Nuclear Weapons: The Next 60 Years — Part I

July 13th, 2004 - by admin

John Hallam / Abolition 2000 – 2004-07-13 09:53:38

Nuclear Weapons: The Next 60 Years — Part One


(May 31, 2004) — Nuclear Weapons can still destroy the world. While community concern over the possibility of the destruction of civilisation and most life by an apocalyptic nuclear war has become largely dormant, the question to ask after the phrase ‘the next 60 years’ is ‘will we still be here’?

This is the sort of question that was being asked in the 1980s, but has tended to slip off the agenda since 1990. The prospects for nuclear arms-racing have increased in recent years, putting it back on.

The answer is not certain, and depends on us. The ability to re-kindle the massive community concern that existed in the 1980s will be crucial. It is vital that nuclear weapons are put back on the community agenda, and we should not wait until as in 1983, the world was a buttons push from destruction to be concerned about them.

The Bush administration no longer pays even lip service to its clear legal obligation set forward in Article VI of the NPT to achieve the total and unequivocal elimination of nuclear weapons, preferring to plan new nuclear weapons and even to contemplate new nuclear testing, and the proliferation problem, long warned of by NGOs, has raised itself in a new and frightening form.

The current situation with respect to nuclear weapons looks grim, and current trends are not promising. Still it is as well to understand that there have been moments in the 80s when life on earth literally hung in the balance, with everything depending on a decision by one individual. We are still here, and the situation is less dire than it was then. It is therefore important to look for real avenues for hope and levers for change.

Numerous Near-misses
There have been a number of terrifying near – misses between the US and Russia, any one of which could have ended most life. Current US and Russian policies that maintain large numbers of warheads on LoW status do not make the world a safer place. Unfortunately, the prospect of accidental nuclear war between the US and Russia is steadily increasing.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a much larger number of nations obtaining nuclear weapons, starting with India, Pakistan, Israel and the DPRK, makes the actual use of nuclear weapons at some point more and more likely. India and Pakistan have already come much too close for comfort to actual nuclear war in 1999 and 2002.

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, (NPT) the instrument by which both vertical and horizontal proliferation were to have been checked, is challenged on the one hand by weapons-states refusal to live up to their side of the NPT bargain, and on the other by the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India, Pakistan, Israel and the DPRK, with others (Iran??? Nigeria ??? Saudi Arabia??? Japan?? RoK?? Taiwan?? ) waiting in the shadows. Can Nuclear Weapons Still Destroy the world?

Yes they can. When in the 1980s, the theory of Nuclear Winter was being discussed, it was suggested that roughly 500 warheads of approximately megaton size would be sufficient, if used for ‘city busting’, to create firestorms whose smoke would turn day to night and drop temperatures below freezing.

Nuclear winter scenarios modelled by the Russians and the US suggest that most nuclear exchanges would produce below-freezing temperatures in the jungles of the Amazon and Africa, as well as south/southeast Asia. A nuclear winter of the sort created by the mammoth US and Soviet arsenals in the 1980s would have created an impact similar to that of an asteroid hitting the planet – the kind of event that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Current US and Russian nuclear arsenals still contain some 30,000 warheads total of which appx 4,000 Russian warheads and 5,000 US warheads are in ‘Launch-on-warning’ status, able to be launched immediately. The Moscow Treaty is supposed to require reductions in the number of warheads, but as we shall see later is almost worthless, in stark contrast to the detailed SALT and START agreements.

France, with 400 warheads has just under the ‘nuclear winter limit’, though these warheads are submarine- based and are not on LoW status. China has 400 warheads but only 20 of these are actually mounted on long- range ICBMs and these are not kept currently on LoW status, though this may soon change.

Warhead Numbers — Who has What?

There are roughly 32,000 nuclear warheads in the world total, of which over 30,000 are held by the US and Russia. This is about half the number there were in 1986 (appx 60,000)

Warhead Totals:

USA — 8-12,000 warheads, of which 2,500 on LoW.(Silo-based ICBMs)

Russia — appx 22,000 warheads of which 3.500 on LoW (Silo-based ICBMs)

UK — 150-250 warheads

France — appx 400 warheads

• China — appx 400 warheads of which 20 on long-range ICBMs

• Israel — 200-400 warheads

India — 70-150 warheads (some estimates 40 warheads) Agni, Su-29, Mirage

Pakistan — 24-48 warheads (NRDC) 35-70 others, Ghauri(Nodong) Shaheen

• DPRK — ?? maybe 6-12 warheads, Nodong, Taepo-Dong

Potential: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria (?), Japan, RoK, Taiwan.

