A New Nuclear Arsenal and Reflections on a President’s Last Days in Office

A decade ago your editor organized a policy conference in Washington DC with a group of national security experts that ranged from a former NSC senior staffer (and Kissinger aide who resigned in protest of the Cambodia invasion) Roger Morris to current National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The 2006 conference was inauspiciously called “Surviving Victory”

New Oval Office

A Commander-in-Chief’s Final Days in Office

Today, as we consider the Obama White House and the conclusion of the president’s term in office, I’m remembering a “Surviving Victory” conference and its overarching topic — finding a road that doesn’t deliver escalation and a perpetual war horizon.

Looking out at an extended global horizon and what we continue to believe are ‘overextended’ US commitments and costs of conflicts and war, Strategic Demands is considering what it would be like to be Susan Rice, the senior security advisor to the President as he comes to the last months of his term and his last opportunities for to substantively change ‘360’ policy.

As Susan walks in every morning now to brief the President on daily security issues, what are they focusing on? Are they acting to make the last days in office consequential?

Are they thinking of the nuclear clock ticking?

What are the questions that need to be answered before the last briefing?


What are the pressing executive orders that should be issued before the clock runs out — and a new Commander-in-Chief begins issuing directives to the US security state and comand-and-control of worldwide theaters of operations.

We are thinking of what can be ordered now, what executive orders should be announced that can make real world changes in the nuclear equation, reduce risk, and move the world forward toward security. These goals in the nuclear sphere are those the president announced recently, again, in Hiroshima.

What will be his legacy? Will he act now?


Update: July 10, 2016

Obama plans major nuclear policy changes in his final months

Via the Washington Post

The Obama administration is determined to use its final six months in office to take a series of executive actions to advance the nuclear agenda… 

In recent weeks, the national security Cabinet members known as the Principals Committee held two meetings to review options for executive actions on nuclear policy. Many of the options on the table are controversial, but by design none of them require formal congressional approval. No final decisions have been made, but Obama is expected to weigh in personally soon.


With some 800 overseas bases, global presence and unmatched force projection with an annual budget (yet to be audited) approaching one trillion (give or take tens of billions), the ‘superpower’ of the United States is about to swear in a new chief “decision-maker” as former president George W. Bush so memorably characterized his role as president.

It is a time also for reflection and decision as the occupant of the Oval Office gets ready to depart with a final presidential wave.

On the issues that are most pressing, a clouded horizon and deepening agenda of strategic demands, issues most vital to the nation’s security and global security, what will passed on to the next president?

The torch will be passed but what can be done between now and January as the ship of state steams on, a vast ongoing enterprise that cannot turn on a dime, or for that matter may not be able to turn much at all given the momentum of spending on programs that are determinant of the future and future extensions of US force projection.

This week’s piece in TomDispatch touches on this momentum, particularly in the realm of nuclear war and “modernization” of nuclear forces.

Let’s take a look at some of the salient quotes we’ve touched on, from “Surviving Victory” and “strategic demands” to the limits of a superpower and a sustainable strategic policy.

Taking time to look back and a look forward is appropriate as a presidential era is about to come to an end and a new one about to begin.

The next weeks will be the last in a series of ‘POTUS briefings’ by Susan Rice with Barack Obama. The threat horizon that is both a result of external threats and US actions will extend into the future. The next Commander-in-Chief and Security advisor will inherit the results of the final Potus briefings and executive decisions.

Let us hope that serious, even momentous decisions directed at nuclear weapons and proliferation threats will be determined and announced. The nuclear threat is growing with modernization of the nuclear arsenal and weapons complex. It is time to act on this front before the 44th president’s leaves his office for the last time.


June 21st / Dear President

In a propitious moment that echoes our June 19th call for the National Security Advisor and President to consider what can be achieved — and should be attempted — in the final days of the Obama administration, a number of top scientist in the US have sent a Letter to the President urging him to take US land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert and remove launch-on-warning options.

More than 90 prominent US scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates and 90 National Academy of Sciences members, are now on record with this ‘remaining-day-in-office’ request to significantly reduce the threat of accidental nuclear war.


Overextended and weapons sytems overruns, again

  • As TomDispatch regular William Hartung has written, the Pentagon regularly takes “active measures to disguise how it is spending the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it receives every year — from using the separate ‘war budget’ as a slush fund to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting wars to keeping the cost of its new nuclear bomber a secret.”
  • Winslow Wheeler reported at the 2007 “Surviving Victory” conference on the cost overruns of the F-35. In the past decade the costs, as with every new weapons system, have spiraled up.

