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Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START)

Next Steps on U.S.-Russian INF Treaty Dispute



Relations between Russia and the West have sunk to an historic low and tensions have worsened across a range of issues, some new and some old.


Volume 8, Issue 6, October 25, 2016

Relations between Russia and the West have sunk to an historic low. Since President Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex Crimea and foment a low-level conflict in eastern Ukraine nearly three years ago, tensions between the United States and Russia have worsened across a range of issues, some new and some old.

Several key nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements that helped bring an end to the Cold War nuclear arms race continue to serve to constrain nuclear competition and maintain strategic stability

These include the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan signing the INF Treaty in Washington, DC, December 8, 1987 (Photo:Wikimedia)The INF Treaty was a major breakthrough that helped to halt and reverse the Cold War-era nuclear arms race and remove a significant threat to Europe. It marked the first time the superpowers had agreed to actually eliminate nuclear weapons and utilize extensive on-site inspections for verification. The treaty, which is of unlimited duration, required both sides to eliminate and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The two sides eliminated 2,692 short, medium, and intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles by 1991.

There are growing signs, however, that the INF Treaty is under serious and increasing stress. Failure to resolve the festering compliance dispute could threaten the treaty and impede further efforts to reduce bloated U.S. and Russia nuclear arsenals in the years ahead.

In July 2014, the U.S. State Department officially alleged that Russia is violating its INF Treaty obligations “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers or “to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”

Russia denies that it is breaching the INF Treaty. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in December that the allegations are “groundless” and the United States has “not provided any proof” that Russia is “allegedly producing and deploying” banned missiles.

Moscow has instead raised its own concerns about Washington’s compliance with the agreement, charging that America is placing a missile defense launch system in Europe that can also be used to fire cruise missiles, using targets for missile defense tests with similar characteristics to treaty-prohibited intermediate-range missiles, and making armed drones that are equivalent to ground-launched cruise missiles.

To this point, bilateral political discussions at senior levels have not led to a resolution of the compliance dispute. Neither side had sought to use the dispute resolution mechanism allowed for by Article VIII of the treaty – the Special Verification Commission (SVC).

Until at least January of this year, senior Defense and State department officials said that Russia had not deployed the prohibited missile.

But according to an Oct. 19 The New York Times report, “American officials are now expressing concerns that Russia is producing more missiles than are needed to sustain a flight-test program, spurring fears that the Kremlin is moving to build a force that could ultimately be deployed.”

The report also revealed that the United States has called for a meeting of the SVC to discuss and seek to resolve the U.S. compliance concerns. The U.S. State Department has since confirmed that a meeting has been requested and Russia has indicated that it plans to attend.

Both sides could be facing a new and even more difficult situation if they do not effectively use the SVC to bolster the INF Treaty.

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Immediate Next Steps

Convening the SVC to resolve mutual compliance concerns has been a longstanding recommendation of the Arms Control Association, as well as expert colleagues involved with the 21-member U.S.-Russian-German Deep Cuts Commission, and others.

Russia’s alleged noncompliance with the treaty is a serious matter that deserves a strong and measured response. To date, the United States has imposed diplomatic costs on Russia and has taken some military measures as part of a larger response to concerns about Russian behavior, including the INF Treaty violation.

Washington has properly treated the violation more as a political problem rather than a military one. But that would likely change if Russia moved from testing to actual deployment of INF Treaty noncompliant missiles. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama at the 2015 Group of Twenty summit (Photo: Wikipedia)If it hasn't done so already, the Obama administration should craft a plan for how the compliance concerns of both sides could be addressed in the event Russia engaged and signaled its willingness to return to compliance. This could include consideration of additional confidence-building measure and information exchanges that take into account technological and political developments that have occurred since the treaty’s entry into force.

From a U.S. and European security perspective, the key goal is to prevent Russia from deploying (or conducting further tests of) INF Treaty-prohibited missiles or withdrawing from the agreement entirely.

Meanwhile, the United States should seek new ways to provide further details about the nature of the Russian violation. The inability to share more information has made it easier for Russia to deny a violation exists and harder for U.S. allies and other countries to put additional pressure on Russia.

Both sides should understand and explain why the INF Treaty and the existing bilateral and multilateral arms control architecture continues to serve U.S., Russian, and European security interests and head-off even more dangerous military competition.

Without continued U.S. support for arms control agreements and other types of cooperative nonproliferation engagement, Russian forces would be unconstrained. Not only would the United States have little leverage or basis to constrain Russian forces other than military and economic measures, it would not have verification measures in place to assess what Russia is doing. Overall, the implementation record of these treaties has been highly successful, which is why presidents from both parties have pursued them.

If Russia continues to remain in noncompliance with the INF Treaty and especially if Russia decides to deploy noncompliant missiles or threatens to pull out of the treaty, the United States should pursue firm but measured steps to reaffirm its commitment to the defense of those allies that would be the potential targets of these new missiles.

But it would not be militarily useful for the United States to deploy new offense missiles in Europe or seek to accelerate or expand U.S. ballistic missile defense capabilities in Europe, which would not increase the security of our allies and would only give the Russians a cynical excuse to withdraw from the treaty.

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Intermediate Steps on INF Treaty and Cruise Missiles

The current INF Treaty crisis comes at a time when the United States and Russia are building new nuclear and conventional cruise missile systems and a number of states are developing cruise missiles. In addition, the two sides are not currently engaged in talks on further strategic nuclear reductions beyond New START. Russian officials say that U.S. and Russian reductions must take into account the arsenals of the world’s other nuclear-armed states.

Today, only three countries possess nuclear-armed cruise missiles. The Pentagon is pursuing the production of roughly 1,000 new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles to replace an aging legacy system. Russia is deploying the 2,000-kilometer range Kalibr land-attack cruise missile (LACM) on ships and submarines and the Kh-101 air-launched conventional and Kh-102 air-launched nuclear-armed cruise missile for delivery by bombers. France recently upgraded its nuclear air launched cruise missiles, the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée-Amélioré, and according to President François Hollande currently has 54 ASMP-A cruise missiles. 

In years past, the United States and Russia have both expressed support for “multilateralizing” the INF Treaty, but have devoted scant attention to such a project. In October 2007, President Vladimir Putin said that the INF Treaty should be made “global in scope.” Russia has argued for years that the INF Treaty disadvantages Russia vis-à-vis its neighbors, such as China, that lack the same constraints.

That same year, at the United Nations General Assembly, Russia and the United States issued a joint statement reaffirming their support for the INF Treaty and calling upon other governments to renounce and eliminate their ground-launched missiles with ranges banned by the accord. The statement declared U.S. and Russian intentions to “work with all interested countries” and “discuss the possibility of imparting a global character to this important regime.”

The time has arrived for more serious consideration of limits on nuclear-armed cruise missiles worldwide. Given that they are nuclear-capable and increasingly accurate and stealthy, these weapons pose a significant problem for global stability and security.

