Is it better to have nukes?
“Can I imagine a world without nuclear weapons? Yes, I can. That’s a world I didn’t like,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, told the Military Reporters and Editors Association annual meeting, hosted by POLITICO and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
He argued that nuclear weapons have prevented conflicts from escalating into large-scale wars with large numbers of casualties, pointing out that in the six years before the introduction of nuclear weapons in 1945, as many as 80 million people were killed in World War II — or about 33,000 people a day.
He has a point about nukes deterring great power war. But the point relies on nukes never being used on a large scale. If nukes are used on a large scale just once, that advantage in average casualties per day since World War II because great power wars are deterred will evaporate in the nuclear flashes and aftermath.
And as I've noted, if there are no nukes American conventional dominance would give us a clear advantage.
Even if that conventional dominance declines, our geography will insulate us from the worst effects of not having nukes to deter enemies.
But no treaty can bring us that nuclear-free world. In an era when sizable numbers of nuclear weapons can't be stopped, any treaty banning nukes will leave a very high motivation to cheat.
Maybe anti-missile missiles could make a handful of nuclear missiles pointless for a cheater. But the expense will make them thin shields when opponents will always have other uses for the money.
In a world where we have a large nuclear arsenal, cheating to have 100 nukes isn't going to put us at risk--absent a true nutball regime or group with them that can't be deterred because they have an Apocalyptic vision.
But in a world where we have zero nukes, secretly having 100 nukes could be very valuable indeed for an enemy.
Until a method of defending against nukes that moves beyond shooting them down is developed--perhaps some type of electromagnetic "screen" that creates a bubble that disarms the incoming warheads making them so many boulders--we can't afford to trust a treaty to ban nukes.
So we need to modernize our nuclear arsenal, despite the cost.