"I had no idea we had so many weapons," he said. "What do we need them for?"
June 17, 2001 12:24 PM   Subscribe

"I had no idea we had so many weapons," he said. "What do we need them for?" "The U.S. nuclear arsenal today includes 5,400 warheads loaded on intercontinental ballistic missiles at land and sea; an additional 1,750 nuclear bombs and cruise missiles ready to be launched from B-2 and B-52 bombers; a further 1,670 nuclear weapons classified as “tactical.” And just in case, an additional 10,000 or so nuclear warheads held in bunkers around the United States as a “hedge” against future surprises."
posted by owillis (42 comments total)
And no, this is not a Bush slam. I would be as stunned as he is. That kind of power in the hands of any country (even America) is sick.
posted by owillis at 12:25 PM on June 17, 2001

It's an index (not necessarily a bad one) of the way in which nuclear arsenals have always been played off against each other in strictly statistical terms; as accounting figures, rather than the potential causes of unimaginable effects. We know what a bullet can do; what an anti-tank missile or a landmine is capable of; and we arm ourselves in that knowledge. So perhaps we should be thankful that we've never truly gained the knowledge -- beyond the terrifying effects of the two crude examples deployed in 1945 -- of what these stockpiles mean in themselves.
posted by holgate at 12:47 PM on June 17, 2001

isn't this what carl sagan argued for? I think he said that it was a matter of "planetary hygiene" to have fewer weapons in toto than could detroy the entire ecosystem.

that has always made sense to me. - rcb
posted by rebeccablood at 1:13 PM on June 17, 2001

Rid us of most of our nuclear arsenal? How about we just put up a sign that says "Hey you! Yeah, you. Come on, bomb us, it's open season."

We need nuclear weapons because of the other even more corrupt nations out there who have them and hate us with a passion.

No one needs or should have 2,000 nuclear warheads, but sadly we're not in a position that allows us to get rid of all ours. Sure we could do without some. Not most or all.
posted by tomorama at 1:45 PM on June 17, 2001

Yeah, Tomorama, all those nations that don't have nuclear weapons are constantly being bombed. It's getting to be a real problem.
posted by Doug at 2:24 PM on June 17, 2001

I always liked how they got around the SALT treaties. Limit Strategic ICBM's? OK, we will put warheads on Tomahawks instead and call them tactical. Never mind the Peacekeeper missiles, each with 10 warheads a piece.
It would be a good thing to get rid of as many of the damn things as we can, then start on the Sub fleet. The amount of money we could save would be enormous.
posted by a3matrix at 2:47 PM on June 17, 2001

I find myself in the unusual position of applauding Bush here. While he should have had some inkling of how huge our arsenal is- a critique the so-called Left has been making for two decades- it sounds like even Cheney was stunned to learn the full extent of our arsenals back in 1989 as Sec. of Def.. If Bush does bring about a large-scale removal of much of our arsenal (the only area in which I'd support his unilateral thinking) he'd deserve a great deal of credit- were I President, I'd be saying the same thing: some is understandable, so many is unthinkable.

It's the terrifyingly angry and violently xenophobic thinking of people like tomorama that puts us in these messes (even more so if Tomorama supports NMD yet still thinks we should maintain our present nuclear arsenal mostly intact). Having a handgun or shotgun in a locked cabinet in your house is perfectly reasonable: installing bullet proof vinyl- siding and automatic weapons aimed at all the neighbors' houses is quite another. We as a nation have spent untold billions upon billions of dollars for doomsday devices we'd never need and hope to God we'd never use, above and beyond any defensive capacity. It would be unexpected indeed if Bush was the President who finally pushed towards a huge reduction in our nuclear arsenal.
posted by hincandenza at 2:58 PM on June 17, 2001

a3matrix: The amount of money we could save would be enormous.

Yeah, a3, but it's not about saving money, it's about preserving our precious bodily fluids.
posted by Twang at 3:01 PM on June 17, 2001

The people that would launch a nuke at us aren't afraid to die. I don't think our thousands of nukes are preventing terrorists from a thing.

