Biden’s Nuclear Weapons Commitments: Dangerous Continuities

Peace Advocate September-October 2021

Trident II Missle Launch
An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska off the coast of California. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ronald Gutridge/U.S. Navy)

Originally published in Common Dreams

by Joseph Gerson

In the dangerous Trump era, the Pentagon pronounced that “There is no higher priority for national defense” than to “replace [the country’s] strategic nuclear triad and sustain the warheads it carries.” The estimated cost for upgrading the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal and replacing all its nuclear warhead delivery systems—intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers—was $1.7 billion. Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review, the guidelines for nuclear war fighting, and maintenance and acquisition of the weapons required for genocidal or omnicidal war, reaffirmed the country’s first-strike nuclear war fighting doctrine, and it increased U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons. This included their possible use in response to cyber and other high-tech attacks on U.S. infrastructure.

As we now know from Bob Woodward’s new book Peril, General Milley, others in Pentagon leadership, and their Chinese counterparts thought it imperative to act secretly to prevent Trump from sparking a nuclear war on the eve of the 2020 presidential election and within days of the failed January 6 coup attempt.

Tragically, despite widespread high hopes for change, in the existential realm of potentially omnicidal nuclear war preparations, the Biden administration has signaled more continuity than change. True, it acted quickly to extend the New START Treaty with Russia, which limits each side to 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons—enough to inflict the planet with nuclear winter. It is also engaged in exploratory talks with Moscow over establishing “strategic stability” between the two nuclear powers. While these talks are important, as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs,  General Hyten, recently told a Brookings Institute audience, China—not Russia—is the “pacing military threat” that now drives U.S. military planning.

The sad and dangerous truth is that the nuclear weapons budget President Biden submitted to Congress differs little from Trump’s nuclear weapons “modernization” commitments. Despite Biden’s election year and earlier statements that the “sole use” of nuclear weapons that he could imagine was in response to a nuclear attack against the United States, the budget he submitted to Congress includes funding to replace the country’s entire arsenal of first-strike—use them or lose them—ground based ICBMs. So too the budget Congress will be voting on includes funding to produce 80 plutonium pits (the fissile core of a nuclear warhead) per year—each one of which having the destructive capability to devastate cities as large as Shanghai, Karachi and Moscow. Biden and his Pentagon also expect to win funding for the extremely destabilizing “more usable” tactical (roughly Hiroshima sized) B-61-12 bound for Europe, the nuclear air-launched cruise Long Range Standoff Weapon, and new warheads for submarine launched missiles, all designed to hold China hostage to a U.S. first-strike attack.

What is driving China’s anticipated increase in the size of its nuclear arsenal and fears that it might abandon its no first use doctrine? The answer is those standoff cruise missiles and U.S. missile defenses that are being deployed along China’s periphery that Chinese officials and analysts fear could make first-strike nuclear war fighting attractive to U.S. leaders. We had a glimpse of this possibility with the recent revelations that General Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, then CIA Director Haskell, Speaker Pelosi and Chinese military leaders all feared the possibility of President Trump sparking a nuclear war with China in the run up to last November’s presidential election and in the immediate aftermath of the failed January 6 coup attempt. But even with a considerably more rational U.S. Commander in Chief, the very real danger remains that an incident or accident resulting from the two powers’ confrontational and provocative military operations in the South or East China Seas, or near Taiwan could escalate beyond political control.

Days prior to the Congressional budget debate and on the eve of the launching of the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, the Defense Intelligence Agency stoked elite panic with the release of photographs which convincingly demonstrate that Beijing has initiated construction of 250 missile silos for Chinese land-based strategic intercontinental nuclear missiles.

