BITS Research Report 97.1
November 1997

III. Next Steps

The Future of Nuclear Disarmament

by Thomas Graham, Jr.


I would like to thank the Berlin Information-centre for Transatlantic Security for hosting this event and Otfried Nassauer and Oliver Meier especially for asking me here to discuss the future of nuclear disarmament. Nuclear arms control is at a turning point. Remarkable progress has been made over the last few years; goals beyond our reach for decades have finally been achieved: the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has been signed and an initial reversal of the superpower arms race has been negotiated through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty process. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been strengthened and made permanent, and South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakstan, Belarus, Argentina and Algeria have all forsworn nuclear weapons forever by becoming parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Amid all this important progress, we are in at least as much danger from nuclear weapons as we have ever been. We face a new nuclear threat today, that the next bomb under the World Trade Center in New York City, or in any other major city in the world, could be a nuclear device. Not long ago, I was at a conference at which a recently retired US general, a man who was thoroughly familiar with the US nuclear weapon program, opined that if substantial progress toward the elimination of nuclear weapons is not achieved in the next ten years, then we can be sure that at some point in the not too distant future a nuclear weapon will be exploded in anger on the territory of the United States. Such words are alarming, but cannot be dismissed. The threat is real.

While nuclear arms control does not offer an easy solution to this problem, it is the best of a very few tools with which we can even begin to address this threat. It falls on the nuclear arms control community, those with the most relevant experience in this area and the most acute awareness of it, to bolster the international nuclear nonproliferation regime so that the use of nuclear weapons can be avoided.

The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the NPT, is the cornerstone of international efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons. The NPT is often criticized as being less than perfect. But having been integrally involved in the negotiation of its indefinite extension in 1995, there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the NPT is the only agreement of its kind that we are going to get in the foreseeable future -- it binds all but five of the world’s nations to the idea that the further spread of nuclear weapons is illegitimate and illegal. We cannot afford to play philosophical or academic games with our best defense; we need to keep faith with its commitments, strengthen it, and move towards its full implementation as quickly as we are able.

The NPT defined the international nonproliferation regime. The United States acquired nuclear weapons in 1945; the Soviet Union followed suit in 1949, followed by the United Kingdom in 1952, France in 1960, and China in 1964. This increase in the number of nuclear weapon states took place against the background of predictions during the 1960s of 25 - 30 nuclear weapon states -- meaning states with nuclear weapons being integrated into their military arsenals -- by the late 1970s. If such a trend had continued unchecked that number could probably be doubled for 1997. Imagine for a moment a world in which 60 countries had independent nuclear arsenals. That is the reality we averted by negotiating the NPT, and that is the reality we could face again if we do not keep faith with our disarmament commitments under the NPT. But today the threat would be immeasurably worse because if we cannot limit the spread of nuclear weapons among states we also cannot limit the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations or criminal conspiracies. We cannot stop the diffusion of 1945 technology forever. And, as we discussed yesterday, fissile material may be for sale. If we deal with nuclear proliferation as a technical problem, we will, eventually, fail.

Proliferation is a political problem, and it demands a political solution, of which the NPT is a solid foundation. Advancing the cause of nuclear disarmament may not, in the end, be enough to avert disaster, but it is the only approach that offers any hope of limiting the problem; it is the only proven technique. The change the NPT made in the international consciousness regarding nuclear weapons was marked. Before the NPT entered into force in 1970, the acquisition of nuclear weapons had been a point of national pride. The NPT, by establishing a norm of international behavior, converted this former act of national pride into a violation of international law. The first French nuclear weapons test was greeted with banner headlines in Paris. Fourteen years later, after the NPT entered into force, the first Indian nuclear test was conducted, figuratively in the middle of the night, and euphemized as a "peaceful nuclear explosion." The number of declared nuclear weapon states is still the same as it was in 1968 when the NPT was signed -- five. There remain three states outside the NPT world system with unsafeguarded nuclear facilities, and compliance problems have occurred with two or three parties -- but 185 countries have become parties to the NPT. There are now only five states that are not part of the NPT regime -- Brazil, Cuba, India, Pakistan, and Israel, and Brazil has announced that it will join soon. The NPT changed the way the whole world thinks of nuclear weapons.

