The Wages of Nuclear Abolition

Feb. 1, 2009

The US is cutting nuclear weapons, such as this ALCM.

If it sticks with its current plan to preserve the long-term health of the US strategic deterrent, the Defense Department will assuredly find itself embroiled in a lengthy, contentious political struggle.

Americans expect a secure and credible nuclear deterrent. Still, there is scant public or Congressional support for new weapons. Controversy even dogs DOD’s plan to replace today’s aged warheads with a safer and up-to-date model—the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead.

As a candidate, President Barack Obama voiced a generalized opposition to nuclear arms. His victory not only has stirred hope for further nuclear cuts but has revived political forces that seek outright nuclear abolition.

On Dec. 9 in Paris, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and about 100 other international peace parsons, under the label “Global Zero,” launched a new campaign to abolish nukes. The idea is to bring about a total phaseout of these weapons over the next 25 years. First targets, of course, include the US deterrent.

Abolition Day may yet come. For the foreseeable future, though, the world remains too dangerous and unpredictable to allow it.

The Cold War is over, but the danger has not vanished. The strategic environment today is different “purely [in] intent—not capability,” said Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of US Strategic Command. “Intent can change overnight.”

Threats to the United States or its interests could come from unpredictable major powers, rogue nations, and nonstate and terrorist groups.

Russia is modernizing its large nuclear force. Its programs include road-mobile and silo-based SS-27 ICBMs, SS-30 SLBMs, new ballistic missile submarines, a long-range nuclear cruise missile, and modernized bombers. Moscow has explicitly increased the role of nuclear weapons in defense planning and retains the means to churn out large numbers of warheads.

China is engaged in a comprehensive transformation of its military forces, and nuclear arms are a key part of this. China’s improving military capabilities include a variety of ballistic missiles. China’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles include a wide range of submarine-launched, medium-range, and intercontinental delivery systems.

US officials regard North Korea’s nuclear program as a great concern, especially when viewed in conjunction with the erratic nation’s development of long-range missiles.

North Korea and Iran belong to a particularly troubling group of nations that have demonstrated a willingness to export sensitive weapons technology to others.

Among terrorist organizations, al Qaeda has shown both the willingness and capability to mount attacks specifically designed to maximize casualties. Osama bin Laden’s followers seek nuclear weapons and no doubt would use them, given an opportunity.

Terrorists do not operate in a vacuum, however, and US policy is to hold state sponsors of terrorism accountable for the actions of their proxies. US officials have made it clear that nuclear retaliation would not be excluded from the list of retaliatory options if the US is attacked by weapons of mass destruction. This serves to discourage rogue nations from providing too much technology or refuge to extremists.

For decades of the Cold War, America’s nuclear forces deterred acts of aggression, reduced the threat of conventional attack on US allies, and held otherwise invulnerable targets at risk.

Nuclear weapons have immense destructive power, and, for that reason, are unique deterrents. Ever since World War II, the world has avoided major-power conflict of the scale seen regularly in the prenuclear era. With nuclear weapons in the threat calculus, great nations have approached each other with great caution.

Extended deterrence—opening the US “nuclear umbrella” over friends and allies—has been key to alliances in Europe and Asia, assuring one and all of the credibility of US security commitments.

In fact, self-induced US nuclear disarmament could actually spur proliferation. In the absence of the US nuclear umbrella, some non-nuclear allies such as Japan, South Korea, Germany, Greece, or Turkey might perceive a need to develop and deploy their own nuclear capability.

And despite 16 years of American cuts and testing moratoriums, rogue states such as Iran and North Korea have not slowed their own programs.

The US today is the only declared nuclear power that is neither producing new weapons nor actively upgrading existing ones. Both Britain and France, among America’s treaty allies, have launched major programs to revitalize their nuclear complexes and maintain their nuclear forces.

Washington has vowed to be a leader in nuclear reductions. The US, Chilton said, is on pace to reach the Moscow Treaty goal of no more than 2,200 operationally deployed nuclear weapons early—perhaps as soon as the end of this year.

According to a recent policy paper by the Defense Department and the Department of Energy, US nuclear forces support four goals: reassuring allies and friends, dissuading potential adversaries from even attempting to build nukes, deterring actual attacks on the US or allied nations, and defeating an enemy in a war.

In what can only be called an enormous understatement, the DOD-DOE report asserts: “Nothing in the developments [of recent years] suggests that US nuclear weapons are no longer needed.”