De la bondad de las armas nucleares

por Rafael L. Bardají, 16 de abril de 2010

Since their creation, nuclear weapons have mostly aroused fascination because of their destructive power, and horror because of the consequences that their use entails. I could say without fear of being out of line that dread and horror have taken hold in the public’s imagination. And, since not long ago, I’m afraid that the same has happened to most of the political elites.

Let's break this down. Perhaps the great turn of events provoking a new wave of anti-nuclear sentiment has to do with the President of the United States Barack Obama. It’s almost a year now since Obama’s speech in Prague (April 2009) delineated his vision of a world in which nuclear terrorism was depicted as the greatest danger: the best solution, according to the President, is general nuclear disarmament – a world without nuclear weapons.

Thus Obama made patent his desire to reach an ambitious strategic disarmament agreement with Russia. The United States and Russia possess ninety percent of the existing nuclear warheads in the world. Both countries recently signed the agreement. However, the new American nuclear policy, published just one week ago, makes clear that the United States now considers the nuclear weapon as a deterrent to be used solely against other nuclear powers.

In things pertaining to the next review of the famous and at the same time obsolete Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Obama has called for an international summit to discuss the problem and to seek support for his dream of a world free of nuclear weapons. At the moment, only Israel has refused to participate in a forum whose objectives are to criticize strategic systems and to demand global disarmament.
In face of one such anti-nuclear tide, it’s necessary to say it loud and clear: Not only is the atomic bomb the best gift God ever gave to the human race, but, in light of our present circumstances, nuclear disarmament is destabilizing and dangerous.
The Virtues of Nuclear Weapons
Had it not been for the nuclear arsenal, many of us wouldn’t even be here because our parents would have had to fight in the Third World War and their deaths would have been the most likely outcome. Without dreading the specter of unendurable retaliation, the Soviet tanks would have rolled all the way to Gibraltar. Based on estimates of the death toll reached during the First and Second World Wars, the Third World War would have provoked tens of millions of deaths. Fortunately, it never happened.
Nonetheless, if it never happened, it wasn’t by chance. It was thanks to nuclear weapons, for fear of a total war between nuclear powers, the United States and Russia. Like it or not, there’s unquestionable evidence that the nuclear holocaust generated a balsamic effect influencing the East-West confrontation, restraining behaviors, and setting clear limits on what was and wasn’t possible. Furthermore, there’s empirical evidence pointing to the fact that nuclear weapons are a stabilizing factor when the circumstances echo those of the Cold War, for example: strong governments, political stability, numerous arsenals that cannot be wiped out in the first attack, good alert systems, and a cultural and strategic understanding among parties.
Let’s think about the conflict between India and Pakistan; both are nuclear powers since the 1990s. During the 2002 crisis in the Kargil region, more than a million soldiers were deployed and both powers were forced to progressively reduce their belligerency and to look for a status quo. Furthermore, since that crisis, which is comparable to the Cuban missile crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union, the parties have developed a red-phone system and other assurance measures to dispel any doubt about their nuclear intentions.
Now, guaranteeing stability with nuclear weapons demands a large investment in human, technical, and financial resources: Arsenals must be numerous; they must be kept in perfect condition; they must be scattered; they must have early detection systems for launch point determination, and so forth. In other words, it’s necessary to simultaneously have an extensive and expensive infrastructure. If it’s a matter of just a few nuclear warheads and there’s no data about what the adversary is up to, the risk of having to keep the finger on the trigger 24/7, just in case, is extremely dangerous: uncertainty and instability will certainly lead to ill-fated error.
Nuclear Disarmament Is A Chimera
Once something has been discovered or invented, it’s impossible to “un-discover” or “disinvent” it. It’s that simple. The knowledge remains and the elimination of nuclear systems doesn’t erase it, nor does it prevent others from applying it. For what we know, a simple nuclear bomb can be built using twenty-five kilos of uranium or eight kilos of plutonium and just four scientists possessing specific knowledge.
We also know that the design of sophisticated warheads has been circulating everywhere thanks to the dealings of countries such as North Korea or of clandestine networks like the one run by the father of the Pakistani bomb, A.Q. Khan. The trail he left has led to places such as Iran and Libya. Combining time, money, and determination, some people can actually commit atrocities….
And here’s something usually overlooked: Not everybody thinks of nuclear disarmament as the ultimate ideal… and not precisely for the reasons presented here. We, Westerners, live with a post-nuclear mentality believing that nuclear weapons are intrinsically bad; however, in the eyes of many other actors not only are nuclear systems suitable military tools, but they also give grounds for prestige and national pride. And some nations are determined to suffer hardships if necessary in order to get them. A case in point could be North Korea or Iran.
In order to be effective, nuclear disarmament must be global and total – that’s unimaginable today. However, disarmament should be accompanied by a normative and supervising regime able to detect any violation attempt since, in a world free of nuclear weapons, whoever gains control of one nuke will have a formidable strategic advantage in his hands. To date, the non-proliferation regime has been incapable to detect threats in time.
Saddam Hussein was about to get his first nuclear devise in 1991; in regards to Libya, practically no one suspected anything and suddenly in 2003, Muammar Gaddafi, fearful of an American invasion, decided to disclose the details of his nuclear program; and when it comes to the Ayatollahs’ Iran, had it not been thanks to opposition groups, the Vienna-based agency would have never had evidence of their clandestine developments.
As things go, the best guarantee against the proliferation of nuclear weapons is… the West’s nuclear weapons.
The Risks of Disarmament
The flames of fear that Obama fans in order to advance his nuclear abolition plans have to do with the danger of nuclear terrorism. We both agree on one thing: today’s greatest nuclear threat is that a terrorist group gets a nuclear devise and detonates it, since state arsenals are merely deterrents – they weren’t supposed to be used. 
However, the current approaches to the problem are just making things worse and more dangerous. It’s a simple equation: every time a nuclear weapon is scrapped, vigilance of the devise and its components tends to relax. There are many examples proving this point; just remember the pathetic situation of Russian missiles in Ukrainian silos.
In regards to terrorist groups, the greatest risk doesn’t come from bomb building, but from obtaining somewhere the most difficult bomb component – nuclear fuel. What we know is that Russia doesn’t know for sure how much plutonium or uranium it has stored in its almost 140 nuclear facilities. Adding 150 tons of plutonium and near 1,000 tons of uranium to that accounting chaos can only increase the possibility that someone may divert some of the material to the best bidder without asking too many questions…
This is particularly serious if we take into account the technical incapacity of nuclear powers to get rid of the scrapped material. In the United States there’s only one nuclear weapons facility in Amarillo – a plant totally ineffectual to manage the avalanche of material that would come its way if Obama’s plans crystallize.
In short, if weapons are usually stabilizing factors and disarmament is a very dangerous – even impossible – venture, why should we choose the latter? We should do like Netanyahu and tell Obama: “Yes, we can't.”


©2010 Translated by Miryam Lindberg