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Trump Stumbles into the Nuclear ‘Missile Gap’

Nukes haven't stopped wars from breaking out for 75 years. Yet the administration is asking for $46 billion to build more.

Cover of 'Atomic War' comic book, 1952. (Ace Comics)

On Monday, President Trump delivered his $740.5 billion defense budget to Congress. A first pass on the pork reveals the usual suspects: $69 billion to fund ongoing wars, a few more KC-46 refueling tankers on order, the Navy gets a little less money, the Air Force a little more. What should catch the casual observer’s eye, however, is the increase in funding for nuclear weapons and research.

As reported by Reuters, “nuclear weapons modernization rose 18% compared to last year to $29 billion dollars.” These funds will upgrade current command-and-control and delivery systems, such as the Columbia class nuclear submarine, which will be replacing the Ohio class of boomer (read: nuclear launch-capable) subs.  There is also a $19.8 billion increase for the semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration which runs the country’s nuclear laboratories, like Los Alamos.

Additionally, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has been tasked with evaluating more defensive layers for the continental United States, and were granted $9.1 billion in the budget to “develop a prototype THAAD interceptor missile.” This budget would also “help fund the expansion of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, a network of radars, anti-ballistic missiles, and other equipment” in defense against Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM).

This wasn’t a complete surprise. The Trump administration withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in October 2018. Soon after, former defense secretary Jim Mattis unveiled an aggressive nuclear rearmament program that called for a $1.2 trillion modernization over the next 30 years. The last time America stocked up on nukes and delivery systems was when the USSR was an adversarial industrial superpower. And at a time of record deficits that will soon begin generating interest (interest on the debt in 2020 will amount to $480 billion), the frugal use of defense funds should be at the top of any administration’s list.

Is preparing for a possible 21st-century nuclear shootout a prudent use of taxpayer funds? Hardly. History has shown that after the destruction of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, there has been very little, if any, value in developing and deploying large numbers of nuclear weapons (or “Star Wars”-type defensive technology).

The Manhattan Project culminated in a weapon capable of such incredible destructive force that it defied imagination. So awesome was its power that the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, Richard Oppenheimer, upon witnessing the first detonation of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, quoted the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The atomic age had arrived, and there was no going back.

Following the successful detonation of a Soviet weapon in September 1949, the race was on. Fear is the most powerful form of persuasion: it tends to untether the reason of not only individuals but entire nations. In hindsight, the fear wasn’t totally unjustified. It was a dangerous, uncharted, unfamiliar, and patriotic time, and the goals of the USSR were indeed a clear and present danger to Western democracy and world peace.

In his excellent work House of War, James Carroll documents the complete and total detachment from reality this hysteria caused. In 1950, the United States possessed 300 nuclear weapons; by 1960, we had 18,000. Air Force General Curtis Lemay, the architect of the Tokyo B-29 firebombing campaign of March 1945, whipped Strategic Air Command into top shape, keeping one third of nuclear-capable bombers on 15-minute strip alert for missions to the Soviet Union. The infighting for resources at the DoD was so intense that in 1955, the Army chief of staff resigned in protest, claiming, not inaccurately, that all defense dollars were going to bombers. 

In addition to quantity, blast yield jumped by many orders, with the Soviets detonating a 58 megaton (a megaton is 1,000 times more powerful than a kiloton; for reference, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were 14 and 20 kilotons of equivalent TNT, respectively) Tsar Bomba in 1961. As the rocket age dawned, ground- and submarine-launched weapons entered the equation, capable of ranging the world over or attacking secretly from the sea. Many of these missiles featured Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles (MIRV), which in layman’s terms means putting several nuclear warheads onto one missile that then separate once at high altitude so each warhead can hit a different target.

