03/29/2012 - 10:02

Nuclear security begins at home

Kennette Benedict

Kennette Benedict

Benedict came to the Bulletin from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, where she directed the international peace and...

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Everyone seems to be talking about Iran these days. Foreign affairs watchers, policy makers, and Middle East experts are all speculating about when Iran will get a nuclear bomb, about what the United States should do to stop Iran, about what the United States should and should not tolerate from Iran, and about how neighboring countries will act if Iran does succeed in making a nuclear weapon. These issues have been disputed for more than 30 years -- and regularly covered in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. But alarmist talk has lately reached a fevered pitch.

To hear some experts today, you'd think Iran was on the brink of blowing up the world. But hyper-inflated language about the danger from Iran ignores a fundamental reality: Iran has no nuclear weapons -- let alone an arsenal with the capacity to blow up the world. That dubious distinction belongs to the United States and Russia. Between them, the two nations possess nearly 19,000 nuclear weapons of all kinds, with 1,000 on each side ready to be launched from land, sea, and air within minutes of the order being given. With just one turn of the key, missileers in the United States could at this moment launch 50 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles with the capacity to destroy much of Russia -- including some 120 million people.

So, why aren't the chattering classes talking about these nuclear weapons? Why aren't they talking about ones that could destroy civilization "by accident, miscalculation, or by madness,” as President John F. Kennedy put it in 1961?

Part of the explanation may lie in the US nuclear policy community. Since the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968, advocacy groups, academics, and former government officials have tried to prevent new countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. Because the conditions were not right during the Cold War to contemplate serious disarmament between the Soviet Union and the United States, very few nuclear weapons experts developed concrete plans for reductions. Rather, they got into the habit of worrying about others who might acquire the bomb -- Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Iran. Even though the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty also obligates the United States and Russia to move toward disarmament of their own nuclear weapons, the spotlight continues to shine only on the "bad actors” who seek nuclear capability.

To be sure, no good can come of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability, but, with one of the most lethal arsenals on Earth, the United States should spend a bit more time looking inward. To date, there has been precious little criticism by the Washington policy community of US "vertical proliferation” -- improving US nuclear weapons to ensure their reliability and high yields -- even as the United States negotiates with Russia under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to diminish its arsenals. It is easier to point fingers at others, it seems, than it is to tackle the job of dismantling one's own nuclear complex.

In the midst of elite panic over Iran's incipient nuclear weapons capability, however, US Representative Edward Markey and 45 House co-sponsors have introduced a bill that begins to grapple with the gargantuan US nuclear weapons establishment. The proposed legislation calls for: reductions in nuclear-armed submarines, cutting off funding for B-2 and B-52 aircraft for nuclear missions, reducing the numbers of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and canceling plans for new bomb-manufacturing plants in Tennessee and New Mexico. These and other measures in the bill will begin to match today's security needs -- rather than those of the Cold War. Dubbed the "Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures Act” (SANE), it would result in reductions of at least $100 billion over the next 10 years. Citing the link between economic security and national security described by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the bill's authors also seek to decrease federal budget outlays and reduce the deficit by implementing these cuts.

To make the world safer, the United States needs to focus on reducing its own nuclear weapons arsenals and ensuring its economic security. Adopting the measures in SANE would be a good start. By paying more attention to disarmament policy and dismantling nuclear arsenals, the United States will model the actions it expects from others, make its economy stronger, and provide real leadership to protect the world from the terror of nuclear weapons.