Usable nukes?

In late January, 2018, the US Administration declared that it wanted smaller nuclear weapons. It sounds positive, but it isn’t. The new direction was announced in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a policy proposal issued now and then by the US military. In this case, the hawks want to build on the already planned $1 trillion “modernization” of the arsenal (supported by Pres. Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning advocate of a nuclear weapons-free world). They want to repurpose some nukes to be smaller and thus more usable, in case the Russians think that they can start a war and the US will give in rather than use their very big nukes and end the world. Clear? The logic is that if the Russians think that the US has smaller nukes, they might use them in a limited way on selected targets, so Pres Putin will be deterred from starting any trouble.

War planners are always trying to get around the simple fact that nukes are unusable because using them means mutual suicide and, if not the end of humanity, at least the end of civilization as we have come to know it. But nobody likes weapons that can’t be used. And, rumour has it, President Trump recently heard Sean Hannity of FOX TV say the US needs more nukes. More nukes equals more strength, which is of course idiocy. So the redesign of the Doomsday Machine got handed over to the most extreme hawks around.

Military men generally dislike nukes, and many of them certainly don’t like the idea of tactical nukes being expanded. For one thing, it will suck money away from conventional forces. But it’s not just that. They don’t trust the strategy, thinking it will make nuclear war more likely — plus it puts other systems at risk. For example, the big nuclear warheads on a Trident submarine, hidden somewhere under the sea, are there to provide the threat of a secure second strike on the enemy, and this supposedly guarantees stable deterrence: nobody is going to nuke us if they know for sure they will be nuked in return by subs that they cannot locate. The Tridents hide very effectively. But if the sub fires a smaller warhead as a warning shot, as is proposed, it could reveal its location, and could be destroyed by the enemy.

Plus, there is no evidence that the Russians aren’t deterred already. And the US already has B61 “small” nuke bombs, which are in Europe available for use at any time. And really, would using “small” nukes — which still would cause hideous deaths to thousands — end a war? Or start a much, much bigger one? History does not necessarily unfold according to rational, sensible plans.

This is not a new strategy. Richard Nixon proposed ‘flexible response’ – essentially the same idea. Luckily, all this madness got dialled down when the Cold War ended in the 90’s. But the weapons, though fewer, remain, on hair trigger, waiting to kill us. And the hostility is ramping up, waiting for the next crisis. The thing about deterrence is that it has to work — forever. And what system works forever?

Given the pathetic state of the entire Doomsday system — note the false warnings witnessed in Hawaii and Japan recently, and the dozens of near launches before that, caused by a faulty computer chip, a training tape mistakenly put in the actual launch system, a flock of birds triggering an alert, as well as the rusting Russian radar systems etc etc. — having “usable” nukes simply brings us that much closer to Armageddon.

On the other side of sanity, 122 of the world’s 193 nations voted in 2017 in favour of a treaty to prohibit nukes everywhere. Canada did not vote and will not sign. As Albert Einstein said long ago, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”