Why we need a fundamental reappraisal of nuclear weapons policy

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The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, a Biden appointee who apparently was intent on challenging status quo ideas, recently was forced out of the Nuclear Posture Review process in a “reorganization.” The move led some to conclude that new ideas and innovative thinking are being excluded, some to have even sharper reactions, and inspired Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to fire off a letter to the president asking eight pointed questions and expressing concern that the move “will result in a draft Nuclear Posture Review that reflects the Cold War era’s over-reliance on nuclear weapons.”

This move to force out a proponent of new ideas is disappointing because the need for a fundamental, realistic reappraisal of nuclear weapons policy is unmistakable — not because recent policies were obviously flawed, although they do seem to have failed to avert a second nuclear arms race. The problem goes back to the origins of nuclear weapons policy and the peculiar fact-free nature of the field.

Most areas of policymaking are based on fact: The Department of Transportation bases tolerances for highway bridges on well-tested knowledge; pandemic control is based on medical science; and so on. Some areas are less fact-based and require more judgment — international relations, for example. At the far end of the factless spectrum is nuclear weapons policy.

We know almost nothing about nuclear weapons as weapons. They have been exploded by various countries more than 2,000 times in deserts and on remote islands. We have a good deal of knowledge about the physics of nuclear explosions. This is sometimes assumed to mean that we understand other important things about nuclear weapons as well — such as their ability to deter or their utility in battle. Those assumptions typically are wrong.

The one crucial ingredient for understanding the full meaning of a new weapon is experience. War is a complex, multivariate human activity and in order to fully grasp how a new weapon affects war, you must observe repeated real-world uses of that weapon. Machine guns, for example, were used intermittently for almost 50 years, but the drastic impact they had on the battlefields of World War I still came as a surprise. Only battlefield experience reveals the full capabilities and limits of new types of weapons.

We do not have this sort of knowledge with nuclear weapons. They were used twice in one week, against a single adversary, aimed at only one type of target, in a particular war, more than 75 years ago, and never since. If nuclear weapons are truly revolutionary — unlike any other weapons — no amount of testing can compensate for this lack of real-world knowledge. For the purposes of realistic policymaking, we must acknowledge that we know very little about nuclear weapons as weapons.

So, if U.S. nuclear weapons policy is not based on fact, on what is it based? It is based on assumptions. The people who first made policy about nuclear weapons did the best they could using intuition, judgment and what little experience they had. The problem is that it is easy to get assumptions wrong. In the case of nuclear weapons, there is every reason to believe that at least some of the assumptions that underpin thinking about these weapons are mistaken.

It’s likely, for example, that early judgments were skewed by fear. Nuclear weapons policy was first formulated during the Cold War, a time of uniquely intense anxiety, paranoia and continual fear of nuclear war. This is a problem, because people don’t do their best thinking when they are afraid. Strong emotions almost certainly distorted early thinking about nuclear weapons.

Another likely source of error is what happened in Hiroshima, Japan. Over the past 15 years, the meaning of that one real experience has come under scrutiny. There are now credible reasons to doubt that the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki played a significant role in Japan’s decision to surrender at the end of World War II. Some believe it is even possible they played no role at all.

Finally, if the assumptions that underlie nuclear weapons policy were wrong during the Cold War, it is unlikely that time has fixed the problem. Unchallenged theories are rarely revised, especially when they never undergo the necessary and abrasive process of coming into contact with reality. “Friction,” philosopher Karl von Clausewitz wrote, is “the concept that differentiates actual war from war on paper.” Without real-world experiences to expose the distance between theory and reality, theories continue on, floating untethered — constructed almost entirely from conjecture.

If it is likely that those early Cold War assumptions were wrong, it is time — it is past time, in fact — for a fundamental reappraisal of nuclear weapons policy. We need one that is based on realism and common sense, rather than assumptions from a long-ago time of fear and paranoia. 

Ward Wilson is executive director of RealistRevolt, a Chicago area nonprofit that argues against nuclear weapons. He has been a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the British American Security Information Council, and the Federation of American Scientists. The author of “Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons,” he has spoken at the Pentagon, State Department, and United Nations. Follow him on Twitter @WardHayesWilson.

Tags Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Cold War Edward Markey Joe Biden Nuclear Posture Review nuclear weapons policy

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