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The Gravest Danger
By Sidney D. Drell, James E. Goodby
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
From the Past to the Present
Was the Past a Precedent or an Exception?
In revulsion at the wanton, indiscriminate loss of human life that use of chemical and biological weapons can inflict, and dubious about the military utility of these weapons, nations have agreed to forgo their possession and use. These norms of non-possession and non-use are broadly endorsed and honored by most nations, but some honor them only in the breach, especially as regards enforcement. Evidently such formal agreements or treaties, while necessary to establish standards of behavior, alone are not sufficient to ensure full compliance.
The treatment of nuclear weapons has been different. These weapons have not been outlawed and their use has not been prohibited. Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons exist, and some nations, including the United States and Russia, have declared that they feel free to use them to meet a serious attack, whether nuclear or not. This is not a reflection of indifference about their destructive potential. It has happened because, almost from their inception, nuclear weapons formed the central pillar of the bipolar structure of the Cold War. Seeing this, nonnuclear weapon states concluded that the non- proliferation regime was inherently discriminatory; naturally they pressed the five original nuclear powers — the United States, the Soviet Union (now Russia), the United Kingdom, France, and China — to reduce their nuclear arsenals and their reliance on these weapons.
The Soviet Union and the United States, over the years of their bitter competition, each built many thousands of nuclear weapons and mated them with the most advanced means of delivery that they could devise. The number of nuclear weapons grew rapidly during the 1970s as new technologies led to the deployment of multiple highly accurate warheads on individual missiles (MIRVs). This trend was reversed in the late 1980s by the landmark agreement between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate intermediate-range ballistic and ground-launched cruise missiles, and to advance the negotiations that led to START I, both of which are still in effect. But despite this, nuclear weapons remained of central importance in the war preparations of Moscow and Washington, and remain so today. War planning in the United States included repeated nuclear strikes as part of a doctrine of "protracted nuclear war," endorsed by President Jimmy Carter. Similarly the Soviets wrote about war-fighting and war-winning nuclear use doctrines. Throughout the nuclear era, however, elaborate measures were taken on both sides to ensure that nuclear weapons would not be used except under the direst of circumstances and only as directed by the heads of government and top military commanders. Many of these measures were administrative assignments of authority and procedures to assure positive control. Others were technical or physical features that would prevent unauthorized persons from gaining access to nuclear weapons or from detonating them if they did. Some were in the military or intelligence fields, ensuring the accuracy of information about the actions and intentions of the adversary and avoiding direct military combat at any level.
The Soviet Union and the United States followed these and other procedures independently of the other but not completely autonomously. There was an awareness of what the other was doing; certain expectations developed on each side about the proper control of nuclear weapons. This system of parallel restraint broke down only once in a way that threatened war — the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. A notable example of parallel unilateral measures was the decision by President George H. W. Bush in 1989 to withdraw U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from forward deployment, shortly thereafter reciprocated by President Gorbachev for the Soviet Union.
The United States and the Soviet Union also sought to regulate their bilateral nuclear competition through treaties. Those agreements formalized the idea that relations between heavily armed adversaries could be cooperative, as well as competitive. Even though these treaties were accompanied by occasional real and alleged violations, they provided valuable predictability, reinforced parallel practices, and heightened the two nations' awareness of each other's military thinking. It is not at all clear that the kind of feedback loop that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union will inform the actions of other interacting nuclear weapon states. Of course, the leaders of India and Pakistan understand very well the principles of strategic stability. In fact, they have declared explicitly that they will follow them. But the deep hostility between them has so far prevented the kind of adversarial cooperation that makes effective arms control possible. The same can be expected in other regions.
The Soviet Union and the United States also worked together to shape the global nuclear environment in which their competition took place. Their efforts were generally, although not always, aimed at preventing nuclear proliferation. Nothing like that is happening in the case of India, Pakistan, and China and would be most unlikely to happen in the case of North Korea and Iran. The United States and the Soviet Union each created alliances that had the effect of extending nuclear deterrence to other countries. In the case of American alliances, both in Europe and in Northeast Asia, governments that might have decided to build nuclear weapons relied on the U.S. nuclear deterrent instead of their own. The United States and the Soviet Union cooperated to slow down or prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by third countries. They did this through treaties open to all nations, such as the limited nuclear test ban treaty and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They also collaborated in denying technology and nuclear materials through their own national export controls and through guidelines developed with other nations. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia and the United States cooperated in securing the return to Russia of nuclear weapons that had been deployed in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
In contrast to this, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan has weakened the non-proliferation regime. If North Korea proceeds to develop and deploy a substantial nuclear weapons arsenal, this will push even an anti-nuclear Japan to give serious thought to becoming a nuclear weapon state. Responsible and law-abiding governments like those of South Korea and Taiwan may have to follow suit. An Asian nuclear arms race could ensue. The restraint regime eventually constructed by the nuclear superpowers during the Cold War is not necessarily going to be replicated in this phase of the nuclear era.
