The Buzz

Washington’s Imaginary Nuclear Arms Race

The Cold War is back, if you believe some public commentators at least. On one level, they are correct: current tensions between the United States and Russia over potential Russian territorial aggression in Europe, accusations of nuclear treaty violations, and whispers of a new nuclear arms race are certainly reminiscent of the Cold War of yesteryear.

But today’s strategic environment is in fact much different than 30 years ago, though some of the actors and issues remain the same. No longer is NATO worried about Soviet tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap into the heart of Europe; instead it now must plan for low intensity Russian aggression backed by a nuclear “first use” strategy. Gone are the days of debating whether a Soviet radar is allowable, replaced by concern that Russia is developing a prohibited nuclear cruise missile.

And yet, one anachronism from the Cold War still remains in the public discourse, claims of Washington’s actions causing a nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia. This begs the questions, what constitutes an arms race and is the United States really about to start one?

Today Russia is leading in the expansion of all levels of its nuclear arsenal while U.S. nuclear weapon modernization plans, proposed and defended by the Obama administration, will keep the United States under the limit of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads allowed by the New START Treaty. Following steep reductions in the number of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, the United States has no plans to increase current numbers.

Yet some commentators who are stuck in a Cold War mindset claim that the Obama administration’s nuclear replacement programs are igniting a new nuclear arms race. President of Ploughshares Fund Joe Cirincione calls on President Obama to stop nuclear modernization plans or “his nuclear policy legacy may be the launch of a terrifying arms race that threatens destruction far beyond the horrors committed by ISIS.” Others, like Tom Collina and Will Saetren, hold that the United States is, “pursuing an excessive arsenal [that] runs the risk of igniting a new arms race with Russia that could needlessly undermine U.S. security.”     

So are U.S. nuclear weapon programs to repair, replace, and modernize the nuclear triad of delivery systems (missiles, submarines, and bombers) and warheads really the opening salvo in an irrational game of nuclear one-upmanship? Recent history indicates otherwise.

In 1995, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry announced the findings of a Department of Defense review which determined that “nuclear weapons are playing a smaller role in U.S. security than at any other time in the nuclear age.” The Nuclear Posture Reviews of the Bush administration (2002) and the Obama administration (2010) also stressed the reduced reliance on nuclear weapons in U.S. defense planning and policy.  

But Russian officials moved their nuclear doctrine in the other direction, actually increasing reliance on their nuclear weapons, despite official U.S. policy. In the late 1990s, the CIA assessed a shift in Russian nuclear doctrine that lowered the threshold of when nuclear weapons could be used in a conflict and allowed for Russian “first use” in order to “de-escalate” a conventional conflict. Today, these ideas are still central tenets of Russian nuclear strategy as seen by Russian military exercises, which often end in simulated nuclear strikes, and nuclear threats against NATO members. Senior U.S. defense officials even speak openly about Russia’s “escalate to deescalate” approach saying it “amounts to a reckless gamble for which the odds are incalculable and the outcome could prove catastrophic.”

Seeing no “arms race” in U.S. nuclear doctrine, what can we learn about the status of U.S and Russian nuclear weapon systems? There are five points to consider.

First, in terms of the number of warheads on each side, the only “arms racing” the United States and Russia have been doing since the end of the Cold War is in the downward direction, not upward. Since 1991, the United States and Russia have reportedly reduced their stockpiles by over 75% each.