Analysis

Published on February 5th, 2014 | by Wilbert van der Zeijden

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“If Nuclear Missiles launch, it will be by accident only”

There will always be incidents, says the expert. But it’s 2014, the political and military reality is that the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals could be taken off alert. A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall , the U.S. and Russia still keep 1,800 nuclear weapons pointed at each other, in silos or on submarines, ready to be launched immediately.

In any U.S. missile silo, from Montana to Wyoming, every second of the day, two Air Force officers are ready to start turning their keys at once. Within 5 to 15 minutes, they have a strategic underground Minuteman III missile to launch a warhead of 335 kilotons – sixteen times as powerful as the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

President Bush promised in 2000 to reduce solemnly the highest alert of intercontinental nuclear missiles. It never happened . President Obama criticized Bush for this, promised the same in 2007 , but so far without success . Obama, who last night held his sixth State of the Union, still has two years to fulfill his promise.

“Hello , it’s 2014 ,” says Hans Kristensen (53), one of the great connoisseurs of America’s nuclear arsenal. “What is the mission of these strategic missiles ? A major nuclear attack on Russia will not happen. The soldiers keeping the 450 Minute Man in continuous operation, are just sitting there, 24 hours a day, all year round . But turning those keys, it will never happen . ”

Kristensen, who works for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), hopes that Obama still manages to catch up and takes the nuclear weapons of their hair trigger alert. FAS was founded in 1945 by scientists involved in amongst others the Manhattan Project, wanting to help prevent a nuclear war. The highest level of alert , Kristensen argues, is unnecessary, too costly, and the risk of accidents is too great.

Especially now that the staff of the Minute Mans, who are stationed at three bases, has been constantly in the news for over a year. An officer slept during his service, some suffer from burnout , safety rules are violated and morale is low. This month an announcement was made that 34 officers are suspected of fraud in Montana at a proficiency examination. They have the responsibility for 150 Minute Mans.

These are the people who, as President Kennedy once said, “have the greatest destructive power in their hands a country or human being has ever devised”.
These incidents have always been there. Only today they are more visible. One day an officer took his launchcard with him. Some years ago a B – 52 carrying nuclear missiles on board flew across the U.S. without anyone knowing. Quite some investments have been made to prevent further incidents but the problem is not solved. The nuclear arsenal must be one hundred percent secure, but there will always be disruptions.

“Precisely to avoid a catastrophic accident, you would have to get of this state of highest alert. The number of nuclear weapons that the U.S. and Russia maintain continuous readiness, is inconsistent with the political and military realities. ”

Should Obama, who called for a world without nuclear weapons , have done more on the issue of nuclear arms control?
“He has done all the necessary . Under the New START Treaty , the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia will further be reduced. You can demand a lot , such as lowering the alert status , but it must also be politically feasible. Ratification by the U.S. of the CTBT treaty against nuclear testing is his main agenda . This is not possible in the current climate in Washington. The biggest problem is not Putin , but the Republicans in Congress . Obama should have been more assertive to get the New START treaty through Congress quickly.

The Cold War is over. But the U.S. and Russian nuclear power will be significantly modernized. Is that necessary ?
” The American modernization over the next ten years will cost the taxpayer $ 200 billion ( more than 145 billion euros ) . The twenty years after that it will cost another hundreds of billions . If modernization is needed is not the question. The U.S. now have 4,650 warheads which have to be maintained . The question is more what you need . Does the U.S. really need their entire nuclear triad – nuclear arms in the air , on land and at sea -, is that even necessary as a deterrent ? Just the twelve new nuclear submarines cost $ 100 billion . The Air Force is planning a new bomber and Minuteman will be modernized or replaced by a new missile . How much is enough ? There is still the Cold War mentality that you need everything. ”

The Netherlands also has to deal with this modernization . If it were up to the Hague , the JSF will be able to fire the much more accurate B -61 bomb .
“The modernization of the tactical nuclear weapons, will cost the U.S. $ 11 billion . Strikingly, the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, Norton Schwartz, this month advocated deleting the nuclear task for the JSF. The 200 B -61’s in Europe, including in the Netherlands, have no military purpose anymore. And modernization is unnecessary.”

TODAY’S DEBATE ON NUCLEAR TASK OF THE NETHERLANDS
The House of Representatives today talks with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans and Jeanine Hennis – Plasschaert of Defence about the nuclear task for the JSF . A majority in November voted in favour of the SP resolution by Van Dijk to have no nuclear mission for the successor of the F -16 no nuclear mission . For this mission, two hundred American B – 61 nuclear bombs are available , of which twenty are stored in the Netherlands. This month, the government announced to ignore this resolution. According to the ministers , the NATO nuclear task can not be unilaterally terminated by the Netherlands .

“If the government finds nuclear disarmament important,” said Krista van Velzen from IKV Pax Christi, ” this motion provides a mandate for a wonderful step in the right direction .”

“This schizophrenic position can not last long ,” argues nuclear expert Hans Kristensen , who previously was an advisor the Danish Ministry of Defence advised. ” On the one hand, the Netherlands wants real reduction in the number of nuclear weapons . But on the other hands, it is not willing to act accordingly.”

This article (author: Stieven Ramdharie) is published in Dutch newspaper Volkskrant on 29 January 2014 and is translated into English by PAX (formerly known as ‘IKV Pax Christi’)

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About the Author

Wilbert van der Zeijden is the senior researcher of the Security and DIsarmament team of PAX. Wilbert currently focusses on getting US nuclear weapons out of Europe; WMD out of the Middle East and your savings out of nuclear weapons producing companies. He graduated at the Vrije University in Amsterdam and previously worked for about nine years for the think-tank Transnational Institute, as their Peace and Security Programme coordinator. Wilbert’s research interests include humanitarian disarmament, NATO and European security, toxic legacies of war and developments in international military infrastructure.



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