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Strategic Turn: New U.S. and Russian Views on Nuclear Weapons

  • By Joseph Cirincione, President, Ploughshares Fund
June 29, 2011 |
Photo/Flickr: joerodz

The United States and Russia possess 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. How these two nuclear superpowers configure and view their nuclear forces has a profound impact on how the other nuclear-armed states perceive the value of their weapons and how seriously other nations consider acquiring or not acquiring their own nuclear arsenals.1 This paper briefly summarizes the development of US and Russian views on nuclear weapons over the past 30 years and offers practical policy recommendations for how both nations can achieve their stated goal of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies.

The New START treaty limits the United States and Russia to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads each, carried by no more than 700 operational delivery vehicles each. This means that each nation can maintain 1,550 thermonuclear bombs on missiles and airplanes that can reach the territory of the other.2 In addition, both countries have hundreds of non-strategic (or “tactical”) nuclear weapons assigned for battlefield use, plus hundreds of weapons held in reserve that could become operational on fairly short notice (that is, uploaded onto existing missiles and planes), plus thousands of weapons that have been decommissioned but not yet dismantled. Each country keeps over a thousand of its warheads on missiles on heightened alert status (or “hair-trigger alert”), ready to launch in 15 minutes or less. (See Table 1)

Evolving Perspectives, Diminished Utility

The force structure and use doctrines of both Russia and the United States remain rooted in Cold War strategy. That means that despite the various desires and claims of the leaders of the United States and Russia over the past 20 years, both still configure their forces to deter the other by holding targets of strategic value at risk of nuclear destruction. These targets include nuclear forces, conventional forces, industrial and economic assets and political leadership.

Table 1: US, Russian and Global Stockpile Estimates, 2011

 United States3Russia4
Strategic Warheads1,9522,430
Non-Strategic Warheads2002,080
Active Reserve2,850N.A.
Awaiting Dismantlement~3,500~6,000
Weapons held by other nations, Total5~1,500 

This chart is derived from analyses by Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Moreover, the guidance the President of the United States provides to the military (and presumably that the President of the Russian Federation provides to his military) still requires very high confidence in an “assured kill” of the target. Target destruction is determined by blast damage. The calculations largely ignore radiation and fire damage, even though both will contribute to massive destruction in the targeted areas.6 It means, for all practical purposes, that many targets have to be in or near the crater left by the nuclear explosion – with two warheads usually allocated for hard-to-kill targets like ICBM silos. This results in both states creating requirements for a very large number of warheads.

For example, before the end of the Cold War, this author was briefed on the Single Integrated Operational Plan that coordinated the war-time use of US nuclear weapons. The methodology was illustrated using the targets in one Soviet city and the warheads required to destroy each of them, even though the bomb blasts, fire and radiation would overlap. The plan resulted in 60 high-yield hydrogen bombs dropped on Odessa, Ukraine – a port city of about one million people.

Today’s US targeting plans yield similar results for Moscow, St. Petersburg and dozens of other cities, even though, technically, the cities are not targeted, just plants, buildings and bases within or near the cities. Similar plans exist for other nations, including China. Less is known about Russian plans but it would be logical to assume that New York, Washington and other US cities are similarly redundantly targeted.

Evolution of Views and Doctrines

These plans and strategies, as destructive as they are, have been scaled down considerably from the height of the Cold War. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the US and Russia fielded almost 70,000 nuclear weapons on thousands of long-range missiles and bombers. Arms control agreements negotiated during the Cold War and continuing today have reduced those arsenals by over 70 percent.

Current US and Russian views imperfectly mirror each other.

  • Both countries view nuclear weapons as an important part of their strategic identity, with the weapons playing a more pronounced role in Russia than in the United States.
  • Both nations’ militaries still see military value in nuclear weapons. This view is decidedly decreasing in the US military but still strong in the Russian military, particularly to offset perceived conventional military shortfalls.
  • Both nations devote a sizable portion of their defense budgets to nuclear weapons. The United States spends $54 billion each year on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs.
  • Both have significant modernization plans underway for new nuclear-armed missiles, submarines and bombers.
  • The force postures of each nation are still largely determined by the force posture of the other. Both nations are reluctant to fall below the force numbers of the other or to negotiate asymmetrical limits.
  • The number and deployments of nuclear weapons by both nations are also major factors in other nations’ strategic calculations, particularly NATO and China.
  • The presidential leadership of both countries has embraced the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and has taken concrete steps towards that goal but face significant opposition within their respective nuclear bureaucracies and from political and ideological opponents.
  • There is a significant, open debate in both nations on the role of nuclear weapons and the desirability and feasibility of eliminating nuclear weapons, though this debate is more transparent and more developed in the United States.

