Memorandum for the next President

The Union of Concerned Scientists has released a statement imploring the United States among other things to basically get rid of most of its battle-ready nuclear weapons, halt missile defense, halt all new weapons development programs and sign treaties banning the development of any nuclear weapons. The statement is signed by as distinguished a roster of scientists that you could hope to find; it includes 23 Nobel laureates, 10 recipients of the National Medal of Science and 91 members of the National Academy of Sciences. The list includes scientists from across the political spectrum, lest the usual cynical folks see it as another “liberal conspiracy”.

Currently the United States is probably the biggest destabilizer of international security in the world, especially because of the global image that it maintains. A ridiculous number of nuclear weapons are still on hair-trigger alert. The US through various maneuvers continues to antagonize and alienate Russia. As I have said before on this blog, global missile defense is eating away at the fabric of world peace. Sadly all this has seriously undermined the national security of the US itself, with virulent antagonism against it having emerged both among nations and terrorist-groups. The US today, even when its statements may be well-intended in an objective sense, has almost zero credibility when it asks other countries to disarm. All this is mainly thanks to the Bush administration, although they are carrying on a grand tradition perfected by the Reagan administration. This is one of the biggest holes they have dug their country in. One only hopes they don’t drag the entire world into it.

Some of the statements are worth copying out at length:

“By maintaining thousands of highly accurate nuclear weapons on alert, the United States perpetuates the only threat that could destroy it as a functioning society: a large-scale attack by Russia launched either without authorization, by accident, or by mistake because of a false warning of an incoming U.S. attack.

By giving nuclear weapons so large and visible a role in U.S. policy, and by planning to maintain and even upgrade its nuclear arsenal indefinitely, the United States has increased the incentive for other nations to acquire nuclear weapons, and reduced the political costs to them of doing so. The United States has further bolstered this incentive by threatening to use nuclear weapons against states that do not possess them.

By contributing to a climate in which possessing nuclear weapons is legitimate, the United States has also undermined the ability of the international community to prevent more states from acquiring them. And while the political barriers to acquiring these weapons are crumbling, technical barriers are also falling. The world could soon face a spate of new nuclear weapons states.

The world will stay on this course as long as the United States and the other nuclear powers —Britain, China, France, and Russia—assume that nuclear weapons are essential to their security. To avoid a new and more dangerous nuclear era, these states must drastically reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in their security policies. The United States can, and should, take the lead in promoting an effort to clear the path to a world free of nuclear weapons.

There is no plausible threat over the next decade or beyond that requires the United States to maintain more than a few hundred survivable nuclear weapons. There is also no military reason to link the size of U.S. nuclear forces to those of other countries. Nor does any plausible threat require the United States to retain the ability to launch nuclear weapons in a matter of minutes, or even hours.

Then, as we are all just holding our breath for Bush to leave, there are sound and straightforward prescriptions (italics mine) for the next President, as well as a reference to the ambitious disarmament plan uncovered by the group headed by Reagan defense secretary George Schultz. The plan is lent credence by the fact that all these gentlemen are seasoned leaders and statesmen, and most importantly they are no doves who would espouse a knee-jerk pacifist stance.

Four of the most seasoned architects of U.S. national security policy—George Shultz, Secretary of State under President Reagan; William Perry, Secretary of Defense under President Clinton; Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford; and Sam Nunn, former Senator from Georgia—have forcefully articulated the need for a new approach. They argue that the United States should embrace the goal of a “world free of nuclear weapons” as a vital contribution to preventing more nations, and eventually terrorists, from acquiring nuclear weapons.[1]

In short, it is time for a change.

The next president should bring U.S. nuclear weapons policy into line with today’s political and strategic realities by taking 10 critical, unilateral steps. These steps are practical and pragmatic: they would increase U.S. security by decreasing the risks of a Russian nuclear attack, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear terrorism. These steps would also lay the groundwork for a world without nuclear weapons, and enable the United States to lead other nations in that direction:

1. Declare 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.

2. Reject rapid-launch options by changing its deployment practices to allow the launch of nuclear forces in days rather than minutes.

3. Eliminate preset targeting plans, and replace them with the capability to promptly develop a response tailored to the situation if nuclear weapons are used against the United States, its armed forces, or its allies.

4. Promptly and unilaterally reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal to no more than 1,000 warheads, including deployed and reserve warheads. The United States would declare all warheads above this level to be in excess of its military needs, move them into storage, begin dismantling them in a manner transparent to the international community, and begin disposing—under international safeguards—of all plutonium and highly enriched uranium beyond that required to maintain these 1,000 warheads. By making the endpoint of this dismantlement process dependent on Russia’s response, the United States would encourage Russia to reciprocate.

5. Halt all programs for developing and deploying new nuclear weapons, including the proposed Reliable Replacement Warhead.

6. Promptly and unilaterally retire all U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons, dismantling them in a transparent manner, and take steps to induce Russia to do the same.

7. Announce a U.S. commitment to reducing its number of nuclear weapons further, on a negotiated and verified bilateral or multilateral basis.

8. Commit to not resume nuclear testing, and work with the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

9. Halt further deployment of the Ground-Based Missile Defense, and drop any plans for space-based missile defense. The deployment of a U.S. missile defense system that Russia or China believed could intercept a significant portion of its survivable long-range missile forces would be an obstacle to deep nuclear cuts. A U.S. missile defense system could also trigger reactions by these nations that would result in a net decrease in U.S. security.

10. Reaffirm the U.S. commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament, and present a specific plan for moving toward that goal, in recognition of the fact that a universal and verifiable prohibition on nuclear weapons would enhance both national and international security.

