The Risks of Nuclear Modernization

The US military establishment seems set to start a new Cold War with China, Russia, and every other country it can paint as an enemy. As with the first Cold War, it will not be complete without an arms race. This is exactly what is happening right now with various programs being implemented by the US government. Currently, the US has not produced any new nuclear warheads since 1991, and the assembly lines at the Pantex plant (where almost all US nuclear weapons are assembled) have laid dormant for decades. This may soon change, however. Congress and the President have already approved research for the new B-21 bomber and Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, a new ICBM to replace the Minuteman III, as well as building new tactical nuclear warheads, the W93 and W76-2, a small number of which have already been created.

In addition, more components of nuclear modernization are included in this year’s National "Defense" Authorization Act (NDAA). These include the Columbia class of ballistic missile submarines to replace the Ohio class and the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) air-launch cruise missile (ALCM). The modernization plan also includes upgrading existing W87-0 warheads (yield of 300 Kilotons of TNT) to their W87-1 variant (yield 475 KT), among other things.

There are 6 designs of nuclear weapons currently deployed in the US nuclear arsenal. These include the W76 (SLBM warhead, mostly 76-1 variant, yield 90 KT), W78 (ICBM warhead, yield 475 KT), W80 (ALCM warhead, yield 5-150 KT), B83 (Strategic bomber weapon, yield 1.2 MT), W87 (ICBM warhead, yield 300 KT), and W88 (SLBM warhead, yield 475 KT). W93 (in development, unknown yield and type) and most W76-2 (SLBM warhead, yield 5-7 KT) have not yet been deployed to delivery devices. The W76-2 is also created by re-purposing other W76s, thus not requiring new warheads to be manufactured. W76s make up the majority of the 1750 deployed nuclear weapons currently in the US arsenal. Up to 12 of them (limited to 8 by treaty) can be placed on Trident II Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), of which there are 240 assigned to carry nuclear warheads.

It is important to note that these weapons are substantially smaller than those which were in the US nuclear arsenal during the Cold War period. The B53, carried by the 50-60 Titan II ICBMs deployed at the height of the Cold War, had a yield of 9 MT. The 500 manufactured B41 strategic weapons each had a yield of 25 MT. For comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 15 KT, and all the bombs detonated by every nation in WWII had a total yield of 5 MT. Thankfully, post-Cold War arms control has led to the dismantlement of such weapons. However, if nuclear modernization goes ahead as planned, this victory for peace may be short-lived.

Unlike the START and New START arms control agreements between the US and Russia, no such treaties exist for the US and China. Thus, despite China only having about 350 total warheads (compared to America having 5,600), almost all of which are on reserve, such nuclear modernization programs could cause the Chinese to produce more. Currently, a nuclear war in which all deployed weapons were used would cause around 300 million deaths due to the blast, firestorms, and fallout which comes directly from explosions. However, the effect of smoke and soot being released from these firestorms would substantially cool the planet, leading to a nuclear winter. In particular, sulfur dioxide (also released in volcanic eruptions) would be released in large quantities due to billions of tons of sulfur-containing building materials being vaporized, such as concrete, drywall, and bricks. This would decrease crop yields, increase the price of food, and cause hundreds of millions more to starve to death. While the exact degree of these effects is not exactly known, current estimates place the global cooling which would occur at around 10 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to around 1 billion total deaths.

Furthermore, due to economic development and new construction of buildings, the global cooling effects that a war with a given number of nuclear warheads would have is far higher now than it would be during the Cold War period. The total weight of all man-made items is roughly three times what it was during the 1980s. This means that a nuclear explosion in a city such as Beijing or New York will vaporize far more sulfur-containing building materials that it would have in the past, worsening nuclear winter.

These would be the most likely impacts of a nuclear war starting this moment. While there are far more reserve nuclear warheads available to the world’s military powers, it is unlikely that they could be mobilized before enemy strikes hit weapons storage facilities. If the worldwide nuclear arsenal were to be increased to the tens of thousands of deployed warheads which existed at the height of the Cold War, a nuclear war could cool the planet by as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which would cause 98% of the world’s population to starve to death. While current nuclear modernization plans do not call for this, it is a possibility which must be avoided by any means necessary. Furthermore, the total financial cost of this modernization will be around $1.2 trillion, enough to fully eliminate the income tax of roughly 70 million low-income Americans for one year.

However, the human costs of such weapons being produced make any financial costs infinitesimal by comparison. ICBMs are a particularly high risk, as they are not equipped with self-destruct systems (unlike virtually every other weapons system in the US military), due to them increasing rocket weight, thus decreasing payloads. This causes an accidental launch of these weapons to be irreversible. However, nuclear planners in the early Cold War period saw hundreds of millions of unintentional deaths as an acceptable risk for increasing missile payloads. This has not changed in the last 65 years, as educational and media coverage have desensitized the public to such existential threats.

Starté Butone was born in the United States and is interested in foreign affairs. He regularly listens to the Scott Horton show and reads