Nuclear weapons are an existential threat to humanity, as even one of the strong ones going off could cause a dangerous nuclear winter. Also, while it’s not necessarily a problem that people are experimenting with hallucinogens, it should clearly not be at a nuclear weapons facility. The Doomsday Clock — measuring the risk of widespread human catastrophe by nuclear weapons — is already at its most dire reading in over half a century.
There are a lot of safe and responsible places people have found over the years to ingest hallucinogens in order to experience their pleasures and explore the challenges their potent properties can present, but it’s a judgement statement to declare that a U.S. military base which houses some of the world’s most powerful atomic weapons would qualify as such a place.
Nevertheless, the Associated Pressreports Thursday that U.S. service members charged with guarding U.S. nuclear weapons at a “highly secure” military facility in Wyoming “bought, distributed and used the hallucinogen LSD and other mind-altering illegal drugs as part of a ring that operated undetected for months.”
Those accused of involvement in the drug ring were “from the 90th Missile Wing, which operates one-third of the 400 Minuteman 3 missiles that stand ‘on alert’ 24/7 in underground silos scattered across the northern Great Plains.”
When military investigators broke up the ring, one airmen reportedly fled the country. “Although this sounds like something from a movie, it isn’t,” said Capt. Charles Grimsley, the lead prosecutor of one of several courts martial the resulted from the case.
While the reporting notes that none of those court martialed were charged with being under the influence while “on duty,” the transcripts from the files show one soldier admitting he “felt paranoia, panic” for hours after dropping acid and at one point said he “didn’t know if I was going to die that night or not.” Another soldier confessed, “I absolutely just loved altering my mind.”
The US is to spend billions of dollars upgrading 150 nuclear bombs positioned in Europe, although the weapons may be useless as a deterrent and a potentially catastrophic security liability, according to a new report by arms experts.
A third of the B61 bombs in Europe under joint US and Nato control are thought to be kept at Incirlik base in Turkey, 70 miles from the Syrian border, which has been the subject of serious concerns.
The threat to the base posed by Islamic State militants was considered serious enough in March 2016 to evacuate the families of military officers.
During a coup attempt four months later, Turkish authorities locked down the base and cut its electricity. The Turkish commanding officer at Incirlik was arrested for his alleged role in the plot.
A report on the future of the B61 bombs by arms control advocacy group the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) , made available to the Guardian, said the 2016 events show “just how quickly assumptions about the safety and security of US nuclear weapons stored abroad can change”.
However, the NTI report argues they are also serious liabilities, because of the threat of terrorism or accident, and because they could become targets in the early stages of any conflict with Russia.
“Forward-deployed US nuclear weapons in Europe increase the risk of accidents, blunders, or catastrophic terrorism and invite pre-emption. Given these added risks, it is past time to revisit whether these forward-based weapons are essential for military deterrence and political reassurance,” the Obama administration energy secretary Ernest Moniz and the former Democratic senator Sam Nunn, both NTI co-chairmen, argue in the preface to the report.
Nuclear weapons are more dangerous in this era than at quite arguably any other point in human history, but many people still remain unaware of this. There’s a lot that can and should be done to prevent nuclear disaster, including passing the Nuclear Sanity Act in the U.S., which would legally forbid a U.S. president from launching nuclear weapons without the approval of at least a few other cabinet officials.
When the Pentagon on Friday released its new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) (pdf), as Common Dreamsreported, peace and disarmament groups in the U.S. and around the world expressed immediate alarm at the document and its implications.
“Who in their right mind thinks we should expand the list of scenarios in which we might launch nuclear weapons?” asked Peace Action in a statement. “Who let Dr. Strangelove write the Nuclear Posture Review?”
The public is right to distrust Trump with nuclear weapons, and we all need to speak up and oppose these new, dangerous policies. People don’t tend to think of nuclear war as a policy choice, but it is, just like health care or immigration.
The Trump administration’s policies are increasing the risk of nuclear war. Sure, you could build a bomb shelter and hide, but that does not lower the risk of war, and it is highly unlikely to save you. Instead, we need to prevent nuclear war in the first place by changing government policy.
In response to the release of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review scheduled for today, Paul Kawika Martin, Senior Director for Policy and Political Affairs at Peace Action, released the following statement:
“Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review runs diametrically counter to the longstanding international and bipartisan consensus that nuclear-armed nations should work to reduce and eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
“Who in their right mind thinks it’s a good idea to make nuclear weapons ‘more usable’? Who in their right mind thinks we should expand the list of scenarios in which we might launch nuclear weapons? Who let Dr. Strangelove write the Nuclear Posture Review?
