As the Obama administration puts the finishing touches on its new nuclear strategy, Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. nuclear forces under President George W. Bush, last month called for making deep reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, doing away with one leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, and removing the threat of a pre-emptive “decapitating” strike against Russia.
Cartwright, who was head of U.S. Strategic Command from 2004 to 2007 and then was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until last August, recommended reducing U.S. forces to 900 total nuclear warheads, an 80 percent drop from current levels; eliminating U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); and taking weapons off alert. “The threat has changed,” he said at a May 16 press conference. “Nation-states engaging in [large-scale] nuclear exchanges [is] highly unlikely.”
Cartwright, who now is the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was presenting a report prepared by a commission he chaired for Global Zero, a nongovernmental organization seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons. The other authors of the report are former U.S. arms control negotiator Richard Burt, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), former U.S ambassador to Russia and the United Nations Thomas Pickering, and retired Gen. Jack Sheehan.
The report, “Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture,” concludes that the current U.S. and Russian arsenals “vastly exceed what is needed to satisfy reasonable requirements of deterrence.” It finds that there is “no conceivable situation” in which nuclear weapons would be used by either side and that “the actual existing threats to our two countries (and the globe) cannot be resolved by using our nuclear arsenals.”
Echoing the findings of previous reports on the subject, including one in 1997 by the National Academy of Sciences, the Cartwright report suggests an “illustrative” nuclear force of 900 total strategic weapons by 2022. Only half of this force would be deployed, with the remainder in reserve. The 450 deployed warheads would be off alert, requiring 24 to 72 hours to become launch ready. The reserve warheads could be returned to service “within weeks or months.” Currently, U.S. missiles on alert are ready to launch within minutes.
The deployed force advocated by the report would consist of 10 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines armed with a total of 360 warheads, and 18 B-2 bombers with 90 gravity bombs. With two subs in overhaul and two in port, six subs would be on patrol at all times, with four in the Pacific and two in the Atlantic. These subs would no longer be ready to launch their missiles within 15 minutes of receiving an order.
First Strike Not Credible
The report finds that six subs armed with 270 warheads would not pose a credible first-strike threat to Russia. (The other 90 sub-based warheads and 90 bomber weapons would be visibly off alert and thus not be suitable for surprise attack.) The report cited Russian sources as saying that it would take 300 U.S. warheads on alert to mount a decapitating first strike. “The numbers are not there for the pre-emptive, decapitating strike,” Cartwright said at the press conference.
According to the study, this should alleviate Moscow’s concerns about U.S. missile defenses, which Russian leaders say could be used to blunt a relatively small Russian retaliation after a U.S. first strike. Such fears are preventing Moscow from agreeing to further arms reductions and cooperating with NATO on missile interceptor deployments in Europe, the report says.
Under the report’s proposal, the nuclear-armed Minuteman ICBM force would be retired because it is not needed to deter Russia and has no other plausible uses. The report points out that U.S. ICBMs would have to fly over Russia to reach any other potential targets, which “risks confusing Russia with ambiguous attack indications and triggering nuclear retaliation.” U.S. submarines and bombers are more flexible in their routes.
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said at a May 16 Brookings Institution event that he did not agree with Cartwright’s recommendation to retire ICBMs, which are under his command. “Why do we have a land-based deterrent force? It’s so that an adversary has to strike the homeland,” he said. In a May 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today elaborating on Schwartz’s remarks, Air Force Lt. Col. Samuel Highley said the ICBM force denies “an adversary any possibility of defeating the U.S. short of large-scale nuclear attack on the ICBM force...a difficult-to-imagine solution because it would entail a nuclear strike on the American homeland and its people.”
The Cartwright report also recommends that all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons be eliminated over the next 10 years, as “their military utility is practically nil.” Tactical weapons remain deployed “only for political reasons” within NATO, the report says. According to the report, the United States can instead reassure its allies with its strategic nuclear and conventional forces.
To mitigate any additional risks incurred by deep reductions and lower alert levels, the United States would keep missile interceptors and conventional forces on constant alert, the report suggests. It also concludes that, for many scenarios, U.S. conventional forces could defeat regional adversaries “without needing to generate any U.S. nuclear forces at all.” The study recommends that a non-nuclear ICBM be developed to provide the ability to strike any target on the globe, such as missile sites in Iran or North Korea, within one hour and that it be able to avoid flying over Russia or China.
An 80 percent reduction in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal would have significant implications for budgets and plans to modernize the nuclear triad of ICBMs, bombers, and submarines, the report finds. Under the report’s scenario, plans for a new ICBM could be canceled, plans for 100 to 150 new long-range bombers could be scaled back to 30 to 50 for nuclear missions, and the submarine replacement program could be delayed.
The study finds that Russia and the United States could implement the reductions and de-alerting proposals through reciprocal presidential directives, bilateral negotiations, or unilateral steps. Follow-on talks could lead to nuclear arsenals totaling 500 warheads on each side, at which point China and other nuclear-weapon states could be brought into the negotiations.
Administration Review Continuing
The Cartwright report comes at a key time in the ongoing debate between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans about the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Obama has promised to follow up with Russia on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits each side to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads by 2018, with another round of talks to further reduce the stockpiles of those weapons, as well as tactical warheads and weapons in storage.
According to the Department of Defense, the United States currently has about 5,000 strategic and tactical nuclear warheads deployed and in storage. This does not include thousands of warheads waiting to be dismantled.
The Obama administration is in the final stages of reviewing future requirements for U.S. nuclear forces, a process known as the Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study, to determine how much lower the force levels can go. The administration reportedly is considering a range of options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic warheads. (See ACT, March 2012.)
Meanwhile, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives are trying to prevent the implementation of New START as well as additional reductions. The fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House on May 18, includes language that could block arsenal reductions under New START if the administration does not increase spending on nuclear weapons-related projects that the Pentagon did not request. The administration issued a warning May 15 that it may veto the defense bill over these provisions, which the White House says would “impinge on the President’s ability to implement the New START Treaty and to set U.S. nuclear weapons policy.” The Senate, controlled by Democrats, is not expected to include a similar provision in its version of the bill.