During the last years of the Cold War, when I was a junior U.S. naval officer on a ballistic missile submarine, I learned lessons about nuclear weapons and political change that convinced me that nuclear abolition is admirable. But it will take considerable effort to achieve, and next major steps will require addressing bureaucratic inertia on nuclear targeting policy, linking conventional and nuclear arms control, and reducing the prestige of possessing nuclear weapons by, for example, encouraging Great Britain, the nuclear weapon state in the forefront of nuclear disarmament, to show a clear path toward its relinquishment of these weapons.
In late November 1989, I attended the U.S. Navy's school on nuclear weapons targeting. Without revealing classified information, I can say here that I was shocked to discover that the main mission of my submarine was to target Eastern Europe, which was then part of the Warsaw Pact. Our targeting assignment especially included East Germany. What I remember most clearly was that none of my fellow officers at the school were discussing the fundamental changes sweeping East Germany-the Berlin Wall had been knocked down earlier that month-other Eastern European countries, and the Soviet Union.
My first lesson was that political change precedes transformation of targeting policy but that such policy has tremendous inertia. Despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the de-targeting agreement in 1994 between then-U.S. President Bill Clinton and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin, both sides can reprogram targeting packages into the weapons within a few minutes. Each country continues to hold on to thousands of nuclear weapons that still are mostly kept to target the other's nuclear weapons. Even though U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev agreed in July to reduce the numbers of deployed strategic weapons, they have yet to break with this past targeting practice. Continued possession of such large nuclear arsenals can be understood by examining two other lessons I learned during the end of the Cold War.
My second lesson was that when the United States and NATO appeared to be confronted by a Warsaw Pact wielding larger conventional forces, the United States planned for using nuclear weapons in a war fighting mode. Today, the roles are reversed. Russia has weaker conventional forces than NATO. Moscow changed its nuclear policy from no-first-use to possible first use to counter conventional military threats. This state of affairs leads to the conclusion that further progress toward nuclear disarmament via truly deep cuts in the American and Russian arsenals will only occur through linkage to conventional arms control. Consequently, the United States must work together with Germany and other NATO partners to find an acceptable resolution to the festering problems connected to the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. In addition, the United States and Russia must find an agreement on controlling prompt global strike conventional weapons that many American defense planners want to pursue. Most importantly, the United States, NATO, and Russia need a meaningful strategic dialogue that addresses Moscow's security concerns.
The third lesson was that nuclear weapons are powerful totems that help to bestow great power status. Russia has certainly fallen from the pinnacle of superpower status, but Russian leaders realize that nuclear weapons allow Moscow to achieve the recognition they crave. They are not the only nuclear possessors who derive status from these weapons. France and Great Britain, for example, arguably face no credible immediate nuclear threats but still worry about future nuclear-related contingencies. Although they have made significant cuts to their arsenals, they have yet to take the final step toward elimination. Britain has admirably been trying to bring together the other nuclear weapon states to demonstrate a renewed commitment to nuclear disarmament at the upcoming May 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. London could further lead the way by laying out a clear route to how it could eliminate its nuclear weapons. It would then become the first official nuclear weapon state to destroy its nuclear arsenal. South Africa developed and then eliminated its nuclear weapons in secret and then openly joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Further disarmament examples would serve as powerful steps toward substa ntial progress on global nuclear abolition.
Charles D. Ferguson is the Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow for Science and Technology at the Council on Foreign Relations and was the Project Director of the recently published CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force Report on U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy, chaired by William J. Perry and Brent Scowcroft.
Related Materials from Atlantic-Community:
- Global Zero: Lawrence Korb and Milton Wilkins: A Slow Countdown Towards Zero
- Global Zero: Hall Gardner:Precondition for Abolition: Five Factors for Consensus Building
- Global Zero: Kenneth N. Luongo: Controlling Loose Nukes
- Global Zero: Tom Z. Collina: The road to Zero: Just Look Down
- Global Zero: Subrata Ghoshroy: Focus on Intermediat Steps