Nuclear Weapons

FAS side events at the RevCon

05.12.10 | 11 min read | Text by Alicia Godsberg

by Alicia Godsberg

Yesterday FAS premiered our documentary Paths To Zero at the NPT RevCon.  The screening was a great success and there was a very engaging conversation afterward between the audience and Ivan Oelrich, who was there to promote the film.  As a result of some suggestions, we are hoping to translate the narration to different languages so the film can be used as an educational tool around the world.  You can see Paths To Zero by following this link – we will also be putting up the individual chapters soon.

This morning I spoke at a side event at the NPT RevCon entitled “Law Versus Doctrine: Assessing US and Russian Nuclear Postures.”  I was asked to give FAS’s perspective on the New START, NPR, and new Russian military doctrine.  Several people asked me for my remarks, so I’m posting them below the jump.  

Good morning.  Thank you John for inviting me to give FAS’s analysis.  I’ll begin with the New START agreement.

First, just a brief sum of the Treaty. New START limits each Party to 1,550 operationally deployed nuclear warheads, a combined limit of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM and SLBM launchers and heavy bombers, with a separate limit of 700 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers.  New START’s duration will be ten years and may be extended for no more than 5 years by the agreement of the Parties.

So, what does this mean in terms of arms control and actual reductions in nuclear weapons?  First, we have to remember that this Treaty has been sold for the past year as a bridge treaty – something to keep verification measures in place so both sides could negotiate a subsequent treaty with more substantial arms reductions.  In this sense, New START does its part (assuming it’s ratified and enters into force), as the verification regime of START I that expired last December is in tact and in some ways expanded upon.  Anyone who expected the inclusion of tactical or stored nuclear weapons or deeper arsenal cuts will be disappointed with the New START, but in reality it was never meant to do any of those things.  We’ve always had to look to the next treaty for these types of reductions, but without the New START, that next step would not be possible.  Its conclusion in that sense is very positive, but it would be disappointing if this were the only nuclear arms control we could agree upon with Russia in its 10-year lifetime.

Another thing worth mentioning is the political price we apparently have to pay in the US to get this Treaty ratified: that is, the Obama administration’s FY2011 budget request includes over a 13% increase over last year’s budget for the national labs.  These funds were considered necessary to get the labs and conservative Senators to support New START and the CTBT.  We do not believe the US should trade new warhead production capabilities for arms control treaties – this contradiction in policy undermines our credibility in working toward our article VI obligation and it could undermine any achievements in nuclear arms control the treaties might bring about.

The New START verification regime allows for 18 on-site inspections per year for each Party, 10 of which are for deployed warheads, and the others for inspections of storage and dismantlement facilities. In an improvement over the original system, New START verification will count actual warheads on missiles.  The original START had only indirect limits through counting rules, i.e. instead of counting the warheads themselves, each launcher was assumed to have a certain number of warheads.

Now, on the other hand, there is a lot to be disappointed about, even bearing in mind the treaty was meant only to be a bridge for future reductions.  The Treaty does not address the alert levels of nuclear weapons or address advanced conventional weapon development, like Prompt Global Strike.  Although nowhere near deployment, PGS is a terrible idea, something even the Bush administration gave up on.  But for some reason the Obama administration is leaving the door open to its development.

Most importantly, New START has a major counting flaw that nullifies any reductions it might otherwise have made.  This comes from the fake counting rule for deployed heavy bombers, in which each is counted as 1 warhead toward the Treaty limit rather than the actual number of warheads assigned to that bomber.  So, for example, a base with 22 nuclear-tasked bombers will count as only 22 weapons even if there are hundreds of weapons on the base.  According to New START-rules on today’s posture, the US only deploys 1,650 strategic warheads, not the actual 2,100 and Russia would count as deploying about 1,740 warheads instead of the actual 2,600 – this hides well over 1,000 warheads.

In summary, the New START is an overall winner, but not from an instant gratification perspective.  Its creative counting rules don’t make the percentage reductions in operationally deployed strategic arms meaningful, but then again, the intrusive verification procedures allow for actual warhead counting on missiles, which is an improvement over the old system.  New START will prove its worthiness if the next nuclear arms reduction treaty negotiated by the US and Russia makes substantial cuts not only in deployed strategic weapons, but also in non-deployed warheads and tactical nuclear weapons.  That negotiation will not be easy, but hopefully New START is not all we will get for its 10-year lifetime.