Yet, former lead U.S. arms control negotiator and Deputy NATO Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller warns that the silo holes being dug in northern China are a simply a “great distraction.”  As an arms controller, he is committed to nuclear deterrence and strategic stability and unwilling to press for what Noam Chomsky calls the “obvious solution” to the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons: “getting rid of them.”  She is willing to concede that China’s nuclear buildup is designed to reinforce its “second strike deterrence posture,” which is threatened by U.S. nuclear and missile defense forces. Rather than panicking and wasting limited U.S. resources, she urges policymakers to remember that even if China quadruples the size of its nuclear arsenal by placing an ICBM armed with multiple warheads in each of those silos, it will still have fewer nuclear weapons than the United States or Russia. She urges lawmakers to focus on economic and technological competition and “not to be panicked” into funding the Pentagon’s wish list of Strangelovian nuclear weapons.

At the policy making level there are four theaters of political struggle: 1) Congress and its debates over Biden’s $634 ten-year nuclear weapons funding proposal and No First Use legislation; 2) the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review; 3) January’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference at the U.N., and 4) the March 2022 governmental First Meeting of States Parties of the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in Geneva.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has called out the Biden administration for failing to propose a nuclear weapons spending that “does not reflect your longstanding efforts to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons.” They oppose funding for new submarine launched nuclear warheads, for maintaining the B83 gravity bombs with an explosive yield of up to 100 times the Hiroshima A-bomb, and for the Long-Range Standoff Weapon described above. And, while not calling for the total elimination of first-strike land-based ICBMs, they oppose funding for the creation of a new generation of these omnicidal weapons. They also urge that the Biden Nuclear Posture Review, which will be conducted with little public or Congressional input by the Pentagon and senior administration “national security” officials, mandate reduction of the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons.

In addition to the Congressional budget fight, the Markey-Lieu No First Use bill and the Warren-Smith Sole Use bill are seen as means to press administration and its Nuclear Posture Review to adopt a No First Use doctrine. While Congressional adoption of these bills is  a remote possibility at best, by holding hearings and adding co-sponsors to the legislation with the help of grassroots activists, they can raise the visibility of calls for No First Use.

That said, given the Biden administration’s commitment to reasserting U.S. global leadership and dominance, from NATO to the new QUAD alliance in the Indo-Pacific, and fears that a U.S. No First Use doctrine would be politically exploited as an invitation for China to attack Taiwan, prospects for a Nuclear Posture Review that meaningfully reduces U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons are limited.

Internationally, pressure for nuclear weapons abolition will manifest itself at the NPT Review Conference and TPNW First Meeting early in the new year. With the world’s nuclear powers upgrading, and in many cases expanding,  their nuclear arsenals, there is little hope that progress will be made to fulfill the nuclear powers’ Article VI Treaty commitment to engaging in good faith negotiations for the complete elimination of their nuclear arsenals. And, with the Biden administration’s embrace of Israel’s new right-wing (and racist) government, it is unlikely that it will voice support for or take action to implement Washington’s earlier NPT commitment to co-convene an international conference for the creation of a Middle East Nuclear and WMD-Free Zone.

Dim as prospects are for a successful NPT Review, it remains important for activists and international civil society to press as hard as we can for the full implementation of this seminally important treaty. Silence, being consent, would leave the nuclear powers with an open field.

While Geneva is far away and few U.S. nuclear abolitionists will be able to make our ways there, spirits and hopes will be high when diplomats from many of the world’s non-nuclear nations, ICAN (International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons—recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) and other abolition advocates convene to celebrate the entry into force of the Treaty, make plans to win additional Treaty signatories and ratifications, and explore ways to fulfill Article 12 of the Treaty, which requires them to press nuclear power to “sign, ratify and accept”  the treaty which was negotiated to move toward a nuclear weapons free world.

Being realistic, we must recognize that even if the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ campaign to cut the military budget by 10% succeeds (an effort we should support), the Biden administration, the Pentagon, and the U.S. military-industrial complex are driving the existential threat of nuclear annihilation. Can we stop them? Noam Chomsky again seems to have the answer: “Your speculation is as good as mine. The only thing that we can do is hope it is true and put all our efforts together to make it true.”

— Joseph Gerson is a member of Mass. Peace Action’s Board of Directors and of its Nuclear Disarmament Working Group and No Cold War Group