Think anew about US nukes

Details of the Pentagon's classified Nuclear Posture Review, leaked out last week, provoked a swift reaction from some analysts, who said the Bush administration had lowered the threshold for using nuclear weapons, and an equally swift reply from the White House, which said that it had in fact reduced US dependence on nuclear weapons.

Both claims are wrong. The administration's review contains almost nothing new – it merely reaffirms the centrality of nuclear weapons in US security policy – and that is the problem.

The review lists seven countries – China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and Syria – against which the United States must be prepared to use nuclear weapons. It calls for the US to monitor relevant targets in those countries, and it even specifies several scenarios in which the use of nuclear weapons might be necessary, such as a North Korean invasion of the South.

Critics leaped on these portions of the report as evidence that the Bush administration is broadening the circumstances under which the US would use nuclear weapons. But, in truth, the US has long prepared for a wide variety of scenarios in which nuclear weapons might play a role, so as not to be caught without options in the middle of a crisis. The threat from "rogue states" was addressed in the last Nuclear Posture Review, conducted in 1994, and it is not surprising or upsetting that it is addressed in this one.

Nor is it surprising that certain nonnuclear states, such as Libya and Syria, were included in the review. Although the US has pledged not to use nuclear weapons against states that don't have them, it has qualified that promise by saying that it might not apply to states that attack the US with chemical or biological weapons. All the nonnuclear states listed in the review are believed to be pursuing such weapons.

In short, contrary to fierce criticism from analysts, the Bush administration does not appear to have lowered the bar for the use of nuclear weapons.

But the administration's claim that it has reduced nuclear dangers by exorcising the "balance of terror" that characterized cold-war relations with Russia is equally inaccurate. The proof is the numbers contained in the review, which calls for keeping 1,700-2,200 of the 6,000 strategic warheads currently deployed.

While that reduction may seem dramatic, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to pursue similar cuts in 1997, and the Bush reductions will actually take place more slowly than if the START II treaty were allowed to take effect. Worse, instead of dismantling the weapons removed from service, Bush plans to keep several thousand in a reserve that would allow the US to redeploy 2,400 warheads in less than three years.

More important is what those numbers say about US nuclear-use policy. Because nuclear weapons are so destructive, the US needs only a few hundred to deter a nuclear attack; the 192 warheads on a single, fully loaded US Trident submarine, for example, could kill 50 million people if aimed at Russian cities. The United States needs 1,700-2,200 warheads only if it is planning to wage a nuclear war with Russia and destroy its nuclear weapons on the ground – a posture it maintained during the cold war to defend against a Soviet invasion of Europe or a surprise nuclear attack.

Today, that posture is inappropriate because Russia is no longer an enemy. But oddly, the only targets that could necessitate the 1,700-2,200 warheads called for in the Nuclear Posture Review are the 1,500 nuclear weapons that Russia is expected to keep. No other military contingency – even a nuclear conflict with China – requires more than a few hundred warheads. In other words, the "new" US nuclear posture is still based on the ability to fight a nuclear war with Russia.

THAT is the real problem with the Nuclear Posture Review: It reaffirms the cold-war nuclear status quo. By calling for a large nuclear reserve force, "ground-penetrating" nuclear warheads, and a revitalization of the US nuclear weapons infrastructure, the Bush administration is institutionalizing a strong reliance on nuclear weapons for the indefinite future.

Some analysts are concerned that the review is a step toward a policy that sanctions the use of nuclear weapons as legitimate weapons of war. That would be a horrific mistake that would encourage proliferation and irreparably harm US security.

The US would be far better served by adopting a genuinely new nuclear posture, one that maintains nuclear weapons only to deter a nuclear attack. Given the awesome power of US conventional forces, we do not need nuclear weapons for any other purpose, even to deter a chemical or biological attack.

The diplomatic advantage of that stance would be dramatic and could be leveraged to secure the international cooperation needed to prevent terrorists and rogue states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction – a true post-cold war, post-Sept. 11 priority.

• J. Peter Scoblic is editor of Arms Control Today.

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