Renewed U.S.-Led Nuclear Weapons Risk Reduction Steps Are Necessary and Overdue

Volume 4, Issue 5, June 14, 2013

Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust, the threats posed by the bomb have changed, but still hang over us all. Today, there still are nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons, and nine nuclear-armed states. More countries have access to the technologies needed to produce nuclear bomb material, and the risk of nuclear terrorism is real.

The massive nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia-the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War-have been reduced through successive arms control agreements. Yet, deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear forces still exceed 1,500 strategic warheads each, far more than necessary to deter nuclear attack.

Last year in South Korea, President Barack Obama declared that "[t]he massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today's threats, including nuclear terrorism." He noted that his administration is reviewing U.S. nuclear strategy but that we can "already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need."

The administration's review of nuclear strategy, completed some 18 months ago, may soon be finalized. The President may also finally outline his 2nd term nuclear risk reduction objectives, including plans for further nuclear reductions with Russia, ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and steps to secure vulnerable nuclear materials.

U.S. leadership is critical on all of these initiatives. Action by President Obama is overdue.

On June 17, Obama will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the margins of the G-8 Summit in Northern Ireland. They will discuss ways to resolve concerns about U.S. missile defense plans and continue cooperative programs to lock-down sensitive nuclear materials. The two leaders could also conclude months of talks designed to reach a new framework agreement for cooperative threat reduction efforts to dispose of many excess Cold War weapons and materials. If a breakthrough on missile defense cooperation and data-sharing can be achieved it could open the way for further U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions beyond the 2010 New START treaty.

Further Nuclear Reductions Are In Order

Even after the 2010 New START agreement, the United States and Russia still possess more than 95% of the world's nuclear weapons. Further, verifiable, reciprocal cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles will make every American safer by reducing the nuclear firepower that can be delivered within minutes across the globe, while allowing resources to be devoted to more pressing security needs.

Further U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions would also improve the international consensus to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and enhance cooperation to address the threats from North Korea and Iran, and put pressure on other states-including China-to join in the disarmament enterprise.

Nuclear Overkill
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report states that: "the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attacks against the U.S. and our allies and partners" and not to "fight and prevail" in a nuclear war. As Ronald Reagan said in 1985: "a nuclear cannot be won and must never be fought."

A "limited" nuclear attack involving just 300 nuclear weapons could kill 75 million Russians immediately and millions more in the weeks and months to follow. The United States can and should reduce its arsenal to 1,000 deployed strategic warheads or fewer-a level than is still more than enough to deter any current or potential adversary and is only 300 warheads fewer than the United States was prepared to agree to during the New START negotiations four years ago.

Next Steps With Russia
President Obama has an opportunity to work with Russia to reduce each side's arsenal to 1,000 or fewer nuclear weapons through a new treaty that takes into account all types of warheads and delivery systems-deployed, nondeployed, strategic, and tactical.

As a November 2012 report from the secretary of state's International Security Advisory Board suggests, with New START verification tools in place, further reciprocal U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions need not wait for a formal follow-on treaty.

If necessary, the presidents could achieve similar results--and more rapidly--through parallel, reciprocal reductions of strategic warheads--to well below 1,000 within the next five years, which could be verified under New START.

Further talks between the United States and Russia should also lead to controls on tactical nuclear weapons. More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, there is no military rationale for Russia to maintain some 2,000 tactical nuclear bombs, many of which are on obsolete naval and air defense systems. Nor is there any military requirement for the U.S. to keep 180 air-delivered nuclear bombs in Europe, which could cost billions to refurbish.

The High Cost of Excess Nuclear Weapons
Further nuclear reductions would also allow the United States to scale back costly schemes for building a new generation of strategic nuclear delivery systems and rebuilding tactical nuclear bombs. The savings could be used for more pressing national needs.

According to a 2012 study by two Stimson Center researchers, U.S. spending on nuclear weapons is approximately $31 billion per year. The projected costs for maintaining and modernizing the current U.S. nuclear force will increase those costs in the coming decade.