The current shift in US and Russian strategic thinking began with President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail Gorbachev.

During Reagan’s first term, the seemingly belligerent policies of the US military buildup and aggressive Soviet actions under General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev convinced millions of Americans and Europeans that the two would start a global thermonuclear war. A mass movement to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons sprung up to counter this danger. Its impact rippled through the US Congress and European parliaments and stimulated new strategic thinking that continues to this day.

Reagan himself saw the buildup as part of a strategy to force negotiations to end the arms race. He wanted to convince the Soviets that they could not win an arms race and thus would have to end it. As one biographer observed:

Ronald Reagan harbored an intense dislike of nuclear weapons and the concept of mutually assured destruction. That antinuclearism was based on his deeply rooted personal beliefs and religious views. Reagan was convinced that it was his personal mission to avert nuclear war.7

Reagan spoke often of his desire to make nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” and to move steadily to a world without any nuclear weapons. He found a partner in Gorbachev who wrote,

The road to this goal began in November 1985 when Ronald Reagan and I met in Geneva. We declared that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” This was said at a time when many people in the military and among the political establishment regarded a war involving weapons of mass destruction as conceivable and even acceptable, and were developing various scenarios of nuclear escalation.8

Reagan and Gorbachev tried but failed to conclude an agreement at their summit in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986 to eliminate all nuclear weapons within ten years. They later negotiated two treaties, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and the START I treaty (concluded by George H. W. Bush) that eliminated thousands of long-range weapons. President Bush negotiated START II, which would make additional nuclear cuts, with Gorbachev’s successor Boris Yeltsin. These policies enjoyed broad bipartisan support, as demonstrated by the role played by President Bill Clinton in winning Senate approval of START II in 1996 and continuing to reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons.

Arms control has not always come through formal treaties. For example, in 1991 President George H. W. Bush announced what became known as the “Presidential Nuclear Initiatives” (PNI) that ended the practice of keeping US bombers on strip alert, denuclearized the US Army and Navy surface fleet, and withdrew thousands of tactical nuclear weapons back to American soil. A week later President Mikhail Gorbachev made a reciprocal unilateral commitment to reduce the Soviet Union’s nuclear forces – eliminating nuclear ground forces and moving naval weapons into storage. These presidential initiatives were then implemented and followed upon by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. While the exact figures remain unknown, it is estimated that these initiatives facilitated the removal of over 7,000 and 11,000 US and Russian tactical nuclear weapons, respectively.9

Evolution Interrupted

This doctrinal shift was interrupted by the administration of George W. Bush who continued some reductions of nuclear forces, but sought to expand their missions. Many officials in the Bush administration came into office in 2001 with a disdain for what they considered the naïve practice of arms control. These officials sought to remove any constraints on US defense and foreign policy. Thus, President Bush renounced previous arms control commitments, withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and rejected any new negotiated nuclear reductions with Russia, until compelled by Congress to do so. His 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) codified unilateral nuclear reductions plans already underway in the United States and Russia, but abandoned the verifications mechanisms of the 1991 START treaty, developed by the previous Republican administrations. A high-ranking US official quipped that the SORT treaty was simply “two force postures stapled together and called a treaty.”10

The Bush administration formalized its views in the Congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), submitted to Congress on December 31, 2001. The NPR greatly expanded the role and missions of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy. Although classified, most of the document was leaked in early 2002. While this is essentially an internal document, other nations carefully scrutinize the plan for clues on the future role of nuclear weapons in the US security structure.

The NPR identified a wide-range of potential uses for nuclear weapons, including responding to a biological or chemical weapon attack, striking hardened conventional targets, striking mobile targets and responding to a surprise or unusual conventional attack. It specified China as a target for US nuclear weapons as well as “rogue” states that did not have nuclear weapons, including Libya, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria. It called for the development of several new types of nuclear weapons, including low-yield weapons and earth-penetrating “bunker busters.” It called for research, development and production of a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines and bombers.

Strategic Pivot

President Barack Obama, in a clear break from the Bush plans, released an unclassified Nuclear Posture Review in April 2010 that reasserted the basic policies begun under Reagan, Bush I and Clinton. The 2010 NPR reduced the role of nuclear weapons in security policy and started a fundamental reorientation of US nuclear policy. Guidance to implement the NPR is now under development in the executive branch.

