The media is abuzz with talk of Metta World Peace’s suspension, Colombian prostitutes, and whether or not Lindsay Lohan will do a good job portraying Elizabeth Taylor. One thing you won’t hear much about is nuclear weapons.
That issue is passé, so—so—'80s. Aside from occasional worry about the nuclear ambitions of rogue states Iran and North Korea, the nuclear terror that overwhelmed previous generations have been overtaken by other kinds of fears, mostly economic, social, and health-related.
There is problem, however. No matter how much we have moved on from thinking about the Bomb since the days of skinny ties and big hair, the world is moving in a different direction. Fast.
Boomers like me remember that every time Russia or the United States tested a new weapon, scientists at the University of Chicago advanced the Doomsday Clock a little closer to midnight. We are conditioned to think of rising nuclear arsenals as the prime source of world danger.
Today, it is shrinking U.S. arsenals—and the Obama administration’s recent statement that it is considering unilaterally reducing America’s already shrunken arsenals by up to 80 percent—that is the source of rising danger.
Here are the raw numbers: The United States has radically reduced its arsenal since the height of the Cold War, when we possessed a stockpile of about 32,000 nuclear weapons. As the terms of the New START agreement President Obama just negotiated with Moscow go into effect, the United States will soon have a force level of 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons on bombers, subs and land-based missiles, that nuclear Triad of weapons based on air, sea and land platforms.
Many experts believe that this the absolute rock bottom level that is safe. After all, this shrinking arsenal must not only deter an attack on the American homeland from a Russian force of roughly equal size and a Chinese force of unknown size (and perhaps the two together). It must also protect U.S. forces stationed abroad. And our deterrent must extend the “nuclear umbrella” to protect more than 30 allies, from Poland, to Canada, to Australia, to Japan.
At some point, the shrinking U.S. arsenal will simply be too small to instill confidence among allies, who will face choice of developing nuclear weapons of their own, or bowing to the demands of Moscow and Beijing. Smaller force levels could also tempt a megalomaniac in the Kremlin to roll the nuclear dice and take the world to the brink.
Of course, we don’t know where that level is. But why find out?
After all, the big reductions being made by the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia did not keep India and Pakistan from becoming nuclear powers. Nor does can any realistic person imagine that the Iranian and North Korean regimes will respond to naïve gestures of unilateral disarmament.
The administration is also considering cutting at least one leg from the U.S. Triad, most likely America’s remaining force of 450 single-warhead ICBMs in silos in Western states. This could be a tragic mistake. The Triad has kept the peace for more than half-a-century by presenting any would-be attacker with an impossible task—to hit U.S. subs at sea, U.S. bombers at bases around the world, and our missile silos in the Great Plains and achieve anything like strategic surprise.
And now the administration is considering scrapping this system?
Worse, if Obama’s plan to further slash the U.S. nuclear arsenal turns out to be a horrible, dangerous mistake, there is no way to undo the harm to our safety.
You see, alone among all the nuclear powers, there is one that has systematically dismantled its ability to serially manufacture nuclear weapons. That would be us.
Russia and China are making deep investments in modernizing their nuclear arsenal. We are not. In fact, we cannot. The United States closed the pit production facility for the environmentally dangerous business of mass manufacturing warheads. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to restart that complex.
Other nations can cut or ramp up. We can only cut.
Congress is beginning to wake up. One of the biggest dangers is the Obama administration’s dismissal of a threat from China, a space-faring country that rejects arms-control negotiations that would lead to inspection of its forces. Amid reports that China may be hiding a vast nuclear arsenal in 3,000-miles of tunnel, the U.S. House Armed Services Committee’s 2013 defense authorization bill requires the Pentagon to conduct competing analyses on what the PRC might be hiding in what is often called the “Underground Great Wall of China."
In the interim, it would be nice if our president, when he is not slow jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon, would explain why we need to unilaterally expose ourselves to greater danger.