Nuclear Weapons For Thee, But Not For Me

Posted: December 1, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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It would appear at least some in the media start with an opinion they hold (for example, U.S. nuclear weapons are not useful at best, dangerous for certain, and evil at worst) and then attempt to build a selective reality which appears to confirm their opinions. Concurrently, there is often the mutually supporting appeal to authority (like arms controller hero Senator Sam Nunn), whereby an anecdotal story can be used for the same effect. These phenomenon are played out in an article in Foreign Policy (a part of the total Foreign Policy/Slate/Washington Post effort) called The nuclear bombs to nowhere.

Nunn has often told the story of his visit to Europe as a young senator in 1974… Nunn and his staff director, Frank Sullivan, [clandestinely] went to [a military] barracks. The sergeant [who Nunn had met earlier] and “three or four of his fellow sergeants related a horror story to me,” Nunn recalled. “A story of a demoralized military after Vietnam. A story of drug abuse. A story of alcohol abuse. A story of U.S. soldiers actually guarding the tactical nuclear weapons while they were stoned on drugs. The stories went on and on for over an hour.” Deeply worried about what he had heard, Nunn reported it to then-Defense Secretary James Schlesinger immediately on return to the United States.

I don’t doubt the veracity of the anecdote, but the modern questions from Nunn’s anecdote are profound: today, should we base our war plans (which might include tactical nuclear weapons) on a nearly 40-year old story, when the now highly-professionalized all-volunteer force was one year old, and before drug testing had been instituted?

To me, it seems wiser to make our war plans (again, to consider the possible use of nuclear weapons) based on the capabilities and intentions of the adversary than on Sam Nunn’s polyester-era observations.  

After discussing the significant draw down in both U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapon counts, the article’s author David Hoffman, offers this forehead slapper:

[Today,] Both the U.S. and Russia face new threats — terrorism, proliferation, economic competition, pandemics — for which these long-range or strategic nuclear weapons are of little value.

Ya got me there, big guy: nuclear weapons did not stop 9/11. However, nuclear deterrence exists to keep others from doing something we really don’t like as the costs to the attacker will exceed the benefits.

Carpenters have this rule, you see: use the right tool for the job. Strategic nuclear weapons were never intended to defeat terrorism, weapons proliferation, economic competition, nor pandemics: in fact, they’re of little value except for holding strategic targets at risk… a self-evident hypothesis without which, the whole point of the strategic arsenal is lost (as Dr. Strangelove might offer).

And of course, there are the tactical nuclear weapons.

NATO [today] has between 150 and 200 B-61 gravity bombs in Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey… Today, Russia has an estimated 2,000 useable tactical nuclear weapons, although it is not clear precisely how many nor where they are located…

Yet by many accounts, these [NATO] nuclear bombs have no military utility. Where would they be dropped? The war plans of the Cold War are defunct. Our modern nuclear-tipped missiles are plenty accurate and sufficient for any future contingency or target.

The indirect plea, of course, is for NATO to purge itself of these (useless, dangerous, or evil) tactical nuclear weapons, which according to stories, were guarded by depressed post-Vietnam stoners and winos in 1974. What’s to account for this disparity in numbers between NATO and Russia and how is it that tactical nuclear weapons appear to have value to Russia, but are security value-subtracted for the West, that is, for the United States?

[In Russia], tactical nuclear weapons are seen as a useful complement to conventional or non-nuclear military forces, which are declining. Eugene Miasnikov of the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies in Moscow laid out the Russian perspective in a recent paper.

But didn’t the U.S. just "pivot" to Asia, and away from Europe, power-wise? Aren’t U.S. forces in Europe (and elsewhere) going to be greatly reduced? And isn’t the Air Force today on track to be the smallest ever, the Navy the smallest since the beginning of World War I, and the Army and Marines the smallest since the start of World War II? In other words, it would seem the same circumstances the Russians use as justification to keep their tactical nuclear weapons are already facing NATO (read the U.S.).

It would also seem our tactical nuclear weapons have value, if nothing else, in negotiations. Russia is now locked into a tremendous advantage and since they’re already selling missiles to Syria (we must not have pushed that darn reset button hard enough), who knows what they might do with their nuclear weapons?

Maybe U.S./NATO tactical nuclear weapons could be useful in getting the Russians to draw down their stockpile, maybe not. But one thing seems obvious: expecting Russia to reduce their tactical nuclear weapons after we’ve already unilaterally gotten rid of ours is an intellectual bridge too far.

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