Improve nukes to eliminate them?

Could improving our nuclear weapons help pave a path to “zero” — a world free of nuclear weapons? Or, could the path already be paved and we just don’t realize it?

Last week’s speaker in my series of public lectures at Stanford presented a novel argument that improving our capability to make nuclear weapons could be an important step on the road to eliminating them. Dr. Joseph Martz led Los Alamos’ design team for the controversial RRW (Reliable Replacement Warhead) and is currently a visitor at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). He also is dedicated to eliminating the threat posed by nuclear weapons and has joined me in several presentations to students, encouraging them to join my effort to make Stanford a pocket of nuclear awareness.

In his talk, he pointed out that our current nuclear weapons are “Ferrari designs”, created during the arms race with one primary goal: maximizing explosive power to weight ratio so that as many as possible could be crammed onto each missile. With the arms race largely a relic of the past, redesigning our warheads to be Fords instead of Ferraris would have a number of advantages, including making them safer. For example, current designs use Conventional High Explosives to initiate the nuclear reaction, whereas a new design would use Insensitive High Explosives that are much harder to detonate by accident (e.g., in an aircraft crash). Martz noted that perhaps Conventional High Explosives should be renamed “Sensitive High Explosives” — not something you’d like in a nuclear weapon.

For a number of reasons, including the use Insensitive High Explosives, a new design also could be built much more rapidly if needed. Martz argued that the ability to rapidly reconstitute our nuclear arsenal could be critical in allowing large reductions in our nuclear stockpile, especially at “zero.” What, he asked, will replace deterrence (Mutually Assured Destruction) at low numbers and zero? We don’t want to eliminate nuclear weapons merely to make the world safe for conventional war, plus we will not eliminate nuclear weapons so long as we fear conventional war. But, he argued, if we have the capability to rapidly reconstitute our nuclear arsenal, that would provide a “capability based deterrent.” Our ability to build the weapons would replace the weapons themselves as the deterrent to help maintain the peace. Such a move would increase the response time during a crisis from minutes today to months or years and remove much of the dangerous instability in deterrence. You wouldn’t make a decision to buy a house in five minutes. Why should the president have to decide on the fate of humanity in that short time?

Jonathan Schell, author of the 1980’s best seller The Fate of the Earth, has a related, but different viewpoint. In a recent article entitled Reaching Zero, Schell’s concluding paragraph states:

What would nuclear weapons then be for? They almost tell us themselves. “We are here,” they say, “to abolish ourselves, and–a big bonus–to put up a barrier to major power war forever after into the bargain. For even after you are rid of us, we will hover in the wings, as a potential that cannot ever be removed.” The bomb is waiting for us to hear the message. It has been waiting a long time. If we do not, it can always return to what has always been its plan B, and abolish us.

Schell’s metaphor of nuclear weapons “hovering in the wings” highlights an interesting perspective: Since the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons cannot be forgotten, might that, in and of itself without any improvements to our nuclear weapons infrastructure, serve as a capability based deterrent? (In his talk, Martz traced the concept of a capability based deterrent back to a proposal by Schell in the 1980’s.)

So who is right? Disarmament purists reject Martz’ approach as a dangerous detour, while those who see deterrence as essential to preserving peace reject the purer version of zero equally as vigorously. Rather than argue in favor of one of these two perspectives over the other, at this point in the process, I see value in both.

Currently, most people are apathetic and complacent about nuclear weapons, so we need to be building consensus to reduce the risk. Once enough people are actively involved in the process to start changing policy, then it will become important to decide between two such different approaches. But now, since some people are turned off by one or the other, it is better to leave both on the table — as well as other options that might lead to a safer world — thereby attracting more people from the sidelines into the discussion by including menu options they can support.

Martin Hellman
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering, Stanford University

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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2 Responses to Improve nukes to eliminate them?

  1. Russ Wellen says:

    On the subject of latent deterrence, in the new Washington Quarterly Bruno Tetrais writes that. . .

    . . . a post-nuclear world may be a highly unstable one. ‘”Uninventing’”nuclear weapons would take several decades. Many countries
    would probably keep a de facto latent capability to reconstruct their nuclear arsenal, possibly triggering a “‘race to rearm” at the onset of the first major international crisis not unlike what happened at the end ofWorldWar II when the United States rushed to develop the atomic bomb for fear that Germany would do it first.

    Sometimes I think our relationship with nuclear weapons, however dysfunctional, can’t be sundered. In any event, it’s not likely to end happily.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    Thanks for the comment Russ. As Jonathan Schell says in a recent article that talks about a world beyond nukes: What would nuclear weapons then be for? They almost tell us themselves. “We are here,” they say, “to abolish ourselves, and–a big bonus–to put up a barrier to major power war forever after into the bargain. For even after you are rid of us, we will hover in the wings, as a potential that cannot ever be removed.” The bomb is waiting for us to hear the message. It has been waiting a long time. If we do not, it can always return to what has always been its plan B, and abolish us.

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