(Washington, D.C.): The Washington Post‘s editorial pages Wednesday featured two items —
one an op.ed. article, the other a Letter to the Editor — that represent thinly disguised appeals for
unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament. The fact that one of the Nation’s leading newspapers would
dignify, and by implication endorse, such proposals speaks volumes about the sorry state of
national security-thinking in the capital. More damning still is the extent to which similar steps
toward America’s “denuclearization” have actually been implemented by the Clinton
‘Without Weakening Deterrence’
The pieces published by the Post call upon the Clinton Administration unilaterally to degrade key
components of the U.S. nuclear deterrent posture. The op.ed. article, entitled “Redoubling
Nuclear Weapons Reduction,” was authored by Bruce Blair, Harold Feiveson and Frank von
Hippel — three long-time agitators for radical nuclear disarmament schemes.(1) It argues that the
United States needs immediately to “deposture” all its land- and sea-based ballistic missile-delivered nuclear weapons on account of the dangers arising from Russia‘s “accident-prone
Specifically, the authors declare that “President Clinton should order the U.S. Strategic
- Remove all 500 warheads from the United States’ most effective intercontinental-range
ballistic missile system — the MX. They minimize the strategic significance of this step by
noting that, pursuant to the START II Treaty, these ICBMs are slated to be dismantled by
2003. They neglect to point out, however, that there remains considerable uncertainty as to
whether the Russian Duma will actually ratify that accord.
- Disable the United States’ remaining ICBM force by opening the safety switches on all 500
Minuteman III ICBMs. This step would require maintenance crews to reaccess each silo
before the missiles could be launched.
- Deactivate eight nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines in anticipation of cuts to be
imposed under the START II Treaty that is not in effect and the START III Treaty which has
not yet been negotiated, let alone ratified. In addition, the U.S. should remove half of the
warheads on the remaining submarines — the most lethal, hard-target capable W-88s — and
make the remainder unlaunchable in less than 24 hours.
Messrs. Blair, Feiveson and von Hippel have the cheek to conclude with the assertion that
such steps would substantially reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear catastrophe “without in
any way weakening deterrence.” Think about it. These individuals would have us believe that the
entire U.S. ballistic missile force could be made incapable of launch in less than one day — and
most of it unable to be readied for use in less than weeks or months — without having any adverse
impact on deterrence whatsoever. Even if the Russians do adopt the measures that the authors
airily say they “expect” President Yeltsin to implement to reduce the readiness of Russian land-
and sea-based missiles,(2) how can anyone say that the deterrent to acts of aggression by China,
Iran or other emerging missile-equipped nuclear threats currently represented by America’s
nuclear deterrent would not be degraded?
Clearly, the only way to do so is by positing (at least implicitly) that the American nuclear
deterrent is no longer important. If it is irrelevant, clearly dismantling it will have no impact on
deterrence. If, on the other hand, the “deposturers” are wrong, the measures they are
recommending would grievously undercut the effectiveness of the U.S. deterrent.
Sow Salt in the Ground at the Nevada Test Site
A similar mind-set is in evidence in the initiative advanced on the Washington Post‘s main
editorial page. In his Letter to the Editor, Bruce Hall — a man who the Post neglects to identify
as a leader of the radical Greenpeace Nuclear Disarmament Campaign, in which capacity he
routinely urges “President Clinton…to rid the world of nuclear weapons” — calls upon the United
States to close its nuclear test site in Nevada. Here again the impetus is a problem emanating
from Russia, i.e., continuing uncertainty about whether nuclear testing-related activities underway
in mid-August at the Novaya Zemlya test site were related to a 16 August “seismic event” in the
vicinity. Even though the problem is of Russian origin, for such inveterate “Blame America
Firsters” the “solution” lies in disarming the United States.
Hall wants President Clinton to “cancel…[sub-critical] underground nuclear weapons experiments
at the Nevada test site…then seek agreement from Russian and China to halt activities at their test
sites, as well.” (He notes that France has already closed its test facility in the Pacific, but fails to
mention that the United Kingdom has relied upon the American facility in Nevada to meet its
nuclear testing needs.) Here again, the U.S. is called upon to act unilaterally, with the
“expectation” that others will follow suit.
