Schlesinger on Nuclear Weapons

July 13th, 2009

James R. Schlesinger is arguably the foremost nuclear strategist in America.  As a former secretary of defense, energy secretary, director of the CIA, and lifelong scholar in the subject, he deserves to be listened to on issues involving nuclear weapons. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, Schlesinger maintained that we can’t have and shouldn’t want a nuclear-free world.  As counter-intuitive as that may sound, he was convincing.

I’ve studied nuclear strategy and had limited involvement in nuclear planning. What these weapons can do is appalling, and their very existence is an evil of the modern world.  This applies to both their primary and intended effects, but their secondary and unintended effects are potentially even worse.  Although it isn’t talked about much these days, the concept of nuclear winter holds that even relatively small, regional exchanges of nuclear weapons will produce atmospheric effects that could be catastrophic to parts of the Earth or, in more extreme cases, the entire planet.

I once spent an hour and a half listening to Carl Sagan, leader of the group that did the best-known studies, lecture on nuclear winter.  Afterwards, along with five or six others, I talked with Sagan about it for a couple of hours.  The nuclear winter concept was based in part on computer models, and like the models used today to study global warming, they have serious limitations.  In recent years there has been some backtracking, to the point that most scientists (including Sagan later in his life) believe that the effects might not be quite so dire.  But it’s all relative; these unintended effects of the use of nuclear weapons are a serious danger.

Notwithstanding the horrific results of any employment of nuclear weapons, I think President Obama is wrong to promote the idea of universal nuclear disarmament.  My reasons are partly the same as Schlesinger’s:

“Nuclear weapons are used every day…to deter our potential foes and provide reassurance to the allies to whom we offer protection.”

Moreover, Obama’s idea of complete nuclear disarmament is ill-conceived and won’t work.  While the U.S. and Russia might eventually arrive at some years-long scheme to eliminate their nuclear weapons, they couldn’t get that far unless other nations were willing to scrap their nukes, also.  Of the other seven nations that have nuclear weapons now (plus Iran, which is headed that way), the U.K. might be willing to join in; France might not; and Israel, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran won’t give up their nuclear weapons.  Since some nations will retain nukes, so will all others, at least in numbers sufficient for deterence. That makes the whole idea dead on arrival.

Here are a few excerpts from the Schlesinger interview:

Mr. Obama likes to talk about his vision of a nuclear-free world, and in Moscow he and Mr. Medvedev signed an agreement setting targets for sweeping reductions in the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. Reflecting on the hour I spent with Mr. Schlesinger, I [interviewer] can’t help but think: Do we really want to do this? …

Mr. Schlesinger is a nuclear realist. Are we heading toward a nuclear-free world anytime soon? He shoots back a one-word answer: “No.” I keep silent, hoping he will go on. “We will need a strong deterrent,” he finally says, “and that is measured at least in decades — in my judgment, in fact, more or less in perpetuity. The notion that we can abolish nuclear weapons reflects on a combination of American utopianism and American parochialism. … It’s like the [1929] Kellogg-Briand Pact renouncing war as an instrument of national policy. … It’s not based upon an understanding of reality.”

In other words: Go ahead and wish for a nuclear-free world, but pray that you don’t get what you wish for. A world without nukes would be even more dangerous than a world with them, Mr. Schlesinger argues.

“If, by some miracle, we were able to eliminate nuclear weapons,” he says, “what we would have is a number of countries sitting around with breakout capabilities or rumors of breakout capabilities — for intimidation purposes. …and finally, probably, a number of small clandestine stockpiles.” This would make the U.S. more vulnerable. …

“If we were only protecting the North American continent,” he says, “we could do so with far fewer weapons than we have at present in the stockpile.” But a principal aim of the U.S. nuclear deterrent is “to provide the necessary reassurance to our allies, both in Asia and in Europe.” That includes “our new NATO allies such as Poland and the Baltic States,” which, he notes dryly, continue to be concerned about their Russian neighbor. “Indeed, they inform us regularly that they understand the Russians far better than do we.” …

The U.S. is the only major nuclear power that is not modernizing its weapons. “The Russians have a shelf life for their weapons of about 10 years so they are continually replacing” them. The British and the French “stay up to date.” And the Chinese and the Indians “continue to add to their stockpiles.” But in the U.S., Congress won’t even so much as fund R&D….

“The likelihood of a nuclear exchange has substantially gone away,” he says. That’s the good news. “However, the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States” is greater.

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7 Responses to “Schlesinger on Nuclear Weapons”

  1. Edisto Joe |

    Schlesinger is correct on all points and our leaders should pay close attention to what he says. It’s sad that funding for development in this area is always clouded by the threat of creating an even greater arms race. We could do a lot to solve our energy problems by promoting and advancing development in this area, but sadly it comes back as dangerous technology. Yes we could destroy ourselves and really create a Global Warming crisis, but we could also take the lead in providing real solutions to affordable energy to all parts of the world. If we can fuel submarines and aircraft carriers why not the automobile?
    We know the horrors but we should not close our eyes to the good.

