News Briefings

DoD News Briefing

Thursday, May 11, 2000 - 2:03 p.m. EDT
Presenter: Mr. Kenneth H. Bacon, ASD PA


Q: Change the subject. Ken, are the military leaders in this building and, in fact, the secretary, are they against the administration's proposal to go even lower than START III and cut warheads immediately by a thousand?

Mr. Bacon: Well, I'm not aware that there's any administration proposal to go below 2,000 at this stage. As you know, in March of 1997, President Clinton and then-Russian President Yeltsin met in Helsinki and agreed to START III ranges of warheads in the 2,000 to 2,500 range. That would be down significantly from the START I level of 6,000 countable warheads on each side. Then we would move to the START II levels, which is a range between 3,000 and 3,500. They agreed to move down further to 2,000 to 2,500. That's the Helsinki agreement.

And the Russians have said they would like to go down further. But right now, we are looking at the Helsinki range of 2,000 to 2,500. There's been no decision to move -- to change that range.

Q: There is no decision to change it?

Mr. Bacon: No.

Q: Aside from changing that range, there are reports the administration wants to quickly, to quickly cut 1,000 within -- I guess that would be START III -- to quickly cut 1,000 before the summit meeting between Presidents Putin and Yeltsin (sic). Is that true?

Mr. Bacon: First of all, I just said there's been no change in the range, which is 2,000 to 2,500. That was the range agreed to at Helsinki. That was agreed to by both sides, the U.S. and Russia. There has been -- I do not believe that either side has talked about a unilateral move below that. What the Russians have talked about is a bilateral agreement that would be lower than 2,000.

They have not talked about a unilateral move and no one I'm aware of in the United States has talked -- I mean, no official has talked -- about a unilateral move below -- any unilateral move. Everything would have to be done in the context of a treaty negotiated by both sides. So in terms of a unilateral move, the answer is no. There has been no change in the U.S. position that the target for START III is 2,000 to 2,500.

(Cross talk.)

Q: Ken --

Mr. Bacon: Yeah.

Q: Let me just follow up just a second. I mean, I'm sorry. You said that no talk about a unilateral move below 2,000. How about a unilateral move now, on the part of the United States, to go to 2,000 or 2,500 before the summit meeting?

Mr. Bacon: We can't do that. We are limited by law to a certain force size. Right now, that force size has to be at the START I level. We can not go below the START I level until START II is fully approved and ready to go forward by both sides.

Now, it turns out that the START I level is not scheduled to be reached, by treaty, until December of 2001, so that level is 6,000 countable warheads. We are still somewhat above that level, but we're moving down onto it. Then the next step would be to move to the START II levels. That range is 3,000 to 3,500 warheads. The extended deadline for that is now 2007, so anything that happened beyond that presumably would happen later than 2007. The agreement reached in Helsinki was to aim for 2,000 to 2,500 for START III, and that is the range that is on the table for both sides right now.

(Cross talk.)

Q: Ken, are the Joint Chiefs examining both the Russian request, or proposal, and the proposal by the Clinton administration to go down to 2,000 to 2,500, and have they come up with recommendations that raise concerns at their level about their ability to carry out, you know, the nuclear mission or whatever based on either of those numbers?

Mr. Bacon: First of all, the Joint Chiefs review from time to time our strategic forces. And it would be appropriate for them to review strategic numbers now because President Clinton is preparing for a summit with President Putin in June. So what they have been looking at is the range that's on the table: 2,000-2,500. And they've had some discussions over that. The discussions are ongoing. I think it would be not productive or fair to characterize those discussions in any way right now. They're just looking at that range.

Q: There's been some suggestion -- for example, Congressman Weldon -- to the effect that going below a certain number -- I gather roughly 2,000 -- would, you know, throw the whole triad concept into question. Is there anything from this building relating to that issue that you're aware of?

Mr. Bacon: I don't know how often I can say this: The discussions for START III have focused on the range 2,0000-2,500. That's what is on the table, and that's what we've been looking at.


Q: Just between numbers, in reference to your previous answer of yours, by law the Department of Defense is forced to remain at START I level -- 6,000 countable -- until the Russians have ratified START II, I believe it's (fair?) to say.

Mr. Bacon: Mm-hmm.

Q: They've now, I think, done so.

Mr. Bacon: Right.

Q: So the administration could now come down to START II level, which is a drop of 2-1/2 thousand as rapidly as it wishes, could it not?

Mr. Bacon: Well, first of all, as I pointed out, we're not even at the START I levels yet. And we have under the revised scheduled for START II until 2007 to reach the START II levels. But my understanding is that the Senate has to review the Russian Duma action and the protocols that go with it, they have to be sent there by the administration to Congress, and that has not yet happened. So the final stage of review has not yet happened.

