Nobel Peace Prize winner offers “reality check” on nuclear weapons
November 22, 2022
November 22, 2022
When most people think about nuclear weapons — if they think about them at all — Little Boy and Fat Man, the “special bombs” dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II, are probably what come to mind. Most people are likely unaware that “tactical” or “nonstrategic” nuclear weapons exist. Unfortunately, since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the debate over the use of these weapons has intensified.
But there is no such thing as a “small” nuclear strike. These tactical nuclear weapons do have small nuclear warheads and their delivery systems are intended for use on the battlefield, or for a limited strike. Strikes with such weapons would, however, still have devastating, far-reaching effects. These weapons have yields between less than 1 kiloton and up to around 50. The yield of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kilotons.
The latter killed and injured an estimated 135,000 people immediately. Over time, tens of thousands more died from the effects of radiation. Any use of tactical nukes would also spread radiation, could escalate any armed conflict exponentially, and could bring on a “nuclear winter” — a years-long planetary freeze brought on by airborne soot from these smaller nukes. A recent multinational study suggested that even a “limited” nuclear war between India and Pakistan would likely create unprecedented global food shortages and starvation lasting more than a decade.
As we face the potential consequences of such madness, I am reminded of being part of the “duck and cover” generation of the late 1950s when, as children, we were taught to curl up to avoid death by nukes. Although reassured by the relatively peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 1960s, I still grew up terrified at the thought of nuclear war. I never could understand the absurdity of the planet living with the real possibility of nuclear destruction. It seemed to me then, as it still does now, an insane proposition that “leaders” could choose to eliminate life on Earth. So, how did we get to the point of seriously discussing their use?
The passage of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in the late 1960s marked the beginning of multilateral efforts to try to rein in the nuclear arms race and stop the proliferation of these terrifying weapons of mass destruction.
In 1982, I was one of the estimated one million people who marched through Central Park to protest the buildup of the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was the largest disarmament demonstration in U.S. history. The march did not immediately produce any concrete results, but, five years later, the two countries signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the first time in history that the superpowers had agreed to shrink their nuclear stockpiles. These efforts continued with similar treaties in the early 1990s.
The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 promised a new era of nuclear weapons policy, but that did not come to pass. Shortly after his inauguration, Obama touted a vision of nuclear disarmament with a speech he made in 2009. When his administration completed the third post-Cold War review of America’s nuclear posture in April 2010, it called for “a multilateral effort to limit, reduce, and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide.”
Instead of pursuing that vision, however, Obama ended up agreeing to “modernize” existing warheads, develop new nuclear delivery systems and resilient command networks, and open new industrial centers to produce nuclear hardware. In 2015, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the new expenditures, when added to the cost of maintaining the existing arsenal, would total $348 billion between 2015 and 2024. Instead of moving toward a nuclear-free future, his policy represented the biggest U.S. buildup of nuclear arms since the end of the Cold War.
there is only one nuclear weapons agreement remaining … which expires in 2026
Although there has been a dramatic decline of nuclear weapon stockpiles since the mid 1980s, there are still nine nuclear-armed countries and about 90 percent of the estimated 12,700 nuclear warheads in the world belong to the U.S. and Russia. Today, there is only one nuclear weapons agreement remaining between these countries — the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in 2026. Although supposedly “smaller” tactical nuclear weapons have been around since the Cold War, it is estimated that Russia currently has nearly 2,000 stockpiled. The U.S. has about 100 tactical nukes deployed in Europe and an additional 130 stockpiled.
Instead of a world free of the terror of nuclear weapons, we continue to naively believe that the world is made secure through “nuclear deterrence.” A blind belief in such deterrence as a sane security policy has brought us to where we are today, facing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use them.
Not long after ordering his “special military operation” against Ukraine in late February 2022, Putin began threatening to use nuclear weapons to defend what he considered Russian territory. He gave veiled threats of using any means necessary to achieve his goals, which morphed into his allies openly encouraging the use of tactical nukes.
This is not the first time Putin has made such threats. In 2014, during Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Russian leaders talked openly about putting nuclear weapons on alert. Then, in 2015, Russia threatened to use nuclear weapons on Danish warships if that country joined NATO’s missile defense system. Yet those threats did not seem to rattle the world the way Putin’s most recent threats have.
As the Russian military loses ground on the battlefield and thousands protest and flee the country to avoid fighting after Putin’s order to conscript 300,000 men, Putin’s consideration of using nuclear weapons of any type has grown more worrisome. After a major defeat in the east in early October, Chechen warlord and key ally Ramzan Kadyrov called directly on Putin to use “tactical” nukes in response. Although Russian media responded by distancing the country from Kadyrov’s statements, Putin promoted him to general several days later. While unrest from various sectors of Russian society grows, Putin is not likely to accept defeat quickly and many wonder if a nuclear attack would be his “swan song.”
But it was also frightening to hear the bravado of the French foreign minister when he responded to early threats by reminding Putin that NATO has nuclear weapons too. However, it is not as if these two men are challenging each other to a duel in which one or the other individual might die. The use of nuclear weapons could destroy life on this planet as we know it.
In 2018, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee, “I do not think there is any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used at any time is a strategic game changer.”
But what the world needs now is a different “strategic game changer.” We need a non-nuclear, negotiated settlement to Putin’s war and far more serious moves to eliminate all types of nuclear weapons. We need people in all sectors of society to work hard and to work together to make that vision a reality.
In 2017, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively abolish them. A related civil society campaign, that helped make the treaty a reality, received the Nobel Peace Prize. The treaty has 91 signatories and 68 ratifications, none of which include the world’s nine nuclear-armed nations. It is time to add nine more names to the list. Together we can – and we must – make that happen.
Jody Williams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work through the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which shared the prize.
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