Since the start of the atomic age, from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, the United States has sought to maintain, in the words of John F. Kennedy, a nuclear-weapons capability “second to none.” Each of these eleven successive administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, described its commitment to that principle differently, some insisting on superiority and others on parity or essential equivalence. But all — including those that took large and unilateral steps to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal following the Cold War — believed that it was vital for the United States not to concede nuclear preeminence to any country.
In pursuing the goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and notwithstanding his administration’s stated commitment to maintaining an effective deterrent for as long as necessary, President Obama has abandoned this bedrock of our national security. Under New START, often heralded by the administration as its greatest foreign-policy success, the United States is compelled to substantially reduce its strategic forces — while Russia is allowed to build up its forces, which Moscow has announced its intention to do. As a consequence of this treaty and of the significant advantages that Russia possesses in other measures of nuclear might, the United States will for the first time become a nation “second to one” in what remains a vital military capability in an increasingly dangerous world with ever greater proliferation.
Defenders of the Obama administration’s policies are quick to assert that the nuclear posture of the United States today is superior to that of Russia and all other nuclear-weapons states combined. In support of this assertion, they cite the United States’ current advantage in deployed operational strategic warheads and launchers. But this is the very advantage that is given up under New START. The United States currently deploys about 1,800 warheads on 822 strategic delivery vehicles. Russia, according to its initial declaration under the treaty, deploys 1,537 warheads on 521 delivery vehicles. Under New START, each side will be allowed 1,550 warheads and 700 deployed vehicles.
But by suggesting parity, these numbers mislead, because they do not accurately reflect the overall nuclear capabilities of the two countries — or perhaps even the capabilities of those forces covered under New START. One provision of the treaty is a change in counting rules: Each heavy bomber is counted as carrying one warhead, no matter what its actual load. While this rule applies to both sides, and will allow each to deploy a number of actual (as opposed to accountable) warheads well above 1,550, it is unlikely that both will take advantage of the rule. Russia has a record of fully exploiting such provisions in arms-control treaties and, if it does so again, it could deploy even more warheads than the 2,200 permitted under the Moscow Treaty negotiated by the George W. Bush administration. The United States will likely want to set a different example by staying at or below 1,550.
Most important, thousands of Russian nuclear weapons carried by shorter-range systems — including everything from artillery to medium-range aircraft — are not counted under New START. With the notable exception of the 1987 INF Treaty, these weapons, referred to as “theater” or “tactical” nuclear forces, have largely been ignored by nuclear strategists and arms-control experts, who have focused almost entirely on weapons that can reach beyond 5,500 kilometers.
This division between “strategic” and “tactical” weapons is primarily a relic of Cold War arms control, based in large part on the inherent difficulties of verifying shorter-range, often dual-capable systems (that is, widely dispersed delivery systems that can carry both nuclear and non-nuclear warheads). To facilitate the negotiation of arms-control treaties, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to categorize only specific long-range missiles and bombers as “strategic,” while mostly ignoring nuclear-armed systems that were deemed “non-strategic” — an oxymoron, because the use of any nuclear weapon would have a strategic effect.
Adopting this convenient designation of “non-strategic” nuclear weapons seemed both necessary and acceptable. Necessary because including them in arms negotiations was considered simply too hard to do; and acceptable because the numbers of American and Soviet long-range weapons ran into the high thousands, making an agreement on shorter-range systems seem less urgent. But with today’s much lower levels of strategic forces, the importance of theater weapons has increased substantially.
While both the United States and Russia deployed thousands of theater nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the current numbers show a dramatic disparity. As revealed by a key Obama adviser, the United States possesses a “few hundred” tactical weapons, while Russia deploys an estimated 3,500 to 4,000. When these thousands of weapons (which in some cases can strike the same targets as those delivered by longer-range systems) are included in the counting of nuclear arsenals, the emerging inferiority of the United States stands out.
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.
In providing its advice and consent to the ratification of New START, the Senate highlighted its concerns over the imbalance in tactical weapons. In its formal resolution, supported on both sides of the aisle, the Senate called on the president to pursue an agreement with Russia “that would address the disparity.” Unfortunately, but understandably, Moscow has shown no interest in such an agreement, perhaps because the United States gave up all of its leverage by agreeing to a treaty eliminating its main nuclear advantage: a greater number of deployed strategic launchers and warheads.
In one of the less quoted but more revealing statements contained in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration intimated its willingness to accept a nuclear posture second to Russia: “Because of our improved relations, the need for strict numerical parity between the two countries is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War.” In part, this judgment was based on the assumption that the United States would realize potential advantages in missile defenses and advanced conventional arms.
