The strategic arms control process that for decades has regulated nuclear stability is gridlocked. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated arms control agreements that led to the prohibition of national missile defenses (NMD), a ceiling on deployed strategic weapons, and the elimination of intermediate-range nuclear forces. At the end of the Cold War, strategic arms control yielded START I, which cut U.S. and Soviet forces in half, and START II, which would essentially cut those forces in half again.
But the significant political and military changes that have taken place in the past decade now challenge the paradigm that allowed for these important agreements. Both sides clearly want to reduce their deployed strategic forces further, but the stalled START process has become an impediment rather than a help, and START's detailed numeric controls have become largely irrelevant to addressing current threats from weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Similarly, deterrence should remain the foundation of U.S. nuclear doctrine and force structure, but the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which codified deterrence as the basis of strategic stability throughout the Cold War, has become a barrier to the limited national defenses that can help meet new threats without upsetting strategic stability.
Challenges to the Cold War arms control paradigm have been crystallized by U.S. plans to deploy an NMD system. As Russia's nuclear arsenal continues to shrink with age, a significant NMD could give the United States, for the first time in the nuclear age, a true "first-strike" capability—the ability to launch a pre-emptive attack destroying enough of Russia's nuclear force to permit the NMD to intercept any residual retaliation. A nuclear first-strike capability would be the ultimate military advantage, giving the United States enough force to threaten the survival of any rival.
Launching a pre-emptive nuclear attack for any reason short of stopping an inevitable WMD attack against the United States would be contrary to all American traditions and values. But just as the United States has always insisted on evaluating any potential adversary's capabilities rather than only its intentions, other nations will evaluate U.S. capabilities in deciding how to respond to the United States. Even if other nations accept the near certainty that the United States would not launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack, they will worry about the diplomatic, economic, and even cultural power such a capability could afford. It is thus not surprising that Russia has held progress in arms control, and therefore greater cooperation in stopping emerging WMD threats, hostage to obtaining America's commitment to the continued prohibition of national missile defenses as codified by the ABM Treaty.
To achieve its goals in stopping new WMD threats, the United States should begin with a reassessment of its own nuclear doctrine and force structure. Both remain locked in the Cold War paradigm. The nuclear doctrines of damage limitation and extended deterrence in Europe were responses to a Soviet threat that no longer exists. Yet these doctrines continue to require nuclear forces and war plans that would give the United States a first-strike capability if an NMD were deployed. A U.S. pledge of "no first strike" is a necessary first step in establishing a new nuclear offense-defense relationship that maintains deterrence while motivating the cooperation necessary to stop the growing threats of WMD from terrorists and rogue states.
Nuclear Doctrine and Force StructureNuclear holocaust during the Cold War was averted by the painstaking creation of a regime of nuclear deterrence. Rather than use nuclear weapons as offensive weapons of war, it has been the bedrock principle of nuclear strategy to maintain them to deter an adversary's use of its nuclear weapons by maintaining the capability to absorb a nuclear attack, retaliate, and cause unacceptable damage to the attacker. Ensuring this capability has been the focus of U.S. nuclear weapons programs since the Soviet Union developed the capability to threaten the U.S. homeland directly.
While the U.S. deterrent rested on its capability to "ride out" a first strike and still be able to inflict massive harm on its attacker, the United States also maintained several first-use missions for its arsenal. Starting in the late 1950s, the United States deployed thousands of tactical nuclear weapons to permit a so-called flexible response to a Soviet invasion of Europe. Given that many of the tactical weapons deployed were more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a tactical nuclear war would have killed millions. But the United States and other NATO members saw tactical nuclear weapons as the best way to offset Soviet conventional superiority in Europe and deter a Soviet invasion. America's threat to use nuclear weapons first to respond to non-nuclear threats against U.S. forces or allies has been a key element in providing "extended deterrence."
