Next Steps in U.S.-Russia Arms Control: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

in Program

Below is the transcription of a presentation delivered by Dr. Barry Blechman to the National Defense University and National Defense Industrial Association Capitol Hill Forum, on October 14, 2011.  Dr. Blechman spoke about next steps and potential arms control with Russia.

MR. PETER HUESSY:  Good morning, my friends.  My name is Peter Huessy and on behalf of NDUF and NDIA I want to thank you for being here at this our 41st seminar this year.  Today, we have Barry Blechman.  Barry, as you know, is the founder of Defense Forecasts International and the Stimson Center.  He is now – are you senior emeritus president?

MR. BARRY BLECHMAN:  “Distinguished.”

MR. HUESSY:  Distinguished, at the Stimson Center.  Barry is going to talk to us, I believe, about the good, bad and the ugly, about potential arms control with the Russians as well as some aspects of global zero.  And I want to welcome you, Barry, and thank you for coming here.

DR. BARRY BLECHMAN:  Well thank you, Peter, and thanks everyone for coming out on this gloomy, rainy morning.  I hope you find what I have to say interesting enough to have made it worthwhile. You know, there are certain objective facts about the world and things in it, but different people can look at it in different ways.  Take a look at the nuclear situation, for example.  If you’re a pessimist,  you probably are emphasizing that there’s a new nuclear arms race in Asia. Several Asian nations are building up their nuclear arsenals, creating new fissile materials.  And in the Middle East we’re on the verge of perhaps a 10th nuclear power and the regional nuclear arms race that might follow there.  And the whole proliferation regime seems in danger of falling apart.

The optimists, however, can look at the same set of facts and say there used to be 60,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and now we’re down 20 thousand.  And in the ’60s we thought there would be 25 or 30 nuclear powers by the end of the last century, but in 2011 there are only nine, and maybe there will be a 10th, but even so we’re not doing all that badly.  In other words, the optimist says it could be worse.

Which reminds me of an old Yiddish story about the optimist who meets the town gossip in Lithuania one day.  And the town gossip says, did you hear about our friend Joseph?  And the optimist says, no.  And the gossip says, “Well, Joseph went into Vilnius on a business trip and he came home on Friday and found Reuben in bed with his wife.”

So the optimist says, “Oh, that’s terrible, but it could be worse.”  And the gossip says, “What do you mean it could be worse?  Joseph went on a business trip to Vilnius, comes home on Friday and finds his wife in bed with Reuben.  And he has a gun, pulls out his gun.”  And the optimist says, “Oh, it could be worse.”

And the gossip says, “No, it’s bad.  Joseph came home from Vilnius on Friday, found his wife in bed with Reuben, pulled out his gun and shot Reuben dead.  And the optimist says, “Oh it could be worse.”

Exasperated, the gossip says, “How could it be worse?”  And the optimist says, “Joseph could have come home on Thursday, found me in bed with his wife, and shot me dead.”   In short, it all depends on your perspective.


If we look at the current situation, obviously there is no stomach for serious negotiations either here or in Moscow.  There will be some talks beginning next year.  Talks have been promised and no doubt a dialogue will get started, but we’re not going to see any serious negotiations until after the election.

A number of things have to be cleared before the talks can become serious.  There’s the defense issue for one.  I view this really as kind of a residual Cold War issue – we taught the Russians too well why defenses were bad back when we thought they were bad.  And they haven’t been able to get past that.  I don’t believe the Russians can seriously think that U.S. defense capabilities can jeopardize their deterrent any time in the foreseeable future, for decades, if ever.

But there are vested economic and political interests, and the Russian government has had this position for many years and finds it useful in its relationships with other countries to publicize this position – blaming US defenses for the lack of serious progress toward deep reductions.  But, somehow,  I think a way will be found to side-step the defense issue through some sort of cooperative arrangements, or some sort of non-binding statements.  I don’t personally think that defenses will halt progress in the talks at some future time.

A second problem is the Russians say they’re not interested in limiting short-range weapons.  But they will have plenty of incentives to start talking about them in a few years.  A lot of the weapons that they have are obsolete, such as air defense and anti-submarine weapons.  They can perform those functions better with conventional weapons.

