Nuclear Friday: How Low Can We Go?

Nuclear weapons are uniquely destructive. Nothing we’ve ever made can cause so much death and destruction so quickly. And under some conditions nuclear weapons can render land uninhabitable for years. It would be better if there were fewer of them. So the question is: How low can we go?

I think this video accurately explains why warhead counts should be in the hundreds, not  thousands:

My only criticism of this video is that it states that the US and Russia have about 7,000 weapons each. This is correct, but each nation has only around 1,750 operational nuclear devices, according to ICAN. Both the US and Russia have around 5,000 weapons stockpiled, decoupled from delivery systems, with most of them scheduled for reprocessing.

Even so, I think Tegmark is correct that a thousand weapon exchange would have global climate effects over and above the death and destruction of the weapons themselves. And as I have said many times here on The Board, I completely agree that accidental nuclear exchanges are more likely than intentional ones.

Nuclear Winter is a controversial topic I can’t get into too much here. I think studies that make a case that a hundred warhead exchange would have climate effects are probably incorrect. I base this on the only real data we have, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unfortunately. Only one of those two detonations made a firestorm, and larger bombs tend to extinguish their fires with their more intense blast waves. Even so, the numbers favor climate effects as an exchange gets bigger. And whatever one thinks of nuclear winter, the loss of life and economic disruption from a 600 weapon exchange is better than a 3000 weapon exchange.

The term “Nuclear Winter” was first used by the authors of the 1982 TTAPS Study  and was popularized by study co-author Carl Sagan. The idea of global cooling from nuclear war appeared in science fiction in 1947. 1954’s Harvest is my favorite example. Please read it, it’s short.

Is Minimal Deterrence the Answer? 

Tegmark seems to be recommending a nuclear stance called Minimal Deterrence. Each nuclear armed power maintains a small number of weapons at high readiness with an emphasis on the ability of these weapons surviving a first strike by an adversary through  dispersal, concealment, or hardening. It’s a good idea, as it’s inexpensive and secure, but that’s only if everyone can agree to it. Minimal deterrence has a few problems.

The first is how much deterrent is enough? Early Cold War nuclear policy in the US was guided by the examples of WWII. Germany suffered intense bombing and loss of territory before surrender. Japan experienced near total destruction even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki without surrender. The Soviet Union lost much of its most developed territory and was able to recover and defeat Germany. Utter destruction seemed necessary.

But is it? I think it isn’t. Would you really risk a small number of cities in your nation being ripped apart to achieve some political or military goal? Probably not. It seems minimal deterrence should work.

There are other problems with a minimal deterrence stance. Minimal Deterrence tends to collapse into an arms race unless two strict conditions are met. The first is that powers in a minimal deterrence stance must maintain a low capability of attacking the command and control systems and weapons of the opposing side. The second is that each power must refrain from being able to defend against the weapons of the other side.

Israel, Pakistan, India, and to a lesser extent China seem comfortable with following a minimal deterrence stance, they do so mostly for internal reasons. All these nations except China are economically incapable of going beyond a minimal deterrence policy. And the US isn’t making things easier. The US has taken the lead in counterforce capability and is on the verge of having missile defense.

We really are on the verge of a new Cold War buildup, especially if China becomes a major player in strategic defense.

I think the Minimal Deterrence stance recommended in the video is unlikely to happen in the current environment.

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One thought on “Nuclear Friday: How Low Can We Go?

  1. Yeah, missile defense is the kicker really. And it isn’t something we want to give up, since it seems like the most likely sort of attack we’ll face is going to be the sort that can actually be defended. At least at this point; maybe the Cold War will heat back up and that will no longer be the case, but I don’t think we really believe that it will happen.

    It’s interesting that this is happening at just about the time when people are taking power who grew up with the not unreasonable belief they’d never grow up.

    Liked by 1 person

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