But the largest and most significant first-use mission for U.S. nuclear forces was a "counterforce" attack designed to limit damage to the United States should deterrence fail and nuclear war occur. The idea of damage limitation is to attack and destroy enemy forces before they can be used. Since many enemy forces are dispersed or hardened, to destroy them with any degree of certainty requires that multiple nuclear weapons be used against each target. If there is any chance that a target might contain an unused weapon or accommodate a reload, the war planners will target multiple warheads against it. The result is to generate a "requirement" for thousands of weapons.
The main damage-limiting attack in the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) is designed as a "prompt retaliatory" attack, not as an attack that would be undertaken hours or days after a nuclear war began. Prompt retaliation is considered important to destroy as many enemy weapons as possible before they can be used and to use as many U.S. weapons as possible before they are destroyed on the ground. As a result, such an attack would have to be launched in the 15-20 minutes available after an incoming attack was unambiguously detected or launched pre-emptively. Although launch under attack is a theoretical possibility, it is not a practical reality because the command-and-control challenges involved in having the president decide to undertake such an action are substantial. U.S. forces are designed to withstand a surprise attack precisely to avoid the necessity of hasty decisions. In practice, then, if a "prompt retaliatory" attack were used at all, it would be used pre-emptively.
Russia still maintains more than 5,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons and plans to maintain at least 1,500 even if its preferred arms control outcome is achieved. While the Cold War has meant the end of hostility between Russia and the United States, with a Russian force of this size, it would be highly imprudent to rely on political goodwill alone as protection against the possibility of nuclear attack. Deterring a Russian attack, therefore, should remain the primary mission of U.S. nuclear forces.
But the United States can and should drop its damage-limiting and extended deterrence missions. With the end of the Cold War, Russia has lost its capability to invade Western Europe with conventional forces. These forces are in shambles, unable to deal with the Chechnya challenge, and there are no longer Warsaw Pact allies to absorb initial NATO attacks or to provide a substantial portion of an attack force. Even if the Russians were to mount a massive effort to rebuild a conventional threat to Europe, which is an almost inconceivable political step, it would take them decades to do so, during which time the United State and its NATO allies could enhance their conventional forces.
President George Bush realized this when he unilaterally deactivated and began to dismantle almost all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in September 1991. Only a few hundred aircraft-delivered nuclear bombs remain in Europe to support flexible response, along with a comparable number of British and French warheads. Nevertheless, flexible response remains the official policy of NATO, the United States, Britain, and France. Nuclear forces are still maintained with a mission to repel a land invasion of Europe. But the threat that once justified nuclear forces designed to strike first against the Russian army is simply no longer present.
The other first-use mission against Russia is the damage-limiting mission. Russia continues to maintain a large nuclear force, and, in principle, the damage-limitation mission remains valid. But since the mid-1960s, the reality has been that Soviet (now Russian) forces are so large and survivable that effective damage limitation is impossible. An all-out war would essentially destroy all major U.S. cities and military facilities, no matter how many offensive weapons were devoted to the damage-limitation task.
The first-use missions of extended deterrence and damage limitation have done more to determine U.S. nuclear policy and force structure than has the mission of deterring attack by maintaining an assured second-strike capability. Most of the nuclear force structure has been dedicated to first-use missions in the SIOP and theater nuclear war plans; only a few hundred survivable second-strike weapons have been thought necessary to deter a sudden nuclear attack on the United States. Since these first-use missions no longer have any rationale, there is no longer any justification to maintain the war plans and the forces to support them.
Dropping the damaging-limiting and extended deterrence missions would allow the United States to dramatically change its force structure. In 1997 the Clinton administration conducted a nuclear review, which determined that the United States could reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 2,500 if Russia did the same. The result was the agreement, reached that year between Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in Helsinki, that called for a START III agreement to reduce the number of warheads to 2,000-2,500. Some have argued that the present U.S. criteria for planning nuclear strikes do not permit further reductions below 2,500 because that is the minimum number necessary to develop war plans consistent with present policy (and even then only if the Russians also reduce to 2,500). But the weakness of this argument is that the scenario driving the number of weapons needed for nuclear war plans—a pre-emptive or prompt retaliatory, damage-limiting strike—no longer makes sense, not only because there is no longer a Soviet threat, but also because Russian forces are survivable.
