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This May 2002 analysis by NRDC's nuclear program finds that the treaty proposed by President Bush to cut U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals would actually prolong the U.S.-Russian nuclear standoff and encourage nuclear proliferation.

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On May 13, 2002, President Bush proposed a treaty to cut U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals that he proclaimed would "liquidate the legacy of the Cold War." A closer look at the treaty shows that it is so riddled with loopholes that it actually would prolong the U.S.-Russian nuclear standoff for years to come, and encourage nuclear proliferation.

Bush's treaty reportedly only limits the number of nuclear warheads mounted on operational missiles and bombers 10 years from now, and only for one day -- December 31, 2012. Before and after that date, the number of deliverable nuclear warheads could exceed the treaty's maximum "limit" of 2,200 "operational" warheads. Both countries would be free to keep thousands of "reserve" warheads in storage, which could be remounted on delivery systems within weeks or months.

The treaty's lower limit of 1,700 warheads is entirely voluntary. It appears to have been added solely to permit the Bush White House to claim that its arms control initiative is bolder than the 2,000- to 2,500-warhead range that Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to at Helsinki in 1997 for the proposed START III treaty.

The treaty imposes no additional limits on either side's nuclear forces, and does not require the destruction of a single nuclear warhead, missile, silo, bomber or submarine. Moreover, the treaty does nothing to constrain or eliminate large stockpiles of nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons deliverable by shorter-range systems, such as cruise missiles, battlefield missiles, artillery, torpedoes and tactical aircraft. Russia has more that 8,000 tactical nuclear weapons, many at poorly secured military bases.

The treaty imposes no schedule for removing warheads from missiles, bombers or submarines. As mentioned above, the United States and Russia must comply with the 2,200-warhead limit on operational nuclear weapons only on the last day of 2012, after which the treaty expires. Until then, either side reportedly could give three months notice and withdraw from the treaty. This provision hardly seems necessary, given the lack of any provisions binding upon the parties in the interim. Finally, the treaty's lack of detailed binding limitations and inspection protocols will do nothing to dissuade other countries from concluding that they, too, must prepare to live in a nuclear-armed world for the indefinite future. In other words, it invites proliferation.

While attempting to take credit for "liquidating" the legacy of the Cold War, President Bush is in fact ensuring that through 2012 the United States will retain more deployed strategic nuclear warheads than it had in 1956. That arsenal would have the explosive yield equivalent of 42,000 Hiroshima bombs.

Why Propose A Sham Treaty?

"What we have now agreed to do under the treaty is what we wanted to do anyway," an undisclosed senior administration official told the New York Times on May 14. "That's our kind of treaty."

What does the Bush administration plan to do? Rebuild and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure to enhance its flexibility and responsiveness. That would allow the Pentagon to generate new nuclear attack plans and have them approved quickly in a crisis. (See "Faking Nuclear Restraint," NRDC's February 13, 2002, report on the administration's Nuclear Posture Review.) Given Russia's decline as a nuclear adversary, the Bush administration has embraced the vague notion that we live in a dangerous world of "potential contingencies" involving other nations' weapons of mass destruction, which must be deterred or defeated by U.S. nuclear arms. Thus, the Bush administration assumes that we will continue to live in a world in which nuclear threats and counter-threats are the ultimate arbiters of national security, and it is obsessed with securing U.S. nuclear superiority to dominate such a world.

The administration's short-term strategy apparently is to create a diplomatic illusion of nuclear arms restraint to accelerate Russia's integration into the U.S.-led free market system, ensuring Russia's role as a natural resource supplier. However, NRDC believes any U.S. administration, regardless of party, has a responsibility to ensure that arms control agreements represent substantive progress toward nonproliferation and arms reductions, and that such agreements are not reduced to political window-dressing.

How Could This Treaty Affect the Future of Arms Control?

An arms control process that yields nothing more than political theater is potentially dangerous, because it breeds cynicism regarding U.S. intentions among the very leaders who are on the cusp of building nuclear forces, or enlarging the rudimentary arsenals they already possess.

In the interests of capping and ultimately reversing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapon states pledged in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 to negotiate "effective measures" leading toward the elimination of nuclear arsenals. They renewed that pledge in May 1995 -- extending the NPT indefinitely -- largely on the strength of U.S. and Russian assurances that the nuclear disarmament process would continue and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ultimately would be ratified.

President Bush already has rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed by President Clinton and supported by the majority of the world's nations -- including Russia -- and intends to withdraw unilaterally from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in June. This new treaty merely continues this administration's already sorry legacy, making a mockery of prior U.S. nuclear commitments.

This treaty represents a policy of unparalleled cynicism. Given what the administration lays out in its much-discussed but nominally secret Nuclear Posture Review, it is evidently prepared to argue that its flexible nuclear warfare planning fully anticipates the breakdown of the very treaties it is now so diligently undermining.

Related NRDC Pages
Table of US Strategic Offensive Force Loadings
Table of USSR/Russian Strategic Offensive Force Loadings
Press Release, May 20, 2002

last revised 5/20/2002

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