Nuclear Weapons | Selected Article

Safeguard the World’s Nuclear Arsenals

Kennette Benedict | November 2016

Navigate the Policy Landscape with Russia

The next US president will contend with global nuclear policy trends that are more dynamic and worrying than at any time since the Cold War. These trends show a fraying of commitments to nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear security. How the president exercises US leadership in these areas will have profound consequences. But the challenges are many.

Heightened tensions between the United States and Russia, a failed review conference in 2015 of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, no progress on fully implementing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and not a glimmer of hope on negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty are blights on the nuclear policy landscape. The one bright spot is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that has stopped Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Beyond that, however, leaders are making little progress toward a world safe from the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Disarmament

The United States and Russia still maintain the largest nuclear arsenals by far, and their nuclear postures have changed little since the end of the Cold War even as their arsenals have been reduced. The policies of deterrence, launch on warning, and the readiness to fight a nuclear war at any time place millions of people at risk from the devastation of nuclear weapons. Given the record of accidents, error, and miscalculation in the US and Russian nuclear forces, as well as those countries’ current aggressive nuclear postures, these arsenals remain the most dangerous threats to world security. The US president can command within minutes of his decision the launch of missiles with as many as 500 warheads, each with a yield much larger than the Hiroshima bomb. Without question, such a barrage would destroy entire cities and kill millions of civilians. The destruction would not be limited to the countries targeted but would disrupt the global economy, communications, and travel, and, by cooling the atmosphere, would cause agricultural failure and worldwide famine for years. In its first nuclear posture review, the next administration should reexamine policies that place citizens at such risk. It should be prepared to work with Russia to reduce launch readiness in both countries by decoupling warheads from missiles and reducing tensions that might lead to miscalculation and the use of nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the president should reconsider the current nuclear modernization program. This includes developing more-reliable and more-accurate missile systems, aircraft, and submarines, as well as replacing existing warheads. In addition to their high cost—about $1 trillion over 30 years in the United States—these changes are reigniting an arms competition that now includes China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea in a chain reaction of vertical proliferation. Rather than modernizing nuclear arsenals to ensure robust capabilities, the president should consider decommissioning and dismantling them.

The next president will lead preparations for the 2020 review conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—a founding framework for the disarmament and nonproliferation regime. In addition to efforts to strengthen nonproliferation measures, the United States could consider signing the Humanitarian Pledge, introduced at the end of the 2015 NPT Review conference and endorsed by 114 countries. The pledge grew out of the recognition by nonnuclear-weapons states of the humanitarian catastrophe that would ensue from the use of nuclear weapons. These states, in cooperation with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movements, are calling for a universal prohibition on the possession and use of nuclear weapons, similar to treaties banning landmines, cluster bombs, and chemical weapons. By signing the pledge, the United States would be supporting steps toward prohibiting nuclear weapons possession and use—in keeping with Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—and would signal a US commitment to creating a world free of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Nonproliferation and Managing Civilian Nuclear Technologies

The next administration will also need to address major concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation—in particular, nuclear weapons programs in North Korea, Pakistan, and India—as well as the spread of civilian uranium-enriching technology for nuclear power that can be diverted to military use.

North Korea’s test of a 10-kiloton nuclear device in September 2016 was its fifth in 10 years. These explosions, along with North Korea’s recent test flights of long-range missiles, suggest that this small, isolated country is on track to possess a nuclear weapons capability that might deter others from invading and could be used in attacks on the United States or South Korea. The president will need to address the issue very soon, and the dilemma in dealing with North Korea is clear. Should the United States and others in a coalition attempt to engage North Korea in negotiations to try to halt its nuclear weapons program and reduce its isolation but in the process appear to reward that country for flouting international norms? Or should they instead continue to increase North Korea’s isolation and risk continued development of its nuclear weapons program?

At the same time, the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan continues to place South Asia at risk of a regional nuclear war. Unfortunately, the United States and international institutions, including the United Nations, seem to have little leverage to ease the conflict between Pakistan and India.

