Art Hobson, [email protected]
NWADG, 28 September 2021
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres' report "Our Common Agenda" issues a dire warning: The world is at risk of coming apart over a wide range of issues including warfare, covid-19, climate breakdown, biodiversity, poverty, gender inequality, vast financial inequalities, lust for money and disinformation leading to conspiracy theories. Guterres puts nuclear weapons right at the top of the UN agenda. Here, the United States is today perfectly poised to lead the world toward peace.
Strategists agree that strategic nuclear weapons are designed only to deter other nations from using them. The United States and Russia each have a "triad" of such weapons: submarine-launched ballistic missiles, bombers and land-based inter-continental ballistic missiles.
As explained in my July 27 column, a few secure missile-carrying submarines are sufficient for deterrence because a single submarine can demolish any nation on Earth. Furthermore, each submarine is invulnerable once it's submerged. We currently have 14 such submarines, most of them ready to launch at any time.
It can be argued that the bombers play a unique role because they can take off upon being alerted of a possible attack, they cannot be effectively targeted once they are airborne and they can remain aloft for hours. Most importantly, they can be recalled if the threat of attack vanishes, while launched missiles cannot be recalled.
Thus, worst-case analysts argue that we need both the submarine and bomber legs of the triad as a balanced, invulnerable deterrent.
But no such argument exists for the ICBM leg, namely the 400 Minuteman missiles residing in underground silos in the Midwest, each carrying one bomb with an explosive energy 21 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb. Far from being invulnerable, all 400 Minuteman locations are known to Russia and other nations and can be destroyed within 30 minutes by highly accurate missiles launched from Russia or China, or in less time from off-shore submarines.
The U.S. and Russia possess large intercontinental forces while China is currently building its first ICBM fields with over 200 silos. But these vulnerable missiles cannot provide assured deterrence. Indeed, ICBMs increase the risk that nuclear weapons will be used because the side that attacks first can significantly reduce damage to itself. If nuclear war looms, ICBMs will tempt all sides to launch quickly. It's called "use'em or lose'em." It applies only to the ICBMs, not the submarine or bomber missiles.
Now one might suppose that, considering that this small strategic glitch could destroy the planet, the world's military masterminds would have determined it to be a good idea to eliminate ICBMs from their arsenals, especially since the submarine- and bomber-based arsenals are in all respects quite sufficient to maintain secure deterrence. But these minds have difficulty with the notion of weapons reductions. Instead, the U.S. has placed its intercontinental missiles on eternal high alert, enabling them to be launched quickly on the mere warning that we are under attack. As anybody can see, this creates a risk that we could launch them by mistake based on a false warning. Indeed, a number of false warnings have occurred over the years, some of them prompting preparations for launch.
Many strategists have recommended for years (ever since our submarine-launched missiles attained their present high accuracy against Russian ICBMs) that America remove its ICBMs. There is in fact every reason for America to lead the world toward removal of all ICBMs. But if this proves impossible, we should nevertheless remove our own ICBMs unilaterally because these weapons actually make us less, not more, militarily secure. Our submarines and bombers are more than sufficient for deterrence, and they needn't be put on the hair trigger that is so destabilizing for our ICBM force.
More broadly, America should work through the UN to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. A wide range of thoughtful analysts, including former secretaries of state (under Nixon, Ford, and Reagan) Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, have called for this. In an effort to achieve such a world, the UN General Assembly in 2017 passed the International Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, with 122 nations in favor and 69 abstentions that included the nuclear weapons nations and most NATO nations. Today, 86 countries have signed the treaty and 107 have not signed. If we can get more nations to sign, and especially if some of these are key NATO nations such as Germany and France, this treaty can remove the threat of nuclear weapons. This, rather than further militarization, is the path toward a secure future.