This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Critical Challenges 2002: Technology Takes On
The terrorist attacks of 11 September that claimed some 3000 lives in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania constituted the deadliest ever foreign assault on U.S. soil. What made the event all the more shocking was the realization that the United States' unparalleled military capabilities--above all, its thousands of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, built up over a half-century at a cost of trillions of dollars and touted as a cornerstone of national security--proved useless, either as a deterrent or as weapons of war.
"The United States has over 10 000 nuclear weapons, and yet they had no effect in deterring a terrorist attack against us, and they obviously have no role to play in prosecuting the military operation in Central Asia," observed Bruce Blair, a nuclear arms control expert and president of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "We don't need them ourselves, and they pose a grave danger to us if they fall into the wrong hands."
Indeed, in contemplating that day's events, and the anthrax-laced letters that followed, our imaginations ran wild, and along the bleakest of paths. We know, although in the last decade we have often chosen to disregard, that modern society has devised and deployed the means to kill, in a single strike, not hundreds or thousands, but millions.
Recent events have brought a renewed urgency to halting the spread of such massively destructive weapons, whether nuclear, chemical, or biological. The concern of the moment is that these deadly devices not fall into the hands of extremists. There may also be a growing sense that what will ultimately make the world a safer place is to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction permanently. As Blair sees it, "September 11 has resurrected what had previously been to most people the far-out agenda of abolition."
Reasons for hope, reasons for despair
With worldwide stockpiles totaling some 22 000 nuclear warheads, 70 000 tons of chemical warfare agents, unknown tons of germ warfare agents--not to mention myriad stores of nuclear fuel and waste that could be turned into radiological weapons--the task of keeping these weapons secure is daunting [see table].
Getting rid of them altogether is a longer-term prospect, and there is no clear means for getting the job done. Certainly, a starting point is to work with existing international accords for preventing proliferation. But to judge by experience, comprehensive disarmament will be complex and politically fraught, treading a fine line between the demands of fairness and openness, on the one hand, and national sovereignty and security on the other.
One may take comfort in knowing that nearly all the world's countries agree on the need to eliminate such weapons. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention ban their use and development outright. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 is not as far-reaching, but the five nuclear weapons states it recognizes--the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain--have all pledged to the "unequivocal" elimination of nuclear arms.
Points to Ponder
WORLD WAR I Chemical weapons claimed a million casualties all told, including 100 000 deaths.
CONSENSUS NEAR The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans such weapons, has been ratified by 143 countries.
DEADLINE 2007 Under the CWC, all existing stockpiles are to be destroyed in five years' time.
In keeping with that commitment, stockpiles have fallen steadily, albeit not as fast as the nonnuclear states would like. Early December saw the completion of the first strategic arms reduction treaty, signed by the United States and Russia back in 1991; it cut both countries' strategic nuclear warheads and launch vehicles by more than a third. U.S. President George W. Bush recently pledged to cut the number of deployed warheads still further, to somewhere between 1700 and 2200.
What is troubling to many, however, is the Bush administration's across-the-board rejection of treaty-making as the proper approach to arms control, on grounds that it is a glacial and ineffective process that unduly ties U.S. hands. Bush's proposed warhead cuts, for example, are essentially the same as those proposed in 1997 in the Start III agreement--"but without the benefit of irreversibility that a treaty would provide," said Frank von Hippel, co-director of the Program in Science and Global Security at Princeton University, in New Jersey. The United States also refuses to join the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which forbids nuclear weapons testing, and recently withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia.