When World War II ended in 1945, the United States, with the exception of the attack on Pearl Harbor, had escaped war damage, developed a huge industrial base, and fielded the most powerful military in the history of the world. Europe was in chaos, Japan and China were on their knees, and the Soviet Union was reeling from its war with Germany. As the sole nuclear power, thanks to the Manhattan Project, the US led the world in technological advancements, and became the first and only superpower.
Had it chosen to do so in 1945, the US could have pivoted its army in Europe and rolled up the Soviet Union's army, preventing Joseph Stalin from imposing Communism on Europe, murdering millions of people, and starting the Cold War. Instead the US chose rapid demobilization. Six years later, the US military had been reduced to a hollow shell. Between mid-1945 and mid-1947 military personnel were reduced from more than 12 million to about 1.5 million. The Soviet Union became a nuclear power in 1949, and North Korea invaded South Korea in 1951, catching the US by surprise and exposing America's weakened military capability.
The United States found itself facing two growing superpowers, China and the Soviet Union, with huge conventional armies and the Soviet's powerful air force. Only the US nuclear weapons arsenal kept the playing field level. Nuclear and thermonuclear weapons trumped large armies, navies and air forces. One superpower could annihilate another, but would in turn be annihilated by the counter strike. This standoff became know as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), a doctrine that has prevented the use of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons in war since the Fat Man detonated over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. MAD has and is preventing direct conflict between superpowers that could result in a nuclear exchange.
MAD is America's shield against a direct attack. Today idealistic pundits proclaim if the US dismantled its nuclear weapons arsenal the world would follow. Wishful thinking? Absolutely, but there are those who believe this is true. One has to wonder how it is possible for rational people to believe North Korea, Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and a soon to be nuclear Iran, would follow suit. Iran's "peaceful" nuclear program consistently points toward a nuclear weapons development program.
The US has a limited program to maintain and upgrade its aging nuclear weapons. Obviously not following the US example, China and Russia have increased spending for modernizing their nuclear weapons stockpile.
Are some really naive enough to believe a nuclear Iran would not walk all over a disarmed US; Putin, currently rampaging through the Caucasus, would not bully America; the Chinese Dragon would not expand into the Pacific; North Korea would not attack South Korea or the America's west coast; Pakistan would not fall to the fundamentalists; and Iran would not nuke Israel?
Israel is assumed to have a small stockpile of nuclear weapons, as do Pakistan, India, France, and Great Brittan. North Korea and Iran have plans to create their nuclear weapons stockpiles: a necessity if they intend to be considered a nuclear power.
Nuclear weapons have one thing in common. They require constant maintenance and replacement of electrical, mechanical and nuclear components, which degrade and fail as they age. The only sure way to determine if a class of nuclear warheads is still reliable is to periodically test one of them — an underground test, which is banned by treaty. The best alternative to testing is replacing old warheads with new ones. Without testing or replacement, reliability can only be estimated using a computer model.
The United States has chosen to rely on computer models, component testing, and limited refurbishment of nuclear warheads. Russia and China have chosen to replace aging nuclear warheads with new ones.
Computer models are based on data from the last real underground nuclear tests and assumptions. In the case of nuclear warhead performance, the constants used in the computer model become more suspect as the warheads age. Unless aging warheads are tested by detonation, computer model reliability predictions become more and more questionable as time progresses.
Russia has increased its 2014-2016 budget for nuclear weapons by 50%. China has also increased its nuclear weapons budget. The average age of US nuclear warheads is 34 years, with the youngest being 23 years old. The average age of Russia and Chinese nuclear warheads is 5 years. Department Of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) estimates for the lifespan of US plutonium nuclear warheads is between 45 to 60 years. The last plutonium warheads were produced in the 1980s. Some are much older, and the current US modernization budget is $7 billion per year, with President Obama's promise to increase it to $8.4 billion for the next decade.
Much the same is true for staffing nuclear weapons facilities. US staffing has fallen to the current level of approximately 18,000, while Russia and China's staffing has increased to approximately 119,000 and 50,000 respectively.
Morale of military and civilians guarding and handling US nuclear warheads is sinking. These very important men and women no doubt feel they are doing an unwanted job for a country that no longer appears to think the nuclear warheads they guard and maintain are needed.
Almost all nuclear warheads use a sphere of high explosive lens to compress a sphere of fissile material known as the "pit." When compressed the pit becomes a supercritical mass that results in a nuclear explosion. Most pits (and all US pits) are plutonium-239. Uranium-235 can also be used as a fissile material for pits, but is less efficient than Pu-239. A nuclear warhead is required to ignite a thermonuclear explosion — a hydrogen bomb. Thus a bad pit will degrade or prevent a nuclear detonation, and will prevent a thermonuclear warhead from functioning.