“On top of increasing the likelihood of nuclear weapons use, the expansion of our nuclear arsenal called for in the Nuclear Posture Review would cost the American taxpayers an estimated $1.7 trillion adjusted for inflation over the next three decades. With the Doomsday Clock now at 2 minutes to midnight, we’re essentially being asked to pay for our own increasingly likely destruction.”
The Trump administration has unveiled its new nuclear weapons strategy, which involves spending at least $1.2 trillion to upgrade the United States’ nuclear arsenal, including developing a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile. The Nuclear Posture Review calls for developing low-yield warheads, which critics say blur the lines between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, meaning they are more likely to be used. It also reportedly seeks to expand the number of scenarios under which the United States might consider the use of nuclear weapons, including in response to a major cyberattack. Trump’s nuclear policy has alarmed arms control experts around the globe and been openly criticized by Iran, Russia and China.
Democracy Now’s recent interview with Gar Alperovitz is important and well-done. Many more people should know about what’s being discussed here, due to both current threats to humanity and the values needed for a much more sustainable future.
For more than 40 years, Alperovitz kept a close secret. In 1971, he clandestinely helped Ellsberg distribute sections of the Pentagon Papers to 19 newspapers across the country, at a time when the Nixon administration was trying to block publication. Alperovitz would go on to become a well-known historian, professor and political economist, but he kept his role in the Pentagon Papers leak a secret, until this week, when he spoke to The New Yorker magazine. The identities of who else worked with Gar Alperovitz to aid Ellsberg remains a secret. Dan Ellsberg told The New Yorker the secret role this group played was so crucial in releasing the Pentagon Papers he gave them a code name: “The Lavender Hill Mob.” Alperovitz went by the alias “Mr. Boston.” Ellsberg told The New Yorker, quote, “Gar took care of all the cloak-and-dagger stuff.”
GARALPEROVITZ: Well, two things, I think, brought me to this judgment it was time to actually talk about this. One, it came back into the news because of the big movie, The Post, which describes some of this, which had been out of the news and out of consciousness for a long, long time. So, it offered an opportunity to think about this subject in a very powerful way, because lots of folks have seen that movie, and it raised the subject. And secondly—so the context was there.
And secondly, the dangers of this administration. Particularly, I’ve written about nuclear weapons a great deal. The dangers of this administration, I think it’s time for people to really think through what they can do, however small, however they want, to find a way, to actually find, personally, to do something to try to begin to build up a more democratic option and a way to avoid some of the real dangers. The possibility of nuclear war in Korea is a real possibility. There has been nuclear war in Asia, obviously: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is an area that I’ve written a great deal about. People, I think, need to think seriously about where they—what they can do to make for a more peaceful and a world that doesn’t repeat those mistakes.
AMYGOODMAN: The issue of nuclear war, again, raised once again by President Trump, you know, talking about expanding the nuclear arsenal, in his State of the Union address this week, and reportedly saying to his chiefs of—to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?” You are a longtime historian, have written eloquently about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Can you talk about this? Why not use them?
GARALPEROVITZ: Well, they are—the weapons we have today are so many times more powerful than anything was used in World War II at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and, I would mention, at that point, against the will of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of whom came out after the war, all the top military leaders, with the one exception, publicly, after the war, saying the bombing was totally unnecessary in Hiroshima. We are now in a case where nuclear weapons are many, many, many times more powerful, and many, many thousands of them, and very, very dangerous because they are so easily launched.
And my hope is, both a public action will begin to build up, understanding that this is a threshold that should not be crossed, and that I hope, actually, some people within the government, just as during World War II the Joint Chiefs tried to stop that action, which was unnecessary and they knew was unnecessary, I would hope people begin to think, “What could we do?” What could they can do personally? And I think that’s an individual decision for everyone to make, what kind of things they can do in the circumstances they face. But I think the trillion dollars that’s now about to be spent to upgrade and increase the nuclear weapon supply—a trillion dollars—we are going into a whole new phase and with a government that is, so far, irresponsible in so many other ways, that this is a very dangerous period of American history.
AMYGOODMAN: You write a lot about changing the system, a lot about economics. Has that also played a role, given the passage of the tax law? You discuss the issue of inequality. We’re seeing the greatest growth of inequality in this country than any time in history.
