Technical and Policy Issues for Nuclear Weapons Reductions

Jay Davis

[Dr. Jay Davis, a nuclear physicist trained at the Universities of Texas and Wisconsin, is currently President of the Hertz Foundation, which funds graduate studies in the applied physical sciences and engineering. During a three-decade career at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Davis built accelerators for research in nuclear physics and for materials science in support of the fusion program. He left LLNL in 1998 for the Department of Defense, where, among other responsibilities, he served as founding Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. This article is based on a talk Dr. Davis gave at a forum-sponsored session, "Nuclear Weapons at 65", held at the APS April meeting in Anaheim, April 30 – May 2, 2011. A summary of Davis’s talk at the Anaheim meeting can be found in our July, 2011 edition – Ed.]

Introduction and Motivation

The past three years have seen renewed momentum in the area of nuclear arms control and in the reduction of the number of Russian and US weapons. The concept proposed in the Wall Street Journal in 2007 by the "Gang of Four" - William Perry, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and George Schultz - that it was possible to achieve a world without nuclear weapons changed the climate for arms control [1]. Their opinion piece was soon followed by the Obama Administration’s embrace of arms control and the cancellation of President George W. Bush’s Anitballistic Missile (ABM) concept in Europe, a move which brought the Russians back to the negotiating table. These developments led in turn to the successful negotiation and ratification of the New START Treaty, which sets limits on operationally-deployed strategic warheads and the number of strategic launchers [2]. New START preserves and increases the gains of the previous twenty years. The subsequent review conference for the Non Proliferation Treaty has added pressure for further steps in US and Russian reductions in accordance with Article Six of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which seeks eventual nuclear disarmament. Continuing concerns about proliferation risks in North Korea, Iran and the spread of technologies from Pakistan add to this pressure.

Why should we reduce the number of weapons? Reductions in numbers minimize risks for accidents or loss of control in weapons use. They also reassure non-weapons states and proponents of zero weapons that genuine progress is being made toward nuclear disarmament, and, if convincingly verified, build valuable trust and operational understanding between states. It is certainly true that Russia and the US have benefitted greatly from their shared experience over the past decades. At the same time, as the numbers go down, in some measure the value of each weapon rises and the consequences of cheating become greater. Beyond New START, or certainly the treaty that will follow it, the number of states involved in negotiations and inspections will increase, adding complexity to both negotiations and verification operations. At the same time, the cost and intrusiveness of inspection regimes will inevitably rise. As one young associate of mine has said, "There will be no Peace Dividend. There will be a Peace Surcharge."

The intent of this paper is to outline the issues that need to be addressed in the pursuit of steady reductions in weapons stockpiles, to set the context for future negotiations, to identify the varying constituencies that will be engaged in or influence negotiations, and to identify the "tradespace" across technology, operations and policy or doctrine. "Tradespace" is a term borrowed from military planning, where one is taught to seek solutions to problems by considering technology, operations and policy as components that can be traded off against one another to find an optimal plan to execute. In seeking to reduce nuclear weapons, issues arise in all of these areas. Inevitably, there is leakage across the boundaries; this is not a list of independent attributes. My goal here is not to depress readers with a plethora of impossible problems, but to give a sense of the complexity and interrelated nature of the positions and beliefs involved.

Technology Issues

The largest issue to arise in any treaty following New START is the need to change from counting weapons by assigning attribution rules to weapons platforms (so many weapons per ground-launched missile type, submarine, or bomber) to actually counting and tracking the weapons themselves. Additionally, as non-strategic weapons are now to be included in negotiations (as required by the US Senate Record of Ratification of New START and the stated policy of the Obama Administration), one will need to locate and inventory nuclear weapons that are not mounted on delivery systems, may be in bunkers, or are on very small systems that appear to be identical to conventional ordnance. The degree of intrusiveness of such inspections, the need to declare and then validate inventories, the possibility of compromise of non-nuclear military information such as stealth, radar, optical and sonar technologies, and the opportunity cost of allowing inspectors in sensitive military or industrial areas make negotiating acceptable treaty protocols a daunting prospect.

In addition to deployed weapons in the hands of militaries subject to inspection are the ancillary issues of declaring and verifying reserve weapons stockpiles, weapons designated as inactive and slated for disassembly, stockpiles of weapons materials, production facilities, and design laboratories. Many of these verifications are proposed to be done with attributes measuring systems. These are "black boxes" containing sophisticated measuring instruments such as high-resolution gamma spectrometers and neutron-multiplicity counters, but which retain all sensitive information internally behind information barriers and just give Yes-No indications with red and green lights. How these systems are to be developed, validated and operated in the field – and by whom – remains to be determined.

In addition, there are two fuel cycle issues. First is the problem of dealing with the fuel cycle of naval reactors, all of which (except the French reactors) currently use highly enriched uranium, which would be subject to a fissile-materials cut-off treaty at some point. This problem can be expected to grow with global warming as the opening of the Arctic will almost surely lead to a growth of nuclear powered icebreaker fleets. Presently only the Russians operate such vessels, but US and Canadian fleets may well follow. Second, despite the Fukushima event, the nuclear energy industry is surely going to continue to grow. Finding a way to guard against leakage of information from this industry to proliferators while protecting legitimate proprietary information will be difficult. Understanding how to move information for action across the barrier between weapons inspections, inherently a military activity, and nuclear power inspections, inherently a civilian activity, will be an interesting and challenging task.

Operational Issues

Where, how, and with whom do we develop, test and verify inspection tools and protocols? What is the role of inspectors from non-weapons states, who may be included of necessity, but who pose different risks in terms of information loss or acquisition? If weapons inventories and locations are in fact successfully verified, have larger security risks of terrorist acts been created? Are the declaration and inspection protocols of the Conventional Forces in Europe, one of the greatest confidence-building treaties ever, a model for dealing with nuclear weapons? It is one thing to do hands-on inspections of tanks and artillery pieces by serial number, but perhaps quite another to attempt tail-number counting of nuclear weapons in their bunkers (individual weapons are referred to by tail numbers).

Another set of issues arises with supporting forces and capabilities. The number of nuclear weapons seems quite "granular", but the numbers of submarines, bombers and ground-launched missiles are much less so. It is conceptually easy to go from 1600 deployed weapons to 1200, but much less simple to go from 16 ballistic missile submarines to 12. How to replace these systems, how to retain the capability to build and renew them, and how to create and retain the career paths for the excellent men and women to whom we entrust these systems are not simple industrial and social management issues. Similarly, the infrastructure and human skills of the nuclear weapons labs and the supporting manufacturing complex need to be adjusted to the size and needs of the reduced stockpile. And this complex must have a known and confident ability to expand and reconstitute should the future world suddenly turn dangerous and nuclear weapons inventories need to be increased in response to real security needs. The future nuclear weapons complex will be responsible for guarding against both unexpected failures in our deployed weapons systems that would affect performance, safety and surety, and against unexpected technical surprise in possible new systems fielded by opponents.

Policy Issues

A major issue in approaching negotiations is to decide what is the value and utility of the weapons themselves [3]. That all treaties to date, and likely all to come, never actually address the yields of the weapons in question suggests that the overwhelming value of the weapons is symbolic. If the weapons appear to establish deterrence at any yield, that is sufficient. The question of the credibility of extended deterrence, the assurance to a non-nuclear state that it will be protected from nuclear blackmail or attack due to the shield provided by the weapons and doctrines of a nuclear ally, has been deemed central to minimizing proliferation by nuclear-capable states for decades. Maintaining this concept is particularly difficult given the varying attitudes of NATO members towards the forward deployment of US non-strategic weapons, as will be discussed below. As numbers come down, at some point does one count inventories by blocs of nations – and what are those blocs? Is there an optimal mix of strategic and non-strategic weapons, and is it different for different states depending on their threat assessments and doctrines? Could such a different mix be adequately verified, and what possibility is there for leakage from non-strategic to strategic? To solve the problem of tactical weapons in Europe, would it be possible to establish and verify a large nuclear-free zone, e.g., Europe from the French border to the Urals, at acceptable costs and risks? The degree of intrusion necessary for successful verification might simply be beyond what any state will tolerate.

Another difficulty is the linkage, whether admitted or not, between high-tech conventional weapons and nuclear weapons. Many states, Russia and China in particular, see no attractiveness in lowering nuclear arsenals and subsequently being left vulnerable to compulsion by large and technically superior US conventional forces. A primary concern to the Russians is the development and deployment of an anti-ballistic missile defense by the US that would erode their deterrent. In many cases, non-nuclear weapons now can produce "nuclear-like" effects in terms of decapitation, infrastructure destruction or interruption, or near-total lethality on the battlefield. The ability of US carrier groups to project force far beyond US borders concerns many nations. The effects of US combined arms operations carried out by highly trained professional volunteer forces in two Gulf Wars have been studied and learned, not happily, by the militaries of both Russia and China: they both understand and fear that they cannot duplicate them for economic and technical reasons. Similar concerns exist for states facing opponents with near-equivalent technologies but overwhelming numbers, for example, Israel and Pakistan. Nuclear weapons are always an attractive and economical response to asymmetries in conventional forces. Having relied on nuclear weapons to counter stronger conventional forces during the Cold War, the US now finds others desiring nuclear weapons to deter it for the same reasons: we tend not to want to contemplate any peer emerging.

