True or False? We Can Abolish Nuclear Weapons, But Not the Know-How

“Weaponless” or “virtual” deterrence has emerged as a candidate for a crucial step on the path to Global Zero (the abolition of nuclear weapons). It’s based on the premise that states possessing them divest themselves of their nuclear weapons, but retain the ability to reconstitute them in the event of a perceived national-security emergency. Deterrence would be once removed — the threat of a threat of nuclear attack.

The obvious advantage of weaponless deterrence is that it dispenses with the risks of states keeping their weapons on hair-trigger alert or poised to launch on warning. In other words, a state would no longer have only 20 minutes to determine whether reports of a nuclear attack were genuine (still a problem after all these years) and decide whether to retaliate.

But weaponless deterrence comes complete with its own set of problems. In November of 2010, Hudson Institute fellow Christopher Ford issued a paper titled Nuclear Weapons Reconstitution and its Discontents: Challenges of Weaponless Deterrence that outlines the difficulties of effecting such a regimen. These include upending the delicate balance of deterrence: A state, once it’s decided to re-arm itself with nuclear weapons, would not only feel compelled to reconstitute before other states that are party to the regimen, but to launch their resurrected nukes before the state from which it fears a nuclear attack is able to complete the reconstitution process.

Another challenge is the rust that would set in with nuclear-weapons designers and scientists. (See an earlier post of mine: Can the Genie of Nuclear Knowledge Ever Be Put Back in the Bottle?). Ford explains.

According to U.S. nuclear weapons designers, their craft is in some regards as much art than science, and is passed along between the generations by a process akin to apprenticeship learning.

Disarmament advocates might bristle at characterizing nuclear-weapons design as an art, or even as a craft passed along from one generation to the next. But bear with Ford.

Their [the nuclear-weapons designers'] refrain is that “you’ve got to do it [in order] to learn it,” and they worry that the passage of time without “doing it” will rapidly create ignorance and incapacity. By these accounts, the twin issues of human capital retention and knowledge retention within the workforce are the biggest potential challenges for any serious effort to maintain [reconstitution] capability over time. . . . when knowledge disappears it may well be, for practical purposes, flat-out gone.

Furthermore

U.S. weapons experts interviewed for this study repeatedly emphasized that maintaining a first-rate human capital stock in sophisticated fields such as weapons design [and its] exotic specialties can be very difficult if one cannot offer employees the sort of qualitative frisson associated with working on issues that are both of paramount national and global importance, and involve formidable intellectual and technical challenges.

In other words, since the demise of the Cold War, it’s been difficult to attract young talent to nuclear-weapons design, no longer seen as a growth field. Besides which, it is an old technology, isn’t it? Working with a technology that’s perceived of as on-hold (however busy maintaining it in a state of readiness would, in fact, keep nuclear scientists) compounds the problem of attracting talent. In a footnote, Ford adds:

One U.S. laboratory official whose job is precisely to help ensure the continuation of his laboratory’s technical edge worries that once lost, such capabilities are perilously hard to recover. . . . he could not think of an example of anyone ever having succeeded in regaining the lost “bubble” of technical mastery associated with first-place position in their field.

If you’re a disarmament advocate reading this — biased against Ford, to their detriment they usually don’t — your excitement is building to the point where you’re about to burst. In the course of showing us how difficult it is to make weaponless deterrence work because nuclear knowledge fades, he seems to be providing the perfect response to the oft-heard argument against disarmament that you can get rid of nuclear weapons, but you can’t get rid of the knowledge how to make them. Ford explains.

Some disarmament advocates seem to like the idea that [nuclear-weapons design] can be highly perishable. For them, the notion of . . . reconstitution is attractive precisely because . . . it might equate to a sort of “stealth disarmament” — with today’s nuclear weapons states suddenly waking up one morning, as it were, to discover that they had accidentally disarmed themselves by forgetting how to reconstitute their former programs.

But “stealth disarmament” comes complete with its own set of problems.

. . . even if such “surprise” disarmament might occur, it would certainly not occur evenly, at the same rate for, or with the same operational impact upon, all participants. Asymmetries in the rate or implications of such atrophy could be greatly destabilizing, and offer strategic advantages — and perhaps even a nuclear weapons monopoly at some point — to those who were for some reason or another better positioned to retain their own weaponeering “knowledge” while others forgot theirs.

Still, there’s no way to back out of the nuclear-weapons era without, at some point, making ourselves vulnerable to nuclear attack. But it’s no greater than the risk of living with nuclear weapons.