Averting Armageddon

3 October, 2007

There is an interesting article in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs on America nuclear weapons policy. The author has been around the nuclear weapons policy block more than most. Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky worked on the Manhattan Project in the forties and was a science policy advisor to Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter. His central idea is that the risks from nuclear weapons are just as daunting as before the end of the cold war but the nature of the threat has changed. Today we face greater danger from the inadvertent release of nuclear weapons, a regional nuclear conflict, nuclear proliferation and the acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists.

This is an analysis I largely agree with though I would myself put greater emphasis on the threat of WMD in the hands of terrorists. They are the people most prepared and indeed actively willing to use WMD. Panofsky points out that the only valid residual mission that nuclear weapons have today is to deter others from using nuclear weapons. In other words the practical military use of nuclear weapons since the end of the second world war has been nil. Nuclear weapons are in effect beyond the purview of normal state – state conflict. The only people who are prepared to use them are terrorist organisations that want to destroy a large city such as London or New York.

So the dangers from nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction have gone through a fundamental shift since the end of the cold war. Surely the corollary of this is the readiness of our nuclear forces should be proportionate to the threat that we face.

What about rogue nations like Iran and North Korea surely deterrence is an important part of dealing with them? Ownership of WMD by the major nuclear weapons states does nothing to prevent other states from pursuing their own WMD programme. Indeed other states would like to enjoy the same advantages of political independence, security and prestige. We need a comprehensive global agree agreement to lower the readiness status of nuclear weapons. This should include international monitoring of WMD. In a high risk nuclear situation perception and misperception of the states involved becomes more important therefore we need to development mechanisms of reassurance.

What other steps should we be taking? Panofsky recommends a reduction in the US nuclear arsenal from the present 10,000 including those in reserve to a few hundred preferably as part of an international arms reduction process covering not just strategic weapons but also tactical and those held in reserve. I cannot see a military justification for massive stockpiles of weapons that even in a nuclear Armageddon wouldn’t be used. The 70,000 warheads at the height of the cold war was an absurdity.

We should be strengthening non proliferation arrangements. If we can make nuclear states put their weapons beyond use at least in the short term then it may well be possible to increase pressure on non nuclear states not to follow the same path.

The removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe. With the advent of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched weapons they have become a military absurdity anyway.

Downgrading the state of alertness that strategic missiles are held in. Rolling back the nuclear clock from a minute to midnight is a perfectly sensible suggestion. The world is far to busy to have a nuclear war in the foreseeable future so keeping weapons on a hair trigger is not a proportionate response that states face in the present international environment

Ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Today it is now possible for the advanced nuclear capable countries to develop weapons without the need for testing while countries that do not have such highly developed technology find weapons testing much more important in their development.

What is clear is that by determined, consistent and wide ranging action then it is possible to reduce the threat to humanity from nuclear weapons. Unfortunately it is not possible to put the genie back in the bottle and uninvent the technology and it is unrealistic to expect at least in the short term a nuclear free world but there needs to be a greater emphasis in the international community as to the risks we face and how they can be minimised.

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