Next, the new US Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR.

This is the first NPR that has been released in its entirety as an unclassified document, which is a huge leap in transparency, one continued here last week when Secretary Clinton announced the declassification of the numbers of active US nuclear weapons in the stockpile.  Another measure of transparency with this NPR is something you may not have heard about, and that is that the administration reached out to several NGOs in Washington and asked them to participate in a series of roundtable discussions on various NPR-related topics. Transparency in nuclear doctrine has not been the norm for the US, and the openness in process and product associated with this NPR should not be overlooked.

One thing that immediately stands out is that the new top priority for US nuclear policy is now the prevention of nuclear proliferation and terrorism and not maintaining a strategic balance with Russia to protect the US against a disarming first strike.  This in and of itself is a huge change, away from a war-oriented posture to one based on the need for increased security from new nuclear threats.  It remains to be seen how this plays out, but other aspects of the NPR are unfortunately still focused on cold war thinking.

For example, the NPR does not change the alert status for nuclear weapons and retains the strategic Triad.  These are disappointing conclusions. On a somewhat positive note, the NPR states the US will “de-MIRV” all its ICBMs, meaning all ICBMs will carry only one warhead.  This implements a decision made by the 1994 NPR but which the Bush administration modified to allow for retaining a few MIRV’d ICBMs.  Although a welcome development, the reduction of the few remaining MIRV’d ICBMs will only translate to a modest reduction in warhead numbers.

Disappointingly, the NPR concludes that the US will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and will retain delivery systems for the possible addition of non-nuclear prompt-global strike capabilities.  While PGS is still a mere option and far from operational, trading nuclear capabilities for advanced conventional capabilities prevents the development of an international security environment in which nations feel they don’t need to acquire new types of deadly weapons, whether nuclear or conventional, for their own security.

One important change in the NPR is in US declaratory policy, which before now was one of “calculated ambiguity,” in which the US would not say under what circumstances it would consider the use of nuclear weapons.  In the new NPR, the US clarifies its policy in this regard for the first time, saying, “The fundamental role of US nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.”  This is an important change from previous NPRs that endorsed nuclear responses not only to nuclear but also chemical, biological or even conventional attack on the US or its allies and – in the case of the 2002 NPR – added regional adversaries armed with WMDs as potential nuclear targets.

While the NPR did not find conditions conducive to implementing a “no-first use” policy, it does say in the concluding section that, “the United States will consult with allies and partners regarding the conditions under which it would be prudent to shift to a policy under which deterring nuclear attack is the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons.”  This, like other future-oriented statements in the NPR, is welcome language.  Many of us were hoping for this future to be now, but at least there is an official commitment to work toward more substantial policy shifts in the future, another first for such documents.

Although the NPR rightly underscores that extended deterrence is much more than nuclear deterrence, it also defers on making a decision on US forward deployed nuclear weapons in Europe, saying that these weapons continue to contribute to NATO cohesion and provide reassurances to allies who feel exposed to regional threats.  Despite many European leaders calling for the removal of these bombs and their lack of military utility, the NPR does not recommend removing them.  It is disappointing the NPR was not bolder in this regard.

Even more puzzling are the NPR’s decisions that the Air Force will retain a dual-capable fighter and that the US will conduct a full-scope B-61 nuclear bomb Life Extension Program, without any decision from the Alliance on whether or not it will retain the weapons after the new Strategic Concept is developed in November this year.  This means that while the NPR defers the decision about retaining US nuclear bombs in Europe to NATO, it also provides for the long-term maintenance of those weapons and the capability to deliver them.  This sends a mixed message to the Alliance and does not fit with the overall theme of reducing reliance on nuclear weapons in security strategies. Further, training and equipping non-nuclear countries to deliver nuclear weapons should not be supported by the Obama administration.