The most important achievement of Moscow and Washington was to establish a norm: nuclear weapons were not to be used. At no time did the two governments sign a treaty or issue a statement saying this. Their strategic doctrines rested on the proposition that nuclear weapons could be used. From time to time, dangerous forms of nuclear diplomacy were employed by the two countries, in particular by Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President Richard Nixon. But to this day, nuclear weapons were never used. Nearly sixty years of non-use certainly established a precedent. Nuclear weapons, as NATO's official doctrine has proclaimed, have become weapons of last resort. This precedent — without a doubt the most important precedent of the Cold War — is now in some danger. It is jeopardized by the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorist organizations and the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that occasionally engage in hot wars with one another. The prospects of more nuclear weapon states around the rim of Asia, heightened tensions in Northeast Asia and South Asia, and continuing hostilities in the Middle East pose urgent threats to international peace and security.
The established norm of non-use of nuclear weapons also has been challenged by recent policy statements by the Bush administration concerning the roles and missions of U.S. nuclear forces. The assertion has been made that a nuclear response to the use of biological weapons in combat would be appropriate. There is also a tendency in U.S. official circles to consider the use of low-yield nuclear weapons against deep underground hardened bunkers a reasonable option in a limited war. And deterrence is considered to be enhanced on the grounds that use of such low-yield nuclear weapons would be approved by U.S. national command authorities, or at least potential adversaries might believe that to be so. Such a policy would be in direct conflict with the tacit understanding that gradually emerged as the world moved through the first fifty-eight years of the nuclear age: the only rational purpose for nuclear weapons is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by an opponent and to respond in kind if attacked with nuclear weapons.
Deterrence emerged as the key concept of the nuclear age when the terrifying consequences of nuclear war became generally known and were confronted by the human conscience for the first time. Nuclear bombs were not just one more weapon. With an energy release a million times larger than that of weapons previously known to mankind, mass destruction is inevitable. No protection is possible. These weapons present humanity with a fundamental issue: can civilization survive? "We are rapidly getting to the point that no war can be won," said President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Conventional wars can be fought to exhaustion and surrender, but nuclear war can come close to "destruction of the enemy and suicide." Ronald Reagan understood this in his bones and, while in office, often said, "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." These facts make it imperative for the United States to reaffirm that the singular purpose of its nuclear weapons is to avoid their use, not only by others against the United States and its allies but also by the United States against anyone else. The United States must prepare to meet its vital interests in the world by developing and training twenty-first century conventional forces against emerging threats, while pursuing diplomacy to discourage, if not prevent, the development of threats posed by nuclear weapons.
The United States should leave no doubt about its intentions to take action preemptively if it perceives an imminent threat of the use of biological or chemical weapons, and to respond forcefully against any actual use of biological or chemical weapons in combat. The threat to try commanders for war crimes if Iraq used any of these weapons was entirely correct and a deterrent in itself. At the same time, the technical realities of nuclear weapons and their effects must be recognized and their value in confronting biological and chemical weapons or hardened deeply buried targets should not be exaggerated. This point will be discussed more fully later but these technical factors are relevant:
It is impossible to destroy hardened underground bunkers or military targets with a nuclear bomb without generating a substantial cloud of deadly radioactivity.
The effective range of nuclear weapons in neutralizing the deadly effects of biological pathogens and chemical gases is severely limited by the fact that the blast effects of nuclear weapons extend beyond the range of the high temperatures and radiation they create when detonated underground, and that are required for destroying such agents.
A great payoff in the ability of military systems to destroy hardened underground targets can be gained from improvements in intelligence that make it possible to locate, identify, and characterize such targets with accuracy, and to define and identify their vulnerable points such as tunnel entrances or air ducts.
Additional gains could be achieved by improving the ability of weapons with hardened reentry bodies and armed with conventional explosives to penetrate into the earth to depths of several tens of feet or more before detonating, thereby delivering a significantly larger shock onto the target than if they were detonated at or near the surface.
