Trying to Reduce Our Only Existential Threat
Attempting to make good on his pledge to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and other nations’ defense postures, and eventually eliminate them, President Barack Obama seems on the verge of reaching a new strategic arms reduction agreement with Russia. If such an accord is reached, Obama is to be commended. But more needs to be done.
After the Cold War ended, the public largely forgot about the only "existential threat" – a threat to the nation’s very existence – that the United States has ever faced in its history. Not even a victory by the Nazis in Europe and/or the Imperial Japanese in Asia during World War II would have threatened an America protected from the world’s major flashpoints by two vast oceanic moats. And although the young and weak United States, under President James Madison, foolishly declared war on the British naval superpower and had its capital city burned, America probably would have survived even the loss of this pointless war. After all, Washington wasn’t as important to a then-decentralized country as it is now, and the British did not have enough forces to occupy and control all of the vast American territory.
Nowadays, American governments do worry about unfriendly, poor countries – such as Iran and North Korea – getting a few nuclear weapons. Even if these nations had effective missile systems that could deliver a small number of warheads to the faraway United States and somehow were not deterred from launching such an attack by the overwhelmingly superior U.S. nuclear arsenal, the results would be horrendous to the U.S. targets struck but would not be a threat to the existence of America. Similarly, if those countries gave or sold a nuclear device to a terror group, or if the terrorists were able to steal or build one, the use of it in any of these scenarios would not result in existential destruction.
Despite its recession from the headlines, the Soviet Union and now Russia has been and still is the only country to have enough nuclear warheads to pose such a cataclysmic threat to the U.S. homeland. To his credit, despite only a minimal chance of making political hay from working on a problem that American and world public opinion think has been solved, Obama is on the verge of signing a replacement for the just-expired Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991 that would cut U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear arsenals by about a quarter from 2,200 to 1,600 warheads apiece. The new treaty would also limit each side’s strategic bombers and sea- and land-based missiles to 800, a reduction from the current ceiling of 1,600.
And if he can nail down this agreement, Obama wants to try to cut warhead totals to 1,000 on each side. Of course, if Russia and the United States could successfully negotiate cuts down to this level, they then would need to bring in the lesser nuclear powers of Britain, France, and China to go farther.
Smaller strategic arsenals would be easier to protect and thus provide fewer opportunities for terrorist groups to steal warheads – making a low-probability event even lower. A reduced U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads would also obviate the need to build a new generation of nuclear warheads. Instead, current warhead designs could be refurbished and reused. Finally, the United States could scrap at least one leg of the bomber and air- and sea-based missile "triad," which has long been nuclear overkill after the Cold War ended. The U.S. could start by eliminating the ever vulnerable land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and warheads in ground silos. Finally, all such cuts of warheads and delivery systems would cut the cost of storage, personnel, operations, and maintenance – money that could be used to reduce the $1 trillion deficits that the Bush and Obama administrations have given us.
In short, if a new START agreement is reached, Obama should be given credit for toiling in the shadows on an issue that is no longer glamorous but still has the potential to catastrophically affect America and the world.
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