American Militaristic Triumphalism

SOURCE: Koohan Paik (
SUBHEAD: A final look at the RIMPAC 2014 exercises in and Around Hawaii and our militaristic future.

By John Letman on 4 August 2014 for Civil Beat -

Image above: The nuclear powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan leaving Pearl Harbor after RIMPAC 2014. The ship was severely damaged off Fukushima, Japan, when three reactors at the nuclear power plant melted down and experienced a runaway criticality that produced radioactive plume injuring many of the crew. The Reagan will now be permanently stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. From (

RIMPAC is about to temporarily disappear from the public eye again, but the militaristic framework it was founded on ties Hawaii to the rest of the world. This year’s Rim of the Pacific maritime military exercises have ended and any attention we’ve given the biennial war games will quickly turn elsewhere.

But before we let RIMPAC drop from view, it’s worth pausing to consider what we’ve just witnessed — or not witnessed, since most of the military exercises takes place out of sight.

RIMPAC says its objective is “to enhance the interoperability … and improve individual war-fighting competencies.” In more human terms, RIMPAC is pitched as an opportunity for the militaries of 22 nations to foster better understanding, coordination and cooperation.

Ongoing tensions from the Korean Peninsula to the South China Sea underscore the potential for conflict among regional powers that include North and South Korea, Japan, China and the Philippines, so who could argue against better understanding and communication?

Ships and submarines participating in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise 2012 sail in formation in the waters around the Hawaiian islands. Twenty-two nations, more than 40 ships and submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel are participating in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise from June 29 to Aug. 3, in and around the Hawaiian Islands.
The world's largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC provides a unique training opportunity that helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world's oceans. RIMPAC 2012 is the 23rd exercise in the series that began in 1971.

Ships and submarines participating in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in 2012 sailed in formation in the waters around the Hawaiian islands. Those war games included 22 nations, more than 40 ships and submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel in the biennial exercise that aim to foster cooperative relationships.

Likewise, as the military increasingly plays up its potential for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HA/DR) and tries to paint itself as a “green” champion, RIMPAC uses these positive attributes to help shape its narrative.

Speaking on Kauai’s KKCR radio in May, Pacific Missile Range Facility commanding officer Captain Bruce Hay said RIMPAC provide an opportunity to establish dialogues and practices “so that we can all enjoy the giant Pacific Ocean.”

RIMPAC presents the public with a sanitized version of conflict completely devoid of war’s most brutal reality: civilian women and children overwhelmingly bear the brunt of military actions no matter where they take place.

Hay pointed out that RIMPAC involves “things as benign as sports competitions between the crews of the ships … receptions and dialogues.”

And while this is true, RIMPAC is much more than a chummy maritime get-together with big ships moving in tight formation. It’s about planning for future wars. It’s about urban combat training, mock invasions, amphibious assault and the kind of live-fire training that would come in handy for subduing places like Fallujah or Kandahar.

RIMPAC also includes SINKEX (Sinking Exercises) in which live ammunition is used to blow apart and sink decommissioned war ships in Hawaiian waters and testing hybrid war equipment, drones and newly developed robots designed for battle.

By framing “cooperation” and “partnership” in military terms, RIMPAC gives the U.S. the opportunity to assume the role of older brother, leading the younger siblings as it shows off its overwhelming war-making capabilities. As one CCTV reporter put it: “One fact becomes obvious: the over-arching dominance of the U.S. Navy in this part of the Pacific.”

With participating nations including Colombia, Peru, Indonesia, Mexico, China and the Philippines, as well as close U.S. allies like South Korea, Japan, Canada and Australia, you can be sure that in the near future when military forces sweep into a violence-wracked city or suppress an uprising in some far-flung place you’ve never heard of, RIMPAC training will likely be in the mix.

If you visit RIMPAC’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr or YouTube pages, you’ll find dozens of photos and videos. It all looks pretty impressive: a steady stream of cool-looking military hardware in action and lots of crisp, white uniforms. Like other branches of the military and major defense contractors, the Navy dishes up its own version of war-nography in an easy-to-digest Hollywood format.

