Wednesday, July 25, 2012

New START: Less is More

This post appeared in The Truman Doctrine on 23 July 2012.

When it comes to bombs, the conventional Cold War arms-race wisdom was “The more, the better.”

When it comes to nuclear weapons, this thinking produces diminishing returns. President Obama, along with President Reagan, understood this. There are some, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who still argue that reducing America’s nuclear arsenal threatens our national security. Romney still names Russia as America’s greatest foe. In 2011, GOP Senators held out as long as they could against ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia on this thought-basis. But there is such a thing as enough nukes and the benefits of bilateral nuclear arms reductions to our national security outweigh any cost.

How many nuclear weapons does America need? Let’s do the quick devil’s arithmetic. Nagasaki, Japan had a population of roughly 240,000, (think Madison, Wisconsin) in 1945. It was destroyed by the ‘Fat Man’ device with an estimated yield of 20 kilotons of TNT. It destroyed virtually all buildings, caused 3rd degree burns to tissue, and immediate death from radiation within four kilometers of the epicenter. The deadly effects spread as far as twelve square kilometers.

If America wanted (to borrow a phrase from Iranian President Ahmadinejad) to literally wipe all 1.65 million square kilometers of Iran off the map, we would need over 137,000 ‘Fat Man’ devices. Using today’s nukes, we would need a little over 2,300. New START allows America and Russia to possess 1,550 strategic warheads apiece. That is still more than enough to destroy all population centers in any country in the world; enough to destroy every living thing in 1 million square kilometers.

America still maintains a very significant nuclear arsenal under New START. Other studies have shown that America needs as few as 300 nuclear weapons to maintain deterrence. What the U.S. gets in return from New START is a reduction in nuclear arms outside of its own borders. ‘Loose nukes’ provide many nightmare scenarios involving terrorist attacks in America, its overseas installations, and its allies. The U.S. has spent millions on programs to buy or secure foreign nuclear weapons and materials. The breakup of the USSR and breaches in the nuclear security of western countries by state-directed nuclear espionage programs have led to a doubling of the nuclear club. Iran appears to want to be the newest member.

As Iran’s struggle to get the bomb shows, it is difficult to start a nuclear program from scratch, especially after the cat is out of the bag about its existence. Iraq and Syria’s nascent nuclear programs were allegedly nipped in the bud by Israeli airstrikes. Iran has years of nuclear refinement ahead of it to produce a significant nuclear arsenal and it is facing stiff international diplomatic and economic resistance. It is far easier to piggyback or reverse engineer off of intelligence and materials from another existing nuclear state. Iran is receiving assistance from Russia and China. Once successful, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle, as North Korea and Pakistan show.

The United States and the Obama administration should continue to do all it can to reduce the amount of nuclear warheads, material, and knowledge in the world outside of its borders. New START does this while allowing America to maintain a more than sufficient nuclear deterrent of its own. Sometimes less is more.