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Tuesday, January 15, 2008



I worked at NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, where we tracked threats in air and space, including missile launches and satellites, for two years. Later on I worked for five years at Strategic Air Command HQ, as the legal officer assigned to nuclear accident response and nuclear war recovery. It was pretty clear to all of us who worked with these weapons that any significant use of them would have devastating long term consequences for humanity and our environment. The working assumption was that our likely adversaries in the Soviet Union had the same appreciation for the consequences of actually using their weapons. The view of most SAC personnel was that as long as we were prepared to launch the weapons, we need not spend a lot of time worrying about the scenario of what comes after. In some ways it was too awful to think about, in other ways just so unlikely that it wasn't worth investing a lot of resources in preparation for it.

As long as adults were in charge of these weapons, in a few major nations with a lot to lose from retaliation, the chance of shooting at each other was relatively small, except at certain crisis points. For instance, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is usually hailed as an example of John F. Kennedy showing his toughness to both the Soviet Union and to his own military advisors, who proposed an attack on the Soviet IRBM missile sites in Cuba. Yet implicit in the blockade JFK ordered was the possibility that it could turn into a violent confrontation and escalate, including into a "use it or lose it" scenario with the launch of one of the existing IRBMs, that could have then led to a more significant exchange of attacks as the two nations tried to preemptively destroy the other side's nuclear weapons.

The ridiculous lack of communication between the US and USSR command authorities demonstrated the need for the Hotline. The fact that the President did not know that US IRBMs were still deployed in Turkey is just one of the failings of communication between the Defense Department and the White House.

The more important lesson is that JFK was playing poker with Nikita Kruschev, but the stakes were not some money but the lives of millions on each side. An approach that did not create a crisis, but rather exchanged withdrawal of the missiles in Turkey for those in Cuba, could have accomplished the desired end without creating an artificial short fuse that opened a window for bluffing, bluster, miscalculation and stupidity.

Kruschev's action in deploying IRBMs in Cuba was his response to the fact that the US was ahead of the USSR in deployment of long range ICBMs, and was continuing to build and deploy the new Minuteman solid rocket ICBMs at a high rate of production. Kennedy's action with the blockade was only slightly more restrained than a preemptive air and ground assault on the missile sites, which were clearly options being held at the ready should the blockade fail, and the blockade itself could have begun a shooting war with the Soviets.

The threat of IRBMs launched from Cuba was hardly more significant than the threat of submarine launched missiles off the US Coast, or the eventual threat of additional Soviet ICBMs launched from Soviet territory that would be produced in just a few years. The threat of attack from the missiles in Cuba did not significantly add to the existing threat from Soviet bombers and missiles deployed elsewhere, and the point of US strategic forces was to deter any Soviet attack from any direction. A Soviet missile launched from Cuba would have the same devastating retaliatory effects on the USSR as a missile launched from Kazakhstan.

So the reason for Kennedy turning the Cuban missiles into a confrontation that risked the very kind of nuclear war that he was supposed to be preventing is unclear. The Cuban missile crisis in retrospect has the excitement of a ride through the House of Horrors, but the risks Kennedy was taking were irrational.

Similarly, a review of the timing of the use of nuclear weapons against Japan is useful. The argument has been made that the impending entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, and a more liberal surrender offer along the lines of the generous Occupation that actually occurred under MacArthur, could have produced a surrender without the use of bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US was already producing similar results with incendiary bombs dropped in mass raids against Nagoya, Osaka and other cities, with little loss of life among the B-29 crews, in contrast to the experience of US daylight bombing mass raids in Europe. A rational Japan would likely have surrendered without the added incentive of the demonstration that a single plane with a single bomb could do the work of hundreds of planes. But Japan's leadership, and especially its military, were neither united nor completely rational. What the quantum leap in destructive power did was give the Japanese leadership an excuse to surrender in the face of overwhelming and certain destruction. Without that demonstration, their pride and willingness to sacrifice the lives of both soldiers and civilians could indeed have led to the murderous confrontations of multiple Iwo Jimas and Okinawas that Truman foresaw in an invasion of the home islands. Yet in many ways it was also a bluff, since it would have been a month before another atomic bomb could have been deployed, and the relatively untested trigger mechanism of the plutonium bomb that was tested at Alamogordo and used at Nagasaki actually failed in 2 out of 3 of the subsequent bomb tests after the war.

