One motivation for applying risk analysis to nuclear deterrence is the tendency for defenders of the status quo to reject all changes as too risky. Since they never mention the risk of deterrence, they make an implicit assumption that our current approach is somehow risk free.
A recent example of this irrational behavior occurred after President Obama’s Prague speech in which he committed America “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Even though Obama cautioned that this was a long-term vision which might not be realized in his lifetime, he was derided as taking an unacceptable risk by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich: “The Obama speech on nuclear disarmament is a dangerous fantasy that runs an enormous risk. … Not since Jimmy Carter have we had an administration this out of touch with reality.”
It should be clear — but apparently is not — that giving fallible human beings the god-like power to destroy civilization is not risk free. This is especially true because maintaining a “credible deterrent” requires having detailed plans for doing the unthinkable, and regularly practicing putting those plans into action so that those involved would act with cold efficiency if called on to do so. Familiarity breeds contempt, and living with the nuclear reality for fifty years has produced an understandable, but dangerous complacency.
To help overcome that tendency, I hope you’ve read “Soaring, Cryptography and Nuclear Weapons” and will recommend it to others. Renting the classic movies “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail Safe” is another good way to get in touch with the reality. By making it a movie night with friends, you can create an opportunity for them to consider the issue.
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Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering