Obama's Arms Control Ideas Unrealistic

President Obama must heed the advice of a new congressional commission which warns against bargaining away our nuclear deterrent at the upcoming Moscow summit.  It cautions the president to “maintain a nuclear deterrent that is safe, secure, and reliable” which is becoming more difficult as our complex atomic threat grows.    

The May 2009 congressional commission report, “America’s Strategic Posture,” acknowledges President Obama’s campaign goal to eliminate all nuclear weapons but cautions such a reality would “require a fundamental change in geopolitics.”  The bipartisan commission, which was led by former secretaries of defense William Perry and James Schlesinger, doesn’t believe elimination of nuclear weapons is possible anytime soon but accepts an interim “base camp” position that “would be safer than where we are today.”  

The commission warns arms control is a minefield marked by opaque and incomplete information as well as advantages for our potential adversaries. It provides clear recommendations for President Obama’s strategic nuclear planning: maintain our triad of delivery systems, sustain an infrastructure to protect atomic weapons reliability, cache enough warheads to keep our potential enemies in check and maintain policies like the doctrine on weapons of mass destruction [WMD] that deter emerging threats.

President Obama travels to Moscow on July 6 at the invitation of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, for a summit to curb nuclear arms replacing the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires this December. The commission proposes a limited — “base camp” — summit outcome, “a mutual reduction of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons in some increment should be achievable.”  

We have made significant progress since the height of the Cold War. The U.S. nuclear arsenal numbered over 32,000 warheads and the Soviet arsenal had over 45,000 in the 1980s.  Today, the U.S. has 2,200 strategic warheads deployed and Russia has 2,800. The 2002 Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions between then-President Vladimir Putin and President George W. Bush called for cuts to between 1,700 and 2,200 operationally deployed warheads by 2012.  Both nations have withdrawn about 14,000 tactical nuclear weapons from forward deployments as well.

The commission suggests our future atomic posture should “create the conditions in which nuclear weapons are never used” but warns of a growing “new, more complex and fluid threat environment.”  President Obama must consider this global threat when negotiating arms reduction at the Moscow summit.

The new threat environment includes potential state adversaries, rogue countries like North Korea and Iran as well as terror groups. The terror group al Qaeda declared that obtaining a nuclear weapon is a “holy duty” for its members. “That’s why preventing nuclear terrorism is closely tied to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” states the commission.

“But we are in danger of losing the battle to stop proliferation,” states the commission. North Korea has a nuclear arsenal and is willing to sell that technology. Iran appears to be following in Pyongyang’s atomic footsteps. “Thus, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and fissile materials is dangerously close to a ‘tipping point,’” warns the commission.

China’s nuclear arsenal is significantly smaller than the U.S.’s arsenal, but they are expanding rapidly and their no-first-use of nuclear weapons commitment “may be conditional,” according to the commission.  China’s expansion covers the spectrum of capabilities on land, air and sea.

Russia maintains a large ICBM force and is modernizing its complete arsenal on nuclear capable platforms. The U.S. doesn’t know, definitively, the numbers of atomic weapons in the Russian arsenal, especially tactical warheads.  The commission states Russia “stores thousands of these [tactical] weapons in apparent support of possible military operations west of the Urals” and “as reductions continue in the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons, this imbalance will become more apparent and allies less assured.”
The commission makes a number of recommendations for America’s future strategic posture. These should guide the President in Moscow.

It recommends structuring our nuclear force to discourage Russia and China from trying to “compete for some new advantage in the nuclear realm.”  We should keep enough capability, says the commission, “to impress upon Russian leaders the impossibility of gaining a position of nuclear supremacy.”  We should also “retain a large enough force of nuclear weapons that China is not tempted to try to reach a posture of strategic equivalency with the United States.”

The commission defends our triad — bombers, ICBMs, and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) — of strategic delivery systems as providing “unique contributions to stability.”  It argues our triad “should be maintained for the immediate future and this will require some difficult investment choices.”  

Our bomber force is a visible presence in times of crisis which in itself extends deterrence. It also, as the commission states, imposes a significant cost burden on adversaries to invest in air defenses.

Our highly responsive ICBM force is widely dispersed, which would require an aggressor to attack with a very large number of atomic weapons. This would deplete his forces especially for small nuclear powers like China and ensure a devastating response from the U.S.  

Our SLBM force is the most survivable and our insurance policy should the other parts of the triad fail.

The commission promotes the continued threat to use nuclear weapons as a WMD deterrent.  It affirms the U.S. should “continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force — including through resort to all of our options — to the use of WMD against the United States.”  

Use of atomic weapons in response to WMD use is justified, says the commission, in part by the principle of “belligerent reprisal,” a rule of international law under which the “illegal action of an aggressor permits the victim to carry out retaliation.”

The commission cautions the U.S. to preserve our at-risk atomic infrastructure. It warns we are loosing our nuclear weapons technical talent to other industries and morale has declined in part because of budget cuts and the fact that we no longer build and test new weapons or produce fissile material.  The commission says the U.S. risks inadvertently reducing “laboratory capabilities below some tipping point, after which it would be necessary to redevelop the capability to design and produce nuclear weapons if there is a future requirement.”  

The commission dispelled a myth Obama embraced during the presidential campaign.  American and Russian forces are not on so-called “hair trigger” alert.  Their alert postures are “in fact highly stable” with multiple layers of control.  

It called for investment to reduce the vulnerability of the nation to electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects.  The commission indicated this is a serious potential threat, given the high level of vulnerability from emergent atomic powers like Iran and North Korea.  The commission indicates “such attacks could have catastrophic consequences” such as shutting down our electrical system, disabling the Internet and incapacitating transportation systems.

The commission concludes with a sobering warning that the global community of atomic powers must preserve the non-use atomic weapons policy. “Any future use of nuclear weapons is likely to be the beginning of a catastrophic change in the world order … and would risk a highly unstable nuclear disorder.”

In Moscow, Obama must live up to his promise to “maintain a nuclear deterrent that is safe, secure, and reliable.”  That deterrent requires our triad of delivery systems, a reliable infrastructure that maintains our atomic arsenal, enough warheads to keep our potential enemies in check and policies like the doctrine on WMD that deter emerging threats.