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Pure Onsense

Nuclear Madness

Scott Zuke

(March, 2012) Last month reports surfaced that President Obama directed the Pentagon to develop three options for reducing the number of America's deployed nuclear weapons. One option that raised eyebrows would cut the nuclear arsenal by up to 80% of its current levels, down to between 300 to 400. The others are less drastic, but still go beyond America's obligation's under the New START treaty with Russia, which only requires that the US reduce its numbers to 1,550 by 2018.

None of the plans have yet been presented to the President, although critics on the right have already accused Obama of trying to undermine the strength and safety of the US and its allies. They have also, I believe, vastly overstated the likelihood that he would unilaterally choose any extreme reduction path. It is more likely that this is a prelude to future arms reduction negotiations with Russia, and that the leak of the decision making process is to signal that the US is serious about accelerating disarmament.

Let's get straight to the point, though. Contrary to the alarmist, Cold War era rhetoric of the Republicans during an election year, nuclear weapons are no longer a vital component of America's offensive or defensive capabilities. They are instead an expensive liability with little tactical value. The best way to utilize our arsenal now is to reduce it as a way to encourage other nations to shrink their own.

Nuclear strategy is, to me, one of the strangest genres of human discourse. The nature of its catastrophic potential demands that those who spend their careers discussing nuclear exchanges speak in a manner that is abstracted from a terrifying reality. One example: During the Cold War missile race, when working to determine how many missiles, and in what concentration, to launch against Russia in the event of full-scale nuclear exchange, strategists had to take into account the fact that when detonating simultaneously, one nuclear warhead can cause other warheads nearby to fail. This phenomenon, called "nuclear fratricide," led to a staggered detonation approach. What, so that we got our money's worth? It's hard to say who would be around to appreciate the plan's success should it ever be used.

That experts speak in terms of "rational actor models" for nuclear warfare just highlights further how strange these conversations can get. Our greatest threat, after all, is irrationality, or even just simple disorganization. To this day Russia maintains an antiquated ring of nuclear-capable anti-ballistic missiles around Moscow--not to launch against the US, but to explode above their own capital in the event that they detect inbound missiles. That sounds rational, right? Russia's nuclear system is so disorganized that there have been fears that, at a time of heightened alert when the ABM's are armed, someone might mistakenly launch one and the rest of the network wouldn't know whether the missile was coming from a hostile nation or their own domestic defense system.

Granted, most Americans aren't losing sleep over Russia these days, so what about Iran? Mitt Romney, who has been trying to build his Republican credentials by pumping military strength, has gone so far as to say that "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon" Again, the hawkish critics on the right are speaking about Iran's nuclear intentions with a certitude that is simply not supported by the evidence. Despite its recent provocative displays, US intelligence analysts from 16 different agencies concur that Iran gave up on building a nuclear bomb years ago. The IAEA, despite frequently voicing concerns over transparency in Iran's nuclear program, lacks any concrete evidence to say otherwise. More than a few onlookers are hearing echoes of the "slam dunk" case for weapons of mass destruction that led the US into Iraq in 2003.

Even if there were a stronger case for Iran's nuclear aspirations, how would the US nuclear arsenal make any difference to its current course of action? The supposed deterrence factor no longer really applies. If the US or Israel were to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, they would not be doing so with nuclear weapons, but rather with conventional arms that are just as effective and risk less collateral damage. With today's modern weapons, and against modern targets that are often situated near civilian population centers, nukes are nearly irrelevant from a tactical standpoint. What would the US point them at that couldn't be better targeted by a smart conventional weapon?

China is another recurring target for unfounded nuclear fears. It entered the club of nuclear nations reluctantly, and only because it felt it had to retain legitimacy amongst other nuclear nations (sound familiar?). It has maintained a minimal stockpile of a few hundred weapons and steadfastly declared a "no first use" policy, something the US has never been willing to do.

Strategically, nuclear weapons unfortunately do still have a role to play. Today deterrence isn't so much about preventing a nuclear attack, or even about stopping hostile nations from developing nuclear capacity, but rather about preventing friendly non-nuclear countries from feeling a need to do so. America's burden as the "nuclear umbrella" is why I don't think we'll be seeing a world without nuclear arms anytime soon. Reducing the US stockpile to the minimum level needed to fulfill this role is (finally!) a plan that can be rightfully attributed to a "rational actor."

So while the critics are factually incorrect to say that President Obama is planning to cut the US's nuclear stockpile by as much as 80%, they are also wrong to think that doing so would encourage rogue nations to step up their own nuclear ambitions. What is more likely at stake is an opportunity to engage with traditional nuclear powers, namely Russia, and encourage a long-overdue mutual disarmament that would be in humanity's best interest.

Read other article by Scott Zuke