Jeffrey LewisHow Many Nuclear Weapons Do We Need?

It’s a good question, one that we will try to answer tomorrow afternoon.

Special guest star likely to appear. There is a little reception afterward. It will be awesome, I promise.

Thousands, Hundreds, or Zero?
How Many Nuclear Weapons Do We Need?

Nuclear weapons are the most destructive weapons ever invented. However, since the end of the Cold War, they have received little attention from the highest levels of government. There are many questions that need examination, including:

What role do nuclear weapons play in United States national security policy?
How many nuclear weapons does the United States need?
Is there a nuclear posture that can command bipartisan support?
Is the elimination of nuclear weapons feasible or desirable?
Join New America Foundation’s Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative and AAAS’s Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy for a discussion of these and other important questions.

To register for this event, go to the AAAS website.

Start: 05/07/2008 – 2:30pm
End: 05/07/2008 – 4:00pm
1200 New York Ave, NW 2nd Floor
Washington, 20005
United States

Dr. Arnold Kanter
Principal and Founding Member, Scowcroft Group

Dr. Morton Halperin
Director, US Advocacy, Open Society Institute

Dr. Barry Blechman
Co-Founder, Henry L. Stimson Center

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis
Director, Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative, New America Foundation


  1. Benn Tannenbaum (History)

    Just in case you missed the website address at which one can register for the event:

  2. Arch Roberts Jr. (History)

    I think this idea really comes from Lawrence Freedman, but I apologize if it is not attributable:

    We need the minimum number of nuclear weapons that can survive a first strike. And the civilians need to have the final say, not the labs or the Pentagon.

    Wish I could be there for your panel. Good luck.

  3. Andrew

    We need a large number so that any other country will be assured that we could wipe them off the map if they try to strike us with nuclear weapons. Also workable missile defense systems may be in the future, so a large number of redundant warheads is desirable, the more the better. I see no place for briefcase nukes however.

  4. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Just out of curiosity, how many is a large number?

  5. FSB

    Andrew: “…workable missile defense systems…in the near future”

    ………….Ich don’t think so

    We need 200 or so nukes, just like China. No more, possibly less.

    Ain’t no-one gonna wipe us off the map as long as we fix our foreign policy. We can begin by putting up a firewall between any lobbyists and US foreign policy. Lobbying may be acceptable in domestic politics but is inappropriate when talking about US foreign policy. Personally, I would like to have lobbying abolished altogether — it is only legalised bribery.

    20,000++ nukes will not prevent us from being slowly bled to death by terrorism without a return address.

  6. peter (History)

    I’m not convinced we need any at all. Is there anyone out there that is thinking of attacking the US, or its interests or client states, and is only refraining from doing so because they’re afraid we’ll use a nuclear weapon in retaliation?


    60 years of nuclear weaponization, and not a single instance of their use. There’s a reason for that: They simply can’t be used to achieve political goals.

  7. JNC (History)


    The presentation was well done and informative. I’m surprised that idea of revamped nuclear systems, such as the conventional Trident, didn’t come up.

    Enjoyed the cookies.

  8. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Please post video and slides from presentation to help people like me who are currently traveling in the Middle Kingdom.

    @Jeffrey… Maybe Andrew wants 128,000 warheads? (About the total number built worldwide since 1945)

    Just imagine the secure feeling of roughly one warhead for each Kindergarten teacher.

  9. Stephen Young (History)

    Did I miss the special guest star? Or were you referring to Earthen Berm?

    A good event – I always enjoy listening to Mort. Kantor was credible and reasonable. I’m glad the Blechman has decided to get more involved in this issue, but I tend to agree w/ Mort that the idea of focusing on a treaty now pushing for elimination would be a distraction.

    To answer your question for Andrew, the story I was told, was, Kissinger asked for a plan using nuclear weapons to stop a possible Russian invasion of Iran or Turkey. He was given a plan requiring two nukes to close mountain passes. He said, “no, if you going nuclear, you need more than that.” A new plan was done, with 100 nukes and hitting some targets in Russia. He said, “No, that’s too many.”

    So, a large number, in some contexts, is 100.

  10. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    The special guest star dropped at the last moment. I’ll tell you offline.

  11. SQ

    Depending on how one interprets things, Peter’s belief that nuclear weapons cannot be used to achieve political goals may be overlooking the conclusion of the Second World War.

    Certainly, Eisenhower drew the conclusion that nuclear weapons could be used to cow the Chinese, and the Soviets did not hesitate to threaten the French and the Israelis.

    Nor is such ruthlessness the exclusive property of the 1940s and 1950s. And let’s not exclude the possibility of purposes for nuclear weapons other than the political in the sense that Peter uses the term, i.e., other than for coercion. Mass murder comes to mind.

    Turning around to face the other side of this debate, I don’t understand why the discussion about survivability has assumed numerical form. Survivability is a quality, not a quantity. The reason to have more nukes than others is different: mainly, it is to have more nukes than others.

  12. MarkoB

    According to the above nukes “have received little attention from the highest levels of government.”

    That is surely false. The RNEP, the ACI and then RRW (inc Complex 2030) and so on would suggest otherwise. We had that JCS document that you leaked that suggested new guidance and so on.

    The nuclear policies of this administration can best be explained by reference to a belief amongst key strategic thinkers (Payne, Gray, Cimbala, Joseph) that we have entered a “second nuclear age” and Bush Admin nuclear strategy can readily be understood with reference to that.

    This administration is very secretive. This gives only the appearance of “little attention.” I think reality is a little different.

  13. peter (History)

    SQ brings up some good points, but I think the final days of the war in the Pacific were of a fundamentally different nature than anything we’d see nowadays, and anything we’ve seen since. Hence no tactical detonations.

    For that matter, I have a really hard time imagining a scenario in today’s world that could lead to anything like WW2. Of course, had I been alive in 1938, I might have felt the same thing about 1914.

    Regarding Korea and the rest, it could be argued that refraining from using nuclear weapons only served to highlight how difficult it would be to actually use one. 4 million men shooting at eachother, two great powers squaring off face-to-face, and still we didn’t do it.

    It is true that nuclear weapons would be really good at achieving a non-political goal, like mass murder. But I don’t think the US should be using taxpayer resources to maintain arsenals that would only be used for mass murder. That’s something best left to shadowy non-state actors. And since the question was ‘How many nukes do we need?’, my answer still remains: None.

  14. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    Taking the US perspective for a second….

    The fiscal situation of the US Government is dire, and getting more dire by the day.

    Even with large tax increases, Americans will be struggling to fund the deficits (fiscal, not moral and intellectual) left over from the GW Bush administration’s legacy of combining tax cuts with sharply increased federal expenditures both for war and run-on-the-mill pork barrel spending. Then there is the multi-trillion debt – not just sub-primes, but also over leveraging of the American consumer since 2000. (See Michael Mandel’s “World’s Scariest Chart” in Businessweek)that remains unsolved and will likely involve a far bigger bailout than the Savings and Loans Crisis – a bailout that may rival the steps taken in the 1930s.

    Wouldn’t an argument for reducing the size of the nuclear deterrent be that cutting funding for these systems (with its enormous long tail costs) opens up funding for programs like Future Combat Systems, development of unmanned systems like RPVs, etc., and the ongoing transformation of the military’s conventional capabilities toward the 21st century?

    Surely someone hiding in the Office of Net Assessment must have come to the conclusion that the fiscal overreach by both government and consumers endangers American power far more than some pitiful, dusty nuclear stockpile in other countries scattered around the world?

    Or does money not matter in the ACW calculation (as I was once accused of on this blog!!!!)?