Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Nuclear holocaust scenarios have not gone away

It seems to many that it is now climate change that confronts the world with an existential threat to civilization. No longer does nuclear war feature in the fore-front of people's minds but regardless of the media's neglect, the possibility of blowing up the world remains. There is currently an arms race among the super-powers to modernize their nuclear weapon stockpiles and a change to the strategy of their use.

Over the next 30 years, the U.S. will spend at least $1.2 trillion on maintaining and modernizing nuclear weapons. With inflation, cost overruns and common under-estimation of weapon systems, the final cost of the U.S. nuclear enterprise could be as high as $2 trillionTrump’s 2020 budget alone calls for $16.5 billion (an increase of 8.3 percent over 2019) for the Department of Energy (DOE)/National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) which maintains the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

The NNSA confirm  that it is currently executing five major nuclear weapons modernization programs. Those programs include a gravity bomb and an air-launched cruise missile whose nuclear yield can be “dialed up or down” (adjusted), allowing for greater flexibility.
Among the modified warheads is the W76-2, a lower yield (5-7 kilotons) version of the earlier more powerful (100 kiloton) W76-1. By comparison, the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were around 15 and 20 kilotons respectively.
The first W76-2 warhead was completed in February at the United States’s only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility, the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. However, in June, House Democrats blocked funding for deployment of the W76-2 onto submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Opponents of new low-yield “mini nukes” argue that bombs with an adjustable selective yield option can produce less radioactive fallout, and may thereby lower the threshold for using them, making a nuclear conflict more likely. Currently, the U.S. stockpile includes around 1,000 warheads with selective yield options, some believed to be as low as 0.3 kilotons (exact yields are classified).
“Even the lowest yield is a very large explosive force compared to even the biggest conventional weapons that humans have been able to build,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). 
He points out that the U.S. is not alone in modernizing and upgrading its nuclear arsenal. All nine nuclear states have their own version of modernization reflecting the maturity of their program. The idea that Russia, for example, is modernizing, and the U.S. is “falling behind” is a mischaracterization of the real situation, says Kristensen. “All countries use that argument to their advantage,” Kristensen told Truthout.
Plans to use nuclear weapons are not just an abstraction for U.S. military planners. As the FAS’s Steven Aftergood reported, the Joint Chiefs of Staff posted an updated version of U.S. nuclear policy that included the passage: “Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability … specifically, the use of a nuclear weapon will fundamentally change the scope of a battle and create conditions that affect how commanders will prevail in conflict.” 
Tom Collina, director of policy for the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation seeking to reduce nuclear risks.
“The more nuclear weapons that you build beyond what you need, not only is it very expensive — billions and billions of dollars — but it encourages Russia to build up as well so you create a new arms race,” Collina explained. According to Collina, the combination of rebuilding the U.S. nuclear stockpile and Trump’s efforts to pare down and withdraw from arms control agreements suggest a dangerous new arms race against Russia is in the making.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons executive director, Beatrice Fihn, said “The total number keeps going down very slowly … but they are also making these upgrades and alterations of nuclear weapons, which means that the qualitative impact of using them is not going down; rather the opposite — they’re planning for new types of nuclear warfare scenarios,” Fihn said. “It shows that they are expanding on the type of scenarios where they think that nuclear weapons can be used.” Fihn worries that artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, autonomous weapons systems and other emerging technologies increase nuclear risks exponentially. “As long as governments believe nuclear weapons are the ‘ultimate security guarantee,’ they won’t be abandoned,” says Fihn, adding that the commonly accepted notion that it’s necessary to maintain and modernize nuclear stockpiles runs counter to the idea of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.  She believes nuclear weapons, like other weapons of mass destruction, need to be delegitimized.

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