Academic journal article Policy Review

Avoiding a Nuclear Crowd

Academic journal article Policy Review

Avoiding a Nuclear Crowd

Article excerpt

IF CURRENT TRENDS continue, in a decade or less, the United Kingdom could find its nuclear forces eclipsed not only by those of Pakistan, but of Israel and India as well. Shortly thereafter, France could share the same fate. China, which has already amassed enough separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium to easily triple its current stockpile of roughly 300 deployed nuclear warheads, also is likely to increase its deployed numbers, quietly, during the coming years. (1) Meanwhile, over 2.5 states have announced their desire to build a large nuclear reactor--a key aspect of most previous nuclear weapons programs -- before 2030.

None of these trends should be welcome to those who favor the abolition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, unless these negative trends are restrained and reversed, nuclear weapons reductions in the U.S. and even Russia may not be enough to reduce continuing nuclear rivalries and could actually intensify them. To understand why, one need only review what is currently being proposed to reduce these nuclear threats.

The road to zero

A DECADE AGO, AN analysis of the challenges of transitioning to a world without nuclear weapons would be dismissed as purely academic. No longer. Making total disarmament the touchstone of U.S. nuclear policy is now actively promoted by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn--four of the most respected American names in security policy. (2) Most of their proposals for reducing nuclear threats, moreover, received the backing of both presidential candidates in 2008 and, now, with President Obama's arms control pronouncements in April in Prague, they have become U.S. policy. These recommendations include getting the U.S. and Russia to make significant nuclear weapons reductions; providing developing states with "reliable supplies of nuclear fuel, reserves of enriched uranium, infrastructure assistance, financing, and spent fuel management" for peaceful nuclear power; and ratifying a verified Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

This newfound enthusiasm for nuclear weapons reductions has been heralded as a clear break from the past. Politically, this may be so. Technically, however, the U.S. and Russian military establishments have steadily reduced the numbers of operational, tactical, and strategic nuclear weapons since the late 1960s sevenfold (i.e., from 77,000 warheads to less than 11,000). By 2012, this total is expected to decline by yet another 5 o percent.

What has driven these reductions? Mostly, advances in military science. Since the Cold War, progress in computational science, digital mapping, and sensor and guidance technologies have significantly enhanced the precision with which weapons can be aimed. Rather than 5 o percent of warheads hitting within 1,000 meters of their intended targets--the average accuracy of the 1960s-design scud missiles--it now is possible to strike within a few feet (the average accuracy of a Predator-launched missile or a long-range cruise missile). Thus, the U.S. and Russian militaries no longer need to target more or larger-yield nuclear weapons to assure the destruction of fixed military targets. They can threaten them with a single, small-yield nuclear weapon or even conventional warheads. Hence, the massive reduction in U.S. and Russian deployed tactical and strategic nuclear weapons and in the average yields of these weapons (see Figure I ). (3)

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

When policymakers call for more nuclear weapons reductions and increased nuclear restraint, then, they are hardly pushing against historical or technological trends. Unfortunately, this desired harmony with history and science is far less evident when it comes to the specific proposals being made to reduce future nuclear threats. Here, it is unclear if the proposals will reduce or increase the nuclear threats we face.

Consider the suggestion made in the 2008 Nunn-Shultz-Perry-Kissinger Wall Street Journal op-ed (a follow-up piece to one they had written a year earlier) that advocated spreading "civilian" nuclear power technology and large reactors to states that promise to forgo nuclear fuel making--a spread that would bring countries within weeks or months of acquiring nuclear weapons. …

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