by Michael Brenner on 31 Jan 2020 0 Comment

Grand Themes

A. Nuclear Disarmament & The Zero Option


We never will achieve a nuclear free world. Getting very close to zero is highly dangerous for obvious reasons; and modest reductions in the arsenals of the United States and Russia are strategically meaningless. Yes, it is a talking point in the proliferation context since we have a legal obligation under the NPT to lower the number of warheads in the arsenals of n-weapons states. No would-be weapons state, though, cares a fig about those numbers in making the momentous decision whether or not to go nuclear.


B. Ensuring the security of nuclear stockpiles and of highly radioactive material is, of course, of the utmost importance.  In this sphere, the ideas on the table fall into three categories: the vapid; the technical; and the absurd. In the first is some kind of convention containing anodyne language declaring all parties’ readiness to worry about the problem and vowing earnestly to worry.  In the second, there could be of some small utility to agreements on the exchange of practical information on how to reduce the risk of unauthorized access to, or activation of weapons or weapons grade material. The specifics, probably, are better worked out in bilateral or wider ad hoc cooperative projects – as the US has been doing for 50 years.


The third category refers to the headline story about terrorists and nuclear weapons. Obama made this the leitmotif of his arms control vision in declaring repeatedly that terrorism is the most serious nuclear threat we face. That is simply untrue. An accurate statement designed to educate rather than to play on emotions would say that the seizure of nuclear materials by ‘al-Qaeda’ would create a vitally dangerous situation BUT it is not an urgent concern because the likelihood of such an eventuality coming to pass is close to zero. 


Classic al-Qaeda is a weak, fragmented grouping able to do little more than survive physically. This is the outfit that, over the past 14 years, has been capable of organizing nothing of great consequence. The London and Madrid bombing were essentially local operations; the Christmas bomber incident rank amateurism. Trying to blow a plane out of the sky once every several years is not a laughing matter; but to cite it to stoke fears of nuclear terrorism is rank scare-mongering with no evidential basis. An outfit that cannot manage to get its hands on fire-retardant underwear will not be able to build or steal a nuclear warhead.


C. As to the Nuclear Posture Review issued under the first Obama administration, there was truly little that was new. It simply restated past doctrine with an historical update. The question of “no first use” or not is a Cold War issue. The United States’ strategy for countering the Red Army’s enormous advantage in conventional arms was to deploy thousands of tactical nuclear weapons. If NATO forces were breaking before the onslaught, we theoretically could use small nukes against battlefield and rear echelon targets to stem the tide. Moreover, our capability for doing was intended to deter the Soviets from launching a conventional war in the belief that we would not put our cities at risk to prevent them from occupying Western Europe. Whether any of this reasoning existed anywhere other than in war game rooms is an open question. Today it is all irrelevant.




Do the above observations point in favor of developing a more refined first-strike capability? No. In the Middle East, given the disproportion of forces, there is no conceivable gain from the conjectured fine-tuning of the American nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region is very low.


So why are we pushing ahead with a hugely expensive nuclear weapons program that serves no evident strategic purpose? One conceivable answer is that we are just “keeping up with the Joneses.” But there are no Joneses anywhere out there. Greater efficiency? Nuclear weapons are unique in that they serve their purpose when they are not used – just sitting in the garage. Small improvements in potential performance, therefore, offer no benefit to the owner. Another, more realistic explanation is that we want to prove to ourselves that we “can” do it.


That is also why we climb mountains. In this case, there is something of a technological imperative involved as well. If advances in science and engineering hold out the prospect of our being able to do something technologically impressive, then we are tempted to demonstrate that we are up to the challenge. Much of innovation in the post-modern era is of this nature, i.e. technological feats of uncertain practical benefit. To nuclear weapons, we should add the macho enhancement effect. That mind-set includes an element of faddism. We cultivate a desire for a product after the fact of its being manufactured. Smart Watches, for an example. Or, self-driving cars.


Post-hoc demand creation likely plays a role in maintaining impetus behind the $1 trillion nuclear arms build-up. Once the military people and defense “strategists” fix their minds on ultra-capable, precision-guided and customized nuclear missiles and bombs, they come up with ends to which they might be put. And let’s not forget that for some the idea of being able to launch a smart, nuclear tipped missile down an imagined Iranian tunnel to where critical projects are located is thrilling. Or, just think what might have happened had we such masterful technology when Osama bin-Laden was holed up in a Toro Bora cave in December 2001. I guess that by some abstract thinking it could have compensated for the obtuseness of General Franks in refusing to send up Special Forces (for fear of casualties) or the ineptitude of the CIA/NSA in losing track of him for a decade until a walk-in gave away his location.