This change was not limited to the non-nuclear weapon states; the commitments of the nuclear weapon states are crucial to the health of the NPT regime and to the future of nuclear arms control. The indefinite extension of the NPT became an invaluable tool with which to promote specific nuclear disarmament objectives. "Keeping faith with New York" was a critical argument for the United States moving to closure on the CTBT and becoming a protocol signatory to the South Pacific and African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaties. The international nonproliferation regime depends at least as much on what happens in Washington, Moscow, London, Paris and Beijing as it does on what happens in New Dehli, Tel Aviv, Islamabad, Pyongyang, Baghdad, or Tehran. The NPT defines a balance of obligations between the nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states. The non-nuclear weapons states agree to never acquire nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons states agree to engage in nuclear disarmament negotiations with the ultimate objective of the elimination of nuclear weapons and also to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology. This is the essential bargain that has made all subsequent nuclear arms control possible for the nuclear weapon states and necessary to their security from the standpoint of preventing proliferation.

The NPT is unmistakably a Treaty on the abolition of nuclear weapons. Good faith negotiations toward nuclear disarmament are explicitly mandated in Article VI of the Treaty and the process by which the Treaty was indefinitely extended made that clear. During the NPT indefinite extension debate I spoke with several Ambassadors from countries in the developing world who told me that their countries could not accept second class status forever. In going along with an NPT of indefinite duration they did not agree to the indefinite extension of special privileges for the five nuclear weapon states. They understood that the abolition of nuclear weapons is not conceivable today, a year from now, and perhaps not for several decades. But it is the obligation of all States Parties to the NPT to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons; and this means doing everything that is possible under current conditions to minimize the role nuclear weapons play in the world. The NPT is the principal line of defense of the civilized world against the increasing risk that nuclear weapons might actually be used by unstable states, dissident sub-national groups, terrorist organizations, and criminal conspiracies. In order for the NPT regime to remain strong and viable the crucial commitment embodied in Article VI and the New York Principles and Objectives -- continued vigorous pursuit of nuclear disarmament -- must be met.

As important as the progress to date has been, more progress is essential in the near term if we are to keep the NPT regime strong. The US National Academy of Sciences has recently released a report recommending that nuclear forces be reduced far more and limited to the "core deterrence" role of simply deterring the use by others of nuclear weapons. The report urges that the United States and Russia reduce as soon as practicable to 1,000 total nuclear weapons -- as opposed to 3,500 strategic weapons each under START II and 2,000 contemplated under START III. The Report urges that promptly thereafter the other three nuclear weapon states be drawn into negotiations aimed at a residual level of 200 - 300 total weapons for the United States and Russia (less for the other three) until the world has changed sufficiently for the ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons to become possible. The Academy further recommends that the United States adopt a "no first use" policy with regard to nuclear weapons as part of the limiting of nuclear weapons to the "core deterrence" function and downgrading their political value (most important for non-proliferation objectives). These are prudent and timely objectives on the long road to a world free of nuclear weapons.

Now, however, domestic politics within Russia and the United States threaten the momentum toward nuclear disarmament built since the end of the Cold War. If the Duma fails to ratify START II, the US Senate has made clear its desire that the United States not reduce its nuclear arsenal below START I levels. Strident criticism of the US stockpile stewardship program threatens the ratification of the CTBT in the Senate; this program was explicitly part of the bargain that allowed the US to sign the CTBT and without it the Treaty likely will fail to secure US Senate approval. Critics of deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals on both sides raise the specter of a renewed Cold War at some time in the future; apparently they would prefer to face renewed tension with more rather than fewer nuclear weapons, although I, for one, would not. An abundance of transient political problems are threatening to derail the nuclear disarmament process.

Mutual unilateral reductions, like those proposed by Presidents Bush and Yeltsin in 1991 for tactical nuclear weapons, could offer a possible way to sidestep the current impasse in the Duma if it is not soon resolved. Russian officials have indicated willingness to consider further reductions. We must seek further progress in disarmament, such as the conclusion of a no first use agreement among the five nuclear weapon states and over time deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals down to minimal levels of nuclear weapons maintained only for the purpose of "core deterrence," as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. This should be the next phase in the disarmament process. Of course, strategic nuclear arms reductions below START II levels cannot take place unless each side has total and complete confidence in the actions as well as the intentions of the other. Unprecedented and comprehensive transparency measures will be necessary. The nuclear disarmament process will grow ever more complex as we move toward lower and lower levels of nuclear weapons. As we approach zero, arms control verification will take on an entirely new character. Considerations of enforcement will play an ever increasing role. We will not solve all these problems overnight, and that is why we must continue to apply ourselves to them constantly. The arms control community bears special responsibility because we are aware of the problem. There is no higher security priority.

