Triad And True: Nuclear-War War

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An underwater nuclear-bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1946.

It’s always fascinating to watch nuclear war-fighters sheathe their sabers – especially once they’ve shucked their military uniforms for the comfort of civilian garb.

The latest nuclear turncoat is retired Marine general James “Hoss” Cartwright, who was serving as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs when he left the military last year. On Wednesday, he released a report advocating doing away with the nation’s first-strike capability by cutting the strategic nuclear arsenal to no more than 900 warheads, including no more than 450 on alert (our current deal with Moscow allows for 1,550), as well as eliminating U.S. land-based nuclear missiles.

“It is a significant departure from our posture [and] it is one that we would have to enter into with the Russians,” Cartwright said as he unveiled the slimmed-down nuclear stance advocated by Global Zero, a four-year old non-profit group pushing for a nukeless world. “The numbers are not there for the pre-emptive, decapitating strike.” He also called for shrinking the U.S. nuclear triad to a dyad – eliminating ground-based ICBMs while retaining the long-range nuclear weapons aboard submarines and bombers.

“There is no conceivable situation in the contemporary world in which it would be in either country’s national security interest to initiate a nuclear attack against the other side,” the report says. Beyond that, it estimates the nation could save about $100 billion over a decade if it pared its nuclear forces as recommended.

There has been a raft of options put forwarded in recent years pushing for deep cuts, if not total elimination, of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But nuclear hawks whisper about their boosters’ rose-colored outlook: the Global Zero study, for example, has six authors: two retired Marine generals (Cartwright, who headed the nuke-owning U.S. Strategic Command before becoming the Pentagon’s No. 2 officer, and Jack Sheehan, both from the service with the tiniest stake in nuclear weapons), two former ambassadors (Thomas Pickering and Richard Burt, who also – horrors – was once a New York Times reporter), a liberal Republican former senator (Chuck Hagel) and Bruce Blair, a former Air Force missileer and longtime proponent of nuclear-weapons reductions).

What the panel terms “a profound shift” in U.S. nuclear strategy has powerful forces arrayed against it. Increasingly, the nuclear haves’ argument boils down to this: we have had nuclear weapons for more than half a century without using them; ipso facto, they have kept the peace. So let’s keep them.

But Global Zero’s report, and others like it, can be bad for business, if your business is nuclear war. Or deterrence, as it’s known among atomic aficionados. The Air Force’s top officer was not pleased, and took issue with the proposal to do away with one of his service’s two legs of the triad. “Why do we have a land-based deterrent force?” General Norton Schwartz asked after Cartwright released his report. “It’s so that an adversary has to strike the homeland” (in nuclear circles, this is called logic.)

“Cartwright’s supposition is farfetched, and it introduces the likelihood of instability in a deterrence equation, which is not healthy,” he added. “I don’t agree with his assessment, nor the study.”

Of course, Schwartz still has several months left before his retirement. Plenty of time yet to change his tune, as former Air Force generals Lee Butler and Chuck Horner did.