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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 19, October 1997

Defining "Eliminating" Nuclear Weapons
By Morton H. Halperin

Introduction: The Current Stalemate

During the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) negotiations in Geneva in 1996, an important stalemate occurred between the nuclear weapons States and other States over the issue of nuclear elimination. In those negotiations, the Ambassador of India to the United Nations in Geneva stated categorically that India would not sign the treaty until it addressed India's demands regarding nuclear weapons development and disarmament. "India cannot accept any restraints on its capability if other countries remain unwilling to accept the obligation to eliminate their nuclear weapons," she affirmed.(1) When the final draft included no timetable for the elimination of nuclear weapons, India - and as a result of India's decision, Pakistan - refused to sign the treaty. Because the CTBT contains an entry-into-force provision conditioned on concurrence by all nuclear capable States, India's opposition threatens the treaty's authority and effectiveness.

India has not been alone in this emphasis. In August 1997, the Group of 21 - non-aligned countries that are members of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) - proposed a program for the phased elimination of nuclear weapons, as contained in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); the program includes establishing a negotiating committee on nuclear disarmament within the Conference. For several of these countries, some mechanism within the Conference on Disarmament for addressing such nuclear disarmament is necessary to further progress on the non-proliferation front.

Despite these developments, the nuclear-weapons States have refused to commit to a timetable for the elimination of their nuclear arsenal. The United States, for example, believes that if the nuclear-weapons States move toward zero nuclear weapons, there will be insurmountable problems related to verification, instability generated by the disarmament process, and possibly increased proliferation due to reduced disparities in nuclear capability. Rather than agreeing to negotiate elimination, the nuclear-weapons States have instead concentrated on cutting off the production of nuclear weapons; in this manner, according to the Indian Ambassador, the "stubborn position" of the nuclear-weapons States has "paralyzed the debate on nuclear disarmament."(2)

Defining a Way Out of The Impasse

This stalemate - which poses a serious threat to further steps to reduce the risk of nuclear war - is surmountable. The issues raised by both nuclear-weapons States and other States can each be addressed effectively by redefining the end state of "zero" nuclear weapons.

The current definition of zero assumes that nuclear States, as well as all other States, will progressively destroy their entire nuclear arsenal until there are no nuclear weapons left in existence. As noted by many skeptics, achieving this end state would be extremely difficult; thus many supporters of the elimination of nuclear weapons have had to "concede" that fundamental changes in the nature of international politics would have to precede the elimination of nuclear weapons. This is, of course, a fatal concession. Absent such a fundamental change, it is very difficult to answer the arguments of critics relating to the verification of destruction (particularly of the Russian stockpile), detection of small clandestine programs (in light of the experience in Iraq), and the instabilities that would occur as States approached zero. The way to approach this problem lies in redefining zero in such a way as to meet both these concerns and the objectives of those who seek the elimination of nuclear weapons.

In redefining zero, we must first focus on why we seek to eliminate nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have the capability to destroy the planet. Thus, as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a danger of inadvertent, unauthorized, or accidental use with disastrous consequences. Furthermore, as long as some nations maintain nuclear weapons or rely on the threat of their use for any purpose, other nations will be tempted to secure such weapons; this increases the likelihood of accidental or deliberate use. Only a commitment by the nuclear-weapons States to nuclear disarmament would result in a viable non-proliferation regime. Since nuclear weapons pose a threat to international security, any viable long-run solution must be based on the equality of all States, prevent all States from relying on the use or the threat of the use of nuclear weapons for any purpose, and eliminate the danger of accidental, inadvertent, or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.

A redefinition of zero nuclear weapons that meets this criteria, is verifiable, and does not depend on fundamental changes in the nature of international politics could consist of the following:

First, firm international security assurances - both negative and positive - must be put in place with the support of the UN Security Council. The international community should pledge to respond collectively if a State threatens to use nuclear weapons against any other State - regardless of the context - or if a State reverses the process of nuclear disarmament described below. In addition, all States should agree not to threaten to initiate the use of nuclear weapons or to use such nuclear threats first (i.e., not to seek to use nuclear weapons as an instrument of policy).

Second, all nations must accept the ruling of the International Court of Justice on nuclear weapons and commit to the complete nuclear disarmament contained in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In July 1996, the Court found that in the long run, international law - and with it international stability - would "suffer from the continuing difference of views with regard to the legal status of weapons as deadly as nuclear weapons." The most appropriate solution, the Court further decided, lay in "the long-promised complete nuclear disarmament." Stressing the treaty obligation of NPT signatories to disarm their nuclear arsenals, the Court concluded that:

"In these circumstances, the Court appreciates the full importance of the recognition by Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of an obligation to negotiate in good faith a nuclear disarmament. The legal import of that obligation goes beyond that of a mere obligation of conduct; the obligation involved here is an obligation to achieve a precise result - nuclear disarmament in all its aspects by adopting a particular course of conduct, namely the pursuit of negotiations on the matter of good faith. This twofold obligation to pursue and to conclude negotiations formally concerns the 182 States parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or in other words the vast majority of the international community. Indeed, any realistic search for general and complete disarmament, especially nuclear disarmament, necessitates the cooperation of all States."(3)

