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Getting to 311 (on the way to zero)

March 18, 2010

A group of active US Air Force strategists has made a stunning recommendation: that the US unilaterally reduce its nuclear arsenal to 311 weapons. That’s approximately a 95% cut, which, according to these military policy advisers, can be made regardless of what any other nuclear weapon state does. You read that correctly. Air Force experts have said that even if Russia and the other nuclear-armed states were to keep every warhead they have, the US can go down to a little more than 300 without (from their point of view) being any less secure.

The analysis appears in the spring issue of the Air Force journal Strategic Studies Quarterly and is written by James Wood Forsyth Jr., a professor at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies; Colonel B. Chance Saltzman, head of the Strategic Plans and Policy Division; and Gary Schaub, Jr., a professor at the Air War College. Their proposal – coming as it does from the strategic center of the nuclear establishment – is bound to have an impact on the debate that has been raging within the Obama administration around the long-delayed US Nuclear Posture Review and whether it will mark a clear, dramatic departure from existing policy. The impact of the Air Force Three won’t necessarily be all for the good, but that doesn’t make their bottom line any less intriguing.

The fact that 311 weapons is their bottom line is part of the reason we shouldn’t wax too enthusiastic. These are not abolitionists, and a large part of their paper is a lengthy, detailed defense of the policy of deterrence, albeit an adjusted “minimum” deterrence as they view it, and the permanent need for nuclear weapons in an unstable world.

“Would the world be better off without nuclear weapons?” they ask.  “Although it might be desirable to rid the world of nuclear weapons, it is not wise,” is their immediate answer. Why?  They give a number of reasons, but here are three that got my attention:

“In theory, nuclear weapons are better than conventional forces in terms of enhancing general deterrence.”

“Nuclear weapons socialize statesmen to the dangers of adventurism, which in turn conditions them to set up formal and informal sets of rules that constrain their behavior.”

“Nuclear weapons allow international life to go on in spite of their inherent dangers because leaders of nuclear states realize that that they are constrained despite their goals, desires, or rhetoric.”

In other words, because they are so awful, nuclear weapons keep everyone – owners and non-owners alike – on their best (or at least non-worst) behavior. Stability trumps risk, and even brings some benefits. The problem with that argument, of course, is that it presumes – and actually requires – that deterrence will never fail, that nuclear weapons will never be used because everyone is just too sensible (or scared) to use them, and that we should learn to live with them because they are thought to provide some kind of security buffer against aggression in other forms.

As I’ve written on this blog before [No room for deterrence in the logic of zero; Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Getting It Wrong], betting the world on the success of deterrence each and every time a nuclear threat appears, even as the threats (and those doing the threatening) multiply, is either arrogant or foolish or both. What kind of security comes from the ever present awareness – or the fear – that one misstep means the incineration of a city, or a country, or the world? Abolitionists understand what the Air Force Three themselves make perfectly clear: that a continued belief in the deterrent value of nuclear weapons is the biggest obstacle to their elimination.

And yet…

This 311 number is fascinating. Not because it is so curiously precise, but because it is even lower than the number many of us have been saying would provide a real incentive for the other nuclear weapon states to sit at the negotiating table for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. Many of us have placed that number at around 500 each for the US and Russian arsenals – roughly comparable the Chinese, French, and British forces. That number was also recommended by the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which disappointingly set a timid deadline of 2025 for reductions to that level.

The Air Force strategists believe some nuclear weapons make us safer and want to stop at 311 (for the US). Abolitionists see nothing but catastrophe and suffering – and potentially the end of humanity – in nuclear weapons and have set zero (for everybody) as the only acceptable goal. In order for talk about a world without nuclear weapons to be more than aspirational, we’re going to have to debunk the policy of deterrence once and for all. In the meantime, a 95% cut is a serious step in the right direction.

One Comment
  1. Michael Christ permalink
    March 18, 2010 3:20 pm

    The 311 number is fascinating to me also because it is so curiously precise. A very specific kill worked out for each and every weapon?

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