A strong NPT regime is our best defense. And disarmament progress is absolutely essential to the strength of the NPT regime. The good news is that views regarding the role and utility of nuclear weapons can be changed; the NPT has demonstrated that. But change will almost always occur gradually and at the margins. We must keep the pressure on and keep our ultimate goal of a world free of nuclear weapons always in sight, if we are to survive this period in which the world can neither control nor abolish nuclear explosive technology. Today, it is technically possible for a terrorist organization with a nuclear weapon to cause death and destruction on a scale that only a major armed conflict could have caused half a century ago. We will be judged very harshly by future generations if we do not do everything in our power to prevent that from happening.


The Future of Nuclear Disarmament: START II/III and De-alerting Measures

by Nicola Butler


The nuclear arms reduction process is now moving much more slowly than in the early 1990s. No new strategic arms reduction treaties have been negotiated since START II was signed in January 1993.

START I, signed by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev in July 1991 reduced weapons on each side to no more than 6,000 accountable warheads on 1,600 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. It was closely followed by START II, signed by Bush and Yeltsin, which is intended to reduce strategic warheads to 3,000-3,500 on each side.

In January 1996, the US Senate finally ratified START II, but the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, has yet to ratify the Treaty. At the Helsinki summit of March 1997, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed a Joint Statement on Parameters on Future Reductions in Nuclear Forces, outlining a framework for START III negotiations. However, progress on START III remains blocked, with the Clinton Administration refusing to negotiate on START III until the Duma has ratified START II.


  1. Obstacles to Duma ratification of START II

Over the last year, Russian officials have highlighted several obstacles to START II ratification in the Duma. These include:

  • NATO enlargement;
  • US discussion of Ballistic Missile Defense and its effect on the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty;
  • An imbalance in the Treaty against Russian strategic nuclear forces (ie that to maintain parity with the US, Russia would have to build new land-based, single warhead missiles to replace the multi-warhead missiles which must be eliminated);
  • Cost of implementation;
  • US sub-critical tests;
  • and the timescale for implementation of the Treaty.

Several steps have been taken to address some of the Duma’s concerns. The Joint Statement on Parameters on Future Reductions in Nuclear Forces, lays the groundwork for further reductions to 2,000-2,500 strategic nuclear warheads on each side. In addition, a Joint Statement Concerning the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, prepared the way for two further agreed statements on ABM demarcation, signed in New York in September 1997. In May, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed, and a NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council was established, with arms control and nuclear safety as areas for consultation and cooperation.

In addition, the date by which START II must be implemented has been extended by five years to 31 December 2007, in a protocol to the Treaty signed in September 1997. Letters were also exchanged on deactivation of all strategic nuclear delivery vehicles covered by START II by 31 December 2003, for which a program of US assistance to Russia will be provided.

However, it remains to be seen whether these measures will be sufficient to convince the Duma to ratify START II.


  1. The Future of Strategic Arms Reductions

The Duma is not now expected to act on START III until Spring 1998. This may be particularly difficult timing given that it is exactly when the US Senate will be considering ratification of the first round of NATO enlargement. US Senator Jesse Helms (Republican - North Carolina), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has indicated that he has 10 conditions for ratifying NATO enlargement, including that the US Administration must:

  • "agree that no limitations will be placed on the numbers of NATO troops or types of weapons to be deployed on territory of new members states (including tactical nuclear weapons)…"
  • "explicitly reject Russian efforts to establish a ‘nuclear weapons-free zone’ in Central Europe…"
  • "establish a clear delineation of NATO deliberations that are off-limits to Russia (including but not limited to arms control, further Alliance expansion, procurement and strategic doctrine)…"
  • "reject any further Russian efforts to link concessions in arms-control negotiations (including the antiquated ABM treaty and the CFE treaty) to NATO expansion…"
  • and "develop a plan for a NATO ballistic missile defense system to defend Europe…"

A public debate in the US of this nature is potentially damaging to prospects for Duma ratification of START II.

However, the Duma is not solely responsible for the logjam on strategic arms reductions. The Clinton Administration’s insistence that START II must be ratified before START III negotiations can begin is inconsistent with previous practice (for example START II was negotiated prior to START I ratification by the Senate and the Duma) and has contributed significantly to the slowing of the START process. The quickest way to make progress on strategic arms reductions remains for the US Administration to drop its opposition to beginning START III negotiations immediately.


