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A US Initiative to Cage the Nuclear Genie

By Stansfield Turner / October 29, 1997

In his new book, "Caging the Nuclear Genie" (WestView Press, 1997), former CIA chief Admiral Stansfield Turner argues that it's time to dispense with incremental approaches to arms control. He adapted this article for the Monitor from the book's suggested US initiative to place all the world's nuclear warheads in "strategic escrow."

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Parity with Russia in nuclear weapons is not essential. There are, then, new opportunities for controlling nuclear weapons. We need not be limited by the painfully slow process of arms control agreements. We could take a leaf from one of the most successful efforts ever to limit nuclear arms. In September 1991, President Bush, using his authority as commander in chief, simply ordered almost all of our tactical nuclear weapons withdrawn from forward land bases and naval ships. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev responded similarly almost immediately.

A corresponding initiative with strategic nuclear weapons would be for us to remove perhaps 1,000 warheads from operational strategic launchers and place them in strategic escrow, that is, in designated storage areas some distance from their launchers. We would invite the Russian Federation to place observers at each storage site. Their duties would be limited to counting the number of warheads going into storage, keeping track of whether any were moved, and conducting surprise inventories to ensure none had been clandestinely removed. They would also be allowed to check that other warheads had not been placed on the launch vehicles from which those in storage had been removed.

Hopefully the Russians would follow our example, as before. If not, we would still be at parity with the Russians in numbers of warheads, even if 1,000 of ours would have to be returned to and remounted on their launch vehicles before use. That is hardly a serious concern considering that even in 2003, with an inventory of 3,500, we will have so many more operational warheads than we could possibly employ usefully.

If the Russians did follow our lead, it would open the door for a rapid series of initiatives and reciprocations by both parties. There would be no need for parliamentary approvals, though both presidents would need to build support in their legislatures. Both would want to point out that because the warheads would all be intact, neither would have fewer than the other at any time. Moreover, there would be no violation of the US Senate's reservation on START II that the president not let an imbalance develop that "could endanger our society."

This would be a more meaningful step than the detargeting and de-alerting procedures we and the Russians have instituted, as reconstitution would take days or weeks, not minutes or hours. There would be no need to hammer out detailed rules for verification, as all that would be required would be straightforward counting of numbers of warheads going in and out. Cheating by placing elaborately faked warheads in storage would theoretically be possible, but there are technical devices being developed that will counter such a ploy. In addition we need not be concerned that the Russians would gain significant intelligence about our weapons from looking at warhead casings.

If we made the second increment of warheads, perhaps 2,000-3,000, this process could gain momentum. From the early 1997 levels of about 8,000 operationally ready warheads, both we and the Russians could be down to a number like 1,000 well before START II's 3,500-warhead target for 2003.

When we and the Russians reach a level of about 1,000 warheads each, it will be time to pause in this escrow process. The accomplishment of getting there in just a few years would be of great significance, as the numbers of immediately usable nuclear weapons would have been dramatically reduced. This would ease one of our greatest concerns about proliferation: the uncertain and poorly supervised conditions in Russia's nuclear establishment. It would save both countries considerable costs. It would signal that we were serious about caging the nuclear genie. Still, this would only be "Phase I," because even 1,000 would leave both societies at risk. The informal arrangement of initiatives and reciprocation would no longer be an adequate basis for proceeding further. Although up to this point verifying what was placed in escrow would be adequate, the number of warheads remaining would become important.

The next step, then, would be to negotiate a Phase 2 that would organize how to continue downward from 1,000 deployed, ready warheads to zero. Since the US and Russia would, soon after reaching 1,000, approach the arsenal levels of France, Britain, and China, Phase 2 would have to be organized multinationally. It would be desirable to bring in Israel, Pakistan, and India sooner rather than later. That the US and Russia had achieved levels of 1,000 warheads would go far toward pressuring the other nuclear or threshold nuclear countries to join the process.

Under a strategic escrow program none of them would have to give up their nuclear weapons, at least initially. French pride, for instance, would be assuaged because France would only have to place weapons in a less operational condition.

The endpoint of a program of strategic escrow, then, would be to put all nuclear warheads in the world in internationally supervised storage at some distance from their launchers. Observers would continue to provide warning of any effort to mate warheads to launch vehicles.

This would ease our concern the uncertain and poorly supervised conditions in Russia's nuclear establishment.