Strategic weapons and space

Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space18 Jul 2006 04:15 pm

Michael Spies

Less than a week after the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning North Korea for test launching several ballistic missiles, the United States is set to launch an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The missile, carrying three dummy warheads, will be fired across the Pacific toward the missile test range at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, with a flight time of about 30 minutes.

According to the Santa Maria Times, the test scheduled for early Wednesday morning is intended to test the reliability and capability of the missile system. The United States currently deploys 500 Minuteman III missiles, kept on high alert and each carrying a single nuclear warhead with a yield, depending on the configuration, of 170 kT or 335 kT, respectively 10 or 20 times more powerful than the U.S. atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima.

This test is the latest in an ongoing series of regularly scheduled ballistic missile tests conducted by the U.S. military. In the period between January 2000 and the present, the U.S. has test launched at least 23 Minuteman III ICBMs from Vandenberg. The last test of a Minuteman III occurred on June 14th. Regarding the purpose of the test, Andrew Lichterman pointed out that according to the 30th Space Wing, the goal was to “provide key accuracy and reliability data for on-going and future modifications to the weapon system, which are key to improving the already impressive effectiveness of the Minuteman III force.” He further noted that “as this blog has documented, this is only one small part of a wide-ranging effort to develop the next generation of U.S. strategic weapons, with the intention of being able to strike targets anywhere on earth in hours or less.”

The ongoing conduct of these tests represents yet another example of U.S. exceptionalism; the U.S. feels no embarrassment in criticizing others for the same activities it or its allies engage in. For instance, days after the North Korean tests the Bush Administration “offered an unprecedented defense and rationalization of India’s missile test and nuclear programme” following India’s test launch of a nuclear capable Agni-III missile. The tests of such weapon systems is ill-timed following the international chorus of condemnation, partially led by the U.S., of the North Korean tests. In the regional context of the Korean Peninsula, given the heightened tensions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the U.S. test of a nuclear capable missile is unambiguously provocative. In the global context, the U.S. missile test is blatant hypocrisy, symptomatic of a dangerous foreign policy based on the imposition of discriminatory, self-serving norms backed by the threat and use of force.


Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space02 Jul 2006 08:11 pm

Andrew Lichterman

The headlines in recent weeks have been full of the latest “threat,” this time a possible missile test by North Korea. The Bush administration has filled the airways once again with bellicose rhetoric, ranging from the now-routine “all options are on the table” to threats to shoot the missile down with U.S. ballistic missile defense interceptors. As Jeff Lewis and Victoria Sampson argue persuasively in a series of posts at, the shoot-down talk is almost certainly an empty threat, intended only for consumption by those who know nothing about either ballistic missile defense or the likely trajectory of North Korean missile tests.

Not to be outdone, leading Democratic Party “national security” figures, including Clinton-era Defense Secretary William Perry, are suggesting a pre-emptive strike against the North Korean launch site, claiming that the outcome of this unvarnished act of aggression would be not only predictable but positive. The mainstream media and U.S. political elites seem permanently locked in a deadly symbiotic embrace: for the media, “if it bleeds it leads,” for the political elites, “if we kill it sells.” Or so it seems, more and more in this grim new American Century, where “diplomacy” seems to mean little more to those who wield American power than threatening force for a bit longer before using it.

The confrontation between the U.S. military behemoth and North Korea’s possible nuclear weapons and its still-theoretical long range missile capability works well enough, in any case, for the elites of both states, each growing progressively more isolated from the rest of the world, although in different ways. What each may fear most is their own growing irrelevance: North Korea to the world as a whole, the United States to East Asia, where convincing key states– such as Japan and South Korea–that it remains an “indispensable nation” is a critical element in slowing U.S. descent from the zenith of its power (now clearly in the rear-view mirror of the U.S. juggernaut, however much we may debate how many mileposts have passed since the peak). For North Korea, fueling up the missile (if that is what they actually are doing) gets the world’s attention by slapping the “rogue leader with nukes (maybe)” bargaining chip on the table once more, particularly with the U.S. government and its echo-chamber media playing the role of both predictable antagonist and massive message amplifier. Thomas Schelling, Henry Kissinger and company may have invented the “madman theory” of deterrence and diplomacy, but no one has gotten more mileage off less fuel with it than North Korea.

