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    A Brief Nod to the United States' Still-Terrifying Nuclear Weapons Arsenal

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    B61 bomb rack/Wikipedia

    One pretty crucial thing millennials get to miss out on is nuclear dread. We have some legit fears here in the ’10s—from climate change to antibiotic resistance—but there is less vocalized fear that the world could end (or at least turn into a living hell) with maybe a few minutes warning. We have enemies even or so-called enemies, but we don’t have a Cold War of two superpowers on the brink of all-in nuclear conflict that are racing each other to build newer, ever-more accurate, and ever-more destructive doomsday devices. As bad as everything might seem in 2014, we don’t have that.

    We could sidle back up to the brink pretty easily though. One could make the argument that a few countries are at this very moment edging toward brand-name fascism with uncomfortable ease. In light of that, it’s worth considering that nuclear disarmament hasn’t taken us to a place that’s anywhere close to completely safe. On New Year’s Day, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published a brief account of the United States’ current nuclear arsenal, i.e. the tools to make Earth unlivable in about a half hour.

    The United States has an estimated 4,650 nuclear warheads available for delivery by more than 800 ballistic missiles and aircraft. Approximately 2,700 retired but still intact warheads await dismantlement, for a total inventory of roughly 7,400 warheads. The stockpile includes an estimated 2,130 operational warheads, about 1,150 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and 470 on intercontinental ballistic missiles. Roughly 300 strategic warheads are located at bomber bases in the United States, and nearly 200 nonstrategic warheads are deployed in Europe. Another 2,530 warheads are in storage. To comply with New START, the United States is expected to eliminate land-based missile silos, reduce the number of launch tubes on its missile submarines, and limit its inventory of nuclear-capable bombers in coming years. Coinciding with a revised nuclear weapons strategy, the Obama administration is also planning an upgrade of all nuclear weapons systems. The three-decade-long plan would cost more than $200 billion in the first decade alone.

    I didn’t see a whole lot about Obama’s nuclear modernization program on my old Facebook feed last fall—or in the news generally, to be fair—but the program means that $355 billion will be spent on the latest and most precise version of the United States’ standard B61 nuclear missile. Der Spiegel notes that the increased precision of the new B61s means they need to pack only four times the destructive force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, compared to 90 times the devastation. It's a slim comfort.

    Indeed, the myth of “casual” nuclear war persists—that we can have a tactical or small-scale nuclear offensive without the situation going full-on nuclear or otherwise making life impossible or miserable for the other humans on Earth. Recall last week’s news that we’re still getting showered with very small amounts of radiation from mid-20th century nuke tests, many of which involved bare drips of energy and fallout, at least compared to what’s sitting—ready to go—in the world’s darkest nuclear launch sites in 2014.