How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence? Part 8

Logical thinking should determine the size our arsenal, but as we shall see below, that number has been determined in a highly irrational manner which “frightened the devil” out of President Eisenhower — and continues to be applied today.

A summary statement I pulled together, which has been signed by a retired four-star admiral among others, says in part:

Russia and the United States each have thousands of nuclear weapons, whereas a few hundred would more than deter any rational actor and no number will deter an irrational one. Either side could therefore reduce its nuclear arsenal with little to no loss in national security, even if the other side did not immediately reciprocate. In light of the growing specter of nuclear terrorism, a reduced nuclear arsenal could even enhance national security by lessening the chance for theft or illicit sale of a weapon.

A few hundred nuclear weapons is the most that we rationally need, whereas today we have thousands, and during the Cold War we had tens of thousands. Global Zero recently released a report advocating an almost 90% reduction in our nuclear arsenal. The Commission that wrote the report was chaired by the former Commander of the US Strategic Command, so it had plenty of expertise concerning nuclear weapons and strategy. Here are two news reports which summarize the report’s call for deep cuts:

New York Times, June 10, 2012: “The United States and Russia each have more than 1,500 nuclear weapons deployed and many thousands more as backup or awaiting dismantlement. Gen. James Cartwright, the retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander of nuclear forces, recently said that deterrence could be guaranteed with 900 warheads [including reserves], with only half deployed at any time.”

New York Times, May 15, 2012: “The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the cold war,” General Cartwright said in an interview. “There is the baggage of significant numbers in reserve. There is the baggage of a nuclear stockpile beyond our needs. What is it we’re really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century.”

The irrationality of a huge nuclear arsenal was recognized much earlier, but unfortunately nothing was done about it, and a dangerous arms race ensued. In November 1960, after the first SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan, the American nuclear war fighting strategy) had been drafted by the military, President Eisenhower asked his science adviser, George Kistiakowsky to review it. A 1983 article in International Security relates what Kistiakowsky found [1]:

Kistiakowsky came away convinced that the … “damage criteria and the directives to the planners are such as to lead to unnecessary and undesirable overkill.” He found that many judgments made in preparing the plans were arbitrary, and the SAC’S vaunted computer procedures were in some cases “sheer bull.” The SIOP itself, made up from a “background of plenty” in weapons and delivery systems, made a virtue of excess: “I believe that the alert force is probably all right, but not the follow-on forces which carry megatons to kill 4 and 5 times over somebody who is already dead.”

Kistiakowsky presented his evaluation to the President on the morning of November 25, [1960]. The presentation, Eisenhower confided to his naval aide, Captain E.P. “Pete” Aurand, “frighten[ed] the devil out of me.” The sheer numbers of targets, the redundant targeting, and the enormous overkill surprised and horrified him.

The article concludes that Kistiakowsky “made the President realize that the SIOP might not be a rational instrument for controlling nuclear planning, but rather an engine generating escalating force requirements.” Given that the fate of the earth hangs in the balance, it is time to demand that we stop using such irrational decision making in determining our nuclear posture.

Martin Hellman

This is part of a series on “How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence?” You can also access Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

How You Can Help If you agree that society’s complacency concerning nuclear may be unwarranted, please sign our petition asking Congress to authorize a National Academies’ study of that risk, and encourage friends to do the same. My paper, “How Risky is Nuclear Optimism,” provides a brief, but more complete summary of the reasons such a study is needed.

Footnote 1: David Alan Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945-1960,” International Security, Vol. 7, No. 4. (Spring, 1983), pp. 3-71.

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:
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