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The Zero Nukes Conundrum

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We have learned from the sacking of the Alexandrian Library in 415 AD or the mysterious demise of the Maya that knowledge can be inadvertently lost to all time through chaos and battle. But can knowledge be lost on purpose?

That, in a nutshell, is the zero nukes conundrum. Can Einstein's genie ever be put back in the bottle? Unless it can, there is no guarantee that absolute zero nuclear weapons, as President Obama has proposed, can ever provide absolute security. Indeed, the illusion that knowledge can be disinvented may make the world a more dangerous place.

Recently, I sat down with some of the key American nuclear strategists of the Cold War period for an off-the-record discussion about the promises and perils of the first serious attempt since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to walk humanity back as far from the nuclear brink as possible. These wise men were far more sober than giddy about the prospects for peace in a non-nuclear world.

In his famous speech in Prague in August, 2009, President Obama called for a return to the "peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Yet, as the strategists point out, two devastating world wars preceded the first use of nuclear weapons. Since then -- for over 60 years -- we have seen no such wars between major powers on a global scale. Though history never reveals its alternatives, it certainly appears as if deterrence has so far worked in preventing an atomic conflagration.

This is true even though nuclear weapons are not usable for any other purpose than deterrence since the consequence of their use -- potential annihilation of civilization as we know it -- is incommensurate with any rational objective in fighting a war.

Ultimately, fear, not trust, is the mechanism of warding off an enemy. If the knowledge and technology to produce nuclear weapons exists, who can be certain that pledges to totally eliminate them are made in good faith? When it comes to the risk of holocaust, the safest course is to assume the worst, not the best, of a potential enemy.

In short, a world of zero nuclear weapons in which everyone still has the knowledge to make them could be more destabilizing than an accelerating arms race in which each tries to overcome the advantage of the other.

Rather than moving toward zero and focusing on numbers, the strategists say, the emphasis should be on reductions of the most destabilizing types of weapons -- such as multiple warhead missiles or mobile missiles that are easy to conceal. That will create more stability, not less.

Certainly, there is plenty of room to radically reduce arsenals, as the new START treaty
begins to do, starting with the destabilizing weapons and putting in place controls that prevent unauthorized or accidental launch of a nuclear-armed missile. As long as a minimal balance remains that ensures the capacity for mutual destruction, deterrence will hold.

The other focus should be on non-nuclear means of deterrence, though that too may generate instability if it creates a gap, real or perceived, with the capabilities of rival powers. The favored child of the Obama Pentagon is the "Prompt Global Strike" (PGS) weapon -- a highly accurate inter-continental ballistic missile armed with a conventional warhead that can hit any target globally within an hour.

The advantages of such a weapon are self-evident -- it can strike at the heart of any enemy without annihilating its population or prompting a return nuclear attack. As such, its large-scale deployment could radically reduce dependence on nuclear weapons. At the same time, since its use will not be incommensurate with rational goals, it is far more likely to be used than a nuclear weapon.

Further, as the Russians, and no doubt the Chinese, fear, a world of zero nuclear weapons where only the US possesses the PGS is a recipe for American domination of the global battle space. Inexorably, one day they will catch up with like technology. A system of deterrence
based mainly on conventional weaponry might let us all breathe a little easier, even if nukes remain in the wings.

Unfortunately, it seems apparent that the only way knowledge of nuclear weapons will ever be lost is through a nuclear war that would destroy the civilization that spawned it. Short of that catastrophic eventuality that no one would hope for, aiming at building a system of stability, instead of dreaming of zero, is the best course.

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