Apr 30, 2007

The Present and Future Role of Nuclear Weapons in the U.S. and the World

Posted by David Biello - SCIAM OBSERVATIONS April 30, 2007
Opinions, arguments and analyses from the editors of Scientific American

What is it? My recent article on the reasoning behind the first new nuclear weapon to be built in 20 years does not touch on the subject. Except to highlight its absence from debate.

To some, nuclear weapons are the core of world peace. "I work on nuclear weapons because I believe they immunize the world against large scale war," says Bruce Goodwin, associate director for defense and nuclear technologies at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "I like that state of affairs." (Livermore won the recent design competition for the first new warhead.)

To others, nuclear weapons are necessary but in need of a radical re-thinking in light of a changed world. "If we want to develop a new warhead it should be one that is going to reflect a dramatically new role for nuclear weapons," says Ivan Oelrich, vice president for strategic security programs at the Federation of American Scientists (an organization founded by the creators of the original atom bomb and keeping an eye on the world arsenal ever since.) "One of the first missions I wish we would give up is the surprise first strike. The last mission we will give up is to use nuclear weapons in retaliation. If we are going to build a new warhead it should be aimed at that mission. A 20 kiloton bomb attacking specific targets. It doesn't have to be launched off a sub. It doesn't have to be 400 kilotons. It doesn't have to be there in 20 minutes. If we are going to build a warhead build one for that."

To yet others, they have outlived their usefulness. "U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage--to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world," wrote former government bigwigs George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

The role of nuclear weapons should be the subject of a wide-ranging debate, along with the future role (and privatization) of the national laboratories (particularly Los Alamos, which has been bemoaned at "Gone Nuclear" and "LANL: The Rest of the Story"), the security of fissile material worldwide, non-proliferation, treaty obligations, etc., etc. Not to mention the fact that the scientists and engineers (and their toys) who created the last generation of nuclear weapons (and witnessed their testing) are aging and their knowledge may need a new weapon to work with in order for it to be transmitted to the next generation (science, in some cases, functions like an oral tradition.)

Yet, that debate is not really happening, at least not in public. Maybe it can happen here? Please share your thoughts on my article, the role of nuclear weapons, tips for future articles, or anything else (nuclear weapon related). But let's try to keep it civil. Nuclear weapons may pacify international relations but they often prove incendiary as the topic of discussion.

[Thanks for the plug, David! Pinky and The Brain]


Anonymous said...

While I realize that public opinion doesn't matter on national defense issue, here's the only major data (from www.pollingreport.com) I could find ...

Associated Press/Ipsos poll conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs. March 21-23, 2005. N=1,000 adults nationwide. Margin of Error ± 3.1.

Which statement comes closest to your view?...

No countries should be allowed to have nuclear weapons = 66%

Only the United States and its allies should be allowed to have nuclear weapons = 13%

Only countries that already have nuclear weapons should be allowed to have them = 11%

Any country that is able to develop nuclear weapons should be allowed to have them = 5%

Only the U.S. should be allowed to have nuclear weapons = 1%

Unsure = 4%

Anonymous said...

And now comes the really big question for the 66%. Just how do you intend to enforce the prohibition against nuclear weapons? Ideas anyone? Maybe depend on the good will of Ayatollah Khamenei?

Anonymous said...

Khamenei's dead. None issue.

Anonymous said...

As the General in charge of all US nuclear forces put it in March, we'd hit them with a massive and highly accurate conventional strike. A few hundred tactical Tomahawk Cruise missiles with 1,000 lbs warheads followed by B1s, B2s and B52s with 500 lbs precision GPS guided bombs - against every military and political/governmental target in the country, along with key infrastructure; dams, power plants, fuel storage, ports, pipelines, bridges. At the end of the strikes - Minimal civilian casualties but a country with its military in tatters and its population (hungry and in the dark) pissed off at its leaders. We could easily cause the country to cease to exist without going the nuclear route.

Nuclear Weapons Rarely Needed, General Says

The Washington Post
Walter Pincus, Staff Writer
Mar 10, 2007

The head of U.S. Strategic Command has told Congress that precision conventional weapons have replaced the need for nuclear ones in almost all areas, except when a quick intercontinental strike is required against unexpected or fast-moving threats.

"While America possesses dominant conventional capabilities second to none, we lack the capability to respond promptly to globally dispersed or fleeting threats without resorting to nuclear weapons," Gen. James E. Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces on Thursday.

Cartwright said the Air Force is studying a conventional-strike missile launched from the United States that is maneuverable at global distances. But he said the near-term solution is "to deploy a precision global strike missile" using current ICBMs, two years after Congress approves funding.


Anonymous said...

Actually, Khamenei is the current supreme religious leader of Iran.

You're thinking of Ayatollah Khomeini, now dead, and someone to which Khamenei was a close advisor.

nirupama said...

No countries should be allowed to make nuclear weapons..if two conflicting nations are ready to press the nuclear button then the reactions,the nuclear winter and the like will happen as it happened in japan..that too for a developing country like India which is suffering from inflation does not need a nuclear weapon resources