President Obama’s State of the Union address included a declaration of his intention to pursue further reductions in nuclear forces to accelerate realization of global nuclear zero. He also said that North Korea’s day-earlier nuclear test would further isolate the regime, and that he would prevent Iran from joining the nuclear weapon club:
Of course, our challenges don’t end with al Qaeda. America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations. Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only isolate them further, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense, and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.
Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon. At the same time, we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands – because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.
While the president did not give numbers, the New York Times reported the day before the president’s SOTU that the administration is looking to cut the current 1,550-warhead limit for US strategic nuclear forces down to near 1,000, a reduction of some 30 percent.
According to the Gray Lady:
The nuclear reduction plan has been debated inside the administration for two years, and the options have been on Mr. Obama’s desk for months. But the document was left untouched through the presidential election. The president wanted to avoid making the reductions a campaign issue with Mitt Romney, who declared at one point that Russia was now America’s “No. 1 geostrategic foe,” a comment that Mr. Obama later mocked as an indication that Mr. Romney had failed to move beyond the cold war.
Mr. Romney, in turn, leapt on a remark that Mr. Obama intended to make privately to Russia’s then president, Dmitri A. Medvedev. He was picked up by an open microphone telling Mr. Medvedev that “after my election I have more flexibility” on missile defense, which Republicans said was evidence that he was preparing to trade away elements of the arsenal.
The president fears that the Senate’s 45 Republicans can muster the 34 votes needed to block a second arms treaty. So he could try instead to accomplish his goal by executive agreement with the Russians, or even by applying sequester cuts to America’s nuclear arsenal. The Times notes:
But Mr. Obama is already moving quietly, officials acknowledge, to explore whether he can scale back a 10-year, $80 billion program to modernize the country’s weapons laboratories.
The White House agreed to the spending on the weapons labs as the price of winning Republican votes on the new Start three years ago, but one senior defense official said late last year that “the environment of looking for cuts in the national security budget makes this an obvious target.”
Supporters contend that with Russian missile-silo targets down from a decade ago’s 660 to as low as 230 a decade hence, the U.S. can safely further reduce its arsenal. It would save billions of dollars as well.
Wall Street Journal pundit Bret Stephens interviewed Viktor Esin, former head of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces. Gen. Esin, who had command authority to launch nuclear missiles at New York City during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, expressed concern over the size of China’s nuclear arsenal. Contrary to international (and U.S.) estimates placing China’s arsenal at 240 to 480 deployed warheads, Esin believes that China has 1,600 to 1,800 nuclear warheads, of which some 850 are deployed. As Stephens notes, such figures are speculative, dated and unverified.” Esin told Stephens that China, which is developing at least five new nuclear ballistic missile models, is developing one model (the DF-25) that can launch three Multiple Independently-targetable Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) warheads. Such missiles can strike multiple targets at once, and greatly amplify the power of an attack force.
Esin further warns that Russia “cannot afford not taking this factor into account.” Put another way, the size of China’s arsenal is closely calibrated to Russia’s force—more than to that of the U.S. In 1969 Russia came perilously close to launching a nuclear first strike at China’s then-primitive, limited facilities; Chinese diplomats even approached the U.S. to see if the U.S. would back the Soviets in such event, but the U.S. declined to promise anything. Also watching closely are South Korea and Japan, Asian allies who fear that the U.S. may not protect them via “extended deterrence” against a Chinese nuclear attack.
But the real choice isn’t between more nuclear weapons or fewer. It is between a world of fewer U.S. nuclear weapons and more nuclear states, or the opposite. In his idealism, the president is setting the stage for a more nuclearized world.
It is thus foolish for American analysts to focus on the China-U.S. balance alone. More important, just as the Ford administration tasked CIA Director George H. W. Bush to assemble a “B” team of outside experts to assess the Soviet military buildup, a similar effort to gauge the true size of China’s nuclear arsenal is warranted today. The 1976 panel concluded that the Soviet buildup eclipsed U.S. intelligence estimates by a large margin. A similar finding would enlighten American leaders about China’s long-term strategic design. China seeks to displace American influence in the western Pacific already; in the coming decades it could conceivably become the world’s foremost global superpower, a status that in part requires possessing the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal.