The review “altered the hierarchy of our nuclear concerns and strategic objectives,” shifting emphasis from a force configured for massive retaliation against another nation toward a policy that places “the prevention of nuclear terrorism and proliferation at the top of the US policy agenda.”11

The NPR reinforced the United States’ security commitments to its allies, but moved decidedly away from suggestions that it would use nuclear weapons to deter or respond to attacks involving biological, chemical or conventional weapons. The fundamental purpose of US nuclear weapons, declared the NPR, is deterrence of nuclear use by others. The 2010 NPR contained a clear US pledge to never use or threaten to use a nuclear weapon on a non-nuclear weapon state that adheres to its non-proliferation obligations.

The NPR also signaled the Obama administration’s intention to further promote the reduction and elimination of all nuclear weapons, suggesting that missile defenses and precision-guided conventional weapons could be substituted for missions that previously required a nuclear weapon. Former Secretary of State George Shultz applauded the move, stating, “Deterrence is not necessarily strengthened by overreliance on nuclear weapons.”12 In so doing, President Obama is trying to implement his pledge first made in Prague in April 2009: “To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same.”

In part, this reflects a growing bipartisan consensus in the US security establishment that whatever benefits nuclear weapons may have had during the Cold War are now outweighed by the threat they present. It is epitomized by the work of former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn. These two Republicans and two Democrats argue now for “a world free of nuclear weapons.” In their January 2007 Wall Street Journal oped, they wrote: “We face a very real possibility that the deadliest weapons ever invented could fall into dangerous hands.” The only way to prevent this, they argued, is to move step-by-step to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Two-thirds of the former secretaries of defense and state and national security advisors still living have endorsed their overall strategy.

Thus, a view that 30 years ago was identified primarily with left political movements is now solidly part of the American security elite. The center has shifted. Arms control is the new realism. It is seen as an essential element in efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concisely summarized this logic:

Clinging to nuclear weapons in excess of our security needs does not make the United States safer…It gives other countries the motivation or the excuse to pursue their own nuclear options.13

More formally, the 2010 NPR states:

By demonstrating that we take seriously our NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament, we strengthen our ability to mobilize broad international support for the measures needed to reinforce the non-proliferation regime and secure nuclear materials worldwide.14

The strategy has harsh critics. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) said on the Senate floor during last December’s New START debate:

I fear that the New START treaty will serve as another data point in the narrative of weakness, pursuing diplomacy for its own sake – or indulging in utopian dreams of a world without nuclear weapons – divorced from hard reality.15

Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is another who believes it foolish to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Is ‘zero’ really desirable? If nuclear deterrence has kept the peace between superpowers since the end of World War II, which itself cost over 60 million lives by some estimates, are nuclear weapons really a risk to peace or a contributor to peace? 16

Critics in the House of Representatives, wanting to refight the New START debate they lost last year, have attached onerous legislation to the Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal 2012, denying the President funds to implement the New START agreement or dismantle any US nuclear weapons, even those long slated for destruction. The Heritage Foundation, which campaigned against the New START treaty last year, is now trying to block any new agreements. A recent Fact Sheet describes any new reductions as “dangerous,” “weak,” “concessions to the Russians,” and “placing the US irreversibly on the path to nuclear disarmament.”17

Despite the critics and, more significantly, the partial and sluggish policy implementation by the executive bureaucracy, the President’s strategy appears to be working. The April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit brought 50 world leaders to Washington and won their support for a four-year action plan to secure and eliminate where possible all global stocks of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium – the core ingredients for nuclear weapons. The leaders will gather again in Seoul, South Korea in 2012 to assess their progress. The 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference reversed the failure of the 2005 conference, securing the consensus of the 187 member states for a joint program to strengthen the barriers to the spread of nuclear weapons, though the steps have yet to be implemented.

Meanwhile, US-Russian relations have improved considerably from the Cold War levels of 2008. The United States and Russia have increased collaboration in securing vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide. Russia has allowed overland transportation of coalition supplies into Afghanistan, and joined the US-led international partnerships to contain Iran and North Korea. Both countries are more isolated than at any time in their history, and both nuclear programs have slowed, though not stopped.

