The US Nuclear Posture
Putting the Promise of Disarmament on the Shelf
by David Krieger*, January 2002
The Bush administration
has conducted the first Nuclear Posture Review since 1994, and
has released a classified version of the report to Congress. The
report, which has not been made public, provides an updated strategic
nuclear plan for the United States. It helps to clarify Bush's
promise to President Putin to reduce the deployed US strategic
nuclear arsenal by two-thirds to between 2,200 and 1,700 over
a ten-year period.
The Bush nuclear posture stands on
three legs. First, deactivated nuclear weapons will be kept in
storage rather than destroyed. Second, the nuclear weapons that
are deactivated will be replaced by powerful and accurate conventional
weapons. Third, missile defenses will be deployed ostensibly to
protect the US from attack by a rogue state or terrorist.
Despite the planned reductions in the nuclear arsenal,
the Bush administration intends to retain a flexible responsive
capability by putting a portion (perhaps most) of the deactivated
warheads into storage, making them available for future use. The
problem with this approach is that it will encourage the Russians
to follow the same path and to also keep deactivated nuclear warheads
in storage. This means that the promised disarmament will not
be disarmament at all. It will not lead to the destruction of
the nuclear warheads, nor will it be irreversible, as called for
by the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It will be subject
to reversal at any time for any reason, by the Russians as well
as the US.
In essence, the Bush administration is hedging
its bets, and simply putting nuclear weapons on the inactive reserve
list, ready to be activated should they decide circumstances warrant
doing so. It is sending a message to the Russians that we do not
trust them and that we do not intend to any longer follow the
path of irreversible reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the
two countries set forth in verifiable treaties. The Russians will
likely follow our lead and also put deactivated nuclear weapons
into reserve stocks, where they will be subject to diversion by
terrorists. This would be highly unfortunate since the Russians
would prefer to make the nuclear reductions permanent and irreversible.
The new nuclear posture also calls for cutting
down the time necessary to reinstate a full-scale US nuclear testing
program should the administration decide to do so. This also fits
the pattern of flexible response. According to Deputy Secretary
of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, "Recognizing that the world can
change in dangerous and unpredictable ways, we are putting more
emphasis than we have in the last 10 or 15 years on that underlying
infrastructure that allows you, including in the nuclear area,
to rebuild capabilities or build new ones if the world changes."
A second factor driving the Bush administration's
nuclear posture is its belief that conventional weapons now have
the capability to replace nuclear weapons in deterring an enemy
from attacking. Again, according to Mr. Wolfowitz, "We're
looking at a transformation of our deterrence posture from an
almost exclusive emphasis on offensive nuclear forces to a force
that includes defenses as well as offenses, that includes conventional
strike capabilities as well as nuclear strike capability."
It is anticipated that many of the nuclear warheads being placed
in storage will be replaced, particularly on the submarine force,
by highly accurate, precision-guided conventional warheads, capable
of doing enormous damage.
A third factor figuring prominently in the Bush
administration's nuclear posture is its plan to deploy missile
defenses. Over the continuing objections of Russia, China and
many US allies, President Bush has made clear that he intends
to move forward with deployment of ballistic missile defenses
that will violate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.
In December, President Bush gave formal notice to the Russians
that the US will withdraw from this treaty in six months.
The Bush administration argues that withdrawal
from the ABM Treaty and deployment of ballistic missile defenses
will make the US safer, but this is a very unlikely proposition.
Instead, it makes the Russians nervous about US intentions, and
this nervousness must be increased by the Nuclear Posture Review's
emphasis on retaining the deactivated US nuclear warheads in storage.
US deployment of ballistic missile defenses will also force the
Chinese to expand their nuclear deterrent force with increased
targeting of the US. Increases in the Chinese nuclear arsenal
may also touch off a new nuclear arms race in Asia.
The bottom line of the new US nuclear posture is
that it is built on smoke and mirrors. It will reduce the number
of deployed nuclear weapons, but it will put them on the shelf
ready to be reinstated on short notice. It will also retain enough
nuclear weapons to destroy any country and annihilate its people.
Recent computer-based estimates generated by the Natural Resources
Defense Council indicate that eliminating Russia as a country
would take 51 nuclear weapons and China would require 368 due
to its large population. On the other hand, the US could be destroyed
as a country with 124 nuclear weapons and all NATO countries,
including the US, could be destroyed with approximately 300 nuclear
The recent Nuclear Posture Review tells us that
US policymakers are still thinking that nuclear weapons make us
safer, when, in fact, they remain weapons capable of destroying
us. Their desire to retain flexibility is in reality a recipe
for ending four decades of arms control. Their push for ballistic
missile defenses is a formula for assuring that US taxpayers enrich
defense contractors while diverting defense expenditures from
protecting against very real terrorist threats. The Bush promise
of nuclear weapons reductions turns out to be a policy for missing
the real opportunities of the post Cold War period to not only
shelve these weapons but eliminate them forever.
*David Krieger is president
of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.