Moreover, they’re going to have to replace their weapons and they don’t have the money to do that.  So the number of Russian short-range weapons whether it’s currently 3,000 or 5,000, no one seems to be certain – will be coming down.  And if it’s going to come down anyway, the Russians will certainly want to get something for it.  So I think they will be willing at some point to put these weapons on the table in some way.

On our side, the defense budget, as you all know, is under severe pressure.  And when it comes to deciding whether to spend money on a new ICBM or completing the Joint Strike Fighter program, I think I know where the Air Force’s priority will be.  And that’s an example of what would be symptomatic.  I don’t think the Services will want to allocate huge resources to triad modernization, as now planned.  And if some of this money can be saved by negotiated reductions with the Russians, there will certainly be support for that from the Chiefs.

Most importantly, though, the logic of maintaining momentum in the US/Russia arms control process is overwhelming because of its effects on stopping proliferation and because of its effects on the political relationship between the two states.  I’m going to come back to that later.

So if you’ll bear with me for a few minutes and assume that serious talks will go forward in 2013, what might an agreement coming out of those talks look like?  And here I’ll describe what I consider a good agreement, a bad agreement, and then an ugly outcome.

A good agreement, in my view, would place a comprehensive ceiling on the total number of warheads on both sides.  The agreement would cover operational long-range weapons like START does now, and their warheads, and it would also cover reserve warheads, whether long-range or short-range, and operational short-range weapons.  Some people would argue the agreement should have sub-ceilings on operational long-range weapons or total operational warheads.  Those are, I think, fine points.  The general idea is to move from the current agreement, which depends primarily on operational long-range launcher limits, to an agreement focused on limiting total warheads.

Such an agreement would permit each side to tailor its forces to meet its own perceptions of its needs for nuclear forces, and provide trade space between them.  On our side, we and our allies are concerned about Russian short-range weapons, upon which they place great emphasis in their military planning for contingencies in Europe.  We saw exercises last year adjacent to Estonia in which they showed they take their military doctrine – which emphasizes the use of short-range nuclear forces -seriously.  So we certainly would like to cap those weapons or reduce them.

And the Russians are concerned about US reserve, long-range warheads.  They rightfully argue that in a crisis, because we’ve de-MIRVed our missiles and maintain those additional warheads in reserve, we could quickly generate a much larger strategic force.  The Russians are not able to do that because they have not de-MIRVed to nearly the same extent.  So there’s an implicit trade-off possible between our reserve long-range warheads and the Russians’ operational short-range warheads there if there were a total ceiling on warheads.

Obviously this is a big step.  Moving to an agreement focused on warheads rather than launchers raises serious verification issues.  Still, we’ve moved over the years, over the decades of arms control, toward greater transparency and intrusiveness in verification procedures.  This has happened both in U.S.-Russian agreements and in multilateral agreements.  The NEW START agreement allows each side to look into some of the other’s missile silos to count warheads, for example.  In multilateral agreements the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Additional Protocol to the NPT Safeguards Agreements all permit challenge, on-site, short-notice inspections of undeclared facilities.

I’ve heard experts argue that in fact it is possible to devise verification procedures so that we could confidently verify an agreement that limited total warheads without jeopardizing warhead design information.  However, if verification proves an insurmountable obstacle over time, there is a step shorter than a comprehensive warhead limit that is worth a look.  This is a proposal that Alexei Arbatov has described, which would move toward an agreement with a lower limit on operational long-range warheads (excluding reserve and short-range weapons from the limit), but which would include a declaration of the number and types of short-range weapons and reserve weapons and their locations, and the verified removal of these weapons from military bases to central storage locations.  This is not as good as reducing the number of weapons and verifying their dismantlement, but it’s a step in the right direction.

So that’s a kind of fall-back.  I would much prefer to see the negotiators take longer and conclude a comprehensive warhead limit, but Arbatov’s proposal is a possible alternative.  In any case, we could start experiments now to examine ways in which warhead limitations could be verified.

Either is what I would call a good agreement.  Neither is going to be negotiated quickly, but I think it’s certainly feasible that by the end of the next presidential term we could see something like one of them being concluded.

