Arms Control Proponents Question U.S. Nuclear Readiness Doctrine

An U.S. Air Force serviceman performs maintenance on a U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM in 1997 in Nebraska. The mission of U.S. nuclear forces no longer needs to include staving off a surprise, large-scale atomic strike by Russia, arms control backers said last week (AP Photo/Eric Draper).
An U.S. Air Force serviceman performs maintenance on a U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM in 1997 in Nebraska. The mission of U.S. nuclear forces no longer needs to include staving off a surprise, large-scale atomic strike by Russia, arms control backers said last week (AP Photo/Eric Draper).

WASHINGTON -- Forthcoming updates to the U.S. nuclear weapons force structure should eliminate the long-held objective of deterring a massive surprise atomic attack by Russia, arms control advocates said on Friday (see GSN, Jan. 6).

Only by doing away with the requirement, which necessitates a much larger nuclear force than otherwise necessary, can Washington and Moscow negotiate arms reductions beyond those mandated under the New START treaty that entered into force last year, said Morton Halperin, an adviser with the Open Society Institute.

The size of the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal is far beyond what is needed to deter Russia two decades after the end of the Cold War, Halperin indicated.

“We need to start from scratch,” he said at a panel discussion sponsored by the Arms Control Association in Washington. “We need to ask ourselves the question: Under what circumstances might the Russian leadership wake up and say, ‘Oh, it’s Easter Sunday, the Americans are at rest, we can launch a surprise attack and it will be successful?’ What would have to be going on in the world that would make that even conceivable?”

New START requires each government by 2018 to reduce deployment of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from a cap of 2,200 mandated by next year under an older treaty. It also limits the number of fielded strategic warhead delivery platforms to 700, with an additional 100 systems permitted in reserve (see GSN, Dec. 23, 2011).

The United States as of last September had 1,790 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on bomber aircraft and land- and submarine-based missiles, according to data from an exchange mandated under the treaty (see GSN, Oct. 26, 2011). The U.S. nuclear stockpile totaled 5,113 warheads in September 2009, including stored weapons, according to a Pentagon disclosure (see GSN, May 4, 2010).

President Obama is set in coming weeks to assess options for updating guidance on plans for the possible employment of nuclear weapons in combat. His resulting Presidential Policy Directive would initiate preparation of a succession of highly classified defense planning documents and culminate in a new strategic war plan.

The president’s decisions could prove crucial to his administration’s hopes of carrying out additional arsenal reductions in conjunction with Russia, Gary Samore, National Security Council coordinator for arms control and nonproliferation, suggested in comments published last May by Arms Control Today.

“Reductions below the level that we have now are going to require some more fundamental questions about force structure,” Samore said then.

Separately, the Defense Department is due to complete a plan for implementing goals laid out in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, a study of the nation’s atomic forces, policies and capabilities (see GSN, Nov. 8, 2011). A separate assessment is expected to examine potential nuclear reductions beyond those required by New START (see GSN, Nov. 7, 2011).

The Nuclear Posture Review “deliberately” avoided addressing potential retaliation to a massive Russian strike because the objective could still be met with the force levels permitted under New START, said Halperin, who served on the congressionally mandated Strategic Posture Commission and held senior-level national security posts under President Clinton and several prior administrations.

In addition, U.S. nuclear war plans should exclude a “prompt launch” requirement for the nation’s ICBMs to remain ready for liftoff within minutes, Halperin said. The policy aims to prevent the weapons from being destroyed before they can be put to use in a potential war.

Obama should “tell the military that not only is there no requirement for prompt launch, [but] that he intends if there is a threat of a nuclear attack to make sure that there actually is an attack, and even if there is an attack, that he wants time to assess it and decide how he will respond in kind,” according to Halperin.

The Nuclear Posture Review calls for Air Force studies of potential future ICBM systems to consider "new modes of ICBM basing that enhance survivability and further reduce any incentives for prompt launch" (see GSN, Feb. 18, 2011).

