By JAMES STERNGOLD
San Francisco Chronicle
October 24, 2006
But a number of experts said the blast underscored a troubling new reality about the logic behind nuclear weapons strategies - that the struggles to prevent proliferation are likely to become not only more frequent, but also far more complex, more unstable and more threatening.
"Just a few nuclear weapons can upset the entire international apple cart. And that's without even considering the possibility of their possession by terrorists," said Richard Garwin, a former nuclear weapons designer and a longtime senior government adviser on weapons policy.
The previous model for nuclear strategy - established during the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union - has been turned on its head. The confrontation with North Korea - and with Iran, and before that, with Saddam Hussein's Iraq - has shown that these horrifically powerful weapons are now the choice of the weaker countries, more fearful of attacks by conventional forces than of U.S. ballistic missiles. The aim is the threat of large-scale disruption, not apocalyptic destruction, and uncertainty about how and when the weapons might be used.
"Nuclear weapons empower weak nations, not just strong ones," said Raymond Jeanloz, a physicist at the University of California-Berkeley and a policy adviser at the national weapons design laboratories. "And the knowledge, materials and people, 'technology' if you prefer, will inevitably keep spreading around the world/"
Garwin said that, given nuclear proliferation it is becoming far more likely that, in one way or another, a nuclear weapon would actually be used. "I believe there's a 50 percent probability that there will be a nuclear attack over the next five years or so," he said.
Nuclear weapons can provide leverage in regional conflicts and can burnish national stature. But the critical point understood by North Korea, Iran and other countries considering developing nuclear capability is that the United States has never attacked a country with nuclear arms. The price may be international ostracism, as in the case of North Korea, but the benefit, presumably, is immunity against a military attack - and hence survival, experts say.
This is not the security environment that many experts expected just a few years ago. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, support grew for huge nuclear warhead reductions and even disarmament. In a newly made international order with but a single superpower, nuclear weapons seemed all but obsolete.
But then, India and Pakistan tested weapons during a tense confrontation in 1998. North Korea conducted its first test earlier this month, and the Bush administration is struggling to persuade Iran to stop a program that could create nuclear weapons fuel. The United States, meanwhile, is preparing a multibillion-dollar modernization of its nuclear forces and is planning to restart warhead manufacturing for the first time since the late 1980s.
One irony is that most of these countries are not afraid of being attacked or threatened with U.S. nuclear missiles. Few think that the United States, which is still believed to maintain as many as 5,000 nuclear warheads, would ever use such weapons short of a devastating attack on America or a close ally.
"Our nuclear forces have turned into something of a paper force," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists.
The new nuclear model is closer to the strategy that has been followed for years by China, and now Russia. China has been a nuclear power since its first test in 1964, but it never developed a huge stockpile. China is believed to have only a few hundred warheads, and only 18 or so are believed to be fixed on intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at the United States. The "less is more" strategy was considered sufficient for China's purposes.
"Historically, the Chinese have had the most realistic deterrent strategy," said Robert Einhorn, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "And the thing is, we know where they are and we could easily destroy them with a first strike, and the Chinese have no second-strike capability. But they have believed that that was enough. It was minimalism, and it seems to have worked."
Different countries seem to be employing that minimalist approach in different ways.
North Korea, for instance, is believed to pose no threat of launching an unprovoked attack on its neighbors. Its aim is not expansion, but survival in the face of a powerful threat from the United States.
By contrast, said Einhorn, Iran has been working hard to spread its influence throughout the Middle East. At the same time, it has defined itself as the most powerful opponent of Israel in the region. Nuclear weapons would boost the country's prestige and perhaps give it greater influence in the volatile region.
"The Bush administration regards the North Korean regime as a dead-end regime," said Einhorn. "But Iran has an ideology that resonates throughout that region and the world. Nuclear weapons would embolden that regime."
Garwin said that, regrettably, logic led him to conclude that because there is a growing likelihood a nuclear weapon will be used for the first time since 1945, U.S. policy should focus not just on preventing proliferation, but also survival from an attack.
"The real issue is: We need to make plans so the society, the civilization, will continue to operate afterward," Garwin said.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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