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Reinventing the Arms Race
While the United States maintains its nuclear arsenal, other nations call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.



The nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May 1998 were a reminder to the world that the dangers posed by nuclear weapons are still very much with us. Most of the analyses that followed these tests paid little attention to the nuclear weapons states and their reluctance to keep up their commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that came into force in 1970.1 Throughout its nuclear history, India has repeatedly pointed out the inequity of the international arrangement—nuclear apartheid, as some Indian commentators have termed it. This arrangement allows some nations to possess hugely destructive nuclear arsenals, while other nations are denied that choice.2

On May 28, 1998, following the first set of nuclear tests by Pakistan, President Clinton said, "I cannot believe that we are about to start the 21st century by having the Indian subcontinent repeat the worst mistakes of the 20th century, when we know it is not necessary to peace, to security, to prosperity, to national greatness or personal fulfillment."3 This is perhaps the closest a president of the United States has come to officially stating, albeit grudgingly, that nuclear weapons are not necessary for peace or security. Actions taken by the United States send out a different message, however, and recent decisions taken by the administration and the U.S. Department of Energy indicate that the U.S. leadership intends to keep its nuclear arsenal around for the foreseeable future and thereby to perpetuate the arms race.

At the same time, a number of initiatives in the international arena, as well as recommendations by various national and international bodies, advocate the elimination—or at least rapid reductions in numbers—of nuclear weapons. If serious steps are not taken towards abolition of nuclear weapons, this growing polarization between the nuclear weapons states and the vast majority of nonnuclear countries could lead to unraveling of the current international regime, which may have dire consequences.

The long-sought Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed by President Clinton in 1996, was the first major nuclear agreement negotiated after the Cold War. In the preamble to the treaty, the signatories—including 152 nonnuclear states and the five nuclear weapon states—declared that they intended to take effective measures towards nuclear disarmament. They stressed the need for continued systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons worldwide, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons. Most of the countries that joined the treaty believed it would indeed hasten elimination. But Stephen Ledogar, the U.S. ambassador to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations, revealed a different picture about the beliefs of the nuclear weapons states. While most countries believe banning nuclear tests will by itself reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles, "all five nuclear weapons states believe that without testing, we can nevertheless maintain for the foreseeable future the viability, the safety and the reliability of our nuclear stockpiles."4
The safety and reliability of the U.S. arsenal are to be maintained through a multi-billion dollar program called the "Science Based Stockpile Stewardship" program. Stockpile Stewardship is seen by many as a way of buying off the nuclear weapons laboratories to get their consent to the United States signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. By retaining "all historical capabilities of the weapons laboratories, industrial plants and the Nevada Test Site," Stockpile Stewardship will provide design capabilities potentially greater than during the Cold War.5

The plan calls for maintaining weapons, weapons components, and research and development facilities such as Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and the Nevada Test Site. Stockpile Stewardship also supports a National Ignition Facility that attempts to achieve nuclear fusion. Critics have raised questions about potential uses of this facility to develop new pure-fusion weapons. In addition, the Department of Energy plans to spend more than $1 billion at Los Alamos to expand facilities for producing substantial numbers of nuclear warheads.6 In addition to DOE’s new, high-tech, experimental laboratory facilities, Stockpile Stewardship will use high-powered supercomputers to conduct virtual tests or simulate nuclear explosions.7 Over the next decade, the United States plans to invest $45 billion in this program—an amount, in inflation-adjusted dollars, well above the average Cold War annual spending for nuclear weapons research, development, and testing.

Obviously, DOE plans go significantly beyond maintaining the safety and reliability of the arsenal. Barely a few months after President Clinton signed the Test Ban Treaty, a legal petition by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations forced the release of a secret document which revealed that the weapons labs were currently working on "programs that provide new or modified designs."8 Soon thereafter, DOE revealed its plans for the B61-11, a modification of an older nuclear gravity bomb. There are other new nuclear weapons under development as well.

These activities clearly show that even if the United States is complying with the letter of the test-ban treaty by not conducting full-scale nuclear explosions, it violates the spirit of the treaty. But that is not all. One reason India cited in refusing to sign the treaty was that the treaty no longer constrained development of nuclear weapons by the United States and other nuclear weapons states.9 Thus U.S. policies actually have the perverse effect of strengthening arguments by other states in their quest for nuclear weapons.

