24 March 1997
A new debate has begun over an old issue: nuclear weapons. The Cold War is over; the Soviet Union is no more. Do these thermonuclear bombs and missiles which were the hallmark of the post-war generation, still have utility? Or can we now reverse history and reduce strategic nuclear forces to a handful, if not rid the world of them entirely?
With this debate has come a new (and not-so-new) conventional wisdom. This wisdom holds that the 3000-3500 strategic nuclear force levels set by START II - reflecting an astonishing 75 percent reduction from where we were just five years ago - are still excessive, a lingering anachronism of Cold War-style arms control which requires prompt attention. It further holds that nuclear reductions per se are desirable, that fewer is clearly better, that 100-200 warheads would be more than adequate, and that we might be safest if nuclear weapons were eliminated entirely.
The questions being asked are the right ones, but it is far from clear that the new conventional wisdom offers the right answers.
The case for nuclear force reductions usually falls into one of three broad categories. For some, they are merely a way to get to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. For others, nuclear reductions per se are desirable in the belief fewer is clearly safer. And for still others, reductions are little more than a byproduct of actions taken to enhance nuclear stability and reduce the risks of war.
The abolition of nuclear weapons may sound like a noble goal, but its desirability is as problematic as its feasibility. Those who are serious about achieving that goal must be able to describe how the innocence we lost with the first nuclear detonation in 1945 realistically could be regained, and the nuclear knowledge which has been acquired over the last half century reliably could be forgotten. They also must explain how the current international system can be transformed into one in which no one has any incentive to acquire nuclear weapons, and there are no obstacles to achieving absolute confidence that no one has done or is doing so. Meeting either set of conditions, much less both, is a very tall order.
At least as important, it is far from clear that a process whose ultimate goal is the elimination of nuclear weapons would be a good idea. Rather than achieve its intended purpose of discouraging nuclear proliferation, it might encourage nuclear "wannabes" to acquire the bomb. After all, it is precisely when others have foresworn nuclear weapons that those who want to change the world - or at least their place in it - will find possession of nuclear weapons most desireable.
Many of those who consider nuclear abolition to be utopian nevertheless believe that very deep cuts in the nuclear arsenal would be highly desirable, either to save money or to make the world "safer," or to deal with the specific problem of Russian "loose nukes."
Some advocates of very substantial additional nuclear reductions make the straightforward argument that having more nuclear weapons than we "need" is simply a waste of money at a time when those resources ought to be going to other pressing priorities. But the fact is that nuclear weapons are relatively cheap, accounting for less than four percent of our defense budget. This means that even large reductions would not save much money, and budgetary reasons by themselves do not provide a very persuasive rationale for deep cuts.
We also should recognize that nuclear weapons helped keep the Cold War cold, and there is scant evidence to suggest that their utility disappeared once the Cold War ended. No one can "prove" how many nuclear weapons are appropriate, excessive, or inadequate but, given the limited potential savings from reducing nuclear forces and the serious consequences of being wrong, we should not try to find the right level essentially by trial and error.
Another reason offered for reducing nuclear weapons to a handful is the claim that the world can be made safer in direct proportion to the number of nuclear weapons which are dismantled. But it is not at all clear that reducing strategic forces would increase stability. On the contrary, current force levels provide a kind of buffer because they are high enough to be relatively insensitive to imperfect intelligence and modest force changes. That cushion, in turn, helps make the present nuclear balance relatively stable.
But as force levels go down, the balance of nuclear power can become increasingly delicate and vulnerable to cheating on arms control limits, concerns about non-deployed "hidden" missiles, and the actions of nuclear third parties. Worse, should we and others take steps to address these vulnerabilities, such as increasing the alert status of forces or moving toward a launch under attack posture, the risks of nuclear accidents and miscalculation go up.
Still others who advocate additional large-scale reductions are worried about the specter of Russian "loose nukes." Concerns about disintegrating security at nuclear weapons storage sites and weapons being stolen by or sold to terrorist organizations or rogue states, lead some to conclude that we need to minimize these risks by making dramatic reductions in the number of weapons.
However real and potentially serious this problem is, force level reductions are not an effective way to address them. Implementation in a safe and verifiable manner would take far too long. After all, the reductions required to reach the 3,000-3,500 weapons permitted under START II are not slated to be completed until 2003, and the Russians now insist that they cannot comply even with that timetable. The time required to achieve much more dramatic cuts would be far, far longer. A much more effective way to deal with concerns about "loose nukes" is to do so directly by measures such as consolidating weapons at fewer sites and providing assistance to enhance site security, rather than indirectly by reducing aggregate numbers.
A third perspective on nuclear reductions is to view them not as a goal but rather as the byproduct of force restructuring and other measures which enhance the stability of the nuclear balance and reduce the risks of war. From this perspective, reductions are the medium not the message because where, why, how and, indeed, whether reductions are taken can make all the difference. In this regard, it is worth noting that START II did not indiscriminately cut nuclear weapons, but instead targeted reductions on those systems which were most destabilizing: relatively vulnerable, land-based missiles with multiple warheads.
The foregoing analysis should not be misread as nostalgia for the Cold War or a celebration of nuclear weapons, much less as an assertion that nuclear forces cannot be reduced, after all, the START I and START II treaties will cut American and Russian strategic nuclear forces to about one quarter of their pre-START levels. On the contrary, the emerging nuclear debate is timely - even healthy - provided we do not mistake the passing for the permanent, or emotion for logic. As that debate proceeds, it should be informed by two guiding principles:
First, we should continue to focus on arms control measures which directly and demonstrably enhance stability and reduce the risks of war. Given present circumstances in Russia, for example, this principle suggests that rather than spending our energies on radical cuts in our respective nuclear arsenals, we should be concentrating our efforts on strengthening the security and safety of Russian nuclear weapons and enhancing the integrity of the Russian command and control system.
Second, given the clear risks and the elusive benefits inherent in additional deep cuts, the burden of proof should be on those who advocate such reductions to demonstrate exactly how and why such cuts would serve to enhance U.S. security. Absent such a demonstration, we should not pursue additional cuts in the mistaken belief that fewer is ipso facto better.
Brent Scowcroft, president of the Forum for International Policy, was National Security Advisor to Presidents Ford and Bush. Arnold Canter, senior associate at the Forum, was Special Assistant to the President for Defense Policy and Arms Control in the Bush Administration.