As for U.S. elites, the North Korean “threat,” particularly with the added fillip of an endless nuclear and missile crisis, is a good excuse for the U.S. to maintain its massive military presence in the region. It also is a major selling point for ballistic missile defense, both at home and abroad. Defenses against strategic missiles are an arms contractor’s dream: arcane, extremely expensive technology, for which there is a potentially unlimited demand, that is unlikely to be tested in any battle likely to be followed by rational debate over its success or failure. In this regard, the current round of North Korea missile-threat fear mongering may already have served its purpose. Last week the United States and Japan inked a pact for further cooperation on missile defense development, and this week Japan agreed to the deployment of Patriot 3 missiles, designed for defense against aircraft, cruise missiles, and shorter range missiles. While neither of these agreements may have been caused by the current North Korea missile test scare, they may provide useful political cover for the government of Japan, where increased cooperation with the U.S. military is controversial.


Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space& Divine Strake30 May 2006 10:06 pm


Behind the Western Shoshone flag, protesters move down the road towards the Nevada Test Site gate, May 28, 2006

Andrew Lichterman

Sunday, I was at the Nevada Test Site, speaking at a demonstration against Divine Strake, a high explosive test that will detonate 700 tons of high explosive to simulate the effects of a low-yield nuclear explosion. One of the main points of my talk there was that mainstream debate about U.S. weapons programs remains largely confined to how best to pursue military dominance in service of what really is a global empire. Whether either empire or the use of overwhelming violence to sustain it are acceptable remains well outside the realm of “reasonable” discussion.

Yesterday, Exhibit A for the narrowness of Beltway discourse appeared in the New York Times: an article about the proposal to put non-nuclear warheads on Trident submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs; see Michael Gordon, “Pentagon Seeks Nonnuclear Tip for Sub Missiles,The New York Times online, May 29, 2006) Much of the piece was devoted to the hyper-narrow debate in Congress, focused mainly on whether or not a non-nuclear SLBM launch might be mistaken for a nuclear attack on another nuclear weapons state (particularly Russia), resulting in a catastrophe for us (and really, who else do U.S. politicians care about, anyway?). The rest covered the barely broader perspectives offered by Washington arms controllers, some of whom apparently support the move to conventional strategic missiles, and some of whom do not. The most critical comment came from Steve Andreason, a former Nation Security Council staffer:

“‘Long-range ballistic missiles have never been used in combat in 50 years,’ Mr. Andreasen said. ‘Once the U.S. starts signaling that it views these missiles as no different than any other weapon, other nations will adopt the same logic.’” Gordon, “Pentagon Seeks Nonnuclear Tip for Sub Missiles.”

Bruce Blair, President of the World Security Institute and normally a sensible and insightful voice on arms control issues, offered views that were, if correctly reported, pretty disappointing. According to the Times, Blair described the development of highly accurate and destructive non-nuclear missiles with global reach as “a welcome trend toward substituting conventional weapons for nuclear systems, assuming that adequate safeguards can be worked out to avoid the risk of inadvertent nuclear confrontation.” The Times piece quoted Blair directly as saying

“‘They make a lot more sense than 14 subs loaded to the gills with nuclear-armed Trident missiles in this day and age.’” Gordon, “Pentagon Seeks Nonnuclear Tip for Sub Missiles.”

One can never know what someone really said to a reporter, or what the context was–reporters’ agendas frame the interview, and inevitably drive the choice of quotes. But to put it simply, anyone who thinks that its good for the U.S. to spend a single dime on new, more useable strategic weapons, whether nuclear or conventional, is not on the same side of the global struggle that I am. Further, under anything like the current distribution of wealth and power and with nuclear arsenals still numbering in the thousands, substituting a few highly accurate, destructive, and usable “conventional” missiles for nuclear ones will not reduce the nuclear danger. In the real world of a military industrial complex intertwined with thoroughly corrupt political and corporate elites firmly committed to global military dominance, we won’t get conventional strategic weapons instead of nuclear weapons. We will get dangerous numbers and varieties of both.


Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space& Social movements and protest& Divine Strake16 May 2006 09:41 pm


Nevada Test Site, August 6, 2005

Andrew Lichterman

On May 20th, there will be a demonstration at Vandenberg Air Force Base, near Lompoc, California. Vandenberg is a major test facility for U.S. nuclear missiles and other strategic weapons and a command center for U.S. military space operations. It plays a continuing role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coordinating the use of military space technologies to assist ground warfare, and likely will be used to test next-generation strategic weapons, both nuclear and conventional. It also is one of the two sites where mid-course ballistic missile interceptors have been deployed. For more information on Vandenberg Air Force Base, see the Western States Legal Foundation(WSLF) Information Brief, Vandenberg Air Force Base: Where the Present and Future of U.S. Warmaking Come Together. For updates and information on parking, car pools., etc. for the May 20th demonstration, visit the web site of the Vandenberg Peace Legal Defense Fund.

On May 28th, there will be a rally and demonstration against the Divine Strake weapons high explosive test at the Nevada Test Site. One of the main purposes of the Divine Strake test is to simulate the effects of low-yield nuclear weapons against underground structures. With strategic weapons research proceeding on a number of fronts ranging from the continued modernization of intercontinental ballistic missiles and research on next-generation missiles and bombers to refinement of plans for nuclear weapons use through experiments like Divine Strake, the United States is leading the world into another century of arms racing.

For more information on Divine Strake, see previous entries on this site; for a short overview see the Western States Legal Foundation Information Brief, The Divine Strake Nuclear Weapons Simulation: A Bad Signal at a Bad Time. For more on the role of the Nevada Test Site in weapons development past and present, see the joint WSLF/Nevada Desert Experience Information Bulletin, The Nevada Test Site: Desert Annex of the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories. For updates and logistical information about the May 28th Nevada Test Site event, check the Divine Strake pages at Citizen Alert, the Shundahai Network, and the Nevada Desert Experience.

I will be speaking at both of these events. If you are a reader and are at either event, I hope we get a chance to meet.

Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space& Divine Strake01 May 2006 02:52 pm

Andrew Lichterman

On a media tour of the Nevada Test Site tunnel complex where the Divine Strake test is slated to take place, a Defense Threat Reduction Agency official implicitly acknowledged that the test data likely will be used to study nuclear weapons effects. According to the Las Vegas Sun,

“The detonation could simulate ‘a number of weapon concepts,’ said Doug Bruder, director of the counter-weapons of mass destruction program for the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

‘It could be nuclear or advanced conventional,’ he said. ‘A charge of this size would be more related to a nuclear weapon.’” Launce Rake, “Test blast linked to nuke weapons,” Las Vegas Sun, April 28, 2006.

But Bruder also continued the DTRA non-denial denials apparently aimed at diverting attention from the nuclear weapons effects testing purposes of Divine Strake, emphasizing that the test “‘does not replicate any existing or planned nuclear weapon.’” id. Bruder noted, however, that

“‘There are some very hard targets out there and right now it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to defeat with current conventional weapons. Therefore there are some that would probably require nuclear weapons.’” Las Vegas Sun, “Test blast linked to nuke weapons,” April 28, 2006

According to the Las Vegas Sun piece, some or all of Bruder’s statements were caught on tape by CNN. So far as I have been able to determine, CNN Burder’s remarks did not make it into CNN’s broadcast coverage (see CNN transcript, “On the Story,” “U.S. Tests Non-Nuke Bombs in Nevada Desert,” aired April 30, 2006)

To the extent that they confirm the nuclear weapons research and planning applications of Divine Strake, Bruder’s statements are consistent with previous government descriptions of the test series of which the test is a part. DTRA budget requests and other government documents reveal ongoing research aimed at better understanding how low-yield nuclear weapons can be used to destroy underground targets, and at upgrading strike planning techniques for determining what kind of weapon, whether conventional or nuclear, can best be used to destroy particular types of targets. For more analysis and document references, see previous posts regarding Divine Strake on this site.

UPDATE: Part of Bruder’s remarks were broadcast in another CNN segment: The Situation Room, April 27, 2006 (transcript here).

Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space& Divine Strake28 Apr 2006 11:09 am

Andrew Lichterman

I have written a two page information brief, “The Divine Strake Nuclear Weapons Simulation: A Bad Signal at a Bad Time,” for the Western States Legal Foundation. The information brief is available on the WSLF web site as a pdf file (click here). It summarizes some of the material regarding Divine Strake previously posted here, and provides contact information for the coalition opposing the test.

