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Trump Quietly Promises Billions in New Nuke Contracts

Americans of a certain age remember things about their youth—Bert the Turtle and the ditty “Duck and Cover” (1951), Pat Frank’s apocalyptic novel Alas, Babylon (1959), and Sidney Lumet’s film Fail Safe, from Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s novel of the same name (1964 and 1962, respectively). “There was a Turtle by the name of Bert, and Bert the Turtle was very alert”; that song was whistled by kids like myself, ironically often at the same time we whistled the catchy tune from Peter and the Wolf, Sergei Prokofiev’s classic children’s story adapted by Walt Disney and very popular at the time.

My father, a career Air Force officer who spent the first part of his career with the fighter-interceptor squadrons of North American Air Defense Command, had borrowed Frank’s biblical reference in crafting his own nuclear war warning for my mother. It took me awhile to figure out what they were talking about, and when I finally did, it was terrifying. The delta-winged fighters that futilely chase down the errant nuclear-armed bombers in Fail Safe were identical to the F-106 Delta Darts my father’s squadrons flew to shield America from similarly armed Soviet bombers that probed our borders on a daily basis, and I was able to figure this out quickly the first time I saw the movie.

Nuclear Armageddon was a pervasive reality during the Cold War, and America had an arsenal and doctrine to make it a reality. Again, flashbacks from my childhood make it all-too real: F-100 fighter-bombers carried nuclear bombs on air-strip alert at an air base in Turkey. F-106 fighter-interceptors armed with nuclear “Genie” air-to-air missiles were on constant air patrol over the skies of Michigan. My father told my mother how he never wanted to be assigned to Strategic Air Command because the “Chrome Dome” mission was insane—packs of nuclear-armed B-52 bombers constantly in the air, flying towards the Soviet Union only to be called back on a routine basis.

Whether by accident or design—Cold War historians have differing accounts—over those years America perfected its nuclear Triad (the ground based missiles, manned bombers and missile-armed submarines that comprised its strategic nuclear force). Atlas missiles grew into Titans, which became the Minuteman and finally Peacekeeper. The first Atlas missiles carried a single W49 warhead possessing a yield of 1.44 megatons; the Peacekeeper carried ten 300-kiloton W87 warheads. (By way of comparison, the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had yields of 15 and 21 kilotons, respectively.)


The generals and politicians who controlled this arsenal were schooled in the art of global apocalyptic warfare, having fought and prevailed against fascism in the Second World War. Nuclear war wasn’t an abstraction to them, but reality—America was prepared to fight and win a nuclear exchange with the Soviet enemy, using doctrines with names such as “counterforce,” “first strike,” and “mutually assured destruction,” better known as MAD. Only when the absurdity of the MAD acronym sunk in did these leaders finally undertake to control the arsenal of Armageddon they had created. One of the first agreements reached between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (the anti-ballistic missile, or ABM Treaty) limited their respective defenses against nuclear missile attack, so that neither side would be lulled into a false sense of security and thus be tempted to do the unthinkable.

And yet, even as both American and Soviet leaders sought to limit their respective nuclear forces through negotiations, each side continuously modernized and improved their arsenals to increase the responsiveness, survivability—and ultimately, accuracy and lethality—of the very weapons both parties claimed they never wanted to use. Nuclear war was always a math problem: The first planners calculated that 400 nuclear bombs were all it would take to destroy the communist world. One can assume that the Soviets had similarly calculated that a like-number of their bombs was all they needed to destroy western civilization as well. By the 1970s, each side possessed an arsenal of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the planet hundreds of times over.

Sometime in the 1980s a realization struck home. Confronted with the stark reality of the 1983 ABC television film, The Day After, and the buildup of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, whose speed and accuracy all but demanded a preemptive first strike by the other side, American and Soviet leaders began negotiating not simply limits on the numbers of nuclear weapons, but their reduction and eventual elimination. As a member of the first team of inspectors assigned to implement the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty inside the Soviet Union, I was part of this process. I came to that job from an assignment with a nuclear-capable artillery unit, where we trained to lob atomic-tipped shells toward an advancing Soviet host. The other inspectors and I turned to our new task with the kind of gallows humor only the recently reprieved can truly appreciate. When asked what he could see when looking into a Soviet missile launch canister, one American inspector spelled out “C-h-i-c-a-g-o,” and the first American film festival hosted by U.S. inspectors at a Soviet missile factory featured Stanley Kubrik’s Dr. Strangelove.

History, however, did not allow the Cold War to play itself out in normal fashion. At the very moment the U.S. and Soviet Union were making the greatest strides toward nuclear arms reduction, the Soviet Union simply disappeared. While the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist state in December 1991 was seen as a great victory for democracy and the free world, it was a disaster for arms control. One of the critical elements essential to the successful disarmament efforts of the 1980s was a sense of equality, that the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons had reciprocal value to both parties. When, in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States emerged as the sole remaining superpower, this sense of reciprocity disappeared, and with it the sense of urgency that had once existed regarding the elimination of nuclear weapons.

American politicians from both political parties can point to the efforts that have been made since the end of the Cold War to reduce America’s nuclear arsenal and limit the risk of nuclear warfare: the reduction of the number of land-based missiles from 1,100 to 400, and a similar reduction in the numbers of submarine-launched missiles and manned bombers. The fact remains, however, that while our nuclear weapons are no longer automatically targeted at cities and installations inside Russia, we still maintain a nuclear Triad whose very premise is built on a Cold War doctrine of survivability—we can ride out any preemptive nuclear attack delivered by any enemy, and deliver a nation-killing response. This is the heart of the notion of “nuclear deterrence” that has dominated strategic thinking since the dawn of the nuclear age: We will destroy you if you attack us, so don’t think of attacking us.

The inescapable logic of “nuclear deterrence” is that its proponents can point to decades of nuclear-free conflict as a means of sustaining both its logic and success. It doesn’t matter that, at one time, the fallacy of “nuclear deterrence” had been exposed as a false dream, that when two parties are in a race to develop newer and more lethal forms of nuclear weapons delivery, at some point these weapons will stop being seen as a force for deterrence and actually become the weapon of choice in eliminating a threat so pervasive it cannot be allowed to continue. This was the lesson of the push for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s, born as it was from decades of living under the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. When the end of life on earth as we know it was a visceral reality, disarmament was seen as a logical option.

Not so today. America’s collective nuclear amnesia has led to the lessons of the past having been largely forgotten. Our military and political leaders have not been schooled by global wars of destruction where hundreds of millions died, but rather minor battlefields where the death toll, while tragic, numbers in the thousands and tens of thousands. We have become accustomed to a war of precision strikes, where threats can be largely dealt with by remote control, either through a drone-delivered missile or a satellite-guided bomb dropped from 30,000 feet. American bodies come home singly or in small groups, enough to remind us of the cost of conflict, but not enough to be painful for anyone but the immediate family and friends of the deceased. The Civil Defense movement has morphed into Emergency Preparedness that is more focused on Mother Nature than nuclear Armageddon.

The Trump administration has just announced that it is moving ahead with an Obama-era plan to modernize America’s nuclear arsenal [1], sprucing up the nuclear Triad with a new fleet of land-based missiles, missile-carrying submarines, and air-delivered nuclear weapons that will cost the American taxpayer well over $1 trillion in the coming years. The ostensible purpose behind this modernization effort is to maintain America’s nuclear deterrence capability for decades to come. The harsh reality, however, is that through this nuclear upgrade, America is simply repeating the mistakes of the past, building weapons whose precision and speed will trigger a new arms race with Russia and China as they seek to match this new American capability with weapons designed to sustain their version of nuclear deterrence.  

Mutually assured destruction (MAD), once relegated to the trash bin of history, has had new life breathed into it. This time there is no foundation of arms control in place to limit the insanity—the ABM treaty is a thing of the past, and America today hides behind the false promise of a missile-defense shield that has questionable utility against a North Korean madman armed with a handful of missiles, let alone a Russian or Chinese military armed with hundreds. Disarmament talks with Russia—once a hallmark of the Trump foreign-policy vision—are stillborn in the face of allegations of election meddling from Moscow.  

American tanks patrol the Polish frontier opposite their Russian counterparts, while U.S. and Russian warplanes share the skies over Syria, and play cat and mouse over the Baltics. Into this volatile mix, President Trump now wants to deploy a new generation of nuclear weapons that any enemy possessing a modicum of strategic insight would have no choice but to view as possessing genuine first-strike capability. Given the enhanced performance of these weapons, there will be no “fail safe” mechanism to limit the scope and scale of inadvertent use. There won’t be time for military officers to call home with a furtive warning of impending doom, and “Bert the Turtles” lyrical admonitions to “duck and cover” will be rendered meaningless to a population who has long ago forgotten what it was like to live under the threat of imminent nuclear holocaust. Today Americans are unable or perhaps unwilling to hold their elected leaders responsible as they play nuclear Russian roulette—a game as avoidable as it is insane.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.  He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War (Clarity Press, 2017).

