Nuclear Strategery

Jonathan Tepperman has an interesting post on the Newsweek site entitled, “Why Obama should Learn to Love the Bomb.” According to Tepperman, “A growing and compelling body of research suggests that nuclear weapons may not, in fact, make the world more dangerous, as Obama and most people assume.” Yes, and there was “a growing and compelling body of research” in 1914 that suggested the great powers were so economically dependent on each other they would never risk going to war. Tepperman continues, “The argument that nuclear weapons can be agents of peace as well as destruction rests on two deceptively simple observations. First, nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. Second, there’s never been a nuclear, or even a nonnuclear, war between two states that possess them.” That’s true, and the argument that possession of nuclear weapons reduces the chances of war between states that possess them is certainly plausible. However, the fact that, for example, there was never a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union does not mean that the risk of such an exchange was zero. It is more likely that we dodged a bullet.

An all out conventional war between India and Pakistan would certainly result in great loss of life. An all out nuclear war would be, according to Tepperman, less likely. It would also be more costly in terms of loss of life, not to mention economic damage. Perhaps, then, a reasonable metric for assessing whether nuclear weapons make us more or less secure would be risk of war times likely human and economic cost. The problem with such a neat formula is that it would be impossible to predict or to agree on the magnitude of the different factors. For example, it was widely assumed during the cold war that a general nuclear exchange would result in the annihilation of the populations of the US and Soviet Union. However, I doubt the leaders on either side really believed that. Various attempts were made to calculate likely outcomes, but they were generally flawed by the ideological predispositions of those making the estimates.

Let’s consider what else Tepperman has to say:

Even the craziest tin-pot dictator is forced to accept that war with a nuclear state is unwinnable and thus not worth the effort. As (Berkeley Professor Kenneth) Waltz puts it, “Why fight if you can’t win and might lose everything?”

I’m not so sure that the craziest tin-pot dictator would come to such a logical conclusion. However, the statement as it stands is almost irrelevant. I suspect a nuclear exchange is far more likely to result from a miscalculation, accident, or loss of control to a rogue actor than any premeditated, deliberate attack.

Meanwhile, the nuclear powers have scrupulously avoided direct combat, and there’s very good reason to think they always will. There have been some near misses, but a close look at these cases is fundamentally reassuring—because in each instance, very different leaders all came to the same safe conclusion.

This is wrong on the face of it. Always is a long time. As long as there are nuclear weapons, there will be a finite risk of a nuclear exchange. Therefore, if states with nuclear arsenals continue to exist into the indefinite future, there will eventually be a nuclear exchange. The question is not whether it will happen, because it certainly will. The question is whether its cost, when it does happen, will be greater or less than the cost of the, presumably more frequent, conventional wars that would have occurred in the absence of nuclear arsenals. Similarly, as long as sufficient special nuclear material (SNM), such as U235 or Pu239, exists to make nuclear weapons, there will be a finite risk of it falling into the hands of non-state actors, or terrorists if you will. From this we must conclude that a terrorist nuclear attack is also inevitable. It is not a question of if. It is a question of when. It may be tomorrow, or it may be a thousand years from now, but it will happen. I rather suspect it will be sooner rather than later.

…in 1957, Mao blithely declared that a nuclear war with America wouldn’t be so bad because even “if half of mankind died … the whole world would become socialist.” Pyongyang and Tehran support terrorism—but so did Moscow and Beijing. And as for seeming suicidal, Michael Desch of the University of Notre Dame points out that Stalin and Mao are the real record holders here: both were responsible for the deaths of some 20 million of their own citizens. Yet when push came to shove, their regimes balked at nuclear suicide, and so would today’s international bogeymen.

That is an unwarranted assumption. In any case, as noted above, it is irrelevant, because the nuclear danger from accident or miscalculation is far greater than that from deliberate use.

