ACA Senior Fellow Discusses Next Steps in Arms Control

What’s Up Next in Arms Control?

Prepared Remarks by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
Grinnell College Roundtable
March 14, 2011

In order to answer the question I have posed, I will first turn to what the Obama administration has said it would do and recall what it has done so far.

The First Two Years

Three months into his term, President Obama delivered a speech in Prague, the Czech Republic, laying out an ambitious agenda to move the world away from reliance on nuclear weapons, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them entirely.

Over its first two years, the Obama administration has been extraordinarily busy pushing a number of concrete steps to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons, end nuclear testing, secure fissile material, and strengthen implementation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

In April 2010 the administration completed a new Nuclear Posture Review that narrows the role of U.S. nuclear weapons and rules out the need for new types of nuclear warheads.

Later that month, Obama hosted an international Nuclear Security Summit that produced an action plan for securing the most vulnerable nuclear materials within four years instead of the eight years that had been planned.

In May, the U.S. led the 2010 NPT Review Conference to a successful conclusion with a 64-point action plan.  This was in contrast to a disastrous NPT Review Conference in 2005, which could not agree on any action plan, leaving many in despair for the future of the treaty.

At the UN, the administration pushed through a tougher set of targeted sanctions on Iran in response to NPT safeguards violations.  UN and unilateral sanctions have slowed down Iran’s nuclear program, buying some time and leverage for the pursuit of a deal to establish sufficient transparency to ensure the program is not used to produce weapons.

The biggest achievement so far has been negotiating and ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).  The President and his team negotiated the treaty with the Russians within the first year, and then, just in time for Christmas 2010, won Senate approval, turning back treaty-killing amendments that would have required renegotiation with Russia.

New START eventually won bipartisan support, passing 71-26.  Put simply it sets new, modestly lower limits on Russian and U.S. deployed warheads and delivery systems and re-establishes a robust, up-to-date monitoring system to verify compliance.  Later this month, a significant amount of data on strategic forces will be exchanged between the US and Russia.  45 days later, teams of inspectors will travel to sensitive strategic sites in both countries for the first time since the original START treaty expired in December 2009.

New START will increase predictability and transparency through enhanced on-site inspections that will provide more information on the status of Russian strategic forces than was available under the original START accord.

New START has already helped reset U.S.-Russian relations and boosted U.S.-Russian cooperation to contain Iran’s nuclear program and secure vulnerable nuclear material, and of course it opens the way for further Russian and U.S. nuclear arms reductions.

By any measure, there has been considerable progress toward the longstanding U.S. goal—as reiterated by the President in Prague—of peace and security in a “world without nuclear weapons.”

But New START and these other initiatives are just that—a start. There is much more that needs to be done to reduce the nuclear weapons danger.

What’s Now?

Deeper, Broader, and Faster Nuclear Reductions

New START is a vital step, but it will leave the United States and Russia with far more strategic warheads, missiles and bombers than is needed to deter nuclear attack.  In fact, even after New START reductions are implemented, there will still be roughly 19,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, most of which are held by the two treaty signatories.

President Obama and his team have said the United States and Russia can and should pursue further verifiable reductions of all types of nuclear weapons—strategic and tactical, deployed and non-deployed.

Informal, early discussions are now underway. We believe the two sides can and should initiate formal talks before the end of this year.

The goal should be to establish a single, verifiable limit on the total number of nuclear weapons for each nation.  This overall limit would be in addition to a sublimit on the number of deployed strategic weapons—the traditional focus of reductions. This overall limit is important.  As the numbers of deployed strategic weapons shrink, nondeployed and nonstrategic warheads and their delivery systems have to be addressed.  It is also important that the most advanced nuclear arms control process establishes useful precedents for ultimately involving all nuclear-armed states – for example, by adopting a simple unit of measure that can facilitate transparency, accounting, and controls.

How low can U.S. and Russia go in the next round now that the sides have agreed to limits of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons?  From a geo-strategic standpoint, neither Russia nor the United States can justify more than a few hundred nuclear warheads each (including both strategic and tactical, deployed and non-deployed) to deter nuclear attack by any current or potential adversary.

ACA published a study in 2005 (“What Are Nuclear Weapons For?”) that outlines the rationale for a smaller nuclear force, 500 deployed strategic and 500 nondeployed strategic warheads on a smaller, mainly submarine-based triad. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, others have also argued that it is possible to get down to 1,000 warheads without weakening security on either side.

Of course there is the intriguing article in Strategic Studies Quarterly that concludes the United States could "draw down its nuclear arsenal to a relatively small number of survivable, reliable weapons dispersed among missile silos, submarines, and airplanes." Those authors argue that such a force might number only 311 nuclear weapons.

My own wish is that lower numbers will induce the U.S. military to push for movement away from the triad to a diad.  If we can give up the nuclear bomber leg of the triad, relying on the two most responsive and reliable legs, Navy SLBMs and Air Force ICBMs, we will save a lot of money and more easily move to lower numbers.  Of course many Members of Congress and nuclear theologians seem to confuse the triad with the Holy Trinity, but I note with satisfaction that even the Air Force Association recently argued that bombers should give up their nuclear weapons delivery mission.

For Russia such a negotiation would help address its concerns about the relatively larger U.S. upload potential that exists due to our larger number of delivery systems and reserve strategic warheads.

For the United States, such a negotiation would finally lead to an accounting of and reduction in Russia’s relatively larger and possibly insecure stockpile of stored and deployed tactical nuclear bombs.

Such reductions should, ideally, be secured through a New START follow-on treaty with robust verification methods.

