Joan Rohlfing is President and Chief Operating Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. -promoted by Laura Belin
By the time voters across the United States cast their ballots for president next November, it will have been 75 years since the first and only use of nuclear weapons. Since 1945, through the decades-long Cold War and its aftermath, a strategy of deterrence helped prevent nuclear war between the United States and Russia, the world’s nuclear superpowers. Does that strategy still keep us safe?
Nuclear deterrence theory was developed 70 years ago for a different and simpler world. Today, however, we are facing a fundamentally different, and more complex threat environment. Nine countries now have nuclear weapons and the technology and know-how to build a bomb is spreading. Terrorist organizations are seeking weapons of mass destruction—and deterrence doesn’t work with an enemy with no return address. Our nuclear weapons and facilities are vulnerable to cyber threats. Imagine if our early warning systems were, leading us to believe we were under attack when we weren’t?
On top of all that, the U.S. relationship with key nuclear adversaries, Russia, and increasingly China, has grown increasingly toxic over the last several years. In the past, even during the darkest days of the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union — which together held more than 90 percent of the world’s 14,000 nuclear warheads — managed a nearly continuous dialogue and negotiations to stabilize, regulate and reduce our nuclear arsenals.
Contrast that with today, where we are now in our sixth year without any regular dialogue with Russia on managing the nuclear threat, and the traditional guardrails around nuclear weapons—hard-fought arms control treaties between the United States and Russia—are being abandoned. The U.S. and Russia are in a new arms race. The fact is, today we are living in a time when the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is high and growing.
So when the winner of November’s election takes the oath of office on January 20, 2021, he or she will assume an awesome responsibility. Nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to the United States and, indeed, the world—and the next president’s top responsibility must be to prevent a catastrophic attack, miscalculation, or accident with one of the deadliest weapons on earth.
Unfortunately, these issues are not front-burner in this presidential campaign. Our leaders and our political candidates for the White House and for the House and Senate—from both political parties—aren’t giving them the attention they deserve.
They should—and voters should demand it.
My organization, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, is among others that have worked here in Iowa to remind voters in the run-up to today’s caucuses that our leaders and those seeking our votes have an obligation to take on the challenges of nuclear security risks and the rapidly evolving threat:
• We know terrorist organizations are seeking weapons of mass destruction and their opportunities, knowledge base, and capabilities appear to be growing. Important progress has been made around the world in eliminating or securing vulnerable nuclear weapons materials that could be stolen and used to build bombs. But more work needs to be done.
• The 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is now the last remaining strategic arms control treaty in place – but it is set to expire in February 2021 unless the U.S. and Russia agree to extend it for five more years, as allowed under the provisions of the treaty. New START places important limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons and includes important, boots-on-the-ground monitoring and verification that give us a window into Russia’s nuclear weapons activities.
• During the Cold War, we placed nuclear weapons on a prompt-launch, “hair-trigger” posture to allow us to respond immediately to notice of an incoming nuclear attack and prevent our weapons from being taken out by launching them first. But in today’s world, when an attack could be spoofed or a system hacked, this outdated posture is far too dangerous. And once missiles are launched, they can’t be called back.
• We believe it’s possible to hold Russia accountable for attacking our elections and other major misdeeds while at the same time cooperating on nuclear security. It’s time to resume regular dialogue with Russia to help prevent misunderstanding and miscommunication related to nuclear weapons.
• North Korea’s nuclear program continues to advance in ways that destabilize the region and imperil the rest of the world. The U.S.-North Korea relationship around nuclear weapons has been fraught and unpredictable.
As a nuclear security expert, I know that our current nuclear deterrence strategy is inadequate for addressing 21st century threats like cyber and terrorism, and for preventing miscalculation or blundering into a nuclear war after receiving faulty or misleading information. We believe the world needs a new approach to nuclear strategy, one that doesn’t wager our collective future on the belief that nuclear weapons operate in a system with rational players, perfect information and infallible technology in perpetuity.
Between now and November, I suggest you ask any candidate seeking your vote this simple question: What’s your plan to keep me, my family, and my community safe from nuclear annihilation?
Joan Rohlfing is president and COO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit global security organization that works to prevent catastrophic attacks with weapons of mass destruction and disruption (WMDD)—nuclear, biological, radiological, chemical, and cyber.
Top photo of Joan Rohlfing published with permission.