Uncovering the Truth about the Threat of Nuclear Proliferation by DV82XL

While I dislike juxtaposing nuclear energy with nuclear weapons, recent and ongoing events has brought the latter to the public’s attention, to the detriment of the former.  What I hope to accomplish in this essay is reexamine the question of nuclear weapons in light of historical and technical facts in an effort to separate truth from fiction.

The sudden concern with nuclear weapons is, in large part, due to the steady erosion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the real danger that the Big Five — China, Russia, the United States, France, and Britain — may one day confront a host of nations similarly armed. Countries likeBrazil, Argentina, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Taiwan, and South Africa could all produce nuclear weapons in less than a decade if they wanted to. Several of these countries had begun the process before mothballing their programs several decades ago. Israel, Pakistan, and India, of course, already have nuclear weapons.

In the past, wars with countries like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq involved the loss of life and wealth — far greater for them than for us — but these countries never presented a serious obstacle to the use of military power. One might not “win” these wars in the conventional sense of the word, but none of these nations could prevent the Great Powers from attacking them.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons by smaller states has changed all that.

We really should stop and make an evaluation of the nuclear weapons threat based on facts rather than propaganda. If one takes an analytical approach to the issue taking into account history and the capabilities of these weapons with their delivery systems, a very different picture appears than the one we are used to.

To start with we must realize that during the Cold War the nuclear option was distorted  far beyond any rational strategy, first due to ignorance, and then due to inertia.

It is said with some truth that the military always prepares for the last war, and this was the case with nuclear weapons.  The Second World War featured the reduction of cites as a strategic objective, not because this was known to be effective, London didn’t break despite being a regular target, nor did Germany sue for peace after suffering some of the worst bombing in that conflict. The fact is cities were the smallest target that the bombing technology of the day was able to acquire with some regularity.  The hope was that by burning the cities, military production would be disrupted however it was not in any significant way. In reality the bombing of populated areas had little effect on the outcome of that war.

This would have been considered in the aftermath except for the atom bombs dropped on Japan. These were seen as game changers and it was widely believed that they had stopped the war.  Well yes and no. Yes it gave the civil powers the excuse in Japan to overrule the military’s desire to die fighting to the last man; no because Japan had already lost and would have collapsed within months one way or the other as the USSR had just entered the fray against them. However the bombs were dropped, based on the best available intelligence, and doubtless lives were saved because of this action, however it distorted the world’s view of nuclear weapons since: the belief that wars can be fought and won by destroying the enemy’s cities. And this was the driving philosophy in nuclear weapon development in the post-war period.

Again, at the beginning, a limiting factor was that a city was the smallest target that could be reliably acquired by the long range delivery systems in use, but as accuracy increased, primary targets shifted away from cities and on to purely military installations.

Because the strategic mechanics of nuclear war are relatively simple, we can assume that military planners at the time figured them out quickly, any attack that did not bring your opponent to his knees immediately would result in a counter attack that would leave both sides weakened. I’m sure that this was particularly apparent to the Soviets who were more vulnerable to a conventional offensive than any Western power at the time.

Now in all fairness I know that some felt that holding your opponents cities hostage, as it were, permitted more latitude on the ground particularly in regional conflicts, but in general a nuclear capability paradoxically raises the threshold for action (think of the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisings, which were not aided by the West) so even if some felt it was a necessary tool it was unlikely that this attitude lasted too long.

Herman Kahn, a leading military strategist and systems theorist employed at RAND Corporation, USA was without a doubt an important figure in Cold War history. However regardless, one can’t overlook the fact that he essentially created the problems as much as suggested solutions to them. Now perhaps because I am not an American national, I have always assumed that he was little more than a very skilled propagandist, and perhaps that was unfair and was not the case, but any analysis of his theories, particularly of the fundamental assumptions that he founded them on, show that they were in grave error.

