07/04/2013 - 07:18

Nuclear weapons will be with us for a while

In her second essay, Manpreet Sethi discussed my assessment that eliminating nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future is unrealistic. In response, I would like to add some additional substance to my assessment that disarmament is unlikely in the near or medium terms—namely, an explanation of why Russia perceives its nuclear deterrent as necessary for the time being.

As a military professional, I would be unenthusiastic, of course, about the global military dominance that the United States would enjoy if nuclear weapons miraculously disappeared from Russia's arsenal.  But that is far from the only reason that Moscow's nuclear deterrent remains necessary. Russia—considering how vast its territory is, how rich it is in mineral and other resources, and how small its population is relative to its own territory and some other countries' populations—simply cannot afford military inferiority to any nation. Meanwhile, a number of countries along or near Russia's borders are carrying out quite ambitious programs of military modernization. Before Russia can discuss further reductions in its nuclear arsenal, including to its tactical weapons, Moscow must feel safe regarding its territorial integrity, catch up with the United States in conventional and high-precision weapons, and somehow resolve the question of US ballistic missile defense.

Russia's position on tactical nuclear weapons deserves some explanation as well, because Russia sees tactical weapons as a national tool of regional nuclear deterrence. The United States, on the other hand, maintains an arsenal of tactical weapons mainly to strengthen its bonds with European allies—the United States faces no significant regional adversaries and does not need tactical weapons to maintain territorial integrity. However, I must concede that Russia's official position on tactical nuclear weapons is too restrictive, and it should be possible for the sake of predictability and global security to take some steps that would increase transparency and build confidence. For example, Russia could disclose the number of nonstrategic nuclear warheads it keeps in storage; do the same for warheads in the dismantlement queue; and also make a commitment not to increase its arsenal of tactical weapons.

Ban the bombing? In Round Two, Sethi proposed a "universal, legally binding convention banning the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons." I have a few objections to this idea.

First, I do not understand the sense in possessing nuclear weapons if you cannot use them. Second, a legally binding and nearly universal treaty on nuclear nonproliferation already exists—but a few states are not signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), so how would the NPT and Sethi's convention correlate? India and Pakistan have not joined the treaty partly because they object to being categorized as non-nuclear weapon states; if they signed up for the convention, would they suddenly gain recognition as nuclear weapon states? Third, Sethi's proposal would simply abolish the concept of nuclear deterrence, and consequently force any nuclear-armed country that joined the convention to rewrite its military doctrine (it would make little sense for a nation to ratify a convention banning the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons if its own military doctrine envisioned using nuclear weapons under certain circumstances). So Sethi's idea is not appropriate for today's conditions. Using or threatening to use nuclear weapons should only be banned when universal nuclear disarmament has been achieved, in accordance with Article VI of the NPT. In fact, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty could at that point be superseded by a convention that, all at once, banned the possession, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons.