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The new nuclear math

June 11, 2009

Pick a number. Any number. How about 1,500? That’s how many nuclear weapons General Nikolai Solovtsov wants to keep in the Russian arsenal at the conclusion of the next round of START negotiations with the US. “We must not go below 1,500 warheads,” the head of Russia’s strategic missile forces said in an interview this week.

Maybe you prefer 160? That’s the number of operationally deployed warheads the UK has settled on as “a minimum, safe, and effective” nuclear deterrent. The Indian Defence Ministry reportedly likes the number 400, which would suggest that Delhi still considers itself a few hundred warheads shy of a “safe minimum.”

The North Korean government has been sending a loud and clear message that one or two nukes should be enough to make its enemies think twice. The state-run newspaper has promised a “merciless” retaliatory strike “to those who touch the country’s dignity and sovereignty even a bit.”

There are six other nuclear weapon states with arsenals of varying sizes, who appear to have made their own calculations about what constitutes a “minimum” number of nuclear weapons for an “effective deterrent.” Picture rooms full of actuaries and auditors laboring over computer spreadsheets containing rows of targets and columns of warheads, plugging in different population densities and explosive yields and observing the effect on the peaks and troughs of the casualty graph until the elusive number appears with statistical precision.

“Look, Reggie, there it is! Our absolute minimum deterrent.”

In the twisted logic of nuclear deterrence, the North Korean math, while just as opaque and dysfunctional as anyone else’s, is at least brutally honest. One need only recall the devastation caused by two bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki to understand why it would be a bad idea to provoke a country in possession of even a handful of such weapons.

The problem with deterrence theory is the hidden assumption that it will never fail. If the strategists could guarantee that deterrence will work perfectly and forever, then one arbitrary “minimum” force level would be as good as any other. The truth is that they can’t, and it won’t, and it’s not.

In the real world, where the lesson of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that nuclear weapons must never be used again, where preventing their use by others is the only remotely defensible reason for having them yourself, and where even that rationale is unsustainable over the long term, only one number exists that is not arbitrary: zero.

General Solovtsov conceded that “this decision is up to the political authorities of the country.” President Medvedev will meet with President Obama next month in Moscow to set goals for the START negotiations. Across-the-board reductions to 500 nuclear weapons in each country, as unlikely as that seems this time around, would send a signal to France (with 300) and China (with about 200) and the others (with fewer than 400 among them) that the road to zero is open for traffic. Any number higher than 1,000 will amount to a squandered opportunity.

Russian Prime Minister Putin told the BBC this week that “If those who made the atomic bomb and used it are ready to abandon it, along with—I hope—other nuclear powers that officially or unofficially possess it, we will of course welcome and facilitate this process in every possible way.”

Are the “political authorities” ready to give the generals a lesson in the new math? Let’s hope so.

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