March 30, 2009

The perils of nuclear disarmament: How relinquishment could result in disaster

Most everyone agrees that humanity needs to get rid of its nuclear weapons. There's no question that complete relinquishment will all but eliminate the threat of deliberate and accidental nuclear war and the ongoing problem of proliferation.

Indeed, the ongoing presence of nuclear weapons is the greatest single threat to the survival of humanity. To put the problem into perspective, there are currently 26,000 nuclear warheads ready to go -- 96% of which are controlled by the United States and Russia. These two countries alone could unleash the power of 70,000 Hiroshimas in a matter of minutes. In the event of an all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, it is estimated that as many as 230 million Americans and 56 million Russians would be killed by the initial blasts. The longer term impacts are nearly incalculable, but suffice it to say human civilization would be hard pressed to survive.

Given the end of the Cold War and the establishment of the START agreements, the idea of a deliberate nuclear war seems almost anachronistic. But the potential nightmare of an accidental nuclear exchange is all to real. We have already come very close on several occasions, including the Stanislav Petrov incident in 1983. We are living on borrowed time.

The assertion, therefore, that we need to completely rid ourselves of nuclear weapons appears more than reasonable; our very survival may depend on it. In fact, there are currently a number of initiatives underway that are working to see this vision come true. President Barack Obama himself has urged for the complete eliminate of nuclear weapons.

But before we head down the path to disarmament, we need to consider the consequences. Getting rid of nuclear weapons is a more difficult and precarious proposition than most people think. It's important therefore that we look at the potential risks and consequences.

There are a number of reasons for concern. A world without nukes could be far more unstable and prone to both smaller and global-scale conventional wars. And somewhat counter-intuitively, the process of relinquishment itself could increase the chance that nuclear weapons will be used. Moreover, we have to acknowledge the fact that even in a world free of nuclear weapons we will never completely escape the threat of their return.

The Bomb and the end of global-scale wars

The first and (so far) final use of nuclear weapons during wartime marked a seminal turning point in human conflict: the development of The Bomb and its presence as an ultimate deterrent has arguably preempted the advent of global-scale wars. It is an undeniable fact that an all-out war has not occurred since the end of World War II, and it is very likely that the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) has had a lot to do with it.

The Cold War is a case in point. Its very nature as a "war" without direct conflict points to the acknowledgment that it would have been ludicrous to engage in a suicidal nuclear exchange. Instead, the Cold War turned into an ideological conflict largely limited to foreign skirmishes, political posturing and espionage. Nuclear weapons had the seemingly paradoxical effect of forcing the United States and the Soviet Union into an uneasy peace. The same can be said today for India and Pakistan -- two rival and nuclear-capable nations mired in a cold war of their own.

It needs to be said, therefore, that the absence of nuclear weapons would dramatically increase the likelihood of conventional wars re-emerging as military possibilities. And given the catastrophic power of today's weapons, including the introduction of robotics and AI on the battlefield, the results could be devastating, even existential in scope.

So, while the damage inflicted by a restrained conventional war would be an order of magnitude lower than a nuclear war, the probably of a return to conventional wars would be significantly increased. This forces us to ask some difficult questions: Is nuclear disarmament worth it if the probability of conventional war becomes ten times greater? What about a hundred times greater?

And given that nuclear war is more of a deterrent than a tactical weapon, can such a calculation even be made? If nuclear disarmament spawns x conventional wars with y casualties, how could we measure those catastrophic losses against a nuclear war that's not really supposed to happen in the first place? The value of nuclear weapons is not that they should be used, but that they should never be used.

Upsetting the geopolitical balance

Today's global geopolitical structure has largely converged around the realities and constraints posed by the presence of apocalyptic weapons and by the nations who control them. Tension exists between the United States and Russia, but there are limits to how far each nation is willing to provoke the other. The same can be said for the United States' relationship with China. And as already noted, nuclear weapons may be forcing the peace between India and Pakistan (it's worth noting that conventional war between two nuclear-capable nations is akin to suicide; nuclear weapons would be used the moment one side senses defeat).

