Why do we need all those nuclear weapons?

Saturday, March 19, 2011; 6:56 PM

In his Fine Print column on the March 15 Fed Page, Walter Pincus missed the target in discussing U.S. nuclear strategy. Mr. Pincus calculated that if the Navy had four of its 12 Trident ballistic-missile submarines at sea on any given day in the future, there would be enough warheads to strike 320 targets. He suggested there would be more warheads than targets to hit.

Mr. Pincus was wrong on at least two counts.

First, nuclear planners have to assume that one or more subs at sea might be lost in a surprise attack, not to mention all the boats in port. What matters to nuclear deterrence isn't how many warheads you have before the war starts but how many would be left after the enemy launched a surprise attack.

Second, some targets would require more than one warhead to destroy, especially given the relatively low yield of the sea-launched weapons he described. Such calculations may seem bizarre, but our best protection against a nuclear war is to convince potential aggressors that no matter what they throw at us in a surprise attack, we can respond by causing unacceptable damage in their country. That's what deters them from attacking.

Loren Thompson, Arlington

The writer is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute.


Walter Pincus asked the question that must never be asked: What is the target set that justifies the U.S. nuclear arsenal?

Here is the answer that must never be given: all of the Cold War targets in the former Soviet Union. Ever since the Russians gained a nuclear arsenal, the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been designed to destroy its Russian counterpoint in a preemptive nuclear strike against missile silos, submarines, air bases and command centers. There is no other target set in the world that would take more than a hundred or so nuclear weapons.

Howard Morland, Arlington

The writer is a journalist and activist who in 1979 published details of the design concept used in most nuclear weapons.

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