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Just how many nuclear weapons should be enough?

This news story was published on February 25, 2012.
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

The following editorial appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Last week the Obama administration got the first shove in what eventually could be heavy pushback against the goal of reducing and reorienting the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, were questioned sharply about reports that the Pentagon’s ongoing “nuclear posture review” might recommend cutting the number of atomic weapons by as much as 80 percent.

“There are many of us that are going to do everything we possibly can to make sure that this preposterous notion does not gain any real traction,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.

The Federation of American Scientists estimates that the U.S. military has 1,656 nuclear warheads deployed on ground- and submarine-based missiles and at Air Force bases here and overseas. Counting those held in reserve, the total military stockpile is 5,000. Under terms of the 2010 New START treaty, both Russia and the United States must reduce the number of deployed weapons to 1,550 by 2018.

But President Barack Obama hopes to negotiate further reductions if he’s re-elected. The nuclear posture review will create a baseline for those talks.

Part of this is in keeping with Obama’s pledge, expressed in a speech in Prague in 2009, to “take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.”

But another part is budgetary. Maintaining the nuclear “triad” — ground-based ICBMs, missile submarines and nuclear bombers — is hugely expensive. On top of that, each leg of the triad is reaching the end of its programmed life. The Navy wants 12 new missile subs. The Air Force wants a new bomber. Silo-based missiles and warheads need to be updated or replaced.

If the Pentagon’s budget is to be cut $480 billion over the next decade, as called for in last year’s agreement between the president and Congress, the money has to come from somewhere.

The administration has not committed itself to a 330-nuke arsenal; that number is the bottom of a range that could go to 1,000 or even higher. Whatever size the arsenal turns out to be, its goal will be simply to deter another nation from launching a nuclear attack. The idea that the United States, or any nation, can have enough nukes to “win” a nuclear war is now recognized as futile.

In the past, war plans were designed to inflict different levels of damage on hundreds of enemy targets — the more damage, the longer it would take the enemy to rebuild. “Light damage” meant they would be turned to rubble. “Moderate damage” meant turning them into gravel. “Heavy damage” meant turning them into dust.

Those distinctions now are recognized as absurd. In a nuclear war involving as few as 100 one-megaton bombs, effects on planetary infrastructure and food supplies would be so severe as to make recovery unlikely for decades.

Still Congress has its “Doomsday Caucus,” comprising members whose districts and states have large military or nuclear industry facilities. The Cold War was good to them.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told Panetta and Dempsey last week that cutting the nuclear arsenal to, say, 500 weapons would give other nations “all the incentive in the world to try to catch us, because it’s not that far and it’s not that hard to do.”

Thornberry’s sprawling West Texas district includes the Pantex plant north of Amarillo, where many of the nation’s warheads were built and which still maintains them. All politics, even nuclear politics, are local.

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2 Responses to Just how many nuclear weapons should be enough?

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    Observer Reply Report comment

    February 25, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Sure, while we draw down, rogue governments like in Iran or North Korea will be building up. But, as the current President believes, no defense is the best defense.

    He already wants to remove readiness in Iowa by cutting F-16’s in Des Moines. What good is a refueling wing in Sioux City without fighters to train with? And where is he going to get well trained pilots if he cuts strength?