Eliminating Nuclear Threats

A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers



GARETH EVANS and YORIKO KAWAGUCHI CO-CHAIRS                    Commission Members


6. Disarmament: Making Zero Thinkable

Delegitimizing Nuclear Weapons

6.1     If we want to minimize and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons, the critical need is to change perceptions of their role and utility: in effect, to achieve their progressive delegitimation, from a position in which they occupied a central strategic place to one in which their role is seen as quite marginal, and eventually wholly unnecessary as well as undesirable. To a significant extent this process has already begun, reinforced by the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1996 that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law”. It is not a matter of starting afresh, but picking up and taking forward themes and trends, three in particular, that have been evident in the international system for decades, especially since the end of the Cold War.

6.2     First, it is now broadly accepted that nuclear weapons have little or no utility as instruments of warfighting. Early in the nuclear age it seemed possible that militarily advanced states would come to view nuclear weapons as a normal, albeit unusually efficient, form of military firepower available for most contingencies, but that is no longer the case. Nuclear weapons, creating impassable terrains and causing long-lasting environmental damage, cannot rationally be used to take territory. Nor can they sensibly be used in the types of contemporary conflicts in which the international community now finds itself often embroiled, from Afghanistan to the Congo, or against non-state terrorist actors. They lack finesse in a world where advanced militaries increasingly focus on reducing collateral damage and civilian deaths, with the objective – as with smart sanctions – being to target those most responsible for creating the mayhem in question. The weapons of choice in war these days are precise in both targeting and effect.

6.3     Second, there is a strong taboo on the actual use, if not possession, of nuclear weapons: a profound normative constraint, as well as a practical one, against using weapons of such indiscriminate and disproportionate destruction. The taboo is so strong today, especially in democracies, that it is only conceivable that it would be broken in the face of a threat genuinely seen as jeopardizing a country’s very survival. Nuclear weapons are essentially self-deterring for actors who depend upon public support from their own populations, their allies, and broader international society. Every time states have come close to their use they have recoiled from the implications. John Foster Dulles, no dove, concluded after being involved in deliberations on using nuclear weapons in Korea, Vietnam and the Taiwan Straits crises, that using nuclear weapons “would surely cost us our allies” and “we’d be finished as far as present-day world opinion was concerned.”

6.4     Third, there is a base of delegitimation on which to build: it is a matter of restoring the momentum lost in the last decade, rather than starting from the beginning. The present world stockpile of over 23,000 nuclear warheads, with a destructive potential of some 2,300 MT (million tons of TNT), equivalent to around 150,000 Hiroshima-sized weapons, is alarmingly large. But it was even more alarming at the height of the Cold War, when some 70,000 warheads existed, with a cumulative destructive power peaking at around 25,000 MT or 1,600,000 Hiroshima equivalents! As the Cold War wound down, international tensions eased, arms control treaties were signed, great power arsenals began a period of steady decline, and whole categories of weapons, notably in the shorter-ranges, were abandoned. Countries with nuclear options, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Brazil and Argentina, decided not to pursue them, while South Africa discarded its nuclear capability. Whatever their perceived political role, nuclear arsenals no longer occupy pride of place in the security policies of the major powers, and discussions of the circumstances in which their use might be contemplated tend to be more vague and speculative than they were during the Cold War.

6.5     But all that said, there is a very long way to go if nuclear arsenals are to be dramatically further reduced and ultimately eliminated. Nuclear weapons – and in particular perceptions of their usefulness as deterrents – still have a tenacious hold in the security thinking of many policymakers. And perceptions about the inevitability of their continued existence are widely embedded in public opinion, in particular the notion that because nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented they can never wholly disappear. If these perceptions are to change, they have to be tackled head-on, but in a way which recognizes and respects, and does not just ignore, the weight of opposing arguments.

6.6     The underlying thesis of this report is that the risks associated with a nuclear world, spelt out in detail in earlier sections, are unacceptable over the long-term, and that eliminating them requires eliminating nuclear arsenals. There are few who reject this logic outright, yet it is also clear that countries with nuclear arsenals, or members of alliances backed by nuclear guarantees, can both recognize these long-term risks and at the same time fear the short-term impact on their security posed by the processes of disarmament. The necessary commitments to disarmament will not be achieved by simply denouncing the nuclear-armed states and their allies for being in thrall to false theories and prey to unwarranted anxieties, and appearing to neglect these security concerns. They must be convinced that there is no incompatibility between nuclear disarmament and security.

