Reprinted from Disarmament, a periodic review by the United Nations, Volume XX, Numbers 2 and 3, 1997

Abstract: There is a growing international expert consensus for moving rapidly and seriously towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. One immediate step towards that goal, recommended in a number of expert reports, would be for the United States and Russia to end the cold war practice of maintaining thousands of nuclear missiles on "hair -trigger" alert, ready to launch on fifteen minutes notice. The United States public strongly supports eliminating or greatly reducing the levels of nuclear weapons. There is also growing support among military leaders, both retired and active duty, for reducing the nuclear weapon stockpiles and budgets. The policies of the governments of the nuclear-weapon States do not yet fully reflect this public and military consensus. It is our task to help bring these government policies in line with the desires of their citizens.

There is a growing consensus among nuclear policy experts in the United States that dramatic changes are needed in US nuclear policy and that much deeper cuts are possible in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia. This year, over a dozen independent research institutes and study groups in the United States will release reports on reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons and the feasibility of eliminating these weapons entirely. The directors of many of these projects formed the Committee on Nuclear Policy to emphasize and expand the emerging consensus on these vital issues.

The Committee includes project directors from the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Henry L. Stimson Center, the Progressive Policy Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other institutes.

These experts are just part of a larger current that has come to believe that the present nuclear policies are irrational and dangerous and that moving more rapidly towards elimination of these weapons is directly in the national security interest of the United States and other nations.

The Roots of Consensus

The foundations of the new initiatives for elimination of nuclear weapons have been underway for many years. In particular, they have been forged by the continuing international debates over implementation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and encouraged by the global support for a true Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The collapse of the Soviet Union has both made fundamental change in nuclear policy possible, and has increased concern that the chaos in Russia brings us dangerously close to nuclear accidents or nuclear terrorism.

Two recent reports have played a seminal role in developing the new consensus. The first is the report from the Henry L. Stimson Center released in December 1995, "Report of the Steering Committee of the Project on Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction." The second is the Report of the Canberra Commission released in August 1996. Both reports gave new authority to calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The Stimson Center report, chaired by the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Andrew Goodpaster, included among its members Paul Nitze, a major strategic advisor to both Democratic and Republican presidents, General Charles Horner, the commander of air combat operations during the Gulf War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, former Assistant Secretary of State Rozanne Ridgway and General W. Y. Smith and General William F. Burns. They concluded:

"The Cold War's end and the dangers of nuclear proliferation demand a fundamental reappraisal of the role of nuclear weapons in US policy and in global politics. In the changing strategic environment, nuclear weapons are of declining value in securing US interests, but pose growing risks to the security of the United States and other nations. The only military role of nuclear weapons -- the deterrence of other nuclear threats -- could be met with far fewer nuclear weapons. US national security would be best served by a policy of phased reductions in all states' nuclear forces and gradual movement toward the objective of eliminating all weapons of mass destruction from all countries." (An Evolving US Nuclear Posture, Second Report of the Steering committee Project on Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction, Henry L. Stimson Center, December 1995)

The Canberra Commission Report brought onto the international stage the consensus developing among the policy experts that government policies must move quickly and irreversibly towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. The prestigious panel concluded:

"The Canberra Commission is persuaded that immediate and determined efforts need to be made to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the threat they pose to it....Nuclear weapons are held by a handful of states which insist that these weapons provide unique security benefits, and yet reserve uniquely to themselves the right to own them. This situation is highly discriminatory and thus unstable; it cannot be sustained. The possession of nuclear weapons by any state is a constant stimulus to other states to acquire them....The end of the Cold War has created a new climate for international action to eliminate nuclear weapons, a new opportunity. It must be exploited quickly or it will be lost." (The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, August 1995)

The most dramatic initiative, however, has been the joint statement issued on December 4, 1996 by General George Lee Butler, former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Air Command and a member of the Canberra Commission and General Andrew Goodpaster, the chairman of the Stimson Center report. They concluded simply:

"As senior military officers, we have given close attention over many years to the role of nuclear weapons as well as the risks they involve. With the end of the Cold War, these weapons are of sharply reduced utility, and there is much now to be gained by substantially reducing their numbers and lowering their alert status, meanwhile exploring the feasibility of their ultimate complete elimination."

The Butler-Goodpaster statement was followed the next day by the release of a joint statement in favor of the elimination of all nuclear weapons by 61 international generals and admirals. These statements launched an unprecedented national debate on nuclear policy. For the first time, senior officials and experts debated the fundamental basis for US nuclear policy absent any external international crisis. There is not a Cuban missile crisis, a critical summit, or tensions over deployment of SS-20s and Pershing missile in Europe. This public debate, which continues today, has been generated purely by the power of the idea of eliminating nuclear weapons and by the prestige of the former military leaders who now advocate it.

