THROUGH air-raid drills, "Dr. Strangelove," the SALT talks, Tom Clancy thrillers, and myriad other manifestations, the nuclear arms race has been part of American life for over four decades. Now, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arms race as we have known it is going to disappear.
No longer will the specter of Soviet weapons drive the US to pile up more and more long-range warheads of increasing sophistication. Security in today's new world will require a new sort of US atomic arsenal, say experts: one smaller and more flexible than the peculiar logic of nuclear deterrence called for in the past.
Debate over the details of this new arsenal has already begun in Washington. On Capitol Hill, in think tanks, and the halls of the Pentagon, the very tenets of nuclear theology are being reexamined.
"What's the relevance of deterrence theory today?" asked one US military theorist during a recent discussion of the nuclear issue. "What is it we're trying to deter?"
Of course, the size of the US nuclear stockpile was shrinking even before the final disintegration of the Soviet Union. The START long-range nuclear treaty wrapped up last year saw to that: its provisions call for a cut in the US strategic arsenal of about 25 percent, to around 9,000 actual weapons. Talks in new republics
US officials are concerned that the ex-Soviet republics with long-range weapons on their soil make good on assurances that they'll live up to their end of the START bargain. A State Department team is visiting the republics concerned - Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan - this week, for talks on START and general nuclear safety.
Pentagon officials also say that strategic cuts beyond START will be on the agenda. President Bush, for instance, has proposed eliminating multiple-warhead land-based missiles. "We've already started to discuss this with the republics," said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams last week.
The still-open question is how far these inevitable nuclear cuts will go. Bidding starts at around 5,000 warheads. For instance, an advisory panel of experts convened by the commander in chief of US strategic forces, Air Force Gen. Lee Butler, has drawn up a report recommending a 50 percent stockpile reduction (around 4,500 strategic warheads).
A National Academy of Sciences report released last fall called for a quick reduction to 3,000 or 4,000 warheads, aiming at an ultimate stockpile of around 1,000. Some experts would go farther. "I wouldn't see any problem in cutting our force level to a couple hundred weapons," says George Rathjens, a professor in the Defense and Arms Control Program at MIT.
Behind these reduction proposals is the widespread realization that in the new world long-range nuclear weapons won't have as much to do, in geopolitical terms. As ex-Soviet forces shrink, there simply won't be as many targets for nuclear weapons to aim at. Deterrence downscaled
During the cold war, US and NATO doctrine held that if the Soviet Union attacked Western Europe with conventional weapons, the US might respond with a nuclear first strike. It's obvious now that the needs of this "extended deterrence" are far smaller.
A more simple deterrence task remains: balance out whatever nuclear weapons remain in the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Those who believe this still requires thousands of warheads generally are proponents of aiming the US arsenal largely at military targets. This has long been standard US practice.
Those such as George Rathjens who believe only a few hundred weapons are required generally think instead that all the US needs is enough strength to ensure we can threaten the biggest cities of an adversary, even after absorbing a first strike. Military planners have shied away from this overt counter-city targeting in recent decades because among other things they considered it morally unpalatable.
Noting that many military targets are near cities, Rathjens claims such distinctions are "sophistry."
Strategic defenses could well have a large influence on the size of the future strategic arsenal, if they are erected. The "star wars" issue will surely be a hotly debated one in the months ahead.
A controversial nuclear targeting issue on the horizon involves third-world nations. The report produced for General Butler by the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff (JSTPS) Advisory Group recommended drawing up plans for targeting every "reasonable adversary" around the globe with nuclear weapons.
"The use of US nuclear weapons against nonnuclear weapon states is not likely, but deliberate ambiguity is in the US interest," concludes a draft of the JSTPS report.
Some experts say this could help prevent nuclear proliferation or use of chemical weapons, and moderate the behavior of rogue leaders like Saddam Hussein. Others disagree. "We should want to tell the world nuclear weapons are being reduced to residual background levels, both in numbers and political function," says John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.