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U.S.: Experts Call For Change In Washington's Weapons Policy

By K. P. Foley

Washington, 18 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - An expert panel says the United States needs to make major changes in its nuclear weapons policy because the risks from erroneous or unauthorized use of these weapons remains unacceptably high.

William Burns, the panel chairman, says "Now that the Cold War is over, the measures that worked so effectively then are counterproductive or no longer necessary." He says "The United States and Russia can profoundly reduce levels of nuclear weapons and change nuclear operational practices over time."

Burns contends these changes will provide significant benefits to the national security of both nations.

The recommendations are contained in a report published in Washington on Tuesday by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a private institution that provides scientific advice to the U.S. Congress and the Government. The study of U.S. nuclear weapons policies was conducted by the Academy's Committee on International Security and Arms Control. The panel chairman is a retired U.S. Army major general.

The report says that both the U.S. and Russia continue to base their deterrent policies on plans for quick and massive nuclear retaliation in the event of an attack. The report says that large numbers of U.S. and Russian weapons are kept on constant alert, and, despite great strides in arms reductions, both nations can still launch thousands of nuclear weapons in a few minutes.

"While such practices reduce the risk of a surprise attack, they increase the chances of accidental, erroneous, or unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons because of a technical failure, a false warning or a misjudgment," the report says.

The panelists say this strategy of deterrence worked well during the Cold War, but they say that since the possibility of a Washington-Moscow confrontation has diminished, the dangers of maintaining Cold War policies outhweigh their benefits.

The panel recommends that U.S. should adopt an explicit policy restricting the role of nuclear weapons to deterring or responding to nuclear attacks or threats. It adds that the U.S. should no longer threaten to respond with nuclear weapons to an attack by conventional, chemical or biological weapons.

The panel sqays that in addition, the U.S. and Russia should negotiate further reductions in nuclear arms, adopt practices that provide higher levels of operational safety for the remaining weapons and work to prevent theft or unauthorized use of nuclear arms.

The U.S. and Russia are implementing a treaty that will reduce the nuclear stockpile of each nation to about 8,000 warheads by the turn of the century. The U.S. and Russia agreed to even further reductions in a treaty signed in 1996. The treaty, known as Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty-Two (START II), would limit each side to between 3,000 and 3,500 warheads. The Russian parliament has not yet ratified START II.

Last March, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President Bill Clinton agreed to negotiate more warhead reductions after START II takes effect. They promised a treaty limiting the countries to between 2,000-2,500 warheads each.

The National Academy of Sciences committee said that to encourage Russian ratification of START II, the U.S. and Russia should start talks now on the third phase of weapons reductions. The committee says the two countries should seek eventual nuclear stockpiles of only a few hundred weapons each.

The committee suggested that at the same time, the U.S. should end the practice of keeping its nuclear forces on constant alert. Such a move would mean that launching a nuclear attack would take much longer than the few minutes now needed for retaliation.

It also says the U.S. should stop choosing targets based on the idea of massive and prompt retaliation.

For the long term, the committee says the U.S. should make serious efforts to "identify and promote," the conditions for an international ban on possession of nuclear weapons by any country.