The nuclear math
A new WikiLeaks cable plunges us right back into that mysterious calculus of warhead counting: how many nuclear weapons do we really need to remain secure in today’s world? The New START treaty would limit the United States and Russia each to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, operationally deployed. The treaty doesn’t include thousands more strategic ...
A new WikiLeaks cable plunges us right back into that mysterious calculus of warhead counting: how many nuclear weapons do we really need to remain secure in today's world?
A new WikiLeaks cable plunges us right back into that mysterious calculus of warhead counting: how many nuclear weapons do we really need to remain secure in today’s world?
The New START treaty would limit the United States and Russia each to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, operationally deployed. The treaty doesn’t include thousands more strategic warheads in a U.S. reserve, and thousands more on top of that, the smaller tactical nukes, most of which are in Russia. One strong argument for ratification is that it will pave the way for a follow-on treaty that could reduce both these outlying stockpiles.
In a recent posting, I pointed to a couple of new studies which suggest that we would be secure at far lower levels of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, perhaps down into the hundreds on each side. The just-published cable indicates that some in the Pentagon are thinking along similar lines, if not quite as radical. Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller briefed NATO allies about the Nuclear Posture Review on July 16, 2009, and the cable describes his remarks. (The posture review was being drafted then, and has since been issued; the New START treaty was being negotiated then, and has since been signed.) Miller told the allies that a range of 1,500-1,700 strategic warheads on each side was "militarily sufficient."
But he added that risks to "military sufficiency and to robustness" would come only if the level went below 1,300 warheads.
That’s 250 warheads lower than the current treaty. Miller added that "future warhead reductions by the Russians would allow the U.S. to consider going lower."
There’s a truth lying in plain sight here: The only reason we stick by these higher levels is because the Russians stick by these higher levels. Neither the United States nor Russia faces the kind of confrontation for which the weapons were built. There’s no military purpose, no security gain to the higher levels. President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, issued earlier this year, admitted as much: "each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence."
The Cold War is long over. But our mindset is somehow locked in the past. We are still thinking "arms race" instead of looking squarely at today’s threats and true needs.
It’s time for some new thinking. If a top Pentagon official could tell the NATO allies more than a year ago that 1,300 warheads would be sufficient militarily, there ought to be no hesitation about New START — and moving beyond it.
David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.
He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook
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