Why We Still Need Nuclear Weapons

There’s not much point in replacing nuclear weapons with conventional weapons that are just as powerful.

The Obama Administration has made clear its intention to lead the fight against nuclear proliferation. Attempts are made at coming to a new START agreement with Russia while the president most recently spoke about reducing nuclear weapons in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

Speaking at the National Defense University, Vice President Joe Biden reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to nuclear security.

“We have long relied on nuclear weapons to deter potential adversaries,” he said. “Now, as our technology improves, we are developing non-nuclear ways to accomplish that same objective.”

Such non-nuclear means include the much-debated missile defense shield to be constructed in Eastern Europe and conventional warheads that have global reach.

“With these modern capabilities, even with deep nuclear reductions, we will remain undeniably strong,” according to the vice president.


The blog Coming Anarchy argues that there are some “very serious problems with the idea of replacing nuclear with conventional weapons.”

First, conventional weapons must be just as powerful and destructive as nuclear weapons in order to be effective as deterrence. But if that can be accomplished, and there is no longer a substantive difference between conventional and nuclear weapons, what’s the point in spending so much time and money on replacing the latter?

Second, “If conventional weapons are used in the future in the same role as nuclear weapons today, they could invite a nuclear response from adversaries whose conventional capabilities do not match our own.” This would lead to escalation “at a much higher pace.”

Moreover, if conventional weapons are just as powerful as nuclear weapons, other states will try to get their hands on them, which leaves us “in the same situation as today.”

Coming Anarchy further points out that having more non-nuclear weapons in the American deterrent may lower the threshold for using them.

Lastly, it could undermine decades of non-proliferation efforts and actually make the world a more dangerous place.

Threat of retaliation

To put this in concrete terms, consider what former secretary of state James Baker told CNN’s Fareek Zakaria about deterring Iran.

The threat of nuclear retaliation “was effective for forty years against the Soviet Union,” he argued. “And I’m not at all sure it wouldn’t be effective against these ayatollahs.”

As Iran may be trying to develop a nuclear weapon itself, the United States should remember that, while the country’s leaders appear “flaky”, they are not insane.

“We’ve got all this unused strategic nuclear capability,” said Baker. What the administration should do, he believes, is call Tehran and say: “It takes thirty seconds to reaim those missiles at you.”

No solution

Baker warned that attacking Iran could accomplish nothing. It would grind its nuclear program to a temporary halt but strengthen the hardliners.

He proposed extending America’s nuclear umbrella over moderate Arab regimes in the region. This would greatly undermine the danger of an Iranian bomb while preventing neighboring states from trying to acquire nuclear weapons of their own.

As Coming Anarchy puts it,

Replacing nuclear weapons with equally capable conventional weapons is a cosmetic change which does nothing to address the underlying nature of the international system which makes deterrence necessary in the first place.

There is no harm in reducing the enormous nuclear stockpiles of Russia and the United States, but “getting to zero” is not a solution. There is no quick fix. The United States have to work within the existing international framework and that requires a sizable nuclear deterrent.

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One comment

  1. “This would lead to escalation “at a much higher pace.” Moreover, if conventional weapons are just as powerful as nuclear weapons, other states will try to get their hands on them, which leaves us “in the same situation as today.”

    Right, but because of the negative association with the word nuclear, it becomes an excellent rallying point for supporters. Even if it means nothing because nuclear has just been replaced by non-nuclear.

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