Second to One
From the October 17, 2011, issue of NR.

Signing New START, April 8, 2010


And when total inventories of nuclear weapons are compared, the disparity is even starker. In May 2010, in the name of “transparency,” the Pentagon took the unprecedented step of announcing that the active U.S. stockpile had been reduced to 5,113. While Moscow has not released a number for its total arsenal and is unlikely to do so in the future, the congressional Strategic Posture Commission estimated the Russian operational-warhead inventory in 2009 to be 7,900.

Beyond the numbers of weapons, any meaningful comparison must also take into account overall trends and weapons infrastructure. The United States not only trails but is falling farther behind on both counts, even apart from the rapid vanishing of funding commitments the Obama administration made to secure ratification of New START. For example, Russia can produce about 2,000 new warheads each year, whereas the United States can produce just 50 to 80 under the best conditions. Russia retires and replaces its warheads, while the U.S. spends billions on stockpile stewardship, so these numbers exaggerate the difference — but nonetheless, they demonstrate Russia’s dedication to maintaining its force at a time when America’s weapons infrastructure is deteriorating. And while Moscow seeks greater military capability in its new warhead designs, the Obama administration has taken the unprecedented — and unilateral — position that the United States will forgo “any new capabilities” in future or redesigned warheads.

As for strategic delivery vehicles, while Russia’s total will almost certainly continue to diminish in the near term because of the aging of its current forces, Moscow has begun to implement its stated commitment to reverse this trend, pledging to reach the New START limit of 700 by 2028. To meet this objective, Russia is constructing a new class of ballistic-missile submarines, two of which could be deployed by next year. It is increasing production of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) this year, with the goal of more than doubling production, to 30 per year, by 2013 and fielding a new missile by 2018. And it has announced that it will deploy a new strategic bomber by 2025 or 2030. While it is dubious that Russia will meet these ambitious timelines, for budgetary and other reasons, there is little doubt that, over time, it will build up at least to the New START limits — its self-image as a recovering superpower depends on it.

As for the United States, a new strategic submarine is planned for 2029. A new ICBM, for which there is no committed funding, will not come on line until at least 2030, when the existing missile force will be 60 years old. And as for the new bomber announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates before leaving office, not only is there no current program, but the Pentagon has not even established an official requirement for one — an essential step to moving forward. In fact, the recently retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs stated there is no need for such a bomber.

The Obama administration has responded to the emerging loss of parity in a variety of ways. First, it asserts that rough parity in overall nuclear forces still exists, despite the numbers and trends. Second, it suggests that parity is less important than it was in the past. Third, it has taken a number of steps that further erode parity, including unilateral reductions in nuclear forces. And perhaps most troubling are the suggestions that even more reductions of this type are coming — all in pursuit of the president’s vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

To assert that parity is being maintained, one must ignore the facts. This is most commonly done in the context of minimizing the military and political value of “non-strategic” nuclear weapons. Today, even many who support the maintenance of an American nuclear force second to none have accepted the fiction outlined above that some nuclear weapons count in measuring overall capability (“strategic” weapons) while others do not (“non-strategic” weapons). When asked whether the United States is now inferior to Russia in nuclear weaponry, these members of the “nuclear priesthood” will often respond, “of course not,” and cite the quantitative advantages in U.S. strategic forces, as well as what they present as qualitative advantages, such as reload capacity on ICBMs or better-built and -manned submarines. But when pressed about overall capabilities once tactical weapons are included, many concede that the calculus changes.

Others defend the strategic/non-strategic fiction. High-level Obama advisers have suggested that tactical weapons are mostly symbolic — having no real utility in the contemporary security setting. Shorter-range weapons don’t matter as much, they argue, because they can’t target the U.S. homeland. This is neither accurate, because many can hit targets in the United States, nor meaningful, because shorter-range weapons can strike forward-based U.S. forces as well as allies in Asia and Europe whose security we have long maintained to be inseparable from our own. In fact, as NATO has incorporated new members in Central and Eastern Europe, the strategic significance of tactical nuclear forces has grown in the eyes of allies such as Poland.

Russia also sees the matter differently than we do — placing greater importance on tactical capabilities than ever before, as reflected in its published military doctrine and its intimidation of U.S. allies in Central Europe. Paraphrasing a warning from Vladimir Putin to these allies: If you deploy U.S. missile defenses, we will target you with short-range missiles.