Three Days Inside the Doomsday Machine: The 2023 Deterrence Summit

Peace Advocate April 2023

Photo: Vicki Elson
Photo: Vicki Elson

by Vicki Elson

This article was originally published as a three-part series on Pressenza

What does the nuclear weapons industry talk about when they’re together? I spent three days with 530 government officials, politicians, and corporate contractors in a hotel basement to find out.

The nutshell: They talk about “deterrence” as if there is no alternative. They talk about continually building ever more destructive weapons because they believe that’s what keeps the US and its allies safe from current and future nuclear adversaries. They’re grateful that there is perpetual bipartisan support that keeps them well-funded.

I: Articles of Faith

The annual Deterrence Summit, held in February 2023 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel near the Pentagon, was attended by representatives of the federal government, the military, numerous private corporations, the White House, and two members of Congress. I had heard the phrase “Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex,” but I didn’t expect it to be quite so transparent.

The federal Department of Energy (DOE) oversees the semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is responsible for building and maintaining nuclear warheads. DOE supplies the warheads to the Department of Defense (DOD), which is responsible for the “triad” of bomb delivery systems: missiles ready to launch from military silos, submarines, and airplanes. Private companies, paid with taxpayer dollars, do nearly all of the science, engineering, and manufacturing at federally-owned warhead laboratories and factories. I listened to the representatives of each sector, and these were 10 themes they all shared:

Theme 1. The nuclear danger to the US and its allies is growing fast, and we must build up our arsenal faster. Summitteers agreed that Russia is “reckless,” with its saber-rattling threats and its misbehavior near nuclear power plants, Iran is enriching uranium, North Korea is expanding its nuclear capabilities – but it’s China we really have to worry about.

There was no mention of how the US may have helped to create these dangers with its own nuclear saber-rattling, NATO expansion, or illegal invasions. Nobody at the Summit asked if these countries were building arsenals to protect themselves from us.

Theme 2. The only way to stay “safe” from nuclear attack is “deterrence.” We must keep “modernizing” the US nuclear stockpile, fast, so the threat of retaliation is so reliable, credible and terrifying that nobody would dare attack.

This “Mission,” as it was reverently referred to, is physically carried out at the 9 sites in 7 states known as the “Nuclear Security Enterprise.” (The NSE has been re-branded from the less Trekkie-friendly name “Nuclear Weapons Complex.”)

“We all agree that the Mission is vital and urgent, and we’re all anxious about how it can be done,” said a panelist. “We’re just keeping the stockpile going. We’re not scaring Russia and China,” said another.

Was I witnessing was the birth of a new arms race?

I write “deterrence” in quotation marks because it is not a universally accepted theory, nor is “threat of use” of nuclear weapons acceptable under international norms. “Deterrence is working in Ukraine,” said one panelist. Maybe — or maybe there are other reasons for Russia not to nuke its next-door neighbor, or its trading partners, or to cause an unthinkable catastrophe.

Alarmingly, the website of US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) admits that deterrence can fail. It says that the priority is “to provide Strategic Deterrence,” but “if Deterrence fails, we are prepared to deliver a Decisive Response.”

I had assumed that that such a response would be reciprocal nuclear bombing. But panelist Corey Hinderstein of the NNSA noted: “We don’t have to respond to nuclear with nuclear.” Then why, I wondered, do we have nuclear weapons at all?

“Under declaratory policy,” said another panelist, “we would only use nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances. [Our arsenal has] a unique, irreplaceable deterrent effect [that we will need] for the foreseeable future.”

The Summit attendees seemed comfortable with playing the psychological game of “calculated ambiguity,” or keeping adversaries guessing: will we or won’t we nuke them if they do X, Y, or Z? Nobody talked about what sort of “extreme circumstances” might merit the potential end of human civilization.

Theme 3. Is there life after nukes? This was an extremely minor theme, but I’m including it because it made me hopeful.

Kimberly Budil, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said, “we have capability because of nuclear weapons work. What other challenges can we apply our capabilities to? Climate, environment, WMDs? We can respond to changes in national priorities. We can apply our science and engineering skills to whatever’s important in the nation.”

I also met a contractor who told me, “If there were a way people at this conference could feel good about the security of the country that didn’t require so many nuclear weapons, I would guess almost all of the people would be supportive of that. Certainly there’s a lot of know-how and technology that could be applied with other areas that would be beneficial to the world.”

I remain hopeful that the money, brainpower, and infrastructure might be converted to truly sustainable climate solutions. I hope to conduct more interviews to see how open these people might be to converting the resources, since they know very well that we won’t be truly safe until every nuclear weapon has been dismantled, and we’re working together with our current “adversaries” to keep our species alive.

Across the street, protesters reminded conference-goers that their product is now illegal in the 68 countries (so far) that have ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. (Photo: Vicki Elson)

II: Follow the Money

Theme 4. Luckily, the Mission is well-funded by the US government, a solid, permanent customer. The speakers happily agreed that there is always bipartisan Congressional support, no matter which party is in control. “There’s plenty of money,” said one speaker, “though more wouldn’t hurt.”

