Washington Proposals are circulating inside the U.S. defense establishment for radical changes in America's nuclear arsenal, including a phaseout of all land-based intercontinental missiles and a sharp reduction in the strategic bomber force.
Described by some experts as the first revolutionary ideas in nuclear thinking since the end of the Cold War, the proposals have been triggered by President Bush's repeated statements that the United States must move beyond the concept of mutually assured destruction.
Bush said May 1 that America "can, and will, change the size, the composition and character of our nuclear forces in a way that reflects the reality that the Cold War is over." But he has not discussed specifics, such as how many of America's nuclear warheads should be eliminated, or how the cuts should be apportioned among the current "triad" of long-range bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ICBMs.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has ordered a review of nuclear strategy intended to help decide those questions. Underlying many of the proposals is the notion that the United States should pay more attention to China's small but growing nuclear forces and less attention to Russia's huge but declining arsenal.
Some strategists also argue that the U.S. effort to develop missile defenses, if successful, would eliminate the need to maintain thousands of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against attack. Bush administration officials have suggested that the United States might make some cuts unilaterally, avoiding drawn-out treaty negotiations, because in any event Russia's cash-strapped forces are likely to fall below 1,500 operational nuclear warheads within a decade.
So far, members of Congress have not weighed in on the debate. But lawmakers are certain to become involved if the theoretical proposals for restructuring the nuclear arsenal are translated into concrete moves to mothball bombers or close bases.