A Nuclear Tipping Point? NAS Hosts Symposium on
Post-Cold War U.S. Nuclear Strategy
More than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, why do the United States and Russia still keep their ICBMs on hair-trigger alert? What is the probability that terrorists will obtain, transport, and detonate a "suitcase" nuclear bomb in an American city? And, despite decades-long anti-proliferation efforts, is the United States about to watch helplessly as many more nations choose the nuclear option for defense or as a way to threaten their neighbors?
These were among the sobering questions raised at a daylong public symposium on post-Cold War U.S. nuclear strategy, sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on International Security and Arms Control in August. In his keynote address, former Secretary of Defense William Perry warned that he believes the chance of a terrorist nuclear blast somewhere in the United States by the end of the decade now exceeds 50 percent. The world today seems poised at a "nuclear tipping point," Perry added. "If Iran and North Korea go nuclear, a new widespread arms race will be virtually unstoppable, especially in the Middle East," he said.
What about the strategic U.S. nuclear arsenal? Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), who chairs a key House appropriations subcommittee on nuclear weapons development, said he doubts the utility of a large nuclear arsenal in an age of hit-and-run terrorism. In addition, he said, "we have too many unmet conventional defense needs in the present day to afford spending over $6 billion annually to support a large and antiquated nuclear-weapons complex."
However, Ambassador Linton Brooks, administrator of DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration, suggested that the U.S. nuclear arsenal remains a crucial deterrent in the face of new threats. Brooks stated, "Deterrence means we have to hold at risk things which an adversary values. More and more we see potential opponents putting important military facilities underground; our efforts to determine the effectiveness of [an earth-penetrating weapon] reflect a continued emphasis on deterrence."
Speakers agreed on the pressing need to bring "loose nukes," such as small 10-kiloton devices from the old Soviet arsenal, under tighter security controls. Others emphasized the need to "de-alert" U.S. and Russian ICBMs to prevent an accidental launch primed by computer errors or ambiguous signals following a major terrorist attack. But many at the symposium, including Sidney Drell, emeritus deputy director at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, pressed hard on the threat of further nuclear proliferation. They emphasized the need to change the way nations that already have nuclear weapons look upon nuclear have-nots. The biggest problem in proliferation, Drell said, is that the non-nuclear world has tired of nuclear nations moving ahead with enhancements to their arsenals while asking others to show restraint. "We have to stop the attitude that nuclear weapons are good for us, but bad for others," he said. Rep. Hobson put it as follows: "We cannot advocate for nuclear nonproliferation around the globe and pursue more useable nuclear weapon options here at home. That inconsistency is not lost on anyone in the international community."
-- William Skane