6.7     Those who advocate elimination need to break the process into manageable steps, countering perceptions that it is a leap into the unknown. That is the approach taken in this report, perhaps too cautious for some, but realistic: the number of diverse states that must cooperate to make nuclear abolition feasible is too great, and the issues too complex, to allow anything but incremental movement. Here as elsewhere in public policy, inertia tends to be the norm, major change the rarity, and sustaining major change extraordinarily difficult. The real alternative to an incremental approach is not more rapid change, but stasis. But doing nothing is not an option.

6.8     The case for action on disarmament was put with stark clarity and simplicity by the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons in 1996, and has been repeated, with minor wording variations, in the international debate many times since. There are many interests and anxieties to be addressed, and arguments to be weighed and balanced as below, but this is the bottom line:

So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain, it defies credibility that they will not one day be used, by accident, miscalculation or design. And any such use would be catastrophic for our world as we know it.

Rethinking Deterrence

6.9     Arguments about the deterrent utility of nuclear weapons recur in many forms, and with varying force. The following paragraphs outline the major deterrence-based arguments for retaining nuclear weapons, and what can be said in response by those wanting to make the case for dramatically further reducing over time the role of nuclear weapons, and ultimately achieving their abolition.

6.10     “Nuclear weapons have deterred, and will continue to deter, war between the major powers”. It is hard to contest the almost universally held view that the absence of great power conflict since 1945 must be at least in part attributed to the fear of nuclear war. On the face of it, nuclear weapons on the other side will always provide a formidable argument for caution, and it does seem that they generated a degree of mutual respect and careful handling between the U.S. and USSR during the Cold War (and, for that matter, between India and Pakistan since 1998 – although they did not stop the bloody Kargil heights conflict in 1999). That said, for all the war plans that were undoubtedly prepared, it is not clear that there is any evidence for the view that Soviet leaders, any more than their U.S. counterparts, were determined to actually go to war at any particular time, and only deterred by the existence of the other’s nuclear weapons. And for all the careful handling, there were dozens of false alarms on both sides during the Cold War years: the fact that nuclear war did not erupt from technical malfunction, operational stress or decision-maker miscalculation should to an important degree be attributed to sheer luck.

6.11     Particularly instructive in this respect is the information now available about Soviet nuclear weapons deployed in Cuba and on nearby submarines at the outset of the 1962 crisis – of which U.S. commanders were not aware. Tactical nuclear weapons without permissive action links had already been deployed in Cuba, and if the U.S. had invaded – as was to have happened in early November of that year, had the “quarantine” failed – they would have been used: the Guantanamo Bay naval base, notably, was pre-targeted. Nuclear warheads were already on location for a number of the SS.4/SS.5 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, and it would have taken only a matter of hours to attach the warheads to the rockets and launch them. On the “use them or lose them” principle, this could well have happened, had the U.S. – unaware of the situation – bombed or invaded Cuba. In the same period, a Soviet submarine was subjected to U.S. Navy practice depth charges as part of the “quarantine”. The submarine, cut off from communication with its command authority, had to decide either to surface or to use its nuclear torpedo. Delegation of use was subject to a joint decision between the three commanding officers of the submarine – and the vote was two against, one for.

6.12     Even if one concludes, nonetheless, that nuclear deterrence did directly prevent war between the two superpowers and cannot be held even partly responsible for any lesser intensity conflict, how confident can anyone be that the luck of the Cold War – in relation to the avoidance of accident or miscalculation on the part of every one of the present nuclear-armed states – will continue in perpetuity? Can the benign effects of the nuclear age, such as they may have been, be enjoyed indefinitely before something goes terribly wrong?

6.13     When the retention of nuclear weapons runs this inherent risk, together with the additional risk (as discussed below) of encouraging proliferation with all the accompanying further dangers of that, there is another question that must be asked: what actually is the reality of the threats from other nuclear-armed states against which each nuclear-armed state wants to maintain its nuclear insurance? What is the real-world likelihood, present and future, of the nuclear powers – the U.S., China, Russia, France, UK, Israel, or even India and Pakistan – actually committing or threatening such major aggression against each other on a scale such as to even begin to justify breaching the nuclear weapons taboo? The irony is that deterrence may remain notionally effective against those who least need to be deterred from breaching international security, while being least effective against those – like international terrorists – who most need to be.

6.14     Even if retaining nuclear weapons does continue to have some deterrent utility against others minded to use such weapons, this does not in itself make any case against abolition, because the argument for retention is circular. If the only military utility that remains for nuclear weapons is deterring their use by others, that utility implies the continued existence of nuclear weapons and would disappear if nuclear weapons were eliminated.

