EVEN as the world watches while the US threatens, bullies and blackmails North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons, and does the same with Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons programme, the leaders of the axis of evil, the USA and Britain have unashamedly launched expansive programmes of building new nuclear arsenals for the 21st century. Hypocrisy and naked hegemonic ambitions have, more than ever before, marked the latest moves by the US and its trans-Atlantic partner Britain, the new imperial power and the former colonial one, to design and deploy more deadly nuclear weapons.
The rationale advanced by the George W. Bush-Tony Blair axis has been the now familiar and fantastic argument that they need new nuclear arsenals to defend themselves against “rogue states” such as Iran and North Korea and possible threats from terrorist groups or other non-state actors. No matter that this does not explain why nuclear-armed submarines should be patrolling the oceans, or anti-missile systems be deployed in new NATO states bordering Russia, or indeed why fanatical terrorists usually operating in small groups with no qualms about death and destruction would be deterred by nuclear weapons. After Iraq, the whole world now sees such arguments for what they are, simply excuses for strengthening imperialist hegemony. But in doing so through new-generation nuclear weapons, the US and its allies are driving rival powers into another nuclear arms race and pushing other countries into going nuclear themselves, dealing fatal blows to nuclear non-proliferation norms along the way.
NEW WEAPON DESIGN
The US programme for “renewal” and “greater reliability” of its nuclear arsenal has been on the anvil for several years. However, while the US Congress had appeared to see this as a way of cutting back on an increasingly expensive and clearly bloated arsenal, the Bush administration has taken the idea much further and transformed it into the center-piece of an aggressive strategic programme aimed at global domination.
In October 2006, the Bush administration announced its approval of the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)’s plan to completely revamp all US nuclear weapons facilities by 2030, consolidate weapons-grade plutonium stocks and build a new stockpile of around re-designed 2200 nuclear warheads to gradually replace the existing 6600 and with longevity till the end of this century. And all this estimated to cost about US$ 100 billion (Rs.4.6 lakh crores). Small wonder that the “Complex 2030” programme has been nicknamed “Bombplex” by anti-nuclear campaigners!
At the heart of the new arsenal is the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) or newly designed nuclear weapon arming especially the submarine-based Trident missiles. During the debate on launching the programme to design the new warheads, the US Congress had insisted that the new designs should be based on earlier proven ones so that there would be no need for explosive testing of the new weapons which would be a breach of the international moratorium on nuclear weapons testing even though the US has not ratified the CTBT.
Earlier this month, the US administration announced that it had selected the design after a competitive process involving the two premium nuclear weapons research laboratories, the Los Alamos Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The Los Alamos design was a novel design combining features of several previous weapons, but itself had never been tested. In contrast, the Lawrence Livermore design was based on a robust design that had been successfully tested in the 1980s but never actually weaponised. But, while awarding the design contract to the Livermore labs, the administration decided that the RRW should be based on a hybrid design combining the best features of the two designs. Going against the logic of the US Congress condition, if reliability is to be the touchstone, a hybrid design greatly increases the possibility that the new warhead would require to be tested at some point in the future. A US explosive test would completely shatter the international moratorium and open the floodgates to tests by other states.
This raises the question if “reliability” of a supposedly degrading weapon system is the real reason for the new warhead. And there are many good reasons for believing that “reliability” is just US administration spin to disguise its desire for new next-generation nuclear weapons systems.
For starters, compared to the yet untested hybrid design, the existing US arsenal is based on weapons that have been tested over 1000 times since 1945! How much more reliable can a new design be? Further, many nuclear scientists have pointed out that an easier and less expensive answer to any actual problem of reliability would be to periodically and more frequently replace the tritium or radio-active hydrogen in the warhead.
It is also to be noted that nuclear weapons laboratories define “reliability” not in terms of success or failure of a bomb to go off, but the percentage of the design yield achieved by the blast. In other words, “reliability” is merely about whether a 500-kiloton nuclear weapon when it explodes actually yields 475 kilotons (reliable) or 450 kilotons (unreliable)! Just a question of a few hundred thousand people less being killed!
A major argument advanced to justify the programme to make a new “more reliable” warhead was that the plutonium triggers for the weapons were dangerously old and thus unreliable. Under Complex 2030, 125 new plutonium triggers or “pits” as they are termed are to be produced each year. However, leaked report of a secret federal panel, codenamed Jason, completely exposed this justification as a fraud. As outed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Jason found that the existing pits were in good condition and still have a life of another century or more!
But clearly the Bush administration’s real intentions are to get a new weapons programme underway as part of an aggressive global strategic doctrine. While the official spin is that the RRWs are only intended to replace existing old warheads, the reality is that they are new generation weapons and part of a larger programme structured to keep the US way ahead of all others and in complete nuclear dominance.
