Monday, May 24, 2010

The Magic Number is 311

Not wins to get in the Baseball Hall of Fame (ok, that is 300) or the total of my favorite pitcher (Tom Seaver), but how many nukes the US needs.  Far less than the five thousand it currently has.  Provocative piece today by one scholar I keep bumping into and one I have not.

311 warheads = 1,900 megatons of TNT or 1,900 x one million sticks of dynamite.  Much more than the US said it needed in the mid-60's at the height of the cold war.  As long as half can survive a first strike, they calculate, there is enough power to do enough damage to deter or respond. 

Funny as profs at US Air Force institutions, they keep a role for the B-2, which makes sense, and keeping the B-52s alive in a conventional role even though they are now older than the President and then some.

The authors are not advocating disarmament:
While 311 is a radical cut from current levels, it is not the same as zero, nor is it a steppingstone to abandoning our nuclear deterrent. The idea of a nuclear-weapon-free world is not an option for the foreseeable future. Nuclear weapons make leaders vigilant and risk-averse. That their use is to be avoided does not render them useless. Quite the opposite: nuclear weapons might be the most politically useful weapons a state can possess. They deter adversaries from threatening with weapons of mass destruction the American homeland, United States forces abroad and our allies and friends. They also remove the incentive for our allies to acquire nuclear weapons for their own protection.
They assert that nukes make folks risk averse--tell that to the Pakistanis, as their nukes seemed to have facilitated their violence directed towards India in the Kargil crisis and since then.  The stability-instability paradox refers to the situation where mutual assured destruction might actually facilitate warfare at lower levels as each side's nukes cancel each other out.  This may be too complex for the op-ed but it is a possible dynamic we need to take seriously. On the other hand, it is not clear whether there is more of a paradox with 5,000 warheads or 300.

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