Q: Do you know of any -- while the timetable is 2007, do you know of any thinking within this building where the timetable could be accelerated for economic or for any other reasons for this drawdown?

Mr. Bacon: Well, it's very clear that in this building we have argued to be able to go below the START I limits, in part to avoid having to go through a service life extension program or rehabilitation program for some submarine -- ballistic launch submarine missile launch submarines.

But we were able to deal with that problem by keeping the subs in action for another year, and therefore, we were able to push off the service-life extension program, which is quite costly for each submarine. We obviously hope that START II will be fully ratified and ready to move forward by all sides so that we can start going below the START I levels at the appropriate time.

Q: You run out of ability to push off the SLEPs when? Quite soon, I think.

Mr. Bacon: I think it may be next year, but I'll have to check on that.

Q: Has the --

Mr. Bacon: Jim?

Q: I'm sorry; are you on the same subject?

Q: Same subject.

Q: Okay, go ahead. Go ahead, Jim.

Q: Okay. Has the Joint Chiefs taken a position that to go below the 2,000 level would destroy nuclear deterrence?

Mr. Bacon: We set the 2,000 to 2,500 range in 1997, and we have not moved off that as a country. Obviously, the Russians will propose -- they already have proposed lower numbers. So at some point, we have to look at lower numbers if they're going to keep proposing lower numbers. And at the appropriate time, we'll do that. Right now the discussion in this building has focused on the 2,000 to 2,500-warhead range that's been laid out in Helsinki.

Q: And further on the Gertz article, it's reported that Admiral Mies said the bottom, absolute bottom should be 2,500 warheads, and it's implied that the Joint Chiefs are backing him in that particular number. Is there any accuracy to that, or can you say?

Mr. Bacon: Well, all I'll say is that we have been focusing on the range of 2,000 to 2,500. We continue to focus on that range, and there will be discussions before the summit and after the summit focused on that range.

Q: Ken, didn't the Joint Chiefs sign off on that number as feasible before Clinton made the agreement in Helsinki?

Mr. Bacon: They did, yes.

Q: But now they're reconsidering it based on --

Mr. Bacon: I didn't say they're reconsidering. I think we have been focusing on that range, which are 2,000 to 2,500.

Q: (Off mike.)

Mr. Bacon: While it's not something we focus on every day, it was really a -- it was really a -- it was chimera for a long while because we didn't even have START II ratified. Now that the Duma has ratified START II, people can begin focusing on the next step. Now, the next step clearly is complex because it not only involves START III, but it involves questions about a national missile defense and the ABM Treaty, as well.

Q: Does the secretary consider that going below the 2,000/2,500 would be an appropriate bargaining chip to get the Russians to agree to change START II and let you go to NMD?

Mr. Bacon: The secretary considers it appropriate to discuss options within the range of 2,000 to 2,500.

Q: But not below?

Mr. Bacon: Yeah?

Q: Ken, kind of another stab from a different direction here. Besides the issue of, you know, equipment and submarines and stuff, is another issue having to do with this 2,000 to 2,500 number and the firmness of it, does it have to do with the whole nuclear strategy and with the whole war plan that involves, you know, a certain number of weapons on a certain number of targets, et cetera, that would have to be completely revised or even abandoned if you went to a lower number? Is that one of the reasons why that number is so firm, as you keep saying here today?

Mr. Bacon: Obviously, we size our force to deal with the threats or challenges we would face in the unlikely and unwanted event that we would ever use that force. Clearly, the military has decided that it can reduce the force significantly. It has reduced the force significantly from over 10,000 warheads now to approximately 7,000; soon that will be down to 6,000, then will move down to 3,000 to 3,500, which is the START II range. And then, if there is a START III agreement, we would move below 3,000 to the range we've currently set of 2,000 to 2,500. But that range has not been negotiated; it's a range that has been agreed to in '97 by President Clinton and former President Yeltsin.

The military has shown that it's been flexible, that it can get by with far fewer weapons. And they agreed to the range of 2,000 to 2,500, and that's the range that's currently on the table.


Q: Just pursuing the numbers, you've used throughout 6,000 and the rest. But those are all START-countable, aren't they, which are --

Mr. Bacon: Well, most of the time I've said "countable" warheads.

Q: That's all right; the point being that those are wholly artificial. The real numbers are about double. That's true, isn't it?

Mr. Bacon: It is extremely complex, and I don't think I'll get into the theological aspects of counting. It's all laid out. I couldn't quote for you what the definition is. (Cross talk.) But we move from -- we are actually moving from -- one of the changes, as I understand it, between START I and START II, is that we move from this artificial construct of so-called countable warheads down to actual warheads in START II.