But should nuclear weapons suddenly disappear, the current geopolitical arrangement would be turned on its head. Despite its rhetoric, the United States is not a hegemonic power. We live in a de facto multi-polar geopolitical environment. Take away nuclear weapons and we get a global picture that looks startlingly familiar to pre-World War I Europe.

Additionally, the elimination of nuclear weapons could act as a destabilizing force, giving some up-and-coming nation-states the idea that they could become world players. Despite United Nations sanctions against invasion, some leaders could become bolder (and even desperate) and lose their inhibitions about claiming foreign territory; nations may start to take more calculated and provocative risks -- even against those nations who used to be nuclear powers.

Today, nuclear weapons are are being used to keep "rogue states" in check. It's no secret that the United States is willing (and even thinking about) bombing Iran as it works to develop its own nuclear weapons and threaten the region, if not the United States itself (Iran will soon have intercontinental ballistic capability; same for North Korea).

It can be said, therefore, that the composition of a nuclear-free world would be far more unstable and unpredictable than a world with nukes. Relinquishment could introduce us to an undesirable world in which new stresses and conflicts rival those posed by the threat of nuclear weapons.

It should be noted, however, that nuclear weapons do nothing to mitigate the threat of terrorism. MAD becomes a rather soft deterrent when "political rationality" comes into question; rationality can be a very subjective thing, as is the sense of self-preservation, particularly when nihilism and metaphysical beliefs come into play (i.e. religious fanaticism).

Nukes could still get in the wrong hands

Even in a world where nuclear weapons are eliminated it would not be outlandish to suggest that fringe groups, and even rogue nations, would still work to obtain the devices. The reasons for doing so are obvious, a grim turn of events that would enable them to take the rest of the world hostage.

Consequently, we can never be sure that a some point down the line, when push comes to shove for some countries or terrorist groups, that they'll independently work to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Dangers of the disarmament process

Should the nuclear capable nations of the world disarm, the process itself could lead to a number of problems. Even nuclear war.

During disarmament, for example, it's conceivable that nations would become distrustful of the others -- even to the point of complete paranoia and all-out belligerence. Countries would have to work particularly hard to show concrete evidence that they are in fact disarming. Any evidence to the contrary could severely escalate tension and thwart the process.

Some strategic thinkers have even surmised that there might be more incentive for a first strike with small numbers of nuclear weapons on both sides, where the attacking nations could hope to survive the conflict. As a result, it's suspected that the final stage of disarmament, when all sides are supposed to dismantle the last of their weapons, will be an exceptionally dangerous time. As a result, disarmament is paradoxically more likely to increase the probability of deliberate nuclear war.

And in addition, concealing a few nukes at this stage could give one nation an enormous military advantage over those nations who have been completely de-nuclearized. This is not as ridiculous as it might seem: it would be all too easy and advantageous for a nation to conceal a secret stockpile and attempt to gain political and military advantages by nuclear blackmail or attack.


I want to make it clear at this time that I am not opposed to nuclear disarmament.

What I am trying to do here is bring to light the challenges that such a process would bring. If we're going to do this we need to do a proper risk assessment and adjust our disarmament strategies accordingly (assuming that's even possible). I still believe that we should get rid of nuclear weapons -- it's just that our nuclear exit strategy will have to include some provisions to alleviate the potential problems I described above.

At the very least we need to dramatically reduce the number of live warheads. Having 26,000 active weapons and a stockpile the size of Mount Everest is sheer lunacy. There's no other word for it. It's a situation begging for disaster.

All this said, we must also admit that we have permanently lost our innocence. We will have to live with the nuclear threat in perpetuity, even if these weapons cease to physically exist. There will never be a complete guarantee that countries have completely disarmed themselves and that re-armament won't ever happen again in the future.

