The United States possesses an enormous nuclear arsenal, left over from the days of the cold war. We have about 6,000 operationally deployed nuclear weapons, of which roughly 2,000 are on intercontinental ballistic missiles, 3,500 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and a few hundred carried by bomber aircraft. These are thermonuclear weapons, considerably more powerful than the fission bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Looking over these figures, one can hardly help asking, what are all these nuclear weapons for?
There was a rationale for maintaining a very large nuclear arsenal during the cold war: we had to be sure that the Soviets would be deterred from a surprise attack on the US by their certainty that enough of our arsenal would survive any such attack to allow us to deliver a devastating response. I don’t say that US strategic requirements were actually calculated in this way, but the need for such a deterrent at least provided a rational argument for a large arsenal.
This rationale for a large nuclear arsenal is now obsolete. No country in the world could threaten our submarine-based deterrent, and even with an implausibly rapid development of nuclear weapons and missiles, for decades to come no country except Russia will be able to threaten more than a tiny fraction of our land-based deterrent.
Russia maintains a nuclear arsenal of a size similar to ours, though with a different mix of delivery vehicles. On May 24, 2002, Presidents Bush and Putin signed a treaty calling for a reduction in operationally deployed nuclear weapons on both sides to about 3,800 in 2007 and to about 1,700 to 2,200 in 2012. This treaty will almost certainly be ratified by the Senate; Democrats will generally be glad of any reduction in nuclear arms, and few Republicans will want to oppose President Bush on a matter of foreign relations. President Bush has said, “This treaty will liquidate the legacy of the cold war.” But any celebration would be premature, for there is far less to this treaty than meets the eye.
For one thing, the rate of reduction is painfully slow. The START III agreement that was announced (though not signed or ratified) by Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin called for a reduction to about 2,000 to 2,500 “strategically deployed” nuclear weapons by 2007, not by the 2012 deadline of the Bush– Putin treaty. (The term “strategically deployed” differs from “operationally deployed” in including all weapons that are associated with delivery systems, whether or not they are actually ready to fire. Thus for instance the nuclear warheads of missiles on a submarine in dry-dock would be included on the list of strategically deployed weapons but not of operationally deployed weapons. When this difference is taken into account, the limit of 2,000 to 2,500 strategically deployed weapons in 2007 set by the START III agreement is the same as the limit of 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed nuclear missiles …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.