"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Fuzzy Nuclear Math

Daryl G. Kimball

At November’s Washington-Crawford summit, President George W. Bush announced his intention to reduce U.S. strategic nuclear forces from today’s 6,000 deployed warheads to 1,700-2,200 deployed warheads within 10 years. The proposal, along with the Texas-style hospitality extended to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was intended to signify Bush’s desire to move beyond the Cold War. By the administration’s strategic calculation, the United States and Russia are now “friends,” who should size and orient their respective strategic offensive and defensive arsenals to meet the threats of the future, not one another.

Unfortunately, the president’s numbers do not add up to his commendable rhetoric. The size of the deployed U.S. arsenal 10 years from now would be only 300 fewer than the 2,000-2,500 START III framework ceiling approved by the U.S. Strategic Command in 1997. The vast majority of these weapons would still be assigned to striking Russia’s nuclear arsenal and industrial infrastructure. In other words, under Bush’s plan, friends would target friends with nuclear weapons.

The administration’s proposal fails to factor in other key variables, including the presence of the already large and growing stockpile of nondeployed “hedge” warheads. This reserve of some 4,500-5,000 strategic and tactical warheads was once mostly intended to provide the United States with the capability to quickly reverse reductions of its deployed arsenal to guard against a Russian buildup. Now, the presence of the hedge creates a strong disincentive for Russia to implement cost-saving nuclear reductions.

In addition, Bush has apparently rejected ideas contained in the START III framework that would make reductions irreversible through the verifiable dismantlement and destruction of delivery systems and warheads. As a result, Bush’s formula would simply lead to the reassignment of warheads from the deployed to the nondeployed side of the ledger. Bush’s handshake-brand of unilateral, voluntary arms restraint would not only make nuclear stockpiles more opaque, it would also do little to decrease their overall size.

President Putin welcomed Bush’s proposal and reiterated Russia’s offer to cut both sides’ strategic deployed forces to 1,500 warheads through a verifiable treaty. But the Bush administration has—so far—turned down the opportunity to codify U.S. and Russian reductions, arguing that negotiations and treaties are tedious, time-consuming, and unnecessary. Citing his father’s 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives with Mikhail Gorbachev, Bush suggests that meaningful reductions can be achieved more quickly through unilateral reciprocal action.

The unilateral withdrawal and consolidation of tactical nuclear forces was a bold and clearly necessary tactic, especially in the midst of the Soviet Union’s collapse. If Bush sought to jump-START the arms control process through an immediate stand-down of a substantial number of U.S. strategic deployed nuclear forces, an informal rather than a formal approach might make sense. Instead, Bush proposes a drawn-out 10-year implementation period for U.S. reductions—time enough for negotiation and ratification of a firm agreement to make the cuts irreversible and verifiable.

Bush’s plan should nevertheless provide some renewed momentum for the arms reduction process. It will likely force congressional Republicans to allow the removal of a 1998 law prohibiting U.S. reductions prior to START II’s entry into force. However, Bush and Putin’s failure to reach an understanding on strategic missile defenses leaves open the possibility of unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Absent reasonable constraints on national missile defense, Russia will be tempted to maintain higher levels of strategic nuclear weapons to overcome a future U.S. missile shield. Although its nuclear forces are headed for lower levels, Russia is capable of maintaining a sizable deployed arsenal—as many as 3,800 warheads—including destabilizing multiple-warhead missiles, many on hair-trigger alert.

Some anti-treaty ideologues at the Pentagon have tried—and will try again—to convince President Bush that he must withdraw from the treaty to allow more robust missile defense testing. This argument simply does not stand up, given the fact that several more years of treaty-compliant developmental testing is necessary before beginning the operational tests required to demonstrate real-world effectiveness. In seeking an agreement with Putin on future U.S. missile defense testing and strategic offensive reductions, Bush would be wise to maintain the basic framework of the ABM Treaty.

Given the long history of adversarial relations and persistence of Cold War-era strategic thinking, it is unlikely that a gentleman’s agreement between two leaders can last beyond their terms in office. As a result, President Bush’s unwillingness to lock in reductions on all strategic weapons through a formal, verifiable agreement unnecessarily perpetuates vestigial Cold War-era nuclear dangers. Those who believe nuclear arms control has no place in the post-Cold War context should think again.