The Possession and use of Nuclear Weapons (Part 7)

With this post we conclude our series on nuclear weapons. I hope vigorous debate ensues in the comment section.

David Krieger with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, says there are 10 flaws with the Nuclear Deterrence Theory:

  1. It is only a theory.  It is not proven and cannot be proven.  A theory may posit a causal relationship, for example, if one party does something, certain results will follow.  In the case of nuclear deterrence theory, it is posited that if one party threatens to retaliate with nuclear weapons, the other side will not attack.  That an attack has not occurred, however, does not prove that it was prevented by nuclear deterrence.  That is, in logic, a false assumption of causality.  In logic, one cannot prove a negative, that is, that doing something causes something else not to happen.  That a nuclear attack has not happened may be a result of any number of other factors, or simply of exceptional good fortune.  To attribute the absence of nuclear war to nuclear deterrence is to register a false positive, which imbues nuclear deterrence with a false sense of efficacy.
  2. It requires a commitment to mass murder.  Nuclear deterrence leads to policy debates about how many threatened deaths with nuclear weapons are enough to deter an adversary?  Are one million deaths sufficient to deter adversary A?  Is it a different number for adversary B?  How many deaths are sufficient?  One million?  Ten million?  One hundred million?  More?  There will always be a tendency to err on the side of more deaths, and thus the creation of more elaborate nuclear killing systems.  Such calculations, in turn, drive arms races, requiring huge allocations of resources to weapons systems that must never be used.  Leaders must convince their own populations that the threat of mass murder and the expenditure of resources to support this threat make them secure and is preferable to other allocations of scientific and financial resources.  The result is not only a misallocation of resources, but also a diversion of effort away from cooperative solutions to global problems.
  3. It requires effective communications.  In effect, nuclear deterrence is a communications theory.  Side A must communicate its capability and willingness to use its nuclear arsenal in retaliation for an attack by adversary B, thereby preventing adversary B from attacking.  The threat to retaliate and commit mass murder must be believable to a potential attacker.  Communications take place verbally in speeches by leaders and parliamentary statements, as well as news reports and even by rumors.  Communications also take place non-verbally in the form of alliance formations and nuclear weapons and missile tests.  In relation to nuclear deterrence, virtually everything that each side does is a deliberate or inadvertent form of communication to a potential adversary.  There is much room for error and misunderstanding.
  4. It requires rational decision makers.  Nuclear deterrence will not be effective against a decision maker who is irrational.  For example, side A may threaten nuclear retaliation for an attack by adversary B, but the leader of side B may irrationally conclude that the leader of side A will not do what he says.  Or, the leader of side B may irrationally attack side A because he does not care if one million or ten million of his countrymen die as a result of side A’s nuclear retaliation.  I believe two very important questions to consider are these: Do all leaders of all states behave rationally at all times, particularly under conditions of extreme stress when tensions are very high?  Can we be assured that all leaders of all states will behave rationally at all times in the future?  Most people believe the answer to these questions is an unqualified No.
  5. It instills a false sense of confidence.   Nuclear deterrence is frequently confused with nuclear “defense,” leading to the conclusion that nuclear weapons provide some form of physical protection against attack.  This conclusion is simply wrong.  The weapons and the threat of their use provide no physical protection.  The only protection provided is psychological and once the weapons start flying it will become clear that psychological protection is not physical protection.  One can believe the weapons make him safer, but this is not the same as actually being safer.  Because nuclear deterrence theory provides a false sense of confidence, it could lead a possessor of the weapons to take risks that would be avoided without nuclear threats in place.  Such risks could be counterproductive and actually lead to nuclear war.
  6. It does not work against an accidental use.  Nuclear deterrence is useful, if at all, only against the possibility of an intentional, premeditated nuclear attack.  Its purpose is to make the leader who contemplates the intentional use of a nuclear weapon decide against doing so.  But nuclear deterrence cannot prevent an accidental use of a nuclear weapon, such as an accidental launch.  This point was made in the movie Dr. Strangelove, in which a US nuclear attack was accidentally set in motion against the Soviet Union.  In the movie, bomber crews passed their “failsafe” point in a training exercise and couldn’t be recalled.  The president of the United States had to get on the phone with his Soviet counterpart and try to explain that the attack on Moscow that had been set in motion was just an accident.  The Americans were helpless to stop the accident from occurring, and so were the Soviets.  Accidents happen!  There is no such thing as a “foolproof” system, and when nuclear weapons are involved it is extremely dangerous to think there is.
  7. It doesn’t work against terrorist organizations.  Nuclear deterrence is based upon the threat of retaliation.  Since it is not possible to retaliate against a foe that you cannot locate, the threat of retaliation is not credible under these circumstances.  Further, terrorists are often suicidal (e.g., “suicide bombers”), and are willing to die to inflict death and suffering on an adversary.  For these reasons, nuclear deterrence will be ineffective in preventing nuclear terrorism.  The only way to prevent nuclear terrorism is to prevent the weapons themselves from falling into the hands of terrorist organizations.  This will become increasingly difficult if nuclear weapons and the nuclear materials to build them proliferate to more and more countries.
  8. It encourages nuclear proliferation.  To the extent that the theory of nuclear deterrence is accepted as valid and its flaws overlooked or ignored, it will make nuclear weapons seem to be valuable instruments for the protection of a country.  Thus, the uncritical acceptance of nuclear deterrence theory provides an incentive for nuclear proliferation.  If it is believed that nuclear weapons can keep a country safe, there will be commensurate pressure to develop such weapons.
  9. It is not believable.  In the final analysis, it is likely that even the policy makers who promote nuclear deterrence do not truly believe in it.  If policy makers did truly believe that nuclear deterrence works as they claim, they would not need to develop missile defenses.  The United States alone has spent over $100 billion on developing missile defenses over the past three decades, and is continuing to spend some $10 billion annually on missile defense systems.  Such attempts at physical protection against nuclear attacks are unlikely to ever be fully successful, but they demonstrate the underlying understanding of policy makers that nuclear deterrence alone is insufficient to provide protection to a country.  If policy makers understand that nuclear deterrence is far from foolproof, then who is being fooled by nuclear deterrence theory?  In all likelihood, the only people being fooled by the promised effectiveness of nuclear deterrence theory are the ordinary people who place their faith in their leaders, the same people who are the targets of nuclear weapons and will suffer the consequences should nuclear deterrence fail.  Their political and military leaders have made them the “fools” in what is far from a “foolproof” system.
  10. Its failure would be catastrophic.  Nuclear deterrence theory requires the development and deployment of nuclear weapons for the threat of retaliation.  These weapons can, of course, be used for initiating attacks as well as for seeking to prevent attacks by means of threatened retaliation.  Should deterrence theory fail, such failure could result in consequences beyond our greatest fears.  For example, scientists have found in simulations of the use of 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons in an exchange between India and Pakistan, the deaths could reach one billion individuals due to blast, fire, radiation, climate change, crop failures and resulting starvation.  A larger nuclear war between the US and Russia could destroy civilization as we know it.