This means funding of laboratories and other elements of the military industrial “bombplex”. The decision to go for a hybrid design means that both the Los Alamos and Livermore facilities will be kept busy and well funded for another few decades. General James Cartwright, head of the US Strategic Command, explicitly stated that the programme was necessary to “keep the intellectual capital alive” because there are “few people left [in the US] with weapons design capability.”
BRITAIN FOLLOWS SUIT
True to form, Tony Blair’s New Labour government has accompanied the US down the same duplicitous road.
In Britain too, an earlier White Paper of December 2006 had spoken of plans to repair and renew its nuclear arsenal, mainly comprising submarine-based Trident missiles. But the fact that actual programmes were already underway to revamp the entire British nuclear weapons system essentially with new-design warheads were leaked early this month. In mid-March, the ministry of Defence admitted that such a programme was underway and that the government would seek parliamentary approval.
Britain’s “independent” nuclear deterrent is of course anything but its 200 Trident missiles are all “leased” from the US. To top it off, in clear violation of the NPT, the present secret upgrade is based on a new firing device developed by the US and being transferred to Britain! If this is not proliferation, what is? The Mark4A Arming, Fusing and Firing (AF&F) system enables control over the explosive yield, impact, quantum of radioactive fallout and other aspects of a nuclear explosion depending on the type of target being hit. This is clearly an offensive weapon, not the defensive “deterrent” it is made out to be.
Again, as in the US, it is not just the weapon itself but also the entire nuclear infrastructure that is being upgraded. Nuclear weapons facilities and the main submarine base are being re-built. Going one step further than its patron, the US, Britain is building a brand new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to carry the Trident missiles unlike the US which has not felt the need to “upgrade” its submarines. Total cost of this renewal is estimated to be about ₤76 billion (Rs.5 lakh crores), surely a hefty bill for simple “reliability” assurance for 200-odd warheads!
OPPOSITION AND REVOLTS
All this has not gone without opposition in both the US and the UK. Massive public demonstrations have taken place in the US and in several cities in Britain against this huge nuclear rearmament. Sections within the political system are aghast at the damage this is doing to nuclear non-proliferation, especially at a time when the West is harping on Iran and North Korea.
In the US, leading Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein said that “the minute you begin to put more sophisticated nuclear warheads on the existing fleet, you are essentially creating a new nuclear weapon. Its just a matter of time before other nations do the same.” In Britain, the debate and voting in the House of Commons saw the biggest Labour backbench revolt since the Iraq war. Two Ministers resigned over the issue including Nigel Griffiths, Deputy Leader of the Commons, who along with 32 other MPs from Scotland voted against the government. In all, 89 Labour MPs voted against the move and Tony Blair’s government, not for the first time, had to rely on Conservative support to get the decision approved in parliament.
The Blair government and the Tory opposition once again invoked Iran and North Korea as compelling reasons for the programme. The Tory leader argued that “in a dangerous and uncertain world, unilateral nuclear disarmament has never been and never will be the right answer”. Indeed! If Britain or the US argue that they need nuclear weapons for their security, then why should Iran or North Korea think any differently, especially when they are actually being threatened daily with the possibility of military attack by the great powers, and when the US in particular does not even have a no-first-use policy?
IAEA chief Mohammad el Baradei, who is mandated with monitoring and enforcing the NPT, clearly sees the danger and feels that the authority of his agency has been grievously undermined. In a major speech at the London School of Economics he condemned the move and said: “Britain cannot expect other countries to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons if it upgrades the Trident… [Other countries] are told nuclear weapons are counter productive because they do not protect your security. But when they look to the big boys what do they see? They see increasing reliance on nuclear weapons for security, they see nuclear weapons being continually modernised…” If the US and UK are re-arming themselves with new nuclear weapons, this only reinforces the argument for nuclearisation by other nations.
It is for this clear and simple reason that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) calls upon the five declared nuclear weapon states not only to prevent proliferation, which the US and UK are clearly violating, but also to gradually disarm moving towards complete and universal nuclear disarmament, which is the only true guarantor that individual nations will not want to go nuclear. At the previous NPT review conference, the US and its allies bullied 165 countries into renewing the Treaty by assuring them that the nuclear haves will indeed move towards nuclear disarmament. By launching long-term programmes to build new nuclear weapons and related infrastructure, the US and Britain are arrogantly flouting the NPT and showing their utter disregard for international public opinion in favour of universal nuclear disarmament. It is clear therefore where the next NPT review conference of 2010 is headed… no where. And meanwhile the world is inevitably becoming a more dangerous place.