A Critique of the Bush Administration's Nuclear Weapons Policies
The collapse of the Soviet Union created a historic opportunity for the United States to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security policy. Instead of realizing this promise, however, the Bush administration's aggressive nuclear weapons policies have missed opportunities and in many instances turned back the clock. These policies have diverted money and resources away from combating terrorism and instead spent them on refining Cold War-era nuclear war plans and devising new nuclear weapons to build.
By reaffirming and in some cases expanding the role of nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has made the United States more vulnerable, not more secure. Specifically, the following features of the administration's position have in fact exposed the country to greater risk from nuclear threats:
- The administration is undermining the U.S. effort to combat terrorism by diverting resources from the real threat and squandering billions of dollars on Cold War–era weapons. Last year alone, the administration spent $10 billion on a missile defense system that will do nothing to stop the most dangerous security risk of our time: terrorists releasing a nuclear weapon in an American city. Furthermore, the Department of Energy is spending billions of dollars each year to extend the life of thousands of nuclear warheads and delivery systems that were designed to fight World War III with the Soviet Union.
- The administration has adopted dangerous policies to enable the use of nuclear weapons in a wider range of conflict situations. The administration's Nuclear Posture Review increases the number of contingencies in which nuclear weapons could be employed against non-nuclear states, and it expands the list of targets that could be bombed with a nuclear warhead. It also advocates shifting to a planning and command structure that will make it faster and easier to execute limited nuclear attacks.
- The administration is increasing potential access by terrorists or rogue nations to knowledge about nuclear materials and methods. The administration has launched programs that assist non-nuclear weapons states -- several of which had clandestine weapon programs in the past -- to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons-usable materials for use in advanced nuclear power reactors, thus increasing the potential for nuclear materials and expertise to fall into the hands of terrorist groups or aspiring nuclear weapons states.
- The administration is perpetuating an arms race, mainly technological and qualitative in nature, which encourages and provides political or moral cover for other states to retain, improve, or expand their nuclear arsenals. The administration is spending record sums to revive nuclear weapons research, modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex, reactivate design teams to develop new nuclear weapons, and accelerate deployment of a rudimentary national missile defense system. These provocative measures, enlarged by the Bush administration's hostility to a permanent global treaty banning nuclear test explosions, undercut U.S. nuclear nonproliferation efforts and undercut further progress with Russia and China in nuclear arms reductions.
A Responsible Nuclear Policy for the 21st Century
While the ostensible goal of the new policy is increased deterrence against potential adversaries armed with chemical and biological weapons, this is achieved at the cost of weakening the taboo that has prevented the use of nuclear weapons since World War II.
The nuclear strategy map the administration is following is actually an old one, originally devised during the Cold War to inhibit the use of the Soviet Union's massive conventional armies by threatening to disperse and disable such an attack with limited nuclear strikes. We live in a different world, where the dangers come from unstable nuclear-armed states in areas of ongoing regional conflict, from the threat of terrorist attacks with a wide range of deadly weapons, and from the possible accidental launch of nuclear weapons. Yet the administration's nuclear weapons policies amount to little more than repackaging the old Cold War doctrine and rhetoric into a new box labeled "counter-proliferation."
Indeed, these policies actually heighten global security risks by: increasing access to nuclear materials and technology that could be diverted to weapons; perpetuating popular and elite misperceptions that making nuclear threats can enhance national security; limiting the scale and extent of international cooperation and resources needed to reduce nuclear dangers.
A responsible nuclear policy for the 21st century would look very different and would require at a minimum the following steps:
Honor the United States' commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The administration should take seriously its obligation to uphold Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which commits the United States and the other declared nuclear weapons states to pursue nuclear disarmament. It should begin talks with the other nuclear powers about eliminating nuclear weapons. The 2005 NPT Review Conference should become the forum to honestly address the deficiencies in the present treaty, propose ways to strengthen its terms, and encourage participating states to honor its requirements.
Scrap the development of nuclear bunker busters and other programs intended to widen the range of targets that could plausibly be struck preemptively with nuclear weapons. The military should reverse the trend toward an integrated "global strike" strategy involving a continuum of conventional and nuclear capabilities for destroying hardened and deeply buried targets. Nuclear threats and capabilities should be invoked only when the very survival of the nation is at stake. Developing capabilities and plans for nuclear use in lesser contingencies undercuts nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Rather than accede to lasting U.S. military superiority, some potential adversaries are likely to build weapons to combat our shifting arsenal, especially if we create warheads that appear to lower the threshold for using nuclear weapons, such as earth-penetrating and low-yield weapons.
Abolish the U.S. permanent nuclear war plan. It is time to replace the U.S. military's outdated, Cold War planning system with a contingency model that would allow the military to assemble attack plans in the event of hostilities with another nuclear state. This would take thousands of nuclear warheads off alert and allow the Russians to do the same, thereby decreasing the likelihood of accidental launches.
Do not deploy an unproven "national" missile defense system. Rather than pursue an untested defense system, the administration should seek alternative and more direct diplomatic and arms control measures for reducing the threat of long-range ballistic missiles. Congress should drastically limit research funding for this deeply flawed project and redirect the majority of the money toward addressing the far more pressing threats posed by terrorists and proliferation. At the very least, deployment of the first stage of the system should not proceed until there has been adequate and realistic testing.
Accelerate the implementation of the Moscow Treaty. Congress should strengthen the treaty by passing legislation that would advance the timetable and require the reduced arms to be destroyed under verifiable conditions, and not just stored for another day.
Increase congressional oversight and accountability of DOD and DOE nuclear weapons programs. Congress should call for investigations into several projects at the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories that are billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. To institute greater accountability and oversight, Congress should establish a detailed public record that fully discloses the current programs' objectives and spending and sets the stage for a smaller, more affordable, and sustainable DOE weapons complex that reflects this nation's -- and the world's -- nuclear nonproliferation objectives.
Cancel the Department of Energy's international nuclear energy programs. The department should cancel programs that could aid potential proliferators or terrorists in gaining access to nuclear weapons knowledge and materials. Specifically, the department should cancel programs that help non-weapon states to develop the expertise and facilities to build nuclear power reactors and reprocess plutonium.
Focus on weapons systems that meet genuine needs. The administration should stop using capability-based planning, which shortchanges immediate needs, such as body armor and improved tactical navigation and communications on the battlefield. The nation's nuclear weapons and delivery systems continue to be "modernized" while American soldiers in Humvees lose their way in Iraq and become vulnerable targets for ambush by insurgents. The better approach is to identify genuine military needs and meet them.
Nuclear Insecurity : A Critique of the Bush Administration's Nuclear Weapons Policies. By Robert S. Norris, Hans M. Kristensen, and Christopher E. Paine. September 2004. Print version, $7.50. Order print copies .
last revised 9/1/2004
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