Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear power19 Oct 2009 01:54 pm

Andrew Lichterman

Together with M.V. Ramana, I have written a short retrospective on the U.S.-India nuclear deal, drawing in part in commentary that appeared previously here. A pdf of the piece is available at the link below.

The U.S.-India Nuclear Deal: Violating Norms, Terminating Futures

Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Social movements and protest24 Sep 2009 06:50 pm

Andrew Lichterman

On September 12, I gave a talk at the Alameda Public Affairs Forum in Alameda, California. The talk covered the current flurry of enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament among U.S. national security elites, including the Obama administration’s recent initiatives, and my view of their significance for disarmament progress. I attempted to put these initiatives in the context of the ongoing global economic crisis, noting that the current circumstances resemble in some ways those that have brought wars among major powers in the past. Yet most discussion of disarmament issues ignores the fact that even the more optimistic proposals for disarmament do not offer realistic strategies for reducing nuclear arsenals below civilization-destroying levels for decades or more, while the dynamics potentially driving towards great power conflict may be on a much shorter time line. I also addressed the single-issue, increasingly professionalized NGO advocacy that is dominant in arms control and disarmament work (and in work on other issues as well), and its roots in a broader set of assumptions and entrenched institutional patterns that prevent systematic discussion of the forces that drive war and conflict, and that make it difficult to move beyond single-issue advocacy to the broader social movements necessary to make meaningful progress towards nuclear disarmament.

The talk can be heard in its entirety by clicking the link below.

Andrew Lichterman, talk at the Alameda Public Affairs Forum, September 12, 2009.

Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Social movements and protest07 Aug 2009 07:19 pm

Andrew Lichterman

On August 6, I spoke outside the fence at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the main U.S. nuclear weapons labs, at a commemoration of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I received many requests for copies of my talk–which at that point consisted of pages of notes and quotes. I have reduced it to a text which should be fairly close to the talk as delivered. A pdf of that talk can be found by clicking here.

Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Nuclear power26 Jul 2009 05:51 pm

By Andrew Lichterman

This spring, powerful politicians joined U.S. Department of Energy officials and nuclear scientists to celebrate the dedication of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world’s most powerful laser. The dedication was part of a well-orchestrated PR campaign aimed at sustaining support in hard economic times for the huge laser fusion project. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger hailed the multi-billion dollar project as having “the potential to revolutionize our energy future,” opening the way to new nuclear plants that can “generate an endless amount of megawatts of carbon-free power.” Thomas Friedman of the New York Times flacked the NIF in a column headlined “The next really cool thing,” describing it as a possible “holy cow game-changer.”

Despite the hoopla over this century’s version of “energy too cheap to meter,” the NIF is located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — a nuclear weapons design lab. NIF’s main purpose is to conduct nuclear weapons-related experiments. A 2000 Government Accountability Office study estimated that 85 percent of NIF’s experiments would be for nuclear weapons physics. NIF’s role in weapons work is controversial, with many independent experts believing it to have little relevance for maintaining the well-understood designs of weapons in a nuclear arsenal that the United States is legally obligated to eliminate under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. NIF’s advocates mainly are those who believe that the United States will need to keep nuclear weapons for decades to come.

Viewed as an energy project, NIF is a monument to a vision of the future that is firmly rooted in the past. It conjures images from science-fiction magazine covers of the 1950’s, of monolithic nuclear plants dominating a rectilinear landscape of factory-farmed fields, with transmission lines marching off to high-rise cities built without regard to the costs or effects of the energy they consume. But wait — that future looks a lot like our present — and it isn’t working. The pursuit of unlimited growth powered by unlimited energy has resulted in a society that is ecologically unsustainable, armed to the teeth, and that has levels of economic inequality that resemble those of 19th century robber-baron-style capitalism. Fission nuclear energy has proved far more technologically challenging, risky, and expensive than anticipated, and remains linked to the capacity to make nuclear weapons. Fusion too was viewed optimistically in the 1950’s, with some leading scientists then predicting controlled fusion energy within two decades. But the physics, engineering, and economic challenges of fusion energy dwarf those posed by fission power.

