I distinctly remember a night from my childhood where I was fretting about the possibility of a nuclear exchange between the US and Soviet Union. My father explained to me that in the Soviet Union there was, no doubt, a young boy equally as concerned and that rational minds on both sides of the globe all but eliminated the threat of all-out nuclear holocaust.
Had I, at the time, understood the true irrationality of politics and politicians, my father's explanation would have done little to placate me. However, my naivete allowed me to sleep that night, and for most of the nights since. The time has come, however, to re-examine the rationality of those seeking and in control of nuclear weapons.
The economics of nuclear weapons is interesting. Not only is it prohibitively expensive to build or obtain a nuclear weapon, it is also prohibitively expensive to maintain and deliver a nuclear weapon. Contrary to media hype about “suitcase nukes” and “dirty bombs”, it's just not that easy to deliver and detonate a radioactive weapon. The size and cost of nuclear weapons all but ensure that nation-states, with the power to enslave the people and confiscate their wealth, are the only organizations capable of building and maintaining a nuclear program.
The oft-articulated problem comes when the nuclear weapon becomes a responsibility that the state can no longer afford or when the state which has a nuclear weapon fails (as nation-states always do). As maintaining or disposing would require more prohibitive expenditures, it is feared that the weapon will be auctioned off at a bargain-basement price, possibly to religious or political extremists. This fear, which became reality on the breakup of the Soviet Union, is now nearing reality again as Pervez Musharref's control of Pakistan is slipping.
Practically, however, any extremist group who purchased such a weapon would be signing its own death warrant. They would be ruthlessly hunted by their enemies and their enemies' allies. Additionally, that group would find itself saddled with the cost of maintaining the weapon as well as purchasing a suitable delivery system. A group that well-financed can hardly be called “extremist”.
More likely, an extremist group who won such an auction would dismantle the weapon seeking to use the radioactive material to create a “dirty bomb” where the material is aerosolized and spread by the wind rather than detonated in a nuclear reaction. This plan, too, is expensive and of dubious practicality; somehow you have to shield the radioactive material and the explosives from detection and keep the courier alive long enough to deliver the bomb. Experts say that, even if a group managed to do all that, damage from the initial explosion and the ensuing panic would likely outpace the hazard of the aerosolized radioactive material.
At any rate, we can be sure that any extremist group with nuclear ambitions would not utilize a “buy and hold” investment strategy. The sheer cost of such a proposition would be insane without the available resources of slave labor. Thus, it follows that, absent a nuclear attack by a group not affiliated with the government of a nuclear nation, the only holders of nuclear weapons are nuclear nations.
There is certainly no dirth of pundits in the United States warning of religious extremists willing to commit suicide in furtherance of their religious objectives. People who actually study such things, however, assure us that religious extremism is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for suicide attacks. Rather, to date, suicide attacks are overwhelmingly political in nature which stands to reason given the irrationality of politics and politicians.
At its most basic, a nuclear attack is a suicide attack. A nuclear release would immediately trigger the removal of nuclear safeguards by all nuclear powers. By the time the dust settled from the first weapon, the nation striking first would find itself on the receiving end of nuclear weapons from around the globe. As with any weapon, deterrence of the first strike stems from the threat of retaliation.
Much of the gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands these days is centered around the possibility of religious extremists gaining power in Pakistan or of states like Iran, widely considered to be ruled by religious extremists, developing a nuclear weapon. Additionally, a lot of air time and ink has been devoted to the changing religious demographics in the European Union; with a large enough voting bloc, it is reasoned, religious fundamentalists could force European nations to alter their laws to be in conformance with the laws dictated by the church.
Never mentioned, however, are the ramifications of the nuclear weapons held by European nations (any Westernized nation, really) falling under the control of religious extremists. Is there, in this silence, a tacit admission even by the talking heads that religious extremism only leads to suicide attacks when accompanied by political extremism? There is no evidence that political pundits have even thought through the issue but the possibility is intriguing none the less.
I wish the people of the world had undertaken a program of nuclear non-proliferation prior to any nation developing a nuclear program. No honorable warrior would ever use such a weapon (not strategically, at any rate). Faceless and indiscriminate, the use of nuclear weapons demeans the warrior, reducing him to pushing buttons and then running away to escape the effects of his own weapon. A warrior is defined by his honor and skill; the use of a nuclear weapon requires neither.
Aside from that, my chief concern with nuclear weapons is the cost of dismantling and disposing them once they have ceased to be useful or the nation which owns them fails. Since nations almost always fail due to economic reasons rather than conquest, this concern is not unfounded.
There is, however, one scenario in which religious extremists in control of nuclear weapons paints a very frightening portrait. That would be if the extremists held that a nuclear exchange (strike and retaliation) would fulfill their prophecies. Those extremists do exist and they are dangerously close to gaining control of nuclear weapons – 12,000 nuclear weapons to be exact. Worse, these extremists are increasingly signaling their willingness to use those nuclear weapons if they gain control of them.