Global Risk

We Can Hear You Just Fine, It’s the Nuclear Missions that Don’t Make Sense

06.18.07 | 9 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

On Thursday 14 June, Dr. John Harvey, the Director of Policy Planning Staff of the National Nuclear Security Agency, spoke at the New America Foundation to explain the government’s plans for the future of nuclear weapons and the nuclear weapons manufacturing complex. While I disagree with him on virtually every point regarding nuclear weapons, I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Harvey because, after hearing his presentation, at least I know what I am disagreeing with, which is not true for every administration spokesman. I will comment on the description of the complex later; this entry comments on the government’s justifications for nuclear weapons.

When the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee recently zeroed out the money for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), the accompanying report language criticized the administration for asking for money for nuclear weapons without adequate justification, without making their mission clear, and trying to justify nuclear weapons in a policy vacuum.

Dr. Harvey believes that the administration does, indeed, have a solid vision of a nuclear mission but contends that it has not been communicated well. However, because virtually everything he put forward has been known for some time—for example, I covered almost all the following missions in my paper Missions for Nuclear Weapons after the Cold War, it seems more likely that the communication is just fine. Congress has heard the administration’s story. They simply aren’t buying it. But it is always easier to believe that the other side is not hearing your argument rather than accept that their hearing is perfectly acute and they are rejecting your logic. Below I respond to a list of missions for nuclear weapons iterated by Dr. Harvey.

The first and biggest question concerns the size of our nuclear arsenal. In a rational world, numbers should follow from missions. Everyone agrees that numbers should now be lower than during the Cold War but how many nuclear weapons do we need?

Dr. Harvey said, “The President has said, and he has acted on this, that he seeks the lowest number of nuclear weapons consistent with our nation’s security and he has moved aggressively to that end since taking office. The nuclear weapons stockpile will be, by 2012, a factor of two of what it was when this administration took office and will be a factor of four below what it was at the end of the Cold War.”

As I discussed in Sizing Nuclear Forces, whenever anyone discusses nuclear weapon numbers in terms of reductions from Cold War levels they are using the Cold War as a baseline for judging nuclear numbers today. There is no justification for this, for two reasons. First, the world today is radically different from the Cold War. In fact, today many of the Cold War incentives for having nuclear weapons are exactly reversed. There is no more justification for comparing our nuclear weapons to Cold War numbers than there is for comparing the number of horses we had during the Spanish-American War. The comparison is not even wrong, it is simply irrelevant. Rather than start with irrelevant Cold War numbers and work down, let’s start with the assumption that we need none and work up from there. Second, even if there were some relevance to the Cold War, why should we think that nuclear weapons numbers during the Cold War were determined rationally? A reasonable person could make a reasonable argument that, during the Cold War, we had ten times more nuclear weapons than we needed, so if we have reduced nuclear weapons by a factor of four, we now have two and a half times more than we needed during the Cold War, and we probably still have ten times more than we need now.

In the context of the justification for US nuclear forces, Dr. Harvey said “Russia’s no longer an immediate threat.” I agree that this is true but it is not reflected in the numbers and deployments of US nuclear forces. In Missions, I argue that if we ignore what the administration says and look only at the numbers and deployment of US nuclear forces, there is one and only one mission that can justify having hundreds, even thousands, of multi-hundred kiloton nuclear bombs on hair-trigger alert, many on fast-flying, highly accurate missiles on forward-deployed submarines, just minutes from their targets: a surprise disarming first strike against Russian central nuclear forces. Politically, Russia may no longer be an immediate threat but, as our nuclear war planners recognize, Russian nuclear forces are the only threat that could end the United States as a society. This threat continues and, regardless of what we say, we appear to deploy forces to counter it. Within the current administration, arms control is so thoroughly discredited that no serious thought is given to eliminating this threat through mutually beneficial negotiation. If Russia is not the justification for the day-to-day deployment pattern of US nuclear forces, then there is no justification.

Dr. Harvey seems to pick the latter alternative when he says, “We no longer can predict where and when major new threats will emerge. Nuclear force planning is, thus, no longer threat based.” What this means is that, if North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia were taken over by Quakers tomorrow, we would not necessarily change our nuclear force posture one iota. Once we accept this, then all discussion ends because no justification for nuclear forces is offered and none is needed. We shall have nuclear weapons forever because we decide that, independent of threat, we need them. This puts the lie to administration claims that nuclear disarmament remains a long-term goal. If nuclear force planning is not threat- based then, even if the world were judged threat-free, we would still retain nuclear weapons. If nuclear weapons are justified even absent a threat under what circumstances could we ever get rid of them, even in theory?