Previous Divine Strake posts:

“Divine Strake” and the talk of a nuclear attack on Iran

The “Divine Strake” low-yield nuclear weapons simulation: government denials and responses

Did the WashPost Miss Explosive Story?

Iran& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space& Divine Strake12 Apr 2006 10:28 pm

Andrew Lichterman

There have been two related sets of news stories in the past week involving nuclear weapons. Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, and the Washington Post ran stories regarding planning for a possible use of nuclear weapons in an attack on Iran. The reported rationale for considering nuclear weapons use is that some underground Iranian facilities might be difficult to destroy with conventional weapons. A scattering of newspapers have reported that a large conventional test explosion called “Divine Strake,” planned for June at the Nevada Test Site, will simulate nuclear weapons use. One purpose of the program of which that test is a part, according to Department of Defense budget documents, is to “develop a planning tool that will improve the warfighter’s confidence in selecting the smallest proper nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage.”

Both reports subsequently were denied by government sources. Nonetheless, It is virtually certain that they are to a large extent true. There undoubtedly are plans being prepared for possible attacks on Iran, and that process likely includes examining (if not choosing) nuclear options for hard to destroy facilities. All the evidence except the government denials themselves suggests that data from the “Divine Strake” test will be used to refine understanding of nuclear weapons effects on underground structures, and that such understanding will be incorporated into the tools and procedures used to plan and execute nuclear strikes (In a previous post I provided a summary of the Divine Strake coverage, including government denials and responses to them).

What is important is what these two chains of events mean. They can be understood along a continuum that ranges from the normal grinding along of an immense military apparatus that always is refining its understanding of nuclear weapons and always is preparing contingency plans to attack a variety of potential adversaries, to danger signs of a near-term attack on Iran that could involve nuclear weapons use if certain factions within the government have their way. I would place these events somewhere in the middle of this range, with nuclear weapons use still highly unlikely but some kind of attack on Iran growing steadily more likely, although not on the immediate horizon. This is an extraordinarily secretive administration, making its intentions difficult to discern. It is also a very fluid political moment domestically, with an ongoing constitutional crisis that evidently is viewed by the incumbent government mainly as a political problem to be managed using all the tools at its disposal, which could include the distraction of a conveniently timed, and, from its perspective, “manageable” use of military force. This is a government that has shown itself willing to roll the dice, and it may include dominant elements (and not only in the Executive branch) who believe that the worst outcome– widespread war in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region and some measure of global economic chaos– will one way or another allow it to consolidate an increasingly autocratic form of rule. (more…)

Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space& Divine Strake12 Apr 2006 11:20 am

Andrew Lichterman

In my Friday March 31 entry “Did the WashPost miss an explosive story?” I provided evidence that the “Divine Strake” experiment which will detonate 700 tons of explosive in the Nevada desert is intended to simulate the effects of a low-yield nuclear blast on underground structures. Since then, there has been a round of investigation and commentary by various reporters and arms control experts, summarized below. In the early rounds the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) confirmed that Divine Strake was indeed the “Full-Scale tunnel defeat demonstration using high explosives to simulate a low yield nuclear weapon ground shock environment at Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site” described in last year’s budget request. Later, DTRA changed its story, claiming that language suggesting that the purpose of the “Divine Strake” test had changed, and that language regarding its nuclear weapons applications had been left in this year’s budget request by mistake.

In the initial round, John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal wrote the first piece on April 2, drawing on material from this site. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists got the first official confirmation that the Divine Strake test is the one referred to in the budget documents provided in my analysis last Friday. He wrote on the FAS Strategic Security Project Blog that

“The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) today confirmed to FAS that the upcoming Divine Strake test widely reported in the media to be a non-nuclear event is in fact a low-yield nuclear weapons calibration simulation against an underground target….

In response to an email earlier today, a DTRA spokesperson confirmed that Divine Strake is the same event that is described in DTRA budget documents as being a low-yield nuclear weapons shock simulation designed to allow the warfighters to fine-tune the yield of nuclear weapons in strikes on underground facilities.”


Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space& Divine Strake31 Mar 2006 10:42 am

Andrew Lichterman

The Washington Post ran a story Friday headlined Pentagon to Test a Huge Conventional Bomb.

According to the Post,

“A huge mushroom cloud of dust is expected to rise over Nevada’s desert in June when the Pentagon plans to detonate a gigantic 700-ton explosive — the biggest open-air chemical blast ever at the Nevada Test Site — as part of the research into developing weapons that can destroy deeply buried military targets, officials said yesterday.”