In the coming year, the Kremlin and the new U.S. presidential administration might explore several possible options, including:

  • As the governments of Sweden and Switzerland proposed in a May 2016 working paper, the United States and Russia could jointly engage with other states on a process to reduce risks associated with nuclear armed cruise missiles. This might include options to limit, prevent deployment of, and ultimately ban all nuclear-armed cruise missiles, regardless if they are launched from the sea, air or ground.
  • The United States and Russia could also address the challenges of horizontal cruise missile proliferation by reinforcing the relevant Missile Technology Control Regime’s restrictions and by endorsing the inclusion of land-attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles / unmanned combat aerial vehicles in the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.
  • Moscow and Washington should exercise restraint in Russian and U.S. nuclear force modernization programs, remaining within the New START limits and acting consistent with the intent of the treaty. The United States should forego development of a new, air-launched cruise missile, and Russia should reciprocate by phasing-out of its own new nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missiles.
  • The U.S. and Russian presidents should reaffirm that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought. The two sides should also agree to launch early discussions on a possible follow-on strategic arms reduction treaty, given that New START expires in 2021.

Given that each country deploys far more nuclear weapons than is necessary to deter attack, they should be able to envision reductions to a level of 500 deployed strategic delivery vehicles (including cruise missiles) and no more than 1,000 deployed strategic warheads. To take into account cruise missiles and sub-strategic nuclear bombs in the active arsenals of both sides, they should consider applying any new warhead ceiling to all types of nuclear weapons.

A new U.S.-Russian dialogue on strategic stability and risk reduction should also explore options for new transparency measures and reciprocal restraint measures in other related areas, including missile defenses, precision conventional strike, and sub-strategic nuclear weapons.

Reducing Risks In the “New Cold War”

As was the case during the Cold War, competition, confrontation, and selective cooperation is the new normal.

The U.S. and Russian governments continue to cooperate in some important areas of common concern, including implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and New START, and they continue to meet with the other permanent nuclear-armed members of the UN Security Council to share views on strategic stability and nuclear policy.

"Back from the Brink: Toward Restraint and Dialogue between Russia and the West," the June 2016 report of the Deep Cuts CommissionThe NATO-Russia Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which involves 57 participating states in the area from Vancouver to Vladivostok, serves as another mechanism to address specific security concerns.

However, since the conflict in Ukraine the number of Russian and NATO military-to-military incidents in the Baltic region and elsewhere has increased; military-to-military contacts have been sharply curtailed; and there are no active bilateral talks on nuclear arms reductions, missile defense, or conventional arms control and transparency in Europe. Earlier this month, Putin suspended implementation of an already troubled U.S.-Russian agreement on the disposition of excess weapons-grade plutonium.

In addition, U.S. and Russian diplomats have in recent weeks clashed over Syria policy at the UN Security Council. The United States and Western European powers say that Russia’s brutal aerial bombardment of civilian areas in the besieged city of Aleppo in support of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad constitutes a war crime. Making matters even worse, U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Russian government authorities have authorized cyber hacking of U.S. entities to undermine the credibility of the U.S. electoral process.

The United States and Russia need to re-engage and move back from the brink of even more serious conflict. The 2016 report of the Deep Cuts Commission “Toward Restraint and Dialogue Between Russia and the West,” outlines several additional practical steps to help address other issues:  

  • In order to reduce current security concerns in the Baltic area, NATO and Russia should initiate a dialogue on possible mutual restraint measures. A NATO-Russia dialogue should aim at increasing the security of all states in the Baltic area by encompassing reciprocal and verifiable commitments. A sub-regional arms control regime could consist of interlocking elements such as restraint commitments, limitations, confidence and security-building measures, and a sub-regional Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism.
  • In light of the increasing dangers of military incidents between Russia, the United States and other NATO member states, the United States and Russia should revive a dialogue on nuclear risk reduction measures, capable of addressing risks posed by different sorts of emergencies in near real-time. The United States and Russia could consider creating a Joint Military Incident Prevention and Communications Cell with a direct telephone link between the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Russian General Staff, and NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). Such a cell could be linked to or established in parallel with a new European Risk Reduction Center that would link the Russian General Staff and SHAPE.
  • The 34 signatories to the Open Skies Treaty should pay more attention to the continued operation and unimpeded implementation of Open Skies, which can help provide confidence that each side is taking actions in a manner consistent with their commitments and can help guard against surprise. The treaty allows for short-notice, unarmed, observation flights over the territories of other states-parties with the aim of promoting openness and transparency, building confidence, and facilitating verification of arms control and disarmament agreements. Each states-party has quotas covering the number of observation flights a state can actively conduct over the territory of another state and the number it must allow over its own territory. Members of the U.S. Congress should recognize the value of the Open Skies Treaty and upgrades to observation capabilities rather than put roadblocks in the way of its effective implementation.
  • OSCE participating states should consider measures to give effect to the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs. For this purpose, the OSCE could set up a commission that would carefully look into the issue from a legal point of view and explore possibilities for a new OSCE states-based mechanism. OSCE participating States could also pursue a long-term effort leading to a Helsinki-like conference with the aim of reinvigorating and strengthening Europe’s guiding security principles.

As former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry wrote in the introduction to the 2016 Deep Cuts Commission report:

“Today, dialogue and restraint are needed more than ever since the end of the Cold War. In order to prevent misperceptions, miscalculations, and the potential return of a costly arms race, both Washington and Moscow have to rediscover the instruments of diplomatic dialogue, military-to-military exchanges, and verifiable arms control.”

Such an effort can begin with a serious, problem-solving approach to the INF Treaty. –BY DARYL G. KIMBALL, with KINGSTON A. REIF and ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

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Posted: October 25, 2016

New Report Calls for Russia and the West to Move Back from the Brink



The West and Russia need to build on existing arms control measures to avoid exacerbation of the increasingly tense relationship between them, according to a group of international security experts.


For Immediate Release: June 21, 2016

Media Contacts: Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, Arms Control Association, (202) 463-8270 ext. 104; Ulrich Kuehn, Researcher, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, University of Hamburg, +49 (1) 76 811219 75

(Mosow, Berlin, Washington)—A new report from a high-level group of international security experts from Russia, the United States, and Germany recommends that the West and Russia build on a number of existing arms control and confidence-building measures in order to avoid further exacerbation of the increasingly tense and dangerous relationship between Russia and the West, particularly along the border between Russia and NATO member states.

The third report of the Deep Cuts Commission describes 15 key recommendations to help address the most acute security concerns in Europe—particularly in the Baltic area—and increase U.S.-Russian nuclear transparency and predictability.

“The prime objective for the next few years should be limiting the potential for dangerous military incidents that can escalate out of control,” the authors argue. “Russia and the West must come back from the brink. They need to better manage their conflictual relationship. Restraint and dialogue are now needed more than ever,” they write.

The Commission’s recommendations include:

    • In order to reduce current security concerns in the Baltic area, NATO and Russia should initiate a dialogue on possible mutual restraint measures. All states should adhere to the NATO-Russia Founding Act. A NATO-Russia dialogue should aim at increasing the security of all states in the Baltic area by encompassing reciprocal and verifiable commitments. A sub-regional arms control regime could consist of interlocking elements such as restraint commitments, limitations, CSBMs, and a sub-regional Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism.
    • In light of the increasing dangers of military incidents between Russia, the United States and other NATO member states, the United States and Russia should revive a dialogue on nuclear risk reduction measures, capable of addressing risks posed by different sorts of emergencies in near real-time. The United States and Russia could consider creating a Joint Military Incident Prevention and Communications Cell with a direct telephone link between the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Russian General Staff, and NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. Such a cell could be linked to or established in parallel with a new European Risk Reduction Center.
    • States-parties to the Treaty on Open Skies should pay more attention to the continued operation of Open Skies. They should strengthen its operation by devoting equal resources to upgrading observation equipment.
    • Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) participating States should consider measures to give effect to the principle of non-intervention into internal affairs. For this purpose, the OSCE could set up a commission which would carefully look into the issue from a legal point of view and explore possibilities for a new OSCE states-based mechanism. Beyond, OSCE participating States should prepare for a long-term endeavor leading to a Helsinki-like conference with the aim of reinvigorating and strengthening Europe’s guiding security principles.
    • The United States and Russia should commit to attempting to resolve each other’s compliance concerns with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by supplementing ongoing diplomatic dialogue with technical expertise, either by convening the Special Verification Commission or a separate bilateral experts group mandated to appropriately address all relevant treaty-related compliance concerns. Further on, the United States and Russia should address the issue of supplementing the treaty by taking account of technological and political developments that have occurred since the treaty’s entry into force.
    • The United States and Russia should address the destabilizing effects of nuclear-armed cruise missile proliferation by agreeing on specific confidence-building measures. Together with other nations, they should address the challenges of horizontal cruise missile proliferation by reinforcing the relevant Missile Technology Control Regime’s restrictions and by endorsing the inclusion of land-attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles/unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UAVs/UCAVs) in the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation.
    • Moscow and Washington should exercise restraint in Russian and U.S. nuclear force modernization programs, remaining within the New START limits and acting consistent with the intent of the treaty. The United States should forego development of the LRSO and Russia should reciprocate by phasing-out of new nuclear-armed ALCMs. The United States should show restraint in ballistic missile deployments consistent with its policy of defending against limited threats. NATO should follow through on its commitment to adapt its ballistic missile deployments in accordance with reductions in the ballistic missile proliferation threats.

    • Russia and the United States should work toward early discussions on a possible follow-on strategic arms reduction treaty. They should be able to envision reductions to a level of 500 deployed strategic delivery vehicles and 1,000 deployed strategic warheads during the next decade. These discussions should explore options for exchanging measures of reciprocal restraint and seek to address other issues of mutual concern under a combined umbrella discussion of strategic stability.

Beyond these recommendations, the experts identify a number of additional measures which could foster confidence in and maintain focus on the goal of further nuclear disarmament.

The complete report is available online.


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Country Resources:

Posted: June 21, 2016

Third Report of the Deep Cuts Commission

June 2016

Back from the Brink: Toward Restraint and Dialogue between Russia and the West

Posted: June 20, 2016

In Hiroshima, Obama Says Nukes Require ‘Moral Revolution’

Today, in a solemn and moving ceremony in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, U.S. President Barack Obama along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered wreaths at the Cenotaph Memorial, which honors the victims of the world’s first atomic bombing. With his visit, Obama became the first serving U.S. president to personally confront the painful stories, complicated history, and inspirational demands of the hibakusha never to allow the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be repeated ever again. An estimated 240,000 people died by 1950 as a consequence of the U.S. atomic bombings of...

Russia Relies on “Satan” to Keep New START Data Exchange Numbers Up

The eleventh U.S.-Russian biannual data exchange under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) shows a mixed measure of progress toward keeping under the treaty’s February 2018 ceilings. Five of the six numbers are below or trending toward those ceilings. But Russia moved upward above the ceiling in operationally deployed warheads for the second consecutive time as the U.S. warhead count continued to fall. While disappointing in the signals it sends, the bump-up in Russia’s current warhead aggregate is neither militarily significant, nor necessarily indicative of an intent to...

Overkill: The Case Against a New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile



In an Oct. 15 op-ed in The Washington Post, William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Andrew Weber, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for nuclear...


Volume 7, Issue 13, October 19, 2015

In an Oct. 15 op-ed in The Washington Post, William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Andrew Weber, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, call on President Obama to cancel current plans to build a new fleet of approximately 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs).

Nuclear-armed cruise missiles “are a uniquely destabilizing type of nuclear weapon,” they write, and foregoing the development of a new version “would not diminish the formidable U.S. nuclear deterrent in the least" and "could lay the foundation for a global ban on these dangerous weapons.”

The op-ed marks a significant development in the debate about whether to build a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, as Perry was one of the fathers of the current version of the ALCM when it was first conceived in the 1970s.

The ongoing development of a new ALCM is part of the Defense and Energy Department’s plans to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure at a cost of $348 billion over the next decade, according to a January 2015 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report. An August 2015 report by the Center for Strategy and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) estimated that the sustainment and modernization of nuclear forces could consume almost $1 trillion over roughly the next 30 years.

The projected growth in the nuclear weapons budget comes at a time when other big national security bills are also coming due and Congress has mandated reductions in military spending through the end of the current decade relative to current plans. In addition, despite the fact the president and his military advisors have determined that the United States can reduce the size of its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal by up to one-third below the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) levels, the proposed spending is based on maintaining the New START levels in perpetuity.

Given that current U.S. nuclear weapons spending plans are excessive and unsustainable, it behooves the administration and Congress to more closely evaluate options that would both be more cost-effective and promote the reduction of nuclear risks around the world. As the Arms Control Association detailed in a report last year, tens of billions can be saved over the next decade and beyond by trimming portions of the arsenal and scaling back current modernization plans.

As it prepares its budget submission for fiscal year 2017, the president should heed the advice of Perry and Weber and not request funds to advance the development of a new nuclear ALCM.


Nuclear-armed ALCMs are part of the U.S. nuclear triad of delivery systems consisting of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers, which can carry ALCMs and gravity bombs. ALCMs are carried by the B-52 long-range bomber and can attack targets at long distances. The United States also deployed large numbers of nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) during the Cold War, but ceased deployment of these weapons in 1992.

The original military rationale for developing the ALCM emphasized the cruise missile’s value as a standoff weapon that could overwhelm Soviet air defenses. The B-52’s ability to penetrate Soviet airspace was under pressure in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and standoff capability allowed a B-52 to hold strategic targets at risk in relative safety despite its large radar cross section and subsonic speed.

The Air Force’s lone remaining ALCM variant is the AGM-86B, up to 20 of which can be carried by a B-52H bomber. The missile, which has a range of more than 1,500 miles, was first fielded in 1982 with a planned service life of 10 years. Multiple life extension programs have kept the missile in service for more than 30 years. The Air Force is planning to retain the missile until 2030. 

The Air Force currently retains 572 nuclear-capable ALCMs, down from the original production run of 1,715 missiles, which concluded in 1986. Roughly 200 of these missiles are believed to be deployed at Minot Air Fore Base in North Dakota with the W80-1 nuclear warhead. New START does not cap the number of bombs or cruise missiles that can be carried on treaty limited strategic bombers.

The Air Force is developing the long-range standoff cruise missile (or LRSO) to replace the existing ALCM. The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52 bombers, as well as the planned Long-Range Strike bomber. The first missile is slated to be produced in 2026.

