Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament Priorities

Tasneem Jamal

Eugene J. Carroll, Jr.

Rear Admiral Eugene J. Carroll, Jr., is Deputy Director, Center for Defense Information

Each of the panelists at the Consultation on NATO Nuclear Policy, National Missile Defence & Alternative Security Arrangement, held in Ottawa on September 28-31, 2001, was asked to submit a short paper relating to the topic of their presentation. The other Consultation participants were asked to submit brief papers responding to one or more of the following questions:

1. What changes to its nuclear policies should NATO be realistically asked to make, in the context of the current review, to move it towards fuller compliance with global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation obligations and imperatives?

2. Are there realistic and credible alternative means of addressing the security concerns that underlie current U.S. interest in missile defense?

3. What are the most realistic short-term or interim measures that should be taken by nuclear weapon states and nuclear alliances to demonstrate a commitment to significantly reducing the political legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons in order to contribute to the goal of elimination?

More than four years ago a group of 60 Generals and Admirals from 17 nations published a worldwide appeal for the abolition of nuclear weapons. As one of that group I helped to shape a key statement which contains a caveat of great interest and concern in our deliberations here today. 

“…long term international nuclear policy must be based on the declared principle of continuous, complete and irrevocable elimination of nuclear weapons…. The exact circumstances and conditions that will make it possible to proceed, finally, to abolition cannot now be foreseen or prescribed.”

It is regrettable that this caveat remains true today. Both common sense and the history of the nuclear age make it crystal clear that a spontaneous effort to rid the earth of nuclear weapons would make the world a much safer place for the human race. Nevertheless, entrenched interests, fear, suspicion, national security concerns and even economic considerations all form barriers to the final elimination of these instruments of universal and indiscriminate destruction.

The most promising avenue leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons remains the pursuit of an incremental series of positive arms control measures. Each step should achieve a specific objective which in turn would open the way to the next step, building confidence in the process itself while progressively increasing nuclear stability worldwide.

In order of importance, and achievability, a list of recommended steps follows:

1. Ratification and implementation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1996. Rejection of this Treaty by the United States Senate was an irresponsible act taken for partisan political reasons and must be reversed to promote similar action by all signatories at the earliest possible date. A complete, final end to all nuclear explosive testing is the sine qua non of an effective non-proliferation regime.

2. Render existing nuclear arsenals safer and less threatening. The sad, senseless fact is that nine years after the end of the Cold War the two nuclear superpowers still keep nearly 5,000 nuclear warheads with more than 1,000 missiles on full alert, ready to launch against each other in less than 15 minutes. This hair trigger posture is fundamentally unsafe, susceptible to failure through computer malfunctions, sensor errors, material failure, misinformation and human error. These weapons on full alert potentially threaten the lives of all humans on earth regardless of where they are aimed. They also poison efforts to bring about nuclear disarmament because each side calculates the effects of reductions in terms of deterrence against the other’s alert forces. Traditionally, militaries always plan on a worst-case scenario and this justifies more weapons and more missiles rather than fewer.

By agreement, Russia and the U.S. could stand down these systems in a series of steps which would first increase alert times to hours, then days and ultimately weeks. Physical separation of warheads from delivery vehicles and their remote storage under U.N. supervision would be the consummate form of de-alerting.

3. Relieved of the threat of alert weapons, Russia and the United States could with greater confidence then proceed to negotiate a START III agreement to reduce weapons at least 50% below START II levels, as Russia has already proposed. In reality, such START III levels could be implemented much more rapidly than START II because Russia cannot afford to build and deploy a START II force. Thus, strategic arsenals could actually be reduced to the 1,000-1,500 weapon range more readily than to the 3,000-3,500 now planned for the year 2007. START III could also require the actual dismantlement of nuclear warheads as they are removed from deployed forces in contrast with START II which permits the retention, modification and redeployment of removed weapons.

4. As the two nuclear superpowers approach START III numbers, multinational negotiations should begin among all nuclear capable states in order to begin addressing the problems of moving toward a global, fully verifiable non-nuclear regime. This is the process which the 60 Generals and Admirals said could not now be foreseen or prescribed but which would become possible in the future. They went further when they said:


“The end of the Cold War makes it possible. The dangers of proliferation, terrorism and a new nuclear arms race render it necessary. We must not fail to seize our opportunity. There is no alternative.”

It must be noted at this point that the present U.S. National Defense (NMD) program jeopardizes every step toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. President Jacques Chirac of France identified this problem when he declared: “Nuclear disarmament will be more difficult when powerful countries are developing new technologies [NMD] to enhance their nuclear capabilities.” The great danger is that other nations, most notably China and Russia, will seek to enhance their own nuclear capabilities in response to the deployment of an American NMD system. In a highly political effort to justify deployment of defenses against an unlikely threat, the United States can undo significant arms control measures and end up creating greater nuclear dangers for all nations.

Even for the United States, what possible good can NMD do if it weakens the current strategic nuclear stability which rests on a hard-won arms control structure built over the last 30 years? Repeated U.S. threats to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 ignore the truth that there is a comprehensive arms control structure within which the individual treaties are interdependent. The first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972 (SALT I) was negotiated in tandem with the ABM Treaty as complementary measures, neither one possible without the other. Subsequently, SALT II and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and II) were erected on the SALT I /ABM foundation.

The existence of this stabilizing bilateral arms control structure was recognized by other nations (most importantly by China) and thereby inhibited the expansion of other nuclear arsenals as well as contributed to global nuclear non-proliferation efforts. To pull out a keystone of arms control by abrogation of the ABM Treaty now will weaken nuclear stability worldwide, particularly in the sensitive area of Chinese, Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs.

On this point, it is not surprising that Russia and China are loud critics of NMD but Germany, France, Great Britain and other western nations are also questioning the wisdom of proceeding with a program which threatens to ignite a new nuclear arms race. It may be possible to shrug off understandable criticism from potential enemies, but the U.S. must give thoughtful consideration and great weight to the same criticism from its friends. To this end, as a partner in NORAD, Canada’s views on the wisdom of NMD should merit special consideration.

In conclusion, the foregoing description of the role of arms control in moving the world to a safer, more stable non-nuclear regime is neither idealistic nor infeasible. It is a realistic response to the problem identified by the Canberra Commission when they concluded, “The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used – accidentally or by decision – defies credibility. The only complete defense is the elimination of nuclear weapons and assurance that they will never be produced again.”

This said, the solution must begin with the United States. As the inventor of nuclear weapons, the only nation to use them in war and the nation which led the nuclear arms race for 50 years, the U.S. bears the primary responsibility to lead the world away from the abyss of nuclear war. Yet because the official U.S. doctrine today states that nuclear weapons will remain the cornerstone of America’s security indefinitely, we clearly need a push – a hard shove – by our closest friends and allies to abandon this fatuous notion. In truth, nuclear weapons are the cornerstone of every nation’s insecurity today. They are the only threat to global survival. It is incumbent on Canada along with all of NATO and free nations everywhere to support the principle that true security is irreconcilable with the continued existence of nuclear weapons. If enough nations send this message, even the superpowers must listen.

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