Finally, there is a serious emotional question. As the number of weapons comes down, the pretense of the Cold War that there were viable war-fighting theories for these weapons, i.e. weapons targeted on weapons, is simply not credible. As Clark Murdock of the Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed out years ago, deterrence is in the end established by targeting cities and populations [4]. Counter-force becomes counter-value. If one has just a few weapons, and wants to avoid misunderstanding about their use, there may have to be a very public discussion of use doctrine. Ambiguity, a friend of deterrence in years past, may not be helpful in a future world. Also, but beyond the scope of this article, is the whole question of the different reasons for which states beyond the US and Russia have or do not have weapons. The international community will need to agree on how to deal with those states that choose to remain outside the arms control norms.

The Opinions of Publics

The United States is notably constrained by understandings with and obligations to its allies. The several hundred American gravity bombs deployed in Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Turkey are a promise to NATO states (and those at the periphery) that they will be protected against nuclear threat or blackmail. The UK and France are NATO members, but maintain their own (and differing) doctrines for their own weapons. Despite differing opinions (the Germans now argue for removal of all US weapons from Europe, the Turks for retention in several countries as part of burden sharing) NATO expects consultation and discussion about the fates of these weapons, and does not want unilateral action or initiatives, by the US particularly, as a surprise. Some of the new Central European members, and the Baltic States in particular, see these weapons as their guarantee of freedom from bullying by the Russians. Interestingly, Pacific States such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea apparently perceive the continued European deployment of US weapons in Europe as setting a precedent for doing the same in Asia if required, a linkage that is not at first obvious.

At the same time, the Russians, having taken their tactical weapons home from Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism, see the forward-deployed US weapons as the main obstacle to any further treaties, referring to this as an unacceptable asymmetry. Fearful of invasion, they maintain a wide variety of weapons types, many obsolete and possibly not functional, to deal with these apprehensions. They assert a centrality of nuclear weapons to their security just as we in the West are questioning the utility of these weapons.

Finally, there are three distinct constituencies in the US whose opinions and concerns matter. The DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration and their supporters have to manage the reduction in size of the weapons complex to support a smaller stockpile while maintaining hedge capabilities against the future. The military has to create and support the platforms, facilities and personnel that make training, security and safety, and possible nuclear operations credible. Investments to do these things must be traded against many others required as the two Middle East Wars ramp down. At the end, the varying concerns of Members of the Senate about national security, obligations to allies, and high-tech jobs in their states must be accommodated or assuaged if any treaty is to be ratified. The texture of possible agreement and compromise across all these issues is complex to say the least.

Possibilities and Proposals

There are some who dislike the treaty-by-treaty approach to arms reductions, saying that each step is left hostage to the willingness of the other side to make reciprocal concessions, asserting rather that a grand initiative by one side (almost always assumed to be the US) will break the conceptual log jam. Having looked at these problems from the lab, from the field, and from Washington for over twenty years, and mindful of the many constraints imposed on US actions both domestically and by allies, I think a grand gesture is not likely to happen.

I do accept a US obligation to lead in these matters, as we do have and will continue to have a position of both nuclear and conventional strength. Accommodating the desires of the Allies and the Russians would seem possible with a compromise agreement that sets a verifiable limit on the overall number of deployed nuclear weapons, but with a different mix of strategic and non-strategic weapons as each side desires. Negotiating the verification protocols for that agreement will set the path for any agreements that follow.


The thoughts in this paper come from many interactions and sources. Particularly important have been discussions with members of the study group for the APS Panel on Public Affairs as we produced its 2010 report "Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Arsenal Downsizing [5]". The discussion of NATO and tactical nuclear weapons has benefited greatly from the Arms Control Association and British American Security Information Council Report entitled "Reducing the Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe: Perspectives and Proposals on the NATO Policy Debate [6]". This exceptional report includes the varying positions of the members of the Alliance in excellent detail and clarity. It is a "must read" on this subject.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the continuing inspiration of Former Secretary of Defense William Perry. His energy and devotion to the cause of reducing the risks from weapons systems he himself helped create and field in his long career is remarkable. His continued efforts in this area are astonishing.


1. G. P. Schultz, W. J. Perry, H. A. Kissinger, S. Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15.

2. P. Podvig, "New START Treaty and Beyond," Physics & Society 39(3), 12-15 (July 2010).

3. Three articles on this topic, all titled "What Are Nuclear Weapons For," have appeared in Physics & Society: M. May, 36(4), 3-6 (October 2007); J. S. Foster and K. B. Payne, 36(4), 7-10 (October 2007); I. Oelrich, 37(2), 10-13 (April 2008).

4. See, for example, "Exploring the Nuclear Posture Implications of Extended Deterrence and Assurance," by C. Murdock and J. M. Yeats;

5. The POPA report can be found at

6. The report can be found at

Jay C. Davis
The Hertz Foundation

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.