The major recent accomplishment in nuclear nonproliferation is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in July 2015 by Iran and a coalition including the United States, Russia, the European Union, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Not only has the Plan of Action halted Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it has set a new standard for transparency for controlling civilian nuclear technology. Specifically, oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of uranium isotopes from their introduction into Iranian centrifuges and power reactors to the shipment of used fuel back to Russia is unprecedented, and it sets a new standard that other countries seeking nuclear power generation can emulate to assure the rest of the world that they are not developing nuclear weapons. The major challenge for the next president will be to ensure the successful implementation of the deal. Communicating with US congressional leaders about stringent verification methods by the IAEA, along with the continued benefits of the plan for nonproliferation, should be at the top of the agenda.

Nuclear Security: Terrorism and Securing Fissile Material

The prospect of a terrorist organization using a nuclear bomb or fissile material in an improvised device has concentrated the efforts of leaders around the world to secure nuclear bomb-making material. Led by President Barack Obama, a set of four nuclear security summits from 2010 through 2016 have raised awareness about the dangers and have resulted in removing, disposing of, and securing highly enriched uranium (HEU) from civilian facilities. Among other accomplishments, 13 countries and Taiwan have rid themselves of HEU, permitting more than three tonnes to be consolidated in secure storage facilities in the United States and Russia, and over 20 countries have had peer-review missions that allow other countries or the IAEA to inspect and make recommendations about securing fissile material. To combat illicit trafficking of nuclear or radiological materials, 328 border crossings have been equipped with radiation detectors.

Although the nuclear summits have ended, country leaders have created a 40-nation contact group of senior officials and agreed to support efforts at the United Nations, the IAEA, INTERPOL, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction to continue the work started by the summits. The next president will need to entrust his best experts with the authority to vigorously pursue an agenda of securing fissile materials. These efforts should include reaching out to other countries to expand the contact group and motivating the process with periodic high-level meetings to assess progress.

On the Horizon

The cascading effects of US policy and actions in Europe and the Middle East, and of Russia’s recent moves in Eastern Europe and Syria, have resulted in increasing hostilities between these two key nuclear weapons nations. While they cooperated to reach the recent nuclear nonproliferation agreement with Iran, the relationship between the United States and Russia is deteriorating. Because US-Russia relations are central to worldwide nuclear reductions, this downward spiral does not bode well for progress on nuclear arms control.

Restoring meaningful diplomatic discussions between the United States and Russia is the key to maintaining the international nuclear arms control regime. At a minimum, the next president should protect the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty as a way to limit offensive nuclear weapons by these two states. Disagreements over the US ballistic missile defense program on the one hand and the Russian missile development program on the other are major obstacles to substantive progress on future arms reductions and, therefore, need to be addressed head on. In addition, the US president should lead the way by committing to a no-first-use policy and then working with the Russian president to mutually lower the launch readiness of their strategic forces as soon as possible and in a verifiable manner. And finally, the next administration must find channels to work with Russian officials to identify new goals to reduce nuclear weapons after 2020, when New START expires, or, as an interim measure, to extend the treaty for another five years. These next steps must eventually include expanding a reinvigorated bilateral arms control process to include the permanent members of the UN Security Council in multilateral negotiations.

Even during the hostilities of the Cold War, leaders in the United States and Russia acted together with courage and resolution to reduce the dangers from nuclear weapons. Today, that resolute purpose has faded, international agreements and institutions are unraveling, and modes of thinking seem stuck in the distant past. It will require extraordinary courage to bring the two countries together to halt further deterioration in the nuclear arms control regime.

Managing Russian-Western conflict under these circumstances will be of utmost importance. Key steps will include preventing incidents involving military aircraft and naval ships in Europe and Syria; ensuring that channels of communication function properly, including at the military-to-military level; and empowering trusted individuals on both sides capable of engaging in confidential and constructive dialogue on contentious topics and on matters of strategic stability. Russia’s alleged attempts to interfere with the US presidential election process may tempt US leaders to retaliate, but they should not lose sight of what’s at stake. It will be up to the next US president to focus constructively on this essential relationship—to marshal knowledgeable experts in our country to negotiate with Russia in a renewed focus on the overarching dangers from the largest and most dangerous arsenals in the world.

Kennette Benedict is a senior adviser to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.