May 7, 2024

Nuclear Uncertainty Has Replaced Nuclear Deterrence

Minuteman III, ICBM. Photo Defense Department.

John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”…was arguably the most impactful work of U.S. journalism ever. It included stomach-turning descriptions of what one small (relative to today’s weapons) bomb did to one city’s inhabitants.

– George F. Will, May 2024.

There is much nuclear mythology connected to the development and deployment of nuclear weaponry.  The late Bernard Brodie, the first nuclear theorist, argued in the late 1940s that nuclear weapons had created a stable balance of terror, which is belied by the violence in the post-war situation.  Nuclear theorists such as Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter argued in the 1950s that the balance was “precarious,” and that it was essential to measure the relevant damage one side or the other would suffer in a nuclear exchange.  Harvard’s Henry Kissinger had the most obtuse theory of all, believing that “limited” uses of nuclear weaponry would not get out of hand.  These theories were used to justify the increased development of nuclear weapons that has created the overkill situation in the arsenals of the United States and Russia.  China’s new nuclear doctrine and practice will produce additional overkill capability.

The United States has driven the nuclear race from the start.  The use of atomic bombs in Japan in 1945 was as a terror weapon; the Truman administration believed the deaths of innocent civilians would put pressure on Japanese leaders to surrender.  U.S. technology also drove the Cold War arms race, particularly the development of multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs) that could have been stopped in the 1970s if Washington’s lead negotiator, Henry Kissinger, had been willing to listen to the arms control community.

Once again, the United States is a major driver in the arms race on the basis of a 10-year $1.5 trillion modernization program that is unnecessary.  It is accompanied by Russian and Chinese modernization programs.  The U.S. program emphasizes a new strategic warhead; a new cruise missile; new plutonium cores for warheads; and new submarines, bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  All unnecessary.

China’s developments are worrisome, particularly the expansion and rebuilding of the Lop Nor testing area in Xinjiang.  The area is the size of Virginia, and in the past five years China has added and renovated 30 buildings; these actions point to renewed testing of nuclear weapons and a more aggressive nuclear strategy.  Xi Jinping called for these developments.  He created the Chinese Rocket Forces in 2015, and he ordered the modernization of the strategic air base near Lop Nor in 2018 following Donald Trump’s emphasis on a “nuclear restart” and renewed testing.

Russia is hellbent on modernizing its nuclear program as well, but the war in Ukraine has worsened production and financial problems in addition to the management problems from the Soviet era.  There have been successes in modernizing the Strategic Rocket Forces, particularly Russia’s ICBM arsenal, but other aspects of the nuclear triad—ships and bombers—have lagged behind.  The primitive level of Russia’s robotization and automation programs have been an obstacle.  President Vladimir Putin’s withdrawal from international inspection efforts has compromised efforts to verify and monitor Russia’s programs.

In the Euro-Atlantic area, Russia is intensifying sabotage, acts of violence, cyber and electronic interference, disinformation campaigns, and other hybrid operations. East European members of NATO—particularly Poland and the Baltic states— have expressed their deep concern over Russia’s hybrid actions, which constitute a threat to Allied security.

Republican Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump expanded nuclear missions and abrogated arms control treaties, creating the worst of all possible strategic worlds.  In 2002, Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), the cornerstone of deterrence and one of the pearls of disarmament policy, paving the way for national missile defense, which costs hundreds of billions of dollars but provides no genuine security.  In 2018, Trump abrogated the Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), one of the most successful disarmament treaties in history, leading to a renewed arms race in Europe.  The villain in both decisions was John Bolton, the pastor child for the military-industrial complex, who was an arms control adviser to Bush and the national security adviser to Trump.

Trump’s return to the White House would be disastrous.  When former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson referred to Trump as a “fucking moron,” it was after a sensitive briefing on nuclear weapons for the new president at the Pentagon in 2017.  Since then, Trump has said that Japan would be “better off” with nuclear weapons; boasted about building new nuclear weapons (“We have stuff that Putin and Xi have never heard about before.”); and secretly discussed using a nuclear weapon against North Korea. Trump argued he could blame a U.S. strike against the communist regime on another country, according to New York Times correspondent Michael Schmidt.

As president, Trump created a Space Force, which was in violation of the Outer Space Treaty that was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.  Last week, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to prohibit placing nuclear weapons in space, which means the Outer Space Treaty is the latest arms control treaty from the Cold War era to fall by the wayside.  Russia’s veto reinforces the notion that Putin favors launching a nuclear weapon into space.

Prior to the 2020 election, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley took unprecedented steps to prevent Trump from misusing the country’s nuclear arsenal during the last month of his presidency.  According to the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Milley called the head of the Chinese military, and told him the “American government is stable, and “we’re not going to attack.”  Presumably, Xi Jinping has taken this call into account in terms of his own worst case thinking regarding the nuclear balance of power. Additionally, there is the threat from Putin to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Despite the end of the “Cold War” three decades ago and the realization of the illusion of “limited” nuclear or the suicidal aspects of “mutual assured destruction,” there is still no comprehensive approach toward nuclear disarmament.  Cicero said that “endless money forms the sinews of war,” which has certainly been the case for U.S. use of force for the past three decades.  At the same time, there has been a withdrawal from the world of arms control and disarmament.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have not even bothered to pay lip service to the idea of disarmament.  President Bill Clinton abolished the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency nearly 30 years ago, and currently there are fewer Foreign Service Officers in the Department of State than there are members of military service bands.  President Barack Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world, expounded in Prague in 2009 marked a brave and lofty vision.  But the Trump and Biden administrations have ignored it and, as a result, the hopes for arms control and disarmament continue to fade.

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