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U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy: Dangerous and Counterproductive

The United States administration is pursuing nuclear weapon policies that are dangerously out of step with the security needs of the United States and the world, and completely out of sync with U.S. public opinion.

While maintaining much of its Cold War nuclear arsenal and posture, the United States is also pursuing development of new nuclear capabilities, and holding open the possibility of resuming nuclear testing. At the same time, U.S. nuclear weapons policies are undermining the U.S. goal of constraining the global spread of nuclear weapons.
U.S. Cold War arsenal is alive and well
Currently the United States maintains some 6,000 nuclear weapons in its active arsenal, with an additional 4,000 in lower states of readiness. Russia has roughly 8,000 active nuclear weapons, and an additional 9,000 intact weapons. To put these numbers into context, fewer than 200 of these weapons could devastate either country.

In May 2002, President George W. Bush proudly announced that: "President Putin and I have signed a treaty that will substantially reduce our strategic nuclear warhead arsenals to the range of 1,700 to 2,200, the lowest level in decades. This treaty liquidates the Cold War legacy of nuclear hostility between our countries."

Unfortunately, Bush's announcement does not match the reality. Under this 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), also known as the Moscow Treaty, both countries will reduce their deployed strategic nuclear weapons to roughly 2,000 by December 31, 2012, at which point the treaty will expire. Moreover, the treaty does not require the dismantlement of a single warhead or delivery system and there are no verification requirements. Each country is free to retain as many stored warheads for rapid redeployment as it wishes.

Nor does the treaty cover "tactical" nuclear weapons, which are deployed on short range missiles or would be delivered by airplanes, and are intended for use in Europe in the event of a conventional war. The United States continues to maintain tactical nuclear weapons in different European countries, and Russia has many thousands, some of which are poorly guarded. This is especially dangerous since these weapons are small and relatively portable, making them an attractive target for terrorists seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration plans to maintain some 6,000 warheads indefinitely and will retain its 2,000 deployed warheads on alert, able to be launched within a matter of minutes. Many of Russia's warheads will also remain on alert, perpetuating the real risk of accidental and inadvertent launch. Such a launch would be devastating. Instead of "liquidating the Cold War legacy," this treaty has effectively locked-in the most dangerous leftover Cold War threat.

Further, the Bush administration intends to expand the U.S. nuclear weapons production capacity. It is planning to build a Modern Pit Facility that could annually produce 125 to 450 plutonium "pits," which are the cores of modern nuclear weapons. According to the administration, a key purpose of this facility is to provide a more "agile" production capability if the United States decided to manufacture newly designed pits.

These policies are dramatically inconsistent with American public opinion. When asked how many nuclear weapons the United States needs to deter other countries from attacking, the median response was 100-a far cry from the 6,000 the United States has and plans to maintain. Some 72% think nuclear weapons reduced under an agreement should be destroyed and not simply dismantled so they could be reassembled later. And 82% think the United States should work to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on high alert.[1]New nuclear weapons capabilities and roles
Largely outside of public debate, the Bush administration has been promoting new roles for nuclear weapons. In December 2001, the administration issued a provocative Nuclear Posture Review calling for the development of new, more usable nuclear weapons and for maintaining an option to use nuclear weapons first even against non-nuclear weapon states. Since then, the Bush administration has further articulated its nuclear use doctrine, asserting in several documents that the United States has the right to use nuclear weapons preemptively--in peacetime and on its own authority--to stop states from acquiring nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

In parallel, the administration has also sought congressional funding for development of new nuclear weapons capabilities. The Energy Department has begun work to develop a nuclear "bunker-buster"—the so-called Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a modification of a high-yield nuclear weapon that would be designed to penetrate the earth before detonating, with the purpose of destroying underground bunkers, including those containing chemical or biological agents. However, analysis by independent scientists, including a former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, shows that these weapons would be far more likely to disperse than destroy any chemical or biological agents, and would generate extensive nuclear fallout.

The Energy Department has also initiated an "Advanced Concepts" research program to explore a wide variety of new kinds of nuclear weapons or modifications. One possibility is development of a so-called "mini-nuke"—a weapon with a yield of less than 5 kilotons. Some have promoted this smaller weapon as more "useable." At the request of the administration, last year Congress repealed a 1994 law that prohibited development of any nuclear weapons below 5 kilotons. However, even such "low-yield" nuclear weapons are very powerful and destructive. (The weapon that destroyed Hiroshima had a yield of 10-15 kilotons.) Moreover, the use of any nuclear weapon would breech an important barrier between conventional and nuclear weapons.

Again, U.S. nuclear policy is contrary to U.S. public opinion. The vast majority of Americans reject the idea of using nuclear weapons preemptively: 81% either believe the United States should never use nuclear weapons or should do so only in response to a nuclear attack. And 65% think the United States should not develop new types of nuclear weapons.

A Resumption of Nuclear Weapons Testing?
The United States has signed but not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits all nuclear explosive tests. Since 1992, the United States has also observed a moratorium on nuclear testing. President Bush has said he will not ask the Senate to ratify the treaty and that the United States may even seek to resume nuclear testing.

