While America remains preoccupied with the war in Iraq, our nuclear nightmares are fast becoming more realistic. The potential risks are many, including a Middle East with multiple nuclear states, terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon from insecure stockpiles, and flaws in our own command and control procedures exposed by unauthorized B-52 flights with nuclear bombs. Current policies are not working. We need drastic change, and we need it soon.
A new, comprehensive strategy is needed -- one that takes seriously the mission of preventing a nuclear 9/11, stops states from going nuclear and deters them from conducting a nuclear strike on America or assisting terrorists in acquiring the bomb. We must restore U.S. leadership abroad and build a true bipartisan consensus at home and move step by practical step toward the vision of presidents Kennedy and Reagan: a world free of nuclear weapons.
As the possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack increases, our ability to counter that threat remains anemic. To reduce this risk, we advocate accelerating efforts to secure and eliminate bomb-making nuclear materials worldwide, to detect and interdict illicit shipments of such materials, and to develop nuclear forensic technologies that would enable us to hold states accountable if they knowingly assisted terrorists in acquiring or using nuclear weapons.
The U.S. must mobilize the world to ensure that North Korea follows through on its commitment to dismantle its nuclear facilities and eliminate its nuclear weapons, and to head off an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. A nuclear-armed Iran has the potential to trigger a proliferation chain reaction in the Middle East, and a nuclear-armed North Korea could compel its neighbors to reconsider their nuclear options. To roll back these threats, the international community must be ready to apply increased financial and diplomatic pressure. At the same time, the U.S. should be ready to offer the incentive of normalized relations.
A cohesive nuclear strategy should include:
Lower force levels. For the foreseeable future, the U.S. will have to maintain effective, reliable nuclear forces to deter adversaries and reassure friends, but deterrence and reassurance can be achieved at significantly lower force levels. Moreover, America should develop a range of advanced conventional weapons and operational concepts that would give the president credible and technically suitable options for dealing with threats and would reduce and eventually eliminate any need to resort to nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear attacks. Reducing the salience of nuclear weapons would enable us to build global support for the tough actions needed to stop terrorists and hostile regimes from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Test ban treaty. A bipartisan effort to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty should be pursued. With more nuclear tests than all other nations combined, we do not need more tests. Given the scientific judgment that U.S. nuclear weapons remain reliable and safe, there is no urgency to proceed with the Reliable Replacement Warhead.
Missile defenses. The U.S. should pursue defenses against ballistic missile attack. A broad-based development effort is essential, but we should not deploy weapons that have not been adequately tested. High priority should be given to cooperation on missile defense with friends near North Korea and Iran. Before deploying components in Eastern Europe, we should explore with our NATO allies and Russia the possibility of a cooperative approach to protecting Europe, Russia and America from missile attack.
Bilateral reductions. We should act soon to replace the START 1 treaty, expiring in December 2009, with a legally binding agreement reducing nuclear forces well below the levels called for in the 2002 Moscow Treaty and with sufficient verification and transparency to provide both sides a sense of predictability. Furthermore, Moscow and Washington should take steps to reduce the threat posed by miscalculation and accidental nuclear launch.
A world with an increasing number of nuclear weapon states is not inevitable. Neither is a nuclear attack by terrorists. Both can be avoided if their prevention becomes an overriding national priority complemented by strong U.S. leadership.
Robert J. Einhorn is an adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Wendy R. Sherman is a principal of The Albright Group. This article is adapted from the report "Reducing Nuclear Threats and Preventing Nuclear Terrorism," available at www.cnas.org/en/cev/?13.