Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers

in Program

The following report, Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers was initially published in 1986 as part of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Significant Issues Series (Volume VIII, No. 1). The co-authors, Barry M. Blechman and Michael Krepon, wrote this report at a time of great tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. Arms control negotiations were at a standstill back then, and nuclear dangers were growing. The core message of this report was the wisdom of establishing institutional mechanisms devoted to nuclear risk reduction. Our report was informed by a working group of practitioners and academics. It gained the support of Senators John Warner (R-VA) and Sam Nunn (D-GA) who helped convince the Reagan administration to pursue this initiative. Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev were amenable, and an accord to establish Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers was signed in 1987.

The Stimson Center is calling attention to this 1986 CSIS report because this initiative might once again be of service to reduce nuclear dangers between other pairings of nuclear-armed states, whether between the United States and China, China and India, or India and Pakistan.

Executive Summary

Despite their many areas of contention, the United States and the Soviet Union have one overriding common interest—the avoidance of nuclear war. No single institution in either country, however, has the dedicated responsibility to build on this common interest by developing the means of reducing nuclear risks. Steady progress toward this end can best be served by the creation of separate, nationally staffed, nuclear risk reduction centers in Washington and Moscow, linked by advanced means of communications. Otherwise, existing bureaucratic responsibilities and other near-term concerns will continue to deflect attention from useful measures that can decrease the likelihood of inadvertent conflict and nuclear war.

Nuclear risk reduction centers are a natural extension of the 1971 “Accidents Measures” agreement. Their creation could facilitate the negotiation of institutional and procedural arrangements, as well as technical measures, intended to reduce nuclear risks; create a buffer to protect those measures from the vicissitudes of U.S.-Soviet relations; provide more latitude to national leaders during crises; provide a means of instantaneous communications between technical experts in the event of extraordinary contingencies; provide a mechanism for training skilled interagency crisis prevention teams; and reassure concerned publics that the two great powers are acting to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

Annual meetings of the U.S. and Soviet foreign and defense ministers would establish the year’s agenda for the two centers’ directors and staffs. Initially, the centers would probably best concentrate on “clearinghouse” functions—exchanges of information and data that can help to reduce suspicions and avoid the development of inadvertent crises. Notifications of certain types of military activity required by existing arms control agreements are one example of the type of information that could be cleared through the centers. The annual review of the 1972 Incidents at Sea Treaty also could be held at the centers, as could additional diplomatic and military exchanges on risk reduction and confidence-building measures. Over time, the staffs of the centers could begin to explore possible future situations that might entail nuclear threats from terrorist organizations and other sub-national groups. Such joint contingency planning could facilitate effective cooperative actions in the event such situations actually occurred. Through such uses of the centers and their staffs in periods of normal relations, the United States and the Soviet Union could create a potentially important buffer around their one common interest for periods of rising tensions.

It is difficult to predict the character of crises that may arise in the future. In case of extraordinary events, such as incidents involving nuclear terrorism or the destruction of civilian nuclear power reactors, the centers could provide the means for experts, under the direction of national leaders, to communicate important technical and operational information rapidly and comprehensively. Skilled interagency crisis management teams associated with the centers could provide national leaders with the kind of information needed to make wise decisions during tense situations. During such crises, national leaders would continue to rely primarily on regular diplomatic channels and, if necessary, the “Hot Line”; it would not be wise to use the centers to resolve any substantive issues in dispute. Nuclear risk reduction centers would, however, provide a supplementary channel to convey information that is technical in nature, thus permitting more far-reaching and timely exchanges between U.S. and Soviet military experts and technical specialists.

In its initial phase of operations, the separate centers in Washington and Moscow could be linked by modern means of communications comparable to arrangements for the Hot Line, as upgraded in 1984. The advantages and disadvantages of direct audio, visual, and teleconferencing hookups also should be evaluated and, if found favorable, could be instituted at a later date. Each center, staffed by its own core group of specialists on a full-time basis, would maintain a 24-hour watch on any events that could lead to nuclear incidents. Designated liaison officers from the other power’s embassy could be given access to the centers under controlled escort.

Soviet commentaries express uncertainty about the centers’ concept and functions, as well as skepticism about U.S. motives for proposing this initiative. The Kremlin might well endorse the initiative, however, if the United States presents it in ways that alleviate Soviet concerns over potential misuse of the centers and in the context of substantive improvements in U.S.-Soviet relations.

Creation of the centers may risk increasing Soviet opportunities for spreading disinformation, gaining sensitive U.S. intelligence information, adding confusion or mixed signals regarding Soviet intentions and complicating U.S. relations with third countries. All these risks are inherent in the U.S.-Soviet relationship and not intrinsic to the centers’ concept itself, however; all can be managed successfully with a high degree of professionalism by U.S. officials. The potential benefits associated with the centers clearly outweigh these risks.

It seems evident that the United States and the USSR should move rapidly, through private negotiations, to complete the study of nuclear risk reduction centers, agreed to by President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev at their November 1985 summit, and to begin serious negotiations to establish the centers in the very near future.

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