Have Nuclear Weapons Become Obsolete?

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. As a result of this international incident between the USA and the USSR, the highest ever confirmed DEFCON level for the United States Army was ordered, with the Strategic Air Command being held at DEFCON Level 2 and the US Armed Forces remaining at DEFCON Level 3. The severity of this event led both countries to attempt further negotiation in order to prevent the actual occurrence of a nuclear war breaking out – triggering the period of détente in the Cold War.

Image courtesy of the National Nuclear Safety Organization, © 1953. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of the National Nuclear Safety Organization, © 1953. Some rights reserved.

However, this event suggests something further about the actual threat of nuclear weapons. This event in the Cold War threatened nuclear warfare by promising mutually assured destruction, yet the implementation was avoided due to the sheer destruction a nuclear outbreak would have created. Over 50 years on from the Cuban Missiles Crisis, there is further debate regarding the legitimacy of using nuclear deterrence as a negotiation tactic, due to the increased number of countries with the willingness and ability to manufacture nuclear weapons. Furthermore, since the establishment of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)[1], the ability of certain countries to manufacture further nuclear weapons or use these weapons in a damaging way has decreased. Nonetheless, the debate remains lively as to whether the nuclear threat and strategy of nuclear deterrence has become obsolete and out-dated.

Certain scholars agree that nuclear weapons no longer serve an important strategic purpose for the USA, especially shown by movements such as the “Global Zero campaign”, aiming to eliminate nuclear weapons from the Earth.[2] Since the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where the use of nuclear weapons proved horrific in both their short-term and long-term impacts, the growing sentiment in Europe and the USA suggests that nuclear weapons are becoming obsolete, used only as a symbol of a nation’s military capability. James Joyner goes as far to suggest ”no political leader would dare authorise their use and be forever [seen] a pariah.”[3] The first mention of nuclear weapons being used as a form of deterrence was during the Cold War, when General Leslie Groves suggested the Soviets expansionary plans would have to be deterred using the bomb.[4] However, this plan backfired, as antagonistic foreign policy and deterrence tactics resulted in Stalin fast-tracking an arms programme in order to ensure mutually assured destruction (M.A.D.). The Cold War provides a prime example of how nuclear deterrence failed its purpose.

However, the contrary opinion uses other examples to show where nuclear deterrence and potentially even the use of such force could be justified. For example, there are growing fears that China could attempt to revise the status quo within the international community and it seems that antagonistic foreign policy could end up with a military collision. As Mearsheimer suggests, war is inevitable, as “China’s rising economic status will be accompanied by an inevitable armament against the offensive capabilities of the US.”[5]  While China using nuclear weapons seems unfathomable due to their international presence and involvement within international institutions, a scenario involving the use of weapons to defeat North Korea’s Kin Jong-Un would be potentially more plausible. The last 50 years of peaceful coexistence in the international community suggest that the use of nuclear deterrence works. As stated by Des Browne, Former British Secretary of State for defence, “our deterrent has been a central plank of our national security for fifty years.”[6] While the presence of nuclear weapons has become increasingly symbolic, the mere presence of them provides a back-up plan to all state nations should a state aggressor raise security concerns.

The future of nuclear weapons poses an interesting debate; while the advancement of such technology seems to have been halted for the last 50 years, the presence of these weapons still seem to be vital to the overall peacekeeping relations in the international community. As Bernstein states, the current international forum has been left with the dilemma between a “choice between preserving some nuclear weapons in the hope that they will deter some conventional wars or accepting the fact that conventional wars will continue to occur if we eliminate all nuclear weapons.”[7] It seems an obvious choice as the necessity for having nuclear weapons, as a defence mechanism ensuring deterrence would surely suggest that the elimination of all weapons in general would result in the similar result. Nuclear deterrence was most effective when nation states needed to avoid the outbreak of war to occur, but given the modern-day style of warfare, nuclear deterrence strategy would be of little aid. The War on Terror, for example, would hardly benefit from such a strategy. Given the shift in conventional warfare tactics, one must rethink the necessity for nuclear weapons and realign their preferences to which military capabilities would prove most versatile in the current global system.

[1] The treaty’s objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.

[2] Huessy, Peter; “Are nuclear weapons really becoming obsolete?”

https://www.familysecuritymatters.org/publications/id.7553/pub_detail.asp (Last Accessed: 9th March 2014)

[3] Joyner, James; “Are Nuclear Weapons Obsolete?”

http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/are-nuclear-weapons-obsolete (Last Accessed: 9th March 2014)

[4] Bernstein, Jeremy; “Is Nuclear Deterrence Obsolete?”

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/apr/29/is-nuclear-deterrence-obsolete/ (Last Accessed: 9th March 2014)

[5] Mearsheimer, John; “China’s challenge to US power”,

http://www.abc.net.au/tv/bigideas/stories/2010/09/07/3001041.htm (Last Accessed: 9th March 2014)

[6] House of Commons – Defense Committee

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmdfence/1066/1066vw12.htm (Last Accessed: 9th March 2014)

[7] Bernstein, Jeremy; “Is Nuclear Deterrence Obsolete?”

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