The great problem of nuclear weapons is that the power they give to their maker is greatest before he uses them. Once he uses them, the targeted nation, if it has not been totally destroyed or incapacitated by other circumstances (as Japan was bleeding during WW II), will simply redouble its resolve and efforts to wreak commensurate vengeance. People are not thinking calmly in those scenarios. Thus, the use of a nuclear weapon by Islamic Jihadists, combined with a lack of ferocious condemnation by the world's Muslims, could lead an angry and heartsick US to strike back at Mecca as part of a counter-Jihad.

Nuclear weapons have the unfortunate tendency to punish ordinary citizens when the decision to use them has been made by a small group of leaders, who are likely best prepared to ride out a counter-attack.

At the same time, the acute concern about avoiding escalation into a nuclear confrontation likely prevented a lot of shooting between US and USSR forces over the years that could have become full fledged wars.

Drawing down nuclear weapons, and making it necessary to have calm deliberation before using them, as we and Russia have done since the end of the Soviet Union, has been a good move. The proliferation of weapons and the technology for making them has been the bad trend. The proportion of nuclear weapons under control of irrational or unstable governments has markedly increased.

A unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons would be stupid. Indeed, the capacity of nations opposed to Islamic Jihadist terror to use nuclear weapons is a distinct disincentive for nations who might want to create nuclear weapons. While the lack of a nuclear program in Iraq is surprising good news, we should not forget that the invasion of Iraq led directly to Qaddafi voluntarily disclosing and surrendering up his nuclear weapons program, in another happy failure of US intellgence operations. Apparently, if the recent report about Iran is true, the invasion also persuaded Iran to halt their weapons program. So whatever else the invasion of Iraq did or did not do, it confirmed that there was no nuclear program in Iraq (a threat that distorted power relationships in the Middle East) and actually terminated two actual programs in Muslim states. We should be very grateful for these serendipitous results, while giving Bush credit for the fact that one of the purposes of the Iraq invasion was to send a message to Iran (along with the prior flanking entry into Afghanistan) that it could not pursue nuclear weapons programs with impunity.

It will be a long while before we can be sure that nuclear weapons are not in the hands of irrational and evil people. We cannot completely disarm ourselves until then.


I find it troublesome (it woukld be funny if it were not a serious issue) that these same people who got our world to this point now are proposing solutions. Nuclear weapons are dangerous, whether they are in hands of western democracies or fundamentalist regimes. We should have gotten to this situation in the first place. What we need is a new voice not the old recycled voice of hypocrites like the authors of this article who have put us where we are.


Suffice to say, the authors and supporters are abandoning Ronald Reagan's policy of peace through strength.
Although we are unsure if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a total lunatic who will sacrifice the entire mideast to attack the US, he -- and his neighbors -- should understand that as the outcome. Our Nation needs the ability to do it.


Suffice to say, the authors and supporters are abandoning Ronald Reagan's policy of peace through strength.
Although we are unsure if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a total lunatic who will sacrifice the entire mideast to attack the US, he -- and his neighbors -- should understand that as the outcome. Our Nation needs the ability to do it.

Blaine Shiff

Just as a handgun is a great equalizer for a 70 year old woman, so too is a nuke on a missle a great equalizer for a small country. Does anyone think that Israel would even consider giving up it's nukes?

Also, nowhere in this essay is China specifically mentioned. What would their likely response be if they saw us reducing our nukes towards zero? If MADD was a legitimate strategy vis a vis the USSR, why not China?

Lastly, just because the US, Russian, & maybe China were to give up nukes doesn't mean Iran et al. would. Our unbuilding and wishing them away doesn't make them go away. Seems to me that a technological counter to nukes is more the answer.

John Booke

Shameless old has-beens shilling for the US military-industrial complex. Middle Eastern fanatics won't use ballistic missiles. More likely regularly scheduled flights on American Airlines.

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