The Current Nuclear Dialogue

By Sloss, Leon | Strategic Forum, January 1999 | Go to article overview

The Current Nuclear Dialogue

Sloss, Leon, Strategic Forum


* There is no consensus among U.S. experts about the future role of nuclear weapons. As a result, clear policy to guide the future direction of nuclear programs is lacking.

* One view emphasizes the dangers of nuclear weapons to the United States and seeks further reductions and other measures to make nuclear weapons less legitimate. However, only the most extreme wing of this view believes that abolition is practical in the foreseeable future.

* Another view emphasizes the continuing salience of nuclear weapons in deterrence and emphasizes the importance of maintaining an infrastructure and competent personnel that would permit reconstitution of nuclear forces in the future if necessary.

* Future U.S. nuclear policy and posture are likely to be shaped more by budget constraints than arms control as in the past. Barring any major change in the international scene, a gradual erosion of the U.S. nuclear posture seems likely. This will be welcomed by some, decried by others, and ignored by most.

Official U.S. Policy and Programs

At the end of the Cold War the Soviet military threat to Western Europe disappeared, and with it the principal rationale for U.S. nuclear policy. Since then the United States has been searching for a coherent policy as a basis for planning future nuclear forces. This search involving a small circle of experts received little public attention until the recent nuclear tests by India and Pakistan dramatized the emergence of a new nuclear order with implications far beyond South Asia. However, the U.S. policy community remains deeply divided over the future role of nuclear weapons.

U.S. nuclear weapons policy has tried to recognize new realities while preserving many Cold War era principles. The nuclear posture retains thousands of nuclear weapons, many on a high state of alert. A multibillion dollar research program continues to develop a ballistic missile defense system for U.S. territory, but technical uncertainties about the feasibility and cost persist.

The new realities are reflected in a series of concrete actions: sharply lower budgets for nuclear missions; substantial reductions in deployed nuclear forces; reductions in the alert status of strategic bombers and theater nuclear weapons; and reorganization and reorientation (and renaming) of several Cold War agencies such as the former Strategic Air Command. The United States has also ceased nuclear testing and the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The nuclear relationship with Russia has undergone a metamorphosis from confrontation to cooperation, although elements of distrust and suspicion remain. Under the so-called Nunn-Lugar legislation, a series of measures have been taken to reduce the possibility that Russia will export nuclear weapons and knowledge, while improving the safety of those weapons that still remain in its stockpile

The legacy of the Cold War is a stockpile of more than 5,000 strategic weapons, deployed on missiles and bombers. Such high levels remain because the Russian Duma (parliament) has failed to ratify the START II Treaty, which would reduce strategic forces further, and the United States has been unwilling to make reductions without reciprocity from the Russians. Future acquisition planning is directed at extending the life of current weapons systems as far as possible into the future. Declaratory policy also retains a Cold War flavor. Official descriptions of the roles and missions of nuclear weapons have changed little. In public statements nuclear weapons remain an important element in deterrence, not just against old threats from Russia and China but new threats from potential proliferators. While current policy focuses on deterring nuclear attacks and threats, a window has been left open to deter chemical and biological threats. The administration has resisted pressures from many non-nuclear states and the arms control community to declare an unambiguous policy of "no first use," and it has been cool to ideas for further de-alerting of nuclear forces. …

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