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311: The magic number for minimum deterrence?

May 25, 2010

There’s a provocative op-ed in the New York Times which argues that the US should reduce its nuclear arsenal to just over 300 deployed weapons, less than half of what the new START treaty will allow, and around a fifth of the number of active and stockpiled warheads it will allow total. The idea of minimum deterrence is nothing new, and many of the younger nuclear powers, such as China, India, and Pakistan, have pursued such a policy. The first obvious question is, 311 enough?

This may seem a trifling number compared with the arsenals built up in the cold war, but 311 warheads would provide the equivalent of 1,900 megatons of explosive power, or nine-and-a-half times the amount that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued in 1965 could incapacitate the Soviet Union by destroying “one-quarter to one-third of its population and about two-thirds of its industrial capacity.”

In other words, yes, in terms of pure damage inflicted. But because survivability and credible second strike is critical to deterrence, the authors argue to distribute their small number of nuclear weapons across a wide range of platforms. They argue for maintaining 100 ICBMs and nearly 200 SLBMs, along with 19 air-launched nuclear cruise missiles on B-2 stealth bombers. As with some previous reports which surfaced during the Nuclear Posture Review, we have another indication that among strategists, at least, air power will become a very small portion of the nuclear triad, if it remains a triad at all.

One question remains, however – is 311 an appropriate number given the inevitable frictions of combat, especially nuclear combat? Advances in missile defense, successful destruction of a launch system, or malfunctions could significantly reduce the impact of a nuclear strike. I would imagine that the US would want a larger number of weapons as insurance. However, we should be glad that ideas like this are receiving publicity. Though political pressures and hawkish or at least skeptical members of the military would likely severely limit these cuts, we should keep in mind that while zero is probably not a realistic option,  we can get by with far fewer weapons than we are used to.

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