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
WashingtonIn a well-orchestrated joint announcement last May, the
five recognized nuclear powersthe United States, Russia, Britain,
France, and Chinaproclaimed their "unequivocal commitment to
the ultimate [goal] of a complete elimination of nuclear weapons."
If that statement leaves you less than awed, youre 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
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 1,5002,000 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 6,0007,000 to 1,500). The US rejected
the offer but provided no public justification for why it required so
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, Russias
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. Russias 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 determinewith only two or three minutes to sparethat
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 administrations 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 Russias 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?
Its not as though we havent 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 Unions 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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