WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The question is: What should we do with the nukes? My own answer, fashioned equally of unavoidable ignorance and strong conviction, is to scrap 99 percent of them.
President Bush is prepared to go a long way in that direction. In the near future he proposes to eliminate the entire arsenal of 50 MX intercontinental missiles. A bit further along, he will eliminate 1,000 of the 1,500 nuclear warheads now positioned on Minuteman II missiles. He will cut back on B-2 bombers and reduce the number of missiles on strategic submarines.
What will that leave in our nuclear arsenal? A figure widely reported is 11,500 weapons, counting everything from small tactical warheads to intercontinental ballistic missiles. The former Soviet Union is said to have about the same number.
News reports indicate that the reductions promised by the president will eliminate 1,500 land-based warheads and 1,400 sea-based warheads. These would be in addition to a cutback of 2,000 to 3,000 nuclear warheads pledged in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. This is surely a good start.
In an address at Harvard University on January 23, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa proposed to reduce stockpiles to 1,000 strategic weapons apiece for the United States and the new Russian nation.
The U.S. Air Force in December created a bipartisan panel of defense experts to study a nuclear strategy for the future.
Rep. Les Aspin of Wisconsin, the influential chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, will be publishing a report of ''nuclear policy appropriate to the new era.'' He makes a sensible and urgent case for major reductions.
Other things are going on. Russian President Boris Yeltsin has pledged to ''turn our intercontinental ballistic missiles away from all cities of the United States.'' Russian leaders, said Mr. Yeltsin, ''no longer consider the United States our potential adversary.'' Surely we could take the reciprocal step of retargeting our missiles, too.
Where should these missiles be aimed? What enemies do we have that could be overcome only by nuclear warfare? How many nukes do we need? No responsible person in public life, to my knowledge, has proposed a complete dismantlement of our nuclear warheads. A sufficient arsenal must be maintained to deter nuclear threats that may arise. How much is enough?
Suppose we put matters in perspective. On August 6, 1945, an Air Force bomber dropped ''Little Boy'' on Hiroshima. Relatively speaking, that first atomic bomb was indeed a little boy. It had a destructive force variously reported at only 13,000 to 18,000 tons of TNT.
Do we recall the awesome work wrought by that little boy? In a fraction of a second the bomb killed 92,000 Japanese. It pulverized everything within a radius of one-half mile from the airburst. The fireball ignited fires a mile away. Within a few months, radiation fallout killed thousands more.
Three days after Hiroshima, on August 9, the United States dropped ''Fat Man'' on Nagasaki. That bomb killed 40,000 more.
By 1954, nine years after the atomic attacks ended World War II, the U.S. had developed a hydrogen bomb with the destructive force of 12 MILLION tons of TNT. In 1961 the Soviet Union tested an ICBM with the impact of 58 MILLION tons. Knowledgeable authorities estimate that our nuclear arsenal, counting everything, now carries the destructive capacity of 4 BILLION tons of TNT. And Hiroshima, you will recall, was leveled by the Little Boy of 13,000 to 18,000 tons.
Let me ask reverently, soberly, what in God's name do the superpowers propose to do with this fearful stockpile? If any significant number of nuclear-tipped missiles ever were exchanged, the destruction and loss of life would beggar comprehension. A few stunned stragglers might escape from subway shelters, but they would emerge into an unrecognizable world -- a world without food, electricity, running water, transportation, medical care.
An opportunity is at hand to halt this grotesque prospect of Armageddon. Let us seize the moment. I would retain a hundred warheads just in case. The rest? Scrap them.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.