A half century later, fusion power remains a distant, and very expensive, dream. Even if it proves workable, commercial deployment is at best many decades away, and hence unlikely to provide a significant contribution to solving problems posed by diminishing fossil fuel supplies and climate change caused by burning them. And despite being sold as a more “proliferation resistant” nuclear energy technology because it does not require uranium or plutonium fuel, any country that is capable of building and operating inertial confinement fusion-based power facilities likely will have the know-how to build and deploy hydrogen bombs. By any stretch of the imagination, it will be a capital-intensive, high-risk energy path, requiring as well extensive — and expensive — environmental controls and security throughout its fuel, power, and waste cycle.

Rather than gambling on a future powered by unknown physics and unproven technologies, we should be investing in what we already know about physics and technology. It will cost tens of billions of dollars to find out if fusion electricity generation will work, and hundreds of billions more to deploy it in significant quantities. Our energy dilemmas can be solved more quickly and safely by reducing the work that energy does — moving people and things less far, less frequently, in larger capacity vehicles, designing our buildings so they can be heated and cooled more easily, and growing our food closer to where it is eaten, in ways that stay within nature’s energy cycles rather than depending on industrial inputs from afar. At the same time, we can pursue renewable energy technologies like wind and solar power that can be deployed in smaller increments, crafted to fit this less fragile and more sustainable development path.

Ultimately, our goal must be to end the endless pursuit of more, to build a society where we no longer chase bigger homes stuffed with more toys, but instead value a life lived in balance with the world we all share. Doing so is the only path to fairly sharing the risks of the difficult energy and economic transitions humanity now faces. With global tensions driven by economic inequality and resource competition on the rise, it also is central to the task of ridding ourselves of the world-destroying weapons that both NIF and the pursuit of endless power help sustain.

Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.07 Apr 2009 10:48 pm

Andrew Lichterman

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

The headlines tell us that President Obama is committed to working towards a nuclear weapons-free world. As is always the case in such matters, we would do well to look at the fine print. We should not expect that the United States, or any other country, will give up its nuclear weapons anytime soon. “This goal,” Obama tells us, “will not be reached quickly–perhaps not in my lifetime.” Further, he says, so long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain an “effective arsenal to deter any adversary.” In this, the justification for nuclear weapons remains the same: the elites of every nuclear-armed country always have insisted that nuclear weapons are only for “deterrence.” With enough nuclear weapons still in existence to destroy civilization and to damage irreparably all life on earth, its time to take a closer look at “deterrence.”

In significant ways, the discourse of nuclear “deterrence” resembles the discourse of torture. We can understand this parallel better if we substitute the term “enhanced interrogation techniques” for “torture,” as the Bush regime attempted to do (with some success, as manifested in widespread use of the term, often without criticism, in the mainstream news media).

The difference is that the success of those in power at placing the notion of “deterrence” at the core of nuclear weapons discourse has been far greater than the Bush regime’s effort to place the notion of “enhanced interrogation” at the center of discourse about torture. This is likely so because torture has existed for a very long time across a vast range of human experience, and hence is a well-known and relatively well-understood horror–opaque only to those in populations that have not in living memory been on the receiving end of it. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, still are a new part of the collective human story, and were created and remain closeted still within powerful, secretive, institutions. Hence their perceived character and meaning have been subject to planful manipulation from the very moment of their creation. Elite efforts to define nuclear weapons–and to limit permissible meanings we may give to them–have been so successful that we have no easily available alternative to “deterrence.” We don’t even have our own word for the permanent presence of nuclear weapons in our lives.

So we must first solve the equation: “enhanced interrogation techniques” is to “torture” as “deterrence” is to “_______.” The horrors of nuclear weapons use are so great that it is hard to come up with an appropriate phrase. Constant threat of genocide and ecocide? (too clinical, lacks the deep reference in the concretely rooted collective imaginary of “torture”). “Hell on earth?” (Too abstract and theological, also completely omits the element of human intention that is at the core of whatever the permanent, constant brandishing of nuclear weapons by largely unaccountable elites for decades on end really means).

