Nuclear Weapons: Time to Phase Them out? No: A Phaseout Increases Dangers

By Arquilla, John | The Christian Science Monitor, December 18, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Nuclear Weapons: Time to Phase Them out? No: A Phaseout Increases Dangers


Arquilla, John, The Christian Science Monitor


Calls for the abolition of nuclear weapons have given voice to the hope that disarmament by the world's great powers will reduce the risk of inadvertent war among them and discourage proliferation by smaller states.

Though laudable, this notion could cause new security problems among those who possess these weapons of mass destruction - and could encourage proliferation by nuclear "have nots," or increased production by those with small arsenals.

Among current nuclear powers, the reduction/abolition process could inadvertently pose three dilemmas. First, as arsenal sizes diminished, the "payoff" for cheating would grow. For example, where secretly holding an additional 1,000 warheads makes little difference when the leading powers have 10,000 apiece - as Russia and the United States still do - that same cache would profoundly alter the balance of power if the announced arsenals had been reduced to 1,000 or lower. The second dilemma revolves around the increasing vulnerability of smaller arsenals. At today's levels, either of the leading nuclear powers could suffer a "first-strike" while still retaining deadly retaliatory capacity. At lower levels, though, the ability to respond after absorbing an attack grows problematic, particularly if the first blow comes as a surprise. This problem will encourage nuclear powers involved in crises with each other to alert their forces early and to consider launching their weapons of mass destruction "on warning," to sidestep a potentially disabling first strike. Actions of these sorts would greatly raise the likelihood of the outbreak of an inadvertent nuclear war. These dilemmas carry particular significance for Russo-American relations, as these former cold-war adversaries still stand in a class by themselves - well above all other nuclear powers. However, the third problem posed by sharp reductions revolves around the ease with which nuclear aspirants may achieve parity, or more. For example, if Russia and the US reduced to 1,000 warheads apiece, or less, then China, which currently has some 500 weapons, could rise to equality with little additional effort. Even non-nuclear states such as Germany and Japan could envision easily rising to the first nuclear rank. For a state concerned that good security relations might grow disturbed in the future, the prospect of having a readily achievable path to nuclear parity might prove an irresistible impulse toward proliferation.

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