The Navy is currently planning for 12 new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to carry more than 1,000 nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350 billion. The Air Force wants a new, nuclear-armed strategic bomber that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles that would cost billions more. Current plans call for upgrading about 300 units of the tactical version and about 100 of the strategic version of the B61 nuclear warhead at an estimated cost exceeding $10.4 billion.

In July 2011, then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright explained that "... we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don't have the money to do it."

Significant cost reductions can only be achieved if Obama eliminates the current "requirements" for Cold War-sized nuclear forces. A 2013 assessment by the Arms Control Association identifies $39 billion in taxpayer savings over the next decade if the United States right-sizes its nuclear force to 1,000 or fewer strategic deployed nuclear warheads.

Reducing the Risk of Accidental Nuclear War
The President should also follow through on promised action to eliminate the outdated requirements to maintain a large portion of U.S. strategic forces to be ready to launch within minutes, and thereby increase the time available for the President to make decisions involving nuclear forces in a time of crisis.

In 2008, Obama said: "Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment's notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation. I believe that we must address this dangerous situation-something that President Bush promised to do when he campaigned for president back in 2000, but did not do once in office. I will work with Russia to end such outdated Cold War policies in a mutual and verifiable way."

A reliable and credible 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 initial attack.

Strong, Bipartisan Support for Deeper Nuclear Reductions
A wide-range of experts support further reductions to bloated U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.

In April 2012, Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. nuclear forces under President George W. Bush, called for making deep reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and removing the threat of a pre-emptive "decapitating" strike against Russia. Cartwright suggests a nuclear force of 900 total strategic weapons by 2022. The 450 deployed warheads would be off alert, requiring 24 to 72 hours to become launch ready. In the report, "Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture," Cartwright and his co-authors (former Reagan administration arms control negotiator Richard Burt, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), former U.S ambassador Thomas Pickering, and retired Gen. Jack Sheehan) conclude that current U.S. and Russian arsenals "vastly exceed what is needed to satisfy reasonable requirements of deterrence."

In a March 7, 2011 Wall Street Journal oped, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, and former Sen. Sam Nunn argued that: "Reducing the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles with verification to the levels set by the New Start Treaty is an important step in reducing nuclear risks. Deeper nuclear reductions and changes in nuclear force posture involving the two nations should remain a priority. ... the U.S. and Russia-having led the nuclear buildup for decades-must continue to lead the build-down. The U.S. and its NATO allies, together with Russia, must begin moving away from threatening force postures and deployments."

These nuclear force reductions are consistent with reductions in nuclear forces achieved under previous administrations. For example, during the George W. Bush administration's eight years, the total U.S. arsenal dropped from about 10,500 warheads to just over 5,000-about 50 percent fewer.

Cooperation on Missile Defense and Data-Sharing Is in U.S. and Russian Interests

Since 2011, U.S. and Russian leaders have failed to make progress in their ongoing talks on missile defense cooperation and data sharing, largely due to Russian concerns about U.S. plans for deployment of Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) IIB long-range interceptors in Poland by 2022, which some Russian military officials believe might threaten a portion of Russia's land-based, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. These concerns have led Russia to resist further progress on offensive nuclear reductions.

But on March 15, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the effective cancellation of the program, citing congressional funding cuts and significant technical problems. Congress had cut the funding, and the program was plagued with significant technical problems. The Obama administration's latest budget request contains no funding for the SM-3 IIB missile program, and administration officials have told Congress there are no plans to revive it.

With the decision to terminate the program, there is no other U.S. missile interceptor capability in place or under development for Europe that could plausibly threaten Russian strategic missiles. U.S. ground-based strategic interceptors in Alaska and California are limited in number-currently 30, potentially 44 by 2017-and still are not capable of defeating ballistic missiles equipped with countermeasures such as those that Russia deploys.

Instead, U.S. missile defenses will have only a limited capability to counter short- and medium-range missiles from Iran and North Korea and a handful of unsophisticated, long-range missiles that those two states might field in the years ahead.