Instead of a reduced role for nuclear weapons, military planners have actually come up with new roles for these weapons despite the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly a decade ago. The Presidential Decision Directive 60, signed by President Clinton in December 1997, allows such planning to continue. Far from backing a commitment to nuclear disarmament, this directive instead reaffirms the fundamental elements of U.S. nuclear doctrine since World War II. According to newspaper accounts, this directive recommits the United States to policies of threatened first use and threatened massive retaliation and affirms that the United States will continue to rely on nuclear arms as a cornerstone of its national security for the "indefinite future."10 In addition, the presidential directive reportedly suggests the possibility of nuclear retaliation against countries suspected of possessing or manufacturing chemical and biological arms.11 This conflicts directly with a U.S. pledge first initiated during the Carter administration in June 1978, and reaffirmed during the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995. This pledge committed the nation to not using nuclear weapons against nonnuclear weapon states that are parties to the nonproliferation treaty.


Some have charged that the nuclear weapons states are not really engaged in nuclear disarmament. In response, the United States and Russia have pointed to their bilateral negotiations aimed at limiting and reducing strategic armaments—the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START). In 1991, the START I treaty, signed by the United States and Russia, limited the number of deployed strategic weapons to 6,000 each. This was further limited to 3,500 weapons each by the 1993 START II treaty. Both countries have signed the latter treaty, but only the United States has ratified it.

Now, nearly a decade later, the START process appears to have come to a stop. The Russian parliament, the Duma, refuses to ratify START II, in part because of the U.S. decision to open NATO to new members. Since the United States refuses to move forward unilaterally on START III, it seems highly unlikely that the START process will further reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons any time in the near future.

What then has the START process achieved? First of all, it must be emphasized that in counting warheads that remain after the implementation of the START process, the numbers refer only to active operational weapons. But the U.S. Department of Defense has spares in its stockpile, besides active operational warheads, kept at the bases where nuclear weapons are deployed. Further, DOD also holds separately a contingency stockpile, the augmentation or "hedge" warheads—that is, extra weapons available for redeployment. In addition, DOD has in storage reliability replacements—a third set of additional warheads maintained to replace those in the active arsenal in case those weapons prove faulty or unreliable. In addition to these stores, DOE has custody of retired warheads and the "strategic reserve"—more warheads not counted in the other categories. All these add up to over 10,000 warheads that are not counted under START. Russia also keeps several thousand warheads on reserve. It has been estimated that the United States and Russia together still have over 30,000 weapons. In all, the five nuclear weapons states hold between them over 36,000 weapons.12

Further, many of the components recovered from dismantled warheads—in particular the radioactive plutonium weapons parts, or pits as they are called, that provide the explosive capability to nuclear weapons—are mostly stored at the Pantex facility in Texas.13 The only plans for disassembly are at the experimental, planning stage and would deal with only a few hundred pits. A decision about when and where to construct a full-scale pit disassembly plant has not yet been made.

By retaining these components of a large arsenal, the United States and Russia do not seem to be in any hurry to give up the potential to build up their arsenals. With the collapse of Russia’s economy, there is also the danger that this large store of weapons materials may be diverted to other users.

The failure of the United States to pursue meaningful steps has been neatly summarized by a former director of Strategic and Theater Nuclear Weapons:

Those responsible for U.S. nuclear weapons must not lose sight of the fact that the intent of these negotiations is not to disarm the United States…the intent of U.S. arms negotiators is to disarm others, and experience demonstrates that the disarmament of others is facilitated if U.S. weapons are offered as compensation. Thus, we must have weapons to give up.14

Russian opposition to ratifying START II is also fortified by recent steps taken by the Clinton administration towards deploying a national missile defense system. The system is ostensibly intended to shoot down missiles launched at the United States. But scientists and analysts have long pointed out the technical difficulties involved in constructing such a system and have demonstrated that even the best systems can be easily overwhelmed by simple countermeasures. Nevertheless, the administration has now allocated more than $10 billion over the next six years to field a ballistic missile defense system by 2005, on top of the $55 billion spent since 1983.