The US Senate approved the New START Treaty in December 2010 and the Russian Duma did so in January 2011, restoring inspections in both countries and paving the way for another round of negotiations for deeper cuts in strategic weapons and, for the first time, in tactical nuclear weapons and non-deployed weapons. NATO is conducting its own strategic review, with several members urging the withdrawal of US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and with all members desiring negotiations with Russia for mutual reductions.

Russian Views

Russia reacted predictably to the policies of President George W. Bush. Following his withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, the Russian Duma voted 326-3, on January 16, to adopt a non-binding resolution that described the US withdrawal as "mistaken and destabilizing since it effectively ruins the existing, highly efficient system of ensuring strategic stability and paves ground for a new round of the arms race."18 Russia later declared the START II treaty dead and began plans to test a multi-warhead version of one of its missiles, something the treaty had prohibited, and to develop a new, multi-warhead missile to replace the huge SS-19 scheduled for retirement.

But Russian views weren’t simply reactive. Then-President Vladimir Putin had already begun to implement a more assertive strategic policy. His January 2000 National Security Concept said the Russia would use “all available means and forces, including nuclear weapons, in case of the need to repel an armed aggression when all other means of settling the crisis situation have been exhausted or proved ineffective”19

Russian expert Yury Federov noted in 2007,

While the role of nuclear weapons in Western security thinking is more modest than it was during the Cold War, Russian strategic thinking is evolving in a different direction. Russian military, political, and bureaucratic elites consider nuclear weapons to be the main foundation of Russian security and see them as an instrument that ensures Russia’s national interests.20

Federov concludes, “As the second largest nuclear power in the world, Russia hopes to strengthen its international influence by relying on its nuclear assets.”21

The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 plunged US-Russian relations to their worst levels since the end of the Cold War. Russian views of nuclear weapons correspondingly shifted further. Nikolai Patroshev, head of Russia’s Security Council, said in October 2009 that Russia would not rule out the use of a preemptive nuclear strike and suggested an enlarged role for nuclear weapons to apply “not only to full-scale wars, but also to regional and even to local wars.”22

Patrohsev’s views, however, appear to be a lagging indicator of Russian opinion. As Stanford University scholar Pavel Podvig notes in a recent assessment, the determined effort by the Obama Administration to “reset” US-Russian relations created a process that shifted Russian views back towards a narrowing of the role and missions of Russian nuclear weapons. In particular, the US decision to renew arms control negotiations and cancel the deployment of anti-missile interceptors in Eastern Europe “changed the dynamics of the domestic security debate in Russia, shifting its focus toward negotiations and cooperation with the United States.”23

This process appears to have contributed to the change reflected in the 2010 Russian Military Doctrine. The new doctrine narrowed the role of nuclear weapons, and the circumstances in which they would be used. While still considered essential as a deterrent and to be used in response to aggression, the new concept, like the US 2010 NPR, says that the use of nuclear weapons would only occur in the most extreme case:

The Russian Federation reserves the right to utilize nuclear weapons in response to the utilization of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, and also in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation involving the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is under threat. [emphasis added] 24

Prominent Russian security analyst Alexei Arbotov notes, “on the whole, it is obvious that the new Military Doctrine expresses a more restrained attitude toward the role and missions of nuclear weapons than the previous 2000 Doctrine and certain statements by Moscow politicians and strategists.”25

Conversations the author has had with Russian officials, experts and retired military officers over the past two years indicate a strong belief among the security establishment that nuclear weapons, particularly tactical nuclear weapons, remain an essential part of Russia’s national security strategy. Some discuss in great detail the need for hundreds of tactical weapons in the event of attacks on Russia from some of its neighbors, however illogical these scenarios appear to non-Russians. Many are reluctant to engage in new negotiations with the United States until they see how the New START treaty will be implemented and if the new direction in US policy is permanent. Mirroring some corresponding American opinions, there are strong Russian ideological currents that still consider the United States an enemy, out to trick Russia and ultimately destroy it.

