IN coming decades long-range nuclear weapons may become much less important to the national-security plans of the United States. Today's elaborate US nuclear arsenal was built with counter-nuclear targeting and war-fighting capabilities in mind. In the future this arsenal may be smaller and simpler, emphasizing turtle-like survivability over military effectiveness, according to a Los Alamos National Laboratory report.
``Nuclear weapons strategy is likely to move toward a `deterrence-only' policy,'' the report concludes.
The paper is a summary of a major conference on the future of nuclear weapons held last year at the Los Alamos Lab's Center for National Security Studies. At the conference some 150 strategy experts from government, the military, and academia met to debate where nuclear weapons design is headed.
Though opinion was not unanimous, general themes emerged from the conference, according to the report. Principal among them was the conclusion that while nuclear weapons are here to stay, their political and military roles seem certain to diminish.
The forces driving this change are the same ones now swirling world geopolitics as a whole:
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and its effects on the USSR's armed forces.
A world that is increasingly multipolar in military, as well as political and economic, terms.
Continuing importance of arms control in US policy.
Limits placed on nuclear weapons by Western public opinion.
Counterforce targeting is the cornerstone of current Pentagon nuclear-weapons thinking. Under this policy, US nuclear weapons must be capable of threatening Soviet nukes, even those in hardened silos. Furthermore, the US intends that its command and communication system can maintain control over all its nuclear weapons at all levels of conflict.
In essence the US is trying to prove it is capable of fighting protracted nuclear war. The theory is that this stance shows the Soviets the US is serious about nuclear use, so they thus won't start something they can't stop.
A move to a ``deterrence only'' policy means the US would be less discriminating about nuclear targets. Maintaining forces sufficient to ride out a nuclear attack, then devastate Soviet cities might be enough.
Cities are much easier to destroy than intercontinental ballistic missiles, especially since the Soviets are constantly making their nuclear forces harder to target. Thus the pressure for more-and-more modern US weapons would decrease.
Such a change in strategy ``whether mandated by political or technical pressures would represent a significant shift,'' the report says.
The conference considered two variations on a deterrence-only nuclear posture. One, ``mixed deterrence,'' would combine a small number of sea-launched nuclear missiles with advanced conventional weapons capable of attacking Soviet nukes. A second, ``countercombatant targeting,'' would consist of a small strategic nuclear force, plus tactical nuclear weapons based in Western Europe and aimed at Soviet conventional tank armies.
Ironically, while policy may be headed in one direction, technology is marching the other way. Next-generation devices such as earth-penetrating warheads, nuclear-driven beam weapons, and ``dial-a-yield'' tailored-output bombs, are aimed at holding Warsaw Pact military targets at risk.