4 Replies to “The Possession and use of Nuclear Weapons (Part 7)”

  1. Would you be satisfied if we only possessed nuclear weapons for defensive purposes? For example, nuclear weapons can be used strategically against enemy satellites and against navies. In the later case, you can disable ships without causing total loss of life.


  2. Can other weapons be used to take out satellites and disable ships? Your reasons would not justify having nuclear weapons if we can accomplish these tasks without nuclear weapons. The overriding concerns would be: 1. Nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands 2. The lingering radiation from the explosion


    1. As far as I understand it, nukes really are the best option for taking out enemy satellites in an emergency situation. Targeted missiles are underdeveloped and the EMP from a nuclear blast is extremely effective. The radiation from the initial blast is functionally non-existent for those on the ground and the fallout would be minimal. One sort of related study I read said that fallout that enters the atmosphere from space would have a negligible increase in cancer deaths across the globe. That particular study said ~>5,000 increase in cancers cases overall. That’s basically nothing worldwide. I’m fairly convinced that, all other things being equal, nuclear warheads are the best option in this case. This doesn’t take into account arguments like long term security and other risks that you mentioned however.

      In terms of tactical nuclear strikes against surface navies, it’s my understanding that a fuel air bomb is just as effective. I don’t have a good answer for sub-surface navies, but it’s my understanding that nuclear weapons are extremely effective at destroying submarines, especially if you lack the ability to detect said subs. The fallout from sub-surface nuclear explosions (as long as they don’t reach the surface) is non-existent as well and the ocean just “absorbs” the radioactive material because the ocean is just so massive.


      1. Very thoughtful comment.

        First, we should observe that your comments do not justify use of nuclear weapons against a population. Second, this means that deterrence will not work because we are not willing to use our weapons against a civilian population.


        Second, it’s not clear that we need nuclear weapons to take out enemy satellites. In 2008 we used a modified SM-3 antiballistic-missile interceptor to shoot down a satellite. There was a malfunctioning satellite that had to be shot down and we used this missile to shot it down. Here is how the incident was described by Reuters:

        “On Feb. 20, 2008, the Navy cruiser Lake Erie, equipped with a high-tech Aegis radar, launched a specially modified SM-3 antiballistic-missile interceptor. The rocket struck the malfunctioning satellite at an estimated speed of 22,000 miles an hour, destroying it.

        Today, the United States has dozens of Aegis-equipped warships carrying hundreds of SM-3 missiles, more than enough to quickly wipe out the approximately 50 satellites apiece that Russia and China keep in low orbit.”

        “Aegis ships could be positioned optimally,” Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a 2011 paper, “ to stage a ‘sweep’ attack on a set of satellites nearly at once,”

        As an anti-satellite backup, the U.S. Army and the Missile Defense Agency also operate two types of ground-launched missile interceptors that have the power to reach low orbit — and the accuracy to strike spacecraft.

        Against this huge arsenal, Russia and China possess few counterweights. China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, and a similar trial in early 2013, proved that Beijing can hit a low satellite with a rocket. In 2010, the Chinese space agency launched a cluster of small space vehicles, including two named SJ-6F and SJ-12, that slammed into each other in orbit, seemingly on purpose. In July 2013, China deployed a small inspection spacecraft, designated SY-7, in low orbit.”


        Here is how Raytheon describes their missile:

        “The SM-3® interceptor is a defensive weapon used by the U.S. Navy to destroy short- to intermediate-range ballistic missile threats. This “hit-to-kill” interceptor uses a “kill vehicle” to collide with targets in space, a capability that’s been likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet. The massive collision of the kill vehicle hitting its target obliterates the threat completely; explosives are not necessary. The resulting impact is the equivalent of a 10-ton truck traveling at 600 mph.”

        As you can see “explosives are not necessary.”


        We don’t necessarily need to deploy weapons with nuclear warheads to take down a submarine. Anti-Submarine Mortars like the Royal Navy’s Hedgehog can be used against submarines. The Mk-46 lightweight acoustic torpedo can be used as well. It uses PBXN-103 high explosives in it’s warhead. In fact, the Mk-46 is used by a number of NATO partners and the US Navy. see:

        We should fund research and development of effective weapons that do not have nuclear requirements.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s