These attitudes may reflect long-standing Russian insecurities, but also deep concern that budget pressures will reduce the size of the Russian nuclear arsenal well below the limits set by New START. Arbotov calculates that under current plans the Russian strategic nuclear force will shrink to around 1,000-1,100 strategic warheads by 2020, well under the New START limits of 1,550 that will be in effect by that time. “For the first time in the history of strategic treaties,” he says, the Russian strategic forces “will make a unique ‘dive’ beneath treaty ceilings” and will require new programs and new funding to build back up.26

To counter this decline, the operational lives of the SS-18 and SS-19 missiles will be extended through 2026 and 2016, respectively. There is now an open debate over whether Russia should proceed with a new heavy ICBM carrying up to 10 warheads, to be deployed potentially in 2018.27

At the same time, President Dmitri Medvedev’s views, at least in his public statements, seem more in-line with President Obama’s: “As leaders of the two largest nuclear weapons states, we agreed to work together to fulfill our obligations under Article VI of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and demonstrate leadership in reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world,” he said at his meeting with Obama in July 2009. At the signing of the New START treaty in April 2010, Medvedev praised the treaty, saying it “enhances strategic stability and, at the same time, enables us to rise to a higher level for cooperation between Russia and the United States.” It is unclear where now-Prime Minister Putin stands on this issue, but it is unlikely that Medvedev would proceed without his backing.

Medvedev’s main opposition seems to come from the entrenched nuclear weapons bureaucracy, still wed to the jobs, contracts and prestige the programs offer, and from political and ideological opponents. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, said about the United States and arms control, "They play the fox, using these agreements to learn the locations of our factories, where we build our rockets, but they don’t grant us such access…They say that they want to destroy us, that they don’t need Russia."28

The Impact of US and Russian Disarmament on Non-Proliferation

One of the most hotly debated issues in nuclear policy is what impact—if any—US and Russian strategic views and postures have on the decisions taken by other nuclear-armed states or potential nuclear-armed states. For example, former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and former CIA Director John Deutch argued in a 2007 Wall Street Journal oped,

A nation that wishes to acquire nuclear weapons believes these weapons will improve its security. The declaration by the US that it will move to eliminate nuclear weapons in a distant future will have no direct effect on changing this calculus. Indeed, nothing that the US does to its nuclear posture will directly influence such a nation’s (let alone a terrorist group’s) calculus.29

Scott Sagan of Stanford University and Jane Vaynman of Harvard University argue the opposite in a comprehensive new survey of national attitudes on nuclear weapons. They say that Brown, Deutch and others set up “straw men” to knock down. “We know of no serious policy maker or analyst,” they say, “who thinks that the simple proclamation that the US government seeks global nuclear disarmament would lead Iran or North Korea to give up their nuclear ambitions.”30 Rather, they argue that foreign governments look very carefully at “both pronouncements of US intent and US actions.”31

Sagan and Vaynman believe their work provides “valuable new evidence that many, but by no means all, foreign governments have indeed been strongly influenced by Washington’s post-Prague disarmament policy and nuclear posture developments.”32 Specifically, they find that the new US posture and actions have encouraged some other governments to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their doctrines (UK and Russia); have helped reinforce the nuclear nonproliferation regime (specifically at the NPT Review Conference and the Nuclear Security Summit); have led to new domestic discussion in some states (Japan and South Korea) on the proper role of conventional forces versus nuclear weapons in extended deterrence guarantees in East Asia; but have had “minimal direct influence” with France, China, India and Pakistan.33

Linkage Between US and Russian Postures and Non-Proliferation Success

Sagan and Vaynman’s findings are consistent with the historic record. US national intelligence assessments going back to the 1950s and 1960s found that negotiated limits on US and Russian forces had a significant impact on nuclear policy decisions of other nations. A September 1961 estimate concluded,

“The prospect of an agreement among the major powers for a nuclear test ban, for example, especially if it were viewed as a forerunner to broader disarmament steps, would undoubtedly strengthen forces opposed to the spread of nuclear capabilities. Growing pessimism as to the likelihood of any realistic disarmament agreement could in some cases (e.g., Sweden, India) tend to undermine opposition to the acquisition of a national nuclear capability.”34

Similarly, in January 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s Gilpatric Committee on Nuclear Proliferation found: “It is unlikely that others can be induced to abstain indefinitely from acquiring nuclear weapons if the Soviet Union and the United States continue in a nuclear arms race.”35 The Committee therefore went on to suggest: “Lessened emphasis by the United States and the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons, and agreements on broader arms control measures must be recognized as important components in the overall program to prevent nuclear proliferation.”36

The Committee’s first recommendation to President Johnson, and one that greatly informed his decision to pursue the negotiation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, was:

Measures to prevent particular countries from acquiring nuclear weapons are unlikely to succeed unless they are taken in support of a broad international prohibition applicable to many countries.37

Though some disagree, this linkage is widely recognized today. The Interim Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, chaired by former Secretaries of Defense William Perry and James Schlesinger, noted:

