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The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy
Achieving the conditions necessary to make a durable global prohibition on the possession of nuclear weapons both desirable and feasible will not be easy. Complete nuclear disarmament will require continued evolution of the international system toward collective action, transparency, and the rule of law; a comprehensive system of verification, which itself will require an unprecedented degree of cooperation and transparency; and safeguards to protect against the possibility of cheating or rapid breakout. As difficult as this may seem today, the process of reducing national nuclear arsenals to a few hundred warheads would lay much of the necessary groundwork. For example, the stringent verification requirements of an agreement on very low levels of nuclear weapons and fissile materials might by then have led to some new or expanded international agency with vigorous powers of inspection.
The potential benefits of comprehensive nuclear disarmament are so attractive relative to the attendant risks—and the opportunities presented by the end of the Cold War and a range of other international trends are so compelling—that the committee believes increased attention is now warranted to studying and fostering the conditions that would have to be met to make prohibition desirable and feasible.
The time that would be required for a country to build (or rebuild) a nuclear arsenal depends on many factors, including the country's level of technical and industrial development, the existence of nuclear facilities and materials that might be available for a weapons program, the presence of scientists and engineers with expertise in nuclear weapons design and manufacture and/or the existence of programs to maintain the capability to build nuclear weapons, the desired number and sophistication of the weapons, and the degree of urgency and priority accorded to the effort and the level of resources devoted to it. In the Manhattan Project the United States accomplished the remarkable feat of building two different types of fission weapons in less than three years. If all nuclear warheads were eliminated, the current nuclear weapons states, and probably a dozen or more other countries, could in a national emergency produce a dozen simple fission bombs in as little as a few months, even if no effort had been made to maintain this capability. On the other hand, the production of a hundred lightweight thermonuclear bombs or warheads equipped with modern safety and security devices might take several years, even if special efforts had been made to maintain the capability to produce such weapons.
International Court of Justice, "International Court of Justice: Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons," International Legal Materials, vol. 35 (1996), p. 830.
Ibid., p. 831.
There is some ambiguity, of course, in what constitutes "war between major powers." Major or great powers are defined by their relative military, economic, and industrial strength, and by their interest, involvement, and influence in interstate politics and security; interstate wars generally are defined as conflicts resulting in a significant number of battle deaths (e.g., more than 1,000 per year). If one includes the Korean War, in which China fought against a coalition led by the United States but neither side declared war on the other, the succeeding period (which now stands at 45 years) is longer than any previous period of peace (or absence of war) between the major powers. See Jack S. Levy,