A good deal of Kahn’s speculation about nuclear scenarios was based on information from U.S. Air Force intelligence, which is the only classified intelligence RAND had access to, and which, not surprisingly, habitually overestimated Soviet strength. The widespread panic about a missile gap was an artifact of this bias. In 1958, Kahn estimated that the Soviets had 2000 warheads in inventory and three hundred squatting on ICBMs. Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War was published in December of 1960 so it is not clear, really, how much he did know and how much was speculation. However we now know the fact was, even in 1961, the year John Kennedy became President, after a campaign accusing Eisenhower of letting the United States fall behind in the arms race, the Soviet Union had only four missiles in its arsenal.

One is honestly forced to wonder if, given the fact that Kahn became the Kennedy Administrations ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ and that ‘On Thermonuclear War‘ and his subsequent books, Thinking About the Unthinkable, and On Escalation, were well read by the Soviets, these books were themselves one of the causes of the subsequent arms race. Kahn’s opinions on nuclear warfare policy were taken as revealed truths, when in fact they were nothing more than the products of his imagination it can be argued, tailored to please his political clients. However his assertions did play into the hands of what Eisenhower christened the ‘military-industrial complex’ and formed the central ideology for the Cold War (on both sides)

But if we go back to Clausewitz himself we see that that the idea “of an army of artillery only is an absurdity in war” (On War, Chap 4, para 6) and that is exactly what was happening. The point here that there would never be a case where there would have been any political or military objective that could have come up where a duel with ICBMs was the logical conclusion and both parties would find themselves drawn it inevitably by the course of events. The fact is that no nuclear power would consider an attack another because they could not follow it up with an invasion and there would likely be a counterstrike. As well, no nuclear power would prosecute a nuclear attack on a non-weapons state, without risking becoming an international pariah, and again with the risk of enduring reprisals in kind.  Thus nuclear weapons ultimately stand as defensive assets, almost useless in an offensive role.  And indeed this is reflected in both the designs of these systems and strategic doctrines in the smaller nuclear weapons states.

If more proof is needed, look no further than the nuclear arsenals ofBritain, France and China. They were not caught up in the arms race, nor were their nuclear doctrines driven by domestic politics. In those countries analysts rightly concluded that smaller nuclear weapon inventories provided all the deterrence they needed. As a consequence these countries never had more than about three hundred warheads each; yet do not feel threatened in any way.

The real military application of nuclear weapons is not breaking up cities, but in destroying armor massed on a border or flotillas on a coastal littoral. This factor was so important that even States like my own, (Canada) which was broadly for nuclear disarmament, deployed nuclear weapons in a tactical role. From 1963 to 1984 US nuclear warheads armed Canadian weapons systems in both Canada and Germany. In fact during the early part of the period, the Canadian military was putting more effort, money and manpower into its nuclear commitment than any other activity. Canada was not the only State to deploy dual-key nuclear weapons, most if not all NATO counties did at one time or another during the cold war.

This is why nuclear weapons in the hands of a minor power is so threatening; it’s not that they would think of launching an attack on a Great Power, but that the Great Power cannot prosecute a conventional attack on them. In fact a RAND study done in 2002 states:”…the acquisition of nuclear weapons by countries hostile to the United States would constitute a serious threat to this nation’s security and to its ability to influence events in regions where critical interests are at stake,…” Breaking up cities for a minor power simply has no real military value. Real deterrence is a product of tactical nuclear weapons, which can effectively stop armored columns or amphibious invasions quickly across a broad front, without needing a massive amount of equipment and manpower.

Another notion we have got to get rid of is this simplistic idea that if this technology isn’t controlled nations will be ‘tempted’ to make nuclear weapons and that unchecked will lead to a domino effect. This is pure fantasy based on the overactive imaginations of Cold War strategists who were working with no real precedents to guide them. It presumes that the nation in question is going to treat the acquisition of this capability as lightly as they would any other item of military hardware.

If you recall, it was assumed by those theories there would be more than a dozen new nuclear weapons States by the turn of the century – is obviously just not so. Even if the question of supplying weapon-grade fissile material is removed, it still requires a sizable technological infrastructure and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars to make a weapon. The costs of a more ambitious program aimed at producing a militarily significant number of weapons can easily run into the billions of dollars, and the idea that such a project would be carried out simply because a nation has enrichment and/or reprocessing facilities does not belong in any rational discussion of the issue.

