Now that a treaty on eliminating intermediate-range nuclear forces is ready for signing at the Washington summit, many are calling on the United States and the Soviet Union to make deep cuts in strategic weapons as the next step for arms control.
Caution is warranted. Some have called for 50% cuts, others for 90% or more. Some have argued for 500 remaining strategic missiles, others for 1,000.
But such deep cuts should be subject to an objective analysis, including both the benefits and the costs, before they are supported.
The advantages of deep cuts are reasonably clear. They would bring political benefits in that they would improve the U.S.-Soviet political relationship. They could lead to worldwide support for certain valuable follow-on initiatives affecting other nuclear or near-nuclear powers, and this could lead to the eventual demilitarization of international relations. In addition to supporting the principal goal of arms control--namely, reducing the chance of war--deep cuts would also contribute to two secondary goals: limiting damage in case war did occur by reducing the total megatonnage that could be used in such a conflict, and reducing the military budget by eliminating the cost of maintaining old and procuring new weapons.
But what about the costs? There are several areas that must be considered, all concerning the advantages of maintaining large stockpiles.
--Both the United States and the Soviet Union rely on deterrence for stability. This is gained by threatening retaliation, or a second strike. Large stockpiles ensure both sides that there would be sufficient weapons available for a retaliatory second strike. Large numbers of weapons of different types, particularly if some are relatively invulnerable, provide an assurance that there will be such sufficiency for retaliation. Deterrence is a psychological phenomenon that is reinforced by large stockpiles. While deep cuts are perceived as eliminating first-strike weapons, they could also eliminate second-strike weapons and therefore undermine the stability achieved by deterrence.
--Large stockpiles also ensure that there can be no winner--only losers--in a nuclear war. Leaders thus are reluctant to start such a war as it would be tantamount to suicide. In addition, these stockpiles provide a type of insurance against technological breakthroughs that could make a first-strike possible.
--With large stockpiles, there is less incentive to install a launch-on-warning system that some advocate as necessary to ensure that all or nearly all retaliatory weapons are not destroyed on a first strike. The "use them or lose them" thinking that lies behind launch-on-warning could create a hair-trigger system that could lead to nuclear war by misperception or accident. Thus deep cuts may, by creating an incentive for launch on warning, increase the chance of accidental nuclear war.
--Large stockpiles render a defensive system such as the Strategic Defense Initiative technically infeasible in that leak-proof defense of population is impossible. With deep cuts it becomes possible to destroy the reduced stockpiles, making a defensive system more attractive. But such a system could destroy retaliatory missiles and hence, undermine deterrence. It is also seen as a potential first-strike system, and it has its own instabilities with each side tempted to use a defense against the other.
--A deep cut in strategic weapons without offsetting, and probably more expensive, conventional weapons could, in addition, undermine security alliances and virtually force allies to develop their own nuclear weapons. A historical example is the case of France, whose leaders developed their independent nuclear forces partly out of concern that the United States could not guarantee French security.
--Large stockpiles can reduce the incentives for nuclear proliferation. If deep cuts reduce the credibility of the commitments of one of the superpowers to its alliance partners, then they may want to develop their own nuclear weapons. Furthermore, there is the possibility that a new nuclear nation could become a significant military power readily and easily by matching the diminished capabilities of the superpowers.
The weight of these arguments may be appreciated by reference to history. The period of greatest instability, when the world probably came closest to nuclear war, was precisely the period from roughly the mid-1950s to the early 1960s when inventories of strategic weapons were "small" by today's comparisons. This was a period of great tension, culminating in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Since then there has been a tremendous buildup of nuclear weapons on both sides. This has made both sides extremely cautious. Both superpower leaders have said that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought." So it may not be such a good idea to return to the situation of "small" numbers of strategic weapons, which could repeat the instabilities of the earlier period.
These arguments in favor of large stockpiles and thus against deep cuts should not be interpreted as providing a definite case against such reductions. But a benefit-cost analysis could point to a desirable final configuration of strategic weapons. This might, for example, involve the total elimination of certain current types of strategic weapons, such as fixed-site multiple-warhead, land-based ballistic missiles like the Minuteman and MX.
There are significant differences in strategic weapons with regard to vulnerability, accuracy, speed, basing, recallability, etc. Thus it may be better to use selective cuts than deep cuts, eliminating certain weapons systems entirely but retaining or even augmenting others, such as mobile or concealable long-range ground-launched cruise missiles.
Such selective cuts could be much more valuable than deep cuts in realizing the benefits of cuts without entailing their potential costs.