Eliminating Nuclear Threats

A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers



GARETH EVANS and YORIKO KAWAGUCHI CO-CHAIRS                    Commission Members

7. Disarmament: A Two-Phase Strategy for Getting to Zero

Why a Two-Phase Approach is Necessary

7.1     It is critically important to keep alive and in sharp focus the ultimate objective, which must remain the absolute elimination of nuclear weapons. We are confident that this task is achievable, but are also conscious that the complexities and challenges of eliminating all nuclear weapons are extraordinarily great. The most productive way forward is a two-phase process – “minimization” and “elimination” respectively – beginning with the achievement of a world in which the roles and numbers of nuclear weapons are dramatically reduced, though they have not yet completely disappeared. Many of the verification and enforcement quandaries associated with complete abolition would not have to be solved in order to reach a minimization point. States that have relied, for better or worse, on the war-deterring effects of nuclear weapons – and who have hostile or sceptical constituencies to persuade of the case for their reduction – are more likely to be willing to shift nuclear weapons from the foreground to the background of international politics if they feel they have time to test the stability of security relationships while nuclear weapons are not yet completely absent.

7.2     We propose in this report, as a detailed guide to what needs to be accomplished through both the minimization and elimination phases, a comprehensive action agenda, embracing the short term to 2012, the medium term to 2025, and the longer term beyond 2025 (see Box 7-1, and Sections 17–19). Even giving disarmament the priority we do in the short and medium term, we know that it will not be easy to get to what we describe as the “minimization point” by the end date for the first phase, 2025. Many conditions will need to be satisfied to get to where we want to be in terms of overall numbers of warheads, the security doctrines that govern their use, the necessary technical infrastructure, and the whole non-proliferation framework. Quite apart from all the other nuclear-armed states, there are serious transparency problems even as between the U.S. and Russia. After decades of arms control negotiations, there is still no accessible inventory of their respective “tactical” nuclear weapons, let alone any understanding of how they would be verifiably accounted for and dismantled. But for all the obstacles and uncertainties, we believe it is conceptually possible, and politically useful, to set a specific time-bound target for the minimization phase.

7.3     We might wish there were a straight-line continuum between the world as it now is and a nuclear weapon free world, such that if real momentum is generated in the minimization phase it could be expected to carry over into the elimination stage, making it possible to set a specific target date for the achievement of “global zero”. But we have to acknowledge the reality that there will be very large psychological confidence barriers to overcome before all nuclear-armed states are willing to give up all their nuclear weapons, and that given the need to satisfy a number of geopolitical and technical verification conditions, about all of which there is great uncertainty, setting a specific target date for elimination is not likely to be credible or helpful.


BOX 7-1

The comprehensive action agenda: Timelines

Box 7-1 Diagram


The Minimization Phase

7.4     The reason this phase can and should be pursued with a specific end target date in mind is that its feasibility does not depend on eliminating the whole range of political, security and technical barriers that make the feasibility of complete abolition of nuclear weapons so difficult to see today. We have chosen 2025 – fifteen years on from the 2010 NPT Review Conference – as the end date to aim for in this respect. This is certainly still ambitious given the scale of what has to be achieved, but not impossibly so by the standards, at least, of past nuclear and other arms control agreements, which have taken an average of less than three and a half years to negotiate and sign (albeit rather longer to implement), and not so distant as to be disheartening for those trying to energize the necessary political will.

7.5     The central objectives of the minimization phase, broadly expressed, should be to move nuclear weapons from the foreground of international affairs to the background, in terms of their roles in deterring conflict, providing cover for coercion of others, and as perceived sources of status and prestige; to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons to very low levels; to minimize risks that they could be unleashed by accident, unauthorized actors, or time-pressed decisions to “use-to-not lose’; to set real constraints on the ability of nuclear-armed states to easily reverse course on any of these fronts; and to demonstrate real commitment to eliminating the dichotomy between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” which has done so much to impede the necessary strengthening and enforcement of non-proliferation rules.

