Date: June 17, 1997
Contacts: Ellen Bailey Pippenger, Media Relations Associate
Shannon Flannery, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; Internet <>

Changes in U.S. Policy Needed to Reduce Risks
Posed by Nuclear Weapons

WASHINGTON -- Because the risks from erroneous or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons remain unacceptably high, major changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policies and practices are needed to reduce these dangers and strengthen international security, says a report from a National Academy of Sciences committee.

Although the United States and Russia have made major strides in the past decade to reverse a 50-year arms buildup, the fundamental structure of their nuclear weapons policies and operations is unchanged from the Cold War era.

"Now that the Cold War is over, the measures that worked so effectively then are counterproductive or no longer necessary," said study chair William F. Burns, retired major general, U.S. Army. "Our committee believes that the United States and Russia can profoundly reduce levels of nuclear weapons and change nuclear operational practices over time. These changes will provide significant benefits to national security."

Both countries continue to base their deterrent policies on plans for rapid and large-scale nuclear retaliation. Significant portions of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces are maintained in a continuous state of alert, and both countries have the technical capability to launch thousands of warheads within minutes. While such practices reduce the risk of a surprise attack, they increase the chances of the accidental, erroneous, or unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons because of a technical failure, a false warning of attack, or a misjudgment. This trade-off was considered worthwhile during the Cold War. But as the possibility of confrontation between the two countries has decreased, the dangers and dilemmas of such practices outweigh their benefits.

Continuing risks

Dramatic changes in international politics also underscore the need to shift the focus of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Thousands of stockpiled nuclear warheads designed for tactical use and not addressed in arms control treaties may be vulnerable to theft or unauthorized use. Further proliferation of nuclear weapons to countries that do not now have them remains a serious risk. Moreover, the United States and its NATO allies retain a doctrine that calls for using nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks. And Russia has recently announced that it is adopting a similar doctrine, abandoning the former Soviet Union's pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.

To address these and other concerns, the United States should adopt an explicit policy restricting the role of nuclear weapons to deterring or responding to nuclear attacks or threats, the committee said. This country should no longer threaten to respond with nuclear weapons against attacks by conventional, chemical, or biological weapons. In addition, United States and Russia should negotiate further reductions in nuclear arms, adopt practices that provide higher levels of operational safety for the remaining weapons, and work to prevent theft or unauthorized use of nuclear arms.

Thus far, the United States and Russia have taken significant steps to reduce their nuclear arsenals. START I, a treaty now being implemented by the two countries, will reduce the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by each country from 13,000 and 11,000, respectively, to about 8,000 each. These reductions will be achieved well ahead of the treaty's 2001 deadline. START II, ratified by the United States in early 1996 but not yet ratified by Russia, would further limit the number of deployed strategic warheads to 3,0003,500 each. At the Helsinki summit in March 1997, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed that once START II enters into force, they will negotiate START III, which would reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to a level of 2,000 to 2,500. In addition, the two countries have ended nuclear testing and no longer target their missiles routinely against each other.

Progressive constraints

If the United States and Russia take further initiatives to shrink nuclear arsenals, these actions should help diminish the still-potent risks of nuclear weapons and could persuade other nations to join the arms control process, the committee said. It proposed a two-part program of change to meet the challenges of the post-Cold War era.

The first phase would include a set of near-term and mid-term reductions in nuclear arms, changes in operations and policies, and measures to increase the security of nuclear weapons and fissile materials worldwide.

To encourage Russia's ratification of START II, the United States and Russia should begin now to discuss a START III agreement, the committee said. Beyond START III, additional arms control by the United States and Russia should cover all warheads, not just strategic and certain intermediate range systems. This critical change will require highly effective mechanisms for exchanging and verifying information about the production, location, and dismantling of warheads, the committee said. Once START III arms reduction has begun, the United States and Russia should next seek to reduce the total number of warheads on each side to about 1,000, and then to levels of a few hundred each. To ensure stability at each stage of arms reduction, these remaining weapons must not be vulnerable to a first strike, and their command and control systems must be secure from attack.

