The news from Helsinki of a possible START III accord is certainly welcome. The agreement between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin could reduce United States and Russian strategic arsenals to as low as 2,000 warheads each in 10 years.
But US policymakers should not feel constrained by the parameters of this new agreement. Nor should they necessarily wait to implement further reductions in our current 7,000 nuclear warheads until this agreement is ratified. Rather, old arms control notions of nuclear parity should yield to new realities that are the product of two revolutions - one geopolitical and one military.
Let's take the military revolution first. We are today at the cusp of a technological revolution that is changing the way we conduct warfare. It will reduce the importance of nuclear weapons for US forces.
This may sound like heresy to those who grew up in the cold war and the nuclear age. But military revolutions have occurred throughout history, often triggered by major surges in military technology. The tank consigned the horse cavalry to history's dust bin. Aircraft carriers led to the demise of the battleship.
Today rapidly advancing information technologies, combined with stealthy weapon systems and precision-guided "smart" munitions, are revolutionizing non-nuclear strategic strike operations in ways that may allow us to reduce substantially our reliance on nuclear weapons.
This revolution has already demonstrated enormous potential. In 1991, on the first day of the Gulf war, US air forces struck three times as many strategic targets in Iraq as the US Eighth Air Force struck in Germany in the entire year of 1943. That's a thousandfold increase in capabilities.
And that's only the beginning. Air Force Chief of Staff Ronald Fogleman has declared that once the transition to these new weapons is complete, US forces "may be able to engage 1,500 targets in the first hour, if not the first minutes, of a conflict."
Moreover, as the world moves from industrial to information-based economies, both targets and the means for destroying them will change. Electronic strikes in the form of computer viruses, high-power microwave detonations, or conventional electromagnetic pulse munitions may rapidly disable critical elements of an information-based economy.
The US military should explore the potential of these changes in weaponry and targets to effect a new strategic triad, comprising long-range conventional precision strike, electronic strike, and residual nuclear strike forces.
The new triad would offer several advantages. Deterrence would be enhanced and retaliation options broadened, since adversaries would see the United States as more likely to use conventional weapons.
Then there is the matter of the geopolitical revolution. Put simply, the Soviet Union's collapse has dramatically reduced the danger of a strategic nuclear attack against the United States. Russia's nuclear forces are decaying, and its armed forces are in disarray. Today US leaders worry more about Russian nuclear weapons falling into the hands of third-world rogue states than a US-Russian nuclear exchange.
As for the prospect of aggression by rogue regimes with a handful of nuclear weapons, or an "accidental" launch of Russian or Chinese nuclear weapons, it seems unlikely that the perpetrators would view the United States differently if it commanded 7,000 nuclear warheads or the 3,500 envisioned in START II or the 2,000 mentioned as a possible START III objective.
Reducing reliance on nuclear weapons also offers the Pentagon some badly needed budget relief. It costs money to maintain our nuclear forces - an estimated $1 billion a year if we remain at START I levels. Reductions in nuclear forces will be needed to help pay the bill for the transformation of the US strategic triad.
To be sure, nuclear weapons will cast a long shadow over humankind even after the US military is transformed. Conventional and electronic precision-strike weaponry will only partially substitute for nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons may prove irreplaceable as the ultimate guarantor of deterrence, threatening the "assured destruction" of any enemy. Finally, for less-advanced militaries nuclear weapons will likely be seen as a relatively cheap counter to non-nuclear strategic strikes.
A new challenge
Today only the US is in a position to break the nuclear monopoly on strategic strike operations and take the lead in transforming strategic strike capabilities. But we have to move beyond the cold war mind-set. This is the challenge for US decisionmakers.
Six years after the end of the cold war and the revelations of the Gulf war, they must realize that alternatives to nuclear weapons are becoming available in ever-increasing numbers. Once this is accepted, reductions in nuclear stockpiles and the transformation to a more flexible strategic triad become far more easy to plan for, and accept.
* Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. is executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.