Nuclear Adjustments

Aug. 1, 1998

The thunderclap of underground nuclear tests and the escalating arms race between India and Pakistan have raised anew the specter of nuclear war in a world which had come to view it as something of an obsolete and diminishing danger. The emergence of two new nuclear-weapon states has focused renewed attention on the United States’ own nuclear posture and forces, forgotten players in the debate of recent years on US defense and deterrence.

“Because the Cold War ended in such an ambiguous manner, it has been hard to make our message heard,” remarked Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, commander in chief of US Strategic Command, Offutt AFB, Neb. “Our message is that we still need to be around.”

Habiger said that the end of the Cold War marked a sharp departure from the tradition of conflicts between great nations–that is, the Cold War ended with the loser still in possession of a massive arsenal of front-line weapons and with those weapons on high alert and aimed at the victor. This was significant, said Habiger, because “only one threat can bring us to our knees; and that is the nuclear threat.”

Despite numerous unresolved concerns about the future of democratic Russia and the possible emergence of new nuclear armed states, the wind down of the Cold War did lead the United States to promptly make dramatic changes in the size, shape, and posture of its own nuclear forces.

Since 1989, the stockpile of nuclear warheads has declined by about half. The number of US tactical weapons has dropped to about one-tenth of its Cold War level. The US has removed all nuclear weapons aboard surface warships and from the arsenals of US land forces, taken all Air Force strategic bombers off alert, stood down all USAF Minuteman II ICBMs (the last was removed from its silo in 1995 as part of the START I accord), and cut back the size of its fleet of strategic missile-firing submarines. No ICBMs are presently targeted at Russia.

SAC and Son of SAC

Those dramatic steps are reflected in the fortunes of USSTRATCOM, the quasi-successor to USAF’s Strategic Air Command, which in 1992 was reorganized out of existence and its forces dispersed to several different commands. (Whereas SAC was an Air Force major command with operational control over forces, personnel, bases, and weapons, USSTRATCOM is a multiservice unified command lacking operational control over combat systems until they are formally “chopped” for a specific purpose.)

During the 1990s, personnel strength of combat forces earmarked for use by USSTRATCOM has declined by some 50 percent from the SAC level. The base structure has dropped by 60 percent. Strategic offensive forces-the old SAC’s bombers and missiles plus the Navy’s strategic submarines-have been cut 45 percent over the same period and will fall another 15 percent under START II provisions approved by Washington (but not yet by Moscow).

Spending on US strategic forces has declined from 7 percent of total defense expenditures in 1991 to less than 3 percent of today’s greatly diminished Pentagon budget.

Even as nuclear forces continue on a steadily declining glide path, US officials have attempted to counter the impression that the United States is going out of the nuclear business.

“Now that the Cold War is over, the role of nuclear deterrence has been reduced, but the need for deterrence in today’s world is still critical,” said Edward L. Warner III, assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction, in a recent appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Warner said that it is critical to maintain functional nuclear weapons as one of a broad range of possible responses to an enemy’s use or threatened use of weapons of mass destruction against US interests and as an important “disincentive” to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons proliferation. They also provide a hedge against the emergence of hostile nuclear powers, he said.

In addition, senior Administration and Air Force officials have taken issue with a number of apostate Cold War warriors who, in their retirement years, have begun arguing that the United States and other nations could and should move much faster toward total elimination of nuclear weapons. The most notable example of this latter-day abolitionist group is retired Air Force Gen. Lee Butler, the last SAC commander and first USSTRATCOM commander in chief who retired from active duty in 1994. Since that time, he has delivered numerous attacks on the “immorality” and “obscenity” of nuclear deterrence.

“The issues of nuclear force posture and nuclear deterrence continue to be debated by individuals and groups who question the need for nuclear weapons in today’s world and, in some cases, call for the complete elimination of these weapons,” said Warner in his Senate testimony. “However, we are not yet at the point where we can eliminate our nuclear weapons. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to need a reliable and flexible nuclear deterrent … capable of inflicting a devastating retaliatory response.”

The reason for maintaining a strong nuclear force once was summed up in this fashion by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger: “It is in the interest of all the nations that desire stability for the United States to continue to have a deterrent sufficiently impressive to deter weapons use by other states. The game of flagellating the United States in disarmament conferences is one to which many diplomats from the Third World became habituated during the Cold War. It is time to end that game. It is also time to curb the tendency to satisfy these demands by rummaging through our own nuclear deterrent to see what we can throw overboard without doing too much damage.”

Loosened Grip

In the nearly seven years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been credible reports of an alarming loosening of Russia’s grip on its own nuclear forces, leading a number of commentators to argue for a new, interim approach to supplement arms control agreements that take many years to negotiate and carry out. These advocates call for both the United States and Russia to begin taking their nuclear forces off alert and thereby eliminate the potential for either side to launch thousands of nuclear weapons in a matter of minutes, as they could today.

“The United States and Russia continue to operate their strategic forces in a hair-trigger posture that is wildly out of step with the end of the Cold War,” said Bruce G. Blair, of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

In an article published in Scientific American, Blair and several of his colleagues catalogued rapid decay in Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal. Citing CIA data, they reported that critical electronic devices and computers controlling Russian nuclear arms frequently switch to a combat mode for no apparent reason.

The most troubling incident-by far-occurred on Jan. 25, 1995. Russian radar operators mistook the launch of a Norwegian weather satellite for a possible Western missile attack.

After 15 tense minutes the Russian command system eventually determined that the rocket was not a threat.

Given the apparent deterioration in Russia’s nuclear infrastructure, Blair and others argue that the two sides cannot wait for START negotiations and should immediately take a host of “de-alerting” measures. These proposals include removing the warheads from all of the Air Force’s Peacekeeper ICBMs that will be retired under START II; immobilizing all Minuteman III ICBMs; removing the warheads on the eight Trident submarines that will likely be retired under the START III framework; putting lower-yield warheads on the remaining Trident submarines; having these underwater boats patrol further from the Russian mainland; and keeping the submarines on lower alert status. Blair also proposes reciprocal measures for the Russians.

The proponents of de-alerting aren’t cutting much ice in official Washington. Most de-alerting measures would lengthen the reaction time and reduce the flexibility of US nuclear forces, a fact that leads many experts strenuously to oppose the idea.

“De-alerting undermines deterrence by reducing both the survivability [of US nuclear forces] and the ability [of nuclear forces] to respond in a timely manner,” said Kathleen C. Bailey, a senior fellow at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

De-alerting nuclear forces would create greater incentives for one side to launch a pre-emptive strike on warhead storage sites, she said, especially in times of tension. The act of hurriedly putting those forces back on alert during a crisis could also be seen as destabilizing and lead to cutting corners on matters affecting safety. Finally, said Bailey, the de-alerting measures are inherently difficult to verify and are taken on a largely unilateral basis, circumventing the arms control process.

“Efforts to de-alert our nuclear forces should be strongly resisted,” said Bailey. “De-alerting has a severe impact on force readiness and stability, as well as a host of other problems. If we have concerns about [Russia’s command, control, and communications] problems, we should address them by other means, not be reducing nuclear readiness, survivability, and safety.”

Some officials have also questioned reports that have depicted the Russian nuclear command-and-control system as an old and decrepit system crumbling at the foundations. For instance, Habiger last year became the first non-Soviet official to visit a Russian nuclear command center and weapons storage site. He left feeling encouraged by the visits.

“The thing that impressed me,” said the USSTRATCOM chief, “was the fact that any individual in that chain [of command] can … disable the launch sequence. They are concerned about the control of the nuclear weapons. … I saw nothing that would give me pause or concern.”

Character, Not Numbers

Habiger added that he has a little problem with those advocating de-alerting, “because we are on the right glide path-it is stable, rational, and verifiable. During the Cold War, each side had about 5,000 nuclear weapons on alert staring each other in the face. We have about 2,300 today. With START III, I predict we will have less than 700 weapons on alert. … As we draw down our nuclear forces, the character of our remaining forces will be more important than the actual number of warheads.”

Even so, the Defense Department has created a De-alerting Scoping Group to continue to study the idea. Possible measures being considered, officials reported, include the de-alerting of the Peacekeepers by removing their launch keys and the establishment of a direct Moscow-Washington link for rapid data exchange on missile launches. Assuming the Russian Duma ratifies START II, those measures and others will likely be the subject of intense negotiations on a follow-on START III treaty.

De-alerting has become a factor in the START II treaty. Under an agreement that Clinton and Yeltsin reached last year in Helsinki, Russia has been given several extra years–until the end of 2007–to reduce its nuclear arsenal to the roughly 3,000 warheads stipulated in the treaty. They must, however deactivate or de-alert multiple warhead missiles covered under START II by the original deactivation date of 2003.

When negotiators turn to a follow-on START III agreement, de-alerting does figure to be on the agenda, said Robert Bell, senior director of the White House’s National Security Council staff for defense and arms control. “We’ve agreed in principle to have a very thorough discussion with the Russians as part of START III on how to go about deactivating those weapons covered by START II.”

Bell added that the Administration wished to avoid doing anything that would cause the Duma to believe that Washington was de-alerting its weapons unilaterally. He added that the Administration will also have to convince a clearly skeptical Congress that any de-alerting measures are sound.

With a START III treaty already on the horizon and a START IV treaty in the preliminary talk stage, a number of lawmakers and defense experts are arguing that it is time to pause and take stock.

Under START I, which went into force in 1994, the United States and Russia are moving to 6,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Since the treaty was signed in 1991, the superpowers have destroyed more than 750 missile silos, 32 ballistic missile submarines, and almost 300 heavy bombers. That amounts to more than 50 percent of the required warhead reduction under START I.