6.15     “Nuclear weapons will deter any large scale conventional attacks”. Factors other than the possession of nuclear weapons or explosive devices can explain why the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, France, India, Pakistan and North Korea have not been subject to large-scale attack. States and societies have learned from the devastation of World War II and the defeat of aggressors in almost every war since then. The enormous costs of war have to be weighed against any potential gains in starting them. Globalization intensifies the costs of territorial aggression as economic interdependence, especially in finance, leaves all states susceptible to isolation by others. While it cannot be proved either way, it does not seem likely that large-scale confrontations would become more likely in the absence of nuclear weapons: there would still be compelling economic, political and military incentives to prevent disputes between major powers escalating into all-out confrontations.

6.16     That said, the recent calls from high places in the U.S. and elsewhere to pursue seriously the vision of a world without nuclear weapons have elicited concerns in Russia, China and other states that such a world would accentuate U.S. conventional military advantages. The U.S. may have neither the intention nor the capability to invade Russia and China, but worst-case analysts in Moscow and Beijing worry that Washington could use its conventional military power to threaten their interests vis-à-vis neighbouring territories. It is clearly the case that without wider-ranging efforts to resolve underlying security dilemmas and to balance non-nuclear military capabilities, the U.S. and Russia and China will be unable to agree on substantially minimizing – let alone abolishing – nuclear weapons. Similar considerations would weigh as between Pakistan and India, and on Israel and North Korea. As we will have occasion to say a number of times in this report, major nuclear disarmament will need to be related to progress in resolving the security dilemmas that shape the interests of all the states that rely on nuclear deterrence.

6.17     Some smaller states have clearly taken the view that possession of nuclear weapons is the ultimate guarantor of national security, and against enforced regime change, even against a much larger, better armed, and indeed even nuclear-armed, state. North Korea may be taking the view that the U.S. would not attack Pyongyang if a nuclear weapon were aimed at Seoul or Tokyo, and others could make similar calculations for the Middle East, South East Asia, Caucasus or elsewhere. But again such assessments are less plausible than they may at first sight appear. Weapons that are not likely to be able to be used in practice, or which it would be manifestly suicidal to use, do not constitute a credible deterrent. The states in question are unlikely to be able to put in place the expensive and sophisticated early warning or guaranteed survivability (e.g. missile submarine) systems needed to keep their nuclear strike capacity more or less intact in the face of a putative “regime change” attack. And even if they were able to be used, a regime which did so against an opponent with overwhelming nuclear, or even conventional, retaliatory capacity would be guaranteeing its own destruction.

6.18     “Nuclear weapons will deter any chemical or biological weapons attack”. Some nuclear-armed states cite the threat of chemical or biological weapons as necessitating the retention of nuclear weapons. But these weapons do not now have anything like the destructive potential of nuclear weapon. They never will in the case of chemical weapons, and are unlikely to in the foreseeable future in the case of biological weapons, although the risk there is higher. The threat is certainly one that requires effective military deterrence, but this is best provided by the prospect of a crushing conventional response. It is extremely difficult to paint plausible chemical or biological attack scenarios that would threaten destruction on such a scale as to begin to make nuclear, as distinct from conventional, retaliation – with all the downside risks attached to using nuclear weapons – a proportional, necessary, and therefore credible response.

6.19     “Nuclear weapons will deter terrorist attacks”. Whether or not terrorism can be deterred, or only prevented and defeated, and whether or not terrorist actors are themselves threatening or using nuclear weapons or explosive devices, nuclear weapons are manifestly neither strategically, tactically nor politically necessary or useful for this purpose. Terrorists do not usually have traditional or convenient sites that could be targeted for the use, or threat of use, of nuclear weapons: territory, industry, a population, or a regular army, which could be targets in a strike of retribution. The military challenge in such cases would be to locate the terrorist threat with enough precision and certainty to justify attacks on it. If intelligence were not perfect and a nuclear strike conducted on a wrong target, the backlash would be enormous; and even if high-confidence intelligence did exist, then it is difficult to imagine that non-nuclear means could not be utilized for the target in question. To conduct nuclear strikes on another state, even one demonstrably complicit in a terrorist attack, would raise exceptionally difficult political, strategic and moral issues.

