Nuclear Analysts Propose "Minimal Deterrence" Force Numbering 500 Warheads

(Apr. 10) -An independent proposal would vastly cut back the number of U.S. nuclear warheads, like those carried on the Minuteman 3 ICBM and other delivery devices (U.S. Air Force photo).
(Apr. 10) -An independent proposal would vastly cut back the number of U.S. nuclear warheads, like those carried on the Minuteman 3 ICBM and other delivery devices (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- A team of nuclear weapon experts this week described how the United States could reduce its arsenal to 500 warheads as a "minimal deterrent" against nuclear attack, laying the groundwork for an eventual transition to full disarmament (see GSN, April 9).

The United States has reduced its operational nuclear arsenal to roughly 2,200 deployed warheads under the terms of the 2002 Moscow Treaty, and Russia is expected to complete similar reductions by a 2013 deadline. The two nations are to begin negotiations soon in hopes of establishing a new agreement by the end of the year that would set nuclear warhead caps lower than 1,700 (see GSN, April 1).

U.S. President Barack Obama said Sunday during a speech in Prague that his ultimate objective is a world without nuclear weapons, though he acknowledged that might not be achievable in his lifetime (see GSN, April 6). In light of Obama's vision, the new report urges the U.S. government to perform a fundamental reassessment of the purposes of nuclear weapons.

"To move with any sincerity and effectiveness toward a nuclear weapons-free world, nuclear weapons must shed almost all of their current missions," according to the new report, written by Hans Kristensen and Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists and Robert Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Going forward, nuclear weapons should not be assigned any mission for which they are less than indispensable."

A second independent report issued on Wednesday, also co-sponsored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, laid out how the U.S. nuclear weapons complex might shrink as deep warhead reductions are taken.

The recommendations come as a bipartisan, congressionally mandated commission readies its own strategic weapons findings and the Defense Department begins a wide-ranging Nuclear Posture Review (see GSN, Dec. 16, 2008). President George W. Bush's administration in 2001 completed the last such major assessment of U.S. nuclear strategy and the forces required for its implementation.

The Wednesday report notes that Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, recently said he could not reduce the number of nuclear weapons "on alert" -- or ready to launch at a moment's notice -- unless the White House issued a new "strategy and guidance and policy" (see GSN, Feb. 27).

"That is exactly right," stated the trio of analysts. "If President Obama wants Gen. Chilton to do something different, he will have to provide the command of U.S. nuclear forces with different guidance and directives" (see GSN, April 1).

Navy Lt. Charlie Drey, a Strategic Command spokesman, yesterday declined to comment directly on the independent report. He noted that the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review, which would address how U.S. forces should be constituted "for the next five to 10 years," should be complete by the end of the year.

This week's 64-page report offers an unusual level of detail in assessing how a sharply reduced arsenal could be configured. To achieve minimal deterrence, the analysts recommended planning for possible nuclear-weapon launches only in response to a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies.

"A new 'minimal deterrence' mission will make retaliation after nuclear attack the sole mission for nuclear weapons," the assessment states. "We believe that adopting this doctrine is an important step on the path to nuclear abolition because nuclear retaliation is the one mission for nuclear weapons that reduces the salience of nuclear weapons; it is the self-canceling mission. With just this one mission, the United States can have far fewer nuclear forces to use against a different set of targets."

The existing nuclear posture has the U.S. military embracing "counterforce" targeting -- in other words, going after an enemy's nuclear force, other military targets and national leadership.

The Bush administration justified the size of the nuclear arsenal by laying out a requirement "to strike a large number of targets in half a dozen countries; to maintain several different war plans with numerous strike options, including large strikes against Russia and China and smaller ones against regional states; and to ensure that counterforce targets be destroyed with high confidence," according to the assessment.

However, the analysts contended this stance perpetuates "the most dangerous characteristics of nuclear forces, with weapons kept at high levels of alert, ready to launch upon warning of an enemy attack, and able to pre-emptively attack enemy forces."

Instead, the new report advocates limiting U.S. nuclear weapon targeting to a potential adversary's national infrastructure and selected industrial facilities. A detailed analysis of this more circumscribed target set -- those "crucial to a nation's modern economy, for example, electrical, oil, and energy nodes, transportation hubs" -- is what drove the total warhead figure down to 500, according to the authors.