START II will limit each nation to 3,000-3,500 deployed warheads and eliminate multiple warheads on ICBMs. Under START’s protocol, the number of US SSBNs will decline by 2007 from 18 to 14; each Minuteman III ICBM missile will be fitted with only one rather than three warheads; the 50 Peacekeepers will be removed and dismantled; and the cruise-missile capacity of the B-52 fleet will be reduced.

Preliminary talks indicate that a START III treaty would further reduce strategic arsenals to 2,000-2,500 warheads.

80 Percent Down

Once all three START treaties are implemented, the United States and Russia will have reduced their strategic arsenals by roughly 80 percent from Cold War levels and eliminated all multiple-warhead ICBMs.

As discussed by experts, a START IV Treaty would likely shift from bilateral agreements between the United States and Russia to a multilateral forum encompassing other declared nuclear states. “In my view START IV will take much longer [to negotiate,] because … it is clear that the Russians will want to bring in the British, the French, and the Chinese,” said Habiger. “When you go from bilateral to multilateral negotiations of this type, it is going to take a long, long time.”

Habiger spoke before India and Pakistan detonated a total of 11 nuclear tests under the deserts of the Indian subcontinent. The question is whether to include them as well as other closet proliferators such as Israel and North Korea.

With the US already having made such significant reductions, a number of officials argue that the endgame of the nuclear arms control process should still leave Washington with sufficient nuclear forces to deter increasingly dangerous threats.

“Given that existing and emerging nuclear, chemical, and biological threats require an effective US nuclear deterrent, I would urge caution in making further deep reductions in our nuclear forces,” said Bailey of Lawrence Livermore.

She explained, “Russia is increasing its reliance on nuclear deterrence and improving its arsenal and delivery system. The relative threat presented by the Chinese arsenal is increasing. India is an emerging secondary nuclear power; North Korea secretly separated plutonium for nuclear weapons and still retains that fissile material, thus remaining in non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And, in addition to those nuclear threats, there are chemical and biological weapons programs worldwide.”

Because the United States has renounced chemical and biological weapons, deterring those threats in particular may put a premium on nuclear weapons. “The continuing proliferation of chemical and biological weapons can only increase our need for nuclear deterrence. The United States has given up these capabilities and has thus given up the option of deterring chemical and biological threats with like capabilities,” said Keith B. Payne, president of the National Institute for Public Policy at Georgetown University, at a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing. “Consequently, nuclear disarmament would be dangerous and counterproductive for the United States, potentially increasing the prospects for catastrophe.”

In his Senate testimony, Warner pointed out that the Administration has recently promulgated a new policy directive on the actual employment of nuclear weapons. In November 1997, he said, President Clinton signed the document, which is classified. Though US nuclear plans have been updated through the years via changes to subordinate documents and specific presidential decisions, the new directive “takes account of the changes in our policy and force posture brought on by the end of the Cold War,” said Warner.

The directive, according to Warner, indicates that the US must maintain a response capability to inflict “unacceptable damage” against those assets a potential enemy values most. It also posits that the United States must continue to plan a range of options to ensure that the US can respond to aggression in a manner appropriate to the provocation, rather than being left with an “all-or-nothing” response. The news in the document, however, concerns the postulated length of a nuclear conflict. “The new guidance eliminates previous Cold War rhetoric including references to ‘winning a protracted nuclear war,’ ” said Warner.

Bell, one of the drafters of the new guidance, explained the change in this way: “It’s different in that we make no pretext that there’s going to be some effort to acquire forces in numbers or with survivability through round after round after round of general nuclear exchanges that could presumably go on for weeks or months, but rather [we] just focus on forces that are capable of deterring that attack in the first place,” he said. “Now, that doesn’t mean you have a very fragile deterrent. You still need a robust force that can absorb a first strike, rather than [one that must] launch on warning of an incoming missile.”

Sometime around 2010, the United States will have to address the apparent contradiction between a still dangerous world and an official policy which calls for elimination of nuclear weapons. Around that time, Washington will be compelled to invest sizeable amounts of money in modernizing nuclear delivery systems and stoking an increasingly cold nuclear weapons production complex, or the nuclear deterrent will begin to rapidly wither.

“We were one of the first nations, in 1968, to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. [It] says that the ultimate goal of the treaty is the total elimination of nuclear weapons on planet Earth,” said Habiger. “Then you have to read the fine print. [It] says, ‘Given the proper preconditions.’ That’s the hang-up. … I am not a zealot for having nuclear weapons onboard forever, [but] I think it’s going to be difficult-if not impossible-to ever get that genie back into the bottle. We are on a stable, rational, verifiable glide path to get down to lower and lower nuclear weapon stockpiles. That is the right thing to do.”

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Sizing Up the Air Guard,” appeared in the July 1998 issue.