Speaking at the Brandenburg Gate ten days ago, President Obama proposed that the U.S. and Russia reduce their strategic nuclear warheads by one-third. “So long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” he said. But they do exist, and even the president of the United States can’t change that. The Obama dream of “nuclear zero,” a world without nuclear weapons, is pure fantasy — and his current proposal is dangerous.
The advent of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II did not diminish the safety and security of the United States or any other country. Quite the contrary. The evidence shows that the pre-nuclear-weapons world was more lethal than the world we have inhabited since 1945. Over 16 million people died in World War I. Between 50 million and 75 million people were killed in World War II. The number of dead in all wars since 1945 isn’t remotely close to those numbers. There is no historical evidence that nuclear weapons have made us “not truly safe.” And there is reason to believe that, paradoxically, these dangerous weapons have contributed to safety and security and still do.
Deterring would-be users of nuclear weapons is not easy. For some countries, like Russia and China, it entails, at a minimum, assuring the potential adversary that the U.S. has sufficient nuclear-weapons capability to retaliate by holding at risk places and people too dear to the prospective adversary for it to take the risk. What number constitutes sufficient U.S. capability for deterrence? The answer to that question cannot be arbitrary. It must be driven by facts. What nuclear capabilities do the potential adversaries have? What retaliatory nuclear capabilities does the U.S. have? Are the U.S. retaliatory capabilities vulnerable to preemptive attack? How vulnerable?
In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. unilaterally reduced the number of its operationally deployed strategic nuclear-weapons and delivery systems. A decade ago, partly in coordination with Russia, it further reduced the numbers. Also, in the last 23 years, the U.S. virtually eliminated, unilaterally, its ability to develop, test, and manufacture nuclear weapons. Have these reductions had salutary effects on the conduct of other nations? Do events in the world justify a further one-third reduction in U.S. strategic nuclear weapons?
While the U.S. was taking these steps to reduce its nuclear-weapons and delivery capabilities, Russia was dramatically increasing its stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons. Today this stockpile exceeds that of the U.S. by a factor of ten. At the same time, Russia upgraded its strategic nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and testing and manufacturing capabilities. China followed the same path as Russia. There is evidence that it also has increased its stockpile of strategic nuclear-weapons and delivery systems beyond what U.S. intelligence agencies and arms-control organizations have estimated. (President Putin recognized this about China in response to Mr. Obama’s proposal.) And we know the direction of Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear-weapons and missile programs.
In the context of the expanded nuclear-weapons and delivery capabilities of potential aggressors, Mr. Obama’s claim that eliminating an additional one-third of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons will make us safer makes no sense. We must remember that senior military officials of both Russia and China in recent years have threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States. Should the U.S. wish to take action regarding Syria that is not to Russia’s liking, or action in defense of Japan that is not to China’s liking, or any other action important to U.S. interests that Russia or China considers against its interests, can there be any doubt that those countries could be tempted to consider nuclear blackmail as a means of persuading the U.S. not to act?
In deciding whether to try nuclear blackmail against the U.S. in such a context, wouldn’t our potential adversary consider whether the U.S. has sufficient nuclear-weapons and delivery systems to retaliate? Wouldn’t our potential adversary also consider whether it could preemptively destroy such resources as we have? If the potential adversary concluded that U.S. resources were insufficient to retaliate or could be preemptively eliminated, wouldn’t the adversary be tempted to try nuclear blackmail? The answer to all these questions unquestionably is yes.
Maintaining a nuclear retaliatory capability will be necessary for as long as adversaries with nuclear weapons exist. The number of nuclear-weapons and delivery systems we need can be determined by the following formula: It is the number necessary for us to maintain nuclear-weapons and delivery systems (1) in sufficiently dispersed locations to make them immune from annihilation in a surprise first strike and (2) capable of inflicting fearsome losses on any adversary of the United States or of allies to which we have promised to provide a nuclear deterrent.
Mr. Obama and his administration would better serve the safety and security of the American people by bolstering our missile defenses than by following the fanciful and dangerous dream of “nuclear zero” and reducing our stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
— Jack David, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy and combating weapons of mass destruction from 2004 to 2006.