Continuing on our push for a change in US nuclear weapon first-use policy, we fair-use post an editorial arguing again with growing support that now is time for the President to use his executive powers as the clock ticks toward his last days in office.
“President Obama has an opportunity to further delegitimize nuclear weapons by adopting no first-use as a core principle of United States security policy”
“Although a no first-use policy would limit the president’s discretion by imposing procedural and physical constraints on his or her ability to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, we believe such checks on the commander in chief would serve the national interest.
President Obama has an opportunity to further delegitimize nuclear weapons by adopting no-first-use as a core principle of United States security policy on the grounds that first-use is unnecessary and a threat to national survival and humanity itself. We could still maintain a robust nuclear umbrella to protect ourselves and our allies.”
End the First-Use Policy for Nuclear Weapons
Throughout the nuclear age, presidents have allowed their senior commanders to plan for the first use of nuclear weapons. Contingency plans were drawn to initiate first strikes to repel an invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union, defeat China and North Korea, take out chemical and biological weapons and conduct other missions.
After the end of the Cold War, which coincided with revolutionary advances in our nonnuclear military capacities, the range of these missions steadily narrowed to the point where nuclear weapons today no longer serve any purpose beyond deterring the first use of such weapons by our adversaries. Our nonnuclear strength, including economic and diplomatic power, our alliances, our conventional and cyber weaponry and our technological advantages, constitute a global military juggernaut unmatched in history. The United States simply does not need nuclear weapons to defend its own and its allies’ vital interests, as long as our adversaries refrain from their use.
Using nuclear weapons first against Russia and China would endanger our and our allies’ very survival by encouraging full-scale retaliation. Any first use against lesser threats, such as countries or terrorist groups with chemical and biological weapons, would be gratuitous; there are alternative means of countering those threats. Such use against North Korea would be likely to result in the blanketing of Japan and possibly South Korea with deadly radioactive fallout.
But beyond reducing those dangers, ruling out first use would also bring myriad benefits. To start, it would reduce the risk of a first strike against us during global crises. Leaders of other countries would be calmed by the knowledge that the United States viewed its own weapons as deterrents to nuclear warfare, not as tools of aggression.
The policy would also reduce costs by gutting the rationale for retaining the large arsenal of land-based strategic missiles in silos across the Midwest and the tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe. Those missiles are mainly for first-use; they are a risky option for second-use because they are highly vulnerable to enemy attack. Eliminating these weapons entirely would be the best option.
Phasing out land-based missiles and shifting to a reliance on submarines and bombers would save about $100 billion over the next three decades. The elimination of smaller, tactical nuclear weapons would save billions more. President Obama could begin the phaseout of land-based missiles before he left office by instructing the Department of Defense to remove 550 weapons from the operationally deployed category and transfer them to long-term storage, thereby reducing the operationally deployed inventory to about 1,000 strategic warheads. These missiles are surplus weapons no longer needed for deterrence.
A no-first-use policy would also reduce the risks of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. By scrapping the vulnerable land-based missile force, any need for launching on warning disappears. Strategic bombers can be sent aloft on warning of an apparent incoming attack, which may or may not be a false alarm, and stay up until the situation clarifies. Strategic submarines are extremely survivable and exert no pressure on decision-makers to fire them quickly. They can patrol for months waiting for instructions. Both bombers and submarines are also less vulnerable to cyberwarfare than the strategic missiles on land.
Finally, no-first-use would help ensure that democratically elected officials maintained control over nuclear weapons. Savings from reducing the nuclear force could be invested in fortifying command centers and communications networks, which would better protect the president and ensure the continuity of government during a crisis. This would not only fortify deterrence but also reduce the current possibility of a president’s losing control over nuclear operations at an early stage of conflict.
Beyond those benefits, we believe a no-first-use policy could catalyze multilateral negotiations to reduce nuclear arms, discourage nonnuclear states from developing them and reinforce the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Although a no-first-use policy would limit the president’s discretion by imposing procedural and physical constraints on his or her ability to initiate the use of nuclear weapons, we believe such checks on the commander in chief would serve the national interest.
President Obama has an opportunity to further delegitimize nuclear weapons by adopting no-first-use as a core principle of United States security policy on the grounds that first-use is unnecessary and a threat to national survival and humanity itself. We could still maintain a robust nuclear umbrella to protect ourselves and our allies.
