Nuclear Weapons in the Info Age: Who Needs 'em?

By Rear Admiral W. J. Holland, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)

Much of General Butler's argument restates positions espoused by Navy leaders in the 1980s. Information technology improvements have removed whatever tactical military utility nuclear weapons ever had. Reconnaissance and navigational devices have eliminated major errors associated with target location. Modern homing devices allow weapons to seek imprecisely defined or moving targets over far larger areas than the nuclear weapons these conventional explosives replaced. Modern antisubmarine torpedoes, for example, cover a far larger locus of possible target positions than nuclear depth bombs. Although no conventional explosive approaches the destructive potential of a nuclear weapon, the need for such large damage potential always was more useful as a political threat than as a military capability. Few military targets ever presented useful employment for nuclear weapons.

General Butler's concern that the United States possesses many more nuclear weapons than required for any purpose seems valid. Nuclear weapons proliferated because they were seen as a more cost-efficient mechanism to deter and intimidate than conventional forces, because they fulfilled the prophecy of strategic bombing advocates, because they provided a framework to increase organizational force, and because they provided employment for large numbers of skilled and intellectually influential people. The general's recollection of overloaded bombers on icy runways and his own repentance at having been an unquestioning party to some unsafe deployment practices of the Strategic Air Command lend particular poignancy to the emotions that surround his position.

Most officers can agree with General Butler's concerns. The appeal of a world without nuclear weapons is overwhelming. But the nuclear test explosions by India and Pakistan have been a jolt of reality. These developments, together with the continued Iraqi evasions in the post-Gulf War nuclear weapon inspections, demonstrate that one sided appeals for abolition of nuclear weapons are simplistic and unfortunately naive. As the Indians and Pakistanis have so dramatically demonstrated, not everyone seeks a zero solution. Officers in the business of managing nuclear weapons need to understand the rationale for the United States' continued possession and deployment of such weapons. This is critical both for their own peace of mind and to be able to explain to their subordinates, their families, and to the general public why we, the United States, must continue to field these terrible devices.

Most fundamental is the simple recognition that nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented, regardless of the wishes of the vast majority of mankind. Indeed, evidence demonstrates that some will continue to seek to obtain, develop, and perhaps use them in the future. Americans, therefore, must focus on ameliorating the problems associated with nuclear weapons in the hands of others: the first mission of the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains to deter use of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons may be the instruments to end the world, but because of their destructive capacity, they also reduce that very risk by minimizing the chance of wars between powers similarly armed. Not only does the U.S. nuclear arsenal deter potential enemies of the United States, but it also makes the United States careful in its foreign policy not to commit its total national will and credibility to causes that do not represent serious national value. "Saber rattling" is a dangerous sport in any event, but nuclear weapons in the scabbard make even the most bellicose shy of precipitous actions. Hardly a reason justifying possession of nuclear weapons, it is an aspect of their character that cannot be ignored. The reaction of the Indians and Pakistanis following their mutual explosions is instructive. After 50 years of wrangling, including several wars, both sides publicly proclaimed that they were ready to start to resolve their dispute over Kashmir.

Just how useful a nuclear arsenal is in deterring aggression is problematical, but there is no doubt that our possession of nuclear weapons puts a limit on the amount and degree of violence that can be used in confrontations with the United States or its major allies. Weapons of mass destruction have been defined to include chemical and biological weapons—weapons the United States has denounced and is in the process of destroying any capability to produce or use. The announced public policy of the United States is to treat chemical and biological weapons as deserving of retaliation with nuclear weapons. Were the United States to surrender all nuclear weapons, it would have to begin development of chemical and biological capabilities sufficient to deter attacks from such weapons as well as to discourage their proliferation by other countries.

