Rebutting the Global Zero cult

One of the most dangerous movements in the West is the drive to rid the world of nuclear weapons, commonly termed Global Zero.  The concept is so utopian as to be laughable, and so potentially self-destructive as to be truly frightening.

The science and technology behind nuclear weapons is out of the bag, and it is never going back in.  For as long as civilization exists, the knowledge and materials to make these weapons will be relatively readily available to a broad range of state and well-funded, serious, and well-connected non-state actors.

In an important discussion paper from the current issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly – the strategic journal of the United States Air Force – James Blackwell, Jr. (special advisor to the assistant chief of staff, Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration Headquarters, U.S. Air Force) and Charles Costanzo  (associate professor of national security studies, Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB) discuss "Busting Myths about Nuclear Deterrence."  The work neatly undercuts and disposes of the primary talking points behind the Global Zero movement.

America is embarked on a quest for a world without nuclear weapons, but we live in a world not yet safe from war and threats of war. Hence, as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal – both to deter potential adversaries and to assure US allies and other security partners that they can count on US security commitments. Our nuclear posture communicates to potential nuclear-armed adversaries that they cannot use nuclear threats to intimidate the United States, its allies, or partners or escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression.

The authors dispel five myths about nuclear weapons, including how "nuclear weapons are going away" (in fact, they are not; "rather[,] nuclear states are modernizing their arsenals, while other states seek these weapons") and that "the United States can deter with submarines alone" (on the contrary, fixed-site ICBMs and long-range bombers offer necessary redundancy, rapid response, and continuously visible deterrence).

But it is first two busted myths that offer the most educational value for nuclear weapons opponents.  In response to "Myth #1: The United States Does Not Use Nuclear Weapons," Blackwell and Costanzo reply as follows:

Although no nation has detonated a nuclear weapon in war since 9 August 1945, every US president since Harry Truman has used nuclear weapons to deter or compel adversaries by communicating the message that the United States is fully capable of employing nuclear weapons under circumstances determined by the National Command Authorities.

Any nuclear-armed state contemplating aggression against the United States recognizes the overwhelming odds against its success and the jeopardy it faces for foolhardy acts. Silo-based ICBMs deployed across America's heartland, SSBNs patrolling beneath the world's oceans, and our nuclear-capable bombers are constant, tangible reminders of the price for nuclear aggression against the United States ... The fact is the United States uses its nuclear weapons every day.

In other words, the best use of nuclear weapons comes from not having to use them, or conventional weapons, to repel a major power attack on the U.S. or its allies.

The rebuttal to this common sense by the Global Zero team is that "nuclear weapons have only limited utility for their cost," to which Blackwell and Costanzo offer this answer:

The USAF spends about $5 billion a year to maintain ICBMs and bombers to deter nuclear attacks against the United States, and the service is committed to a 10-year, $83.9 billion strategic modernization plan for its portion of the nation's nuclear deterrent. The Congressional Budget Office reports that the federal government will spend $355 billion over the next 10 years for all nuclear weapons investments, including those of the USAF, the Navy, the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Energy ...

By deterring the only existential threat that can destroy the United States, nuclear weapons are a bargain. This does not diminish the warfighting capability of conventional forces, but history has shown repeatedly that conventional weapons are not an effective deterrent against major interstate war, and certainly would not be in a nuclear-armed world.

Some major military and political players on both sides of the political spectrum have provided their support to the Global Zero movement, and this is a mistake.  There is no going backward.  Nuclear weapons are here to stay, and for good reason, given their effective deterrence capabilities.  The way forward is not to try turning back the clock in an effort to reclaim a nostalgic period of pre-nuclear simplicity and security that never actually existed, but instead to fashion the most effective and economical nuclear deterrent possible coupled with international policies that minimize the number of nuclear powers.