6.20     “Extended nuclear deterrence is necessary to reassure allies”. This argument has application to the nuclear umbrella offered by Russia to its allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States Collective Security Treaty of 1992, but arises particularly in the context of the U.S. network of alliances put together in Europe, the Asia Pacific and Middle East in the 1950s. This was constructed, and has continued to this day, on the assumption that the allies in question – including Japan and Australia – were protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, not least as a means of ensuring that none of the countries in question were tempted to acquire nuclear weapons themselves. In Europe, Germany, Italy and Sweden all foreswore nuclear weapons capability for this reason among others.

6.21     There seems no doubt that, for the foreseeable future, Washington’s own nuclear deterrent will continue to be extended to its allies to protect them against any nuclear attack or threat they might experience. This should be well understood by other international actors and not seen as either destabilizing, or as in itself inhibiting further movement down the disarmament path. But clearly Washington will need to continue to closely consult with its allies as it moves in that direction, reassuring them that they will not be exposed to any greater risk of nuclear attack as a result of its own arsenal being reduced.

6.22     The question more immediately engaging policymakers is whether “extended deterrence” should involve the nuclear component of America’s deterrent posture being available for non-nuclear threats, be they chemical, biological or conventional in character, or whether rather such threats should be met wholly by non-nuclear means. As discussed later in this report, the issue has yet to be resolved for the U.S. itself, quite apart from its allies. It is currently being addressed in the current Nuclear Posture Review, due for presidential decision early in 2010. A critical question for that Review is whether the U.S. will continue with its current posture of strategic ambiguity, leaving open the possibility of nuclear weapons being used to respond to any class of security threat to itself or its allies, or rather will move toward a declaratory policy that the sole purpose for nuclear weapons, so long as they exist, should be to deter the use by others of nuclear weapons against the U.S. or its allies.

6.23     The issue is a complex and sensitive one. On the one hand there is an overwhelming attraction for all those supporting a nuclear weapon free world, in seeing the U.S. – along with all the other nuclear-armed states – making an unequivocal “sole purpose” declaration, sooner rather than later. This would be a major step forward down the disarmament path, and help to put at rest the perception – so damaging to the cause of non-proliferation – that the nuclear-armed states regard nuclear weapons as an indispensable, legitimate and open-ended guarantor of their own and their allies’ security, which they are born to have but others have no right to acquire.

6.24     On the other hand, some U.S. allies argue that their national survival could be put just as much at risk by the use of biological, chemical or conventional weapons as by nuclear ones, and that so long as any such risk is conceivable they should remain fully protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella. If the premises of this argument are well-founded, the conclusion is a compelling one. Clearly, again, such allies will need to be very strongly reassured that they will not be exposed to unacceptable risk if the U.S. changes its posture in the way described. The concern for the U.S., and the wider international community, will be that if they are not so reassured some at least will be tempted to build a nuclear deterrent of their own.

6.25     It ought to be possible for that reassurance to be given. Three lines of response suggest themselves. The first is that “extended deterrence” does not have to mean “extended nuclear deterrence”. United States conventional capability, when combined with that of each of the allies in question, constitutes a deterrent to any conceivable aggressor at least as credible as that posed by its nuclear weapons. Allies will certainly need to be totally confident that anything in the nature of an existential threat to them will be met by the full weight of that capability, but given the intensity of shared values and interests that underlie present alliance commitments they should be readily persuadable. Of course the real need over time is to create so stable and cooperative a security environment in every potentially volatile region, including East Asia, that reliance does not have to be placed by anyone on disproportionate conventional capability (with all the disincentives to nuclear disarmament by others that this tends to bring in its wake, as noted earlier in this section).

6.26     The second response is that nuclear weapons are simply not as useable as those who focus on their ultimate deterrent utility would like to believe they are. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy rejected military advice to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War, the Taiwan Straits crisis, and the Cuban Missile crisis, and the force of the taboo has if anything since grown. As Henry Kissinger wrote recently, “The basic dilemma of the nuclear age has been with us since Hiroshima: how to bring the destructiveness of modern weapons into some moral or political relationship with the objectives that are being pursued. Any use of nuclear weapons is certain to involve a level of casualties and devastation out of proportion to foreseeable foreign policy objectives. Efforts to develop a more nuanced application have never succeeded, from the doctrine of a geographically limited nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s to the ‘mutual assured destruction’ theory of general nuclear war in the 1970s.” This does not mean that the need to help allies deter adversaries has disappeared. It merely means that the real role of nuclear weapons in extended deterrence has shrunk much more radically than many people assume.

