The United States currently has 6,800 nuclear warheads, and is forging ahead with plans for an overhaul of its atomic force, including $1.8 billion for the development of a highly stealthy cruise missile and $700 million to begin replacing its 40-year-old Minuteman missiles.
Russia has just over 7,000 warheads (the largest arsenal in the world), and last year brazenly released images of what is slated to become the newest weapon is its nuclear war chest, the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (appropriately nicknamed “Satan 2”), due out later this year.
And the maniac boy despot of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has an estimated nine or 10 nuclear weapons (no one knows the exact number for sure), and is fragrantly launching short-, medium- and long-range ballistic missiles and conducting a steady barrage of nuclear device tests (six so far this year) to perfect his aim and, ostensively, achieve his ultimate declared goal of nuking the United States.
So the question is: Do we really need any more nuclear weapons?
For most members of the dubious club of eight nuclear nations (nine, if you count Israel, which has never formally admitted it has a stash of bombs in keeping with its strict policy of deliberate nuclear ambiguity, but which, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, has an arsenal of about 80 warheads), the principle objective is nuclear deterrence.
With the sole exception of North Korea (and possibly Pakistan), there is no nuclear country on Earth that is reckless enough to start a nuclear war, since a strike on any other nation would automatically ensure a retaliatory response that would plunge the entire world into a nuclear abyss.
That precarious strategy of dissuasion through fear of mutually assured destruction has — despite all its flaws — kept the world safe from the threat of nuclear disaster for the last seven decades (at least, until Kim came along).
First developed in the decade following World War II and tweaked and perfected during the administration of John F. Kennedy, the don’t-strike-us-or-we-will-strike-you-right-back nuclear deterrence policy pretty much kept the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union in check throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
But while the fear of tit-for-tat was, for the most part, effective in keeping the two world superpowers away from each other’s nuclear throats, there were always a few mega-hawks on both sides of the Atlantic who felt that the main goal of having an atomic arsenal was to be ready to win a nuclear war, should it come to that.
And thus the arms race began to spiral in the pre-Perestroika era.
Up-and-coming developing nations with unfriendly neighbors such as China, India and Pakistan soon joined in the competition to flex their nuclear muscles by adding warheads to the military portfolios.
And then, along came Iran, with unabashed ambitions to nuke Israel, and the autocratic megalomaniac of Kim, and all of sudden, the world was facing a global stockpile of some 14,900 nuclear warheads scattered across Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East and the very real possibility that they might one day actually be used.
With the irrationality and erratic spontaneity of Kim in the mix, the concept of mutually assured destruction as a deterrent has become dangerously unreliable.
Despite his incendiary rhetoric, U.S. President Donald J. Trump is not crazy enough to start blasting ballistic missiles at North Korea or anywhere else.
On the other hand, Kim — who is so paranoid that he regularly knocks off family members he thinks might have looked at him the wrong way and who once had his vice minister of education killed for slumping during a meeting — is definitely a wildcard
Hopefully, however, he is at least smart enough to know that if he did launch a nuclear weapon at the United States, he would be answered with an overwhelming response that would essentially demolish his country and end his dictatorship.
Kim is playing a perilous game of chicken with the West and certainly needs to be reined in, but he is not suicidal and his ultimate goal is to intimidate by show, not action.
Still, when it comes to predicting the behavior of someone as unpredictable and irrational as Kim, there are no guarantees.
There is always the chance that Kim might overstep his ballistic display of power and blunder his way into a nuclear assault.
In the meantime, the rest of the world is nervously sitting on its nuclear stashes and biting its nails, hoping that their bombs are enough of a deterrent to keep Kim from releasing the full fury of his Armageddon stockpile.
Last week marked the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which, although it never officially entered into force, essentially led to the end of nuclear testing (except for North Korea, the only country to have performed such tests in the 21st century).
Meanwhile, the nuclear arms race goes on, with more and more countries chopping at the bit to join in the sprint.
It would seem that 14,900 warheads would be enough of a deterrent to keep any nation from pressing the button for a nuclear launch, but the daring competition to be able to outgun and out-nuke your enemy is still very much in play.
We can only hope that cooler heads prevail, and that Kim doesn’t beat anyone to the punch.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]