Who Needs Nukes
Wall Street Journal
March 20, 2007
The problem with nuclear weapons today can be summed up as follows: They are going out of fashion where they are needed most and coming into fashion where they are needed least.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair eked out what is likely to be the last significant legislative victory of his government on Thursday when parliament approved funds, over the objections of 88 Labour MPs, to begin design work on the next generation of ballistic missile nuclear submarines. Whether the subs and their missiles will actually be built remains a question for a future parliament to answer.
At nearly the same time, the Bush administration awarded a contract to the Lawrence Livermore Lab to design something called the Reliable Replacement Warhead — basically a retinkered version of the previously tested but never-deployed W89 warhead — to replace the current mainstays of the U.S. arsenal, particularly the 100-kiloton W76. But with Democrats in control of Congress, the RRW will surely face funding hurdles of its own. The New York Times has already chimed in with an editorial denouncing RRW as a make-work scheme for nuclear scientists based on the supposedly bogus rationale of “‘aging’ warheads.”
Too bad the Times didn’t rely on its own fine reporting of the issue: “As warheads age,” noted the paper’s William J. Broad in a 2005 exposé, “the risk of internal rusting, material degradation, corrosion, decay and the embrittling of critical parts increases.” Too bad, too, that British anti-nuclear activists fail to consider the dire consequences for their collective poodledom should they relinquish their independent deterrent.
Still, these ironies are of small account and at least the left maintains its scruples. No similar scruples inhibit the nuclear ambitions of other nations. Russia is fielding a new land-based missile called the Topol-M and building a new generation of ballistic-missile submarines. The Chinese are upgrading their land- and sea-based nuclear forces with multiple warheads and solid-fuel propulsion technology. Pakistan last month successfully tested its Shaheen-II ballistic missile, capable of lifting a nuclear payload to a range of 1,250 miles. Iran is reportedly within months of developing an industrial-scale uranium enrichment capacity of about 3,000 centrifuges, which in turn puts it on track to acquire a bomb’s worth of fissile uranium by the end of 2008. The progress of North Korean arms is well known.
Why are the world’s responsible powers in such doubt about the necessity of nuclear deterrence when the irresponsible are seeking as never before to enlarge or improve their store of weapons? One answer was offered in these pages in January by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who noted that the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty committed non-nuclear powers not to develop weapons in exchange for a promise by the nuclear powers to “reduce and eventually abolish their arsenals.” “If this reciprocity is not observed,” he wrote, “then the entire structure of the treaty will collapse.”
As a matter of rhetoric, Mr. Gorbachev is surely right, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be clever to press the point when he makes an appearance before the U.N. Security Council later this month. As a matter of reality, the argument is wrong on facts and dangerously solipsistic: Messrs. Kim and Ahmadinejad have better reasons to seek nuclear weapons than pique at American (or British) “hypocrisy.” As it is, both Russia and the U.S. have reduced their arsenals from Cold War peaks by as much as 80% — much of the reduction being achieved by the current administration — yet that has done little to incent rogue actors not to seek their own weapons of mass destruction.
A more serious objection to the American and British modernization plans is that they offer no realistic security against terrorism. Suppose al Qaeda detonates a nuclear bomb in Times Square. Suppose that the weapon was stolen from an old Soviet depot, meaning no “return address” for purposes of retaliation. Suppose, also, that al Qaeda threatens to detonate five other bombs if the U.S. does not meet a list of its demands. What use would deterrence be then? Against whom would we retaliate, and where?
This scenario does not invalidate the need for a nuclear deterrent: There would still be conventional opponents to deter, and it’s odd that the people who tell us we can “contain” a nuclear Iran are often the same ones who insist we can forgo the means of containment. But the question of what to do after a nuclear 9/11 is something to which not enough thought has been given. We urgently need a nuclear doctrine — and the weapons to go with it — for the terrorist age. The RRW, which simply prolongs a Cold War nuclear posture through the year 2050, amounts to a partial solution at best.
What would a sensible deterrence strategy look like? “Even nihilists have something they hold dear that can be threatened with deterrence,” says Max Singer, a collaborator of the great Cold War theorist Herman Kahn. “You need to know what it is, communicate it and be serious about it.”
Would it hinder Islamist terrorists if the U.S.’s declared policy in the event of a nuclear 9/11 was the immediate destruction of Mecca, Medina and the Iranian religious center of Qom? Would our deterrent be more or less effective if we deployed a range of weapons, such as the maligned “bunker buster,” the use of which a potential adversary might think us capable? How would the deployment of a comprehensive anti-ballistic missile shield alter the composition of a credible deterrent? Does it make sense to adhere to the NPT regime when that regime is clearly broken?
One needn’t have answers to these questions to know it requires something more than pat moralizing about the terribleness of nuclear weapons or declaring the whole matter “unthinkable.” Nothing is unthinkable. But whether the unthinkable remains the undoable depends entirely on our willingness to think clearly about it, and to act on our conclusions.