Autumn 2000 ~ by Kathryn Albrecht

Our Global Affairs analyst discusses the current state of Arms Control
-- since those Presidential candidates overlooked doing so.

If during the smoky fireworks across the valley last spring, your prayers ricocheted between "Oh God, don't let Los Alamos blow!" to "Yes, take it all away! Ban the Bomb!" -- you probably have an inkling that a decade after the Cold War ended, 34,000 nuclear weapons remain assembled upon the planet. The United States and Russia possess the lion's share. The remaining several thousand nukes are owned by Britain, China, France, India, Israel and Pakistan. South Africa built some, but Nelson Mandela had them dismantled. Neither Iran, Iraq nor North Korea has assembled a deliverable bomb.

Between the U.S. and Russia, approximately 5,000 weapons stand on hair-trigger alert. This means if incoming-missile warning systems should sound, the respective presidents have but 20 minutes (if the rocket was land-based) to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike. If the missile was launched by submarine, the window of deliberation shrinks to about three minutes. That's it -- the brilliant logic of deterrence: "Mutually-assured destruction."

Many people assume humankind is farther down the path toward Abolition than this current state reflects. A bulk-mailed fundraising appeal from an anti-nuclear organization recently claimed that the group "helped put an end to the global arms race." But is that race finished? True, fifteen years ago 80,000 atomic bombs were ticking away in their casings. Negotiators have more than halved the number of nukes which now enforce our madness. Yet how few are too many? Compared to today's thermonuclear warheads, the bombs striking Hiroshima and Nagasaki were tiny. They nonetheless annihilated nearly 400,000 persons.


Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev offered radical disarmament proposals throughout the early 1980s. The USSR unilaterally stopped underground nuclear testing, urging America to do the same. When ignored by Washington, Moscow allowed a U.S. environmental group, Natural Resources Defense Council, to seismically monitor the moratorium from Kazakhstan. Gorbachev was unwavering in his intent to foster disarmament. He recalls that upon arriving in the Kremlin, "I saw the monster we and the United States had created ... When I saw the terrible amount of force that had been amassed, I finally understood what the consequences, including global winter, would be" (The Nation, 2/2/98).

A momentus break-through in the U.S.-Soviet stand-off occurred on January 15, 1986. At a summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to stunning reductions in their nations' nuclear forces. Together they stated that nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought, recommitting their governments to total abolition (required by the 1968 Non-proliferation Treaty). Perhaps it was the cognac; perhaps the glittering, long winter nights. But the two most politically powerful men on earth took two giant steps back from The Brink.

In 1991 President George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev again thrilled the world -- and unnerved the nuclear establishment -- by agreeing to deep cuts in warhead deployment. Bush offered to shrink by 6,000 the number of tactical weapons aimed at the USSR from sites throughout Europe, plus de-alerted 1,000 strategic bombers and 450 Minuteman missiles. Gorbachev happily anted-up 500 land-based ICBMs and de-alerted six nuclear submarines. (A sub can carry 200 warheads.)

The two signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) that same year. It entered into force in 1994 (with the Russian Federation now as a party), limiting each side to 6,000 deployed warheads apiece. This is where disarmament stands today -- or where it is stuck, actually. A second great reduction,START II, has been negotiated, signed and ratified. It would halve again the number of bombs possessed by Russia and the U.S. But it has not entered into force. Protocols must be mutually approved before treaties are activated. Yet curious, sullen influences impede START II's reductions, holding the world back from its sojourn to sanity.


The Russian Duma withheld ratification of START II until last April. Their hesitancy is explained by Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer: "People in the military believe sincerely they need to try to stop the U.S. now, before it goes on a real rampage around the world" (, 2/12/00). Strong words, but what do they mean? NATO has been expanded to Russia's borders and an early post-Cold War invitation to join the alliance was withdrawn. Nonetheless, new Russian President Vladimir Putin prioritized START II ratification. Hence, the Duma responded.

Many grave indicators fed the Duma's paranoia. After a 1994 agreement between Presidents Clinton and Boris Yeltsin to de-target each others' cities, the Clinton government has only threatened the detente. Early in his second term, Clinton issued a chilling Presidential Decision Directive, essentially rolling back the reductions agreed to in START II. The PDD announced that America intends to keep a maximum of 8,000 nuclear warheads -- the treaty calls for 3,500 -- while expanding the list of targets in China and various "rogue states." Robert Bell, on the National Security Council, explained, "In the event of attack, retaliation would be certain and overwhelming and devastating" (The Washington Post, 12/97). Whew!


For a nation committed to abolishing its weapons of mass destruction (per the Non-Proliferation Treaty), the Department of Energy's $45 billion Stockpile Stewardship Program, unveiled at Los Alamos by the President himself, defies justification. SSP replaces the conventional procedures of "Stockpile Maintenance" long relied-upon for assuring the safety and integrity of our cache of nukes. "Stewardship" is, instead, carte blanche for developing elaborate devices to simulate virtual atomic explosions, thereby circumventing the intent of a Comprehensive Test Ban. Clinton hoped to speed Senate ratification of the CTB Treaty by thus deflecting Republican objections to a permanent ban on underground tests. Within SSP, research and development of new or improved nuclear weapon systems may proceed.

