Arms Race Redux?

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

At a time when the world’s attention is focused on terrorist bombings and beheadings, as well as the fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, little notice is being paid to a mini-revival of the superpowers’ nuclear arms race.

Five decades ago, that arms race led to Moscow and Washington spending billions on excessive production and deployment of thousands of nuclear weapons, many of which still remain today.

Now, Russia and the United States are reviving old, Cold War rhetoric about nuclear weapons at a time when both are in the middle of costly rebuilding programs for their aging nuclear arsenals and delivery systems.

That ridiculous Cold War competition was based on the number of weapons each nation had, rather than how powerful those weapons were or what would happen if they were ever used. Though today’s numbers are lower, the individual weapons are just as dangerous.

The U.S. and its NATO partners are reacting to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offensive steps in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, plus his saber rattling over the past three years, which has sometimes included implied threats to use nuclear weapons. Combined with Russia’s own nuclear weapons modernization program and Moscow’s testing of a new shorter-range, ground-launched cruise missile that could be nuclear capable, countries in Europe and Asia dependent on the U.S. nuclear umbrella have become overly nervous.

More than a year ago, the U.S. called the Russian missile tests a violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Since then U.S. officials have made it clear the U.S. response would not focus solely on treaty compliance. Last December, Defense Department Principal Deputy Undersecretary for Policy Brian McKeon told a House subcommittee, “We are developing a comprehensive response to Russian military actions and are committing to investments that we will make irrespective of Russia’s decision to return to compliance with the INF Treaty.

Two weeks ago, on February 9, Robert Scher, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Capabilities, told the Senate Arms Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, “We must be able to deter not only large-scale nuclear attacks – the predominant focus during the Cold War – but also limited nuclear attack and deliberate nuclear escalation by an adversary that might arise out of a conventional regional conflict.”

Behind these statements is the major U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program that is already underway and will cost when completed hundreds of billions of dollars. It was triggered – ironically – by promises the Obama administration had to make to get needed Senate Republican support for the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. The president agreed to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal in order to get a treaty that lowered the number of deployed warheads and delivery systems.

This long-term nuclear upgrade involves building for the Navy a new fleet of up to 12 intercontinental ballistic missile-carrying strategic submarines that will operate through 2080. For the Air Force, it will be a new penetrating bomber and probably a new, land-based ICBM. Upgrades are also underway for the B-2 stealth strategic bomber and the older B-52H heavy bombers.

In addition, development continues for a new, long-range, nuclear armed, stealth cruise missile that would permit a U.S. strategic bomber to remain hundreds of miles outside the range of an enemy’s air defense system and still hit its target. At the same time, the U.S. is refurbishing some 500 W80-4 nuclear warheads for this new stand-off missile.

For the Navy, there is continued refurbishment of more than 1,000 nuclear warheads for the Navy’s D-5 sub-launched, missile that will add another 30 years to their utility. In addition, work is completing on a new, more accurate guidance system.

Initial planning has started for a follow-on missile to the D5, so that it could be available for the new strategic submarines and last through the 2080s.

Finally, there is the costly Air Force B-61-12, the refurbished tactical nuclear bomb whose program to build more than 400 of them may cost over $10 billion before it’s finished. Over 100 of them, some with earth-penetrating warheads to hit hard, underground targets, and eventually would replace older B-61s now based in NATO countries in Europe.

Along with revival of Cold War rhetoric, there is the return of some old nuclear weapon deployment practices.

Russian heavy bombers have returned to flying occasional missions off the U.S. east coast and Alaska, while a few of Moscow’s strategic submarines have made patrols in past years. More concerning to Russia’s neighbors have been Russian military exercises that saw nuclear-capable missiles used in areas near the Black Sea and in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. 

At the height of the Cold War, American pilots, along with those of NATO allies, were on 15-minute, quick reaction alert (QRA) at air bases in countries along the borders of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations. That meant that 24/7 they were near their fighter/bombers that were already loaded with nuclear bombs, needing the weapons only to be armed before takeoff at such places as Incirlik Air Base in Turkey on Russia’s southern border.

At the February 9, Senate subcommittee hearing, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), chairman of the panel, noted that currently, fighter-bombers at NATO bases “are available for nuclear roles” but their “level of readiness is measured in weeks.” That would include Incirlik, though that base was not mentioned by the senator.

“Is this alert level adequate given that we now are seeing Russia has new nuclear capabilities and is flexing its muscles?” asked Sessions. Scher replied, “I think right now, honestly we are looking at that as an alliance,” noting he is chairing “the high level group in NATO that is charged with examining this.”

Gen. Robin Rand, head of Air Force Global Strike Command, chipped in at the subcommittee session saying in the 1980s he served as a QRA alert pilot at Incirlik and that the U.S. was already responding to Russia’s activities. Citing the increase in B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers sent on so-called “bomber assurance and deterrence missions” to Europe over the last two years, Rand said “We believe it does have a deterrent value or we wouldn’t do it.”

He added that the U.S. also “put continuously six B-52s operating out of Guam doing a continuous bomber presence” in the [China, North Korea] area, adding, “I think that has a very calming effect on both the Republic of Korea and Japan.”

Nuclear weapons, like it or not, are an important element of U.S. national security and are not going away.

It is one thing to pay lip service to the need for America to maintain its nuclear deterrent, which President Obama and today’s candidates for the White House regularly do. It’s totally different to understand the complexity of the issues related to nuclear weapons, the military as well as the foreign policy and domestic political ones.

The U.S. is spending only a tiny portion of its overall national security budget on these nuclear programs, but those billions require much more serious oversight from the White House, the Congress, and most of all, the public.

Remember, not only the Russians and Chinese are looking at the U.S. nuclear programs, so are the Pakistanis, Indians, North Koreans, Iranians, and even the South Koreans and Saudi Arabians. What the U.S. does at home has serious implications abroad.