But RIMPAC presents the public with a sanitized version of conflict completely devoid of war’s most brutal reality: civilian women and children overwhelmingly bear the brunt of military actions no matter where they take place.

When surface-to-air weapons are used in Ukraine, it’s an international outrage. But when similar weapons are used at RIMPAC, it’s a tweet.

For each of us in Hawaii, it’s important to view RIMPAC in its broader context and remember that as war games were being played in Hawaii, real wars — bloody, savage wars all marked with American thumbprints — were raging in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Gaza.

In July, 298 people died when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile near the Ukraine-Russia border. That very same day RIMPAC posted a photo of its own surface-to-air missile exercise (SAMEX).

In a second bitter twist of irony, July is the same month that the U.S. Navy warship USS Vincennes shot down an Iran Air civilian airplane in Iranian airspace in 1988 killing all 290 passengers, including 66 children.

When surface-to-air weapons are used in Ukraine, it’s an international outrage. But when similar weapons are used at RIMPAC, it’s a tweet. Both air disasters highlight how remaining in a perpetual militarized state increases the likelihood of mistakes and miscalculations.

As RIMPAC 2014 was taking place the world also recoiled as it watched a vastly superior Israeli military wage a lopsided campaign against Hamas. Overwhelmingly, the victims are the 1.8 million Palestinians — half of whom are under 18 — squeezed into Gaza, a sliver of land barely twice the size of Washington, D.C.

This assault plays out against the backdrop of the U.S. providing a $30 billion military aid package to Israel offered concurrently with multimillion and billion dollar U.S. arms sales to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues periodic undeclared drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, which have been condemned as illegal and widely criticized for producing scores of civilian victims.

Earlier this spring the U.S. signed 10-year military agreements with Djibouti and the Philippines and started to dip its toes into Vietnam, Myanmar and elsewhere. And in Europe, the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system being tested on Kauai will be deployed in Romania in 2015 and Poland in 2018.

So what’s this got to do with RIMPAC? Quite a lot, actually.

As Hawaii Public Radio’s Bill Dorman reported, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has announced the U.S. plans to increase the number of military exercises it participates in the Asia-Pacific region to 130 a year.

It’s important to remember that while RIMPAC only happens for a few weeks every two years, the testing, training, promotion of and preparation for war — and the very lucrative ongoing relationships between defense contractors, militaries and governments — is ceaseless and growing.

We are told that RIMPAC is about improving cooperation and increasing security, yet it’s hard to take these claims seriously when the U.S. Pacific Command’s top officer warns about the danger posed by North Korean missiles even as the US plans to spend $1 trillion to modernize its own nuclear weapons.

Very soon RIMPAC will disappear from the public eye for two more years, but the militaristic framework on which it is founded continues to tie Hawaii to the rest of the world.

From the drones we test to the war ships and submarines we navigate, to the war planes we fly and missiles we fire, RIMPAC serves as another tether lashing these islands to a world full of war in Europe and the Middle East across Africa and Asia, over the Pacific and back home to each of us here in Hawaii.

Old Nukes New Tricks

By John Letman on 6 August 2014 for Truthout - 

Image aboveA frontal view of four B-61 nuclear free-fall bombs on a bomb cart. Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, December 1, 1986. From (SSGT Phil Schmitten / United States Department of Defense).

When the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan 69 years ago, the shadows of charred silhouettes etched against the ruins of shattered cities indelibly marked nuclear weapons as forbidden tools of war. The indiscriminate carnage wrought in Hiroshima by "Little Boy" (est. 15 kilotons) and Nagasaki by "Fat Man" (est. 20 kt) has, so far, not been repeated.

But seven decades later, the United States continues to pursue more accurate, "lower-yield" nuclear bombs. Despite President Obama's 2009 speech in Prague in which he stated "clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," the United States plans to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on its own nuclear weapons upgrades, modernization and "life extension programs" (LEP).