Despite this immense expenditure, current ballistic missile defense systems have not been able to perform satisfactorily in tests against even straightforward targets, let alone those designed to foil defenses. In April of this year, for the sixth time in a row, a high-altitude area-defense interceptor missile missed its target.15

Even more important, the United States has demonstrated that it will not honor the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that clearly prohibits a national missile defense. Other countries have not missed this implication and have threatened to take appropriate actions. Russia has made it clear that its implementation of the START agreements, which would result in the reduction of thousands of warheads from its arsenal, depends on continued U.S. compliance with this treaty. China, too, is deeply opposed to a U.S. national missile defense system. While China has only some two dozen long-range missiles now, it claims it will seek to upgrade its nuclear arsenal if the United States develops and deploys such a missile defense system. Nevertheless, Secretary of Defense William Cohen has said that the only remaining obstacle to deployment is "technological readiness."

Thus, instead of using the post-Cold War period to reduce the nuclear standoff and build a cooperative relationship with Russia and China, the United States is undermining the basis of arms reductions.

There are other indications that reductions in nuclear arms are unlikely to proceed at a fast rate. In December 1998, after considering various options to resume production of tritium, Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson announced that the United States will use the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Nuclear Plant to produce tritium when it is needed. He also said that DOE will continue research on alternative means to produce tritium. Tritium, a radioactive gas with a relatively short half-life, is used to increase the explosive power in nuclear weapons. The current U.S. stockpile is sufficient to supply 8,400 weapons with tritium until 2010.16 This determination to increase production of tritium is further evidence that U.S. actions belie its position as stated in international agreements.

START II specifically calls for Russia and the United States to reduce their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a maximum of 3,500 each. Moreover, at the 1996 Helsinki summit, presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to reduce the numbers even further, to 2,500 each by December 2007. Russia has proposed cutting these numbers by yet another 1,000 each. With 2,500 or 1,500 strategic weapons and 1,000 tactical weapons, the United States would not need new tritium till 2025 or 2030. By deciding to resume tritium production instead of vigorously pursuing reductions, the United States has sent a signal to Russia and the international community that it seeks to maintain its current arsenal levels.

As the United States tries to maintain and modernize its nuclear arsenal, most countries are becoming increasingly impatient with the nuclear weapons states for their failure to deliver on their promises of nuclear disarmament. This is nothing new. In fact, the very first resolution passed by the UN General Assembly at its founding in 1946 called for nuclear disarmament. Since then, there have been hundreds of resolutions calling for the same goal. What is new is the growing awareness that the traditional excuse given by the superpowers for maintaining their arsenals— that is, the threat to their security posed by their Cold War rivalry—is no longer valid.

One of the clearest commitments to nuclear disarmament made by the United States and the four other countries that had tested nuclear weapons before 1967 is in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under Article VI of this treaty, the nuclear weapons states agreed to eliminate their nuclear weapons. In exchange, the other signatories to the treaty forswore their right to develop them.

It is worth emphasizing that the nonnuclear weapons states have, almost without exception, kept their end of the bargain while the nuclear weapons states have conducted innumerable nuclear weapons tests and increased the size and destructive power of their arsenals. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that in 1967 there were some 40,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and that this number increased to 69,000 in 1986, before falling back to around 36,000 in 1997.17

It is clear that the nonproliferation treaty was not in itself sufficient to prevent increases in nuclear arsenals. Only the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union accomplished that. However, despite the complete disappearance of any justification for these nuclear arsenals, the numbers of warheads maintained by the nuclear states today suggest that these nations do not intend to keep their side of the bargain and eliminate their nuclear arsenals any time in the near future. The present impasse and bleak future for disarmament have led to calls for a "peasants’ revolt"—a mass withdrawal by nonnuclear weapons states from the treaty unless the nuclear weapons states "agree in some forum to start genuine negotiations designed to ultimately rid the world of nuclear weapons."18 There have also been suggestions to amend the nuclear nonproliferation treaty so that it completely outlaws nuclear weapons.19

It is also clear that the nuclear weapons states have a legal obligation to abolish nuclear weapons. In 1994, the United Nations General Assembly asked the International Court of Justice—the World Court—whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances would be permitted under international law. In response, the Court held that "the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law." Further, the Court went on to state unanimously that "there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control."20

On November 6, 1996, Malaysia, along with 24 other sponsors, introduced an important resolution at the United Nations, calling for compliance with the World Court opinion and negotiations toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.21 The resolution was adopted on December 10, 1996, with the support of 115 of the member states of the UN, with 22 votes against and 32 abstentions. Significantly, the nuclear weapons states, other than China, were opposed. Law, it seems, was not meant for them.

