"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
Nuclear Sword of Damocles

Daryl G. Kimball

Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust, the threats posed by the bomb have changed, but still hang over us all. Today, there still are nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons, and there are nine nuclear-armed states. More countries have access to the technologies needed to produce nuclear bomb material, and the risk of nuclear terrorism is real.

The massive nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia—the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War—have been reduced through successive arms control agreements. Yet, deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear forces still exceed 1,500 strategic warheads each, far more than necessary to deter nuclear attack.

Five decades ago, President John Kennedy warned of the possibility of dozens of nuclear-armed nations. Since then, world leaders have built up an extensive nonproliferation regime that has slowed the spread and reduced the salience of nuclear weapons.

But to remain effective, the nuclear non-proliferation system must be updated, new commitments must be implemented, and progress on disarmament must be accelerated. The newer nuclear-armed states—India, Israel, and Pakistan—must adhere to the same nuclear disarmament measures expected of the world’s 190 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) member states.

Even with the NPT, political and military tensions continue to drive proliferation behavior in regional hot spots. If U.S.-led talks with Iran and North Korea fail to persuade them to curb sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle activities and meet their nonproliferation obligations, the risk of arms races and conflicts will grow.

Doing nothing is not an option. No matter who occupies the White House following the 2012 election, he must pursue a nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament “stimulus plan.” It should include the following elements:

End Cold War Thinking. The chances of a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack by Russia or the United States on the other is near zero, yet their arsenals and strategies are still designed to counter such a threat and engage in a protracted nuclear war. President Barack Obama has taken some steps to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons, but there is much more to be done. The White House must follow through by implementing a saner, “nuclear deterrence only” strategy, which would allow U.S. and Russian arsenal reductions to no more than 500 deployed nuclear warheads each—the size of the Soviet force in 1962.

Reduce Global Arsenals. By signaling he is prepared to accelerate reductions and move U.S. forces below the ceilings of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the U.S. president could induce the Kremlin to build down rather than build up its forces, saving tens of billions of dollars. With New START verification tools in place, reciprocal U.S.-Russian cuts, including new transparency measures on tactical nuclear weapons, need not wait for a new, follow-on treaty. Such actions would put pressure on China to abandon its slow increase in nuclear forces and open the door for serious multilateral disarmament discussions.

Prevent a Nuclear-Armed Iran. Tehran has not yet made a decision to build nuclear weapons and does not have the necessary ingredients for an effective nuclear arsenal. Bipartisan experts agree that preventive military strikes would be counterproductive; sanctions can alter Iran’s calculus, but cannot halt its program. Diplomacy remains the best option.

U.S. negotiators must redouble efforts to limit Iran’s enrichment to normal reactor-grade levels, cap its uranium stockpiles, and give international inspectors greater access to ensure that Iran has halted all weapons-related work, all in exchange for a phased rollback of international sanctions.

End Testing Forever. Twenty years after its last nuclear test, the United States no longer needs or wants a resumption of testing. Yet by failing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Washington has denied itself and others the treaty’s full security benefits.

With the CTBT in force, the established nuclear-weapon states would not be able to proof-test new nuclear warhead designs, newer nuclear nations would find it far more difficult to build more-advanced warhead types, and emerging nuclear states would encounter greater obstacles in fielding a reliable arsenal. U.S. action on the CTBT is urgently needed to help head off future nuclear arms competition, particularly in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Korean peninsula.

Secure Nuclear Material. Today, dozens of states possess nuclear material that must be safeguarded from terrorists. Pakistan’s nuclear assets are especially vulnerable. Recent nuclear security summits have prompted significant action, but states must maintain and improve their performance. Consistent funding and U.S. leadership on a long-term, global framework for action are critical.

New efforts to end the production of fissile material, particularly by India and Pakistan, are also essential. To help achieve a global cutoff treaty, the five original nuclear powers could formalize their de facto production halt and engage Islamabad and New Delhi in direct talks to curtail their fissile production.

As Kennedy once suggested, we must work faster and harder to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us. In the months ahead, U.S. policymakers must overcome petty partisan politics to help address today’s grave nuclear challenges.