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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
January/February 2002
Volume 55, Number 1
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
The BW Protocol as a Health Care Intervention
Arms Control: Where Now?
Scientific Literacy: A Necessity in the 21st Century
Survey in International Investment in Ed Tech R&D Released
Counterforce and the New Nuclear Posture

Arms Control: Where Now?

By Henry Kelly

There's no shying from the fact that arms control has taken a beating over the past year, and in spite of heightened concerns about weapons of mass destruction following the September 11 attacks and the anthrax letters, the public doesn't seem particularly concerned. Bipartisan interest in controlling access to Russian nuclear materials and other areas of nonproliferation indicates that we can make progress. But we've got to take an unflinching look at where arms control stands and where we can find practical opportunities.

The public is clearly not paying much attention to classic arms control issues. Even the astounding decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty raised only the faintest response. The treaty permits withdrawal if we certify that our "supreme national interests" are threatened. The cursory justification of this "supreme interest" the US provided sets a low bar for any other nation wishing to withdraw from a treaty for political convenience.

A few weeks after announcing withdrawal from the ABM treaty, the US undermined all hope for agreement on proposed measures to verify the Biological Weapons Treaty. The US remains adamantly opposed to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and while it has done nothing inconsistent with compliances, it has taken a series of steps that may be used to justify US testing in the foreseeable future -including the provocative decision to increase the readiness of the Nevada Test Site. And while the administration has announced its intention to sharply reduce the number of strategic offensive weapons, it appears determined to do so in a way that would make it easy to reverse this process on short notice. It also failed to make the essential decision needed to remove the justification for maintaining even 2,000 alert weapons: a clear break from the practice of targeting Russian nuclear facilities. The US government has also undermined its nonproliferation message by lifting the embargo on Pakistan and India imposed after their 1998 nuclear tests without receiving any pledges to refrain from further testing in return.

The expectations of US behavior are now so low, and fear of undermining a popular US President so great, that the US press, public, congress, our allies-and even the Russians and Chinese-have not raised serious complaints about any of these policy changes.

Those of us convinced that a framework of international agreements is essential for protecting ourselves, and the rest of the world, from weapons of mass destruction must make some hard-eyed decisions about how to proceed. Here are my suggestions:

Support innovations in defense systems needed to cope with 21st century threats.

It should be easy to agree on the high priority problems.

  • A strong, balanced program of basic and applied defense research.
  • Improved detection and early warning systems.
  • Strengthened security systems consistent with civil liberties.
  • Development and deployment of techniques for quickly identifying and treating anyone exposed to dangerous nuclear, biological, chemical materials or agents.
  • Improved command, control, communication, and intelligence systems, including new methods for early detection of any WMD materials.
  • Enhanced training for all medical personnel, first-responders, and others in a position to help detect dangerous activities and act to protect individuals.
  • Continued improvement in precision conventional offensive weapons capable of minimizing civilian casualties and risks to US forces.

Defuse the tensions created by unilateral abrogation of the ABM treaty.

US attempts to test and deploy an ABM system promises to be a colossal waste of money. Unlike other boondoggles, however, this effort threatens real harm to US security. It provides incentives for a future nuclear arms race, cements current launch-on warning postures, and provides a rationale for a foolish venture into space-based weaponry. And our zeal to invest strengthens the political hand of Russian and Chinese nuclear and space weapons advocates. Given the demise of the ABM treaty we should:

  • Design and build support for replacing the ABM treaty with another agreement limiting the scope of NMD deployments.
  • Begin active discussions on an international treaty to block offensive weapons in space. While there's clearly value in improving ways to protect and defend satellites, offensive systems would threaten critical US military and civilian satellites.
  • Start active high-level US-Russian discussions on measures for limiting the dangers of accidental launch through discussions on missile de-alerting. A nationwide US missile defense system is sometimes justified as a means to reduce this risk-surely the most reliable and least expensive method would be to eliminate the risk in the first place.
  • Move aggressively to strengthen the missile technology control regime with incentives for air-tight commitments from Russia, China, and other nations to stop any support for long-range missile work.
  • Work hard to reduce or eliminate tactical nuclear weapons - with special emphasis on the large number of Russian tactical weapons, many of which are vulnerable to terrorist theft.

Ensure that the US does nothing inconsistent with the CTBT.

Strong efforts are needed to ensure that the US maintains its moratorium on nuclear testing. There is no sensible justification for "mini-nukes" to defeat buried hardened targets. DOE stockpile programs to ensure the stewardship of US weapons must be focused on providing the greatest possible assurance of safety and reliability, and not on projects that may be intellectually exciting but of marginal relevance to this core mission.

Strengthen control of fissile materials.

Controlling access to nuclear materials remains the most important single investment blocking proliferation of nuclear weapons. Full funding for programs that bring Russian nuclear materials under control is essential.

Develop strong international measures for verification of the BWC.

We can still salvage a safer world from the recent reversals in arms control.

The US has an overwhelming interest in strengthening international efforts to control biological weapons. A fresh look at options for doing this through a formal protocol would be acceptable, if the US shows a clear commitment to move rapidly to an agreement. The administration's proposals for stronger national laws could certainly be a part of the agreement, but are clearly not sufficient. The US needs to accept some inspection and reporting under an international framework while recognizing that formal inspections are unlikely to provide necessary confidence in compliance. The formal measures must be supplemented by the broadest possible "neighborhood watch" system in which researchers, equipment suppliers, and many others are trained to be alert to questionable activities and know how to act on suspicions.

Develop restrictions on arms transfers based on states' respect for human rights and regional stability.

Many of the countries now receiving arms and military training as a reward for their support of US anti-terrorism efforts have terrible records in human rights. If we need to reward countries like Pakistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and other nations for aiding the US anti-terrorism efforts, we should do so not by expanding arms sales but through increases in economic aid and other non-military support.

These steps could avoid the greatest problems created by an administration driven more by ideology than by careful thought. They do, of course, require admission that international agreements can be helpful-this is a challenge in itself. But a majority of Americans should, and I believe would, be able to support all of these actions. We can still salvage a safer world from the recent reversals in arms control.

Henry Kelly is the President of FAS.