Events, real events on the ground have proven these theories simply wrong, and they should not be applied to evaluate the issue. It is time to rethink the whole foundation of proliferation risk based on historical fact rather than inductive reasoning. Proliferation myths, like most of the nuclear mythos that grew as a consequence of a mix of ignorance, inexperience and Cold War propaganda, have been shown to be false. Continuing to expect policy to follow those falsehoods is ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst

A State arming itself with nuclear weapons is not a trivial matter for the country in question. A nuclear weapons program is an unbelievably expensive undertaking (“we were eating grass” as they said in Pakistan) and no nation decides to engage in such a project lightly. So the countries “illegally” producing their own nuclear weapons to date were driven by extreme geopolitical pressure in their perceived need for an N-weapon capability.

Now let’s make another thing very clear: a subnational group (terrorists) cannot and never will be able to manufacture a nuclear weapon.  This is true even if they were handed weapons-grade fissile material up front.  HEU is treated by all countries that own it as if it were more valuable than gold, a critical mass worth of HEU represents a huge investment to a country who acquired it for a purpose, and as part of a program, the fact remains that this stuff is controlled and accounted for very closely, which is why it has never showed up on the black market.

While it is true a gun-assembled HEU uranium bomb is conceptually simple, building one that will work is not, and requires more resources than an extranational group can muster.  A careful review of the facts suggests that there are technical obstacles to such an undertaking that are insuperable, and there is no evidence that any terrorist group currently possesses the expertise necessary for a nuclear effort. Claims that this is possible glosses over the difficulty of finding the kinds of highly qualified experts such a project would need and omits real consideration of at least a dozen points in the process where something could, and very likely would, go wrong that would bring the whole project to an end.

Nor would any State possessing ether HEU or a complete weapon willfully place such things in the hands of an extranational group over which it had only limited control.  The simple fact is that this would be tantamount to handing them the ultimate tool to turn around and blackmail the State that gave it to them.  It may well be that occasionally a nation may want to support and succor foreign insurgents at arm’s length to suit there own ends, but there is no reliable evidence that anyone would consider auctioning off nuclear weapons to wild men they can’t control.  A nuclear weapon in the hands of such a group within one’s own borders is a threat to the very sovereignty of the supplying nation itself.

The next question is: Could a few tribal groups collectively known as the Taliban really take overPakistan’s nuclear arsenal?

First we must understand that the mechanics of a nuclear weapon are far more complex than conventional explosives. The Pakistanis, like many nuclear weapon states, keep the fissile cores, the bomb casings, and the triggering mechanisms, geographically separated. Furthermore preassembly of these components into a functioning device is a nontrivial process requiring specialized training.  As well it has been reported that there are in place American supplied Permissive Action Links, which would also have to be overcome.

With this in mind consider the following: Imagine if a region of about 5,000 people, none with more than a 4th grade education and no weapons more advanced than AK-47s and a few rocket-propelled grenades were threatening to take over the US Government and its nuclear weapons and impose their morals and values over the entire US population, would anyone take their threat seriously? They might do a bit of damage on their way to Washington, but would they be able to take control of a single nuclear weapon, let alone the entire arsenal?

Transpose this scenario to Pakistan, and that is exactly what’s happening. The Taliban, who are based in tribal areas in northern Pakistan, have a tight control over their small region. Because the Taliban are based in hard to reach mountains, the Pakistani army can’t fight them easily (the US and Canadian forces in Afghanistan faced a similar problem). Over the last few years, people from this group have occasionally descended from the mountains to commit suicide bombings (or shootings) in nearby cities to show they mean business. However, since they lack modern weapons and logistical support and have no air power, the Taliban are in no way able to come down from these mountains to take on the Pakistani army head-on in pretty much flat terrain. This means they have no hope of taking over the country or its nuclear arsenal.

Although it is under reported in the Western press, India and Pakistan have begun normalizing relations starting with trade. In fact by several measures they are closer today than they have been since Partition. Apparently now that both possess nuclear weapons, they have decided that talk is preferable to armed clashes.

In his essay The Nuclear Game – An Essay on Nuclear Policy Making Stuart Slade writes:

“When a country first acquires nuclear weapons it does so out of a very accurate perception that possession of nukes fundamentally changes it relationships with other powers. What nuclear weapons buy for a New Nuclear Power (NNP) is the fact that once the country in question has nuclear weapons, it cannot be beaten. It can be defeated, that is it can be prevented from achieving certain goals or stopped from following certain courses of action, but it cannot be beaten. It will never have enemy tanks moving down the streets of its capital, it will never have its national treasures looted and its citizens forced into servitude. The enemy will be destroyed by nuclear attack first. A potential enemy knows that, so will not push the situation to the point where our NNP is on the verge of being beaten. In effect, the effect of acquiring nuclear weapons is that the owning country has set limits on any conflict in which it is involved. This is such an immensely attractive option that states find it irresistible.

With that appreciation however comes strategic paralysis, an even worse problem. A non-nuclear country has a wide range of options for its forces. Although its actions may incur a risk of being beaten they do not court destruction. Thus, a non-nuclear nation can afford to take risks of a calculated nature. However, a nuclear-equipped nation has to consider the risk that actions by its conventional forces will lead to a situation where it may have to use its nuclear forces with the resulting holocaust. Therefore, not only are its strategic nuclear options restricted by its possession of nuclear weapons, so are its tactical and operational options. So we add tactical and operational paralysis to the strategic variety. This is why we see such a tremendous emphasis on the mechanics of decision making in nuclear powers. Every decision has to be thought through, not for one step or the step after but for six, seven or eight steps down the line.”
“Aha, I hear you say what about the mad dictator? It’s interesting to note that mad, homicidal aggressive dictators tend to get very tame sane cautious ones as soon as they split atoms. Whatever their motivations and intents, the mechanics of how nuclear weapons work dictate that mad dictators become sane dictators very quickly. After all it’s not much fun dictating if one’s country is a radioactive trash pile and you’re one of the ashes. China, India and Pakistan are good examples. One of the best examples of this process at work is Mao Tse Tung. Throughout the 1950s he was extraordinarily bellicose and repeatedly tried to bully, cajole or trick Khruschev and his successors into initiating a nuclear exchange with the US on the grounds that world communism would rise from the ashes. That’s what Quemoy and Matsu were all about in the late 1950s. Then China got nuclear weapons. Have you noticed how reticent they are with them? It has sunk in. They can be totally destroyed; will be totally destroyed; in the event of an exchange”

The current focus of the world’s attention on this matter is on Iran at the moment, and many are treating the idea that this nation arming itself with nuclear weapons is a direct threat to Western nations. The belief is that Iran would target cities in North America and Europe with long-range strategic missiles.  However a more careful evaluation of the facts yields a different story.

Iran probably does have an active nuclear weapons program. Given their geopolitical situation, one might argue they would be fools not to be pursuing this goal.  However it is also almost guaranteed that the role of a nuclear weapons system in Iran would be largely defensive, as is the case with both Pakistan and India. Threatening any Western Power, Israel, or ether Russia or China would be an invitation to annihilation and the leadership of Iran is well aware of this fact.

Iran is the largest and most powerful State in its region. It does not have any power deficit with regards to any of its immediate neighbors. From Iran’s perspective, the only real threat comes from the United States. Thus Iran does not need a first strike-second strike capacity vis-à-vis anyone and in these circumstances a nuclear weapon would be deployed locally in a purely defensive role.

Iran has not invaded or waged any war of aggression against any country for the past 250 years, although they were victim aggression. Iran has not used any sort of weapons of mass destruction against any country, although they were victims of chemical weapons in the 1980s by the then western-backed Saddam Hussein. Iran is content with its size; it has access to two major seas and has immense natural resources. It has a homogenous population and no reason for aspirations toward anyone’s territory. In short Iran has no interest in perturbing the region simply because it has nothing to gain.

When Iran declares itself a nuclear power it will cause others in the region to reevaluate their stance on nuclear weapons and some like the Saudis will likely consider the acquisition of the same.  However this does not mean that they will. Western influence in the Gulf will wane, but will not disappear, it will though depend more on negotiation than military and economic threats. Israel will find too that it must negotiate in good faith with its enemies, not because of the threat of nuclear war, but due to the reduced influence of its western allies.

