July: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

Paul K. Chappell at the Chautauqua Institution
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July: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

July 1, 1991 – On this date, the Warsaw Pact (established in 1955 as a response to the 1949 establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), also known in the Soviet bloc as The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance signed by Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union, formally dissolved as a communist military alliance.  Yet NATO, 1949-present, not only continues to exist but has grown and expanded in order to further “contain Russia and protect former Soviet republics and Eastern European nations from Russian military aggression.”  But from Moscow’s perspective, not just current President Putin but former General Secretary of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and many other Russians and Western scholars too, this eastern NATO expansion has violated an agreement made during the George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) presidency.  According to long-time Soviet/Russian scholar Professor Stephen Cohen, “President George H.W. Bush and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl made an agreement (May 17, 1990) with General Secretary Gorbachev that if the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Eastern Europe and East Germany in particular and ended the Warsaw Pact, in return NATO would not expand east.  Gorbachev also allowed the reunification of Germany (September 12, 1990 treaty), and that nation’s inclusion in NATO as long as the Western Alliance would not expand as then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker promised, ‘one inch east.’”  Although a number of other experts say there was no such written agreement or even a so-called “verbal gentleman’s agreement” to circumvent NATO military expansion east (see Steven Pifer.  “Did NATO Promise Not to Enlarge?  Gorbachev Says No.” The Brookings Institution, Nov. 6, 2014), the debate continues.  Nobel Peace Prize winner and retired Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s testimony has been used by both sides to argue the case.  In October 2014, Gorbachev stated, “The decision for the U.S. and its allies to expand NATO into the east was decisively made in 1993.  I called this a big mistake from the very beginning.  It was definitely a violation of the spirit of the statements and assurances made to us in 1990.”  Comments:  Professor Cohen and a plethora of other anti-nuclear scholars, activists, politicians, experts, and global citizenry are deeply concerned that this expansion (and Russian moves in Ukraine and elsewhere) have substantially increased the risk of nuclear war.  The buildup of NATO forces (including the unprecedented stationing of a German regiment “on the Eastern front”), accompanying Russian countermeasures, and the deployment of tactical nuclear forces by both sides brings the world a step closer to unintentional, accidental, unauthorized, or even intentional nuclear conflict triggered by another “trip wire” like the Ukraine Crisis of 2014-15.  (Sources:  Thom Hartmann. “Why is the Western Media Ignoring the New Cold War? with Professor Stephen Cohen.”  RT.com, June 8, 2016, Maxim Korshunov.  “Mikhail Gorbachev:  I am Against All Walls.” Russia Beyond the Headlines. http://rbth.com/international/2014/10/16/mikhail_gorbachev_i_am_against_all_walls_40673.html, and Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  “Warsaw Pact.” www.britannica.com/event/Warsaw-Pact accessed June 15, 2016.)

July 9, 1962 – Before the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, negotiated by President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev and approved by Congress in an amazingly short period of approximately six weeks, outlawed nuclear testing in the atmosphere and in outer space, the U.S. conducted one of five nuclear weapons test explosions hundreds of miles above Earth.  A test, code-named Starfish Prime, was conducted on this date at approximately 240 miles altitude with a magnitude of 1.4 megatons from a Thor missile launched from Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean.  The atomic blast caused unanticipated electromagnetic pulse (EMP) impacts over a large region knocking out 300 street lights and shutting down telephone lines in Hawaii and damaging six satellites.  Comments:  This incident brings to light a serious concern.  Would the U.S. or other members of the Nuclear Club resist responding with nuclear strikes on nations or subnational entities responsible for exploding nuclear weapons in outer space high above those nations’ territories despite the extensive EMP damage inflicted on e-commerce as well as other elements of the targeted nation’s military and civilian infrastructure?  In the interests of peace and the paramount avoidance of future nuclear escalation and conflicts, not to mention the need for public transparency, the U.S. and other Nuclear Club members should open this matter to public scrutiny and debate in order to seek broad international consensus opposing nuclear retaliation to EMP or other related attacks such as cyberwar infrastructure strikes as clear violations of international and humanitarian law.  (Source:  Phil Plait.  “The 50th Anniversary of Starfish Prime:  The Nuke That Shocked the World.”  Discover Magazine.  July 9, 2012, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/07/09/the-50th-anniversary-of-starfish-prime-the-nuke-that-shook-the-world/#.V2Ge1eTmqM8 accessed June 15, 2016.)

