The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 43.0°F | Fair

Keep the nukes, but safely

Matt made a small change to the column, in the paragraph surrounded by bb and eb. Feel free to setcor (or t1) it as is. -- Reuven

One of the first things to cause people to scream during the Soviet coup last month was the deathly fear that the mechanism by which Soviet nuclear weapons are fired would be compromised by the power struggle. The nukes, it turns out, were safe all the time. That fact has apparently not stopped a new arms control movement centered around lessening the threat of accidental release of nuclear weapons. How the movement's advocates intend to achieve this goal is, well, less clear.

Nuclear weapons -- strategic nukes, weapons designed to destroy an opponent's military potential (factories, cities, people), and tactical, or battlefield, nukes -- are subject to control and safety measures, regardless of the nation that deploys them. Land-based strategic nukes are probably the most insulated from accidental use, mainly because permanent communication and control structures prevent goofs and confusion. Submarine-based and tactical weapons, often on the move and isolated from direct communication with the outside world, are the least secure. If war occurred tomorrow, land-based, strategic nukes might lie dormant, simply because the control pathways needed to fire them may be destroyed early on. In time of peace or cold war, however, strategic nukes stand the least chance of being used unnecessarily. Many tactical nukes, on the other hand, are more responsive but less secure.

With arms control a hot topic of the month, many seem to believe that global treaties should exist in order to protect the sanctity of nuke arsenals. One column in Tuesday's New York Times even suggested a international ban on all tactical nukes, just to prevent accidental launchings. Such a proposal would not only fail to achieve the crucial tightening of nuke security, but would be destabilizing to the US defense strategy.

Eliminating tactical nukes to keep them from being used accidentally is as absurd as it sounds. Why limit weapons, when the real culprit is command, communications, and control networks? If nations are left with smaller arsenals, won't they be more inclined to loosen up on security measures to avoid being outmaneuvered in wartime? Nuke forces don't need reduction treaties, they need better telephones and stronger locks.

Arms control treaties never work. As many people have noted, they are political chess pieces that superpowers swap while engaged in cold wars. They are a public sign of diplomacy and good faith, but are meaningless militarily, because they only limit pre-existing technologies in narrow fields of defense.

Reduction treaties are pacts between enemies; allies have no need for arms control. If the new Soviets are our allies, they will want to stabilize their arsenals and demobilize on their own accord. If they are enemies, they will maintain arsenals in secret, like the Iraqis. Treaties don't change global politics, localized political and social reform does. Until that reform happens, arms treaties are a waste.

Even worse, a comprehensive tactical nuke ban would destabilize the US defense posture. Tactical nukes, you see, are a good thing.

The doomsday scenario, in which a massive strategic nuclear attack by the Russians is answered by an equal American response is not a very controversial issue. Strategic nukes are messy. Because they are targeted at civilians, their use would involve important moral dilemmas. They should never be used, and since the Sixties, the United States has said that they would only be used in retaliation for a similar nuclear strike.

Using nuclear weapons in response to other threats is a tougher issue. At the beginning of the nuclear age, the United States said that any conventional attack upon the United States would provoke a strategic nuclear attack. This "massive retaliation" doctrine, was, however, too psychotic to enforce, and was discredited. This change left a hole in US defense strategy.

If Soviet tanks, let's say, crossed into Western Europe, or North Korean troops stormed below the 38th parallel, US forces would be caught unprepared. Too weak to defend their positions, and unsupported by a massive strategic deterrent, they would be easily crushed.

This is where tactical nukes fall in to place. The United States need not deploy a hundred thousand troops near every trouble spot -- only a garrison force of a few thousand. If attacked, the troops would serve as a tripwire for tactical nukes -- short-range, well-aimed nuclear weapons fired by soldiers at soldiers. Tactical nukes are cheap alternatives to massive troop buildups, and prevent the escalation of localized military engagements into city-against-city confrontations.

Tactical nukes came close to being used in the Gulf War, and it can be argued that their constant presence in the theatre prevent Iraqi chemical and biological assaults.

The Soviets, for instance, like this "prompt counterforce" doctrine. They are as concerned about saving their cities as we are, and have no desire to attack non-combatants. They have, as well, indicated that they would respond to a tactical nuke strike only with tactical nukes. Prompt counterforce, however, can only work if tactical nuclear weapons exist. Remove tactical nukes, and the world will be left with silos of apocalyptic city-busters and costly, drawn-out conventional wars that nukes were invented to prevent.


Matthew H. Hersch, a sophomore, is an opinion editor of The Tech.