Unlike the predictions of some decades ago, many nations have not seized on the technical opportunities presented to them to develop national nuclear arsenals. International bilateral and multilateral agreements have tended to remove incentives to develop nuclear weapons, impose sanctions of one sort or another on those nations who do attempt such action, and reduce the nuclear weapons inventories of current nuclear powers.
The effort to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons since World War II has had limited success, to be sure. Several nations have attempted to join the "nuclear club" with mixed success, and some continue that effort today. In the strange world of nuclear matters, where nuclear deterrence requires maintenance and even improvement of nuclear capabilities in the face of controverting logic, the five nuclear powers recognized by the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) continue to sustain sizeable nuclear forces.
Nonetheless, there are several hopeful signs. The United States and Russia continue to reduce deployed nuclear forces and refrain from nuclear testing. Diplomatic measures continue to be the primary tool to deter North Korea and Iran from developing their own nuclear arsenals, and efforts seem successful in the case of Libya. The NPT continues to provide both a basis and a process to discourage further nuclear weapons proliferation and to control non-weapons use of nuclear material. The disposition of surplus nuclear explosive material from the former Soviet Union continues under the terms of a 1993 agreement. The United States program of assistance to dismantle much of the remains of the Soviet nuclear arsenal in a safe and secure manner seems a success.
It would be difficult to conceive of a situation today in which nuclear weapons would be a serious military or political option. From a military point of view, initiation of a strategic exchange would not only be overkill to the highest degree, but it would be morally repugnant. Use of a single nuclear weapon, on the other hand, could be theoretically possible if it were the only recourse to prevent a catastrophe, for example, the elimination of a launching site before an imminent attack. Such a scenario is highly problematic, as is a similar scenario in which a storage site is positively located.
The primary question, of course, is whether a nuclear weapon could accomplish such a mission without extreme collateral damage and whether an advanced non-nuclear weapon could achieve a similar end. Because the use of a nuclear weapon after a 60-year hiatus raises severe political, social, and moral questions, military leaders cannot assume that release of a nuclear weapon by the political leadership would be assured in any specific case. Thus, even if a nuclear weapon were able to achieve the desired outcome, development of a non-nuclear alternative would be a prudent course of action. Existence of such an alternative would make a decision to exercise a nuclear option even less likely.
It seems to me, therefore, that the United States can rely on nuclear weapons only as a deterrent to their use by others in the future. This is a formidable task in itself and requires continuous refurbishment to preserve the very highest standards of safety, security, and reliability in the current stockpile. At some time in the future, this could even require replacement of weapons to employ technological advances to achieve these goals. Increased reliability, safety, and security, of course, would mean that the nuclear arsenal itself, particularly weapons held in reserve, might be reduced.
I have believed for some time that U.S. national security depends on three pillars: diplomacy, military power, and the control of arms. All are crucial tools, some more important than others, depending on the international context. Nuclear arms control initiatives have proven valuable in the past, particularly to stabilize and rationalize the arsenals of the United States and Russia. Recently, diplomacy appears to have removed a potential threat from Libya. U.S. military capabilities must remain unchallenged. These three tools, working together and applied by those responsible for national security, remain essential to protect and defend this country.
Major General William F. Burns (United States Army, Retired) was director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1988 to 1989. He served as the first U.S. special envoy to denuclearization negotiations with former Soviet countries under legislation sponsored by former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). He is a distinguished fellow at the Army War College. He is also an Arms Control Association board member.