What You Need to Know about U.S. Nuclear Weapons in Wartime

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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. [...] Read more

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OPINION — The Biden administration has made rational decisions on nuclear weapons in both policy – through the soon-to-be-release 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) – and in spending, as contained in the recently-released fiscal 2023 budget.

The anti-nuclear crowd will be unhappy that he has dropped the so-called “declaratory language” that Presidential Candidate Joe Biden campaigned on, which said, “the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal should be to deter—and, if necessary, retaliate against—a nuclear attack.”

Instead, the NPR says, “The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners. The United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners,” according to a summary released March 28.

That’s the same kind of ambiguous language adopted by earlier administrations and met the needs of European and other allies that are covered by the so-called U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Also troubling to the anti-nuclear group will be the Biden proposed fiscal 2023 budget. It sharply increases funding for facilities to produce so-called plutonium pits, the triggering element for new and refurbished thermonuclear weapons. Although the original goal had been production of 80 pits a year by 2030, the new, somewhat delayed goal is to hit that number “as close to 2030 as possible.”

The need for so many plutonium pits implies that the number of nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal will not be going down in the decades to come.

Meanwhile, proponents of more types of nuclear weapons will be unhappy that funds for Navy development of a new submarine-launched, nuclear cruise missile (SLCM-N) have been eliminated from next year’s budget along with money for continued refurbishment of the old, one-megaton B-83 bomb.

The SLCM-N, however, may not be dead.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing last Thursday, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) questioned Air Force General Tod Wolters, Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander, U.S. European Command, about the usefulness of the SLCM-N.

When Lamborn asked whether continuing development of the SLCM-N “would be his best military advice,” the General answered, “It would.”

I am sure there will be efforts made to revive the SLCM-N as the fiscal 2023 budget goes through Congress, and it certainly will have the support of STRATCOM Commander Adm. Charles Richard as Rep. Lamborn mentioned, during last week’s hearing.

At issue is the old nuclear numbers game. The Russians have upward of 1,400 tactical nuclear weapons in the form of low-yield missile warheads and artillery shells. And they are building more. The U.S. has hundreds of low-yield nuclear tactical bombs and air-launched cruise missiles available for use in Europe.

Lamborn got Gen.Wolters to say, with regard to the SLCM-N, “having multiple [nuclear] options exacerbates the challenge for the potential enemy against us.”

That notion ignores the fact that any Russian first use of a nuclear weapon will draw a U.S. response where total numbers would not count, but targets and yields of weapons would. Remember, they are terror weapons to end wars, not weapons to actually fight wars since no one knows what would happen after the first ones were used.

Lamborn was also unhappy with the Biden NPR because, as he said, “The declaratory language for the use of nuclear weapons has been narrowed…There’s no mention of deterring non-nuclear, strategic attacks or to achieve any other U.S. objectives.”

However, I doubt any serious effort will be made to change the NPR’s declaratory language.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons as a coercive tool during the run-up to, and actual invasion of Ukraine, may justify the increased spending the Biden administration is seeking for nuclear weapons despite the President’s commitment to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in defense policy.

As irrational and dangerous as they are, nuclear weapons are a permanent part of U.S. defense programs. To be honest, U.S. nuclear weapons are required as much for domestic politics as they are for realistic security concerns.

At the Defense Department, proposed fiscal 2023 spending for nuclear weapon delivery systems and operations of forces are put at $34.4 billion, up sharply from the $27.7 billion the Biden team sought for the current fiscal year.

That 2023 figure includes a variety of costs starting with those related to modernizing the Triad delivery systems — $6.3 billion for production of Columbia strategic submarines; $5 billion for ramping up production for the new B-21 strategic bomber; and $3.6 billion for development of the new ICBM, the so-called ground-based strategic deterrent. There is another $1 billion for the new Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) nuclear, air-launched cruise missile and $4.8 billion for upgrading nuclear command, control and communications.

Among the lesser, but needed items, is $70 million for developing aircraft to be aloft in the case of a nuclear attack against the U.S. called the Survivable Airborne Operations Center, it will replace the E-4B Nightwatch fleet of so-called Doomsday aircraft called the National Airborne Operational Center. 

Although fine print details of the fiscal 2023 budget are not yet available, the low-yield W-76-2 warheads apparently remain deployed atop D5 Trident sub-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (SLBMs) carried on some strategic submarines now on patrol. When he was President-elect, Biden called the W-76-2 warheads, a “bad idea” because he said their existence made the U.S. “more inclined to use them.”

During background briefings on the budget, a senior defense official said, there is “no change there,” when asked about the W-76-2.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency whose facilities develop and build the actual nuclear warheads, is to get $16.5 billion for weapons activities in fiscal 2023, up from the $15.9 billion Congress recently approved for the current fiscal year.

While the Pentagon is rebuilding nuclear delivery systems, NNSA is carrying modernization of a handful of nuclear weapons. Full-scale production is underway for the B61-12 tactical bomb, which will eventually replace four older versions. More than 100 B-61-12s will be deployed to NATO partner air bases in Europe. Also in production is a new version of the W-88, a powerful strategic warhead for the D5 Trident SLBM.

Also near production is a refurbished W-80-4, the warhead for the new air-launched cruise missile. A modified warhead for the new ICBM, the W-87-1, is in development and a totally new ICBM warhead, the W-93, is in feasibility study.

NNSA, in addition to the $16.5 billion for weapons activities, gets another $4.9 billion for other activities. Of that amount, $2.1 billion is for Navy nuclear propulsion work “that starts with reactor technology development and design, continuing through reactor operation and maintenance, and ending with final disposition of naval spent nuclear fuel,” according to budget documents.

Another $2.3 billion is for the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation (DNN) and the Nuclear Counterterrorism and Incident Response (NCTIR) programs that are central to the U.S. strategy to reduce global nuclear security risks.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has one other major program relative to the nuclear weapons that is run outside of NNSA. It’s called Defense Environmental Cleanup for which a whopping $6.9 billion is sought just for fiscal 2023.

The overall program, begun in 1989, is for cleaning up the last of 107 sites in 31 states that were used for nuclear weapons development, testing and related activities during the Manhattan Project (1942-1946) that created the atomic bomb, and the later Cold War period (1947-1991), which saw development of an entire family of thermonuclear weapons.

According to the DOE, this is “the largest environmental cleanup program in the world,” dealing with land “equal to the combined area of Rhode Island and Delaware.”

As of 2019, the program was responsible for the cleanup of 91 sites at a cost of $177 billion, according to a National Academies of Science report. According to DOE, it will take until 2070 or beyond, and another $377 billion or more, to clean up the remaining 16 sites.

And that still is not the end of the issues.

DOE also has a Legacy Management program that, after environmental cleanup is completed, fulfills a post-closure obligation to reduce legacy pollution and protect human health. The program, for which $196 million is sought for next year, does continued surveillance of hazards at former sites and provides worker pensions and medical benefits to some 10,000 former DOE contractor personnel.

Both these programs should be publicized more because, in miniature, they show the problems and costs that would arise if nuclear weapons were ever used in wartime.

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Fine Print

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.

View all articles by Walter Pincus

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