7.6     More specifically, there are three core features of the “minimization point” which we should be striving to achieve no later than 2025 – relating respectively to numbers of warheads, nuclear doctrine, and force posture. The following paragraphs sketch in outline the position taken by the Commission on each: Sections 17 and 18 address in much more detail the complexities involved, and discuss the process by which, and timeframe within which, each objective might be achieved.

7.7     It must be emphasized, here as elsewhere, that there is an inextricable connection between disarmament and non-proliferation objectives. The minimization point we envisage will not be reachable without the achievement of all the basic non-proliferation objectives described in following sections. They include strengthening NPT compliance, verification and enforcement in a variety of important ways; resolving present uncertainties in Iran and North Korea; and putting in place two crucial building blocks for both non-proliferation and disarmament, viz. bringing into force the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and negotiating an effective Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Most of these objectives ought to be achievable much earlier than 2025, and hopefully indeed by 2012 (what we describe in our action plan as the “short term”), and priority effort should be devoted to accomplishing this.

7.8     Numbers of warheads. The primary defining characteristic of the minimization point – although not its only one – will be a massive reduction in the number of nuclear warheads of all types still in existence. The objective must be to cut not only strategic but all classes of weapons, and not only deployed weapons but those in storage and those awaiting destruction (but still capable of reconstitution and deployment) as well. A very ambitious, but not wholly unrealistic, target for 2025 in this respect is a global total of no more than 2,000 such weapons – more than a 90 per cent reduction as compared with the more than 23,000 now in existence (and much greater still as compared with 70,000 that existed at the height of the Cold War arsenals).

7.9     Among the many questions that need to be addressed in examining the feasibility of this, and any similar, reduction target are how numbers of weapons (as distinct from delivery systems) are to be counted and verified; how the deterrent effectiveness, such as it is, of nuclear weapons can be maintained at low numbers (something of particular concern to U.S. and Russian policymakers); how issues of asymmetry and proportionality can be managed at low numbers (given the vastly greater number of weapons possessed by the two major nuclear powers); how many warheads can physically be destroyed in the time-frame in question; and the timing and sequencing of all the necessary steps along the way. It will also be necessary, if a multilateral disarmament process is to advance, for there to be early agreement on an appropriate negotiating process, with the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva – of which all nuclear-armed states are members and which presently includes discussion of nuclear disarmament generally in its program of work – probably being the most appropriate forum.

7.10     Nuclear doctrine. Just as critical as reaching agreement about dramatically lower numbers of warheads will be achieving agreement among the nuclear-armed states about how those weapons could ever be used. As discussed in Section 2 of this report, there is presently no common position among these states on the overall role of nuclear weapons in national security, defence and foreign policy strategy, and on whether nuclear weapons should ever be available to respond to non-nuclear threats (i.e. on “no first use” and “sole purpose” issues). And at best there is merely lowest common denominator agreement among the Permanent Five states on not using their nuclear weapons against non-nuclear NPT members (i.e. on the issue of “negative security assurances”).

7.11     The objective must be, during the minimization phase but hopefully much earlier than its 2025 end-point, to reach substantive agreement on these issues and – as stated below – to back declaratory statements with changes to actual force posture of a kind which will make them credible in practice. This Commission believes it is crucial that, at the very least, every nuclear-armed state be unequivocally committed to the principle that the sole purpose of possessing nuclear weapons – until such time as they can be eliminated completely – is to deter others from using such weapons against that state or its allies. We would prefer that sooner rather than later, such declaratory “sole purpose” statements be hardened into unequivocal “no first use” commitments, but acknowledge that there has been an issue in the past as to whether such commitments have been seriously attended. We also believe that clear, meaningful and unequivocal “negative security assurances” should be given by all the nuclear-armed states in relation to non-nuclear-armed states.

7.12     Force Posture: deployment and alert status. If doctrinal declarations are to be taken seriously they must be accompanied by appropriate changes to force posture, which in this context primarily means where and how weapons are deployed, and with what degree of launch readiness. The basic objective must be to ensure that, while remaining demonstrably survivable to a disarming first strike, nuclear forces are not instantly useable, with stability maximized by these postures being transparent – well known and understood by friend and potential foe alike.

7.13     The issue here that most urgently needs to be addressed is the very large number of U.S. and Russian warheads – over 2,000 on land based ICBMs, and on some Russian SLBMs on submarines in bases – still now kept on as “launch-on-warning” (LOW) or “launch-under-attack” (LUA) status, i.e. which have to be launched very quickly on receiving information about an opponent’s perceived attack in order to avoid possible destruction, giving just a few minutes for political leaders to make the final decision.

7.14     It is probably unavoidable that, as a demonstrably survivable retaliatory force, some weapons – essentially those on missiles on submarines at sea – be kept intact and useable at short notice (though not requiring instant decision-making in the same way as those deployed on launch-on-warning status): if a state does not have manifestly survivable weapons, there will be a major incentive for it to contemplate its own first strike in a perceived “use them or lose them” situation. But in a world in which there really was a genuine commitment to no first use, it would be possible for the overwhelming majority of remaining weapons to be not only taken out of active deployment, but at least partially dismantled as well, significantly lengthening the time between decision-to-use and actual use.

7.15     A number of other factors will impact on nuclear force posture decision-making both at the minimization and elimination stages including, it must be acknowledged, perceptions about the effectiveness of missile defence systems, the potential deployment of weapons in space, and – particularly – major disparities in conventional force deployments. Here as elsewhere, it will be crucial to build a cooperative rather than crudely competitive environment between the major players – finding common ground in addressing challenges from terrorists and outlaw states, and not premising force structure decisions only on worst case assumptions about each other. Only in that larger context of evolving mutual confidence will any major changes from the status quo be possible.

The Elimination Phase

7.16     If the Commission thought that setting a specific date for abolition would in fact create the political will to overcome the myriad political, security, and technical obstacles to getting to zero, we would do so. But quite apart from the difficulty of identifying a specific target date when there are so many variables in play that are almost impossible to quantify, we are concerned that embracing such a date may in fact make it more difficult to minimize, and then ultimately eliminate, nuclear dangers, giving critics easy opportunities to excite fears that would impede progress to minimize nuclear dangers through the steps described in this report. These steps should be debated on their own merits, not in the false terms of a leap into a dangerous unknowable world without nuclear deterrence.

7.17     We nonetheless strongly believe that to help build political support for many of the measures necessary to reach such a vantage point, and to keep in mind the ultimate objective of eliminating the dangers of nuclear war, the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world must remain visible, and be seen as achievable. The mountain top might be a long way away from what the four U.S. statesmen have called the “vantage point” or “base camp” (essentially what we describe as the “minimization point”) but it is essential that it shine as a beacon in the sunlight, not be left shrouded in mist. That means spelling out in some detail the various conditions – as best we can now assess them – that will need to be satisfied if states are going to be persuaded to take the final steps to abolition, and we attempt that task in Section 19 below. Once the world becomes accustomed to maintaining security at the minimal level we describe, it should become clearer and easier to define and meet those conditions than it is now. But even if the ultimate elimination phase is decades away, it is not too soon now to begin detailed analysis and international debate, to help motivate and inform the work that must generate and sustain momentum for change for many years to come.


Recommendations on Overall Disarmament Strategy

1. Nuclear disarmament should be pursued as a two-phase process: with “minimization” to be achieved no later than 2025, and “elimination” as soon as possible thereafter. Short (to 2012), medium (to 2025) and longer term (beyond 2025) action agendas should reflect those objectives. [7.1–5; see also Sections 17, 18, 19]

2. Short and medium term efforts should focus on achieving the general delegitimation of nuclear weapons, and on reaching as soon as possible, and no later than 2025, a "minimization point” characterized by:

(a) low numbers: a world with no more than 2,000 warheads (less than 10 per cent of present arsenals);

(b) agreed doctrine: every nuclear-armed state committed to no first use of nuclear weapons; and

(c) credible force postures: verifiable deployments and alert status reflecting that doctrine. [7.6–15; see also Sections 6 (on delegitimation) and 17–18]

3. Analysis and debate should commence now on the conditions necessary to move from the minimization point to elimination, even if a target date for getting to zero cannot now be credibly specified. [7.15–16; see also Section 19]


Next: 8. Non-Proliferation: Constraining Demand and Supply