GARALPEROVITZ: I don’t think we’re going to change what we do in foreign policy in a fundamental way, until we change what we do in the system. And I think we’re at a place where we’re facing what I would call a slow-boiling systemic crisis—traditional corporate capitalism producing great inequality, ecological destruction, increasing tensions in racial matters and gender matters, violence abroad. That process, the danger of slipping over into some form of formal or informal repression is very real. On the other hand, if the corporate capitalist system fails, the state socialist system also fails.
The basis of a new society and a new direction is really thinking through what can be a genuinely community-sustaining, peaceful vision of what the next system is. I’m a historian and political economist, and I see it as: How do we build the next two to three decades? Maybe taking off from what Bernie has shown us, taking off from what activists in the black community and the gay community and the feminist movement, the environmental community. There is a building-up process that has to go well beyond the politics of today towards a transformative vision that is much different than the vision that now supports the nuclear weapons and the military outreach. I think we’re in that period, and it could be a long period. But the lesson of all this, for me, is that we need to go both deeper and more boldly and begin building right from the bottom up, with a view to understanding—let me say it carefully: Systems change all the time in history. I think we have the opportunity to establish the conditions, if we’re serious, of laying down the foundations for a transformation. I didn’t say change the system tomorrow, I said building the basis of a transformation.
AMYGOODMAN: Gar, as we wrap up, are you proud of what you did in helping Dan Ellsberg get the Pentagon Papers out?
GARALPEROVITZ: “Proud” is a funny word. I did what I thought was necessary, what was important to do. I don’t think of it as pride, but I’m glad I did it.
AMYGOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. Gar Alperovitz, historian, political economist, revealed this week he secretly helped Dan Ellsberg leak the Pentagon Papers. Gar Alperovitz is author, most recently, of Principles of a Pluralist Commonwealth and co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative and co-chair of its Next System Project.
An interesting article appeared recently that challenges the established narrative that nuclear weapons are effective at preventing war. Among conflicts between states with nuclear weapons, it admittedly might have been effective, but at the huge risk of causing massive catastrophe to the human species. There are doubtlessly better methods at maintaining peace than keeping nukes though.
In any case, agree with the article’s basic premise or not, the world could at least drastically reduce its nuclear stockpile to reduce the risks of disaster. Also, in reference to ongoing wars, I would add that the World Peace Index notes that there are only a dozen or so countries that are “free from conflict.”
Second, deterrence requires that each side’s arsenal remains invulnerable to attack, or at least that such an attack would be prevented insofar as a potential victim retained a ‘second-strike’ retaliatory capability, sufficient to prevent such an attack in the first place. Over time, however, nuclear missiles have become increasingly accurate, raising concerns about the vulnerability of these weapons to a ‘counterforce’ strike. In brief, nuclear states are increasingly able to target their adversary’s nuclear weapons for destruction. In the perverse argot of deterrence theory, this is called counterforce vulnerability, with ‘vulnerability’ referring to the target’s nuclear weapons, not its population. The clearest outcome of increasingly accurate nuclear weapons and the ‘counterforce vulnerability’ component of deterrence theory is to increase the likelihood of a first strike, while also increasing the danger that a potential victim, fearing such an event, might be tempted to pre-empt with its own first strike. The resulting situation – in which each side perceives a possible advantage in striking first – is dangerously unstable.
Third, deterrence theory assumes optimal rationality on the part of decision-makers. It presumes that those with their fingers on the nuclear triggers are rational actors who will also remain calm and cognitively unimpaired under extremely stressful conditions. It also presumes that leaders will always retain control over their forces and that, moreover, they will always retain control over their emotions as well, making decisions based solely on a cool calculation of strategic costs and benefits. Deterrence theory maintains, in short, that each side will scare the pants off the other with the prospect of the most hideous, unimaginable consequences, and will then conduct itself with the utmost deliberate and precise rationality. Virtually everything known about human psychology suggests that this is absurd.
The Doomsday Clock measures the probability of widespread human catastrophe, with the closeness to midnight representing the likelihood of that. Midnight on the Doomsday Clock represents at least a very large portion of humanity — and quite possibly all of it — being finished, destroyed beyond reasonable recovery, resulting in many millions of lost lives and massive damage. Originally designed to measure the dangerousness of nuclear weapons in 1947, the Doomsday Clock now also accounts for the threat of climate change as an existential threat to human survival. The closest to midnight the clock has ever been previously was in 1953, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union detonated thermonuclear weapons, and now the Doomsday Clock is at the same ominous level of closeness — only 2 minutes to midnight.
