The Case for Arms Control and Drawing Down Nuclear Forces
JANUARY 24, 2017 | HANS KRISTENSEN
The pursuit of nuclear arms control agreements and other efforts to draw down nuclear forces to reduce nuclear dangers is a goal that is almost as old as the nuclear weapon itself. It has been a major national security and foreign policy objective for nearly all U.S. administrations, Democratic or Republican, even though they may have gone about it in very different ways.
As President Donald Trump?s administration takes office the question is whether it will follow this American arms control tradition and pursue new reductions of nuclear forces, or whether its policies will seek to hold the line, or even increase the nuclear arsenal.
As a candidate during the contentious presidential election campaign, Trump made several statements about nuclear weapons. The statements demonstrated that his knowledge about nuclear weapons was very limited but also indicated that he had some basic perception of them as being dangerous and different than other weapons. Other statements made him sound like a gung-ho nuclear saber rattler preparing for another nuclear arms race, while others still almost made him sound like former President Barack Obama.
In December, for example, Trump tweeted that the United States ?must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.? When asked by Mika Brzezinski from MSNBC?s ?Morning Joe? what he meant, Trump doubled down: "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."
Yet only three weeks later, in an interview with The Times of London, Trump described his vision for a ?deal? with Russia: ?I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that?s part of it.?
Such diverse ? even self-contradictory ? statements show a mind that is unsettled, even confused, about nuclear weapons and what role they should play in U.S. policy in the future.
The Obama administration also had its share of nuclear self-contradictions. During his election campaign, Barack Obama promised dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons and to take them off ?hair-trigger? alert. One of his first acts as president was to promise to ?put an end to Cold War thinking? by reducing the numbers and role of nuclear weapons and work to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Obama also promised to maintain a strong nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist, and ended up conducting a Nuclear Posture Review that essentially maintained the nuclear status quo and started the most ambitious nuclear weapons modernization program in U.S. post-Cold War history.
President Trump inherits that policy and modernization program. As do all presidents, he will likely order a review of U.S. nuclear policy and seek to adjust it to reflect changing national and international conditions as he sees them. In doing so, he must consider both arms control and deterrence requirements.
Deterrence without arms control is dangerous; they must be two sides of the same coin. While maintaining sufficient (not excessive) nuclear forces to deter adversaries, arms control contributes to strengthening U.S. national security and that of its allies by achieving limitations on potential adversaries? nuclear forces. In the past, arms control agreements have sought to eliminate particularly dangerous weapons, limit how many nuclear weapons each country can have, limit how many warheads can be deployed on launchers, and prohibit nuclear test explosions, just to mention a few aims.
However, arms control agreements come with additional benefits: important verification measures that provide transparency, increase predictability, and reduce surprises. By combining limits on nuclear force levels, and particularly dangerous types of weapons and operations, with increased transparency, nuclear arms control can strengthen international security and reduce tension and mistrust.
If the Trump administration continues to use arms control as a means to increase U.S. and international security, the lowest-hanging fruit is to extend the New START Treaty for another five years to maintain a ceiling on strategic force levels and ensure continuation of data exchange and on-site inspections. But the treaty could be easily modified to lower the force limits further by one-third, which the Pentagon has concluded would still leave enough nuclear forces to meet national and international security commitments. Trump should also work with Russia to try to bring it back to full compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty?s ban on land-based intermediate-range forces. And he can work to expand arms control to increase transparency and place limits on non-strategic nuclear forces. And he should try to expand arms control to also engage other nuclear-armed states.
In setting nuclear policy, the Trump administration will also have to take into consideration programmatic and operational realities of how U.S. nuclear forces are structured and operated. The modernization program started by the Obama administration and approved by Congress has built into it a number of reductions that will happen even without new arms control agreements. Once the B61-12 gravity bomb life-extension program is completed, half of the current inventory on nuclear gravity bombs will be retired. And once the W76 missile warhead life-extension program is completed, half of the original W76 inventory will be retired as well.
Some members of Congress get very excited when they hear there are unilateral nuclear reductions built into the modernization program. But numbers are not as important as capabilities. The new versions will be better and the military simply doesn?t need the excess weapons to carry out the war plans. They can be retired with no harm to national security.
In fact, the Pentagon seems very confident that the capability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is sufficient for national security needs ? even if Russia were to greatly expand its nuclear arsenal. Four years ago, the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community in a joint report to Congress concluded that Russia ?would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty, primarily because of the inherent survivability of the planned U.S. Strategic force structure, particularly the OHIO-class ballistic missile submarines, a number of which are at sea at any given time.? (Emphasis added.)
In other words, there is no need to expand the arsenal. The nuclear policy challenge the Trump administration faces seems to have less to do with the size and composition of the nuclear arsenal but more to do with how Trump behaves with it. Many of his statements over the past 18 months indicate that he has a tendency to be spontaneous, bombastic, and vindictive ? dangerous characteristics when nuclear weapons are involved. This will be particularly important in a crisis situation, but it will also affect the changes for reducing nuclear arsenals further.
If Trump can somehow be less interested in who appears tougher and instead keep a steady hand and pursue an appropriate balance of arms control and deterrence capability, then history tells us that the combination of a Republican president and a conservative Congress ironically is likely to create additional reductions in nuclear arms.
President Theodore Roosevelt captured the balance famously when he said: ?Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.?