The US military establishment seems set to start a new Cold War with China,
Russia, and every other country it can paint as an enemy. As with the first
Cold War, it will not be complete without an arms race. This is exactly what
is happening right now with various
programs being implemented by the US government. Currently, the US has not
produced any new nuclear warheads since 1991, and the assembly lines at the
Pantex plant (where almost
all US nuclear weapons are assembled) have laid dormant for decades. This may
soon change, however. Congress and the President have already approved research
for the new B-21 bomber and Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, a new ICBM to
replace the Minuteman III, as well as building new tactical nuclear warheads,
the W93 and W76-2,
a small number of which have already been created.
In addition, more components of nuclear modernization are included
in this year’s National “Defense” Authorization Act (NDAA). These
include the Columbia class of ballistic missile submarines to replace
the Ohio class and the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) air-launch cruise missile
(ALCM). The modernization plan also includes upgrading
existing W87-0 warheads (yield of 300 Kilotons of TNT) to their W87-1 variant
(yield 475 KT), among other things.
There are 6
designs of nuclear weapons currently deployed in the US nuclear arsenal.
These include the W76 (SLBM warhead, mostly 76-1 variant, yield 90 KT), W78
(ICBM warhead, yield 475 KT), W80 (ALCM warhead, yield 5-150 KT), B83 (Strategic
bomber weapon, yield 1.2 MT), W87 (ICBM warhead, yield 300 KT), and W88 (SLBM
warhead, yield 475 KT). W93 (in development, unknown yield and type) and most
W76-2 (SLBM warhead, yield 5-7
KT) have not yet been deployed to delivery devices. The W76-2 is also created
by re-purposing other W76s, thus not requiring new warheads to be manufactured.
W76s make up the majority of the 1750 deployed nuclear weapons currently in
the US arsenal. Up to 12 of them (limited to 8 by treaty) can be placed on Trident
II Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), of which there are 240
assigned to carry nuclear warheads.
It is important to note that these weapons are substantially smaller than those
which were in the US nuclear arsenal during the Cold War period. The B53, carried
by the 50-60 Titan
II ICBMs deployed at the height of the Cold War, had a yield of 9 MT. The
500 manufactured B41
strategic weapons each had a yield of 25 MT. For comparison, the atomic
bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 15 KT, and all the bombs detonated
nation in WWII had a total yield of 5 MT. Thankfully, post-Cold War arms
control has led to the dismantlement of such weapons. However, if nuclear modernization
goes ahead as planned, this victory for peace may be short-lived.
Unlike the START and New START arms control agreements between the US and Russia,
such treaties exist for the US and China. Thus, despite China
only having about 350 total warheads (compared to America having 5,600), almost
all of which are on reserve, such nuclear modernization programs could cause
the Chinese to produce more. Currently, a nuclear war in which all deployed
weapons were used would cause around 300
million deaths due to the blast, firestorms, and fallout which comes directly
from explosions. However, the effect of smoke and soot being released from these
firestorms would substantially cool the planet, leading to a nuclear
winter. In particular, sulfur dioxide (also released in volcanic eruptions)
would be released in large quantities due to billions of tons of sulfur-containing
building materials being vaporized, such as concrete, drywall, and bricks. This
would decrease crop yields, increase the price of food, and cause hundreds of
millions more to starve to death. While the exact degree of these effects is
not exactly known, current
estimates place the global cooling which would occur at around 10 degrees
Fahrenheit, leading to around 1 billion total deaths.
Furthermore, due to economic development and new construction of buildings,
the global cooling effects that a war with a given number of nuclear warheads
would have is far higher now than it would be during the Cold War period. The
total weight of all man-made items is roughly three
times what it was during the 1980s. This means that a nuclear explosion
in a city such as Beijing or New York will vaporize far more sulfur-containing
building materials that it would have in the past, worsening nuclear winter.
These would be the most likely impacts of a nuclear war starting this moment.
While there are far more reserve nuclear warheads available to the world’s military
powers, it is unlikely that they could be mobilized before enemy strikes hit
weapons storage facilities. If the worldwide nuclear arsenal were to be increased
to the tens
of thousands of deployed warheads which existed at the height of the Cold
War, a nuclear war could cool the planet by as much as 50 degrees Fahrenheit,
which would cause 98% of the world’s population to starve to death. While current
nuclear modernization plans do not call for this, it is a possibility which
must be avoided by any means necessary. Furthermore, the total financial cost
of this modernization will be around $1.2 trillion, enough to fully eliminate
the income tax of roughly 70
million low-income Americans for one year.
However, the human costs of such weapons being produced make any financial
costs infinitesimal by comparison. ICBMs are a particularly high risk, as they
equipped with self-destruct systems (unlike virtually every other weapons
system in the US military), due to them increasing rocket weight, thus decreasing
payloads. This causes an accidental launch of these weapons to be irreversible.
However, nuclear planners in the early Cold War period saw hundreds of millions
of unintentional deaths as an acceptable risk for increasing missile payloads.
This has not changed in the last 65 years, as educational and media coverage
have desensitized the public to such existential threats.
Starté Butone was born in the United States and is interested in
foreign affairs. He regularly listens to the Scott Horton show and reads Antiwar.com.