In my judgment, the U.S. and indeed the global community are less than 10 years from the brink of a possible nuclear weapons disaster. The continued proliferation and modernization of atomic weapons will lead inexorably to their possession and eventual accidental or deliberate use.
Throughout much of my military career, I have been involved in the planning and possible deployment of nuclear weapons. I was fortunate to have learned from former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry when I served in the Pentagon. I was also a principal arms control negotiator with the Russians during the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I. We managed over the decades to maintain a fairly stable peace, which had it failed, would have destroyed much of Earth. At the height of the Cold War, there were more than 70,000 total weapons. Madness.
In February 2021, with the expiration of the New START Treaty, the U.S. and Russia will have let lapse the last practical constraints on a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms race. The next president of the United States must make arms control the first priority of U.S. national security.
The current nine nuclear powers have 14,000 weapons. Some 90% of all these warheads are controlled by the U.S. and Russia. Unfortunately, the technological barriers to nuclear entry are low. The science is available on the internet. With less than 20 lbs. of donated, stolen or manufactured highly enriched uranium, or a plutonium device, even primitive Libya under Gen. Muammar Gaddafi’s rule was close to going nuclear. There are easily some 30 nations that in less than five years, with the help of a rogue power, could cross the nuclear threshold.
There is no possibility of putting nukes back in the bottle. None. In 1945, the U.S. in WWII faced an anticipated million U.S. military casualties during the projected invasion of the Japanese mainland. Japanese civilian casualties would also have been horrific. My dad was an infantry full colonel on route from the fighting in Europe to take command of a regiment in the coming assault operations. The brutal land and sea combat on Okinawa had given us a taste of what was to come. To end the war, on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, we dropped two nuclear devices on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and almost instantaneously killed 200,000 Japanese civilians. Truman, when briefed on the horrifying results, forbade the employment of a third nuclear weapon.
Nuclear weapons unfortunately will remain an irreversible existential threat to U.S. national security. We are stuck permanently with deterrence as the central pillar to prevent their future use. There is no going back. However, we can dramatically lower the chances of a future Armageddon through smart arms-control negotiations and international diplomacy.
Americans need to understand and grasp the horrific magnitude of the devastation which would result from any nuclear exchange. The weapons the U.S. employed in WWII were modest 15 kilotons and 22 kilotons plutonium and uranium devices. An all-out exchange with the Russians would be over in about 30 minutes, along with most life in the two nations. A North Korean one-megaton (not yet developed) airburst weapon detonated over central Seattle or Honolulu would kill 50% of the population out to a range of eight kilometers. Kim Jong Un now has 30 to 60 nuclear devices and the prototype for an ICBM. He also has the initial design of a sub-launched nuke missile.
What is to be done? We must put our brightest arms-control minds to work on multiple approaches to the constraint and reduction of the nuclear global threat.
Step one should be a U.S. unilateral presidential announcement of “No First Use” in the first year of the next administration. Step two should be the U.S. unilateral removal of our 150 largely useless B61 gravity nuclear weapons in Europe. Step three would be congressional binding legislation to eliminate the president’s “sole use” authority to employ nuclear weapons.
I have a lot of experience with issues surrounding nuclear weapons and have given this a great deal of thought. None of these three initiatives, in my military judgment, will reduce the U.S. nuclear deterrent capability. There is zero strategic sense to a “launch on warning” scenario. Our U.S. sea-based nuclear deterrent would always remain capable of a massive second strike, which clearly creates deterrence to a rational enemy.
Finally, the U.S. must initiate and lead a pragmatic and detailed arms-control negotiation among all the existing nuclear powers to dramatically reduce the possibility of accidental launch or cyber-induced launch. With our international partners, we also need to develop arms-control measures that substantially “de-alert” nuclear attack systems and allow for credible multilateral or bilateral monitoring. Finally, we need to freeze in place the further global expansion or modernization of nuclear weapons with verifiable international monitoring.
The devastating implications of the continued global proliferation and modernization of nuclear weapons demands first priority action by the president who assumes office on Jan. 20, 2021.