If the prompt retaliatory option and its associated first-strike capabilities against Russia were eliminated from U.S. strategic war plans, the remaining mission of deterrence through assured retaliation could be carried out with fewer than 1,000 survivable weapons. The planned START III force structure of 2,500 weapons actually incorporates only about 1,000 survivable weapons in total because significant portions of U.S. nuclear weapons (e.g., submarine forces in port and B-2 bombers on the ground) could be destroyed in a Russian surprise attack. Retaliatory attacks of that size would destroy Russia's economy, major cities, and leadership. Since military and civilian defense planners have pronounced 2,500 total weapons adequate to deter a Russian attack, they have implicitly agreed that a surviving retaliatory force of 1,000 is adequate.
The United States can restructure its forces so that a total force of 1,000 weapons is nearly completely survivable. One such approach would be to deploy most weapons at sea, where they are essentially completely invulnerable. A few weapons should be deployed on B-2 aircraft to provide a flexible response nuclear force that can be used in extremis to destroy targets not easily covered by submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and to carry out certain very limited first-use missions. A reasonable split of forces would be 840 warheads on SLBMs and 160 carried on 20 B-2s.
To be 100 percent survivable, all 840 sea-based weapons should be kept permanently at sea. This can be achieved by transferring missiles from submarines as they return to port for necessary rotations. The present force of 14 active submarines could then accommodate 840 at sea, loading 5 warheads on each of the 24 D-5 missiles carried on each at-sea boat. The result would be 7 submarines at sea (following current rotation policies of being in port 50 percent of the time) equipped with 120 warheads each, for a total of 840 invulnerable warheads at sea. The B-2s would be kept on a high level of alert to assure their survivability.
The United States also maintains the capability to deploy up to 500 nuclear bombs in Europe to carry out NATO's flexible response strategy, which was intended to deter and stop a Soviet conventional attack. This strategy no longer has any meaning since Russia has no capability to mount the attack that this tactical nuclear force is meant to deter. But these weapons also serve the additional purpose of coupling the U.S. nuclear arsenal with NATO and the defense of Europe, adding substance to the assertions that the U.S. nuclear umbrella continues to cover Europe. A force of about 200 weapons should be adequate to preserve this and to dissuade any European countries, like Germany, from developing their own nuclear weapons. These forces would support the flexible response mission of the 160 weapons carried on the B-2 bombers.
There are advantages to obtaining Russian agreement to join the United States in reducing forces to 1,200 weapons each, but even if an agreed limit is not possible, the United States should reduce its forces to these levels. Explicitly eliminating prompt retaliatory war plans and the de facto first-strike capability they engender would make it easier to achieve the international consensus necessary to deploy a limited national missile defense and would strengthen U.S. diplomatic leverage in nuclear non-proliferation.
These changes to U.S. nuclear doctrine and force structure do not mean, however, that the United States should adopt a no-first-use pledge. Removing prompt retaliatory attack options from war plans and announcing that no such plans will be maintained as a matter of policy would be another step toward a no-first-use policy. But taking the final step of making an explicit no-first-use pledge would be a mistake. Four limited but valid first-use missions remain for nuclear forces:
These missions are purely military in the sense that they could be accomplished by conventional military forces if the technology were available. Even today, no American president would authorize the use of nuclear weapons in even these extreme circumstances until all non-nuclear military options had been exhausted. But until conventional forces are capable of carrying out these missions, it would be wrong to deny that the possibility of using nuclear weapons to accomplish them confers a significant military advantage. A no-first-use pledge could motivate a hostile and irrational government to conclude that war threatening its vital interests could be fought without risk of a U.S. nuclear response.
Ballistic Missile Defenses
The necessity for a change in the way the United States approaches nuclear security and arms control is due in part to the evolving threat from the proliferation of long-range ballistic missiles. The United States needs a new strategic concept for dealing with ballistic missile defenses, not just a quick fix to deal with possible threats from states like North Korea. This policy must deal with the technological, strategic, and diplomatic challenges that missile defenses pose, while acknowledging their potential contribution to the security of the United States and its allies.
