While still trying to get the New START Treaty ratified, possibly during the lame duck session, the Obama Administration has its sights set on the next round of reductions. The new negotiations would take the U.S. strategic arsenal down to levels not seen since the early 1950s, possibly as low as 1,000 deployed weapons. At such low numbers, the U.S. would have to abandon the security of the redundant nuclear TRIAD in favor of a dyad, probably made up of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
There are a number of reasons to go very slowly before seeking further reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces. First, we are entering terra incognito. We simply do not know if deterrence can be maintained at low numbers. No one has done the analysis. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. government, think tanks and academic experts conducted thousands of analyses looking at various combinations of forces and employment scenarios. Today we are not even doing a tenth of this analysis, but nonetheless making major, irreversible decisions on our strategic future. We do know that the last time we were in such a position, in the 1950s, we did not like it. So we built more. No one knows how first-strike instabilities, breakout vulnerabilities, arms race incentives, or any of the other myriad concerns that we had in the past will manifest themselves at low numbers.
Second, we have never been at low numbers in a multi-party nuclear world where some parties are going down while others are going up/entering the nuclear arena. Most of our experience and analysis is of a two-player world. So the uncertainties are multiplied. They are made worse by the fact that we have a small and obsolescent theater nuclear force. The Russians have more than 4,000 theater weapons. So we must rely on a shrinking strategic arsenal to deter all threats, including from Russian and Chinese theater nuclear weapons. At a minimum, the next round of nuclear negotiations must include significant reductions in Russian theater nuclear forces.
Third, the state of the warhead/launcher complexes is so fragile that if any imperfections in the deterrence relationship are found or a state tries to break out from the treaty, the U.S. would have an extremely difficult time fixing the problem or countering the break out. Since we cannot yet even imagine the instabilities that will occur at low numbers in a multi-player nuclear world how can we rely on such a complex to preserve the peace? Without a cushion of strategic weapons, we could find ourselves defeated before a weapon is launched. Also, we a re-creating an incentive for our adversaries to proliferation until their quantity really does have a qualitative effect.
The recent incident when the Air Force lost power to fifty of its ICBMs, over ten percent of the force, is illustrative of the uncertainties and vulnerabilities associated with an aging strategic infrastructure. This incident occurred after the Air Force had spent billions of dollars and enormous amounts of senior level attention on improving the performance of its strategic systems and their command and control structures. Unless the U.S. has absolute confidence in the performance of its strategic forces, it make no sense to pursue reductions.
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