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Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from an extended Q&A interview with Admiral Richard Mies, Commander in Chief of Strategic Command, the operational commander of US nuclear forces, from 1998 until 2002. Mies helped shape post-9/11 US nuclear strategy. The full interview can be found online at www.aps.org/apsnews/0606/060619.cfm
US nuclear threat can enhance stability
Q: What is the nation’s nuclear use policy, as you understand it?
A: The primary value of nuclear weapons is not in their use; it’s in the threat or potential of their use. They are primarily instruments of war prevention rather than war fighting and in my estimation, serve only as weapons of last resort when deterrence has failed. Our nation’s nuclear weapons policies are intended to deter potential adversaries’ use of weapons of mass destruction and even large-scale conventional aggression against the US and our allies.
Q: Do you see any contradiction between the US policy of advocating nuclear nonproliferation around the globe while pursuing more usable nuclear weapons options at home?
A: I strongly disagree with the contention that nuclear weapons are more usable just because they have improved capabilities and are tailored to a broader range of threats. The history of our stockpile was one of improved capabilities throughout the Cold War. Those weapons helped keep the Cold War cold. Nuclear weapons with tailored capabilities are more likely to deter your adversaries than simply maintaining a stockpile that was designed against a very different Cold War threat. The threshold for using a nuclear weapon is very, very high.
Around 1945, there’s a dramatic decrease in deaths in combat as a percentage of the world’s population. Warfare has fundamentally changed in the nuclear era. In earlier history, warfare didn’t have the potentially dire global consequences that it has today. Today, the level of conflict may escalate beyond a nation’s control and lead to unacceptable consequences, giving nations pause. I would argue that one of the primary reasons for the dramatic decrease is the existence of nuclear weapons has caused great nations to behave more responsibly and to even seek to avoid conventional war for fear it could potentially escalate into a nuclear one.
Q: Does developing a new inventory of nuclear weapons with a different set of capabilities violate the terms of the nonproliferation treaty: that those countries with weapons should be working toward disarmament?
A: Improving some of the capabilities of the stockpile is not in conflict with the long-term objective of total disarmament. Frankly, I’m not sure that the world will ever be capable of achieving that idealistic objective. Nuclear weapon technology cannot be disinvented. Imagine a world where no one had nuclear weapons, except for one rogue nation that acquired a small number of nuclear weapons. That would be a very dangerous world compared to the one we presently live in. Even though there are a larger number of nuclear weapons, our situation is far more stable.
As we move toward this idealistic goal of disarmament, we need to be realistic and never lose sight of the principle of enhancing stability. That ought to be the over-riding criterion. As Sir Michael Quinlan has stated: “The absence of war between advanced states is a key success. We must seek to perpetuate it. Weapons are instrumental and secondary; the basic aim is to avoid war. Better a world with nuclear weapons but no major war than one with major war but no nuclear weapons.”
Q: North Korea and Iran are moving toward the development of nuclear weapons. Do nonproliferation policies need to be changed or strengthened?
A: There needs to be continued assertion and reinforcement of those principles. The nonproliferation regime has had a fairly good record despite Iran and North Korea. To the degree that we can maintain a credible nuclear deterrent without underground testing, I support the current moratorium. But there’s a great danger when you lock yourself into treaties that attempt to establish absolutes such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. There are certain legitimate scenarios where we might have to perform a limited test if we had grave concerns about the reliability of our stockpile.
It’s not that we want to conduct nuclear tests. But we’ve always held as a principle that we will take whatever actions are prudent and necessary to defend ourselves. As a nation, we are very reluctant to surrender that right of self-protection. We are wary of locking ourselves into international agreements that could constrain us should we need to exercise that right, in some unforeseen world that we can’t predict today.
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