“We continue to count on the valuable contributions of the Arms Control Association.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
A Democratic View: Toward a More Responsible Nuclear Nonproliferation Strategy
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Senators Carl Levin and Jack Reed

For nearly half a century, the United States has attempted to “delegitimize” the use of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. From John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Limited Test Ban Treaty and nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to George H.W. Bush’s backing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, U.S. presidents from both parties have viewed arms control and risk reduction strategies as critical to the U.S. national interest.

As a presidential candidate in 2000, George W. Bush—claiming that he would continue that tradition—referred to nuclear weapons as “obsolete weapons of dead conflicts” and talked of making substantial reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. He offered some hope that nuclear weapons would be destroyed, delivery systems reduced, and programs designed to stop proliferation of nuclear weapons materials and technologies strengthened. He opposed ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), but pledged to continue a decade-old U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing.

Bush criticized the Clinton administration for failing to make reductions in the U.S. nuclear force posture—even though such reductions had actually been blocked by a Republican Congress—stating: “America should rethink the requirements of nuclear deterrence in a new security environment. The premise of Cold War targeting should no longer dictate the size of our arsenal.....I will pursue the lowest possible number [of nuclear weapons] consistent with our national security. It should be possible to reduce the number of American nuclear weapons significantly further than what has already been agreed to under START II, without compromising our security in any way.”

Time has powerfully demonstrated, however, that these bold statements were no more than campaign rhetoric. Bush is carrying out—and appears to be carrying forward—a departure from the bipartisan tradition of arms control. Despite his campaign promises, Bush has done little to truly cut U.S. nuclear arsenals and has resisted bipartisan calls to accelerate efforts to safeguard Russia’s Cold War weapons. He has abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). He has pushed Congress to adopt measures and programs that will lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. Bush’s nuclear weapons policies are part of a broader national security strategy that is heavily oriented toward pre-emptive military action.

The Bush administration is pursuing this agenda at a time when the need to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and weapons-related technologies is more important than ever. Countries such as North Korea and Iran have taken steps to develop their own nuclear weapons and India and Pakistan have already succeeded. Because of the Bush administration’s policies and rhetoric, the United States is now in the position of urging others to abandon nuclear programs while simultaneously increasing their allure and glamour.

In practical terms, North Korea and other tough proliferation cases defy quick military solutions. Military pre-emption is no substitute for a comprehensive and preventive arms control and nonproliferation strategy, which remains our first line of defense against the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Nonproliferation rules and standards of behavior establish the legal, political, and moral basis for organizing U.S. and international pressure to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials to states or terrorist groups. Proactive U.S. diplomacy, as well as limiting access to nuclear materials, nuclear testing, and nuclear weapons, help make such rules a practical reality. Because of new proliferation dangers, a more effective nonproliferation strategy requires strengthening and adapting—not abandoning—preventive diplomacy and arms control.

Expanding the Role of Nuclear Weapons

Even before Bush took office, Republican policies had stalled U.S. efforts to reduce Cold War strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles and blocked the momentum to secure a global, zero-yield nuclear test ban treaty. But the Bush administration has gone much further than blocking arms control initiatives—it seems intent on beginning a new nuclear arms race.

Shortly after he took office, Bush indicated he would not resubmit the CTBT to the Senate. This move discouraged other countries from signing onto the accord, widely viewed as the single most effective and verifiable agreement that can stem nuclear proliferation.

Then, in December 2001, the Bush administration completed its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The last review was conducted in 1994. Notwithstanding the statutory requirement to do so, the Department of Defense has yet to release an unclassified version of the NPR. Instead, the administration provided only a cursory unclassified press briefing on the NPR, making knowledgeable public discussion difficult. Yet, subsequent public comments and actions by the administration since 2001 suggest that major shifts in nuclear policy were included in the NPR.

The Bush administration has claimed it wants to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy. Yet, the NPR repeatedly suggests ways that nuclear weapons could be used for purposes other than deterring other countries from using similar weapons. The 2001 NPR blurs the distinction between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, making nuclear weapons just one more tool in our tool kit.