The current Air Force procurement plan for the LRSO calls for about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. According to the service, the planned purchase of 1,000 missiles includes far more missiles than it plans to arm and deploy with nuclear warheads.

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request proposed to increase spending to accelerate by two years the development of the LRSO and the modified W80-4 warhead that it would carry, partially reversing the fiscal year 2015 proposal to delay development of both by three years.

The total cost to build the LRSO and refurbish the associated warhead could reach $25 billion (in then-year dollars). CSBA estimates the development cost of the LRSO at nearly $15 billion. The Energy Department projects the cost of the life extension program for the ALCM warhead to be between $7 billion and $9.5 billion. 

Dubious Rationale

The two main arguments the Pentagon has made in support of building a new ALCM do not withstand close scrutiny.

First, supporters of the LRSO cite anticipated improvements in the air defenses of potential adversaries as a reason to develop the new cruise missile. However, as Perry and Weber note, the LRSO weapon is just one element of the Air Force’s plan for the air-based leg of the triad.

The service is planning to spend over $100 billion to build 80-100 new stealthy penetrating strategic bombers. One of the top rationales for building a new bomber is to extend America’s air dominance in advanced air defense environments. In addition to carrying the LRSO, the new long-range strike bomber (or B-3) will be armed with refurbished B61 mod 12 nuclear gravity bombs. Upgrading the B61 is expected to cost roughly $10 billion. The B-3 is scheduled to remain in service for 50 years while the B61 mod 12 is expected to last for 20-30 years.

The United States already has redundancy built into its strategic forces posture with three independent modes of delivery. The requirement that the air-leg of the triad have two means to assure penetration against the most advanced air-defenses constitutes excessive redundancy. Other standoff weapons, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles, can penetrate air defenses with high confidence.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is significantly increasing the lethality of its conventionally armed cruise missiles.

For example, the service is purchasing an extended-range precision air-to-surface standoff cruise missile known as the JASSM-ER. This missile will have a range of over 1,100 kilometers and be integrated onto the B-1, B-52, B-2, F-15E, and F-16 aircraft – and likely on the F-35 and long-range strike bomber as well. The Air Force is planning to arm the JASSM-ER with a new computer-killing electronic attack payload. The technology is designed to have an effect similar to an electromagnetic pulse.

This raises the question of what is so unique about the penetrating mission of a nuclear ALCM that can’t be addressed by other U.S. nuclear and conventional capabilities?

Second, proponents of the nuclear ALCM mission say that the missile, by virtue of the lower yield of the nuclear warhead it carries, provides the president with flexible options in the event of a crisis and the ability to control escalation. In other words, the missiles would come in handy for nuclear war-fighting.

Yet, U.S. nuclear capabilities would remain highly credible and flexible even without a nuclear ALCM. The arsenal includes other weapons that can produce more “limited” effects, most notably the B61 gravity bomb.

More importantly, the notion that nuclear weapons can be used to carefully control escalation is dangerous thinking. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work noted at a June 25 House Armed Services Committee hearing: “Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons is literally playing with fire. Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation.”

This is wise counsel and speaks to the limited utility and added risks of seeking to fine-tune deterrence. It is highly unlikely that an adversary on the receiving end of a U.S. nuclear strike would (or could) distinguish between a large warhead and a small warhead. Large or small, nuclear weapons are extremely blunt instruments, both in terms of their destructive power and the taboo associated with the fact they have not been used in 70 years.

In fact, instead of controlling escalation, nuclear-armed cruise missiles could entail a significant risk of miscalculation and unintended nuclear escalation.

Former British Minister of Defense Philip Hammond drew attention to this problem in explaining the United Kingdom’s decision to reject a sea-launched cruise missile alternative to its current force of sea-launched ballistic missiles.

“At the point of firing, other states could have no way of knowing whether we had launched a conventional cruise missile or one with a nuclear warhead,” he wrote in 2013. “Such uncertainty could risk triggering a nuclear war at a time of tension.”

Instead of investing billions in a new fleet of nuclear ALCMs, the Air Force should prioritize continued investments in longer-range conventional cruise missiles. Further investment in conventional standoff weapons would provide the Air Force with a more readily useable capability without the unintended escalation risks associated with the possession of nuclear and conventional ALCMs. It would also help set the stage for an eventual global phase-out of nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

Excessive Cost

In light of the modernization needs of other defense systems and congressionally-mandated reductions in planned military expenses required by the Budget Control Act, military leaders continue to warn that the United States is facing an affordability problem in the near future when it comes to sustaining and modernizing nuclear forces.

“[W]e do have a huge affordability problem with that basket of [nuclear weapons] systems,” said Frank Kendall, under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, in April. “It is starting to poke itself into the [future years defense plan] — the five-year plan now. And we're trying to address it.”

Funding for the LRSO program over the next 10-15 years will come at the expense of other costly Air Force priorities such as the acquisition of the long-range strike bomber, KC-46A tanker, the F-35, and a replacement for the existing Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system.

Though no one knows for sure what the military budget will look like after the expiration of the Budget Control Act, it seems unlikely that there will be enough money to fund all of the military’s nuclear and conventional modernization plans, especially during the decade of the 2020s when costs are expected to be at their highest. Tradeoffs will have to be made.

Given the nuclear ALCM’s redundant mission and inherently destabilizing dual-use nature, its replacement is not necessary.

A Global Ban

The United States, Russia and France are the only nations that currently acknowledge deploying nuclear-armed cruise missiles. However, countries such as China and Pakistan are believed to be working on them. U.S. security would benefit if they do not deploy such weapons.

Chinese nuclear-armed cruise missiles would add to U.S. concerns about Beijing’s capabilities and would be able to more easily circumvent U.S. missile defenses, which are mainly oriented against ballistic missiles. Pakistan’s program would add to tensions in South Asia and could motivate India to follow suit.

As part of its strategy to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty the United States should express its willingness to engage in technical discussions and agree to special inspections to resolve compliance concerns if Russia is willing to engage with U.S. concerns. Moving forward the United States should promote a global dialogue on limiting and eventually phasing out all nuclear-armed cruise missile systems.

Verifying limits and later a ban on all types of nuclear-armed cruise missiles would no doubt be a significant challenge, though not an insurmountable one. One early preparatory step toward building a transparency and monitoring regime is for the United States to pressure Russia to resume the exchange of data on nuclear-armed SLCMs that occurred under START I.

Rather than spend billions on a nuclear weapon that is not needed to deter potential adversaries, the United States should cancel its new cruise missile program. This would be a win-win for the military budget and U.S. security.

—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy


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

Posted: October 19, 2015

Dealing with Putin's Russia

Rarely are foreign and security policy challenges characterized by such strong countervailing pressures or outcomes so replete with irony as in the conduct of U.S.-Russian affairs after Moscow’s 2014 military intervention in Ukraine. As Washington policy-makers and politicians try to settle on new guidelines for the bilateral relationship, they should seek a tough-minded but pragmatic diplomacy, realizing that, without U.S.-Russian negotiations, there will be no significant progress on either nuclear nonproliferation or nuclear disarmament. Number One Enemy? Americans now view Russia as the...

