One of the messages of Stanley Kubrick's anti-nuclear classic Dr. Strangelove is that policy makers can become addicted to the bomb and the various fear-driven rationales for keeping it. One of the more absurd examples comes near the end of the film when General Buck Turgidsen (played by George C. Scott) warns that there might be a "mine shaft gap" that would allow some number of the other side's people to survive a nuclear war and repopulate the Soviet Union faster than the United States could do the same. In short, he hangs onto nuclear groupthink to the end -- and beyond!
So it is with some anti-arms control ideologues, most notably Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). This group, led by Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) seems to be afraid that the modest but important New START nuclear arms reduction agreement between the U.S. and Russia is somehow going to sap the strength of the United States, unless it is accompanied by massive new investments in nuclear weapons facilities along with bombers, submarines, and ballistic missiles.
This is absurd on the face of it. Even when the New START limit of 1,550 warheads kicks in, each side will still have enough warheads -- most of them more powerful than those that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- to decisively destroy the other. If there is a problem with New START, it is that both sides will still have too many warheads, not too few. New START makes sense as a first step towards deeper reductions in nuclear arsenals, not as an end in itself. And the fewer nuclear weapons there are, the safer we all will be.
But back to the Republicans on the armed services committee. As Kingston Reif has noted, "It seems that the Republicans on the committee have a love affair with the bomb." In an effort to hamstring the president's ability to either implement the New START agreement or make further reductions in the U.S. arsenal, the committee's version of the Fiscal Year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act includes a series of obnoxious, dangerous and questionable amendments, including:
- A provision delaying the reductions called for in New START until the Secretaries of Defense and Energy certify that a 10-year,185 billion plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal is on track;
- A provision barring funds to "retire, dismantle or eliminate" any nuclear weapon until new factories to produce plutonium and uranium components of nuclear weapons are at full capacity, a process that could take until 2024 or longer;
- A provision preventing the president from reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal below levels approved in New START, even if there is a chance to achieve security-enhancing reductions without a formal treaty.
An excellent, far more detailed critique of the House bill has been done by Kingston Reif of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation on the center's "Nukes of Hazard" blog. And Nickolas Roth and Stephen Young highlight other major flaws in the HASC approach on the Union of Concerned Scientists' "All Things Nuclear" blog.
Put simply, in a worst case scenario these provisions would bring arms control and nuclear arms reductions to a screeching halt and keep them stalled for 10 to 15 years or longer. And this would be the case even if the President and the U.S. military leadership determine that further cuts in the U.S. arsenal will make us safer. This in turn would make it far more difficult to proceed with other needed measures like a global ban on the testing of nuclear weapons.
Thankfully, the Senate will have a chance to block these absurd amendments and clear the way for sensible reductions in nuclear weapons. It's long past time to replace fear with hope and stop loving the bomb.
William D. Hartung is the Director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2011)