RICHARD BUTLER. Making the use of nuclear weapons thinkable – again?

Nov 22, 2017

The Trump  Administration is preparing a new Nuclear Posture Review, (NPR) to be completed by early 2018. The instruction under which it is proceeding is to make US nuclear weapons more useable, in a variety of situations. It is being preceded by a massive program of new nuclear weapons development. Russia is also embarked on a similar program of expansion of its nuclear weapons capability. It seems that these weapons are being designed to be used more widely, not simply to serve as a deterrent force.

In the period since the end of the Cold War, the indelible hallmark of which was the US/USSR nuclear arms race, a number of major international studies were made on how to address the unique and horrific threat posed by nuclear weapons.

The basic assumption was that the end of the Cold War provided the space for solutions to be found, for material progress to be made on nuclear arms control. These studies included: the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons (1996); the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (2006); the Australia/Japan, International Commission on Nuclear Non Proliferation and Disarmament (2009).

Australia played a significant role in each of these, indeed was the initiator in two of them. This stands in stark contrast to the posture of the Abbot and Turnbull governments. They have refused to take part in any  multilateral action on or even discussion of the current nuclear disarmament agenda. Their position has been bilateralist – to support US policy – because they say, we should do nothing which might jeopardise protection of Australia by US nuclear weapons.

On substance, each of these studies shared an elemental conclusion: that as long as nuclear weapons continued to exist, they will be used.

In the words of the Canberra Commission:

“ The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used – accidentally or by decision – defies credibility… Any use would be catastrophic”.

This is not a mere intellectual conclusion. It is a perception shaped by: the history of state behavior; the role of competition in weaponry; and, in today’s world, also by the actions of non-state actors. A clear majority of states remain exercised by the continuing existence of nuclear weapons, for example the 122 states which voted for the recently concluded treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, surpassing the two thirds majority of the UN General Assembly, needed for its adoption.

The proponents of nuclear weapons assert, principally, although not exclusively, that they hold their weapons largely for deterrent purposes; that they will not initiate their use. An integral part of that contention is that those in control of their weapons are rational actors and, they are silent on the possibility of any of their weapons being detonated accidentally. It is precisely these contentions, which are held to be incredible, as expressed in the conclusion of the Canberra Commission cited above.

The concept of deterrence is an inherently dynamic, unstable one. It is why the US and the USSR came to hold ever increasing numbers of nuclear weapons; at the height of the nuclear arms race, reaching some 80,000 war heads, enough to render the earth uninhabitable, assuming many humans would be left, if even only a fraction of that number were detonated. Even at today’s US/Russian numbers, reduced to some 1500 each deployed, that consequence of use would be as devastating.

The critical aspect of any use, whether by accident or decision, is that a resulting conflict, with virtual certainty, would quickly escalate and spiral out of control.

Accidents have occurred. Both the US and USSR/Russia have “lost”, dropped, seen sink at sea, active nuclear weapons, which they have not been recovered, but apparently, in no case, detonated.

There has been anxiety that, particularly since the break-up of the USSR, nuclear weapons may have been stolen, principally by non-state actors and/or criminal groups. It seems that this has happened and that components of nuclear weapons have gone missing.

The conclusion of the studies, on these concerns, is that our experience has been shaped as much by good fortune as by good management.

And now, the issue of the rationality of the actors, in control of nuclear weapons, has come back to centre stage, particularly since the inauguration of President Trump and his twitterings.

Past experience is relevant. On the US side, it is documented that US President Nixon repeatedly considered the use of nuclear weapons; on Vietnam and North Korea. This became so serious in the closing days of his Presidency, exacerbated by his being often seriously drunk, that officials around him, contrary to standing protocols for the authorization for the use of nuclear weapons, removed the launch codes from him.

On the Soviet side their were two instances; one a false alarm that the US had launched nuclear weapons towards the USSR, and another around the Cuban crisis, where the refusal of a more junior officer to act, in contravention of orders already given, in one case a final launch order, prevented nuclear war.

The notion that there will always be fail-safe systems and that those will be in the firm control of persons at the highest level of decision making responsibility, has proven to be unreliable.

The US Congress has become concerned enough about the rationality of Trump to have begun hearings on exactly by what means and in what circumstances, would he be able to direct the use of nuclear weapons.

The Head of the US Strategic Air Command, General John Hyten stated publicly, last week, that he would be prepared to tell Trump if he thought an order he had been given was illegal. It was not clear what would then happen, or indeed what might now happen to the General, but his statement together with the Congressional enquiry reveals the level of concern now being felt about the casting of Trump in the role of rational actor.

Incidentally, a former Head of SAC, General Lee Butler, was a Canberra Commissioner. He endorsed the Commission’s conclusion, having once been in charge of US strategic nuclear weapons.

Our political leaders assert that Australia is living safely under the US nuclear umbrella. We are asked to believe in circumstances, which are simply incredible.  It will not be the case, whatever the US may claim, that the US will go to nuclear war to save us, given the massive risks the US would thus face. They might go to such war, if their military and command and control assets based in Australia were threatened, which given the importance we have allowed those assets to assume for the US, could be the case. But, they would be acting in their own interest, to which we were incidental, however, if during a conflict a choice were to emerge between them and us, it is perfectly clear what they would choose, rationally, unsentimentally. America First.

Australia, a state without its own nuclear weapons, will not be a target for nuclear attack, but as a state, currently integral to the US nuclear war fighting apparatus, it would assuredly be so attacked, once the US went to nuclear war.

By the way, when will our leaders tell us precisely who it is we are seeking to deter through our surrogacy of US nuclear weapons: surely not our great neighbors and trading partners Japan, China, Indonesia. Ms. Bishop assures us that our diplomacy is looking after our security with them


Richard Butler AC is a former Ambassador to the United Nations, and Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.


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