“The Arms Control Association and all of the staff I've worked with over the years … have this ability to speak truth to power in a wide variety of venues.”
– Marylia Kelley
Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment
June 2, 2022
U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy: Present and Future
Share this

Remarks Prepared for a Breakfast Briefing to Governmental Delegates Organized by the Friends Committee on National Legislation
at the Millennium Hotel, New York

May 5, 2004

Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association

I want to thank the Friends Committee on National Legislation for organizing this session and for the invitation to speak with you on currents trends in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. The Friends Committee is one of the most effective public education and advocacy organizations working on nonproliferation in all of its aspects.

I also want to thank you for coming and for your efforts to improve and strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). My organization and its members are watching and monitoring your deliberations at the NPT PrepCom Meeting here in New York with great interest.

But as each of you know full well, the critical decisions are made back in the capitals and I know that many of you are watching closely what is happening in Washington, where my organization is based. Dr. von Hippel and I are here to try to provide for you some insights as to what is happening and what might likely happen with respect to the U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

As Under Secretary of State John Bolton said to the PrepCom on April 27th, there is a "crisis of noncompliance" with the NPT. I partly agree. Not only do Iran and North Korea represent a challenge to the norm of nonproliferation, so do the nuclear weapons programs of NPT nonsignatories India, Pakistan, and Israel.

But there is a related and in the long-run equally troubling crisis of "underperformance and missed opportunity" created by the United States' own lack of leadership and the in reducing the nuclear threat, and that crisis has, to a large extent, been precipitated by the Bush administration's policies to maintain its strategic nuclear flexibility and in some ways expand the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy.

Using the 2000 NPT Review Conference "13 Practical Steps"* as a reference point, I would like to review a few key developments concerning current U.S. nuclear weapons and disarmament policy and future trends.

The CTBT and the Nuclear Test Moratorium

Items one and two of the "13 Steps" call for early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and continuation of the nuclear test moratorium. On these counts, the Bush administration's opposition to the CTBT and its lukewarm commitment to continue observing the global nuclear test moratorium is well known.

As recently as this February, Secretary of State Powell reiterated that the administration has no plans to test. The head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Linton Brooks told Arms Control Today last December that the resumption of nuclear testing was discussed at a secret meeting held last summer but it was agreed that there is no need to do so for either stockpile maintenance or new weapons development.

Nevertheless, the current U.S. government is keeping its nuclear weapons development, production, testing options open. If current trends are not arrested, the Bush administration may be in a position to resume a program of a limited number of nuclear test explosions to confirm the performance of new warhead designs or to address purported concerns about the reliability of existing nuclear warhead types if it is elected to a second term.

  • The Pentagon's January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) calls for the development of the new nuclear weapons capabilities to provide a wider range of options to defeat "hardened and deeply buried targets."
  • In 2003, the Bush administration proposed the repeal of a 1994 legal prohibition on research and development on low yield (below 5kt TNT equivalent) nuclear weapons. Congress approved the repeal, but stipulated that work beyond the research phase for any new type or modified type of nuclear warhead would require Congressional authorization;
  • Despite claims from the administration that it would only wanted authority and money for research, the administrations intention to go further is now clear. Not only has the administration's budget request for research activities risen over last year's levels-from $6 million to $9 million for advanced nuclear concepts research on low-yield warheads and from $15 to $27 million for the nuclear earth penetrator-but in addition, the Energy Department's five year budget outlines a plan for further research and, if Congress allows, development of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator at a cost exceeding $485 million.

The activities are, in their own right, costly and counterproductive to the cause of global nuclear nonproliferation. In addition, such research and development could lead some planners in the U.S. military, political, and technical establishment to call for the resumption of nuclear testing. Over the last two to three years, the administration has advanced or considered ways to lower the technical and legal barriers to the possible resumption of U.S. nuclear testing.

  • The Energy Department is now working to reduce the time necessary to resume a technically significant nuclear test to 18 months over the next 2-3 years, and
  • In late-2001, senior Defense Department officials forwarded a proposal for consideration by the national security council principals that called for the repudiation of the 1996 U.S. signature on the CTBT and cutting off all funding for the CTBT PrepCom. The proposal was never considered, but could easily be revived.

These trends can and must be arrested. The U.S. Congress is showing an increasing level of discomfort with the administration's proposal - both Republicans and especially Democrats. If the executive branch asks for Congressional authorization and funding to develop a new nuclear bunker buster weapon in 2005 or 2006, the debate and opposition will be substantial and, I believe, sufficient to block such a precipitous and counterproductive step. A key factor in this debate will also be the degree to which U.S. allies and others in the international community express their concern and opposition to the development, production, and possible testing of new or modified U.S. nuclear weapons.

Irreversible and Verifiable Nuclear Reductions

Items five, six, and seven, of the "13 Steps" include the call for irreversible and verifiable reductions of both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Here again, the United States has fallen short.

The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty is being heralded here this week as a significant sign that the United States and Russia are fulfilling their NPT disarmament commitments. Think again.

First of all, let's consider the treaty itself.

The treaty will allow the U.S. to keep enough warheads in a "responsive force" to enable the United States to deploy an additional 2,400 strategic weapons within a three-year period after the conclusion of the agreement.

It does not require the two states to verifiably destroy their strategic nuclear delivery systems and currently the U.S. is planning to convert some of its strategic nuclear delivery platforms to conventional roles.

