US Nuclear Policy: Taking the Wrong Road

On September 21, 2014, the International Day of Peace, The New York Times published an article by William Broad and David Sanger, “US Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms.” The authors reported that a recent federal study put the price tag for modernizing the US nuclear arsenal at “up to a trillion dollars” over the next three decades. It appears that Washington’s military and nuclear hawks have beaten down a president who, early in his first term of office, announced with conviction, “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Many US military leaders, rather than analyzing and questioning the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence to provide security, are acting as cheerleaders for it. Rear Admiral Joe Tofalo, director of the Navy’s Undersea Warfare Division, recently pontificated, “For the foreseeable future, certainly for our and our children’s and our grandchildren’s lifetimes, the United States will require a safe, secure and effective strategic nuclear deterrent. The ballistic nuclear submarine forces are and will continue to be a critical part of that deterrent….” He went on to argue that all legs of the nuclear triad – bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles – would be needed to “provide a strong deterrent against different classes of adversary threat.”

Admiral Tofalo was backed up by Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of the US Strategic Command, who argued, “In a world where our traditional adversaries are modernizing, emerging adversaries are maturing and non-state actors remain elusive and dangerous, we must get 21st century deterrence right…the reality is that an effective modernized nuclear deterrent force is needed now more than ever.”

All this emphasis on modernizing the nuclear deterrent force may be good for business, but ignores two important facts. First, nuclear deterrence is only a hypothesis about human behavior that has not been and cannot be proven to work. Second, it ignores the obligations of the US and other nuclear-armed states to pursue negotiations in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament.

The US and other nuclear-armed countries are gambling that nuclear deterrence will be foolproof rather than a game of chance, like nuclear roulette. Rather than providing security for the American people, nuclear deterrence is a calculated risk, similar to loading a large metaphorical six-chamber gun with a nuclear bullet and pointing the gun at humanity’s head.

The only foolproof way to assure that nuclear weapons won’t be used, by accident or design, is to abolish them. This is what the generals and admirals should be pressing to achieve. Negotiations in good faith for abolishing nuclear weapons are required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and by customary international law. Since these obligations have not been fulfilled in 44 years, one courageous country, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, has brought lawsuits against the nine nuclear-armed countries, seeking the International Court of Justice to order their compliance. They have also brought a lawsuit specifically against the US in US Federal Court.

Rather than showing leadership by fulfilling its obligations for ending the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament, the US conducted a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test on September 23, just days after the International Day of Peace and days before the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on September 26. Such displays of arrogance, together with US plans to spend some $1 trillion on modernizing its nuclear arsenal over the next three decades, suggest that if the people don’t demand it, we may have nuclear weapons forever, with tragic consequences.

You can find out more about the Nuclear Zero Lawsuits and support the Marshall Islands at www.nuclearzero.org.