Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Got Nukes?

The United States and Russia are in talks to cut back their nuclear arsenals. But shouldn't we just worry about how many there are -- and where they are -- first?

Epsilon/Getty Images
Epsilon/Getty Images
Epsilon/Getty Images

As the world frets over Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs, a more sizable nuclear issue is garnering little notice. The United States and Russia began negotiating further modest reductions in their nuclear arsenals earlier this year, with the latest round of meetings expected next week. Despite their progress, the negotiations have failed to address a fundamental question: Does it make any sense to cut down weapons stocks when we don't even know just how many there are -- and where?

The United States and Russia have by far the world's largest nuclear weapons stockpiles, with approximately 5,000 and 13,000 operational and reserve warheads, respectively. (North Korea's Kim Jong Il, by contrast, has a handful of weapons at most). Since the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed in 1991, Washington and Moscow have regularly exchanged data on their arsenals and conducted inspections, taking some of the guesswork out of assessing the two countries' capabilities. But these measures have only scratched the surface. START is primarily concerned with accounting for nuclear launchers--ballistic missiles and bombers--and does very little to account for all nuclear warheads. Such limited transparency in U.S. and Russian stockpiles contributes only modestly to global security.

Far from being a formality, disclosures about nuclear stocks provide a measure of security in their own right. Potential adversaries who know the capabilities of their opponents are more likely to make sensible threat assessments and less likely to overreact. Data about a country's arsenal would also reassure others about its intentions. If their scope were broadened and accompanied by more stringent verification, data exchanges could profoundly affect U.S.-Russia relations.

As the world frets over Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, a more sizable nuclear issue is garnering little notice. The United States and Russia began negotiating further modest reductions in their nuclear arsenals earlier this year, with the latest round of meetings expected next week. Despite their progress, the negotiations have failed to address a fundamental question: Does it make any sense to cut down weapons stocks when we don’t even know just how many there are — and where?

The United States and Russia have by far the world’s largest nuclear weapons stockpiles, with approximately 5,000 and 13,000 operational and reserve warheads, respectively. (North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, by contrast, has a handful of weapons at most). Since the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed in 1991, Washington and Moscow have regularly exchanged data on their arsenals and conducted inspections, taking some of the guesswork out of assessing the two countries’ capabilities. But these measures have only scratched the surface. START is primarily concerned with accounting for nuclear launchers–ballistic missiles and bombers–and does very little to account for all nuclear warheads. Such limited transparency in U.S. and Russian stockpiles contributes only modestly to global security.

Far from being a formality, disclosures about nuclear stocks provide a measure of security in their own right. Potential adversaries who know the capabilities of their opponents are more likely to make sensible threat assessments and less likely to overreact. Data about a country’s arsenal would also reassure others about its intentions. If their scope were broadened and accompanied by more stringent verification, data exchanges could profoundly affect U.S.-Russia relations.

Imagine, for example, if each country knew the location and status of the other’s complete stockpile of warheads. With the right cataloging technology in place, each could be reasonably confident that the other was not preparing a pre-emptive nuclear attack against it — one lingering concern in negotiations today. Achieving this type of transparency would necessitate the registration, verification, and tracking of all warheads such that both countries could monitor their positions in real time. If one country attempted to move or deploy weapons, the other would notice — a check that would likely prevent any such action from taking place. Further technical work would be needed to ensure that neither side could cheat. But the sooner such a system is in place, the sooner confidence between the two nuclear powers will grow.

U.S. and Russian negotiators began prioritizing this kind of detailed transparency in the 1990s as START negotiations progressed. But when those talks faltered, discussion of weapons disclosures and verification fell off the agenda. Back then, the greatest impediments were concerns that revealing sensitive information about nuclear weapons stockpiles and their historical production would make those stocks more vulnerable to attack. Both sides also worried that disclosure could contribute to proliferation by providing information to states and groups that wouldn’t otherwise have access to it. (An even more frightening and viable explanation for the faltering transparency talks is that neither country knew just how many nuclear warheads it had produced.)

These same concerns would likely arise again today. But faced with a daunting list of emerging security challenges — from terrorism to energy to infectious diseases — policymakers in the United States and Russia should be eager to find new ways to improve nuclear security. U.S. and Russian officials alike acknowledge being weighed down, financially and politically, by the burden of balancing nuclear security with nuclear weapons’ role as a deterrent. They are begging for a better way. A real-time, verified nuclear weapons database would offer just that.

Implementing such a system would not be easy. Both countries’ national laws restrict the availability of nuclear weapons information, and security apparatuses on both sides have a long history of protecting nuclear secrets. Indeed, both states have relied on a certain ambiguity about the size and nature of their nuclear weapons stockpiles to amplify their power. Unaware what their potential adversary was capable of, the Cold War superpowers prepared for the worst, fueling the arms race. Now, the reverse strategy — transparency — is needed to build stability and trust between the two nuclear powers.

Of course, the question of whether nuclear reductions are preferable to nuclear accountability is a false choice. An ideal world would see substantially fewer nuclear weapons and the exchange of precise, regularly updated information about remaining weapons’ whereabouts. But for now, counting the nukes would be a good start.

Jonas Siegel is a research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and is former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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