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Disarmament's Glacial Pace

January 26, 2002

The definition of "overkill" is the ability of one nation's nuclear weapons to eradicate another country's population many times over. Russia and the United States meet that definition in spades. There is no reason for both of them to move so slowly to reduce their stockpiles of redundant nuclear weapons.

This month the Pentagon announced it will reduce the number of operational nuclear warheads from the current 6,000 to 3,800 over the next five years. However, not all the warheads taken offline will be destroyed; an unknown number will merely be put in storage. That represents an unfortunate continuity with the Clinton administration, which also stored demobilized warheads.

The primary reason for possessing nuclear weapons is retaliation. Enemies must know that an attack from conventional, biological, chemical or nuclear arms will be met by a devastating counterattack.

Proponents of storing the weapons rather than destroying them argue that we never know where a threat will come from and we need more capability than all other nuclear nations in the world combined: Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan, presumably North Korea and Israel, maybe Iran and Iraq soon. That's overkill on the overkill.

The Navy's Trident submarines each carry hundreds of nuclear warheads. With enough submarines at sea, undetectable beneath the surface, retaliation can be assured. Cutting the number of land- and air-based missiles would not jeopardize security even when the Trident fleet is cut from 18 to 14.

Moscow officials understandably are upset that many warheads would be available for reuse and could be refitted onto missiles, perhaps within weeks. The U.S. and Russia had been ready to work out an agreement on mutual reduction of nuclear warheads, which once totaled more than 20,000. The number has been cut by about half under arms reduction treaties, a major accomplishment. The planned cut in deployed U.S. nuclear weapons from the current 6,000 to between 1,700 and 2,000 in 10 years also is movement in the right direction. But Moscow prefers a binding treaty rather than an informal accord on parallel reductions.

Washington would do well to listen to Russia's concerns. The United States has legitimate worries about the security of Russia's stored nuclear weapons and needs help from Moscow in guarding against terrorists or unfriendly nations buying or stealing them. Washington has bought uranium stripped from Russian warheads and used it to fuel American power plants, a good example of cooperation. Destroying excess warheads would be a bigger asset to security than storing them.

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