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Next president will have to grapple with nuclear weapons issues — and possible nuclear crises

USA election 2016Whose Finger on the Nuclear Button?Election 2016 and playing a game of chicken with nuclear strategy, Common Dreams by Michael T. Klare , 7 Nov 16 

 Once upon a time, when choosing a new president, a factor for many voters was the perennial question: “Whose finger do you want on the nuclear button?” Of all the responsibilities of America’s top executive, none may be more momentous than deciding whether, and under what circumstances, to activate the “nuclear codes” — the secret alphanumeric messages that would inform missile officers in silos and submarines that the fearful moment had finally arrived to launch their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) toward a foreign adversary, igniting a thermonuclear war.

Until recently in the post-Cold War world, however, nuclear weapons seemed to drop from sight, and that question along with it. Not any longer. In 2016, the nuclear issue is back big time, thanks both to the rise of Donald Trump (including various unsettling comments he’s made about nuclear weapons) and actual changes in the global nuclear landscape.

With passions running high on both sides in this year’s election and rising fears about Donald Trump’s impulsive nature and Hillary Clinton’s hawkish one, it’s hardly surprising that the “nuclear button” question has surfaced repeatedly throughout the campaign.  In one of the more pointed exchanges of the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton declared that Donald Trump lacked the mental composure for the job.  “A man who can be provoked by a tweet,” she commented, “should not have his fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes.”  Donald Trump has reciprocated by charging that Clinton is too prone to intervene abroad. “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria,” he told reporters in Florida last month.

For most election observers, however, the matter of personal character and temperament has dominated discussions of the nuclear issue, with partisans on each side insisting that the other candidate is temperamentally unfit to exercise control over the nuclear codes.  There is, however, a more important reason to worry about whose finger will be on that button this time around: at this very moment, for a variety of reasons, the “nuclear threshold” — the point at which some party to a “conventional” (non-nuclear) conflict chooses to employ atomic weapons — seems to be moving dangerously lower.

Not so long ago, it was implausible that a major nuclear power — the United States, Russia, or China — would consider using atomic weapons in any imaginable conflict scenario.  No longer.  Worse yet, this is likely to be our reality for years to come, which means that the next president will face a world in which a nuclear decision-making point might arrive far sooner than anyone would have thought possible just a year or two ago — with potentially catastrophic consequences for us all.

No less worrisome, the major nuclear powers (and some smaller ones) are all in the process of acquiring new nuclear arms, which could, in theory, push that threshold lower still.  These include a variety of cruise missiles and other delivery systems capable of being used in “limited” nuclear wars — atomic conflicts that, in theory at least, could be confined to just a single country or one area of the world (say, Eastern Europe) and so might be even easier for decision-makers to initiate.  The next president will have to decide whether the U.S. should actually produce weapons of this type and also what measures should be taken in response to similar decisions by Washington’s likely adversaries.

Lowering the Nuclear Threshold………

The New Nuclear Armaments

Both countries are already in the midst of ambitious and extremely costly efforts to “modernize” their nuclear arsenals.  Of all the weapons now being developed, the two generating the most anxiety in terms of that nuclear threshold are a new Russian ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) and an advanced U.S. air-launched cruise missile (ALCM).  Unlike ballistic missiles, which exit the Earth’s atmosphere before returning to strike their targets, such cruise missiles remain within the atmosphere throughout their flight……..

On the American side, the weapon of immediate concern is a new version of the AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile, usually carried by B-52 bombers.  Also known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), it is, like the Iskander-M, expected to be deployed in both nuclear and conventional versions, leaving those on the potential receiving end unsure what might be heading their way.  In other words, as with the Iskander-M, the intended target might assume the worst in a crisis, leading to the early use of nuclear weapons.  Put another way, such missiles make for twitchy trigger fingers and are likely to lead to a heightened risk of nuclear war, which, once started, might in turn take Washington and Moscow right up the escalatory ladder to a planetary holocaust.

No wonder former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry called on President Obama to cancel the ALCM program in a recent Washington Post op-ed piece. “Because they… come in both nuclear and conventional variants,” he wrote, “cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon.” And this issue is going to fall directly into the lap of the next president.

The New Nuclear Era

Whoever is elected on November 8th, we are evidently all headed into a world in which Trumpian-style itchy trigger fingers could be the norm. It already looks like both Moscow and Washington will contribute significantly to this development — and they may not be alone. In response to Russian and American moves in the nuclear arena, China is reported to be developing a “hypersonic glide vehicle,” a new type of nuclear warhead better able to evade anti-missile defenses — something that, at a moment of heightened crisis, might make a nuclear first strike seem more attractive to Washington. And don’t forget Pakistan, which is developing its own short-range “tactical” nuclear missiles, increasing the risk of the quick escalation of any future Indo-Pakistani confrontation to a nuclear exchange. (To put such “regional” dangers in perspective, a local nuclear war in South Asia could cause a global nuclear winter and, according to one study, possibly kill a billion people worldwide, thanks to crop failures and the like.)

And don’t forget North Korea, which is now testing a nuclear-armed ICBM, the Musudan, intended to strike the Western United States.  That prompted a controversial decision in Washington to deploy THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile batteries in South Korea (something China bitterly opposes), as well as the consideration of other countermeasures, including undoubtedly scenarios involving first strikes against the North Koreans.

It’s clear that we’re on the threshold of a new nuclear era: a time when the actual use of atomic weapons is being accorded greater plausibility by military and political leaders globally, while war plans are being revised to allow the use of such weapons at an earlier stage in future armed clashes.

As a result, the next president will have to grapple with nuclear weapons issues — and possible nuclear crises — in a way unknown since the Cold War era……..http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/11/06/whose-finger-nuclear-button

November 8, 2016 - Posted by | USA elections 2016

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