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The Nuclear Threat: A Proposal


For decades the United States and its allies have maintained nuclear forces designed for one overriding objective: to deter Soviet military action, particularly an attack against Western Europe. In addition, the United States has sought to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but this goal was never considered as important as the first.

Now the crumbling of Soviet power and the war in the Gulf have shattered the assumptions that underlie Western nuclear policies. An entirely new danger has arisen: that a disintegrating Soviet Union might lose control over its immense nuclear arsenal. Among the causes of the war in the Gulf, moreover, was the fear that Saddam Hussein would acquire nuclear weapons capable of hitting distant targets and drawing the Great Powers into a nuclear conflict. New policies controlling nuclear weapons must be adopted to reduce as quickly as possible risks of both kinds.

The crucial first step, we shall argue, would be a very deep and swift cut in US and Soviet nuclear forces, which should be reduced from their present total of approximately 50,000 warheads to something on the order of two thousand. To do so would, at one stroke, force the US and the USSR to adopt far less dangerous nuclear strategies and strengthen the global effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.

These changes in nuclear policy would be a major step toward a world in which relations among nations would be based on the rule of law, supported by a system of collective security, with the United Nations and regional organizations able to resolve conflicts and keep the peace.

That the peaceful period between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the arrival of tanks in Kuwait and Vilnius was so brief should dispel any illusions that such a goal is within easy reach. Nevertheless, at least it is clear that no regime in Moscow will be able to recreate the threat of the cold war years. This brutal century, in our view, has taught some lessons that should be applied as we plan for the next: that war between major industrialized states can no longer be perceived as the continuation of politics by other means; that long-term security depends on cooperation, especially with former enemies, as the success of Western policy toward Germany after 1945 demonstrates; and that a more peaceful and civilized international life will depend on the emergence of institutions with the resources and authority to encourage cooperation and to mediate conflict.

Deciding the role of nuclear weapons in a new system of international security is the easier part of the problem. Whether or not one believes that the numbers and disposition of the US and Soviet nuclear forces were appropriate before 1989, it should be clear they are incompatible with the new political realities. Compared to conventional forces, moreover, nuclear forces are designed to be used in extreme and highly unlikely circumstances; they have little impact on domestic life, and no connection with day-to-day international affairs. Presumably these facts explain why it is a matter of indifference to most people that the world’s inventory of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads remains virtually intact, even though of all the results of the cold war it is the one that poses the gravest danger to survival.

The danger of nuclear war has not vanished along with the Soviet conventional threat. Soviet instability, regional conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, and other, unforeseeable, situations present a continuing risk of nuclear destruction that is unacceptable. To reduce this risk, the United States must seize the initiative and exploit the opportunities created by new geopolitical relationships. Our proposals suggest both the immediate strategic objectives called for by today’s situation and workable policies for pursuing them.


America’s nuclear policy originated, to a considerable extent, in order to counter three factors: (1) the large conventional armies that the Soviet Union maintained in the center of Europe after 1945, (2) the belligerent character of Soviet military doctrine, and (3) the Soviets’ geographic advantages in a European war. In the early phases of the cold war, the US policy of building large nuclear forces, tactical as well as strategic, was to a substantial degree intended to offset the imbalance in conventional arms. Under the policy of “flexible response,” tactical nuclear weapons were to be used if NATO’s conventional defense forces were in danger of collapse. The missiles and bombers with nuclear warheads that made up the US strategic forces were also to provide “extended” deterrence, i.e., in addition to their primary mission of deterring a strategic attack on the United States, they were intended to deter an attack by Soviet conventional forces on Western Europe as well. The war plans, targets, weapons, and command organization of US strategic forces long reflected these two requirements.

By the late 1960s the Soviet Union had, in effect, achieved parity with the United States in strategic weapons, and it went on to acquire strategic forces that are, if less flexible and sophisticated, at least as powerful as those of the US. In recent years, the emphasis of the arms race has been on “modernization” of both Soviet and US arsenals by improving their versatility and accuracy. These goals are still being pursued by the US and the USSR. They have not been much affected by the geopolitical earthquake of 1989.

