The prospect of nuclear holocaust that hung so long over the world has almost disappeared from the public mind with the end of the cold war. But senior American military officials and security experts warn that it is far too soon to celebrate the disappearance of the weapons and the dangers they bring.
While nuclear weapons have little real military value to the world's superpowers, there has been little progress in reducing the huge stockpiles in the hands of the two major nuclear states, two high-ranking US military officials warned yesterday.
Gen. Lee Butler, who once commanded American nuclear forces, and Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, called for renewed American negotiations with Russia to reduce their nuclear forces to "very low levels," with the ultimate objective of "complete elimination of nuclear weapons from all nations."
The unprecedented stand taken yesterday by the US military leaders was to be echoed today by some 60 generals and admirals from around the world, including 17 retired senior Soviet officers.
"Nuclear weapons are losing their utility at a rapid rate," signee Gen. Charles Horner, who at one time commanded American nuclear missile forces, told the Monitor. "There's a cost of ownership and there's a cost to the people in the corrosive effect that ownership has on our own nation, the immorality of it."
The joint military statement is aimed at shaking up the stagnant state of global arms control efforts. "The American people tend to think the nuclear threat is gone," says former Sen. Alan Cranston, one of the principle organizers of this global call. "But people that know about the dangers of these weapons aren't eased at all in their concerns."
Even though the US and Russia are no longer locked in confrontation, there are still great dangers associated with the continued existence of nuclear arsenals, military officials and security specialists say. The risk of unauthorized launches and accidents, while small, still exists. The possibility of theft of weapons or nuclear materials by terrorists is a growing concern. And there is the threat of proliferation, that nuclear weapons could spread to other countries, increasing the possibility of their use in a crisis or war.
The military officers contend that these dangers can only be met through step-by-step deep cuts in the US and Russian arsenals. By bringing the two nuclear powers down to 1,000 warheads each, or even lower, the other three nuclear states (France, Britain, and China) and three countries widely believed to have weapons (Israel, India, and Pakistan) can be drawn into negotiations, moving toward abolition of nuclear weapons.
Delusions of safety
There is a widespread public perception that the two countries are already "on the glide path to a nuclear-weapons-free world," says Amb. James Goodby, President Clinton's former chief negotiator for US-Russian nuclear weapons dismantlement. But the veteran arms control negotiator dismisses that as a "dangerous fallacy."
The reality is that the two countries still maintain large stockpiles of nuclear warheads with no agreement that requires them to be dismantled, says Ambassador Goodby, who is currently a guest lecturer at Stanford University. There are no proposals on the table to move beyond the reductions agreed to in the START II nuclear arms treaty and there have been no negotiations on this issue since 1992.
Moreover the Russian parliament has not yet ratified START II and there is considerable opposition to doing so. Russian officials have raised proposals to extend the timetable for implementation by five years, arguing that the agreement compels them to spend considerable resources restructuring their nuclear arsenal - funds they don't have.
Meanwhile, though Russian and US nuclear-armed missiles are no longer targeted at one another, the nuclear forces on both sides remain on full alert status, ready to be launched at the warning of an attack by the other side. "People assume detargeting has made the world safe," says Goodby. "It's a good thing, but that can be reversed in a matter of seconds."
Goodby worries that a combination of events could trigger a new global arms race by the start of the new century. India and Pakistan may openly become nuclear weapons states. China may move to modernize its nuclear forces. Russia faces decisions within a few years, as older weapons are retired, about building new long-range and short-range nuclear weapons systems. An American decision to build a national ballistic missile defense system could trigger responses from other nations.
There is also the danger that tensions could increase between the US and Russia, for example over the American-sponsored decision to expand the NATO alliance to include the countries of Eastern Europe. "We can't expect Russia to cooperate on the nuclear proliferation problem at the same time we're competing with them," says Goodby.
Goodby argues against setting the "unreasonable goal" of complete abolition, which he believes is politically and technically unfeasible. But there is a general consensus, shared by Senator Cranston as well, that the Clinton administration should leapfrog the START II logjam by offering to negotiate an agreement with the Russians on broad principles for a START III treaty that would set a low target of at most 2,000 strategic weapons on both sides. The agreement should seek to dismantle warheads, not just delivery systems such as missiles, the focus of all previous arms control agreements.
Some experts argue that the Clinton administration mistakenly put arms control issues on the back burner in favor of supporting democratic and market reforms in Russia. Political scientist Coit Blacker, who only recently returned to Stanford after serving as the president's national security adviser on the former Soviet Union, argues that those priorities make sense.
"Notwithstanding the objective importance that we all attach to the control of [nuclear] materials, if we don't get the relationship right, it ain't gonna matter," Dr. Blacker says. He points out that "we don't lose too much sleep over British and French nuclear weapons," because those nations are our allies and partners.
The administration is also making an active effort to try to break the current stalemate, most recently by Defense Secretary William Perry when he visited Moscow, the former official notes. In an appearance before the Russian Duma, Perry set out prospects for a new round of nuclear arms negotiations after ratification of START II.
But Blacker acknowledges that the atmosphere for such talks is already much more difficult than the one that prevailed four years ago. "Instead of driving an 18-wheeler down the highway of love, this road is getting narrower and narrower and now we're in a pickup truck trying to avoid boulders."