This dramatic change in U.S. nuclear policy is inconsistent with U.S. disarmament commitments under the NPT, a bulwark of arms control. Article VI of the NPT requires good faith efforts to pursue negotiations relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament. Past administrations have been vague as to how the United States would respond to a biological, chemical, or conventional weapons attack from a non-nuclear-weapon-state, not aligned with a nuclear power. No longer. The NPR makes clear that the United States would be prepared to retaliate with nuclear weapons, including the possibility of a first use in a pre-emptive attack. This reliance on nuclear weapons undermines decades of efforts to convince countries with biological or chemical weapons arsenals that they can live without nuclear weapons.

The NPR also provided the policy justification for the Bush administration’s budget requests—later approved by the Republican-led Congress—to fund the production of hundreds of new plutonium “pits” per year (a necessary component of a nuclear weapon), to support the design of new weapons, and to shorten the time necessary to plan and conduct a nuclear test. All of these initiatives strongly suggest that, at some point, the Bush administration might well resume nuclear weapons testing—and not as the last resort to maintain the existing stockpile, as contemplated under the CTBT—but to support the development of new low-yield nuclear weapons.

A U.S. program to develop new nuclear weapons could prompt other nations to do the same, either through the perceived need to match or deter any new technologies, or as a means to maintain their prestige in the “nuclear club.” A new arms race would be the result.

Bush has said that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin have moved beyond the Cold War. As evidence, he points to the Moscow Treaty—also known as the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT)—that he claims would limit the United States and Russia to between 1,700 and 2,200 nuclear weapons by 2012. If that were a true limit, it would represent a genuine achievement. But a closer look at the agreement reveals that the administration has tried to get away with a classic bait-and-switch.

SORT does nothing to control arms: it limits only deployed nuclear weapons, and places no new limits on the number of weapons either country can maintain in storage. It also does not actually require the elimination of any nuclear weapons or weapons delivery systems such as planes or missiles, and it is easily reversible and infinitely flexible. The treaty contains no definition of deployment, and it does not provide for additional verification mechanisms—complicating the ability to monitor compliance.

Under SORT, the limits on deployed nuclear weapons do not have to be achieved until December 31, 2012, and can be fully reversed on January 1, 2013. Rather than serving as a means of reducing residual Cold War tensions with Russia and safeguarding its crumbling nuclear arsenal, the treaty increases the burden of securing Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile (both deployed and stored) and the possibility of proliferation through theft and illegal sale. It also creates opportunities for suspicion and distrust rather than building confidence with Russia.

Neither SORT nor the NPR does anything to shrink the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal, which has remained largely unchanged since the Cold War. Some changes have been made in force structure that, while useful if maintained, are nevertheless reversible. While four Trident ballistic missile submarines will be converted to non-nuclear use, there is no assurance that this will remain permanent, as the sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launch tubes will not be destroyed. The administration has said it will only deploy one warhead on the 350 Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that now carry multiple warheads. But it will be easy enough to redeploy the additional warheads since they will remain in storage.

Moreover, the Bush administration has made it clear that it will not pursue further negotiations or reductions of either delivery systems or tactical or strategic nuclear warheads with Russia under START or any other process. Apparently, the Moscow Treaty will stand as the beginning and end of the Bush administration’s “arms control” initiatives. For this administration, moving beyond the Cold War seems to mean looking at new nuclear weapons and walking away from arms control agreements.

Nuclear Pre-emption

Bush issued his National Security Strategy in September 2002 and came out with his National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction in December 2002. Both key national security documents portray pre-emption as a principal strategy for U.S. policy. The National Security Strategy states, “To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.” The Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction states that defense against WMD “requires capabilities to detect and destroy an adversary’s WMD assets before the weapons are used.” This pre-emption doctrine is aggressive even in the context of conventional weapons, as the doctrine abandons the requirement for an imminent threat—contravening international law. Espousing the use of nuclear weapons pre-emptively is of even greater concern. Neither of these documents, nor the NPR, makes a distinction between nuclear and nonnuclear strike. When read together, they appear to signify that the United States is explicitly holding out the possibility that a nuclear weapon would be used in a first strike, pre-emptive fashion against a non-nuclear or a nuclear state.

