Chicken Little Panics: Russia Plus One Nuke

Last week, the State Department published its New START Treaty Aggregate Numbers of Strategic Offensive Arms report, and it’s got wild-eyed defense spending enthusiasts up in a different sort of arms. About what, you might ask? As of September 1, Russia has more deployed strategic nuclear warheads than the United States for the first time since 2000.

One more, or 0.00061% more warheads, that is.

The report shows that the Russian Federation has 1,643 deployed strategic nuclear warheads — precisely one more than the United States’ 1,642 warheads. The strategic significance of this disparity is, well, zero–except to provide an excuse for nuclear hawks to cry for more nuclear weapons.  

The current situation reminds one of the chaos that ensues in the 1966 movie The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming over a false alarm about a Russian invasion of New England.

The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed by Russia and the US entered into force in February 2011.
Since then, Russia has increased its deployed warheads by 144, while the US has drawn down its force from 1,722 to 1,642. The treaty obliges both countries to limit their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 by 2018.

The Washington Times columnist Bill Gertz led the Chicken Little Caucus, writing in The Washington Times, “Russia has more deployed nuclear warheads than U.S.“ Yes indeed, by one. We should surrender immediately.

The article quotes former Pentagon strategic weapons analyst Mark Schneider saying, “All U.S. numbers have declined since New START entered into force…The fact that this is happening reflects the ineffectiveness of the Obama administration’s approach to New START.”

What? You mean the Obama Administration is reducing nuclear weapons as called for by a treaty to reduce nuclear weapons? What kind of logic is that?

If the purpose of the treaty is to reduce the U.S. and Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpiles, the decline in the U.S. arsenal to which Schneider refers as ‘ineffective’ is, in fact, quite effective. In fact, it’s in accordance with fulfilling our treaty obligations.

Another important fact:  this miniscule numerical superiority of Russia’s arsenal is temporary. According to Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, “…these changes do not reflect a build-up of the Russian nuclear arsenal. The increase results from the deployment of new missiles and fluctuations caused by existing launchers moving in and out of overhaul.”

You know when you go to the doctor for a 3:00pm check-up and you’re two pounds heavier than you were yesterday morning? Imagine these warhead stockpile numbers as your post-lunch, jeans-on weigh-in. The U.S. just went for the salad.

The big picture significance of Russia’s one extra nuclear warhead is the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the U.S. since the Russian seizure of Crimea and its invasion of Ukraine. While Putin talks big about nuclear weapons, both countries have arsenals far beyond any necessary to deter a nuclear war or to respond to a nuclear attack. Many experts argue that 100 or 500 nuclear weapons would be more than an adequate nuclear deterrent – or destroyer of worlds.

In 1983 Carl Sagan said, “Imagine a room awash with gasoline. And there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has 9,000 matches, the other has 7,000 matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead.”

Today it’s more like 1,642 matches to 1,643, but the metaphor is just as applicable.

When all you have is a Hammer: Strategic Nuclear Forces and the Ukraine Crisis

Spring intern Andrew Szarejko and I have a new piece on the Center homepage on the Ukraine crisis and the role of strategic forces. Here’s how we begin:

Like a bad penny that always seems to find its way back into your pocket, critics of the Obama administration are using a crisis abroad to recite their favorite talking points about the importance of nuclear weapons and missile defense to U.S. security.

Further Russian aggression toward Ukraine could be avoided, they suggest, if only President Obama would revive a Bush-era missile defense plan for Europe or at least accelerate the current plan, the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). If only Obama would consider deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe and provide additional billions (on top of the hundreds of billions already planned) to accelerate the modernization of the American nuclear arsenal, Putin would never show his bare chest again and return Crimea to Ukraine.

Some of these and other proposals can be found in the recent legislation sponsored by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) titled “The Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014”. The legislation calls for accelerating implementation of the EPAA, halting nuclear weapons reductions under New START and any further reductions until Russia is in compliance with its arms control obligations and is no longer threatening Ukraine, and prohibiting overflights of U.S. territory by Russian aircraft under the Open Skies Treaty using new digital surveillance devices.

These actions may satisfy a political desire to poke Russia in the eye and make the Obama administration look weak, but they are wrong-headed and don’t respond to the threat. U.S. nuclear weapons and missile defenses are largely irrelevant to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. While augmenting nuclear and missile defense capabilities and ditching existing arms control mechanisms will not dissuade Russia from engaging in more mischief in Ukraine, they could amount to pouring gasoline on an already large fire.

You can read the whole thing here.

The Prague Agenda on its Fifth Anniversary

On April 5, 2009, President Obama articulated a vision of a nuclear-free world in a speech in Prague, marking the start of a committed pursuit of enhanced global nuclear security. He reiterated this commitment in a June 2013 speech in Berlin, but while significant progress has been made, many aspects of this agenda have stalled or failed to get off the ground. Five years after the speech in Prague, it is time to revitalize the cause of nuclear security and non-proliferation.

The “Prague Agenda” laid out in Obama’s 2009 speech focuses on several steps to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons—reduction of the number of nuclear weapons within states that already possess them; reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in national defense; prevention of nuclear proliferation by strengthening the global non-proliferation regime and punishing those states in violation of their obligations; securing vulnerable nuclear materials and enhancing international cooperation on nuclear security; and Senate approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Progress toward these goals has been made, albeit unevenly. A litany of factors, including political obstruction from domestic opposition and worsening ties with Russia, has prevented more extensive progress from being realized. Moreover, the White House has not always pursued these goals with the vigor required of such an ambitious agenda. To sustain progress on this front, Obama must advance the Prague Agenda more forcefully throughout the remainder of his second term.

