`New' Deterrence, Post-Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty: Guy Wilson-Roberts Reviews the United States Decision to Withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

By Wilson-Roberts, Guy | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2002 | Go to article overview

`New' Deterrence, Post-Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty: Guy Wilson-Roberts Reviews the United States Decision to Withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty


Wilson-Roberts, Guy, New Zealand International Review


President Bush's decision to withdraw the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and proceed with a full range of missile defences will change the way that nuclear deterrence functions in US defence policy--but not as much as we might think.

At first glance, Bush's announcement of 13 December 2001 that the United States would abandon the 1972 ABM Treaty and rush ahead with missile defences seemed to resolve a long-standing debate in favour of nuclear abolitionists: nuclear deterrence does not work. In his announcement, Bush said that the ABM Treaty, in restricting the type of missile defences that can be deployed, prevents the United States from developing measures to protect itself from ballistic missile attacks by `future terrorist[s] or rogue state[s]'. Bush made no mention of the current US offensive nuclear arsenal of around 7000 warheads--surely a sufficient force to deter even the most hardened terrorist or disagreeable state leader. Was Bush arguing that nuclear deterrence does not work? To answer this question we must look closer at what Bush and his team have actually said on the subject of nuclear deterrence.

From statements made by Bush and his team, one might think that, rather suddenly, the substantial and expensive offensive nuclear fire-power of the United States counts for very little in defence terms. In June 2001, in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked, presumably rhetorically: `What checks and balances are there on Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il [to stop them firing ballistic missiles at the United States]?' Rumsfeld might have mentioned that there are four Ohio-class submarines in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans on hard alert, ready to fire their missiles in a 30-minute timeframe. Each submarine has 24 Trident nuclear missiles, and each missile carries eight warheads of either 100 or 475 kilotons--eight to forty times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.

Open invitation

Unless, as Paul Nitze (one of the original architects of the ABM Treaty, incidentally) has argued, the United States would not retaliate with nuclear weapons under any circumstances, an easily traceable ballistic missile launched at the United States from Iraq or North Korea would be an open invitation to retaliate with nuclear weapons. In light of the US response to 11 September, can we doubt US resolve? Despite Bush's echoing of Reagan's moral concerns over mutually assured destruction, he has given no indication that nuclear weapons are less useable and there has been no change to the alert status of the current arsenal. It would take only the nuclear payload of one submarine to reduce, within half-an-hour, either Iraq or North Korea to the metaphorical parking lot so popular with jokes about Afghanistan; and that would be with less than 1 per cent of the current US nuclear arsenal. Both Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il know full well what would follow their attacking the United States with ballistic missiles.

One of the reasons why President Bush can contemplate the large cuts to the US nuclear arsenal that he has proposed--down to as low as 1700 warheads--is that there is huge built-in redundancy. Based on Robert McNamara's 1962 calculation of intolerable destruction needed for deterrence (killing 25 per cent of a country's population and destroying 50 per cent of its industry), the Natural Resources Defense Council has calculated that the United States would need only around 500 medium-sized nuclear warheads to deter Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Iraq, Syria and Libya. But 500 warheads is a large drop from even the 3000 level mandated by the START treaty with Russia: 1700 is neither `too far, too fast' nor too low for effective deterrence.

It is clear from the rationale for offensive nuclear weapons that no state leader is going to risk annihilation by attacking the United States with ballistic missiles, to which might be added that ballistic missiles are redundant for terrorists who can pursue other avenues of attack. …

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