Nuke 'em if you got 'em

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I may have touched on this topic before. But in today’s paper, Gwynne Dyer makes a case for taking nuclear arsenals off high alert: keeping them, but putting them in storage until the global security situation deteriorates.

There’s quite a bit of merit to this suggestion. I’m not actually a proponent of full nuclear disarmament. Let’s say it’s a laudable dream, but a bad idea any time in the foreseeable future. According to Dyer, though, there are about 11,000 nukes in the hands of the five original nuclear nations – too many by 10-fold.

Here’s my twist on Dyer’s thesis. First, radically cut the number of nukes. We need a change in philosophy. The Cold War mindset was, ‘Mess with me and the whole world’s toast’. I’d like to see that change to, ‘Mess with me and your whole country’s toast’. There’s no reason one country needs to threaten the whole world with destruction. Being able to cripple any single country on the planet should be sufficient. How many nukes does that take?

So, the nuclear nations should put an absolute ceiling of, say, 200 nukes per country. A nuclear exchange would still be devastating regionally, and bad news globally, but wouldn’t spell the demise of our species.

Further, let’s embrace a modified version of Dyer’s proposal: encourage nuclear nations to take, say, 90 per cent of their 200 nukes off high alert.

This would leave them with 20 warheads to threaten each other, which should be more than sufficient. It’s hard to imagine Russia sacrificing Moscow, or America New York for any strategic goal beyond their borders. And 20 is still enough that even the most optimistic general would have to admit a couple would ‘get through’ any attempt at sabotage or first strike decapitation.

A safer world with a smaller price tag – one of the reasons Dwyer says Britain may look at a policy change – while retaining a nuclear deterrent. It’s a goal worth pursuing.

As for getting rid of nukes permanently, I think that will have to wait. My guess is nuclear proliferation will increase in the future. Yes, building nukes requires a monumental effort – it’s a task for nations, not terrorists, for example – but we need to remember this is decades-old technology. The cat’s out of the bag and it’s not going back in. As long as the planet’s fragmented into many large countries – not one world government, or a thousand tiny nations individually incapable of building nukes – nuclear power will always be a stick to develop and wield. If our allies don’t have them, someone else will.

Removing the nuclear deterrent may in fact plunge the world back into settling feuds with massed conventional wars. Remember those skirmishes in Europe? The only way to stop rogue nations from developing nuclear arsenals would be attacking them with conventional forces. Now imagine attacking Iran to stop nuclear development – using air strikes or land forces – but without a nuclear deterrent to prevent them from responding with a massed land war. Then imagine having to fight wars like that over and over again, every time a nation decides it wants to try and build nukes.

A few nukes is a small price to pay to keep the (relative) peace.

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