25 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Enduring Value of Nuclear Arms Control



Moscow’s challenge to Europe requires a tough and unified response, but the challenge can’t be effectively resolved with nuclear weapons or the buildup of nuclear capabilities.


Volume 6, Issue 11, November 7, 2014

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has rightly aroused concern in Western capitals about Moscow’s commitment to international peace and security and a rules-based international order. These concerns are compounded by troublesome Russian behavior in the nuclear arena, such as the testing of a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and not so subtle reminders from Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia is strengthening its “nuclear deterrent capability.”

Russia’s belligerence has prompted calls from some in the United States to abandon long-standing bipartisan arms control efforts to reduce the Russian nuclear threat.

Some members of Congress have proposed mimicking Moscow by placing a greater premium on nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy.

But this would be a mistake. Moscow’s challenge to Europe requires a tough and unified response, but the challenge can’t be effectively resolved with nuclear weapons or the buildup of nuclear capabilities.

In a Sept. 8 opinion piece in Foreign Policy, Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) stated that Russia's development of new nuclear capabilities should accelerate plans to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons "and perhaps even develop new nuclear systems."

Similarly, former George W. Bush administration official Stephen Rademaker recently argued in The Washington Post that the Obama administration should punish Russia by suspending implementation of the reductions mandated by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)and cease efforts to further reduce excess U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.

Heeding these calls would be counterproductive and self-defeating. U.S. presidents from both parties have long recognized the value of arms control agreements in constraining and reducing Russian nuclear forces. While current tensions between the United States and Moscow may preclude new negotiated agreements in the near term, the arms reduction process has survived similar downturns in the past, and remains in the national interest today.

Nuclear Weapons and the Ukraine Crisis

To date, the United States and European Union have responded to Russian moves in Ukraine and Crimea primarily with economic sanctions, financial and limited military assistance to Ukraine, and conventional military support to NATO countries, particularly the alliance’s easternmost members that border Russia.

U.S. nuclear forces have not played a significant role in the current tensions over Ukraine. The nuclear component of the U.S. response has been limited to sending nuclear-capable B-2 and B-52 aircraft to Europe to participate in military exercises. The deployment of the bombers is largely seen as a symbolic gesture meant to reassure NATO allies alarmed by Russian actions. The calls from Eastern European allies for reassurance have been almost exclusively for non-nuclear measures.

The unparalleled destructive power of nuclear weapons makes them unusable in all but the direst of circumstances. Given the catastrophic impacts of using just a handful of nuclear weapons, deterring their use can be achieved with a far smaller nuclear force than the arsenal of 4,800 weapons the United States currently possesses.

Nuclear weapons are especially irrelevant to the strategy of “hybrid war” that Russia has pursued in Ukraine and which some NATO officials fear could be deployed against the alliance’s eastern flank.  A recent article in the Financial Times described the Russian approach as “a broad range of hostile actions, of which military force is only a small part, that are invariably executed in concert as part of a flexible strategy with long-term objectives.” These tactics fall well below the threshold that makes threatening or using nuclear weapons rational or credible.

In fact, an overreliance on nuclear weapons could make preventing future Russian misbehavior more challenging. For example, many NATO members are skeptical of the continued deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. According to former British Secretary of State for Defense Lord Des Browne, this situation is a “godsend” for Russia, which is eager to exploit fissures in the alliance. In addition, the money spent on maintaining a bloated nuclear arsenal is money that can’t be spent to help Ukraine’s economy or provide central and eastern European allies with additional conventional military support.

Responding to Russia’s INF Violation

The State Department’s 2014 arms control compliance report released in July found “that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”

The United States government has not published details of the violation. Sources told the New York Times in January 2014 that the missile of concern – which may not be intended to deliver nuclear weapons – has not yet been deployed. The Obama administration has taken up the issue with the Russians, but Washington remains unsatisfied with Russia’s explanation for the tests.

The Obama administration should publicly criticize Russia for its violation of the INF treaty, consider steps to make Russia pay a price for its actions, and engage with Moscow in an attempt to bring it back into compliance with the agreement. However, withdrawing from the INF treaty, stopping implementation of other arms control treaties, or ceasing pursuit of future agreements would not serve U.S. interests.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan continued to observe the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow despite its determination that a large radar located at Krasnoyarsk in Siberia violated the treaty. It also engaged in negotiations with the Soviet Union on the INF treaty and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty during this period. It took time, but diplomacy worked and the Soviets eventually tore down the radar.

Likewise, building new nuclear capabilities to counter Russia would be unwise. The U.S. military does not have a requirement for new INF-range missiles. Forcing the Pentagon to spend money on such hardware would suck funds from investments for which there are requirements. In addition, trying to find hosts for new intermediate range missiles would have political costs.

Overall, the implementation record of arms control agreements with Russia has been highly successful—which is why both Republican and Democratic presidents have pursued such agreements. Without these efforts, Russian forces would be unconstrained, our ability to verify what Russia is doing would be curtailed, and the incentives to engage in a costly arms race would be magnified.

The Case for Further Reductions

Over the last 40 years, the United States and Russia have reduced their stockpiles of nuclear weapons to the benefit of U.S., Russian, and global security. Successive administrations, on a bipartisan basis, have reduced the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a way to draw down Russia’s arsenal, build international support for nonproliferation, and save money. These rationales still hold true today.

Paradoxically, the current tensions with Russia reinforce the value of arms control agreements such as New START. The United States and Russia are no longer adversaries like they were during the Cold War and the risk of a deliberate nuclear exchange is exceedingly low. However, by verifiably capping U.S. and Russian deployed nuclear forces, the treaty bounds the current tensions between the two countries.

Blocking implementation of New START would be a major propaganda victory for Moscow and could cause it to renege on its own commitments under the treaty. This would limit the U.S. ability to verify the size and composition of the Russian nuclear stockpile, thereby driving up the worst case assessments of military planners, leading to a potentially costly surge in weapons procurements.

Even under New START, the United States and Russia are allowed to deploy as many as 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons with thousands more in reserve. After an extensive review of nuclear deterrence requirements, U.S. military leaders concluded last year that the United States could safely reduce the size of its deployed strategic arsenal by up to one-third below the New START levels.

In the past, U.S. nuclear weapons reductions have provided an incentive for Russia to similarly reduce the number of nuclear weapons aimed at the United States, via both formal treaties and unilateral cuts. Today, Russia is already well below the New START limit on deployed delivery vehicles. While Russia is aggressively modernizing its nuclear forces, some observers expect Russia’s stockpile to continue to decline as its largest and most heavily loaded missiles reach the end of their lifetimes and are retired.

Russia has so far resisted U.S. offers to negotiate further cuts below News START, and given current tensions between the two sides over Ukraine and INF Treaty compliance issues, further negotiated treaty cuts seem unlikely in the near term. However, the United States and Russia have continued to cooperate on other risk reduction goals, such as constraining Iran’s nuclear program, destroying Syrian chemical weapons, and securing dangerous nuclear and radiological materials. Likewise, disagreements over Ukraine should not reverse the overall trend toward smaller nuclear arsenals.

