MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXIX No. 3
January / February 2017
Faculty Voices from the Resistance
Do We Act Now?
Statement by the Steering Committee
of the MIT Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology
and Society (HASTS)
Destabilization From Modernizing
Nuclear Weapons Capabilities?
30 Years of Institutional Research at MIT
Redevelopment of Volpe Site
Offers MIT Rare Opportunity
MIT Integrated Learning Initiative
Celebrates One-Year Anniversary
MyLife Services Offers Unique Support
to MIT Personnel
Profile of MIT Faculty (AY 2017)
MIT Faculty By Gender (AY 2017)
MIT Faculty By Age Distribution (AY 2017)
Status of World Nuclear Forces
Printable Version


Destabilization From Modernizing
Nuclear Weapons Capabilities?


Among the most controversial pronouncements of President Trump has been his call that “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” – Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016. It seems to us very more likely that if the U.S. embarks on an extensive and enormously expensive modernization of its nuclear weapons triad, this will provoke a similar response from Russia and China, and possibly lead to more nuclear weapons proliferation.

The U.S. currently maintains more than 4,500 active nuclear weapons, including some 900 nuclear warheads on high alert, ready to be launched on President Trump’s command within 30 minutes of warning. Over half of these warheads are mounted atop long-range missiles in14 relatively invulnerable Ohio-class submarines. Keeping within the limits of the New Start Treaty, one submarine can launch 90 independently targeted nuclear warheads (MIRVs), each many times more powerful than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki atomic bombs. The destructive power of missiles launched by one nuclear submarine could obliterate many major cities. If the submarine were Russian they could obliterate all the cities of the Eastern U.S. The total explosive power of a single submarine exceeds all the bombs delivered by the Allies in World War II. (See the current Status of World Nuclear Forces in this issue of the Faculty Newsletter.)

In addition to the damage in the targeted country, a single submarine could possibly cause worldwide climatic changes due to the release of large amounts of soot. It has been shown, using current atmospheric models, that there is a significant probability of a decrease in global temperatures that could lower agricultural output to levels resulting in widespread worldwide famine. The Navy typically has six-to-eight of the 14 submarines at sea, each of which could unleash a similar bombardment. The comparable firepower of our silo-based missiles and nuclear-armed bombers greatly increase the overkill capacity and represent a fundamental danger to the Earth and its inhabitants. A full-scale nuclear war would lead to worldwide nuclear winter for over a decade [Toon et al., Phys. Today, Dec. 2008].   

We are not alone in our overkill capacity. Russia also has about 900 nuclear weapons on high alert.  A number of experts assess that Russia's early warning system is insufficiently robust, increasing the danger that a mistaken signal of a U.S. attack could precipitate a massive “preventive strike” from Russia. (Numerous such erroneous attack signals are documented in Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, Command and Control. In one case, a potential disaster was averted only by the prudence of the Russian officer on duty.)

Current modernization plans are to spend a trillion dollars over the next 30 years on upgrades to all three nuclear weapons delivery systems as well as the associated nuclear weapons. These plans represent enormous long-term expenditures from the federal budget. A February Congressional Budget Office report estimated that the program would cost $400 billion in taxpayers’ dollars from 2017 to 2026. With the administration intent on cutting taxes and limiting growth of the deficit, the likely result will be to cut civilian programs in environmental protection, education, basic research, housing, and transportation. It is unlikely that the NIH and NSF budgets will be protected, deeply damaging all U.S. research universities.

President Trump, in view of the present overkill capability of both the U.S. and Russia, it certainly is time that "the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” The U.S. should lead the way. We would all be safer if you propose to President Putin to start negotiations to reduce this terrifying arsenal as your highest priority.

Editorial Subcommittee

Aron Bernstein
Nazli Choucri
Jonathan King

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