Support for Elimination of Nuclear Weapons

There is also strong public support in the United States for eliminating nuclear weapons or greatly reducing their number. A recent poll showed that 84% of Americans would prefer a world where there were no nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the military’s enthusiasm for these weapons has waned. Representatives of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified to Congress that they fully support reducing deployed strategic warheads down to the limit of 2500 proposed for the new START III treaty and that they would like to reduce below the 6000 warhead limit of the START I treaty even before the Russian Duma ratifies START II.

Overall, expert opinion on this issue has swung away from debates over verification regimes for maintaining stable but still large nuclear arsenals towards serious consideration of a world with radically fewer or no nuclear weapons. These debates, however, have yet to penetrate official government policy in the United States. Officials in the current administration are comfortable with the course of their policies, confident that the reduction process will proceed smoothly from START II to START III, and see no need to change their policies or to question their assumptions. But the experts are hammering at these doors of complacency.

The joint statement of the Committee on Nuclear Policy issued in January 1997 summarizes the basic steps that many feel must be taken now. It states:

"The United States and world security are threatened by the continued existence of nuclear weapons and by the efforts of states to rely on nuclear weapons to meet their security objectives.

Therefore, our ultimate objective must be the elimination of all nuclear weapons by all nations through a verifiable and enforceable international agreement. Keeping in mind this goal and recognizing this will be a long and arduous process, the United States should now:

  1. Restate forcefully its commitment to the ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons by verifiable international agreements.
  2. State clearly that the United States will no longer plan for the use of nuclear weapons to deter or respond to non0nuclear attacks and that it maintains nuclear weapons only for the purpose of deterring their use as long as they are held by other states.
  3. Reduce the danger of nuclear war and the perception that we continue to rely on nuclear weapons by exploring with other nuclear states a series of measures that will immediately remove land and sea-based ballistic missiles from hair-trigger alert, and then progressively extend the time that would be required to return them to rapid response postures.
  4. Negotiate and implement deeper reductions in nuclear weapons with Russia and make clear its willingness to do so immediately
  5. Begin discussions with all nuclear-weapons states on measures, such as a comprehensive accounting system for nuclear weapons and materials, that would facilitate agreements to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles and the enforceable verification of an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons in all nations.

We believe these steps merit the support of all those concerned with the dangers of nuclear weapons including those who many not at this time favor the elimination of all nuclear weapons"

These basic steps form the core of most of the initiatives now underway in the United States to change administration policy. For example, former Senator Sam Nunn and Bruce Blair wrote in The Washington Post on June 22, 1997, criticizing the slow pace of the Administration’s program of nuclear reductions: "After discussing the nuclear situation at length with many Russian security officials," they say, "we believe the nuclear policies of both our countries need to change. Instead of threatening Armageddon to avoid war, we should pursue ‘mutual assured safety’ as our paramount goal."

Senator Nunn and Dr. Blair strongly urge that we de-alert our nuclear forces now.

"By de-alerting, we mean adopting measures that increase the amount of time needed to prepare nuclear forces for launch. Although such measures could be reversed if circumstances change and national security requires it, de-alerting would create a judicious delay in the capacity for launch in order to assure more reliable control over nuclear weapons, to reduce daily nuclear tensions, and to strengthen mutual confidence in each other’s nuclear intentions. De-alerting does not mean the elimination of nuclear weapons, but it would eliminate their hair trigger."

De-alerting the nuclear forces has become the major new initiative proposed by experts and non-governmental organizations in Washington. There is increasing press attention to the issue. Newsweek magazine warned in their recent issue of the irrationality of keeping nuclear weapons poised to send thousands of warheads aloft on 15 minutes notice.

"The risk of a nuclear incident might have been sharply reduced had the United States taken bolder steps to stand down its own forces during the 1990's — and talked the Russians into similar moves ... The general then in charge of the nuclear forces, Lee Butler, knew the SIOP was a ‘product of madness.’ He had been to Russia and seen the state of decay of its armed forces. ‘They couldn’t even make the runway lights work.’ Butler began marching through the SIOP ‘like Sherman through Georgia,’ eliminating targets and taking the B-52's off alert. Butler even wanted to begin standing down ICBMs. Butler’s ideas were deemed too radical. Fearful of congressional Republicans and uneasy about taking on the military, President Clinton has done little to ease the nuclear confrontation."

"Yet the risk hasn’t gone away. Ironically, the crumbling state of Russia’s arsenal heightens a new danger: the chance of nuclear war by accident. As the Soviet empire disintegrated, the Kremlin lost most of its early-warning radars, making those who control the weapons jumpy. Because its missiles are now fixed targets, the military has just 15 minutes in an attack to either use them or lose them. With its conventional forces vastly reduced, Russia now views its nuclear weapons as a first line of defense — not weapons of last resort. The Kremlin warns that it will ‘launch on warning’ rather than lose its whole arsenal to a first strike." ( Newsweek, June 23, 1997)

The respected expert journal, The Washington Quarterly, has devoted its summer issue to the new intensified debate on nuclear arms control. Editor Michael Mazarr summarizes what he terms "the strong agreement within U.S. National security circles that additional reductions in the numbers and alert levels of nuclear weapons would serve U.S. interests." He describes two trends:\