July 14, 2015 – The Iran nuclear deal negotiated in the “P5 + 1 Talks” by China, France, Germany, the U.K., U.S., and Russia with the Islamic State was concluded in Vienna on this date and was later approved as “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” by the U.S. Congress in September.  According to the U.S. Department of State website “Under the agreement, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its gas centrifuges for 13 years. For the next 15 years, Iran will only enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent.  Iran also agreed not to build any new heavy-water facilities for the same period of time. Uranium-enrichment activities will be limited to a single facility using first-generation centrifuges for 10 years. Other facilities will be converted to avoid proliferation risks. To monitor and verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have regular access to all Iranian nuclear facilities. The agreement provides that in return for verifiably abiding by its commitments, Iran will receive relief from U.S., European Union, and the U.N. Security Council’s nuclear-related sanctions.”  Comments: Statements by presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (pending the final vote of the Super Delegates on July 25, 2016) over the last decade give cause for concern, especially her nuclear-saber rattling on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America program on April 22, 2008, “…if Iran launched a nuclear attack on Israel, the U.S. would retaliate against the Iranians,”  adding, “In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.”  This criticism comes despite the recognition of the seriousness of Iran’s longstanding public pronouncements to destroy Israel.  More recently at the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) meeting in Washington, D.C., Ms. Clinton stated that, “The U.S. should provide Israel with the most sophisticated defense technology so that it can deter and stop any threats.  That includes bolstering Israeli missile defenses with new systems like Arrow Three and David’s Sling.”  While this statement is much less confrontational and troubling, it does bring up the issue of America’s quiet, covert support of Israel’s nuclear arsenal (numbering 50-300 warheads).  While it is certainly true that publicly the U.S. government has never openly supported an Israeli nuclear capability, it is also true that it has rarely mentioned this issue creating a silent assent to the Jewish State’s arsenal.  However by not acknowledging Israel’s nuclear arsenal, the U.S. can’t ever hope to reduce and eliminate it.  And, inadvertently, by not publicly forcing Israel to acknowledge its existence, it creates a hidden incentive for Iran and other Arab nations to acquire its first nuclear weapon in order to deter Israel, or, in the case of Pakistan, an incentive to enlarge its arsenal to counter both traditional rival India and a potential future rival in Israel.  (Source:  “Hillary Clinton’s AIPAC Speech.” Time.com, March 2, 2016, http://time.com/4265947/hillary-clinton-aipac-speech-transcript accessed June 15, 2016.)

July 21, 1948 – A top secret Pentagon briefing on the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s future war plans was given on this date.   The briefing discussed Operation Halfmoon, a short-range emergency war plan to prevent Soviet takeover of Western Europe by dropping 50 (a figure later amended to 133) atomic bombs on Soviet cities including eight warheads on Moscow and seven on Leningrad.  Comments:  Over the last 70 years, in addition to false alerts, Broken Arrows and hundreds of nuclear accidents by the members of the Nuclear Club as well as extensive planning for preemptive nuclear war, and related nuclear crises like the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the NATO Able Archer exercise of November 1983, and the Black Brant Incident of January 1995, the world is extremely fortunate that no nuclear weapons have been used in combat since the two atomic bombings of Japan in August 1945.  (Source:  Eric Schlosser. “Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.” New York:  Penguin Press, 2013, p. 83.)

July 25-28, 2016 – One week after the Republican Party’s National Convention is to meet (July 18-21) in Cleveland to select their party’s presidential candidate, the Democratic Party will hold their presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia during these dates. Comments:  While secret presidential policy positions on the seminal political issues confronting the American people won’t become public knowledge until later, the official website of the Democratic Party (https://www.democrats.org) lists just 12 issues and nuclear weapons, the nuclear threat, or reducing the U.S. and/or global nuclear arsenals are not mentioned! Note that under the banner “National Security” are the words, “…modernizing our nuclear arsenal is a top priority.”  And this is consistent with President Obama’s recent commitment (publicly supported by Hillary Clinton) to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize our nuclear arsenal by building new nuclear weapons platforms like a new long-range bomber and new cruise missiles.  Also part of this package are new smaller “more usable” nuclear warheads.  The only positive is under the same banner of national security:  “…strengthen our ability to keep nuclear and biological weapons out of the hands of terrorists.”  Although Bernie Sanders has committed to campaigning for Hillary Clinton and he has allegedly done so only after obtaining a promise that the party platform will be far more progressive in scope than that envisioned by mainstream Democrats, even he has not extensively mentioned reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons during his campaign speechmaking.  One of possible many exceptions (as the mainstream media usually has a bias against reporting progressive topics) to this is Sanders’ statement during his April 8, 2016 appearance on The Today Show:  “The goal is to move to get rid of nuclear weapons, not to get into an arms race.  We have other more important things to spend our money on.”  Four years ago, the 2012 Democratic Party Platform did mention “preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons,” but such platitudes weren’t backed up by actual executive or legislative action during the two terms of the Obama Administration to substantially work toward Global Zero.  For the sake of the planet, human civilization, our species and  countless other creatures living on this Pale Blue Dot, let’s all hope that the 45th  President of the United States and the newly elected Congress will make substantial progress on these critical nuclear issues:  ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, forging a newly enhanced Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty, eliminating nuclear weapons modernization with the exception of extensive improvements in safeguarding the existing arsenal by enhancing safety protocols until it can be substantially reduced through a new multilateral agreement with Russia, de-alerting the U.S. arsenal in concert with similar Russian moves, phasing out all civilian nuclear power plants globally by 2025-30 with the U.S. military-industrial-complex converting substantially from arms production to nuclear remediation, dismantling, decommissioning and cleaning up thousands of global military and civilian nuclear and related toxic wastes, and other similar tasks.  (Source:  “Bernie Sanders on the Issues.” http://berniesanders.com/issues accessed June 15, 2016.)