In response to rising nuclear tensions and concerns about inadequate action to address the climate crisis, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced Thursday the hands of the Doomsday Clock have been moved and it is now just two minutes midnight, a signal to the world that international scientists and policy experts are increasingly worried about the likeliness of global catastrophe.
“In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago—and as dangerous as it has been since World War II,” said a statement from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
The Bulletin was established decades ago by creators of the atomic bomb and aims to keep the world informed “about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences.”
“North Korea’s nuclear weapons program appeared to make remarkable progress in 2017, increasing risks for itself, other countries in the region, and the United States. Hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions on both sides have increased the possibility of nuclear war by accident or miscalculation,” the statement continued. “On the climate change front, the danger may seem less immediate, but avoiding catastrophic temperature increases in the long run requires urgent attention now.”
It is quite arguably a miracle that humanity has managed to avert widespread catastrophe by nuclear weapons thus far, as the record shows.
“This is not a drill,” announced the emergency alert, and for 37 minutes hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians and tourists were left to contemplate the possibility that an incoming missile might soon end their lives.
Now that we know the “ballistic missile threat inbound” warning was in error there are urgent lessons to review. As a former secretary of defense, my advice is we treat the Hawaii incident not as a false alarm but a real one. It highlighted an emphaticallygenuine risk that human error or technological failure—or some fatal combination of the two—could result in a horrific nuclear catastrophe.
From what we have learned about Hawaii—a single person clicked the wrong item on a computer drop-down menu—it is clear that the state’s alert system is in need of some basic improvements. Most obviously it should require a two-person instead of a one-person decision system. A two-person system, long established in comparable military systems, would significantly reduce (but not eliminate) the probability of such a mistake happening again. But if that is the only change made we would be learning the wrong lesson from this wake-up call.
What happened in Hawaii is a new manifestation of an old problem. For decades, Cold War policymakers worried that a false report of missiles flying might prompt a leader to launch real missiles in retaliation. As a Pentagon official in 1979, I was awakened in the middle of the night by an Air Force watch officer who reported that his screen showed hundreds of Soviet missiles on the way. For a terrible moment, I thought a nuclear Armageddon was at hand. He quickly reassured me that it was an unexplained technological error. But that incident shaped my thinking for decades. What if exactly that same error had happened in October 1962, when as an intelligence consultant during the Cuban missile crisis I returned to my Washington hotel room each night convinced that nuclear war was imminent? We survived multiple Cold War close calls through a combination of good management and—to a troubling degree—plain good luck.
The consequences in Hawaii were that people were terrified. They were terrified not only because they thought that they and their families were going to die, but because they had no idea of “what to do.” That could have led to heart attacks or to automobile accidents, but such results, happily, have not been reported so far.
That they didn’t know what to do is fundamental to a nuclear attack, especially if the missile is carrying a hydrogen bomb. One hydrogen bomb could kill essentially everyone in a city like Honolulu or Hilo, even if the residents took cover. So the “what to do” has to happen before the missile is fired. The way to save yourself and your family from being killed in a nuclear war is to keep such a war from happening. Once the missiles are launched, it is too late. And that is one important lesson we could learn from the Hawaii false alert.
But there is also a second lesson. If the attack alert came from our military warning system, the president would be faced immediately with an existential decision. He would have 5 to 10 minutes to decide whether to launch our ICBMs before they were destroyed in their silos.
If he decides to launch them, and it is a false alert (that could be caused by any of the reasons given above), there will be no way to call them back or abort them in flight. He will have mistakenly started World War III, a war likely to destroy our civilization.
The U.S. military has been aware of this existential problem for many decades, and it has taken heroic actions to lower the probability of a false alert. Still, there have been three false alerts, one of which looked very real and could very well have led to a launch decision. It is to the great credit of our military leaders and the system they have put in place that we have never had a mistaken launch order. But the danger is actually greater now than during the Cold War, with the emergence of malicious hackers and government-directed hackers.
So the primary lesson from the Hawaii false alert is that even with the highly capable system our military now has in place, we are still vulnerable to such an alert. And the consequence of a mistaken launch order is no less than the end of our civilization as we know it.
The article doesn’t mention reducing the sheer amount of nuclear weapons, but that of course is an important initiative.