The ink was barely dry on the New START Treaty before some in the Obama Administration were talking about the need for a follow-on agreement. The current agreement reduces the number of deployed Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear warheads (but not stockpiled weapons) by some 25 percent to 1,550 between 2011 and 2018. Even though this is a substantial reduction, it is not enough for some in the arms control community and the administration. They are worried that if the U.S. does not move faster to deep reductions, say down to 500, that the chance of getting to global zero will disappear.
Moving rapidly to a new New START agreement would be a mistake for many reasons. First, it will take time to complete the current reductions. Since the U.S. is required to maintain a safe, secure and credible deterrent, it needs to make its reductions in a measured way that does not compromise the force. So, for example, the Navy has to maintain a number of SSBNs at sea at all times; it can only bring them into port on a set schedule. Rushing the process would simply cause backups, delays and increase risk.
Second, the U.S. needs to maintain an inventory of weapons which means doing life extension on existing warheads. This requires a functioning nuclear weapons complex. This complex is in dire need of modernization. Just replacing the current Uranium Processing Facility at Oak Ridge and building a new Chemical and Metallurgical Replacement plant at Los Alamos will take billions of dollars and years to complete. But without these facilities there will be no way to maintain a safe, secure and usable set of weapons. This is particularly a problem if we reduce significantly the stockpile, which would be a goal of any follow-on agreement. Without a large stockpile every remaining weapon would have to be guaranteed to perform as advertised but to have that confidence we need the new facilities that are essential to refurbishing them. Deep reductions need to be held in abeyance until the nuclear complex is modernized.
Third, the Department of Defense needs to be sure that it can maintain the triad for the foreseeable future. The Navy has a plan for maintaining the D-5 until the late 2040s. The ICBM leg has completed a life extension program that will carry the force out to about 2030. But work needs to begin soon on the design of a follow-on ICBM. This raises the question of the viability of the nation’s solid rocket motor industry. Then there is the Air Force’s plan to build a new, nuclear capable bomber but not for more than another decade. Why rush headlong into a new agreement when the administration cannot even be sure it can maintain a residual strategic nuclear force?
Fourth, the Russians have made it clear that they will resist significantly reductions in their theater nuclear weapons in which they hold a ten-to-one advantage over the United States. There are some in the administration who would like to entice the Russians to the bargaining table by preemptively giving up the few remaining U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. This would not solve Russia’s fundamental problem which is the need for have nuclear weapons to hold their neighbors at risk. It would also undermine extended deterrence and lead to an explosion of proliferation. Negotiating a useful and verifiable agreement that gets at both sides entire nuclear stockpiles, not just a few strategic warheads, will take a long time.
Finally, there is no agreement in this country on the virtue of further deep reductions. The U.S. is perilously close already to the line at which it will not have the number or types of weapons to hold at risk any high value targets in Russia, China, North Korea or Iran except cities. This means it will not have the means to deter any nuclear threat except the least likely: an attack on U.S. cities. Is it sensible to place the President in a position in which if North Korea uses one of its few weapons to attack South Korea or a U.S. military facility in the region he would have to chose to risk the destruction of an American city by retaliating against Pyongyang or Wonsan? I do not think so. Despite what some advocates of disarmament claim, U.S. deterrence strategy has never been based on just blowing up cities. Leaving the President with no options is not a good idea.
So, despite the enthusiasm in some quarters for rapidly moving to another agreement on nuclear force reductions, the smarter course is to go slow. At a minimum, the U.S. needs to revitalize the nuclear weapons complex, define a path for modernization of all three legs of the triad, protect the solid rocket motor industrial base and figure out how much nuclear risk it is willing to incur.
Find Archived Articles: