I’m late to the game in posting this, but I wrote my March Bulletin column on how further reductions in the US nuclear arsenal could increase US security. Here’s an excerpt
Maintaining a nuclear posture and force levels that are still largely based on Cold War-era conditions has many costs. As nuclear security and non-proliferation specialist James Doyle has written, “Given the generally positive nature of the US-Russian relationship, the continued competitive mutual nuclear entanglement hinders the development of truly normalised relations.” Keeping an excessive arsenal also costs money; $31 billion per year according to a 2012 study by the Stimson Center. The Pentagon and Energy Department are planning to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to build new nuclear delivery systems and warhead-production facilities. Reductions would stem the need for a significant amount of this spending.
Later in the piece I suggest that the United States and Russia could jump start a new round of arms control by reducing their deployed warheads to 1,000 apiece. Tom Moore took exception to this suggestion in part on the grounds that I failed “to focus on verification needed to go lower before going lower,”
As I’ve written elsewhere, in suggesting a further incremental reduction in deployed warheads I’m operating under the assumption that the New START verification provisions could be used to monitor and verify this lower level (as well as the existing New START level). But Tom doubts the detailed New START provisions could be counted on at a level of 1,000 deployed warheads. He writes:
At 1,000 the variances in new weapons might make noncompliance more severe because the limits are lower and because daily deterrence, extended deterrence and reassurance are tighter. Noncompliance involving tens of missiles could amount to hundreds of warheads that count for more advantage outside lower limits. This is, of course, true at 1,550, too, but the significance of unilateral American limitation and/or violation of the other party grows large if we mean to eliminate capability and warheads, as is proposed, on our own.
First, as Tom suggests, the New START verification provisions don’t really help us confirm with 100% certainty that Russia is complying with the aggregate New START limit of 1,550 deployed warheads. There aren’t enough inspections to do this and we’re not trying to confirm the aggregate limit in any event. Our understanding of the aggregate comes from declarations contained in data exchanges. We use inspections to confirm information provided in the data exchanges re: the number of warheads on individual missiles. If this process is sufficient under New START, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be sufficient under a lower level than New START.
But, again, Tom doesn’t really dispute this point. His biggest concern is that the impact of potential cheating goes up the lower we go. This isn’t a technical judgement but rather a political judgement about the level of risk we can live with. Reasonable people can disagree, but my view is that our ability to discover cheating against the warhead limit would remain largely the same and might even increase if the two sides reduced the number of deployed strategic delivery vehicles as well. And if we can detect cheating, we can respond to it. I don’t think our ability to deal with potential cheating craters by moving from 1,550 to 1000.
Another question I’ve received in response to my piece is what is the United States to do if Russia continues its intransigence and proves unwilling to pursue further bilateral reductions. My view is that if in the face of a good US offer Russia says “nyet” and is unwilling to even play ball on common sense transparency and confidence building measures, we ought to let the world know who is to blame for the lack of further progress. Russia already receives too much of a free pass as it is for its dumb choices about its nuclear posture.
The President will then need to decide if Russia ought to get a veto over what the United States should do with nuclear weapons it deems it no longer needs. As Jon Wolfsthal likes to point out, if we don’t want to give Russia a veto over our missile defense sovereignty, why would we want to give them a veto over our nuclear sovereignty? I think stable deterrence could be maintained if US reductions outpace those of Russia, but whether that is the wisest course will depend on a number of factors. The views of Capitol Hill and US allies who depend on US security guarantees will obviously play a key role in the final outcome.