This new strategy should begin with the understanding that a Strategic Defense Initiative-like shield is impossible. It is probably impossible to perfect the technology necessary to stop today's generation of ballistic missiles anytime in the foreseeable future. Even if it were possible, the program would motivate a response from adversaries that would inevitably offset the defense. More sophisticated penetration aids, larger numbers of MIRVs, attacks on the defense itself, cruise missiles, more bombers, and anti-satellite weapons are all technologies that could offset a nationwide defense against a sophisticated enemy.
But the impossibility of a shield against all attacks does not mean that ballistic missile defense should be abandoned. There are five important missions for limited defenses:
This last strategic mission is perhaps the most important. An attack that grows out of a diplomatic crisis is the most likely threat to the U.S. homeland—greater than the risk of an accidental or surprise attack. In the midst of such a crisis, when each step the United States takes runs the risk of leading to a WMD attack, a national missile defense would have the significant benefit of increasing the U.S. freedom of action. Because any attack large enough to get through the defense would ensure massive retaliation, an NMD system raises the stakes for a potential attacker, thereby enhancing deterrence and giving the United States greater leeway.
Providing this freedom of action is also important in facing threats from a rogue state, a terrorist group, or a rogue officer in a nuclear state who gains control of even a single missile. Simply making it clear that the United States retains freedom of action would deter most rogue states, terrorist groups, and individuals from attempting either blackmail or an attack. In fact, some potential proliferators might decide to abandon their WMD programs altogether in the face of a U.S. NMD.
At present, the necessary technology is not available to carry out these missions—the United States cannot even provide effective theater missile defenses to protect U.S. troops in the field. The first true TMD, the Patriot Advanced Capability-3, which is a modification of a 30-year-old design, is not scheduled for deployment until 2002. The first new-generation system, the Theater High Altitude Area Defense, is scheduled for 2007. The Navy Theater Wide system is a decade away. The Medium Extended Air Defense System and the Airborne Laser are not even programmed for deployment.
Developing a workable set of systems to accomplish the above missions will therefore take quite a bit of time, and that time should be used in a concerted effort to pursue the best technology. Present designs for a limited NMD system are based on "traditional" ABM architecture, consisting of ground-based radars to detect and track incoming warheads and ground-based interceptor missiles to destroy the warheads by impacting them. This is still the most feasible architecture for intercepting warheads launched from Russian ICBM bases against the United States. But for emerging rogue state threats, boost-phase technology, in which a missile is destroyed during the powered portion of its ascent before it leaves the atmosphere, may offer significant technical and diplomatic advantages.
A boost-phase system would have a larger, hotter, and slower target to hit and would be able to intercept a target before it had deployed MIRVs or decoys. It would be equally effective against theater ballistic missiles and ICBMs. Diplomatically, boost-phase systems offer the advantage of not threatening the strategic forces of Russia and China because those countries could place their missiles far inland, out of reach of U.S. air- or sea-based boost-phase systems. (Russia also has a significant SLBM force that would not be affected.)
The main disadvantage of boost-phase systems is that the interceptors must be deployed near the enemy launch sites. Theoretically, boost-phase interceptors could be based in space. But for the foreseeable future, they must be deployed on land, in aircraft or drones, or on ships. Each of these platforms presents some challenges and vulnerabilities. Aircraft and drones are obviously vulnerable to air defense systems, and ships (Aegis-guided missile ships) presently do not have the necessary equipment, in addition to being extraordinarily expensive assets to leave on station indefinitely. Land-based deployment requires access to nearby bases from third countries that may not grant it.
It is a considerable challenge to design and develop a workable boost-phase approach. Operational systems are probably a decade away at a minimum. But boost-phase systems could eventually add to U.S. TMD capabilities, and they could handle most rogue state ICBM deployments. Insuring against accidental launches and enhancing deterrence of Russia or China in a crisis would still require a limited direct defense of the United States. This capability could be provided using the 100 interceptors provided by the ABM Treaty. It would be important to deploy a worldwide space-based warning and tracking system to enhance the other NMD technologies included in such a system, and the interceptors would have to be deployed at multiple sites to protect the entire United States.