If the next president takes these steps, the United States will have greatly enhanced national and international security, while also setting the stage for negotiations to reduce the nuclear arsenals of other countries. Together with these nations, the United States can then tackle the challenges entailed in negotiating and implementing verifiable, multilateral reductions to levels well below 1,000 nuclear warheads—thereby laying the groundwork for an eventual worldwide prohibition on nuclear weapons.

Even 1000 warheads are quite a lot. China, Britain and France have had no more than 200-400 warheads each. The US with its bigger size might need say 500-600. But 1000 seems to be a good goal for appeasing people from the entire political spectrum. A larger number can also be based on submarines, as is the case with Britain. It’s also interesting that these scientists have unanimously opposed the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. In my opinion, eliminating missile defense or greatly limiting it would be the top priority for now.

Whoever the next President is has a lot to accomplish. I personally believe that radically changing the face of US nuclear weapons strategy is the single-most important international goal for him or her. Combined with other policies, in this action lies the key to national security. I don’t see John McCain doing it to any reasonable extent. Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama (who apparently has signed on to the Schultz vision) would do well to have a copy of the above statement in one of their drawers. We can only hope.



  1. 1

    I’m not terribly happy with this list, even though I agree with many of its specific points. I feel that it’s too America-centric; there’s a lot of talk of unilateralism, of “inducing” the Russians to do this or that. I personally feel that arms control must be based on enhanced international cooperation, particularly between Russia and the United States. This is where the Bush Administration really screwed up–Putin offered a multilateral agreement to reduce US and Russian arsenals to a ceiling of 1,000 strategic warheads, and the US rejected it. Essentially, I believe that what the next President should do is try and pursue an agreement to this effect.

    I’m also not sure if canceling the RRW is necessarily such a great idea. Given the political realities surrounding the management of the US nuclear arsenal, it could play a useful role in gaining stockpile reductions–this is why the AAAS gave an open-ended assessment of the RRW program. At the same time, such a program should not go forward until a new strategic posture review has been made. Personally, I think that US arsenal reductions are more important than the loss of credibility that would be associated with new US weapons construction–no one seems to care that the Russians have never stopped warhead manufacture, or even really notice.

    To be honest, I’m a pessimist. I think that a bilateral agreement to reduce US-Russian strategic arsenals to 1,000 warheads apiece is very achievable. But I don’t think that much real progress to the elimination of nuclear weapons is likely, especially given the extent to which the Russians have come to emphasize nuclear weapons in their defense posture. I have given the question of what it would take to convince the Russians to abandon nuclear weapons considerable thought, and I see no realistic solution. Until one is found, it makes more sense to concentrate on concrete, achievable goals, like bilateral arms limitations treaties, rather than on “visions of a nuclear weapons-free world” that have little bearing on political and strategic reality, either at home or abroad.

  2. 2
    DV82XL Says:

    “6. Promptly and unilaterally retire all U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons, dismantling them in a transparent manner, and take steps to induce Russia to do the same.”

    I have a huge issue with this. Tactical nuclear weapons are by definition designed to be deployed against military targets, and a such offer the least expensive way to deter military action.

    The big problem with a purely strategic nuclear weapons is that it leads to situations where a response may not be worth the risk of a full nuclear exchange. Recall that de Gaul felt that France needed nuclear weapons because he correctly pointed out France could not depend on the Americans to sacrifice New York to save Paris.

    In fact if any class of nuclear weapons need to be retired it is the strategic arsenal, which has become worthless to all sides except to maintain a balance with other such arsenal; the only excuse to have them is to target the other side nuclear assets. The idea that any political or military objective can be met by breaking up the other sides cities is a holdover from the days when cities were the smallest target ICBMs and aircraft could reliably acquire over the distances involved. A staged multilateral reduction in land-base ICBMs is the most practical course of action this time.

  3. 3
    nucleardreams Says:

    I agree with most of these points. I too don’t see a world free of nuclear weapons anytime soon. I also don’t know what it would take for the Russians to disarm but as you pointed out, the Bush administration has made it so easy for them to go ahead with their nuclear status quo. Missile defense and unsubstantiated reassurances that the Polish missile interceptors don’t pose any threat to Russian missiles add the proverbial fuel to the fire. Do you know if they have anything like the RRW? What’s the status of the plutonium pits there? For the US, I recall reading somewhere recently that the W78s have integrity for 100 years! I need to dig up that source.

    As for the point about non-strategic weapons, I completely agree and have to say even I was confused there. I wonder if it was a typo and they meant to say “strategic”. Strategic weapons clearly need to be eliminated.

  4. 4

    The Russians don’t have anything like the RRW because they don’t need anything like the RRW. Their practice is still to manufacture new weapons when the old ones reach the end of their design lifetime, so they don’t need a weapon intended to be stockpiled for an indefinite period. My suspicion is that the new Russian missiles (the Topol-M and Bulava) use warheads that contain a physics package with a proven design dating back to the Soviet period, but reentry vehicles of post-Soviet, and sometimes very exotic, design. I believe that Russian weapons design practice differed from that of the United States, and that as a result there are fewer problems with warhead reliability and safety than with the W78 and W88 here in the US.

    Pits, it turns out, last for a very long time; the rest of the weapon, not so much. In fact, the facility at Y-12 that is charged with maintaining the W78s is apparently having horrible problems with the exotic materials inside of the physics package, and as a result isn’t actually having much success keeping the things in working order. Krank Munger has written several interesting blog posts and articles about it.

  5. 5

    *Frank Munger, not Krank Munger

  6. 6
    nucleardreams Says:

    Thanks for the Munger references. They are pretty interesting.

  7. 7

    Well, according to Y-12 the W76 issues have been resolved and the first refurbished unit should be ready “by the end of the year.”

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