When the UN Conference on Disarmament drafted the CTBT in 1995, President Clinton had "Supplementary Safeguards" inserted, intended to satisfy Senate hawks. The first Safeguard is: "a science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program ... including conduct of a broad range of experimental programs." Los Alamos National Labs (LANL) is receiving $16 billion in "upgraded facilities" to carry out this mission. Clinton visited The Hill-Across-The-Way during each of his terms, promising renewed prosperity. (The town was in a slump after George Bush Sr. trimmed military programs at home and abroad.) So, the world's largest computer is being built in Los Alamos. Nicknamed "Q" and able to perform 26 trillion operations per second, this supercomputer will simulate the "primary" and "secondary" explosions of a nuclear device in 3-D. In 374 cabinets covering the space of half a football field, "Q" will require 600,000 gallons of cooling water per day (on that dry plateau above Española!).

LANL is also taking over plutonium pit production from DOE's closed and contaminated Rocky Flats plant near Denver. (10,000 extra pits already grace the stockpile.) Other nuclear facilities gear up apace with LANL in the bizarre new mission of "stewardship." Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California is developing miniaturized bombs that will not require plutonium triggers. The Nevada Test Site has conducted seven "sub-critical" explosions on Clinton's watch. Civilian power reactors are beginning tritium production for the DOE. A hydrogen isotope, tritium enhances a thermonuclear device's explosive power.

But Stockpile Stewardship as a political ploy failed. On October 13 last year, the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by a vote of 51-48. Coming soon after Republicans' failure to impeach the President, many saw the CTBT vote as partisan retaliation. Eugene Carroll of The Center for Defense Information observed, "Senators Lott and Helms saw an opportunity to lynch Clinton. In large measure, the opportunity was handed them by Clinton himself through his failure for three years [since signing] to build broadbased support for the treaty ... The final vote was almost entirely on party lines" (e-interview, 5/22/00).

The rejection dismayed the world. Mandated as an eventuality by the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 (which barred atmospheric tests), 156 countries have signed the Comprehensive Test Ban. Yet only 56 have ratified it. All 44 "nuclear-capable states" -- countries deemed able to develop atomic bombs -- must ratify in order for the CTBT to enter into force. Twenty-nine have done so, including England, France and Russia. Most of the fifteen who have not -- China, India, Pakistan and North Korea among them -- vow to do so if the U.S. ratifies. India and Pakistan joined the nuclear Rat Pack two years ago, each bristling over Kashmir state, but also protesting America's stubborn privilege. All nations look to the world's preeminent nuclear power to lead in this matter -- and to not cheat. At this time, such leadership is not forthcoming.


There are international treaties forbidding the militarization of space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, outlawing "the appropriation of space" by any nation, bans orbiting vehicles bearing nuclear weapons. Earliest negotiations between the superpowers on arms limitations, SALT I, resulted in the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972. The ABM Treaty forbids missile defense shields such as Ronald Reagan's 1983 Star Wars initiative. Likewise, it outlaws the Ballistic Missile Defense boondoggle currently under development. The two space technology programs have cost taxpayers over $100 billion dollars and if pursued, could cost $250 billion more. But Russia says Nyet"to abrogating or amending the ABM Treaty to permit "space defenses." In June, Vladimir Putin told an importuning President Clinton, flatly, the ABM Treaty must not be breached.

Last November, the UN General Assembly reaffirmed the Outer Space Treaty, reserving space for peaceful use only. But the United States abstained from the vote. The region beyond the stratosphere is seen by the Pentagon as a theater of engagement. A 1996 Air Force report predicts "space-based weapons of devastating effectiveness [will] effect very many kills ... This technology [is] advanced at Los Alamos National Lab and other nuclear weapons labs" (Air and Space Power for the 21st Century). White Sands Missile Range plays its part, testing for "Theater High-Altitude Area Missile Defense" intercepts. THAAD, a $4 billion project, has scored one hit in seven tries so far.

The U.S. Space Command (yep, we've got one!) recently published a long-range planning document , "Vision for 2020." Incredibly, it states: "The U.S. military wants to 'control' space to protect its economic interests and establish superiority over the world ... leading to Full Spectrum Dominance." (Land, air, sea, space -- get it?). In April 1999, the current Space Commander revealed, "The President's tasking me for space control and protection." A former commander of The Command also brags, "Absolutely, we're going to fight in space! ... We will engage terrestrial targets someday from space" (The Progressive, 1/6/00). Meanwhile, only 40 of Russia's 130 satellites function fully. In economic decline, "the Russians no longer have the detailed orbital reconnaissance capability they had ... as a superpower" (Global Network Space Update #6, 7/17/99).


So why continue an aggressive posture into the new millennium? America's modus operandi for fifty years was decidedly reaffirmed during the past seven as central to U.S. "interests" and, of course, economic life. Are nuclear weapons systems simply too profitable for U.S. arms makers (and their handlers) to surrender willingly upon the altar of World Peace? Join us in Part II as we name the corporations supplying this lopsided arms race, and detail the cost to every New Mexican.

Kathryn Albrecht remembers under-the-desk bomb drills in 5th grade, but thought she could make it to the closet. Her high school geometry teacher dug a bomb shelter.