However, given that the next round of talks will likely be more complex and time consuming and the new Congress is generally more suspicious of arms control, there are other nuclear risk reduction steps that should be pursued at the same time. For example:

  • The United States and Russia can achieve the reductions mandated by New START well ahead of the 2018 implementation deadline; and
  • President Obama needs to make good on promises to phase-out obsolete Cold War nuclear targeting plans and prompt launch requirements, which help perpetuate excessive deployments and raise the risk of catastrophic nuclear miscalculation. In a September 2009 Q & A published in Arms Control Today, then-candidate Obama said: “Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War.”

The NPR recommends consideration of measures to maximize the time the Commander-In-Chief has to make a decision to use nuclear weapons.  A reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately, but only the assurance that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems would survive an attack. Now is the time to implement these measures.

The Obama administration and NATO must also work through two other issues that could complicate further, deeper U.S.-Russian nuclear force reductions.

First, Russia is and will likely remain resistant to meaningful limits on tactical nuclear weapons so long as the U.S. continues to deploy even a small number of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.  As the new NATO Strategic Concept and U.S. military commanders acknowledge, these weapons have no military role in the defense of NATO.  Some may believe these weapons have a function as a bargaining chip or are symbols of the United States commitment to NATO.  Whether they are or are not, they are clearly obsolete relics of the Cold War.

To clear the way for a potential agreement with Russia on reciprocal measures to account for and reduce tactical nuclear weapons, the United States and NATO should agree to eliminate any formal alliance requirement for U.S. tactical nuclear warheads in Europe.

Second, Washington and NATO must work with Moscow to achieve meaningful U.S.-Russian cooperation on strategic ballistic missile defense.  Otherwise, future deployment of large numbers of U.S. missile defense interceptors targeting Russian strategic missiles could undermine the prospects for future nuclear reductions and exacerbate East-West tensions.

New START sidesteps long-standing U.S. and Russian differences over strategic missile defense – the parties essentially agree to disagree.  But the next agreement cannot avoid the realities of the offense-defense relationship.

When Obama shelved Bush administration plans to deploy an untested strategic interceptor system in Poland within five years, he was attacked by critics for placating Russia.  However Obama’s alternative, the “Phased, Adaptive Approach,” made far more sense from the perspective of Europe and the United States, as well as Russia.  It would provide a better capability to address current threats to southeastern Europe from Iran’s short- and medium-range conventional missiles and would obviously not threaten Russia’s strategic nuclear retaliatory potential through the current decade.  Because the plan is coherent, it automatically raises less Russian suspicions and thus creates the potential for cooperation rather than confrontation with Russia.

However, unless there is meaningful U.S.-Russian cooperation on strategic ballistic missile defense or limits on future deployment of U.S. interceptors, we will be forced to make a trade-off:  Either future reductions in eliminating real U.S. and Russian strategic weapons or nominal gains in defending against future imagined Iranian missiles.

Let there be no mistake, in the nuclear arms race, we are mostly racing with ourselves.  The only potential adversary, other than Russia, with nuclear-tipped strategic missiles is China and we have about 30 times more deployed strategic warheads.  Clearly we can go lower, and if we do, we can start engaging with the other nuclear powers in multilateral reductions.


Not only must the U.S. and Russia further build down their own arsenals, they must work harder to prevent the nuclear arsenals of other states from being built up. To succeed, the United States needs to solidify the global moratorium on nuclear test explosions by ratifying the Comprehensive nuclear Test Ban Treaty and to revive efforts for a global ban on fissile material production.

In Prague, President Obama called for ratification of the CTBT.  Today, the national security case for the test ban treaty is even stronger than it was when the Senate considered it in 1999.  Nearly two decades after the last U.S. nuclear test explosion, it is clear that the United States no longer needs or wants nuclear testing.  We have invested heavily in ensuring the reliability of our existing warheads without explosive testing. Over the past decade, life extension programs have successfully refurbished existing types of nuclear warheads.  Last December, the directors of the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories wrote that the administration’s $85 billion funding plan provides "adequate support" to sustain the U.S. nuclear arsenal indefinitely.  The lab directors' endorsement should put to rest any lingering doubts about the adequacy of U.S. plans to ensure a safe, secure and reliable nuclear stockpile under the CTBT.

Moreover, we know that further testing by other nuclear weapons states—including China, India, Pakistan—could help improve their nuclear capabilities.  We know that nuclear proliferants like North Korea or Iran cannot develop a reliable arsenal without testing.  So we are essentially abiding by the requirements of the CTBT without accruing the nonproliferation and security benefits.

Reasonable Senators should be able to understand this logic and be able to understand that the old arguments against the CTBT no longer hold water.  As former Secretary of State George Shultz said in 2009, “Republican Senators might have been right voting against the CTBT some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now.”

It is time that the Obama administration seriously engage the Senate on the subject so that the Senate can reconsider and vote on the treaty at the appropriate time—something the White House has not yet done.

In 2009, Obama also pledged to “lead a global effort” to negotiate a verifiable FMCT. The problem is that the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) where this negotiation occurs operates on the basis of consensus.  The FMCT is currently blocked due to opposition from Pakistan, which is locked in an arms race with India.

If talks at the CD do not begin soon, the Obama administration should pursue parallel, open-ended talks involving the eight states with fissile material production facilities that are not legally required to be under international safeguards. Even if talks do begin, they will likely drag on for years.

To hasten progress, the Obama administration should be prepared to act more boldly by proposing that all states with facilities not subject to safeguards should agree voluntarily to suspend fissile material production pending the conclusion of the FMCT.


The next steps in arms control will not be easy but none of the previous steps were either.  The American people expect their leaders to take action to reduce the nuclear weapons threat.  Additional pragmatic steps to reduce nuclear risk are essential and urgent.  Doing nothing is not an option.