US and Russia

As of now (2004) Russia and the US alone, between them, still have the capability in spite of massive reductions in total warhead numbers, to end civilisation worldwide and to render the world uninhabitable for months to centuries for most land-based life forms. Nobody else has this dubious ability.

The Warhead Stockpile
The US has between 8,000 and 12,000 warheads depending how you count them. Russia has up to 22,000 warheads, depending how you count them. Of these, as of 1995, the US had 2,500 warheads on LoW status in land-based ICBMs, and Russia had 3,500 land-based ICBMs on LoW status.

The ICBM Stockpile
As of 2002, according to NRDC, Russia had 3.011 warheads in land-based ICBMs and 1.072 in submarines, while the US had 2,095 in land- based ICBMs and 3.600 in submarines. This gives a total of 9778 strategic warheads of which 5,106 are on launch-on-warning status, and thus liable to be used as a result of miscalculation or on the basis of incorrect information, in an accidental nuclear war.

The current US-Russia warhead count is significantly below what it was in the 1980s. In 1983, Russia would have lobbed some 15,000 land- based ICBM warheads (thirty times the number needed to create a nuclear winter) at the US, not 3,500.

The Moscow Treaty
According to the Moscow Treaty, by 2012, each is supposed to have just 1,500 warheads (still three times the number required to create a nuclear winter), in ‘operational’ status. However, there are a few catches that render this almost a joke. ‘Operational’ status is completely undefined. US or Russian defence authorities could simply unplug power cords from missiles and declare them ‘non-operational.’ The treaty does not have to be fulfilled till midnight Dec 31 2012, and the treaty itself vanishes on Jan 1 2013. It is in other words, all but worthless.

In fact, NRDC gives rather higher figures even for deployed warheads under the Moscow Treaty, suggesting that by 2012 the US may have 2440 ‘deployed’ warheads and a total strategic inventory of 7970 (down from 6480 ‘deployed’ strategic warheads in 2002) while Russia will go from 5600 deployed ‘strategic’ warheads in 2002 to 2750 deployed strategic warheads in 2012.

The Danger of ‘Hedge’ Stockpiles
However these numbers are a bit of an illusion as what will matter under the Moscow Treaty will be what’s in ‘hedge’ stockpiles and these numbers will be far larger. In fact, the Bush administration has already indicated that it will not be reducing its warhead count even to these levels.

Meanwhile, recent statements in the US Nuclear Posture Review trumpet continued US reliance on nuclear deterrence and the possible use of nuclear weapons, as well as the development of new, ‘useable’ nuclear weapons types, notably mini-nukes. The most recent US nuclear weapons budget, according to the ACA, contains an overall 5% increase in funding, with new expenditure largely on new nuclear weapons types. Current US funding levels for nuclear programs are at their highest levels since the end of the cold war and are steadily rising.

US plans to proceed with the development of new nuclear weapons types (‘mini-nukes’ and the ‘bunker buster’ or Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator), as well as plans to facilitate the readiness of the Nevada test site for actual explosive nuclear tests, deny and mock US NPT Article VI commitments. So does the development of the ‘modern pit facility’, which will enable the assembly-line production of up to 500 nuclear warheads per year, and would be ready by 2020. The 2004 Defence Authorisation Bill authorised $34 million to ‘enhanced test readiness’ at the Nevada Test Site, while the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill (which covers DOE), allocated $25million to enhanced test readiness.

US Position Is Hypocritical
Recently, 84 Congresspeople wrote to the Bush administration, arguing that the US cannot consistently ask other nations to forgo nuclear weapons while developing new varieties of nuclear weapon itself, and that the RNEP was not needed. They warned that US programs to enhance and diversify its nuclear arsenal both violated the US’s own Article VI obligations, and encouraged other nations also to develop nuclear weapons.

As Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, recently stated, “Double standards are being used here. The US government insists that other countries do not possess nuclear weapons.” He adds, “On the other hand they are perfecting their own arsenal. I do not think that corresponds with the treaty they signed.”

Of Russia’s 22,000 warheads, a large number are either in stockpiles or non-operational, with some in very bad condition. Security is a problem for many Russian weapons sites. Under the US/Russia Nunn-Lugar plan, many Russian weapons are being turned into uranium or plutonium, (effectively destroying the uranium industry), and security at many sites is being upgraded. The Bush administration has slashed Nunn-Lugar.

So bad has security been at some weapons sites however that there has been doubt as to the whereabouts of some 100 ‘suitcase nukes’, with serious concern by the CIA, the FBI, and Pakistan’s ISI, in October 2001, that Al Quaeda may have managed to smuggle one into New York. (there was a TIME magazine centrespread on this) Fortunately this, so far, does not seem to have been the case. However they were clearly working on it at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan, and Albright argues that they would eventually have built or obtained a warhead. A recent report says that Al Quaeda may have obtained as many as 20 miniature nuclear warheads via the Chechens and the Mafia. My own inclination is to be sceptical of this on the basis that if they had, we would already know in the most horrific way possible. In this context however, the priority of the Nunn-Lugar program and the folly of slashing it is clear.

A Few Occasions on which
We Nearly Destroyed the World

US and Russian nuclear arsenals have held the world on the brink of destruction on a number of occasions, each time by accident or misadventure. Looking at the record, one is inclined to agree with General Lee Butler who opined that the human race has survived largely by divine providence.

But will divine providence continue forever to ensure that a canny Colonel Petrov,(Sept 26 1983) or even a drunk Boris Yeltsin (1995) manages to make the right decision and refrain from blowing up the world due to computer malfunction, miscalculation, and/or panic?

Perhaps the most dangerous occasion, because of the sheer megatonnage involved, as well as the political situation at the time, came on 26th September 1983, when a newly installed, state of the art, Russian satellite surveillance system indicated that a series of missile launches had taken place in North Dakota. It had mistaken an unusual configuration of sunlight reflecting off rare very high cloud formations over North Dakota, for a series of launches.

This took place soon after the Reagan speech in which the USSR was likened to the ‘evil empire’, and at the same time as NATO manoeuvres that the USSR found highly provocative.

How Colonel Petrov Saved the World
The duty officer at the time was one Colonel Stanislaw Petrov, who experienced possibly the most terrifying half hour a human can endure, as flashing lights and blaring sirens in the Serpukhov-15 nuclear command bunker heralded imminent doomsday.

We owe the fact that we are here now, to Colonel Petrov, who now lives in obscurity, his health ruined by the experience. As Colonel Petrov took calls on a hotline from military top brass and the defence ministry, he had in front of him a red flashing button with the word ‘START’ on it in Russian.

Pressing it would (presumably in combination with the turning of keys and the insertion of codes), have commenced a sequence whose end point was the sending of 15,000 warheads on land- based ICBMs to turn the US, NATO, Japan and Australia to toast. According to Colonel Petrov: “I simply had a feeling deep in my gut that it was a mistake and I acted accordingly”.

Colonel Petrov was awarded the World Citizens Award for saving the world from destruction, more than 20 years later, on 21 May 2004. As he accepted the award, he said ‘I had a job to do — and I did it well.’

The Norweigian Research Rocket Incident
Much later, in 1995, after the cold war was supposedly over, a Norwegian weather research rocket was mistaken by the (by now very decrepit) Russian perimeter radar, for a submarine-launched US first strike aimed at taking out the Kremlin. By now, decisions were being made, and the nuclear buck stopped, as in the US, with the President, via the nuclear briefcase.

It is said that Boris Yeltsin was drunk at the time.

As Yeltsin’s aides, in panic, again debated whether or not to send (this time only 3,500 land- based ICBM warheads) to incinerate the US and end civilisation as the book of procedures said they must, one of them suggested ‘let’s wait another minute’. In the remaining minute, the weather research rocket plunged into the arctic ocean, just as the fax from the Norwegian ministry of science had said that it would.