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Trump Quietly Promises Billions in New Nuke Contracts"

#1 Comment By James Hartwick On August 31, 2017 @ 10:03 pm

Great article. But what is this about?
It doesn’t matter that, at one time, the fallacy of “nuclear deterrence” had been exposed as a false dream, that when two parties are in a race to develop newer and more lethal forms of nuclear weapons delivery, at some point these weapons will stop being seen as a force for deterrence and actually become the weapon of choice in eliminating a threat so pervasive it cannot be allowed to continue.
Is this saying that our nuclear weapons will stop being a force for deterrence (against Russia/China?) and become the weapon of choice in eliminating a threat (North Korea?)? Deterrence against whom? Eliminate whom? Are we now tempted to eliminate the enemy we used to deter? I don’t think anybody thinks we can eliminate Russia.

In some sense, I’m glad that missile defense seems like a pipe dream, because if we really had it then that would destabilize our relations with Russia and China. If they think that we’re about to become invulnerable, they might be tempted to strike before missile defense is operational.

But, as crazy as it seems, MAD worked. The fact that both the USA and USSR had second-strike capability helped stabilize the situation.

#2 Comment By Chris Chuba On September 1, 2017 @ 9:32 am

A limited nuclear arms modernization would be reasonable were it not combined with aggressive ABM systems being installed on Russia’s border.

The Neocon loons want nuclear primacy. This is destabilizing.

#3 Comment By MEOW On September 1, 2017 @ 10:12 am

How do we stop our so called indispensable ally (Israel) from getting this new technology? Their wish seems our command.

#4 Comment By Cratylus On September 1, 2017 @ 10:33 am

The headline is misleading – at best. And the article does not get to the truth until late in the game.
This program was initiated and begun under Obama – it was his brain child as this piece – eventually – makes clear.

The NYT article to which this piece refers is even worse. It is a masterpiece of obfuscation – again treating the initiation of the program by Obama in a confusing fashion and even suggesting totally gratuitously that Hillary would have cut the program!!! Has Hillary ever been less hawkish than Obama?

The main point of the article that we are looking into the face of Armageddon is fine – but let us not blame Trump for what Obama did. Obama is to blame for starting it and Trump should not be continuing it. At least Trump has tried for Detente 2.0 with Russia something Obama would never countenance. Let us criticize this nuclear buildup.
But let us also do what we can to help Trump reach the goal of Detente 2.0.

#5 Comment By Johann On September 1, 2017 @ 11:00 am

I admire Scott Ridder and appreciate his articles. On this article however its important to point out that the major purpose of the modernization of the nuclear weapons complex is for safety, reliability, and reduced operational costs. The current complex is massive, antiquated and old. It should be consolidated and downsized dramatically. With today’s nuclear safety standards, it will be very very costly to do. It requires the decontamination, decommissioning, cleanup and disposal of the existing dinosaur facilities and the construction of the new modern facilities.

#6 Comment By Michael Kenny On September 1, 2017 @ 11:12 am

Let’s bring this to the practical level. Why would Russia launch a nuclear attack on the US? Because Putin’s back is to the wall? That might have been true of the ideologically-based Soviet Union but hardly of a regime based on pragmatic power politics and political corruption. Putin and the people behind him want to keep their power and, more importantly, their ill-gotten wealth. I don’t see how launching a nuclear attack on the US would advance that agenda. Quite the contrary, indeed. A US attack across the Arctic on Russia’s oil and mineral resources, whether conventional or nuclear, would destroy the very source of that ill-gotten wealth. Why would Putin and his cronies be so stupid as to kill the goose that’s laying the golden egg? If their backs were to the wall, Putin & Co would most likely cut a deal with the US which, if it didn’t allow them to remain in power, would at least allow them to retire quietly with their wealth intact.
Secondly, if Putin wanted to attack the US, what target would he choose? A city? What military value would that have? I can’t imagine that if Putin “nuked” a US city, Americans would drop down on their knees and beg for mercy! Quite the contrary, I would think! Putin would have stirred up a hornet’s nest and the hornets would then go after him! Moreover, what advantage would there be to releasing all that radiation into the atmosphere and making a huge zone around the target area uninhabitable for the next 500 years? That would be a pyrrhic victory if ever there was one!
Thirdly, if Putin gave the order to launch a nuclear weapon, would he be obeyed? Why would Russian soldiers risk bringing down nuclear retaliation on the heads of their own families? Russian troops mutinied in 1917 against fighting a useless war while their families starved at home. Why would things be different now?
Putin won’t order a nuclear first strike against the US. Why? Because he’s not that stupid!

