By Greg Thielmann
Last week's 2011 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington, D.C. provided some revealing perspectives on the challenges and opportunities ahead for future strategic arms control agreements between the United States and Russia. The dynamics of strategic force planning described by Carnegie's panel participants suggests a way to enhance prospects for successful negotiations. The United States can easily achieve the modest reductions required by New START in half the seven-year timeframe allowed under the treaty with probable cost savings and no risk. As the Pentagon conducts a review of strategic requirements for a follow-on agreement, it should consider the value of making U.S. political commitments in the meantime to match the anticipated plunge of Russian deployed warhead levels to around 1000 before the end of the decade.
The Carnegie Conference occurred at an auspicious time to reflect on measures to enhance prospects for next steps – less than two months into the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty's ten-year term, right after New START's massive data exchange, and shortly before initiation under the treaty of on-site inspections at sensitive strategic facilities. Concurrent with entry into the new treaty regime is the ripening of future force posture planning efforts. The likelihood of steeply declining Russian strategic force levels over the next few years as older, heavily-MIRVed missiles are retired is increasingly evident. Less clear are the pace and direction of Russian force modernization efforts. Particularly fateful is Moscow's decision on whether or not to replace Russia's SS-18 ICBM with a new, liquid-fueled heavy missile – currently a matter of "heated debate in the Russian defense industrial complex and strategic community," according to Alexei Arbatov of Carnegie Moscow Center. If that decision were made and the program became entrenched, it would not only give Russia the capability of doubling its number of deployed strategic warheads in the 2020s; it would also stiffen Russian resistance to negotiating lower post-New START limits in the interim.
Similarly unclear to the Russians is the future shape of U.S. strategic force posture. As the Pentagon carries out its strategic requirements review, the words of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the Carnegie Conference are suggestive: "To develop options [for further nuclear reductions] we need to consider several factors, such as potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures that are required for effective deterrence." With some 1600 fewer Russian missiles to target than at the outset of the START process and in a world in which Russia is more often a partner than an antagonist in the pursuit of our security interests, the case for cutting faster and deeper is compelling.
There was growing evidence at the Carnegie Conference that the United States and Russia will probably seek to establish a 1000 deployed strategic warhead limit as the central goal in the next round of negotiated reductions. Given the political, economic, and scientific uncertainties percolating in the background, the gelling of assumptions about the scale of future reductions in the operationally deployed strategic systems of the two largest nuclear powers was conspicuous. The 1000 warhead central limit posited for a New START follow-on agreement by numerous American analysts was also endorsed by Russian participants on two separate Carnegie panels.
Sergei Rogov of Russia's USA and Canada Institute predicted that Russia would be willing to reduce to "something like 1000" in the next round. He said this would be a likely floor for bilateral arms control because of Russia's concern with maintaining clear superiority over Chinese and other third-party strategic systems. Carnegie Moscow's Arbatov noted that Moscow's ongoing retirement of its ageing, heavily-MIRVed ICBMs, and the slow deployment rate of new systems with fewer warheads would be likely to reduce Russian strategic forces to 1000-1100 by 2020. To fully exploit the 1550 warheads permitted by New START would require development and deployment of new heavy ICBMs during the following decade. If this were done, he predicted that Russian warhead numbers could easily exceed 2000 by 2030.
There was also fresh evidence in the Carnegie discussions to underscore concerns raised at the Arms Control Association and elsewhere that future enhancements of U.S. strategic missile defenses and Russian resistance to tactical nuclear weapons limits threaten to derail further progress. Indeed, Alexei Arbatov assessed "dim prospects" for a New START follow-on agreement, because of the difficulty of resolving the "thorny" issues of missile defense, conventional strategic, and tactical nuclear weapons – but not because of any problems inherent to a 1000 warhead limit. In light of the formidable challenge in overcoming these difficulties, achieving faster and deeper reductions within the parameters of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty through a unilateral U.S. initiative is a particularly attractive means of confidence building.
It was not surprising that Republican Senators used cautionary language in a March 2011 letter to President Obama regarding further strategic reductions to the 1000 warhead level: "Very low levels of nuclear forces, such as the arbitrary levels of 500 or 1000 warheads per side...would have important and as yet unknown consequences for nuclear stability..." However, arms control skeptic Sen. Jon Kyl's keynote critique of nuclear arms control at Carnegie took principal aim at the pursuit of zero as an ultimate goal of strategic reductions; he did not try to defend his belief that moving to a 1000 operational nuclear warhead level would be risky. For the United States to move more rapidly to the 1550 level already blessed by the Senate and to a non-binding (and reversible) de facto level closer to 1000 would ease the other challenges of negotiating a follow-on to New START. Moreover, to make this move at a time when Russian forces will be even lower could well win wide and bipartisan support.