Thursday, September 30, 2010

Nuclear Arms Reduction—in Perspective

The Obama administration signed a treaty with Russia to limit the number of nuclear warheads to 1550 each. The treaty must be ratified by a two-thirds vote in the Senate before it can go into effect. Ratification is not a sure thing. Who would vote against eliminating thousands of useless nuclear weapons? Why do we even need 1550 weapons? These are excellent questions with seemingly obvious answers. Unfortunately, the world of nuclear weapons has arrived at a system of logic that only makes sense to those who live in that world where the potential use of such weapons is a given. One cannot understand the issues facing disarmament negotiators unless one has some familiarity with the history of the U.S.-Soviet Union nuclear confrontation.

Fred Kaplan has authored a nice historical introduction in the September 27, 2010 edition of Time Magazine. He points out that at their peaks, the Soviets had about 40,000 nuclear weapons, while the most we had was about 31,000. Just from those numbers, 1550 looks like a tremendous amount of progress. The sheer numbers of dismantled warheads makes it clear why Obama gave so much priority to agreements concerning the control of nuclear materials

Of greatest importance is the understanding of how we arrived at a point where we thought we needed 31,000 weapons. According to Kaplan the beginning of the nuclear arms race began with a decision by President Eisenhower.
“The U.S. strategy (enshrined in Eisenhower’s ‘massive retaliation’ policy) was this: If the Soviets attacked the U.S. or Western Europe, even if no nukes were fired in the process, the U.S. would launch all of its nuclear weapons against every target in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and communist China. (The U.S. had little ability to defend Western Europe with conventional arms at the time, and it was widely believed that the U.S.S.R. and China formed a monolithic alliance.)”
Given this sort of mandate it is easy to see how military planners suddenly shifted into a regime where thousands of warheads were required. When the Soviets began building bombers and missile systems that could target the U.S. mainland, the only “logical” next step had to be “mutually assured destruction,” fittingly referred to as M.A.D. The reasoning was that one side could only be prevented from contemplating a first strike if that side realized that the response would lead to their annihilation. Kaplan puts this mindset into perspective by describing an actual plan for a U.S. first strike, as well as a planned response to a Soviet first strike launch.
“If the U.S. launched its entire arsenal in a pre-emptive first strike....the attack would involve 3,423 nuclear weapons totaling 7,847 megatons, killing 285 million communist subjects and injuring 40 million more.”
If the Soviets initiated the action:
“....the U.S. would shoot all of its nuclear weapons on alert—1459 nuclear bombs totaling 2,164 megatons—against 654 targets....killing 175 million people who happened to live under communist rule.”
One should keep in mind that these were only the prompt deaths. People who did not die immediately were viewed as remaining a threat. Throughout this M.A.D. phase each side tried to destabilize this standoff in their favor by making weapon systems harder to destroy. This would force the other side to demand more, bigger, and more accurate weapons in response.

It is surprisingly easy to plan, plot, and analyze in a world of megadeaths and “nuclear winters” while maintaining one’s sanity—provided you were surrounded by colleagues who were playing the same games. Kaplan presents an interesting quote from one of the participants in this arena, William Kaufmann.
“’It was easy to get caught up in the whole nuclear business. You could eat and breath the stuff....Then you’d move away from it for a while, look at it from a distance and think, God, that’s a crazy world.’”
Currently, as of September, 2009, the U.S. has 5,113 nuclear warheads. The Russians control about 8,000. The other nuclear powers are estimated to have, at most, a few hundred warheads each.

With that as preamble, let us move on to an article in the journal Foreign Affairs entitled Smaller and Safer; A New Plan for Nuclear Postures By Bruce Blair, Victor Esin, Matthew McKinzie, Valery Yarynich, and Pavel Zolotarev. The authors provide background on the issues that drive the negotiators. It turns out that M.A.D. is still the policy. What has changed is the perspective on what constitutes “destruction.”
“A stable nuclear deterrent exists between the United States and Russia when neither country would choose to launch a nuclear attack against the other regardless of the level of tension that may arise between them. Deterrence would become unstable if either country acquired a credible first-strike capability -- the ability to attack without fear of reprisal. The stability of deterrence, then, comes down to an assessment of the viability of both sides' retaliatory capacities.”

“Such a metric of stability was applied by nuclear planners in coming up with warhead limits for the New START treaty. After calculating the damage from a first strike against nuclear forces, they determined how many surviving nuclear weapons could be used in a retaliatory attack against targets of value -- economic and administrative centers. The planners assumed that in order for deterrence to be stable and predictable, a country had to be able to retaliate against 150 to 300 urban targets. These judgments played a key role in setting the warhead limit of 1,550 for each side in the New START treaty.”
The authors believe that a capability to retaliate against as few as ten cities would be sufficient deterrent in the current environment. Given that premise the number of warheads could be decreased much more, but then other issues would begin to be important.
“Dropping to 1,000 total warheads is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to arms control. To make further progress toward a nuclear-free world, it will be necessary to pursue even deeper cuts. These will depend on the state of relations between the United States and Russia, on the worldwide deployment of missile defense systems, on the precision of long-range weapons, and on the prospects of involving other nuclear states in the process of reducing and limiting nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine, for example, that the United States and Russia would go below 1,000 total nuclear weapons if China was increasing its nuclear capacity.”
“Further strides toward nuclear disarmament will be possible only if the other nuclear powers freeze their arsenals and join in the negotiation process to reduce their forces proportionately. For this stage, the United States and Russia could cut their arsenals to 500 nuclear warheads each in exchange for 50 percent reductions by the other nuclear weapons countries.”
Missile defense has always been a troubling issue.
“That is why strategic missile defenses have to be kept from reaching a point where they can prevent retaliation by knocking out strategic offensive missiles. The results of our modeling for the 1,000-warhead level suggest that advanced missile defense systems, such as the SM-3 Block 2 that the U.S. Navy is testing, would not upset deterrence stability if their numbers do not exceed 100 interceptors deployed by each side. An attacking country could not expect to protect itself from retaliation against its cities if it possessed only 100 or fewer such interceptors. Under current plans, the United States will deploy fewer than 100 interceptors. Russia will strongly oppose expansion above this level.”
The authors are hopeful that further reductions will be attained.
“Once the New START agreement is approved by the U.S. Senate, the arms control process between the United States and Russia needs to continue moving forward. Washington and Moscow could easily reduce their nuclear forces to just 1,000 warheads apiece without any adverse consequences. They could also de-alert their nuclear forces, diminishing the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch. Eventually, in concert with other nuclear states and after progress has been made on missile defense cooperation, they should be able to reduce their arsenals to 500 weapons each. Even after these deep cuts, hundreds of cities would still remain at risk of catastrophic destruction in the event of a nuclear war.”
Clinging to the notion of “mutually assured destruction” precludes reducing the number of weapons much further. Replacing a concept that has dominated planning for fifty years will not be easy. It may require another generation to take charge. Perhaps we need leaders who never lived in a time when nuclear weapons seemed to make sense.

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