Military organizations, like muscles, atrophy unless they get regular exercise. And as much as the destructive power of the Cold War’s nuclear arsenals is credited with having prevented their use, there is no form of deterrence that can have as much appeal to the military as an actual show of force. The fear of disarmament is less a fear of military vulnerability than it is a fear of military redundancy.
So, when it comes to the prospects of global nuclear disarmament it should come as no surprise that the Pentagon won’t support the elimination of one class of weapons without first winning support for an alternative. Prompt Global Strike promises to be such an alternative and one with what to the military must seem like an irresistible appeal: the prospect that it can be put into use.
The New York Times now reports:
In coming years, President Obama will decide whether to deploy a new class of weapons capable of reaching any corner of the earth from the United States in under an hour and with such accuracy and force that they would greatly diminish America’s reliance on its nuclear arsenal…
Called Prompt Global Strike, the new weapon is designed to carry out tasks like picking off Osama bin Laden in a cave, if the right one could be found; taking out a North Korean missile while it is being rolled to the launch pad; or destroying an Iranian nuclear site — all without crossing the nuclear threshold. In theory, the weapon will hurl a conventional warhead of enormous weight at high speed and with pinpoint accuracy, generating the localized destructive power of a nuclear warhead.
Prompt Global Strike should be seen not merely as an alternative to nuclear weapons but as a means through which the US military can free itself from what is known as the nuclear taboo.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 2005, the nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling said:
There has never been any doubt about the military effectiveness of nuclear weapons or their potential for terror. A large part of the credit for their not having been used must be due to the “taboo” that Secretary of State [John Foster] Dulles perceived to have attached itself to these weapons as early as 1953, a taboo that the Secretary deplored.
The weapons remain under a curse, a now much heavier curse than the one that bothered Dulles in the early 1950s. These weapons are unique, and a large part of their uniqueness derives from their being perceived as unique. We call most of the others “conventional,” and that word has two distinct senses. One is “ordinary, familiar, traditional,” a word that can be applied to food, clothing, or housing. The more interesting sense of “conventional” is something that arises as if by compact, by agreement, by convention. It is simply an established convention that nuclear weapons are different.
True, their fantastic scale of destruction dwarfs the conventional weapons. But as early as the end of the Eisenhower administration nuclear weapons could be made smaller in explosive yield than the largest conventional explosives.
There were military planners to whom “little” nuclear weapons appeared untainted by the taboo that they thought ought properly to attach only to weapons of a size associated with Hiroshima, or Bikini. But by then nuclear weapons had become a breed apart; size was no excuse from the curse.
This attitude, or convention, or tradition, that took root and grew over these past five decades, is an asset to be treasured.
If Obama pushes forward with Prompt Global Strike — and all the indications seem to be that he will — then his promise of guiding the world towards a nuclear weapons-free age, will not only have been hollow, it may have signaled a new age of destruction.
And with a military that still espouses a belief in the value of full-spectrum dominance; that operates a Space Command (with an insignia inspired by Star Trek); that has just launched the X-37B that (denials notwithstanding) appears geared towards the weaponization of space — no one should imagine that the Pentagon’s appetite for exercising global power is any less now than it was while the neoconservatives were in charge.