“Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human beings it you didn’t have some pretty strong personal feelings about nuclear combat.”
So stated Major TJ ‘King’ Kong, commander of the Boeing B-52G Stratofortress strategic bomber, in the Oscar-winning 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Our hero uttered these words as a pep talk to his crew after being ordered to attack the “ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) base at Laputa;” a fictional island in Siberia taking its name from an equally fictional flying island in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels.
Indeed nuclear combat, and certainly nuclear weapons does generate “some pretty strong personal feelings.” For example back in April 2009 President Barack Obama, when speaking in Prague, declared: “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of the world without nuclear weapons.”
Few would object to living in a world without nuclear weapons. In fact, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, of which the United States is a signatory, pledges established signatory nuclear weapons states (France, the People’s Republic of China, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) to: “pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” Although this phrase crucially does not commit these nations to a timeframe over which such an exercise has to be performed.
Mr. Obama’s heart was arguably in the right place, yet events since his Prague speech have intervened. Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea on 18 March 2014. That country also continues to maintain nuclear-capable weapons in Europe such the KBM OTR-21 Tochka tactical ballistic missile system and its replacement the KBM 9K720 Iskander mobile short-range ballistic missile system.
Deterrence is preserved in Europe, not only by the nuclear weapons of France and the United Kingdom, but also by the circa 240 B-61 Mod.3/4 free-fall 340-kiloton nuclear bombs which are provided and guarded by the United States, but deployed to Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Turkey for use by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). NATO is the world’s oft-forgotten sixth official nuclear power.
Despite Mr. Obama’s desires, events in Europe, not to mention the continued threat posed by the nuclear weapons programme of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, fears regarding the stability of the government in Pakistan (which has declared possession of nuclear weapons) and attempts by violent Islamist organisations such as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and Al Qaeda to obtain weapons of mass destruction, has meant that the world is far from being a nuclear-free zone.
As a result the United States is performing a wholesale rejuvenation of its nuclear arsenal which includes the upgrade of legacy B-61 family weapons to B-61 Mod.12 status. This includes the refurbishment of the weapons’ nuclear warheads, and improved security systems to prevent their unauthorised use. The programme to overhaul these bombs (both those provided to NATO, and those deployed by the US armed forces) is expected to cost $10 billion, according to the Washington DC-based Arms Control Association with the initiative, which will give the bombs an extra three decades of life, completing in 2025.
With such an ambitious nuclear modernisation programme underway it seems that, for now at least, plans for a nuclear-free world will have to wait.