    Edisto Joe

  2. Brian |

    Of the group that has nuclear weapons, I only absolutely trust the UK. I trust Sarkozy more than Mitterand or Chirac, but I still don’t have much faith in France. Israel I largely trust, but the incident with the USS Liberty makes me at least skeptical. I know they (the Israelis) won’t share their secrets with any of the Arab world, or anyone that allies themselves with the Arab world. The rest I don’t trust under the best of circumstances, and these certainly are not the best of circumstances. Things could be much worse, but they could be much better.

    Disarmament is a fool’s errand being practiced by fools. I bet if I told those that believe in it to fetch me a can of striped paint from the toolshed out back, they’d spend half the day looking for it. I expect that sort of stupidity out of an 18 year old, not the President.

  3. Tom |

    I don’t question the legitimacy of Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons because of the existential threat they face. And I trust them more than I do France, in general. But there are three major problems with the Israeli nukes:

    — Israel having nuclear weapons provides motivation and justification, false as it may be, for other countries in the region to develop their own. None have done it yet for that reason, although Iran’s getting close. As an example of this kind of proliferation, Pakistan went nuclear because India had done it, and India did it mostly as a matter of prestige. And Pakistan scares the heck out of me.

    — The Israelis are the most intelligent and among the most rational people on Earth. They can be trusted not to employ nuclear weapons except in the most dire circumstances, basically the imminent destruction of their state and the killing of their people. Unfortunately, this is precisely the threat they face every day. One of many reasons continued U.S. support of Israel is essential is to help prevent that threat from going beyond a point of no return.

    — None of the Arab armies ever thrown against Israel have been good enough to succeed in their goal. But that could happen someday, particularly if the U.S. stops supporting Israel to the extent necessary. If Arab forces were to overrun the country without Israel having employed its nuclear weapons, they’d then fall into the hands of those nations. Assuming they could figure out how to use them, then we’d be in big trouble.

  4. Larry |

    Without a doubt, more experience with nuclear power will produce more knowledge about how to use it. Mankind has bridled the atom with a lot of fear and dread based solely on its use as a weapon. Just imagine how much good will come from the atom if and when we harness it to serve instead of destroying.

  5. Brian |

    Given current conditions, I don’t see any Arab state, or group of them, conquering Israel. It takes a strong NCO corps to have an effective military, and this the Arabs do not have. It’s cultural, and they are not about to give up their culture; therefore, their militaries will always be weak. Without the support of the USSR or the PRC, they won’t even be able to have the equipment necessary to launch an offensive campaign against Israel.

    You know better than I do about Chinese hardware, but I don’t believe that with the poor quality of Chinese hardware combined with the lack of real leadership and effective training in Arab militaries that there is a serious military threat to Israel.

    Also, even if they had nukes, I don’t think the Arabs would risk destroying the Dome of the Rock just to get rid of the Jews.

  6. Tom |

    Arab armies are not very effective for a lot of reasons — poor leadership, not much planning ability, lack of unit cohesion, bad maintenance of equipment, insufficient training, cultural factors, etc.

    However, as far as reliance on equipment and support from other countries is concerned, let’s not forget that Israel relies on the U.S. in much the same way. Soldier-for-soldier, the IDF will always be far superior to any Arab (or Iranian) army, but our continued support is essential.

    It’s also true that a large enough horde, regardless of their military proficiency, can overrun just about any foe under the right circumstances. Even if the casualty ratio is 100 to one, a huge force can outlast a much smaller one, assuming they’re willing to accept the casualties.

    I’m not at all sure that an Arab nation or Iran wouldn’t use nuclear weapons against Israel if they had the capability. The Dome of the Rock doesn’t have to be ground zero, in the first place. They might also be willing to risk contamination of the area or damage to the Dome and the Al Aqsa Mosque to achieve their goal of destroying Israel. Remember that these aren’t particularly rational people.

  7. Brian Bagent |

    You are definitely right about the rationality thing as well as Israel’s reliance on us for aid.

    I’d put the IDF up there with the Spartans and Hoplites vs Xerxes and the Persians. Thermopylae is an example of bravery and brilliant tactics, but the subsequent Hoplite destruction of the Persian army is pure military genius. I imagine that the IDF is replete with both. The parallels between Israel/Greece and the Arabs/Persians are numerous. I’m reasonably certain that the Israelis know this, and I suspect that the Arabs do not.

    Yes, they need us. Given the current makeup of our federal government, this may be the biggest problem Israel has. You’d think that Feinstein, Schumer, et al would be more in the corner for Israel than they are. It is a thing that I simply cannot wrap my mind around.

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