To grasp the dangers clearly it is vital to learn the lessons not only of Cuba in 1962, but of the 1973 nuclear confrontation that took place between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Yom Kippur War. Cuban dictator Fidel Castro wanted the Soviets to launch a nuclear first strike, to prevent America from dethroning him and liberating his island paradise from his iron grip. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, reading into President Kennedy’s nervous performance at the June 1962 Vienna summit, and Kennedy’s refusal to challenge to illegal Soviet annexation of East Berlin two months later, concluded that Kennedy would “make a fuss, make more of a fuss, and then agree” if Moscow placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy stood firm, and Khrushchev immediately began climbing down off his perch; he ignored Castro’s pleas to escalate.
But October 1973 was different. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had no nuclear plan when Egypt and Syria invaded Israel. But after Israel’s Patton, General Ariel Sharon, crossed the Suez Canal and trapped Egypt’s Third Army, Moscow decided to raise the stakes by airlifting military forces into the region. Challenged by the U.S., Moscow eventually retreated, but not before the two superpower navies had come close to blows in the Mediterranean. Escalation to nuclear war could have ensued.
What animated Brezhnev to play the power projection card were two factors. First, the nuclear balance had gone in eleven years from a lopsided American advantage to a fairly small one, with Soviet nuclear warhead numbers set to surpass America’s—as in fact came to pass in 1978. Second, Brezhnev had stated before a major Communist party conference that by 1985 the “correlation of forces”—a measure incorporating political, economic and social factors of national geopolitical power—will have shifted irreversibly in Moscow’s favor. Thus Moscow would be able to impose its will upon the rest of the world.
From this we learn two critical lessons—neither of them apparently grasped by the Obama administration. First, a perception that America is declining can tempt rival powers to behave more aggressively. Second, changes in the nuclear balance, and the overall balance itself, matter if one or more parties to a crisis think the balance matters and acts accordingly. At minimum, a nuclear balance shift changes the risk calculus during a crisis, as happened in 1973. Alternatively, it could alter the outcome. It is not an abstract academic inquiry. It is a practical inquiry aimed at divining intentions of real-world actors.
The U.S. began reducing the size of its nuclear arsenal in 1967, and placed a freeze on its qualitative modernization of its remaining arsenal in 1992. Far from stimulating by “setting an example” not only did our adversaries continue to increase and improve their nuclear arsenals; even some of our allies did so. Rogue states like Pakistan and North Korea joined the nuclear club; Iran, whose aim is revolutionary—to overturn the existing world order—continues to avidly pursue nuclear club membership. The latest report from Pakistan has the country deploying a 60-kilometer range (37 miles) single-warhead nuclear ballistic missile carrying a maneuverable nuclear warhead. This shows a very high degree of sophistication in miniaturized warhead design and single-warhead guidance technology.
Pyongyang’s third nuclear test design was apparently lighter and more compact than the earlier ones–signs of work towards building a small but powerful warhead that can be placed atop a ballistic missile. The North is still years away from fielding an operational missile that can carry a bomb across the Pacific Ocean and hit a major urban target in the continental United States. However, a single-stage missile could plausibly threaten Tokyo, which is but 800 miles from Pyongyang. Aiming at closer targets reduces the payload weight penalty and increases warhead accuracy, as well as shrinking drastically the warning time for the target population to take cover.
The sad reality is that those who respond positively to constructive behavior are either those whom you have no reason to fear, or those who decide they can no longer sustain the challenge. The bad actors do not voluntarily respond to positive appeals. They view our nuclear reductions as inducements to increase theirs, figuring that their arsenal becomes more valuable as our own decreases.
The fundamental geopolitical trend of the nuclear age in the 21st century is that smaller, more dangerous powers are at the forefront of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their associated technologies. Superpower rivalry could arise between China and the U.S., but unstable smaller nuclear powers are a greater risk to global stability.
Global nuclear zero is a seductive song. But given lack of ability to verify compliance, and no substitute way to deter major wars, we must “keep our powder dry.” Nuclear utopianism courts catastrophe. We must avoid the “apocalyptic trinity” of genocide, suicide and surrender. Proponents of nuclear zero aim to end the nuclear nightmare; instead, they may well bring it on.