If the US by its actions indicates to other nations that we are moving seriously to decrease the importance and role of nuclear weapons, we increase our chance of getting the kind of cooperation we need to deal effectively with the dangers of proliferation.38

The Commission concluded:

What we do in our own nuclear weapons program has a significant effect on (but does not guarantee) our ability to get that cooperation. In particular, this cooperation will be affected by what we do in our weapons laboratories, what we do in our deployed nuclear forces, what kind of nuclear policies we articulate, and what we do regarding arms control treaties (e.g., START and CTBT).39

US-Russian Cooperation Strengthens Positions Toward Iran

The United States and Russia have a shared interest in keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but have different views of Iran. The United States sees Iran’s nuclear program as a pressing threat that must be resolved and has led an international coalition to pressure Iran back to the negotiating table. Russia sees Iran’s nuclear program as a problem that must be managed along with its geopolitical and economic interests with Tehran. Russia’s approach to Iran has thus differed from the US approach – sometimes frustratingly so. However, as US-Russian relations have improved, Russia has been more willing to back the United States.

When US-Russian relations have been cool, as during the last few years of the George W. Bush administration, Russia tacked against the US position. Beginning in 2006, Russia stalled or heavily diluted Security Council sanctions against Iran being sought by the Bush administration. Even so, Russia did cooperate in other ways. WikiLeaks cables recently revealed that in 2006 then-President Vladimir Putin delayed the construction of the Bushehr reactor and held up supplying fuel for the facility.

As US-Russian relations improved under the Obama administration, so did Russian cooperation on Iran. Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran also helped reduce Russian fears of another US war in the region. Russia became a key partner with the United States in arranging a nuclear fuel swap with Iran in 2009, though the deal ultimately fell through. When the Obama administration sought tough Security Council sanctions against Iran, Russia voted in support of Security Council Resolution 1929, in 2010. In what Vice President Biden called “an unambiguous sign of international resolve” toward Iran’s nuclear program, Russia canceled, and lost money on, a deal to sell Iran its sophisticated S-300 air defense system.40

US-Russian cooperation on Iran has been a major diplomatic success over the last two years. Keeping Russia on board will be a practical test of how improved US-Russian relations can benefit global nonproliferation efforts.

Seven Easy Steps to Enhance US and Russian Security

It is possible that the United States and Russia could proceed to reduce their nuclear arsenals in the manner favored by officials in the President George W. Bush’s administration. That is, joint consultations but no formal treaties and no verification measures. This would give each side maximum flexibility in reductions, and allow for rapid increase if future events warranted. Most military leaders reject this approach preferring the certainty that verified treaties provide for force planning. It is almost certainly true that the reductions in Russian tactical nuclear weapons that the US Senate ordered the President to undertake as part of its advice and consent to the New Start treaty cannot be achieved with detailed negotiations and rigorous new verification methods.

However, there are steps that the President can take without the Russians and without the Senate that would modernize the US nuclear posture and develop a military defense in line with 21st Century requirements. Two steps relate to the year-long process now underway in the US administration to update the nuclear policy guidance. An inter-agency group, led by the Department of Defense, is working to translate the directives developed in the Nuclear Posture Review into operation plans, force levels and targeting guidance for the deployed US nuclear weapons.

Step one would be to recognize that deterrence does not require numerical parity. Given that Russia is no longer an enemy and the chance of a premeditated nuclear exchange is close to zero, a fresh approach could do more than the past exercises that have merely trimmed US nuclear target sets by reducing or eliminating particular categories of targets. The Joint Chiefs could be directed to develop an entirely new set of target options based on what is sufficient to deter the leadership of Russia. This “zero-based targeting” would significantly reduce the number of required targets and, consequently, facilitate reductions in US weapons and delivery systems.

Step two would be for the President to tell the military that he or she no longer requires them to maintain a capability for launch on warning or launch under attack to ensure the credibility of the deterrent. The military could then choose if it wanted to retain that capability, but it would no longer be under a presidential directive to do so. It could weigh the costs and resources devoted to these cumbersome Cold War practices with other military needs.

Both of these steps are similar to actions taken by previous presidents. Both would rationalize the nuclear force without any loss of deterrent capability. Both would save money. And both would send a signal to other nations, including Russia, that the US was serious about reducing the roles and missions of nuclear weapons in national security strategy.

