Super-Duper New-Nuke Troopers

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve…”

Shakespeare, The Tempest


That’s a dark thinking that I have a hard time understanding…”

Marshall Billingslea, President Donald J. Trump’s Special Envoy for Arms Control


On May 15, as Planet Earth reeled from COVID-19, US President Donald J. Trump presided over the unveiling of the Space Force Flag, emblem of the latest ‘branch’ of America’s armed forces. “Trump’s desire,” the Guardian reported, “to build a new and cosmic arm of the US military has attracted widespread criticism and satire,” and after the flag was unfurled – to Trump’s exclamations of “beautiful…that’s really beautiful…wow!” – a reporter coolly asked, “can somebody explain the logo?” The Commander-in-Chief looked at Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who invited Space Force Commander General John W. Raymond to explain the suspiciously Star-Trekky “delta” (a “symbol the space community has used for years and years and years”), a “North Star” that “signifies our core value – our guiding light if you will” (though he didn’t say what it was), and an “orbit around the globe” signifying “the space capabilities that fuel our American way of life and our American way of war.”

Space Force Flag unveiling, White House

President Trump at unveiling of Space Force Flag, 15 May 2020. (White House photo)

Moments before the climactic unveiling, Trump boasted about the speed, no, not of his response to the coronavirus, but of a new weapon, something “I call…the ‘super-duper missile’,” capable of flying (as he’d “heard the other night”)  some “17 times faster than what they have right now.” “Yes, sir,” confirmed Esper, as Trump ‘elaborated’:

And you take the fastest missile we have right now – you’ve heard Russia has five times, and China is working on five or six times. We have one 17 times. And it’s just gotten the go-ahead. Seventeen times faster, if you can believe that…

Understandably, journalists weren’t sure what to believe, and the Pentagon was curiously loathe to enlighten them, referring questions back – at supersonic speed – to the (non-commenting) White House. The only certainty was that Trump was referring to ‘hypersonic’ missiles, defined as flying faster than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) or 3,800 miles per hour. But “though these missiles are named for their speed, it is,” as analyst Andrew W. Reddie stresses, “their potential maneuverability,” their ability to elude missile defenses by altering course and trajectory in flight, “that represents the central concern surrounding the effects of their deployment.”


It was only after US President George W. Bush, in 2002, abandoned the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty – radically limiting American and Russian missile defense systems – that research and development of hypersonic weapons was prioritized in both Moscow and Beijing as, in Reddie’s words, “a ‘hedge’ against future advancement of US missile defense technologies.” He’s right to stress ‘future,’ as US missile defenses as currently deployed and under development would be overwhelmed by any major nuclear strike. Many experts, in fact, expect the technical challenges involved – destroying hundreds of missiles, each capable of playing tricks on sensors and luring interceptors with decoys – never to be surmounted, which is why Russia and China have never seriously pursued extensive ‘defenses’ of their own.

Avangard missile system.

Avangard missile system. (Russian Defense Ministry press service)

In December last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin gloatingly announced the world’s first deployment of a hypersonic weapon, the nuclear-armed Avangard ‘boost-glide vehicle.’ Mounted on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the Avangard, Reddie explains, would ride in battle “on a normal ballistic trajectory before being released and maneuvering to a target without any additional propulsion.” Putin, in proud-parent mode, claimed his new ‘hedge’ could “travel at up to 20 times the speed of sound like a ‘meteorite’ or a fireball.” “Not a single country possesses” such weapons, he insisted, although, as analyst Ivan Oelrich notes, China’s “hypersonic DF-17 missile was all the rage at that country’s anniversary parade in October [2019].”

For Trump, it seems, the American ‘Eagle’ simply has to outfly the ‘Bear’ (and ‘Dragon’), to ‘win’ a race it doesn’t need to be in! And because there are no good answers to the hypersonic ‘why?,’ the sell depends on false advertising, a toxic mix of military propaganda, industry hype and sci-fi technophilia, to ‘justify’ the Pentagon’s ongoing development of both boost-glide systems and whatever else Trump said had “just gotten the go-ahead” – probably a feasibility study by the US Air Force (USAF), announced on April 27, into an “air-breathing” hypersonic cruise missile, itself a spin-off from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC (Hawk!).

