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

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Findings and Recommendations

Accordingly, the New Deterrent Working Group believes the following should guide U.S. nuclear weapons policies and programs:

•     A safe, credible, secure and reliable U.S. nuclear deterrent requires a modern infrastructure and strategic force structure, no matter what level of nuclear weapons we deploy.

•     A robust deterrent requires maintaining an enduring Triad of submarines, land based missiles and bombers, and a robust and layered missile defense architecture.  To be credible, our forces must be maintained in a ready and useable status.  That does not mean they are on “hair trigger alert” and it is irresponsible to characterize them as such.

•     Equally important, it requires nuclear weapons laboratories capable of attracting and retaining top-flight personnel to work on relevant scientific endeavors, a properly funded and effective stockpile stewardship program, and ongoing life-extension and modernization programs for weapons and delivery systems.

•     Nuclear deterrence is required not only to protect U.S. security but also to extend a nuclear umbrella or extended deterrent to our allies, many of whom are concerned with nuclear threats to their security not the least of which is the significant Russian advantage in deployed tactical nuclear weapons.

•     There is no evidence that U.S. “restraint” in the modernization of our nuclear deterrent results in any reciprocal behavior on the part of peer or near-peer states, let alone rogue regimes.  Today, the United States is the only nuclear power not currently modernizing its deterrent.  Indeed, historical experience suggests that perceived U.S. neglect of its nuclear deterrent enterprise could very well encourage proliferation as allies worry about the seriousness of our extended deterrent commitments and adversaries seek to increase their nuclear weapons stockpiles, and even become peer competitors.

•     Terrorist groups and their state sponsors, whether separately or together, will not stop their quest for nuclear weapons because the United States reduces its nuclear deterrent capabilities, whether unilaterally or in cooperation with Russia through additional arms control agreements.

•     International cooperation is needed to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by a terrorist group or state sponsor of terror. But such cooperation is more likely to be forthcoming if the United States is demonstrating international leadership and resolve by, among other things, communicating its willingness to meet longstanding deterrent commitments than if it is neglecting them.

With respect to the START follow-on negotiations, the New Deterrent Working Group recommends the following:

•     The treaty must be structured so as to ensure that the United States remains able to deter effectively, and if necessary, to defeat projected threats to our national security, while hedging against potential changes in the forecasted security environment.

•     At least until such time as a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has been completed and its adequacy assessed by the Congress, no START follow-on agreement should be contemplated that would involve reductions that could impinge upon, let alone preclude, the continued operational deployment of the currently sized Triad of American strategic forces. Those forces must remain capable of significant and continuous at-sea deterrence and maintain undiminished alert rates for the ICBM force.

•     A competently conducted NPR would affirm, for reasons cited above and developed at greater length elsewhere in this briefing book, that reductions below 1,700 operationally deployed warheads are unacceptable under present and foreseeable circumstances.  Even that level would represent a 23% reduction from the 2002 Moscow Treaty limit of 2,200.

•     The number and character of the forces the United States can deploy under any START follow-on treaty must also be sufficient to continue effectively to meet the Nation’s security commitments to allies through extended nuclear deterrence.

•     Any agreed limitations in a future U.S.-Russian arms control agreement should apply only to  operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads, not to the currently deployed delivery platforms or reserve warheads.  The United States should retain maximum latitude to decide the nature and composition of its delivery platforms.

•     A follow-on START agreement must not preclude the United States from maintaining a sizeable stockpile of non-deployed weapons.  This is particularly critical in these early years, when the U.S. has no nuclear weapons production capability.  Once we have established the “Responsive Infrastructure” required by the current NPR as the third leg of the Triad, this reserve stockpile may be safely reduced.

•     It would be particularly ill-advised to consider cuts below the 1,700 level in light of the immense advantage the Kremlin enjoys in non-strategic nuclear weapons and the threat they pose to the former Soviet republics and American allies on Russia’s littoral.  Any future arms reduction treaty must take into account Russian tactical and theater nuclear weapons.

•     Current START “counting rules” over-count U.S. warheads by more than a factor of two.  Any START follow-on agreement that imposes still deeper cuts in warhead levels must rectify these attribution arrangements so as to avoid reductions in American delivery systems that would otherwise be unnecessary and are certainly undesirable.

•     Correcting this problem will be all the more challenging given the unacceptability of the intrusive inspections that would be involved in physically counting warheads and the alternative of forcing the United States to engage in what amounts to rebuilding of its missiles so as to make them unable to carry more than the attributed number of warheads.  These considerations add further weight to the argument against making deeper reductions in a new bilateral arms control accord.

•  Any new U.S.-Russian arms control treaty must be linked to U.S. strategic force modernization.  The United States must not only retain the latitude regularly to refurbish and replace U.S. strategic forces. It must actually undertake the design and development of a new intercontinental-range bomber, ICBM, strategic submarines and submarine-launched ballistic missiles and new warheads needed to sustain a viable deterrent force for the foreseeable future.

•     Any agreement on nuclear forces must not restrict conventionally armed strategic weapons. This is an area of potentially considerable U.S. advantage and could become considerably more so if warhead numbers decline further.

•  The United States must preserve the freedom it currently enjoys to develop and deploy whatever missile defenses are deemed necessary. The need for anti-missile systems capable of protecting against ballistic missiles of every range seems likely only to grow in the future.

•     Finally, the continued credibility and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent precludes de-mating of warheads on operational systems or otherwise reducing the alert rates or alert status of U.S. forces.

Regrettably, those leading the negotiations with Russia on a follow-on to the expiring START Treaty appear unprepared to adhere to virtually any of the foregoing principles.  President Obama seems determined instead to pursue an arms control agenda shaped by his embrace of the “Global Zero” vision of a “world without nuclear weapons.”

Indeed, at this writing, the U.S. negotiating team is said to be preparing the groundwork for a precipitous, far-reaching arms reduction agreement with Russia in advance of high-level meetings scheduled between Presidents Obama and Medvedev in July, 2009.  There seems little chance that the resulting agreement will make the United States or its allies safer as it is rooted in a specious arms control paradigm unsuited to this dangerous world, namely one that prioritizes U.S. stockpile reductions above all else.

America’s Founders entrusted to the U.S. Senate the responsibility to provide quality control on treaties negotiated by the executive branch.  If the impending START follow-on agreement with the Russians does indeed depart from these principles, the Senate must recognize that it will undermine, not advance, the security interests of the United States and its ratification must be rejected.

Center for Security Policy

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