Nuclear Cross Hairs

WITH the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the prospect of big cuts in strategic nuclear forces, and a general easing of East-West tensions, a question arises: What do you do with your remaining Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles?

The United States is properly wary of the strategic forces in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Some planners with the US Strategic Command, however, apparently are working to define a post-cold-war set of targets: third-world countries that themselves are developing so-called weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, biological, or chemical.

The effort is based on the notion that US strategic forces would deter a "rogue" country from using weapons of mass destruction against US forces that become embroiled in the regional wars that some analysts say will characterize future conflicts.

The one conflict that might have tested the notion of nuclear deterrence on a regional basis was the Gulf war. But the record is inconclusive. Did the prospect of strategic nuclear retaliation deter Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from using chemical or biological weapons? Or was it rather the problems inherent in the use of the weapons themselves?

Those involved in the planning process acknowledge that the US is unlikely to use nuclear weapons against a rogue nation. But at a time when much of the arms-control community's efforts are rightly focused on drawing down forces and stemming the proliferation of nuclear weapons, this process sends an ambiguous signal to nations considering membership in the nuclear "club."

To their credit, several nations thought to be developing nuclear weapons are reducing those efforts. According to a report released this week by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, and Taiwan all appear to be losing their nuclear ambitions.

The need is to encourage this trend, and not bring new targets under nuclear cross hairs.

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