May: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

by Jeffrey W. Mason
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May 3, 1983 – The U.S. Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, promulgated by sixty distinguished bishops, noted that, “Nuclear weaponry has drastically changed the nature of warfare and the arms race poses a threat to human life and human civilization which is without precedent.”  In their conclusions the bishops asserted that, “The [nuclear] arms race is one of the greatest curses on the human race.”  The letter called for the elimination of nuclear weapons and global militarization.  Today, there still exists tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world including strategic, tactical, reserve, and standby warheads. The arms race may not be growing uncontrollably as it did during the Cold War, but it is not inexorably moving toward Global Zero either.  Recent tensions in Russian-American relations hint that a renewed Cold War may be possible.  (Source:  Philip Louis Cantelon, Richard Hewitt, and Robert C. Williams, editors.  “The American Atom:  A Documentary History of Nuclear Policies from the Discovery of Fission to the Present.”  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, second edition, pp. 267-68.)

May 5, 1962 – Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, at a speech before NATO ministers in Athens warned the representatives that “NATO should never be forced to choose between suffering a military defeat or starting a nuclear war.”  He also expressed concern that the existence of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe increased the threat of nuclear war.  In 2014, especially with increased tension levels with the Russian Federation over the Crimea-Ukraine Crisis, there remain serious concerns about U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe.  There are still about 200 U.S. nuclear weapons stored in Turkey, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands for use by NATO aircraft.  And, of course, Russia also has tactical nuclear weapons deployed close to their borders with Europe and Turkey. (Source:  Eric Schlosser.  “Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.” New York:  Penguin Press, 2013, pp. 287, 476-77.)

May 15, 1957 – The United Kingdom tested its first thermonuclear weapon at a Christmas Island test site in the Pacific.  The Grapple 1/Short Granite test produced a yield of 200-300 kilotons.  It was one of 45 nuclear weapons tests by Britain in the Pacific region along with another 24 conducted in the U.S. at the Nevada Test Site.  Those tests were a small sample of thousands of nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U.S., Russia, China, and other members of the Nuclear Club.   As of this writing, according to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s website, 183 nations have signed and 162 countries have ratified a treaty that bans all nuclear testing.  The CTBT was initially signed by the U.S., U.K., and almost seventy other nations on September 24, 1996.  (Source:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology” Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 4, 6, and CTBT Organization’s website, www.ctbto.org accessed April 14, 2014.)

May 16, 2000 – New York Times journalist William Broad reported the release of declassified documents relating to a staff study by the U.S. Air Force Special Weapons Center conducted in January of 1959.  One of the participants in the study, the late astronomer-physicist Carl Sagan, was among several scientists tasked to assess the feasibility of conducting a nuclear weapons test on the lunar surface.  Sagan and the other participants concluded that the blast would “ruin the pristine environment of the moon.”  On January 27, 1967, the multilateral Outer Space Treaty was signed and the agreement was later entered into force on October 10 of that same year.  The treaty prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit, on the moon, or on any celestial body.  The only recent dilution of the international consensus to prevent nuclear weapons from being deployed or exploded outside Earth’s atmosphere has been debate about utilizing nuclear weapons, as a last resort, to prevent a possible future asteroid or comet collision with our planet.  (Source:  B612 Foundation, www.b612foundation.org accessed April 14, 2014.)

May 22, 2011 – Islamic militants attacked, penetrated the defensive perimeter, and seized at least one building at a naval aviation base, PNS Mehran, outside Karachi, Pakistan. It took approximately one day for Pakistani military forces to kill or capture the assailants.  While it is believed that there were no nuclear weapons stored at this base, a similar attack staged about 15 miles away at a suspected nuclear weapons storage facility near Masroor could result in the theft of nuclear warheads or materials which could be used in a future WMD attack on Pakistan, India, or any nation including the United States.  Nuclear terrorism represents perhaps the most likely threat that would be dramatically reduced or eliminated if global nuclear arsenals were reduced to less than 200-500 warheads.  (Source:  Combating Terrorism Center, U.S. Military Academy, West Point, NY, www.ctc.usma.edu accessed April 14, 2014.)

May 26, 1972 – In Moscow, President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) Interim Agreement which placed a ceiling on strategic offensive nuclear weapons.  Also signed was the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM-I) which limited strategic anti-ballistic missile defenses.  More recently, building on the SALT I and II as well as START and SORT agreements, the two nations signed on to the New START Treaty on April 8, 2010.  That treaty entered into force on February 5, 2011.  This agreement limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 while also limiting each side’s deployed strategic missiles and bombers to 700.  However, President George W. Bush’s December 13, 2001 announced withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, which was culminated six months later, combined with deployments of missile defense systems in Europe during the Bush and Barack Obama administrations has helped introduce a significant level of strategic instability into nuclear relations between Russia and America.  The U.S. and NATO have justified ABM systems as a way to circumvent breakout by Iran and the possible launching of future nuclear-capable ballistic missiles by that nation.   However, Russia views U.S. plans for missile defenses in Europe as a threat to Moscow.  Recently, because of the Crimea-Ukraine Crisis, both sides have either delayed or cancelled planned future discussions/negotiations on the matter leading many to believe that a possible Cold War II may be eminent.   (Source:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.” Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 2, 4.)