WASHINGTON – Nuclear weapons are terror weapons, and basically unusable.
That’s one reason why no rational strategy, other than deterrence, has ever been developed to justify them. Events in the past week and a half make my case.
Recently the British government — in the midst of an austerity program that includes cutting education, health and retirement programs — announced contract awards of $595 million to begin design of replacements for its four nuclear submarines that carry Trident sub-launched ballistic missiles.
Currently, these submarines each have 16 missiles, each with three independently guided warheads whose power is roughly eight times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Based in Scotland, one is always on patrol.
Where are they aimed? The British once had a “Moscow criterion,” enough nuclear warheads to wipe out the former Soviet Union’s capital or a similarly sized city. Since Britain got rid of its nuclear bombs in the 1990s, and the Cold War has ended, targeting has become more abstract.
Conservative Party Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said in a May 15 statement that the first nuclear sub contracts “symbolize an important step towards renewing our nation’s nuclear deterrent into the 2060s.” No mention of who would be deterred after 2060.
This is not the final word on the British nuclear program. The Conservative’s coalition partners, the Liberal-Democrats, have not signed up to the replacement program, which could cost upward of $31 billion to complete.
The Lib-Dem minister of state for the Armed Forces, Nick Harvey, has been reviewing alternatives and is set to present a report to Prime Minister David Cameron by year’s end. There’s talk of a less-ambitious program involving nuclear cruise missiles and newer attack submarines.
Plans, however, indicate that the British government won’t make a final program decision until 2016, a year after parliamentary elections. But modernization of its nuclear force will start by 2028.
Britain is not the only country modernizing. The United States has a multi-billion-dollar program to upgrade its three major nuclear warheads and a more costly effort to build new land, sea and air strategic delivery systems.
France is modernizing its nuclear bombs and missiles as well as its strategic submarine, though it is reducing numbers.
Russia and China are modernizing, too. It is ironic that these five countries meeting in Baghdad to dissuade Iran from moving toward a nuclear weapon are all modernizing their stockpiles.
Meanwhile, on Sunday in Chicago, NATO had its say on nuclear weapons in the results of its year-long review of its deterrence and defense posture. The document notes, “The circumstances in which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely remote.”
It added that the allies “will ensure that all components of NATO’s nuclear deterrent remain safe, secure, and effective.” Safe and secure has been an issue since 2010 when demonstrators broke into a Belgium nuclear weapons storage site.
There also is movement within the alliance to rethink U.S. weapons in Europe. Germany plans to retire its nuclear-capable fighter bombers next year, and the replacements will not have that capability, taking that country’s air force out of the mix. One of the largest storage sites for some 50 or more U.S. B61 tactical nuclear bombs is at a Turkish air base. Turkey no longer permits U.S. aircraft there, but the nuclear bombs remain.
What are the targets? There could be a bulls-eye on Iran, but overall it seems that Russia is the only one around.
In Washington, the administration and Congress are in the midst of dealing with the life extension plan for the B61s, which make up the 200 or so nuclear bombs assigned to NATO and based in four European countries as well as Turkey.
The modernization program has run into technical and financial problems. Three basic models, two strategic, are to be compressed into one bomb, with added safety and security elements. In addition, its accuracy is to be increased. Meanwhile, the cost has grown to $4 billion and may go higher.
Complicating matters is that congressional committees with authority over the B61 program have taken different positions on the administration plan to slow down the B61 program two years by spending just $369 million next year.
The House recently, following the lead of its Armed Services Committee, raised the program’s budget to $435 million in the fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill. That will keep the program on its original schedule.
Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee reduced the request by $30 million because of the program’s problems and said the money could not be spent until there is an established cost baseline and schedule.
As I said at the start, there is little rational when it comes to nuclear weapons.
Walter Pincus is a national security journalist for The Washington Post.