Opinion: Detroit debate should address nuclear weapons

Megan Donahue and Laura Grego

When presidential candidates take the stage for the second Democratic primary debates in Detroit this week, debate moderators should ask them to address an issue that a vast majority of Michigan voters want to hear about: their plans for U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

People watch a TV showing a file image of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, July 25, 2019. North Korea fired two unidentified projectiles into the sea on Thursday, South Korea's military said, the first launches in more than two months as North Korean and U.S. officials work to restart nuclear diplomacy. The signs read: "North Korea fired after May 9." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Michigan residents understand that the ongoing risk of nuclear war is one of the greatest threats to humanity. More than 80% of Michiganians surveyed in a recent Union of Concerned Scientists poll believe it is critical for the candidates to lay out their positions on this issue.

They are right to want details. Security experts warn that the prospect of a nuclear war is higher than it has been in decades. The United States recently pulled out of one longstanding U.S.-Russian nuclear arms treaty, and has threatened to walk away from the landmark treaty limiting long-range nuclear weapons. The Pentagon is poised to field a new “low-yield” nuclear weapon that it apparently considers more usable in a conflict than more powerful weapons, and its recent Nuclear Operations report discusses nuclear “war-fighting.”

The good news is that the next president could make us safer by changing U.S. policy.

The next president could reduce the risk of the United States starting a nuclear war by mistake. The United States keeps hundreds of land-based missiles on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched in minutes before they are destroyed by an incoming attack. In such a scenario, the president would have only 10 minutes to decide whether to launch them. This short time frame heightens the risk of starting a nuclear war based on a false warning.

False warnings have happened. In one case, a faulty computer chip led U.S. officials to believe that hundreds of Russian nuclear weapons were on their way. Yet keeping missiles on hair-trigger alert is not only dangerous, it’s unnecessary: Most U.S. nuclear weapons are hidden at sea on submarines where they are safe from attack.

Given this reality, debate moderators should ask the candidates to explain their position on taking U.S. missiles off hair-trigger alert. 

The next president also could reduce the risk the United States would deliberately start a nuclear war. The core purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is deterring other countries from using them nuclear weapons against us or our allies. But they may not know that U.S. policy permits using nuclear weapons first in a conflict against nuclear-armed states. Doing so would almost certainly start a nuclear war and provoke a devastating nuclear response against the United States.

When asked by the UCS poll if there were any acceptable circumstances for the United States to use nuclear weapons first, two-thirds of Michiganians said no.

Our next president should state clearly that the only purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack and establish a policy that the United States will never use nuclear weapons first. Such a policy would make Americans safer by making it less likely that our adversaries would attack us first with nuclear weapons out of fear that a U.S. nuclear strike is imminent. Therefore, debate moderators should ask the candidates to explain their position on a no-first-use policy.

Finally, the United States has long relied on mutually beneficial, verifiable international agreements to constrain its adversaries’ nuclear forces. Given the United States and Russia possess 92% of all nuclear weapons, debate moderators should ask the candidates if they are committed to maintain such agreements and how they would reinvigorate U.S.-Russian negotiations as well as how they would address North Korea and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The presidential candidates must make very clear what they would do, if elected, to reduce the existential nuclear threat and guarantee the security of Americans, not to mention the rest of the world. 

Megan Donahue is a professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University. Laura Grego, a senior scientist in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, graduated from the University of Michigan and grew up in Grosse Pointe Park.