Perfecting TMD systems, designing and developing workable boost-phase systems, and building a 100-interceptor limited ground-based NMD will take considerable time. If the United States announces a new strategy for ballistic missile defenses that is not a threat to non-hostile powers and makes clear that this strategy will be pursued consistently, it should be possible to develop a cooperative approach that would be accepted by Russia, China, and U.S. allies and friends.
The first step would be dropping the prompt retaliatory strikes from the SIOP and reducing the nuclear force to 1,200 weapons so that, unless the United States deployed a very large ABM system, defenses would not give it a first-strike capability. Sharing ABM technology—for example, by giving all friendly nations the ability to use a common space-based ballistic missile detection and tracking system—would be another important aid to U.S. diplomacy. Finally, a new policy on missile defenses must be integrated with alliance relations and foreign policy objectives. The concerns of NATO, Asian friends and allies, Russia, and China must be directly addressed.
The end of the Cold War has eliminated any chance that a reasonable ABM deployment will trigger a pre-emptive nuclear war or an offensive nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States. Yet these are the main scenarios that the ABM Treaty and its prohibition of national missile defenses were intended to deal with. It should be possible to negotiate a cooperative regime with Russia permitting the United States to adopt a new strategy that includes limited ballistic missile defenses.
Satisfying China that the United States is not a threat will be more difficult because even a 100-interceptor system could negate its small deterrent force. Strategic modernization is now underway in China, and China will probably expand its force in any event from the 25 warheads currently capable of reaching the United States. An increase to a level of 100-200 warheads would not change the current strategic balance and would be large enough to ensure penetration of a limited U.S. NMD. The United States should tolerate such a modest increase to open the possibility of much stronger Chinese cooperation on WMD non-proliferation.
Likewise, China might expand and improve its force of short-range ballistic missiles from today's level of about 300 to 500. Such an expansion will be unwelcome, but to make it a casus belli would be a mistake. The U.S. ability to deter a Chinese attack against Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan would not be affected by increases of this size, and a limited direct defense is worth the result of moderately expanded Chinese forces.
The Role for Arms Control
After announcing changes in its nuclear posture and force structure, the United States should enter into negotiations with Russia with the goal of replacing both START and the ABM Treaty with new arms control agreements that reflect its new strategy and force structure while maintaining the stable deterrence relationship that was the goal of the past agreements. The following principles should guide these negotiations:
Transparency: The many data and test notifications and on-site inspection rights included in SALT, START, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the institutions that exercise these rights, should be consolidated and strengthened. There should be more reciprocal visits, permission to "look inside" even more systems, more thorough data declarations, and the disclosure of future force plans.
Safety: Keeping nuclear weapons and nuclear materials out of the hands of unauthorized individuals, rogue states, and terrorist organizations is fundamental. Making this a treaty commitment will eliminate excuses for unsafe conditions, such as inadequate budgets or bureaucratic resistance. If Russia is willing to make such a commitment, the United States should respond by increasing significantly the amount of technical and financial aid it provides through cooperative nuclear security programs, like the Cooperative Threat Reduction program.
Stability: The new agreement should ban first-strike war plans and deploying first-strike capabilities. It should encourage the deployment by each side of invulnerable weapons, so as not to tempt a first strike. It should acknowledge that a limited NMD can add to strategic stability.
The challenge posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction cannot be met without U.S. leadership, but recent American actions appear to other nations to presage America's withdrawal from this effort—the Senate's October 1999 refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty being the most dramatic example. When the United States does decide to take action, it often appears to be unilateral and arrogant. One explanation for what seems to many to be America's growing isolation is the dominance of conservative Republicans, particularly Senator Jesse Helms (NC), in U.S. foreign policy leadership.
This view is vastly oversimplified. Senator Helms has fought many initiatives that would have furthered the arms control policies not only of the Clinton administration but also of the Reagan and Bush administrations. He could not have succeeded in his efforts if there were not significant support for his position in both the Senate and the country at large. This support is largely a result of the failure of recent administrations to make a compelling case for arms control policies. Similarly, growing international opposition to U.S. non-proliferation efforts is not a problem that can be solved without addressing America's failure to articulate and pursue consistent policies that can achieve widespread consensus.
