Bombs and more bombs

By Jonathan Power

Just for five minutes while you read this column forget the supposed intention of Iran to build a nuclear bomb. Dwell on the less reported fact that there are already 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world of which 90% are held by the US and Russia.

During the Cold War barely a week went by without some reportage or debate on nuclear weapons. Not today. Yet most of the nuclear weapons around then are still around.

It would be alright if they were left to quietly rust in their silos. But they are not. When in 2010 President Barack Obama made a deal with Russian President Dimitri Medvedev to cut their respective arsenals of strategic missiles by one third the US Congress, as the price for its ratification of the deal, decreed that Obama and future presidents be held to spending 355 billion dollars on updating and modernizing America’s massive arsenal.

There is an organization called Global Zero that boasts among its supporters former US secretaries of state and a deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with – off in the wings – support from Henry Kissinger. It has pushed to fast cut the level of nuclear weapons down to zero. But the rock won’t budge.

As soon as a deal is made over Iran’s nuclear industry, which could happen quite soon, let us return to putting things into perspective. Forget Iran’s supposed effort to build one bomb and focus on the other 16,000.

Recently, we have had wild talk from some Russian generals and diplomats about using nuclear weapons. We have Russian nuclear bombers showing off their capabilities as they fly close to European air space. At the same time sensible Russian strategists are trying to warn the country’s leadership to be careful – that the craft of nuclear brinkmanship has been lost as the people who knew about nuclear politics have retired or died.

In the US, since his deal with Medvedev 3 years ago and despite all his promises to strive for a nuclear–free world, Obama seems to be stuck in place. Nuclear weapon reductions have now become hostage to the Ukrainian imbroglio. Even before Ukraine became an issue, President Vladimir Putin was dragging his feet because of his antagonism to the US plan to build missile defences on European soil.

Is Obama going to leave office with this part of his agenda forgotten? Is Putin going to highlight Russia’s nuclear potential at every future crisis?

Much of the Russian scaremongering is talk. During NATO enlargement Russia talked of mushroom clouds over the territories of new members. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, observes that Russian threats are aimed at “waking the European publics to nuclear dangers”.

That is a useful service, even though the method chosen is not a welcome one. Europe does need a wake up call. Look at the British government’s announced intention to modernize its missile-carrying submarine fleet, long before they become too old for use.

Two American strategists, Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh, have suggested one thing that Europe could do right now: Ask the US to get rid of B-61 gravity nuclear bombs that are located in many European countries. When President George H.W. Bush decided unilaterally to retire almost all tactical battlefield weapons based in Europe – except the B-61s – President Mikhail Gorbachev followed the example with his own unilateral cuts.

Soviet plans for the massive use of nuclear weapons at the very onset of a conflict made tactical weapons irrelevant. They are even more so today.

The reason the US deployed them was a mistaken. In Cold War days it was believed that the Warsaw Pact armies had a ten-to-one advantage in army divisions. They could quickly overwhelm NATO forces in a surprise attack. Hence the need for battlefield nuclear weapons. After the Cold War ended NATO discovered that they had wildly overestimated Warsaw Pact forces.

In the 1990s, Colin Powell, when he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favoured abandoning all of them but was overruled. The US should unilaterally get rid of them. Russia would hopefully follow. They are useless to Russia too.

Obama will now never get a major nuclear disarmament deal ratified by Congress. Some unilateral disarmament in both battlefield – and, come to that, strategic weapons too – would serve the world well.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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