Obama Wants to Spend a Trillion Dollars on New Generation of Nuclear Weapons
News organizations love anniversary stories and if for some reason you haven't heard, it's the 70th anniversary of when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. The first exploded over Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and the second over Nagasaki on Aug. 9.
— Mines Action Canada (@MinesActionCan) August 5, 2015
Not surprisingly, there's been a proliferation of print and broadcast stories on the making of the bomb, the politics of the bomb, the dropping of the bomb, the survivors of the bomb—you name it. The Washington Post even ran a story about a 390-year-old Japanese white pine now in the U.S. National Arboretum that survived the Hiroshima blast.
Despite all this coverage, however, I didn't notice any stories that bothered to mention the fact that the Obama administration wants the U.S. government to spend as much as $1 trillion over the next three decades on a new generation of nuclear warheads, bombers, submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Isn't it time, as nutritionist Susan Powter used to say, to stop the insanity?
U.S. Military Budget Higher than Cold War Average
Having grown up during the Cold War, nuclear bombs are all too familiar. In October 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, my elementary school conducted regular drills, lining up all the boys and girls and leading us single file to the building's basement fallout shelter. In retrospect, it was a moderately better option than cowering under our desks. Years later, in the mid-1980s, I was the editor of Nuclear Times, a bimonthly magazine that covered what turned out to be the end of the Cold War. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev waved the white flag at the United Nations (UN) in 1988, there was great excitement about what was then called the "peace dividend." No more Cold War, no more Cold War defense spending. Perhaps the U.S. government could finally use the billions it was lavishing on the military, the nuclear weapons complex and defense contractors for other, more socially useful, ends.
But the peace dividend never happened. At $610 billion, the annual U.S. military budget today is actually higher than it was on average during the Cold War and is more than the combined military budgets of the next seven countries: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India and our longtime NATO allies France, Germany and the United Kingdom (UK). It eats up more than half of the U.S. annual discretionary budget.
To be sure, thanks to a series of treaties, both the U.S. and Russia have cut their respective nuclear arsenals considerably since the end of the Cold War. In 1988, the Soviets had 37,000 nuclear weapons and the U.S. had 23,000. Today, Russia has an estimated stockpile of 4,500 warheads, of which 1,800 strategic warheads are deployed on missiles and at bomber bases. The U.S., meanwhile, has an estimated stockpile of 4,800 warheads. Approximately 2,100 of them are deployed on ballistic missiles or at bomber bases. That's a lot less than 30 years ago, but keep in mind that just one of those warheads is five to 40 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, which exploded with a force of 20,000 tons of TNT.
The 3+2 Warhead Plan Doesn't Add Up
In April 2009—just a few months after taking office—President Obama gave a widely acclaimed speech in Prague that focused largely on the threat posed by nuclear weapons. "The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War," he said. "And as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it." He then cited some of the "concrete steps" the U.S. would take "toward a world without nuclear weapons."
Later that year, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, largely because of that speech. And in April 2010, he was back in Prague to follow through with one of his promised concrete steps: to sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, further cutting both countries arsenals and reinstituting a strict verification system that the Bush administration had dropped.
Since then, however, the Obama administration has apparently forgotten that Obama called for putting an "end to Cold War thinking" during that Prague speech. Remarkably, the administration is proposing that the U.S. government spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to refurbish or replace the current nuclear arsenal.
Approximately $60 billion is slated to replace existing nuclear weapons with a suite of new warheads, a task that would be handled by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy. The NNSA plan specifically calls for building new nuclear material production facilities and consolidating the current stockpile of seven types of warheads into five. The arsenal of tomorrow would consist of three warheads deployed on Air Force and Navy long-range missiles and two types of air-delivered weapons deployed on cruise missiles and bombers.
The so-called "3+2" plan, however, violates the spirit if not the letter of the Obama administration's pledge to not develop new nuclear weapons. Besides that, it's fiscally irresponsible and technologically problematic, according to a 2013 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report.
"The U.S. needs to extend the life of its nuclear arsenal, but it should refurbish its existing weapons instead of spending tens of billions of dollars to build new ones," said report co-author Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of UCS's Global Security Program.
The NNSA plan's major technical drawback, she added, is that it could be difficult for the agency to certify that its new warheads are safe, secure and reliable without nuclear explosive testing. The U.S., which conducted its last explosive test in 1992, has signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty prohibiting them.
"The NNSA can vouch for the safety and reliability of currently deployed or refurbished warheads," she said, "but the same level of confidence may not be possible if the agency makes substantial modifications."
The Air Force and Navy Want New Toys
While the Energy Department is counting on funding for new warhead designs, the Defense Department is queuing up for new nuclear bombers, cruise missiles and submarines.