But such action would not be sufficient. As noted above, other nations will evaluate US and Russian views on nuclear weapons based on both declarations and actions. While policies have clearly shifted in both nations, procurements have not. Both have ambitious nuclear modernization plans. The Obama administration is continuing the research and development of a new generation of nuclear delivery vehicles called for in the 2002 NPR of President Bush. If implemented, the United States will spend almost $700 billion on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs over the next ten years. Other nations will have to judge which reflects a nation’s views more accurately: policy or procurement?

Under current plans the United States will deploy in 2020 approximately 1,550 nuclear warheads as follows:

  • 420 warheads on 420 Minuteman III ICBMs
  • 1,090 warheads on 240 Trident SLBMs on 14 Trident submarines
  • 40-60 B-2 and B-52 Bombers 41

Russia will deploy a smaller force of, at most, 1,258 warheads:

  • 542 warheads on 192 Topol, Topol-M, RS-24 and SS-18 ICBMs
  • 640 warheads on 128 Bulava SLBMs on 3-4 submarines
  • 76 Tu-160 and Tu-95 Bombers 42

These forces are considerably larger than either country requires for military missions other than attacks on each other. The United States and Russia could implement five additional nuclear reduction steps over the next few years that would continue to reduce the saliency of nuclear weapons in their national security strategies and enhance efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons, without any decrease in the national security of either state. These steps would build on and accelerate agreements already agreed to by the two nations and should enjoy the support of the military leadership of both.

Step three would be to accelerate the reductions in strategic weapons agreed to in New START. The treaty provides that reductions will be implemented within seven years of the entry into force (February 5, 2018). The United States and Russia could implement the reduction more quickly, preferably announcing that the new, lower levels would be achieved by the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Military officials might also see this as an effective cost-saving measure: early removal of weapons already slated for retirement could free up resources for other military needs. This step would not require a new treaty; it could be reciprocal steps coordinated by both presidents.

Step four would be to begin negotiations for a new round of reductions, as envisioned by the US Nuclear Posture Review and the statements of both President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. The treaty, as preliminary consultations between the two nations have explored, should reduce strategic, tactical and non-deployed nuclear weapons. The talks should aim at a new treaty that is approved by the Congress and the Duma by early 2014, the most politically advantageous timing for both presidents, if both secure second terms.

Step five would increase the transparency of both nations’ nuclear arsenals. The United States and Russia should exchange information on nuclear weapons types and numbers beyond that required by the New START treaty – including nonstrategic weapons, non-deployed warheads, and retired warheads awaiting dismantlement. This would reduce uncertainties in strategic planning, facilitate the negotiations urged in step two, above, and increase incentives for other nuclear-armed states to disclose more details about their nuclear arsenals.

Step six would be to initiate additional reciprocal nuclear reductions, similar to those implemented in 1991 by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev. As indicated above, Russian forces are likely to decline to 1,000-1,100 strategic warheads by 2020. Moscow and Washington should announce in parallel statements that each side would reduce its holdings to 1300 strategic warheads and consider coordinating further reciprocal reductions if conditions allow. The New START limits are a ceiling, not a floor, and should not artificially promote levels that neither side needs for any conceivable military purpose. These reductions should include accelerating the dismantlement of thousands of weapons decommissioned but still stored in warehouses.

Step seven, finally, should be to steadily take portions of both nations’ strategic forces off heightened alert status. Building on removing the requirement to maintain this capability, this would reduce the risks of accidental launch, save funding and resources for other military needs, and allow hundreds of highly-trained officers to undertake more meaningful assignments. As importantly, it would be another step towards demonstrating the reduced relevance of nuclear weapons in both nations’ security strategy.

Together, these and similar steps can help bridge the gap between the declared goals of US and Russian strategic policies and the actual force postures and procurement plans of both nations. They will help Presidents Obama and Medvedev fulfill their promise to use the New START treaty as the first step in deeper, verifiable reductions in nuclear arsenals, leading to the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. And they will continue the decades-long effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and walk the world back from the nuclear brink.


1 The author gratefully acknowledges the research support of Benjamin Loehrke and Sarah Beth Cross in the preparation of this paper.

