Today's date:
 
Summer 2000


Clinton's Nuclear Folly

Stephen I. Schwartz is the publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the editor and co-author of Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Brookings Institution Press). The documents discussed in the article can be viewed at www.thebull.com.

Washington—In a well-orchestrated joint announcement last May, the five recognized nuclear powers—the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China—proclaimed their "unequivocal commitment to the ultimate [goal] of a complete elimination of nuclear weapons."

If that statement leaves you less than awed, you’re not alone. After all, the nuclear powers merely reiterated their obligations under the 32-year-old treaty without setting a date by which nuclear disarmament would occur or specifying how this "ultimate goal" would be achieved.

As it turns out, the US, contrary to this pledge, has no intention of eliminating its nuclear weapons anytime soon and is actually encouraging Russia to keep large numbers of weapons too.

As revealed in official documents obtained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, US negotiators have sought to allay Russian fears about a possible US national missile defense (NMD) system by ruling out any future reductions in strategic nuclear warheads below the 1,500–2,000 level and urging Russia to maintain its nuclear forces on constant alert.

At a meeting in Geneva in January where the documents were presented to Russia, Russian negotiators countered with an offer to slash, in one fell swoop, the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads held by each side (from the current levels of 6,000–7,000 to 1,500). The US rejected the offer but provided no public justification for why it required so many warheads.

That the US would forsake deep cuts in nuclear weapons for the indefinite future is bad enough. There are 11,000 fewer nuclear weapons today than in 1995, but that still leaves nearly 32,000 nuclear weapons, 95 percent of which are in US and Russian hands.

Worse still, the US is actually encouraging Russia to continue to maintain its strategic nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert, ready to fire within minutes of receiving a launch order. As a consequence of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the continuing economic difficulties in Russia, Russia’s early-warning network (its eyes and ears) is deteriorating. So many satellites and radars are inoperative or only partially functional that for as many as 12 hours each day, Russia has no means of detecting a missile launch from the US. As for attacks from US Trident submarines, each of which can carry up to 192 warheads, Russia essentially has no detection capability at all. That makes Russian military leaders nervous.

Combining decaying and inoperative early warning systems with a "launch on warning" posture for thousands of nuclear weapons is a recipe for nuclear disaster. Russia’s continuous high-alert posture has already triggered at least one major scare. On January 25, 1995, Russian radar technicians detected a routine Norwegian scientific rocket launch, but having failed to receive advance warning of the launch, they misinterpreted it as a Trident missile from a US submarine. Then President Boris Yeltsin hurriedly convened a threat assessment conference with his senior advisors and for about eight minutes they deliberated whether to launch a counterattack before the incoming missile arrived. Fortunately, Russian military officers were able to determine—with only two or three minutes to spare—that the rocket was in fact heading away from Russia and therefore posed no threat. If the next false alarm occurs under less peaceful world circumstances, the outcome could be far worse.

Although the Clinton administration’s rationale for a limited NMD system centers around "rogue states" like North Korea, only Russia has the capability today and into the indefinite future to deliver a large number of extremely powerful nuclear weapons to targets in the US. North Korea, on the other hand, has exactly zero deployed ballistic missiles and has halted its missile tests for the duration of negotiations with the US over the future of that program.

To be sure, the risk of deliberate nuclear war is far lower than in years past (even though both the US and Russia continue to maintain the capability to execute a devastating nuclear strike against each other). But the risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons is rising, in no small part because of Russia’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons even as its early-warning systems fall into disrepair.

But in the name of political expediency, the Clinton administration has chosen to ignore this very real and growing danger. Instead, it is expending significant time and political capital in the effort to modify the ABM Treaty to allow the deployment of a not-yet-fully tested and extremely limited missile defense system against a threat that may never fully materialize. Remember the "bomber gap" of the 1950s?
It’s not as though we haven’t tried this before. Since the 1950s, the US has spent nearly $122 billion (in constant 2000 dollars) on dozens of schemes to thwart ballistic missile attacks. Never has so much been spent for so long with so little to show for it. Until now, the only missile defense ever deployed was the Safeguard system, a single site based in North Dakota designed to protect Minuteman missiles, not people. Declared fully operational on October 1, 1975, Safeguard was shut down less than four months later because its 100 nuclear-tipped interceptors stood little chance of success against the Soviet Union’s missiles and because it was deemed too expensive to operate.

It is deeply disturbing that the Clinton administration would not only pursue NMD at the expense of achievable and verifiable arms reductions, but also knowingly exacerbate the danger by encouraging Russia to continue to deploy indefinitely thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert.

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