The United States asserts that its nuclear policy is entirely defensive in nature and that nuclear weapons are kept strictly for deterrence. As explained above, however, the reality is otherwise, and change is necessary if international consensus supporting U.S. non-proliferation goals is to be obtained.
During the Cold War, U.S. nuclear policy did not motivate worries about U.S. hegemony. Combined with the forces of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union was a comparable (some would say superior) conventional military power, and the ABM Treaty outlawed national missile defenses, preventing either side from developing a first-strike capability.
But today, Moscow's conventional and nuclear forces are considerably smaller. The United States has also eliminated weapons but proposes to maintain a deployed force of 2,500 accurate strategic nuclear warheads—1,000 to 1,500 more than Russia is likely to be able to support. At the same time, the United States is pursuing a limited national missile defense, which could be capable of intercepting the enemy warheads remaining after a U.S. first strike. Under current U.S. strategy and planning guidance, "prompt retaliatory" war plans will over time become de facto first-strike war plans.
The principles of nuclear stability were formulated and consistently advocated by the United States throughout the Cold War. They have now been learned and accepted in Russia and, to a lesser extent, in China. According these principles, America's nuclear strategy and programs constitute a major threat to Russia and China. The threat is not that the United States will launch a "bolt out of the blue" nuclear strike. There is no conceivable motive for such a strike, and even if there were, no national missile defense could protect American cities entirely from nuclear retaliation. Rather, the threat is that a plausible first-strike capability would give the United States true military dominance over any conceivable coalition of nations.
As they have throughout history, nations worry that such dominance can embolden a state to force its economic, cultural, and political systems on others. Threat assessments will be influenced principally by military capabilities rather than by articulated intentions. As a result, nations will oppose America's current nuclear strategy and any significant unilaterally deployed national missile defense. They will attempt to offset U.S. military power, whether they be small and weak, like North Korea and Iran, or large and strong, like China, France, and Russia. Weapons of mass destruction will often be seen as the only way to balance U.S. military power and influence.
A U.S. strategy of strong deterrence, including limited threats of nuclear first use, can nonetheless achieve wide acceptance as non-threatening if U.S. forces and war plans are changed as recommended. A reduction in America's total nuclear arsenal to 1,200 weapons and an explicit no-first-strike pledge should eventually ameliorate concern about a limited U.S. national missile defense.
These changes should enable the United States to gain stronger international support for its non-proliferation goals. It should be possible to greatly enhance the acceptance and enforcement of the three treaties that prohibit the proliferation of WMD—the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Biological Weapons Convention. The role of law enforcement, both domestic and multinational, will have to supersede that of multilateral verification organizations such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The dismal experience of UNSCOM in disarming Saddam Hussein's Iraq demonstrates that there are severe limits to the effectiveness of UN-based enforcement organizations.
In the end, the traditional tools of diplomacy, sanctions, and military force will have to be used to enforce non-proliferation. These tools can be used effectively only if the United States is able to organize strong broad coalitions to carry out the necessary actions.
The world will not remain static while the only remaining superpower cements its military superiority, deploys a national missile defense while maintaining a de facto first-strike force, and abandons arms control agreements once thought to be the cornerstone of strategic stability. Unless the United States adopts policies that take into account the inevitability of other nations coalescing to oppose its military dominance—no matter how benign they may see its current motives—the dangers from WMD proliferation will accelerate. The Bush administration should organize its WMD policy around a new strategic vision of strong deterrence coupled with open international cooperation. Such an approach will achieve wide support at home and abroad as the United States demonstrates its will to lead, not a will to dominate.
Jan Lodal has served as principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy and as deputy for program analysis at the National Security Council. He is currently chairman of Lodal and Company and of CoManage, Inc. This article is adapted from his recent book, The Price of Dominance: The New Weapons of Mass Destruction and Their Challenge to American Leadership, published in February by the Council on Foreign Relations Press.