As long as the great powers maintain the ability to invade countries, overthrow regimes, and bomb nations into subservience, weaker countries will inevitably try to offset those advantages. The quickest and cheapest way to do that is to develop nuclear weapons.

The nuclear proliferation will not end until the weak need no longer fear the strong.




  • January 23, 2012 - 12:46 am | Permalink

    You hit nail right in the head. Now try Obama.

  • January 23, 2012 - 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I agree with many points of your assessment of the military value of nuclear weapons when they are used by regular nation states. However I don’t share your estimation that states will always be rational actors. While history has shown that this is a useful generalisation it is the cases where this doesn’t hold true that are the problems.

    So there are some points in your analysis which I see differently:

    “a subnational group (terrorists) cannot and never will be able to manufacture a nuclear weapon.”

    I also cannot manufacture an automatic weapon. And if I were to shop up at someone who can (an arms manufactures) trying to by one, they would laugh me off and send me away. But that doesn’t mean that with enough funds and determination I couldn’t get hold of one. All that is needed is a disgruntled employer in financial problems and access to those weapons.

    “Could a few tribal groups collectively known as the Taliban really take overPakistan’s nuclear arsenal?”

    Not by conventional means. However states and governments aren’t monolithic actors, simply because they are made up of many different individuals. And I think recent history has shown clear enough that there are some elements in the Pakistani government that sympathise with the Taliban. Furthermore Pakistan isn’t exactly what you would call a very stable government and has a history of several military coup d’états. That is where I see the real danger: an internal takeover of the Pakistani government by a Taliban-friendly faction. Or even worse: a failed coup that leaves the losers in possession of a part of the nation’s nuclear arsenal without the control of an area and a population that could be targeted for retribution.

    “Iran has not invaded or waged any war of aggression against any country for the past 250 years, although they were victim aggression.”

    Not in a conventional sense at least. And some reason could be that they usually weren’t in any position to do so with even the slightest chance of success. However Iran has provided and still does provide logistical support to Hisbollah, in order to attack Israel by proxy.

    However, the distrust of the Teheran government comes from other actions. The U.S. embassy hostage crisis has shown that Iran’s new regime was unwilling to play by the most basic rules of international relation by failing to guarantee the safety of foreign diplomats. And the recent attacks on the British embassy, while security forces stood idly by the side, show that this isn’t a problem of the past.

  • January 23, 2012 - 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for stating these facts and relating to Iran! From here, I figure that the U.S is causing problems by asserting sanctions, yet they know all this, thus is using all this as a ploy for their oil?

  • January 23, 2012 - 3:55 pm | Permalink

    @ John.

    “I don’t share your estimation that states will always be rational actors.

    Slade’s thesis is that nuclear weapons are in a class by themselves, and despite the fact that they have been acquired by nations who’s leaders have been called irrational, and indeed behaved irrationally prior to getting the Bomb, (like Mao for example)history does show that they have taken this weapon very seriously when they got one. In other words there are now historical cases where this doesn’t hold true.

    The reason is simple as Slade pointed out: using such a weapon aggressively guarantees total annihilation of the country doing so.

    It is important to understand that the idea of a ‘mad dictator’ is generally more an artifact of propaganda, than it is of fact. A careful examination of a country like North Korea shows that while there may have been a nominative leader running the show, in reality there is a large group with a great deal of responsibly around him. Even if the man himself is crazy enough to start a nuclear exchange just for the hell of it and with little regard for his own survival, that view is unlikely to be shared by these others. I am sure they understand the risks as well, so it is very unlikely that nuclear weapons could be launched by a madman’s arbitrary command.

    “a subnational group (terrorists) cannot and never will be able to manufacture a nuclear weapon.”

    While it is true a gun-assembled HEU uranium bomb is conceptually simple, building one that will work is not, and requires more resources than an extranational group can muster. A careful review of the facts suggests that there are technical obstacles to such a project that are insuperable, and there is no evidence that any terrorist group currently possesses the expertise necessary for a nuclear effort. Claims that this is possible glosses over the difficulty of finding the kinds of highly qualified experts such a project would need and omits real consideration of at least a dozen points in the process where something could, and very likely would, go wrong that would bring the whole project to an end.

