The Nuclear Domino Effect

Even as the United States leans on North Korea and Iran to renounce any nuclear objectives, peace activists say it has stepped up spending on its own arsenal, including investments in a new generation of longer lasting and sturdier “bunker buster” weapons.

The “quiet effort," first reported by the New York Times last week, involves a relatively modest budget of nine million dollars for engineers at the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia. Its goal is to produce new warhead prototypes in the next decade.

According to the Western States Legal Foundation, an anti-proliferation group, U.S. nuclear weapons spending has swelled by 84 percent since 1995, now amounting to 40 billion dollars annually. This budget supports the maintenance of some 10,000 nuclear warheads – 2,000 on hair-trigger alert.

Some experts say the “Reliable Replacement Warhead Program," approved by Congress in November, marks a disturbing evolution of the former policy introduced under President Bill Clinton of “stockpile stewardship," in which the labs concentrated on maintaining the safety and reliability of the nation’s existing nuclear arsenal.

Although the United States is a member of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which outlaws new weapons tests, the pact permits computer-simulated testing and underground “sub-critical” nuclear tests. In the past 10 years, experts say the United States has carried out 21 sub-critical tests, 1,000 feet below the desert floor.

“The stockpile stewardship program, now funded at seven billion dollars per year, led to the development of the ‘bunker buster’ and smaller, ‘more usable’ nuclear bombs,” said Alice Slater, president of the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment in New York.

“It was the loophole in the CTBT that allowed these programs to go forward, which were cited by India as its reason for doing nuclear tests and developing an arsenal, swiftly followed by Pakistan.”

“We have spent over three trillion dollars on our nuclear arsenal,” she told IPS. “The waste of intellectual and economic treasure has been enormous and we see the bitter fruits these programs gave birth to: nuclear proliferation in India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran.”

In 1970, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), promising to give up their nuclear weapons if other countries promised not to acquire them.

The treaty will be reviewed this May at the United Nations, where the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and hundreds of others will repeat calls for immediate negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons stockpiles. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the catastrophic bombing of those two Japanese cities, in which an estimated 210,000 people were killed.

Meanwhile, a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that the United States still deploys about 480 nuclear weapons at its air force bases in Europe, nearly twice as many as was previously believed.

The targets for these weapons are most likely in Russia, Iran and Syria, according to NRDC experts, even though Russia withdrew all of its tactical nuclear weapons from the former socialist states following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The United States also withdrew thousands of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, but left at least 480 in place.

France and Britain have 350 and 185 nuclear weapons, respectively, in Europe, but the United States is the only country that deploys this class of arms outside its own territory.

The report notes that all of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries that store U.S. Nuclear weapons within their territory voted in favor of a UN resolution in October 2004 calling for the “further reduction of non-strategic nuclear weapons.”

“No one has been able to come up with a good explanation of how those weapons in Europe contribute to deterrence in a way that other long-range nuclear systems can’t also accomplish,” said Hans Kristensen, the author of the report.

“There’s an institutional argument in NATO that this provides the glue for the close ties between Europe and the United States, but it’s really just a remnant of the Cold War,” he said in an interview.

The report discloses for the first time how many nuclear bombs the United States would provide to non-nuclear NATO allies in the event of war. It found that as many as 180 bombs would be delivered by Belgian, German, Italian, Dutch and Turkish aircraft.

The group argues that this arrangement skirts international law because the NPT prohibits a nuclear state from transferring nuclear weapons to a non-weapon state, and prohibits a non-nuclear state from receiving such weapons.

Kristensen used documents declassified under the Freedom of Information Act, military publications, commercial satellite imagery, and other sources to compile the 100-page report, titled “U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Europe."

A U.S. Defense Department spokesperson told IPS that the weapons are maintained in accordance with NATO’s Strategic Concept, which states that “nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO provide an essential political and military link between the European and North American members of the Alliance.”

He said that the United States does not target specific countries with either conventional or nuclear munitions.

However, the NRDC report notes that NATO keeps detailed nuclear strike plans against potential targets, namely Russia and Middle Eastern countries, most likely Iran and Syria.

“It’s counterproductive and undercuts nonproliferation efforts to maintain a nuclear arsenal overseas, especially against countries that themselves are proliferating weapons of mass destruction, i.e., Iran and Syria,” Kristensen said.

“There’s something very contradictory about going to these countries and saying ‘you can’t have nuclear weapons, but we need ours to use against you’,” he said.

Kristensen sees a split within NATO’s command ranks over the issue, with a growing constituency arguing that operations should be more streamlined and relevant to current missions.

“The last thing you want to keep in place is some residual nuclear capability that is never going to be used and sucks the resources out of other programs,” he said. “The point is these weapons should only be deployed where it is absolutely necessary.”