Toward True Security: A US Nuclear Posture for the Next Decade

Executive Summary

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This report proposes a nuclear weapons policy for the United States for the next decade that reflects today's political and strategic realities. By contrast, the official policies and doctrines of both the United States and Russia are mired in Cold War patterns of thought. Eleven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, both countries still maintain massive nuclear arsenals ready for nearly instant use. Although nuclear war plans differ in size and detail from those drawn up 20 or more years ago, their basic structure remains unchanged.

The US nuclear arsenal and doctrine were designed to deter a deliberate large-scale Soviet nuclear attack on the United States and a massive Soviet conventional attack on US European allies, as well as to preserve the option of a disarming first strike against Soviet nuclear forces. This force structure and doctrine are obsolete and jeopardize American national security.

The greatest nuclear danger to the United States today and in the near future is a Russian attack resulting from an error in Russia's warning system or a failure in its command-and-control system. The current US policy of maintaining large numbers of highly accurate nuclear weapons that can be launched promptly to attack Russia's nuclear forces stands in the way of reducing this risk. So too would the US deployment of any missile defense system that Russia believes capable of intercepting a significant number of its survivable strategic missiles, thereby undermining its nuclear deterrent.(1)

In the longer term, the greatest dangers to US and international security stem from the risk of nuclear proliferation. Although countries will make their own decisions about acquiring nuclear weapons, US nuclear weapons policy can have a substantial impact on future nuclear proliferation. By design, current US policy is ambiguous about whether US nuclear weapons have purposes beyond deterring other countries' use of nuclear weapons. In addition, US policy includes no significant measures to comply with US commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons in conjunction with the other nuclear weapon states. This creates the strong impression that the United States plans to maintain nuclear weapons for the indefinite future. For these reasons, continuation of the current US nuclear policy would ultimately weaken the nonproliferation regime and increase the incentives for other countries to acquire nuclear weapons.

Worldwide verifiable and permanent prohibition of nuclear weapons would greatly benefit the military security of all countries, not least the United States. Accordingly, the United States can make a valuable contribution to its national security and that of other countries by working to establish the conditions needed to permit such enduring prohibition. However, even under the best of circumstances, prohibition of nuclear weapons would take far longer than ten years, the period under consideration in this report.

In the meanwhile, the United States should adopt a new nuclear policy that directly enhances US national security and that promotes nonproliferation -- regardless of whether or when nuclear prohibition is achieved. A central element of this policy would be a US declaration that the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter and, if necessary, respond to the use of nuclear weapons by another country.

No plausible threat can be foreseen that justifies the United States maintaining more than a few hundred survivable nuclear weapons over the next decade or beyond. Nor does any plausible threat require the United States to maintain the ability to launch large numbers of its nuclear weapons promptly, in a matter of minutes, or even in a matter of hours. We recommend that the United States unilaterally reduce its nuclear arsenal to a total of 1,000 nuclear warheads and take measures to increase the amount of time required to launch these weapons. By easing Russia's concerns about the potential vulnerability of its nuclear deterrent, these steps would give Russia an incentive to adopt a safer nuclear posture for its own nuclear arsenal. They would also provide an incentive to other nuclear weapon states to engage in multilateral negotiations for deeper, verified nuclear reductions.


The Need for Wider Debate

US policymakers of both major parties recognize that the US nuclear posture must change to reflect today's world and future challenges to US security. Last year, the US Congress passed legislation mandating that the Secretary of Defense conduct a nuclear posture review to clarify US nuclear policy for the next five to ten years. This review is to be completed by December 1, 2001. Congress specified that the review be broad-ranging and that it consider

Even without this requirement, it is clear the Bush administration would have initiated such a review. During his campaign, President George W. Bush stated his interest in making significant nuclear reductions and in reducing the alert status of strategic missiles, indicating a possibility that these reductions might be unilateral. He reiterated this interest in his May 1 speech at the National Defense University. The administration has indicated that it will complete its review of US nuclear policy and make its plans public well before December 2001.

Thus, there is both a great need and an opportunity to craft a new US nuclear policy to enhance US security and move the world in a safer direction. Because nuclear weapons are so central to the future security of the United States and the wider international community, it is important that US nuclear policy be discussed more widely and that decisions about a new US nuclear posture be informed by such broader discussions. The three nongovernmental organizations that authored this report have for decades been devoted to promoting a sound US nuclear weapons policy and to enhancing the public debate over national security issues. In this report, we lay out a new nuclear posture for the United States that is achievable in the next decade, to encourage an informed debate of US nuclear policy among both US policymakers and the public.


A Nuclear Posture for the Next Decade

Our analysis shows that US security would be substantially improved by adopting a nuclear posture for the next five to ten years in which the United States would:


The Future

If this nuclear posture is adopted and its goals accomplished, the United States will have greatly enhanced its national security and that of other countries. In addition, it will have set the stage for multilateral negotiations to reduce the nuclear arsenals of other countries. The next nuclear posture review, undertaken five to ten years from now, will then be able to craft a new US policy that will further reduce the whole range of nuclear dangers to the United States and other countries. The next nuclear posture review will have to tackle new challenges involved in negotiating and implementing verifiable, multilateral reductions to levels well below 1,000 nuclear warheads, as well as take further steps to lay the groundwork for the prohibition of nuclear weapons.



(1) Whether Russia believed that a specific US missile defense could undermine its deterrent would depend on its assessment of how many of its strategic missiles would survive a US first strike and how many of those missiles the US defense might be able to intercept. It would also depend on Russia's assessment of the degree of confidence the United States had in its first strike and defensive capabilities.