Nuclear Weapons

Hardly a Jump START

03.29.10 | 9 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

Four months past a “deadline” imposed by the expiration of the old START treaty and amid much fanfare, President Obama announced that he and Russian President Medvedev had agreed on a new arms control treaty.  I am not as excited as most are about the treaty and much of the following might be interpreted as raining on the parade so let me begin by saying that the negotiation of this treaty is an important step.  While not as big a step as I had hoped for, it is an essential step.

Whatever the actual reductions mandated by the treaty—and they are modest—it was vital to get the United States and Russia talking about nuclear weapons again.  The U.S. and Russia have at least 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons and they have to lead the world in nuclear reductions.  Without this first step there cannot be a second step and there are many steps between where we are today and a world free of nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration did not simply dismiss arms control as irrelevant but argued that negotiating agreements was actually counter productive, potentially creating confrontation where it would not otherwise arise.  Avoid talking and let sleeping dogs lie was the philosophy.  The Bush administration had the best of both worlds, from its perspective, by negotiating the nearly meaningless Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty, SORT, sometimes called the Moscow Treaty, that simply allowed each side to declare their plans for what they were going to do anyway and contained no verification provisions.

This treaty is different.  The White House has released summaries of the main features of the treaty, not the full text, but it is clear this is a real treaty with real limits and real verification.  This treaty and, more importantly, the process that produced it, gets the arms control train back on the track.

Even so, this treaty is a modest step.  Hans Kristensen has described the numbers and their implications for the nuclear force structure.  The treaty makes some modest reductions from the SORT limits but not large enough changes to make a qualitative difference in the nuclear standoff between the legacy forces of the two Cold War superpowers.  (If anyone can explain to me why we and the Russians continue to need over a thousand nuclear bombs, each five to twenty five times more powerful than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima, pointed at each other, please send me an email. I want to know what the beef between us is that makes that seem proportionate.)

The treaty does not even approach territory that would call for a fundamental rethinking of how we deploy our nuclear weapons.  As the military would say, the treaty protects the force structure.  That is, we will still have a triad of bombers and both land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles, another obsolete artifact of the Cold War that dates back to fears of a disarming first strike from the Soviet Union (and inter-Service competition).  Even Air Force advocacy groups such as the Mitchell Institute have considered eliminating the nuclear mission for the manned bomber and moving from a triad to a dyad of land- and sea-based missiles. In fact, the treaty contains a peculiar counting rule that increases the importance of bombers:  each bomber counts only as one nuclear bomb although the B-52 can carry 20 nuclear-armed cruise missiles and the Russian bombers, for example the Backfire and Blackjack, have similar payloads.  If we define corn as a type of tree, then suddenly Iowa would be covered in forests.  If we define a bomber with 20 bombs as a single bomb, then suddenly we get a substantial reduction in the nuclear of weapons.  (Hans discusses the numbers in more detail.)  This rule reportedly resulted from Russia’s refusal to allow the necessary on-site inspections at its bomber bases but it creates an important caveat on any claim of “reductions.”

The treaty apparently does not address in any way nuclear weapon alert levels.  Most of the deployed weapons both sides will have under the treaty will be continuously ready to launch within minutes.  The treaty does nothing to restrict both nuclear powers to a no-first-use capability. If we wanted to reduce the threat that Russia and the U.S. pose to one another, we would be far better off to ignore the numbers of weapons but take weapons off alert so the current treaty has that exactly wrong.

Non-deployed warheads are not covered by the treaty at all as far as I can tell from the summaries.  Both sides will still retain thousands of nuclear weapons not mounted on missiles and these are not even counted, much less limited, by the treaty.  Apparently the verification of reserve warhead limits was too intrusive.  While inspection of warhead dismantlement facilities is allowed, I cannot tell from the summary exactly what is going to be verified.  I believe that the dismantlement itself will not be monitored.

One of the strengths of the treaty is that it limits actual missile warheads and provides for the verification of deployed missile warheads.  In the past, there has been no way to verify warhead numbers so treaties resorted to “counting rules,” that is, those things that could be counted, namely bombers, submarines, and missile silos, were counted and each launcher was simply assumed to have a certain number of nuclear warheads associated with it.  For example, if a type of missile had been tested with eight warheads, then all missiles of that type would be counted as having eight warheads regardless of the number actually mounted on top.  Thus, in previous treaties, limits on the number of warheads were indirect.  With this treaty, on-site inspections will allow each side to confirm though a limited number of spot-checks the number of missile warheads actually mounted on missiles.

The U.S. has wanted to keep the number of launchers high while accommodating modest reductions in the number of warheads.  It has done this up to now by removing (or off-loading) warheads from multiple warhead missiles.  The Russians have objected that this creates worrying breakout potential:  the U.S. could reactivate reserve warheads and quickly mount them back atop the existing missiles, called uploading.  In a crisis, this creates instability:  if the one side sees the other uploading warheads, there is a strong incentive to strike before the process can proceed to completion. This is the argument the Russians used for limits on launchers.  (Plus, of course, the Russians are short of money and want to reduce the number of their missiles anyway so better to get the Americans to come along with them.)  The U.S. accepted the Russian launcher number but was unwilling to proportionately cut warheads.  This creates a ratio of launchers and warheads that is not terrible but could be better.  Having several warheads atop each missile makes them relatively more attractive targets of a disarming surprise first strike;  this is called first strike instability.  So the conflicting goals of Russia and the U.S. have forced them into trading one form of crisis instability for another.  Note that, if reserve warheads were verifiably eliminated, the Russian fear of uploading would be addressed.

Given the very modest nature of the treaty, it should sail through ratification, in a normal political climate.  But this is not a normal political climate.  As Secretary Clinton pointed out, past arms control treaties have been ratified by the Senate by 90 votes or more.  But after the passage of the health care bill, the Republicans may be unwilling to give President Obama a foreign policy success. Senator McCain has said that there will be no more cooperation in the Senate for the rest of the year.  We shall see.  But clearly, the Senate Republicans’ no-compromise tactics may doom treaty ratification.  One thing seems certain to me:  the Republicans have shown remarkable party discipline in the Senate so treaty ratification will either fail or it will succeed with close to one hundred votes.  It depends on a political decision by the minority caucus.

I did not attend the White House briefing on the treaty but Hans did and reports that, according to the administration, many shortcomings of the treaty resulted from Russian resistance to intrusive verification measures.  If true, this bodes ill for future dramatic achievements, for example, limits on non-deployed warheads or verifying the dismantlement of nuclear warheads.  The Russians may, in part, be cautious about intrusive verification because it might reveal strategic vulnerabilities.  If this is so, then the U.S. could do much to allay those fears by moving away from a counterforce capability that threatens Russian central nuclear forces every minute of the day.

After all this complaining, I have to repeat my first point:  this is an important treaty, it gets us back on track, it should be welcomed, and ratified.  I wish it had been bolder, I wish it had taken bigger steps, I wish it had made qualitative as well as quantitative changes, but it moves entirely in the right direction.

What next?  This has long been described as a transitional treaty.  It was meant to be a bridge between the expired START treaty and the next treaty, which is going fundamentally reshape the nuclear relationship of the Cold War legacy nuclear powers.  We can hope so.  The treaty has a ten-year lifetime with the option to extend for another five.  If this is all we do for the next decade, it will, indeed, be disappointing.  We cannot think we are done, these laurels are far too small to rest on comfortably.  This treaty must be considered what it was sold as a year ago:  a stopgap to paste over the expiration of START while the transformational treaty is negotiated.  Alas, given the difficulty of negotiating this modest instrument, it may take ten years to get the next treaty.

If this treaty is a preview of the soon-to-be released nuclear posture review (NPR), then we will know that transformation of the nuclear danger is merely a theoretical aspiration not an actual goal of the administration.  If, on the other hand, the NPR calls for unilaterally reducing the alert rate of our nuclear forces, reduces the counterforce emphasis on nuclear weapons and their deployment, and lays out clear steps the U.S. intends to take soon toward a world free of nuclear weapons, then it could form the basis for a truly transformational next treaty with Russia.  Much of the wariness of the Russians is perfectly justified by the constant treat of a disarming U.S. first strike.  We have to change that reality first and then we can institutionalize it with a treaty.

Also, we must carefully weigh the domestic political price tag that the treaty is going to carry.  Even before the this treaty got out of the gate, or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was warmed up, the administration came in with a budget that included a $700M top up to the national labs.  This was widely considered a minimum down payment to get the labs and conservative Senators on board supporting the treaties.  It may well be, especially in light of recently released letters from the lab directors, that a new warhead development program (and not just a new warhead, but an ongoing program to institutionalize continuing production of new warheads into the indefinite future) will be the price for either treaty.  I am not convinced that that price is worth paying.  (It might if we did it right but that seems unlikely.  I will write again on that topic.)  In any case, if the treaty is not ratified, I think it is fair to use substantial budget cuts to make certain that the labs don’t start new warhead production.

The treaty is going to be signed in Prague on 8 April.  That is a Thursday, so I think we should be gracious and let the negotiators take that Friday and the rest of the weekend off but I hope that, on Monday 12 April, they will be back at work negotiating the real treaty, the one that changes fundamentally the insane calculus of the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and Russia.

[In the above, I made a slight edit.  In the original version from this morning, I said that “warheads” were counted, thinking that it was clear this meant missile warheads as opposed to bombs on bombers but some readers were confused.  I now say “missile warheads.”]