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America’s new $100Billion missiles are intended both for attack, and as a target.

Housed in permanent silos spread across America’s high plains, they are intended to draw fire to the region in the event of a nuclear war, forcing Russia to use up a lot of atomic ammunition on a sparsely populated area.

how little some nuclear weapons programs have to do with national defense.!

Why is America getting a new $100 billion nuclear weapon?,  By Elisabeth Eaves, February 8, 2021     merica is building a new weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear missile the length of a bowling lane. It will be able to travel some 6,000 miles, carrying a warhead more than 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It will be able to kill hundreds of thousands of people in a single shot.

The US Air Force plans to order more than 600 of them.

On September 8, the Air Force gave the defense company Northrop Grumman an initial contract of $13.3 billion to begin engineering and manufacturing the missile, but that will be just a fraction of the total bill. Based on a Pentagon report cited by the Arms Control Association Association and Bloomberg News, the government will spend roughly $100 billion to build the weapon, which will be ready to use around 2029.

To put that price tag in perspective, $100 billion could pay 1.24 million elementary school teacher salaries for a year, provide 2.84 million four-year university scholarships, or cover 3.3 million hospital stays for covid-19 patients. It’s enough to build a massive mechanical wall to protect New York City from sea level rise. It’s enough to get to Mars

One day soon, the Air Force will christen this new war machine with its “popular” name, likely some word that projects goodness and strength, in keeping with past nuclear missiles like the Atlas, Titan, and Peacekeeper. For now, though, the missile goes by the inglorious acronym GBSD, for “ground-based strategic deterrent.” The GBSD is designed to replace the existing fleet of Minuteman III missiles; both are intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. Like its predecessors, the GBSD fleet will be lodged in underground silos, widely scattered in three groups known as “wings” across five states. The official purpose of American ICBMs goes beyond responding to nuclear assault. They are also intended to deter such attacks, and serve as targets in case there is one. 

Under the theory of deterrence, America’s nuclear arsenal—currently made up of 3,800 warheads—sends a message to other nuclear-armed countries. It relays to the enemy that US retaliation would be so awful, it had better not attack in the first place. Many consider American deterrence a success, pointing to the fact that no country has ever attacked the United States with nuclear weapons. This argument relies on the same faulty logic Ernie used when he told Bert he had a banana in his ear to keep the alligators away: The absence of alligators doesn’t prove the banana worked. Likewise, the absence of a nuclear attack on the United States doesn’t prove that 3,800 warheads are essential to deterrence. And for practical purposes, after the first few, they quickly grow redundant. “Once you’ve dropped a couple of nuclear bombs on a city, if you drop a couple more, all you do is make the rubble shake,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Robert Latiff, a Bulletin Science and Security Board member who, early in his career, commanded a unit of short-range nuclear weapons in West Germany.

Deterrence is the main argument for having a nuclear arsenal at all. But America’s land-based missiles have another strategic purpose all their own. Housed in permanent silos spread across America’s high plains, they are intended to draw fire to the region in the event of a nuclear war, forcing Russia to use up a lot of atomic ammunition on a sparsely populated area. If that happened, and all three wings were destroyed, the attack would still kill more than 10 million people and turn the area into a charred wasteland, unfarmable and uninhabitable for centuries to come. 

The GBSD’s detractors include long-time peace activists, as you’d expect. But many of the missile’s critics are former military leaders, and their criticism has to do with those immovable silos. Relative to nuclear missiles on submarines, which can slink around undetected, and nuclear bombs on airplanes—the two other legs of the nuclear triad, in defense jargon—America’s land-based nuclear missiles are easy marks.  

Because they are so exposed, they pose another risk: To avoid being destroyed and rendered useless—their silos provide no real protection against a direct Russian nuclear strike—they would be “launched on warning,” that is, as soon as the Pentagon got wind of an incoming nuclear attack. But the computer systems that warn of such incoming fire may be vulnerable to hacking and false alarms. During the Cold War, military computer glitches in both the United States and Russia caused numerous close calls, and since then, cyberthreats have become an increasing concern. An investigation ordered by the Obama administration in 2010 found that the Minutemen missiles were vulnerable to a potentially crippling cyberattack. Because an error could have disastrous consequences, James Mattis, the former Marine Corps general who would go on to become the 26th US secretary of defense, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015 that getting rid of America’s land-based nuclear missiles “would reduce the false alarm danger.” Whereas a bomber can be turned around even on approach to its target, a nuclear missile launched by mistake can’t be recalled. 

William J. Perry, secretary of defense during the Clinton administration (and the chair of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors), argued in 2016 that “[w]e simply do not need to rebuild all of the weapons we had during the Cold War” and singled out the GBSD as unnecessary. Replacing America’s land-based nuclear missiles, he wrote, “will crowd out the funding needed to sustain the competitive edge of our conventional forces, and to build the capabilities needed to deal with terrorism and cyber attacks.”⁠ Russia has about 4,300 nuclear warheads, the only arsenal on par with America’s, and is also trading up for new weapons. Yet as Perry pointed out, “If Russia decides to build more than it needs, it is their economy that will be destroyed, just as it was during the Cold War.” China—a bigger long-term threat to the United States than Russia, in the eyes of many national security analyses—seems to understand that excessive spending on nuclear weapons would be self-sabotage. Even if, as the Pentagon expects, Beijing doubles the number of nuclear warheads in its arsenal—now estimated at less than 300—it will still have far fewer than either the United States or Russia.

For many and perhaps most Americans, nuclear weapons are out of sight and mind. That $100 billion to replace machines that would, if ever used, kill civilians on a mass scale and possibly end human civilization is just another forgotten subscription on auto-renew. But those who do think about the GBSD mostly don’t want it. In a survey of registered voters conducted in October 2020 by the Federation of American Scientists,  60 percent said they would prefer other alternatives to the new missile, ranging from refurbishing the Minutemen to scrapping nuclear weapons altogether. Those results echo a 2019 voter survey, conducted by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, that asked if the government should phase out its fleet of land-based nuclear missiles. Sixty-one percent of respondents—53 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats—said yes.

Which all leads to one question: Given the expense, doubtful strategic purpose, and lack of popularity, why is Washington spending so much to replace the Minuteman III?

The answers stretch from the Utah desert to Montana wheat fields to the halls of Congress. They span presidential administrations and political parties. They come from airmen and farmers and senators and CEOs.

The reasons for the GBSD are historical, political, and to a significant extent economic. In a country where safety net programs are limited and health insurance is a patchwork, and where unemployment remains at nearly double the pre-pandemic rate, many people in the states where the new missile will be built and based see it as a lifeline. Their elected officials take campaign donations from defense companies, to be sure, but are also trying to deliver jobs in a political environment that has been hostile to government spending on anything but defense. Defense is the safety net where other options are few.

A lot of people, even some of those whose livelihoods depend on them, would like to see the number of nuclear weapons gradually reduced until they’re gone. The United States stands no chance of making them disappear, though, until more people understand why they happen—and how little some nuclear weapons programs have to do with national defense. 


February 9, 2021 - Posted by | USA, weapons and war

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