Uranium is a stable, naturally occurring element, and the last naturally occurring element in the periodic table. Plutonium is manmade by bombarding uranium-238 atoms with neutrons in a nuclear reactor, and was first produced as part of the super secret Manhattan Project 74 years ago. Metallurgists discovered that plutonium is a strange cat, a very complex metal different from naturally occurring metals (e.g., iron, aluminum, copper, uranium, zinc, etc.).
Application of heat causes a solid to melt and the addition of more heat can cause the liquid to become a gas. Using iron as an example, a bar of iron expands (becomes longer and wider) when heat is applied, and shrinks when it cools. The change in volume is mathematically predicable as a function of temperature (the coefficient of thermal expansion). Plutonium is more complex, having 6 crystalline states as a solid, each with different physical characteristics. Like a person with multiple personalities, plutonium metal can act like six different metals, each with its own density and coefficient of thermal expansion. As plutonium-239 pits age, they may reveal more surprises: surprises that could further degrade or render the nuclear warheads with Pu-239 pits useless — surprises not predicted by computer models.
Can the US afford not to replace its pits, thereby staking America's future safety on a computer model? Apparently the administration has decided we can. China and Russia have chosen a more realistic path. They are replacing their pits on a five-year basis. Russia has the ability today to produce at least 1,000 plutonium pits per year, and has mothballed facilities capable of more than doubling this quantity. China is experiencing strong growth in manufacturing and technology, both of which increase its ability to produce pits.
The US no longer has the capability to replace pits in its nuclear warheads or produce pits for new warheads. US facilities that produced the nuclear warhead pits in our stockpile have been closed and gutted. The only remaining US facility capable of manufacturing a plutonium-239 pit is a very small, improvised operation at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. A facility that has only produced 29 certified pits since 1989. According to NNSA's 2014 Stockpile Management Plan the Los Alamos Plutonium Facility can produce 10 to 20 pits per year, the last one being produced in 2009. NSSA's plan called for achieving a capacity of 30 pits per year by 2021. Plans to build the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility at Los Alamos capable of producing 50 to 80 pits per year were dropped in 2012.
The US decommissioned its newest ICBM, the Peacekeeper in 2005, leaving the Minuteman III, deployed in 1970, and the Navy's Trident II D-5, deployed in 1990, as our main line of defense (assuming the submarines are at sea with a full crew).
Russia is upgrading its delivery systems, as is China. By 2021, 98 percent of Russia's ICBM force will be the new RS-24 Yars mobile missile (NATO designated SS-27 Mod 2) capable of carrying 6 independently targeted reentry vehicles.
The United States is effectively disarming by allowing its nuclear weapons stockpile to degrade while Russia and China modernize theirs. The concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) has prevented a nuclear war since the Fat Man detonated over Nagasaki. America is forfeiting its MAD protection as its nuclear stockpile degrades. At some point in the future, our nuclear stockpile will no longer be credible and any nuclear power will be able to dominate us.
Based upon the NNSA's estimate of 40 to 60 year life span for US nuclear warhead pits, time is fast running out, and the US has no pit production facilities.
The US allowed much of its weapons complex to deteriorate, particularly production facilities, as cooperation with Russia flourished in the 1990s. Today, the signs of decay are pervasive at the Pantex facility in Texas, where nuclear weapons are disassembled and repaired. Rat infestation has become so bad that employees are afraid to bring their lunches to work. "They literally have to keep their lunch bags on a shelf that's head high so it won't get eaten," Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman-elect of the House Armed Services Committee said. "They find them on their computers, in the hallways. It's a continual problem."
America is, by unilaterally disarming, deliberately allowing its nuclear stockpile to degrade. Once this occurs, there will be no going back because other nuclear powers will not allow it. It's doubtful many Americans will like our new status as a second or third-rate power.
Lee Boyland earned a degree in nuclear engineering, then entered active duty as an officer in the US Army Ordnance Corps. A graduate of the US Navy’s Explosive and Nuclear Ordnance Disposal Schools, Boyland was assigned to the Defense Atomic Support Agency in Albuquerque, NM. A member of DASA’s Nuclear Emergency Team responsible for nuclear weapons accidents, including the rendering safe of armed nuclear warheads, he had access to the design details of every nuclear and thermonuclear warhead developed by the United States through the Mark 63 warhead. His duties took him to the Nevada Test Site on many occasions. After leaving the Army, he designed conventional and special ordnance, and demilitarized chemical weapons at Rocky Mountain Arsenal and Tooele Army Depot. He made the transition to hazardous waste management by applying aerospace combustion technology to incineration of Agent Orange. He is the author of "The Rings of Allah and Behold, an Ashen Horse," which received critical acclaim by the Military Writers Society of America.