2003 May 05 Monday
Nuclear Weapons Use Becomes The Thinkable

Bill Keller has written a lengthy essay in The New York Times Magazine on the problems posed by nuclear weapons proliferation and it is entitled The Thinkable.

The arsenals of the first nuclear age were governed by elaborate rules and sophisticated technology designed to prevent firing in haste. Some of the newcomers are thought to have far less rigorous command and control, raising fears that the lines of authority could be abandoned in the heat of battle. The newer nuclear states, after all, are dealing with enemies close at hand -- minutes away by missile -- in conflicts that could unfold quickly.

Moreover, there is the danger of third-world weapons or weapons-grade material falling into the hands of terrorists -- the one enemy we know would probably not hesitate to use them. Sympathy for Taliban-style fanaticism thrives in the lower ranks of Pakistan's military, for example. American and Pakistani officials, and experts in rival India, say that Gen. Pervez Musharraf has Pakistan firmly under his control, but nobody imagines that the situation is foolproof. Or that Musharraf will endure forever.

''Then it's not a question of one or two warheads being diverted,'' said a senior administration official. ''It's a question of a couple dozen Islamic bombs.''

Keller covers many aspects of the problem of nuclear proliferation and has met with national security policy makers and knowledgeable commentators in countries around the globe. His essay is long but well worth the time.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 May 05 12:06 PM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control

wretchard said at May 6, 2003 5:05 AM:

As nuclear weapons proliferate, they will become more common and their use more readily considered. Their employment becomes "thinkable" simply because various regimes think of using them, and the tautology becomes the fact. At one level, the United States has already resigned itself to the advent of a world where the atomic genie has flown the coop, by initiating the design of a whole new family of nuclear weapons, like deep-penetrator bunker busters. In a world where nukes become common, and their employment readily considered, it makes sense to have the best and most useable nuclear weapons.

Useable you say? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Consider the two roles that have been traditionally assigned to nuclear weapons: deterrence and war fighting. Nukes, despite their fearsome reputation, were never particularly effective at annihilating an enemy population. Even the massive US nuclear arsenal would not have wiped out the Soviet citizenry to the last man. Freeman Dyson unconsciously underlined the relative inefficacy of nuclear weapons, when he calculated, during the Vietnam war, that it would take 1,000 tactical nukes per year to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail, an area considerably smaller than the former Soviet Union. As weapons of Armageddon, nukes are a bust. Biological weapons are far more efficient at wiping out an enemy population than nukes, provided, of course, that one possesses the vaccine.

But as tactical devices, as war fighting devices, nukes are eminently usable. Indeed, the Navy had a wide range of perfectly viable nuclear depth charges and SAMs. They were so useful that for years, arms controllers feared that the threshold would be crossed at sea. The enhanced radiation weapons, the so-called "neutron bombs" of two decades ago were also deep-sixed, largely because they were too tactically useful to be left in existence.

But if the nuclear threshold, sacrosanct during the First Nuclear Age, has been inevitably breached by a swarm of new entrants into the Second Nuclear Age, then there is can be no objection to the design and construction of nuclear weapons of all categories -- all, except, city-busters. That role -- deterrence -- will be left to the least "useable" weapon; the most monstrous weapon; the unthinkable weapon; the heir to the nuclear ogre: the biological bomb.

In a sense, the Second Nuclear Age is the direct result of the dethroning of the King, and the accession to power of the new Emperor of Death. Very little of this makes philosophical sense. And just as mankind was reaching for safety, the hope proved illusory. We have left the Garden of Eden. The way ahead is dark and full of tears; but though we look back longingly, there is no return: the gate to paradise is blocked by an angel with a flaming sword.

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