Clearing The Road To Zero

in Program

By Barry Blechman – The NEW START agreement, which went into effect earlier this
month, will reduce US and Russian operational nuclear warheads on long-range
missiles and bombers to 1,550 each.  Even
after its implementation, however, if so-called “tactical” warheads (primarily
warheads on shorter range delivery systems), plus warheads held in reserve, are
also counted, the two nuclear superpowers each will retain more than 5,000
nuclear warheads overall.  No other
nation has as many as 500, meaning that still deeper US and Russian reductions
are necessary before we can expect other nations to get on the road to

This will
not be easy.  Russia has a major
advantage in tactical weapons – deploying perhaps as many as 4,000, as compared
to 500 for the US.  This worries US
allies, who might be the targets of these weapon systems, and deeper cuts in US
long-range weapons without reductions in Russian short-range weapons could
raise questions about the credibility of US security guarantees.  At the same time, the US has a major
advantage in long-range warheads held in reserve, which worries the
Russians.  If a crisis developed in
US-Russian relations and either side withdrew from NEW START, the US could
generate within a year or so a long-range force twice as large as the one now
planned.  The Russians have no comparable
capability.  The next US-Russia agreement,
therefore, must limit all warheads – long-range and short-range, strategic and
tactical, operational and reserve.  What that
limit should be is up to the two sides, but 2,500 may be a realistic goal. 

Politically, neither side will be
ready for serious negotiations during the coming two years.  Having just won a bruising battle to get NEW
START ratified, the Obama Administration is not in any mood for new political
struggles over arms reductions.  It will
have its hands more than full with battles over spending and healthcare.

This will
suit the Russians just fine.  They’re not
enthusiastic about curbs on tactical weapons. 
Given the glaring problems in their conventional military forces, Russian
military doctrine increasingly stresses the possible use of nuclear weapons on
the battlefield.  And they are following
suit by deploying nuclear weapons on warships and on land near states that
formerly were part of the USSR, simulating their use in exercises, and possibly
developing new types of warheads for battlefield uses.

This is not
to say that reductions in tactical weapons are out of the question.  Many of the Russian weapons are old and will
need to be replaced; they have better things on which to spend their
rubles.  Many others are dysfunctional
and won’t be replaced – like nuclear warheads on air defense missiles.  The US learned years ago that detonating
nuclear air defense weapons screws up radars, blinding the defender after the
initial salvo.  Besides, the number of
tactical weapons in the Russian arsenal is ridiculous; there just is no
conceivable way in which such large numbers could be used effectively in war.  Given that they will be making cuts in these
systems anyway, the Russians eventually will try to get something for the
reductions in a deal with the US.

In short,
like comedy, it’s just a matter of timing. 
The next US/Russia agreement should be a priority for the second Obama
Administration.  In the meantime, the
next two years could be used productively to set the stage for serious
negotiations in 2013. 

The shift
from agreements limiting long-range missiles and aircraft, and the operational
warheads deployed with them, to a comprehensive limit on all types of warheads,
raises interesting problems of counting and verification.  Five steps would be required:

  1. Each
    side must declare the total number of warheads in its arsenal and their
  1. These
    declarations must be audited by the other side or by an international
  1. Each
    side must then identify those warheads to be destroyed and mark them in a
    tamper-proof way.
  1. The designated
    warheads must then be moved, while being monitored, to a dismantling
  1. And,
    finally, each side must be able to verify that the designated warheads had
    been dismantled, and do this in a way that does not compromise the
    weapon’s design.

process is not as difficult – technically or politically — as it may appear.  The US and Russia have come a long way toward
intrusive mutual inspections since their first arms limitation agreement in
1972, which depended solely on “national technical means” for verification   In the NEW START regime, for example, inspectors
will be permitted to peer into missile silos and count the number of warheads
deployed there.  And many technical ideas
have already been developed on how to verify warhead dismantlement without
compromising warhead designs.  Indeed,
the US, Russia, and the IAEA conducted experiments on dismantling warheads in
the late 1990s.

Over the
next two years, the US and Russia could have productive discussions about the
concept of warhead limits and how they might go about it.  This should not be done in the context of
treaty negotiations – neither side is ready for this.  Instead, it could be done in a working group
established specifically to explore the problem and possible solutions.  Once some ideas had been tabled and
discussed, it would be useful for the two nations to conduct exercises and
experiments to develop verifiable warhead counting and verification rules.  Such work is not high drama, but essential to
establish a basis for further cuts in nuclear arsenals when both nations are
ready.  The US and Russia can  celebrate the implementation of NEW START, but
should quickly roll up their sleeves and get busy with the hard work required
for the next agreement.



Photo Credit: A pair of B-61s loaded on a trailer (LANL)

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