The effects of deteriorating Russian strategic forces

Many Western observers now believe that the deterioration of Russian nuclear forces, will result in Russia’s level of strategic forces falling in the next decade to between 600 and 1,000 warheads. The implication is that Russia will not be able to maintain parity with the US even with a START III agreement at a level lower than 2,000-2,500 (as currently favoured by the Yeltsin administration). Instead, the level of Russian strategic nuclear forces may fall closer to that of some of the smaller nuclear powers.

Indeed, the slowing of progress on START underlines the question of how and when the three smaller nuclear powers should become involved in the process. In the past, bilateral negotiations have been justified on the grounds that they could be completed quickly and efficiently. However, the United Kingdom, France and China cannot be left outside the strategic arms reduction process indefinitely.

Given both US and Russian concerns about the potential threat posed to their respective countries by China, it should be in both their interests to engage China in the process of nuclear arms reductions. Although US nuclear force levels remain high, Russian strategic forces look set to fall to the level at which France and the United Kingdom have previously indicated that they would be prepared to join negotiations.

Parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have suggested that the three smaller nuclear powers should contribute to the process. For example, Canada has suggested that these states should make a "political commitment not to increase their nuclear inventories", coupled to START III and has encouraged "discussions now designed to more forward negotiations among the five nuclear-weapon states after the launch of negotiations on START III".


START III negotiations

The framework for START III agreed in Helsinki, includes many new areas, which will be important for the future of the strategic arms reduction process. These include measures on transparency and on the destruction of strategic nuclear warheads. This is particularly important since START I and START II did not require destruction of warheads, allowing the US in particular to maintain a "hedge" of additional non-deployed warheads in its stockpile.

In addition, in the context of START III talks, the parties will explore as separate issues, possible measures relating to nuclear long-range sea-launched cruise missiles (a long standing concern of the Russians) and tactical nuclear systems (an issue of concern to both the Russians and NATO).

Both sides, and perhaps particularly the Russians with their goal of parity with the US, have high expectations for START III. With a large number of new issues on the table, concerns have been expressed about how long it may take to negotiate START III and whether a quick agreement should first be reached simply to reduce the aggregate level of warheads on both sides. However, unless this lower aggregate level was immediately agreeable to both parties in spring or summer 1998, perhaps as a protocol to START II, there is a risk that breaking the process into separate steps like this will simply prolong it further.

Another problem with splitting up START III talks is that on the question of tactical nuclear warheads, the US, with only 100-200 tactical warheads remaining in NATO Europe, has little with which to bargain. The answer for US negotiators may be to accept a lower aggregate level of strategic nuclear weapons under START III in exchange for reduction or preferably elimination of tactical nuclear weapons. It may therefore be difficult to separate the question of aggregate levels from other concerns which both parties have indicated that they would like to address.


Ratification of future arms control agreements

Future strategic arms reduction treaties may face similar problems in the Senate and the Duma to START II. Both the Senate and the Duma are currently hostile environments for arms control treaties, often constraining the efforts of their respective administrations. The Russians face the particular problem that it may be difficult to retain parity with the US in the future. However, Russian interests will not be served by blocking START II since Russia is even less likely to be able to retain its nuclear forces at START I levels. Whilst the US could retain nuclear forces at START I levels, the cost of this option on the long term is likely to be unpalatable.

Many NGOs have suggested ways forward on nuclear arms reductions. For example, the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control suggests a "regime of progressive constraints", including an immediate step to 2,000 deployed warheads on each side, limiting all types of warheads, de-alerting measures, revising targeting policy and war planning and relating reductions and ballistic missile defenses. George Bunn and John B. Rhinelander suggest ways of moving forward despite the Senate-Duma logjam using methods which do not require parliamentary ratification such as reciprocal unilateral measures, "political" commitments, and executive agreements.


  1. De-alerting

The slowing of the START process has also raised the problem that large numbers of nuclear forces on both sides are still on high levels of alert. Even if START III is negotiated quickly a large number of nuclear weapons will remain, and implementation of strategic arms reductions will stretch well into the next century.

There has been "no significant change" in the alert status of United States (US) intercontinental and submarine launched ballistic missiles since the end of the Cold War. Likewise the UK and France continue to maintain their nuclear armed submarines on patrol at all times. Russia meanwhile has abandoned its policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.