While the USAF project is ostensibly limited to exploring options for a new conventional weapon, the “development and deployment of conventional hypersonic missile systems,” as Reddie warns, “may also lead to a failure among parties in a conflict to discriminate between conventional and nuclear attacks.” But though such a failure could cost millions of lives, “there are,” in Oelrich’s words, “a mere handful of people in the United States who have some scientific and technical understanding of hypersonic missiles who are not working directly or indirectly for the military – and that means a very limited set of contrary views.”


The hypersonic horror-show forms but a tile in the expanding mosaic of American nuclear modernization, begun by President Barack Obama and accelerated to ‘warp drive’ by his successor. Another ‘tile’ (to be examined in detail next month) is nuclear testing, abjured by Democratic and Republican administrations for nearly 30 years but again under active consideration – including on May 15, the day of the ‘fun with flags’ ceremony in the Oval Office. If underground explosions indeed resume in Nevada, it will be sold as a ‘message’ (No more Mr. Nuclear Nice Guy?) to Moscow and Beijing. But the real reason will be to test ‘new nukes’ for use in wars the Pentagon seriously believes it can ‘limit’ and ‘win.’

Trident II D5 nuclear missile test launch

Trident II D5 nuclear missile test launch 2008. (Photo by Ronald Gutridge/US Navy)

As noted last month, US Trident missiles were recently armed with an unknown number of ‘low-yield,’ 5-kiloton warheads (one-third of the Hiroshima blast) – weapons indistinguishable, to ‘enemy eyes,’ from Trident’s high-yield warheads (100+ kilotons). While a new ‘capability,’ though, this is not a ‘new nuke,’ just part of an existing design. What the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) set the stage for, however, was a more thoroughgoing expansion of the arsenal, developing new ‘roles’ and potentially introducing new designs, ‘requiring’ testing before deployment.

One ‘explosion’ this program has already caused is in the budget of the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous Department of Energy agency responsible for maintaining/modernizing the nation’s stockpile. The administration is requesting a 25% increase in the agency’s “weapons activities account” for the next fiscal year, up $3.1 billion to $15.6 billion – “almost twice as much,” the Arms Control Association’s Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos noted on March 19, “as the $8.3 billion emergency spending bill signed into law March 6 to combat the spread of the novel Coronavirus.” Incredibly, in 2019 the NNSA – “sitting,” Reif and Bugos add, “on approximately $5.5 billion in unspent carryover balances” – had ‘only’ requested $15 billion for weapons work through 2030. (Spending the extra money will indeed “be very challenging,” as Allison Bawden of the General Accounting Office dryly informed Congress on March 3.)


But how brave is this new nuclear world likely to prove? On May 13, Shane Smith, a Department of Defense analyst at the National Defense University, argued that the overriding “priority” in dealing with the world’s newest nuclear power, North Korea, is for “the alliance” of the US, South Korea, and Japan to show it is “willing and able to defeat aggression at any level of conflict,” to demonstrate (in case we missed the hint) “the operational flexibility and resiliency necessary for fighting a limited nuclear war.”

Smith was merely advocating such a policy, not announcing one, but when USAF General Tod D. Wolters, head of US European Command and ‘Supreme Commander’ of all NATO forces, was asked by Senator Deborah Fischer (Republican-Nebraska) on February 25, “what are your views, sir, of adopting a so-called No-First-Use policy,” his words carried official weight:

Senator, I am a fan of flexible first-strike.

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. Hanoi, 27 February 2019. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. Hanoi, 27 February 2019. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The dark heart of nuclear ‘deterrence,’ the immoral ‘bedrock’ on which its ‘credibility’ rests, is the ability and willingness (of a handful of people, in a handful of states) to kill millions in minutes. As one day’s failure would outweigh decades, even centuries, of ‘success,’ the irrational expectation (or hope) of believers is that the gamble will always pay off. Stripped of this air of infallibility, nuclear deterrence might be more honestly titled ‘nuclear deference,’ the attempted crisis-by-crisis delay of a ‘doomsday’ built into the Bomb itself. But though General Wolters spoke of his wish to “proliferate deterrence,” what he and nuclear warriors like him actually subscribe to is a less naïve, more sinister fantasy: defeating the nuclear threat with nuclear weapons, ‘prevailing’ if and when deterring no longer defers.

