Nuclear Insanities

Writing in the 19th century, Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin said that the State is "the most flagrant, the most cynical, and the most complete negation of humanity… this explains why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries — statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats and warriors — if judged from the standpoint of simply morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labor or to the gallows."

The nuclear arsenals built by the United States and Russia and their feeble attempts at dismantling them prove Bakunin right again. Washington and Moscow’s combined stockpiles contain over 10,000 nuclear warheads, each 5 to 25 times more powerful than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima. The just signed New START Treaty will probably result in total cuts of about 800 warheads: in other words, our magnanimous leaders have agreed to reduce the nuclear power they hold in their hands, and over our heads, from one 150,000 to 140,000 times greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima… Thank you so much, Mr Obama. 

As if this wasn’t enough, the just released US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) tells us how those weapons might actually be used. The NPR’s key sentence is the following: "the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations."

Supporters of the NPR call it an improvement over Bush’s because it states that the United States won’t respond to a chemical or biological attack with nuclear weapons, but rather, with a "devastating conventional military response".

However, nuclear weapons still play an important role under Obama. First, they can be used against other states that do possess them (like China and Russia) if they attack the US with conventional, biological or chemical weapons, i.e., even if they don’t attack with nuclear weapons. Second, nukes could be used against "non-state actors" like Al Qaeda, as Robert Gates explained: "all options are on the table when it comes to… non-state actors who might acquire nuclear weapons". This implies that the country in which those terrorists are located will face nuclear retaliation no matter its standing under the NPT.

Third, countries that Washington determines not to be in compliance with the NPT are subject to nuclear attack even if they don’t possess any nuclear weapons. The reference here is to Iran and North Korea, but since Washington makes that determination not based on facts but on whether a country is "with us or against us", in practice it means that those the United States deems to be enemies are at risk.

Sadly, Obama is not ready to adopt a "no first use policy" and is content with a situation in which he could be the first to order a nuclear strike. He also leaves about 200 nuclear weapons in five European countries (Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey). In short, as the Federation of American Scientists’ Hans Kristensen concludes his review of the NPR, the document is a "disappointment" for those who were hoping for clear and significant reductions in the role and numbers of nuclear weapons.

The New START Treaty, on its part, calls for two kinds of reductions: nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles.

Warheads are the part of a missile or bomb that contains the nuclear explosive charge, and currently, the US has about 2,200 strategic warheads and Russia 2,600. Under New START, both must reduce their arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads by 2017. Media reports have emphasized that the treaty will "slash nuclear stockpiles" by about 30% compared to the Moscow Treaty signed by Bush in 2002 that imposed a limit of 2,200 warheads.

The problem with this 30% figure is that it is wrong: the real warhead reductions will be less than that, in fact, probably about 10-15%. This is because of a special counting rule in the treaty by which all warheads associated with one bomber aircraft are counted as one. For example, if an American bomber carries 20 nuclear bombs, that counts as only one warhead, not 20. Therefore, it’s easy to see that the 1,550 limit will in fact "hide" many more actual warheads. How many exactly will depend on how the US and Russia allocate their cuts among submarines, land-based missiles and bombers, but estimates are that when they reach the limit of "1,550" in 2017, the US will in fact possess about 1,800 warheads and Russia slightly less than 2,200 — reductions of about 13% compared to current arsenals, not 30%.

In short, the treaty gives no incentive to get rid of nuclear bombs launched by bomber aircrafts and as such underestimates the real number of warheads deployed by both powers. Further, the treaty does not require that any warhead be destroyed: they are merely to be moved into storage, and could be brought back into operation eventually. And there is no requirement to remove the 200 US tactical nuclear weapons located in Europe.

Delivery vehicles are what brings the warheads to explode on the adversary’s territory in war and are of three kinds: bomber aircrafts, ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, land-based) and SLBMs (ballistic missiles launched by submarines). The treaty imposes a limit of 700 deployed delivery vehicles for each side. But here again, reductions are small: Russia currently has about 600, so it literally has nothing to do since it is already in compliance. The US has 798 and will have to reduce this by 12%, to 700.

The New START Treaty is only a slow move towards disarmament. A top nuclear expert based in the United States summed it all up when he told this author that "as most arms control treaties, New START just codifies the changes that were going to happen anyway."