The administration believes that we need to maintain nuclear forces and a nuclear infrastructure, again quoting Dr. Harvey, “Because we don’t know the threats, the threats will emerge in the future, we are uncertain about them, our infrastructure must be able to respond on a time scale commensurate with the emergence of threats.” To argue that the United States, with the most advanced technology, by far the world’s largest military-industrial base, and the world’s largest economy, has to keep a vast nuclear production line going because the Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, or the Iranians might be more responsive and might out produce us is simply absurd. Moreover, this assumes that the number of nuclear weapons required depends sensitively on the threat It does not. If we think through carefully how we might use nuclear weapons, does it make a difference if we have one hundred and the Russians have a hundred and one? Before we can make statements about needing to respond to potential threats with nuclear weapons, we need to explain how nuclear weapons are a response to potential threats and how many we need to respond. The administration has not done that. Their logic is that we need some, therefore we need thousands.

Dr. Harvey went on to list several more specific justifications for maintaining a nuclear arsenal, beginning with “Nuclear weapons prevent large scale wars of aggression. In the one case where they were used, they terminated a large scale war of aggression.” This is clearly not true. Nuclear weapons did not prevent the Korean War or the Vietnam War waged against a nuclear-armed United States. Nuclear weapons did not prevent smaller scale aggression like the Falklands War. China and Russia fought each other along their border when both had nuclear weapons. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that nuclear weapons might contribute to deterrence of large scale wars of aggression. This is a good example of the weakness of every argument in favor of nuclear weapons. While it may be true that nuclear weapons contribute to conventional deterrence, many things contribute to that deterrence, for example, potential political isolation, diversion of resources, destruction of industrial capacity, massive military fatalities, danger of domestic political upheaval, and loosing the war. So even if, as we have assumed, nuclear weapons contribute to preventing aggressive wars, what is their relative contribution and at what cost? And how do they prevent wars? By threatening nuclear Armageddon or by threatening to inflict pain greater than any gain from aggression. If the former, then do we want that mission? If the latter, then how many nuclear weapons do we need? Dozens? Finally, even the statement that the nuclear weapons ended World War II is no longer assumed.

The next justification for nuclear weapons is that “Nuclear weapons discourage the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its allies.” Again, this may be true to some extent. But many things discourage the use of nuclear weapons. If North Korea used nuclear weapons against the United States, the U.S. would, I am absolutely certain, invade and occupy North Korea, Kim Jung Il, would not survive. The US might or might not use nuclear bombs in that military operation but, regardless, it would have little effect on the outcome and would make little if any difference to the North Korean deterrent calculation. Many things also contribute to that deterrence so what is the net contribution of using nuclear weapons for this role and what are the costs and risks? I am sure that nuclear bombs could be used as doorstops but that does not mean that stopping doors is desirable nuclear mission because a lot of other things can be used as doorstops with less risk.

Next Dr. Harvey says, “They [nuclear weapons] dissuade potential adversaries from engaging in nuclear arms races with the United States.” This is an incomplete statement at best. Clearly the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in arms races because of the other’s nuclear weapons. This is most likely a statement of what is often called the “lowered bar” argument. It is an argument for why we need thousands of nuclear weapons because if we had only hundreds then lesser powers, like China, might be tempted to compete with us, while they will not even try as long as we have thousands. While I cannot disprove this argument, it is utterly contrary to Chinese nuclear doctrine and behavior that has been consistent for three decades. Moreover, this argument disregards completely the potential role of mutually beneficial negotiated arms control agreements that could bring all the world’s nuclear arsenals down to very low levels.

Dr. Harvey even fit in the terrorist threat, saying “They won’t deter terrorists but they could deter rogue states from transferring nuclear warheads or materials to terrorists.” The logic here is just as empty as it is in the case of deterrence of large scale wars. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that nuclear weapons do contribute some such deterrence. Given our overwhelming conventional superiority, don’t you think North Korea and Iran are already largely deterred? So the question is not whether they are deterred or whether nuclear weapons contribute to deterrence but what is the marginal contribution of nuclear weapons and what are the risks of having nuclear weapons and of legitimizing them for this mission? Dr. Harvey and the rest of the Bush Administration have yet to address these questions.

The next justification, “They assure allies who rely on US extended deterrence guarantees provided by our nuclear forces,” is true because it is a tautology. Again, even if nuclear weapons do assure our allies, there are many more effective ways to assure our allies. What is the marginal contribution? And what are the risks of using nuclear weapons for this mission. This is another doorstop argument.

Finally, Dr. Harvey concluded his list with, “More broadly, nuclear weapons serve as an insurance policy for an uncertain future.” This is, at best, an argument that we don’t have any really good arguments but we want nuclear weapons anyway. It would be persuasive if nuclear weapons were free. But they are not, neither to the taxpayer nor to the security of the world. Fire insurance on your house is almost always a good idea but what if the insurance policy itself had some chance of bursting into flames and burning your house down? One would have to make a careful assessment of risks. The insurance argument ignores the costs of nuclear weapons. It is a thoughtless assertion, not a reason.