    But let’s take it one step further. Any terrorist group that decided it wanted a nuclear weapon would first reason that the easiest way would be to steal or buy a device from a nuclear weapons state. They are quickly disabused of this idea because it is impossible for them to do so. Why do we know this? Because it hasn’t happened. If it was that easy there would be no running planes into buildings; there would already be a radioactive crater in Manhattan.

    So they are left with building one. Now they have three issues: HEU which is no easer to obtain than a complete device, finding people that know what to do with it, (and are willing to cooperate) and setting up some place on Earth where the host government won’t have instant diarrhoea at the thought of a group they had no control of holding a nuclear device inside their borders.

    Looking at it like this, the terrorists can see that it would require a very unlikely series of events and a great deal of effort, and pressed for information, any high school physics teacher will tell them there are no guarantees the damned thing will work. Result, scrap Plan A and go to Plan B: Hijack four widebody aircraft…

    “…an internal takeover of the Pakistani government by a Taliban-friendly faction.”

    Although it’s remotely possible that some soldiers could try this (and I’m emphasizing the word ‘try’), most of the highest-ranking officers in the military are educated in the west, with graduate degrees from such places as MIT, Stanford, Oxford and GaTech, among others. They have no interest in sharing power with a rag-tag army whose leadership didn’t make it to grade nine. And if you look at the history of Pakistan, it’s evident that the military basically runs the country. And yes, when they’re not happy, they stage a coup d’état and take control of the civilian government, as happened with Musharraf in 1999.

    Keep in mind that the Pakistani Government plays this game too. Like most governments all over the world, they want large sums of money from the US. So the Government of Pakistan has been telling the U.S. that if they don’t get large sums of money, they’ll stop fighting the Taliban. And every time they do, the American leadership opens the checkbook and starts a campaign of fear about how dangerous the Taliban are in Pakistan. It’s like a feedback loop, with everyone trembling in fear and thinking irrationally.

    “…the distrust of the Teheran government comes from other actions.”

    One of the points of this essay was not to defend Iran, but to show that simplistic ideas cannot hope to deal with the issue of proliferation, and that the specter of proliferation is often invoked as a smoke screen for other less objective policy decisions.

    Iran is not a Western nation and there is little argument that it was screwed over by the West throughout the previous century. As well it finds itself in a region populated by countries with artificial boarders drawn by the British and French with a view to keep the region destabilized (and thus easier, they thought, to control.)

    Iran (as Persia) has historically always been a major power in the area, and in the absence of oil, (which drive everything in that corner of the world)would have moved into the power vacuum left by the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Not necessarily as invaders, but as regional leaders.

    Now this does not excuse all of their behavior, however it does help to explain it, and I believe that all of the issues that the West faces with Iran stems from an open effort to marginalize them. Thus I think it is helpful to try and see their legitimate concerns before dismissing them as ‘terrorists’ or Islamic fanatics.

  • January 23, 2012 - 3:56 pm | Permalink


    As I wrote in the above comment, oil drives everything in that corner of the world.

  • March 16, 2012 - 12:18 am | Permalink

    If opponents of donelepivg new warheads are saying that the existing stockpile can be maintained indefinitely, that’s not correct. Plutonium is radioactive, and it deteriorates. Eventually the warheads won’t go boom anymore. As far as I can tell, the U.S. stopped producing new nukes after the Cold War. It stands to reason that unless we keep building new warheads, eventually we won’t have any.Personally, that’s fine by me. But if we want to not have nuclear weapons, we should say so. We shouldn’t be going around with a bunch of duds. Otherwise some president is going to think and act like he has world destroying power under his sleeve, and as soon as other countries realize that our nuclear arsenal actually won’t work they will test us to the limit. The worst possible position to be in pointing what you think is a loaded gun at someone, when that person knows that it is really empty.

    • April 18, 2012 - 5:33 pm | Permalink

      Plutonium-239, which is the isotope used to make the pit of nuclear explosives has a half-life of 24,100 years. Any small losses in critical mass can be made up with tritium, which is done during regular maintenance.

      In other words, decay is not a significant issue for the reliability of the current arsenal.

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