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"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Will Prudence Prevail?
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Daryl G. Kimball

This month, American and Russian leaders will try to resolve the decade-long impasse over further strategic nuclear reductions and the United States’ national missile defense ambitions. The opportunity for an agreement is close at hand, but success will require prudent adjustments in the White House strategy on missile defense and on the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, as well as fundamental changes in U.S. nuclear weapons requirements.

Ten years ago, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the START I agreement. By December 2001, this treaty will have reduced each country’s 1990 levels of deployed strategic forces by more than 40 percent, to 6,000 warheads. Although both sides agreed to two more rounds of strategic reductions and to new guidelines on anti-missile testing, festering disagreements over missile defenses have blocked implementation of deeper arms cuts. As a result, the START process is in limbo, and the two sides maintain excessive Cold War-era nuclear arsenals, large portions of which remain poised for a quick and massive attack.

There now appears to be a genuine desire on both sides to reach an agreement on strategic offenses and defenses. President George W. Bush has adopted the language of arms control and disarmament proponents, calling U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons “expensive relics of dead conflicts.” Because the premises of Cold War nuclear targeting should no longer dictate the size and posture of the U.S. arsenal, he favors unilateral reductions of U.S. forces and removal of as many weapons as possible from hair-trigger alert. For his part, President Vladimir Putin supports reductions of deployed strategic forces to 1,500 warheads, using existing START verification provisions.

But after nine months of consultations, neither side has detailed negotiable proposals on strategic nuclear offenses and missile defenses. Until his October 21 meeting with Putin in Shanghai, Bush and his advisers insisted that the ABM Treaty must be discarded “within months” because it stands in the way of a robust national missile defense program. Administration officials gave the Russians the choice of joint withdrawal or unilateral U.S. withdrawal. To create additional pressure, the Defense Department has formulated missile defense program activities, including construction of a “test bed” in Alaska, designed to “bump up against” the ABM Treaty.

In Shanghai, Putin reiterated the importance of the ABM Treaty to strategic stability, though the Kremlin appears ready to allow more robust missile defense testing. To guard against worst-case scenarios, Russian leaders would prefer agreed legal constraints on strategic defenses commensurate with further cuts in strategic offenses. However, U.S. officials have thus far refused to offer or even discuss adjustments to the ABM Treaty and have not detailed planned U.S. nuclear reductions.

In reality, demonstrating the operational effectiveness of a nationwide anti-missile system will require many more years of tests, which can be pursued for a considerable time before final deployment and without violating the ABM Treaty. Rather than unilaterally withdrawing from the treaty in the near future, Bush could propose modifications of the ABM Treaty to permit a wider range of national missile defense work. Last month, the Pentagon announced its decision not to employ ABM Treaty-prohibited radars in the next round of missile defense tests. But if he is to reach a historic breakthrough this month or soon after, Bush must rein in hard-liners within his administration who are impatient to withdraw from the treaty.

President Bush also faces resistance from within his own administration to the fundamental changes in U.S. nuclear force doctrine that he has promised. Without U.S. nuclear reductions below 2,500 warheads, Bush will lose an important inducement to Russian flexibility on missile defense. A modest trimming of the nuclear target list, as some Pentagon planners might propose, or reassigning nuclear warheads from the active to inactive reserve stockpile, will do little to assuage Russian concerns or change Cold War nuclear postures. As a fundamental step toward his own goal of moving beyond the concept of mutual assured destruction and eliminating the mutual suspicion generated by large nuclear arsenals, Bush should direct the Pentagon to drop mass-attack nuclear war options and disarming first-strike capabilities. With this shift in presidential guidance, Bush could quickly secure a firm agreement with Putin, leading to phased reductions of each country’s strategic nuclear warheads—deployed and reserve—to 1,500 or less.

A historic agreement on deep nuclear reductions and missile defense research and development within the framework of the ABM Treaty is long overdue and would come at a crucial juncture in the U.S.-Russian relationship. If he makes the right choices, Bush can solidify the foundation for future cooperation, rather than confrontation, with Moscow.