A bad agreement would be one which made significantly deeper reductions confined solely to long-range weapons, and especially one which necessitated cuts in U.S. reserve warheads.  Such an agreement would be particularly unfortunate if fiscal pressures led to bad decisions on force postures.  Already, apparently, there’s a debate in Russia – perhaps it’s been resolved – that in order to maintain their forces at the START level, or to build back to the START level, they need to develop and deploy a new multi-MIRVed, large, silo-based ICBM.  In other words, a missile that would invite a first-strike because of its vulnerability in the event of some severe crisis.

Now, you know, this logic of stability and instability, the nuclear balance and the risk of war, kind of lives in a world of its own, separate from the political realities we usually see in crises.  But nonetheless, it’s undesirable to move to destabilizing postures like that one.  And an agreement which reduced only long-range weapons, with both sides or one side moving to such destabilizing postures, would be a step backwards in my view.

Such an agreement would also be a bad one because of the continuing Russian emphasis on the use of short-range weapons in their military planning, plus the growing nuclear arsenals of third nations. These two factors could indeed, in the event of such an agreement, lead to further questioning of U.S. nuclear commitments, our extended deterrent, and thereby serve as a possible stimulus for greater proliferation.  This would be a particular problem in East Asia if China, but particularly North Korea, continues to develop a serious nuclear force.  It could be a problem in the Middle East if Iran indeed acquires nuclear weapons.

And it could even be a problem in Europe, conceivably, if the Russians adopted a more hostile posture , more aggressive posture, toward the former members of the Soviet Union or even the states in Eastern Europe.  So, in my view, that would be a bad agreement and I would think U.S. negotiators would be well advised to hold out for a more comprehensive arrangement that restricted short-range, as long as long-range weapons.

The ugly would be a complete breakdown of the U.S.-Russia arms control process and a failure to move over time into a multilateral disarmament process, because a breakdown like that could lead to further proliferation.  It would make deterrence less certain, and thereby would increase the risk of nuclear war.  To explain, I come back to the understanding I’ve gained from the studies I’ve done over the many years in which I became “distinguished” – studies of crises , international crises, in which there was a threat of, or risk of,  nuclear use.

For deterrence to work, the deterring side has to be able to communicate a threat against something that the opponent values highly.  The opponent has to understand that threat.  He or she has to believe the threatener has the capability to carry out the threat and that he or she has the will to do so, and that the loss of whatever is being threatened would be much greater than the loss of either not doing what the opponent was threatening to do originally or actually pulling back from something he or she is doing already.

In crises, and particularly if there’s already a conventional conflict going on, communications like that are not easy.  There are misperceptions.  There’s unwillingness, sometimes, to bring bad news to leaders.

You know, many people believe that Saddam Hussein’s forces didn’t use chemical weapons in the second Gulf War because of a letter that Secretary Baker gave to the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz, that implied that if they used chemical weapons the US would be unrestrained in our response, meaning we would use nuclear weapons in response.  However, Tariq Aziz said he never delivered the letter to Hussein because he’d lose his head if he did something like that.  And the Iraqi military commanders said they didn’t use chemical weapons because they thought the U.S. was better equipped to fight in chemical environments.  So it’s very difficult to communicate in situations like that and deterrence is therefore a thin reed.  It can work, but it often is difficult to communicate.  If the US/Russia dialogue on nuclear weapons ends after forty years of sporadic progress, it will make communications between us far more difficult.

Also, failure of the U.S.-Russia arms control process, the failure to take the next step over a reasonable period of time, will make stemming proliferation more difficult.  Now I know there’s a lot of skepticism about this, that Iran doesn’t make its decision based on whether the U.S. and Russia have 2,000 or 1,500 warheads.  And that’s correct, but the fact that the U.S. and Russia are moving, even if glacially, or at least promising to move toward eventual disarmament, does have an effect on our ability diplomatically to get countries to do what we’d like in support of the proliferation regime.  I would cite recent efforts to secure nuclear materials, beginning with the 2010 summit, as an example of that.  And, particularly, our much greater success in getting countries to first vote for, and then comply with, the Iran sanctions, at least the sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program and its military program, are also in part dependent upon continuing the promise of movement toward our own disarmament.