William Hartung, director for the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, warns that many of today's nuclear weapons are far more powerful than those used against Japan. He calls the idea of redesigning nuclear weapons that can be "dialed up or down" to increase or decrease their explosive yield a "dangerous logic."

In an era of austerity and sequestration when even the Pentagon is being forced to make cuts once thought unimaginable, Congress, with the support of the Department of Energy (DOE), has approved funding for the LEP for one of America's oldest and most relied-upon nuclear weapons: the B61 gravity bomb.

First built in 1963, the B61 has been called "the bread and butter" of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The bomb's newest incarnation, B61-12, will be a variable-yield, precision-guided version of one of the most numerous bombs in the US arsenal.

With a newly designed, $1.8 billion tail kit and increased accuracy, the B61-12 is expected to "hold at risk" targets that today require a greater yield to be destroyed. The B61-12 will allow the military to phase out five other nuclear gravity bomb types, including an earth-penetrating ("bunker buster") B61-11 and the high-yield B83.

The B61-12 will have four variable yields: 0.3kt. (kiloton), 1.5kt., 10kt. and 50kt.
At just 11.8 feet long, 13 inches in diameter and about 700 pounds, the B61-12 is small enough to fit in the back of an SUV - something that could easily go missing.

Worth Its weight in gold
Two researchers from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, have written extensively about the B61 family of nuclear bombs. In their report for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, they detail the bomb's history and proposed future as well as its extraordinary costs.

Norris and Kristensen write that the B61-12 program was first estimated at $4 billion, a cost that doubled in just two years and has now exceeded $10 billion. They point out that each B61-12 will cost more than its own weight in solid gold, making it the most expensive nuclear gravity bomb ever built.

The B61 is not the only American nuclear weapon being upgraded. Kristensen, director of the FAS's Nuclear Information Project, explains that under a 25-year plan promoted by the Obama administration, four different W series warheads - the W78, W80, W87 and W88 - will be redesigned to have greater flexibility.

According to a 2013 Congressional Budget Office report, US plans to maintain and modernize nuclear weapons will cost $355 billion between 2014 and 2023. It suggests annual costs will likely grow after 2023 production begins on replacement systems. The Center for Public Integrity reports additional related spending will drive total costs to around $570 billion over the next decade, a figure that could approach $1 trillion over the next 30 years.
In whose best interest?

Who stands to benefit from life extension programs, stockpile stewardship and other modifications to America's nuclear arsenal?

The LEP are critical for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which receives around $7 billion a year for maintaining and enhancing nuclear weapons and infrastructure.

Also poised to benefit are the nuclear weapons laboratories, specifically Sandia (a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin) and Los Alamos National Laboratories, which are overseeing the design, manufacture and testing of B61-12.

William Hartung says that the nuclear laboratories have a perennial quest for new ideas and angles for nuclear weapons. He calls it an "employment program for nuclear scientists."

Major military defense contractors like Bechtel and Boeing reap great benefits from nuclear upgrades. Hartung says Lockheed Martin "gets two bites at the apple" because it also designs and builds the F-35A Lightning fighter bomber, which will be fitted to carry the B61-12, as will the F-15E (McDonnell Douglas), F-16 (General Dynamics), B-2A (Northrop Grumman), B-52H (Boeing), Tornado (Panavia Aircraft) and future long-range striker bombers.

Nuclear Glue
Excluding submarine-based missiles, the B61 is the only US nuclear weapon deployed outside of the United States today. The United States has around 180 B61s at six bases in five NATO countries - Belgium, Germany, Italy, Holland and Turkey. These nuclear weapons are part of what many call the "glue" that holds NATO together.

One of the staunchest supporters of keeping US nuclear weapons in Europe is Dr. Keith Payne, president of the National Institute for Public Policy. Fiercely opposed to decreasing US nuclear forces, in 2012 Payne warned that reducing the nuclear arsenal "from roughly 5,000 nuclear weapons to 900" would "leave the United States vulnerable to its opponents."