China and India adopted this policy long ago, and the American people overwhelmingly support it, according to a recent survey. In that poll, two-thirds say the United States should use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear attack or not at all, while just 18 percent think that first-use may be justified sometimes.
President Obama would be wise to follow China’s example. As commander in chief, he can adopt no-first-use overnight and lead the way in establishing it as a global norm among all of the nine countries with nuclear weapons. The next president ought to stay that course. Our nation, our allies and indeed the world will be better and safer for it.
Questions About America’s Nuclear Policy
To the Editor:
“A Nuclear Legacy Within Reach” (editorial, Aug. 8) notes that President Obama still has time to reduce the danger of nuclear war. Nothing he will do is more important than this.
For 70 years we have treated nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of our security. That view is fundamentally wrong. The nuclear nations have come perilously close to using these weapons on a number of occasions and have been saved, not because nuclear weapons possess some magic power that prevents their use but because of a string of incredible good luck that will not last forever.
We need a transformational change in our nuclear policy that recognizes that these weapons are the gravest threat to our security and must be banned and abolished.
The writer is a co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
To the Editor:
Your editorial suggests that President Obama could, within the remaining months of his administration, burnish his legacy by canceling the development of a new nuclear-armed cruise missile or eliminating the land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or both.
The most important action Mr. Obama could have taken during his two terms in office would have been to begin the difficult process of negotiating with all nuclear-armed nations the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Negotiations to help end the nuclear arms race are required by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the United States signed and ratified in 1968, and are long overdue.
A president truly concerned about the nuclear threat would have begun such multilateral negotiations. Mr. Obama’s eloquent speeches in Prague and at Hiroshima calling for an eventual end to the nuclear threat appear hollow when one considers how little action the president has taken to reduce this threat.
To the Editor:
The Senate, for years, has failed to approve the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Yet the United Nations Security Council’s five major nuclear powers, including the United States, abide by it. The ban is designed to degrade the reliability of existing nuclear warhead arsenals. First-strike sneak attacks require high reliability levels in warheads. The threat of second-strike retaliatory strikes on cities for deterrence is effective even if some warheads fail.
Former Defense Secretary William Perry is right that land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles are no longer needed. These sitting ducks are prime targets for an enemy’s first strike using multiple warheads in their missiles, and America should negotiate with Russia and China to make them obsolete.
The writer, a political writer, was an adviser to Ross Perot, independent candidate who received 19% of the general election vote in 1992.
To the Editor:
Your editorial rightly calls on President Obama to take concrete steps toward his professed goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
I was an activist in the 1980s Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign. The freeze recognized that the nuclear arms race was driven not by the number of weapons but by the development of new, more accurate weapons designed to fight and win a nuclear war. It still is. Other countries respond asymmetrically to American technological superiority. Russia, for instance, may adopt nuclear launch on warning, raising the risk of war by accident or miscalculation.
The presidential candidates also need to outline their plans to prevent a new arms race. Hillary Clinton, who once compared actions by the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, to those of Hitler, also needs to explain how she would keep American-Russian tensions from reaching dangerous levels.
To the Editor:
Re “Issue in Race: Can President Be Kept From Hitting Button?” (front page, Aug. 5), which mentions the debate over whether Donald J. Trump “is fit to command America’s atomic forces”:
Current American nuclear policy not only gives the president the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons, but also creates overwhelming pressure to make a launch decision within minutes. American land-based missiles are kept on hair-trigger alert so they can be launched upon warning of an incoming attack, giving the president only about 10 minutes to evaluate the warning and decide whether to launch.
The risk of an accidental or mistaken launch is all too real. Indeed, there is a list of false warnings caused by human and technical errors that could have set off a nuclear war.
Regardless of who is in the Oval Office, the process is not designed to be the careful, deliberative one you would want for the biggest decision in history.
Submarine-based missiles, which are secure from attack, provide a strong nuclear deterrent without requiring a quick launch decision based on incomplete information. Before he leaves office, President Obama should eliminate launch-on-warning options and remove American land-based missiles from their current hair-trigger posture.
The writer is a co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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A New Nuclear Arsenal and Reflections on a President’s Last Days in Office