Rapporteur: Barbara Birkett
Where We Are: “Two Minutes to Midnight”! –see The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (The Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock, 2019.)
According to the Federation of American Scientists(1), the world has 14,485 nuclear weapons, about 9335 of them in military stockpiles, ready for use, the rest awaiting dismantlement. Some 93% are owned by the US and Russia, with each having about 4,000 warheads in their stockpiles. Many of these are thirty or fifty or more times as lethal as the weapons that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki!
About 3,750 are with operational forces; 1,940 US, Russian, British, and French warheads are on high alert.
No-First-Use (NFU) has been declared as a policy by China and India; in 1993 the latter country stated that it would respond massively to any size of nuclear attack and changed the wording to “no first use against non-nuclear armed weapons states” in 2010.
France, Pakistan, Russia, the UK, and the USA say they will use nuclear weapons against nuclear or non-nuclear states only in the case of invasion or other attack against their territories or against one of their allies. In 2017 the UK stated it would use nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike “in the most extreme circumstances.”Read more
Pakistan, although it has a no-first-attack policy, refuses to have a NFU doctrine. The USA does not have a NFU policy, although attempts have been made to require congressional approval for a pre-emptive strike or to adopt a NFU rule. NATO has refused to adopt a no-first-use policy. Israel has not stated its stance. North Korea has stated different policies at various times.(2)
Major concerns are the rising tensions between the US and Russia, nuclear developments in North Korea, climate change, other international conflicts, and possible cyber attacks leading to release or loss of control of nuclear weapons. Current US threats of withdrawal from the INF treaty (and previous leaving of the ABM treaty) with subsequent loss of contact and verification abilities, may further risk accidental, mistaken, or deliberate launches.
Given that US and Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) can reach the other’s countries within about 30 minutes, a US President or Russian leader might have only about 12 minutes to decide whether to order an attack or respond to an attack. Is it a comfort that any single human being should have to make such decision, and so quickly? Or should such a decision ever be made at all?
Maintaining nuclear weapons as deterrents, either on alert or off, is the prime excuse for their possession, but this makes other countries feel they must have their own deterrent weapons. Hence we now have nine nuclear weapons states. The world once reached nearly 70,000 weapons. Although the numbers are much reduced, all nine nuclear states are either making new weapons, or modernizing them, and some are even thinking of making the weapons “more usable.” As noted above, at least four nuclear weapon states have weapons on high alert and feel they should be so maintained. The deterrence doctrine is coupled with plans to use nuclear weapons if deterrence fails. In some cases it is even contemplated using nuclear weapons in response to a conventional weapons attack. Even a limited nuclear war such as might occur between India and Pakistan, using Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons, could cause two billion deaths.(3)
Other arguments note, in spite of persistent efforts in the command and control systems, the many near misses or actual accidents that actually have occurred over the years, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Able Archer close call in 1983, the near-launch when a practice tape was played in the US in error, the research flight from Norway in 1995, which the Russians thought was a nuclear weapons attack and their proposed response was only prevented by a brave Russian officer. Other numerous near calamities are recorded in the book of about 500 pages, ”Command and Control,” by Eric Schlosser.(4)
The NPT recognized the dangers of nuclear arms, and the nuclear weapons states are supposed to be committed to disarming their nuclear weapons as quickly as possible, not just preventing proliferation to other states. Last year’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted by 122 states and already ratified by 23, arose from the frustration of many states (particularly those who had been the victims of nuclear tests), at the nuclear states’ lack of action or very slow pace on nuclear disarmament and abolition.
The Red Cross/Red Crescent has declared that there can be no possible humanitarian response in a nuclear conflict.
Those holding the view that abolition of nuclear weapons is the correct move, believe that, whether or not nuclear weapons can act as a deterrent to aggression, like any medications with serious and lethal side effects, they should be withdrawn from the market. The risks of both accidental and deliberate use are too high.
Suggested Solutions: De-Alerting, No First Use, End Sole Authority for Launch, Stop Enhancing Weapons, Pursue Nuclear Disarmament, Sign the TPNW.
Some are calling for an intermediate stance, a deterrence-only policy.
Others see such actions as urgent steps towards total nuclear disarmament.
Others call for maintenance of alert status.
Intermediate stance de-alerting policy:
Phillips and Starr  noted that changing from a Launch-on-Warning policy to Retaliatory-Launch-Only–After-Detonation would eliminate the risk of accidental war from false alarms. It would not require de-alerting or verification and might be more acceptable to the US and Russia militaries. Deterrence could be maintained.(5)
A deterrence-only policy option is to proceed with fewer stockpiled nuclear weapons and an end of the current modernization plans. It would rely mainly on submarine-based missiles, would not require a time-sensitive retaliatory nuclear attack, and could be supplemented by conventional and cyber forces. It would be decoupled from the idea of immediately destroying the enemy’s nuclear forces. It would be less expensive and allow funding of other endeavours. It would require much up-grading of Command, Control, and Communication networks. It still retains the deterrence doctrine, but not, according to its proponents, deterrence + war-fighting.(6) (7)
The arguments for maintaining alert status state that cyberattacks could still occur after de-alerting, and that even with a longer decision-making delay, a president could not make a better decision in the event of a threatened or actual nuclear strike after de-alerting. This is because rapid re-altering would cause even more risk. They argue that foes would be emboldened rather than deterred under such conditions and that de-alerting would lead to de facto No-First-Use. They call for better cyber security, especially with modernization. They are willing to discuss eliminating ICBMs.(8)
Others state that under alert status, deliberate or accidental launches or attacks are too grave a risk. De-Alerting should therefore be the first step in avoiding these. The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests simple methods for accomplishing this.(9)
NO FIRST USE- Statements by the Red Cross and Red Crescent that there is no possible humanitarian response to any use of nuclear weapons and its call for assurance that such weapons “are never again used” reinforce arguments against First Use (and any use, ever.) The ICJ opinion in 1996 stated that use of nuclear weapons would be illegal in almost all conceivable situations. This is consistent with a policy of No-First-Use. Such arguments were also made at the Humanitarian (disarmament) conferences in Oslo, Nayarit, and Austria.
De-alerting would help promote the adoption of a doctrine of No-First-Use.
Also essential would be confidence-building and communication with foes (eg between US and Russia) to make sure disarmament and de-alert agreements were being followed. As Phillips and Starr have noted, however, even an unverified no launch on warning policy held by one party is safer than the current situation.
At the UN General Assembly First Committee vote on the Humanitarian Pledge in 2015 the nuclear weapons states and their umbrella allies asserted their “recognition of the grave humanitarian consequences of a nuclear weapons detonation” and at the same time stated that “security and humanitarian principles co-exist.” They suggested that the proponents of a TPNW’s resolutions “do not reflect these realities and imperatives” and contribute to “increasing international divisions regarding nuclear disarmament”.
Their remarks reflect the dilemma of trying to relate NATO’s supposed support for the NPT obligations towards disarmament and NATO’s policy that nuclear weapons are an “essential” component of its deterrence. NATO will not, to date, accept a No-First-Use approach, and several European states have US tactical nuclear weapons on their territory.(10)
Others deny the dichotomy between humanitarian and security goals. They point out that the risks of having nuclear weapons far outweigh any perceived benefits, particularly in times of heightened tension, such as now. An Immediate shift towards de-alerting, and adoption of No-First-Use policy would lessen danger of use, allow for further rational discussion and reduction of numbers of weapons, re- enforce the NPT, encourage more nations to sign the TPNW, and eliminate many nuclear weapons.(11) (12) (13)
In June 2018 the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence called upon the Government ”to take a leadership role within NATO in beginning the work necessary for achieving the NATO goal of creating the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons.” Canada can press NATO, with like-minded allies, to help achieve these goals, help change some of NATO’s nuclear doctrines and promote removal of tactical weapons from its members’ territories.(14)
Footnotes for this article can be seen at the Footnotes 1 page on this website (link will open in a new page).