Past strategic reduction agreements between the two countries did not require the destruction of actual warheads, but the agreements did call for destruction of delivery vehicles. Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed in March 1997 to pursue "measures relating to… the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads," as part of a START III framework. Furthermore, in 1997, U.S. planners had already decided that they could reduce strategic arsenals essentially to what is being promised under SORT.

Without any further transparency or verification measures, the U.S. and Russia and the world will have less confidence in their ability to understand whether each party is on track to meeting their SORT obligations. I would note that Senator John Kerry, during the March 2003 debate on the resolution of ratification, was highly critical of the agreement's lack of additional verification provisions and he was the only Senator to introduce an amendment to the resolution. It would have required the President to report on an annual basis on the ability of the United States to monitor and verify Russian nuclear stockpiles under the SORT agreement. Unfortunately it failed to win approval.

The United States and Russia have also kept the issue of sub-strategic nuclear weapons reductions on the back burner.

In essence, through SORT, the Bush administration has rejected the principle of irreversibility and the wisdom of verification in favor of maintaining strategic nuclear flexibility.

Second, its is important to consider that the U.S. and Russia have not yet SORTED out how they will execute the promised reductions. As a recent news article in my organization's journal, Arms Control Today, notes, neither the U.S. nor Russia have settled on how they each will meet their SORT obligations. (See: "U.S. , Russia Still SORTing Out Nuclear Reductions," by Wade Boese <http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2004_05/SORT.asp> )

In the U.S., disagreements between the Departments of Defense and Energy over the size of the reserve stockpile of weapons have delayed the completion of a revised stockpile plan.

Both sides should be pressed to resume formal high level talks on accelerating the pace of reductions and providing greater transparency and accountability on their stockpiles.

Modern Pit Facility

The reluctance of the Bush administration to undertake more significant and irreversible reductions of strategic nuclear stockpiles is also creating pressures to maintain and even enlarge U.S. nuclear weapons production capacity.

As a part of its multibillion-dollar plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, the administration also wants a "Modern Pit Facility" to remanufacture (and possibly produce new) plutonium cores for warheads. It could cost up to $4 billion to build and $200-300 million a year to operate. Plans call for annual production levels of 125-450 plutonium pits by 2020. However, if the United States stays on track to reduce its nuclear stockpile to 3,000 warheads or less, such an enormous production capacity is unnecessary to maintain the existing U.S. nuclear stockpile in the absence of nuclear testing. You can find more on this in another article in this month's Arms Control Today by Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel. (See: "Does the United States Need a New Plutonium Pit Facility?" <http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2004_05/FettervonHippel.asp >.)

"Do As I Say, Not As I Do" Nuclear Use Policy

The "13 practical steps" also call for a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination.

At times, some current officials in the Bush administration say the right things. In 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that he told the leaders of nuclear armed India and Pakistan, which were teetering toward war, that:

"I can see very little military, political, or any other kind of justification for the use of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons in this day and age may serve some deterrent effect, and so be it. But to think of using them as just another weapon in what might start out as a conventional conflict in this day and age seems… to be something that no side should be contemplating."

But the Bush administration has refused to apply the same logic to its own policies. The United States' 2002 national security strategy makes explicit something that should at the very least remain ambiguous, and formally ruled out altogether. That is: the possible first use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states, including NPT states parties.

According to a Jan 31, 2003 Washington Times article, President Bush approved a national security directive that specifically allows for the use of nuclear weapons in response to biological or chemical attacks. According to the article, the classified National Security Presidential Directive 17 states that: The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force -- including potentially nuclear weapons -- to the use of [weapons of mass destruction] against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies."

This is the wrong course. It clearly undermines the political commitments made by the five nuclear weapons states on negative security assurances in the context of the 1995 NPT Review Conference.

The role of nuclear weapons, so long as they exist, should be to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others. This neither requires new types of nuclear weapons, nor massive Cold War-sized nuclear arsenals into the definite future.


Let me conclude by asking you to consider these facts and to hold the U.S. and other states not in compliance with the obligations and goals of the NPT into account. As U.S. Undersecretary of State John Wolf said last week before the NPT PrepCom in reference to Iran and North Korea:

"Judgments as to a state's behavior must be made by considering all the facts…It may be uncomfortable to hold a given country accountable for its violations, however, failure to do so undermines the standards we all support, emboldens others, and puts us all at risk."

The same is true for the current U.S. government's inaction with respect to its own disarmament obligations under the NPT.

*NOTE: In 1995 and 2000, when the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was under review, the nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states recognized that to preserve the objective of global nuclear nonproliferation, the nuclear-weapon states needed to reiterate and update their NPT Article VI disarmament commitments. On the basis of their May 1995 agreement to strengthen the treaty review process and pursue specific principles and objectives for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, the nuclear and non-nuclear NPT states-parties reached consensus to indefinitely extend the NPT. In May 2000, the nuclear-weapon states reaffirmed this approach by agreeing to a 13-point program of action on disarmament steps related to Article VI. In May of 2004, government representatives for NPT member states gathered at the United Nations in New York to prepare for the 2005 NPT Review Conference.

For an overview of the NPT, see: www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/nptfact.asp. For the full text of the 2000 NPT review conference final document, see www.armscontrol.org/act/2000_06/docjun.asp.