Why should we modernize annihilation?

August 10, 2016

The proposal for "nuclear modernization" will only increase the possibility of nuclear war and decrease the resources devoted to meeting human need, explains Steve Leigh.

HUMANITY FACES many extreme crises--climate change, deepening inequality, racism, sexism, LGBTQ oppression and, of course, war. These crises are interrelated and find their roots in a system devoted to profit at the expense of human need.

But one aspect of the crisis continues with little notice in most cases: the threat of a nuclear war that will annihilate the planet.

At the end of the Cold War with the former USSR, politicians talked about a "peace dividend"--meaning that if the U.S. government's decades-long arms race with its Soviet rivals was indeed over, then it could could decrease military spending and fund social services instead.

But this never happened. The perpetual military competition between world powers may have changed form, but it still continued. Defense budgets never dropped, but instead increased.

The continuing military competition is, in part, a nuclear arms race. Both the U.S. and Russia have enough nuclear capacity to destroy human life on the planet several times over. Calling it "overkill" is no exaggeration.

President Obama
President Obama (Bill Ingalls)

But today, there are even more nuclear powers, including another of the U.S.'s main rivals, China. When these countries' leaders jockey for position and ramp up conflicts that can break out in proxy wars and even direct warfare, nuclear weapons are part of the backdrop, even when they aren't used.

PRESIDENT BARACK Obama has claimed that he wants a world free of nuclear weapons. But so have previous U.S. presidents, dating back to the Republican Ronald Reagan.

Robert Scher, an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Capabilities, explained Obama's approach to nuclear disarmament, pointing out that the president "has consistently included two key pillars: working toward a world without nuclear weapons, and maintaining effective deterrence along the way."

Because world nuclear disarmament is not assured, Scher said, "We must proceed with modernized replacements to maintain our nuclear deterrent for us and our allies."

But while Obama has pursued disarmament in rhetoric, he has put forward a plan for "nuclear modernization" in practice. The basic idea of nuclear modernization is that in order to be a credible deterrent, the nukes must be known to be fully functional. This requires testing, updating and replacement.

In large part, this is an extension of what was known during the Cold War as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD--neither side would attack the other with nuclear weapons because each knew the other could respond with a potentially annihilating blow.

MAD was aptly named--and it is just as mad today as it was during the Cold War.

Obviously the goal of pursuing the arms race while trying to eliminate all nuclear weapons is completely contradictory. Each side's "modernization" only fuels more military spending on the other side. The logic of competition trumps the goal of disarmament.

Talking about disarmament is good election-year sloganeering, just like waxing on about good-paying jobs, measures to stop climate change and defending the middle class--but the real policies of profit maximization, austerity and power projection continue year in and out.

Besides the danger of direct military competition leading to nuclear war, there is the ever-present possibility of accidents causing a nuclear conflict. Throughout the Cold War and since, there have been many times when blips on the radar were at first seen as incoming missiles, almost leading to an unplanned launch.

Even supporters of some aspects of nuclear modernization fear that the policy could lead to war. "We're now at the precipice--maybe I should say the brink--of a new nuclear arms race," Bill Clinton's former Defense Secretary William Perry said in December 2015. "This arms race will be at least as expensive as the arms race we had during the Cold War."

MUTUALLY ASSURED destruction is based on a triad of nuclear weapons delivery systems--bombers, ground-based missiles and missiles on submarines. Nuclear modernization envisions updating each leg of the triad--at great cost. Upgrading nuclear research laboratories and building new ones is also part of the plan.

For example, part of the plan is spending more than $13 billion on a replacement for the Trident submarine over five years--at nearly $2 billion a sub to be deployed starting in 2021.

One of the most frightening aspects of nuclear modernization is making the weapons more useable--and therefore more likely to be used. An example of this is an upgrade of the B61-12 nuclear bomb. As the Guardian noted last year:

In non-proliferation terms however the only thing worse than a useless bomb is a "usable" bomb. Apart from the stratospheric price, the most controversial element of the B61 upgrade is the replacement of the existing rigid tail with one that has moving fins that will make the bomb smarter and allow it to be guided more accurately to a target. Furthermore, the yield can be adjusted before launch, according to the target.

So behind the "nuclear modernization" proposal lurks the idea that perhaps nukes can be used without provoking a worldwide holocaust. The whole idea of nuclear weapons that can be used on the battlefield, such as "tactical" nuclear weapons, has long been a provocative element of the nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear modernization will make this threat even greater. Of course, the use of any nuclear weapon makes further use by the other side more likely--potentially leading to full-scale nuclear war.

According to media reports, Donald Trump asked at a national security briefing, "If we have nuclear weapons, why can't we use them?" While horrifying, his query isn't as far from the U.S. government's nuclear doctrine as Hillary Clinton supporters would like us to think.

The Obama administration's battlefield supplement to MAD is another example of insanity. Besides submarines and new types of bombs, nuclear modernization also anticipates new cruise missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and bombers. Nuke Watch New Mexico reported:

The Air Force has ordered 1,000-plus nuclear-capable advanced cruise missiles as part of the planned trillion-dollar modernization of U.S. nuclear weaponry. The missile is called the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, or LRSO, as it is intended to be launched from bombers up to a thousand miles from enemy borders.

NUCLEAR MODERNIZATION is a threat to human survival--but even short of nuclear war, it's a threat to any goal of more effectively meeting human need. More than 50 years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general, stated in a speech:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

This is as true today as it was when Eisenhower shocked people with his unexpected statement 50 years ago. In fact, the resources involved are many times greater. Nuclear modernization is expected to cost $350 billion to $450 billion over 20 years, according to Scher. Some critics put the likely cost at more than $1 trillion over three decades.

This is on top of the already bloated military budget. The U.S. spends more on its military than the next 10 powers combined--close to half of all world military spending.

Antiwar activists as well as anyone who supports more spending on education, health care, public infrastructure or environmental sanity should oppose nuclear modernization Enhancing U.S. military power, or that of any other imperialist power, makes us all less safe.

As long as economic competition reigns, so will military competition. Therefore as long as capitalism exists, there will be military spending and likely also nuclear weapons. The only effective disarmament will be when working people rise up and disarm and dismantle their governments and create their own democratic power to control the economy.

But we can also stand up to protest particular imperialist policies. The youth movement against the Vietnam War within the U.S. allied with the antiwar struggle of soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel and helped bring an end to the U.S. war in Vietname.

With enough organizing, we can derail some of the Pentagon's plans. Taking resources away from the military helps to make the world safer in the short run. It will also provide the possibility for more resources to be devoted to social and environmental needs.

Finally, calling for cutting money to the U.S. military helps strengthen international solidarity. Every serious antiwar movement weakens nationalism at home and also abroad by showing people in "enemy" lands that people in the U.S. don't support the war plans of their rulers. This makes people everywhere more likely to oppose the governments they live under.

We don't need to modernize nukes. We need to eliminate them.

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