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

Since a “world without nuclear weapons” is absolutely unachievable, and since even the Obama administration says we need a strong deterrent as long other nations have nuclear weapons, the U.S. must take the steps necessary to upgrade its arsenal.

•     Conventional Forces.  Any agreement on nuclear forces must not restrict conventionally armed strategic weapons. This is an area of potentially considerable U.S. advantage and could become considerably more so if warhead numbers decline further.  For these reasons, the Russians clearly want to capture such forces in a new agreement.  Those efforts must be rejected, as should Russian insistence on intrusive on-site inspection regimes and the availability of U.S. telemetry broadcasts associated with tests of non-nuclear weapons (including both missile defenses and conventional precise global strike systems).

•     Missile Defense.  The United States must preserve the freedom it currently enjoys to develop and deploy whatever missile defenses are deemed necessary. The need for anti-missile systems capable of protecting against ballistic missiles of every range seems likely only to grow in the future.

What is more, the Strategic Posture Commission properly concluded that missile defenses are a stabilizing element of U.S. deterrent policy.  Yet, we know that the Russians, as part of a START follow-on agreement further reducing warhead levels, will try to insist that ABM Treaty-like restrictions be imposed on the United States’ missile defense programs, claiming that they could alter the strategic balance.

As anti-missile defenses reinforce deterrence of rogue states and provide vital options for national leaders in the event deterrence fails, it would be unacceptable to have them captured in a new arms control deal with Russia.  Any bilateral U.S.-Russian agreement on offensive nuclear forces reductions that would restrict U.S. missile defenses must be rejected.

•     Preclude “De-Mating” of Warheads.  Finally, the continued credibility and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent precludes de-mating of warheads on operational systems or otherwise reducing the alert rates or alert status of U.S. forces. Such initiatives have been repeatedly studied and found unacceptable, including by the Clinton administration. American weapons are not on a “hair-trigger.” They must be known to be ready and useable to have deterrent effect. No START follow-on agreement can be deemed in the national security interest if it would require downgrading of that condition and, thereby, potentially leave the United States vulnerable to coercion based on the threat of second or third strikes before we could respond to an attack.

Regrettably, those leading the negotiations with Russia on a follow-on to the expiring START treaty appear unprepared to adhere to virtually any of the foregoing principles.  Notwithstanding the findings and recommendations of the congressionally mandated, bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission and the judgments of senior members of the military and defense establishments cited elsewhere in this briefing book, President Obama seems determined to pursue an arms control agenda that is shaped by his embrace of the “Global Zero” vision of a “world without nuclear weapons.”

Indeed, at this writing, the U.S. negotiating team is said to be preparing the groundwork for a far-reaching arms reduction agreement with Russia in advance of high-level meetings scheduled between Presidents Obama and Medvedev in July, 2009. It is extremely worrisome that such an agreement appears likely to take shape before the completion of the Nuclear Posture Review or Quadrennial Defense Review and an assessment of their adequacy by the Congress.  Also absent is any presidential recognition of the need to modernize the U.S. nuclear enterprise, retain the flexibility to pursue missile defenses, address properly the issue of non-strategic nuclear weapons, etc.  There seems little chance, therefore, that the resulting agreement will make the United States or its allies safer as it is rooted in an arms control paradigm unsuited to this dangerous world, namely one that prioritizes U.S. stockpile reductions above all else.

America’s Founders entrusted to the U.S. Senate the responsibility to provide quality control on treaties negotiated by the executive branch.  If the impending START follow-on agreement with the Russians does indeed depart from these principles, the Senate must recognize that it will undermine, not advance, the security interests of the United States and its ratification must be rejected.

Center for Security Policy

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