Scientists Voice Concern on Weapons and Personnel

Recent discoveries of fraud and cheating among U.S. nuclear personnel stand in stark contrast to the  Pentagon’s continued support for nuclear weapons programs and budgets. Why do we insist on keeping these obsolete weapons despite their fading utility? To get some answers, we reached out to our grantee, Stephen Young, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Here, he gives us the expert scoop on how and why the U.S. can get rid of the weapons we don’t need and take better care of the stockpile while it remains.

Ploughshares Fund: Why should the United States reduce its nuclear stockpile?

Stephen Young: Rather than an asset to national security, nuclear weapons—with their potential for theft and unauthorized or accidental use—have become a liability. The United States has reduced its nuclear arsenal substantially over the past 20 years—from 20,000 weapons to fewer than 5,000—but still has far more nuclear weapons than it needs. Even worse, the United States maintains much of its large arsenal in an outdated “launch-on-warning” posture that encourages Russia to follow suit, putting the very survival of the United States at risk.

The reality is, unlike during the Cold War, nuclear weapons play a limited role in U.S. security today. The most pressing threat to the United States no longer comes from a single large rival similarly armed with thousands of nuclear weapons, but from instability and terrorism—threats that nuclear weapons are particularly unsuited to address.

In that light, working with Russia to reduce each country’s nuclear stockpile will both limit the lingering threat of nuclear annihilation and help build the international cooperation that will be required to address the risk of nuclear materials or weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, as well as the potential threat from countries like North Korea.

PF: How many nuclear weapons does the United States really need to protect its security and adequately provide deterrence?

SY: There is no plausible threat that justifies maintaining more than a few hundred survivable nuclear weapons, and no reason to link the size of U.S. nuclear forces to those of any other country. As an immediate step, the United States should reduce its arsenal to no more than a total of 1,000 nuclear weapons—including deployed and reserve, strategic and tactical warheads.

PF: Who are the major players/institutions preventing further reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons? 

SY: Three factors or players are mainly responsible for the failure of the United States to further reduce its nuclear arsenal. The first is a small but relatively powerful faction of the U.S. military that clings to the Cold War-era roles these weapons play. They refuse to recognize that the world has changed, the threat has changed, and that the security of the United States is best served by continued significant reductions in its nuclear forces.

The second factor is the unfortunate combination of a Democratic president, Barack Obama, and partisan Republicans in Congress. Two Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, made massive, unilateral cuts in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and Congress broadly supported those efforts. But when President Obama even considers further cuts, he is attacked as someone seeking to weaken the United States. As a result, the Obama Administration has limited its efforts, fearful that further initiatives will be politically too painful to pursue, despite the security benefits such steps would yield.

And the third is Russia, where President Putin has refused to pursue further reductions—to around 1,000-1,100 deployed strategic warheads—that President Obama offered to negotiate in June 2013. While the United States should make reductions without Russian reciprocity, as discussed above, it would be politically far easier for Obama to do so if Russia agreed.

PF: What is your reaction to the recent discovery of fraud/cheating within the Air Force nuclear corps? From the perspective of the Union of Concerned Scientists, why is this particularly worrisome?

SY: Unfortunately, the historical record shows that these are far from the first problems involving nuclear launch officers. You can get a frightening account of that record in Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser. During the cold war, there may have been reasons to maintain the current 24-hour launch posture, even considering the risks it entails, but that is not longer the case.

The real lesson of these incidents is that the ICBM launch system—like all systems—is fallible.  And in this case, the results of a system failure could be catastrophic. By keeping missiles on high alert, we increase the risk that one will be launched by accident, without authorization, or in response to a false warning of an incoming attack, which could trigger attacks by Russia. Our posture also compels Russia to keep its own land-based missiles on high alert, creating the risk of accidental, unauthorized and mistaken launches of Russian missiles.

The launch of even a single Russian or U.S. missile at the other country would be a catastrophe beyond imagination. The probability of such an attack is very small, but the overall risk—the probability multiplied by the magnitude of the destruction—is still too high.

PF: Do we need systemic change within the institutions, or is the only solution to the risks associated with nuclear weapons to get rid of them?

SY: In the long run, the only solution is to eliminate nuclear weapons entirely. Verifiably achieving that goal is undeniably in the U.S. and global interest. Unfortunately, there is little chance of reaching that point in the near term. There are, however, concrete and immediate steps that the United States should take to reduce the likelihood of an accident in the meantime.

One is to de-alert U.S. ground-based nuclear-armed missiles and to encourage Russia to follow suit. The administration could take this step at any time.

Supporters of the current U.S. alert posture argue that it provides a credible deterrent to a deliberate, bolt-from-the-blue Russian attack. However, an effective deterrent posture does not depend on a prompt response, but on an assured response. Moreover, such an alert posture is not justified in the post-Cold War security environment, where the probability of a mistaken, unauthorized or accidental launch is far greater than that of a deliberate Russian attack. De-alerting U.S. ICBMs will reduce overall security risks.