U.S. Major General William A. Chambers came in to our offices today to talk about how things are going with the nation’s nuclear deterrence efforts. Chambers, who carries the title of assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, talked about the stockpile stewardship program, the one intended to keep thousands of nuclear weapons functional without underground nuclear testing.

The most interesting event occurred after the general left, though. I fell into a conversation with two younger colleagues about the reality that we still have 5,000 nuclear warheads with almost 2,000 of them at the ready, waiting to launch at a moment’s notice. They thought that this embedded legacy of the Cold War was no big deal, just an unfortunate commonplace of contemporary living, something similar to their conception of climate change, avian flu, airport security, world poverty and the like. Both of them were born well after the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, so I guess they just hadn’t absorbed the strontium-90 in their baby teeth as I did.

Anyway, I was fascinated.

I grew up with duck-and-cover drills under the desk in elementary school and remember having vivid teeth-grinding nightmares around the time of the Cuban missile crisis. I still carry the distinct memory of my father and grandfather at the dining room table discussing plans for the number of sandbags needed in our basement to stop the gamma radiation. In thinking about the future, I always imagined that we would never make it to the turn-of-the-century without New York’s skyscrapers being flattened to burnt rubble in a fusion-induced conflagration. There had to be some glitch, some errant technicians in an ICBM silo who would turn the keys to set off a nuclear endgame.

None of this seemed to preoccupy my thirtysomething colleagues. They hadn’t had to learn to love the bomb like I had. From an early age, they had, it seems, achieved peaceful coexistence with the thermonuclear threat. Those multi-megaton haymakers were always there just looming, an abstraction from books, movies or a Scientific American article, similar to the threats from near-Earth asteroids. By the time they had reached adulthood, John le Carré had largely moved beyond his Smiley series. So for these young’uns, yes, it could be bad. But it was still just so much white noise in background. No big deal.

That conversation was in keeping with the one with General Chambers, one of the most earnestly agreeable people that you could ever hope to meet. You could see how he had made his way up through the ranks, from navigator in an FB-111A to two stars, serving as a public voice for the Air Force before Congress, or on a visit to a science magazine or a potentially hyper-critical audience at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he went after meeting with Scientific American. Every query we had about force levels and estimated failure rates for warheads met with a welcoming nod and smile. General Curtis LeMay, who inspired, in part, the General Buck Turgidson character played by George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, might have bristled at a subordinate with such an affable demeanor.

But although the messenger was softer, the message was not. Chambers echoed a mission statement from the earliest years of the Cold War—the need to retain, for one, a large stable of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The missiles, still on high alert as they have been for decades, serve as a counter-response that an adversary must take into account before considering a “bolt out of the blue” strike against the U.S. The punch line: A potential enemy “has to consider that we have 450 missiles across hundreds of miles of America, all ready to go.”

The Russian Federation, he said “still represents an existential capability, particularly in light of how the Russians continue to treat their strategic forces, continue to invest in them, continue to keep them in a high state of readiness.”

The New START treaty, which went into effect a year ago, calls for each superpower to cut back the number of deployed warheads to 1550 by 2017, with thousands still stored as backups. But the ability to wield superior firepower—encompassed by the Cold War triad of missiles, strategic bombers and nuclear submarines—will still be required moving forward, Chambers asserted. The Obama Administration, immersed in a review of the nation’s nuclear capabilities, will assuredly receive the same message that Scientific American editors did. Some cutbacks are feasible and the current nuclear arsenal can preserve its potency with high-powered “exoscale” computer simulations in place of underground testing. But a substantial stockpile and all three legs of the triad are still essential.

Whether the elaborate edifice of Cold War deterrence can be reshaped in an election year seems a stretch. Online piracy and Gingrich’s open marriage are likely to remain center stage. Progress on weapons reduction and proliferation may just have to wait.

On Jan. 10, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the doomsday clock one minute closer to midnight.

Source: Wikimedia Commons