Nuclear Weapons in 21st Century U.S. National Security

Report by a Joint Working Group of AAAS, the American Physical Society, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Executive Summary

During the Cold War, the purpose of the United States nuclear arsenal was to deter nuclear threats to the United States, primarily from the Soviet Union. Today, in the post-9/11 world, the most urgent nuclear weapon threats to the United States are not from another major power’s deliberate use of them, but instead are from non-state terrorist actors or from the regional proliferation of such weapons into unreliable hands.

U.S. nuclear policy and strategy in this post-Cold War and post-9/11 security environment have not been well articulated and as a consequence are poorly understood both within and outside American borders. This situation has led to doubts and uncertainties about the roles and missions of nuclear weapons and their value against 21st century security threats, including allies’ uncertainties about U.S. assurances as they relate to emerging nuclear-armed neighboring states.

Lacking a coherent and compelling rationale for U.S. nuclear strategy and policy, Congress has been unwilling to fund some Bush Administration requests for new nuclear refurbishment efforts (both stockpile and infrastructure). Meanwhile, serious strains on the human, technical, and scientific infrastructure could undermine whatever strategy is ultimately adopted. Clearly, this policy vacuum regarding our nuclear deterrent must be addressed alongside our efforts to prevent further nuclear proliferation.

The purpose of this report is to inform the next administration’s decision-making on U.S. nuclear strategy, policy, posture, and related proliferation and arms control issues. Any decision that the United States makes with respect to its own nuclear stockpile and infrastructure must also address how these decisions (and perceptions of those decisions) may affect U.S. efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and pursue lower global inventories of nuclear weapons. To address 21st century nuclear threats, and growing challenges to sustaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the next administration should build a package of nuclear initiatives that can attract broad support both at home and abroad. This study seeks to identify the components of a new centrist way forward to end the post-Cold War drift on U.S. nuclear strategy, policy, and capabilities.

The American Physical Society (APS), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) collaborated in this study in an effort to bring together the technical expertise of the scientific community and the policy expertise of the security studies community. This collaborative effort was organized around a series of four workshops, held in the first half of 2008 that ensured cross-fertilization across disparate disciplines and perspectives without sacrificing issue-specific depth. Despite diverse views about the role of U.S. nuclear weapons and their importance to U.S. security, workshop attendees found they held common, though not necessarily unanimous, views on how the next administration could assemble a package of initiatives that, if taken together, could attract broad support. Throughout this report, these commonly held views will be expressed in bold type. It should be noted, however, that no participant held all of these views and that no single view was held by all attendees.

The truly pressing nuclear issues that will demand presidential attention are few in number:

Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries, including dealing with the nuclear proliferation threats of North Korea and Iran

• Securing and reducing global inventories of nuclear weapons and materials to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists

• Reversing Russia’s apparent increasing reliance on nuclear weapons in its security policy through strategic engagement in an attempt to both prevent the emergence of a new 21st-century nuclear threat and gain Russian agreement to significantly lower U.S.-Russian stockpiles”

The commitment of the president-elect to a vision of a nuclear-free world, and the continuing need to have a credible U.S. nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist, provide the basis for a 21st-century version of a dual track nuclear arms control and refurbishment/updating policy:
• The United States must re-establish its global leadership in nuclear nonproliferation, arms control and disarmament matters.


• The United States must ensure a credible nuclear deterrent for as long as is needed through steps that include continuing to refurbish and update its nuclear stockpile and infrastructure as necessary without creating any new nuclear weapon capabilities.

The components of a possible new centrist package of nuclear initiatives that address the pressing nuclear issues on a dual track include the following:

As part of a new strategic dialogue with Russia, the United States should reinvigorate nuclear arms talks with the Russians: first, to extend START-I (and its suite of verification measures), and then, to systematically account for total inventories of U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons and achieve deeper reductions in U.S.-Russian and global nuclear stockpiles.

The United States should re-establish global leadership in nuclear nonproliferation and arms control at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon). To that end, the United States can:

  1. Ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), if coupled with other interconnected nuclear initiatives described below.

ii. Address the challenge of how to manage increased global reliance on nuclear energy without increasing the risks of nuclear proliferation by promoting strategies such as an international fuel bank, advanced technical safeguards, and closing the NPT Article IV treaty proliferation loophole.

Both to enable deeper reductions in the total inventory and to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent as long as it is needed, the United States should continue to refurbish and update the U.S. nuclear stockpile as necessary without creating new nuclear weapon capabilities through a “spectrum of options” approach, such that different weapons types can be kept in the stockpile with varying degrees of modification.

To maintain a credible nuclear deterrent, the United States should sustain the necessary human capital: as much of the existing workforce ages, experience, expertise and competence will likely decline across the nuclear enterprise including the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Energy (DOE), and the military services. A broader mission for the nuclear weapons labs that addresses energy security as well as nuclear security interests can help recruit, retain, and sustain highly skilled and motivated scientists and engineers.


Joint Working Group
John C. Browne, Los Alamos National Laboratory (retired)
Clark Murdock, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Francis Slakey, American Physical Society
Benn Tannenbaum, American Association for the Advancement of Science
Jessica Yeats, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Workshop Chairs
Hon. John Hamre, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Integration Working Group
J. Michael Cornwall, University of California, Los Angeles, Technical Issues Working Group
Hon. James Leach, Harvard University,International Issues Working Group
Franklin C. Miller, Independent Consultant, Military Issues Working Group

APS’s work on this paper was overseen by the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA). POPA occasionally produces reports on topics currently debated in government in order to inform the debate with the perspectives of physicists working in the relevant issue areas. The interpretations and conclusions contained in this report do not represent the views of the APS Executive Board, the AAAS Board of Directors, the APS and AAAS Councils and memberships, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, or the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.

On military, technical, and international aspects, plus an overall integration workshop.

The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) prohibits countries from seeking nuclear weapons but provides countries a specific right to seek nuclear technologies, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. This allows countries legally to construct, with international assistance, sophisticated nuclear enterprises, abrogate the treaty with no penalties, and be very close to having a nuclear weapons program.

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.