We can find our starting point, perhaps, in clues that suggest my analogy is appropriate. The intention of the Bush regime’s rhetorical move–calling torture “enhanced interrogation”–was to encapsulate the justification for an inherently awful, degrading, and unjustifiable practice in its new name. If this “move” is successful, then the purpose, the intention, behind torture will simply be assumed, rather than discussed. The “purpose” of “enhanced interrogation” obviously is to “obtain information.” Once this is accepted, the metaphorical battle is quite nearly won. And if the “information” to be obtained can be portrayed as essential to “national security” (another self-justifying phrase in great need of disaggregating), the battle is virtually over.

So too with “deterrence.” The word itself presumes not attack, but defense. It is implicitly passive, unless one linguistically and politically disaggregates it to reveal its terrorist roots. And if one accepts that the purpose of nuclear weapons is only to defend against attack, the purposes of nuclear weapons (and the intentions of those who control them) are already assumed, and assumed to be in the general interest of the nation-state that “possesses” the nuclear weapons. The only question left is whether deterrence “works,” and actually makes a country or the world (again assuming without scrutiny or debate that everyone has the same interests) “safer.” Here too, if this rhetorical move is successful, the argument is nearly over, and readily subject to pacification (another neologism whose real meaning is its opposite) via traditional rhetorical moves and tools of the powerful: deployment of legions of experts claiming privileged access to knowledges too complex and obscure for ordinary folk to understand and to secret “information,” and if necessary attacks on the “patriotism” of any who nonetheless persist in raising questions. (more…)

Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& U.S. military& Iraq war& War and law06 Oct 2008 09:34 am

John Burroughs

In the October 2 vice-presidential debate, moderator Gwen Ifill ventured into a crucial area rarely touched by regular media. She asked:

Governor, on another issue, interventionism, nuclear weapons. What should be the trigger, or should there be a trigger, when nuclear weapons use is ever put into play?

Sarah Palin responded:

Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be all, end all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, period.

Our nuclear weaponry here in the U.S. is used as a deterrent. And that’s a safe, stable way to use nuclear weaponry.

But for those countries — North Korea, also, under Kim Jong Il — we have got to make sure that we’re putting the economic sanctions on these countries and that we have friends and allies supporting us in this to make sure that leaders like Kim Jong Il and Ahmadinejad are not allowed to acquire, to proliferate, or to use those nuclear weapons. It is that important.

When it was his turn, Joseph Biden did not answer the question, instead referring to John McCain’s vote against ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1999, and to Barack Obama’s work on “keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.”

But Palin really did not answer the question either. She claimed that U.S. reliance on nuclear forces is “safe” and “stable” deterrence. One major question that comes to mind is whether Palin believes the eight other countries in the world with nuclear weapons also practice safe and stable deterrence. Her answer is no with respect to North Korea, and Biden also talked about the danger posed by Pakistan’s arsenal. That leaves six other countries (China, Russia, India, France, United Kingdom, Israel). Palin also said that “dangerous regimes,” Iran being one, cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. But if deterrence works for the United States, why not for current nuclear have-nots?

More fundamental, though, and at the heart of the question posed by Ifill and not addressed by either Palin or Biden, is this: Deterrence is based on the will and capability to use nuclear weapons when deemed necessary. If you embrace deterrence, you embrace the possibility of use. Similarly, you can’t support the death penalty as a deterrent to horrendous crimes without supporting actual executions. Biden knows this. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed in June 2007 entitled “CSI: Nukes,” he stated that the “U.S. has long deterred a nuclear attack by states, by clearly and credibly threatening devastating retaliation.” He went on to argue that the United States should accelerate work on capabilities to trace the origin of fissile materials used in a terrorist nuclear attack, in order to be able to deter the country where the materials originate. He did not rule out U.S. use of nuclear weapons against such a country.

My organization, the Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy, this year released a statement, summarized here, that does answer Ifill’s question. In brief, the answer is it is never lawful, moral, or wise to use nuclear weapons, and therefore the United States should abandon the policy of deterrence premised on possible use and work hard for the global elimination of nuclear forces. We emphasize that nuclear use is incompatible with the present-day U.S. conduct of military operations in accordance (in the U.S. understanding) with legal requirements of necessity, proportionality, and discrimination. That is true in all the myriad circumstances (certainly not only in response to a nuclear attack) in which the United States holds out the option of use of nuclear weapons: preemptive or responsive use against biological and chemical as well as nuclear capabilities or attacks; in response to overwhelming conventional attacks; and even in response to “surprising” military developments.


Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear power22 Sep 2008 02:25 pm

Andrew Lichterman

With the collapse of the Nehruvian paradigm, consisting of democracy, secularism, non-alignment and “socialism,” the top ten to fifteen percent of Indians, the upper-crust of society, have set their face against the rest, especially the poor. Culturally, economically, and politically, they are closer to Northern elites and their own kin in North America and Europe. Strongly influenced by social-Darwinist ideas, they see the poor as a drag on “their” India. They want a shortcut to high global stature. What better route than the military one? Greatness here is defined purely in terms of power untempered by civilized conduct or compassion. Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik, New Nukes: India, Pakistan, and Global Nuclear Disarmament (New York: Interlink Books, 2000), p.136.

Last summer, the Bush Administration completed an agreement with India, initially negotiated in 2005, that would allow expanded trade in nuclear fuel and technology. It is now before Congress. If approved, the deal could allow India to expand its nuclear arsenal more easily by using scarce domestic uranium for weapons production while buying fuel for its power reactors on the international market. It will also undermine an already shaky Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty(NPT) regime by giving a country that developed nuclear weapons outside the Treaty the benefits of international nuclear trade. In general, the deal reinforces the legitimacy of nuclear weapons and weakens global rule of law, as the United States, the world’s leading military power and a country that ignores its own NPT obligations to negotiate for the elimination of its nuclear arsenal, also claims the right to choose which countries are sufficiently “responsible” to have both nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

In addition, the U.S.-India nuclear deal is an effort by elites in both countries to bolster nuclear energy programs that long have been unable to fulfill the promises made by their advocates of cheap, reliable nuclear-generated electricity. The risks posed by nuclear accidents and long-term storage of highly radioactive spent fuel remain unsolved. Expanded energy production and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions can be accomplished more flexibly and in a way that serves a broader spectrum of India’s population via the development of a variety of decentralized renewable energy technologies. Trade and investment in such technologies also would benefit the United States, helping to accelerate the development and use of renewable energy here as well.

Neither the press nor most U.S. arms control analysts have paid much attention to the broader changes in the U.S.-India relationship that elites in both countries are seeking, each with an eye to maximizing their own wealth and power. The 2006 U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review declared that “India is emerging as a great power and a key strategic partner.” U.S. Military planners envision India as a possible forward base for operations from South Asia to the Middle East, and perhaps as a junior partner in those operations as well. Arms makers see huge potential profit from increased arms sales, with India being one of the world’s largest importers of high-tech weapons. U.S.-based multinationals are gearing up for expansion into India, hoping to use the enhanced “security” partnership as a wedge to further open India to foreign investment and sales, not only in nuclear technology and services but in everything from banking to food and agriculture to big box retail stores.

The ambitions of elites in the two countries to strengthen an array of military and economic ties is reflected in the set of initiatives announced by U.S. President Bush And India’s Prime Minister Singh in July 2005 together with the agreement in principle on nuclear trade and cooperation. A few weeks earlier, the two countries had agreed to a “New Framework for the U.S.–India Defense Relationship.” The “New Framework” called for increased military cooperation across a wide range of activities, from joint exercises and intelligence exchanges to increased weapons trade to collaboration in missile defense development. The July 2005 agreements also established a “CEO Forum” to “harness private sector energy and ideas to deepen the bilateral economic relationship,” an agreement for closer cooperation in space technology and commercial space activities and a “Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture.” The U.S. private sector members of the Agricultural Knowledge Initiative governing board are Archer Daniels Midland, a diversified giant that takes agricultural products from the world over and turns them into commodities ranging from processed foods to biofuels and industrial chemicals, Biotech giant Monsanto, and Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer.