These realities should open the way to a legally binding Russian-U.S. agreement for the regular exchange of information on missile defense programs. Such an agreement would help Russia verify U.S. claims about its missile defense capabilities and should be accompanied by a joint presidential statement clarifying that the two countries' missile interceptor programs do not threaten each other's security.

In recent weeks, U.S. and Russian officials have exchanged updated proposals.

Sharing of missile defense data is a commonsense, bipartisan idea. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan suggested that both countries abandon the concept of mutual assured destruction by agreeing to eliminate all offensive ballistic missiles within 10 years while researching and jointly developing strategic missile defenses.

In May 2001, President George W. Bush called for "a new cooperative relationship," including in the area of missile defense. In 2004 the Bush administration began seeking a defense technical cooperation agreement with Russia that would have addressed a broad range of cooperative research and development activities, including missile defense.

The 2008 report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States found that the United States should "strengthen international cooperation for missile defense...with Russia."

The data-sharing agreement now under discussion would enhance strategic stability and opportunities for U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense and joint early-warning procedures.

Moving Forward on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Since the days of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, a ban on nuclear testing has been a U.S. national security objective. Today, a legally binding, verifiable ban on all nuclear testing remains a key part of a comprehensive, effective U.S. nuclear risk reduction strategy.  

It has been twenty years after its last nuclear test and the United States no longer needs or wants a resumption of testing. Yet by failing to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Washington has denied itself and others the treaty's full security benefits.

President Obama has consistently expressed support for U.S. reconsideration and ratification of the CTBT, which prohibits all nuclear test explosions anywhere. In 2009, he said his administration would pursue "immediate and aggressive" steps to secure ratification. Unfortunately, the administration has not yet launched the kind of effort necessary to secure U.S. ratification and global entry into force.

That Was Then, This Is Now
Since the Senate's brief debate on and rejection of the CTBT 13 years ago, the arguments raised by treaty opponents have been addressed; and a wide range of national security leaders, including former skeptics, now support the treaty.

On March 8, George Shultz, secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, said, "Yes, I clearly think we should ratify that treaty. A senator might have been right to vote against it when it was first put forward and right to vote for it now."

The technical and strategic case for the CTBT is stronger than ever. Today, the U.S. Stockpile Stewardship Program is more successful and better funded than ever before. Even with mandatory cutbacks in U.S. federal spending, the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories will continue to have approximately 10 percent more funding for maintaining and extending the service lives of existing U.S. nuclear warhead types than they did prior to 2009.

The combination of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization's International Monitoring System and U.S. national monitoring capabilities, along with tens of thousands of civilian seismic monitoring stations, ensures that no potential CTBT violator could be confident that a nuclear explosion of military utility would escape detection. With the treaty in force, there would also be the option of short-notice, on-site inspections.

With the CTBT in force, established nuclear-weapon states, including China, would not be able to proof-test new nuclear warhead designs; newer nuclear-armed nations, including North Korea, would find it far more difficult to build more-advanced warhead types; and emerging nuclear states, such as Iran, would encounter greater obstacles in fielding a reliable arsenal.

Siegfried Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, has underscored that "it is critical to erect as many barriers as possible to the resumption of testing. Ratification of the CTBT and its entry into force is the most important such barrier."

U.S. ratification is essential to close the door on nuclear testing. Action by Washington would likely trigger reconsideration and ratification of the treaty by China, India, and Pakistan, which also must ratify the CTBT before the treaty can formally enter into force.

White House Effort Overdue
To begin, it is important that President Obama announce the appointment of a senior, high-level White House CTBT coordinator, or task force, within the next several weeks. This would help to engage Senators in private conversations on the issues surrounding the CTBT; field their questions, and provide updated assessments regarding the value of the treaty; and communicate that the President is serious about his previous statements on the CTBT.

Bottom Line

Doing nothing is not a prudent option. As Kennedy once suggested, we must work faster and harder to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us. In the months ahead, President Obama must re-energize the nuclear risk reduction enterprise and U.S. policymakers must overcome petty partisan politics to help address today's grave nuclear challenges. --DARYL G. KIMBALL


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.