Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: A View from the Field

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By Lt Col Andrew S. Kovich – As the President has noted, despite the aspirations of nuclear abolitionists, the United States and Russia are likely to maintain a substantial number of nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.  The practical challenges and time-consuming process of even modest negotiated draw-downs to current arsenals, combined with the imprudence of unilateral abolition in the face of existing nuclear capabilities abroad, suggests that nuclear weapons will be around for some time to come.  At the same time, it is no longer necessary to plan to fight a war on the scale of the US-Soviet nuclear exchanges envisioned during the Cold War, or to take actions based on assumptions that may become self-fulfilling prophecies.  In the nuclear arena, I believe a reduced number of operationally deployed weapons will be sufficient to meet national security needs.  Although they may not meet ALL military targeting desires (what military operation ever has all that it desires?), a smaller arsenal can still safeguard U.S. national interests while advancing other foreign policy goals.  In short, an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, approach is both most practical and most prudent for U.S. (and Russian) national security interests.

Nuclear weapons are believed to provide national security insurance.  The U.S. and Russian defense establishments see them in this light, as do other nuclear powers.  States seeking nuclear weapons believe this to be the case, as well, and that is why they want them.  Recent history would indicate that lowering U.S./Russia nuclear insurance premiums will not have any significant impact on nation’s who currently do not have such insurance.  The U.S. has decreased its nuclear forces by 75 percent since the end of the Cold War and met the reductions in operationally deployed strategic warheads required by the 2002 Moscow Treaty earlier this year.  Russia has made reductions in its strategic forces of comparable magnitude.  Even in the face of these dramatic cuts, by most accounts the global proliferation threat has increased, rather than decreased.  Indeed, if US forces (insurance premiums) were reduced unilaterally, our beneficiaries (allies) might rethink their positions on whether getting their own insurance would be a better option for their security needs.  

In the short term, negotiating a small mutual reduction in the operationally deployed warhead ceiling stated in the current Moscow Treaty would further benefit U.S./Russia relations and America’s standing in the world.  But maintaining a diverse set of capabilities is also prudent.  Insurance is about protecting one’s self from unknowable future events.  Thus, preserving U.S. delivery capabilities in a triad of bombers, submarines, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) enhances U.S. security by providing options to decision makers.  Lower weapon numbers in the short term will also force those resistant to change into positions such that they will have to rethink their preferred ways of doing business.  As the journey evolves, we may indeed come to a point where larger decreases in weapons can perhaps be embraced.

The argument that international support for efforts to constrain proliferation will be better attained through U.S./Russia arms reductions is the most hopeful of all.  Is this to say that nations only care about halting nuclear proliferation as a condition of U.S./Russia behavior?  Certainly not.  Most nations will continue to be concerned about proliferation whether or not there are further U.S./Russia reductions.  The reality is that nations obtain, or choose not to obtain, nuclear weapons because they believe it is in their national interest to do so.  Indeed, it is more reasonable to believe that eight years of U.S. preventive war policy by the previous US administration, combined with the United States’ conventional military superiority, had more to do with nuclear proliferation than the size of U.S./Russia nuclear forces – forces largely meant to deter one another.  The current U.S. administration’s policy to engage diplomatically in foreign affairs in a positive manner will undoubtedly do more for alleviating the nuclear proliferation danger than U.S./Russia bilateral arms reductions.  

Lost in the rhetoric of nuclear abolition is the substantial tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons.  This tradition should be applauded and exported.  The U.S. and Russia never went to war with one another using nuclear weapons and neither state ever chose the nuclear option during conflict when it was clearly within their power to do so.  Sixty-four years after Hiroshima, this tradition of restraint is significant and should be taught to nations aspiring to obtain nuclear weapons and reinforced in those nations that already possess such weapons.  Discussions of this kind may do more for international security than calls for the universal elimination of nuclear weapons.



Lt Col Andrew S. Kovich is a National Defense Fellow at the Stimson Center.


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