In a separate UN vote, 139 states supported the World Court’s position on the obligation to negotiate nuclear disarmament. Similar resolutions were passed in 1997 and 1998. And in the latest round of voting at the UN, 123 states voted in support of the whole resolution, and 159 states voted in support of the paragraph underlining the World Court judgement.

In 1998, a coalition of countries—Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand, Sweden, Brazil, Egypt, and Mexico—presented a UN resolution intended "to galvanize the international community in common action for the purpose of eradicating [nuclear] weapons for once and for all." This resolution also aimed at challenging traditional thinking on nuclear policy and complacency among nuclear weapons states and suggested practical steps to move beyond the nuclear prison of 20th century policy.

Britain, France, and the United States launched a concerted effort to persuade their nuclear umbrella allies, NATO, and those countries of Eastern Europe that seek admission to the European Union or NATO, to vote against the coalition resolution. Despite those efforts, several countries including 12 of the 16 NATO members abstained from voting, indicating their displeasure at current U.S. and NATO policies. Following the vote, the political debates in many countries over the UN resolution prompted Germany, Canada, and others to push harder for a reexamination of NATO strategies.22 In particular, these countries want to seriously reappraise the traditional assumption that a policy of first use of nuclear weapons poses a significant deterrent to the initiation of war by other nations.

There has also been similar pressure for achieving disarmament from the Conference on Disarmament—the international body where nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties are traditionally negotiated. During the February 1999 session, five initiatives toward nuclear disarmament were submitted.23

Among them are proposals by South Africa—which unilaterally dismantled its nuclear program in the early 1990s and thereby earned respect as an important advocate of nuclear disarmament—and a joint proposal by five NATO member states: Belgium, German, Italy, the Netherlands, and Norway. This last proposal is particularly significant since it indicates a split within countries that have generally supported U.S. policy. Another NATO country, Canada, has also submitted a separate proposal calling for nuclear disarmament.

Over the last few years, there have been several recommendations from nongovernmental organizations, both within the United States and worldwide, for a systematic push for nuclear disarmament. One of the most ambitious of these proposals is a nuclear weapons convention. Modeled after the chemical and biological weapons conventions, this convention would prohibit the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat, or use of nuclear weapons and would provide for their elimination. In 1997, Costa Rica introduced a model nuclear weapons convention at the United Nations, and the following year, U.S. Representative Lynn Woolsey introduced a resolution urging President Clinton to initiate multilateral negotiations leading to the early conclusion of such a convention.24

Several interim steps have also been advocated. For example, Professor Frank von Hippel, who served as assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and others have recommended that missiles be pulled off hair-trigger alert as a step towards deep reductions of nuclear arsenals.25 Similarly, Admiral Stansfield Turner, a former director of the CIA, has made a case for strategic escrow—removing nuclear warheads from their delivery vehicles and placing them in separate, monitored, storage sites.26

Not all recommendations address the technicalities of delivery vehicles and warheads. Some have suggested changes at the operational and doctrinal level, including no-first-use commitments that guarantee no country would use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. Some NATO members have also sought to implement this as part of NATO strategy. Others prefer to go further and call for a commitment from nuclear weapons states to not use nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

More than 30 years after the nuclear weapons states committed to nuclear disarmament, there are still no signs of any serious steps towards the widely shared goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. Instead, by pointing to dubious threats, the United States seems to be expanding its abilities to maintain its nuclear arsenal at considerable cost. This only incites other countries to follow similar policies, increasing insecurity all around. In addition, several policies not directly related to nuclear weapons also affect this state of affairs. For example, the addition of new Eastern European members in NATO, and NATO’s decision to bomb Serbia without going through the United Nations, have led to calls within Russia to increase its reliance on nuclear weapons. Similarly, the double standard with respect to countries of the Middle East also increases incentives for other countries to develop their own arsenals. Israel, for example, has developed a nuclear arsenal but continues to receive huge amounts of military aid from the United States, whereas Iraq has been punished with a murderous international regime of sanctions for its much smaller-scale nuclear pursuits.

The post-Cold War era has given us the gift of time to rid the world of nuclear dangers.27 Russia is on the verge of economic collapse, and the other nuclear weapons states have much smaller nuclear arsenals than either Russia or the United States. Today, the only country capable of rapid strides towards nuclear abolition is the United States. More than 50 years ago, the United States took the lead in developing nuclear weapons; now it must take the lead in ridding the world of these weapons of mass destruction.n


M.V. Ramana is a research associate at the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Princeton University, in Princeton, New Jersey

1. For the text of the treaty, see US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements (Washington, DC: US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1990). Also available on the Internet at <>.

2. Jaswant Singh, "Against Nuclear Apartheid," Foreign Affairs (September/October 1998).

3. "Remarks by the President on the Patients’ Bill of Rights," Office of the Press Secretary, the White House, May 28, 1998.

4. Andrew Lichterman and Jacqueline Cabasso, A Faustian Bargain: Why Stockpile Stewardship is Incompatible with the Process of Nuclear Disarmament (Oakland, CA: Western States Legal Foundation, March 1998).

5. US Department of Energy, Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Stockpile Stewardship and Management (September 1996), p. S-3.

6. Peter Gray, "Stockpile Stewardship" of Nuclear Weapons: The Deal to Subsidize Nuclear Weapons (Santa Barbara, CA: Tides Foundation, Project for Participatory Democracy, March 1998).

7. Christopher E. Paine and Matthew G. McKinzie, End Run: The U.S. Government’s Plan for Designing Nuclear Weapons and Simulating Nuclear Explosions under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (Natural Resources Defense Council Report, August 1997).

8. William Broad, "U.S. Plan Shows New Design Work on Nuclear Weapons," New York Times (August 18, 1997), p.1.

9. M.V. Ramana, "The Hawks Take Flight: India and the Fissile Material Cutoff," International Network of Engineers and Sci-
entists against Proliferation Bulletin
, 13 (July 1997); available on the Internet at <>.

10. R. Jeffrey Smith, "Clinton Directive Changes Strategy on Nuclear Weapons," Washington Post (December 7, 1997).

11. H.M. Kristensen, "Nuclear Futures: Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and U.S. Nuclear Strategy," BASIC Research Report 98.2 (London: British American Security Information Council,1998); available on the Internet at  <>.

12. Robert S. Norris and William M. Arkin, "U.S. Nuclear Stockpile, July 1997," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (July/August 1997), pp. 66-67.

13. US Department of Energy, Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Continued Operation of the Pantex Plant and Associated Storage of Nuclear Weapon Components (November 1996), pp. 1-7 – 1-10.

14. Rear Admiral W. J. Holland Jr., "Nuclear Weapons in the Info Age: Who Needs ‘em?" US Naval Institute Proceedings (January 1999), p. 47.

15. Robert Wall, "Thaad Misses Target Again; Telemetry Loss Hinders Analysis," Aviation Week and Space Technology (April 5, 1999), p. 62.

16. Charles Ferguson and Frank von Hippel, "U.S. Tritium Production Plan Lacks Strategic Rationale," Defense News 29 (December 7-13, 1998).

17. Robert Norris and William Arkin, "Global Nuclear Stockpiles, 1945-1997," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November/December 1997), p. 67.

18. Frank Blackaby, "Time for a Peasants’ Revolt," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November/December 1997), p. 4.

19. Zia Mian and M.V. Ramana, "Disarmament Judo: Using the NPT to Make the Nuclear Weapons States Negotiate the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons," Disarmament Diplomacy 36 (April 1999).

20. John Burroughs, The Legality of Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons: A Guide to the Historic Opinion of the International Court of Justice (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998).

21. UN General Assembly Resolution, A/Res/51/45M.

22. "Germany Raises No-First-Use Issue at NATO Meeting," Arms Control Today (November/December 1998), p. 24.

23. Rebecca Johnson, "Geneva Update No. 44: Frustration that the CD isn’t Working," Disarmament Diplomacy (February 1999), pp. 16-19.

24. US House of Representatives Resolution 106/82, "Resolution on Furthering Complete Nuclear Disarmament," available on the Internet at < res_a2000_woolsey.html>.

25. Frank von Hippel, "Paring Down the Arsenal," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May/June 1997), pp. 33-40.

26. Stansfield Turner, Caging the Nuclear Genie (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997).

27. Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1998).

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