“In Deep Atrophy”: America’s Nukes — or Conservatives’ Brains?



Today “the Bomb” is only one of a number of existential threats. (Photo: Wikimedia)

While on vacation, the editor is re-running old posts that have retained their timeliness.

Nuclear weapons may be the one issue on which the goal posts haven’t been moved back for progressives. Usually, since the Reagan administration, with boosts from the Gingrich revolution and the Neocon takeover of the Bush administration, conservative construction crews have been uprooting them on a regular basis. They then proceed to replant them further and further from the end zone.

But, when it comes to nuclear weapons, both policy and public opinion have been listing to the left — or peace-ward — for decades. In fact, it wasn’t long after their use by the United States in World War II that nuclear weapons developed a bad rep. Soon, President John F. Kennedy helped secure the passage of the Partial Test Ban Treaty. Twenty years later, even Reagan himself displayed a visceral distaste for these instruments of extermination. President Obama simply resuscitated existing sentiment stifled by the Bush administration.

The net result is that virtually nobody calls for the use of nuclear weapons anymore, or even increasing our arsenal. Conservatives have been forced to content themselves with:

1. However successful an attempt to staunch the rush to disarmament — clinging to the principal of deterrence.

2. Missile defense systems (perhaps a surer source of defense contracts these days than nuclear weapons).

3. Warning that lowering standards on verification (that a state is in compliance with a treaty) renders said treaty worthless.

4. Replacement of aging nuclear warheads. Even though the administration and Congress killed the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, conservatives still call for modernization.

With the obstructionist measures we’ve all come to know and love from conservatives, Owen Graham of the right-wing Heritage Foundation writes (emphasis added):

On December 16 [2009], 41 U.S. Senators voiced their concerns and signed a letter saying they will oppose the new [START] treaty if it does not include specific plans for U.S. nuclear modernization. [Many] Americans likely believe that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is in top shape. … Unfortunately, the truth is that America’s nuclear infrastructure is rapidly aging, in deep atrophy, and struggling to maintain its reliability and effectiveness.

But, in December 2009, Arms Control Today reported on a panel of scientists known as JASON, which by now you may have heard about. It “found that the [l]ifetimes of [existing] nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence, according to an unclassified summary of the report.”

And with no nuclear tests either. In fact, “the report could also bolster efforts by the Obama administration to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). … ‘The burden of proof is now on CTBT skeptics,’“ said an official of the administration.

Even though some nuclear states, such as the United States, have failed to ratify the CTBT, its spirit is observed. Except, of course, for North Korea, no state has tested a nuclear weapon since 1998. Still, today nuclear weapons can be developed with the help of simulated testing.

But, wrote Yousaf Butt at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2008,

“Contrary to what proponents of untested new warheads assert, the more credible deterrent in the eyes of one’s adversary will always be the tested legacy weapons.”

By which he means existing bombs from the golden age of nuclear weapons when a megaton was a megaton. “On the other hand,” he added, “if the proposed new warheads are eventually tested, this will make it more difficult to stop other nations from doing the same.”

In other words if a state wished to develop a new warhead and make it as credible a deterrent as the “classic” nukes, it would have to open the Pandora box of nuclear testing to all. The final word from Butts: “Either way [developing] new but untested nuclear warheads is detrimental to U.S. security.”