"We chose these big industrial targets because they are essential to big nations," such as potential future nuclear adversaries like Russia or China, Kristensen, director of the federation's Nuclear Information Project, said in an interview yesterday.

Though of great value to an adversary nation, such targets are less likely to trigger a "use-or-lose" phenomenon in which a threatened country opts to launch its weapons pre-emptively.

"It's very hard to break this warfighting mentality," observed Kristensen, referring to Cold War preparations for large nuclear exchanges between the United States and Russia. "But if the president is serious about dramatic reductions, then you have to have a new form of deterrence thinking than we've had in the past."

The report, "From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons," elaborates on how a "notional infrastructure target set" might be established in an eight-page "damage and casualty analysis," complete with tables and graphs projecting potential destruction.

The analysts also proposed wording for a draft "presidential policy directive" that Obama could issue to his national security team. If the idea were adopted by Obama, such a memo would lay out new policy guidelines that Chilton's Strategic Command could use as a basis for reducing the number of nuclear weapons required in war plans.

The notional three-page memo describes a new, post-Cold War targeting policy that differs from the current posture "by limiting the role of nuclear weapons in our security policy, by going to smaller and smaller numbers through a series of stages, and by truly supporting our pledge to honor Article 6 of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which calls for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons."

The authors proposed how the United States and Russia might take reductions over time, ultimately reaching the report's goal of 500 deployed warheads on each side. By 2015, the arsenals would each be capped at 1,500 warheads, and by 2020 reductions would be taken to a level of 1,000, according to the report.

Each nation might achieve a 500-warhead deployed force by 2025, the analysts projected. They also recommended that nondeployed warhead reserves -- which the Moscow Treaty does not limit -- should be eliminated by the same date.

"It's a process," Kristensen said. "This is not something we can go to next week."

The report states that a continuing role for nuclear weapons, even at reduced levels, carries both serious risks for civilians and serious consequences for potential aggressors.

"Even when carefully choosing targets to avoid cities, attack with a dozen typical nuclear weapons can result in more than a million casualties," the report reads. "Nuclear weapons are so destructive that much smaller forces, of initially 1,000 warheads, and later a few hundred warheads, are more than adequate to serve as a deterrent against anyone unwise enough to attack the United States with nuclear weapons," according to the analysis.

Advocates of maintaining a sizable U.S. nuclear force have warned that deep reductions would bring the size of the arsenal closer to that of China, which a recent assessment pegs at roughly 125 warheads. Concerns abound among some U.S. and Asian security experts about the potential rise of Beijing as a military "peer competitor" to Washington.

It would be necessary to draw China -- as well as other nuclear powers including France and the United Kingdom -- into talks aimed at multilateral force reductions as Russia and the United States eye deep force cuts, the analysts suggested. The assessment did not address potential disarmament approaches for nations with much smaller arsenals, like Israel, India or Pakistan.

The report team cited several recent U.S. intelligence community findings that China's nuclear force modernization has been driven largely by worries in Beijing that the United States could destroy its small deterrent force with a single, pre-emptive attack.

"There is no question that bringing the next tier of nuclear powers ... into arms reduction negotiations will be complex and challenging, but management of the Chinese threat in particular will be easier without their fearing a disarming first strike," the report reads.

As deep cuts are taken, the U.S. arsenal should transition from the current "triad" -- nuclear-armed ICBMs, bombers and submarine-based missiles -- to a "dyad," according to the analysts. Ridding the force of Trident D-5 sea-launched ballistic missiles would be consistent with a U.S. force configured solely for retaliation because "today's SLBMs are highly capable offensive weapons designed to play a key role in the earliest phases of a nuclear war," the report states.

During President Bill Clinton's 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, Pentagon policy officials considered moving to a dyad, but military leaders quickly squelched the idea. They characterized it as a radical move that could increase U.S. vulnerability to nuclear strikes.

April 14, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- A team of nuclear weapon experts this week described how the United States could reduce its arsenal to 500 warheads as a "minimal deterrent" against nuclear attack, laying the groundwork for an eventual transition to full disarmament (see GSN, April 9).