It appears possible, however, that the Post missed the real story. There is considerable evidence that one of the main purposes of the “Divine Strake” test, if not the only one, is to use a large conventional high explosive charge to simulate the effect of a low yield nuclear weapon, although the picture is blurred a bit by recently released budget documents. February 2005 Department of Defense budget documents reveal plans to conduct a “Full-Scale tunnel defeat demonstration using high explosives to simulate a low yield nuclear weapon ground shock environment at Department of Energy’s Nevada Test Site” in fiscal year (FY) 2006. The descriptions of the same program in February 2006 (FY 2007) documents continue to state that the program of which the test apparently is a part “will develop a planning tool that will improve the warfighter’s confidence in selecting the smallest proper nuclear yield necessary to destroy underground facilities while minimizing collateral damage.” But the descriptions of specific activities in the current budget document deletes references to nuclear weapons, substituting vague general language about weapons effects (details and document links below; click on “more” to continue). (more…)

Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space16 Mar 2006 10:54 am

Andrew Lichterman

Two recent articles featured criticism from nuclear establishment insiders of the Department of Energy’s plan for a new approach to designing and making nuclear weapons, the “Reliable Replacement Warhead” (RRW) program. The Albuquerque Journal covered a talk by Richard Garwin, a bomb designer and long-time weapons lab consultant, in which Garwin labeled the RRW as “not necessary” because current designs work just fine and can be replaced. See John Fleck, “Bomb Designer Questions U.S. Nuclear Policy,” Albuquerque Journal, March 13, 2006 (subscription required). In the Oakland Tribune, ex-Sandia laboratory weapons program executive Bob Peurifoy also declared the existing stockpile safe and reliable, and said, “This is gigantic hoax on the taxpayer. It is stimulated by the self interest of NNSA and the (weapons) design labs based on the desire to extract ever more money from the taxpayer,” he said. “You think our weapons don’t work? Go stand under one. But don’t take your wife and kids.” Stanford physicist Sydney Drell, a long-time mainstay of government advisory panels on all things nuclear, also endorsed the existing nuclear stockpile, and worried that new designs could lead to a resumption of underground nuclear testing. see Ian Hoffman, “Weapons adviser supports nuke plan, Former lab director fears U.S. nuclear arsenal may see defects,”The Oakland Tribune, March 13, 2006

These articles are OK as far as they go, but what they leave out is more important than what they include. None of the ‘critics’ quoted challenge the assumption that the U.S. should keep nuclear weapons for many decades to come, despite its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligation to negotiate in good faith for the elimination of its nuclear arsenal. Further, none of them address the potential of the RRW effort to produce nuclear weapons with new capabilities, despite the fact that being able to do so is an express purpose of the program. National Nuclear Security Administration chief Linton Brooks recently set forth the vision for the RRW program and its supporting nuclear weapons complex:

In 2030, our Responsive Infrastructure can also produce weapons with different or modified military capabilities as required. The weapons design community that was revitalized by the RRW program can adapt an existing weapon within 18 months and design, develop and begin production of that new design within 3-4 years of a decision to enter engineering development — again, goals that were established in 2004. Thus, if Congress and the President direct, we can respond quickly to changing military requirements. Linton Brooks, Speech to the East Tennessee Economic Council March 3, 2006

Essentially, everybody quoted in these articles is making “lawyer’s arguments” narrowly addressing the palatable title and superficial rationale for the program — making the nuclear stockpile more “reliable.” The new matter here, such as it is, is ex-weapons designers getting frustrated enough to denounce the program as pure pork. Unfortunately, it isn’t– those in power really do have missions in mind for nuclear weapons. Of course, visions for future military technologies encounter far less resistance when they follow money flows already firmly established.

But in any event, no arguments limited to the utility of a weapons system or the means of its development are truly significant in the current political context. There has, for example, been almost four decades of technical critique of missile defenses, making arguments that still largely stand unrefuted. Last time I looked (a couple of days ago while writing a fact sheet for activists about Vandenberg Air Force Base), the government was installing operational mid-course interceptors at Vandenberg and Fort Greeley, Alaska while spending many billions more on every potential BMD technology they can dream up. (more…)

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