The point that you're missing, Saige, is that nuclear weapons in this context are as a deterrent, rather than an actual offensive tool.

The USA, being the (arguably) most important, powerful country in the world needs to have something to defend itself with. Because there are plenty of crazy people out there who, with enough determination, could get a hold of nuclear weaponry, and thusly endanger the good of the American people. By retaining an arsenal of nuclear weapons, it ensures that nobody will attack them, for fear of retaliation.

It's a hard fact to accept that nuclear weapons are now the end of the line in terms of self-defense, but as of 1945, the bar had been raised. In a perfect world, we could un-invent the bomb and not have to worry about it anymore. But now that nuclear weapons are in existence, a country the size and power of the USA not owning some would be ridiculous.

I think you missed Saige's point here, posthumous. Saige's argument is mainly based on what she thinks the reason for continued research and manufacture of nuclear weapons is.

Once you can destroy someone, can you deter them any more by being able to destroy them even more? Is overkill somehow important here?

Oh yeah, definitely. That's the point. Ugh. I'm not an expert (or even knowledgeable) on what things the US is doing, but I can definitely think of good reasons for continued research and testing. I'm sure there are good reasons to create different sized bombs with different impacts. Wouldn't it be nice to have a bomb that could blow up a city but not leave behind all that nasty black rain? The idea isn't that we need tons of bombs so that we can blow up Moscow twice. We keep making better ones so that we can more effectively blow Moscow up with only one. Also, we need to stay ahead of the game, and make sure that we discover newer more powerful weapons before anyone else does. It definitely wouldn't be good if some other country found an easy to way to actually perform a succesful preemptive strike against us, would it? It's silly to think that MAD will hold forever. Who knows what weird technology might come in to existence to imbalance it. We need to be the ones doing the imbalancing.

Anywho, this isn't a terribly great argument, but neither is Saige's.

I have to jump in here, since nobody has mentioned what is probably the most pressing reason for continued nuclear testing. A nuclear weapon is not a stable, happy, put-me-on-a-shelf type of object. It is a fairly complex machine, with some dangerous and unstable stuff at the core which puts out radiation and can affect the rest of the machine. As a result, nobody really knows what the shelf life of these things is.

A deterrent depends on you (and the rest of the world) being damn sure that the things will actually go boom when the button is pressed. The U.S. has already experienced demonstrated failures in entire design groups of its atomic weapons. Just as one example, a service warhead for the Polaris missile, when first actually detonated during a test, was found to have an almost subcritical yield due to the degradation (through oxidation) of the plutonium core. Another example: neutron flux is known to have a deleterious effect on electronics, particularly those in close proximity to the neutron source.

In any case, while the second failure type can be discovered and fixed with regular dismantling and inspection of the weapons, and testing the electronic components on the bench by themselves, the first could not. If, for example, neutron flux actually degraded the high explosive 'trigger' for the device, or perhaps the initiator, probably the only way to determine this for sure would be to pop one off.

The present reliance on fusion-boosted and fission-fusion weapons (hydrogen bombs) in the U.S. arsenal actually makes things much trickier. In these weapons, there are whole additional layers of interaction that must function properly; and some of these layers are likely to involve the precise shape design of the weapon (precise as in micrometry) so that simply inspecting dismantled components wouldn't help. The U.S. is spending an incredible amount of money on being able to simulate, using computers, the first few seconds of an atomic detonation in order to avoid having to perform explosive testing of the weapons. This problem is so large in terms of data that in order to do a single 'run,' thousands of computer processors at multiple locations must be involved and the time required to complete the run is being measured in months or years.

Finally, impressive though the simulation is, it is very difficult to be convinced that it is sufficient. After all, the entire purpose of testing is to find out what you didn't know. If there is some effect that we don't know about (like the core oxidation in the original example) then the simulation won't do us any good.

So, to conclude, it's not necessarily true that the U.S. wants to continue testing in order to build new weapons and/or increase the size of its arsenal. In fact, much of recent high energy weapon design has focussed not on building bigger bombs, but on building more stable, more reliable and smaller weapons in order to reduce the need for future maintenance and testing. It's fairly easy to build an atomic weapon if you have access to large amounts of fissionable materials; however, it's quite a challenge to do it with a very small amount. The U.S. has spent a great deal of resources to design and produce weapons that don't require enormous quantities of fissionables, meaning that the production of said fissionables can be minimized or halted; also, the weapons can be made more secure if they are harder to make and detonate.

Another important element of America's refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and of innumerable other foreign policy debates which lead people to despise the USA for its ostensibly unjustifiable behavior, is that morality cannot be applied to the decisions of nations.

James Chace and Henry Kissinger have both noted frequently that, though ethical considerations are an integral component of foreign policy, the parameters according to which internation relations function necessitate a certain practical detachment when determining a nation's response to global developments. A nation's place in the international scene compels it to adopt certain positions to guarantee and promote its strength. It is unfortunate, but the international politics are power politics, and any nation's leaders must think primarily of the well-being of their country.

For example, the nation-state being the largest organizing political unit of the contemporary era, fundamental disputes between nations cannot usually be resolved through appeals to "morality" or "reason," which in any case vary a great deal in different cultures and different parts of the world. Occasionally, war is required. No leader wants to send his own people to war (the reductive, paranoid theories of some academics, such as the "M.I.C." notwithstanding), but nations are not individuals, and the evaluative moral standards applied to individuals cannot be used to analyze a nation's foreign policy.

International politics, the balance of power, geopolitics, etc. all function (reasonably well) because nations pursue their own interests, compromising when possible, but always remembering that their own relative strength and survival are paramount.

Carl Sagan once described man's progression through history as a gradual broadening of empathies: from the family to the tribe to the village to the state to the nation. As nations integrate themselves into larger communities (the EU, NAFTA, etc.), it is clear that they are beginning to realize how destructive limited national interests can be in an interconnected world; with any luck, Sagan was right, and all men might eventually extend their empathy to include the entire planet (except for a few of my ex-girlfriends). Until then, nations must play power politics.

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