The Pentagon's Effort To Make Smaller Nukes Scares Me

The Pentagon's Effort to Make Smaller Nukes Scares Me

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.

[New York Times]

Images via NNSA

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    The M42 Fat Man is an effective mortar/artillery weapon, allowing a person to bombard a large area with good precision and deadly force. It uses a mini nuke for ammunition which when fired, results in a small nuclear blast.

      Not sure if actually being on the firing line of such a Tactical Weapon would be conducive to good health (even a "incy-wincy-teeny-tiny" nuc has some extreme effects and significant radiologic fallout), but then again who goes to war for their health, one goes to a Spa for "health".

    The US was always basically the aggressor in the cold war. It shows in their technological mix.

    The US nukes concentrated on large numbers of precisely targeted weapons. That's a "counter-force" mix, designed for a first strike, because if you want to destroy your enemy's nukes in their protected bunkers, your targeting needs to be spot on. It's a strategy that's useless in a second strike as the enemy missile bunkers are empty. The probability of misses when targeting missiles is a large part of the reason for overkill in the old stockpiles.

    The Soviet Union mainly designed for larger warheads, a "counter-value" response, which targets enemy populations. This is principally useful for its deterrent value as a "second strike" mix.

    The reason why the SDI (and counter-missile systems in general) frightened the Soviet Union so much was that it operated as a force multiplier; if it had worked as advertised, it would have cut the effectiveness of the Soviet Union's arsenal by 90% and made an actual first strike much more practical - to the extent that any nuclear attack is "practical." SLBMs (submarine-launched missiles) are especially effective in this role as they can be launched at a very short range that prevents a response.

    The strategic arms limitations treaties haven't really stopped weapons development as those treaties don't prevent deployment of new weapons, they only limit the total number of warheads. As such, the US only has to decommission a single MIRV to permit deployment of six or more warheads in pretty much any alternative configuration.

    A treaty to not deploy ANY new warheads, even as a replacement, will never happen as old warheads gradually become useless as the radioactive elements forming the fission core decay over time and render the weapons ineffective. However, the cap on the total number of weapons HAS gone down over time, so we now have "only" around 2000 warheads deployed on each side (to the extent that there is still a second side.) Still enough to wipe out any country you care to name.

    If you think this is depressing now, you should have tried reading about it in the late 80s when both sides still had over 25000 weapons deployed.

    What about when aliens come and the first thing we need to do is shoot nukes into their shields?

      Well, if I were an alien and were looking at the morons on earth who perpetuate war and that sort of shit I'd stay the hell away from here...

      We'll always have Jeff Goldblum and his trusty Apple laptop ;)

      I seem to remember in Mars Attacks that this was ineffective. They had a weapon that just sucked up the explosion.

    Poor old Best Korea arent even allowed to make nuclear weapons, or well starve them out a little bit more, but the good olde U S of A is allowed to make them smaller and more enticing to use

      And the US is the ONLY nation to have used them to intentionally kill people and they used them on civilian populations.

      I read somewhere that one of the cities the US intended to destroy was Kyoto but one of the US generals had had his honeymoon there and didn't want it bombed.

    I was under the silly impression that above-ground testing was illegal since like, the 90's?

      Reading the article, it sounds like they tested it without a payload (useful to see how accurate the targeting is i guess)

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