U.S. Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Getting it Right

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The scheduled expiration of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in December of 2009 and that of the 2002 Moscow Treaty (also known as the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty, or SORT) in 2012 is impelling the Obama administration to pursue new negotiations with Russia with regard to an agreement that would extend, or possibly replace, START and SORT.1 The old adage seems to apply: “You want it bad, you’ll get it bad.”

Of particular concern is the fact that President Obama’s negotiators are reportedly preparing a treaty that would make dramatic changes in the U.S. strategic force posture even though the administration has scarcely begun two major, congressionally mandated studies scheduled for completion by year’s end: the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).  These important internal planning exercises are intended to inform decisions about the U.S. deterrent force structure and capabilities.  It appears, instead, that whatever U.S.-Russian arms control agreement can be hastily fashioned to limit our deterrent will guide the NPR and QDR, rather than the other way around.

No less troubling is the administration’s apparent inattention in the pursuit of a START follow-on agreement to the findings and recommendations of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States (the Strategic Posture Commission) – or even to the views of its own senior officials charged with maintaining and operating our nuclear forces.

This briefing book is designed to distill in a convenient form the most important of these inputs and to draw the appropriate conclusions about what a START follow-on treaty should and should not entail.  It is meant to provide constructive advice to the negotiators and to inform members of the United States Senate who must approve ratification of any future treaty the diplomats might produce.

The bottom line is that any follow-on agreement must ensure the continued effectiveness and credibility of the U.S. strategic posture sufficient to maintain America’s own security and that of its allies through extended nuclear deterrence.  Among other conclusions, the agreement should not de facto establish Russian strategic superiority by focusing entirely on strategic nuclear forces and ignoring the thousands of Russian theater and tactical nuclear weapons.  In light of the now all-too-frequent, high-level Russian direct and indirect nuclear threats against U.S. allies, the treaty should take into account the requirement for extended deterrence.  It must be verifiable and we must insist on Russian compliance, which has not been the case with previous arms control agreements.

Any limitations on warheads and delivery systems, and related verification protocols, must meet the tests of reliability, credibility, and effectiveness essential to maintaining America’s strategic nuclear deterrent.  Negotiations that fail to take these requirements into account will risk an outcome that will  invite – not prevent – nuclear proliferation, intimidation, and regional instability, to the detriment of the United States and our allies.

The U.S. has over four decades of arms control experience with Russia and the former U.S.S.R.  One lesson we should have learned by now is that even the most comprehensive inspection arrangements acceptable to the United States cannot assure Kremlin compliance with international agreements.  Another lesson is that arms control agreements are not worth the paper on which they are written unless they advance larger strategic objectives of the United States.

We do not need a new agreement with Russia simply for the sake of having an agreement.  In particular, with the Cold War behind us, it is in our interest to ensure that such an agreement does not actually leave Moscow in a stronger position to threaten and coerce the independent states of the former Soviet Union and our allies on the Russian littoral.

As the following pages make clear, tending to the abiding requirements of our nuclear deterrent is at least as important to American security as any arms control treaty the Russians might accept.  For reasons detailed below, subordinating the former to the latter may well make the world and the Nation substantially less safe.

The Need for a Credible U.S. Nuclear Deterrent

U.S. nuclear weapons continue to play a vital role in today’s strategic environment.  They serve as a deterrent to attacks on the United States from countries armed with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, such as biological and chemical weapons.  For example, U.S. nuclear forces provide a hedge against a resurgent Russia, which deploys thousands of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, has placed increasing emphasis on its nuclear forces in its military doctrine, and continues to modernize its nuclear weaponry in concert with its pursuit of a more anti-American foreign policy.  They serve as a deterrent to China, which is also pursuing its own extensive military modernization program.  They can also dissuade other nuclear and non-nuclear powers from adopting more belligerent policies that threaten U.S. interests.

Importantly, U.S. nuclear forces provide a “nuclear umbrella” to allies, historically acting as the ultimate guarantor of their security.  In a number of cases, a robust American nuclear arsenal has proven to be effective not only in deterring attacks on the United States and its allies from adversaries using weapons of mass destruction.  This “extended deterrent” has also allowed our allies and friends to forgo pursuit of their own nuclear arsenals.  It follows that as uncertainty increases about the reliability and/or effectiveness of our deterrent, those under our “umbrella” will feel a heightened obligation to seek independent nuclear arsenals.

Center for Security Policy

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