Courtesy Reuters

New Balance

By Leon Sloss and Richard Wagner

To the Editor:

In "A Nuclear Posture for Today" (January/February 2005), John Deutch asserts that reductions in the number of nuclear weapons have not occurred fast enough, nor gone far enough. He also makes the important point that "Washington must strike a balance between conflicting goals: maintaining a modern nuclear weapons posture, on the one hand, and curbing the spread of nuclear weapons, on the other." Hardly anyone would disagree with the latter point, but there is much disagreement on where that balance should be struck, and the pace and extent of reductions are part of the equation.

The core nuclear capability that Deutch envisages is an inventory of about a thousand weapons; a "smaller but still high-quality weapons research and engineering program" doing "some conceptual work on generic warheads"; and a "consolidated" production complex with "no ambiguity about future development." With regard to weapons production, "consolidated" apparently means "smaller," and "no ambiguity" seems to mean foreswearing development and production, since one of the administration's alleged mistakes has been "hinting at the possibility of development and production in the future" (of a particular weapon).

We believe that such a posture is simply not adequate to deal with the range of circumstances that might arise during the next few decades. A thousand weapons in the active inventory might well be acceptable, although Deutch's analysis -- admittedly simplified -- that arrives at that number ignores important considerations. But there should be both more vigorous research on new weapons and a weapons-production capability that does not exist in the current complex.

Whether particular new weapons should be developed and produced in the near term, in our view, remains an open issue. But within the planning horizon for the U.S. posture -- about 20 years -- the leftover weapons from the Cold War that make up the current stockpile will not be what will be needed. Just what will be needed is unclear, but future events could emerge faster than we can recognize or respond, unless we maintain "latent weapons" -- a set of different or new capabilities in various stages of readiness.

Furthermore, "conceptual work on generic warheads" (whatever those are) will not suffice either to maintain competence or to provide sufficiently responsive options that might be needed for future contingencies, as yet unknown. Nuclear warhead design is as much about engineering and the properties of specific, real materials as it is about physics; real production capability would not exist, no matter how much was spent on bricks, mortar, and lathes for production plants, without some work involving preparation for actual production and, sometimes, the fabrication of weapons prototypes. Indeed, until we are well on track to an adequately responsive research-and-development program and production capability, reductions in inventory to the low levels that Deutch (and we) envisage could be unwise.

In today's world, the U.S. nuclear posture is essentially a hedge against an uncertain future. In evaluating the overall posture, it is important that the right balance be struck between readiness and restraint, so that the hedging does not unduly stimulate the emergence of the circumstances hedged against. Deutch addresses the most important elements of the posture that must be adjusted to strike the balance, but it is far from clear to us that he balances them correctly. In particular, having a more robust set of latent capabilities, to complement substantial further reductions in weapons, would strike the balance better.

Managing latent capabilities will involve dealing with other nations' responses to the United States' posture. This can only be done through sustained engagement with other states. Such engagement should start with a serious proposal, which should be followed by fielding reactions, based on mutual interest, and then adjustments to the proposal, as necessary for U.S. security, as substantive responses to it emerge over time. That is how the U.S. nuclear posture was managed during the Cold War, the NATO experience being especially relevant. Doing something like that now will require sustained attention in the administration and building a broader base of informed understanding in Congress.

LEON SLOSS

Independent consultant and former Assistant Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency

RICHARD WAGNER

Senior Staff Member, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and former Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy

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