Another sort-of positive development in the NPR is the decision to retire the Tomahawk nuclear-equipped cruise missile (TLAM-N).  According to the NPR, the TLAM/N “serves a redundant purpose in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.” This is sort-of positive because retiring any delivery system, especially a short-range one, is good, but the TLAM-N has been in storage and not deployed since 1991, so officially retiring it does nothing to change our nuclear posture.  It is also puzzling as to why the same logic does not apply to the B-61 bombs in Europe.  Clearly it does, and the NPR contradicts itself here when it refuses to recognize the B-61 bombs in Europe also serve a redundant purpose, are unnecessary, and should be retired.

The NPR provides a much needed simplification and clarification of US negative security assurances.  In this new assurance, the United States “will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.”  This is different than the assurance in the 2002 NPR, which gave exceptions for states “in association or alliance with a nuclear weapon state.”

While not completely unqualified, the new assurance is certainly less qualified than its predecessor.  This policy does not say who will decide issues of non-compliance, but it’s safe to bet that it will be a unilateral decision made by the US. So, on negative security assurances the NPR is a bit of a mixed bag, returning US policy to a less qualified and more concise assurance, but not committing the US to the type of unqualified, internationally negotiated, legally binding assurance most states feel is necessary for their security.

Lastly is the part of the NPR that deals with stockpile management.  What is very good is that the US commits to maintaining a no-nuclear testing policy and will purse ratification of the CTBT.  Also welcome is that the US will not develop new nuclear warheads, and there will be no new military missions or military capabilities for warheads undergoing Life Extension Programs.  Refurbishment, reuse, and replacement of nuclear components will all still be considered during LEPs, but replacement – will be the last resort, only include previously tested designs, and require specific authorization by the President and approval by Congress.

Some are worried that this leaves the door open to the Reliable Replacement Warhead or other such program, which would appear to the vast majority of the world as the US continuing an indefinite reliance on nuclear weapons.  Even though the RRW would not be able to have new military capabilities or missions, it might well be seen as a “new” warhead, adversely affecting any positive gains the US might have made by its nuclear reductions and policy changes that were in fact meaningful.

One of the concluding statements of the NPR is that, following future substantial nuclear force reductions with Russia, the US will, “engage other states possessing nuclear weapons, over time, in a multilateral effort to limit, reduce, and eventually eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide.”  This is ultimately what is best about the NPR – officially committing US nuclear policy to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world.  This NPR provides modest steps in that direction, but points the US squarely toward that horizon.

Lastly, a few words on the new Russian nuclear posture.  The new Russian military doctrine came out this February, replacing the one from 2000.  Details of another policy document from February called “Basic principles of state’s policy in the area of nuclear deterrence through 2020” have not been made public.

According to the Nuclear Notebook, co-authored by FAS’s Hans Kristensen, Russia has been upgrading its mobile ICBMs, although this upgrade has been slow going. Moscow also maintains a robust nuclear warhead production capability, remanufacturing each warhead every 10-15 years, because they don’t have a warhead maintenance program and their warheads therefore suffer age-related defects much sooner.

Many people point to the modernization of nuclear weapons and delivery systems by Russia as worrisome – and they are – but in perspective all nuclear weapon states are continuing in some manner to modernize their arsenals and means of delivery.  Russia’s nuclear posture in this sense is nothing new or unique.

In terms of policy, the Russian nuclear posture authorizes the use of preemptive nuclear force, even first use against other WMDs or conventional attack.  However the scope of nuclear employment does not seem to have expanded. as the new Russian doctrine keeps the nuclear option assigned to regional and large-scale wars only, not expanding their role for use in smaller conflicts.

The most significant change is in declaratory policy.  In 2000, the Doctrine authorized nuclear weapon use in situations critical for the national security of Russia, whereas the new Doctrine allows for their use only in situations when the very existence of Russia is under threat.

Unlike the new US NPR, the new Russian Doctrine assigns the prevention of nuclear military conflict or any other military conflict as the main mission for nuclear weapons.  This, unfortunately, keeps the Russian nuclear doctrine focused on outdated cold war-fighting capabilities.  But in an echo of PGS development, the new Russian Doctrine discusses assigning high-precision conventional weapons to the mission of strategic deterrence.  Russia and the US may lead each other down a dangerous and destabilizing path of arming strategic delivery vehicles with conventional warheads.  This is a trend we may find ourselves fighting against in the future.