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The Illogic of “Going to Zero” in Nuclear Weapons February 4, 2009

Posted by SV in China, Japan, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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President Obama has announced his intentions to cut the number of nuclear warheads by around 80%, bringing the total down from the approximately 5,000 in the inventory to about 1,000.  This intention flows from his hope in achieving a nuclear weapons-free world, a philosophy that is very attractive and has gained a lot of support, especially with the influential article “The Logic of Zero” by Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal.  There were indications that Sen. John McCain even supported this idea.  The reason for its broad support is clear.  Who wants to have nuclear weapons around anyway?  They are massively destructive, they are indiscriminate, they damage the environment, they haven’t been used in war in 64 years anyway, and the only reason states still have them is because of the massive US and Russian stockpiles.   It is an attractive argument, but in the next five points I’ll attempt to point out its inherent flaws and lack of foresight in this argument and in President Obama’s plans for deep reductions.

First, the American nuclear arsenal is growing more obsolete and unreliable by the day.  Since it has been several decades since the last US nuclear test (due in part to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), there is growing uncertainty over the reliability of the US nuclear arsenal.  The failure of the Congress to approve the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which would have updated US warheads to make them safer (for storage, maintenance) and more, well, reliable, has brought into question the credibility of Washington’s nuclear deterrent.  If a problem were discovered in one of our warhead designs, the US could lose up to one-third of its operational capability while the problem was being fixed.  The US is currently the only nuclear weapons state that is neither producing new weapons nor actively upgrading its existing ones.

Second, the arms race action-reaction cycle in which the US is the cause of other states building nukes has been disproved.  This was the logic behind much of the Cold War-era arms control negotiations, and the Logic of Zero debate, that holds that the rest of the world continues to pursue and build nuclear capabilities because the US, the most powerful state in the system, has them.  The fallacy of this should be evident immediately.  As President Carter’s Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, stated (here) when talking about the US and Soviet Union arms races: “when we build, they build, and when we stop building, they continue building.”  Currently, notes Adam Hebert of Air Force Magazine, “despite 16 years of American cuts and testing moratoriums, rogue states such as Iran and North Korea have not slowed their own [nuclear] programs.”

Third, such a move will greatly disadvantage the US in terms of the balance of nuclear forces.  By going to 1,000 warheads, and assuming the Russians comply with their obligations to do likewise, the US will be in a vastly weaker situation in East Asia.  China currently has approximately 200 warheads, and is building more, so it is imaginable that by the time the US has reduced to 1,000 warheads, China will possess close to 250.  That would give the US a scant 4-1 advantage over Beijing (and some US nuclear forces will not even be in the Asian theater), compared to its more than 25-1 current advantage.  Such a drastic change will likely give the regime in Beijing the ability to exercise a freer hand in East Asia, particularly with regards to US allies like Japan and Taiwan.  North Korea, which currently faces over a 300-1 disadvantage, would find itself in about a 60-1 disadvantage, which could only help but make Pyongyang feel more secure.

Fourth, such deep cuts to the American inventory will actually cause nuclear proliferation to speed up.  Already, US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt, doubtful of the strength of the diminished US nuclear umbrella in the face of a nuclear Iran, are making decisions to pursue the foundations of their own nuclear programs.  If the US brings its numbers so low that China will be close to achieving parity, allies such as Japan, South Korea, or even Taiwan may decide to go nuclear (For those who think a China with a 4-1 disadvantage would not be a threat, keep in mind the USSR had a 6 or 7-1 disadvantage with the US at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis).  Therefore the goal of reaching a nuclear weapons-free world will be self-defeated as more countries decide to pursue a nuclear capability.  The world is simply too dangerous a place for states to give up their nuclear weapons.

Fifth, and finally, eliminating (or drastically cutting) nuclear weapons will only make the world safe for conventional warfare.  For decades during the Cold War, America’s nuclear forces deterred aggression, reduced the risk of conventional attack in Europe and elsewhere, and held invulnerable enemy targets at risk.  The death toll of the 20th century before 1945 was tragic, with war deaths in the tens to a hundred million range.  After 1945, the death toll due to war was kept around 1 million a year, most of that due to low-intensity proxy wars or ethnic conflict.  The truth is, nuclear weapons have kept great powers from going to war, and this promise should be enough to continue to maintain them for an effective deterrent posture.  Conventional war is ugly, nuclear war may be uglier, but the existence of nuclear weapons produces a higher probability of preventing either from breaking out on a massive scale.

The Cold War may in fact be over, but the world is still a dangerous and far-from-perfect place.  As US Strategic Command commander Gen. Kevin Chilton has noted, the security environment today is different “purely [in] intent – not capability… intent can change overnight.”  As long as intent can change overnight, because nations cannot trust each other completely, then the US needs to maintain an effective, robust, and significant nuclear deterrent.  Nonsolutions to securing the strategic environment, like reducing nukes to zero, only will hurt the national security of the US, and lead to nuclear proliferation and the increased risk of war.

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