July 28, 1957 – Two of the three Mark V hydrogen bombs on board a U.S. Air Force C-124 Globemaster cargo aircraft, which departed from Dover Air Force Base, were jettisoned from the plane when two of the four engines lost power and the aircraft suffered a significant loss of altitude.  To ensure the survival of the aircraft and its crew, the pilot had no choice but to quickly lessen the weight of the plane by dropping two H-bombs into the Atlantic Ocean.  Thankfully, no nuclear or conventional (of the high explosive charges bracketing the core of the warhead) explosions ensued.  This incident occurred about 100 miles southeast of Naval Air Station, Pomona, New Jersey, where the aircraft landed safely. One bomb is believed to have sunk 50 miles off the coast of Atlantic City and the other 75 miles away from land.  Although the U.S. Air Force, over the years since this incident (and others), claims the bombs did not contain plutonium capsules, many nuclear experts like retired Colonel Derek Duke have pointed out that in November of that same year, SAC Commander General Thomas Powers bragged to the news media that, “Day and night, I have a certain percentage of my command in the air (and the), planes are bombed up and they don’t carry bows and arrows.” Comments:  While it is very unlikely that these long-lost and probably corroded nuclear bombs could detonate in a fusion explosion, there remain deadly serious concerns about very long-term radioactive contamination from this incident and hundreds of other similar Broken Arrows. These nuclear threats can impact human and other species virtually forever unless these devices are found and disposed of properly. After all, the radioactive isotopes found in thermonuclear weapons or in the reactor cores of naval surface ships and submarines lost at sea since 1945 possess an extremely long half-life of decay – 713 million years for uranium-235 and 4.5 billion years for uranium-238!  (Source:  Colonel Derek L. Duke, Retired, “Chasing Loose Nukes.” Dungan Books, 2007, http://www.fdungan.com/duke.htm  accessed June 15, 2016.)

July 30, 1980 – In an Independent News Alliance article (“Flaws in Systems of Command and Control: Nuclear War by Accident.”) published on this date, Professor Louis Rene Beres noted that a spring 1977 test, code-named Prime Target, of the Pentagon’s World Wide Military Command and Control System found that serious computer problems and failures occurred 62 percent of the time.  These failures included false alerts and incidents of detection of nonexistent Soviet first strike nuclear attacks on the U.S. and/or its allies.  Comments:  While most observers would reasonably assume that much more sophisticated, accurate, and modern high-tech hardware and software has virtually eliminated these problems with the U.S. nuclear command and control system, such an assumption would be in error.  In point of fact, a recent GAO (Government Accountability Office) report released on May 25, 2016 (“Information Technology:  Federal Agencies Need to Address Aging Legacy Systems.”) noted that a Pentagon system used to send and receive emergency action messages for U.S. nuclear forces is running on a 1970s-era IBM computing platform that still requires the use of antiquated eight-inch floppy disks to store data.  Comments:  So it appears that saving money is more important than the safety, security, and reliability of the most dangerous weapons ever invented.  The same was true in 1980 and unfortunately in today’s world.  Because of this revelation and other flaws in the command and control systems of the Nuclear Club members, there remain very credible concerns that an unauthorized, accidental, or unintentional nuclear war could be triggered especially today during the heightened tensions of Cold War II.  (Source: Louis Rene Beres. “Apocalypse:  Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics.” Chicago and London:  The University of Chicago Press, 1980.)