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Accepting the uselessness
of big nuclear missiles



Jonathan Power

May 17th, 2004

LONDON - If the Iraq imbroglio has one blessing it is that it demonstrates that there are no actual or realistically imaginable military scenarios where nuclear weapons would be of any practical use for a major power attempting to subdue a smaller one.

Yet the macho culture of nuclear weapons remains unassailed except by a brave few. General George Lee Butler, the commander of American nuclear forces in president George Bush senior's time, has argued that nuclear weapons are "inherently dangerous, hugely expensive, militarily inefficient and morally indefensible."

Even back in the days of the U.S. nuclear monopoly, the moral sanction against use was such as to render them diplomatically useless, often counterproductive.

This is why Stalin knew he could act with impunity when seizing control of Eastern Europe. Likewise Beijing and Hanoi went to war with American armies in Korea and Vietnam without fear of being halted by nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, the massive over-kill arsenals from the Cold War era remain only moderately reduced. Even when the latest treaty signed in Moscow by presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin is fully implemented in 2012, large U.S. and Russian nuclear forces will still exist, ready to promptly totally destroy each other's societies. They remain on hair trigger alert.

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For a nation besieged with worry that nuclear weapons might fall into the wrong hands it seems more than irresponsible that neither of the two post Cold War younger presidents has wanted to change the culture of nuclear weapons. Reagan did profoundly and George Bush senior too to some degree but there as been nothing less than insouciance from both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Thirteen years after the Soviet Union threw in the towel and requested its former enemy help dismantle many of its nuclear weapons and more effectively guard its stockpiles of weapons grade uranium and plutonium the job remains half done. Indeed Bush's initial response was to cut the already inadequate budget he had inherited from Clinton. According to Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee, who two weeks ago helped organize a NATO exercise in which an Al Qaeda nuclear attack was simulated, 60% of dangerous sites have still to be secured.

It was Ronald Reagan, to the consternation of most of his senior officials, who wanted to overturn conventional thinking about nuclear weapons. At his summit in Reykjavik in 1986 with the president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, he proposed what the jargon calls, Zero Ballistic Missiles, ZBM. Gorbachev too was overruled by his entourage. But later in 1991 a group of hard line Republicans including the former assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle and Paul Nitze, the grand old man of arms control who has just had a battleship named after him, fleshed out the idea.

They argued for the abolishing of massive nuclear missiles and a return to the deployment of long distance bombers as the backbone of nuclear defense. It was a fascinating about-face. It was the introduction of missiles and the subordination of bombers in the 1960s that spurred the nuclear arms race. To turn back the nuclear clock would remove the chance of surprise assault, thus finally assuring crisis stability.

This is one plus. The double plus is what ZBM would do for the rest of the world. It would have none of the weaknesses of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty with its abstainers and cheaters. An anti-rocket treaty would have universal application, and it is more easily enforceable. As the Libyan, North Korean and earlier Iraqi experience have shown much of the work of creating nuclear weapons can be concealed from detection. But missile systems cannot be effective unless their engines are tested and their boosters flown in the open.

Such a treaty wouldn't get rid of planes carrying nuclear bombs, or cruise missiles, much less terrorists bombs hand delivered in a suitcase. But it would diminish the tempo of crises and conflicts and put real pressure on would-be nuclear powers to think again.

At the moment the frozen status quo undermines the solemn promises on disarmament the nuclear-haves have made in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and greatly diminishes their negotiating leverage when dealing with the likes of North Korea and Iran. ZBM in contrast, by re-charging the dead batteries of arms control, offers the best chance of mobilizing world opinion against the theft and clandestine development of nuclear weapons by other states and underground groups. The whole corrupting psychology of nuclear arms possession that somehow justifies nuclear possession as being OK for us but not for them has to be turned on its head.

Not before time there is a debate re-surfacing on ZBM. This is the right place to begin the battle against nuclear proliferation.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


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