Saturday, February 23, 2008

Experts Outline "Ten First Steps" to Reduce U.S. Nuclear Arsneal

Earlier this month, analysts from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and independent nuclear weapons experts released a report, Toward True Security, which argues that the United States and the other original nuclear powers “must drastically reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in their security policies.”

According to the report, the United States faces three principal nuclear dangers: 1) a Russian accidental or unauthorized attack; 2) the spread of nuclear weapons to more nations, particularly unstable states; and 3) the acquisition of nuclear materials and technology by terrorists.

U.S. nuclear weapons policy fails to adequately address these dangers (in fact, it sometimes even exacerbates them). To that end, the report outlines ten unilateral steps the next president should take to begin to change U.S. nuclear policy. Not only would implementation of these steps enhance U.S. national security, but it would also create the necessary possibility conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons.

In lieu of merely summarizing the “ten first steps,” I’d like to address two issues raised by the report, one general, one specific.

The first issue pertains to whether the ten first steps can be helpful in reducing and (ultimately eliminating) the nuclear arsenals of the four states that lie outside the nuclear nonproliferation regime: India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Richard Garwin and Frank N. von Hippel, two authors of Toward True Security, tackled this question at the unveiling of the report on February 13.

Though mindful of the fact that it will always be difficult to induce “outliers” to give up their arsenals so long as they feel that their national security interests require them to possess nuclear weapons to deter more powerful states, Garwin and von Hippel noted that U.S. adoption of the ten first steps would allow for the development of a much more robust nonproliferation regime. The idea here is that a commitment by Washington to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in its defense posture would augment the legal and moral legitimacy of U.S. nonproliferation policies and give non-nuclear NPT signatories a far greater incentive to join the United States in its efforts to combat the arsenals of outliers.

The second issue relates to the 9th step in the report: Halt the further deployment of the Ground-Based Missile Defense system, and drop any plans for space-based missile defense. Proponents of a U.S. missile defense system argue that such a system is necessary given the ballistic missile threats from Russia and China on the one hand, and rogue states such as Iran and North Korea on the other.

There are a number of responses to this line of argument. First, it is not at all clear that North Korea’s Taepo Dong 2 ballistic missiles are capable of targeting the United States or Europe.

Second, a U.S. missile defense system based in Alaska or Eastern Europe would be powerless to intercept an Iranian attack against American forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Third, as Garwin and von Hippel are keen to point out, a U.S. missile defense system, no matter how advanced, would not be invulnerable to a potential Russian or Chinese attack. Similarly, any nation capable of developing medium- or long-range nuclear missiles would also be capable of devising effective countermeasures against a missile defense system.

In short, China and Russia would respond to a viable U.S. missile defense system by doing everything in their power to maintain their nuclear deterrent.

Needless to say, the last thing the world needs right now is another nuclear arms race that would poison great power relations, increase the risks of a nuclear accident, make it easier for terrorists to steal nuclear material, and further undermine the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.

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