Adam B. Lowther

Learning to love the bomb

By Adam B. Lowther
March 18, 2009
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA is likely to bring about a historic shift in nuclear weapons policy as the administration undertakes a significant effort to dramatically reduce the size of the nuclear arsenal. In 2009 alone, the administration will produce a Nuclear Posture Review and oversee the expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in December. Obama will also be responsible for ensuring compliance with obligations in the Strategic Offense Reduction Treaty, which requires that the United States reduce its deployed strategic warheads to 1,700-2,200 by 2012.

Obama's nuclear agenda focuses on: securing loose nuclear material from terrorists, strengthening the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, and moving toward a nuclear-free world.

Pushing the president in the direction of a "world free of nuclear weapons" are paragons of past political power - former senator Sam Nunn of Georgia and former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger - as well as a host of Washington think tanks.

Offering an alternative view of the nuclear arsenal are the "modernizers," led by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz, and Commander of US Strategic Command General Kevin Chilton. Over the past several months, they have outlined what it will take to maintain and modernize the most advanced and secure nuclear arsenal in the world.

In the debate over the appropriate size and purpose of the nuclear arsenal, abolitionists make five basic arguments:

American political leaders have failed to alter nuclear policy for the post-Cold War security environment.

Terrorism, not Russia, is the primary threat facing the United States. Nuclear weapons do not deter terrorists.

America's advanced conventional capabilities can accomplish the same objectives once reserved for nuclear weapons.

As a signer of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the United States is required to move toward nuclear abolition.

The threat of accidental detonation, miscalculation leading to nuclear war, and proliferation of nuclear weapons and material can only be overcome by total nuclear disarmament.

While each of these arguments bears some element of truth, they do not represent a complete understanding of the strategic role nuclear weapons play in ensuring the sovereignty of the United States or the evolution of American nuclear policy. Although each of the abolitionists' arguments deserves a detailed refutation, a brief rebuttal must suffice.

First, Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were responsible stewards of the nuclear arsenal, bringing the number down from a high of 24,000 to the current 5,400, which will continue to decline to between 2,200 and 1,700 to meet the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty requirements. Nuclear-capable bombers were also de-alerted more than a decade ago. Cutting the size of the nuclear arsenal 80 percent is a substantial shift in policy.

Second, terrorists do not threaten the sovereignty of the United States. Even if they carry out a successful attack, America will survive. Russia, however, continues to possess the capability to destroy the nation. Unilateral disarmament will not change that.

Third, conventional capabilities will never effectively substitute for nuclear weapons. Yes, they can destroy the same target. But, they lack the same capacity to generate fear in the heart of an adversary. Fear acts to deter, which is why we possess nuclear weapons.

Fourth, if the United States moves toward disarmament, it will be the only nuclear power to do so. Every other nuclear power is modernizing its nuclear arsenal. Thus, the United States may soon reach a point where it can be held hostage by other states.

Fifth, in the 65-year history of the bomb there has never been an accidental detonation, miscalculation leading to nuclear war, or large-scale nuclear proliferation. History suggests the opposite. Nuclear weapons make those that possess them risk averse, not risk acceptant.

The truth is nuclear weapons remain a fundamental aspect of our national security. Without them, the American people will face greater, not less, danger and adversaries willing to exploit our perceived weakness. Arbitrarily shrinking the nuclear arsenal by an additional 50 percent may not be a wise idea. It certainly deserves careful thought.

Dr. Adam B. Lowther is a faculty researcher and defense analyst at the Air Force Research Institute.

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