I’ve been thinking lately about nuclear weapons. I’m not alone, of course. Many people are concerned about nuclear proliferation, generally; and a good number have spent the last few months/years thinking about what to do about the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, specifically.
As I ponder the challenges posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology, I began thinking about what to do about the U.S. nuclear program. Is there a bipartisan consensus building on ways to reduce our massive nuclear arsenal?
Such a consensus must be based, first, on a clear understanding of just how massive this arsenal really is. We have nearly 10,000 total warheads in our arsenal, half of these in an active, deployed status.
The Moscow Treaty calls for reducing this number to between 1700 and 2200 warheads by the end of 2012, but neither party to the treaty (the United States and Russia) shows much interest in making progress toward that goal.
Members of the non-proliferation and arms control community watch these numbers closely – if we do not make progress toward reducing our arsenal, our invocations of the NPT against violators such as Iran and North Korea ring hollow.
With this number of weapons, the United States has the capacity to kill hundreds of millions of people in a matter of about 30 minutes. It is a sobering statistic. It is also ironic. We lived under the shadow of (and managed to avoid) nuclear annihilation throughout the Cold War, but while the danger of an earth-extinguishing event in the form of a global thermonuclear exchange receded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the danger of a single detonation, perpetrated by a terrorist group or other non-state actor, has actually increased over the last 15 years. There are a number of program in place to deal with this danger, but as a Cato report noted last year, such programs have had a mixed track-record. The threat persists.
This helps to explain why both President Bush and Senator John Kerry agreed during the course of the 2004 presidential campaign that preventing an act of nuclear terrorism was the most important security challenge facing the United States. They didn’t agree on much else.
A similar concern motivated four big names – Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn – to call for an end to all nuclear weapons in a recent Wall Street Journal op ed.
I am not ready to go quite that far, but, at a minimum, I would expect strong public support for a dramatically smaller nuclear arsenal. We should look skeptically at proposals for producing new warheads; and if those programs die a quite death, then the National Nuclear Security Agency’s “Complex 2030” should die with them. (Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Association, has recently published a fine essay on this score.)
We should also revisit the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and take an active interest in efforts to control fissile material.
At a minimum, we should not assume that we need — and we certainly don’t desire — thousands of nuclear warheads to keep us safe.