By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
For the first time in roughly thirty years, the United States has begun production on a short-range “tactical missile”, the W76-2. To do so, the president has “suspended” compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-ranged Nuclear Missiles (INF) treaty. The president has claimed this is in response to Russia violating the treaty already, and said that Russia has been stockpiling tactical nuclear weapons since the end of the cold war in 1991.
Let’s look at a few facts about this. First of all, understand that nuclear weapons have global impact. In my old Alma mater, there was a chemist that used to get excited every time he heard about another nuclear weapon test. He would plant a radiation detector on top of the chemistry building and let it run. No matter the size of the weapon, or the location of the test, he would see a spike in the radiation as it passed the detector, and that was with a single warhead. In a nuclear exchange with multiple warheads, the spread would be worse.
The concept of a “winnable” nuclear weapons exchange, as “tactical warhead” implies, is very dangerous thinking. In fact, what has kept us out of a nuclear war is the thought of “guaranteed mutual destruction”, meaning we have enough weapons to destroy them, and they have enough to destroy us regardless of who launched first. In a “limited” nuclear exchange, once nuclear warheads are deployed, there is not stopping the thought process of moving to increasingly large nuclear weapons when one side begins to gain an advantage over the other. To believe a nuclear war is “winnable” is to believe that it is “safe” to use nuclear weapons.
At this point, no doubt some of my readers are thinking, “Yeah, but Russia…” This information was relayed by the president, but sadly, he has shown no reservations about fabricating stories to support his interests. From the campaign trail, he has told verifiable lies for many of his priorities to support his position, and continued to tell them even when the lies were exposed. So the first question has to be whether or not the president actually is telling the truth. Frankly, this is a shameful question that we should have to ask, even if it is true, but doubt on the viability of this claim is built in immediately.
But for arguments sake, let’s say that Russia has been stockpiling tactical nuclear weapons since the end of the cold war. At this point, these weapons would be over twenty-five years old. The difficulty in building atomic weapons is not really the delivery system, but the purification process. To purify the elements needed to build a fission bomb (which is used to initiate a fission explosion in a fission-fusion bomb), the required technology is so advanced that only a handful of countries can actually do it. The purity required for an actual atomic detonation is extremely high. The problem is that the fissionable material also decomposes. This means the fuel itself becomes a contaminant, and rendering the warhead unusable. The fuel for every nuclear warhead must be replaced every few years.
Russia can do this. That’s not the point, but the real question is whether or not they would. At the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was so broke that they had to leave cosmonauts on the international space station because they could not afford to bring them down. (Don’t worry; the delay lasted several months, but eventually they were brought back to earth safely.) If you think about this, they didn’t have to ship anything up to the space station. The cosmonauts had everything that they needed, but Russia could not afford the recovery and tracking services which would be a fraction of what it cost to send them up. So, throughout their economic collapse, would they have bothered to refuel the small tactical weapons? Or would they just focus on the big weapons?
Either way, the loss of the treaty makes the world a far more dangerous place. If indeed Russia were violating the treaty, a president with true leadership capabilities would have presented the evidence to force Russia back to the negotiating table.
In 1979, the US entered into the SALT II treaty, just three years before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1981. This treaty reduced the number of nuclear weapons, but left enough weapons in Russia’s and America’s arsenal to guarantee that the first country that uses them is essentially committing suicide. George W. Bush walked out on this treaty, again without attempting to re-negotiate it, leading to North Koreajump-starting their nuclear weapons research. His claim was that that there was no way to verify that Russia was not testing nuclear weapons underground, but this is false. We can pinpoint the exact location of any nuclear detonation in the world, on ground, above or below, and determine the yield using the same technology that pinpoints the epicenter of earthquakes. Ironically, he was also the first US president that was too young to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As for our current president, this is the second nuclear treaty he has abandoned. Despite opposition from nearly every other nation in the world, and over the protests of those verifying the terms, he walked out on the Iran deal that prevented the country from developing nuclear weapons. The treaty was limited term, but also required Iran to return to negotiations or the sanctions would automatically be re-imposed. Now he has left the INF as well.
Of course, many people will cheer on this new weapon. It’s unfortunate that, in my opinion, this country seems to treat weapons and war as some kind of sporting event. But the question that we really need to ask is if we are actually safer with this new arms race and the lost treaties.