How much can we justify spending on nuclear weapons?

March 14, 2011

The horrific earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan last week lead me to this question: Is it not time to talk realistically about the
$200 billion or more we plan to spend over the next decade on strategic nuclear weapons and their land- and sea-based delivery systems?

The threat of radioactive gases being released in the air from the Fukushima Daiichi unit 1 reactor caused the evacuation of everyone within the surrounding 12.5-mile area. This threat would seem minor in the face of what would be generated by an explosion in the area of a 100-kiloton nuclear warhead, which is the equivalent of 100,000 tons of TNT.

The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 12.5 kilotons.

Think for a minute: Now and for the next 10 years the United States is planning to keep deployed as many as 1,500 such warheads or bombs, many even more powerful than 100 kilotons and almost all ready to be launched or dropped anywhere in the world inside of one hour.

Today’s troubles in Japan should reawaken memories of the Chernobyl nuclear accident 25 years ago and the evacuation of about 600,000 people. And, of course, almost 66 years ago, there were Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where atomic bombings resulted in more than 200,000 deaths.

Nevertheless, last week, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), described himself as “a little nervous about how we’re going to be able to really provide all of our [strategic nuclear warhead] needs” if the United States reduces the number of launching tubes on a new generation of Ohio-class strategic nuclear submarines from 20 to 16 “to save money.”

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus appeared before McKeon and the Senate Armed Services Committee last week to defend his fiscal 2012 budget. He defended reducing the future number of strategic submarines from today’s 14 to 12, as well as the number of tubes on each sub from 20 to 16.

One reason the number of submarines was cut is that each would be powered by a nuclear reactor that will enable it to stay on patrol for its entire lifetime without refueling, Mabus said.

The Navy is trying to develop “the best design that we can and to get the cost into a manageable range,” he said. “We’ve taken $1 billion per boat out within the last year, and we are looking for another half-billion per boat.” That would still put the cost at about $4.5 billion.

Those 16 tubes on the planned 12 new Trident submarines would also give the United States the ability to keep four or more of those boats at sea. Those four alone would be able to launch 64 D-5 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each carrying a minimum of five nuclear warheads. The real question is where — save for perhaps Russia and China, which are today not enemies — could we find 320 targets that needed to be hit with a 50-or-more-kiloton nuclear warhead.

At a meeting of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces a week earlier, Rep. Michael Turner
(R-Ohio) raised the same question as McKeon, but in a different way. He asked Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the new head of the Strategic Command, if a year ago the command said it needed 20 tubes on the new Ohio class subs, “does 16 meet the requirements and how was it determined that 20 to 16 meets the requirements?”

Kehler responded, “Sixteen will meet Stratcom’s requirements given that we are sitting here, you know, 20 years in advance.” He expanded on that, saying the ability to add more warheads on each D-5 missile answers the question “Will we be able to deliver sufficient weapons with the platforms that are available?”

Neither McKeon nor Turner, nor any members of Congress, ever questioned what targets exist that require being hit by nuclear weapons. Nor do they ever discuss at these hearings what impact the use of nuclear weapons would have should they be used.

Since Russian and U.S. testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere ended in 1963, and since the underground testing moratorium in 1992, questions about the effects of their use have all but ended on Capitol Hill.

An irony of the recent Senate ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia was that President Obama committed to a major strengthening of both the U.S. nuclear arms building complex and the replacement of each country’s strategic nuclear delivery systems.

At the House strategic subcommittee hearing March 2, James N. Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, showed how the estimated costs of those programs have increased billions in less than a year. He said the National Nuclear Security Administration now “proposes spending about
$88 billion over the next 10 years to sustain our nuclear arsenal and to modernize infrastructure,” a figure that was $80 billion last year.

Miller also said the Obama administration’s commitment to sustain and modernize our strategic delivery systems would require an investment of about $125 billion over the next 10 years. Last year that figure was $100 billion.

Miller gave the laundry list that included analysis for a follow-on ICBM (land-based intercontinental ballistic missile) to be fielded about 2030; developing a new dual-capable long-range standoff (cruise) missile; upgrades to the B-2 (stealth bomber) to enhance its survivability and capabilities; and finally, development of a new long-range, nuclear-capable penetrating bomber with funding starting next year.

The questions are: Which targets require nuclear strikes, and what’s the minimum number of warheads needed to meet U.S. requirements and obligations to other countries?

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
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