However, missile defenses, at least those capabilities intended to protect the U.S. homeland, were an early casualty of the Obama team’s New START negotiations with Russia. Not only did the president cancel the third missile-defense site in Europe, sacrificing the security interests of key allies, but he also killed or greatly curtailed all the existing programs that were designed to meet long-range-missile threats from states including North Korea and Iran. (Programs such as the Multiple Kill Vehicle and the Kinetic Energy Interceptor were ended; Airborne Laser was relegated to the status of a science project; and the number of ground-based interceptors was reduced.) While the administration has supported the development and deployment of defenses against short- and medium-range threats, it has funded studies — but developed no real capabilities — when it comes to strategic defenses. As for advanced conventional programs, there has been no commitment to deploy long-range prompt global-strike capabilities (which could attack targets at intercontinental range with non-nuclear payloads) — perhaps because, as with missile defense, Moscow has said that our deployment of such a capability would endanger its adherence to New START.
What guided the administration most in making deep, unilateral cuts was a desire to demonstrate the declining role of nuclear weapons and lead by example in placing nuclear reductions, in the words of the Nuclear Posture Review, “atop the U.S. nuclear agenda.” But the nonproliferation dividends have been few, if any, and no country of concern has followed the example. Nevertheless, the administration argues that the United States still possesses too many nuclear weapons. The president’s national-security adviser, Tom Donilon, recently expressed this view in a forum sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, when he announced that the United States would conduct yet another study to identify even more reductions.
New START, although a bilateral agreement, is a clear step toward unilateral disarmament. While the Obama administration marketed New START as requiring 30 percent reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic forces, it simply does not. We now have definitive confirmation that only the United States must reduce its forces — a possibility raised by New START skeptics but strongly denied by the Obama administration during the ratification process.
In June, the State Department released the initial data exchange required by the treaty. As of February 5, the day the treaty entered into force, Russia was already below the ceilings for both delivery vehicles and warheads. Perhaps most telling, knowledgeable Russian observers have stated that American negotiators didn’t even propose terms that would have required Moscow to reduce its stockpiles.
The same mindset led to the administration’s decision last year to give up all nuclear-armed Tomahawk missiles while asking for — and getting — nothing in return. It took this action despite its own consistent calls for negotiations with Russia on theater systems. Once again, leading by example left the U.S. empty-handed.
But that lesson continues to elude the administration. In a recent interview, the president’s point man on arms control, Gary Samore, noted that, while we wait for the outcome of the study announced by Donilon, “there may be parallel steps that both sides could take or even unilateral steps that the U.S. could take.” No doubt there are more steps that the United States could take. No doubt, as well, that for the Obama administration, it is more important to take these steps than to reverse the coming U.S. inferiority in nuclear capabilities.
Even some members of the Obama team seem to recognize that there are risks to such steps. The Nuclear Posture Review, while de-emphasizing the need for numerical parity, does contain a caution about going too far. Published by the Defense Department prior to the ratification of New START, it notes that “large disparities in nuclear capabilities could raise concerns on both sides and among U.S. allies and partners, and may not be conducive to maintaining a stable, long-term strategic relationship, especially as nuclear forces are significantly reduced.”
Translating this code language: Nuclear weapons remain vital to our national security. They provide an essential component of our efforts to deter rogue states in regions of critical U.S. interest — states that have acquired or are aggressively pursuing their own nuclear weapons. They provide an essential component of extended deterrence — giving credibility to our security guarantees to friends and allies in those regions and thereby undercutting incentives for them to seek their own nuclear capabilities. And finally, nuclear weapons provide an irreplaceable safeguard against the strategic uncertainties associated with the future of Russia and China, which, although no longer our enemies, continue to view the United States with deep suspicion while developing new nuclear and other asymmetric capabilities with us in mind.
New START has made the nuclear disparity worse. Further unilateral steps in this direction will only aggravate the fears of allies and undermine stability in our relationship with Russia.
One can argue, mistakenly I believe, that conceding superiority to Russia in nuclear arms is acceptable in today’s strategic environment. But one cannot argue, consistent with the facts, that we are not making this concession. As Russia, China, North Korea, and other states continue to build their nuclear arsenals, and as Iran aggressively pursues a nuclear-weapons capability, the warning of the Posture Review and the hard realities of the world we live in stand in stark contrast to the president’s utopian vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
— Robert G. Joseph is a senior scholar at the National Institute for Public Policy. He served from 2005 until 2007 as under secretary of state for arms control and international security. This article appears in the October 17, 2011, issue of National Review.