Rethinking the Unthinkable

April 1, 2002

Remember the “Doomsday Clock,” that cartoon symbol of Cold War nuclear danger? It’s back. On Feb. 27 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hand of their clock two minutes closer to midnight. “The clock is ticking,” it warned.

The Bulletin was having the jitters about “negative developments”–lax nuclear security, terrorist nuclear ambitions, India-Pakistan tensions, and so forth. Predictably, though, the most prominent “negatives” on the list concerned US nuclear weapons.

Critics of US nuclear policies are thick on the ground. President Bush’s new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), unveiled Jan. 9, alarmed many because it set a course based on at least four distinctive principles–adequately large offensive forces, reversibility, responsiveness, and defense.

Today’s arsenal contains 6,000 warheads. The NPR stated a target number of 3,800 operationally deployed weapons by 2007 and 1,700-2,200 by 2012, deployed on ICBMs, bombers, and submarines. The 2012 force–a third the size of today’s–represents a rock-bottom minimum in military terms. Even so, 2,000 or so warheads far exceeds levels sought by hard-core arms controllers.

That’s not all. The NPR is not a ratchet; it permits the US to raise as well as lower warhead levels by providing an operational force and a backup force. Most weapons removed from operational service will be stored, not dismantled, meaning that the US could reverse course and use them to reconstitute a larger arsenal.

The Bush plan seeks a more-responsive nuclear weapons complex able to design and test weapons faster than is possible today. The NPR does not disturb the moratorium on nuclear tests. However, today’s weapons infrastructure would need 24 to 36 months to prepare and conduct a test. Bush is thinking more like 18 months.

When the NPR emerged, arms control sophisticates were distressed. Too many weapons, they charged. They weren’t happy about reversibility, either; it would leave the door ajar for a future buildup. Enhancing the readiness of the nuclear infrastructure would make possible a resumption of nuclear testing, they claimed, and Bush’s call for missile defense was rejected out of hand.

The arms control lobby felt stiffed, with reason. The President rejected the notion, widespread in the arms control community, that the US does not really need much of a nuclear arsenal anymore. True, Bush himself wants to cut US reliance on nukes, but “the nuclear arsenal is central to our ongoing security needs,” said a top US official.

The reasons are many. As US officials know, the nuclear threat has not disappeared. Russia, while no longer openly hostile, is still unstable and deploys thousands of weapons. China now is or soon will be able to construct a large and threatening arsenal. The danger is growing. Several Third World states now possess ballistic missiles, and others are acquiring them. Nuclear technology is spreading, too, with unpredictable consequences.

This goes a long way toward explaining Bush’s rejection of “minimum deterrence”–keeping a few hundred warheads–in favor of a larger, more-complete arsenal. And the strategic force already has taken major cuts. The US in the late 1980s deployed more than 10,000 strategic warheads, but the force has been steadily declining.

Administration critics can’t fathom why the US would need 2,000 weapons. Speaking to Arms Control Today, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton gave an answer of sorts. He said, “There are a lot of contingencies that are inherent in the [classified] planning that underlies the Nuclear Posture Review.” These “contingencies” were not specified, but they are said to include potential wars with China, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. Nor does DOD rule out a resurgent threat from Russia. Bolton added: “The overall question is whether we think we’ve got a deterrent capability that’s robust enough to prevent a first use against us and also that we’ve got an adequately sized force in the event there’s a need to use it.”

Keeping a complete force offers more than military benefits. It permits the US to preserve the nuclear “triad” with its inherent security and stability. It makes possible “extended deterrence,” or inclusion of allies under a US “umbrella,” without which Japan and Germany might seek their own nuclear arms. Finally, the existence of a large force may discourage potential adversaries from trying to match Washington’s might.

Bush’s critics charge that saving decommissioned warheads is a shell game, and they should be destroyed. Maybe so, but treaties have never required actual destruction of weapons, and the US and Russia maintain thousands in standby stockpiles. Preserving warheads as a “hedge” against unpleasant surprises makes sense for the United States. Unlike Russia and other nations, the US no longer produces nuclear arms.

No one thinks the nuclear argument is over. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is contesting parts of nuclear policy. In a Feb. 14 letter, 76 House Democrats warned Bush not to tamper with today’s unofficial testing moratorium. Bush officials had been forced to qualify statements ruling out new arms control treaties.

One thing, however, is clear. If we want to maintain adequate nuclear deterrence and security, we had better maintain more than a small, inflexible, and vulnerable remnant of today’s force. Belittling nuclear arms may be fashionable in the better salons of Washington, but let us hope that the actual decisions on US policy remain in responsible hands.