6.27     A third line of response is that the U.S. and all of the allies to whom it extends nuclear deterrence have obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to support the total elimination of all nuclear arsenals. At a time when major efforts are being made to reinvigorate the NPT in all its dimensions, when so much depends on reducing the salience of nuclear weapons – or, in the language we have adopted in this report, continuing to delegitimize them – great care must be taken not to allow debate over extended nuclear deterrence to raise their salience in national security policies. There is no plausible security threat to NATO or East Asian allies today that would require a nuclear weapons response; to suggest otherwise is to miss opportunities to improve security relationships in Europe and East Asia. Such improvements are not only desirable in their own right but will be crucial in creating conditions for progress toward a world without nuclear weapons.

6.28     “Any major move toward disarmament is inherently destabilizing”. An abrupt change from a security system based on a balance of power – with nuclear weapons perceived, for better or worse, as a central element in the global, and some regional, power equations – to one based wholly on cooperation and strong international institutions, would require unprecedented levels of trust and mutual confidence and undoubtedly bring with it many instability risks. But an abrupt change is not what most serious advocates of nuclear disarmament propose. What is required is the progressive delegitimation of nuclear weapons, with states working to reduce the role of these weapons in their security policies, focusing first on getting to a minimization point where a global zero will be within reach, and only then on their total elimination, recognizing that each stage will take many years to achieve.

6.29     Later sections of this report will explore in detail the steps involved in working through these stages and will argue, inter alia, that dramatically lower numbers, and significant disparities in numbers, are not inherently destabilizing. For present purposes it is sufficient to make the point that nuclear deterrence – whether or not one accepts that such deterrence is of any actual real-world utility – will be part of the landscape for a long time to come. For the time that will be needed to overcome the political, strategic, psychological and other obstacles to abolition, the retention of nuclear weapons in sufficient numbers and configuration to deter others from threatening or using them is something that policymakers on all sides of the argument are going to have to accept. No nuclear-armed state is going to agree to eliminate its weapons until it is absolutely confident that its own security environment – and that of its allies – makes that possible. One has to proceed on the assumption that in the case of most, if not all, the nuclear-armed powers, they will go to zero only if and when all the others do the same, and if they are satisfied that robust verification and enforcement measures are in place. The final acts of disarmament will have to involve all nuclear powers and be very carefully choreographed.

6.30     Some will be tempted to invoke fears of abolition to contest deep reductions at the minimization stage, but this resistance would be on weak analytic and political ground. It will be proposed in this report that the world works to reach the point, by 2025, where the number of nuclear weapons is reduced to very low levels, where every state has made a credible commitment to no first use, and where these weapons have receded from the foreground to the background of the international security environment. But even in these circumstances, it will have to remain part of every potential nuclear aggressor’s calculation that every other nuclear-armed state, whatever its declaratory policy, could use such weapons if it perceived itself or its allies to be under such a threat.

Rethinking Other Justifications for Retaining Nuclear Weapons

6.31     A miscellany of other arguments, not related directly to deterrence, have been advanced to actively support the retention of nuclear weapons or resist pressure for their reduction. They also need to be addressed.

6.32     “Nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented so there is no point trying to eliminate them”. Of course nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented, any more than any other human invention. But, like chemical and biological weapons, they can be outlawed. The two basic requirements for effective abolition, discussed in detail later in this report, are verification and enforcement procedures capable of detecting and responding swiftly and effectively to moves toward rearmament, and states being convinced that they could protect their vital interests without them. No one denies that satisfying these conditions will be extremely difficult in the case of nuclear weapons, but the fact that knowledge of how to make them will persist is not in itself any reason not to try to achieve their abolition.

6.33     “Nuclear weapons confer unequalled status and prestige”. While acknowledging the historical force of this argument, it is arguable that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is no longer quite the natural route to political prestige it might once have appeared; nor may be it the case that the mastery of nuclear technology is the mark of an advanced industrial power to the extent it once may have been, given other – and less expensive – ways to make the same point, for example sophisticated information technology. True, the permanent members of the UN Security Council are all nuclear powers but that is not the case with most of the candidates to join them in a restructured Security Council. And conformity to the NPT – with its clear-cut prohibition on member states acquiring such weapons – tends to be claimed as a badge of honour rather than being criticized as a constraint.

