Nukes: Can US practice what it preaches?

In June 2002, President Bush advised the nation that the greatest threat to US security lies in the possibility of terrorists acquiring unconventional weapons. It would seem logical, then, to reassess whether national security strategy is doing all that is possible to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists. A good starting point: the United States' own nuclear policies.

With respect to chemical and biological weapons, the US has eschewed possession of them and is destroying what stocks it has. The record is more problematic with nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has taken policies on these weapons in two directions that differ substantially from previous policies. A necessary question to ask is whether these changes impede or abet preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons.

In the spring of 2002, Presidents Bush and Putin signed the Moscow Treaty establishing the goal of reducing inventories of immediately deployable strategic nuclear warheads on each side to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the end of 2012. This was in line with the previous policy, as reflected in the START II Treaty, which reduced both sides to 3,000 to 3,500 strategic warheads. Where the Bush policy is different is in the slow pace of the demobilization - no reductions from present levels are required for 10 years - and the treaty does not require the destruction of any warheads. It provides only that each side will retain just 1,700 to 2,200 immediately deployable warheads. It isn't clear to the public just what that means. The US, however, has indicated it will not destroy any of the 4,000 to 5,000 warheads above the allowable limit that it retains. Instead it will keep them in some condition that it can claim is not immediately deployable. The net effect of the treaty and of US plans for dealing with it, then, is to say that the US is placing a high premium on maintaining access to approximately 6,000 to 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads as a hedge against uncertainty.

A second change in policy is that the Bush administration has gone to Congress for authorization to do research on new, less powerful, tactical warheads. These are primarily for employment as "bunker busters" for destroying deeply buried, hardened targets. This, too, indicates the importance the US places on having usable nuclear weaponry.

The issue the country must face today is whether these two new directions are compatible with reducing the primary threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorists. It seems obvious that if the US, with the strongest military forces in the world, insists on having lots of usable nuclear weapons, such weapons must have even greater utility for powers with lesser conventional forces. Thus, the US has reduced its leverage to garner cooperation from other nations in the myriad actions necessary to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons.

How can the US convince the world that the Iraqs and the North Koreas must not have even one nuclear weapon when it needs 7,000? The US looks hypocritical and isn't in a sound position to lead the world in an antiproliferation campaign.

The US has no need for such overwhelming nuclear superiority. Russia has acknowledged that since the collapse of the Soviet Union it hasn't invested adequately in maintaining and replacing its aging nuclear arsenal. Consequently, very shortly it will be down to about 1,000 usable strategic nuclear warheads. No one else has even 500.

And, as for needing "bunker busters": The US has such superior conventional military forces that it could overwhelm even a North Korea, regardless of whether its leadership hunkers underground. And, it is worth noting that Saddam Hussein hid in a rathole, not an impregnable bunker; and that we have not heard one word from the administration about what were supposed to be some of the world's best bunkers in Baghdad.

The US could always cut the supplies of electricity and water, plus communications and even physical access to underground bunkers, using only conventional weapons. Most bunkers are in cities and the US would never drop a nuclear weapon, even a "small" one, in an urban area just to destroy a bunker. Small busters are the equivalent of about 10 million pounds of TNT, plus radiation.

Fortuitously there is a way to show the world that the US is willing to downplay its nuclear arsenal while at the same time taking into account the Bush administration's concern about being caught short. It is called "strategic escrow."

Under strategic escrow, the nuclear warheads that the US must, in accordance with the Moscow Treaty, render operationally undeployable would be removed from their missiles or bombers and placed in storage at some significant distance. There would be international observers to report if warheads were being returned to their delivery vehicles. Surely the administration must be planning something closely akin to this strategic escrow as a way of retaining the 4,000 to 5,000 warheads it has above the treaty limit.

By pursuing strategic escrow, the US would show it is serious about curbing everyone's nuclear weaponry, even its own. That would be the case especially if the US decided to go down to the Russian level of 1,000 fully ready nuclear warheads or even fewer, instead of the 1,700 to 2,200 permitted by the treaty - and if the US did it in one to two years instead of eight.

This would better enable the US to pressure the other seven nuclear powers to place proportional numbers of their arsenals in escrow. Soon, with very low numbers of nuclear weapons immediately ready to fire, the risk of unintended nuclear war would be substantially reduced.

Most of all, though, the world community would understand how vital curbing nuclear proliferation is to America. US leverage over irresponsible nations that might sell nuclear components or technology to rogue states or terrorists would be greatly increased.

The events of 9/11 have forced America to take seriously the awesome threat of nuclear terrorism. It would be surprising if some adjustment in national security strategy were not needed to cope with this new danger. Surely the mightiest military power on earth can look at ways to reduce its power while remaining safe, but at the same time leading the world in an antiproliferation regime that might avert a catastrophe for all mankind.

Adm. Stansfield Turner was director of central intelligence from 1977 to 1981 and is now on the faculty of the University of Maryland's graduate School of Public Affairs.

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