A significant part of the CEO Forum’s agenda is to greatly expand the degree to which foreign banking and financial services companies can do business in India. This position was duly echoed by the U.S. government, with a Treasury Department fact sheet stating that

the development of the financial sector and trade in financial services will play a key role in promoting private-sector led growth and economic stability in India. Opening the financial sector to foreign participation would make additional long-term financing available for infrastructure development.

In light of the spiraling collapse of the U.S. financial sector, the notion that opening India to its particular brand of radically deregulated, short-term profit-driven “financial services” will promote “economic stability” is dubious at best.

The socioeconomic impact of these proposed new arrangements–how they will affect the mass of the populations in India, the United States, and world-wide–remain almost entirely outside the ambit of U.S. discussion of the nuclear deal, although they have not escaped the notice of commentators in South Asia. The effect of the U.S.-India deal–or deals–will be to bind India to a development path favorable to particular elements in the U.S. political and economic elite, and to their Indian counterparts. In this future, India’s development will center on production of goods and services that serve global supply chains controlled by multi-national corporations. In addition to consumer goods and export crops that are mass commodities available to many in a few wealthy countries, but are luxury items available only to a fraction of the world’s population as a whole, there will be further expansion of “service industries” such as back-office corporate operations ranging from call centers to billing and information technology support. Also part of this global circuit of trade and investment are armaments and the capital goods, and engineering and construction services necessary to build new infrastructure to sustain components of these global production chains in “underdeveloped” regions. Increased U.S.-India trade and cooperation in high tech weapons, space, and nuclear technology will reinforce this pattern, producing few jobs for those below the top 20% of either country in income and little development that benefits the majority of the population in either country, further increasing wealth disparities, and consolidating the power of narrow elites in both states.

Nuclear technology is a prototypic element of this global system–and in the future envisioned by the elites of many countries is poised to become more important as supplies of fossil fuels are depleted. Producing energy in large, expensive centralized facilities, nuclear power is most useful for serving the emerging production and service centers of the global corporate capitalist metropole. It has far less promise, however, for improving living conditions among the many hundreds of millions of rural poor in India and world wide who neither can afford to buy much that global corporations have to offer nor are likely to be served by centrally-generated electricity anytime soon.

Only the nuclear cooperation deal itself is before Congress this week. But its purpose and likely effects need to be reevaluated in light of the mounting evidence that the dominant neoliberal global development model–which the set of U.S. India deals reached in recent years largely are designed to promote and enforce–is a disaster, leading to a global economic typhoon that capsizes all but the sturdiest boats rather than raising them.

The Bush administration is trying to push approval of this complex and important matter through Congress in the few days left before its session ends on September 26 (although the Congressional session could be extended). Unfortunately, the Democratic Party congressional leadership seems inclined to rubber stamp the deal, despite the lack of time for study or debate in the closing days of a session dominated by a financial crisis of historic proportions. This is a bad deal for most people in the U.S. and India, and likely for the rest of the world as well. At the very least, it deserves extensive, well publicized discussion before going forward.

For more information on the U.S.-India nuclear deal and the broader energy and security context, see

Rushing into the Wrong Future: The U.S.-India Nuclear Deal, Energy and Security, by Andrew Lichterman of the Western States Legal Foundation, Oakland, California, and M.V. Ramana of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore, India.

For more detail on the nuclear weapons proliferation impacts of the agreement, see the commentary and resources provided by the Arms Control Association.

