5 Myths About the Bomb and Us

By Jeffrey Lewis
Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Bush administration likes to boast that it has dramatically cut the size of the nation's nuclear stockpile. Meanwhile, it's busily trying to shore up congressional support for multibillion-dollar proposals to "modernize" the bristling U.S. arsenal. A world that's skeptical about the last superpower's intentions only gets more so when U.S. officials push unconvincing lines about the world's deadliest weapons. So here are a few myths about the U.S. nuclear posture of which the administration seems particularly fond.

1. The U.S. nuclear stockpile is the smallest since the Eisenhower administration.

A recent statement from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman touts Bush administration "reductions in the nuclear stockpile" that "will result in the lowest level since the Eisenhower Administration." Well yes, but one might infer that the number of U.S. nuclear weapons is rather small, perhaps around a thousand or so. Not quite.

We haven't seen such low levels since the Truman administration. When Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in January 1961 -- not a particularly warm period of the Cold War -- the U.S. stockpile had swelled to almost 19,000 nuclear weapons. The United States stayed above Eisenhower levels until 1991, when President George H.W. Bush wisely slashed the unnecessarily large stockpile of tactical battlefield nukes.

A more relevant marker is 1,200 nuclear weapons, the size of the nuclear stockpile when Ike took over from Truman. Compared with that measure, the Bush-era reductions, although welcome, look much less impressive. According to administration statements, the United States in 2012 will still have 5,000-6,000 nuclear weapons, with about a third of those remaining on Cold War levels of alert.

2. Our nuclear arsenal is as small as it can be.

Not even close. Americans often assume that the U.S. arsenal has been kept at the bare minimum level necessary to maintain our deterrent through some abstract level of "mutual assured destruction." But we could do that with far fewer nukes than the 2,200 strategic warheads that the administration plans to deploy on alert in 2012.

In fact, as one senior administration official recently acknowledged, that level of 2,200 long-range weapons represents a "judgment call" based on intelligence estimates of what other countries might do in the future. Some administration officials fear that China will "sprint to parity" -- a wonkish way of saying "quickly build up to U.S. levels" -- if Washington cuts its arsenal much below 2,000. (China currently has about 20 warheads that could reach the United States.) U.S. nuclear forces, in other words, are dictated by a hypothetical future scenario, not by the forces that Russia or China have today or even those that the intelligence community believes they or other worrisome countries may have in the future. Rather than just sticking to the bare minimum number of nuclear weapons, U.S. policy is to build in a lot of slack.

3. Accidents can't happen.

And the Titanic couldn't sink. In October, an Army unit experienced "an unexplained and accidental launch" of a Patriot missile-defense interceptor during training. And the stunning Aug. 30 episode in which six nuclear weapons were accidentally flown from North Dakota to Louisiana illustrates that safeguards, even for handling nuclear weapons, can and do fail.

One former head of Strategic Command recently told me that if someone had said that six nukes could be mistakenly flown across the country, he wouldn't have believed him. But as Scott D. Sagan has shown in his painstakingly detailed and harrowing book "The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents and Nuclear War," human errors, unanticipated interactions and plain old bad luck have repeatedly resulted in serious accidents involving nuclear weapons. A nuclear weapon has never accidentally detonated, but the close calls Sagan examines are hair-raising.

4. Russia isn't an enemy, so we don't need arms control.

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