There’s a lot to be said for the results of this year’s Nuclear Posture Review: a sizeable reduction in nuclear stockpiles has been agreed to (though not yet ratified by their respective states) by Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dimitri Medvedev; it clarifies a U.S. position against attacking non-nuclear countries; and it increases the pressure on states like Iran and North Korea to open up their nuclear policy to international scrutiny.
Good luck with all that. Because there is no part of this year’s review that emphasizes de-alerting-that is, taking our nation’s collective fingers off the trigger.
In a case where life didn’t imitate art, we never came up with a Doomsday device a la Dr. Strangelove. But what we have done is set up a large network of missile silos, strategically positioned, with underground bases that are ready at a moment’s notice to fire missiles with nuclear warheads.
Well, not quite a moment. Maybe a minute. To prevent “debilitating” nuclear attacks, high-alert nuclear scenarios were constructed and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles are ready within 30 minutes to launch. Many can be ordered and launched in under 15 minutes.
Far more quickly than “Wing Attack Plan R.”
And so while this scenario hasn’t come to pass in anything other than morbid (and often morbidly humorous) fiction, the United States and Russia are still at a Cold War high-alert stance including just about 2,200 combined nuclear warheads. Most of them are strategic, unlike the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but even after that number is cut by a third, the combined power of all those nuclear warheads is about 700 megatons.
For a sense of scale, the bombing of Hiroshima was a 13 kiloton blast (affectionately named “Little Boy”), which is less than one-seventieth the destructive power of a megaton. And for a sense of what that might create, it’s been estimated that a nuclear standoff between Pakistan and India would create a nuclear winter-esque scenario if only 50 Little Boy-sized bombs were dropped on urban areas.
By extrapolation, nuclear winter would occur if only a three or four (give or take, since a hypothesized nuclear winter is mostly generated by ejecta from the blast coming from the ground, not the explosion itself) ICBMs released by the current high alert systems in place in the United States and Russia.
So much for decommissioning. How about get off the pot?
The trouble is, if we decide, ‘Okay, our finger’s not on the button,’ then what’s the use of the warheads? Well, no use, obviously. But someone’s got to sit around and guard these things. Stories of stumbling onto nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union in unlocked sheds located in the middle of nowhere (an actual locale in Russia) may be apocryphal, but the fact is that someone has to pay attention to these massive albatrosses until they don’t exist anymore.
And so the prospect of de-alerting doesn’t even make sense on a budget cutting level. So if you got rid of the guys in the missile silo. Then who would protect the silo?
With political posturing from legislators who have been bought and sold by the military industrial complex (and the ones who are just looking for news coverage) who suggests this gradual decommissioning is bad for our country, this simply gets more complicated. When people like Obama, generations beyond me, say they may not see nuclear disarmament in their lifetimes couldn’t be understating the issue further. My grandchildren may not see it.
If they don’t see a nuclear winter first. Ooh. Spooky.