Nuclear Arsenal Reductions Face Serious Obstacles, Experts Say

(Apr. 9) -Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed last week to press ahead with talks aimed at reducing their countries’ nuclear arsenals (Vladimir Rodionov/Getty Images).
(Apr. 9) -Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed last week to press ahead with talks aimed at reducing their countries’ nuclear arsenals (Vladimir Rodionov/Getty Images).

The Obama administration is likely to face significant obstacles -- possibly from within the military itself -- in its effort to press reductions to the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, Time magazine reported today (see GSN, April 8).

President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, agreed last week to begin negotiations on a follow-up agreement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December (see GSN, April 1). The pact could require the former Cold War foes to shrink their nuclear stockpiles beyond the limit set by the 2002 Moscow Treaty, which allows each to deploy 1,700 to 2,200 operational warheads.

However, it is harder to make cuts to smaller, less stable arsenals, according to Time. A nation, according to traditional deterrence theory, must possess enough nuclear weapons to eliminate the military resources of several enemies. Pentagon war planners might fear that a major reduction could harm the U.S. capability to do so.

"China is approaching 200 warheads on ballistic missiles and building a force that the U.S. intelligence community fears could double in the next 15 years," said Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. "Under this scenario, U.S. war planners worry that they would not be able to handle multiple contingencies if they have too few weapons: they wouldn't be able to deter Russia, China and potential regional actors simultaneously."

A new military doctrine that places less emphasis on Cold War foes in Beijing and Moscow would be required for the United States to move toward full disarmament, according to Time. Obama has stated that as his ultimate aspiration.

"Worst-case war planners should not dictate to the president a force structure which exceeds all plausible needs," said one former senior U.S. State Department official involved in the START talks.

The treaty's expiration creates additional pressure. The Senate would have to receive a new agreement in August to give it enough time to study and then sign off on the deal before its predecessor expires.

The administration might have to conduct the talks without experienced personnel who "have left government [and were] not replaced during an era when arms control was not a priority," said Steven Andreasen, former arms control chief at the National Security Council.

"The president must make sure the American delegation is packed with fast learners if he cannot persuade some of the experienced people to return to duty," said Peter Zimmerman, who served as lead scientist at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

One likely point of contention in the talks is whether to assess arsenals by the number of operational warheads or the total possible weapons that could be put to use by both nations. The number of "operationally deployed warheads" allowed by the Moscow Treaty does not encompass the full scope of the stockpiles held in Russia and the United States.

Arms control experts such as Zimmerman hope for an agreement that maintains the strong verification requirements developed under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty while requiring a modest arsenal reduction.

"It's been a long time since we felt this level of excitement," Kristensen sid. "But now the question that has always seemed frustratingly hypothetical needs a clear answer: how can we actually make this happen?" (Eben Harrell, Time, April 9).

April 9, 2009
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The Obama administration is likely to face significant obstacles -- possibly from within the military itself -- in its effort to press reductions to the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, Time magazine reported today (see GSN, April 8).