First, let’s acknowledge that there’s hardly any likelihood that nuclear weapons will be entirely abolished and dismantled within the foreseeable future. So then what?
I had a brief conversation during the Science for Peace annual general meeting today, that summarized perfectly two different perspectives. I mentioned that we at Peace Magazine are going to run an article by Alan Phillips and Steven Starr that assigns top priority to changing the “launch on warning” policy to a different approach, which they call “RLOAD” – Retaliatory Launch Only After Detonation.
But I was told that this policy has not been adopted by the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Instead, the CNANW supports a campaign to promote the creation of a nuclear weapon free zone in Canada.
I wouldn’t want to argue the point because I can see both sides. However, it is instructive to mention the arguments for both positions.
The most serious threat posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons is that they may be used someday because a false alarm is taken seriously that warns of the apparent launch of nuclear-armed missiles from another country. When an alarm is sounded, the existing nuclear weapons on both sides are supposed to be set off on a retaliatory strike before the first enemy missiles land. This is because, logically, no one can wait around to see whether the threat is genuine, lest one’s own retaliatory capacity be destroyed while verification is being attempted. Both (maybe all) sides that possess nuclear-armed missiles have a standing policy to launch upon receipt of a warning. In other words, within five or ten minutes after the enemy launches a strike, the retaliation must be launched.
Unfortunately, there are false alarms all the time. Most of them can be checked rather quickly, but occasionally further checking seems to confirm the warning. On a different occasion I’ll shares some hair-raising stories about false alarms that have almost triggered Armageddon. The point about the Phillips and Starr paper is that it would greatly reduce the probability of starting a nuclear war on the basis of such a mistake. Instead, the policy on one or both sides (or potentially all the nuclear-capable countries) would abandon Launch on Warning. Instead, the automatic hair trigger response would be slowed enough to allow one confirmed nuclear detonation to occur before a retaliation would begin. That is probably a minor comfort – but actually, since the main danger is that of accidental nuclear war, it’s a pretty healthy thing to do.
On the other hand, it certainly would not eliminate all kinds of nuclear problems. For example, it is possible that an adversary might assemble and detonate a nuclear weapon in Canada without the use of a missile at all. A suitcase bomb would suffice. So the real solution is to eliminate nuclear weapons everywhere. This surely ought to be the goal, but there is virtually no prospect that the United States, or indeed any other nuclear power, will carry out real disarmament in the foreseeable future. For example, the US spokespersons criticize Iran every day without acknowledging that –it is the US itself that is most egregiously violating the terms of a treaty that it signed and to which it wants to bind other nations. We are supposed to take for granted the ongoing retention of nuclear weapons by the currently armed countries while displaying shock about the acquisition of such arms by aspiring countries such as Iran and North Korea. The best approach for Canadians to take would indeed be the creation of a zone that nuclear weapons are never permitted to enter. This would irritate the United States beyond measure, and it is not even certain that they would obey the government of Canada in this regard, should it adopt such a policy.
So the dilemma is this: Is it better to settle for a minor improvement in the current state of affairs, or it is wiser to hold out for a much stronger change? Shall we change Launch on Warning to a policy of RLOAD? Or shall we take our chances with the possibility of an accidental nuclear war while working consistently to abolish or exclude nuclear weapons altogether from Canadian soil, water, and air space?
You choose. I’m not sure what I prefer.