6.34     Equally, leaders of nuclear-armed states rarely acknowledge that they fear they will lose international status if they eliminate these arsenals. Yet it has to be acknowledged that this is clearly a concern in Russia, France and Pakistan, who appear to see a world without nuclear weapons raising the importance of other, currently non-nuclear-weapon, states relative to them. The response must be that as the delegitimation of nuclear weapons proceeds, and the retention of nuclear weapons becomes more and more clearly unacceptable to the rest of the world, and manifestly unnecessary from a security standpoint, then status considerations alone are not likely to prove sufficient to block movement toward minimization and ultimate elimination.

6.35     “Disarmament is not necessary to advance non-proliferation’. For many years this has been a mantra for those among the nuclear-armed states who have wanted, usually for good reasons, to stop others acquiring nuclear weapons, but have not been willing to contemplate relinquishing their own. It is a position which not only ignores the NPT obligations of the nuclear weapon states under Article VI, but also the political and psychological reality that adopting perceived double standards is no way to encourage support. And nothing can be achieved in such crucial areas as formally strengthening the terms of the NPT, strengthening the role of the IAEA, achieving the entry into force of the CTBT, and the negotiation of an effective Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, without the support of a much wider group of countries than just those five nuclear powers. The argument that those who have nuclear weapons continue to need them to deter possible existential threats to their own survival and those of their allies, but that other states who perceive themselves also to face potential existential threats should fend for themselves without the benefit of such a deterrent, is one that is absolutely bound to fall on deaf ears. It is not one that can be put seriously in this day and age.

6.36     The dangers associated with proliferation will be addressed later in this report. But in the context of the deterrence issues discussed in this section, they should be self-evident. The more actors that possess nuclear weapons and are involved in intelligence gathering and decision making about whether and when to use them, the higher is the probability of mistake, miscalculation and risk-taking. The prospects of our Cold War luck running out will be significantly greater. And the greater the number of nuclear actors, the greater the likelihood that competition among them will not be dyadic like the relatively simple Cold War nuclear stand-off. Proliferation is inherently destabilizing.

6.37     “Nuclear weapons do not inhibit other security cooperation between nuclear-armed states”. This variation on the previous argument is just as challengeable, at least so long as current force configurations and postures are maintained. A high level of trust and collaboration is manifestly needed for joint military operations against terrorists and states that support and harbour them. It is also needed for common early warning systems for missile launches and the development of joint ballistic missile defence systems; more stringent nuclear and missile export controls; programs to enhance safety and accountability for stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials, and ultimately the verifiable cessation of production; internationalization of nuclear fuel cycle elements; and eased mutual access to sensitive facilities. It is difficult, to say the least, to imagine such intense cooperation in an environment when the major nuclear-armed states still have thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at one another, with more than 2,000 of them on dangerously high launch-on-warning alert, and while all of them are modernizing their strategic nuclear forces to ensure guaranteed devastating strike capability against each other.

6.38     “Nuclear weapons cost less than conventional forces”. It is often claimed that nuclear forces cost significantly less than general-purpose forces, and in the military budgets of any given year, this is true: in Russia and the U.S., for example, 10-15 per cent is allocated to strategic nuclear forces, including support systems. But taking into account the cost of a weapon system’s entire lifecycle, which for strategic nuclear forces amounts to two to three decades or more, as well as the cost of safely dismantling and utilizing nuclear weapons after they have been withdrawn from service, not to mention the expense of disposing of the uranium and plutonium contained within warheads, then the calculation changes significantly. And what should be brought into the equation also (apart from the obvious point that the risks associated with the retention of nuclear weapons might be thought to outweigh any conceivable financial advantage) is the opportunity cost of maintaining these weapons rather than applying the resources to solve other military and security tasks. Significant intellectual and technological assets capable of being reallocated to other real and important international security needs are being locked up in support of nuclear confrontation.

6.39     “Nuclear weapons establishments are needed to maintain expertise”. If put crudely this argument has an evidently circular quality, in the sense that if nuclear weapons were eliminated expertise would hardly be required to maintain them. But it is fair to make the point that, even on the most optimistic disarmament timetable, nuclear weapons will take a long time to abolish completely and systems need to be professionally maintained meanwhile; that real expertise will be needed throughout the minimization and elimination process to ensure effective verification and other security measures; and that it is important accordingly to ensure the continuing training of new specialists in this area. Acknowledging this reality – and also having governments take steps to identify compelling alternative missions for nuclear weapons laboratories and relevant services as their present roles wind down – may help to defuse some of the interest group political pressures that traditionally come from these areas and make significant disarmament hard to politically deliver.


Next: 7. Disarmament: A Two-Phase Strategy for Getting to Zero