Greenpeace’s Hall is no more troubled by the adverse impact of his recommended measure for the
U.S. deterrent than are Messrs. Blair, Feiveson and von Hippel by theirs. In point of fact, were
the United States permanently to foreclose its ability to conduct even sub-critical nuclear
testing — on top of the prohibition contained in the Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB) on
testing that produces any yield at all — the effect would probably be to make it impossible
to assure the future safety, reliability and effectiveness of America’s nuclear stockpile.(3)
Neither are these “denuclearizers” troubled by the verification problems associated with their
proposals. The authors of the joint op.ed. assert that “most of [their] initiatives could be readily
verified through routine satellite observation and the on-site inspections already being conducted
to verify existing agreements.” Unfortunately, neither of these techniques has proven reliable in
determining the size or disposition of Russia’s inventory of so-called “non-deployed”
intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. Moving more Russian weapons into this unaccountable
stockpile — all of which have a demonstrated capability to be launched without a silo — does
nothing to assure that they cannot and will not pose a threat to the United States.
Even Messrs. Blair, Feiveson and von Hippel acknowledge that no means currently exist to verify
that submarine launched missiles have been “de-alerted.” They insouciantly dismiss this problem — one made intractable by operational security considerations — saying simply that “the parties
[will be required] to devise new monitoring arrangements.”
For his part, Hall appears indifferent to the fact that shutting the Russian or Chinese nuclear test
sites down would not assure the verifiability of the Comprehensive Test Ban. Unlike the United
States, these nations can conduct sub-critical — or, for that matter, decoupled low-yield
nuclear tests(4) — in mine shafts, salt domes or other underground sites without fear of being
caught at it. Given the lengths to which the arms controllers and their friends in the seismology
community have gone to dismiss evidence that the 16 August seismic event was connected with
what the Russians themselves have described as “zero-yield or near zero-yield” nuclear testing
experiments at Novaya Zemlya, it is predictable that CTB proponents will be even more
dismissive of suggestions that similar signatures detected in sites not previously associated with
the Russian test program may be evidence of further Kremlin non-compliance.
What Clinton Has Already Done to De-Posture the U.S. Deterrent
The frightening reality is that a number of steps have already been taken by the Clinton
Administration that are in important respects rooted in the same mind set evident in the radical
notions being advocated on the editorial pages of the Washington Post. Consider the following
illustrative examples — and the contrast they represent with Russian practices:
- As one of its first acts, the Clinton Administration dismantled programs designed to
assure the continuity of key government functions in the event of an attack on
Washington. This action came on the heels of the highly publicized congressional decision to
close down a facility at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia once its role as a site for
relocating and reconstituting the legislative branch was publicly disclosed.
- The Clinton Administration has significantly eroded the Nation’s early warning systems,
deferring maintenance and suspending operations at some of the assets that would provide
critical data should a missile or bomber attack be launched on the United States. For example,
the two PAVE PAWS phased array missile warning radars in the Southeast and Southwestern
U.S. have been shut down and cannibalized for parts.
- The U.S. conducts few, if any, major exercises involving its strategic nuclear forces.
When combined with the American armed forces’ wholesale de-emphasizing of nuclear
weapons programs, training and doctrine and the attendant decline in the career prospects of
those military officers with nuclear specialties, the effect, over time, is predictable: The
readiness of the nuclear forces is steadily eroding.
- The United States no longer produces nuclear weapons. Its nuclear weapons production
complex is almost entirely shut down. The trained personnel responsible for the development,
testing and reliability of the stockpile have been hemorrhaging from its nuclear weapons
laboratories. There is no program to design or procure replacements for the United States’
aging ballistic missiles, long-range bombers(7) and strategic submarines.
- The United States has only about one-quarter of the airborne command and control
aircraft it had during the Cold War. Those still in service are kept at reduced readiness and
are therefore less able to provide a survivable platform in the event of an attack on Washington
or the Nation more generally. Resources have been steadily removed from the vital
requirements for command, control, and communications for U.S. nuclear forces.
- Most recently, the Clinton Administration has taken steps in the name of “defense
reform,” that threaten to degrade the attention and resources given to nuclear command
and control (C2). For example, the U.S. Nuclear Command and Control System (NCCS)
Support Staff will be integrated with the U.S. Strategic Command — eliminating the
independence and direct access to senior Pentagon and other Washington policy-makers that
enabled it to assure the adequacy of the critical nuclear C2.
By contrast, Russia is continuing to build at mind-boggling expense an assortment of
underground facilities, at least some of which are connected by dedicated subways to
the Kremlin and other government agencies in Moscow. Russia’s continuing
investment in these deeply buried, well-hardened concrete structures — one of which
has been estimated to be the size of the area within the Washington Beltway(5) — at a
time of acute economic turmoil is explicable only as part of an ongoing effort to
prepare for nuclear warfighting.
Although some of Russia’s early warning systems are located in other states of the
former Soviet Union, Moscow has made arrangements to continue to receive data from
these assets and, together with other networked radars within Russia proper, to
support its still-operational anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense system. The scope of
this system, which has no counterpart in the West, is far greater than is widely
appreciated in the West. As William Lee — a former Defense Intelligence Agency
expert with a truly remarkable track record of assessing Soviet/Russian military
programs and capabilities — has documented:
“…The Soviets deployed two generations of national ABM defenses, which are prohibited
by the  Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. As of 1992, 10,000-12,000 SA-5/SA-10 national
ABM [interceptor] missiles and approximately 19 battle management radars were deployed in
violation of the ABM Treaty. [Illegal] national ABM development and deployment paralleled
[that of the legal] Moscow ABM defenses from 1953 to 1992.”(6)
By contrast, the Strategic Rocket Forces are virtually the only component of the
Russian military that is receiving funding needed to maintain and modernize its arsenal,
to assure the well-being and reliability of its personnel and to permit regular and
comprehensive training exercises. In fact, by at least some measures, Russia’s SRF are
participating in simulated nuclear attacks upon the United States in a much more
routine and aggressive manner than was the case during the Cold War.
For its part, as former Secretary of the Departments of Defense and Energy James
Schlesinger recently testified before Congress, Russia continues to produce several
thousand nuclear weapons per year.(8) Its scientists appear to be engaged in both the
modernization and continued testing of Russia’s nuclear stockpile(9) in support of a
comprehensive, programmed upgrading of the Strategic Rocket Forces’ land- and sea-based missiles and launch platforms.
Russia, meanwhile, continues to operate, in addition to its survivable underground
command and control complexes rail-mobile and airborne assets for this purpose.
The Bottom Line
Although the phrase “the Cold War is over” is repeated with the regularity of a mantra to justify
draconian changes in the character, size and condition of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the
asymmetries developing between American and Russian strategic forces can continue to be
ignored only at our peril. Already, the United States has reconfigured its Cold War posture
in a manner that substantially reduces the survivability of its deterrent posture, perhaps
even to the point of creating an invitation to preemptive attack.
These asymmetries would become even more worrisome in the event the United States were to
heed the recommendations of the radical denuclearizers promoted by the Washington Post. And,
it goes without saying, the emergence in this “post-Cold War” world of still other powers
equipped with nuclear weapons — or perhaps chemical, biological or radiological ones — that the
United States will need to deter makes any further wholesale “weakening” of the American
nuclear arsenal irresponsible.
Unfortunately, the Center for Security Policy has learned that the Clinton Administration is
actively considering various “de-posturing” options. Clearly, given the potentially enormous
implications of such further “denuclearization” initiatives, no action should be taken to adopt them
without consultation with and the explicit approval of the Congress. Ideally, such approval would
await a real public debate about the wisdom of further diminishing the credibility and
efficacy of America’s nuclear deterrent — a debate that may not occur until the battle is fully
joined on Mr. Clinton’s ill-advised Comprehensive Test Ban.
– 30 –
1. Until recently, von Hippel was using his position as a senior official in President Clinton’s
Office of Science and Technology Policy to advance these and other radical disarmament ideas
within the U.S. government. Blair has done likewise from his vantage point at the Brookings
Institution, sometimes securing stature for his proposals through association with public figures
like former Sen. Sam Nunn. (See, for example, another, similar article written by Messrs. Nunn
and Blair in the Washington Post on 22 June 1997, the subject of a Center Decision Brief entitled
The New Arms Control Gambit: Unilateral U.S. Disarmament That Masquerades as Noblesse
Oblige [No. 97-D 84, 23 June 1997].) Feiveson has urged, in addition to “de-alerting” U.S. and
Russian missiles that these arsenals be reduced to as few as several hundred nuclear weapons.
2. These include: the “immediate deactivation of the silo-based missiles slated for elimination
under the [yet-to-be-unratified] START II treaty”; “the removal of the warheads from Russia’s
rail-based missiles”; and “deactivation of the 15 or so Russian ballistic-missile submarines that will
be retired over the next 10 years under [the unratified] START II and [unnegotiated] START III.
6. The ABM Treaty Charade: A Study in Elite Illusion and Delusion, William T. Lee, Council
for Social and Economic Studies, 1997.
7. Interestingly, the U.S. strategic bomber force has already been “de-alerted.” As a result of
taking all bombers off alert, what was once an important part of the robustness of the American
“strategic triad” has been made susceptible preemptive attack.
9. See Nuclear Spin-Control: Clinton See-No-Evil Response to Apparent Russian Test Offers
Bitter Foretaste of C.T.B. (No. 97-D 156, 20 October 1997) and Sorry, Calling the Russian
Seismic Event an ‘Unresolved Mystery’ Reinforces, Rather Than Eliminates, C.T.B.
Criticisms (No. 97-D 166, 4 November 1997).