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Crisis in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Part 2—Making Peace with Nuclear Weapons

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
June 17, 2022

This is the second in a series of columns for the PA Times regarding the unfolding and unprecedented crisis in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex (NWC) (the first column on how United States budget politics since 1969 have damaged the NWC is here). Before discussing the problems afflicting several key NWC sites such as Pantex and Y-12, I want to address why everyone, regardless of political or ideological persuasion, should be concerned that the United States might not have the capability to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent in this half of the 21st century. The heart of the matter is captured in the graph accompanying this column that shows the decline in worldwide deaths in military combat from 1946 until recently.

As stated in my recent series of PA Times columns on climate change, I am a dedicated pragmatist who follows the evidence even when that goes against my own values. Nuclear weapons bring with them the terrifying prospect of global destruction, perhaps to the point of the extinction of nearly all life on Earth. Nuclear weapons are incredibly expensive and their manufacture comes with huge environmental and safety risks. The motivation of organizations actively seeking to reduce the possibility of nuclear war and prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons technology is understandable and laudable. In the interest of complete transparency, I marched in the June 12, 1982 Nuclear Freeze protest in New York City and I still have mementos from that day.

But the fact remains that from the mid-1800s through the 1940s, military conflict worldwide was on a trajectory to produce exponentially higher levels of combat and collateral casualties. This peaked with World War Two’s estimated 85 million deaths. If allowed to continue, the exponential increase in conflicts among the major powers might have resulted in a World War Three with 500 million or more deaths. What disrupted this trend, hopefully permanently, was the advent of nuclear weapons.

Historian Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, notes that this paradox was evident to the leaders within the Manhattan Project at the time the United States dropped two bombs on Japan in August 1945. Rhodes refers to physicist Neils Bohr being among the first to understand the “complementarity” of nuclear weapons: that this terrible capability to wage total war would mean the end of wars among the world powers. When you look at the graphic showing military deaths since the early 1940s, keep in mind that during this same time the lethality of conventional weapons (guns, bombs, missiles) has vastly increased compared to the weapons of World War Two. The conventional military resources are in place for that 500 million casualty war; what holds them mostly in check are the nuclear arsenals of the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and (unofficially) Israel. North Korea’s quest for building both the bombs and reliable delivery systems for them is driven by desire to join this club.

Another key point is that it is impossible to eliminate nuclear weapons. Yes, all the current nuclear powers could dismantle their stockpiles and even find a way to permanently decommission their stores of weapons-grade nuclear fuel (uranium and plutonium). In the event of impending military conflict, it would require about a year at the most for new bombs to be built from scratch. This horse has left the barn, as the saying goes. We are stuck living under the rules of nuclear deterrence whether we like it or not.

Among the first of those rules is that the United States must maintain a credible nuclear stockpile. As I will discuss in this series, the poor condition of the NWC calls into question whether the United States can do that. I am not exaggerating when I say that there is a good chance the United States at least temporarily will start down the path of denuclearizing simply because it lacks the capacity to modernize its stockpile. Despite my values about war, what keeps me up at night is not the current nuclear deterrent but rather the impending decay of that deterrent. To the political leaders of the United States who have contributed to the unfolding disaster in the NWC, all I can say at the moment is that they have done far more damage to the national security of the country than all known spies and traitors combined.

The U.S. Congress and those responsible in the Executive Branch simply must find a path forward that stops the toxic pattern of failure in federal government budgeting. There must be a political solution possible that expands the tax base, supports key social programs, ends the huge annual budget deficits and provides the resources to fix the NWC. This is the new complementarity that the United States requires if we all are to survive the 21st century.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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