Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

No Nukes? Not Yet

| Mar. 04, 1997

What is the purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons? During the Cold War the answer was obvious: to deter Soviet aggression. The number and types of warheads the U.S. needed were determined by the calculus of the Single Integrated Operational Plan, which prescribed a level of damage to be inflicted on Soviet civil and military targets in a hypothetical exchange of strategic weapons.

In December retired Gens. George Lee Butler, former commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, and Andrew Goodpaster, former supreme allied commander in Europe, sparked a debate on the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal with their provocative call for the world-wide elimination of nuclear weapons. While we believe their call for abolition is much too optimistic, they are right to remind us that the U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals have not adapted fast enough to reflect the changed conditions of the post-Cold War world. In particular, the SIOP calculus is no longer the appropriate method of determining the size of the U.S. nuclear force.

The principal purpose of nuclear policy in the new world should be to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation to other nations and rogue forces, including terrorists. Of particular concern is the possibility that the Soviet Union's disintegration will enable these entities to acquire "loose nukes." The objective of preventing proliferation is served by such global pacts as the recently renewed Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And the U.S. has been responding to the "loose nukes" problem through the pioneering Nunn-Lugar program, through which the U.S. underwrites disposal of ex-Soviet warheads. Such measures are more important in the new world than negotiated U.S.-Russian reductions of excess Cold War arsenals.

Still, now is the time to chart a path ahead for negotiated arms control. Three years ago, the Department of Defense conducted a Nuclear Posture Review for President Clinton. The review concluded that nuclear weapons play a smaller role in U.S. security than they have at anytime in the nuclear age. In the new era, the risk of nuclear use would arise from parties whose conventional military power could not match ours and who would seek nuclear weapons as "equalizers." Accordingly, the review urged continued funding for a strong Nunn-Lugar program, and it stressed new nonnuclear capabilities in our defense program, including theater antimissile defenses, to counter proliferation.

The Nuclear Posture Review recognized that a further stage of negotiated arms control would need to follow Start II (the strategic arms reduction treaty that now faces ratification by the Russian Parliament). But it focused on dealing with the immediate consequences of the new world. It recommended that the U.S. not make unilateral reductions in its strategic forces; such reductions would have to wait until Start I became effective and Russia ratified Start II.

The review did, however, recommend further reductions in nonstrategic nuclear forces, which are not covered by Start. It noted that Russia retained 10,000 to 15,000 such weapons, between seven and 10 times as many as the U.S. This was more than Russia needed for it defense, and more than it could safely protect from any internal revolution. Some Russians were beginning to look to nuclear weapons as a way of compensating for Russia's economic, political and conventional military weakness -- an example of the military "equalizing" tendency we feared.

The Nuclear Posture Review set a course for the period before Start II ratification. President Clinton rightly approved all its recommendations. Today the implementation of Start I is almost complete. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine are nuclear-free. Spending on Nunn-Lugar approaches $2 billion. Cooperative programs to safeguard nuclear weapons in Russia are under way; programs for fissile materials are following, but slowly.

It is time to look at the next phase -- the first truly post Soviet phase -- of arms reductions, assuming of course that Russia ratifies Start II, which is far from certain. For the new phase, we urge two conceptual departures from past arms control practice.

First, establish a continuous process of negotiating nuclear weapons reductions -- call it a Continuous Arms Reduction Talks. Initially these talks would be bilateral. Unlike Start, CART would cover all nuclear weapons, strategic and nonstrategic. The process should lay out a trajectory to reduce total U.S. and Russian holdings drastically from their current levels of many thousands to between 1,500 and 2,500 on each side. Nonstrategic weapons would be included in arms control for the first time, creating new verification challenges. The quantity limited by CART would be a nation's total holdings of nuclear warheads.

Accompanying discussions should take place with other nuclear powers to define a second, multilateral phase of CART in which their nuclear arsenals would be reduced as U.S. and Russian inventories declined below the level achieved in the bilateral phase of CART. With the U.S. nuclear power reduced this much, the arsenals of other states than Russia, and their motivations for having them, could not be ignored. Reducing nuclear weapons to zero is not practical or desirable until there is assurance that all nations will do so. Accordingly, at this stage, the U.S. would reduce its nuclear arsenal only in proportion to reductions by others.

Second under CART a nuclear warhead would not be removed from accounting when it was removed from the active forces and its delivery system destroyed, as has been the case since the beginning of arms control. It would not be counted as "eliminated" until it was deactivated and dismantled, its fissile material made secure and ready for eventual disposal. Requiring true elimination would require much more openness in the dismantlement process in each country. The operation of the Nunn-Lugar program provides a valuable basis for such openness and cooperation.

Many hoped the end of the Cold War would bring immediate new opportunities for arms control. But the initial effect of the breakup of the Soviet Union was in fact to create new challenges to the realization of the Cold War's Start I and II agreements. If Russia ratifies Start II, the post-Cold War phase of reductions can at last begin. But these talks should reflect the objectives of U.S. nuclear policy in the new era, which revolve around preventing their spread as well as deterring aggression. What follows Start II should differ from its predecessor not just in magnitude, but in kind.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Carter, Ashton B., and John M. Deutch.“No Nukes? Not Yet.” The Wall Street Journal, March 4, 1997.

The Authors

Ash Carter