Nevertheless, it is important to appreciate the treaty’s positive aspects. For one, it establishes a structure of verification and confidence building between the United States and Russia that will allow for future deeper reductions, and it encourages the two countries’ leaders not to renege on planned cuts in their arsenals.

A question raised both by the NPR and New START is whether or not the Obama administration will build new nuclear weapons. During his election campaign, Obama had promised not to do so. Yet, his 2011 Budget request released last February calls for a 10% increase in nuclear weapons spending next year. Has he reneged on his promises?

The answer depends on how we define the term "new nuclear weapon". When nuclear warheads age, instead of dismantling them, their life is often extended through various modifications ranging from rebuilding some or all the parts but keeping the original warhead design, to manufacturing new untested nuclear components of new design to replace existing ones. Which ones of those changes should be referred to as yielding a "new" warhead is debatable. The NPR states that "The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads" but that it will extend the lives of aging warheads using the "full range" of available methods. Some analysts have concluded that this in practice means new warheads, and would even permit production of Bush’s Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program.

But there is another way in which Obama can be said to produce new nuclear weapons: he is building new delivery vehicles for warheads, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a replacement for the Ohio-class nuclear-armed submarine, and modernizing existing strategic ballistic missiles such as the land-based Minuteman III and submarine-based Trident II, in addition to plans to replace the nuclear-capable Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). Can’t those be considered new nuclear weapons since they are new vehicles to deliver warheads?

The bottom line is this: we can argue on what constitutes a new nuclear weapon and whether or not Obama is developing them. What is certain however, is that a president truly committed to nuclear disarmament would not even extend the life of aging nuclear warheads and would destroy them before they reach the end of their shelf life. Obama is clearly not that kind of president.

It is sometimes believed that nuclear weapons contribute to maintaining a balance between super-powers, making the international system more stable. In fact, there have been many nuclear near-accidents throughout the Cold War and since then, due to systems’ malfunctioning or human errors. Maintaining nuclear arsenals in place only increases the chance that a real accident will one day happen.

For instance, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the world came very close to global nuclear war, averted thanks to a Soviet submarine commander, Vasili Arkhipov, who countermanded an order to fire a nuclear-tipped torpedo at US warships off Cuba. US destroyers whose orders were to enforce a naval quarantine did not know that the Soviet submarines sent to protect their ships were carrying nuclear weapons and fired at the submarines to force them to the surface. The officers in Arkhipov’s submarine thought this meant World War III might have started, and the first captain said "We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our navy". But Arkhipov calmed him down and torpedoes were not launched: in the words of Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, "The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world."

In 1983, at a time of tension in US-Soviet relations, a newly-inaugurated Soviet early-warning system detected incoming American nuclear missiles. However, Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet officer then in charge of monitoring the system and notifying his superiors if an attack was detected, chose not to let them know for he believed the new system was simply malfunctioning. He was right: there were no incoming missiles. The Russian system had indicated otherwise due to a unique alignment of its satellite’s viewing angle with the sun, which caused sunlight to be reflected by the clouds in a way that caused the warning system to indicate that several missiles had been launched against the Soviet Union. Had Petrov chosen to alert his superiors, they could have launched a massive retaliatory strike, changing the course of history.

In 1995, Norwegian and American scientists launched a large rocket from an island off the coast of Norway to study the northern lights. Russian radars detected the rocket but mistook it for a nuclear Trident missile launched from a US submarine. For a few moments, Russia was poised to launch a full-scale nuclear attack on the United States. Reportedly, Russian military doctrine allowed 10 minutes from the time of detection to decide on a course of action. The next day, then President Yeltsin stated that he had in fact activated, for the first time, his "nuclear football", a device allowing him to communicate with his top military advisers to review the situation.

If the world is not to wait for decades before such risks become history, the New START Treaty must be implemented, and agreements on further cuts need to be reached — fast.


See also "New START Treaty Has New Counting", 29 March 2010,
and Pavel Podvig of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, "New START Treaty in Numbers", 29 February 2010,

Author: Julien Mercille

Julien Mercille is lecturer at University College Dublin, Ireland. He specializes in U.S. foreign policy and geopolitics. He can be reached at jmercille[at]gmail[dot]com.