Nuclear Alarms and Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear Alarms and Nuclear Weapons

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Far too little is being made of the false nuclear missile alert which occurred last Saturday in Hawaii. While the technical aspect of the failure can be fixed rapidly, the possibility of such an event occurring again in the near future is unnerving. In addition, to the mistake itself, the false alert raised a number concerns not only about U.S. preparedness but also about how functional is the American decision-making mechanism in the Trump Administration. The fact that this question is even being discussed suggests shades of Dr. Strangelove.

The concern which emerges first from this false alarm is that a misreading of a similar event when placed before a President who has consistently demonstrated a need to express his own macho personality could evolve into the deaths of millions of Americans or Japanese or South Koreans. If such a mis-read event occurs at a moment when Trump feels a psychological need to assert his authority, there is genuine apprehension that the President might not be contained in asserting command and control.

There is another dimension to last weekend’s event which was confirmed in further details in the press a few days later. The Pentagon has requested significant resumption and development of multiple, alternative, nuclear weapon systems for both land and sea based missiles. The creation of a new set of additional nuclear weapons has both constructive as well as dangerous implications. Such systems, which presumably would be operational within a few years, are predicated on a possible need to respond or pre-empt a more traditional threat from either the Russians or the Chinese. 

For the Trump Administration, however, there is an additional dimension as well, especially on the side of a possible pre-emptive attack of either conventional or nuclear weapons. The continuing aggressive approach by the President towards both Iran and North Korea, encourages his desire to be capable of pre-empting any possible attack; even of nuclear weapons.  Given that this program apparently will include a significant, sea based, small-sized nuclear weapon component—enhancing or replacing the current cruise missile system–it would enable the President to possess maximal deterrent or strike capability. 

The major issue involved in all of the on-going weapons system development is not simply the need to maintain an updated operation. There is a sense, that Trump, more than any recent president, possesses much less compunctions about actually using the weapons. While he may have dismissed Steve Bannon, there is no reason to assume that there are not other trigger happy voices among his advisers.  They, like Bannon, might also believe in such a strategy or be willing to play to the President’s ego. They could counter more rational thinking types like Generals John Kelly and Jim Mattis.  

The record of the Cuban Missile Crisis suggests that President Kennedy had to wave off the aggressive position advocated by his Chief of the Air Force General Curtis LeMay in 1962.  LeMay had sought to resolve the crisis by bombing Cuba, but a wide range of sober voices restrained serious convinced Kennedy to reject this option. The concern today is whether Trump will be willing to listen to restraining voices should that be the more tactically desirable decision and not succumb to his own worse instincts.    

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