The Pentagon Wants More, Better Nuclear Weapons

Admiral Charles Richard, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM)—America’s military organization in charge of the nukes—went to Washington on Tuesday to ask the Senate for new nukes. 

“Sustainment and modernization of our nuclear forces…has transitioned from something we should do, to something we must do,” Richard said in a prepared statement ahead of his testimony.

Admiral Richard testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of a routine examination of Pentagon budgets. As the Commander of STRATCOM, Richard was mostly interested in pleading for more money for better nuclear weapons. According to Richard, Russia and China are so dangerous that America can’t afford to not replace its old nukes with new ones.

America’s nuclear weapons infrastructure is crumbling. Some of our intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) have been around since the 1970s. Much of the Command and Control systems that facilitate communication between America’s various nukes and warmachines runs on ancient computers. The Pentagon only got the system off of floppy disks in 2019.

According to Richard, there’s no margin of error in the Defense budget. “If we find out we were wrong, decision to divest or delay could take ten to fifteen years to recover and render the nation unable to respond to advancing threats,” he said. “Any decision to delay or defer recapitalization requires us to be absolutely sure, for the next 40 years, that we don’t need that capability to deter threats, many of which we can’t predict.”

“Peace is our profession,” is the motto of STRATCOM. It’s view of the world is very particular. In the logic of STRATCOM, America stops countries like Russia and China from ever using a nuke by keeping the entire planet under constant threat of nuclear annihilation. The idea that America might unleash nuclear hell is so horrifying—and, crucially, so possible—that China and Russia would never dare attack it with either conventional or nuclear weapons.

STRATCOM’s strategy relies on some dark assumptions about human nature. And in Richard’s written and oral testimony, he repeatedly hammered home the idea that China was a terrifying new nuclear threat. China is a country with, according to 2020 Pentagon estimates, is in the “low-200s” and maintains an unconditional “no-first use” nuclear policy.

America has a total of around 5,500 nuclear weapons. Around 1,700 of those are deployed, meaning they’re in missile silos, sitting ready to go on bombers, and are stored in submarines that travel the planet. America has deployed 1,500 more nukes than the Pentagon estimates China has total.

But Richard and others believe China is quietly building more and better nuclear weapons. Secret nukes it isn’t telling the world about. “These capabilities bring into question China’s stated ‘No First Use’ policy declaration and implied minimum deterrent strategy,” Richard said.

The world according to Richard and STRATCOM is a frightening place. It’s one where China is building its nuclear arsenal, North Korea has ICBMs pointed at the U.S., and Russia is developing devastating new nuclear weapons. Some of that is true, but much of it is the same kind of paranoia that’s fueled nuclear brinkmanship for generations. “I am expected to deter all countries all of the time,” Richard said during his hearing. “I think it’s important to remember that a lot of the quantities we’re talking about in these requirements were set when the threat level was actually much more benign than what we’re seeing now.”

According to the Federation of American Scientists  there were 70,300 nuclear weapons on the planet in 1986. Now it estimates there are 13,100. We’ve got far fewer nukes now than a generation ago, but the threat of these weapons will remain as long as people like Richard view nuclear war as a zero sum game with possible winners.

During his testimony, Richard said America needed better nukes to deter the modern threat of Russia and China. He even advocated for putting U.S. Air Force bombers in the air armed with nuclear bombs should America’s ICBM silos fall to ruin. 

America did that before. In the years after World War II, the U.S. maintained the credible threat of nuclear annihilation against its enemies by flying bombers in the air above the world 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. It was a disaster. The pilots, often strung out on amphetamine and working long shifts, lost nuclear weapons in various accidents.

One accident in 1966 saw the loss of 4 nuclear bombs. One burst open and released a radioactive cloud that irradiated Spanish farmland. Two years later, in 1968, a B-52 crashed in Greenland, lost a nuke, and irradiated the ice. It took years to clean up the radioactive material. This is the world Richard advocates returning to, should the U.S. be unwilling to spend billions to refurbish its aging nuclear weapons.

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