Whenever I find my thoughts dwelling on a question of public policy, about whether or not the government should do such-and-such a thing, I always ask myself two questions. First, is the proposed policy necessary and rational? If it isn't, then it probably shouldn't be done. Second, is it affordable? If it isn't than the first question is moot, because the government shouldn't do anything if it costs more than the taxpayers can pay. To my mind, asking these two questions is such an obvious thing to do that I have a hard time understanding why anyone would think otherwise.
We're in an election year and it has already proven to be the most outlandish presidential election in my lifetime. It will no doubt get even crazier between now and Election Day. One thing that has remained the same, however, is that critical issues facing our republic are going unmentioned on the campaign trail, their place instead being taken by meaningless platitudes and vicious personal insults. Indeed, this has been the case in 2016 even more than is usually the case. It is sad to see the civic life in the United States having been reduced to such a state. As I said in my post about gerrymandering, I am engaging in my own personal form of resistance by writing about the critical electoral reforms needed in America. I've also decided to occasionally bring up the neglected political issues facing our country, which are no less important for being ignored. Among those issues is that which I want to talk about today: America's misguided policy on nuclear weapons.
A bit of background first. At the height of the Cold War in the early 1980s, both the United States and the Soviet Union constructed tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice from bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), collectively known as the "nuclear triad". The fact that the two superpowers spent literally trillions of dollars to build vastly more firepower than would have been necessary to obliterate the entirety of human civilization many times over was a disgusting absurdity. For the first time in history, the human race had created the ability to destroy itself, and it came close to doing so on more than one occasion. Historians of the future will undoubtedly look back on the Russian and American decision-makers and strategists of the Cold War as the most foolish and dangerous people to have ever lived.
Since the end of the Cold War, both Russia and America have substantially reduced their nuclear arsenals, which is obviously for the good, but both nations still retain several thousand warheads each. Britain, France, China, and Israel all likely have a few hundred warheads each, and India and Pakistan each have built scores of nuclear weapons. North Korea has an unknown number. Carl Sagan referred to nuclear weapons as "genies of death, patiently awaiting the rubbing of the lamps." Though little attention is paid to it by the mainstream media, there can be no denying that the continued existence of large stockpiles of nuclear weapons remains one of the most pressing dangers of the modern era.
Today, the United States possesses more than 4,500 nuclear weapons. The "triad" of ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombs delivered by aircraft still exists. This is obscene and absurd, for there is no rational reason why the country requires such a vast nuclear arsenal. Ostensibly, the purpose of a nuclear arsenal is purely one of deterrence. We are not intending to launch a preemptive strike against any other country, but simply create a situation in which any nuclear strike on the United States would be met with a retaliatory strike that would destroy the attacker. Four and a half thousand warheads constitutes a much larger arsenal than would be necessary to deter a nuclear attack from another nuclear-armed nation. If America were to unilaterally reduce its nuclear arsenal to a few hundred warheads (i.e. the size of the nuclear arsenals of the United Kingdom and France), it would still possess an obvious deterrent against a nuclear attack. since even a few hundred warheads is still more than enough to utterly destroy any conceivable combination of enemies. You only need to destroy your enemy once. In an age of severe budget pressures, it makes absolutely no sense to spend tens of billions of dollar a year to maintain such a bloated arsenal as we currently have.
A truly enlightened and far-sighted policy regarding nuclear weapons would require a radical yet simple shift away from present thought. What we should consider now is unilaterally reducing the American nuclear arsenal to between 300-500 weapons, or around one-tenth what we currently possess. Furthermore, we should eliminate all ICBMs and bomber-delivered weapons, relying only on SLBMs from now on. Submarine-based weapons are the safest and most secure in any event, and their continued existence would serve as an effective deterrent against any power foolish enough to launch a nuclear attack on the United States. The ICBMs and nuclear bombers are entirely unnecessary.
Even if one stretches logic to its breaking point, the only remotely rational reason to possess a large nuclear arsenal is to use the weapons as bargaining chips in disarmament negotiations with Russia (and perhaps other states as well). But if the United States were to unilaterally reduce its arsenal to 500 weapons or less, would Russia see a need to maintain its arsenal of several thousand weapons? I doubt it. They have their own fiscal problems, after all. Indeed, it could prompt Russia and other nuclear nations to consider reducing their own stockpiles and might even persuade non-nuclear countries from initiating programs to obtain nuclear weapons that they might otherwise embark upon.
Even if we completely set aside matters of foreign policy and national security, reducing our nuclear arsenal is an urgent necessity because of the national fiscal crisis. Reducing our nuclear arsenal and eliminating the air and land aspects of the "nuclear triad" would save scores of billions of dollars every year from the budgets of the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, and thereby help ease the budget pressures and runaway deficits which are, truth be told, a greater threat to the American republic than any potential foreign foe. And doing so would not endanger American national security in the slightest, since a smaller nuclear force would be just as effective in its deterrent role.
The long-term goal, of course, should be the entire abolition of nuclear weapons throughout the world. This is no simple matter, of course, and Winston Churchill warned us not to get rid of nuclear weapons until "other means of preserving peace" were in our hands. But to me, the very existence of those warheads, ready at any moment to explode into radioactive fire and consume the whole planet, is an affront to humanity. I often wonder what heroes of mine like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, exemplars of optimism about the human future, would think if they could have seen the creation of nuclear weapons and the threat they pose today. One wonders if it would shake even their immense idealism.
I remain an optimist, and I hope that I live to see the day when the final nuclear warhead is dismantled and the threat of nuclear annihilation is lifted from the face of the world. Unilaterally reducing our own nuclear arsenal to a few hundred weapons deployed on submarines would be a big step in that direction, it would not reduce our security in any meaningful way, and it would bring tremendous financial benefits as well. For all these reasons, it is something that needs to be done by the next President of the United States, whomever that turns out to be. Sadly, considering the two major candidates in the current election, I won't hold my breath.