The basic deal in the Nonproliferation Treaty is that the vast majority of states in the world, some 184 of them, I think, at the last count, renounced their right to acquire nuclear weapons permanently.  They said solemnly that we will never acquire nuclear weapons.  And the deal was that, in turn, the nuclear weapon states would move, or at least show the prospect of moving, towards disarmament.

When it becomes obvious that that deal is breaking down, diplomatic efforts to get countries to do what we want to stem proliferation, becomes  more difficult.  It doesn’t help with rogues like North Korea and Iran, but it helps in a much broader sense.

Finally, at the same time, the U.S. and Russia obviously can’t do this alone indefinitely.  We have this asymmetric situation in which we and the Russians are reducing the size of our arsenals, as are the British and French, while the Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, maybe Israelis, are all increasing their arsenals.  And although we shouldn’t expect the smaller nuclear weapon states to start to join agreements now we and the Russians still have 90 percent of the world’s weapons and more than anyone else by an order of magnitude – we should expect these countries to begin talking with us about a process through which we could move into a multilateral negotiation after the next U.S.-Russian significant reduction.

Indeed, such talks have begun.  At the last NPT review meeting in 2010, the so-called P-5 (China, France, Russia, UK, and US) agreed to begin discussions about how they might someday begin to implement Article VI of the NPT, the disarmament provision.  And several meetings of the P-5 have already been held.

The  progress, however, has been disappointing from my perspective.  It’s largely due to China.  The U.S. has tried to move toward greater transparency among the P-5, toward verification experiments, and so forth.  The Chinese don’t seem to be willing to play.

But there has been some movement.  There’s a working group set up to start talking about the terminology that would be used in a future disarmament treaty.  But certainly a lot more needs to be done in that venue.  But I wouldn’t expect to see considerable progress until after the next U.S.-Russian agreement.

So to close, all is in suspense until 2013.  But I do expect that the logic of U.S.-Russia arms control would cause a President Romney, just as a second term President Obama, to enter serious negotiations and eventually to conclude a new agreement.  In fact, Republican presidents seem to be better able to reach arms control agreements than Democratic presidents.  So I’m not sure the outcome of our election is that important in terms of this prediction.

So the serious question is, let’s be certain that that next agreement is a good one.  And with that, I’d welcome your comments.


MR. LINTON BROOKS:  Linton Brooks, CSIS.  Let’s talk about your ugly scenario a little bit.  We’re in an enormously cynical town.  But every once in a while, people write things and they mean it.

So Governor Romney wrote a scathing attack on START.  Governor Romney’s policy paper says he will review whether it remains in our interest.  Governor Romney’s team of advisers on nonproliferation is headed by two extremely competent people who both opposed new START.

So just for the sake of argument, suppose that that’s not just pandering.  Suppose that’s what the man believes.  That’s one way there’s no agreement.

The other way is our gallant Russian allies.  The Russian current pseudo-president has said maybe by 2020 we can resolve defenses.  And nobody I know believes there is another step before defenses are resolved.

So I would submit to you that your ugly scenario is not a straw man, it’s the most likely outcome.  The most likely outcome is that not until shortly before new START expires – because the Russians don’t want to be unregulated, but new START doesn’t expire for a long time – are the Russians going to be in the slightest interest.  And so at least for four years after the election, there’s no meaningful discussion with the Russians.

Now given all the things you said why that would be bad, how should we think about hedging against that contingency?  That is, if it turns out that that is the scenario, since I’m arguing it’s at least plausible and maybe likely, what should we do?  What should the United States do to minimize the consequences that you believe will happen?

DR. BLECHMAN:  Linton, it could be worse.


I’ll answer your question, but I’d point out Governor Romney has also said he’s going to add 100,000 troops and go from nine to 15 ships being constructed every year without raising taxes.

MR. BROOKS:  Fair point.

DR. BLECHMAN:  So, you know, being a candidate and facing the realities of the office are two different things.  But it’s certainly possible that the whole process falls apart.  It could fall apart because there’s a new outbreak in Georgia or somewhere else and the political relationship turns nasty.

What can we do to hedge against that?  Well, we can, one, be sure that we maintain our own forces in a stable posture and that we maintain the kind of reliable deterrent that’s been pledged, and maintain a reasonable modernization program at the levels of START.  And, you know, we can continue to work to avoid an outbreak of proliferation in those particular regions where it’s most serious.  And that’s East Asia, particularly, South Korea   I don’t think Japan is really a serious proliferation threat because of the public views there and their obvious history   South Korea and in the Middle East are the danger points in my view.  And the way to stem proliferation in those regions is to try to solve the North Korea and Iran problems, containing them at least, and to work closely to reassure our allies through diplomacy, through military cooperation, through assurances of our conventional capabilities jointly to contain these new threats that they see.  I mean, whether that could work or not I don’t know, but that’s what I’d try.

MR.  :  Sir, I guess to that point, with these ongoing budget debates, with how we’re going to shape the military establishment, what are the risk areas that you see on the conventional side that may affect the calculus on the nuclear side?  Are there things that you think that you think that we should not do?  For example, if we realign forces from Europe to the Pacific, we minimize our forces in Asia, we reduce ballistic missile defense through the phased adaptive approach, we do ships or anything?  Are there things on the conventional side that will negatively affect the ability on the strategic nuclear side?

DR. BLECHMAN:  Well, I would not want to see the conventional acquisition program gutted in order to make these budget goals.  I think conventional forces are the most important and useful elements of our posture.  I think there’s tons of money to be saved on personnel, and in operations, and the way we do business.  And we can certainly meet this $400 billion goal with only modest trims in the acquisition program, either nuclear or conventional.  I think politically it is very hard to do what should be done, but that’s where the focus should be.

MR. JACK MANSFIELD:  Jack Mansfield, on the non-deployed  nuclear weapons, some or all of them are ready to be put on missiles or put on bombers.  Is there going to be a requirement to disassemble them?

DR. BLECHMAN:  If the agreement was the one I prefer, which put a lower ceiling on the total number of warheads, they would have to be dismantled.  They could be moved to a verified storage location until that became feasible, but they should be in line to be dismantled.  But the other proposal just moves them into central storage the less ambitious one.  And that’s not nearly as good in my view because obviously in a crisis they could be deployed back to military bases and re-mated with their launchers.

MR. MANSFIELD:  We don’t have the capability to maintain – (off mic).

DR. BLECHMAN:  Well I’m not suggesting getting rid of all the reserve warheads.  We can keep some nominal number – you’d have to look in detail at the trade-offs between operational and reserve warheads.

MR. GREG THIELMANN:  Greg Thielmann, Arms Control Association.  I have a question about the middle of the three alternatives.  I would have put it, the best, the good and the ugly.  And it’s about what you’ve termed bad that I’m curious.

Let’s say there’s a 1,000 operational strategic warhead limit on both sides, U.S. and Russia.  You had a concern about the implications of that for extended deterrence and everything, and that’s what I’m particularly curious about.  At that level, we’d have like 10 times as many operational warheads as the Chinese.  The North Koreans and the Iranians would be trivial in terms of numbers from that level of U.S. forces.  Could you elaborate a little bit on what your extended deterrence concern is?

I would even argue that North Korea and Iran, whose conventional military capabilities are deteriorating right now, would probably be deterred without any nuclear weapons, just by overwhelming U.S. conventional superiority.  So if you could just elaborate on that?

DR. BLECHMAN:  Yes, I think you’re probably right, but the problem is the perceptions of the allies, or at least some allies, or at least the people in the defense ministries and military forces of some of the allies.  And I was struck by how loud the complaints were just about the new START Treaty from the Japanese, from the Koreans, and even from some Europeans.  And what these people see is not the objective reality.  Yes, the U.S. has 1,000 warheads – the U.S. and the Russians have 1,000.  No one else has more than say 400 or whatever.

But they see the trends and they worry about the trends.  I think they would make it very difficult to get an agreement like that ratified, and I think it’s a bad idea.  It could lead to greater pressures for proliferation in some selected countries.

MR. HUESSY:  This is totally hypothetical, about what Mr. Romney is about.  But I’d like your reaction, assuming this is what he’s concerned with.  Let’s say that the concern the governor has is as follows, that a follow-on to the new START Treaty would eliminate any explicit or implicit connection to either geographic or number limits on missile defense, in that the Russians don’t control the threat from either China, Iran, North Korea or anybody else, number one.

Number two, that warheads can come down.  That’s not the issue.  The issue is the platforms, that in a real arms control agreement that I would like to see – and this is me, not the governor – if all missiles were single warheads you could go down to 1,000 warheads but have more SNDVs than you have now because the number 700 was a little bit more than a 50-50 split between the Russian side and our side.  We went 50 to 75 in their direction.

Unfortunately, it requires you to do screwy things with ICBMs or SLBMs, one or the other, or bombers, and you don’t have to in order to get lower warheads.  You can get the lower warheads and have greater numbers of SNDVs.  You can put bulkheads on every one of the Minuteman, rather than the 150 we have now, that takes three years for you to build back up Minuteman from one to three.

So there’d be plenty of time to look at it and see.  You couldn’t do a surprise thing.  And given your limits on stockpile and reserves, you’re going to limit your upload for SLBMS, which you should have, I think, as an insurance policy in any case.

I think those are the two major concerns.  And a third one was – and it’s not partisan.  No president has been able to get the Russians to deal with the tactical nuclear weapons or theater.  But as Bill Schneider says, it’s the same physics package that can take those weapons and put them anywhere.  And it’s also, no American president has gotten them to say yes in terms of okay, let’s talk about this, let alone having transparency to know what they have and where they have it.

So I think those are the three issues that are motivating – and this is totally hypothetical, Barry – motivating the governor’s concern in this area.  And what I’d like to know is whether you think those three concerns are legitimate?  And two, whether they’re perfectly consistent with a follow-on treaty that could either meet your criteria one or two of going to lower warheads, but not necessarily the same SNDV levels?

DR. BLECHMAN:  Well I think for there to be a new agreement some arrangement has to be made that permits the U.S. to continue to develop defenses.  The Russians just have to back off on that in one way or another.  And there’s lots of ways to do it, particularly through some sort of cooperative arrangement in Europe.

On the second, I would agree.  I would not want to see an agreement that reduced launcher levels so low that we move back to highly MIRVed and vulnerable or inviting targets.  That’s why I emphasized the desirability of moving to warhead limitations.

I’m sorry, I forgot the third.

MR. HUESSY:  Tactical weapons.

DR. BLECHMAN:  The tactical weapons.  I mean, the Russians have a large number of tactical weapons but it includes stuff like air defense and ASW weapons that make no sense.  I mean, they’re not  they’re dysfunctional.  That’s why we moved away from them.  You fire one and then you’re blind.  You’re much better off using modern conventional weapons.

So they’ll want to get rid of those. And I think the short-range rocket warheads and so forth, I think they’ll have – I think they’ll be ready to make reductions rather than spend the money for all of them to be replaced when their lifetimes are over.  So I think that at some point, since they’re going to be going down anyway, they can put the short-range weapons on the table and get something for them.

MR. MICHAEL BINDER:  Michael Binder, Air Force.  Since 1991 it seems that the importance of deterring Russia has declined and the importance of deterring other countries has increased.  Our nuclear arsenal is a Cold War arsenal optimized for attacking the Soviet Union.  In light of other countries we might have to deter, like Iran or North Korea or maybe Pakistan, are you factoring in or is the United States factoring in what our arsenal should look like to deter those nations in negotiating with Russia?  In other words, would we give up more ICBMs because they’re good for flying over the pole, but they’re not very good for flying over many other countries to reach somebody like Pakistan?

DR. BLECHMAN:  Well,  I would hope that we could, for many years at least, deal with even a nuclear North Korea with conventional forces, that we have such overwhelming conventional superiority that, in terms of deterrence, the threats we can make to North Korea should be pretty convincing.  But if that fails, we do retain some tactical nuclear weapons as well as SLBMs that could be used if necessary against those countries.  I believe, I mean I’m not an expert, but I don’t see why an SLBM couldn’t be targeted on Pyongyang, just as well as on Moscow, from different deployment areas.

MR. BINDER:  Too many warheads.

DR. BLECHMAN:  Too many warheads.  Well, we’re going down.

MR. HUESSY:  Barry, thank you again for a wonderful talk.


Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices