Jeffrey Lewis

The Incredible Shrinking Arsenal

It's not Obama who's cutting nukes -- it's Congress.


President Obama’s appearance in Berlin on Wednesday marked roughly both the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech in which he declared Ich bin ein Berliner, as well as the fifth anniversary of then-candidate Obama’s first major foreign performance. The speech was not particularly remarkable, except that the president announced that, in concert with the Russians, he was prepared to further reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons by one-third below the 1,550-warhead limit established by the New START treaty.

The result was pretty much what you’d expect. The president’s defenders were moved to tears. So bold. So visionary. He’s JFK, just without the floozies and painkillers. And then there was his legion of detractors, who took a break from screaming about birth certificates and death panels to accuse Obama of unilateral disarmament. (Though, sadly, not one Republican flack was clever enough to break out "Ich bin ein Unilateral Disarmer." Do I have to write jokes for both sides, now?) Never mind that a reduction undertaken with another party is, by definition, not unilateral.

You will not be surprised to learn that I find the proposal to reduce the deployed force by one-third to be neither particularly bold nor a harbinger of the end of Western civilization. But what might surprise you is that I suspect, whether the president or anyone in Congress knows it, we are headed way below 1,000 warheads one way or the other.

You see, thanks to the goat rodeo that is the U.S. Congress, the current fiscal austerity gripping Washington may drive the United States to levels far below the modest cuts Obama proposed in Berlin. Want to know what unilateral disarmament really looks like? Flip on C-Span and pull up a chair.

Here is what the president actually said:

After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.

The text is a little ambiguous about whether the reductions would be taken unilaterally or only after negotiation with Russia. Fortunately, the White House gave a nice, long story to the New York Times explaining that the administration anticipates negotiating reductions with Russia, but not submitting them for the advice and consent of the Senate. The White House also released a new fact sheet on the new nuclear weapons employment guidance signed by the president, as well as a report to Congress on said-same document. These texts aren’t exactly For Whom the Bell Tolls in terms of clarity, but they contain enough jargon to get the gist of what’s going on here.

As far as I can tell, the reduction offered by the president — from the current limit of 1,550 to 1,000-1,100 — is, more or less, the same offer that the United States made five years ago during the negotiations that led to the New START treaty.

In case you don’t recall, Obama took office in January 2009 inheriting two deadlines: The United States and Russia needed to negotiate a replacement to the original START treaty, which was set to expire in December 2009. And Congress had also directed the president to conduct a Nuclear Posture Review at the same time. Now, you might ask yourself: How does the president negotiate nuclear arms reductions before finishing his Nuclear Posture Review? I mean, won’t that look bad? Doesn’t that appear like the president’s desire for cuts is driving the review? Yes, that was precisely what it looked like, even if it was just bad luck in terms of timing.

The Obama administration, hamstrung by this schedule, ordered a "mini" nuclear posture review by July 2009 that asked how low it could go using the existing nuclear weapons guidance signed by President Bush. (NSPD-14, in case you’re wondering.) That review concluded that Obama could go as low as 1,300 warheads without changing his predecessor’s policies. Elaine Grossman, working from interviews and the odd document compromised by Wikileaks, reported that 1,300 warheads was the offer that the United States made to Russia in 2009. The Russians, on the other hand, pushed for a higher number — around 1,700.

I know, you are thinking, "Hey, but 1,300 is still more than 1,100." Um, yeah, that’s sadly not how math works in arms control. (I know! I know!) If you want to skip the rest of the paragraph, take my word for it that 1,100 is probably the new 1,300. Otherwise, here goes: As far as I can tell, the administration’s proposed ceiling of 1,300 warheads was intended to reflect the actual number of nuclear weapons we might have. But counting warheads would have meant American inspectors crawling all over Russian air bases to count bombs. The Russians said, "Nyet." So, the New START treaty simply counts each heavy bomber as "one" nuclear weapon no matter how many it can or does carry. As a result, the New START limit of "1,550 deployed warheads" really works out to about 1,700 warheads for the United States and Russia — the original Russian position. The point of all this is that the president’s offer in Berlin does not appear to be significantly lower than the offer the Russians rejected at the beginning of New START treaty negotiations. Whatever changes Obama has made to President Bush’s nuclear weapons guidance, they can’t be that dramatic: The total number of deployed weapons required turns out to be about the same.

Part of the reason that the number remains north of 1,000 warheads is that the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons is no longer, as far as I can tell, driven by targeting requirements. Or rather, perhaps more accurately, is further inflated by other concerns.

One big fight during New START negotiations between the United States and Russia was about the number of delivery vehicles — missiles, submarines, and bombers. When the Russians went broke at the end of the Cold War, they slashed their force structure. So, today Russian missiles carry as many warheads as the Russians can pack on them. The United States, on the other hand, had the money to keep much of its Cold War force structure. (We also had anxious members of Congress with bases in their districts to keep happy.) So, we achieved most of our reductions by offloading warheads. Of course, that also gives us the opportunity to upload those warheads if Joe Stalin comes back to life. And yes, our "upload capability" makes the Russians a little nervous.

The United States plans to ultimately reach the limits in New START with a force of "up to 420 ICBMs, 14 submarines carrying up to 240 SLBMs, and up to 60 nuclear-capable heavy bombers." The words "up to" matter, since if the administration did "up to" all these things, the United States would be over New START limits. But not so far over the limit that we need to concern ourselves with the discrepancy at the moment. Reaching the levels outlined in New START did not require getting rid of many missiles, bombers, or submarines. That was one of our sticking points. We could have gone even lower by simply offloading more warheads from submarines. (Each submarine carries about 110-120 nuclear warheads.) And, of course, if we saw Putin growing a bushy, Stalin-like mustache, we could go much, much higher. (Remember, New START counts only "deployed strategic" nuclear weapons — not tactical nuclear weapons or what you might call "spares." The United States had a total of 5,113 nu
clear weapons at the end of Fiscal Year 2009.)

Really, the issue isn’t whether the United States has 500, 1,000, or 1,500 deployed warheads so much as whether it can sustain the existing force structure and the way it does business at lower numbers. The United States can cover a more-than-ample target set with a lot fewer nuclear weapons. (How many warheads do we really need to be able to put on leadership targets that just happen to be in Moscow and St. Petersburg before Vladimir Putin decides to pick on Pussy Riot instead?) What defense types are starting to worry about is diversity within the force. Do we have different kinds of systems with different qualities we might desire? Qualities like promptness, flexibility, resilience, and so on.

The way to think about force sizing today is to imagine a matrix that has different force structures on one side and all the qualities one might want in a nuclear deterrent on the other. Inside the matrix, all the little boxes are colored green, yellow, and red. Green is good. Yellow is… oh, you understand. In fact, this is pretty much exactly what future Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy did in a nice 2002 CSIS study with her colleague Clark Murdock, Revitalizing the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent. I’ve heard this study called the "best unclassified explanation" of the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review. (And that wasn’t a back-handed compliment!) And I’ve got good reason to think an important part of the Nuclear Posture Review that Flournoy oversaw for Obama looked like it, too. So, instead of imagining the target list getting shortened, imagine some weenie in the bowels of the Pentagon changing some little boxes from green to yellow. Maybe we cut the ICBM force from 420 to 400 and color the little "promptness" box chartreuse.

The point of this digression is to explain that a lot of these nice green boxes are, for lack of a better phrase, "nice to have." ICBMs are only a few minutes more prompt than missiles based on submarines, but an extra minute or two is nice to have. The ability to signal intentions by moving around nuclear-capable bombers is nice, too, but we might also just send out a press release.

