- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2001

Fifteen years ago, Ronald Reagan traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland, for his second summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev.
The turning point of the summit came when Mr. Reagan rejected Mr. Gorbachevs challenge to abandon development of a missile defense system in exchange for unprecedented cutbacks in the size of the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals.
Although he was roundly criticized for it at the time, many now believe Mr. Reagans decision to hold firm hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
Tomorrow, President Bush will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Clearly, the world has changed a great deal since 1986. However, one thing that has not changed is that the security of America continues to rest upon the strength of our nuclear deterrent.
In early May, President Bush spoke of shrinking the size of our nuclear arsenal to achieve "a credible deterrent with the lowest possible number of nuclear weapons consistent with our national security needs, including our obligations to our allies." Undoubtedly, we can safely reduce our current inventory of nuclear weapons without compromising our security.
But with some commentators suggesting that U.S. security needs can be met by a few hundred warheads in our arsenal, we need to consider some fundamental questions about what deterrence means and how we accomplish it.
What does nuclear deterrence mean today? During the Cold War, nuclear deterrence was clearly defined. It meant having an arsenal big enough to deter the Soviets from attacking first and potent enough to respond effectively if they did.
Today deterrence comes from a more delicate balance of reducing proliferation, dissuading adversaries, and assuring allies. Our nuclear deterrent also may discourage use of other weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical or biological weapons. This broader concept of deterrence should be considered as we determine the number and the characteristics of our future stockpile.
Still, there is power in sheer numbers. Published estimates indicate Russia still has about 6,000 to 7,000 strategic and 10,000 to 20,000 tactical nuclear weapons. Unlike the United States, Russia is still manufacturing new warheads. But we must look beyond just Russia. From China and North Korea, to India, Pakistan, and countries in the Middle East, more and more nations are seeking to strengthen their regional influence by enhancing their nuclear capability. The U.S. may face possible alliances among them or terrorist groups that are actively seeking a nuclear capability.
The lower we make the threshold for becoming a world power, the more tempting it becomes. There may not be an appreciable difference whether the U.S. has 7,000 or 4,000 weapons. Even 2,500 weapons may seem unreachable for an emerging nuclear power with a few dozen weapons on hand. But matching a U.S. stockpile of 500 or 1,000 weapons may seem much closer and much more achievable, both practically and psychologically. We do not want to lower the bar so much that others are encouraged to try to jump up and reach it particularly those who see nuclear weapons as a shortcut to global influence.
How can we achieve deterrence as our nuclear stockpile grows older and more strategically limited? Since we are unable to build new weapons or conduct nuclear tests on old weapons, our most significant challenge may be keeping our existing deterrent credible.
The science-based stockpile stewardship program is still unproven and underfunded despite the best efforts of our scientists and nuclear work force. And those who expect significant budget savings from a smaller arsenal will be disappointed, for the tools and processes cost roughly the same for 1,000 weapons as for 5,000.
But it could get worse. Deep cuts in the total number of warheads would reduce how many types of warheads we will have. For example, under START I the U.S. has nine different types of warheads. If we were to have only a few hundred weapons, we would probably keep only our submarine launched missiles, leaving just two or three different types of warheads. Logically, with fewer types of warheads, a problem with any one type and problems do develop from time to time disables a greater percentage of the stockpile. If we put all of our eggs into one or two baskets, a hole in one of those baskets could have devastating consequences.
The bottom line is that nuclear weapons have helped provide a stabilizing force in the world for more than 55 years. In the future, they may have a different role to play, but they will still be central to the security of the United States and world peace. A reduction in Americas nuclear arsenal may be sound policy. But how low we can go will depend on assessing the future threat accurately, deterring adversaries while assuring allies, and maintaining confidence in the weapons that remain.
Just as President Reagan held firm at Reykjavik when challenged to drop his plans for a missile defense system, so too should President Bush hold firm when called upon to cut our nuclear arsenal below levels on which the security of the United States and the world depends.

William M. "Mac" Thornberry is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas and serves on the House Armed Services and Budget Committees and is chairman of the Special Oversight Panel on Department of Energy Reorganization.


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