Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Our aging nuclear arsenal

Outdated and underfunded, America’s decrepit nuclear program could be one mishap away from catastrophe.

How bad is the situation?
The Pentagon recently admitted there are “systemic
problems across the nuclear enterprise.” Thanks
to arms-control treaties and the end of the Cold
War, the U.S. has reduced its stockpile of nuclear
weapons from 31,000 to about 4,800 over the
last 48 years. But as fears of nuclear war eased,
the government failed to adequately maintain and
update this immensely dangerous arsenal, which
still contains enough collective destructive force
to lay waste to every country on Earth. The U.S.’s
450 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)
are stored in decaying 60-year-old nuclear silos in
Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming that look
like a poorly maintained Cold War museum. The
demoralized Air Force personnel safeguarding the
weapons have been plagued by scandals reaching to
the very top of the command structure—including
drug rings, mislaid missiles, and widespread cheating
on readiness tests. Today, the real nuclear threat to America
isn’t an enemy strike, says Air Force Lt. Gen. James Kowalski. It’s
“an accident. The greatest risk…is doing something stupid.”
How old are America’s nukes?
The average age of a U.S. nuclear warhead is 27 years. Many of
the buildings where the nuclear missiles and bombs are stored
date back to the 1950s—and it shows. Blast doors on the country’s
nuclear missile silos are too rusty to seal shut. The roof of
a security complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that houses most of the
U.S. supply of enriched uranium collapsed in March. For years,
the three ICBM complexes had just one working wrench available
to tighten the bolts on the missiles’ warheads. When the wrench
was needed, the workers would FedEx it from base to base.
Today, the principal information technology used to operate and
launch the ICBMs is an 8-inch floppy disk from the 1960s.
Is the staff demoralized?
That’s an understatement. The Air Force officers spend long
shifts in a hole underground waiting for a launch order that will
probably never come, while “their
buddies from the B-52s and B-2s tell
them all sorts of exciting stories about
doing real things in Afghanistan and
Iraq,” Hans Kristensen, director of
the Federation of American Scientists’
Nuclear Information Project, told
Mother Jones. That sense of frustration
has led to trouble. In 2013, the
Pentagon announced it was investigating
a drug ring across six missile
launch facilities. Then, when examining
the phones of two Montana
officers suspected of using ecstasy and
amphetamines, Air Force commanders
unwittingly uncovered a cheating scandal
implicating 98 missileers. The officers
had been texting one another the
answers for the monthly exams, which
test a missileer’s knowledge of security
procedures and classified launch codes. The institutional
rot has led to a number of frightening
Such as?
In 2007, six nuclear missiles went missing from
a North Dakota facility for 36 hours. It turned
out they’d been accidentally attached to a plane’s
wings and flown over several states to Louisiana,
where they were left sitting unprotected on the
tarmac for hours. A year before, four missile
nose cones were accidentally sent to Taiwan
instead of helicopter batteries. The most serious
near- disaster occurred back on Jan. 21, 1961,
when two nuclear bombs slipped from the belly
of a B-52 flying over the North Carolina city of
Goldsboro. Both bombs were set to detonate,
and failed to do so after suffering minor damage
to the parts needed to initiate an explosion—a
stroke of luck that saved the city from annihilation.
What’s being done to improve the situation?
Before announcing his resignation in November, Defense Secretary
Chuck Hagel announced $7.5 billion in extra funding over five
years to cover management changes, training, and weapons
upgrades. He was following the lead of President Obama, who
has reversed his 2009 pledge to seek a “world without nuclear
weapons.” Not only has Obama overseen the slowest five-year
reduction of warheads in the past 20 years, but the president has
also called for $1 trillion in nuclear modernization over 30 years,
with a commitment to 400 land-based missiles, 100 new bombers,
and 12 new missile-firing submarines. Some defense experts
think he’s foolish to try to maintain a vast nuclear force created
for 20th-century superpower threats. “It’s not missileers who are
at fault; it’s the mission,” says Joseph Cirincione, a global security
expert and author of the book Nuclear Nightmares.
What do hawks say?
They point to recent world events—such as the standoff with
Russia over Ukraine and the
volatility of nuclear-armed North
Korea—as a reason for America
to maintain a strong nuclear deterrent.
Still, former Vice Chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James
Cartwright thinks the U.S. should
eliminate ICBMs entirely and focus
on smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons,
such as plane-carried bombs.
But for the foreseeable future, says
Pentagon adviser Joe Braddock, the
U.S. will try to keep its existing arsenal
from falling apart. “The interesting
thing about a nuclear deterrent is
that enough of it has to be visible to
scare the living daylights out of the
enemy,” he says. “But if you are not
careful, you scare the living daylights
out of yourself.”

The world’s most tedious job
Overseeing the country’s nuclear missiles sounds
like a thrilling job—in theory. But the workday of
an average missileer is, in fact, mind-numbingly
tedious. Air Force personnel have to work grueling
24-hour shifts inside a cramped capsule
buried 60 feet underground, completing checklist
after monotonous checklist. The air in the capsule
is recycled and stale, with only a tiny prison toilet
shared between officers. When problems arise,
the missileers have no choice but to improvise:
When two sewer pipes ruptured at a Montana
launch facility, officers were forced to defecate
into a cardboard box lined with a plastic bag—a
demeaning situation that went on for months.
“You are sitting there being told you are operating
the most vital system to the defense of the
country,” a former missileer told Mother Jones,
“and there you are s----ing and pissing in a bag.”


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