Bombing the Test

Obama and Romney both get failing grades for their nuclear weapons policies.

President Obama speaks at the UN General Assembly meeting on Tuesday in New York City.
President Obama speaks at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25, 2012 in New York City

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images.

This article arises from Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University that explores emerging technologies and their implications for policy and society. On Oct. 9, Future Tense will host an event on the presidential election and science and technology policy. For more information and to RSVP, visit New America’s website.

It is the home stretch of election season, and with the conventions completed, the Democratic and Republican campaigns are each gearing up for the finish line. By now the platforms of each campaign and each candidate are fairly well staked out. But what are the candidates and their parties saying about science and technology issues? Frustratingly little—and what they are saying is sometimes frustratingly out of touch.   

Take ScienceDebate2012, a project that posed 14 specific questions to the Obama and Romney campaigns. (I have been involved with ScienceDebate for many years.) Mitt Romney’s responses to the 14 questions were much more comprehensive than his colleague John McCain’s were four years ago, and indeed were on the whole more detailed than Barack Obama’s. For me the biggest surprises were:

  1. Romney admitted there that the world is getting warmer and that human activity contributes to that warming. Nevertheless, he repeats the some of the misinformation that has been promulgated about climate change: that there is a lack of scientific consensus both on the extent of the human contribution and on the severity of the possible risks associated with climate change. The former is definitively out of touch with reality. The latter is less so. The severity of the effects of climate change are indeed model dependent, but no one doubts that the possible risks are huge. The question is whether one is willing to take the risks, aware of what they might be. In any case, while he doesn’t get perfect grades for this, it is markedly better than the 31,000-word Republican Party platform, which mentions climate change in only one sentence, criticizing Democrats for considering it an issue of national security.
  2. Barack Obama talks about space policy. But his plans to sponsor human space flight seem unrealistic, given both current budget constraints and disorder at NASA. Nevertheless, this is better than the 70-page Democratic Party platform, which does not mention space policy a single time.

While the candidates’ responses to our 14 questions were clearly designed to demonstrate serious consideration to science issues, the party platforms were not, and the omissions and obfuscations are glaring. The two most remarkable statements I found were in the Republican platform, which argues that our oil and natural gas reserves can provide a bounty “for many generations to come.” Even more surprising was this claim: “Experience has shown that, in caring for the land and water, private ownership has been our best guarantee of conscientious stewardship, while the worst instances of environmental degradation have occurred under government control.”  

But perhaps the most significant area not covered by the 14 Questions, and one of the most urgent long-term technological challenges facing our nation and the world, is the problem of nuclear weapons. Here there is a clear divergence between the goals of the two parties. The Democratic platform explicitly recognizes that reliance on nuclear arms is a strategic chimera and that a reduction in nuclear weapons should be a central goal achieved by international treaties where possible, including signing on to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The Republican platform, by contrast, focuses on modernizing our strategic nuclear arsenal and promotes missile defense as a key strategic tool, criticizing the Democratic administration for laxness in both areas.

But recent news suggests that neither party’s positions regarding nuclear weapons strategies are fully tenable.  

The National Academy of Sciences recently released a detailed study assessing various alternatives for missile defense. While the 260-page report is quite technical (and personally, I’m skeptical of some of its recommendations), it fundamentally echoes what most outside physicists who have examined missile defense have been saying for decades, even as we have continued to spend tens of billions of dollars every year designing—and, more recently, deploying—such systems: All existing claimed missile defense systems are woefully inadequate to deal with realistic threats, including the likely use of offensive countermeasures in the event of a real intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) strike on this country.

Ever since the scientific community convinced Nixon in 1972 that it is generally cheaper and easier to build more nuclear weapons and missiles than it is to build missile defenses, one problem has persisted: No existing missile defense system can accurately distinguish decoys from the real thing. This has certainly been the case for our flawed domestic defenses, which have failed to intercept most incoming warheads in the tests that have been performed—and no tests have been performed with realistic decoys.

The Republican approach is that more is better, even if the fundamental components are flawed. The Democratic approach has been to play down the nonexistence of our domestic system and focus instead on building an equally ineffective system to protect Europe from shorter-range missiles that might be built someday by Iran.  

The National Academies Report argues that while a smaller-scale European missile defense system might one day be workable, the deficiencies in the current ICBM system designed to protect the homeland are so severe, they should be fixed first. Continuing to deploy our current missile defense systems is throwing good money after bad. Neither Iran nor North Korea has nuclear warheads that can be carried by ICBMs. And why would either country use them, given that such an attack would likely result in retaliatory annihilation? The more realistic threat is someone smuggling a nuclear device into this country without providing a clear signature of its origin, unlike the trajectory of an incoming ballistic missile.

More recently, a Washington Post story emphasized the woeful state of this country’s infrastructure for storing and manufacturing nuclear weapons. The efficacy of our current ridiculously large arsenal is not in question, at least by all serious scientific groups who have examined this issue. However, the apparatus responsible for maintaining these weapons is outmoded and severely in need of repair. In this sense, the Republican position that we need to invest in infrastructure if we are to maintain our nuclear arsenal is valid. The problem is that the cost required to address these problems at this point is truly astronomical, in the many hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars, and Republicans have certainly not elaborated a strategy to generate the funds for this, even if it were technical feasible in the short run.  

Both of these issues once again suggest the obvious. The only sound nuclear defensive strategy is to provide leadership to reduce nuclear proliferation by making it less attractive for non-nuclear countries to build nuclear weapons. The first step in the process is for countries like the United States to be willing to take unilateral actions to dramatic reduce the size of its own obscenely large nuclear arsenal. This might not only send an important message that we are serious about disarmament, it would make clear economic sense.