But despite their power and the fear they engender, what policy objectives have they been able to achieve since their first use in 1945? In a contrarian and prophetic book that deals primarily with the rise of low intensity conflict, The Transformation of War, Israeli historian Martin Van Creveld examines the nuclear question. Before 1949, the Soviet Union did not possess a nuclear weapon, though this did not stop them from crushing Eastern Europe and dropping the Iron Curtain in the face of a nuclear-armed NATO. And once at parity with multiple, redundant delivery methods, those weapons’ use, even in a tactical scenario of an invasion of West Germany, was tantamount to global suicide, as encapsulated in the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction. 

America dared not use them against China in the Korean War, nor could we threaten the Chinese into submission during or after their civil war. Similarly, in Europe, we watched helplessly as Hungary was crushed in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Even in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, likely the closest to nuclear war the world has ever stood, John F. Kennedy’s security advisor, MacGeorge Bundy, said the chance of the president pushing the button was about “one in a hundred.” 

Nuclear weapons simply poured concrete into the large geographic and political fault lines that were left following World War II. There was caution, there were cracks and shifting, but there was no war or policy successes that could be attributed to possessing thousands of nuclear weapons. In other words, nukes kept the Cold War cold. The Soviet Union did not fight a single conventional military war after 1945. 

The absurdity of a nuclear exchange left no corner of American thinking untouched. The government created grainy, low-budget films encouraging American youth to “duck and cover,” and it was considered the patriotic duty of suburbanites to build bomb shelters in their backyards. At the war-fighting level many concepts were explored. Henry Kissinger suggested nuclear powers agree to not use bombs greater than 150 kilotons, or to strike only military targets. In the 1970s, Secretary of Defense Dr. James Schlesinger advocated using accurate, lower yield nukes in “surgical” or “decapitation” first strikes against the Soviet Union. Terms such as “pre-emptive strike,” “second strike,” and the “window of vulnerability” entered the lexicon of hypothetical nuclear war-fighting. 

The morbid nature of these “strategies” invariably led to comedy, most laughably in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 dark satire Dr. Strangelove, when General Jack D. Ripper famously quips, while gnawing a well-lit cigar, that he will not sit back and allow the communists to “sap and impurify all our precious bodily fluids.” Even the rosiest scenarios of a “clean” Soviet first strike against military targets estimated 20 million dead, even if, in the words of Creveld, “none of the two- to three-thousand odd Soviet warheads used in the attack missed its mark and landed, say, on a major city such as Chicago or Los Angeles.” Nuclear one-upping reached peak hilarity in 1983 when 60,000 nuclear devices were deployed.

Even against non-state and weak state actors, nuclear weapons as a policy tool have been useless in the hands of those who wield them. Great Britain, nuclear capable in 1952, was powerless to retain control of the Suez Canal in 1956. And China, gaining her bomb in 1964, was soundly defeated by the Vietnamese in 1979 and still remains without Formosa. America and the Soviet Union got their tastes of defeat in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Has India been able to achieve any meaningful policy goals through the threatened use of her nuclear weapons with regard to the disputed Kashmir? Israel, despite her unofficial possession of the weapon, could not stop Iraq’s attempts to build a reactor, which was then bombed by conventional Israeli planes in 1981. And whether or not Iran seeks a weapon, do Israel’s nukes deter it? As Creveld concludes, with no defense against them, the political impact of nuclear weapons has been small, because, simply put, “nobody has yet to come up with a convincing idea as to how a nuclear war could be fought without blowing up the world.” 

Even after serious reductions in nuclear arsenals, 14,000 nukes remain worldwide, 90 percent of which are shared between Russia and the United States. America possesses 14 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines, each capable of holding 24 Trident II Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM). Each Trident II can hold 8 W88 nuclear warheads, each yielding 475 kilotons, ranging over 4,000 miles, accurate to 90 meters. Again, the bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in the 20 kiloton range. Is this much firepower, capable of launching beneath the ocean and at a place of our choosing, not sufficient for deterrence and, heaven forbid, an actual nuclear attack? Do we really need to invest trillions more in nuclear weapons over the next decade? 

Some movies are worth watching twice and a select few are worth several reruns. But the original of this Cold War film was scary enough and had a relatively happy ending. Let’s not write a sequel—that is, of course, if we can find funding for our new film. 

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.

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