One option is for the United States and Russia to informally agree to reciprocally reduce their deployed strategic arsenals to 1,000 warheads and 500 delivery systems. According to a 2012 report by the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board, this lower level could be verified using the New START verification provisions and reduce Russia’s incentive to build back up to New START levels and deploy new delivery systems.

Continued U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions are a necessary condition for including other nuclear-armed states in the arms control process, most notably China. If the United States and Russia fail to further reduce their arsenals, China, which is believed to possess less than 300 nuclear warheads, is unlikely to consider capping the size of its arsenal and could instead speed up efforts to increase the capability and size of its arsenal.

There are also strong financial reasons for the United States to consider retiring excess weapons. The congressional mandate for significant reductions in projected military spending could force reductions to the U.S. arsenal with or without Russian reciprocity.

A December 2013 Congressional Budget Office report estimated the cost of the Obama administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans at $355 billion over the next decade. But this is just the tip of the spending iceberg. Over the next 30 years, the bill could add up to $1 trillion.

Faced with increasing pressure to reduce military spending, a bipartisan, independent report commissioned by Congress and the Defense Department recently called the Obama administration’s plans to rebuild the nuclear arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.” Russia also faces significant financial constraints, as a drop in global oil and natural gas prices, the growing costs of the war in Ukraine, and the impact of Western sanctions have taken a significant toll on Russia’s economy.

Now is the time to reevaluate existing spending plans before major budget decisions are made.

Calls to place a greater emphasis on nuclear weapons in response to Russian revanchism is not the magic bullet that some critics make it out to be.  The marginal utility of the 4,799th and 4,798th warheads in the U.S. stockpile is next to nil. Pursuing common sense arms control measures and reshaping U.S. nuclear policy to comport with current security and fiscal realities makes sense as a way to reduce excess U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons and free up resources to address the most 21st century security challenges. – KINGSTON REIF

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Posted: November 7, 2014

SECTION 2: Nuclear Reductions Make the United States Safer


“Arms control treaties have and continue to reduce the likelihood of nuclear conflict with Russia.”50
                                —Admiral C. D. Haney, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, February 2014

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Since the 1960s, U.S. military leaders have determined time and again that nuclear stockpiles are larger than needed to maintain the security of the United States, its allies and friends. These arsenal reductions have encouraged corresponding reductions by Russia, thereby lowering the nuclear threat from the only nation capable of ending the United States as we know it. Moreover, U.S. reductions have helped build international support for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to other states or terrorist organizations, a growing threat to U.S. security. And by avoiding the production of new weapons, arms reductions save money, a key benefit at a time of fiscal pressures.

Enhancing U.S. national security by verifiably reducing superpower nuclear arsenals—a counter-intuitive idea to some—has a long bipartisan tradition.

Since the late-1960s, U.S. presidents beginning with Lyndon B. Johnson have pursued and signed bilateral agreements mandating verifiable limits and reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles. Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all contributed to reducing the nuclear threat through the negotiation of nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and later with Russia.

In certain periods of time, the force reductions were very significant. During the George H. W. Bush administration, from 1989 to 1994, the U.S. nuclear stockpile dropped by 50 percent, from about 22,00 to 11,000 warheads, the most rapid nuclear arsenal reduction in U.S. history. During the George W. Bush administration, from 2001 to 2009, the stockpile dropped another 50 percent, from about 10,000 to 5,000.

As Reagan said in 1986, “It is my fervent goal and hope…that we will some day no longer have to rely on nuclear weapons to deter aggression and assure world peace. To that end the United States is now engaged in a serious and sustained effort to negotiate major reductions in levels of offensive nuclear weapons with the ultimate goal of eliminating these weapons from the face of the earth.”

President Barack Obama negotiated the New START Treaty with Russia, signed in 2010, and has called for another round of bilateral reductions beyond New START. As President Obama said in Berlin in June 2013, “we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third.”

Some members of Congress, however, claim that arms reductions have gone far enough, and, despite their long history of success, should not continue. Some even suggest that the United States should halt the implementation of New START.

However, New START establishes predictability regarding U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, which is essential especially during times of tension. The pursuit of additional arms reductions would also have important benefits.
In June 2013 after an extensive interagency review of nuclear deterrence requirements, U.S. military leaders concluded, that the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be “more than adequate” to meet security objectives when New START is fully implemented in 2018, and the force can be reduced by up to one-third, from 1,550 New START-accountable deployed strategic warheads to about 1,000.[51]

Additional U.S.-Russian reductions would draw down the largest nuclear force that could be directed against the United States. At the same time, the possibility of a nuclear attack from Russia is exceedingly remote, and, as of September 2014, Washington deployed over 200 strategic delivery vehicles more than Moscow.[52] As the new guidance states, “the need for numerical parity…is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War…”[53]

Today’s most pressing security threat to the United States is not nuclear war with Russia or China, but nuclear terrorism and proliferation. Excessive U.S. nuclear forces have no meaningful role to play in this regard. The United States needs to sustain a strong international coalition to secure nuclear materials across the globe and turn back nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, and continued U.S. and Russia arms reductions are essential to these goals.

In addition, by clarifying their intentions to achieve further nuclear arms reductions and taking steps in that direction, U.S. leaders can put greater pressure on China to exercise greater restraint and engage more actively in nuclear risk reduction initiatives.

Click image to enlarge.A Steady Decline
The U.S. nuclear stockpile peaked at 31,255 warheads in 1967, and has come down ever since.[54] President Richard Nixon and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev took the first step to cap U.S. and Soviet nuclear ballistic missile forces with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) Interim Agreement. As an executive agreement, it did not require U.S. Senate approval, but it was approved by Congress in a joint resolution in 1972.

The follow-on SALT II treaty was signed by President Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev in June 1979, and was submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification shortly thereafter. But Carter removed the treaty from Senate consideration in January 1980, after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the United States and the Soviet Union voluntarily observed the SALT II limits. By this time, the U.S. arsenal had been reduced to about 24,000 warheads.

President Ronald Reagan began talks toward the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which he and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed in 1987. Under INF, the two nations agreed to eliminate their stocks of medium-range, nuclear-capable, land-based missiles. It was the first arms control treaty to abolish an entire category of weapon systems, and established unprecedented procedures to verify firsthand that missiles were actually destroyed. The U.S. Senate gave its advice and consent to the INF treaty in 1988.

Meanwhile, Reagan and his team pursued negotiations on a strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty (START) with the Soviets. Under START, President Reagan proposed major reductions, not just limitations, in each superpower’s stockpile of long-range missiles and bombers. The START I treaty was signed by President George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev in 1991, and the U.S. Senate gave its advice and consent in 1992.

In late 1991, the Soviet Union broke up, creating the independent states of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. The most significant danger emanating from the former Soviet Union was the loss of control of its nuclear stockpile.

President George H. W. Bush responded with his bold Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) in September 1991, which led to the removal of thousands of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from forward deployment. Days later Moscow reciprocated, reducing the risk that these weapons would fall into the wrong hands. No formal treaty was ever negotiated or signed, nor did the Bush administration seek the approval of Congress. Under the PNIs and subsequent actions, the United States unilaterally reduced its stockpile of non-strategic warheads by 90 percent.[55]

President George H. W. Bush and new Russian President Boris Yeltsin began another round of negotiations and signed the START II treaty in early 1993. The Senate voted in approval of the treaty in 1996, but the treaty never entered into force. In 2000, the Russian Duma linked the fate of START II to the continuation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Following the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in June 2002, the Duma rejected START II.

