Trump Policy Spotlights San Diego's Nuclear Past
The Trump administration wants to boost the number of U.S. nuclear weapons. At one time, California had one of the highest concentrations of nuclear weapons in the country.
The Trump administration wants to add smaller tactical nuclear weapons, as part of the recently released Nuclear Posture Review. The plan reverses a trend started at the end of the Cold War to shrink the number of weapons and sites where they are stored.
America’s nuclear arsenal is surprisingly easy to locate — using Google Earth.
Hans Christensen, a nuclear weapons expert with the Federation of American Scientists, knows the handful of locations by heart. Using Google Earth, Christensen can give a desktop tour of where the U.S. keeps its current weapons.
During the Cold War, B-52 Stratofortress bombers housed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota were on high alert.
“At the southeast end of the runway, you can see a pattern of parking spaces that sort of looks like a Christmas tree,” Christensen said. “That used to be the alert area where bombers would be. Until 1991 they would stand there with nuclear weapons on board.”
After the Cold War, the number of sites with nuclear weapons began to shrink. In the last Nuclear Posture Review, under the Obama administration in 2010, the number of sites dropped, Christensen said.
Today, the Air Force runs a few bases with bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles in Wyoming, Missouri and North Dakota. The Navy arms submarines in Georgia and Washington. Christensen said most of the rest of the weapons — including weapons waiting to be dismantled — are in an underground facility, barely visible from the air, across from a golf course outside Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“In that storage facility you have several thousand nuclear warheads,” Christensen said.
The storage sites are easy to find for a reason. Partly because of nuclear arms agreements. Though, also part of nuclear deterrence.
“You have to tell people you have (nuclear warheads),” he said. “You need to demonstrate and visualize that you have forces operating that are credible.”
Christensen’s virtual tour barely stops in California. Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, in the San Francisco Bay Area, occasionally houses a nuclear weapon for testing, he said.
During the Cold War, California was among the top four states housing nuclear weapons. Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego was one of the last places that the Navy housed nuclear-tipped Tomahawk cruise missiles. The smaller weapons were placed on attack submarines. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the last nuclear weapon was removed, but the U.S. retired almost all low-yield weapons nuclear weapons after 2010.
It is these smaller, tactical nuclear weapons that the Trump administration wants to bring back as part of its Nuclear Posture Review. U.S. military planners fear the Russians are worried about NATO’s overwhelming superiority in conventional forces — so worried that the Russians may use part of their own stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons, said Erik Gartzke, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at the University of California San Diego.
“The threat of a small scale nuclear weapon might intimidate NATO and so that’s the kind of card they’re willing to use,” Gartzke said.
The theory goes that no one uses the big strategic weapons because they fear massive retaliation. Nuclear arms experts said that theory might not hold with the smaller tactical weapons. Putting those nuclear weapons back into the US arsenal could make nuclear war more tempting, the same way our large conventional forces allowed the U.S. to intervene in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gartzke said.
“What tactical nuclear weapons do is allow us to go past the point of nuclear war in places that we're not willing to risk the fate of the nation,” he said.
Beyond the philosophical debate, Gartzke is trying to imagine where the new weapons might be housed. The fastest way to get them into service, he said, would be to put bombs on board aircraft carriers, as the U.S. did during the Cold War. The bombs could be carried by the new F-35 stealth fighter.
“We could see the carriers based in San Diego, possibly in the future, carrying nuclear weapons out to sea,” he said.
Those carriers could be armed at a revamped facility in San Diego. Because of the intense need for space, it may be more likely that they would be housed up the coast at Seal Beach, which is where the Navy stores much of its conventional armament for ships home-ported in San Diego. The Pentagon could also choose to keep the tactical weapons at the same bases that house the larger strategic weapons, Gartzke said.
Another route is to put them back on attack submarines like the ones ported in San Diego and Norfolk. Christensen said those may be the most likely places for new tactical weapons. Because of the potential cost, a new missile system could take a decade to produce, he said.
Military experts agree this isn't idle speculation. Nuclear Posture Reviews aren't your average government report. They are relatively rare. They set the tone for military planners for several years.