Should the U.S. be Doing More to Reduce Nuclear Weapons Globally?

Nuclear weapons have only been used twice ever in warfare-by the United States against Japan on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945. Since then nuclear weapons have drawn immense concern from scientists across the globe, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Director of the Manhattan Project which created the nuclear bomb for the United States during World War II. Oppenheimer opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, an even more powerful version of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. He also gave warnings about the spread of nuclear arms. His criticisms were rejected on the basis of fears promulgated by rising tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States after the war.

Albert Einstein also warned about nuclear weapons. He did not directly work on the atomic bomb, but his famous equation, E=MC^2, made the weapon theoretically tangible. "The idea of achieving security through national armament is, at the present state of military technique, a disastrous illusion," he said in a 1950 interview with NBC. "All of us, and particularly those who are responsible for the attitude of the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., should realize that we may have vanquished an external enemy, but have been incapable of getting rid of the mentality created by the war. It is impossible to achieve peace as long as every single action is taken with a possible future conflict in view."

The Cold War ended in 1991, but many U.S. and Russia nuclear weapons policies have remained intact from the era. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the United States has an inventory of 7,200 nuclear warheads, and Russia with 7,500 nuclear warheads. France, China, UK, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea make up the rest of the nations who currently have nuclear weapons.

One of the most concerning Cold War relic policies is hair trigger alert. Both the United States and Russia have around 900 nuclear missiles which can launch a couple of minutes within the decision to do so. "The policy arose as a concern that one side could launch a surprise first strike to take out as many weapons as they could," said Dr. David Wright in a phone interview, Senior Scientist and Co-Director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit scientific advisory organization, has been working since 1969 to provide government policy makers with sound scientific advice on pressing global issues, such as reducing the threat of nuclear war. The idea of having hair trigger alert was to increase deterrence by making clear to your adversary they couldn't have a disarming strike. The problem with that is even if one side could knock out 450 land based missiles, it wouldn't keep the other side from retaliating as nuclear submarines can't be targeted."

The concerns with maintaining hair trigger alert on nuclear weapons involves increasing the possibility of unauthorized or accidental nuclear weapons launches, or launches initiated based on false warnings. Mr. Wright explains making a decision of a nuclear launch within minutes lends itself to confusion and unexpected coincidences as the more layers of safeguards peeled away, the more likely a nuclear launch could occur.

Although one of these launches has never occurred, there are documented cases of close calls.

During the beginning stages of the Cold War, the United States had bombers equipped with nuclear weapons on "airborne alert," meaning the planes were constantly airborne as a means to retaliate to a possible nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. Airborne Alert of U.S. bombers ended in 1968 when one aircraft crashed in Greenland. Fortunately the weapon was not triggered, but the surrounding area was contaminated with Plutonium.

There are also many documented cases of early warning systems giving false alarms, but were luckily debunked before a retaliation was launched.

President Obama pledged to reduce America's nuclear arsenal by one-third, imploring Russia to do the same, but the administration has taken little action to fulfilling that promise. A 2014 study conducted by the Federation of American Scientists found President Obama has made no deduction the America's stockpile of nuclear weapons, the least effect of any president during the post-cold war era. In fact, the Obama administration is geared towards spending nearly $1 Trillion in modernizing America's nuclear arsenal. "To be putting that kind of money into nuclear weapons suggest to other countries they need to do the same to catch up," added Dr. Wright. "It conveys the message nuclear weapons are still central to the way the U.S. thinks about military force, convinces current global powers that nuclear weapons are still currency of security and they should try it on their own." 25 countries currently possess the nuclear and radiological resources required to construct a nuclear weapon

The Obama administration took significant steps in promoting nuclear disarmament across the globe through the Iran Nuclear Deal. According to the White House, the deal prevents Iran's pathways to a nuclear weapon, who would otherwise have the capability to build a nuclear weapon in the span of a few months. They should invert this penchant for nuclear disarmament on the United States and other nuclear powers, as it is not only a global safety measure, but would be an immense cost saving measure where some of the high expenses associated with modernizing and maintaining a large nuclear arsenal could be diverted to other government programs that will be of much more benefit to the American Public.