The answer to the question is bound up in the realities of military strategy and the geopolitical conditions as they exist in the 21st century.
Currently, the world’s nuclear powers consist of the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea (2). A number of other countries aspire to have a nuclear arsenal, particularly Iran.
The first five countries’ nuclear arsenals are a holdover from the Cold War. India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons to deter each other. Israel has nuclear weapons because they represent the ultimate deterrent of an attack by its Arab neighbors as well as by Iran. North Korea has a nuclear arsenal because that country’s leadership perceives that it grants that country a level of respect and fear.
A Safer World
Jonathon Tepperman argued in the pages of Newsweek (3) a few years ago that nuclear weapons have made the world safer, not more dangerous. He noted two salient facts of the post-World War II world. First, nuclear weapons have not been used in anger since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Second, there has not been a war fought between two nuclear states.
History has shown that every time two nuclear states, such as the United States and the Soviet Union, come into conflict, they inevitably pull back from the brink. The reason, for example, that the Cuban Missile Crisis did not cause a full-scale war was that both sides believed that nuclear weapons would inevitably be used, resulting in at the very least the destruction of human civilization, if not the species itself.
To be sure, the possibility of a nuclear exchange caused by accident or miscalculation always exists. One such incident happened on September 28, 1983 (4), when a Soviet officer named Stanislav Petrov noted that a computer readout at the Soviet version of NORAD reported that the United States had launched a nuclear attack.
Protocol demanded that he report the launches immediately to his superiors. However, acting on a hunch, Petrov polled his radar operators. None of them reported a launch from North America. So he held off informing his higher-ups, thus preventing a certain retaliation strike.
American and Russian missiles are now pointed at the ocean to prevent such a hair-trigger accident from happening.
Currently, the United States and her allies are engaged in low-level conflicts with both Russia and China, the former over the Ukraine and the latter over the South China and East China Seas. The nuclear arsenals possessed by the countries involved ensure that these conflicts will remain limited.
The strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD, while imperfect, has stopped World War III from happening for the past 70 years. Nuclear war could still occur, not the least because of a madman in Pyongyang or Tehran. But a sound missile defense strategy coupled with a robust intelligence regime should keep that possibility in check.
If we believe that nuclear weapons have kept the peace, paradoxically making the world safer by making full-scale war unthinkable, then it only makes sense that the nation’s nuclear arsenal should be modernized.
For a nuclear arsenal to serve as a deterrent, it needs to be perceived as being effective. Allowing nuclear weapons to age and deteriorate could cause a potential adversary to miscalculate and launch an all-out war. A trillion dollars over the next 30 years would seem to be a small price to pay to prevent that from happening.
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(2) TSW: North Korea Nuke Test Today Nuclear Terror Attack Tomorrow