The concept of strategic stability emerged during the Cold War, but today it is still unclear what the term exactly means and how its different interpretations influence strategic decisions. After the late 1950s, the Cold War superpowers based many of their arguments and decisions on their own understanding of strategic stability1 and it still seems to be a driving factor in the arms control negotiations of today. However, in absence of a common understanding of strategic stability, using this argument to explain certain decisions or threat perceptions linked to the different aspects of nuclear policy tend to create more confusion than clarity.
In the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) report,2 the Obama administration used the term strategic stability as a central concept of U.S. nuclear policy vis-à-vis Russia and China. Altogether it appeared 29 times in the report, in reference to issues mostly related to nuclear weapons capabilities. In the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, strategic stability was associated with continued dialogue between the two states to further reduce U.S.-Russian nuclear arsenals, to limit the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies, and to enhance transparency and confidence-building measures. At the same time, the United States pledged to sustain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal by modernizing its nuclear forces, retaining the triad, and “hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities.”
On the other hand, Russia seems to use the term strategic stability in a broader context, claiming that the question of ballistic missile defense, conventional prompt global strike, and the militarization of outer space all affect strategic stability between Moscow and Washington. U.S. modernization efforts in these areas are seen as attempts to undermine the survivability of the Russian nuclear arsenal and steps to gain strategic advantage over Russia. Therefore, Moscow has been repeatedly arguing that any future arms control agreement should address all factors which affect strategic stability.3
Although these are the issues which Russia explicitly mentions in reference to strategic stability, there is another “hidden” issue which might also have a counterproductive impact on long term stability because of its potential to undermine strategic parity (which seems to be the basis of Russian interpretation of strategic stability).4 This issue is the non-deployed nuclear arsenal of the United States or the so-called “hedge.”
During the Cold War, both superpowers tried to deploy the majority of their nuclear weapons inventories. Reserve nuclear forces were small as a result of the continuous development and production of new nuclear weapons, which guaranteed the rapid exchange of the entire stockpile in a few years. The United States started to create a permanent reserve or hedge force in the early 1990s. The role of the hedge was twofold: first, to guarantee an up-build capability in case of a reemerging confrontation with Russia, and second, a technical insurance to secure against the potential failure of a warhead type or a delivery system. Despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union, during the first years of the 1990s, the United States was skeptical about the democratic transition of the previous Eastern Block and the commitment of the Russian Federation to arms control measures in general. Therefore, the Clinton administration’s 1994 NPR officially codified – for the first time – the concept of a hedge force against the uncertainties and the potential risks of the security environment.5 This concept gradually lost importance as the number of deployed strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons kept shrinking on both sides and relations improved between Washington and Moscow. By the end of the 1990s, the main rationale for upholding the hedge force shifted towards the necessity of maintaining a back-up against technical failures. Although the nuclear arsenal was aging, a moratorium was declared on nuclear weapons testing, and several production facilities were closed. Therefore, it seemed imperative to retain fully functional nuclear warheads in reserve as an insurance policy.6
While the Clinton administration’s NPR was not too explicit about what the hedge really was, both the Bush and the Obama administrations made the specific role of the hedge clearer. Although technical considerations remained important, the Bush administration’s 2001 NPR refocused U.S. hedging policy on safeguarding against geopolitical surprises. The administration tried to abandon Cold War “threat-based” force planning and implemented a “capabilities-based” force structure which was no longer focused on Russia as an imminent threat but broadened planning against a wider range of adversaries and contingencies: to assure allies, deter aggressors, dissuade competitors and defeat enemies.7 This shift in planning meant that the force structure was designed for a post-Cold War environment with a more cooperative Russia. Therefore, the primary goal of the hedge was to provide guarantees in case this environment changed and U.S.-Russian relations significantly deteriorated.
Regardless of the main focus of the acting administration, the hedge has always served two different roles which belong to two separate institutions: the military considers the hedge a responsive force against the uncertainties of the international geopolitical environment, while the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) views the hedge as a repository to safeguard the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal. These two institutions advise the administration on the required size of the hedge. Since the end of the Cold War, both the United States and Russia considerably reduced their deployed nuclear warheads, but Washington retained many of these weapons in the hedge. By now there are more non-deployed nuclear weapons than deployed nuclear weapons in its military stockpile.
