US Nuclear Forces: Meeting the Challenge of a Proliferated World PDF Thumbnail

The Logic of Zero?

While “ban the bomb” movements are almost as old as nuclear weapons themselves, the current movement toward eliminating all nuclear weapons has attracted support across the political spectrum. By far the most influential presentation of this view has been advanced by Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry and George Shultz, highly regarded senior statesmen from both political parties. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” as they have been called, argue that the world is at a “nuclear tipping point” in which “nuclear weapons [are] more widely available, [and] deterrence decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous.” It is easy to understand why the “logic of zero” nuclear weapons, as some refer to it, is so compelling. But is it possible to fashion a world without nuclear weapons? Simply stated, nuclear weapons confer a strong security guarantee. Inducing states either to forego their acquisition or to give them up requires providing states with an alternative guarantee of equal or greater value than the guarantee provided by a nuclear arsenal. This is especially true in the case of states with inferior conventional militaries. Those advocating a shift to a world without nuclear weapons would have to address two key questions: where would such a guarantee come from, and why would it be credible?

It may be that the only practical way to bring about global nuclear disarmament and realize the benefits in terms of reduced military expenditures and enhanced prospects for world peace is to establish some form of global government or global hegemonic power. However, establishing a global government seems unlikely, especially under the current circumstances. Further, it is not clear that, assuming one could be created, such a global government would reflect the liberal, democratic values that many nuclear abolitionists hold dear.

Some nuclear abolitionists argue that the United States can safely reduce its deployed nuclear warhead levels — currently projected at between 1,700 and 2,200 — to 1,000 or fewer, especially if the Russians were to do the same. Regarding overall numbers, however, there is at least one important asymmetry that must be addressed. It involves the substantial number of states that are sheltered under the US nuclear umbrella — the states to which Washington has given a guarantee that the United States will respond decisively against any enemy state that employs nuclear weapons against them; the United States must be prepared to defend both itself and over a dozen other countries from nuclear attack.

Many advocates of a nuclear-free world argue that in order to strengthen the NPT, the United States should forego developing any new nuclear weapons. At first blush, this seems to make eminent sense. But opponents of foreswearing the development of new nuclear weapons offer three reasons: first, weapons design teams have very specialized skills that risk being lost if they are not put to use; second, the United States may, at some point, need to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons to address security challenges for which there may be no other alternative; and third, the existing stockpile of nuclear weapons is becoming less reliable as it ages, necessitating a replacement of old weapons with newer, reliable ones known as reliable replacement warheads, or RRWs. The reliability of these aging weapons could be confirmed with testing. However, the United States has observed a test moratorium since 1992, and opponents of the RRW (as well as the Four Horsemen) are calling for the United States to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would permanently ban all nuclear weapons testing.

What are we to make of all this? It appears the United States has two overriding objectives when it comes to the issue of nuclear weapons: maintaining an effective nuclear arsenal, and limiting (and ultimately reducing) the number of nuclear weapons to the point of elimination. These objectives may be incompatible. Simply put, the United States must either accept long-term risk in its ability to “maintain a safe, secure and effective [nuclear] arsenal” or the risk associated with testing that might obviate the need for further nuclear weapons production, but also enable substantial reductions in the US nuclear stockpile.

Given these formidable barriers, even those who continue to advocate for a nuclear-free world might see the virtue in developing a “Plan B” policy should their ambitious objectives fail to materialize. Indeed, based on the analysis to this point, it seems the future we will inhabit will be a significantly more proliferated world than that which exists today. Prudent planning requires that this future — unpleasant to contemplate though it may be — and its implications for US nuclear forces be examined as well, rather than be shunted aside through willful ignorance on our part.