The Bush administration is studying changes to America's arsenal of offensive nuclear weapons that, in their own way, would be as radical a departure from past policies as the erection of a national missile defense.
A strategic review ordered by the White House earlier this year is considering whether to reduce the number of US warheads from today's 7,500 to 2,500, or lower. The study is also weighing whether such reductions should be made unilaterally, outside the framework of arms-control agreements that has shaped the nation's nuclear stockpile for so long.
Packaging missile defense with arms cuts might make the former more palatable to Moscow, say Bush officials. If it doesn't, the White House insists that it is prepared to move alone toward a more-defense, less-offense doctrine.
"While the president will seek to persuade Russia to join us in further reducing nuclear arsenals, he is also prepared to lead by example," according to the Bush administra- tion's newly released budget.
The presidential order directing the nuclear review is classified. It's likely, however, that officials are weighing the manner in which targets are selected, plus potential future threats, and comparing that with the number and nature of US atomic bombs and missile warheads.
As a candidate, Mr. Bush promised to look into "de-alerting," or removing nuclear warheads from ready-to-launch status, so it is probable the review is considering that, too.
Officials are tight-lipped about study details. But experts in and outside government point to a recent National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP) report as a rough guidebook to Bush administration nuclear thinking.
One of the report's authors, Stephen Hadley, is now deputy national security adviser. Another, Stephen Cambone, has become a special aide to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
US nuclear requirements may, indeed, be met with forces reduced from current levels, concludes the NIPP report.
Emphasis on flexibility
But its primary emphasis is on the need for flexibility. While the US may need fewer warheads today, it would be wrong to lock in those lower levels via arms pacts with the Russians, study authors argue. If the world turns more dangerous in years ahead, America would then be unable to increase its arsenal - or build new types of nuclear warheads.
"The ability to adjust the US offensive and defensive force posture to a changing strategic environment is critical," says the NIPP study.
For the most part, critics of the Bush administration's proposed nuclear reductions do not object to shrinking the US arsenal, per se. During the Clinton administration, US and Russia had preliminary START III discussions aimed at cutting warheads to 2,000 or 2,500, about one-third of current deployed levels.
Rather, what they object to is the unilateral aspect of the administration's whole approach to nuclear policy. "It gives the illusion that we can control our own destiny ... and that other countries will just have to deal with that," says William Hartung, a nuclear studies fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York.
Mr. Hartung charges that nuclear-force reduction proposals are simply meant to mask the Bush administration's real strategic desires - missile defense, plus development of a new generation of nukes, such as so-called "bunker-buster" small weapons.
Others say that whether that is the case or not, moving alone to reduce nuclear forces is not necessarily a good idea. Unilateral reductions could easily become unilateral additions, in this view. The rest of the world would know that, and worry and watch accordingly.
Informal, nation-by-nation moves have played a role in arms control in recent years - witness the moratoria on nuclear tests adopted by the declared nuclear powers in the early 1990s. But in the end, arms-control agreements are meant to both control weapons and ensure predictability. In that regard, binding pacts, however imperfect, are more effective than any alternative.
"The whole point of these agreements is to put structure into the world," says Jack Mendelsohn, executive director of the Lawyers Alliance for World Security and a longtime Washington expert on nuclear affairs.
Some bipartisan support
The Bush administration's declared interest in arms cuts has received some bipartisan support. Earlier this month, Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska who now heads New York City's New School University, called the move "an important step in the right direction" in an opinion piece in The New York Times.
But as Mr. Kerrey pointed out, such reductions would be illegal under current US law.
For years, Congress has voted to bar any unilateral US move to reduce its arsenal below START I levels, pending ratification of the 1993 START II treaty by the Russian parliament. Russia finally ratified the pact last May - but made its approval contingent on the US Senate passing a package of Antiballistic Missile Treaty protocols.
This the current Senate is unlikely to do. The result, to this point: arms-cut stalemate.
The new Republican president would thus have to persuade the GOP-controlled Congress to reverse itself if he in fact decides upon unilateral reductions.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor