Nuclear Weapons: Time to Phase Them Out?

Yes: Utility Is Low and Risks High

Five years after the end of the cold war, there are compelling reasons for major new initiatives to reduce the world's nuclear weapons arsenals.

This issue requires discriminating attention to carefully defined proposals and alternatives. Two of the most important possibilities are: (1) Mutual reductions to the lowest verifiable limits consistent with stable security - a realistic policy that can be adopted and vigorously pursued. (2) Complete, worldwide elimination, which can as yet be only an ultimate goal.

To do what needs to be done, the reduction issue will have to be given high priority in policy and action. In the realm of national security, however, immediate and urgent problems are in a constant battle for attention with issues that are more fundamentally important. The former quite regularly win out over the latter. Only firm, top-level decisions and determined follow-up can assure that a policy of nuclear reduction will move forward.

Two fundamental considerations must shape our nuclear future: First, nuclear weapons are the only thing that can destroy the United States. Second, the cold war is over and is unlikely to return, hard as it may be to comprehend this fact in all its dimensions and opportunities.

Recently, Gen. Lee Butler and I joined in support for sustained, substantial nuclear weapons reductions. Each of us - he, a former commander of the US Strategic Air Command, and I, a former NATO supreme commander in Europe - has seen firsthand the role of nuclear weapons, as well as their risks. Some 60 additional senior military officers worldwide declared their support for this proposal.

Strictly in terms of security, there is much to be gained by reducing the numbers and alert-status of nuclear weapons, and exploring the feasibility of their ultimate elimination. Their role in the post-cold-war world is sharply narrowed. Their utility is reduced. Yet their risks continue.

The narrowed role and reduced utility. Our nuclear weapons simply provide the option of responding in kind to a nuclear threat or attack by others. Thus they offer an opportunity for mutual reductions. They are not needed against a non-nuclear opponent because our superior conventional capabilities will suffice. In combination with defensive measures, these forces will also suffice against the threat of chemical or biological weapons. Finally, as symbols of prestige, nuclear weapons are of much reduced importance in a world no longer characterized by cold- war-style militarized confrontation.

Arguments that we should keep nuclear weapons as a possible response to non-nuclear Saddam Husseins, or to deter non-nuclear North Koreas, confuses US security interests of the highest order with those of lesser scale. In any case, hundreds if not thousands of such weapons will exist for the next 10 years or more, since present stocks number in the tens of thousands and can be dismantled at a maximum rate of 2,000 or so a year. Rogue states will have to take them into account.

The continuing risks. These include accidents and unauthorized launches, seizures or thefts of weapons or weapons materials, and threats or actual use by terrorists or domestic rebels. Despite the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the weapons could spread to additional nations, with risk of their use in crisis or war.

What should be done? The US should take steps to align its policy with the diminished role and utility of these weapons, and their continued risks. First, we should join with other nations in reducing nuclear arsenals step-by-step to the lowest verifiable levels consistent with stable security, as rapidly as world conditions permit. Second, we should take the lead in continuing the substantial US and Russian reductions, thereby opening the door for multilateral reductions capping all arsenals at very low levels. Third, we and other nations should remove nuclear weapons from alert status and place warheads in controlled storage. And fourth, we should apply these arrangements to all nuclear weapons whether tactical or strategic, limiting nuclear warheads rather than launchers and subjecting all weapons to inspection and verification.

The ultimate goal. The ultimate objective of phased reductions would be the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. No one can say whether, or when, this will be feasible. But, because phased withdrawal will take years, time will be available - time to work on technical problems, to ameliorate the conflicts that encourage countries to acquire nuclear weapons, and to build confidence in a system of safeguards and verification measures.

The time for action is now. It is a challenge to all - military and civilian - who are convinced as we are of the importance of these goals.

Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster (USA, ret.) is chairman of the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington.

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