Here is an expert’s latest report on the new F-35 system —

When it comes to those cost overruns, Exhibit A is incontestably the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane whose total acquisition costs were pegged at $233 billion back in 2001. That price now: an estimated $1.4 trillion for far fewer planes. In test flights the F-35 has failed to outperform the F-16, a plane it is supposed to replace. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that, among myriad other deficiencies, cannot fly within 25 miles of a thunderstorm.

A modified version of the F-35 (F-35A) is to be fitted with a nuclear weapon system, the B61-12, a development that has already changed the nuclear equation and is at the front of a new Cold War set of weapon system “modernization” actions and reactions, with three adversaries poised to spend hundreds of billions over the next decade. The US, Russia and China are in the first phase and entering a new, profoundly dangerous nuclear era.


Re-weaponizing nuclear arsenals will now be a nuclear rivalry of three


F-35 Lightning w payload visual

Reconfigured B61 weapon is fuel for new arms race

  • Once completed, the B61 bomb will be the world’s first nuclear “smart” bomb, to be delivered by the new super-stealthy $1 trillion F-35. A “new arms race” is underway as nuclear arms reduction treaties of the past two decades fall away.
  • Forward-deployed in Europe, strategic-tactical nuclear weapons are to be carried by the F-35. The F-35 in its “omnirole” will become elements of NATO and Israel and US allies. The Russian and Chinese military will re-modernize in response. Nuclear proliferation is a legacy of the Obama administration that, unless recognized and dealt with via negotiation and verifiable treaty by the next administration, will be a high-risk factor for coming decades.
  • US nuclear ‘upgrades’ in Europe, FAS/Deutsche Welle, 23.09.2015
  • Taking Nuclear Weapons to the Bank The next-generation nuclear initiatives have received far less attention than they deserve, perhaps because observers are generally loath to acknowledge that the Cold War and its attendant nuclear terrors, supposedly consigned to the ashcan of history a quarter-century ago. Yet, a new Cold War we think of as Cold War 2.0, is being revived on a significant scale and against the backdrop of a new geo-political chessboard that now deeply involves Eurasian moves by a number of nuclear-armed (and nuclear-possession) states. Whether we look at challenges to the Petrodollar or a resurgent China, a series of moves and countermoves are taking place.
  • Among the ‘most destabilizing’ of new generation nuclear weapon systems is a new long-range nuclear cruise missile (which, as recently as 2010, the Obama administration explicitly promised not to develop).


cruise nukes


  • And to give control of global theaters of war and the ‘high ground’, a complex of new nuclear command-and-control systems are under development for a fleet of satellites (costing up to $1 billion each) designed to make the business of fighting a nuclear war more practical and manageable.


In sum, the legacy of President Obama is not one of nuclear arms reduction but one of nuclear arms extensions, with budgets now in place and future weapon systemss no doubt becoming costly overruns as the nuclear weapons complex and its platform spawns a host of extended launch systems, command and control systems, modernized and miniaturized warheads, tactical and strategic.

The lessons and close-calls of the 50s, 60s and 70s that led to arms reductions and self-survival awareness in the 80s and 90s is fast receding into history.

The next generation must talk about the need for a world without risk of nuclear Armageddon — ‘flash points’ becoming disastrous as entangling treaties pull in adversaries; first-strike ‘tactical’ nuclear use resulting in regional/global disaster;  and old ‘on alert’ systems networked to remove human decisions; digital or grid ‘glitches’; provocations/misjudgments that deliver retaliation beyond expectation.

The future of increased nuclear weapons systems beyond this administration should give the president and his national security advisor pause as they walk in the Oval Office during these last days.

The  massive nuclear buildup, announced under the comforting rubric of “modernization,” stands in contrast to the president’s lofty public ruminations on the topic of nuclear weapons. The most recent of these was delivered during his visit — the first by an American president — to Hiroshima last month. There, he urged “nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles” to “have the courage to escape the logic of fear, and pursue a world without them.”



More at StratDem:

New Definitions of National Security



“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything, save our modes of thinking…”  — Albert Einstein


My Journey at the Nuclear Brink

by William J. Perry, with a foreword by George P. Shultz
Stanford Security Studies, 234 pp., $85.00; $24.95 (paper)


New York Review of Books

Reviewed by Jerry Brown, Governor of CaliforniaI know of no person who understands the science and politics of modern weaponry better than William J. Perry, the US Secretary of Defense from 1994 to 1997. When a man of such unquestioned experience and intelligence issues the stark nuclear warning that is central to his recent memoir, we should take heed. 
  • “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.” A National Security Walk Around the World” — Drell Lecture, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, February 10, 2016 by William J. Perry
  • “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink” — In clear, detailed but powerful prose, Perry tells the story of his seventy-year experience of the nuclear age.
  • Beginning with his firsthand encounter with survivors living amid “vast wastes of fused rubble” in the aftermath of World War II, his account takes us up to today when Perry is on an urgent mission to alert us to the dangerous nuclear road we are traveling.
  • Reflecting upon the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Perry says it was then that he first understood that the end of all of civilization was now possible, not merely the ruin of cities.
  • He tells us that the nuclear danger is “growing greater every year” and that even a single nuclear detonation “could destroy our way of life.”
  • He asserts it is only “old thinking” that persuades our leaders that nuclear weapons provide security, instead of understanding the hard truth that “they now endanger it.”
  • As a defense insider and keeper of nuclear secrets, he is clearly calling American leaders to account for what he believes are very bad decisions, such as the precipitous expansion of NATO, right up to the Russian border. “The descent down the slippery slope began, I believe, with the premature NATO expansion, and I soon came to believe that the downsides of early NATO membership for Eastern European nations were even worse than I had feared” (p. 152)
  • Within ten short years after the end of World War II, both the Soviet Union and the United States had developed hydrogen bombs, which increased by a million times the destructive capability of the conventional bombs that had been available during World War II. Children were taught to “duck and cover” under their desks and public buildings prominently displayed signs showing where to take shelter in case of nuclear attack. [StratDem’s editor well remember the “duck and cover” school exercises of the 1960s missile crisis era]
  • Perry says it was by luck that we avoided a nuclear holocaust in the Cuban crisis. Years later, we found out that there were some additional and dangerous circumstances that might have pushed us into nuclear war. “The Man Who Saved the World,” Secrets of the Dead, PBS, October 23, 2012
  • Perry recalls that it was the fear of nuclear annihilation during the cold war that unleashed the billions of federal dollars that supported the secret defense work that began in Silicon Valley and then propelled it forward. [Via ARAPNET research intended to ensure command-and-control survivability in the event of nuclear war]
  • Perry points out several particularly troubling aspects of the crisis. There were, he writes, advisers on both the Soviet and US sides who wanted to rush into war. The media, for their part, treated the crisis as “a drama of ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’” Finally he observes that political leaders seemed to gain approval with the public based on their willingness to initiate a war.
  • As a result, an even more sophisticated competition began, in nuclear warheads and in the vehicles to deliver them.
  • Perry’s work at Sylvania, then ESL as a founder, was at the forefront of private defense contractors working for the US defense establishment on nuclear war issues. ICBMs, nuclear bombs, ballistic missile defense systems, and supersonic aircraft, Perry and ESL were in the vanguard of the weapons complex.
  • With the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, the new secretary of defense asked Perry to become undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. Perry directed the US strategy that had three principal elements: (1) intelligent sensors to locate all enemy forces in real time; (2) smart weapons that could strike targets with great precision; and (3) stealth systems that could evade enemy radar.
  • America looked to offset the Soviet military with weapon systems that included the F-117 and B-2 stealth bombers, smart artillery shells, short- and long-range cruise missiles, and reconnaissance aircraft.
  • Perry was responsible for important technological advances with respect to US nuclear forces. He helped launch the B-2, a strategic nuclear bomber, capable of use in both nuclear and nonnuclear missions; revitalized the aging B-52 with air-launched cruise missiles; put the Trident submarine program back on track; and made an ill-fated attempt to bring the MX ICBM, a ten-warhead missile, into operation.
  • Perry writes that he acceded to the political pressure to keep up with the other guy. Then as now, Perry writes, he believed that America would possess all the deterrence it needs with just one leg of the so-called triad: the Trident submarine.
  • Perry tells us that parity is “old thinking” because nuclear weapons can’t actually be used—the risk of uncontrollable and catastrophic escalation is too high. They are only good for threatening the enemy with nuclear retaliation.
  • Many experts agree with this life-and-death assessment, even as presidents follow the political and highly dangerous path of sizing our nuclear force to achieve “parity” with Russia [and in this continued competition that waned and is now reasserting itself, another ‘superpower’ is becoming visible and entering the nuclear arena with a response of strategic/tactical nuclear weapons revealing systems such as their version of the F-35 and their version of MIRV’d ICBMs) . Such a competitive and mindless process always leads to escalation without end.
  • Perry’s position is that the US ICBM force is redundant. Indeed the danger of starting an accidental nuclear war as a result of a false alarm outweighs its deterrent value.
  • In My Journey at the Nuclear Brink is a rare accounting of the last six decades of American policy in the new age of nuclear danger.
  • Since the book’s publication, the dangers identified by Perry have only intensified: the latest US defense budget proposes spending $1 trillion on nuclear modernization over the next several decades. This modernization plan contemplates a complete update of our nuclear triad, including new cruise missiles, nuclear submarines, ICBMs and bombers. The Russian defense minister recently announced in response that Russia will “bring five new strategic nuclear missile regiments into service.” This comes after President Putin revealed that Russia will add more than forty new intercontinental ballistic missiles to its nuclear arsenal. And, just this month, as the US broke ground on a future missile defense site in Poland and formally activated a missile defense site in Romania, Putin warned: “Now after the placement of these missile defense elements, we have to think how to neutralize the threats for the security of the Russian Federation…”