The administration has made several new proposals that support nuclear pre-emption. In 2003, the administration began a three-year effort to design a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) to use against hard and deeply buried targets. The RNEP would modify an existing large-yield nuclear device to penetrate a hard surface, such as rock, and then detonate. The proposal has encountered opposition from congressional Democrats, but—notwithstanding the fact that there is no military requirement for an RNEP—the administration is forging ahead. (The Republican Congress just provided a second year of funding for the program although the amount provided, $7.5 million, was half the amount requested.)

New, precision, lower-yield nuclear weapons are an integral part of the administration’s strategy of pre-emption. According to the Defense Department’s legislative proposal that accompanied its fiscal year 2004 budget request, these advanced nuclear weapons concepts are necessary to: “(1) train the next generation of nuclear weapons scientists and engineers; and (2) restore a nuclear weapons enterprise to respond rapidly and decisively to changes in the international security environment or unforeseen technical problems in the stockpile.” Repealing the ban on research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons was needed to facilitate development of these new nuclear options designed “to deter, or respond to, new or emerging threats.” Such weapons could provide “greater capabilities for precision, earth penetration (to hold at risk deeply buried and hardened bunkers), defeat of chemical and biological agents, and reduced collateral damage.”

The primary focus of the “advanced nuclear weapons concepts” proposals are nuclear weapons with yields of less than five kilotons, referred to as low-yield nuclear weapons. Five kilotons is about a third of the explosive power of the atomic bombs that devastated Japan in the Second World War. Despite opposition from congressional Democrats, Bush sought—and won—the repeal of the ban on research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons, in law since 1993, from the GOP-controlled Congress.

In 2003 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ambassador Linton Brooks, acting director of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), did not suggest that the new nuclear weapons programs were needed to meet a new military requirement. Instead he argued that “we are seeking to free ourselves from intellectual prohibitions against exploring a full range of technical options.” Pressed further, Brooks provided a more telling explanation of the administration’s motives: “I have a bias in favor of something that is the minimum destruction … that means I have a bias in favor of things that might be usable.” (emphasis added.)

At the heart of the debate over low-yield nuclear weapons lies the belief, if not the fact, that the ability to limit collateral damage (damage to the surrounding area and people) makes a weapon more usable—and thus more likely to be used. The advent of precision-guided conventional munitions has already made attacks on urban areas possible. Would we have dropped imprecise “dumb bombs” on Saddam’s suspected hideouts in the crowded neighborhoods of Baghdad? In a similar fashion, developing low-yield nuclear weapons could tilt the scales to use, rather than restraint.

Administration supporters argue that the development of low-yield nuclear weapons will enhance the U.S. nuclear deterrent. They contend that our existing nuclear weapons are so devastating that our adversaries know we are “self-deterred” from using them. With new low-yield weapons, they argue, our adversaries will have renewed concern that we will employ nuclear weapons.

Yet, regardless of their size, nuclear weapons are likely to prove to be poor warfighting tools, and provide little help in the war on terror. Terrorists are unlikely to be deterred by them, given their willingness to die and the practical problem of targeting.

In a confrontation with states, on the other hand, the targeting problem is easier. But using any kind of nuclear weapon would have grave ramifications, creating waves of revolution against the United States. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated: “Much of the world is increasingly apprehensive about U.S. power and influence. Many are concerned about the expansion, consolidation, and dominance of American values, ideals, culture, and institutions. Reactions...to growing ‘Americanization’ can range from mild ‘chafing’ on the part of our friends and allies, to mixed fear and violent rejection on the part of our adversaries. We should consider that these perceptions mixed with angst over perceived ‘U.S. unilateralism’ will give rise to significant anti-American behavior.”

On purely military grounds, using nuclear weapons is an unattractive option. U.S. military dominance assumes the rapid destruction of enemy forces and swift seizure of key political objectives, but nuclear weapons would slow us down and increase our operation costs—both in the long and short terms.

Moreover, the “deterrent effect” may not work on rogue nations. Michael May, the former head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has suggested that the emphasis on tactical nuclear weapons “increases the motivation of ….[targeted states]….to improve and extend their own nuclear force, or to get one if they don’t have it.” The behavior of North Korea and Iran is evidence of the accuracy of that comment.

Of course, the use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear weapon state would almost certainly set off a retaliatory attack on the United States or its allies.

