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Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Cold War Myth of Nuclear Deterrence

When John Kerry recently came out against underground nuclear penetrators he was continuing his fight against any weapons system which could give the United States a strategic advantage. This is Kerry's history and a central part of his belief system: new American weapons are a bad thing. Kerry argued that nuclear proliferators like North Korea could justify their proliferation on this new class of weapons system.

There is one simple, obvious problem with this philosophy. Small nuclear powers cannot deter large, established nuclear powers with a technological advantage. Rather, they invite preemptive strikes on themselves by developing nuclear technology. The Israeli strike on the French Osirak reactor in Iraq is one good example.

What gives any nation the "right" to have nuclear weapons? One hears that from the Left whenever the latest dictator decides to build a nuclear weapon. Answer: nothing. That is not the correct question. The real question is: how can we reduce the danger of nuclear war? Certainly we cannot reduce the risk of nuclear war by increasing the number of nations which possess nuclear weapons. The United States, France, UK, Israel, or Russia, et al, will never get rid of nuclear weapons if every nation on Earth seeks to acquire them. Unilateral disarmament in the face of increasing nuclear nations would amount to national suicide.

There are two kinds of proliferation. John Kerry seems to be confusing them. One, vertical proliferation, is the increase or upgrade in nuclear weapons within existing nuclear powers. We see this in China, North Korea, Israel, Russia, or the United States. The second type of proliferation is called horizontal proliferation, from nation-to-nation.

Whenever nuclear deterrence is discussed the Cold War is used as an example of deterrence working. Did it? The United States and the Soviet Union fought proxy wars all over the world, from Korea and Vietnam to Grenada and Nicaragua. The United States and the Soviets had many close calls with nuclear war, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to geese flying over the Arctic Circle triggering NORAD early warning radar. The two Cold War adversaries were advanced technological nations with some time to decide what to do. The proliferation the two great powers engaged in was almost all vertical. The Soviets did attempt to put missiles in Cuba, with nerve-jarring results. The United States deployed Pershing missiles in Germany amid a huge outcry of condemnation. There are a few other examples, but the Cold War was mainly adding to existing stockpiles.

The modern archetype of potential nuclear war might be India and Pakistan. They share a border and have little time to decide what to do in the event of an attack. So far, obviously, there has been no nuclear exchange. But to extrapolate this into an general defense of nuclear deterrence is dangerous. Both sides are locked in an arms race. Which brings me back to where I started. In order for deterrence to work many factors must be in place. I'll touch on several important ones.
1) Rough parity in force capabilities.
2) Sufficient command and control to avoid accidental launches.
3) Stable government, not ruled by someone willing to take millions of casualties.
4) Security to prevent non-governmental militant groups from gaining control of nuclear weapons.
5) A long-term outlook. Apocalyptic theocrats, as in Iran, are not good candidates for nuclear weapons.

I'll discuss the first point. I've heard from leftists that the United States would not dare attack Pakistan because it is a nuclear nation. First of all, of course, I don't know why we would want to engage Pakistan in all-out war, but bear with me and pretend we do.

The United States would first decapitate the command and control of Pakistan using precision-guided weapons. We would destroy their nuclear capability in place. Rather than being a deterrent, Pakistan's nuclear capability would only determine U.S. tactics against them. Instead of deterring the U.S., Pakistan's nuclear arsenal would require a large, surprise preemptive strike.

The lesson of the Cold War should have been how dangerous it was, and how close we came to mutual destruction. It appears the 'lesson' learned by the other nation states is "we want to join the club". If that is the case, the world will only get more dangerous, spend more money on arms, and risk global catastrophe for no real deterrence.

In the history of warfare, no weapons system has been considered too powerful to be used in quantity. The bow, the machine gun, and dynamite were viewed by some very smart people as being unfair or too powerful to be used in combat. All those people turned out to be very wrong. Nuclear weapons are no exception. First strike strategies are the natural result of nations facing off with nuclear weapons. Constant paranoia, surveillance, and knife-edge readiness are the hallmarks of nuclear weapons, not deterrence.

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