And for more in-depth background:

Zia Mian and M. V. Ramana, “Wrong Ends, Means, and Needs: Behind the U.S. Nuclear Deal With India,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2006

Aspects of India’s Economy No.41, ‘Global Power’, Client State: India’s Place in the US Strategic Order

Achin Vanaik, “Post cold war Indian foreign policy,” Seminar web edition #581 January 2008

About this blog07 Aug 2008 01:58 pm

Andrew Lichterman

After technical difficulties caused by an avalanche of comment spam, DisarmamentActivist.org is up and running again, or at least visible. Having failed to come up with any solution to the comment spam problem that does not require regular attention at levels that exceed the time available, we have for the moment disabled the comment feature of the site. Now up are all those posts that were retrievable (basically everything to May 2007). Our thanks to Michael Veiluva, who provided valuable commentary on the ebb and flow of the slow-motion Iran nuclear crisis in this space over the past year. His Iran Daily Opinion Service now can be found at its own site here.

For the moment the future of this site remains uncertain. Those who have written for it have many other commitments, or are (like most people on the planet) struggling with the basics of everyday life amidst the growing economic crisis. Here’s hoping that we can build movements that recognize that the struggles for peace, economic justice, and an ecologically rational way of life are one.

Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--global20 May 2007 04:46 pm

Ray Acheson

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva is notorious for evoking frustration, rage, and despair among the members of civil society and the diplomatic community. Mandated to negotiate multilateral disarmament treaties (the only standing body that can do so), it hasn’t even agreed on a program of work for over ten years. It operates on consensus, meaning all 65 member states have to be in agreement for anything to happen. Every year the disarmament community gears up for another round of deliberations, hoping this year is the year that the stalemate will end and the deadlock will be broken. However, some of the major military powers continuously block the creation of new global security arrangements, choosing further military development over arms control, disarmament, and security.

There has been a long-standing dispute in the CD among the five (recognized) nuclear weapon states over the issues on the CD’s table: a fissile materials ban, prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), nuclear disarmament, and negative security assurances. The US wants to begin negotiations on a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), but until this year has refused to allow substantive discussions on outer space (it is now willing to allow discussions on PAROS in the CD, without reference to the possibility of an agreement). China maintains the opposite position. While it actively promotes an international legal agreement on PAROS, it has been cautious and even hostile towards an FMCT.

On 23 March 2007, the six presidents of the CD put forward a proposal of work and a draft decision. The draft decision is a package approach (it includes action on all four issues simultaneously), it is carefully worded, and it accommodates conflicting priorities among member states. However, China (and a few other states) began making noise immediately, stalling the Conference from taking a decision on the proposal by arguing they needed more time to consult with their capitals. The first session of 2007 ended without a decision, and when the CD reconvened on 15 May, several states, including China, maintained they still needed more time to decide if they can accept the proposal.

Without intending to ignore the other states responsible for the delay, it is important to note that China’s response to the draft proposal in particular is reflective of the major problems facing all attempts to negotiate or even discuss disarmament measures: hyper-militarism among the major powers, and the capacity for geostrategic concerns to impede progress in negotiating treaties that could actually help shift the (im)balance.

Of the five nuclear weapon states, China has the least amount of fissile material stocks; if its production were banned, it would never be able to catch up to the other states. China’s objection to this appears, at first glance, rather ironic, considering China is the only nuclear weapon state that regularly calls for nuclear disarmament in its official statements at the United Nations. This concern, however, is determined by the parameters of power in the international community, which are currently set by the US, its foreign policy, and its quest for a “prompt global strike” capacity. It wants its military to be able to “hit targets anywhere on earth in an hour or two,” giving it unprecedented (and unmatched) dominance over the world’s affairs. In this context, China and other major and emerging powers believe they are faced with a choice: acquiesce, or keep up. Meanwhile, the US carefully makes strategic alliances with some of these powers that create the impression of further insecurity for others. For example, the US and India signed an agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation that, if approved by US Congress, will allow India to import foreign uranium for its civilian programme while using more of its indigenous uranium to make nuclear weapons. The agreement undermines every international non-proliferation agreement and resolution, and of course, makes China and Pakistan nervous.