The administration's Nuclear Posture Review calls for reducing the time required for the United States to resume nuclear weapons testing. Accordingly, Congress has approved funds to reduce this time from 2-3 years (currently the maximum required for a diagnostically meaningful test) to 18 months.  Moreover, if the United States decides to deploy newly designed nuclear weapons, these weapons would likely first undergo nuclear explosive testing. 

Consistent with the polling results above, a large majority of Americans—87%—think the United States should participate in the CTBT.

A rejection of arms control as a policy tool
After signing the Moscow Treaty, President Bush made clear that this was the last nuclear arms control agreement the United States would take part in. Instead the United States would decide unilaterally, based on its own security needs, the level of its nuclear forces. The administration's policy on the CTBT also indicates its disdain for agreements that constrain U.S. behavior.

More recently, the Bush Administration undercut another treaty—the fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would halt the further production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons purposes. This treaty would have no practical effect on the United States and Russia, which retain enormous stockpiles of excess material from dismantled weapons. Instead, it would prevent countries like India and Pakistan from further expanding their arsenals. Such a treaty has been under consideration at the conference on disarmament for over ten years, with the United States as a strong supporter and at the May 2000 Review Conference of the NPT, and the United States has been a strong supporter. The Bush administration has now departed from previous U.S. policy and asserts that an FMCT cannot be "effectively verifiable." This new position throws a monkey wrench into international FMCT efforts and puts the United States at odds with many of its key allies, including Australia, Canada, and Japan.

U.S. policy undermines U.S. nonproliferation goals
There are several ways in which these nuclear weapon policies undermine the U.S. goals of preventing other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, and of encouraging the new weapon states of India and Pakistan to freeze and roll back their weapon programs.

NPT obligations unfulfilled
These policies run completely counter to U.S. obligations under the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—the linchpin international treaty that maintains an important political barrier to a decision by other countries to "go nuclear." The underlying premise of the NPT, as spelled out in its Article VI, is that in exchange for other countries forgoing the development of nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapon states—including the United States—will pursue nuclear disarmament. Instead, the United States is maintaining an enormous arsenal and developing new nuclear weapons capabilities and roles for its nuclear weapons.

Moreover, in 1995 the 182 non-nuclear weapon states agreed to extend the NPT for an indefinite duration based on the promise made by the United States and other nuclear weapon states that a CTBT would soon be finalized. The U.S. failure to ratify the CTBT has both political and practical ramifications. Because the United States lobbied hard for an indefinite extension, its failure to support the CTBT is particularly a slap in the face of the world community. And without U.S. ratification, the treaty cannot enter into force. All U.S. NATO allies and Russia have ratified this treaty and are working for its entry into force.

The failure of the United States to take seriously its obligations under the NPT undermines whatever authority and political persuasion it might otherwise have.

New incentives to go nuclear
To add incentives for countries to join the NPT, the five nuclear weapon states have issued "negative security assurances" that they will not use their nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are NPT members, unless first attacked. A U.S. policy that asserts the right to preemptively use nuclear weapons removes this incentive for countries to remain non-nuclear. Even worse, it conveys a clear message to present and potential future adversaries of the United States: spare no effort to acquire nuclear weapons, since this is the only way to deter the preemptive use of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Resumed U.S. nuclear testing would set off new round of tests
If the United States were to shatter the current worldwide moratorium by conducting a test, undoubtedly other countries would follow suit-including Russia and China. For countries such as India and Pakistan, further testing would allow them to augment their current capabilities and could inspire a regional arms race.

Any U.S. nuclear test would be greeted by resounding political condemnation from the international community. This could make necessary cooperative efforts on priorities such as preventing and combating terrorism more difficult.

An Alternative U.S. Nuclear Posture
It is important for Congress and U.S. citizens to demand that the United States move away from its outdated and dangerous Cold-war nuclear posture, and instead comply with its treaty obligations and work cooperatively with other nations to strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

  • UCS has urged an alternative U.S. nuclear posture for this decade, one that would both reduce existing nuclear threats and enhance the nonproliferation regime, as detailed in the report Toward True Security. Its recommendations include:
  • U.S. adoption of a nuclear no-first-use policy that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter and, if necessary, respond to the use of nuclear weapons by another country;
  • U.S. rejection of rapid-launch options, and a change in deployment practices to provide for the launch of US nuclear forces in hours or days rather than minutes;
  • The elimination of all U.S. "tactical" nuclear weapons, intended for use on the battlefield;
  • Verified unilateral U.S. reductions to a total of 1,000 strategic warheads (including deployed and stored), accompanied by verified warhead dismantlement;
  • A U.S. commitment to further reductions in the number of nuclear weapons, on a negotiated and verified multilateral basis;
  • The prompt ratification of the nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

[1] Poll numbers throughout this article are from  "Americans on WMD Proliferation," Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks, April 15, 2004.

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