The expensive and dangerous process of modernization could continue in isolation from other relations between the US and the USSR because the military goals that each side has tried to meet in recent decades have been largely set by its opponent’s strategic capacities. While there are significant differences between the two strategic forces, both base their war plans on “worst-case” assessments—i.e., they assume the other side would mount the most powerful and effective attack of which it was capable. They largely fail to ask what political motives could plausibly impel the other side to take so desperate a gamble.

This concentration on the adversary’s nuclear forces has an insidious inner logic. Each side has sought to protect itself by acquiring the means to swiftly disrupt the other’s strategic forces and its command systems, with the result that both strategic forces and command systems are more vulnerable than ever. For example, in addition to targeting Soviet missiles the US is now developing warheads designed to penetrate the deep underground command centers built for Soviet leaders. The Soviet ICBM force has long had similar objectives. No wonder that senior officials in both Moscow and Washington have made it known that they place great emphasis on the ability to launch missiles promptly on being warned of an attack. Both governments have made heavy investments to this end.


The present size and composition of both sides’ strategic forces are not only expensive anachronisms but pose a latent threat that can no longer be justified, even by the criteria that once led many to accept the risk of nuclear war as an inescapable evil. Each of the military commands must be able to ensure that weapons will be launched if, and only if, legitimate orders from civilian authorities have been issued. But they must fulfill this responsibility knowing that the command systems themselves, as well as the bombers and land-based missiles, are vulnerable to missiles that take from fifteen to thirty minutes to strike their targets after being launched. As a consequence, in a nuclear crisis each side’s survival depends on the ability of the command systems on both sides to function without gross error, and, above all, to correctly assess information warning of attack, while being under pressure to do all this in a matter of minutes.

Such requirements become all the more menacing when we realize that modern command organizations are extremely complex combinations of hardware, software, procedures, and human beings that have an astonishing tendency to fail disastrously as the result of what the Yale sociologist Charles Perrow calls “normal accidents.” Chernobyl and a number of tragedies on Soviet submarines, ships, and pipelines show that Soviet organizations are especially prone to normal accidents, and we ourselves are hardly immune to them. The Western press has often asked whether warring factions in the Soviet Union might acquire nuclear weapons, and Soviet officials have implied that they have taken steps to eliminate such a risk, a kind of reassurance that can only heighten such concerns.

From a Western perspective, however, the risk that Soviet nuclear weapons will become embroiled in civil war is overshadowed by the risk that the chaotic breakup of the Soviet government could cause the officials who run the Soviet nuclear command system to take actions that would have catastrophic results, especially if the breakup were to occur during an international crisis that threatens Soviet security. Should such circumstances arise, it is not inconceivable that a mixture of misperceptions, confusion, and panic could somehow lead to an unauthorized or inadvertent launch of Soviet missiles. No doubt there is only a small probability that such a chain of events will occur; but the scale of the ensuing tragedy would be so great that, as with other paths to nuclear catastrophe, every effort must be made to eliminate the risk.

In short, the existing strategic forces serve neither the interests of the United States nor the Soviet Union. The only remaining justification for the enormous size of each state’s strategic forces is the other’s strategic forces. Both sides should be willing, therefore, to move rapidly to far smaller nuclear arsenals. The US must take the initiative. It remains possible that a Soviet regime bent on making trouble for the West could come to power, and should that happen it would be best if the USSR were not so prodigiously armed with nuclear weapons.


The principal objectives of the new US nuclear policy should be, first, a rapid and deep cut of Soviet strategic forces so as to decrease greatly the vulnerability to destruction of the remaining US forces; and second, creating conditions that would give the greatest possible support to the effort to control the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological warheads, and sophisticated means for their delivery.

After the START reductions have been carried out, the US will still have roughly nine thousand deployed strategic warheads and the Soviets about eight thousand. Each will also have many thousands of strategic warheads that they will be forbidden to deploy but that they need not destroy as well as thousands of tactical nuclear warheads. In addition, China, Britain, and France together can be expected to then have over 1,500 fission and thermonuclear warheads, while the “undeclared” nuclear powers (including Israel and India, and probably Pakistan and South Africa) would have a very much smaller number. This, by any measure, will still be an unacceptably dangerous nuclear armory. If the goals we advocate are to be achieved, negotiations much more ambitious than those now underway are needed. These could not succeed unless the American and Soviet governments first recognized that their separate interests would be best served by abandoning the strategies that have shaped their forces in the past.

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