#7 Comment By Peter Palms On September 1, 2017 @ 12:51 pm


#8 Comment By Peter Palms On September 1, 2017 @ 12:52 pm


#9 Comment By JK On September 1, 2017 @ 2:55 pm

I agree with Johann. Nuclear weapon modernization is hype. There’s nothing these weapons can do that they don’t already do. There’s nothing to improve except maybe upgrading the electronics to the latest nanoscale fabrication techniques.

#10 Comment By Russell Seitz On September 1, 2017 @ 6:50 pm

“Confronted with the stark reality of the 1983 ABC television film, The Day After,”

Stark, yes but even more starkly propagandistic- Burgess Meredith was one of Carl Sagan’s sidekicks in the extended CND & Pugwash campaign to scare Nato into unilateral nuclear disarmament at the height of the Warsaw Pact’s conventional power.

Lest anyone forget, [4]


#11 Comment By generals_03 On September 1, 2017 @ 6:57 pm

This article makes no mention of Russia’s decade-long nuclear modernization. They have developed, tested and operationally deployed new ICBMs, SLBMs, and hyper velocity cruise missiles. They have also modernized their air defenses, including the S400, which can defeat many current US systems. Leaving out this information undermines his premise, which is the current system is ‘stable’ and current US actions are the cause of alleged instability. Sloppy at best, but more likely just dishonesty from someone who has become a Russian troll. Scott Ritter has become an intensely ideological commentator who ignores counter evidence and praises our worst adversaries. Note the title of his new book, praising the Iran nuclear deal. I’m embarrassed the American Conservative runs these sorts of weakly constructed articles. This used to be a good magazine for foreign policy realists.

#12 Comment By ScottA On September 1, 2017 @ 9:39 pm

Maybe we should instead pay off the $1 trillion in debt we owe China?

#13 Comment By chris chuba On September 2, 2017 @ 7:15 am

Some here are too sanguine about this issue.
1. The Russians started it…
a) We have been investing $8 – 10B a yr in ABM systems since the GWB Administration, during the Obama years this continued. The Russians have to keep ahead of our technology.
b) The Russian nuclear force deteriorated greatly in the 90’s, their nuclear sub fleet was close to non-operational. There recent investment is catch up.

2. ‘Putin’s ill-gotten wealth’.
I agree that the Russians are unlikely to do a first strike but the belief that Putin is somehow an illegitimate crook and not a real ruler is dangerous. Neocons in this country believe that they can push the limits on the Russian frontier precisely because they think the leadership is selfish and not nationalistic. This escalates the possibility of a conventional conflict. I am more worried about us launching a first strike after we get a bloody nose because we think we have nuclear primacy.

3. The danger of a nuclear arms build up that includes new destabilizing weapons is dangerous because the larger the arsenal, the shorter the reaction time, the greater the chance of mishap. It really is as simple as that. Neocons in the U.S. would even like a new arms race thinking that they can bankrupt Russia again and this would lead to a large nuclear arsenal, not just a refurbished one.

#14 Comment By Vaclav Zak On September 2, 2017 @ 8:44 am

I am really a bit astonished to read the discussion. I am from Czech Republic former Soviet block a dissident, never a communist, admirer of US democracy. But it is alas clear to me, that this mess was created by the US neoconservative policy, not Putin. Russia is too weak to deal cards in the new geostrategic game.After the “roaring nineties” and tragic downfall of Russia in poverty, Russians ceased to believe the West. As many American experts warned the NATO expansion to the East and cancelling the ABM treaty was taken by Russian public opinion as a threat. The crisis was started in 2008 by NATO decision to include Georgia and Ukraine. Georgian president Saakashvili bet that GWB will not dare to refuse supporting him if he will attack South Ossetia and force it to return to Gruzia. Putin saw it as a moral hazard resulting from hostile US policy. From that time on Russia started to invest to its military force and Russia and West got on a conflict course. Professor Stephen Walt describes the crisis in Ukraine very well in his article in the Foreign Policy.
And I woul like to point on the Article in 2206-3 number of Foreing Affairs about the American nuclear primacy.
Russia speak about nukes only to make clear that any conventional attack on Russian soil because NATO is many times stronger in conventional arms will be stopped at all costs even by using nuclear arms. Putin hardly has any incentive to attack the US by ICBMs