2 New START counts each bomber as one weapon although bombers can carry 6-16 bombs.  Thus, the actual number of nuclear weapons allowed under the treaty is greater than 1550.
3 Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, “US Nuclear Forces, 2011,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2011, vol. 67, no. 2, pp. 66-76.
4 Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, “Russian Nuclear Forces, 2011” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2011, vol. 67, no. 3, pp. 67-74.
5 Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2010, vol. 66, no. 4, pp. 77-83.
6 See Lynn Eden, “Underestimating the Consequences of Use of Nuclear Weapons: Condemned to Repeat the Past’s Errors?” Physics and Society, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 5-7.
7 Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Random House, (New York, 2005), p. 243.
8 Mikhail Gorbachev, “Mikhail Gorbachev Calls for Elimination of Nuclear Weapons as Soon as Possible,” Wall Street Journal, January 31, 2007, http://www.2020visioncampaign.org/pages/143/Mikhail_Gorbachev_calls_for_..., [Accessed March 2011].
9 Alistair Millar and Brian Alexander, “Uncovered Nukes: Arms Control and the Challenge of tactical nuclear Weapons,” Fourth Freedom Forum, November 30, 2001, http://www.fourthfreedom.org/Applications/cms.php?page_id=27#800, [Accessed March 2011].
10 Private discussion with author, March 2010, Washington, DC.
11 Nuclear Posture Review report, April 2010, Washington, DC, p. i.
12 George Shultz, “Debating Obama's New Nuclear Doctrine,” Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2010.
13 Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Remarks at the United States Institute of Peace,” Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, Washington, DC, October 21, 2009.
14 Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, p.12.
15 John Cornyn, “New START in Strategic Context,” Floor Statement, United States Senate, Washington, DC, December 22, 2010.
16 Jon Kyl, “Keynote Address at Nixon Policy Conference,” Nixon Center, Washington, DC, May 19, 2010.
17 Baker Spring and Ariel Cohen, “Beware the Next U.S.-Russian Arms Control Treaty,” May 27, 2011, Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC.
18 The Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, "US Announces Withdrawal from ABM Treaty, Outlines a 'New Triad,'"  Disarmament Diplomacy, January - February 2002, http://www.acronym.org.uk/dd/dd62/62nr02.htm, [Accessed March 2011].
19 National Security Concept of the Russian Federation, Full English translation from Rossiiskaya Gazeta, January 18, 2000
Approved by Presidential Decree No. 1300 of 17 December 1999.
20 Yury Fedorov, New Wine in Old Bottles: The New Salience of Nuclear Weapons, Fall 2007, Page 17 - http://www.ifri.org/files/Securite_defense/New_Wine_Fedorov_2007.pdf.
21 Ibid.
22 Cited in Pavel Podvig, “Instrumental Influences:  Russia and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol 18, No. 1, March 2011, p. 47.
23  Podvig, p. 40
24 Cited in Aleksei Arbatov, “Ratification of the Prague Treaty is Only a State on a Long Path:  What Strategy Will Russia Choose?”, Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, Moscow, 11 February 2011.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid.
27 Norris and Kristensen, “Russian Nuclear Forces 2011”, pp. 69-70.
28 Kevin Rothrock, "Mitt Romney: The American Vladimir Zhirinovsky?," A Good Treaty, July 14, 2010, http://www.agoodtreaty.com/2010/07/14/mitt-romney-the-american-zhirinovsky/, [Accessed March 2011].
29 Harold Brown and John Deutch, “The Nuclear Disarmament Fantasy,” Wall Street Journal November 19, 2007, p. A19.
30 Scott D. Sagan and Jane Vaynman, “Conclusions:  Lessons Learned from the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol 18, No. 1, March 2011, p. 240.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid.
33 Sagan and Vaynman, p. 238.
34 Ibid, p. 5.
35 President’s Task Force on Preventing the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, (Gilpatric Report), 21 January 1965, Washington, DC, p. 7.
36 Ibid, p. 5
37 Ibid, p. 7.
38 The Congressional Commission on the Strategic posture of the United States, “Interim Report,” United States Institute of Peace, Dec. 15, 2008, p. 5.
39 William Perry and James Schlesinger, “America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic posture of the United States,” United States Institute of Peace, 2009, p. 122.
40 Joseph Biden, Remarks at Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia, March 10, 2011.
41 Steven Pifer, “The Next Round:  The United States and Nuclear Arms Reductions After New START,” Arms Control Series, Paper 4, Brookings Institution, November 2010, p. 8.
42 Pifer, p. 8.  Alexei Arbotov, op cit, provides a lower estimate of 1,000 to 1,100 warheads on 200 ICBMs, 44-60 SLBMs, and 40-50 heavy bombers.  Russia has not released official estimates of its force composition.