Hey look, it's the scariest New York Times sentence you'll read in 2016: "The explosive innards of the revitalized [nuclear] weapons may not be entirely new, they argue, but the smaller yields and better targeting can make the arms more tempting to use — even to use first, rather than in retaliation." What is this, 1962? Or are we living in a Stanley Kubrick film starring Peter Sellers?
The A1 Times report quoted above is pegged to the recent mysterious scampering of activity in North Korea, where supreme leader Kim Jong-un says he detonated a hydrogen bomb. Experts say that's probably not the case, but the sabre-rattling is worrisome in an era where President Obama is trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons altogether. At least, that's what he's pledged to do. The military's efforts to modernise old weapons so that they're not only smaller but also more accurate seems at odds with the US president's pledge not to make any new nuclear weapons.
We've long known that Obama's efforts to get rid of nukes are kind of pathetic. While the US has retired a lot of old warheads, their stash of active warheads has diminished very little. In fact, as the Times reports, the military is actually making these weapons better and easier to use. Innovation is usually a good thing. That is, until you attach the word "tempting" to a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons, as the Times does above.
This makes me nervous. Growing up the '80s, I never feared a nuclear apocalypse the way my parents' generation did, but going to university in post-9/11 America helped me realise that the US is capable of some pretty senseless reactions when national security is concerned. Now the New York Times reports that there are "hints of a new arms race". Uh-oh.
Indeed, we've been watching it unfold. The Air Force tested one of these modified, more precise nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert about six months ago. Bombers dropped a mockup of the same B61 Mod 12 nuclear bomb cited in the Times story. That weapon is part of a $US10 billion program, the first of five in a large atomic revitalisation effort that's expected to cost as much as $US1 trillion over the next 30 years. That's a lot of taxpayer dollars devoted to bombs that could end the world.
I'm not the only one who feels uneasy about this strategy. Several former Obama administration officials spoke out against the president's handling of the non-proliferation strategy because, honestly, you might as well call it an underhanded proliferation strategy. As one disillusioned former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control put it, "We're spending billions of dollars on a status quo that doesn't make us any safer."
When you put it that way, I feel helpless. There's nothing the average American can do about the US government making more "tempting" nuclear weapons — aside from paying for it, of course. There's even less Australians can do. At this point, it almost seems like there's nothing President Barack "I Won the Nobel Peace Prize" Obama can do about it, either. We live in a nuclear age, in which scary people have nuclear weapons and the only defence against them is nuclear weapons.
God, this is a plot line straight out of Dr Strangelove after all.
Images via NNSA