The Future of Nuclear Deterrence

By Garwin, Richard L.; Skolnikoff, Eugene B. et al. | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Future of Nuclear Deterrence


Garwin, Richard L., Skolnikoff, Eugene B., Panofsky, W. K. H., Jeanloz, Raymond, Issues in Science and Technology


Re: "Nuclear Deterrence for the Future" (Thomas C. Schelling, Issues, Fall 2006). I add some comments that derive from my work with nuclear weapon technology and policy since 1950. More can be found at my Web site, www.fas.org/RLG/.

Adding to Schelling's brief sketch of the attitude of various presidents toward nuclear weapons, Ronald Reagan had a total aversion to nuclear weapons, and Jimmy Carter was not far behind. In both cases, aides and other government officials managed to impede presidential initiatives toward massive reductions of nuclear weaponry. A more complete discussion has just appeared (James E. Goodby, At the Borderline of Armageddon: How American Presidents Managed the Atom Bomb, reviewed by S. M. Keeny Jr., "Fingers on the Nuclear Trigger," in Arms Control Today, October 2006; available at http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2006_10/BookReview.asp).

As a member of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) since it was created in 1980 for bilateral discussions with Soviet scientists, I share Schelling's view of the importance of such contacts. CISAC's bilaterals have since been expanded (1988) to similar discussions with the Chinese and (1998) with India. In addition, CISAC has published significant studies over the years (see www7.nationalacademies.org/cisac/). Would that more in the U.S. government had read them!

The August 1949 Soviet nuclear test intensified pressures for the deployment of U.S. defenses and counter-force capability, but it was clear that that was to deter attack, and not for direct defense of the U.S. population.

But if deterrence is the strategy for countering nations, the U.S. stockpile is in enormous excess at perhaps 12,000 nuclear weapons, of which 6,000 may be in deliverable status. As observed by former Defense Secretary Les Aspin, "Nuclear weapons are the great equalizer, and the U.S. is now the equalizee." It gives false comfort and not security that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile is much greater than that of others.

Deterrence of terrorist use of nuclear weapons by threat of retaliation against the terrorist group has little weight, when we are doing everything possible to detect and kill the terrorists even when they don't have nuclear weapons. Instead, one should reduce the possibility of acquisition of weapon-usable materials by a far more aggressive program for buying highly enriched uranium (HEU) at the market price (because it can readily be used to power nuclear reactors when it is diluted or blended down) and for paying the cost of acquiring and disposing of worthless excess weapon plutonium (Pu) from Russia as well--worthless because the use of free Pu as reactor fuel is more costly than paying the full price for uranium fuel.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The enormous stocks of "civil Pu" from reprocessing operations in Britain, France, and soon Japan would suffice to make more than 10,000 nuclear warheads. There is no reason that these should not be adequately guarded, with sufficient warning time in case of a massive attack by force so as to keep stolen Pu from terrorist hands, but it is not clear that this is the case.

Weapon-usable material might be obtained from Pakistan, where substantial factions favor an Islamic bomb, and Pakistan has both HEU and Pu in its inventory. Dr. A. Q. Khan had an active program to sell Pakistani equipment and knowledge, including weapon designs, to Libya, North Korea, and probably Iran; was immediately pardoned by President Musharraf; and U.S. or international investigators have not been allowed to question him.

One terrorist nuclear explosion in one of our cities might kill 300,000 people--0.1% of the U.S. population. While struggling to reduce their probability, we should plan for such losses. Else, by our reaction, we could destroy our society and even much of civilization, without using another nuclear weapon. …

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