Thursday, March 14, 2013

Nuclear Warheads: How Low Can We Go?

If there is a positive side to the insanity known as sequestration, it will be the forced reductions in defense spending. It is long past time to perform a thorough reevaluation of priorities given the changed fiscal situation and changed world in which our military finds itself. Nowhere is such a reevaluation more needed than in our nuclear weapons posture. We are now well into the third decade since the justification for our nuclear policies became null and void, yet we persist in proceeding as if little has changed.

President Obama is on record as wishing to leave office with the world placed on a path towards a zero nuclear weapon future. There is no better time than right now to initiate some movement in that direction. An article by David E. Sanger in the New York Times suggests that such a move is being contemplated by the president.

"....White House officials are looking at a cut that would take the arsenal of deployed weapons to just above 1,000. Currently there are about 1,700, and the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia that passed the Senate at the end of 2009 calls for a limit of roughly 1,550 by 2018."

"But Mr. Obama, according to an official who was involved in the deliberations, ‘believes that we can make pretty radical reductions — and save a lot of money — without compromising American security in the second term. And the Joint Chiefs have signed off on that concept’."
"Among the most outspoken advocates of a deep cut has been a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James E. Cartwright, whom Mr. Obama continues to turn to on strategic issues. General Cartwright has argued that a reduction to 900 warheads would still guarantee American safety, even if only half of them were deployed at any one time."

If the dual goal of saving money and making the world a safer and saner place is to be reached, then the civilian components as well as the military components of the nuclear weapons industry must be addressed.

"Mr. Obama is already moving quietly, officials acknowledge, to explore whether he can scale back a 10-year, $80 billion program to modernize the country’s weapons laboratories. "

"The White House agreed to the spending on the weapons labs as the price of winning Republican votes on the new Start three years ago, but one senior defense official said late last year that ‘the environment of looking for cuts in the national security budget makes this an obvious target’."

The question of how many nuclear warheads we can get rid of is inseparably intertwined with the history of the nuclear weapons program. While the generals tried mightily to conjure up a nuclear war-fighting posture, tactical weapons have always been an expensive and unloved component of their arsenal. It was the standoff with the Soviet Union over strategic forces known by the chillingly appropriate term MAD (mutual assured destruction) that preoccupied our military planners decades ago, and still does to this day.

The logic behind MAD was that each side would have sufficient nuclear weapons, even after a first strike by the other side, to annihilate the enemy in a counterattack. This strategy was unconditionally unstable as each side was encouraged to produce more weapons and more difficult-to-kill weapon systems. If long range bombers were the original weapon of choice, greater survivability was gained by adding long range, and increasingly more accurate intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Perhaps the greatest technical achievement was the addition of a third arm, the sea launched ballistic missile. Each improvement in capability was matched by the other side. Each new technical development could be viewed by the opponent as an attempt to upset the equilibrium and attain a viable first strike capability. The burden of this arms race eventually convinced both sides of the need to limit the number of warheads and delivery systems to what was needed to maintain the equilibrium provided by MAD. This occurred in the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) agreements (see chart below). With the demise of the Soviet Union both sides agreed on the necessity to continue to wind down their arsenals.

The next level of capability under MAD logic would be the development of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM ) defense system. Ronald Regan wasted a lot of money on systems doomed to fail under his presidency, but war fighting planners have long wished for such a system. Given the state of cooperation between Russia and the US, the implementation of such a scheme could easily be taken as an attempt to game the system and threaten the other with a potential first strike that could not be effectively countered. Such a system was forbidden under earlier negotiations, but George Bush decided to abrogate the treaty and pushed for the implementation of a broad version. This explains why Russia is so sensitive to the installation of ABM systems no matter what justification is announced by Washington.

An article in The Economist provides a chart that nicely summarizes the growth and decline in nuclear warheads as this scenario unfolded over time.

Given this history, what level of nuclear capability might make sense, and can we ever get to zero warheads? An article in Foreign Affairs by Bruce Blair, Victor Esin, Matthew McKinzie, Valery Yarynich, and Pavel Zolotarev, Smaller and Safer: A New Plan for Nuclear Postures, provides a useful discussion of these issues.

While the latest drawdown of warheads negotiated by Obama and approved by congress was useful, there are serious issues that were not addressed. Of particular importance is the need to negotiate a stand down from the instant war readiness of the weapons systems that have been maintained. The issue of tactical warheads must also be addressed.

"The New START agreement did not reduce the amount of "overkill" in either country's arsenal. Nor did it alter another important characteristic of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals: their launch-ready alert postures. The two countries' nuclear command, control, and communication systems, and sizable portions of their weapon systems, will still be poised for "launch on warning" -- ready to execute a mass firing of missiles before the quickest of potential enemy attacks could be carried out. This rapid-fire posture carries with it the risk of a launch in response to a false alarm resulting from human or technical error or even a malicious, unauthorized launch. Thus, under the New START treaty, the United States and Russia remain ready to inflict apocalyptic devastation in a nuclear exchange that would cause millions of casualties and wreak unfathomable environmental ruin."

The authors argue that the concept of what constitutes a viable response to a first strike is what ultimately defines the number of warheads required to be maintained.

"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 scale of this counterstrike needs to be rethought. The authors believe the ability to hit 10 targets would be sufficient.

"Many planners still contend that deterrence also requires the ability to retaliate against an opponent's leadership bunkers and nuclear installations, even empty missile silos. But this Cold War doctrine is out of date. Deterrence today would remain stable even if retaliation against only ten cities were assured."

The strategy then would be to maintain the MAD logic but ramp down the number of warheads as the concept of unacceptable nuclear damage is redefined.
"Our modeling found that the United States and Russia could limit their strategic nuclear arsenals to a total level of 1,000 warheads each on no more than 500 deployed launchers without weakening their respective security. De-alerting these forces actually helped stabilize deterrence at these and lower levels. And the modeling showed that fairly extensive missile defense deployments would not upset this stability."

Going to lower numbers would be possible if only the US and Russia were involved. Going much lower than 1,000 would necessitate negotiations and treaties that involved other countries. This table taken from data provided by Wikipedia lists what is believed to be known about the nuclear stockpiles of other countries.

While the US and Russia might be able to maintain their standoff with even further reductions in weapons, how much farther would one go knowing that China has about 240 warheads and may be building more? Further progress probably requires the world to reach a state in which all nuclear states feel comfortable in reducing their stockpiles in unison.

At this point the issues become as much political as military. Obama has stated that he doesn’t expect to see a world with zero nuclear weapons in his lifetime. That is a wise assessment. Such a goal is attainable, but it will take a very long time, and it will require a world that is much different than the one we live in now.

But does that mean it is futile to begin the process now? It can only begin with the US and Russia taking the first step. So let’s get started!

"BRUCE BLAIR is President of the World Security Institute and Co-coordinator of Global Zero. VICTOR ESIN is a retired Colonel General and former Chief of Staff of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces. He is a Professor of Military Science at the Institute of the United States and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences. MATTHEW MCKINZIE is a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. VALERY YARYNICH is a retired Colonel and served at the Center for Operational and Strategic Studies of the Russian General Staff. He is a Fellow at the Institute of the United States and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences. PAVEL ZOLOTAREV is a retired Major General and former Section Head of the Defense Council of the Russian Federation. He is Deputy Director of the Institute of the United States and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences."

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