Monday, July 21

Review: Nuclear Family Vacation


I've been meaning to cross-post this from Ares for... a month and a half. Lame.

A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry
By Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, Bloomsbury USA, 2008, 240 pp., $24.99

Now that the Cold War is over and much that was secret is declassified, it’s possible to visit many prominent sites. That’s what husband-and-wife defense reporters Sharon Weinberger (former DTI editor-in-chief) and Nathan Hodge did. As they note, there are no Cold War battlefields to tour.

While most of their tourism is historical, the authors maintain a view of the nuclear-industrial complex. Hodge and Weinberger have chapters on the Nevada Test Site, Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia, Oak Ridge, Stratcom, missile silos, secret bunkers (including Cheyenne Mountain), Huntsville, the Marshall Islands, Russia, Kazakhstan and Iran.

The first thing we learn is that all these labs and test sites, military bases and commands—once instrumental in nuclear preparedness—struggle today with how they should continue (shutting down is not usually considered). Key questions are: If no new weapons are being produced, what do we do and how do we stay funded?

Interesting issues emerge from the Stratcom chapter. In an age where great-power war is a distant possibility, what are we deterring with nukes? The overarching strategy of military planners now is global strike, including conventional weapons. In fact, the advent of precision conventional weapons obviates the old, and questionable, role of tactical nuclear weapons.

The authors bring a reporter’s skepticism to their project, so there’s a healthy dose of “How much of this stuff do we really need?” Cold War deterrence worked, and almost every weapon system explored was never used. But what is deterrence now? Given limited budgets, how much should nations spend on nuclear weapons? What are the likely threats compared with the needs, for example, of Iraq and Afghanistan? The global nuclear weapons complex continues to be an expensive and dangerous hedge against an unlikely scenario.

Nuclear tourism is an effective and interesting way of canvassing issues we face today. Reading A Nuclear Family Vacation is a good way to learn more about the history of nuclear weapons and become conversant with our current situation. Hodge and Weinberger have done the legwork to back up their common-sense conclusions.

For more on the book, check out the official website.
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