In the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the purpose of America’s nuclear arsenal has been poorly defined. To remedy this problem, the Pentagon’s most recent Nuclear Posture Review provides a glimpse of the current administration’s vision for America’s nuclear weapons. They should only be used if nations like China, Iraq and North Korea attack areas of vital American interest, or as advanced earth-penetrating weapons to destroy deeply-buried enemy bunkers containing weapons of mass destruction. Though the Pentagon should have contingency plans for nuclear retaliation if another country initiates a first-strike, the U.S. should never be the first to use nuclear force.
The countries outlined in the report—Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, China and Russia—pose a clear danger to the security of the United States and its allies. All either have weapons of mass destruction, or have tried to develop them. Even more telling, several of these countries—most notably Iraq and Syria—have shown the willingness to slaughter their own people. And though Russia’s relationship with the U.S. has improved immeasurably since the Cold War, it would be irresponsible of the military not to have a nuclear contingency plan for the world’s largest nuclear power.
Indeed, the Cold War logic of nuclear deterrence still applies, though in a much more limited context. If countries like Iraq, North Korea and China know that the U.S. is watching them and is willing to contemplate nuclear retaliation, they will be much less willing to start a war. If anything can possibly be more effective than the actual use of nuclear weapons, it is the threat of their use. As long as aggressive nations believe that the U.S. is serious—and by all indications, President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are deadly serious—this threat could go a long way towards restraining destructive behavior.
It is also wise to prepare nuclear weapons to be used against underground bunkers that cannot be reached with any conventional weapons. Again, the threat of having weapons that can penetrate these bunkers may be of more use than the weapons themselves, as they would deter anyone from building these bunkers in the first place. But if a conflict were to erupt, and another nation used weapons of mass destruction first, the U.S. should have the ability to eliminate that threat at minimal risk to American soldiers.
This planning, against a day that hopefully will never come, is prudent. But it is imperative that the U.S. never again use weapons of mass destruction before its adversary. The historical argument in favor of preserving a first-strike option—that of the Soviet Union starting a massive invasion of Western Europe—is no longer relevant, and no similar situation is foreseeable. Nuclear weapons are not just big bombs; even the smallest tactical weapons pack immense payloads, nuclear explosions leave fallout for years, and their use runs the risk of spurring catastrophic escalation.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States embraced the idea of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction. Due to this counter intuitive logic, the U.S. and the USSR were able to survive decades of intense geopolitical competition without engulfing the world in a nuclear holocaust. Today, as then, the threat of nuclear retaliation may do much to prevent a world conflict.
Dissent: A Dangerously Outdated Defense
Nuclear weapons are nuclear weapons, regardless of whether they are tactical or strategic. A nuke designed to blow up a city—rather than a state—is still a nuke.
We have the strongest conventional military in the world, and President Bush has proposed a $48 billion increase in defense spending this year. If we must defend an ally, we can do it on the ground, in the air, and at sea. We have gone 55 years—including an arms race that nearly brought us to nuclear holocaust—without using weapons of mass destruction in military attacks.
We must lead by example and show the world that using nuclear weapons is only acceptable in severe circumstances. The only time nuclear weapons should ever be used is if another nation were to sponsor a nuclear attack directly on a major US population center—a scenario that looks highly unlikely in today’s world.
Even if a terrorist group obtained a nuclear weapon, and used it against us—or one of our allies—we should not retaliate with a nuclear strike. Terrorist groups cannot be effectively or easily targeted with nuclear weapons.
Whatever comes from the war on terrorism, we must make sure that Rumsfeld, Powell, and Bush don’t even think about pushing that red button.
—Nicholas F.B. Smyth ’05