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Old thinking on old nukes

The publicized mishaps — they shouldn’t be called scandals — in recent years by Air Force and Navy personnel in charge of nuclear weapons give the White House and Congress a chance to rethink the U.S. deterrence mission before returning airmen to those buried missile silos or sending sailors off on new strategic submarine patrols.

On Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced plans to spend billions over the next five years to remedy what he called “systemic problems” in the U.S. nuclear deterrent. That consists of more than 2,000 land- and sub-launched missile warheads and bombs on hundreds of aging delivery systems. The United States also plans to modernize the delivery systems and warheads to keep them operational, safe and secure far into the future.

Hagel recited a mission statement developed for the Cold War 60 years ago: “Our nuclear triad deters nuclear attack on the United States and our allies and our partners, it prevents potential adversaries from trying to escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression, and it provides the means for effective response should deterrence fail.”

While the numbers have dropped significantly over the years, it’s past time to rethink how many delivery systems and warheads are needed.

Today, the Air Force and Navy personnel assigned to carry out the nation’s strategic nuclear mission see their greatest risk from inspections by Pentagon and congressional entities — not from a surprise nuclear attack. The inspection mania started in 2007, when an Air Force B-52 flew from North Dakota to Louisiana without the crew realizing that the plane was armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. Since, there have been almost annual failures, including weaknesses exposed during safety and security inspections, and cheating on proficiency tests.

Irrationality has been a hallmark of nuclear weapons planning since August 1945, when atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war with Japan but set off an arms race worldwide. It was never clear how these weapons would have been employed, but we were in an arms race with the Soviet Union and numbers counted — at least we thought so. By the 1990s, thanks to arms agreements with Moscow, most were deactivated.

Nonetheless, we and the Russians each still have those 2,000 operational nuclear warheads, most ready to launch within minutes but currently, by agreement, not aimed at any particular targets.

The most ridiculous element of the Cold War was the idea of a “first strike” by the Soviets on the United States. So we built more warheads. The Russians, fearing America’s capability for missile defense and aware of talk in Washington of a first strike, reacted by building more warheads of their own.

Today’s standoff is still based on all that first-strike idiocy.

Decades after the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told me about the night he explained to President John Kennedy that no one could forecast what would happen if one nuclear weapon was used, because the United States and the Soviet Union each had more than 100.

At that time, around 1995, McNamara said 500 U.S. nuclear warheads, adequately protected, would be enough for deterrence in a post-Cold War world.

He was right then and he’s right today.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post.


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