Thus, the second mission of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to discourage proliferation—not only of nuclear weapons but also of other weapons of mass destruction. To accomplish this, the U.S. arsenal must be strong enough to make it obvious to the rest of the world that there can be no peer competitors. This requires relatively large numbers of weapons and systems that are accurate, responsive, secure, and controlled and deployed in ways that cannot be matched or exploited by other powers. An arsenal that would require major efforts to match, and a clear ability to assemble overwhelming destructive potential faster than any other competitor, reduces the possibility that an ambitious power might think that it secretly could create an arsenal large and strong enough to intimidate the United States or its allies.

In the eyes of some countries, the possession of nuclear weapons is the necessary ingredient for a great power. The United Kingdom maintains such a force today at enormous expense, with little evident practical value. DeGaulle's argument that the United States would not sacrifice Chicago for Paris justified the French construction of their Force de Frappe. After 40 years of service, the high-cost/low-benefit ratio of this force together with the end of the Cold War presages the end of any usefulness it ever had. Yet, the French are not eliminating their arsenal. Like the British, they continue to invest in maintenance of the submarine leg of their once triad for reasons of national pride and international influence. Both countries see ownership of nuclear weapons as giving them presence in the front rank of international powers. However, except for the most nationalistic politicians in the two countries, the commitment continues to decline, as decision-making elites see the United States remaining the master and arbiter of nuclear forces in the world.

In this regard, when the United States maintains a strong arsenal and couples that arsenal with guarantees of the sovereignty of another nation, the incentive for that nation to create its own arsenal diminishes rapidly. The value of this aspect of U.S. commitment and capability is most apparent in Germany and Japan. No one over 50 in Europe is entirely comfortable seeing tanks bearing iron crosses. The degree of discomfort in Central Europe were Germany to be nuclear armed or in East Asia if Japan had nuclear weapons would be very high. The stress might be enough to fracture the alliances that have served international peace and stability so well over the past 50 years. In short, the existence of the U.S. arsenal helps convince those who have nuclear weapons that they do not need them and those who have not that they cannot create a useful nuclear force.

The subject then becomes how many and what kind of weapons we must maintain, for how long, and in what condition. Following from the arguments above, the United States needs to maintain an arsenal sufficiently large that no one can compete and sufficiently secure that it cannot be neutralized in any reasonable way. Because nuclear weapons have more to do with perception than reality, a mixture of launching systems is useful, so that no one could entertain the notion that a single system might be overcome by force or trick. Submarine-based weapons are secure when at sea, but not everyone believes this truth. So weapons based ashore or in the air discourage those who think the sea might someday become transparent.

Viewing arms limitations, those responsible for U.S. nuclear weapons must not lose sight of the fact that the intent of these negotiations is not to disarm the United States. The United States could do that unilaterally if such was in our interest. The intent of U.S. arms negotiators is to disarm others, and experience demonstrates that disarmament of others is facilitated if U.S. weapons are offered as compensation. Thus, we must have weapons to give up. We can eliminate the threat to China or Russia, but only the Chinese and the Russians can eliminate their threat to the United States. It takes two sides to make peace but only one side to make war. By maintaining a ready and powerful force, the United States encourages others to choose peace.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal will be needed long after the foreseeable future. Some argue that a new world of non-nation states will arise, where individual good is paramount, evil has disappeared, and weapons of mass destruction will be rejected by all. Until this unlikely era comes, nuclear weapons will continue to exist in some number and form. Those who command, control, operate, or maintain the systems must be among the most dedicated and capable of our service members.

Now that the Air Force essentially has abdicated its role in strategic forces, the Navy has a special responsibility in this regard. The strategic submarine program is an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and defense. Unfortunately, with the general lack of interest and attention in this area and the elimination of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as active participants in this strategic operational matter, few in the Navy command structure understand the requirements of this effort. But this mission is one that will endure beyond the existence of aircraft carriers, manned aviation, theater missile defense, and the ship-to-shore movement.

Admiral Holland served as Director of Strategic and Theater Nuclear Weapons in 1982 and 1983.


Rear Admiral Holland has been a contributor to Proceedings

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