On July 6, President Obama and his Russian counterpart agreed in principle to a new strategic arms treaty that would reduce the number of operational nuclear weapons in each nation’s arsenal. News of the agreement generated little excitement, partly because the announcement came on the heels of the July 4th holiday, but mainly because citizens in both countries no longer feel threatened by the hundreds of nuclear warheads that each nation points at the other. Maybe it’s a good thing that people no longer feel threatened. Then again, maybe they need to focus on the possibility that in the process of eliminating nuclear weapons, we could make their use more likely. Here’s why.
When the United States lost its nuclear-weapons monopoly with the explosion of the first Russian device in 1949, policymakers initially responded in much the same way they might have dealt with more traditional weapons. On the one hand, they sought to protect the United States against a Russian bomber attack by building a vast air defense system. On the other hand, they pressed ahead with plans to acquire tactical nuclear weapons that could be employed by U.S. forces in combat. The Eisenhower Administration saw the explosive power of atomic weapons as a way of discouraging Russian aggression in Europe and Asia while avoiding the cost of matching the Red Army tank-for-tank.
But once the Russians demonstrated an ability to construct intercontinental ballistic missiles in 1957, policymakers began to realize that traditional military concepts were of limited value in the nuclear age. The United States had no defenses against ballistic missiles, and the destructive power of nuclear weapons was so great that America might be wiped out if only a small portion of the missiles carrying nuclear warheads managed to penetrate whatever defenses were built. To make matters worse, the fact that America had nuclear weapons of its own was a potential inducement to Russian attack, since those weapons posed a huge danger to Russia that its leaders presumably might want to eliminate in a surprise attack.
Once those realities were grasped, policymakers abandoned plans to use atomic weapons in combat and focused instead on trying to build the most potent deterrent against nuclear aggression. In essence, they pursued a posture under which it would be impossible for Russia or any other nuclear power to deprive America of its strategic arsenal in a surprise attack. No matter what an enemy did, the United States would maintain a secure retaliatory capability that could lay waste to the attacker. In theory, this assured second-strike capability would deter any sane aggressor from attacking in the first place.
But here’s the rub: under an assured destruction posture, the more weapons you have, the safer you are against attack. Conversely, the fewer weapons you have, the easier it is for an enemy — especially a dumb or crazy one — to construct some theory of how he could disarm you in a surprise attack. That danger might grow only marginally when the arsenal is reduced from 2,000 to 1,000 warheads, but what about when it falls to 500, or to 200? At those levels, a country that concealed even a handful of weapons could gain a meaningful advantage — one that makes America and its allies less safe despite reductions. So while there is much to be said for cutting the U.S. and Russian arsenals by a quarter as President Obama proposes, further cuts will eventually bring us to the point where the arms control process is making nuclear war more likely, not less.
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