The nuclear warriors are rampaging again, using challenges from Russia and China to advance their agenda for more weapons.
Since the beginning of the nuclear age, nuclear hawks and US government agencies that build and maintain nuclear weapons have issued study after study “justifying” continued arsenal modernization and growth, even as other government offices have issued grim outlooks for the consequences of a nuclear war. Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations continue to detail the gravest consequences of a nuclear exchange for global health, the climate, and the fate of humanity.
A new report from a group under the auspices of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which makes critical weapons parts, is just another in a series of dangerous reports that seeks to justify its own work while downplaying the consequences.
NEW REPORT, SAME OLD THESIS
In 1985, at their summit meeting in Geneva, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev declared, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The statement was part of a dialogue between the two countries to reduce nuclear risks and promote nonproliferation and disarmament. It led to significant reductions in each country’s nuclear arsenals.
Expanding nuclear weapons stockpiles moves the world in reverse and increases the dangers of a nuclear holocaust.
At their high points, the United States maintained a nuclear weapons stockpile of 31,149, while Russia’s peak was 39,197. Thanks to arms control treaties, the end of the Cold War, and a dose of common sense, those numbers have been dramatically reduced, where today, the US stockpile of nuclear warheads is estimated to be 5244.
The appreciation of the dangers of nuclear weapons comes from numerous detailed studies of the consequences of nuclear war. In March 2022, the Alliance for Science calculated that if Russia targeted 2,200 weapons on Western countries and the United States aimed 1,100 weapons each at China and Russia, there would be 770 million direct deaths worldwide. Moreover, temperatures would drop below freezing worldwide, the world’s food production would diminish by more than 90%, global fish stocks would be decimated, and billions would die from starvation. A 2022 study by climate scientists at Rutgers University estimated that “more than 5 billion people would die of hunger following a full-scale nuclear war between the US and Russia.”
These findings, however, are not new. For example, a 1979 report by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment concluded, “a large-scale nuclear exchange would be a calamity unprecedented in human history.” The study cited executive branch calculations showing a range of US deaths from 35% to 77% of the population within the first 30 days, stating that “many would eventually die from lack of adequate medical care.” While each of these reports highlights worst-case estimates, the one thing that is consistent throughout all of them is that any exchange of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic and should be avoided at all costs.
A study group convened by The Center for Global Security Research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, with the rise of China as its focus, published a report on “the need to deter two major power adversaries [Russia and China] simultaneously and, potentially, to wage simultaneous nuclear war against both.” The phrasing is unfortunate and attempts to underline the importance of maintaining a credible deterrent against just such a situation.
The Livermore authors maintain: “The United States must always have some survivable and enduring reserve of nuclear weapons to credibly threaten those who might do further harm, even in the most extreme circumstance of having absorbed a large-scale first strike.” This is exactly what the US deterrent is already designed to do. The emergence of a larger-scale nuclear threat from China does not alter either the US deterrence capability or the scope of the worldwide damage caused by any exchange of nuclear weapons.
The Livermore Study calls for preparations to expand US nuclear capabilities dramatically in light of the dual threat from Russia and China while not ruling out an eventual return to some form of arms control in the future. However, US policymakers should treat any suggestion that nuclear capabilities should increase with deep skepticism.
MAKING A CASE FOR ARMS CONTROL
As the Ukraine war persists, Russia’s Vladimir Putin limits Russia’s adherence to New START provisions, and China expands its nuclear force, prospects for new limits on nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future are dim. In the decades of the nuclear age, prospects for arms control have waxed and waned. Despite Russia’s decision to use Western interest in preserving arms control as a means of blackmail, the common understanding that a nuclear war is to be avoided has already shaped both Russian and Western decision-making — and it will continue to provide impetus to find means other than arms racing to avert disaster.
Expanding nuclear weapons stockpiles moves the world in reverse and increases the dangers of a nuclear holocaust. Instead, the United States must act now to guard against the further degradation of nuclear arms control and be open to new arms control arrangements that include Russia and China. By doing so, it can prevent an unconstrained, costly global nuclear arms race that has no winner and retain the option to pursue new diplomatic initiatives when those opportunities present themselves.
John Isaacs is a Senior Fellow at the Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.