Even if the Pakistani state did collapse entirely—the nightmare scenario—the chance of a Taliban bomb would still be remote. Desch argues that the idea that terrorists “could use these weapons radically underestimates the difficulty of actually operating a modern nuclear arsenal. These things need constant maintenance and they’re very easy to disable. So the idea that these things could be stuffed into a gunnysack and smuggled across the Rio Grande is preposterous.

Here, Tepperman’s “expert,” Michael Desch of Notre Dame, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One wonders what sort of “constant maintenance” he has in mind. The basic design principles of both gun and implosion type weapons are well known. They certainly require maintenance occasionally, but “constant maintenance?” I think not. Any non-state actor gaining possession of an intact nuke will have plenty of time to use it. The idea that nukes are easy to disable is also poppycock. You can make the firing set as clever as you please, but the SNM would still be there. If you didn’t have an explosives guy capable of jury rigging the device, you could still simply cannibalize the material from two nukes and make a simple, but very effective device. Recall that our physicists were so confident that the gun type Little Boy would work that it was dropped without prior testing. The computer modeling tools available to anyone now are infinitely better than the rudimentary mathematical tools they had then. Building a crude bomb is simply not that difficult. As for smuggling the weapon in a gunnysack, Tepperman is right. A terrorist would have to be brain dead to even attempt it. Unfortunately, smuggling a complete weapon is completely unnecessary. It would be much simpler, and just as effective, to smuggle the SNM in small bits, and assemble it into a weapon at the target. The chances that we will be able to detect any of the material before the weapon actually goes off are virtually nil.

The risk of an arms race—with, say, other Persian Gulf states rushing to build a bomb after Iran got one—is a bit harder to dispel. Once again, however, history is instructive. “In 64 years, the most nuclear-weapons states we’ve ever had is 12,” says Waltz. “Now with North Korea we’re at nine. That’s not proliferation; that’s spread at glacial pace.” Nuclear weapons are so controversial and expensive that only countries that deem them absolutely critical to their survival go through the extreme trouble of acquiring them. That’s why South Africa, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan voluntarily gave theirs up in the early ’90s, and why other countries like Brazil and Argentina dropped nascent programs.

Perhaps. However, I do not find the existence of a maximum of 12 nuclear states as comforting as Tepperman.

Put this all together and nuclear weapons start to seem a lot less frightening. So why have so few people in Washington recognized this? Most of us suffer from what Desch calls a nuclear phobia, an irrational fear that’s grounded in good evidence—nuclear weapons are terrifying—but that keeps us from making clear, coldblooded calculations about just how dangerous possessing them actually is. The logic of nuclear peace rests on a scary bargain: you accept a small chance that something extremely bad will happen in exchange for a much bigger chance that something very bad—conventional war—won’t happen. This may well be a rational bet to take, especially if that first risk is very small indeed. But it’s a tough case to make to the public.

Here, Tepperman makes some good points. The real issue is one of risk. Unfortunately, for the reasons cited above, I rather suspect he is seriously underestimating it. Be that as it may, assuming one can really get a good handle on the actual risk, what he says makes sense.

Given this reality, Washington would be wiser to focus on making the world we actually live in—the nuclear world—safer. This involves several steps, few of which the Obama administration has mentioned but which it should emphasize in its Nuclear Posture Review due at the end of the year. To start, the logic of deterrence works only if everybody knows who has a nuclear arsenal and thus can’t be attacked—as Peter Sellers puts it in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, “The whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!”

Probably true. Unilateral nuclear disarmament would certainly be suicidal. Reducing our arsenal to the point that potential enemies might find the risk of retaliation acceptable is almost equally so.

Chris Bodenner at Sully’s blog thinks a piece by Peter Scoblic at TNR’s website “scalpels” Tepperman’s piece. I think not. It’s more in the pious platitude here, anecdotal evidence there, preaching a foregone conclusion to the choir style that has become the stock in trade at TNR lately. They have seen better days (when Sully was editor, in fact. He has seen better days, too). One hopes the better days will return.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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