U.S. Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Getting it Right


Arms control is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  It should be governed by a strategic approach designed to maximize U.S. national security objectives.  Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s nuclear weapons strategy seems to consist primarily of a determination to use bilateral arms control negotiations with the Russians to justify further reductions in the levels of U.S. nuclear forces.  This is being done in pursuit of an objective that is neither relevant to today’s proliferation problem (in fact, as we have seen, such reductions can actually  exacerbate proliferation among America’s allies and possibly its actual or would-be peer competitors) nor consistent with American’s security interests (i.e., a “world without nuclear weapons”).

It has been eight years since the last Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in 2002 articulated the necessary role of nuclear weapons in post-Cold War U.S. policy and strategy.  Much has transpired in the global security environment since then and a new NPR has just been initiated by the incumbent administration in accordance with a congressional mandate.  One would think that any further efforts to reduce the size or alter the composition of U.S. nuclear forces would await the results of this important review and an assessment of its adequacy by the Congress.

The Obama administration, however, has put the proverbial cart squarely before the horse.  It has seized upon the expiration of the START Treaty in December 2009 as a pretext for urgently reaching a far-more-ambitious agreement rather than a simple extension of the expiring accord’s verification procedures, pending completion of the NPR.  In so doing, President Obama and his subordinates have handed the Russians leverage which the Kremlin is aggressively seeking to exploit.  The goal is a familiar one to students of Moscow’s approach to arms control:  Use treaties to effect asymmetric and highly advantageous restrictions on U.S. military capabilities, while leaving Russia free to exploit the accords unverifiability or other shortcomings – or simply cheat.


A. Problematic Ideas for  Future U.S.-Russian

Arms  Control Agreements

Before the United States proceeds irreversibly down this path, the United States Senate, which will be responsible for approving any new arms control treaty, should critically examine the premises and implications of the Obama proposals for a START follow-on accord.  Three in particular cry out for urgent attention:


1: Numbers Matter: Further Cuts  can imperil the ‘Triad’

Proponents of arms control, including some now involved in formulating Obama administration policies like Assistant Secretary of State and lead negotiator Rose Gottemoeller, have expressed enthusiasm for reducing operationally deployed strategic forces to as few as 1,000 nuclear warheads.  Whether this goal is formalized in the START follow-on treaty or, more likely, the so-called “Treaty After Next” – an accord the Obama administration hopes to negotiate swiftly with the Russians after the conclusion of the agreement now in preparation – the question occurs:  Would such deep reductions and the attendant impact on the Nation’s strategic force posture be consistent with U.S. national security interests?

In the White Paper jointly released last year on national security and nuclear weapons in the 21st Century,  the Departments of Energy and Defense explained why the United States should retain between 1,700 and 2,200 operationally deployed warheads:

“Assurance of allies also requires that U.S. nuclear forces are not perceived as inferior or at an overall disadvantage when compared to the capabilities of other nuclear powers.  The maintenance of 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed U.S. strategic nuclear warheads is an important part of this perception.  Beyond its strategic capabilities, the United States also assures allies and friends through its effective conventional forces, missile defenses and nonstrategic nuclear forces that can be forward deployed, as appropriate….Maintaining 1,700 to 2,200 U.S. operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons also provides substantial warning and response time should any potential near-peer competitor aggressively seek to achieve nuclear parity with, or superiority over, the United States.”119

The United States has already cut its strategic forces to the 2,200 operationally deployed warheads permitted under the SORT accord.  In fact, it did so five years ahead of schedule.  Now, the Obama administration is reportedly seeking to reduce that number by another third, to just 1,500 warheads – 200 below the lowest level previously considered by the Departments of Energy and Defense to be compatible with our security interests.

The U.S. strategic nuclear Triad currently consists of roughly 450 Minuteman operationally deployed ICBM warheads, 1,152 Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads and between 350-500 aircraft-deliverable bombs and/or cruise missiles.120 The associated force structure involves 450 land-based Minuteman missiles, 14 Trident submarines carrying some 336 D-5 missiles and an assortment of B-2 and B-52 strategic nuclear bombers.121