Let's say we had 50 warheads. If someone bombed us, we'd strike back with a handful of our 50, we'd get our revenge, and the earth would be hopelessly destroyed.

It isn't much different if we have 50, 500, or 5000.
posted by jragon at 3:32 PM on June 17, 2001

I'm only about 60% sure that post by Twang was sarcastic... :)
posted by hincandenza at 3:32 PM on June 17, 2001

What is surprising is that Bush was tortally unaware of the stockpile we had ammassed. After all, it was his guru, Ronnie R., who decided to spend the Soviets into the ground and give us a deficit (soon to begin again). When any reader of magazines or papers could get some sort of handle on our stockpile, it seem odd that an educated man would not have any awareness of such things. Is he now suddenly agreeing with the radical view that we don't neeed this and that we can unload a lot of it? How the mighty have changed.
posted by Postroad at 3:48 PM on June 17, 2001

Perle said, “I see no reason why we can’t go well below 1,000. I want the lowest number possible, under the tightest control possible.” Why? “The truth is we are never going to use them. The Russians aren’t going to use theirs either.” Perle accepts the truth of what Kennedy’s national-security adviser McGeorge Bundy—himself no dove—wrote in 1969: that in the real world, “even one hydrogen bomb on one city” would be “a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history.”

Sheesh. Then why have any nuclear weapons around at all? Does anyone here realize how dangerous just keeping them around is? Sure, we've never had an accident. But there have been a number of near-accidents over the years. And no one ever thought the Concorde would crash either.
posted by raysmj at 3:55 PM on June 17, 2001

Although I don't know what it means to get a specifically worded quotation from a "knowledgeable source," I am more irritated by the first half of Bush's words here, which suggest that he has been confidently (and irresponsibly) defending an array of related political positions without knowing basic facts of the issue.

I don't claim to know the solution to arms control and the balance of power, but I wouldn't pretend to without an informed understanding.
posted by Joe Hutch at 3:55 PM on June 17, 2001

After all, it was his guru, Ronald Reagan, who decided to spend the Soviets into the ground and give us a deficit.

Even if this were true, a budget deficit for the end of the Soviet Empire is a great deal.

However, it is of course false. The reason the deficits rose in the 1980s, and the reason they shrank in the 1990s amount to three words: "House of Representatives."
posted by ljromanoff at 4:05 PM on June 17, 2001

Well, I'm always a bit sceptical about these kinds of "set the scene" articles, which summon up film-set scenarios of "The War Room". (And Newsweek is far too good at over-dramatising something that deserves dryer analysis.) So I'll take the quotables with a pinch of salt. but suspect that the sentiment is fairly accurate: but then again, I doubt many people outside the Pentagon could have adequately outlined the precise deployment. But then again, as I said earlier, they've always been "just numbers" to politicians.

(I'm reminded of an interview with Tony Blair, where he backed up John Major's comments on becoming PM: that you're made aware of things that you had absolutely no knowledge of, even as Chancellor or Leader of the Opposition. And I suspect that Bush was in the same position, even with his father to call upon.)

ljr: I'll underbid you. Two words: "economic boom".
posted by holgate at 4:10 PM on June 17, 2001

(then again again again. it's late.)
posted by holgate at 4:11 PM on June 17, 2001

You know, it's been pretty widely known for a while that one of the more controversial goals of Bush's defense review, and one of the reasons it's stalled, has been the nuclear build-down. Ths isn't Bush suddenly realizing that, oh my gosh, we have a lot of nukes! This is Bush doing his bit for the PR campaign.

Back in January, Bush ordered a "top to bottom" review of the military, with an eye to modernizing it, getting rid of some of the porkier programs, closing bases, mothballing nukes and reorienting strategy (less Europe, more Asia). Some of the slack would be taken up by missile defense. This has provoked a lot of opposition from congresspeople with a lot of investment in military bases and plants, who have become expert at sheparding their interests past the Pentagon's quadrennial reviews. The flak got bad enough that Bush pulled back, hung Rumsfeld out to dry by claiming that he never said "top-to-bottom review," and now instead talks about more focused, specialized studies of Defense. But the basic agenda is the same, and this is part of the renewed Bush PR offensive.

