In all the hoopla over President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. will largely foreswear the use of nuclear weapons except in response to nuclear attack, an important element of his plan has not received the attention it should: the promise that America “will not develop new nuclear warheads or pursue new military missions or new capabilities for nuclear weapons.” His decision to restrict sharply the circumstances in which current nuclear weapons will be used is in some ways morally attractive; his decision to restrict the development of new ones may be premature.
President Obama’s evident hope is that if America makes no significant improvements in a nuclear arsenal that The New York Times yesterday described as “aging, oversize, increasingly outmoded,” the rest of the world will go along. Alas, our generous example will likely prove insufficient. Countries act out of their own perceived interests, and, at the moment, plenty of countries believe that their interests dictate the creation or maintenance of an independent nuclear deterrent. True, few observers any longer anticipate the sort of planet-destroying war that worried the world throughout the second half of the 20th century. But the smaller nuclear conflicts that most experts consider far more likely will require a new generation of weapons.
One need only wait for the moment when a drone drops a nuclear warhead somewhere on American soil, and we lack the necessary precision munitions with which to retaliate.
• Michael Levi: Obama’s Nuke Plan Doesn’t Go Far Enough • Tunku Varadarajan: Obama Is Weakening America Indeed, the nuclear weapon of the future is unlikely to be delivered by a ballistic missile or a slowpoke bomber. It will be delivered by an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV—what has become known as a drone. Someday all of war will be fought by remote control. There is no reason to imagine that nuclear weapons will be exempt from this evolution. Persistent rumor has it that Israel and Russia and perhaps China and India are interested in developing UAVs capable of launching nuclear weapons. Israel recently introduced its largest drone, the Heran TP, or Eitan (“steadfast”), capable of remaining aloft for more than 24 hours and delivering a payload weighing a ton. In theory, the Eitan could deliver a small (kiloton-range) nuclear warhead. As more nuclear powers tilt their research in this direction, it is not out of the question that a terrorist group will someday possess both a long-range drone and a nuclear weapon designed to fit.
Where does the United States stand in this arms race? At the moment, we lead the pack in developing UAVs, but (unless there is classified research going on) not in developing nuclear warheads to fit them. Instead, we would rely, even in a limited nuclear exchange, on submarine-launched ballistic missiles or, possibly, cruise missiles. These weapons are designed to seek fixed targets over long distances. Their disadvantage is that they cannot remain quietly aloft, searching for targets. That is what drones are for.
The two principal UAVs operated by the United States are the Predator and the Reaper. The Predator, which typically carries two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, can remain in the air, hunting targets, for as long as 40 hours. The newer (and much more expensive) Reaper drone has an engine eight times as powerful as the Predator’s, and heavier armament. In addition to the usual complement of missiles and warheads, the Reaper can carry, for example, the GBU-12 Paveway II, a “smart bomb” designed to deliver a 500-pound warhead within four feet of its target. (The GBU is the weapon in the famous YouTube video of a laser-guided bomb falling in Fallujah, Iraq.) The Reaper, among its other capabilities, can be fitted to take off from and land on an aircraft carrier.
Although at present the United States has disclosed no plans to do so, the Reaper could in theory be armed with a single small nuclear warhead. The old W-54 nuclear warhead, the “Davy Crockett,” weighed only 50 pounds, but its yield was smaller than that of a conventional Paveway. The W-80 variable yield nuclear warhead for the Tomahawk cruise missile weighs only about 300 pounds, but the administration has announced plans to retire that weapon. The mainstay of the current American nuclear arsenal is the B-61, Mod 11, which weighs about 1,200 pounds. The maximum yield of the B-61 is classified, but is thought to be about 340 kilotons. Megaton weapons—the stuff of the titanic city-destroying explosions seen in movies—weigh many thousands of pounds, and could not be carried by any remote-controlled aircraft currently in operation, whether in the American or any other arsenal. But even converting a small nuclear warhead to be launched from a Reaper would require more design work than the president’s plan to “sustain our stockpile” suggests.
The president’s announcement that he will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear nations has been controversial, but is unlikely to do the nation any harm. Falling behind in the race to develop the next generation of nuclear weapons could be infinitely more dangerous. How dangerous? One need only wait for the moment when a drone drops a nuclear warhead somewhere on American soil, and we lack the necessary precision munitions with which to retaliate. Here one is reminded of the dictum of Thomas Schelling, in explaining how the strategy of deterrence works: “There is a difference,” he wrote in his classic work Arms and Influence, “between fending off assault and making someone afraid to assault you.”
It is an irony of our era that many commentators seem to view the prospect of a small nuclear war through the lens of climate change: What, they wonder, would be the effects? One might think that our biggest moral concern would be the millions or more who would die. Still, the fact that people worry so much about what a small war would do to the planet suggests that we are already halfway to accepting that such a war is bound to occur. In case so horrific an event does occur, it is best to hold on to our technological advantage.
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale. He is at work on a book on the Obama administration and just-war theory.