Wasting Assets

Donald MacKenzie on nuclear weapons

It always helps to see the ordinariness of things. Despite the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons remain very un-ordinary in the popular mind. The world’s nuclear arsenals still contain over twenty thousand warheads. Yet nuclear weapons are an ordinary technology and can, like other technologies, become obsolete. They can, perhaps, be abolished. There is even a meaningful sense in which nuclear weapons can be disinvented.

Surprisingly, the abolition of nuclear weapons is discussed less often now than it was during the Cold War, when the odds were stacked hopelessly against it. Public alarm has diminished, and as a result, nuclear disarmament movements have lost impetus. The familiar arguments in support of abolition remain: among them, the risk of nuclear war breaking out by accident, miscalculation and irrationality. An important new factor is that half the world’s nuclear weapons are in the hands of a power which is likely to be unstable for many years. To date, those in charge of the former Soviet nuclear forces have shown restraint and responsibility: the serious cases of smuggling of nuclear materials have largely resulted from ‘stings’ by Western, especially German, intelligence agencies. However, restraint and responsibility cannot be guaranteed when soldiers, unable to feed their families, sell firearms from the backs of trucks. Against abolition is the fear that, without nuclear weapons, conventional war will be more likely, and that ‘pariah’ states might turn to chemical or biological weapons. Above all, there is the possibility that some states might cheat on a nuclear disarmament agreement by hiding weapons away or by re-arming in the future.

The most common way technologies disappear is by obsolescence: the task they performed is no longer needed, or a new, better, way of doing it emerges. To a striking extent, nuclear weapons are already obsolete. Our dominant images of them are framed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki; we see them as terror weapons used to destroy entire cities. From the Fifties to the Eighties, however, this was not the purpose of most nuclear weapons, especially American ones, which were designed to be used against a massive invasion of Western Europe by Soviet tanks; to destroy Soviet missiles in their silos before they could be launched; and in a variety of other roles that now seem bizarre – as landmines, anti-aircraft missiles and depth-charges. The variety of purposes for which they were intended explains the enormous number accumulated in the American and Soviet arsenals, even though the most hawkish of nuclear strategists accepted that a few hundred were sufficient to devastate an enemy’s cities.

Two things have changed. First, the United States and its allies now enjoy overwhelming superiority in conventional armaments over any likely foe. Economic and organisational collapse has eroded Russia’s armed services and the military-industrial complex that used to stand behind them. Ten years ago, the West feared that the Red Army could reach the Atlantic unless stopped by nuclear weapons; now, it can’t subdue a rebellious province. Nor does any other country approach parity with the Western Allies in conventional weaponry. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was one of the best armed countries outside Nato. The Gulf War, in which there were around a thousand Iraqi casualties for each Allied one, showed how great the imbalance is. Second, the progress of military technology, especially in precision weaponry, means that many of the targets against which nuclear weapons used to be directed can now be destroyed by non-nuclear warheads. True, the cruise missiles used against Iraq still have many shortcomings. For example, the scene-matching systems currently employed to correct their trajectories look downwards rather than forwards, so a missile has to rake its last positional fix several miles from its target; also feeding in data on new targets is still a protracted process. Even so, the missile that can be guided to enter a particular window of a particular building will shortly be a reality. With that accuracy, few military targets require the explosive force of a nuclear warhead.

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