Disarmament& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Strategic weapons and space18 May 2007 11:46 pm

Trident missile launch from sea.

by Andrew Lichterman

On May 11, a National Academy of Sciences panel issued an interim letter report on equipping Trident submarine launched ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. ArmsControlWonk.com provides an easy to download copy of the report here.

Congress requested that the NAS provide an analysis of conventional Trident in the conference report accompanying the 2007 Defense Appropriations Act. A final report from the NAS committee is scheduled to be issued in 2008. The reports are not limited to the conventional Trident proposal, but will “consider and recommend alternatives that meet the prompt global strike mission in the near-, mid-, and long-term.” The NAS panel recommended that research and testing of the conventional Trident should proceed with funding levels sufficient to keep the program on course to allow deployment in three to five years. It advised against full funding for production and deployment, because other “global strike” technologies also being researched may prove more promising in the long run, and because various technical and policy issues, including the danger that a conventional Trident might be mistaken for a nuclear launch, remain unresolved.

Despite some reservations about nuclear ambiguity and the relationship of new conventional long-range systems to nuclear arsenals, the NAS panel appeared enthusiastic about pushing ahead with a new generation of strategic weapons. It endorsed further exploration of a variety of other concepts, such as a new sea-launched global strike missile design, high speed cruise missiles, and hypersonic boost glide vehicles with intercontinental range. It concluded that “[t]he committee believes it is preferable to consider all proposed CPGS weapons as elements of a portfolio, one that needs balancing in terms of technical risk and time to deployment.”

These programs, intended to yield highly accurate delivery systems with global reach for conventional weapons, are proceeding with little public debate. Further, the barriers to using improved or new non-nuclear long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons are largely made of paper. Buried in its discussion of the danger that a conventional long-range missile might be mistaken for a nuclear one, the NAS committee acknowledges this, stating that “[i]ndeed, the ambiguity between nuclear and conventional payloads can never be totally resolved, in that any of the means for delivery of a conventional warhead could be used to deliver a nuclear warhead.” [emphasis added]

U.S. research on new strategic weapons continues apace, with advances in delivery systems and in supporting technologies used to find and track targets and to guide weapons to them appearing more significant than anything (or at least anything publicly known) happening in nuclear warhead development programs. Yet most NGO arms control and disarmament work concerning U.S. strategic weapons programs remains focused on a narrow set of nuclear weapons design and production activities. Is it more likely that there will be some development in nuclear warheads as opposed to delivery systems that affects the nuclear strategic/political calculus–including everything from the level of U.S. military commitment to nuclear weapons to the way potential adversaries view U.S. capabilities and intentions to the likelihood of nuclear weapons use–in ways that adversely affect disarmament prospects? If new, more accurate delivery systems are developed that can be paired with existing nuclear weapons (perhaps with modifications) to destroy difficult targets that the majority of Congress members (and likely still a majority) repeatedly have voted to find ways to destroy, will Congress deny the military such capabilities? Why should we believe this? I have yet to see much of a discussion of such issues in the “arms control and disarmament community,” much less their implications for disarmament strategies. But perhaps I am not looking in the right places.

These questions, however, beg even larger and more important ones. How much do the details of all of this matter? If we believe that nuclear weapons are fundamentally immoral and that a global empire ultimately underwritten by weapons with global reach is fundamentally illegitimate, why do we allow ourselves to be caught up in debates about the minutiae of one or another weapons program? These are debates that those who hold long-term power usually win even when they appear to lose, the sci-tech-military-industrial complex leviathan surging inexorably on, growing insatiably regardless of whether we knock off a barnacle or two.

“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” Sven Lindqvist, “Exterminate all the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide (New York: The New Press, 1996), p.2

For more on the U.S. “Prompt global strike” programs, see the preceding entry, “Next generation strategic weapons and the possibility of arms races to come.”

Trident missile launch photo from U.S. Navy, Vision… Presence… Power: A Program Guide to the U.S. Navy - 2000 Edition

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