An election year is a bad time to propose dramatic new national security policies. The Obama Administration has just submitted a fiscal year 2013 federal budget to Congress that the White House Chief of Staff admits has no chance of passage even in the Democratically-controlled Senate. The Pentagon’s new defense strategy and associated slimmed down budget are facing intense scrutiny on the Hill. Some key provisions, like another round of base closures seem almost certain to be rejected.
So it is somewhat perplexing to see reports in the press that the administration is considering new, steep reductions in deployed U.S. nuclear forces to numbers as low as 300. It is not just a matter of lousy timing. Cutting strategic nuclear forces at a time when the administration is committed to reducing U.S. conventional capabilities is bad politics and poor strategy. It also will not help the White House reassure U.S. allies that we are still committed to their defense. NATO already is up in arms over the simple proposal to bring home two of four Army brigades in Europe.
There is a more fundamental reason why any administration proposal for deep reductions in U.S. strategic nuclear forces makes no sense. It would require too many countries to agree on too many conditions simultaneously. Russia would have to agree to cut its theater nuclear arsenal (estimated at some 4,000 weapons) by more than 95 percent. Since Moscow’s efforts at defense modernization have failed, how can the Kremlin eliminate the only means it still possesses to guarantee Russia’s security? Similarly, a U.S. plan for deep cuts would require that Pakistan, India and even China halt their nuclear modernization programs. But Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons to counter India’s conventional superiority and India seeks to improve its conventional (and nuclear) might to counter China’s growing power. There are recent published reports that India, looking north to China’s expanding nuclear capability, is pursuing a sea-based nuclear deterrent. Such a move would, in turn, compel Pakistan to do the same.
In a well-sourced Associated Press article, veteran defense reporter Bob Burns cites a RAND Corporation study which concluded that deep reductions would make sense for the United States only under three conditions: 1) they were incorporated into a treaty with extremely intrusive verification provisions; 2) the U.S. deployed additional non-nuclear weapons with global reach; and 3) if the U.S. had “hypothetically excellent,” if limited, defenses against long- and medium-range nuclear missiles. Will China, India and Pakistan, or for that matter Israel, agree to a global treaty with intrusive inspections? Not likely. Nor will the world stand by and allow the U.S. to deploy advanced conventional weapons and robust missile defenses without responding. It is precisely because Moscow fears the growth of U.S. conventional prompt global strike capabilities and its deployment of missile defenses that the Kremlin insists on maintaining a relatively large theater and strategic nuclear arsenal. If China continues its military expansion in response to the U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, India will respond in kind and Pakistan will be compelled to hold on to its nuclear weapons.
The pursuit of deep reductions in U.S. strategic nuclear forces is predicated on the idea that an expansion of this country’s advanced conventional weapons and missile defenses will simply be accepted by other nuclear weapons states. In fact, for the Obama proposal to make sense, China and India, for example, must eschew increases in both their conventional and nuclear forces. Oh yes, and the U.S. build up will occur in an environment of declining defense budgets. Like the President’s FY 2013 budget, any proposal for new, deep cuts in U.S. strategic nuclear forces is dead on arrival.
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