Nuclear Disarmament

1954 Operation Castle-Bravo Bikini atoll Two weeks ago Wake Island’s nearest neighbor, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, filed suit in the international court at The Hague against nine global nuclear powers and in federal court against the United States. The lawsuits demand that these nations meet disarmament obligations established by international treaties. I looked into it at the time and watched for reactions and follow up in the coming days. Not surprisingly, it caused barely a ripple. The U. S. State Department asserted its dedication to achieving disarmament, and Russia called the lawsuits baseless. Both nations declared that they have reduced stockpiles by 80 percent in the decades since 1970. Still, nuclear weapon states trot out their missiles when circumstances call for a display of muscle, as North Korea did last spring and Russia did a few days ago.

Russia and other eastern (ex-Soviet republic) nations engaged in military maneuvers on May 8 that included firing missiles from two nuclear submarines and the launch of a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile in northwestern Russia. Given the rising conflict in and with neighboring Ukraine, the timing of Russia’s “exercises” was no coincidence. As the Russian defense minister stated, “Present-day challenges and threats to the nation’s security make it imperative to maintain the army and navy in a state of readiness for quick and efficient counteraction under any circumstances.” That statement could be made by any nation at any time and justifies the maintenance of the nuclear status quo, in spite of broad commitment to the principle of disarmament.

The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by the U. S., Soviet Union (Russia inherited its arsenal), Britain, France, and China, became effective in 1970 and was renewed in 1995 and extended indefinitely. In recent decades Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have acquired and openly tested nuclear weapons and should be bound by customary international law to join in good-faith negotiations toward disarmament. Additionally, the United States and Russia are bound by the 2010 New START treaty which sets aggregate limits for ICBMs. President Barack Obama’s statement regarding the treaty reveals the essence of the nuclear dilemma: “The New START Treaty responsibly reduces the number of nuclear weapons and launchers that the United States and Russia deploy, while fully maintaining America’s nuclear deterrent.” Reducing stockpiles of weapons looks good on paper, but getting rid of aging equipment is not the same as disarming. Reduction also masks the reality that nuclear weapon nations are actually spending and budgeting vast sums on modernizing their arsenals, aka “nuclear deterrents.”

One odd thing about the Marshall Islands “David vs. Goliath” lawsuits against the nuclear weapon states is that there is no mention of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site smack dab in the middle of the Marshall Islands. This is the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) facility, which incorporates Wake Island in testing operations. It is the only treaty-approved launch site for the U.S. to test “operational” strategic ABM interceptor missiles and has supported multiple other system developments.

Japan held the Marshall Islands as mandates following WWI and fortified the islands for offensive operations in WWII, including attacks on Wake Island in December 1941. American forces captured Kwajalein atoll in early 1944, breaking Japan’s defensive perimeter. At the end of the war the U.S. Navy established a refueling and communications station on Kwajalein. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted sixty-seven nuclear weapon tests in the Marshalls with significant health and environmental impact. The 1954 “Castle-Bravo” shot released a fifteen megaton blast (Hiroshima times a thousand) on Bikini atoll. In 1959 the U.S. Army and Department of Defense selected islands in Kwajalein atoll for anti-missile and advanced research projects, becoming the Pacific Missile Range Facility Kwajalein, with command officially transferred to the Army in 1964 for the NIKE-ZEUS project. The site was renamed in honor of President Ronald Reagan in 1999.

Located on eight islands of Kwajalein atoll, the Reagan Test Site (RTS) holds high-tech radar instrumentation, optical sensors, receiving stations, and something called “impact scoring assets.” According to the Reagan Test Site website, Kwajalein, comprised of a hundred islands, is the “world’s largest coral atoll surrounding the world’s largest lagoon.” The United States has leased eleven of the islands of the atoll from the RMI government. The Mission Control Center and vast complex “provide unparalleled capabilities to optimize ballistic missile and ballistic missile interceptor testing.” Facilities provide operational and developmental testing of theater and strategic ballistic missiles, interceptors, NASA space operations and experiments, and STRATCOM surveillance, satellite tracking, and “new foreign launch coverage.” Some 680 miles north, Wake Island serves as a functional adjunct to RST, providing target facilities, launchers, missile storage, and support systems, which are being “upgraded to support future mandated Multiple Simultaneous Engagement tests of TBM interceptors.”

The existence of the Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands would seem to lend significant context to the Marshall Islands’ lawsuits against the nuclear weapon states. An independent republic since 1986, the Marshallese population is 68,000 over 24 atolls. The lawsuits do not claim compensation for previous damage in the Marshalls (a bilateral Nuclear Claims Tribunal is supposed to assess and compensate for damages), but there is good reason for tiny Marshall Islands to be the one to raise the issue. What does disarmament mean, really?