Nobody mentioned that one reason for this reliable support is that Republican and Democratic members of Congress receive campaign contributions from the nuclear weapons companies. They didn’t have to. Two members of Congress’s Armed Services Committee spoke at the Summit. Both repeated the ubiquitous refrain about danger, “deterrence,” and urgency.

Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE) came in person and urged speedy modernization of all three legs of the nuclear triad plus N3 (Nuclear Command, Control, Communications). She said, “Our nation has sidelined our Nuclear Enterprise…the bedrock of our national security. The US should heed the motto of President Reagan, Peace Through Strength.” She said the Armed Services Committee will request a “very robust Fiscal Year 2024 budget” for the deterrent. (Her top donor is nuclear weapons contractor Boeing.)

Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO) told the Summit via Zoom that “everywhere we look, nuclear threats are growing. Our ability to do something about it is, frankly, in question.” (The majority of his campaign contributions come from defense contractors, including nuclear weapons companies L3, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and BAE.)

Nobody quoted General Lee Butler, who was once in charge of the entire US nuclear arsenal as Commander of USSTRATCOM. Butler realized later in life that “deterrence,” while extremely lucrative for its decision-makers, is irrational and immoral. He wrote that the revolving door between military leadership and the corporations who make up 95% of the workforce is “fraught with opportunity for mutual nest-feathering, sweetheart deals, inflated requirements, and massive contracts.”

Butler also described “a relatively small cadre of theorists and strategists who speak with great assurance and authority…in the apocalyptic vocabulary of nuclear deterrence.” Those were the very people I met in the hotel basement.

Theme 5. We have the coolest toys. Air Force Brigadier General Ty Neuman ecstatically congratulated Northrop Grumman on the unveiling of its new B-21 Raider stealth bomber, described on NG’s website as “the future of deterrence…an advanced aircraft offering a combination of range, payload, and survivability…capable of penetrating the toughest defenses to deliver precision strikes anywhere in the world.” It’s $692 million per plane, and NG expects to sell at least 100.

The Raider is a sleek, spectacularly futuristic machine, specifically designed to deliver conventional munitions as well as nuclear weapons capable of slaughtering millions of civilians in the most horrific ways. General Neuman loves it: “You should all have a poster of it on your wall! It’s an exciting time for the nuclear deterrent. There’s a brand spanking new shiny triad coming soon! It’s fantastic!”

But that’s just a delivery system. What about the bombs themselves?

Theme 6. To fulfill the Mission, we need to make 80 new plutonium pits (bomb triggers) per year. It’s an admittedly “Herculean” task, “like changing the tires while driving the car” and “like upgrading a jetliner in flight with 300 passengers on board.” There were whole sessions dedicated to overcoming obstacles like the “atrophied” post-Cold War infrastructure, the inadequate workforce, the unpredictable supply chain, and the “excessive” safety regulations that slow everything down.

It used to be easier. Back in the Cold War, before the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado was raided by the FBI and shut down in 1989 over environmental regulation violations (the first time one government agency raided another), it was cranking out 1000-2000 pits per year. These are now 30 or 40 years old, and they must be replaced for the “deterrent” to remain convincing.

Or do they? It’s controversial. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (CACNP) says “expanded plutonium pit production is not necessary to maintain the safety or reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile,” and that the 1350 pits already in use, despite being 30 to 40 years old, are expected to last at least 100 years.

Some people at the Summit seemed to share those doubts, but NNSA’s Marvin Adams brushed them aside, saying, “if somebody just gives you a blanket statement, like pits last a hundred years…you might question whether they know all that much about what they’re talking about.”

Theme 7. We can do it if we all work together! Workforce: We need bigger salaries and better perks to recruit and retain employees, and we must continually remind them of the sacredness of the Mission. Skills: There’s a whole sub-industry dedicated to passing on complicated knowledge to inexperienced newcomers. Cooperation: There’s a new report called the “Enhanced Mission Delivery Initiative” aimed at reducing “friction in the system” among the various parts of the industry — but the EMDI itself was described as a “moon shot” that has to blast through federal bureaucracy. Waste: Nuclear weapons (and nuclear power) “won’t be green until we solve waste disposal.”

Nobody asked whether working together to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth forever might be safer (not to mention cheaper) than working together on an arms race with no end in sight.

Theme 8. Safety slows us down. One speaker put up a slide that read, “My job is to keep nuclear safety off the critical path of your mission.” The quote was attributed to John Conway, who, as chair of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, was in charge of safety regulations for nuclear weapons facilities across the United States from 1989 to 2005. Conway was quoted as a role model, not as a cautionary tale.

Contractor Garrett Harencak said, “What we do could be dangerous, could be a problem, but so are other industries. We overdo security. When there are 5600 pages of documents, that drives behavior. It doesn’t allow us to move at speed. We have to shift risk perception…but my people were all good students, good on the SAT’s…Why can’t we trust the smartest people on the planet?”

