July 16 of this year marks the 75th anniversary of the first nuclear bomb detonation. I don’t foresee any dancing in the street to mark the occasion. In fact, I imagine your nightly newscast will ignore it entirely. Oh, we’ll probably hear something about Hiroshima three weeks later. That first use of the weapon in malice has more historic significance. The two bombs dropped on Japan resulted in 214,000 deaths by the end of 1945.
Frankly, I’m mystified that we hear so little about the threat of nuclear war today considering how consequential such an event would be. It’s a danger far more clear and present than an errant asteroid, or an eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera. Currently, we’re all agog about the novel coronavirus. We’ve lived with a nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over our collective head for 75 years now, and we tend to think we experienced real danger of thermonuclear war for a period of only 13 days back in 1962. We survived that physically unscathed; that’s probably it for one lifetime, right?
The post-World War II arms race has seen 2,056 nuclear test detonations by at least eight nations; more than half of that total (1,030) were American. The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992, when a bipartisan congressional majority mandated a nine-month testing moratorium. In 1996, the United States was the first to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which verifiably prohibits all nuclear test explosions of any yield. Today, the CTBT has 184 signatories and almost universal support. But it hasn’t formally entered into force due to the failure of the United States, China, Egypt, Iran and Israel to ratify the agreement; and by India, Pakistan and North Korea, which have neither signed nor ratified the measure.
This leaves the door to renewed testing open.According to a May 22 article in The Washington Post, senior national security officials discussed the option of a demonstration of nuclear air detonation at a May 15 interagency meeting. A senior official told the Post that a “rapid test” by the United States could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as the Trump administration tries to pressure Russia and China to engage in talks on a new arms-control agreement.
Making matters worse, in a party-line vote last month, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to authorize $10 million specifically for a nuclear test if so ordered by President Trump. Such a test could be conducted underground in just a few months at the former Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas. This pro-testing contingent of senators is informally known as the Dr. Strangelove Caucus.
The push to restart nuclear weapons testing is happening at a time when tensions between the United States and Russia have stepped up provocative movesin airborne “show of force” demonstrations that can turn hazardous when combat aircraft come nail-bitingly close to each other. The danger expands exponentially when the aircraft involved are nuclear-capable, and when the operations are staged in militarily sensitive areas, such as a first-time U.S. B-1B bomber flight May 21 over the Sea of Okhotsk; or a May 29 flight by two B-1B bombers across Ukrainian-controlled airspace for the first time, coming close to Russian-controlled airspace over Crimea.
Not wanting to be left out of the merriment, Russia conducted a March 12 flight of two nuclear-capable Tu-160 “Blackjack” bombers over Atlantic waters near Scotland, Ireland and France from its base on the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s far north, prompting France and the United Kingdom to scramble interceptor aircraft. In conducting these operations, U.S. and Russian military leaders appear to be delivering two messages to their counterparts. First, despite any perceived reductions in military readiness caused by the coronavirus pandemic, they are fully prepared to conduct all-out combat operations against the other. Second, any such engagements could include a nuclear component at an early stage of the fighting.
Although receiving precious little media attention in the U.S. and international press, these maneuvers represent a dangerous escalation of U.S.-Russian military interactions and could set the stage for a dangerous incident involving armed combat between aircraft of the opposing sides. This by itself could precipitate a major crisis and possible escalation. Just as worrisome are the strategic implications of these operations, suggesting a commitment to the early use of nuclear weapons in future major-power engagements.
The U.S. Air Force Global Strike Command has long since supplanted the Strategic Air Command in its function as our nuclear war delivery system. Its commander, Gen. Timothy Ray, has said, “We have the capability and capacity to provide long-range fires anywhere, anytime, and can bring overwhelming firepower, even during the pandemic.” It really doesn’t matter whether those words reassure or horrify you; the eventual outcome of merely holding weapons of nearly limitless lethality is written in stone.
Sources: Arms Control Association Newsletter, July/August 2020; The Washington Post, May 22, 2020; and JanesDefenseWeekly.com, July 5, 2020.
Gerry Dionne is a writer, musician and coffee-table philosopher who moved to our area when he was 18. He’s in his 70s now, so y’all give him a break.