The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy

By Security, Nas Committee on International; Control, Arms | Arms Control Today, May 1997 | Go to article overview

The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy


Security, Nas Committee on International, Control, Arms, Arms Control Today


The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a major policy report on June 17, entitled The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy, recommending substantial changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policies and forces to bring them into conformity with the post-Cold War environment. The report's central recommendation is that the use of nuclear weapons be limited to a core mission of deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others.

The study calls for a program of progressive constraints to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,000 total warheads each and then, if security conditions permit, to a few hundred warheads, provided adequate verification procedures and transparency measures have

been implemented. Parallel steps are also necessary to reduce high alert levels and to substitute much more selective targeting than now incorporated in present war plans. While the path to the prohibition of all nuclear weapons is not yet clear, the report examines the conditions that would have to exist for this to be acceptable and suggests various ways it might be achieved.

The report was prepared by the NAS Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), a group of distinguished scientists, retired senior military officers and expert policy analysts, most of whom have been closely associated with various aspects of nuclear security affairs. (See p. 18.)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The debate about appropriate purposes and policies for U.S. nuclear weapons has been under way since the beginning of the nuclear age. With the end of the Cold War, the debate entered a new phase, propelled by the post-Cold War transformations of the international political landscape and the altered foreign policy challenges and opportunities that these changes are bringing about. This report-based on an exhaustive reexamination of the issues addressed in the committee's 1991 report on The Future of the U.S.Soviet Nuclear Relationship-describes the state to which U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and policies have evolved since the Cold War ended, the reasons why further evolution is desirable, and the shape of a regime of progressive constraints responsive to these reasons. It concludes with a discussion of the conditions and means under which, in the longer term, it could become desirable and feasible to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons altogether.

THE CURRENT SITUATION AND THE REASONS FOR FURTHER CHANGE

The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), signed in 1991 as the Cold War was ending and now being implemented by both the United States and Russia, will reduce the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the two countries from 13,000 and 11,000, respectively, to about 8,000 each. START II, signed in 1993 and ratified by the United States in early 1996 but not yet (as of this writing) ratified by Russia, would further limit the number of deployed strategic warheads to 3,000 to 3,500 on each side. At the Helsinki summit in March 1997 Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to seek a START III treaty with a level of 2,000 to 2,500 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. Unilateral initiatives since the Cold War began winding down have also reduced very substantially the numbers of deployed nonstrategic warheads, especially on the U.S. side. In addition, nuclear testing has ended, the United States and Russia have agreed not to target their missiles against each other on a day-to-day basis, and production of weapons-grade fissile material has stopped in the United States and is expected to stop soon in Russia.

These actions have unambiguously halted and reversed the bilateral nuclear competition that was the most conspicuous characteristic of the Cold War's military confrontation but, unfortunately, have not sufficiently altered the physical threat that these weapons pose. The reduced forces could still inflict catastrophic damage on the societies they target or could target, and the thousands of nondeployed and nonstrategic nuclear warheads not addressed by the START process and likely to be retained without further agreements will pose substantial risks of breakout, theft, or unauthorized use.

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