Why US Debates Cutting Warheads Some Lawmakers Urge Unilateral US Nuclear Cuts to Induce Russia to Winnow Its Inventory

Article excerpt

As the Soviet Union was spinning apart in September 1991, taking the cold war with it, former President Bush seized the moment for a high-stakes strategic gamble.

In a step toward ending years of atomic brinksmanship and to bolster Russian reformers, he decided to unilaterally ditch thousands of nuclear warheads, deactivate 450 long-range missiles, and take the United States' bomber force off 24-hour alert.

The move paid off. The next month the Kremlin topped him with a string of its own radical moves. These included an offer to begin negotiations aimed at cutting in half the 6,000 warheads the sides could deploy under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). Many experts and some Democratic Party leaders say the time is ripe for President Clinton to launch his own dramatic initiative of unilateral warhead cuts. And support for their view may be coming from an unexpected quarter. Pentagon officials, according to The New York Times, urged Mr. Clinton to consider unilaterally slashing the US stockpile below the START I ceiling. "Our action would give Russia the confidence to do what the unbearable costs of maintaining nuclear arsenals already dictates she must do," asserted Sen. John Kerry (D) of Nebraska in a Nov. 17 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The idea of unilateral US cuts is gaining ground in a debate on how to eliminate the lingering threat of nuclear annihilation, posed by thousands of warheads that Russia and the US still keep on hair- trigger alert. The debate is taking on increasing urgency amid growing evidence that Russia's fiscal crisis is fueling a dangerous erosion in the safety and reliability of its nuclear armory. The cash-strapped Russian military is unable to pay personnel and service its nuclear forces, which are aging beyond their designed lifespans. Many experts and some US officials say there is a growing threat of an inadvertent or unauthorized Russian launch that could spark a retaliatory US strike. "Our maintenance of a nuclear arsenal larger than we need provokes Russia to maintain one larger than she can control," said Senator Kerry. He urges a unilateral cut in deployed US warheads to no more than 2,500. But the idea has been rejected by majority Republicans in Congress, who for two years have legislated bans against unilateral US cuts. Amid suspicions that Russia is pursuing new nuclear weapons, Republicans argue reductions must be cemented in treaties with strict verification measures. …