The Tough Task of Nuclear Reduction
History Shows Weapons Are Hard to Eliminate

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 17, 2001; Page A03

In January 1992, President George Bush announced he was prepared to eliminate all 50 MX "Peacekeepers," a 10-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile that is the largest in the U.S. strategic arsenal, if Russian President Boris Yeltsin made a comparable offer.

Yeltsin responded the next day by saying he would dismantle all of Russia's giant SS-18 ICBMs as part of a deal to cut each nation's nuclear stockpiles from 6,500 warheads, the level set by the 1972 START I treaty, to between 2,000 and 2,500.

This week, President Bush offered a unilateral reduction in the U.S. strategic force to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads. Among those to be cut would be the 500 warheads on the MX missile that his father offered to eliminate nearly a decade ago.

The story of the resilient MX is something of a cautionary tale about Russian-American efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles. History has shown that eliminating nuclear weapons is far more difficult than designing and building them.

Indeed, even as Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded a three-day summit this week at which they said they were laying the foundation for a new strategic framework based on a relationship between friends rather than adversaries, both countries continued to modernize the nuclear weapons they intend to keep.

The United States is spending billions of dollars to refurbish and make more accurate its warheads, whose yields are more than 10 times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The only purpose for such weapons is to strike hard targets, such as missile silos, found only in Russia. Some Bush aides also are pushing to design a new, lower-yield, earth-penetrating warhead suitable for use against deep underground shelters like those that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is supposed to possess.

Under current plans, the U.S. warheads taken from ICBMs scheduled to be dismantled are not to be destroyed and their weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium made unusable. As with the weapons dismantled under START I, many of the weapons' plutonium triggers will be maintained in a strategic reserve at the Pantex plant in Texas, and the thermonuclear elements will be stored in facilities at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Putin said this week that Russia would also drastically reduce its nuclear stockpile. Though he did not give an exact goal for his reductions, he has in the past used 1,500 warheads by the end of the decade as a target. Most U.S. experts believe Russia would be able to afford to keep only 1,000 or fewer operational by that time.

Even so, Russia is still building new warheads to replace those on ICBMs it intends to keep. Russia is also building the SS-27, a new ICBM to replace those already dismantled because of obsolescence, though economic problems have cut SS-27 production levels to fewer than 10 a year.

Under START II, signed by Bush's father and Yeltsin in January 1993, dismantling the MX was to be accomplished by next month. But when President Bill Clinton suggested he might unilaterally begin dismantling some of the 50 ICBMs before the Russians had ratified START II, Republicans in Congress passed legislation prohibiting any such reductions under the treaty until ratification was complete.

Earlier this year, when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he wanted to begin taking down the missiles, although ratification was still not complete, he had to go to Congress to get the restriction repealed.

The House agreed to exempt the 50 MX missiles from the prohibition, and the Senate eliminated the restriction entirely, permitting the president to reduce any number of strategic warheads he wished. The House-Senate conference on the fiscal 2002 defense authorization bill has yet to vote on the issue, according to congressional sources.

A second problem Rumsfeld faced was that there was no money in the budget to pay for the reduction. "The situation I was left with when I arrived was that the budget for the Peacekeeper missile had no money to continue it provided by the Congress, and no money to terminate it. It was just there, and not a happy situation," he said.

The Bush administration requested $5.1 million in its fiscal 2002 defense budget for the missile system, to which the Senate added $12.2 million to cover preliminary expenses for dismantling the 50 missiles.

Even with congressional approval and funds, the Air Force plan to eliminate the 50 MX missiles stretches out until 2007. Under the plan, one missile at a time will be taken off alert and withdrawn from its silo. The 10 warheads from each missile will be sent to Pantex, and the missile itself will be destroyed.

Which other weapons would be kept and which ones would be dismantled under Bush's new proposal have yet to be determined.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company