a non-nuclear rapid [Prompt Global] strike could include a sudden move by China toward destroying a U.S. or allied communications satellite by rocket or laser; a North Korean ballistic missile being readied for launch against a neighboring U.S. ally; or a potential adversary’s nuclear warhead observed being mated with a delivery system.

… “For me, all of those are probably important; all of those have a scenario that go with them, that [make] you go, ‘Gee, I wish I had a tool like this,’” said [Gen. James Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff].

Swap “tool” for “toy” and you get a better idea.

Nuclear Weapons Are No Longer the Bogeyman of First Resort

Furthermore, nuclear weapons, seldom featured in films or books anymore as the agent of doom of choice, seem to have lost their power to shock. They were once the theme of a number of board games, from “Nuclear War” to “Nuclear Armageddon” to “First Strike.” But, near as I can tell, not since the British “DEFCON,” released in 2006, have they driven the plot of a video game. Especially telling, nuclear-weapons programs – once replete with terms such as vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and spasm attacks – no longer capture the imaginations of men and boys as expressions of macho and the warrior mentality, or as revenge fantasies.1

You could even make the case that the plague du jour – zombies (a preposterous monster if ever there was one) – have replaced them in the imagination of many of us as the threat du jour. In part, no doubt, that’s because, over the course of the almost 70 years that we’ve been living them, they’ve never been used. As with the little boy who cried wolf, we’ve heard one alarm too many and now tune those sounding them about nuclear weapons out. Also – aside from zombies – death by threats such as EMPs to autonomous drones have become more delicious to ponder.

In fact, what’s actually old are not only nuclear weapons, but the Cold War mentality critical to keeping them lodged in our defense budget where they continue to breed. Far from diverting attention from global warming and the ongoing financial crisis, both issues could be the beneficiaries of a new era of international cooperation that achieving disarmament could herald. Furthermore, we’d be free of fears that nuclear war could be the straw that broke the environment’s back. Also, while some of it will certainly by siphoned off for other defense programs, the rest of the funds saved by eliminating nuclear weapons could be applied to social programs and reducing the national debt.

In other words, rather than turn a deaf ear to disarmament advocates as if they’re old and in the way, recognize that nuclear weapons are for fighting yesterday’s battles with yesterday’s weapons.

1Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals, Carol Cohn, Within and Without: Women, Gender, and Theory. Summer, 1987 (Jstor, behind a paywall).

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

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2 replies »

  1. How about the Air Force does what the Navy does and rotates all their personnel through different assignments. How about if you don’t get to be a fighter-jock, or anything else, without doing your three years in the nuclear silo barrel first.

    As for the cold-war, it seems to me that the polirticos in DC are doing what they can to revive it. Russia is now on the list as the biggest enemy of the USA – and Russia has all those nukes. I don’t foresee any progress on nuclear disarmament – which is very discouraging to one who was at some of those Aldermaston marches.