But thankfully, a permanent guarantee of disarmament is not required for this process. The longer we go without nuclear weapons, the better.


brian wang said...

The active stockpile is about 14,000. With 2000 on each side on "high alert". The hair triggers are off the US/Russia arsenals.

Increasing power of conventional weapons will continue to blur out nuclear war and all out new conventional. Also, when we get real space capability then asteroid bombardment is more devastating energy wise than current nuclear.

Advanced tech is powerful - we have to get used to it.

brian wang said...

nuclear winter is flawed science and predicated on burning cities and forests. Volcanoes and large forest fires show that the nuclear winter stuff is inflated.

ZarPaulus said...

War will exist up until the heat death of the universe. If nukes prevent full wars than we should have them.

Also, if we survive long enough to go into space we will probably need nukes because they are some of the few explosives that have any real effectiveness in vacuum (hence their popularity on Battlestar Galactica).

Infidel753 said...

The basic problem with completely giving up nuclear weapons is the same as with that of completely giving up any other technology: it's impossible.

Individual states might renounce nuclear weapons, but this is such an old, well-understood technology that even backward countries run by religious fanatics and other lunatics are capable of building it, given enough effort. No global agreement could stop an Iran or a North Korea from building such weapons on the sly; in fact, it would make such a development more likely, because the developed countries would have given up the ultimate deterrent with which we can currently threaten them.

The probability of an all-out nuclear war between the US and Russia is negligible. Both countries have rational governments which understand the consequences of such a war. Tensions now are much lower than during the Cold War period and we got through that without a nuclear exchange. If we and the USSR had both lacked nuclear weapons, on the other hand, it's all too easy to imagine that Cold War tensions would have boiled over into a third world war at least as devastating as the second.

Hakim said...

Muslims want nuclear weapons. Every dictator worth his salt wants control of nuclear weapons. Russia and China will never give up their nukes, no matter what they tell Mr. Obama to his face.

The US has been the bully boy for too long, telling Iran and North Korea they can't have nukes. If China and Russia are okay with it, what is the US' problem?

If Mr. Obama wants to unilaterally disarm, like his predecessor Jimmy Carter, then good on him. Let the US disarm. After that, the world will be in very good hands. Who needs the Americans telling them what they can and can't do?

Unknown said...

Wouldn't it make more sense for major nuclear players to, instead of nuclear disarmament, agree to dismantle or take the weapons off-line to the point where days or weeks would be needed to make them operational again? That would eliminate all incidents of the Stanislav Petrov type (which seems to me to be the incomparably greatest danger with nuclear weapons), while keeping the ability to deter small nuclear players such as rogue nations from using nukes, as small players do not possess enough nukes to wipe out the major players.

A severe retaliation, nuclear or otherwise, would come within days or weeks, which would serve as a deterrent just as well as destruction within minutes.

Unknown said...

Just replace nuclear weapons with nanotechnology weapons as everybody can have one (or two etc.), lets grow our own nanodevices.

Besides, all the money you save by not building any more nukes and having to maintain them etc, can to into life extension nanotech!

Yani said...

That's a simplistic and flawed argument.

1. Nuclear weapons haven't created peace, just a sense of imperialism.

2. Nuclear weapons and the want of them, slanted nuclear technology towards reactors that produced bomb making materials.

3. The production and testing of nuclear weapons has created massive contamination.

This damage has been done before a shot is even fired. You can add in DU and further contamination in Iraq, Afghanistan... and the impact on return soldiers in these 'missions of peace'.

None of this has anything to do with security but dickless corrupt individuals and their psychopathic egos. If terrorists use nuclear material there will not be a nuclear response. There are plenty of nations that exist without nuclear weapons that manage to survive without being attacked. It's a fool argument to suggest that ownership of nukes does anything but create a target for nukes. Just as reactors create more security risks than they solve.

What is true is that the US will be bankrupted by the arms industry if it doesn't act to put an end to ceaseless weapons production.