Third, this international cooperation on nuclear disarmament should take the form of all States agreeing to implement a step by step plan to remove nuclear weapons from their arsenals and render them useless. The obligation to disarm would apply equally to all States regardless of their status under the NPT. This process, which would be written in a treaty on nuclear disarmament and implemented serially after international assurances were in place, would dictate that all States:

1. Agree to destroy all warheads in excess of 2,000 and publicly describe both their arsenal of nuclear warheads and the delivery systems to which they are or may be mated. The inspection arm of the international nuclear disarmament regime would be authorized to both conduct inspections of the declared arsenals and search for undeclared nuclear warheads. In addition, States with peaceful nuclear power programs would declare their weapons grade material, describe possible delivery systems, and disclose any planning to convert these capacities into a nuclear weapons capability.

2. Agree not to make any efforts to improve or expand their nuclear arsenals. Thus, States would pledge not to: test nuclear weapons, conduct other research into improving the capability of nuclear warheads, manufacture any additional weapons grade fissionable material or additional warheads, or mate any existing warheads with delivery systems. States with peaceful nuclear programs would agree not to take any steps that shortened the time to deploy nuclear weapons.

3. Agree to progressively separate their existing nuclear warheads from delivery systems by removing a certain percentage of such warheads each year. Over a period of five years or so, all warheads would be separated from delivery systems. States would be allowed to store their warheads so that they were not vulnerable to a surprise attack, as long as such locations were revealed to the inspection unit. However, States would have to store warheads so that they could not be re-mated with their delivery systems without being readily detected by the inspection unit.

4. Begin a process of separating nuclear cores from nuclear warheads once all warheads had been separated from their delivery systems. Again, this would be completed over a period of several years, with a set percentage separated each year. Both the nuclear core and the remainder of the warhead would be stored so as to be invulnerable to surprise attack, but with locations known to the inspection unit. In addition, States would agree to store nuclear cores so that they could not quickly be mated with the warheads - or the warheads with delivery systems; thus any steps toward reconstituting a deliverable weapon would be instantly and readily detectable by the inspection unit.

5. Begin a process of reducing the number of nuclear cores from the maximum of 2,000 agreed to at the start of the disarmament process. Over a period of an additional five years, all States would reduce their storage of nuclear cores to no more than two hundred.

Zero nuclear weapons would thus be defined as an end state of no more than eight nuclear States, each with no more than two hundred nuclear cores separated from their warheads and delivery systems (States that now have fewer than two hundred warheads would not increase to that number). However, the number of remaining nuclear cores - suggested in this text as two hundred - is open to discussion. Two hundred was chosen because such a number of nuclear cores would be both verifiable and significant enough to reassure those opposed to total nuclear elimination. In addition, equating zero nuclear weapons with two hundred nuclear cores separated from their warheads is more egalitarian than the logic of the NPT, which limits nuclear weapons to five States and no others; because the premise is more egalitarian, it makes the international cooperation that is needed for nuclear disarmament more likely.

This end state would further dictate that the remaining nuclear cores be separated from their warheads and delivery systems in a manner ensuring that they could not be mated within hours or days. For example, nuclear cores and warheads could be stored separately in empty silos sealed with concrete and with cameras trained on this. In this manner, no State would be able to begin the process of mating warheads with their delivery systems without being immediately detected by the inspection unit of the nuclear disarmament regime and subjected to immediate sanctions, including conventional attack.

So defined, "eliminating" nuclear weapons can serve to address the concerns of both the nuclear-weapons States and other States in negotiating arms control agreements such as the CTBT.


This is only a preliminary sketch, and it clearly needs much refinement. Nonetheless, it can provide a basis for those governments and individuals committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons to come to an agreement on a definition of zero and a process for getting there; such a process both could be pursued immediately without waiting for fundamental changes in the international situation and could produce the nuclear non-proliferation objectives that nations are currently seeking. Once States agreed generally on this end point, technical discussions about defining this state in more detail and the steps to getting there would be possible. In the meantime, Track II discussion of these issues would be useful. By treating all States equally, stalemates over non-proliferation approaches - such as the one that emerged during the CTBT negotiations - might be avoided and the dangers of nuclear accident or war reduced.


1. Arundhati Ghose, Ambassador of India, to the CD Plenary, June 20, 1996, CD/PV.740.

2." Non-Aligned Countries Restate Proposal for Creation of Committee on Nuclear Disarmament within Disarmament Conference," UN Press Release DCF/310, 8 August 1997.

3. "The Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Question of Legality of Nuclear Weapons - Summary," ICJ Press Communiqué No. 96/23.

Morton H. Halperin is Senior Vice-President of the Twentieth Century Fund/The Century Foundation. He served in the Department of Defense and the National Security Council in the Johnson, Nixon and Clinton administrations and is the author of numerous books and articles on nuclear strategy and arms control, including 'Nuclear Fallacy'. The ideas in this piece were first presented in a paper for the University of Pennsylvania conference on "The Future of Nuclear Weapons: A US-India Dialogue" on 6 May, 1997.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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