This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Consider it a marriage made in hell. Start with the groom, Donald Trump, the man who once wondered why in the world we make nuclear weapons if we can't use them; who wouldn't rule out using nukes, even in Europe; who insisted that a president should be "unpredictable" on the subject; who suggested that it might not be "a bad thing for us" if Saudi Arabia, Japan, and South Korea all became nuclear powers; who threatened North Korea with "fire and fury like the world has never seen" before he became a chummy correspondent with its dictator; and who called for a nearly 10-fold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal (among many other, often contradictory, comments he's made on nuclear matters).
Now, think about the bride, National Security Advisor John Bolton, a "statesman" who never saw a nuclear agreement he didn't want to nuke. Those included President Richard Nixon's Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, President Bill Clinton's Agreed Framework with North Korea, President Barack Obama's Iran nuclear deal (all of which he helped to deep-six), and most recently President Ronald Reagan's Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty (a pact that had actually resulted in thousands of ready-to-use nuclear weapons being scrapped). With the help of his neocon bro, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Bolton recently succeeded in sticking a knife directly in the back of that treaty. He's undoubtedly now eying the New START treaty, which put limits on long-range nukes and is up for renewal in 2021. (The president has already called it "one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration.")
As TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist James Carroll points out today, the first new member of Trump's and Bolton's nuclear family, a "low-yield" nuke, was only recently born and given the less-than-apocalyptic name, W76-2. It looks as though, in nuclear terms, they are headed for a grim version of connubial bliss. To mix a metaphor or two in the fashion of our president, you might even think of that first progeny of theirs as a minute hand on a ticking clock heading for midnight. Tom
The Most Dangerous Weapon Ever Rolls Off the Nuclear Assembly Line
By James Carroll
Last month, the National Nuclear Security Administration (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission) announced that the first of a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons had rolled off the assembly line at its Pantex nuclear weapons plant in the panhandle of Texas. That warhead, the W76-2, is designed to be fitted to a submarine-launched Trident missile, a weapon with a range of more than 7,500 miles. By September, an undisclosed number of warheads will be delivered to the Navy for deployment.
What makes this particular nuke new is the fact that it carries a far smaller destructive payload than the thermonuclear monsters the Trident has been hosting for decades -- not the equivalent of about 100 kilotons of TNT as previously, but of five kilotons. According to Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the W76-2 will yield "only" about one-third of the devastating power of the weapon that the Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Yet that very shrinkage of the power to devastate is precisely what makes this nuclear weapon potentially the most dangerous ever manufactured. Fulfilling the Trump administration's quest for nuclear-war-fighting "flexibility," it isn't designed as a deterrent against another country launching its nukes; it's designed to be used. This is the weapon that could make the previously "unthinkable" thinkable.- Advertisement -
There have long been "low-yield" nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear powers, including ones on cruise missiles, "air-drop bombs" (carried by planes), and even nuclear artillery shells -- weapons designated as "tactical" and intended to be used in the confines of a specific battlefield or in a regional theater of war. The vast majority of them were, however, eliminated in the nuclear arms reductions that followed the end of the Cold War, a scaling-down by both the United States and Russia that would be quietly greeted with relief by battlefield commanders, those actually responsible for the potential use of such ordnance who understood its self-destructive absurdity.
Ranking some weapons as "low-yield" based on their destructive energy always depended on a distinction that reality made meaningless (once damage from radioactivity and atmospheric fallout was taken into account along with the unlikelihood that only one such weapon would be used). In fact, the elimination of tactical nukes represented a hard-boiled confrontation with the iron law of escalation, another commander's insight -- that any use of such a weapon against a similarly armed adversary would likely ignite an inevitable chain of nuclear escalation whose end point was barely imaginable. One side was never going to take a hit without responding in kind, launching a process that could rapidly spiral toward an apocalyptic exchange. "Limited nuclear war," in other words, was a fool's fantasy and gradually came to be universally acknowledged as such. No longer, unfortunately.
Unlike tactical weapons, intercontinental strategic nukes were designed to directly target the far-off homeland of an enemy. Until now, their extreme destructive power (so many times greater than that inflicted on Hiroshima) made it impossible to imagine genuine scenarios for their use that would be practically, not to mention morally, acceptable. It was exactly to remove that practical inhibition -- the moral one seemed not to count -- that the Trump administration recently began the process of withdrawing from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, while rolling a new "limited" weapon off the assembly line and so altering the Trident system. With these acts, there can be little question that humanity is entering a perilous second nuclear age.
That peril lies in the way a 70-year-old inhibition that undoubtedly saved the planet is potentially being shelved in a new world of supposedly "usable" nukes. Of course, a weapon with one-third the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, where as many as 150,000 died, might kill 50,000 people in a similar attack before escalation even began. Of such nukes, former Secretary of State George Shultz, who was at President Ronald Reagan's elbow when Cold War-ending arms control negotiations climaxed, said, "A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. You use a small one, then you go to a bigger one. I think nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons and we need to draw the line there."
How Close to Midnight?
Until now, it's been an anomaly of the nuclear age that some of the fiercest critics of such weaponry were drawn from among the very people who created it. The emblem of that is the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a bimonthly journal founded after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by veteran scientists from the Manhattan Project, which created the first nuclear weapons. (Today, that magazine's sponsors include 14 Nobel Laureates.) Beginning in 1947, the Bulletin's cover has functioned annually as a kind of nuclear alarm, featuring a so-called Doomsday Clock, its minute hand always approaching "midnight" (defined as the moment of nuclear catastrophe).- Advertisement -
In that first year, the hand was positioned at seven minutes to midnight. In 1949, after the Soviet Union acquired its first atomic bomb, it inched up to three minutes before midnight. Over the years, it has been reset every January to register waxing and waning levels of nuclear jeopardy. In 1991, after the end of the Cold War, it was set back to 17 minutes and then, for a few hope-filled years, the clock disappeared altogether.
It came back in 2005 at seven minutes to midnight. In 2007, the scientists began factoring climate degradation into the assessment and the hands moved inexorably forward. By 2018, after a year of Donald Trump, it clocked in at two minutes to midnight, a shrill alarm meant to signal a return to the greatest peril ever: the two-minute level reached only once before, 65 years earlier. Last month, within days of the announced manufacture of the first W76-2, the Bulletin's cover for 2019 was unveiled, still at that desperate two-minute mark, aka the edge of doom.
To fully appreciate how precarious our situation is today, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists implicitly invites us to return to that other two-minutes-before-midnight moment. If the manufacture of a new low-yield nuclear weapon marks a decisive pivot back toward jeopardy, consider it an irony that the last such moment involved the manufacture of the extreme opposite sort of nuke: a "super" weapon, as it was then called, or a hydrogen bomb. That was in 1953 and what may have been the most fateful turn in the nuclear story until now had just occurred.