According to the Federation of American Scientists,8 the United States has a military stockpile of 4,650 nuclear weapons, of which roughly 1,900 strategic nuclear weapons are deployed (this includes bomber weapons on bomber bases as deployed) and another approximately 200 non-strategic nuclear weapons are deployed in Europe. Altogether this leaves around 2,500 non-deployed nuclear weapons in reserve – approximately 2,200 strategic and 300 non-strategic.9 This hedge force10 provides the United States with a capability to increase its deployed nuclear arsenal to more than 4000 nuclear weapons within three years.11 In the long run, this capability might feed into Russian paranoia over anything that can potentially undermine strategic parity and it could become a serious roadblock on the way toward further reductions in deployed strategic as well as non-strategic nuclear arsenals.
The Obama administration has already indicated in the 2010 NPR that it is considering reductions in the nuclear hedge. According to the document, the “non-deployed stockpile currently includes more warheads than required” and the “implementation of the Stockpile Stewardship Program and the nuclear infrastructure investments” could set the ground for “major reductions” in the hedge. However, in parallel to these significant reductions, the United States “will retain the ability to ‘upload’ some nuclear warheads as a technical hedge against any future problems with U.S. delivery systems or warheads, or as a result of a fundamental deterioration of the security environment.” In line with the 2010 NPR, the 2013 Presidential Employment Guidance also envisions reductions in the deployed strategic nuclear arsenal and reaffirms the intention to reduce the hedge as well. The Pentagon report on the guidance12 discusses an “alternative approach to hedging” which would allow the United States to provide the necessary back-up capabilities “with fewer nuclear weapons.” This alternative approach puts the main emphasis on the technical role of the hedge, claiming that “a non-deployed hedge that is sized and ready to address these technical risks will also provide the United States the capability to upload additional weapons in response to geopolitical developments.” According to Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, this might imply that the hedge will no longer contain two categories of warheads – as there will be enough reserve warheads to protect against technical failures and potential geopolitical challenges.13 However, at this point it is still unclear if (and when) this new approach will lead to actual force reductions in the non-deployed nuclear arsenal.
In the meantime, the United States could achieve several benefits by reducing the hedge. First, reducing the number of warheads (which require constant maintenance and periodic life extension) could save a few hundred million dollars in the federal budget. Second, it could send a positive signal to Russia about U.S. long-term intentions. In his 2013 Berlin address, President Obama indicated that his administration would seek “negotiated cuts with Russia” to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons below the ceilings of the New START Treaty.14 In terms of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, Moscow has already met the limits of the Treaty and seems to be reluctant to negotiate any further cuts until the 2018 New START implementation deadline or until the United States also meets the Treaty limits15 (which – in light of the current trends – is probably not going to happen earlier than 2018). In addition, the deeper the two sides reduce their deployed strategic nuclear arsenals, the harder Russia tries to press the United States to include all other issues which affect strategic stability (especially ballistic missile defense). The United States has tried to alleviate Russian concerns over missile defense by offering some cooperative and transparency measures but Moscow insists that a legally binding treaty is necessary, which would put serious limits on the deployment of the system (a condition that is unacceptable to the United States Congress at the moment). Therefore, the future of further reductions seems to be blocked by disagreements over missile defense. But the proposed reduction of the hedge could signal U.S. willingness to reduce its strategic advantage against Russia.
Despite the potential benefits, U.S. government documents16 have been setting up a number of preconditions for reducing the size of the hedge. Beyond “geopolitical stability,” the two most important preconditions are the establishment of a responsive infrastructure by constructing new warhead production facilities and the successful completion of the warhead modernization programs. The Department of Energy’s FY 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP) proposes a so-called 3+2 warhead plan that would create three interoperable warheads for ballistic missiles and two for long-range bombers.17 The transition to interoperable warheads could, according to the plan, permit a reduction of the number of warheads in the hedge. In light of the current budget constraints, it is still unclear if the program will start as planned and even if completed according to schedule, the gradual reduction of the technical hedge would not begin until the mid-2030s. Similar challenges will arise if the administration wishes to link the reduction of the hedge to the construction of new warhead production facilities – some of which have already been delayed due to budget considerations, and the exact dates and technical details of their future completion are still unclear.
The preconditions would mean that significant reductions in the hedge18 are unlikely to materialize for at least another 15 years. Meanwhile, the deployed arsenal faces two scenarios in the coming decades: the number of warheads and delivery platforms could keep shrinking or arms control negotiations might fail to produce further reductions as a result of strategic inequalities (partly caused by the huge U.S. non-deployed arsenal). Under the first scenario, keeping the hedge in its current size would be illogical because a smaller deployed arsenal would require fewer replacement warheads19 in case of technical failures, and because fewer delivery platforms would require fewer up-load warheads in case of geopolitical surprises. Maintaining the current non-deployed arsenal would not make any more sense under the second scenario either. If future arms control negotiations get stuck based on arguments over strategic parity, maintaining a large hedge force will be part of the problem, not a solution. Therefore, insisting on the “modernization precondition” and keeping the current hedge for another 15 years would not bring any benefits for the United States.
On the other hand, President Obama could use his executive power to start gradual reductions in the hedge. Although opponents in Congress have been trying to limit his flexibility in future nuclear reductions (which could happen in a non-treaty framework), current legislative language does not explicitly limit cuts in the non-deployed nuclear arsenal. After the successful vote on the New START Treaty, the Senate adopted a resolution on the treaty ratification which declares that “further arms reduction agreements obligating the United States to reduce or limit the Armed Forces or armaments of the United States in any militarily significant manner may be made only pursuant to the treaty-making power of the President.”20 However, if gradual cuts in the hedge would not be part of any “further arms reduction agreement” but instead implemented unilaterally, it would not be subject to a new legally binding treaty (and the necessary Senate approval which comes with it). Similarly, the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was adopted in December 2013, does not use explicit language against unilateral reductions in the hedge.21 The NDAA only talks about preconditions to further nuclear arms reductions with Russia below the New START Treaty levels and it does not propose any limitations on cutting the non-deployed arsenal. In fact, the NDAA encourages taking into account “the full range of nuclear weapons capabilities,” especially the non-strategic arsenals – and this is exactly where reducing the United States hedge force could send a positive message and prove beneficial.
The 2013 Presidential Employment Guidance appears to move towards an alternative approach to hedging. This new strategy implies less reliance on non-deployed nuclear weapons which is a promising first step towards their reduction. However, the FY 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan links this reduction to the successful completion of the ongoing nuclear modernization programs, anticipating that the number of warheads in the hedge force will not change significantly in the near future. Its fate will mainly depend on congressional budget fights.
This might send a bad signal to Russia, where U.S. missile defense developments and its alleged impact on strategic stability are already a primary source of concern to the Kremlin. As a result of aging technologies and necessary retirements, Russian nuclear forces have been constantly decreasing, and despite all modernization efforts,[ref]Russian has an ongoing modernization program, in the framework of which it has already begun to build a new heavy ICBM and a multiple-warhead Bulava SLBM.[/ref] it is expected that by the early 2020s the ICBM arsenal will shrink to 220 missiles.22 Russia already deploys 40 percent less strategic delivery systems than the United States and tries to keep the balance of deployed weapons by higher warhead loadings. This does not give Russia the ability to significantly increase the deployed number of warheads – not just because of the lower number of delivery vehicles but also because of the lack of reserve warheads comparable in number to the United States hedge force. In this regard there is an important asymmetry between Russia and the United States – while Washington keeps a hedge for technical and geopolitical challenges, Moscow maintains an active production infrastructure, which – if necessary – enables the production of hundreds of new weapons every year. It definitely has its implications for the long term (10-15 years) status of strategic parity, but certainly less impact on short term prospects.
In the meantime, the United States loads only 4-5 warheads on its SLBMs (instead of their maximum capacity of 8 warheads) and keeps downloading all of its ICBMs to a single warhead configuration.23 Taken into account the upload potential of the delivery vehicles and the number of warheads in the hedge force, in case of a dramatic deterioration of the international security environment the United States could increase its strategic nuclear arsenal to above 4000 deployed warheads in about three years.
Whether one uses a narrow or a broader interpretation of strategic stability, these tendencies definitely work against the mere logic of strategic parity and might have a negative effect on the chances of further bilateral reductions as well. Cutting the hedge unilaterally would definitely upset Congress and it could endanger other foreign policy priorities of the United States (such as the CTBT ratification or negotiations with Iran), but it would still be worth the effort as it could also indicate good faith and contribute to the establishment of a more favorable geopolitical environment. It could signal President Obama’s serious commitment to further disarmament, send a positive message to Russian military planners and ease some of their paranoia about U.S. force structure trends.
Anna Péczeli is a Fulbright Scholar and Nuclear Research Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. Additionally, Péczeli is an adjunct fellow at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, where she works on nuclear arms control. Péczeli earned a master’s degree in international relations from Corvinus University of Budapest, and is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the Obama administration’s nuclear strategy.
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