Even if deterrence were guaranteed to meet the impossible goal it sets itself – to work perfectly, eternally – the socio-economic costs would be appalling. According to Enough is Enough, a new report from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), between the Departments of Energy and Defense the US managed to spend $35.4 billion — $67,352 a minute — on nuclear weapons in 2019, trailed distantly by China ($10.4 billion, $19,786 per min); the UK ($8.9 billion, $16,953 per min); Russia ($8.5 billion, $16,172 per min); France ($4.8 billion, $9,132 per min); India ($2.3 billion, $4,376); Israel and Pakistan ($1 billion each, $1,903 ); and North Korea ($0.6 billion, $1,180 per min). In total, the ‘nuclear nine’ blew $72.9 billion on their arsenals in 2019 — $7.1 billion more than 2018, a ‘cool’ $138,699 a minute.

In light of the generally abysmal performances of these states during the current pandemic, James E. Doyle recently argued that:

[A]ll nuclear-armed states should pledge to divert 5 percent of their planned annual spending on nuclear weapons to the creation of a global disease surveillance system and to preparations for mitigating the public health consequences of future outbreaks.


Even this exceedingly modest proposal, however, is likely to fall on deaf ears, certainly those of President Trump’s newly-appointed Special Envoy for Arms Control, Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, who, addressing a ‘virtual event’ at the Hudson Institute in Washington on May 21, crowed that when it comes to nuclear arms racing, “we have a tried-and-true practice here. We know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.” Aptly, as event host Tim Morrison noted, the Hudson Institute is “the think tank Herman Kahn built,” referring to the controversial Cold War author of On Thermonuclear War and Thinking About the Unthinkable, stirring hundreds of millions of dead into his recipes for ‘strategic’ success.

Tim Morrison and Marshall Billingslea

Billingslea, Morrison noted, had “spent the past three years…as the President’s point man for economic warfare, where he specialized in financial pressure to achieve the President’s goals.” “I’m sure,” Morrison smirked, “more than a few heads in Beijing and Moscow were scratched while trying to consider what his [new] appointment could portend.” (Describing China as “a free rider in global security,” Morrison then declared that Billingslea “clearly has his hands full, even without considering the Chinese Communist Party’s Coronavirus pandemic.”) The senior arms control official in the US government is customarily the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, a position vacant since October 2019. Billingslea has been named Special Presidential Envoy to obviate the need for Senate confirmation hearings certain to expose his lack of relevant credentials and – as former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter noted on April 28, his:

…experience…working in the Pentagon under George W. Bush where he was involved in the implementation of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ – torture, by any other name.

Such an appointment is a sick joke, as was the Ambassador’s May 21 speech, in which he described as unique to Russia a central tenet of America’s own ‘flexible first-strike’ policy, namely the “dark thinking” that a “line” exists “between strategic and non-strategic weapons use.” Only Russia, he repeated, refused to accept that “the use of any nuclear weapon would change the nature of a conflict” in unacceptable ways – ways, for instance, likely to “make cities radioactively uninhabitable.”


Faced with such a tragicomedy of strategic errors, what is a self-respecting audience — such as a gravely imperiled global public – to do? A good answer was given by Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of ICAN, in the 2019 documentary The Beginning of the End of Nuclear Weapons  the inside story of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the ‘Ban Treaty’ adopted by 122 states – two-thirds of the UN General Assembly – in July 2017. A key early milestone was a meeting in Oslo in 2013 to discuss the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, a subject naturally avoided by the nuclear powers. Recalled Fihn:

I wasn’t convinced in the beginning, you know, I didn’t see how it was going to work without the nuclear weapon states…

Things changed when then State Secretary Gry Larsen of Norway,” told 600 ICAN people that while the P5 — the five permanent members of a UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK, US) — were “very angry” and considered the treaty “a distraction,” “their arguments weren’t very convincing.” Said Fihn:

And the whole audience laughed, and it was the first time we laughed at the P5. And you know right there it clicked, like ‘Oh my God, this is all about changing power dynamics, and this is all about controlling the narrative, and we’re doing something and they’re on the outside. We’re laughing at them, thinking that they are the silly ones,’ and it just really suddenly fell into place for me, how this is going to work…

We need to laugh them off the stage. Before they burn the globe down.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.