#15 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 2, 2017 @ 3:39 pm

Our country has gone crazy in so many ways, that such mad folk launching nukes if they feel “triggered” enough, by their imaginary mental dysfunctions, has to be at some level of calculation taken seriously in saner lands. Certainly, it is clear that American leadership regards American ascendancy and dominance, by law and financial control to be operative over every other place on the globe. We used to call such behavior that of power mad dictatorsr who wished to rule the world, with fiction always having these villains brandish nuclear devices in order to subjugate and threaten. Tell me how out of control and unaccountable to the billions who will perish in their conflagration they have become. I guess we ought to take solace in the prophecies that at least we won’t perish by flood, but the firestorms of nuclear conflagration.

#16 Comment By SteveK9 On September 3, 2017 @ 11:55 am

The real danger is a mistake, or the mistaken idea by America’s War party, that we can launch a first strike and survive (… we can’t).

#17 Comment By Michael Henderson On September 3, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

Johan; I believe you are on the mark; I am a Marine retired, and I think that what we are talking about is updating; as I understand issues now, the Nuclear Control situation is degrading; software is untenable(floppy disc?) and have needed to be addressed for years; one more shining example of our leadership kicking the can down the road; this will not stop, and we all need to pray;

#18 Comment By Greg On September 5, 2017 @ 1:45 am

Scott Ritter is, in my opinion, an American Hero. He is honest and writes in a way people can understand.

#19 Comment By Mabel Johnson On September 5, 2017 @ 8:11 am

Really, this is absurd. How many nukes do you actually need? Spend that money on the peoples needs not bomb makers.

#20 Comment By rick On September 5, 2017 @ 10:12 am

Yes, it’s Obama’s fault that Trump is continuing his stupidity.

#21 Comment By Systemic Fraud On September 5, 2017 @ 10:21 am

Lost in all the Billions spent will be the NUCLEAR WASTE–much of it still left over from the original Cold War.

1. Hanford site in Washington State had an emergency last May after a radiation leak in Tunnel 1, which was built in 1963. Tunnel 1 was meant as a temporary storage and had an expected life of 20 years; meaning that by 1983 the nuclear waste would be moved into a more permanent and safer storgage area . The site has been continuously behind schedule–the clean up has really not even begun (eventually the nuclear waste is supposed to be sent for permanent burial to a yet unbuilt site in Nevada). [5]

2. WIPP Nuclear Waste Repository in New Mexico–was forced to shut down for 3 years after a radiation release (re-opened January 2017). [6]

3. Savannah River (South Carolina) MOX site…Billions spent, not even close to being finished… [7]


So what exactly is an “American Conservative” at this point?

Does a $20 Trillion U.S. debt sound “conservative” to you?

Is a Trillion Dollar A Year national security sector with NO AUDIT something “American Conservatives” are proud of?

#22 Comment By mike crowley On September 5, 2017 @ 7:27 pm

Gads, the continual cross party blames as though a permanent blame may surface anything meaningful. Dali Lama famous quote: “if you blame you will suffer”. One take;
blaming locks though into a limited circularity that find intelligence dialogue almost impossible. More nukes, updated nukes, better nukes and the resources of meaning are gone.
No wonder why its looking insane. The diabolical grins on the N Korean faces out of a really low budget cartoon strip
is our ‘reality’. Isn’t it time for one of those graphs showing the destruction, fallout, suffering of one bomb…sure and we really need 100 more or our 1000 currently made slicker, that will scare the nutcase’s silent. Look if congress
isn’t going to be responsible its going to be really interesting and isn’t that just the bottomline anyway?
Crossing levels a little; the given to congress to create regarding the dreamers is a keynote weather they even know anything about serving all legislation. They can write the dreamers in and we should be about yes-ing that responsibility.

#23 Comment By Brian Villanueva On September 9, 2017 @ 9:45 pm

Read a book called Canticle for Leibowitz.

Mutually assured destruction, given enough time, is simply assured destruction.