The New START Treaty, which came into effect on February 5, 2011, supported the first item on the Prague Agenda—to reduce the world’s supply of nuclear weapons, starting with the United States and Russia. In his Berlin speech last year, Obama announced that the United States would pursue a reduction in the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to a third, bringing the total from the 1,550 allowed under New START closer to 1,000.

As part of an update to high-level nuclear weapons policy guidance, this proposed reduction and further changes to the US nuclear posture would reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in US defense policy. However, the administration is predicating further reductions in the number and role of nuclear weapons on a negotiation with Russia, which Russia refused. Cooperation is especially unlikely to deepen amid the crisis in Ukraine and allegations that Russia violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

With regards to the global non-proliferation regime, Obama has gone to great lengths to strengthen the regime, most obviously seen through his commitment to a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear impasse. Yet despite recent progress on Iran, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continues to expand. The 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference yielded consensus on a final document, a notable achievement given the failure to arrive at such a conclusion in 2005. The document espoused specific action designed to strengthen the three pillars of the NPT, non-proliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use of nuclear energy. On non-proliferation, a variety of proposals were put forward, many of which have seen progress since 2010–for example, strengthening export controls and encouraging states to adopt the NPT Additional Protocol. On disarmament, the final document requires nuclear weapons states to report on their disarmament activities at the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in late April and for the first time explicitly states that the goal of the NPT’s disarmament provision is a world free of nuclear weapons. Other action plan items, such as negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and on a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East have stalled, and realistic steps toward nuclear disarmament post-New START have been few and far between.

The United States under President Obama deserves great praise for leading a global effort to secure vulnerable nuclear materials. Through the Nuclear Security Summit, Obama has ensured that this issue has remained at the forefront of the international community’s agenda, and a great deal of measurable progress has been made in reducing the amount of vulnerable nuclear material around the world. Beyond the planned 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, however, it is unclear how the United States will pursue global nuclear security. Furthermore, budget cuts have slowed the pace of nuclear security efforts, and many projects have been delayed or place on hold indefinitely.

Finally, the CTBT still has not been ratified despite Obama’s insistence in Prague that his administration would “immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”

Five years after Obama established an ambitious commitment to nuclear security and non-proliferation at Prague, his record on the subject remains mixed. While progress has been made in some areas, many initiatives have stalled. To make matters worse, the Russian incursion in Ukraine will be a major obstacle to political cooperation between the United States and Russia, but there are steps the administration can take that need not rest on immediate Russian reciprocity.

The fifth anniversary of the Prague speech provides the administration with a chance to intensify its efforts in support of nuclear security and non-proliferation.

More News on the Nuclear Guidance Review?

On Monday the AP’s Robert Burns published another story on the administration’s review of deterrence requirements and nuclear weapons guidance. You may remember Burns’ February 14 story on the review, which leaked some of the force level options allegedly under consideration, including a possible reduction to 300-400 deployed strategic warheads.

Dueling Quotes of the Day: GMD on the Jersey Shore edition

“We’ve invested billions of dollars. We’ve proven this technology,” says Sessions, who represents the state where much of the GMD development work was conducted. “An extra site [on the East Coast] would clearly provide extra protection. And I think it would validate our investment. It’s such an unacceptable thing to have developed a system that will work and then not deploy it.”

New START’s Nuclear Compromise

The residents of Nevada County California woke up yesterday morning to an op-ed on New START’s recent entry into force by yours truly.  I’m sure it changed their lives.  Here’s an excerpt:In a political climate paralyzed by partisanship on ot…

Quote of the Day: Lugar edition

I’ve been working systematically for 20 years going to Russia trying to help direct a situation in which we’re taking warheads off of missiles every day, destroying missiles that were aimed at us; destroying submarines that carried misslies up and down…

How New START Was Won

I’ve got a new piece up over at the mothership outlining the key factors in New START’s success.  You can read it here.

Here’s the intro:

On February 2, President Obama officially ratified the New START treaty in a low-key signing ceremony at the White House. The eight month-long campaign to win the Senate’s approval of the treaty, however, was anything but low-key. It was a knock down, drag out fight, the outcome of which was in doubt until the very end.

The enormity of the achievement should not be taken for granted.

Sure, New START had a lot of things going for it. Substantively it was a very modest treaty and enjoyed the support of our entire military leadership and just about every national security expert on the planet. Fifty six Democratic and two independent Senators were locks to support it, meaning the administration needed to win nine Republican votes. And the treaty had the strong backing of a President deeply committed to nuclear risk reduction.

But the treaty faced enormous obstacles, the most significant being a political environment defined by extreme partisanship. In the end, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip Jon Kyl opposed the treaty. So too did John McCain and Lindsay Graham, both considered to be moderate Republican leaders on defense policy. No previous arms control agreement has ever been approved under such circumstances.

Below I’ve tried to identify some of the key factors that pushed New START across the finish line. I’ve divided them into four levels of analysis: the administration, the Senate, the media, and NGO and grassroots. The list is not exhaustive, nor does it seek to identify lessons learned, although there are many, both positive and negative.

In general, the administration and its allies in the Senate kept New START on the path to approval by painstakingly working to build a bipartisan majority, rather than by humiliating or shaming undecided Republican Senators. Much to the chagrin of some treaty supporters, this required negotiation, compromise, and logrolling. Equally important, the administration and its allies called on key military leaders and former Republican officials to publicly and privately stress the national security merits of the treaty and its importance for U.S. leadership. They capitalized on the other side’s mistakes. And they benefited from some luck. That is how New START was won.