We Need How Many Nukes?
The US recently reported having 5,113 ready to use nuclear bombs and thousands more that are disabled and ready to be dismantled. But this is nothing when compared to our previous numbers.
The Pentagon statistics show the nuclear stockpile was reduced by 75 percent between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and September 30, 2009, and 84 percent since its peak of more than 31,255 in 1967.
Other than deterrence, I’m sure that there was some rational reason why we had over 31 thousand nuclear weapons in 1967. It must have been based on the number of Soviet and other strategic targets rather then just an attempt to keep up with the Ivans who, at the time, had far fewer nuclear weapons.
The logic of nuclear stockpiling is confusing. On one hand, it’s understandable to think in terms of destructive yield and targets and how many kilotons of explosives are needed to destroy the enemy. But on the other hand, there is this huge fudge factor – the great unknown – about the effects of radiation, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), and sheer massive destructive potential that are all unique to nuclear weapons.
The great unknown is how many nuclear weapons would need to be used before the enemy’s ability to fight completely collapsed. EMP waves would disable most electronics and lay waste to any modern economy that keeps its records on computers and digital storage. Large swaths of radiation would extend the fatal yield from acute radiation poisoning for days to weeks and hundreds of miles beyond the initial blast zone of any single bomb. The targeting of civilian centers (or military targets near civilian centers) would overwhelm the nation’s ability to deal with millions of injured and displaced people clogging roads and relief sites.
Our military likely knows this number to within a very specific range and I suspect that the total number of nuclear detonations of a certain yield needed to completely disable an enemy’s ability to conduct offensive operations – which is not the same thing as complete destruction – is only dozens to a few hundred, depending on the country. This is likely why there has been a gradual reduction in the numbers of nuclear weapons since this peak in 1967 while the USSR continued its escalation in the numbers of these very expensive devices during the 1970s and 1980s.
But since that peak in 1967 and continuing to today, we continue to have far more nuclear devices then we would ever need OR be able to use in wartime. In the event of a nuclear war with another nuclear power – mostly the USSR/Russia – we would be getting hit with nuclear weapons at the same time thus diminishing our ability to fight. It’s massively unlikely that we would be able to use more than a few hundred weapons before our ability to fight collapsed as well, assuming that both sides continued to fight despite such massive destruction. All of this makes the need to have more than several hundred nuclear weapons a huge waste of money and resources. The inability to understand this minimal strategic gain at an enormous economic cost is what significantly contributed to the collapse of the USSR in the 1980s.
What about a limited nuclear war? The only way we would ever use nukes against another country is if we had evidence (obvious or via investigation) that the country in question was directly responsible for a mass causality weapon of mass destruction (WMD) attack on American interests. In this case, the retaliation would not simply be retribution but an attempt at instant removal of a regime and destruction of their military capacity because of that regime’s proven intentions and ability to use WMDs.
In this scenario and in almost all cases (Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Yemen) it is highly unlikely that more than a few weapons would be needed to obliterate the regime including any civilian strongholds of the regime and devastate their military ability to fight. Because this initial strike would need to be followed immediately by an invasion to secure the country and round up remaining forces, the fewer nukes we use the less radiation we expose our forces (and neighboring countries) to.
It is for this reason that the right wing criticism of Obama’s signing of the latest nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia is laughingly absurd. If ratified, the new treaty would limit each side to about 1,550 nuclear weapons. Obviously the Pentagon feels that this number is more than adequate as both a deterrent and the ability to destroy Russia and have enough left over to go after one or more smaller countries in a worst case scenario. This treaty is more of a clean up policy for both nations to eliminate the extra costs of several thousand nuclear weapons that are strategically irrelevant.
The Pentagon would not have signed off on such a deal as negotiated by the US if this could compromise our security. In the very least, the military would have leaked their protests to the media about their concerns that this number would be too low, thus compromising our security. This didn’t happen.
Instead, it was non-military right wingers including non foreign policy specialist and resignation expert S. Palin who claimed that the treaty would leave the US vulnerable or send the wrong message to terrorists and aggressive foreign regimes. And they based this claim on nothing more than their own ignorance (or a willingness to play this off the ignorance of their supporters for political points).