Nuclear Decommissioning: Not Just for Lefties
On the outskirts of Tucson there sits an airfield, the Davis-Monthan boneyard, where military airplanes go to die. Long lines of airplanes rest there, baking in the Arizona sun. These airplanes no longer serve any military purpose; they have been decommissioned. Nuclear weapons deserve the same fate.
There is no plausible scenario for usefully deploying a nuclear bomb. It’s not enough just to analyze what would happen in a first attack; one must also consider the retaliations that are likely to follow, including ones by allies of the nations involved. Any nation contemplating the use of nuclear weapons has to be able to answer the question “How might it end?”.
Our nuclear arsenal can be decommissioned just as those old airplanes have been. No reciprocal action from any other nation is necessary. Indeed, were we to decommission our nukes, other nuclear powers would recognize that the same compelling logic applies to them and follow our lead. At that point, international treaties would be useful in cementing the truce.
The justification for our nuclear arsenal has been that we might need it to respond to a nuclear attack. But an effective response to a nuclear attack need not be nuclear. The United States has spent trillions of dollars on non-nuclear weapons, including submarines, surface naval vessels, aircraft, and missiles with non-nuclear payloads. Any nation that dared attack the United States could be utterly smashed with these weapons alone.
Nuclear weapons are unique. Their pattern of destruction is widespread, roughly circular, and imprecise. It pays no attention to national boundaries. Fallout produces unpredictable effects far from the primary target. Nuclear weapons have no use other than to threaten. For once a nuclear weapon is introduced into a conflict, a cycle of strike and counterstrike is bound to ensue as other nations are drawn into the conflict by their alliances.
The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan achieved their goal of terrifying the Japanese into surrendering, but the circumstances were very specific. Had the Emperor resolved to fight on, his nation would probably have followed him. Had Japan managed to retain significant retaliatory capability, it might have exercised that capability and refused to surrender. The Japanese cabinet was split on the decision to surrender. (Whether we could have subdued Japan without using nuclear weapons and without a land invasion is controversial, though I believe we could.) The usefulness of those atomic bombs, though undeniable, arose from circumstances unlikely to be repeated.
After World War II the United States believed it was threatened by the Soviet Union. Even then, had the Soviet Union launched a devastating nuclear attack on the United States, what would have happened afterwards? It was inconceivable that the Soviet Union could mount a land offensive and come to rule over us. The resources of the United States were spread over too vast a land to be totally conquered by a foreign power based on a different continent. And had the Soviet Union somehow conquered us, it lacked the capability to administer an occupation of our land and our population.
Look at those nations whose budding nuclear capacities have appeared most worrisome: Iran and North Korea. Our government has put enormous energy into the effort to stymie Iran’s nuclear development. But suppose Iran did develop nuclear capability, as it is likely to over the long term. What would the Irnnians do with it — attack Israel? Israel would retaliate with such overwhelming force that Iran would be destroyed as a functioning nation — no nukes needed. Surely the rulers of Iran understand this.
As to North Korea: Kim Jong-un might well already have the ability to devastate Seattle or be close to acquiring it, but he would never dare use it. As with Iran, such an action would lead to massive retaliation. Kim is capable of devastating Seoul with long-range artillery, so he surely knows we are unlikely to attack him.
Then there’s the rivalry between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers. Over the years there have been ominous incursions from both sides, notably in Kashmir. Yet their nukes have remained grounded because neither side dares use them. The same logic that dictates decommissioning our nuclear arsenal applies to other nuclear powers as well.
Then why not just leave matters as they are? Maintaining a nuclear arsenal carries two major risks even if we are never attacked: accidental launch and acquisition by a non-state actor. Accidental launch can happen if the launch procedures are flawed or if there is a serious international miscalculation. A fanatical group such as Aum Shinrikyo or Al Qaida might obtain a nuclear bomb either by purchasing it from corrupt agents within a power such as Pakistan or by stealing it some other way. Members of such groups are quite willing to give up their lives for their cause and are not deterred by the possibility of retaliation. That’s why a nuclear arsenal is dangerous even if it’s never intentionally deployed.
The fundamental flaw in the notion that nuclear weapons are useful is the lack of a coherent answer to the question “what happens next?”. That question applies whether we’re looking at an initial nuclear attack or a nuclear response to an attack. No matter what the follow-on, the aggressor will eventually be worse off than if the attack had never been launched, since the victim or its allies are certain to respond. Japan’s helplessness in 1945 will not be repeated.
Hopefully, nuclear weapons will follow the same pattern as biological and chemical weapons. Both can have devastating effects; neither has been deployed on a large scale. That’s not just because of the treaties that ban their use, but more because of the recognition by rulers such as Hafez al Assad of Syria that large-scale use would provoke overwhelming retaliation.
Were a nuclear war to get started, global devastation would be inevitable. The rise in radiation levels would gradually kill off all of humanity, a ghastly scenario portrayed in Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel “On the Beach”. And the last survivors would be asking the question “How did we ever let this happen?”.
Nuclear disarmament has been perceived as a leftist cause, and that by itself has created resistance to the idea. Decommissioning rather than disarming would be more palatable. The biggest obstacle to either nuclear disarmament or nuclear decommissioning is that military stockpiles serve domestic political purposes. Powerful economic interests would oppose decommissioning, let alone disarmament, but it’s not just that; traditional patriotism and pride in military power would also work against it. The case for nuclear decommissioning must be forcefully made by enlightened people with political power.