United States President Jimmy Carter (right) and Leonid Brezhnev, First Secretary of Communist Party of the Soviet Union, shake hands after signing the SALT II treaty limiting strategic arms in Vienna, Austria, on June 18, 1979. (AFP/Getty Images)Part of the Duma’s objection to START II was that the planned reductions were not deep enough. So in March 1997, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to begin negotiating START III, which would have reduced each side to 2,000–2,500 deployed strategic warheads by Dec. 31, 2007. Unfortunately, discussions bogged down over distinctions between strategic and theater–range interceptors under the ABM treaty, and START III was never concluded.

In May 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT or Moscow Treaty), which limited both sides’ strategic warheads to 1,700-2,200. The U.S. Senate gave its advice and consent to SORT in 2003.

It is worth recalling that President Bush initially set out to reduce U.S. forces without a formal agreement. As he said in 2001: “We don’t need an arms control agreement to convince us to reduce our nuclear weapons down substantially, and I’m going to do it.”[56]

President Bush ultimately agreed to submit SORT to the Senate in part because Russia wanted a treaty, even if it was a very simple one with no verification measures. Had Russia not wanted a formal agreement, Bush would likely have reduced U.S. nuclear weapons without a formal agreement, as his father did before him.

Due, in part, to the fact that the SORT treaty relied indirectly on the verification mechanisms of START I, the United States and Russia both wanted to negotiate a new bilateral agreement before START I expired in 2009. In April 2010, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START treaty to limit each side to 1,550 deployed, treaty-accountable strategic warheads by 2018. The Senate gave its advice and consent to the agreement in December 2010.

The Persistent Logic of Nuclear Reductions

It is no accident that seven U.S. presidents, (Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama) both Republicans and Democrats, and their Soviet/Russian counterparts spent significant political capital on reducing nuclear weapons.

Besides the fact that arms reduction agreements have high public approval ratings, presidents have pursued this path because nuclear arsenal reductions, particularly in the post-Cold War period, have enhanced U.S. national security in the following ways:

The United States Has More Nuclear Weapons Than Necessary to Deter Nuclear Attack
The massive build up during the Cold War and the relatively sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact left the United States and Russia with nuclear arsenals that vastly outsized the threats they needed to deter. As a result, U.S. military leaders have been able to reassure political leaders that nuclear stockpiles are larger than needed to maintain the security of the United States, its allies and friends. As the Pentagon put it in its June 2013 report on nuclear employment strategy, New START force levels “are more than adequate” to meet U.S. national security needs, and can be reduced by one-third.[57]

This conclusion is unlikely to change even if Russia were to build up beyond New START levels, which is unlikely. According to a 2012 Defense Department report to Congress on Russian nuclear forces, the U.S. nuclear force posture can “account for any possible adjustments in the Russian strategic force,” including the deployment of additional warheads. The report states that even if Russia were to go “significantly above” New START limits, this would have “little to no effect on the U.S. assured second strike capabilities,” including strategic submarines at sea. The Pentagon report concludes that Russia would not be able to achieve a military advantage “by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario.”[58]

Russian Reductions Are Good for U.S. and International Security
U.S. arsenal reductions have encouraged corresponding reductions by Russia, thereby lowering the nuclear threat. Arms control agreements have placed limits on the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, meaning there are now significantly fewer nuclear weapons in Russia that could be used to target the United States in a nuclear war. For example, each side had more than 11,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads in 1990. START I, which was signed in 1991, required each nation to reduce to 6,000; the 2002 SORT agreement to no more than 2,200; and the 2010 New START deal limits each side to no more than 1,550 treaty-accountable deployed strategic warheads by the year 2018.[59] In this way, Russia’s most threatening nuclear weapons have been reduced by 85 percent.

Opening meeting of the 2010 High-level Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) at the  United Nations in New York on May 3, 2010. (IAEA)Moreover, Russia is already below some of New START’s limits, with 528 strategic delivery vehicles deployed as of September 2014.[60] Russia’s stockpile is expected to decline further as its delivery systems reach the end of their lifetimes and are retired. To discourage Moscow from building back up to New START levels and from deploying new delivery systems, it is important keep the reduction process moving. For example, the United States could accelerate its reductions to complete them before New START’s 2018 deadline.[61]

To the extent that treaties have intrusive verification measures, such as the on-site inspections under New START, they increase transparency and confidence that treaty commitments are being implemented. This creates a more stable U.S.-Russian strategic relationship, with more predictability and less fear of hidden weapons and possible treaty breakout. This allows both sides to plan based on a predictable future, instead of worst-case assumptions. 

Despite disagreements, such as over Crimea, arms control has contributed to an increasingly stable U.S.-Russian relationship. As stated by the Pentagon’s new nuclear guidance, “Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries, and the prospects of military confrontation between us have declined dramatically.”[62]

As just one example of how far the U.S.-Russian relationship has come, consider that over the last 15 years the United States has produced about 10 percent of its electricity from uranium fuel recovered from 20,000 disarmed Russian nuclear warheads.[63] The fact that the United States trusts Moscow to be a reliable energy supplier, and that Moscow trusts Washington to not reconvert this fuel into weapons, speaks volumes. It defies common sense to think there is a realistic possibility that these two nations would intentionally initiate a nuclear war.

Building International Support for Nonproliferation
U.S.-Russian reductions and arms control progress have helped to build international support for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to other states or terrorist organizations. Today, this is the most serious threat facing the United States and the world. According to the Pentagon, today’s “most immediate and extreme danger remains nuclear terrorism,” with nuclear proliferation a close second, including Iran and North Korea.[64]

The link between U.S.-Russian arms control and stopping proliferation is crucial and often misunderstood. U.S.-Russian arms control will not, by itself, convince Iran or North Korea to abandon their nuclear programs. But U.S.-Russian actions on arms control are necessary to sustain global cooperation to on proliferation hard cases, like Iran and North Korea.

Click image to enlarge.Under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States and Russia (and China, France, and the United Kingdom) agreed to pursue arms control and disarmament; all other signatories pledged to forgo nuclear weapons. That basic bargain is a good deal for the United States and has been reinforced repeatedly over time, such as when the treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995.

