A Department of Defense (DOD) report on Russian nuclear forces, conducted in coordination with the Director of National Intelligence and sent to Congress in May 2012, concludes that even the most worst-case scenario of a Russian surprise disarming first strike against the United States would have “little to no effect” on the U.S. ability to retaliate with a devastating strike against Russia.
I know, even thinking about scenarios such as this sounds like an echo from the Cold War, but the Obama administration has actually come under attack from some for considering further reductions of U.S. nuclear forces when Russia and others are modernizing their forces. The point would be, presumably, that reducing while others are modernizing would somehow give them an advantage over the United States.
But the DOD report concludes that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty” (emphasis added).
The conclusions are important because the report come after Vladimir Putin earlier this year announced plans to produce “over 400” new nuclear missiles during the next decade. Putin’s plan follows the Obama administration’s plan to spend more than $200 billion over the next decade to modernize U.S. strategic forces and weapons factories.
The conclusions may also hint at some of the findings of the Obama administration’s ongoing (but delayed and secret) review of U.S. nuclear targeting policy.
No Effects on Strategic Stability
The DOD report – Report on the Strategic Nuclear Forces of the Russian Federation Pursuant to Section 1240 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 – was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It describes the U.S. intelligence community’s projection for the likely development of Russian nuclear forces through 2017 and 2022, the timelines of the New START Treaty, and possible implications for U.S. national security and strategic stability.
Much of the report’s content was deleted before release – including general and widely reported factual information about Russian nuclear weapons systems that is not classified. But the important concluding section that describes the effects of possible shifts in the number and composition of Russian nuclear forces on strategic stability was released in its entirety.
|As long as a sufficient number of U.S. SSBNs are at sea, strategic stability is intact even with significantly greater Russian nuclear forces, the DOD says.|
The section “Effects on Strategic Stability” begins by defining that stability in the strategic nuclear relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation depends upon the assured capability of each side to deliver a sufficient number of nuclear warheads to inflict unacceptable damage on the other side, even with an opponent attempting a disarming first strike.
Consequently, the report concludes, “the only Russian shift in its nuclear forces that could undermine the basic framework of mutual deterrence that exists between the United States and the Russian Federation is a scenario that enables Russia to deny the United States the assured ability to respond against a substantial number of highly valued Russian targets following a Russian attempt at a disarming first strike” (emphasis added). The DOD concludes that such a first strike scenario “will most likely not occur.”
But even if it did and Russia deployed additional strategic warheads to conduct a disarming first strike, even significantly above the New START Treaty limits, DOD concludes that it “would have little to no effects on the U.S. assured second-strike capabilities that underwrite our strategic deterrence posture” (emphasis added).
In fact, the DOD report states, the “Russian Federation…would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty, primarily because of the inherent survivability of the planned U.S. Strategic force structure, particularly the OHIO-class ballistic missile submarines, a number of which are at sea at any given time.”
These are BIG conclusions with BIG implications. They reaffirm conclusions made by DOD in 2010 [http://www.foreign.senate.gov/publications/download/executive-report-111-06-treaty-with-russia-on-measures-for-further-reduction-and-limitation-of-strategic-offensive-arms-the-new-start-treaty], but the new report is important because it comes after Russia earlier this year announced plans to produce “over 400” nuclear missiles over the next decade.
In the real world, however, Russian nuclear forces are not increasing. Even with Putin’s missile production plan, simultaneous retirement of older missile will continue the downward trend and result in a net reduction of Russian strategic nuclear forces over the next decade and a half.
This fact has not stopped some from arguing against additional U.S. nuclear reductions. Their argument is that reductions are unwise at a time when Russia and others are modernizing their nuclear forces. Others have even argued that Russia could break out of the New START Treaty by cheating and presumably achieve some strategic advantage.
Even the U.S. Senate’s advice and consent resolution that in 2010 approved the New START Treaty required that “the President should regulate reductions in United States strategic offensive arms so that the number of accountable strategic offensive arms under the New START Treaty possessed by the Russian Federation in no case exceeds the comparable number of accountable strategic offensive arms possessed by the United States to such an extent that a strategic imbalance endangers the national security interests of the United States” (emphasis added).
A similar obsession with numbers was echoed in the 2012 report by the State Department’s International Strategic Advisory Board on future U.S.-Russian “Mutual Assured Stability,” which concluded that it requires some “rough parity” of nuclear forces. (A similar number obsession has evolved with NATO about non-strategic nuclear weapons, but that’s another story).
But the DOD report appears to conclude that such warnings and parity requirement are missing the point. Strategic stability and deterrence today are provided by a secure retaliatory capability, primarily ballistic missile submarines. In fact, although ICBMs and bombers also play a role in the U.S. nuclear posture, they seem oddly absent from the report’s description of what is required to maintain strategic stability based on a sufficient secure retaliatory capability.
Retaining that capability, it seems, does not even require the ballistic missile submarines to be on alert (although the report doesn’t explicitly say so). It only requires that a sufficient number of submarines “are at sea” and secure at any given time – or perhaps even only in a crisis. Likewise, the conclusion that a Russian disarming first strike “will most likely not occur” may be obvious to most but, if formal, seems to remove the need for having ICBMs on alert, as long as a sufficient number of submarines are at sea to provide the basic deterrence that underpins strategic stability.
Putting “an end to Cold War thinking,” as President Obama pledged in his 2009 Prague speech, is a long and tedious process that requires pealing off layers of deeply ingrained planning principles and assumptions developed over decades of Cold War with the Soviet Union. Opposition is still widespread within parts of the Pentagon and Congress. Just how far the targeting review will be able to bring us down the road of ending Cold War thinking remains to be seen. But the DOD report to Congress provides important conclusions that could help forward the process. Let’s just hope that the lawmakers bother reading it.
Document: Report on the Strategic Nuclear Forces of the Russian Federation Pursuant to Section 1240 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (partially declassified and released under the Freedom of Information Act)
This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.