Next Steps in Nuclear Arms Control

By Mendelsohn, Jack | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Next Steps in Nuclear Arms Control


Mendelsohn, Jack, Issues in Science and Technology


After several decades of strenuous debate, protracted negotiations, and only incremental progress, nuclear arms control now seems almost too easy. Yet, despite the dramatic successes of the past two years--notably the withdrawals and radical cuts in nuclear weapons recently agreed to by the United States and Russia--it is far too soon to relax. Major security challenges remain and potential dangers persist. Thousands of warheads are still aimed at both countries and thousands more are held in reserve or headed for storage. Moreover, basic nuclear policies and practices have not been altered. For example, U.S. tactical nuclear weapons are still located in Europe and available for use on the territory of now-friendly countries in Eastern Europe.

It is clear that much more can and must be done in nuclear arms control. The end of the Cold War affords the Clinton administration the opportunity to forge an ambitious new agenda and move forward in several areas. First, and most urgently, the United States should not only vigorously press for the speedy implementation of existing treaties but also attempt to accelerate the agreed-upon weapons cuts and undertake to destroy the huge stockpiles of surplus weaponry. Second, it should pursue a host of new arms control opportunities, from taking measures to reduce the likelihood of inadvertent war to restraining unnecessary nuclear testing and costly strategic modernization programs. Third, it should seek, with Russia, to expand existing unilateral initiatives, such as the withdrawal of all tactical weapons from operational forces. Finally, the United States must rethink and reshape its basic nuclear strategy to conform to the post-Cold War world.

Pressing concerns

Three items on the nuclear arms control agenda require immediate and sustained action by the new administration: completing and implementing existing agreements, accelerating strategic force reductions, and dismantling surplus weaponry.

The 1991 START I treaty, when implemented, will cut existing U.S. and Russian arsenals by about a third, to between 6,500 and 8,500 warheads. (Although START I specifies a limit of 6,000 "accountable" warheads, the actual warhead number will be considerably higher because of deliberate under-counting of bomber weapons.) In the 1993 START II agreement, the United States and Russia dropped the START I levels by another 50 percent, to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads, and agreed to eliminate all land-based multiple-warhead missiles (MIRVs). But neither treaty has yet entered into force and the most urgent business on the nuclear arms control agenda is to address and resolve the issues impeding actual implementation.

START I has been ratified by the United States and Russia, but it cannot be implemented until the three non-Russian republics with nuclear weapons--Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine--formally ratify it and until all three adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear-weapons states. Although all three nations have committed themselves to do so, to date only Belarus has taken both steps. Ukraine has done neither, and Kazakhstan has ratified START but not acceded to the NPT. START II also requires ratification by the two signatories, Russia and the United States. But since it is wholly based upon the provisions of START I, even when ratified START II will remain hostage to the entry into force of the first START treaty.

Once the two strategic nuclear arms treaties are in force, their implementation is likely to require a continuing effort for the balance of this decade. Under START I, strategic force reductions are scheduled to take place over seven years. Under START II, they are to be completed by 2003 or by the end of 2000 if the United States helps to finance the destruction and dismantling of weapons in Russia. Assuming that START I enters into force this year and that Boris Yeltsin retains sufficient power to obtain the ratification of START II by the Russian Parliament, the reductions agreed to under these two treaties could take until the end of this century, if not longer, to implement. …

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