Note the presence of Richard Perle in the picture? Perle has been the right's preeminent spokesman for reducing the nuclear-weapons stockpile and buidling SDI for a while now. Bush is well aware of the size and cost of the nuclear arsenal—he's just pulling a Reaganesque "Gee whiz" about it for the spin potential.
posted by rodii at 4:21 PM on June 17, 2001

ljr: I'll underbid you. Two words: "economic boom".

No argument there. Of course, we had an economic boom from 1982 - 1991 as well, so that can't be the only factor.
posted by ljromanoff at 4:29 PM on June 17, 2001

rodii: Reagan himself offered to do away with all missiles in exchange for acceptance of SDI at the famous/infamous Reykjavik summit. That summit, if you recall, was considered a failure and near-disaster by many in the foreign policy establishment. Ronnie, the critics argued, almost gave away the whole store. But if there's no point to having the whole store, why not get rid of it? Then of course there is the whole SDI thing. If you believe there is no threat, SDI makes no sense.

I'd like to know the logic here. Is it just to settle certain Congressmen and industries down? Is this a incrementalist ploy? (Doubt it -- knocking down from 5,000 to 1,000 is not incrementalist.) Today's Congress is not the same one '80s Congress. Does Perle have many ties to military contractors himself? And why does no one call him on such a quote? The MSNBC writer sticks in an opinionated, "It's so true," or something similarly pithy, yet pointless. It serves only to make Perle look noble, when actually it seems that he's seen the truth, but refuses to act on what he's learned. He would be hardly alone here, but also hardly noble.
posted by raysmj at 4:37 PM on June 17, 2001

I don't know, Ray, the principle of charity would suggest that this is pretty much what it seems. Everyone knows the military is a bloated mess, with huge amounts of redundant services, misguided hardware, procurement waste, a dubious nuclear arsenal, and not enough investment in personnel and infrastructure. Every president since god knows when has tried to come to grips with it and been thwarted. Clinton actually made more progress than most, but it's a struggle. Could it be that Bush (well, the Bushites) are honestly trying to pare some of it down? But then the missile shield, and Mr. Cold Warrior Perle come into the picture and it's hard not to imagine conspiracies everywhere. Word has it that Rumsfeld, who was put in charge of the review, has been effectively isolated and is pissed about it.

I'd forgotten all about Reykjavik. That seems like ancient history, but many of the younger staffers then are major players now. These issues have a long life in Washington.

Anyway. My point is that this reporter has been snookered, and it's very unlikely that anyone in that room was surprised at the size of our nuclear arsenal, given the intensity of the debate about it in recent months.

Anyone have any links to real analyses of this, not this Newsweek crap?
posted by rodii at 5:05 PM on June 17, 2001

ljr: I'd argue that the 90s boom was different in character from that of the 80s, in that it left fewer people behind. Of course, some of the credit for that has to go to the deregulation of Reagan-Thatcher era, which actually was only felt in the recovery of the 90s: the transition from Gordon Gecko to Grandma and her Etrade account. (Not that I necessarily think it's an altogether healthy climate, given the capacity of an equity-oriented model to hurt middle income earners dispropotionately, but in the short term, it has been fairer.)

Anyway, back to dry analysis on the US military: there's this Nation piece, which I'd imagine even conservatives would find fairly even-handed, on Bush's attempt to reduce the stockpiles that were used as negotiating tools in the US-USSR détente of the late 80s:

The Bush policies have the merit of acknowledging, in a way that the seemingly insensate continuation of MAD into the post-cold war world did not, the basic new realities--on the one hand, the collapse of MAD's political underpinnings and, on the other hand, the increasing dangers of proliferation.

--with the proviso that NMD is no magic bullet:

Bush seeks to offer an exit from the balance of terror, but he provides no actual escape route ... Aristotle said that the most important attribute of a thing is existence. NMD lacks this attribute. Or, to put it differently, it has the attribute of nonexistence.

As I said elsewhere, Putin struck the right note in saying that the new alliance needs to be built on the capacity of the two regional powers -- and Russia, by virtue of its size, if not its economy, is a regional power with interests covering many of the world's flashpoints -- to identify threats, and formulate commensurate responses.

