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America's Aging Nuclear Arsenal and the 'Earth-Shattering Kaboom'

When no one is sure whether the other guy's nuclear weapons will actually work, everyone is more likely to use their own nuclear weapons against the other guy.
December 2, 2014, 7:05pm
Photo via National Nuclear Security Administration

For the past year, the aging US nuclear weapons arsenal has been the subject of a brewing controversy with all the makings of a major policy debate through the 2016 Presidential campaign. And if history is any indicator, the debate promises to turn into a really stupid stalemate.

Beginning in 2013, Associated Press reporter Robert Burns wrote an excellent series of articles detailing numerous problems with the US Air Force's nuclear missile operators, including cheating on proficiency tests, drug abuse, and abysmal morale. 60 Minutes did a segment on the nuclear force, and last week the New York Times editorial board chimed in. Amid it all, the Department of Defense called for several reports to be compiled, lending a patina of seriousness to its flailing.

The subject will no doubt be a topic of discussion for months to come whenever, say, a potential presidential candidate or nominee for secretary of defense answers questions from reporters, constituents, or senators. But the discussion should not be framed around how to get rid of obsolete Cold War relics, as the Times implied. It should focus on the fact that every decrepit warhead brings us a little closer to actual war. Fought with nukes.

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It's generally accepted that the most important role of a nuclear arsenal is deterrence against existential threats — a way of putting some pretty meaningful firepower behind "No means no." But nuclear arsenals are also a great tool for backing up threats you make against others — warheads make people think twice when you say, "Don't make me kick your ass."

In the decades after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the main nuclear powers of the world came to a tacit understanding that strategic stability was more important than anything else, thus creating a long-simmering nuclear standoff. Pointing nuclear arsenals at each other isn't a great way for the world to go through life, but compared to the destruction of civilization as we know it, any form of peace starts to look like a win-win.

So humanity made it to the end of the Cold War, and then proceeded to live happily ever after as nukes fell out of fashion and became an embarrassing, distasteful legacy from a much older generation. Like disco.

Which is now a problem. The nuclear warheads that sat atop missiles and bombs before the Cold War ended weren't intended to last forever. Components degrade and need to be repaired or replaced. And in very high-precision machinery, there's an enormous difference between an original part and the almost — but not quite — identical replacement part. Many original component manufacturers have gone out of business, and so now "equivalent" replacement parts need to be used. In some cases, this has even involved the reverse engineering and reinvention of "lost" highly classified materials.

But "almost the same," "nearly the same," and "highly similar" are just different ways of saying "a bit wrong," "not quite right," and "slightly off." Add lots of little shortcomings like that together, and you get a final product that may not work very well, leading you to wonder what happened to your "Earth-shattering kaboom" when you try to light the candle.

Even worse, the nuclear workforce is getting older, meaning there are fewer and fewer people with actual hands-on nuke experience. Before long, it will just be folks who have hand-me-down lore from past generations, a pile of manuals, and ancient pieces of machinery that need to be very reliable.

Keep that up long enough, and the nuclear Mexican standoff will start to involve Russian roulette. Imagine a standoff in which all the participants are missing a round — it's almost identical to everyone having a fully loaded gun, and pulling the trigger is still likely to result in a _Reservoir Dogs_-like bloodbath. But what if your adversaries don't have a bullet in the chamber? Then the odds of getting away with something — or of you thinking you can get away with something, and behaving accordingly — start increasing.

This is absolutely terrifying for a bunch of reasons. Some of them involve complex game theory, but one straightforward reason is that over scales of decades, nuclear weapons are slowly but steadily dispersing. So instead of just two guys with their fingers on the trigger facing off against one another — the US and the Soviets — it's a bunch of guys endlessly asking themselves and anyone else within earshot how lucky they happen to be feeling. And sooner or later, someone is going to test his luck.

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One way of taking some of the guesswork out of the apocalypse would be to test a nuke and demonstrate that your warheads go Bang! when you hit the red button. But that's not allowed. The US and Russia basically put the kibosh on all nuclear testing back in 1992, just after the Cold War ended and we all agreed to live happily ever after. Since then, Pakistan and India have lit off a few nukes, and North Korea keeps thrashing around in the corner by itself, but none of the big-league nuke guys with global capabilities — America, Russia, France, China, and the UK — has tested one in decades.

Alternately, the US could make replacement nukes, but efforts to do that face stiff political opposition. The last attempt to address this — the aptly-named "Reliable Replacement Warhead" program — was nixed by the Obama administration in 2009 because building new nukes runs counter to the administration's stated goal of pursuing a nuclear-free world.

Perversely enough, the unreliability of the current warheads actually makes it harder to get rid of existing weapons. Dr. John Hamre, former Deputy Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton and current head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was just quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "We have the worst of all worlds: older weapons and large inventories that we are retaining because we are worried about their reliability."

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The long and short of it is that the current political climate in the US would generate a lot of pushback for any president who gave the go-ahead to test current warheads, make new replacement warheads, or test new those new replacement warheads. Anything that the US does with its nukes to make its deterrent more reliable — thereby decreasing the odds that the nukes would ever need to be used in anger — is going to generate a lot of political opposition in the US.

The longterm effect of the global stalemate on nuclear warheads is to reduce the reliability of deterrence. Granted, some folks believe that weakening deterrence has been augmented by a strengthening taboo surrounding the use of nuclear weapons. But the problem with relying on taboos is that they are ever-changing — and hardly universal. Plus, once a taboo has been sufficiently transgressed, it quickly becomes a historical curiosity.

And if we ever see an era in which "not using nuclear weapons" is a historical curiosity, people will be positively nostalgic for the good ol' Cold War days of living under the constant threat of total annihilation.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

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