Changing the ground rules for nuclear operations is an equally important objective that should be pursued in parallel with, but not linked to arms reduction talks, the committee said. Its recommendations include the following:

> Eliminate the practice of maintaining nuclear forces on continuous alert status so that the launch sequence for nuclear weapons would require hours, days, or even weeks rather than minutes. Such a provision would have to be accompanied by reliable means of determining compliance.

> End targeting policies based on large-scale, prompt retaliation. Any actual use of nuclear weapons would involve the smallest possible number of weapons, which would be used in response to immediate circumstances.

> Continue to restrict missile defense systems as required by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union. That treaty strictly limited the deployment of missile defense systems in order to permit restrictions on the buildup of offensive nuclear weapons. The focus of U.S missile defense research and development should be on developing effective systems to deal with the threats posed by shorter-range missiles.

Given adequate conventional military forces, the committee said, these steps will not limit the United States' ability to deal effectively with threats to its vital interests or those of its allies.

As nuclear arsenals are dismantled, it is also important to ensure the safe storage of weapons and nuclear materials removed from them. Enforcing strict security standards will reduce the dangers of theft or unauthorized use of nuclear arms.

Prohibiting nuclear weapons

The second and long-term phase of the program recommended by the committee calls for examining how continuing changes in international relations could make it both desirable and possible to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons. The path to a complete ban on nuclear weapons is not now clear, the committee acknowledged, but the potential benefits of a ban warrant serious efforts to identify and promote the conditions that would make this possible.

One such condition would be comprehensive verification of potential weapons-related activities, which would require an unprecedented degree of international cooperation and openness. Furthermore, since even the most effective verification system could not provide complete confidence that a small number of nuclear weapons are not being hidden, a durable, global ban on all nuclear weapons would require creating a robust international security system that could provide strong safeguards against the risks of cheating or the rapid rebuilding of nuclear arsenals.

The study was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The National Academy of Sciences is a private, non-profit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Copies of The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy are available from the National Academy Press at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain copies from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Committee on International Security and Arms Control

The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy

William F. Burns (study chair)
Major General, U.S. Army (retired), and
Former Director of U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
Carlisle, Pa.

John P. Holdren (committee chair) (1)
Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and
Director, Program in Science, Technology, and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government; and
Professor of Environmental Science and Public
Policy, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

John D. Steinbruner (committee vice chair)
Senior Fellow and Former Director, Foreign Policy Studies Program
Brookings Institution
Washington, D.C.

George Lee Butler
General, U.S. Air Force (retired), and
Vice President
Peter Kiewit Sons Inc.
Omaha, Neb.

Paul M. Doty (1)
Director Emeritus, Center for Science and International Affairs, and
Professor Emeritus, Department of Biochemistry and
Molecular Biology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Steve Fetter
Associate Professor
School of Public Affairs
University of Maryland
College Park

Alexander H. Flax (2)
President Emeritus
Institute for Defense Analyses, and
Senior Fellow
National Academy of Engineering
Washington, D.C.

Richard L. Garwin (1, 2, 3)
Fellow Emeritus, Thomas J. Watson Research Center
IBM Corp.
Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Rose Gottemoeller
Deputy Director
International Institute for Strategic Studies

Spurgeon M. Keeny Jr.
Arms Control Association
Washington, D.C.

Matthew Meselson (1, 3)
Professor, Department of Molecular Biology and Cellular Biology
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Wolfgang K.H. Panofsky (1)
Professor and Director Emeritus, Linear Accelerator Center
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

C. Kumar N. Patel (1, 2)
Vice Chancellor, Research
University of California
Los Angeles

Jonathan D. Pollack
Senior Adviser for International Policy
RAND Corp.
Santa Monica, Calif.

Robert H. Wertheim (2)
Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (retired)
La Jolla, Calif.


Jo L. Husbands
Study Director

(1) Member, National Academy of Sciences
(2) Member, National Academy of Engineering
(3) Member, Institute of Medicine