The Air Force wants a new stealth plane, dubbed the Long Range Strike Bomber, or B-3 bomber for short, that can reach targets deep inside Russia and China. The Air Force would like 80 to 100 of them at an estimated cost of $550 million each. Loren Thompson, an executive at the defense contractor-funded Lexington Institute, estimates the plane will more likely cost $900 million per plane, after factoring in inflation and a $20-billion research and development program to figure out its design. The planes wouldn't be operational until at least 2025.
Northrop Grumman and Boeing, the two main contractors that produced the problem-plagued B-2 stealth bomber, are vying for the contract. You may remember the bat-shaped, black B-2. At $3 billion apiece in today's dollars—the most expensive plane ever built—it didn't quite perform as advertised. It turned out the bomber only worked properly in fair weather. Its skin, which gives it its radar-evading "stealth," deteriorated in rain, heat and humidity. The Air Force originally planned to order 132 B-2s, but settled for only 20 after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Even so, do we really need a new stealth bomber? The Air Force has been spending billions of dollars to upgrade the three bombers it already has, the Center for Public Integrity reported in a March 2012 exposé and "has acknowledged the B-1 and B-52 will be structurally sound for at least another 29 years—and the B-2 potentially for another 50 or more."
The Air Force also covets a new nuclear-armed cruise missile to replace its Air-Launched Cruise Missile, due for retirement in 2030. Called the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon, its proponents bill it as "a hundred times" more capable than its predecessor—faster, more accurate, stealthy, longer range—and nuclear-tipped. The estimated LRSO budget is pegged at as much as $32 billion: $20 billion for the missile and $8 billion to $12 billion for the warhead.
Putting aside the cost, the LRSO is both unnecessary and dangerous, according to UCS senior analyst Stephen Young.
"The Air Force is already counting on an updated B61-12 [nuclear] gravity bomb and the Long Range Strike Bomber, the new super-stealthy penetrating bomber," Young pointed out in a blog post earlier this year. "Why exactly do we need both a penetrating bomber with a gravity bomb and a long-range cruise missile that would be carried by the same bomber?"
More troubling, "nuclear-armed cruise missiles create a real risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation," Young added. It would be impossible for an adversary to know whether the U.S. had launched a conventional or nuclear cruise missile, which could very well trigger a nuclear war.
Not to be outdone, the Navy wants a dozen new-generation, nuclear-armed submarines to replace its Ohio class subs by 2030. It estimates the total cost of the new subs at $79 billion, or on average $6.6 billion each, while the Congressional Budget Office projects a total cost of $92 billion, or $7.7 billion each.
Does the Navy really need 12 new nuclear subs? Critics say no. With budget constraints likely to continue into the future, the Pentagon will have to weigh the cost of that many subs against other pressing needs.
Let's Really Put an End to Cold War Thinking
Fortunately, cooler heads in Congress are pushing back on the rush to saddle U.S. taxpayers with a trillion-dollar bill for weapons that can never be used. Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey and Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer have reintroduced legislation this session that would cut $100 billion over the next 10 years from U.S. nuclear weapons programs.
Among other things, the proposed bill—aptly titled the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures (SANE) Act—would pay for only eight new replacement submarines, cut new warhead programs and defer development of new ICBMs, delay development of the B-3 and cancel new nuclear weapons-making facilities.
"We cannot afford these weapon systems and we don't need them," Blumenauer said in a press release he and Markey issued when they originally introduced the bill in February 2014. "They are dangerous and costly to store and maintain. We can make the world and our country, safer by reducing spending on these programs that we haven't used in 69 years and are better suited for the Cold War than the strategic challenges we face today."
The SANE Act doesn't have a ghost of a chance to pass Congress. But there are a number of things President Obama can do on his own—without Congress and without Russia—during the final lap of his last term to make good on the promises he made in Prague six years ago. David Wright, co-director of UCS's Global Security Program, spelled them out in a July blog post:
The president should take U.S. land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert and remove options from U.S. war plans to launch nuclear weapons based on warning of an attack. This option has led to the increased risk of a nuclear launch a disturbing number of times in past decades and has been called for by high-level military and political officials—including President Obama.
He should also declare a policy of "sole purpose," that is, make it U.S. policy that the only use for its nuclear weapons is to deter and if necessary respond to, a nuclear attack. Today, the U.S. reserves the option to use nuclear weapons first.
[Finally,] he should require that the U.S. not develop new nuclear weapons, but instead refurbish U.S. warheads as they age to keep the U.S. deterrent credible. Currently the administration is proposing a new, untested warhead design that may lead to pressure on a future administration to restart nuclear testing. A resumption of testing would undermine the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as well as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Again, President Obama has the authority to take these concrete steps before he leaves office. And what more fitting way to commemorate the atomic bomb's 70th anniversary by doing just that? Otherwise, perhaps he should give his Nobel Peace Prize back.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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