Still Missing: A Nuclear Strategy

Still Missing: A Nuclear Strategy

Want to dive deeper?

Visit the Education Center

This week in Moscow, President Bush and President Vladimir Putin will sign a treaty reducing the number of U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear warheads over a 10-year time period. Reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons is vitally important and this is a strong step forward, but there is clearly more urgent work to be done.

President Bush knows this. Well before Sept. 11, he cited the threats from nuclear material that cannot be accounted for, from rogue nations, nuclear theft and accidental launch. He talked of the need to "constrict the supply of nuclear materials and the means to deliver them" and the need to "cut off the demand for nuclear weapons by addressing the security concerns of those who renounce these weapons." He said the United States "should remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status." At his previous summit with Putin, Bush said, "Our highest priority is to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction."

The administration's challenge is to put forward a coherent strategy for fulfilling the president's goals. So far it has not.

The most likely, most immediate, most potentially devastating threat America faces is the threat of nuclear terrorism. This puts us in a new nuclear arms race — between terrorist efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and our efforts to stop them. Acquiring weapons materials is the hardest step for the terrorists to take, and the easiest step for us to stop. We and our allies should be taking every possible action to help make the tons of nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere secure from terrorist theft or purchase. But we're not. The budget for these efforts remains essentially flat — even though, at the current rate, it will take years to secure the remaining 60 percent of nuclear material in Russia that is not adequately protected. The administration needs immediately to put forward new ideas, come up with new funding and recruit new partners to secure the raw materials of nuclear terrorism in Russia and elsewhere.

On the question of nuclear weapons policy, some in the Bush administration are considering and openly discussing steps that would take us in the opposite direction from the path pointed out by President Bush, including expanding options for nuclear attacks, widening the number of targeted nations and developing new nuclear weapons variants. While each of these ideas may have a plausible military rationale, their collective effect is to suggest that the nation with the world's most powerful conventional forces is actually increasing its reliance on nuclear forces. If other nations follow this example, they will increase their reliance on nuclear weapons and undercut the cooperation we must have to defend the United States against nuclear terrorism. If our nation moves in this direction, we will increase our ability to deal with unlikely threats — and decrease our ability to deal
with the likely threats.

We addressed the Cold War's threats by confrontation with Moscow. There can be no realistic comprehensive plan to defend America against today's threats that does not depend on cooperation with Moscow. It appears that both President Bush and President Putin understand this, but their challenge is to get their own teams heading in this direction. This week:

(1) Both Bush and Putin should pledge to ensure that nuclear, chemical and biological materials and weapons in both countries are safe, secure and accounted for — with reciprocal monitoring sufficient to assure each other and the rest of the world that this is the case.

(2) The United States and Russia should launch a global coalition against catastrophic terrorism by encouraging and assisting all countries in adopting the same high standards to keep weapons of mass destruction and their essential ingredients secure from terrorists. NATO should make this its top priority, and the new relationship with Russia could be a big help.

(3) The two presidents should insist on an accurate accounting and adequate safeguards for tactical nuclear weapons, including a baseline inventory of these weapons and reciprocal monitoring. These are the nuclear weapons most attractive to terrorists — even more valuable to them than fissile material, and much more portable than strategic warheads; yet they are not covered by present treaties or agreements.

(4) Both presidents should order their military leaders, in joint consultation and collaboration, to devise operational changes in the alert status of their nuclear forces that would reduce toward zero the risk of accidental launch or miscalculation and increase the decision time before each president would be required to make the fateful decision to launch. They should begin with an operational stand down of the weapons on both sides that are now scheduled for reductions.

(5) Both presidents should pledge that the treaty they are signing will be supplemented by additional agreements to ensure transparency, verifiability, irreversibility and stability. The goals of stability and irreversibility would be substantially advanced by agreeing to dismantle nuclear weapons from each nation's stockpile.

This summit gives President Bush and our nation the opportunity to advance our top national security imperatives. We are not assured of having this opportunity tomorrow. We must seize it today. There is much at stake.

Sam Nunn is the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, William Perry is former Secretary of Defense, and Gen. Eugene Habiger, USAF (Ret.), is former commander of all U.S. strategic nuclear forces.

Stay Informed

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.

Sign Up

The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index


The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index

“The bottom line is that the countries and areas with the greatest responsibility for protecting the world from a catastrophic act of nuclear terrorism are derelict in their duty,” the 2023 NTI Index reports.


My Resources