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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 38, June 1999

Senate Rejects Measure to Allow Unilateral US Nuclear Reductions

On 26 May, an amendment to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2000 Defense Authorization Bill (S.1059) designed to allow the United States to unilaterally reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal below the maximum levels specified in the Strategic Arms Reduction (START) I Treaty was defeated in the Senate by 56 votes to 44. The measure, introduced by Robert Kerrey (Democrat - Nebraska), was intended to break the logjam in the nuclear reduction process caused by the inability of the Russian Duma to ratify the START II Treaty. Introducing amendment 395, Kerrey set out his case as follows:

"With great respect to the committee, there is one provision in subtitle D called 'Other Matters' [Section 1041]..that I am proposing to strike. That language provides a 1-year extension of a requirement that I think causes the United States of America to be less safe than it would without this provision. ...

What this provision does is say that the United States of America must maintain a nuclear deterrent that is at the START I levels, that we have to have warheads deployed, land, sea, air, that are at START I levels; that the President of the United States cannot go below those START I levels. In the Cold War, perhaps even a few years after the Cold War was ended, when we were trying to err on the side of safety, this made sense because the No. 1 threat then was a bolt out of the blue, an attack by the Soviet Union that might occur when we least expected it. We had to maintain an active deterrence and prevent that. The capacity to survive that bolt-out-of-the-blue attack and counterattack was an essential part of our strategy.

Today, the No. 1 threat is not a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack. The No. 1 threat today is an accidental launch, a rogue nation launch, or a sabotage launch of a nuclear weapon. One of the things that causes me a great deal of concern in this new era of ours is that I think we in Congress and the American people as well have forgotten the danger of these nuclear weapons. We have been talking about new threats to America. We have a threat in the form of chemical weapons, a threat in the form of biological weapons, a threat in the form of cyber warfare, lots of others things like that, terrorism, that cause people to be very much concerned. My belief is that the only threat out there that can kill every single American, and thus the threat that ought to be top on our list of concerns is nuclear weapons. The nation that possesses the greatest threat of all in terms of an accidental launch, a rogue nation launch, or a sabotage launch, is Russia. ...

One of the reasons, the biggest reason that I want to change this is that I believe we are forcing Russia today to maintain a level of nuclear weapons beyond what their financial system will allow them to maintain. They are currently required at START I levels to have 6,000 strategic warheads. Again, according to published accounts from their own military people, they would prefer to be at a level of 1,000 or lower, because they simply don't have the resources. I can go into some rather startling problems that are created as a consequence of that inability, but they simply don't have the ability, the resources to allocate to maintain those 6,000 warheads as we do. Ours are safe. Ours are secure. ...

I point this out not to be alarmist but to say that this is a real threat. This is not an imaginary threat. This weapons system exists. There are 6,000 of these in Russia today that were needed in the cold war; they were needed in a deterrent strategy that the Russians had developed. We have drawn down, and they have drawn down to the 6,000 level - a bit higher than that still today. They are drawing down to that 6,000 level. But, again, if you ask either our intelligence or the Russians directly, they will tell you they don't have the resources to maintain even 1,000. They don't have the resources to maintain 1,000, let alone 6,000-plus…

Is such a scenario [of possible accidental nuclear launch] likely to happen? It is less likely to happen than the sun coming up tomorrow, but it could happen. It is a scenario that we need to think about as we think about the danger of these nuclear weapons. And because we don't think about them, it is not likely that we will consider an amendment like this terribly important. We will sort of drift along, as I think we are doing now, saying we are going to wait for the Duma to ratify START II. They are threatening not to ratify for every possible reason. I don't know what the next anger point is going to be. I personally don't believe that the ratification of START II by the Duma is necessarily terribly important. That we need to look for an alternative way to reduce these threats, to me, is painfully obvious if you examine the danger that this threat poses to us. ...

Let me put this another way: the bill we are debating allows a foreign legislative body the final say on US nuclear force levels. I do not believe this is how we should set our defense policies. Our military decisions should be based solely on what we need to protect and maintain our national security interests. While I understand this provision was originally intended to encourage Russian ratification of START II, I think it is time to begin to rethink our strategy. For the foreseeable future, START II is dead. We can all make the case that the Duma should have acted, that ratification was more in their interests than in ours, or that the reason it failed was domestic Russian politics. All that is true. But we now need to begin to ask ourselves if the current policy of waiting for Russian action on START II is the best way to confront the dangers presented by the Russian nuclear arsenal.

I believe the answer is emphatically no. The provision in this bill I am trying to strike is forcing the United States to maintain an unnecessarily large nuclear arsenal. By keeping more weapons than we need to defend ourselves, we are encouraging the Russians to keep more weapons than they can control. That is the heart of the argument that I am making. ..."

Opposing Kerrey's stance, John Warner (Republican - Virginia), Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued: "At a time when our relations with Russia and China are quite uncertain, now is not the time to consider unilateral reductions in our nuclear forces." Robert Smith (Republican - New Hampshire) suggested that Kerrey's "approach would amount to an abandonment of, or certainly a significant deviation from, the formal arms control process."

Reports: Congressional Record, 26 May; Senate defeats move to allow cuts in US nuclear arsenal, Defense Daily, 2 June.

© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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