Timeout on arms treaties

It's time to take a timeout on nuclear arms- control treaties. They are too slow and too timid. For instance, we started negotiating the START II Treaty in 1991, and it is not yet even ratified. Besides, new treaties are simply not needed to get where we need to go.

On the US side, President Bush has indicated a desire to reduce our nuclear weapons unilaterally, with or without Russian agreement. On the Russian's side, the nuclear arsenal is inexorably declining because they can't afford to replace aging weapons. The best forecast is that before the end of this decade they will be below 1,000 warheads deliverable on the United States.

Our focus, then, should be on ensuring that reductions do take place on both sides, and rapidly enough to assert US leadership in the anti-proliferation movement. Just announcing that we have signed a treaty, or even that we have unilaterally decided to cut the number of our weapons, is virtually meaningless in this context. It takes years to remove and disassemble nuclear warheads, and we have more than 12,000 in our inventory today.

The alternative is to remove warheads to strategic escrow, which means putting them in storage at least 300 miles from their launchers. It also means inviting Russia to place observers on those storage sites to note what goes in and whether anything comes out.

In a matter of three or four years, we could cut the number of ready nuclear warheads in the US to less than 1,000. Since the Russians are going in that direction anyway, they would almost have to follow our lead by creating an escrow on their side.

Once we had the process of strategic escrow moving, we would want to open treaty negotiations with the other six nuclear powers. The objective would be an agreement to reduce to something like 200 warheads each, with all of those in escrow under international observation. This would move the world to a very stable position where no nuclear warheads would be ready for immediate use, but warheads and delivery vehicles could be reassembled if some rogue state acquired nuclear weapons and began threatening with them.

One major impediment to this process is the prospect that the US will build national missile defenses over the opposition of many of our allies and of our principal rivals, Russia and China. Until we resolve this issue, we will be involved in time-consuming bickering over whether, when, and how we will proceed with national missile defense. This will detract both from other major issues between us and these countries, and from moving rapidly into escrow.

The opposition of our allies is grounded in the concern that if we are invulnerable to nuclear attack, we will be less concerned that they may continue to be vulnerable. From their point of view, that makes sense, but no US president could tell the American people that he/she is eschewing a national missile defense, if one were feasible, because our allies would not like it.

Similarly, Russia and China are saying that they want us to remain vulnerable, lest they not be able to threaten us with nuclear attack. Again, this is perfectly logical from their point of view, but not sensible from ours.

Still another objection to national missile defense is that it is likely to kindle a nuclear arms race or even undo existing arms agreements. Neither is likely. The Russians simply do not have the wherewithal to race with us. The Chinese could, and might, but for years they have understood how little nuclear retaliatory capability it takes to deter the US from initiating nuclear war.

Witness that China has only about 20 nuclear warheads that could reach the US today. If China doubled or trebled that number because of any defenses we build, it wouldn't make much difference to anyone. It certainly would not be an incentive for Japan, Korea, or Taiwan to initiate nuclear programs, since they are all already vulnerable to hundreds of Chinese warheads. It would not even be an occasion for India to respond. As for Russia or China abrogating existing arms agreements, doing so could only exacerbate their nuclear inferiority vis-a-vis the US.

The answer is for the US to abrogate unilaterally the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, to concentrate on reducing the numbers of our nuclear weapons, and to move toward an international condominium to bring nuclear stability to the world.

In the past 50 years, there has not been as propitious a moment for controlling and limiting nuclear weapons. We need to move boldly.

Admiral Stansfield Turner (USN, ret.), former director of central intelligence, is the author of 'Caging the Genies: A Workable Solution for Chemical, Biological, and Nuclear Weapons' (Westview Press).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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