- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009


Eric Sterner (“Taking the bomb for granted,” Commentary, Tuesday) argues that nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence are not receiving the attention they deserve and that “political resistance” has derailed efforts to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Yet he fails to consider three key reasons why military leaders and civilian policymakers are less interested in nuclear weapons than, say, 20 years ago.

First and foremost, the superpower competition is over, and with it went the need (perceived or real) to match or exceed the quantity and quality of Soviet weaponry. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States had an estimated 22,000 deployed nuclear weapons; today, we have 2,200. One welcome effect of this remarkable, if underappreciated, drawdown is that military planning no longer revolves around nuclear weapons, which in turn means the number of people working with and responsible for such weapons has declined significantly. Consequently, few in the military can look at nuclear weapons systems and see a viable career path.

Second, the rise of transnational terrorism has brought home new dangers, literally. However, no one seriously argues that nuclear weapons can deter terrorist attacks or serve a useful retaliatory function after they occur. The more than 10,000 warheads in the U.S. nuclear stockpile on Sept. 11, 2001, had no impact on al Qaeda’s calculations that day or in all the days that followed.

Third, major advances in satellite-aided guidance technology have made it possible to target conventional weapons with exquisite accuracy, pushing much larger, much blunter nuclear warheads - and all the political baggage they carry - to the sidelines. Given the choice, military and civilian leaders will opt for weapons they can use over weapons with little practical military utility. Tightening budgets will only accelerate this trend.

Though we should demand and must ensure that the personnel responsible for maintaining and controlling nuclear weapons continue to do so with the highest level of professionalism - and with safety and security foremost in their minds - we should celebrate and not fear the fact that technology and evolving political conditions are making it possible and prudent for us to reduce our reliance on weapons whose value is waning and whose reputed benefits pale in comparison to their costs.



The Nonproliferation Review

James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Monterey Institute of International Studies

Monterey, Calif.

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