Yes, Steve?

Q: Going to even more numbers, if I might, is it correct to presume that START III, year 2000 and 2,500, is about as low as anyone here is going to ever be able to bring the arsenal? Because of national missile defense, you cannot negotiate the Russians much lower than that without causing them to no longer have an effective deterrent, as the national missile defense system grows? That's what a lot of critics of the system say. I am curious if people here presume that the arsenal will just never get any smaller than a couple thousand?

Mr. Bacon: 2,000 to 2,500 warheads are a lot of warheads, and it's an extremely powerful force. I don't know how many cities you think there are in the United States with a population of over 100,000. But I would guess there are not 2,000 cities with populations over 100,000. So -- I think it's premature to get into that sort of talk right now.

Obviously, President Clinton and President Putin will sit down, and they will talk about the challenges they face in reducing arms and the opportunities they face to reduce arms further. And they will talk about the protective aspects of a national missile defense system and how we can work with the Russians to reduce their fears about a national missile defense system, which is not aimed at Russia in the first place.

Q: Well, what's the floor that both nations have to have, presumably, in this situation?

Mr. Bacon: I can't get into a number. But the type of national missile defense system we are considering is designed to deal with a small number of warheads far, far below anything being contemplated today for START III limits.

Q: And just one last thing, can I get you --

Mr. Bacon: And that includes the 1,500 the Russians have proposed.

Q: Can I get you to say in any context the number 1,999? (Laughter.)

Mr. Bacon: No.

Q: Ken?

Mr. Bacon: Yes.

Q: It's been pretty widely reported that Russia, for financial reasons, wants to bring their arsenal down below what you have said is the range that the Pentagon would consider, so if Russia comes to the June summit with anything below --

Mr. Bacon: I want to be clear. The range that I'm talking about, 2,000 to 2,500, is the range that was agreed to at Helsinki in 1997 by Boris Yeltsin and President Clinton.

Q: Got it. So if Russia comes to that summit with anything below that, when you're saying now to us is that the Joint Chiefs are not discussing anything below that. Does that mean that any Russian proposal below that would be a non-starter? And a side question to that is, then isn't it not prudent right now to be discussing the potential of any lower number that Russia may bring in?

Mr. Bacon: Well, the Russian number of, proposal of 1,500 has been out there for some time.

Q: Right, so have we been discussing it?

Mr. Bacon: We have not moved away from our current range of 2,000 to 2,500.

Q: Well, should we take out of this room, though, the idea that the Joint Chiefs have not been discussing the implications of what 1,500 or lower would mean?

Mr. Bacon: You should take out of this room that the discussions that we have had focus primarily on the 2,000 to 2,500 range.

Q: Primarily, so that happens --

Mr. Bacon: And that there has been no decision in this administration to change that range.

Q: But have there been discussions about what the implications of lowering that range would be?

Mr. Bacon: I'd just like to stick with the current range.


Q: On the question of the floor, Ken, isn't it the case that when General Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs he initiated studies which demonstrated that by mutual agreement with the Soviets, the U.S. could, in fact, have (some structure?) -- deterrent structures at 500, 1,000, 1,500, 2,000? And Powell accepted those studies; isn't that the case?

Mr. Bacon: That was before my time, and I don't think I'll -- I mean, you're -- can go back and read what General Powell said about that in his own book or elsewhere as well as I can.


Q: Different topic? When --

Mr. Bacon: Are we through with this?


Q: Can you just repeat that range one more time? (Laughter.)

Mr. Bacon: Which range? Are you talking about the START II range?

Q: (Off mike.) (Laughter.)

Q: Just -- I'm just going to ask you just one more time, you've said repeatedly that there's been no agreement within the administration to go below the 2,000-2,500. Nobody's asking that. Is there any proposal at all to your knowledge emanating from anywhere in this administration to go below 2,000?

Mr. Bacon: I have not made a systematic survey of people in the administration, and I can't answer that. I'm not aware of any proposal, but I can't say flatly there isn't. I'm not aware of a proposal beyond the Russian proposal.

Obviously this is an issue that is widely discussed in public, and should be widely discussed. There are all sorts of experts on nuclear forces. And many people feel qualified to comment on nuclear force levels, and do. And it's very appropriate that they do that. This is a very important issue. It's one on which we spend a lot of time, and it's one on which our security depends. So it's an appropriate issue for discussion; I'm not denying that. And obviously this is going to be discussed, I would say, at great length and with great fervor leading up to the Clinton-Putin summit and after the Clinton-Putin summit.