Tilting at warheads

Review of

The Future of Arms Control

Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2005, 190 pp.

During the past decade, arms control has fallen on hard times. The decline began during the Clinton administration, when the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was abolished and its functions absorbed into the Department of State, followed in 1999 by the U.S. Senate’s refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Further retrenchment has occurred under President George W. Bush. With the sole exception of the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, which calls for bilateral cuts in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclearforces but is devoid of verification measures, the Bush administration has declined to negotiate any new agreements and has repudiated or rejected several existing ones, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Ottawa Landmines Treaty, and a draft verification protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention. President Bush has also ruled out joining the CTBT, and the administration’s pursuit of new nuclear warhead designs could generate pressures to break the 13-year-old U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing.

Given this bleak record, the very title of The Future of Arms Control must be viewed as optimistic. The authors, defense analysts Michael Levi and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, argue that although arms control as practiced during the Cold War is dead, the concept should be revived in a new framework that is adapted to the changed security environment. Levi and O’Hanlon perform a useful service by reaffirming the importance of arms control, but many of the specific policies they recommend are either politically impractical or internally inconsistent.

Ever since the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1991, the United States has been the world’s only military superpower, with no near-term rival to its supremacy. The main threats to U.S. security arise from the spread of materials and technologies for nuclear and biological weapons, which in the hands of hostile states or terrorists could inflict massive civilian casualties and create a counterweight to Washington’s overwhelming conventional military strength. Levi and O’Hanlon argue that arms control can help to prevent the spread of nuclear and biological capabilities by providing early warning of a country’s intent to acquire such weapons and by creating legal and political “predicates” for multilateral action to contain, manage, and reverse proliferation and to deter other states from going down that path.

According to the authors, the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship has lost its salience in the post–Cold War world. Although each country continues to possess upwards of 5,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads (with thousands more stored warheads and “tactical” weapons), Levi and O’Hanlon contend that these stockpiles are “no longer so dangerous” in the current political environment and that going below 1,000 deployed warheads each in the U.S. and Russian arsenals “holds little appeal for the foreseeable future.” They also argue that deep cuts, down to a few hundred nuclear warheads per side, would be undesirable, creating dilemmas about how to deal with China’s nuclear stockpile and distracting policy-makers from more urgent proliferation concerns.

The authors’ tendency to downplay U.S.-Russian arms control ignores the dangers still associated with the two countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals 15 years after the end of the Cold War. Although Washington and Moscow are no longer political adversaries, the condition of mutual assured destruction continues to play itself out in their opposing force structures and alert postures. Each country still has thousands of nuclear weapons ready for launch on short notice against targets on the other’s territory. Most Americans remain unaware of the bizarre disconnect between the transformed U.S.-Russian political relationship and the persistence of Cold War nuclear force structures and war plans. Defusing this dangerous situation in an irreversible and verifiable manner remains an important task for negotiated arms control.

The command-and-control system for Russia’s nuclear forces is also aging and under increasing strain, increasing the risk of malfunction and accidental nuclear war. As Levi and O’Hanlon note, “There is always a danger under present circumstances that an the authors contend that “de-alerting” U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons is not a high priority. They also suggest that if the United States unilaterally reduces the alert status of its nuclear forces in the expectation that the Russians will reciprocate, Washington should retain the capability to “re-alert” some of its weapons rapidly. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Levi and O’Hanlon qualify their policy recommendations to the point that they lose clarity and focus.

The authors further suggest— wisely, in this case—that Washington should reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. doctrine by renouncing the development and testing of new types of nuclear warheads. In particular, they oppose the Bush administration’s proposed Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (“bunker-buster”) bomb, which would be used to target deeply buried facilities. Yet after asserting that there is no military or strategic rationale for new types of nuclear weapons, Levi and O’Hanlon undermine this position by claiming that the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity”— the implicit threat to respond to an enemy’s use of chemical or biological weapons (CBWs) with nuclear weapons—is “sound,” although it would be less than credible in many circumstances. The problem with this argument is that it provides a compelling rationale to develop new nuclear warheads specialized for destroying bunkers containing stocks of CBW agents. Moreover, to the extent that the policy of strategic ambiguity applies to non-nuclear weapon states that possess chemical or biological arms, it contradicts the pledge by the United States not to use nuclear weapons against countries that forego them—a key element of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Again, the authors’ desire to appear moderate by splitting the difference between liberal and conservative positions leads them to a flawed policy recommendation.

Levi and O’Hanlon argue that arms control in the post–Cold War era should rely less on negotiated agreements and more on unilateral restraint and voluntary parallel actions by like-minded countries. For example, they contend that a formal treaty to limit the deployment of ballistic missile defenses is not needed “as long as the American system is sized and scaled to respond to a North Korean or Iranian (rather than Chinese) offensive threat.” Their reasoning is that because limited U.S. missile defenses would have little capability to block a Chinese or Russian retaliatory strike, they would not provoke these countries to build up their nuclear forces. Nevertheless, the authors’ assumption of future U.S. restraint in expanding its defensive systems may well prove incorrect.

The Future of Arms Control takes an equally complacent attitude toward the weaponization of space. At present, the U.S. military benefits greatly from the use of space for communications, reconnaissance, and targeting, and would have much to lose if these assets were put at risk. Even so, Levi and O’Hanlon argue that the concept of space as a weapons-free zone is difficult to justify because satellites are increasingly used in support of conventional military operations. They contend that efforts to control antisatellite (ASAT) weapons are “impractical and undesirable” because of the inherent ASAT capabilities of many missile defense systems and the eventual need to counter efforts by other countries to use satellites to target U.S. military assets. Instead of pursuing formal agreements to prevent the weaponization of space, the authors recommend that the United States should take modest unilateral actions, such as declaring that it has no ASAT weapons in order to maintain the status quo as long as possible. Given the destabilizing potential of an arms race in space, this go-slow approach seems inadequate to the threat.