"Some observers — such as the Stimson Center study group, whose rationale for further progress in arms control is presented in one of the articles included — came to this conclusion largely for reasons familiar to arms control advocates, namely the dangers inherent in large nuclear stockpiles. Bu the others such as Fred Ikle and Paul Nitze (both of whom have essay appearing below) placed more emphasis on a new, post-Cold War case against a high level of nuclear armament — that it obstructed the emergence of a new U.S.-Russian relationship, or that it enshrined a world of nuclear deterrence that canceled out U.S. conventional military dominance." (The Washington Quarterly, Summer 1997)

Every month, new articles, studies or reports appear building the case for a change in policy. The most recent, and perhaps the most prestigious new report has just been release by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The Academy urges the U.S. government to take immediate action to reduce the risks of nuclear war and to move towards the international prohibition of nuclear weapons. The recommendations are contained in a detailed study, The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy by a distinguished panel of scientists, retired military officials, and experts, and chaired by retired Army Major General William F. Burns.

The panel warns that U.S. nuclear weapons policy must be adapted to the post-Cold War requirements. Smaller forces, they say, would greatly reduce the threat of accidental or unauthorized launches. The panel says:

"The basic structure of plans for using nuclear weapons appears largely unchanged from the situation during the Cold War, with both sides apparently continuing to emphasize early and large counterforce strikes and both remaining capable, despite reductions in numbers and alert levels, of rapidly bringing their nuclear forces to full readiness for use.

"As a result, the dangers of initiation of nuclear war by error (e.g. based on false warning of attack) or by accident (e.g. by a technical failure) remain unacceptable high."

In sharp contrast to current government policy, Gen. Burns said at a Washington briefing releasing the report, "We strongly recommend immediately beginning serious discussions to outline the details of the proposed START III agreement, rather than waiting for START II to be implemented." The study concludes that the U.S. and Russia must continue the reductions of their nuclear forces which the START negotiations have begun. Moreover, the other declared and undeclared nuclear weapons states must be brought into the process in order to facilitate U.S. and Russian reductions to a level below 1,000 warheads each. The level of 1,000 would include all warheads — strategic and non-strategic, active and reserve — as compared to current plans to maintain a "hedge" force of thousands of warheads that could be rapidly re-deployed.

The study concludes that nuclear weapons should be restricted to their "core function" of only deterring or responding to a nuclear attack against the United States and its allies. "Our fundamental recommendation," said Gen. Burns, "is that the United States should restrict the role of nuclear weapons to deterring or responding to a nuclear attack....the United States should not threaten to respond with nuclear weapons to attacks by conventional, chemical, or biological weapons." Once nuclear weapons have been restricted to this military utility, it will be possible to enact certain steps which would help reduce the dangers which nuclear weapons continue to pose.

The NAS study is the most authoritative American study yet in the growing expert consensus that new, dramatic steps are needed to revise US nuclear policy. The study urges the government to begin now to institute the following recommendations to reduce the dangers inherent in current policies and postures:

Talks to outline the details for the proposed START III agreement should begin immediately, before START II is implemented. "With the Cold War over, planning to retaliate massively against a nuclear attack is not the appropriate basis for making responsible decisions regarding the actual use of nuclear weapons."

The United States should begin technical discussions with the Russians to provide higher levels of operational safety for nuclear weapons. Further studies are needed to examine methods which could reduce the dangers of the hair-trigger alert postures which both U.S. and Russian nuclear forces are presently in. "Elimination of continuous-alert practices should be pursued as a principal goal in parallel with, but not linked to, START III."

The United States should make "no-first-use" of nuclear weapons its explicit doctrine, rather than maintaining its position of "first-use-if-necessary." Russia should also be encouraged to return to a policy of no-first-use.

U.S. ballistic missile defense research and development should remain focused on effectively defending against the threat from shorter-range missiles, following the guidelines outlined by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. "The focus...should be to field a mobile system capable of defending relatively small areas against projected theater ballistic missile threats, which the committee believes will remain limited to a range of roughly 1,000 kilometers for some time."

"The end of the Cold War," the report concludes, "has created conditions that open the possibility for serious consideration of proposals to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons.....The committee has concluded that the potential benefits of a global prohibition of nuclear weapons are so attractive relative to the attendant risks that increased attention is now warranted to studying and fostering the conditions that would have to be met to make prohibition desirable and feasible."

Implementing these recommendations will not be easy. Reports alone are never enough. It will require a great deal of determined effort, a focused campaign, and close coordination among the experts and non-government advocates. The trends, however, seem clear. It is likely that over the next year, the failure of the current policies to continue the progress in reducing nuclear dangers will become more obvious. It is likely that the power and inherent logic of the new initiatives will attract wider and wider support, and eventually prevail.

Joseph Cirincione is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1779 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC, 20036.  In 1997, he was a Senior Associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington and served as the Executive Director of the Committee on Nuclear Policy.