Thursday, October 27, 2011
Two Steps Forward But Three Steps Backward
...Or how I learned to stop worrying about the bomb.
Humans have spent over five-thousand years engaging in organized conflict fighting over such things as resources, religion, and political ideology continually developing larger and more destructive weapons systems along the way in an effort to stay ahead of the “enemy.” In the dusty and stranger regions of my mind, I somehow picture this all beginning with your average Joe Caveman looking down and finding a nifty sharp and pointy rock on the ground. After picking it up, he studies the stone with all his cave man intellect and suddenly realizes that if he attaches it to the business end of his trusty wooden spear it will be a whole lot easier to kill the jerk living in the cave on the other side hill preventing him from taking his woman. Since then it has been a never-ending arms race to build the next awesome weapon.
Hell, in a way I am sure even during cave man days the need for those “high tech” spears was justified in similar terms we use today such as “national security” and “protecting peace through strength” because some nearby tribal bogeymen were surely out to harm God’s true people. Of course, back then some very nasty critters with long claws and jagged teeth were always looking to have Fred and Wilma Flintstone on the menu, which made having a sharp spear an extreme necessity.
Speaking strictly about dangerous and threatening humans it would be severely naïve not to believe that there were times when some primitive version of Hitler did try to dominate the local scene in the name of Lebensraum or some even greater abstract glory like Manifest Destiny. In fact, some people got so good at their empire building they went down in history like the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and several others.
But the weapons used back then were far less destructive and with the world a much larger place the consequences of some glory hound organizing an army with the purpose of conquering the world, while terrible did not endanger the entire planet. The development of our modern versions of spears during the Cold War, nuclear-tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles changed all that.
Now understand while no reasonable or intelligent person could ever considered the leaders of the United States as saints in world affairs the Soviet Union was never govern by innocent and peace-loving men and women either. As much as some rightly condemn American Imperialism, the Soviets were just as power hungry having bathed themselves fully in the blood of countless atrocities in their own country and the repression of Eastern Europe. So in a way I truly believe nuclear deterrence during the Cold War did keep the peace by forcing the more rational individuals in both Washington and Moscow to keep those with a desire for conquest and glory in check.
But like all conflicts the Cold War eventually ended and as amazing as it may seem nuclear stockpiles in both the United States and Russia have been steadily declining even though the number of active nuclear warheads in both countries remains insanely high. So, I have to admit I greeted the news of the United States dismantling the last of its most powerful nuclear weapons with glee.
The nuclear beast, a thermonuclear device designated B-53, had a yield of nine megatons and was designed to destroy command and control bunkers built deep underground. While I have not researched the issue given previous arms control treaties and the one recently ratified in the United States Senate, despite fanatical politically inspired obstructionism from Republicans, I am confident similar dismantling activities are occurring in Russia.
Even with the world still endangered by an overabundance of nuclear weapons it is a very small step in the right direction. Yes, before anyone busts a gut eager to shoot down my humble essay I understand there are still some very dark clouds on the proverbial horizon that have become a greater threats to the planet and humanity than nuclear war.
For me the main danger to the planet does not come from warheads and other weapon systems sitting in some heavily guarded bunker gathering dust. Sure, the money that went to purchase and maintain most of those weapons would have seen far better use in other areas but I believe the threat comes from a mindset hopelessly mired in the caveman mentality equating security with the ability to kill or at least enslave anyone not part of the right tribe or nation.
It utterly amazed me to hear some jackleg blather on about the United States being the greatest, freest, most super-duper special place that God ever graced on Earth. Do not get me wrong, even with an overabundance of idiots and morons messing up the works and refusing to address real problems the country faces it is a damn fine place to live. I just believe that with seven billion people on the planet we have long passed the point of the nation-state being a viable independent political system.
The problems of environmental degradation, pollution, climate change, over population, poverty, and the threat of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction long ago became global issues that individual nations do not have the will or funds to solve alone. Personally, I have to throw in multinational corporations as being a unique global problem in a league all by themselves. With a lot of corporations having operating funds far greater than that of many nations and on average possessing less morals and ethics than that of 19th century European imperial powers they are a threat that would make most gun-wielding terrorists turn green with envy.
So while I am feeling some serious warm fuzzies about the slow but steady dismantlement of nuclear arsenals given the current global situation we seem to be in a position of having taken two steps forward only to have fallen three steps backward. All told, given the size and scope of the problems we now face the 21st century will be even more dangerous and uncertain making the worst parts of the 20th century look like the good old days.
U.S.-made 'monster' nuclear warhead B53 dismantled
from USA Today
The B53 nuclear bomb was made to deliver a 9-megaton blast about 600 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.
Starting in 1962, about 300 of the 10,000-pound, minivan-size bombs were made, meant to be carried on bombers kept on 24-hour alert at the height of U.S.-Soviet tensions.
"Obviously, this was one of the largest weapons we had. It was a big one," says Greg Cunningham of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration's Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. At the plant, a ceremony marked the removal of high explosives from the last of the final 50 B53 bombs held in a reserve after the weapon's 1997 retirement.
"Monster really is the word. It would have created a fireball several miles wide," says noted nuclear history author Richard Rhodes.
"The world is a safer place with this dismantlement," said NNSA chief Thomas D'Agostino, in a statement. "The B53 was a weapon developed in another time for a different world."
The B53 was a thermonuclear device: An atomic bomb set off a larger hydrogen one, creating a tremendously powerful blast intended to annihilate Russian command bunkers deep underground. It was replaced by smaller, more accurate "bunker buster" weapons.
Uranium from the dismantled bombs will be sent to the Energy Department's Oak Ridge, Tenn., facility.
"The good news is we are taking some of our old nuclear weapons apart," says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a national security think tank based in Washington, D.C. "On the other hand, it's not like we still don't have plenty." Bomb dismantlement work at the Pantex plant, scheduled until 2022, he notes, has been slowed by weapon modernization work underway there.
Under 2010 treaty obligations, U.S. active strategic nuclear warheads will drop to 1,550 by 2018. About 5,000 nuclear weapons now remain deployed by the U.S. military, Kristensen notes.
Although President Obama has called for lowering nuclear weapons numbers, the administration urged a Senate committee this month to support efforts to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons, an estimated decade-long $85 billion commitment.
"We're not losing any military capability with this (B53) weapon's disappearance," says nuclear security expert Micheal Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.