Controlling dangerous technologies

Levi and O’Hanlon contend that the “central organizing principle” for arms control in the post–Cold War era should be to pursue multilateral efforts to prevent the most dangerous weapons technologies— nuclear and biological—from falling into the hands of militant regimes and terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda. To this end, the authors propose an overhaul of Article IV of the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which affirms that non-nuclear weapon states have an “inalienable right” to develop nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes. Ostensibly civilian facilities for producing highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel can be redirected to produce bomb-grade fissile materials, enabling countries to “break out” of the NPT. Accordingly, the authors argue that Article IV should be formally reinterpreted to make it harder for countries to go down this path.

Levi and O’Hanlon recommend the suspension of HEU production worldwide and an indefinite moratorium on the construction of new uranium enrichment facilities by individual states. Any future enrichment plants to support civilian nuclear power would be owned by multilateral consortia, whose members would be limited to countries with a good record of NPT compliance. The authors also propose a total ban on plutonium reprocessing. To facilitate the early detection of illicit activities, all states currently under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards would be required to adopt the Additional Protocol, which permits intrusive inspections of dual-use nuclear facilities.

Although these proposals are desirable in principle, Levi and O’Hanlon fail to lay out a politically feasible roadmap for achieving them. Reinterpreting Article IV of the NPT would provoke strong political resistance from countries including Brazil, Japan, and Iran, which are developing uranium enrichment facilities for their nuclear power industries. Halting uranium enrichment and plutonium separation on a national basis would be acceptable only if all states—those that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not—agreed to submit to the same set of rules, which is unlikely. Moreover, even if the uranium enrichment facilities on Iranian territory were controlled by a multinational enterprise, the host country could decide to expropriate the plant and expel the foreign owners. Finally, identifying countries with a good record of compliance with the NPT is not necessarily straightforward. Brazil, for example, has recently attempted to limit the degree of access provided to IAEA inspectors at its uranium enrichment facility.

Levi and O’Hanlon are correct in praising the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which has worked since 1991 to secure and eliminate nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons technologies, materials, and know-how in the former Soviet Union, putting obstacles in the path of would-be proliferators. Far less compelling, however, is the authors’ proposal to address the security concerns that often promote the spread of nuclear weapons. As an alternative to taking major steps toward nuclear disarmament, they contend that the United States, Britain, and France should offer security guarantees to all states that agree to forego nuclear weapons and meet several other conditions, such as a democratic form of government, civilian control of the military, and a nonaggressive foreign policy. Yet unless Washington addresses the legitimate security concerns of autocratic regimes such as North Korea and Iran, these countries will have no incentive to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Indeed, Levi and O’Hanlon note that the new U.S. policy of preventive war, first implemented in Iraq, could “provoke some adversaries to seek the very weapons the United States seeks to deny them.”

With respect to India and Pakistan, which have already built and tested nuclear weapons, Levi and O’Hanlon argue that the United States should encourage responsible stewardship of these arsenals while capping quantitative and qualitative improvements. Yet the authors’ suggestion that the United States should help India and Pakistan to secure their nuclear stockpiles with electronic locks called permissive action links could backfire by suggesting that Washington tacitly endorses proliferation. More prudently, the authors note that persuading India and Pakistan to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would bring them into the global nonproliferation fold, but they acknowledge that achieving this goal will be difficult as long as Washington remains outside the treaty.

Levi and O’Hanlon also downplay the failure of the nuclear powers to fulfill their side of the NPT bargain by taking the disarmament obligations of the treaty as seriously as the nonproliferation obligations. At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the member states, including the nuclear powers, adopted by consensus a list of 13 steps to demonstrate tangible progress toward nuclear disarmament. Although three of these steps have since been overtaken by events, the rest are still valid. Yet the Bush administration has backed away from the earlier U.S. commitment. Without tangible progress on disarmament by the nuclear weapon states, it is highly unlikely that the United States can win the support of non-nuclear weapon states to impose tighter restrictions on access to dual-use nuclear technologies and to organize an effective united front to address the NPT noncompliance of Iran and North Korea.

The other area of weapons proliferation to which Levi and O’Hanlon assign high priority is the spread of advanced biological warfare (BW) capabilities, including the ability to genetically engineer pathogens to make them more deadly or effective. Because of the dual-use nature of biotechnology and the fact that BW production facilities can be small and easily hidden, the authors contend that “treaty-based control regimes relying heavily on international inspection are not particularly promising” and that the Bush administration was “substantially right” in rejecting a draft verification protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention. Instead, they favor harmonized international guidelines for the safety and security of research with dangerous pathogens, to be implemented through domestic legislation, although they fail to explain how the guidelines would be negotiated and monitored.

The Future of Arms Control embraces a centrist political compromise that calls for multilateral action to halt the proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons while generally dismissing the need for formal treaties and rejecting the goal of nuclear disarmament as utopian and undesirable. On balance, Levi and O’Hanlon have taken a useful first step in challenging neoconservative anti-arms control orthodoxy, but they too often pull their punches when a knockout blow is warranted.

Cite this Article

Tucker, Jonathan B. “Tilting at warheads.” Issues in Science and Technology 21, no. 3 (Spring 2005).

Vol. XXI, No. 3, Spring 2005