Timeout on Arms Treaties

Article excerpt

It's time to take a timeout on nuclear arms- control treaties. They are too slow and too timid. For instance, we started negotiating the START II Treaty in 1991, and it is not yet even ratified. Besides, new treaties are simply not needed to get where we need to go.

On the US side, President Bush has indicated a desire to reduce our nuclear weapons unilaterally, with or without Russian agreement. On the Russian's side, the nuclear arsenal is inexorably declining because they can't afford to replace aging weapons. The best forecast is that before the end of this decade they will be below 1,000 warheads deliverable on the United States.

Our focus, then, should be on ensuring that reductions do take place on both sides, and rapidly enough to assert US leadership in the anti-proliferation movement. Just announcing that we have signed a treaty, or even that we have unilaterally decided to cut the number of our weapons, is virtually meaningless in this context. It takes years to remove and disassemble nuclear warheads, and we have more than 12,000 in our inventory today.

The alternative is to remove warheads to strategic escrow, which means putting them in storage at least 300 miles from their launchers. It also means inviting Russia to place observers on those storage sites to note what goes in and whether anything comes out.

In a matter of three or four years, we could cut the number of ready nuclear warheads in the US to less than 1,000. Since the Russians are going in that direction anyway, they would almost have to follow our lead by creating an escrow on their side.

Once we had the process of strategic escrow moving, we would want to open treaty negotiations with the other six nuclear powers. The objective would be an agreement to reduce to something like 200 warheads each, with all of those in escrow under international observation. This would move the world to a very stable position where no nuclear warheads would be ready for immediate use, but warheads and delivery vehicles could be reassembled if some rogue state acquired nuclear weapons and began threatening with them.

One major impediment to this process is the prospect that the US will build national missile defenses over the opposition of many of our allies and of our principal rivals, Russia and China. Until we resolve this issue, we will be involved in time-consuming bickering over whether, when, and how we will proceed with national missile defense. …