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Peace Through Strength

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It has a ring to it, doesn’t it? We can indulge our fantasies of being superheroes, and the rest of the world will look up to us.

More seriously, a case can be made that military strength is good. (And economic, that’s part of it too, or should be.) But military security is not the whole story; building alliances, spreading goodwill, and diplomacy to deal with problems are all part of a balanced foreign policy.

Building up military strength is likely to lead to a security dilemma: other countries see the buildup as a possible prelude to invasion or war, so they build up, so we have to build up further, and so on. We are likely in that sequence with China’s nuclear program now.

Donald Trump’s last National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, has laid out a foreign policy program for another Trump administration under the rubric “Peace Through Strength.” The first several paragraphs tout Trump’s foreign policy and even what Trump thinks. It’s not clear whether this article somehow involved Trump in the making and O’Brien is on his way to Trump’s cabinet, or whether O’Brien is auditioning for Trump’s NSA or Secretary of State.

The recommendations are familiar: decouple from China; Taiwan should spend more on defense; the US should help build up other militaries in the area; more pressure on Iran; back Israel; let Europe support Ukraine; and, of course, build up the US military.

On nuclear weapons, “China has doubled the size of its arsenal since 2020: a massive, unexplained, and unwarranted expansion.” This is a clear statement of one side of the security dilemma. Numbers would be helpful, but they would show the problems in this argument.

China increased from about 200-300 nuclear weapons to about 500 in the past few years. By the one nuclear arms control treaty still in existence, the US and Russia have around 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads each. If we include backups and weapons being serviced, the totals are closer to 7,000 each. Nonstrategic (battlefield, tactical) nuclear weapons number a couple hundred for the US and a couple thousand for Russia. So China is still far from a peer competitor in numbers. A further buildup on our part in response would be an escalation in the security dilemma. And we don’t need them.

The United States has to maintain technical and numerical superiority to the combined Chinese and Russian nuclear stockpiles.

That would mean trashing the New Start Treaty to add 1,550 more deployed strategic warheads. Does O’Brien intend that the backups and nonstrategic nuclear weapons also be matched for a total of almost 10,000 in addition to what we have now? That’s getting back to the pointless numbers of the Cold War. A nuclear war in which 100 or fewer nuclear weapons were exploded would  mess up the planet pretty thoroughly. Apparently O’Brien believes that one-to-one matching of nuclear weapons would be a deterrent? I will spare you a discussion of targeting beyond saying that when the US and the USSR had such numbers, they ran out of targets.

To do so, Washington must test new nuclear weapons for reliability and safety in the real world for the first time since 1992—not just by using computer models.

The Stockpile Stewardship Program isn’t “just…using computer models.” It’s spending some billions of dollars to develop an underground experimental facility at the Nevada National Security Site with big and fancy machines to look at what happens when a nuclear weapon explodes. That probably provides a lot more information on reliability and safety than just setting them off. But those big booms are STRONG! Setting up for nuclear explosive tests will require billions of dollars and several years.

If China and Russia continue to refuse to engage in good-faith arms control talks, the United States should also resume production of uranium-235 and plutonium-239, the primary fissile isotopes of nuclear weapons.

Ah well, good faith in arms control talks is hard to come by when one party is trying to annex a neighbor country, although there is a tiny bit of action with Russia. China’s argument is that with 500 nuclear weapons against 7000, there is no reason for them to limit their arms. Resuming production of uranium-235 is easier said than done, and there is no need to produce more plutonium.

The US decommissioned its gaseous diffusion facilities for uranium enrichment. The Centrus Corporation has run a demonstration plant with American-design centrifuges to produce a high reactor-grade enriched uranium. It has a license to build and operate a plant to produce a lower enriched uranium. Building such a plant will require billions of dollars and several years. No weapons-grade enrichment plant is on the drawing boards.

Plutonium pits from decommissioned weapons are stored at the Pantex Plant in Texas and could be used if more weapons are to be built. However, the plutonium plant at Rocky Flats was also decommissioned, and Los Alamos has been having difficulties coming up to 30 pits a year. A partly-built facility in South Carolina is being repurposed for pit production, but it is not likely to be ready until the 2030s. We might need more plutonium for 10,000 more weapons, though, so we can spend more billions over the next decade or so to build the reactors and processing plants to produce it.

This part of O’Brien’s article, like much of the rest, is bluster rather than strength. But that’s consistent with how Trump conducted his foreign policy when he was president.

Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

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