~ Jon B. Wolfstahl, Jeffrey Lewis and Marc Quint, “The Trillion Dollar Nuclear Triad,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey, January 2014.

~ Maria Kiselyova and Polina Devitt, “Russia to deploy new divisions on Western flank, form nuclear regiments,” Reuters, January 12, 2016.

~ Ilya Arkhipov and Marek Strzelecki, “Putin Warns NATO Missile Shield is Threat to Peace in Europe,” Bloomberg, May 13, 2016. Existing US law allows for the deployment of a missile defense system to prevent a “limited ballistic missile attack” (see www.congress.gov/106/plaws/publ38/PLAW-106publ38.pdf). The word “limited” was meant to prevent the deployment of a large missile defense system aimed at Russia or China. The proposed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 contains a particularly dangerous provision introduced by Senator Ted Cruz that strikes the word “limited” from existing law and thereby lays the groundwork for an expanded missile defense system directed at Russia and China. Such action would have a hugely destabilizing impact upon an already precarious world order.

  • It is conspicuous how most all US foreign policy think tanks, Brookings most prominently given its leadership, push an adversarial policy in Europe. Perry point to the the continued expansion of NATO with consequences and a George Kennan quote appears prescient:

As George Kennan told The New York Times in 1998: “I think [NATO expansion] is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.”

A Stark Nuclear Warning from William J Perry

Governor Brown concludes his review of Perry’s book on the following ominous note:

No one I have known, or have even heard of, has the management experience and the technical knowledge that William Perry brings to the subject of nuclear danger. Few have his wisdom and integrity. So why isn’t anyone paying attention to him? Why is fear of a nuclear catastrophe far from the minds of most Americans? And why does almost all of official Washington disagree with him and live in nuclear denial? Perry himself may provide the answer:

Our chief peril is that the poised nuclear doom, much of it hidden beneath the seas and in remote badlands, is too far out of the global public consciousness. Passivity shows broadly. Perhaps this is a matter of defeatism and its cohort, distraction. Perhaps for some it is largely a most primal human fear of facing the “unthinkable.” For others, it might be a welcoming of the illusion that there is or might be an acceptable missile defense against a nuclear attack. And for many it would seem to be the keeping of faith that nuclear deterrence will hold indefinitely—that leaders will always have accurate enough instantaneous knowledge, know the true context of events, and enjoy the good luck to avoid the most tragic of military miscalculations.


While many complain of the obvious dysfunction in Washington, few see the incomparably greater danger of “nuclear doom” because it is hidden and out of public consciousness. Despite an election year filled with commentary and debate, no one is discussing the major issues that trouble Perry. It is another example of the rigid conformity that often dominates public discourse. Long ago, I saw this in the Vietnam War and later in the invasion of Iraq: intelligent people were doing mindless—and catastrophic—things. “Sleepwalking” is the term historians now use for the stupidities that got European leaders into World War I and for the mess they unleashed at Versailles. And sleepwalking still continues as NATO and Russia trade epithets and build their armies and Moscow and Washington modernize their nuclear overkill. A new cold war.

Fortunately, Bill Perry is not sleepwalking and he is telling us, in My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, to wake up before it is too late. Anyone can begin by reading his book.


What Are the Odds?