If the United States, the strongest nation in the world, concludes that it cannot protect its vital interests without relying on nuclear weapons in limited war situations, whether against biological weapons or deeply buried targets, it would be a clear signal to other nations that nuclear weapons are necessary for their security purposes. That inevitably would dash any hope of reducing nuclear danger by strengthening a non-proliferation regime. Diplomatic operations, in the context of a policy of defensive last resort for nuclear weapons, offer the best hope for preserving and strengthening a non- proliferation regime in the years ahead.
Emerging U.S.-Russian Relations
The collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the transformation of the United States–Soviet/Russian relationship have radically changed the way in which the nuclear threat is perceived by the two nations, and by others. In some ways the danger appears to have receded: deep crises in the American-Russian relationship are not likely to occur. In the past, it was not implausible to think that a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war might be triggered by tensions over access to Berlin, conflicts in the Middle East, or Soviet deployment of missiles in Cuba. Operations of nuclear-equipped sea and air units of the two sides, especially in times of tension, generated additional worries about the adversary's intentions. The deployment of new strategic weapons systems, indeed almost any action that seemed to threaten the military balance, injected fresh concerns into the already troubled relationship. All that is gone, probably forever.
But the perception, both in America and in Russia, that the other is not fully to be trusted in the life-or-death matter of nuclear weaponry has not completely disappeared. Thus, the United States deems it necessary to hold in reserve thousands of warheads as a hedge against a renewal of hostility between the two countries. Russia does not fully trust U.S. assurances that the American ballistic missile defense system is not directed at gaining a decisive advantage in the nuclear relationship. It is a further cause for serious concern that both nations have kept their nuclear forces on high alert, ready to launch on very short notice. The existence of the other's nuclear-armed ballistic missiles is the only conceivable threat that would justify this. And so neither Russia nor the United States really has moved beyond a peace that is conditional.
The nuclear danger posed by this state of affairs is latent, hardly noticed on a day-to-day basis except by those manning the nuclear ramparts on each side, but it limits what the two nations can do together. The legacy of the Cold War still shadows the relationship.
This legacy is felt in other, more direct ways as well. The Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) was a state within the state during Soviet times. Whole cities were part of its domain and a sizable portion of the Soviet work force was employed in one way or another by the Ministry. MINATOM is still a force to be reckoned with in the new Russia. Its potential as a hard currency earner gives it a certain independence, even in foreign affairs. Its dealings with Iran, for example, have been a major source of irritation between Washington and Moscow. U.S.-Russian collaboration in nuclear non-proliferation has been hampered by MINATOM's determination to sustain its industrial and technological base through contacts and contracts with other countries that are, at best, questionable in terms of blocking the spread of nuclear weapons to additional nations. The new relationship between Russia and the United States should permit a greater common understanding between the two countries regarding permissible exports under Article IV of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This has not yet been achieved; the problem deserves a higher priority.
Another legacy of the Cold War is the large quantity of nuclear materials and nuclear warheads stored in less than ideal security circumstances. With the lifting of the oppressive measures that regulated travel and other aspects of life in the Soviet Union, and the deterioration of Russian security services, there came a need for new systems of protecting and accounting for nuclear materials. Substantial progress has been made in installing new systems, but vulnerabilities remain. A market exists for nuclear weapons–usable materials which Russia may inadvertently supply unless these vulnerabilities are eliminated.
An example of successful U.S. statecraft deployed to deal with this problem is the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program. Funded by the United States Congress since 1992, the program provides, inter alia, for material protection, control, and accountability (MPC&A) of the special nuclear material (plutonium 239, and enriched uranium) in the former Soviet Union. The largest stockpiles of the world's nuclear weapons and fuel reside there. As reported in 2002 by the Harvard University Project on Managing the Atom (Matthew Bunn, John P. Holdren, and Anthony Weir, 2002), Russia still has some 160 tons of separated plutonium and 1,100 tons of highly enriched uranium, enough fuel for more than 50,000 nuclear warheads, in addition to its approximately 20,000 warheads that already exist. Material is reportedly spread across more than 250 buildings at 50 sites. Warheads are located in more than 60 sites, in more than 160 storage bunkers. This constitutes a very rich treasure for would-be proliferators or terrorists, emphasizing the importance of cooperative measures to secure them from theft or sale.
Excerpted from The Gravest Danger by Sidney D. Drell, James E. Goodby. Copyright © 2003 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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