Therefore, the United States and Russia need to uphold their end of the NPT bargain to build a strong coalition of states to support U.S. efforts to control fissile materials around the world and to enforce sanctions and other measures on countries like Iran and North Korea. According to then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, “as we think about our nonproliferation goals,” demonstrating additional progress on arms reductions “is in our interest as we look to put pressure particularly on North Korea and Iran…having a strong coalition in support of us will be vital.”[65]

As explained in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) Report, “By reducing the role and numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons—and thereby demonstrating that we are meeting our NPT Article VI obligation to make progress toward nuclear disarmament—we can put ourselves in a much stronger position to persuade our NPT partners to join with us in adopting the measures needed to reinvigorate the non-proliferation regime and secure nuclear materials worldwide against theft or seizure by terrorist groups.”[66]

As a clear example of this, the 1995 vote to indefinitely extend the NPT would not have been possible without political commitments from the nuclear powers to negotiate a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 1996.
Similarly, the U.S. Senate’s failure to approve the CTBT in 1999 had a negative effect on international efforts to strengthen nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to Mohamed El Baradei, who headed the agency at the time, the Senate’s vote on the CTBT was a “devastating blow” to these efforts.[67]

Nuclear Arms Reductions Save Money
By allowing weapons to be retired and avoiding the production of new weapons, arms reductions save money. It is beyond the scope of this report to add up all the dollars saved through arms control in the past, but consider how much the United States might have spent since 1967 if it still had to support a nuclear stockpile of 31,000 warheads and their delivery systems today. And there are significant savings to be had in the future, as the United States plans to rebuild the triad of delivery systems and warheads over the next 25 years.

Arms Reductions Still Make Sense
Despite the long, proud, bipartisan history of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions, some now claim that the process has reached a point of diminishing returns, and that additional reductions are not in U.S. interests.
For example, as Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) wrote in February 2013, “If anything, reducing the American [nuclear] arsenal is likely to cause the very instability that the U.S. seeks to avoid.”[68]

There is no reason, however, to assume that the security logic of arms reductions does not continue to hold true. All of the reasons that arms control made sense in the past are still valid today.

As the Pentagon’s revised nuclear guidance makes clear, the United States today has more nuclear weapons than it needs to guarantee its security and that of its allies and friends. There is clear military support for a smaller stockpile.

It remains in the U.S. interest to reduce Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, despite the welcome fact that the threat of nuclear attack from Moscow has decreased. Russian arsenal reductions can still reduce the consequences of possible accidental missile launches, and help serve the goal of providing better security for and ultimately eliminating weapons-usable materials.

Senator Carl Levin  (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in June 2012: “I can’t see any reason for having as large an inventory as we are allowed to have under New START, in terms of real threat, potential threat.” He added, “The more weapons that exist out there, the less secure we are, rather than the more secure we are.”[69]

Perhaps the most important reason to continue the U.S-Russian arms control process is to strengthen the international coalition against proliferation. This is where the greatest future threats to U.S. security lie. Excessively large arsenals do not stop proliferation, yet arsenal reductions can translate into greater global support for U.S. nonproliferation efforts.

Finally, fiscal pressure on the defense budget makes it unwise to maintain any military program that is larger than it needs to be. A dollar wasted on excess nuclear weapons is a dollar lost to preventing terrorism or proliferation. In 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell noted: “We have every incentive to reduce the number [of nuclear weapons]. These are expensive. They take away from soldier pay. They take away from [operation and maintenance] investments. They take away from lots of things. There is no incentive to keep more than you believe you need for the security of the Nation.”[70]

Two arguments that are often made against lowering the U.S. nuclear arsenal are that it would encourage China to build up and would cause such worry to our allies that they may decided to build their own nuclear forces. Neither argument holds water.

For decades now, China has been content with a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the United States or Russia. Beijing has a total estimated stockpile of less than 300 warheads, with about 75 of those on long-range missiles that could reach the United States.[71] Even after dropping to 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, the United States would still enjoy a 10-1 advantage. China poses no roadblock to continued nuclear reductions at this time.

A Russian Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile launcher drives at the Red Square in Moscow, on May 9, 2014, during a Victory Day parade. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)If the United States and Russia reduce their nuclear forces to around 1,000, Washington and Moscow will be in a better position to reach an understanding with China about limiting the further growth of its arsenal.
On the other hand, maintaining unnecessarily large U.S. and Russian nuclear force levels, combined with increasingly capable U.S. ballistic missile defenses, could push China to accelerate its efforts to increase the size and capabilities of its strategic nuclear force.

Some critics claim that further U.S. nuclear force reductions would drive allies that depend on the so-called U.S. nuclear “umbrella” to reconsider their nonnuclear weapon status and seek their own arsenals.

Such concerns are unfounded given the unmatched retaliatory potential of 1,000 strategic nuclear weapons, as well as the overwhelming superiority of U.S. conventional forces. Moreover, for a non-nuclear state, such as South Korea or Japan, to openly build a nuclear arsenal would be a dramatic renunciation of its commitment not to do so under the NPT. The political costs of such a decision would be huge.

Furthermore, rather than express opposition to further nuclear force reductions, U.S. allies in Europe and Japan have consistently and repeatedly called on the United States and Russia to “continue discussions and follow-on measure to the New START to achieve even deeper reduction in their nuclear arsenals towards achieving the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons“ and they “urge those not yet engaged in nuclear disarmament effort to reduce their arsenals with the objective of their total elimination.”[72]

Military, Bipartisan Support
President Obama’s efforts to reduce excess nuclear weapons stockpiles have strong military and bipartisan support. In March 2011, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) wrote that, “Deeper nuclear reductions... should remain a priority.” They said the United States and Russia, which led the build-up for decades, “must continue to lead the build-down.”[73]

In April 2012, Gen. James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commander of U.S. nuclear forces under President George W. Bush, called for reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals by 80 percent from current levels.

Cartwright, along with others, including former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), now Secretary of Defense, wrote that the current U.S. and Russian arsenals “vastly exceed what is needed to satisfy reasonable requirements of deterrence.”[74]

A November 2012 report of the U.S. Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) on “Options for Implementing Additional Nuclear Force Reductions” suggested that with New START verification tools in place, further nuclear reductions need not wait for a formal follow-on treaty.

The ISAB report, which included William Perry (Chair) and Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft (USAF, Ret.), recommended that the United States and Russia could accelerate the pace of reductions under New START to reach the agreed limits before the 2018 deadline. The ISAB report also recommended that “The United States could communicate to Russia that the United States is prepared to go to lower levels of nuclear weapons as a matter of national policy, consistent with the strategy developed in the Nuclear Posture Review, if Russia is willing to reciprocate.”[75]

Such an initiative would also allow both sides to reduce the extraordinarily high costs of nuclear force maintenance and modernization and could help induce other nuclear-armed states to exercise greater restraint.

Today, it is clear that the United States can maintain a credible deterrent at lower levels of nuclear weapons than the 1,550 deployed strategic warheads allowed by New START. There is no reasonable justification today for such high numbers.

Further reductions to the U.S. nuclear stockpile would bring a variety of benefits, including the prospect of a smaller Russia arsenal, a stronger international coalition against nuclear terrorism and proliferation, and billions of dollars that could be saved or spent on higher priority defense needs. Nuclear arsenal reductions have made sense to seven presidents over five decades. They still make sense today.

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Posted: October 16, 2014

U.S. and Russia Nuclear Numbers Up During Last Six Months

The deployed strategic nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States increased in size over the last six months, according to the latest data exchange under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Taken together, operational U.S. and Russian strategic missile warheads and heavy bombers rose by 188, an amount larger than that possessed by five of the seven remaining nuclear weapons states in their entire arsenals. The uptick in strategic arsenals revealed by the most recent data exchange constitutes a surprising and troubling milestone at the mid-point for the seven-year...


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