Bush administration officials say that because the United States and Russia are no longer enemies, the size of the Russian nuclear arsenal no longer matters. But that sentiment ignores the main risk from Russia: not from a deliberate nuclear attack but the possible leakage of nuclear weapons or material to would-be nuclear states or terrorist groups.

To prepare against "uncertainty" the Bush administration wants the option to keep the roughly 4,000 warheads to be removed from land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers. The Pentagon wants to store most of these warheads, including a "responsive force" of roughly 2,400 that it would be able to redeploy within weeks, months, or years. The administration's plan is, essentially, to move warheads from one place to another, with no guarantee that they will not be moved back.

The catch is that, if the United States keeps thousands of warheads in storage, Russia is likely to do the same, and Russia does not have security stringent enough to adequately control stored nuclear warheads and fissile material. The proliferation risk to the United States could thus increase because of its intention to maintain a responsive force.

Terrorist Theft

The risk of a complete nuclear device falling into the hands of terrorists or a would-be nuclear-weapon state is a nightmare scenario, but because of gaps in Russian warhead security, it is a possibility. According to the U.S. intelligence community, "the Russian warhead-security system may not be sufficient to meet today's challenge of a knowledgeable insider collaborating with a criminal or terrorist group." More than half of Russian warhead storage facilities may still lack basic modern security features, and the accounting and tracking systems are still in the early stages of deployment. U.S. intelligence reports that "Russian facilities housing weapons-usable nuclear material…typically receive low funding, lack trained security personnel, and do not have sufficient equipment for securely storing such material."

Direct-use nuclear materials are stored in hundreds of buildings at dozens of facilities across the country, and as noted above, Russian institutes have lost weapons-grade nuclear materials in thefts. This bad situation will only be made worse as Russian warheads are retired and dismantled unless the system of security improves more rapidly and room is made within secure storage sites.

To avoid exacerbating an already dangerous situation, the coming glut of nuclear weapons and materials from retired Russian weapons systems must be moved quickly and securely through the dismantlement and disposition process. Prolonged storage of either warheads or fissile materials is simply not an acceptable outcome.

Choose Wisely

The United States has to make a choice between maintaining nuclear flexibility and ensuring the secure storage and elimination of Russian warheads. This should be an easy decision: a large nuclear reserve force provides no benefits for U.S. security. The Bush administration plan to retain up to 2,200 deployed operational strategic warheads by 2012 is more than the nuclear arsenals of China, France, the United Kingdom, India, and Pakistan combined. It is more than enough to deter any conceivable adversary. China's nuclear force will pale in comparison to America's, even if Beijing eventually deploys 100 warheads on long-range missiles, as projected by U.S. intelligence. The so-called axis of evil (North Korea, Iran, Iraq) could acquire at most a handful of nuclear weapons over the next decade, if any.

A case can be made for keeping a limited number of warheads in reserve for reliability testing and to replace parts that are found to be defective. No reasonable justification, however, exists for keeping a reserve as large as that envisioned by the Pentagon.

A Better Way

The declining number of strategic weapons Russia deploys means that its nuclear complex is going to be further stressed in the coming years regardless of the U.S. decision to store its warheads, but a requirement to maintain its nuclear weapons would multiply this stress and increase the proliferation risk. If, however, the United States were to give up its requirement for a massive reserve, it would allow Russia to do the same and free both sides to place a high priority on securely storing and eliminating Russian nuclear warheads and fissile material.

Much cooperative research has been conducted between U.S. and Russian experts on ways to monitor warhead elimination without revealing classified information. At the 1997 U.S.-Russian summit in Helsinki, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed that START III would include "[m]easures relating to the transparency of strategic nuclear warhead inventories and the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads." Presidents Bush and Putin should commit both countries to a binding agreement to eliminate warheads removed from deployment under an effective "chain of custody" from deployment to disposal.

For Russia to give the United States such access to its retired warheads, Moscow will want a reciprocal role in the U.S. system. This means that the Bush administration would have to agree to eliminate its non-deployed warheads under effective monitoring. When one compares the risk of nuclear warhead and material theft in Russia to the probability that the United States will need to double the size of its arsenal in the future, the choice is easy.

The Bush administration has made nuclear proliferation a top rhetorical priority. It now needs to ensure that this priority permeates all aspects of its efforts to improve U.S. national security. The improving nature of the U.S.-Russian relationship should expand to include effective, transparent, and reciprocal steps to ensure the safety and security of nuclear weapons as they wind their way toward eventual and permanent elimination.


Jon Wolfsthal is an associate with the Non-Proliferation Project and Tom Collina is the director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. This is adapted from their article titled, "Nuclear Terrorism and Warhead Control in Russia," that appeared in the April 2002 edition of Arms Control Today.