The George W. Bush administration came into office with the clear intention to strengthen US global military dominance, including its nuclear dominance, and it has been true to this major policy goal. Under this administration, military expenditures have increased by some $100 billion to approximately $400 billion annually, and nuclear weapons have assumed a far more central role in US security policy.
The administration’s blatant disregard for the United Nations Security Council and for long-standing arms control and disarmament efforts are clear signs that it is prepared to chart a unilateral course with regard to security issues. The US has signaled its desire to overhaul its nuclear arsenal by developing smaller and more usable nuclear weapons, which could be used as part of the new “Bush doctrine” of preemption. The administration has developed contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against seven other countries and against weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles of what it considers to be “rogue” states.
In its dramatic shift towards increasingly aggressive nuclear and military policies, the Bush administration has opened a new era of increased likelihood of US nuclear weapons use. In turn, the administration has provoked the initiation of a new nuclear arms race as other states attempt to develop or increase their nuclear arsenals to counter-balance US military dominance and the threat of US willingness to employ the Bush doctrine of preemptive warfare.
Bush Policy Goals
As a candidate for president in 2000, Mr. Bush announced that he wanted to reduce the level of strategic nuclear weapons in the US arsenal to the lowest number compatible with US security. Based on military studies, that number was placed at between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. According to the Nuclear Posture Review, a classified document released to Congress on December 31, 2001, “Based on current projections, an operationally deployed force of 1700-2200 strategic nuclear warheads by 2012…will support US deterrence policy to hold at risk what opponents value, including their instruments of political control and military power, and to deny opponents their war aims.”
This “reduction” of deployed warheads will be accomplished by transferring warheads from active delivery vehicles to either a “responsive force” or to “inactive reserve.” This should be seen more as a de-alerting measure rather than a disarmament measure, as nuclear weapons are merely shifted to non-deployed status and not dismantled.
While campaigning, Bush also promoted the development and deployment of a National Missile Defense to protect the United States against nuclear attacks by so-called rogue states, a proposal that would have been prohibited under the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Upon assuming the presidency, Bush dealt with the impediment of the ABM Treaty by withdrawing from it. He gave the six months notice required by the Treaty for withdrawal on December 13, 2001, and US withdrawal became effective on June 13, 2002. Since then, Bush had announced plans to deploy the first twenty interceptor missiles in Alaska and California by 2004.
The US Nuclear Posture Review
The clearest indication of a shift of US nuclear policy can be found in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), marking a major change in the US nuclear strategy beyond the Cold War doctrines of deterrence. This document lays out a “New Triad,” composed of offensive strike systems (nuclear and non-nuclear), defenses (active and passive), and a revitalized defense infrastructure (providing new capabilities) to meet emerging threats.
The Review states, “Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends. They provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats, including WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and large-scale conventional military force. These nuclear capabilities possess unique properties that give the United States options to hold at risk classes of targets [that are] important to achieve strategic and political objectives.” This is an extraordinary assertion of the benefits that US leaders attribute to nuclear weapons in US defense policy, benefits that they are clearly reserving for themselves and a small group of other nuclear weapons states while seeking to deny them to other nations. Salient points of the report are summarized below:
Nuclear strikes against WMD
In proposing the use of nuclear weapons to deter against WMD, the NPR embraces the option of using nuclear weapons not only against countries with nuclear weapons but also those in possession of chemical and biological weapons. The document states, “U.S. nuclear forces will continue to provide assurance to security partners, particularly in the presence of known or suspected threats of nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks or in the event of surprising military developments.”
New nuclear capabilities
The report makes a discernible move towards making nuclear weapons “usable” on the battleground. The NPR talks of credible nuclear policies “over the coming decades” that include “new generations of weapon systems.” These have been conceived as “low-yield deep earth penetration nuclear weapons,” popularly described as “bunker-busters”, to defeat hard and deeply buried targets such as underground bunkers and bio-weapon facilities, and “mini-nukes” (with yields less than 5 kilotons). These are weapons that proponents believe will cause limited civilian casualties and collateral damage, and opponents view as making nuclear weapons more usable and more likely to be used. The Bush administration is seeking $70 million to advance these nuclear weapons programs.
Shortening nuclear test readiness
The report calls for strengthening the “U.S. Nuclear Warhead Infrastructure.” It states, “The need is clear for a revitalized nuclear weapons complex that will: …be able, if directed, to design, develop, manufacture, and certify new warheads in response to new national requirements; and maintain readiness to resume underground nuclear testing if required.”
Consequently, the Bush administration has sought funds to “enhance” test readiness and shorten the time required to prepare for the resumption of full-scale test explosions – decreasing the current time from 24-36 months to approximately 18 months.
The report further calls for development of contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against seven countries: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Russia and China. As five of these countries are non-nuclear weapons states, the US threat to use nuclear weapons against them violates the negative security assurances that it gave to the non-nuclear weapons states that are parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the time of that NPT’s Review and Extension Conference in 1995.
In sum, the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is a strategy for indefinite reliance on nuclear weapons with plans to improve the capabilities of the existing arsenal and to revitalize the infrastructure for improving US nuclear forces in the future. The NPR promotes an expanded nuclear strategy as opposed to measures for irreversible nuclear disarmament as agreed to at the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.
Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty
In May 2002, President Bush reached an agreement with President Putin on a Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). In the treaty, the two governments agreed to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons on each side to Bush’s preferred numbers, as set forth in the US NPR, of between 1,700 and 2,200 by the year 2012. The treaty made no provisions for interim reductions, and thus, despite SORT, it remains possible for either or both sides to actually increase the size of their arsenal between the inception of the treaty and 2012, so long as the reductions to the agreed numbers are accomplished by 2012. The treaty, however, does not provide verification measures to assure that the reductions are made. The treaty is also set to terminate, unless extended, in 2012.
Furthermore, the treaty has no provisions for the nuclear warheads to be removed from active deployment. The US has announced its intentions to put many or most of these warheads into storage in “reserve” status, where they will remain available to be reintroduced to active deployment should this decision be taken in the future. Russia is likely to follow the US approach, and the treaty may exacerbate a new threat of theft and transfer of nuclear weapons and materials from Russia to other nations or terrorist groups
SORT was announced with considerable fanfare. It gave the public a sense of progress toward nuclear disarmament, when in fact it was far more of a public relations effort than an actual arms reduction treaty. Although it did provide for removing several thousand nuclear weapons on both sides from deployment, and in this sense it was a de-alerting measure, it did not make these reductions irreversible (i.e., by dismantlement) or accountable to verification as agreed to by the parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the 2000 NPT Review Conference.
US National Security Strategy
In September 2002, the Bush administration released a document entitled “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” In a letter introducing the document, Mr. Bush stated, “The gravest danger our Nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology. Our enemies have openly declared that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction, and evidence indicates that they are doing so with determination. The United States will not allow these efforts to succeed…. [A]s a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.” [Emphasis added.]
This statement underlined Mr. Bush’s intention and willingness to engage in preemptive war, including the possibility of a nuclear first strike. A few months earlier, on June 1, 2002, when Mr. Bush spoke at the graduation ceremony of the United States Military Academy, he introduced the idea of preemptive war by stating, “[O]ur security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”
US Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction
In December 2002, the Bush administration released a new document, entitled “National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction.” The document recognized the dangers of the “massive harm” that weapons of mass destruction could inflict upon the United States, its military forces, and its friends and allies. “We will not permit,” it stated, “the world’s most dangerous regimes and terrorists to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”
The document is premised on the administration’s strategy for the US to possess and possibly use nuclear weapons, while denying, preventing, and responding to the possession and possible use of weapons of mass destruction by other countries or terrorists.
In setting forth its plan to retaliate with a nuclear strike in response to a nuclear, biological and chemical weapon attack, the document stated clearly that the US would counter such weapons with “overwhelming force – including through resort to all of our options.” The Washington Times reported on January 31, 2003 that the classified version of the document, National Security Presidential Directive 17, signed by President Bush in September 2002, stated the issue in this way: “The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force – including potentially nuclear weapons – to the use of [weapons of mass destruction] against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies.” [Emphasis added.]
In vowing that the US will seek capabilities enabling it to “detect and destroy an adversary’s WMD assets before these weapons are used,” the strategy boldly forewarns states seeking WMD that the US could strike first.
Failure to Lead toward Nuclear Disarmament
In sum, Bush’s aggressive nuclear policy has shown scant concern for US treaty obligations, rendering many international arms control measures meaningless.
• Most prominently, the Bush administration has withdrawn from the ABM Treaty to pursue missile defenses and test space-based weapons.
• The Bush administration is not taking seriously, nor attempting to fulfill, US obligations for nuclear disarmament under Article VI of the NPT, nor has it shown good faith in fulfilling the 2000 NPT Review Conference’s 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament – including pursuing the promised “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapons states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals….”
• Washington has made clear that it does not intend to send the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) back to the Senate for ratification. The Bush administration has indicated plans to shorten the time needed to resume underground nuclear testing, and is developing more usable nuclear weapons and contingency plans for their use.
Current nuclear policies by the Bush administration must be viewed as highly provocative to other countries. They suggest that the US reserves to itself the right to use its own weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, as it deems appropriate, while, at the same time, seeking to deny that possibility to other countries.
Early in his presidency, Mr. Bush labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil.” Based upon his doctrine of preemption, Mr. Bush has already led the US to wage a preventive war on Iraq without sanction by the United Nations. The other two countries singled out by Mr. Bush have not been unresponsive to the aggressiveness of the Bush administration. In January 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and announced that it is reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to develop a nuclear arsenal. Iran, which is still a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has attracted international suspicion in recent months due to its ambitious plans to extend its nuclear facilities, showing signs of moving forward with developing its own nuclear arsenal. In both cases, US policies and provocations have helped drive the reactions.
The Bush administration, by withdrawing from the ABM Treaty and proceeding with deployment of regional and national missile defenses, has provoked China to further develop its offensive nuclear arsenal in order to maintain a minimally effective deterrent force. China’s plans to further its nuclear program may in turn spark further developments in the South Asia nuclear impasse.
Under the military and nuclear policies of the Bush administration, the United States is leading the world into an even more dangerous era, with the effect of pouring fuel on the nuclear fire. Current Bush administration nuclear policies pose an enormous threat to US and global security. These policies must be reversed and brought into line with US obligations to international non-proliferation and disarmament agreements. Since the Bush administration is unlikely to initiate such change, the challenge to reverse these policies and bring the US into compliance with international commitments lies with the US public and the international community.
–David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). His recent books include Choose Hope, Your Role in Waging Peace in the Nuclear Age (Middleway Press, 2002) and Hope in a Dark Time, Reflections on Humanity’s Future (Capra Press, 2003).