In the 1980s NATO countries argued that the first use option was necessary in response to superior Soviet conventional forces. Now Russia plans to compensate for conventional inferiority and crumbling armed forces with nuclear weapons. Russian strategists believe that they could be forced to initiate the use of tactical nuclear weapons during a regional crisis involving NATO or China.

Moreover, Russia is responding to the short flight times and high accuracy of US and British Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles, by increasing its reliance on strategies such as "launch on warning". The deterioration of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces mean that it can no longer be confident of retaliating effectively after an overwhelming US first strike. Russia therefore plans to launch missiles after an enemy attack is detected, but before the incoming enemy missiles arrive.

The potential for accidents on both sides as a result of retaining nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert is obvious. According to many reports, a strategic alert of Russia's "launch on warning" forces was triggered in 1995 by the firing of a Norwegian scientific rocket. Recent reports indicate that deteriorating Russian command-control systems may have caused more incidents when missiles were switched to "combat mode".

Since 1994, the US and the UK have each had bilateral agreements with Russia on detargeting nuclear weapons. France announced in September 1997 that "none of the nuclear missiles in the French deterrent force is now targeted". However, the US states that its missiles could "be returned to their previous targeting status on short notice". Likewise the UK can "quickly to restore operational targets" to its missiles should the need arise. Russian missiles could be retargeted just as quickly.

In response, a number of NGOs have been promoting the idea of de-alerting to reduce the possibility of an accidental nuclear launch by increasing the time it takes to launch nuclear missiles. Proposals for de-alerting include removing warheads from missiles, disabling missiles by pinning their safety switches open, and keeping nuclear armed submarines out of range of their targets.


  1. Russian attitudes to de-alerting

At the NATO-Russia summit in May 1997, Russian President Yeltsin appeared to suggest that Russia was now ready to move beyond detargeting, to de-alert nuclear forces by removing warheads from missiles targeted at NATO countries.

On 5 June, speaking to reporters after addressing the United Nations disarmament conference in Geneva, Russian Foreign Minister Primakov outlined a two-staged program. In a first step Russia would detarget all missiles aimed at NATO countries. Then, it could move on towards removing the warheads from the missiles if the US, Britain and France did the same with their weapons.

Both the US and Russia have agreed to "deactivate" all strategic nuclear delivery vehicles covered by START II by removing their nuclear reentry vehicles or other jointly agreed steps. However, Russian officials have indicated that they are cautious about further steps on de-alerting. Russian concerns include:

  • the time it would take to restore "de-alerted" nuclear delivery systems (especially any which had been deactivated by removal of the warheads) to a state of operational readiness in an emergency;
  • the cost of de-alerting (including the cost of building suitable, secure facilities for storage of any separated warheads);
  • verification of de-alerting measures;
  • and the level of transparency required.

The Russian military is particularly resistant to the idea of de-alerting.

Nonetheless, in September 1997, the US Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers wrote to Foreign Ministers of the NATO nuclear-weapon states and Russia, proposing the establishment of a technical working group of the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council. The response from Primakov was that he agreed with Coalition members on "the necessity to take into account the presence of nuclear arsenals in other nuclear powers besides Russia and the US. Inviting the United Kingdom, France and China to discuss problems of nuclear safety, including the issue of lowering the alert status of strategic forces, would undoubtedly have a positive influence on the process of the further reduction of nuclear arms, strengthening mutual trust and cooperation… The specific ideas stated in the letter of the Coalition in this regard will be most definitely taken into account by the Russian representatives in the pursuit of these objectives."

This view contrasts with the usual NATO approach that discussions on nuclear arms reductions should be bilateral between the US and Russia, rather than involving the other three nuclear-weapon states. However, there is now an opportunity for all NATO member states to become involved in the discussion on de-alerting as NATO proceeds with the revision of its Strategic Concept over the next year.


  1. Conclusion

Whether the route ahead for nuclear arms reductions is through treaties, dealerting or other forms of agreement, the most important thing is that the nuclear arms reduction process should not be allowed to stagnate any longer. The Duma must act promptly to ratify START II: it is clearly in Russia’s interest for reductions to resume quickly. The US Administration must also act promptly to resume negotiations aimed at further nuclear arms reductions and a reduction in the alert status of nuclear weapons.


<- First Page      /      Next Page ->


BITS Homepage