The Practice Tape Debacle
Similar frightening near-misses have been recorded in the US. In 1979, a practice tape for ‘doomsday’ (presumably DEFCON-1) was accidentally inserted into the main combat computer at NORAD in the presence of a Congressional committee (which is the only reason we know about it). What ensued was ‘blind panic’ according to the Congressional committee.

The Faulty Switch Near-miss
In 1980 and again in 1981, computers at NORAD indicated that the US was under massive Soviet missile attack, but the numbers of missiles kept varying.

Minuteman missiles were readied for launch and the presidential Doomsday plane (National Emergency Airborne Command Post -NEACP or ‘Kneecap’) took off three times, without the President, who couldn’t be found, before the problem was traced to a faulty component in a switching station in Colorado.

The 1995 incident shook Yeltsin so deeply that when he next encountered Clinton, he suggested that a ‘joint strategic stability centre’ be created in Moscow, where US and Russian officers with hotlines could jointly look at data from both NORAD and from Serpukhov-15.

The US and Russian governments have each considered the idea so good that they have announced an intention to do it three times (and a prototype such centre actually operated over the Y2K rollover). The site in Moscow remains a vacant lot, and the Bush administration shows no interest in it.

Okay, so Russia and the US show little if any sign of wishing to renounce their ability to destroy the world, though to be fair total warhead numbers are very much lower than the massive overkill of the 1980s. We have actually gone from sixty times the megattonnage needed to create nuclear winter to a mere six times the megatonnage needed to do that. That is, I suppose, progress.

But that about everyone else?

The World’s Other Nuclear Powers
Apart from the US and Russia, the ‘official’ nuclear powers include the UK, France, and China. The ‘unofficial’ ones include India, Pakistan, Israel, and the DPRK, while there has been talk of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and now Nigeria (!!?? yes), joining that once select club. (Nigeria has more recently said that the report of this is a ‘mistake’.)

The UK has between 150 and 250 warheads, now exclusively based in trident submarines. Opposition to Trident is rightly fierce, but it must be noted that the UK no longer keeps its missiles on LoW status.

While the UK has in the last few decades reduced both the number of its warheads and the operating status of those warheads, more recently it has seemed as if the UK were thinking of following the US example with a long-term dependence on nuclear weapons.

Plans have been made for a ‘replacement’ for the Trident missile and submarine system, and new laser and hydrodynamic facilities, essential for warhead design, are being acquired for the Aldermaston nuclear laboratories.

These are not moves that are in any way consistent with UK obligations to achieve the total and unequivocal elimination of its nuclear arsenal. The renewal of the 1958 US/UK nuclear cooperation agreement also arguably violates not only article VI of the NPT, but also article I of the NPT which forbids the transfer of nuclear weapons technology: According to Article I,”Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly…”

France, with roughly 400 warheads, also keeps these warheads submarine-based, and has scrapped the missiles it once had on the Plateau d’Albion. The justification for Frances 400 warheads has more to do with national prestige than with any rational consideration, as in the UK. It is understood that, like the UK, France does not maintain its nuclear forces on LoW status.

China also has roughly 400 warheads, of which most are mounted in aircraft and short-medium range missiles. Of these 400 warheads, a mere 20 are mounted on long- range ICBMs able to reach the USA, and these are not currently kept on LoW status. (this is because they are liquid- fuelled and have to be fuelled immediately before use. They are scheduled to go over to solid fuel.)

However, the Chinese have stated that in response to the US’s abrogation of the ABM treaty, they may both modernise their long-range ICBM force and increase its numbers to 200. Current indications are that the Chinese will steadily and quietly do this, and that while the total number of Chinese warheads will probably not rise, or not by much, a greater proportion of them will be mounted on long- range ICBMs of a much more advanced nature than the current 20 D5 missiles. They are also more likely to be kept on LoW status, raising the possibility of an accidental US/China nuclear exchange.

China is widely thought to have given an early, uranium-based bomb design to Pakistan, who has, it is thought, given it to the DPRK in return for missile technology, and to Libya.

John Hallam is the Nuclear Weapons Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Australia [1 Henry St Turella NSW Australia 2205,ph 61-2-9567-7644, 7533, fax 9567-7166].

Posted in accordance with USCode Title 17 for noncommercial educational purposes./i>