In 1980, Payne coauthored an article for Foreign Policy titled "Victory is Possible," the contents of which prompted one journalist to dub Payne "Rumsfeld's Dr. Strangelove."
Dr. Payne declined to be interviewed for this story.

Cheaper than Dog Food
Michaela Dodge, a defense policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, argues that programs like the B61-12 are not nuclear weapons modernization. In fact, she says "the US is the only nuclear weapons state that is not modernizing its nuclear weapons."

"What we're doing today is sustaining weapons we've had since the 1980s and that we have not tested with any yield producing [nuclear explosion] experiments for 20 years . . . That's unprecedented," Dodge says.

"People say '$350 billion for modernization' but we're not modernizing, we're sustaining."

Dodge says the arms control community skews numbers by lumping nuclear and non-nuclear systems together. The cost is relative she says, adding, "Americans spend $60 billion a year on pet food." She also suggests Americans spend more on Halloween candy than nuclear weapons modernization.
"Yes, it is cost," she says, "but compared to other elements of our spending - our entitlements - and what you're getting back for it, I think it's just really not that much."

A Force for Good
According to Dodge the US nuclear arsenal is "fundamentally a force for good." In her words, "It's a force that is hedging us from large-scale strategic attack; it's assuring allies; it's preventing more proliferation, and we haven't had a major conventional war on the scale of the first or second World War since nuclear weapons were invented."

But Dodge is concerned that computer simulated nuclear tests are inadequate to verify the functionality of existing nuclear weapons. Instead, Dodge says small scale "very low-yield" experiments should be permitted.

"You could do it in a room the size of [an apartment] flat to help understand . . . the physics of nuclear weapons aging," she says.

"It's not very difficult conceptually to figure out how to build a nuclear bomb. After all, grass-eating North Koreans are making nuclear weapons," says Dodge, who defines a "safe nuclear weapon" as one that "never detonates unless through a proper chain of command."

Whether you consider US modifications to its nuclear arsenal to be "upgrades," "modernization" or "sustainment," the goals are the same: make existing nuclear weapons more flexible, more accurate and produce a lower yield, allowing the military to reduce the number of weapon systems.
While some argue this reinforces the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent, others like Kristensen and Hartung, say these changes make the weapons easier to use - at least from a military, if not political, perspective.

Hartung points out that along with redesigned nuclear weapons, the construction of a new plutonium facility, a new uranium production facility and a plant to manufacture non-nuclear parts means the whole nuclear warhead infrastructure puts the United States ahead in case of a new or accelerated arms race.

"The parochial politics and endless desire of the nuclear priesthood to come up with new ideas about nuclear weapons is trumping common sense and arms control considerations," says Hartung. In short, it sends the wrong message.

The Message
And what is the message sent to other nations when the United States invests hundreds of billions of dollars to upgrade its own nuclear weapons?

Joseph Gerson, director of the Peace and Economic Security Program for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and long-time nuclear disarmament activist, says that LEP and nuclear weapons upgrades, in conjunction with the deployment of a nuclear capable F-35 stealth fighter jet, are likely to reinforce hardliners in Russia and actually decrease US security. A nuclear capable F-35 remains controversial, even among military figures who support the B61-12 upgrade.

Modernizing the US nuclear arsenal is also problematic from the view point of Iran, which the United States has threatened with its own bombs for decades.

Reza Marashi, research director for the National Iranian American Council, says that from the Iranian government's perspective, America's nuclear weapons modernization efforts illustrate a double-standard.
"America should remember that it's an uphill battle to tell countries, 'do as I say, not what I do," Marashi wrote in an email.

Hartung says that given what nuclear weapons can do, "nobody is really responsible enough to be holding onto a large number of them given the possibility of an accident, a leader has got a screw loose or you get backed into a crisis . . . and some idiot ends up trying to use one of the things."
With the United States taking advantage of its own technical superiority as it redesigns its own nuclear weapons while threatening to attack anyone who doesn't toe the United States line, Hartung believes this will make other countries more likely to want nuclear weapons.

"It's exactly the opposite of what [the US] should be doing if [it] wants to convince other countries not to build their own nukes," Hartung says.