Broaden, Don’t Abandon Arms Control

Proponents of this new nuclear policy, with its “bias in favor of things that are usable,” argue that arms control and nonproliferation have failed, and therefore new nuclear weapons concepts and weapons are needed. They cite a litany of states that have acquired nuclear weapons since the adoption of the NPT in 1968: India, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa—and apparently North Korea.

Arms control and nonproliferation strategies have, however, succeeded in ensuring that fewer states acquired nuclear weapons, and established a global norm against the possession and use of nuclear weapons. Forty years ago, when the original nuclear powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China—had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, it was routinely assumed that proliferation would be rapid and irreversible. Kennedy predicted in the early-1960s that an additional 25 countries might develop nuclear weapons within 10 years. This dire prediction did not come true because of arms control efforts. As Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage explained in a speech last year:

...instead of the 25 or so countries, that President Kennedy once predicted, only a handful of nations possess nuclear weapons. Of course, we suspect many more countries have chemical or biological weapons, but still short of the scores that have been predicted in the past. We’ve reached this state of affairs in no small part through the concerted effort of many nations. Agreements such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, organizations such as the IAEA and Nuclear Suppliers Group—these constitute a global security architecture that has served us satisfactorily and kept us sage.

Moreover, of the five states that have acquired nuclear weapons since 1968, three (Israel, India, and Pakistan) never signed the NPT. South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons program in 1990 and signed the NPT in 1991. That leaves the very special case of North Korea, which joined the NPT in 1985, and has been caught on at least two occasions violating its obligations before its announced repudiation of the NPT.

Critics of the nonproliferation regime frequently fail to acknowledge that Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, Taiwan, and now Libya ceased their suspected nuclear programs, in part, because of the international norms represented by the NPT. Similarly, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the newly independent states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine found themselves in possession of nuclear weapons. All of them voluntarily relinquished their weapons and signed the NPT. Their decisions, at the urging of the United States and others, reaffirmed the norm of nonproliferation. At the time, Ukraine and Kazakhstan were, respectively, the third and fourth largest nuclear powers in the world.

Indeed, as recently as May 2000, the United States reaffirmed this norm by joining the four other original nuclear powers in declaring its commitment to the “unequivocal undertaking” to eliminate nuclear arsenals. As recently as November 2003, Secretary of Energy Abraham in commenting at the UN on the value and importance of the NPT, stated: “Because the treaty is so important, it is critical that the international community be constantly vigilant and prepared to deal with threats to it. We must take every measure to ensure nothing is allowed to erode its power and weaken it, or to weaken the IAEA.” Abraham went on to note that the NPT is not the only tool and that additional nonproliferation tools are necessary.

To be sure, the NPT and the nonproliferation regime is under pressure. But the source of that pressure is not coming from proliferants such as North Korea and Iran alone. In remarks to the IAEA Board of Governors in March of 2003, Director General Mohamed ElBaradei noted that the pressure comes from many fronts:

The nuclear arms control regime is being challenged and is clearly under stress. The challenges include our current efforts to verify Iraq’s nuclear capabilities; DPRK’s blatant defiance of its NPT safeguards obligations; failure of countries to fulfill their legal obligations to conclude and bring into force safeguards agreements; slow progress on the conclusion and entry into force of additional protocols; and almost total stagnation on moving towards nuclear disarmament and towards universality. For the nuclear arms control regime to maintain its integrity, progress must occur on all these fronts.

Today, nonproliferation is being advocated by the United States as a “do as I say, not as I do” policy. Unfortunately, the United States is more often imitated than obeyed. At a time when it is trying to dissuade other countries from developing nuclear weapons and spending more than a billion dollars a year to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons material and technology, these actions send a terrible message. Instead of being a leader in the effort to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the United States is recklessly driving down the nuclear road—the same road it is asking other countries not to travel on.

An Action Agenda

Rather than tearing up the arms control achievements of the past, we should build on them. We should expand and improve arms control, not condemn it. The United States should pursue comprehensive and practical efforts to deal with the shortcomings and unfinished parts of the global nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons arms control regime in order to adapt to the new threats and technologies of the post-Cold War era.

