The Corner

You Can Never Have Too Many Nukes


Radio Derb on the START treaty, from last weekend’s broadcast:

I have to admit I don’t understand arms control, and never have. What’s the point of it, other than to provide indoor relief to third-rate diplomats? These thoughts are of course inspired by the passing of the START treaty in the Senate this week.

As I said, I just don’t understand the whole business. No, that’s not quite right. I understand arms control perfectly . . . for Estonia. If you’re a small nation that can’t afford much military hardware, getting some controls in place on the armaments of nearby big nations makes a world of sense.

Now let’s talk about the United States of America. We have the world’s biggest economy, a territory wellnigh impossible to invade and occupy, and longer, deeper experience of making and testing nuclear weapons than any other nation. For Estonia to make one small atom bomb from scratch would consume a large part of the nation’s resources for a decade or more. For us to make the same bomb is just a matter of some Department of Defense GS-12 putting through a call to Amarillo to crank up an assembly line.

In a dangerous world chock-full of bad actors, crazy despots, and what a recent Secretary of Defense called “unknown unknowns,” the nuclear policy of the U.S.A. should have three legs: prevention, interception, and deterrence.

Prevention consists of trying to stop anyone — anyone at all, from lone lunatic to nuclear mega-power — from popping a nuke on our territory. This includes primary safeguards like checking incoming sea and air cargo for suspicious characteristics, keeping track of known fissile material, monitoring other countries’ silos and submarines, and so on.

Interception is the second line of defense. The crazy guy has planted a nuke in one of our cities. I refer listeners to this year’s excellent thriller movie Unthinkable. Or the hostile mega-power nation has got a barrage of missiles in the air coming our way. Whatever we can do technologically to locate and destroy those incoming missiles, we should do.

And then, deterrence. This has a tricky part and an easy part. The tricky part is to identify the nation of origin or assistance in the case of lone rogue actors; more precisely, to make everyone believe we can identify them. There will be such a nation: Making a nuke is still beyond the power of anything smaller than a nation. If that ceases to be true, which it may for all anyone knows, then Katy bar the door. It’s true now though, and for the near future, so if we lose a city, we need to know which nation to blame. That’s the tricky part of deterrence. The easy part is having way more nukes and delivery systems than anyone else. We’re well equipped for that, with the base of knowledge and facilities we have.

So let’s work on all that. Let’s make it very clear, to avoid ugly misunderstandings, that any nation that attacks us with nukes, or helps any person or group to do so, will suffer very grievous retaliation. Let’s make it similarly clear that we have the means to carry out that retaliation a thousand times over.

There is no total security, nuclear or otherwise. Even under my policy, as just stated, we could lose a city or two. That terrible catastrophe is more probable, though, if we fail to make our resolve clear, or advertise some weakening of our capabilities. Such things we should not do.

The policy of our current administration would be fine for Estonia. This is not Estonia. The ideal world would have no nukes. That’s not the world we live in, nor is such a world likely to come about in our lifetimes.

The second-best ideal is for the world to have one supreme nuclear power overshadowing all others, and for that power to be under rational, consensual government. That is the world we currently live in. Let’s keep things that way.

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