One of the challenges of understanding US nuclear weapons is simply gaining an awareness of what's happening, both in Congress and among the general public.

Many people associate nuclear weapons with the Cold War era, and some, particularly younger people, are surprised to learn they still exist. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates around 16,300 nuclear warheads - 4,000 of them operational - are held by the nine nuclear states. Of those, over 90 percent are Russian and American.

AFSC's Gerson calls the argument that modernization is essential to the "safety" of nuclear weapons "nonsense."
"Let's go back to fundamental realities. We now know that if there was an exchange of as few as 50 nuclear weapons . . . we would end up with global famine. These are weapons that should not exist," says Gerson, calling them "the most fundamental violation of basic human rights.

"Tell me how spending billions of dollars on an improved nuclear weapon is compatible with the creation of a world without nuclear weapons?, he asks."

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that  drawing the public's attention to nuclear weapons is increasingly difficult. From a widespread misperception that nuclear arms were strictly a "Cold War problem" to competition from dozens of other urgent issues, the American public today is largely disengaged from the subject.

Gerson calls the generation raised between 1983 and today "woefully ignorant of these dangers," adding: "One of the really great challenges we face is to find ways to educate people and raise the alarm." On this point there is general agreement between nuclear weapons opponents and proponents. "We kind of stopped thinking about nuclear weapons policy and strategy after the end of the Cold War. It's very unfortunate," says the Heritage Foundation's Michaela Dodge.

Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently lamented the US military "losing focus" on the nuclear mission and called for the "nuclear enterprise" to be strengthened.

Oversight? What Oversight?
Considering the potential for unprecedented disaster resulting from a loss, theft, mishandling, compromise or other nuclear mishap, and the extraordinary associated costs, you might think these weapons systems would have absolutely failsafe oversight.

Yet in just the last decade there have been a number of publicized incidents involving nuclear weapons in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and overseas. One author said those overseeing America's nuclear arsenal were "getting sloppy."

A serious lack of understanding of nuclear weapons extends to Congress, says FAS's Kristensen. "I can tell you from first-hand experience that the number of staffers and . . . members of Congress today that have any clue what this is about is a very, very small group, and it is shrinking."

Although the Congressional Armed Services Committee has subcommittees tasked with oversight of the US nuclear arsenal, Kristensen says most in Congress have no personal background in nuclear weapons issues and no interest except for when it comes to questions of cost.

Kristensen warns that without education and basic knowledge, congressional staffers are likely to find themselves face to face with defense contractor lobbyists insisting on the importance of new weapons systems and they'll have no context or way to ask well-informed questions.

In 2013 the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) provided written testimony about DOE/NNSA oversight efforts specific to modernizing the nuclear weapons. GAO cited flawed security procedures, "persistent safety problems" and six-fold cost overruns.

The New (Nuclear) Math
As the Obama administration, Congress, US nuclear laboratories, defense contractors and NNSA move forward with plans to upgrade and extend the life one of America's oldest and now most expensive nuclear gravity bombs, Kristensen says a more immediate concern for Americans is, "Do you want to spend this large amount of money on this when your kids can't even get their school lunch?"

"Is it fair," he asks, "to spend more than $10 billion on less than 500 gravity bombs when we have enormous fire power - both nuclear and conventional - at all other levels."

Ultimately, Kristensen doesn't think the B61-12 will make the United States safer.

Looking back at Obama's Prague speech, Kristensen points out that talk of "deep cuts and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons" was only half the president's message. In the other half, Obama said, "Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies . . . "

This is the "new nuclear math" - the idea that improving the diversity and accuracy of a nuclear weapon system (B61) and adding it to multiple delivery methods will allow the United States to retire or phase out other bombs and claim to be reducing the overall stockpile. At the same time, the US Air Force clings to its long-term plans to ensure it remains "nuclear capable" when your yet-to-be-born grandchildren are well into middle age.

 "They argue in this ironic way," Kristensen says, "that the way of reducing the arsenal is to actually build a weapon."

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