Avoiding a Pause in Nuclear-Arms Control

Conventional wisdom holds that little will be accomplished in nuclear-arms control in 2012. How to prove that wisdom wrong.

A year after ratification of the New START Treaty, conventional wisdom holds that little can be accomplished in nuclear-arms control in 2012. The U.S. presidential campaign makes it difficult to pursue serious arms control in Washington. Moscow has a presidential transition to manage and appears not to have decided what to do next on nuclear weapons. Moreover, the Russians want to know who will be the next American president before they proceed too far.

While this year may not be the most propitious time for nuclear-arms control, the Obama administration can take key actions to prepare the ground for future reductions—working with the U.S. military, consulting with the Russians and talking to Republicans.

First, the administration has important homework to complete. The Pentagon is leading a review that will recommend options to the president for nuclear-weapons employment. His subsequent guidance will shape the structure and size of U.S. nuclear forces. This guidance should lead the military to conclude it could get by with fewer nuclear weapons than at present.

The review offers an opportunity to examine fundamental questions, such as what targets are needed for effective deterrence. For example, the one scenario in which targeting Russian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos makes sense is a U.S. first strike. But that is virtually impossible to imagine. So does it make sense to target warheads on those silos?

A smaller target set would require fewer warheads. Former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright has already suggested that, given the large costs of maintaining and modernizing the triad of ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers, Washington should consider whether it could get by with something less.

Another question the review should address is the requirement for prompt launch. This is understood to mean the capability to launch American ICBMs in twenty minutes. Wouldn’t it be better to ease the prompt-launch requirement and give Obama or a future president hours—rather than only minutes—to make the most momentous decision of his or her presidency?

Second, the administration should work with Moscow to prepare for future talks, even if those negotiations cannot begin until 2013. The sides could discuss principles for further reductions. The president and Senate Republicans agree it is time to cut tactical nuclear weapons. Since U.S. and Russian definitions differ, developing a common terminology would prove useful for future negotiations. As more intrusive monitoring measures might be needed, discussions on verification seem a good idea. They might develop ideas that could be available for later use.

The one area where U.S. officials should press their Russian counterparts for an early resolution is missile defense. The prospect of NATO-Russia missile-defense cooperation has stalled over Moscow’s insistence on a legal guarantee that the U.S. missile-defense system would not be directed against Russia. Washington has offered a political assurance, but the odds of the Senate ratifying any legal agreement that hints at limiting missile defense are zero. By most accounts, if U.S. and Russian officials could get around this obstacle, their ideas substantially converge on how NATO and Russia might work together to develop a cooperative missile-defense system.

Third, the administration should reach out to Republicans on possible future arms reductions. Many Republicans—including the presidential candidates—have expressed skepticism about the value of arms control with Russia. But as budget realities hit home, Washington faces some very tough choices about how to allocate defense dollars.

The United States soon must begin making decisions regarding the modernization of its strategic forces. Reducing the numbers could produce significant dollar savings. Those savings could go to fund operations that the U.S. military is far more likely to face than nuclear war.

Congress apparently already recognizes this. The recently filed Senate-House conference report on the national-defense authorization act recommends, for example, that the Pentagon look at replacing its fourteen missile-carrying submarines with just eight to twelve smaller submarines. If budget realities lead to a cut in planned U.S. nuclear forces, would it not make sense to use arms control to ensure reductions in Russian nuclear forces in parallel?

Properly structured, further reductions can be made in a manner which cuts the number and costs of nuclear weapons and which leaves a robust nuclear force that will deter attack on the United States, its allies and friends. Formal negotiations may be off the table in 2012, but Washington can still use this year to prepare for their later resumption.

Steven Pifer is senior fellow and director of the Arms Control Initiative at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.