- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

While the Bush administration's pending decisions about missile defense and the size and costs of its effort to rebuild the U.S. military have been the focus of considerable attention and debate, a no-less-epochal review is under way one that has, to date, received little public consideration.

In the course of last year's campaign, Candidate George W. Bush expressed a willingness to consider radically and unilaterally reducing the quantity and the alert status of America's nuclear forces contributing to a new post-Cold War posture featuring an increasing reliance on anti-missile capabilities. As president, Mr. Bush has asked his administration to assess the wisdom and desirability of such initiatives.

If this study is done in a dispassionate and rigorous way, these are the sorts of responses he will shortly be receiving:

Extreme care should be exercised over further, deep reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons. The object of retaining a nuclear arsenal is, after all, not primarily to have sufficient means to fight an incalculably destructive war. Rather, it is to prevent one from happening. The greatest danger of all would be if the United States were to be seen to have so diminished its deterrent capabilities as to make the world "safe" for nuclear war.

Deterrence is not a science but an art. There is no objectively right or wrong answer as to the number of nuclear arms the United States "needs" to have; it is a question of risk. Contrary to the hoary theories of arms control, however, the risks appear greater when U.S. deterrent power is discounted than when it is overwhelming. It is, in short, infinitely better to err on the side of having too much nuclear capability than to have catalyzed, however unintentionally, circumstances in which nuclear weapons might wind up being used by having unduly diminished the credibility of one's deterrent.

This is especially true in an international environment that is as unpredictable as the present one. We cannot say for certain Russia's future course, but it seems unlikely that the former Soviet Union will become more benign in the years immediately ahead. For the moment, it is unable to afford large nuclear forces and would like us to agree to mirror-image the deep reductions economic considerations compel them to make. This would be a mistake; if the Kremlin reverts to form and marshals the resources to rebuild its offensive weaponry, negotiated limits will as usual wind up binding us, but not them.

For its part, China is determined to acquire great power status and the nuclear arms that it believes are appropriate to such a state. What is more, virtually every one of Russia and China's allies what we call "rogue states" they call "clients" are bent on acquiring atomic, if not thermonuclear, capabilities and are receiving help toward that end from Moscow and/or Beijing.

While the deployment of effective American missile defenses can and should mitigate somewhat the dangers that such trends represent, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to make further "deep" reductions below the roughly 3,500 U.S. nuclear warheads America planned to retain under the START II Treaty until such time as the beneficial effects of such anti-missile deployments are demonstrated in the diminution of proliferation and related threats to this country, its allies and interests.

The folly of unduly cutting the United States' nuclear deterrent would be greatly exacerbated were the nation deliberately to reduce the readiness of whatever strategic forces it decides to retain. Proponents of "de-alerting" America's strategic missiles claim this is an appropriate and necessary response to the danger that Russian weapons might be launched accidentally or without proper authorization.

This sort of thinking is reckless in the extreme. Effectively eliminating the United States's capability to respond with nuclear arms in a credible and prompt manner is unlikely to eliminate the problem of the Kremlin's "loose nukes"; they are the result of systemic forces (for example, a decentralized command-and-control system, deteriorating conditions and morale in the Russian military, corruption, etc.), not inadequate technology.

To its credit, the Bush administration appears to be reconsidering the enormously expensive programs its predecessor established in the name of "securing" the Kremlin's nuclear wherewithal. Rose Gottemoeller, the highly controversial Energy Department appointee who sought to fund these programs to the tune of $1.2 billion in fiscal 2002, has called the Bush team's reported plan to pare them back to "only" $800 million "a shame." What is, in fact, truly shameful has been the lack of accountability for these initiatives that has, according to successive critical reports by the General Accounting Office, enabled the funds to be used for, among other things, subsidizing the ongoing Russian nuclear modernization program.

Finally, the Bush nuclear review must address not only the need for a credible nuclear deterrent today; it must also ensure the safety, reliability and effectiveness of America's deterrent for the foreseeable future. This will require several politically difficult but vital steps including, a resumption of limited, underground nuclear testing required both to continue to certify the existing stockpile and to design, develop and field the next generation of nuclear weapons upon which the nation will depend in the decades to come. The latter could include deep penetrating warheads capable of holding at risk the underground command posts that even rogue state regimes are acquiring today and an anti-missile warhead in case hit-to-kill missile defense technologies prove unworkable.

If President Bush receives and heeds such advice from his subordinates' nuclear review, chances are his legacy will be one of leaving the U.S. military not only better capable of fighting the nation's next war, but of preventing it from happening.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.


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