These efforts should draw from existing programs and activities, reinforce and expand bilateral and global arms control measures, and be pursued in collaboration with U.S. allies and friends through the UN and other bilateral and multilateral fora. Key elements must involve, but should not be limited to, the following:

· Improve international weapons monitoring and inspection capabilities, which would aid efforts to detect and deter cheaters, encourage compliance, and galvanize support for U.S.-led collective action to deal with violators that pose a threat to international security. For instance, evidence of North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons work was discovered in 1992 after it joined the NPT and agreed to IAEA inspections. The dangerous extent of Iran’s nuclear program has recently been confirmed only through a new round of international inspections. Special IAEA inspections in Iraq following the first Gulf War effectively ended that nation’s illicit nuclear weapons program by 1998. The IAEA “Additional Protocol,” which would allow for more extensive inspections, is an important step in this direction. U.S. ratification of our version of the Additional Protocol would help bolster U.S. diplomatic efforts to encourage other states of concern to do so. The administration should also reconsider its opposition to the creation of an effective verification system for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and prepare the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to be ready to undertake inspections in key states of concern.

· Expand and accelerate Nunn-Lugar threat reduction programs. After nearly a decade, this initiative has helped make the United States and the world safer by improving security and taking much of the Soviet-era nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons arsenal and infrastructure out of circulation. More still must be done. We can and should accelerate and expand, wherever possible, this vital effort to keep these weapons, materials, and technologies out of the hands of terrorists and criminals. Russia still needs assistance to eliminate its 40,000 metric ton stockpile of chemical weapons. Russia’s biological weapons research facilities and personnel must be transformed into a non-weapons-producing mode. Russia’s sprawling nuclear infrastructure remains vulnerable, with only half of the facilities fully equipped with modern security systems to prevent theft or diversion of weapons and materials. The administration and Congress must work together to increase our current annual investment of roughly $1 billion in these programs and remove unnecessary restrictions that threaten the continuation of contracts on important projects.

· Achieve a global halt to the production of weapons-usable fissile materials through the fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT). For years progress on multilateral negotiations to end the supply of new material for nuclear bombs has been stalled. Now, a shift in China’s position opens the way for progress. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has decided to reevaluate its support for such an agreement. Instead, it should take the initiative to move forward and conclude the FMCT.

· Pursue new restrictions on access to nuclear weapon applicable fuel-cyle technologies to make it more difficult for new states to obtain nuclear material for weapons. The NPT guarantee of access to “peaceful” nuclear technology and the broad diffusion of that technology has allowed states such as Iran to acquire uranium-enrichment or plutonium-production facilities useful for weapons. Through more robust international export-control arrangements, the most weapons relevant technologies can be controlled without denying access to basic and legitimate nuclear power technology. In addition, concepts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, which should respect national sovereignty and international law, will help detect the export and import of weapons, weapons materials, and weapons technologies.

· Engage in discussions with “states of proliferation concern” to look for ways to bring such states into the community of responsible nations. The Bush administration’s refusal to resume bilateral talks with North Korea in 2001 and its tough talk and hesitancy to engage in discussions after North Korea began reviving its plutonium production program have allowed a dangerous situation to fester. The administration has made some progress toward re-engaging the North Korean regime through six-party talks, but it lacks an effective or clear negotiating strategy.

· Finally, the United States and other nuclear weapon states must reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their own security policies. The United States, in particular, must lead by example. Toward this end, the United States should maintain its nuclear test moratorium and reconsider ratifying the CTBT; engage Russia in further talks to reduce and dismantle strategic nuclear weapons stockpile; and pursue talks that lead to the verifiable dismantlement of the thousands of tactical nuclear weapons remaining in Russia. Today’s threats require a strong and nimble conventional military capability and not the development of new or modified types of nuclear weapons designed for possible pre-emptive use.

The consequences of the detonation of a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon are so devastating that we cannot rely only on deterrence or pre-emption. Effective arms control measures must be pursued to reduce the threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons and the possibility that they will fall into the hands of terrorists. Abandoning serious efforts at arms control will weaken, not strengthen, our efforts to protect our nation and our allies from the scourge of nuclear weapons.

Senators Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Levin is the committee’s ranking Democrat.

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