Toward a Nuclear Strategy

By John J. Hamre
Monday, May 2, 2005

America is sleepwalking through history, armed with nuclear weapons. The Cold War left us with a massive inventory of weapons we no longer need, an infrastructure we can no longer use or maintain, and no thought of where our future lies. A shrinking community of nuclear experts holds on to a massive and aging inventory as a security blanket for a future they cannot define. That same community now advocates the development of a weapon (the so-called Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, or RNEP) that commands no conviction from either the military or the broad policy community. In short, we are nowhere.

Last year Congress, led by Rep. Dave Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, rejected the administration's plan for RNEP. Hobson rightly asked, "What is the administration's overall plan?" and he has yet to get an answer that makes any sense. The plan he seeks is not some micro-agenda for testing components of a new design but rather a comprehensive plan for keeping America a credible nuclear power in the future. We have now gone a decade without one.

Before we decide what new things to buy, the country needs a national debate about the role of nuclear weapons and their contribution to our security. The global security environment has changed dramatically, and we need new thinking, thinking that is not mired in the battles over nuclear forces that date from the 1980s and 1990s. To stimulate that national debate, I offer these points.

First, there is an important reason the United States must have nuclear weapons: Other nations have them, and more seem to want them. We still must deter potential opponents, avoid nuclear intimidation by other powers and prevent strategic surprise by aspirant nations. America also extends its deterrence to many allies so that they do not feel compelled to build nuclear weapons of their own. Thus we must maintain a credible nuclear deterrent force, as well as theoretical and operational knowledge of nuclear weapons superior to that of anyone else.

Second, the current inventory of nuclear weapons is grossly oversized and ill-suited for whatever the future might bring. These weapons were designed for an earlier age. While the force is quite capable today and provides a reliable deterrence, its credibility will erode as it ages.

Third, we do better to hedge an uncertain future by maintaining competent design teams and building new weapons at low production rates than by holding on to a massive inventory of aging weapons.

Fourth, while many of my colleagues and associates do not share this view, I believe we should commit to retiring all our existing nuclear warheads and building a small number of new-design weapons in their place. I do not believe there is any sustainable political support for building new weapons when we continue to hold on to more than 8,000 warheads. If we start with the premise that the weapons of the past should be retired and dismantled, we can start fresh in our thinking about what kind of force we need for the future and how large it should be. I suspect that it will be a very small inventory.

Fifth, we must minimize the risk that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists. There is no greater priority in the global war on terrorism. We can accomplish this by reducing the availability of nuclear weapons and material on a global basis. This is an urgent requirement. Consistent with it, we should start now to reconfigure the U.S. nuclear production complex to dramatically reduce its size. We should not start producing new weapons until we have a much smaller, safer production complex.

Sixth: Russia still holds on to even larger inventories of nuclear weapons than we do, in the false belief that this compensates for its current conventional weaknesses. This is counterproductive. After all, Russia has hostile terrorist forces on its borders and has experienced terrorism directly on its own soil. The greatest danger it faces stems from its huge nuclear inventory. Both the United States and Russia must lead the world to smaller inventories. But the United States has a much better basis for making this argument if it takes the lead.

Seventh, any approach to building new warheads for a future arsenal needs to be integrated into a comprehensive program that minimizes the attractiveness of nuclear weapons to nonnuclear countries, encourages the reduction of excessive inventories among nuclear states, and strengthens the controls over nuclear stocks and material. This requires that we return to the fundamental goals that shaped adoption of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty and retool them for today. Simply skimming over things in periodic review conferences -- such as the one scheduled to start today -- is another example of sleepwalking.

Finally, I do not believe we need to test the existing arsenal of weapons. The Energy Department's Stockpile Stewardship Program is adequate to that limited task, though I recognize that experts I trust argue that at some point we may need to test in order to validate the knowledge base underlying our current certification process. This problem will disappear, however, as we retire the current inventory.

Almost all technical experts believe we probably do not need to test new-design weapons to have high confidence in their effectiveness. But if we completely retire all existing systems, I think we should test the new weapons to demonstrate to the world that they are credible. Such testing need not be extensive. And while I acknowledge that testing is widely seen as a provocative act, it can be made acceptable internationally so long as it is preceded by a commitment to retire our entire existing inventory.

The actions I recommend would probably save a considerable amount of money, but that isn't why I support them. They are necessary if we are to have a reliable deterrent in the future and a diminished risk of nuclear terrorism. This is an area in which we need to scrap the past and start from scratch. The time for sleepwalking is indeed over.

The writer, a former deputy defense secretary, is president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company