For Leonard Eiger, having the U.S. Navy’s entire Pacific fleet of nuclear-armed submarines only a short excursion away doesn’t sit well with him.
The longtime anti-nuclear weapons activist and former North Bend resident has for decades worked to educate Puget Sound residents about Naval Base Kitsap Bangor, which houses around one-third of the nuclear weapons that are actively deployed. Eight of the 14 Ohio-class submarines, which carry powerful nuclear weapons, are stationed out of the base in Kitsap County.
“For me there’s a real futility in thinking of, and preparing to fight, a nuclear war,” Eiger said. “Because any nuclear war, any nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia, is game over.”
Eiger lived in North Bend for 26 years, before recently moving to the San Juan Islands. He’s been involved with the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, which stages demonstrations against — and education campaigns about — nuclear weapons.
As the Donald Trump administration winds down, he’s hoping that a Joe Biden presidency will mark a turning point in the way the U.S. approaches nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration didn’t make significant progress toward renewing the New START Treaty, which expires on Feb. 5 and began deploying “low-yield” nuclear weapons on submarines, he said. The administration also did not subscribe to a “no first use” policy. It also pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal.
In its 2018 nuclear stance position paper, which outlined scenarios where nuclear weapons could be used, it retained the right to use nuclear weapons in retaliation for conventional or cyber attacks against the U.S.
New nukes, old problems
These policy decisions could be reversed or changed under a Biden administration.
The new “low-yield” nuclear warheads are some eight kilotons, about half as powerful as the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War 2. They’re intended to be an option to be used against an adversary should they employ tactical nuclear weapons
“For me, this is a hugely destabilizing act because it lowers the threshold of nuclear war,” Eiger said. “Essentially, the idea of deterrence is we have a large enough and credible deterrent, a threat of mutually assured destruction, if you will.”
And if a nuclear weapon was fired at one country, other nuclear powers wouldn’t know how powerful it was, and could launch their own nukes, fearing an attack, he said.
These missiles are something that Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, is thinking about. He said that this could make military leaders more comfortable using them from technical and humanitarian points of view because there could be less collateral damage and fallout.
“It is generally a concern that, over the last decade especially, both Russia and the United States seem to talk about the role of low-yield weapons in a different way than they did a decade ago,” Kristensen said.
However, using nuclear weapons is still politically taboo, and would be exceeding difficult for any administration to use, Kristensen said.
The Biden administration could choose, if it wanted, to remove these smaller nuclear weapons from submarines.
On the first use of nuclear weapons, Biden’s policy platform states that he believes the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter other countries from attacking the U.S. with nuclear weapons. If he holds to this statement, then he would enact a no first use policy, according to Kristensen.
Biden is also hoping to resurrect two important nuclear treaties. The first is the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated by the Obama administration while he served as vice president. Trump withdrew from the treaty and put additional sanctions on Iran.
The nuclear deal allowed outside observers to certify that Iran wasn’t building nuclear weapons. In exchange, the country was allowed to continue to build its nuclear energy capabilities. Iran has breached the nuclear deal, more than a year after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement.
Biden has vowed to re-enter the agreement using “hard-nosed diplomacy” to extend it. Kristensen said Iran has signaled interest in returning to the deal as well. If they do, Congress would likely need to lift sanctions in exchange for reinstating monitoring and things like uranium enrichment.
Scott Montgomery, University of Washington affiliate member with the Jackson School of International Studies, agreed that Biden will likely try and restart negotiations. But there will be distrust from the Iranian government.
“Mr. Trump showed that even the most difficult and long-suffering agreements — the agreements that took a great amount of time and energy — can be completely wiped away by a succeeding president,” he said.
Iran may look for long-term guarantees in a renewed treaty. But it’s unclear whether Biden would be able to promise these, Montgomery said.
The second significant nuclear agreement is the New START Treaty between Russia and the U.S. The treaty limits the number of nuclear weapons that the countries can own, and have deployed, at any given time. It includes all three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad, including submarine, bomber and land-based missiles.
It is the last nuclear treaty still in effect between the U.S. and Russia after the U.S. withdrew from the INF Treaty in 2019.
The New START Treaty went into effect in 2011, and is up for renewal on Feb. 5. Trump’s administration said in October that it wasn’t “a good deal.” Russia has violated the treaty by testing mid-range cruise missiles.
Biden’s policy platform states he will try to renew and extend the New START Treaty. The treaty could be extended up to five years, but Kristensen said the administration could choose a shorter term.
If Biden chose to go with a longer five year renewal, it would likely have a calming effect on nuclear competition between the U.S. and Russia. However, a shorter term would send signals that the two countries need to address the problems with the treaty and create something stronger, Kristensen said.
In a March 2020 column in Foreign Affairs, Biden wrote that he would use a renewed New START Treaty as a foundation for new arms control agreements. Montgomery expects the incoming administration to propose new agreements, but views New START as an anchor.
“That is essential, and I think everyone understands, who is knowledgeable about arms control and the global nonproliferation situation, that this is essential,” he said.
Biden will also need to think about how to engage China in nuclear discussions, Kristensen said. He said Trump was correct in pushing for China to be involved in nuclear discussions, even if the tactics weren’t productive.
Montgomery said the Chinese government will likely not agree to reducing its amount of nuclear weapons because the U.S. and Russia have far more warheads. China has around 320 warheads, according to Arms Control International based off estimates from Kristensen, while the U.S. has some 5,800 and Russia 6,375.
Having served in Obama’s administration, Biden has a broader understanding of nuclear issues than past presidents, including Obama and George W. Bush, who have come into office with plans to rework how the U.S. handles its nuclear arsenal. Kristensen said new presidents are often flooded with briefs by advocates of nuclear arms within the government.
“When presidents run for office, even the first month of when they come in, they often have very ambitious statements, and when they come in they get briefed to death,” he said.
This leads them to back off more ambitious plans. Biden has experience receiving these kinds of briefings from his terms as vice president, and he may not be as easily swayed, Kristensen said.
Still, any changes will likely be gradual. Nuclear policy changes slowly, he said.
And nuclear stances do need to change, Eiger said. Even a relatively small nuclear war, like one between India and Pakistan, would trigger a global famine.
For activist Leonard Eiger, the world of today is only here because of a series of fortunate events. He cited the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the U.S. and Russia came close to nuclear war in 1962.
“We still live under the threat of either accidental or intentional nuclear war,” he said. “So long as nuclear weapons exist, that threat will continue to exist.”
Montgomery said the world today is in the most precarious position it’s been in for decades. He described the situation as tense, not just between the U.S. and Russia, but also between China, India and Pakistan, and between North Korea and its neighbors.
“The global security framework has decayed significantly,” he said. “Countries are more hostile toward one another, more suspicious toward one another, and more willing to believe the worst or worse things of each other than they have been for a long time.”