Go to contents

Armed to excess

Posted March. 06, 2001 19:44,   


President Bush`s announcement in his first address to Congress that it is time to "discard cold war relics and reduce our own nuclear forces to reflect today`s needs" is an important step in the right direction.

The risk of a nuclear attack still poses the greatest single threat to our survival. Implementing steep cuts in global nuclear arms is essential to our national interest. But since 1991, when the treaty known as Start I was signed, reductions in Washington`s and Moscow`s arsenals of nuclear weapons have been stalled by a Democratic president who was afraid of the political consequences of "unilateral" reductions and a Republican Congress that changed federal law to prevent the president from going below Start I levels.

The result is that our arsenal is well beyond levels needed to destroy any nation that threatens the United States. We currently have 7,200 strategic warheads that could be launched against any potential enemy. Consider this: Just one of our Ohio class Trident submarines can deliver 192 separate warheads to individual targets in Russia, each of which is roughly 6 to 30 times as powerful as the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima at the end of World War II.

Maintaining excessively high numbers of strategic weapons is not only costly to American taxpayers, but it forces the Russians to maintain a strategic and tactical arsenal far beyond what they can afford to maintain. Russian military leaders have been urging their political leaders to reduce their arsenal to a thousand warheads or less for this very reason.

Part of the reason that Congress has not been pressing for steep reductions is that members of Congress have never seen the actual missile targeting plans developed by the military in response to presidential directives. For twelve years in the Senate — eight of which I served on the Senate`s Select Committee on Intelligence — I tried without success to get this briefing. In fact, I was unable to find a single member of the Senate who had been briefed. Mr. Bush should order his military commanders to brief members of Congress on the targeting plans.

I have no doubt that President Bush would gain Republican and Democratic support if more were known about the details. A map of Russia that contained thousands of red circles each indicating a nuclear detonation would convincingly show the extent of the excess nuclear capability we have.

In addition to reducing the arsenal, Congress must also expand the Nunn- Lugar cooperative threat reduction program. This program has provided Russia with roughly $450 million a year to reduce unneeded nuclear materials in a safe and swift fashion. But the program has had only wavering support in Congress. That must end.

We should provide substantially more money to help Russia dismantle nuclear weapons and safely dispose of bomb-grade fissile materials. President Bush expressed support for this concept during the campaign. Now it`s time to back up that commitment. If he delivers on an immediate and substantial reduction in the American nuclear arsenal and pushes to expand the Nunn-Lugar program, he will have done the nation and the world a great service.


Bob Kerrey, a former United States senator, is president of New School University.