Nice-to-have capabilities can be expensive. All those little green boxes start to add up. And, in the current budgetary environment, expensive is not a good place to be. I don’t think many of those capabilities are going to survive the current budgetary environment. Consider the state of various programs to replace the current legs of the triad.

First, the United States is building a new generation of ballistic missile submarines — the SSBN(X). These submarines will have fewer launch tubes (16 instead of 24). There will be also fewer of them. Although the United States still plans to buy 12 new ballistic missile submarines, austerity-induced delays in procurement mean that the existing submarines will retire faster than we can build the new ones. That means for some period of time in the 2030s we will have only 11, and then 10, submarines. Don’t kid yourself. We’re not building 12 boats. "If you can go four years with 11 and nine years with 10 — why do you need 12?" one anonymous consultant asked Elaine Grossman. It sure seems that the United States is on a glide path to a submarine force with 160 launch tubes, which works out to a deployed force of 400-600 warheads on ballistic missile submarines.

Second, the United States plans to procure a new heavy bomber to replace the B-52 and eventually the B-2. The Air Force eventually hopes to procure 80-100 "LRS-B" aircraft — LRS-B is "long-range strike bomber." Watching the vultures circling the F-35 raises some interesting questions about how many bombers the Air Force will actually get to purchase. The Air Force has already made clear that, as a cost-saving measure, it will operate the LRS-B as a conventional-only aircraft for the first two years. There are certainly knowledgeable people who suspect the Air Force plans to never make the aircraft nuclear-capable in order to hold down operating costs and preserve the largest buy possible.

The Air Force has only 20 nuclear-capable B-2 bombers. Using the New START counting rules, that’s 10 deployed warheads because only about half the B-2s are operational at any given time. The Air Force also plans a new cruise missile — the LRSO — to arm the B-2 bomber. Let’s say each B-2 can carry eight cruise missiles. Even if we count them for real, that’s 80 deployed warheads.

Finally, the Air Force plans a new ICBM to replace the Minuteman III. Air Force officials like to talk about replacing the silo-based Minuteman with a new, mobile missile but — as I’ve noted before — the cost would choke a horse. The United States tried this in the 1980s. The result was cost-prohibitive even during the Reagan defense buildup. Remember the MX missile? The Air Force wanted to buy 500 of them. Ultimately it bought 112 and dubbed it the Peacekeeper. (It was supposed to be the Peacemaker, which would have been considerably cooler.) I’ve heard 200-300 suggested as a number for likely ICBM replacement levels. That seems generous to me, but let’s go with one or two wings (150-300).

Step back a second and ask whether this isn’t a plausible future — the United States stops at 10 ballistic missile submarines, decides to forgo making the LRS-B nuclear-capable, and only partially replaces the ICBM force. All relatively modest changes, but it drops us to 560-980 deployed strategic warheads

And that assumes no real procurement catastrophes. What happens if the SSBN(X) breaks the Navy’s shipbuilding budget? What happens if the LRSO turns out to be a black hole? How about if the Air Force manages to foul up the ICBM replacement by pushing for mobile missiles? Defense procurement, in case you haven’t noticed, doesn’t usually happen ahead of schedule and under budget. A couple of big screw ups and we’re down in Global Zero territory before you know it. Now you see why Bob Gates and other defense officials kept talking about threats to the triad. Poor old General Kowalski really may have to hold a bake sale to buy a new bomber.

So let me suggest something unpopular. Wouldn’t it be better to manage this process rationally? Shouldn’t the president actually propose bold reductions on the basis that we can’t afford to fully recapitalize the current force? Shouldn’t his detractors set aside the shrill accusations of unilateral disarmament, realizing that managed reductions will be far less harmful to national security than the current game of chicken? Wouldn’t it be better if we reduced alongside the Russians? Can’t we all agree that wherever we might want to go on nuclear reductions individually, it’s hard see how a train wreck gets us there?

I guess not. What channel is C-S
pan again?

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola