What to do about America's nuclear weapons stockpile

Obama In Berlin: "We Are Not Safe" As Long As There Are Nuclear Weapons
Obama In Berlin: "We Are Not Safe" As Long As There Are Nuclear Weapons

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. – Pat Sena has a routine: He prays with his wife, he reads, he drives his '97 Chevy pickup through Albuquerque's low-slung outskirts to work. Then, at the office until he heads home, he and his team make sure the U.S. can still – at any moment – blow up the world.

"The way I think of it, I think of myself at my home, my family in my home. It's a rough neighborhood, there are gang members driving by and drive-by shooters, and I'm sitting out on the porch with a big shotgun, saying, 'Don't attack my family because you'll have to deal with me,'" he says.

Sena is deputy chief engineer of the nuclear Stockpile Systems Center at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, part of a gargantuan desert air base dotted with scrub brush, fuel tanks, tall unmarked buildings and a wooden test track that could have been a prototype for the Coney Island Cyclone.

In the seven decades since Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists blasted the New Mexico desert with the world's first atomic explosion the morning of July 16, 1945, three labs have maintained, studied and – to the extent they can – tested the nation's nuclear stockpile: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Los Alamos outside Santa Fe, and Sandia.

"We do this because we believe in it," says Michael Bernardin, acting associate director for weapons physics at Los Alamos.

As Los Alamos Director Charles McMillan asserts in a video shown at the Bradbury Science Museum: "The presence of nuclear weapons brought a sense of caution into international decision-making that hadn't been there prior to the Second World War. And while nuclear weapons have not stopped warfare, we have not seen warfare on a global scale since."

See photos of the U.S. testing atomic bombs:

In the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, the chance of a large-scale battlefield conflict between the major industrial powers is as low as ever. Russia and the U.S. are no longer in a seemingly existential race for global influence. China has not greatly expanded its relatively small nuclear stockpile, and neither it nor any other nation is seriously challenging the U.S. for world dominance. Indeed, much of the labs' work focuses on nonproliferation: how to verify if states like Iran are trying to build nuclear weapons.

And yet.

In the past year and a half alone, Russia has swallowed part of Ukraine, staked a claim to a huge swath of the Arctic and strutted about Western Europe with a suspected submarine off Finland and bombers near Britain. North Korea has fired artillery into South Korea, Pakistan and India are no closer to resolving their fight over Kashmir and much of the Middle East still hates Israel. Even just last month, when President Barack Obama visited Alaska, China dispatched a naval flotilla to international waters offshore.

These are two versions of reality – a conflict perhaps embedded in America's own nuclear policy: Under the New START agreement approved by Congress in 2010, Obama has reduced the U.S. stockpile from about 1,900 to 1,550 warheads, and the Pentagon says it could live with even fewer. At the same time, Obama's sought to increase funding to modernize the stockpile, from about $20 billion to roughly $34.8 billion a year over the next decade. Some weapons are more than 30 years old, many with components older than 40.

These actions raise all sorts of questions: By how much should the U.S. stockpile shrink? What amount should we spend on the weapons we keep, and what message might that spending send to allies and adversaries?

Perhaps more critically, does nuclear deterrence even work? And in light of recent scandals at the nuclear labs and in the Air Force, how can high-end talent be attracted to the field – the branch of society we've charged with preparing for apocalypse yet one some say we've allowed to languish, making it as appealing as a North Dakota missile silo in winter?

These are sensitive questions.

Just last year, as reported by the Center for Public Integrity, Los Alamos abruptly sacked 17-year employee James Doyle, a political scientist who published a study deeply skeptical of deterrence and nuclear arsenals at large. Although he'd gotten the article preapproved by lab censors, they reportedly fired him anyway, claiming the piece included sensitive information and retroactively classifying the document. Still, the piece remains publicly available on the journal's website and independent scientists have not found any detail that had previously been undisclosed.

"There is a community of belief out there that thinks nuclear weapons have solved the problem of war between major powers," says Doyle, who is in administrative settlement talks with the lab. "That's dangerous to delusional. There are plausible alternative explanations that could've been what explains the absence of war between the great powers."

Some scholarship, for example, has questioned whether the Soviets really ever had the appetite to invade Western Europe, or if instead they were simply responding to what they perceived as U.S. aggression. Others argue that the modern prospects of cyberwarfare, cruise missiles that can take out a power plant from hundreds of miles away​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ and weapons systems that might target space satellites offer as effective a deterrent as nuclear weapons ever did.

"They could threaten a nuclear plant or even a coal plant. They would be very traumatic for a modern country," says Frank von Hippel, professor emeritus and senior research physicist at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. "It's possible that countries, recognizing their own vulnerabilities, won't threaten other modern countries."

In a sense, belief whether deterrence works amounts to an article of faith – how does one prove exactly what has prevented war? On the one side are traditionalists, experts like Elbridge Colby, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security and a national security adviser for 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

"Nuclear weapons have a tendency to keep a lid on things," he argues. "The Soviets knew that if they busted into Europe, the world would be in really, really bad shape. Same as if China attacked Taiwan."

It's​ a view with the kind of paradox philosophers love: The widespread use of nuclear weapons wouldn't serve much of a military purpose, as they would almost certainly turn the planet into a forest of mushroom clouds (and make our astronauts in space very lonely). But, the argument goes, they're hugely persuasive in diplomacy when it comes to reassuring allies, applying leverage to adversaries and forcing more measured thinking in the Situation Room – precisely because they exist and might be dropped or launched at any time.

"Nuclear deterrence as a stabilizing force in world politics is based on a probability calculation: If there were zero chance of them being used, they wouldn't be effective," Colby contends. "I'd rather live in a world with very low probability of nuclear use – but people think it's sufficiently plausible to keep them cautious – rather than a world in which they didn't exist and in which people thought war was calculable."

Yet other experts are skeptical. Nukes, they argue, can be like giving your least-favorite high school jock a Camaro and a 12-pack, suddenly bestowing a whole lot of unwanted swagger. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, said he'd considered putting the country's nuclear forces on alert during the Crimea controversy last year, a threat that he'd use them against any sort of NATO counterattack.

"Nuclear weapons can make leaders potentially arrogant about what they can and cannot do," says Sharon Squassoni, senior fellow and director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I'm not sure nuclear weapons won the Cold War or kept the peace in Europe all those years – it's much more complicated than that."

As Doyle puts it, "If nuclear weapons are so successful about eliminating war between states, why not give them to every country and allow peace to break out all over?"

He may have a point. When the Soviets​ ​secretly shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962 and gave a local commander the authority to pull the trigger on tactical nuclear weapons​, they ​acted in complete violation of the principles of deterrence: You can't deter an adversary if they don't know the threat you pose.

And that was far from the only close call. Indeed, it's not the technical malfunctions that most worry nuke experts – it's humanity itself.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example, unaware Cuba had nukes ready to go, urged President John F. Kennedy to attack Cuba. U.S. bombers, in fact, were at the ready, one step from a presidential order that ultimately never came.

​At sea during the missile crisis, a Russian submarine pinned down by U.S. ships ​​prepared to launch a nuclear torpedo to save face – stopped only by a high-level commander who was on board.

In 1983, Russia's early warning system signaled an American first strike – an alert determined to be the result of light reflecting off clouds.

And as recently as 2007, an Air Force bomber mistakenly loaded with nuclear-tipped missiles flew from North Dakota to Louisiana, then sat on the tarmac for hours, the crew unaware that nukes had been loaded onto the plane. ​

Even the labs are not immune: The companies that run Sandia and Los Alamos were each recently hit with six-figure fines by the Obama administration for poorly handling classified material.

The labs and the Air Force maintain that the nation's nuclear stockpile is "safe, secure and reliable," a three-word catchphrase repeated by researchers at the labs and by Air Force Brig. Gen. Stephen Davis, acting director of defense nuclear programs ​for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

"There are numerous checks and balances that we do," Davis says​. "We have very high standards."

The NNSA, which oversees Los Alamos, also says it "is implementing a security culture campaign designed to improve security and security awareness across the complex." ​

Yet some​ outside the industry say it's not enough.

"I'm a believer in Murphy's Law: that whatever can go wrong eventually will go wrong," Princeton's von Hippel says. "The fact that we haven't had a nuclear weapon used against a city since Nagasaki is, in part, a matter of luck, and we shouldn't be pressing our luck, especially if we don't face a threat that requires us to keep these things on alert."

It's that theory that lies behind the strategy known as "minimal deterrence," or maintaining a nuclear stockpile of just a few hundred or perhaps even just a few dozen weapons.

"China and India have successfully practiced minimum deterrence with very small numbers of nuclear weapons and a political system that values no first-use," says Toby Dalton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Such a system puts fewer weapons on alert, reducing "some of the possibility for catastrophic accidents or misuse."

It would certainly be more economical​. But like anything involving military spending, it would also come with deep political cost. Nuclear weapons, fortunately or not, have limited application in the private sector, and that means plenty of livelihoods are tied to the stockpile – not just the lab workers and contractors who profit off their work, ​ ​but also ​the Air Force generals ever-eager for relevance and funding and the members of Congress hungry for jobs and earmarks. There's even a caucus​ on Capitol Hill known as the ICBM Coalition that includes senators who represent states housing intercontinental ballistic missile sites: North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.

"These lobbies are extremely powerful and provide a lot of inertia against any changes," Doyle says, "and that's going to introduce a conflict of interest that's not ultimately favorable to the security interests of the United States."

Reducing the stockpile inevitably would involve strangling any number of projects, whether dismantling the nuclear "triad" of ballistic missiles, submarines and bombers by closing the missile silos, for example, or by shrinking the labs.

But doing nothing also comes with a cost.

"We continue to spend the money to keep the weapons safe and secure, to upgrade them. If you're looking ahead 50 years or more at reliance on nuclear weapons, there's tremendous costs that go with that," says Squassoni, of CSIS. "The nuclear enterprise requires an enormous amount of attention and painstaking security and safety that – if it's not the No. 1​ mission of your military – it's really hard to sustain that over time.

"We need to continue this discussion of what a world without nuclear weapons looks like and how we get there."

Originally published