As I write, six smart people just got fired from Minot Air Force Base. Air Force Times reports that it was over a “failed nuclear safety inspection.”

While the NNSA is responsible for making nuclear weapons safer (from accidents), more secure (from thieves and saboteurs), and more effective (at being reliably capable of destroying targets), the emphasis of the entire event was clearly on the latter. The more destructive the weapons, theoretically, the better they would be at deterrence.

One speaker even mentioned that “safety and security are not the Mission.” In an industry with the potential to end life on Earth, a “culture of risk aversion” was blamed for “slowing us down and raising costs.” Senator Fischer put it bluntly: “We must reform the bureaucratic processes that hamstring us.”

Radiation hazmat suits on display from one of the many contractors vying for federal contracts. (Photo: Vicki Elson)
Radiation hazmat suits on display from one of the many contractors vying for federal contracts. (Photo: Vicki Elson)

III: The Nuclear Ban Treaty

Theme 9. The Nuclear Ban Treaty is misguided.

There was only one mention of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was adopted at the UN in 2017 by 122 non-nuclear countries fed up with the existential danger that the 9 nuclear-armed countries perpetuate. Everything to do with the Enterprise’s product is illegal in the 68 countries that have ratified so far.

But Pranay Vaddi, Special Assistant to President Biden, prefers the 1970 Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been promising nuclear disarmament “in good faith” and “at an early date” since it was ratified by the five nuclear-armed nations 53 years ago. Vaddi told the Summit he thinks the NPT is working because there are only four more nuclear-armed countries now: “That small number is a sign of success!” If the goal is non-proliferation, one could agree that four is better than 100. But the danger to life on Earth continues to grow.

Asked about the TPNW, Vaddi said, “We want the non-nuclear weapon states to [appreciate] the benefits of the NPT and not be distracted by what seems like a fake promise by the TPNW, which does not [include] a verification regime and ultimately does not serve our interests.”

In fact, Article 8, paragraph 1(b) of the TPNW assigns the creation of “measures for the verified, time-bound and irreversible elimination of nuclear-weapons programmes” to the States Parties after ratification.

Jay Tilden of the NNSA was even more dismissive of the TPNW: “The challenge for the entire liberal democratic world is to convince some of these non-aligned and third world countries, that are out there floating, many of which are part of this ban treaty. You can see them being irritated. It looks like we’re going the wrong way. [Our challenge] is to convince them that, if this all falls apart, what comes after, if it’s crafted by Russia and China, do you think that’s going to be beneficial to you?”

In fact, some of the 68 “floating” States Parties to the TPNW are Nigeria (7th largest population in the world), Bangladesh (8th), Mexico (10th), Philippines (13th), plus Austria, Ireland, South Africa, and Thailand. Indonesia (4th) and Brazil (6th) have signed the TPNW and are expected to ratify soon.

Furthermore, the leaders of the G20 nations – including the US, China, and Russia — stated in November 2022 that “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible. The peaceful resolution of conflicts, efforts to address crises, as well as diplomacy and dialogue, are vital. Today’s era must not be of war.” The G20 members represent about 85% of the global GDP and 2/3 of the world’s population.

“Threat of use” is “deterrence” in a nutshell. “Inadmissible” to the G20, it’s also prohibited under the TPNW.

The TPNW is intended to eliminate the need for the “deterrent” in the first place. Then the Enterprise wouldn’t have to convince an entire workforce to get excited about an industry that can end civilization. Safety regulations wouldn’t get in their way. They’d still have to clean up seriously contaminated sites, but at least they wouldn’t be creating new ones. Of course, they’d have to find another way to make a living.

Theme 10. Peaceniks are cute but need to be kept out of the building.

A handful of protesters chatted with the Summit attendees, until the police made them leave.

They distributed a flyer that cited the TPNW, the growing worldwide divestment from the nuclear weapons industry, and “reputational risk” to the corporations: “The public…is asking: Is this patriotism or profiteering? Is this deterrence or delusion?” It mentioned that “AECOM and Serco have recently left the nuclear weapons business – not unlike GE, Westinghouse, Dupont, Morton, Ford and others did at the end of the Cold War, due to public opprobrium.” It asked, “is there a way to stay profitable with a more popular product, like in the growing market for climate solutions?”

Said one protester, “Look, you are good, hardworking, brilliant people with the best of intentions, and paid extremely well, but each day this industry takes us to the edge of life. We need your talent and expertise for really important matters.” Said another, “If you see everybody as the enemy, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

One Summit attendee saw the protesters and said, “I’m glad it gives them something to do.” Another thanked them, without irony, for expressing themselves nonviolently. Yet another brought them chocolate truffles.

Vicki Elson is a co-founder of NuclearBan.US. She holds a master’s degree in anthropology and has had a long career in childbirth education. She shifted her focus to promoting the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in the US when it was adopted by 122 countries in 2017. She is also a freelance journalist and a songwriter.