It's almost like my take on convergence technology: that there can be no "big black box" to deliver all your defence needs. With the fragmentation of old political alliances, the diaspora of military technology to regimes with the ability to pay for it, and the increasing influence of non-governmental organisations on regional affairs -- whether corporate or insurgent -- diplomatic and military strategy will need to be more individuated, and more outward-looking. The political clout of non-alignment is more significant than ever: it's three-party geopolitics.
posted by holgate at 7:01 PM on June 17, 2001

Bugger, linked to the wrong piece. This is the one.
posted by holgate at 7:03 PM on June 17, 2001

I wondered about that.
posted by rodii at 7:31 PM on June 17, 2001

Since Sagan was brought up, I'm wondering if anyone has been talking about possibly converting some of these warheads to asteroid deflection? I realize that the idea of nukes in space is scary as hell, but as Gene Shoemaker points out, eventually something out there is going to hit the earth, unless we do something to stop it. I currently don't support SDI, but if a serious effort was made to get an asteroid defense up was made, I'd support that, I think.

Of course, the utility of such an asteroid defense is up in the blue, I suppose. I have no idea how much work it would be to try and convert any part of our arsenal, but it seems to me a better use for them then to have them aimed at us. (By us, I mean the earth in general.)
posted by Ezrael at 12:43 AM on June 18, 2001

In 1990, I was visiting the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. I am not sure who to credit for the installation I saw there; it was a representation of the entire nuclear capability of the US arsenal. Each piece was carved from wood in the image of the delivery vehicle (e.g. submarines, missiles, aircraft).

I do not recall if each piece represented one warhead or one delivery vehicle with multiple warheads but it was not important -- the installation was vast beyond being easy to count. I would share a photo but they are stored 3000 miles away. Maybe this thing is still out and about.

With knee-jerking, I would criticize Bush's comment -- I don't need a president so ill-informed -- but on one level I applaud it. It is something that needs to be said and said often. Maybe just not by the man in charge of the whole shebang.
posted by Dick Paris at 2:20 AM on June 18, 2001

roddi, who does have the stats, what are you looking for. what good would it do you. Moscow scraps old nuks, builds new ones, the U.S. pays for it, scraps its own, builds more. ICBM warfare is like the shotgun blast, very dangerous in close quarter warfare. A cruise missile can deliver nice payload with better efficiency. I feel that these weapons of mass destruction is the only thing preventing some half-assed alliance from conventionally attacking the U.S. So, what possible analysis do you still need?
posted by clavdivs at 7:10 AM on June 18, 2001

Imperator, what are you talking about?

I'm looking for analysis of the progress of the "top-to-bottom" review of the US military: the technical, political, strategic, and budgetary issues. Questions like: Are our tanks too heavy? (One issue that's been brought up.) Do we need to pay enlisted personnel more? Can we consolidate some of the functions of the Army and the Navy? Do we need to reorient our strategic thinking to East Asia and away from Eastern Europe? And hundreds and hundreds of other questions.
posted by rodii at 8:01 AM on June 18, 2001

> I feel that these weapons of mass destruction is the
> only thing preventing some half-assed alliance from
> conventionally attacking the U.S.

Look out! They're behind you! (And you'd better check under the bed.)
posted by pracowity at 8:47 AM on June 18, 2001

"How many nukler warheads did you say I can set off just by pushing this here little red button?"

Sounds scary enough to be real.
posted by nofundy at 11:14 AM on June 18, 2001

clavdivs: You can deliver a nuclear weapon via briefcase these days. And if people can still keep smuggling billions of dollars worth of coke and heroin, etc., into the U.S. despite our trillions in trying to stop such delivery. How hard would it be to get one small nuclear weapon through? McVeigh snuck a (much less sophisticated) truck full of explosives through to the front of a federal building too, remember.

Meantime, another Sagan has written extensively about the threat to safety posed by keeping the weapons around.
posted by raysmj at 11:26 AM on June 18, 2001

“I had no idea we had so many weapons,” he said. “What do we need them for?”

well someone has to blow up the world 100x over.
posted by will at 11:53 AM on June 18, 2001

"How many nukler warheads did you say I can set off just by pushing this here little red button?"
. . .
well someone has to blow up the world 100x over.

