Nuclear weapons are back in the news. Those concerned about the Middle East watched warily as the United States and others labored to rein in Iran’s budding nuclear ambitions. Interested citizens heard of low morale and troubling disciplinary issues afflicting our nuclear missile launch teams. On a somewhat lighter note, film fans marked 50 years since the premiere of Stanley Kubrick’s satiric gem, Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. We sure do not love the bomb—we never did, really—but we also do not worry much about it these days. Perhaps we should.
People do not like to think about the country’s nuclear weapons. Usually they occupy the same role in our defense array as the ominous almighty Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter stories: He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Named or not, they are there, squatting atop Minuteman missiles waiting in hardened cement and steel silos under the empty prairies of Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming; hiding under the sea aboard silent Trident-armed submarines; and hanging in the bomb bays of venerable B-52H Stratofortress and bat-winged B-2A Spirit heavy bombers. One of those thermonuclear devices can incinerate a city and kill millions in a few horrific seconds of flash, bang, heat and radiation. A clear, sober vision of that gruesome fate has served for decades to keep the country’s foes at bay, whether they hail from Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang or Tehran. No sane ruler will risk a nuclear exchange. As Dr. Strangelove put it, in words lifted directly from the likes of Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger and Edward Teller and filtered through an over-the-top Mitteleuropa accent supplied by a manic Peter Sellers: “Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy ... the fear to attack.” Since 1945, nuclear weapons have done just that.
Do they still? We assume as much. Our leaders build war plans on that belief, and they figure our enemies do, too. I am not a nuclear physicist nor a warhead engineer—far from it. But I have used a few conventional weapons—some well-tested, others less so. I know which kinds performed as advertised. So the latest news makes me wonder: Do U.S. nuclear weapons still work? Before you say “yes,” you need to think a bit.
No U.S. nuclear warhead has been tested above ground since 1963. No U.S. fission or fusion weapon has been detonated underground since 1992. The last fielded U.S. nuclear weapon design, the W-88, dates to that era. The youngest U.S. nuclear warhead thus is older than many of the people entrusted with preparing to employ it.
The United States signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, but the Senate has yet to ratify the accord. It is noteworthy that, despite promises, no U.S. president has seen fit to put it to a vote. Senators might not be so happy to sign away U.S. abilities to test deterrents. The United States has played by the accord’s rules anyway, starting in 1992, because the nation wanted to set a good example for the other countries. However, it appears China (1993-96), France (1995-96), Pakistan (1998), India (1998) and North Korea (2006, 2009 and 2013) were unimpressed. Iran seems to be going its own route, too. Intelligence officials say nobody is cheating; and if the Russians or Chinese tried, the United States would catch them. Sure.
Well, what about U.S. nuclear weapons? Fear not, say the experts: we are indeed testing. The Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program under the Department of Energy spends $4 billion a year running checks on the various components of U.S. nuclear weaponry. It relies on computer simulations and the like. It’s all swell; trust them, they’re scientists and engineers, and they work for the government. Follow the lead of the good Dr. Strangelove: stop worrying.
I would like to believe that, but war is the province of fog and friction. Our men and women fight as they train. Equipment performs reliably when it is used. We have seen the effect of untested—or ill-tested—arms that did not quite measure up in the field: the infamous Mark-14 torpedo that hobbled our submariners in the early months of World War II; the dangerous, and sometimes self-incinerating, 152-millimeter gun/missile tube that graced the M-551 Sheridan light tank in Vietnam; and the much-acclaimed counter-rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) “system of systems” that did not really shoot down any hostile rockets in Baghdad during the recent Iraq campaign, among other similar problem children. We know better.
Testing nuclear weapons is not a pleasant prospect. Civil leaders likely will become queasy at the mention of the idea. Yet even as we shy away from such a possibility, we talk constantly about our new Air-Sea Battle doctrine, allegedly not aimed at anyone in particular. That new concept envisions “networked, integrated forces capable of attack-in-depth” to dominate areas. The maps keep showing the Western Pacific. That other major nuclear power out there, the country with the carrier-killer missiles and lurking submarines and fleets of bombers, bases key forces on its mainland. It is one thing to get into a fracas out near the Spratly Islands, but it is another to launch cruise missiles into Shanghai. That tends to encourage a reply in kind. The locals have told us as much pretty clearly.
Whatever networked, integrated conglomerate we may assemble out in the Pacific Ocean, the Chinese, the North Koreans—and now the Iranians—are deterred by our nuclear weapons. Those fearsome arms are worthy of a good, hard look, to include a live test or two. Unlike Dr. Strangelove, we do not have to love the bomb, but we do want to ensure that enemies worry about it.
Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, USA (Ret.), is a former troop commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author of seven books and numerous articles, he currently teaches at North Carolina State University.