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Groups outline nuclear weapon reduction plans as Obama highlights issue

It's a busy time for nuclear-policy analysts: Just days after President Obama told a crowd of 20,000 in Prague that the U.S. had a “moral responsibility" to take the lead in ridding the world of nuclear weapons, two groups have come forward with their own blueprints for doing so.

A report from one group, instead of endorsing Obama’s first priority, the U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), advocates a radical rethinking of American nuclear weapons policy. The other report recommends reducing the number of warheads in the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 500, down from today’s total of around 5,000.

Both reports come just days before a Congressionally mandated Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States is scheduled to release a review of “nuclear weapons policy, strategy, and force structure.”

The first report, a collaboration of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), does not specify a numerical goal for the decrease in nuclear warheads. Instead, it calls for a fundamental shift in U.S. nuclear strategy, from "counterforce" to that of "minimal deterrence."

The "counterforce" doctrine requires the U.S. to be able— even after an all-out attack—to strike back effectively and decisively against an enemy as powerful as the old Soviet Union. "Minimal deterrence," however, would entail massive cuts in the current U.S. arsenal. The "most dangerous characteristics of nuclear forces, with weapons kept at high levels of alert" would be abandoned by such a shift, the report states. The "needs for reliability, accuracy, response time, and all other performance characteristics" could be loosened.

NRDC is also listed as one of six collaborating "citizens’ groups" responsible for the second report, by the Nuclear Weapons Complex Consolidation (NWCC) Policy Network. NWCC’s report also stresses the need for a shift in Cold War strategy, but it clearly endorses the points Obama made in his speech this past Sunday: resubmitting the CTBT to the U.S. Senate for ratification; extending the START treaty with Russia, which aims to reduce warhead counts on both sides and expires this year; ending the production of fissile materials for use in nuclear weapons; and strengthening the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Proponents of the CTBT argue that a test ban would address the ever-growing threat of nuclear proliferation most directly. Nations that would gain the most from secretly testing nuclear weapons would readily be caught by the worldwide seismic monitoring system now in place and could be legally subjected to whatever sanctions the world could bring to bear. (The argument is fleshed out in "Acceptable Risks for Arms Control," in our March issue. For a full account of that system, see "Advances in Monitoring Nuclear Weapon Testing," also in our March issue.)

The FAS and NRDC report sidesteps the CTBT and calls instead for the more aggressive goal of minimal deterrence. Yet history shows that even Obama’s far less ambitious goal—persuading the U.S. Senate to ratify the CTBT—may be too aggressive for some elected officials. The treaty was approved by the U.N. General Assembly thirteen years ago, and signed two weeks later by President Clinton. But in 1999 the U.S. Senate declined to give its “advice and consent” to U.S. ratification, and the treaty has been in mothballs ever since.

Trinity nuclear test, 1945, via Wikimedia

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