s a former covert CIA operative, specializing in counter-proliferation, I still believe that the spread of nuclear weapons and the risk of their use is the greatest existential threat we face. Twenty-six years after the end of the Cold War, the world still has more than 15,000 nuclear weapons. Whatever other issues people care about — poverty, the environment, inequality and so many others — if we don’t get this one right, and soon, nothing else will matter.
We are at a crossroads on this issue and the decisions we make over the next 10 years will set us on a course either toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons or toward expanding arsenals and proliferation.
There are some disturbing trends.
All of the nuclear countries are investing heavily, or planning to do so, in modernizing their forces and/or expanding their arsenals. President Obama is proposing a massive overhaul of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates will cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Russia has already begun a major upgrade of its arsenal. China is ramping up each leg of its nuclear triad, India is close to having a full nuclear triad with the addition of a nuclear submarine to its forces, and North Korea continues to develop its nuclear capability. Perhaps most worrisome is Pakistan, which has the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal and is plagued by persistent political instability and extremist elements.
In addition to developing new types of weapons, nuclear weapons countries also appear to be taking steps toward establishing the dangerous nuclear high-alert posture that the United States and Soviet Union adopted during the Cold War (and still maintain) — shortening the decision time for launch and increasing the risk th
In the near-term, we need to get the Iran deal done — a verifiable, negotiated deal is by far our best option for preventing Iran from getting the bomb. And President Obama must abandon plans to lock us into a $1 trillion nuclear arsenal for decades to come and instead refocus his efforts on finding ways to move toward the reduction of nuclear weapons worldwide.
One promising option involves “de-alerting” measures by nuclear countries — practical steps to increase warning and decision time. This could lead to a multilateral agreement requiring all nuclear weapons countries to refrain from actively deploying nuclear weapons. This would immediately and dramatically reduce the risk that nuclear weapons will be used. It would also engage nuclear weapons countries — beyond the United States and Russia — in the process of arms control for the first time, laying the groundwork for multilateral negotiations on global nuclear arms reductions and elimination.
Global Zero is currently spearheading an effort to enlist nuclear countries to adopt de-alerting measures, led by its Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction — an international group of former military commanders, political leaders and diplomats chaired by retired U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James E. Cartwright.