Nuclear Blogtank: Small Arsenals, Grand Strategies

As previously mentioned, blogfriend and nuclear materials expert Cheryl Rofer challenged national security, foreign policy and defense bloggers to game out scenarios for powers with small or limited nuclear arsenals:

 What strategies are available to a country with fissionable material sufficient for 1-5 nuclear weapons, some of which may be assembled? Take into account probable responses, and assume some sort of rationality on the holders of these weapons and material. You may specifically refer to Iran and North Korea, or any other nation, or make the scenario(s) more general. Flesh out the scenario with some support

 Responses thus far have been creative yet highly plausible. Several have tied their scenarios to specific states such as Iran or peoples with aspirations to statehood such as the Kurds. Well and good. As that ground has been properly covered, I will look at the problem from a somewhat different perspective.

The first consideration in this discussion is that despite the worrisome specter of nuclear weapons proliferation, most states have since 1945 opted to refrain from developing arsenals of nuclear weapons. A remarkable state of affairs given that such nuclear weapons are within the technological reach of virtually all first tier, most second tier and even third tier states like North Korea and Pakistan.

The reason most states do not is that nuclear weapons programs are expensive investments ( in terms of money, talent and geopolitical friction) that do not offer a reasonable return for most states, partly because they would be militarily insignificant in light of existing American and Russian nuclear arsenals. Thus some countries like Brazil and Taiwan have abandoned nuclear weapons programs and others like South Africa, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have actually disarmed by surrendering or dismantling what weapons they had constructed or inherited. Iraq is a unique case of having it’s nuclear program forcibly “de-proliferated” against the will of it’s rulers by a combination of American military power and international diplomatic and economic pressure after the first Gulf War.

But for a certain class of nation-states, possession  of nuclear weapons, even a crude handful, remains a worthwhile expenditure even at the cost of great national sacrifice ( the ” We will have them even if we have to eat grass!” scenario).  North Korea has starved upwards of a million of it’s citizens to death;  Pakistan is desperately poor, economically backward and has a regime that can only govern only a portion of the territory it claims to rule but both Islamabad and Pyonggyang are nuclear armed today. These states value nuclear weapons because, simply, they desire to be independent powers at the least and dominating hegemons of their neighborhoods if possible. Nuclear weapons are a critical means in formulating strategies to realize these ends, not ends in themselves. If they were then New Zealand and Uruguay would have MIRV’ed ICBMs.

Nuclear weapons programs are intrinsically married to the ambitions of statesmen and the anxieties of generals because they are multipliers of options as well as force-multipliers of lesser, conventional, means by virtue of possession. “Hard cases” of nuclear weapons proliferation like Pakistan, North Korea and Iran can only be properly contemplated with the strategic end goals of these states in mind. Not doing so, whether through an obstinate refusal to negotiate with “evil” governments or childish confidence in diplomatic processes in and of themselves are a waste of time

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