Eliminating the prompt launch requirement “will probably produce more requirements for command and control and for survival, particularly the survival of the president,” Halperin said. “But it will also make a change in the kind of strategic nuclear forces that we need.”

The change would allow for the United States and Russia to reduce their deployed strategic arsenals to 1,000 warheads or fewer, potentially formalized in an “amendment” to New START, the expert said. Such levels would still far exceed other nations’ nuclear arsenals in size, and the U.S. reserve force would “numerically balance out” Russia’s far larger deployed tactical nuclear stockpile, he added (see GSN, Jan. 3).

Arms Control Association head Daryl Kimball concurred with the recommendations.

“If … the president does indeed undertake a zero-based review of targeting requirements, starting from scratch, and looks again at the old Cold War requirements for prompt launch, it’s pretty clear that the United States could significantly reduce the number of targets, and therefore the number of deployed nuclear warheads to … 1,000 or below.”

A recently issued U.S. defense strategy offers a “tantalizing clue” into nuclear planning options under consideration, Kimball added (see GSN, Jan. 5).

That document states: “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.”

Both experts advocated retention of the U.S. triad of land-, air- and sea-based nuclear-weapon delivery vehicles. Maintaining all three deployment mechanisms “makes it easier to argue that we can go to lower [nuclear-warhead] numbers” and “helps us to get off the requirement for prompt launch,” Halperin said, without elaborating.

Another expert, though, said the Obama administration is unlikely to implement significant changes to the nation’s nuclear war doctrine.

“It’s just always the way they have been in the nuclear business: no one goes in and makes giant, huge, fast decisions,” said Hans Kristensen, who heads the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Still, “it’s very important that [Obama] puts down the stakes for the road that he is signaling that [he is] interested in traveling,” Kristensen said. Obama pledged in an April 2009 speech in Prague to "put an end to Cold War thinking" and "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy."

Congressional Research Service nuclear weapons analyst Amy Woolf agreed with Kristensen.

“Any changes you see now are going to be modest,” she said. “But modesty adds up.”

Still, budget constraints might eventually force significant changes to the nation’s nuclear war strategy, Woolf said earlier.

“Wouldn’t it make sense, and this is an opinion, to make the decision about changing how you operate the force before the budget forces you to do it because the budget has forced you to reduce the number of delivery systems?” she asked.

“Right now, we’re kind of in that crossover point. The administration is looking at changes in the guidance that might allow you to change how to operate the force and to buy fewer systems. But the budget pressures, which may win the day, are putting a lot of pressure to buy fewer systems or buy them later, which may then force you to change how you operate the force."

The Navy is designing a new ballistic-missile submarine for a fleet slated to serve from 2029 until 2075, and the Air Force intends to procure between 80 and 100 next-generation strategic bomber aircraft starting in 2025, Woolf wrote in the latest edition of Arms Control Today. The Air Force is also studying options for a potential successor to the Minuteman 3 ICBM; procurement for such a weapon could begin in fiscal 2025, Woolf said.

However, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have suggested that ongoing budget restrictions could curtail plans for sustaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

The United States could save $45 billion in the next decade by eliminating at least six vessels from its fleet of 14 ballistic-missile submarines, building no more than eight next-generation ships, and postponing development of the next-generation strategic bomber, Kimball and ACA research director Tom Collina stated in a commentary  published last Thursday.

The anticipated cost of maintaining and updating the nation’s nuclear arsenal has been subject to considerable debate. U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) late last year argued that sustaining the force and associated operations could cost $700 billion over the next 10 years (see GSN, Dec. 2, 2011). Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio) and a Washington Post report contended the figure had been inflated (see GSN, Dec. 1, 2011).

Jan. 24, 2012
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WASHINGTON -- Forthcoming updates to the U.S. nuclear weapons force structure should eliminate the long-held objective of deterring a massive surprise atomic attack by Russia, arms control advocates said on Friday.