global issues

Nuclear and Other Weapons Issues

Weapons Development

"The US government insists that other countries do not possess nuclear weapons. On the other hand they are perfecting their own arsenal. I do not think that corresponds with the treaty they signed." (Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, International Atomic Energy Director General, Financial Review, September 2003)

Missile Defense
In the early 1980's, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sought to develop a national nuclear defense system against ballistic missiles. He soon launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly called the "Star Wars" program, which suffered from cost overruns and technical infeasibility. Every Presidential administration since that time has provided funding for missile defense research, even though this research has been subject to technical limitations and international objections. Though missile defense research is legal, the deployment of a missile defense system was prohibited under the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Then, on June 13, 2002, President George W. Bush formally ended U.S. participation in the ABM treaty, acknowledging that the treaty obstructed development of a missile defense program.

Deployment and Related Risks
In December 2002, Bush announced his plans to deploy missile defense capabilities in 2004 and 2005 in Alaska and California. The President's decision to deploy a missile defense system came despite a failure the week before of an anti-missile test over the Pacific Ocean. The announcement, criticized by both Russia and China, also came on the heels of North Korea's declaration that it is proceeding with a controversial program to develop nuclear weapons.

Ground-based and sea-based sensors, also known as interceptors, are now operational in Fort Greely, Alaska, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and aboard seven ships. In addition, President Bush is also pushing to deploy missile defense interceptors in Europe. All of these interceptor sites face significant environmental risks associated with the military construction and deployment of large rocket engines. In addition, other space assets such as commercial broadcasting satellites, military satellites, the International Space Station, the U.S. Space Shuttle, and civilian agency satellites monitoring disasters, could be harmed or destroyed by wayward space debris created by missile defenses.

Since 1999, the ground-based missile defense system has scored 6 hits in 11 intercept attempts. The ship-based ballistic missile defense system has scored 8 hits in 10 intercept attempts since 2002.

Skyrocketing Costs
Under the Bush administration, missile defenses have received $7 billion to $9 billion annually, and those figures continue to climb. A January 2003 report from the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation contends that the cumulative cost of a "layered" missile defense system could cost between $800 billion and $1.2 trillion. Though the U.S. has already spent billions of dollars trying to create a viable system, none of the technology developed has been tested against realistic missile threats. Furthermore, the technology that is most developed (a ground-based system) can be defeated by simple countermeasures.

What We Think About Missile Defense
The Kirsch Foundation opposes further deployment of missile defense systems for several reasons:

  • Missile defense does not address the most serious nuclear threat to U.S. and world security today, which stems from non-missile delivery. Experts, including former high-ranking military officials, believe that terrorist attacks using unsecured nuclear material pose a much greater risk than "rogue states" launching missiles with a return address for retaliation.
  • A missile defense system encourages a new worldwide nuclear arms race. The pursuit of this program already has led to U.S. termination of the ABM Treaty, which the U.S. had honored since 1972. Ending the agreement paves the way for deployment of a defense system and opens the door for other countries to begin developing countermeasures to U.S. missiles. With defense systems in place, the doctrine of "mutually assured destruction," which prevented nuclear weapon usage for decades, ceases to be relevant. Missile defense ultimately creates less global security than missiles alone.
  • By pursuing this experimental technology, the U.S. receives all of the security risks with none of the benefits. Despite its deployment, missile defense remains an unproven technological system. Further, the cost to design and implement missile defense is estimated in the hundred-plus billion-dollar range, raising serious questions about U.S. budget priorities.

Weapons in Space
With the U.S. emphasizing a space-based approach to a missile defense program, it is clear that the current Administration places a high value on the potential of outer space as the next military frontier. The world has, so far, cooperated to explore space peacefully; adding weapons to space would create a hostile political climate. In addition, space-based weapons have serious potential to endanger civilian satellites and the commerce they facilitate.

If the U.S. introduces space weaponry, other countries are likely to follow suit and multiply the global threat. Further, placing weapons in space could negatively impact business. Americans depend greatly on satellite technology such as ATM machines, credit cards, cell phones, and the Internet. Disruption of commercial satellites, either by military accidents or from hostile countries' participation in a space arms race, poses an unmanageable threat to the economy. Experts estimate that if a 10 kiloton nuclear weapon exploded at a high enough altitude over a country, 90% of the world's low earth orbit satellites would be rendered useless within a month. The implications of such a nuclear explosion include disabled military communications and navigational equipment as well as billions of dollars in replacement costs for lost civilian satellites.

Congressional Action on Missile Defense
For the status of House and Senate action on missile defense and space weapons issues, visit the Council for a Livable World or Friends Committee on National Legislation.

New Nuclear Weapons

Though the U.S. signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and last tested nuclear weapons in 1992, the Bush Administration has signaled its intent to resume testing. In early 2002, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) demonstrated U.S. resolve to develop a new generation of nuclear delivery systems. Arms control experts believe that this intense investment in nuclear weapons and military technology comes without a clear threat to national security from other nations.

The NPR outlined the military's desire for a new type of nuclear weapon, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), known as a "bunker buster" because of its ability to destroy underground bunkers. Given the RNEP can be 30 to 70 times the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, there is significant published evidence that such a weapon would create widespread radioactive fallout and is of dubious military utility.

In addition, the NPR suggests the development of "mini-nukes," which are smaller, low-yield nuclear weapons – below five kilotons – that are also capable of being detonated underground. With a perceived lesser chance of fallout, mini-nukes increase the odds that a nuclear weapon would be used in response to a non-nuclear threat. Still, President Bush has acknowledged that all options are open, including the use of mini-nukes, in protecting the U.S. from other countries' weapons of mass destruction. According to the NPR, the ability to develop these low-yield weapons is essential to maintaining deterrence and the skills of nuclear weapon engineers.

While development of the RNEP appears to be off the legislative table for now, the U.S. is embarking on a program to develop the Reliable Replacement Warhead, or RRW. In addition, the Department of Energy is embarking upon a massive reorganization and refurbishment of the nuclear weapons complex. Many in the arms control community believe this effort, called Complex 2030, is an attempt by the Bush Administration to revitalize U.S. nuclear weapons production capabilities in order to build the RRW.

Kirsch Foundation Position on Building New Nuclear Weapons
The Kirsch Foundation joins its arms control colleague organizations in opposition to building any new nuclear weapons for the following reasons:

  • The development of low-yield nuclear weapons blurs the distinction between conventional and nuclear war. This would make the use of nuclear weapons more likely, and break a taboo on the use of nuclear weapons in place since World War II.
  • If the U.S. increases its nuclear arsenal, particularly by adding weapons considered more "usable," it may encourage other nations to develop their own nuclear weapons so that they can deter a nuclear attack. The U.S. would be stepping away from decades of arms control and setting off a nuclear "free-for-all."
  • The use of a nuclear weapon of any size could cause massive civilian casualties. Studies by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Center for Security and International Cooperation have shown that it is not possible for a bunker buster to burrow deeply enough underground to avoid throwing out a massive amount of radioactive dirt and other fallout. And many of these hardened bunkers are located in urban or other civilian areas.
  • Building new nuclear weapons may lead the U.S. to resume nuclear testing, breaking a decade-long moratorium begun by President George H.W. Bush.

Congressional Action on New Nuclear Weapons
For information about House and Senate action on new nuclear weapons issues, go to the Council for a Livable World.

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