A good treaty, but we should make it better

July 09, 2002|By Karl F. Inderfurth

WASHINGTON - The United States must remain focused on what should be the primary goal of U.S.-Russia cooperation on the nuclear weapons front: preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons or materials by terrorists - the most serious threat to U.S. and world security. This must be kept in mind as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee opens hearings today on the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (Treaty of Moscow) signed by Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin in May, an agreement that opens a new and encouraging chapter in U.S.-Russia relations.

There are steps the Senate could take while carrying out its constitutional role in the treaty ratification process to reduce the likelihood that "loose" nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists or terrorist states.

By taking these steps, the Senate can help the Bush administration "liquidate the legacy of the Cold War," as President Bush proclaimed shortly before signing the treaty. The Senate would also be more fully carrying out our obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - obligations that the Moscow treaty recognizes but fails to advance to the necessary degree.

First, the Senate should call for full treaty compliance on an accelerated timetable.

The treaty requires both sides to cut by two-thirds their number of operationally deployed long-range nuclear weapons by Dec. 31, 2012, from more than 6,000 today to between 1,700 and 2,200. Why more than 10 years? Moving sooner would be militarily prudent and would demonstrate that the United States is committed to fulfilling its obligations under the NPT as quickly as possible, thus enhancing overall compliance.

Second, while moving in the right direction, the Moscow treaty does not do enough to address related issues of threat reduction and tactical nuclear weapons.

As Russia begins the process of removing thousands of warheads from its missiles in accordance with the treaty, paradoxically, the dilemma of loose nuclear warheads could be exacerbated.

The challenge of safely storing nuclear weapons and materials - at present, Russia has about 20,000 assembled nuclear weapons and enough material to construct at least 60,000 more - will grow more difficult as these Russian nuclear weapons are taken off line, with some warheads being stored and some dismantled.

It is important that the United States and Russia consider how to accelerate efforts to account for, secure and eliminate excess nuclear weapons and materials. Currently, after 10 years of U.S.-Russia cooperation, only about 40 percent of Russian nuclear material storage sites have been upgraded to standards that Washington recognizes as acceptable. The Senate should therefore consider attaching a condition to the treaty mandating enhanced levels of threat reduction cooperation between the two countries in order to ensure that weapons and materials are managed as staged reductions occur.

Finally, the question of tactical nuclear weapons was not addressed in the treaty. The United States is uncertain about how many tactical nuclear weapons Russia possesses, though the number is clearly in the thousands.

These weapons are tempting targets for terrorists because they combine portability with a high destructiveness capability (a 12.5 kiloton nuclear weapon could kill up to 250,000 people if detonated in a dense urban area and render the area uninhabitable for decades). As part of its deliberations on the treaty, the Senate should consider pressing the administration to address the tactical nuclear weapon issue through other agreements and programs with Russia.

Unlike previous arms control pacts that generated strong debate and fierce opposition, this agreement has attracted widespread bipartisan support. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is therefore in an excellent position to make a good treaty better and provide greater security for us all.

Karl F. Inderfurth, a senior adviser to the Nuclear Threat Reduction Campaign and professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, was deputy staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the SALT II debate in 1979.

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