Now *that's* quality conversation.
posted by rodii at 11:58 AM on June 18, 2001

With knee-jerking, I would criticize Bush's comment -- I don't need a president so ill-informed -- but on one level I applaud it. It is something that needs to be said and said often. Maybe just not by the man in charge of the whole shebang.

Did you know the extent of our nuclear arsenal before someone told you? I don't think that the exact figures are part of the general stream of knowledge. Last month, the president sat down with the people with the facts and got the full skinny. How does that translate to him being ill-informed? Should he have somehow known this before the people who keep the tally delivered the data?
posted by Dreama at 12:00 PM on June 18, 2001

No, Dreama, I did not know the extent of the arsenal before, oh, maybe the 12th grade -- possibly the seventh. GW is what -- 10?, 55? -- ach! who can tell? Exact figures may not be part of the mainstream of knowledge but who needs exact figures at that scale? I learned more about the history of the world's nuclear arsenal in a course I took (when I was 29) on the history of the atomic bomb.

If there's one thing I can relate to with the current U.S. president, it is the way he speaks: his comments (too) often sound like something I would say. Perhaps he knew the facts and his comment simply ranks as something anyone would want to say about the absurd level of destructive power under the control of mankind.

Regardless, he did choose to run for the office he know holds and I for one expect the person in that position to know one of the most basic facts of late twentieth century American power -- hell, the whole world knows. If you don't, I'd recommend you read The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It's a great book and Richard Rhodes is a fine story teller.
posted by Dick Paris at 1:42 PM on June 18, 2001

The amount of money we could save would be enormous.

That raises an interesting question. Does anybody have any figures as to what it costs to keep a missile (or a silo) operational? And how does that compare to the cost of disposing of them safely?

I'm not so interested in the cost of building the things since that's already gone - unless somebody wants to sell them to our neighbors. Anybody check to see if Bush has an ebay account?
posted by willnot at 2:58 PM on June 18, 2001

I think most people would say our nuclear arsenal was "big" or "a lot", but not to this extent. To assume that any civilian, president or not should know the numbers is silly. (Shrub has a lot more pressing foibles to be called on)
posted by owillis at 3:48 PM on June 18, 2001

An interesting place to look is at the The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project of the Brookings institution. Not entirely unbiased, but contains reasonable cost estimates.

Also see the Federation of American Scientests Nuclear Resources page.
posted by sigsegv at 3:59 PM on June 18, 2001

owliss: What other more pressing foibles? Like going around hyping a nuclear defense system across Europe? If that's such a big part of his foreign policy platform, he damn sure better know a lot about nuclear weaponry, or learn in a hurry.
posted by raysmj at 4:32 PM on June 18, 2001

raysmj: there's no certainty on whether NMDS will itself have a nuclear component. After all, it doesn't exist. Though Nick Cohen's latest jeremiad picks up on the possibility.
posted by holgate at 4:51 PM on June 18, 2001

sisegv, thanks for the Brookings link, which contains an awesome photo gallery, including this scary shot of disposal techniques at Hanford.
posted by rodii at 8:24 PM on June 18, 2001

clavdivs: You can deliver a nuclear weapon via briefcase these days.

ya i saw that movie. Though the portable bomb is probably the sneaky way, it is still difficult with radiation detection, If the border gets a warning. Only a couple of groups could get the tech,man power, and material to make a 'papoos' bomb. Rodii, these things are either classified or you are looking in the wrong place. The internet is jiffy, but nothing beats a university library. But you know that. An old girlfriends father did a stint with ONI. His project was to gather Intel about the SR-71. 98% of the tech in that flying gas hose is Unclassified. The best versatile tank is the Merkava(spelling sic) yes we need more pay for our brave men and women. strat-thinking was shifted from european to east-asia around 1992, when pakistan was rumored to have THE BIG ONE. Try intel pubs, Janes weapon systems, etc.
posted by clavdivs at 7:55 AM on June 20, 2001

posted by rodii at 8:20 AM on June 20, 2001

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