The titanosaur sized price for that dubious gain hardly seems worth it when the much cheaper alternative is the promotion of qualified generals and Intelligence officials. The pity is not realizing at the outset that this greatest of all dinosaurs is actually a White Elephant.[2]


D. That leaves the question of whether Washington has an interest in keeping open the option of making first use of nuclear weapons against Iran or North Korea. It is not at all obvious that these doctrinal nuances have any practical meaning. Preemptive nuclear strikes are highly risky since one never knows with certainty that they will disarm an enemy and prevent them from responding in other highly disagreeable ways. Think of 20,000 North Korean artillery pieces trained on Seoul. Think of Iran’s several opportunities to wreak havoc in the Gulf. That is one.


E. Can America deter Iran from using biological weapons? Here specific scenarios are crucial. An unprovoked, aggressive use is one theoretical possibility. Frankly, though, I cannot imagine such a situation unless we revert to ‘mad mullah’ fantasies. That’s two. Reaction to an American and/or Israeli massive airstrike is another scenario. This is more realistic in terms of motivation. Israel can protect itself via deterrence as it did vis-à-vis Iraq during Gulf War I. (See Aziz’s testimony on why Iraq did not resort to placing chemical agents in SCUD warheads at the time). There is no Iranian threat to American territory - for technical reasons. To American bases? Technically speaking, yes. Would the Iranian leaders’ judgment on this be affected by abstruse doctrines promulgated in Washington? Probably not. They would decide whether or not to use unconventional weapons in the awareness that Washington’s response was impossible to predict. That is three.


These last are matters of consequence. We can only hope that they will be addressed with the sobriety they require once the cameras have stopped rolling and the spin machines quiet down.


Addendum: Proliferation in Perspective


Re. proliferation generally and Iran specifically, there is an underlying contradiction in the Non-Proliferation regime that has been in place for close to half a century. Simply put, the conception of proliferation risk that was embodied in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had a critical flaw. Namely, it assumed a basic technological distinction between the technology required for a nuclear weapons program and the technology associated with a civilian power generating program. The premise was that the fissile materials that are the explosive core of a bomb (uranium or plutonium of certain isotopes) could only be produced through highly sophisticated and prohibitively costly facilities that very few countries could aspire to. Hence, enrichment and the production of plutonium in plants that extracted the needed isotopes from nuclear waste fuel were not proscribed. To reinforce this logic, the United States undertook to supply civilian reactors world-wide with low enriched uranium (LEU) at discount prices.


The system unraveled in the early 1970s for two reasons. The Indian bomb that used plutonium reprocessed from a civilian (Canadian) reactor using Heavy Water as a moderating agent showed how easy and cheap it was and thereby erased the line between civilian and nuclear programs for all practical intents and purposes. The second development was a manufactured crisis in the supply of LEU that stemmed from a Nixon administration scheme to privatize nuclear enrichment – higher prices stemming from the nominal shortage was intended as a lure for private investors. The Europeans reacted by building their own enrichment facilities and started selling them abroad. The manifest proliferation risk led to the formation of a Suppliers’ Club whose technically proficient members agreed to keep enrichment out of commercial markets. BUT the NPT never was amended and signatories retain the legal right to enrich uranium and to reprocess plutonium. The prohibitions placed on enrichment in Iran have no legal standing under the NPT.


That explains why Iran’s enrichment program, among other activities, is not in itself in violation of the NPT. They were caught on a technicality having to do with opening all national facilities to IAEA inspection and surveillance as part of the safeguards regime. In other words, like Al Capone being indicted for tax evasion. The United States, in effect, paints Iran as Capone and therefore has sought punishment that is disproportionate to the crime. Those alleged transgressions have nothing to do with the NPT. Therefore, the IAEA has no authority to consider matters other than those stipulated in its enabling articles which concern fuels and technologies that are part of a military program. Civil nuclear facilities /activities per se are not identified as problematic – quite the opposite. So, too, other security, political and military matters that do not have a specific nuclear association fall outside the IAEA’s legal purview.




2)    For details see “As U.S. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy” WILLIAM J. BROAD and DAVID E. SANGER The New York Times JAN. 11, 2016; also their “Race Escalates For Latest Class Of Nuclear Arms” NYT April 17, 2016


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