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Does the U.S. need new nuclear weapons?

Missiles standing near Gate 1 at the Francis E Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, WY. (Ron Buskirk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Missiles standing near Gate 1 at the Francis E Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, WY. (Ron Buskirk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The U.S. is building new nuclear weapons, including a massive missile called the Sentinel.

They’re up to 20 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The program could cost more than $130 billion.

Today, On Point: Why does America need new nuclear weapons?

Guests

Stephen Young, senior Washington representative for the Global Security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Honorable Madelyn Creedon, principal deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2014 to 2017.

Also Featured

Jeremy Murray, manager, Air Force Global Strike Command ICBM Policy.

Sarah Scoles, freelance science journalist. Author of the book “Countdown: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons.

Transcript

Part I

ASSOCIATION OF AIR FORCE MISSILEERS: A new ICBM baseline design, which will deploy 400 new missiles, update 450 silos, and modernize more than 600 facilities across almost 40,000 square miles of U.S. territory, which spans over six states, three operational wings, and a test location.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: That is from a video produced by the Association of Air Force Missileers.

It’s describing a massive new nuclear missile called the Sentinel. The Sentinel program would replace America’s 400 existing land-based Minuteman III nuclear missiles. And the project has a price tag north of 130 billion. The U.S. Air Force says the United States’ existing nuclear arsenal is decades old and in need of modernization.

Here’s Lt. Gen. Richard Moore, Jr., the Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for plans and programs earlier this year.

MOORE, JR.: There is not a viable service life extension program that we can foresee for Minuteman III. It was fielded in the 70s as a 10-year weapon. And we will do everything we can to keep it in the field. It will remain safe, secure and reliable. But extending it for some lengthy period of time, that’s not a viable option. And so Sentinel will be funded. We’ll make the trades that it takes to make that happen.

CHAKRABARTI: The 130 billion outlay was not the Air Force’s original estimated cost. In January, the Air Force revealed that the Sentinel program likely would exceed its projected budgeted costs by 37%.

And that cost breach triggered a mandatory investigation of the program by the Pentagon. Some in Congress, like Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, are deeply troubled by Sentinel’s growing price tag. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February, Warren pressed General Anthony Cotton, commander of the Air Force’s Strategic Command, on just how much higher Sentinel’s budget overrun would go, even as the Air Force is having trouble delivering on the project.

Even before this latest cost breach, there were bright blinking warnings that this program was not on track. We got to have a plan here that is actually going to work. We can’t just keep burning money.

CHAKRABARTI: While Sentinel’s ballooning budget is the target of public scrutiny now, the truth is, the United States is on a nuclear spending spree.

This nation is on track to spend more than a trillion dollars on a nuclear modernization program that spans multiple presidential administrations. New silos, new bombers, new, more devastating, nuclear weapons. And while the recent political outcry has been over dollars and cents, another important question is, what is the sense behind doubling down on nuclear weapons and the fear of mutually assured destruction as the centerpiece of not just U.S., but global security?

Joining us now is Stephen Young. He’s Senior Washington Representative for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Stephen, welcome to On Point.

STEPHEN YOUNG: Thank you, Meghna. I wish I could say I’m happy to be here, but I’m actually not happy to be here because this is a scary topic.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah.

YOUNG: But it’s a very important one, and we need to talk about it.

CHAKRABARTI: So let’s talk about it in detail, because you’ve written quite extensively on the overall plans and expansions of America’s nuclear arsenal. I’d like first to learn more from you about Sentinel. These are missiles that haven’t yet fully been constructed, because obviously there’s an issue about the delivery of the program.

But what is the Sentinel missile? How would it ostensibly work? It is a land based, long range nuclear armed missile.

YOUNG: Each missile would carry one to two or three warheads potentially, and each warhead would likely be about 20 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Japanese war.

So these are massively powerful weapons that have about a 30-minute flight time from the U.S. to almost anywhere in the world. We’ve had these systems like this for decades, but in reality, we don’t need them at all. We actually have no need for land-based missiles. We can be perfectly safe without them.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So when we say that there are orders many times the strength of, or the devastation power of the bombs that landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you’re talking about then therefore bombs that could kill millions and millions of people, should they be used.

YOUNG: That’s correct. Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, their land base, which is the key thing here. You’ve also written about other weapons systems, for example and, there’s a lot of, we’re talking about the Defense Department, so there’s a lot of acronyms and numbers here, help me keep them straight. Is this, is Sentinel the same thing or something different as the proposed gravity bomb that has been discussed before.

YOUNG: So the U.S. maintains what’s called a triad of nuclear systems, the land-based weapons are one leg of that triad. Another leg is the air based weapons delivered by jet fighters and bombers. That’s what uses gravity bombs. And the third leg are missiles launched from submarines at sea.

The third leg of the triad. So we have navy, ICBMs, bombers, and nuclear armed submarines, are the three legs of the nuclear triad. I would argue we could get rid of one, if not two of those legs of the triad and still have a very strong deterrent to keep us safe.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so the gravity bomb then is the one that’s also, it’s flown in by a bomber.

And there’s one at least that you’ve written about called the B61-12, which as you report, would cost more than its weight in gold. Is it in production though?

YOUNG: It is. It’s taken a very long time and cost far more than initially estimated. But yes, it’s in production now. And they will complete production in the next two to three years, probably. And it will be deployed in the United States and also about a hundred U.S. weapons are actually deployed in Europe, and four or five European countries maintain U.S. nuclear weapons. And should a war happen, those weapons would be handed over to those countries for nuclear war fighting.

It’s a scary thought.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s gravity bombs. And then Sentinel falls under the land-based missiles that you talked about a bit earlier.

YOUNG: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Are there other land based missiles that are in development, or new types of warheads? We only have the one land based missile currently deployed, the Minuteman III, and the one to replace that is the Sentinel.

Minuteman III, as we mentioned in the previous discussion, was deployed first in the ’70s. It’s been updated and upgraded many times since then, so it’s not still a 70-year-old missile but it definitely needs to be refurbished again, or simply retired. I would argue we should retire it.

But yes the Sentinel Missile is the only missile we will have, if it is indeed built, despite the cost increases it’s going through. And then again, the third leg is the nuclear armed submarines. … 20 or so nuclear armed missiles that have mini warheads on those.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And so are there new sea based or submarine based ballistic missiles in development? Because I think you’ve written about a new warhead. Is that different than the quote, low yield warhead that the Trump administration deployed?

YOUNG: So the submarines can carry, each submarine has currently 20 missiles on it, and they can carry multiple warheads, and some of those warheads, most of those warheads are very high yield weapons.

Again, ones that are 20 to 30 times the size of the bomb dropped in Hiroshima. But under the Trump administration, the U.S. has had to deploy a few weapons that are lower yield, only a third of the size of the bomb dropped in Hiroshima. But still, if you drop it in a big city, that would kill tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people in minutes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

YOUNG: Still, massive destruction.

CHAKRABARTI: But Stephen, I just want to be sure that I hear you clearly. So the low yield ones are a third of the size of Hiroshima, which is still very devastating. And then you say the other regular yield submarine based nuclear weapons, I want to be sure I’m not mishearing you, were 20 to 30 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima?

YOUNG: That’s correct. And in total, if you add up all the explosive yield of all the bombs on U.S. submarines, one submarine has seven times the destructive power of all the bombs used in World War II. And we have 12 of those submarines. So one submarine, again, has seven times destructive power of all the bombs used in World War II.

And we have 12 of those.

CHAKRABARTI: All the bombs, including conventional artillery and yes, fire bombs, et cetera. Not just nuclears bombs.

YOUNG: Yeah, that’s correct.

CHAKRABARTI: All the bombs of all types, including nuclear bombs in World War II.

YOUNG: It’s just incalculable the level of obstruction we have at our fingertips.

CHAKRABARTI: And yet, this is an effort to modernize and even expand America’s nuclear might, is an effort that has been consistent over several administrations, both Republican and Democratic. We’ll talk in a little bit more detail about what happened under Obama, what happened under Trump and what may be going on under Biden.

But what’s your conclusion from that, that there’s a consistency from the White House and also the Pentagon, in the belief that this massive modernization and expansion of America’s nuclear power is essential for U.S. security?

YOUNG: Yes. And there is a bipartisan consensus at one level that the U.S. needs to maintain a nuclear deterrent. If you actually have a vote in the U.S. Congress, most Democrats actually would support getting rid of the Sentinel Missile Program, but not enough of them. So if the President called for cancelling the Sentinel Missile, he probably would lose a vote in Congress because enough Democrats agree with Republicans that they think this is a valuable contribution.

But the reality is the military simulations they play out are just so terrifying, that people worry, oh, we have to be just sure that we’re going to be safe by having more of this destructive capability. But the reality is we have still far more than we need. And I think the argument to me is pretty clear that the risk is simply not worth it.

We don’t need this massive nuclear arsenal. We don’t need redundancy upon redundancy. We don’t need to have every target covered multiple times with multiple yield warheads that are massively destructive. It’s simply overkill, again and again.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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