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Further U.S. Nuclear Cuts Could Destabilize Global Strategic Order, Expert Warns

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

(May. 9) -A worker inspects a U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM. A planned Obama administration analysis of U.S. nuclear force needs has raised questions about the potentially destabilizing impact of additional reductions to the country's deterrent (U.S. Defense Department photo). (May. 9) -A worker inspects a U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM. A planned Obama administration analysis of U.S. nuclear force needs has raised questions about the potentially destabilizing impact of additional reductions to the country's deterrent (U.S. Defense Department photo).

WASHINGTON -- A deterrence expert last week warned of the potentially destabilizing effects of President Obama's decision to order a review of the U.S. nuclear arsenal with an eye to determining where additional arms reductions might be possible (see GSN, March 23).

The Defense Department-led analysis is expected to consider the range of locations that would need to be targeted by U.S. nuclear weapons in a worst-case scenario and the size of the nuclear force needed to carry out attacks on those sites. A new understanding of these requirements could result in additional nuclear arsenal cutbacks.

Representatives from a "number" of ally states covered by extended U.S. nuclear deterrence told the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States "that they were beginning to be worried about the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and were potentially concerned that if we drew our forces down too far that the credibility of that extended nuclear umbrella would no longer be sufficient in their eyes," former Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Keith Payne said on Wednesday.

"Some of them even suggested that if that were the case, they might have to reconsider their commitment to being non-nuclear states," Payne, who served on the commission, told the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

Washington provides "extended deterrence" to each of its 27 NATO allies as well as Australia, Japan and South Korea. By doing so, Washington promises to defend partner states with its nuclear arsenal in the event of an attack or the threat of one.

As of one year ago, the Pentagon had 5,113 strategic and tactical warheads in its commissioned nuclear arsenal (see GSN, May 4, 2010). The recently implemented New START pact requires both Russia and the United States to reduce their stocks of deployed long-range nuclear weapons to 1,550.

Obama has expressed hope to begin talks by next February that would focus on drawing down U.S. and Russian short-range nuclear arms.

Payne said the commission heard from "senior voices" in Japan that "the threshold at which point they start to become very worried about the credibility of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent is if the U.S. starts moving down to 1,000 nuclear warheads."

"When we start looking at numbers that potentially go well below that, we will be potentially jeopardizing the credibility" of the nuclear umbrella in the eyes of U.S. allies, he said, without detailing the reasoning behind the criticality of the 1,000-weapon count.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he worries that "a perverse consequence of too much reduction could actually be a proliferation of nuclear weapons in other countries that previously did not feel the need to have them."

Sessions also speculated about the potential for current nuclear weapon possessor states to view future U.S. arms reductions as a chance to rush to achieve strategic parity.

"There are other players in the world than Russia," Sessions said. "One of the problems we have is that as we draw down our weapons it seems to me that China may have an incentive to seek equivalence with the United States."

The Bulletin of Atomic the Scientists in 2010 estimated that China possesses approximately 175 active nuclear warheads, with another 65 in storage or scheduled for disassembly. The Chinese military has said it is inevitable that its arsenal would grow (see GSN, Feb. 28).

Washington and Beijing are slated to conduct strategic discussions later this month that the United States has sought as a means of bringing clarity to each side's nuclear forces posture (see GSN, May 6).

"How can we know with any certainty how many nuclear weapons the United States needs to maintain in order to disincentivize China to seek nuclear parity with the United States," Sessions asked.

Payne responded: "Nobody can give you a number right now, can give you any kind of confident prediction that this number will be enough to deter contenders 10 years from now or to assure allies 10 years from now, for the simple reason that threats change, opponents change, conditions change, the requirements for deterrence and assurance similarly shift and change. So our force structure needs to be agile and resilient and flexible enough to change."

Principal Deputy Defense Undersecretary James Miller reminded the lawmakers that the United States and Russia together possess 95 percent of the planet’s nuclear weapons. He said there have been no signs that any of the world’s other possessor states are seeking parity with the two one-time Cold War antagonists.

China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States are the recognized nuclear powers under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India, Israel and Pakistan are all known or widely assumed to hold atomic arsenals, while North Korea holds a deterrent of ambiguous value.

Miller said the Pentagon nuclear arsenal review has not officially begun but that it would take several months to complete. Discussions on the matter so far have focused on the review's scope and schedule, he said.

Two senior Republican lawmakers, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona and Representative Mike Turner of Ohio, are pushing legislation that would curb any Obama administration effort to unilaterally cut back the U.S. nuclear arsenal, according to a Monday news brief in Politico.

Miller also briefly touched on the first U.S. inspection of the Russian strategic arsenal under the New START accord, which took place in mid-April at an installation that holds silo-based ICBMs (see GSN, April 14). "The inspection went about as expected," the official said, adding that he could not reveal more in an open session.

He also addressed worries by some NATO states in the Baltic region over the Kremlin’s stance that it would not join tactical nuclear arms reductions talks until Washington withdrew its deployed short-range warheads from Europe. Such a move, Miller noted, would reduce the scant leverage the United States has going into potential talks on the matter with Moscow.

The United States is thought to have approximately 200 tactical gravity bombs deployed at six military bases in five European countries. Russia is believed to possess about 2,000 deliverable tactical nuclear warheads inside its borders (see GSN, April 28).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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