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 warheads.
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.