Below is a point-by-point response to the February 26 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK) titled “‘Nuclear Zero’ Offers Nothing Worth Having”. The original text is in italics.
‘Nuclear Zero’ Offers Nothing Worth Having
By BOB CORKER AND JIM INHOFE
President Obama has repeatedly identified nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism as key dangers to the United States and its allies. His analysis is correct, but that cannot be said about the centerpiece of his response: declaring America’s commitment to eliminate its own nuclear weapons on the way to a world of “nuclear zero.” Meanwhile, he has neglected to modernize the weapons that are essential to American security.
Corker and Inhofe waste little time in setting up their first straw man. President Obama has never suggested that he would eliminate America’s nuclear arsenal before every other nuclear-armed nation had eliminated their own nuclear weapons. The President has made it crystal clear that the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal so long as nuclear weapons exist.
The two Senators also conveniently fail to mention that in articulating a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, President Obama is acting on a bipartisan platform most closely associated with Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, who called for the elimination of nuclear weapons in a now famous 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed. This vision has been embraced by numerous other former national security leaders from both parties. Perhaps the most vocal proponent of nuclear abolition was former President Ronald Reagan, who in 1986 nearly negotiated an agreement that would have eliminated all US and Soviet nuclear weapons in ten years.
The president’s approach is mistaken. Nothing demonstrates the hollowness of the disarmament dream as clearly as the international community’s inability to keep regimes such as North Korea—and soon Iran—from acquiring nuclear weapons. The recent North Korean nuclear test clearly and dangerously demonstrated how little regard rogue states hold for a nuclear-armed U.S. Why would they be more intimidated, much less moved to disarm themselves, by an America that was whittling away its own nuclear superiority?
As Steve Pifer and Jonathan Pollack have recently written, “The nuclear cuts reportedly under consideration by the administration—such as reducing the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads to 1,000-1,100—would hardly embolden North Korea or any other state to challenge the United States in a manner different than it does now.” Moreover, compelling evidence exists that steps by nuclear weapons states to reduce their reliance on nuclear weapons could help to strengthen the nonproliferation rules of the road and the credibility of US-led efforts to further isolate and put pressure on the ruling regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran.
If anything, reducing the American arsenal is likely to cause the very instability that the U.S. seeks to avoid. Without an American commitment to a strong nuclear deterrent, the country’s friends and allies could develop doubts about where the U.S. stands and what it would do to safeguard its own interests and theirs.
Many other nations depend on U.S. nuclear-security assurances and could come to question whether further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal—and an American political leadership that prizes disarmament posturing over the hard work of counter-proliferation—can credibly protect them against proliferators and other threats.
If these friends doubt U.S. capability and resolve, they may feel the need to develop their own nuclear weapons. Moreover, some potential adversaries, as America rushes to disarm, may be encouraged to acquire or expand nuclear arsenals, seeking to become nuclear “peers.”
The continued maintenance by the United States of thousands of nuclear weapons is not necessary to deter the nuclear threats its allies face today. Nor would maintaining so many excess weapons guarantee that an American President would use them in response to a nuclear attack against one of our allies. Furthermore, commitment is illustrated first and foremost by the strength of shared political and diplomatic relations – not the number of nuclear weapons. The United States should work closely with allies to strengthen common interests as a demonstration of its resolve to protect them.
Moreover, further arms control could actually strengthen the credibility of extended deterrence. A US-Russia arms control process that begins to address Russian nonstrategic (i.e. short-range) nuclear weapons could reduce the threat posed by these weapons to America’s Eastern European and Baltic allies. Likewise, further reductions in the number of US and Russian nuclear weapons could pave the way for future Chinese participation in the arms control process, which in turn would reduce the Chinese nuclear threat to our East Asian allies.
The commitment to modernizing America’s nuclear deterrent appeared to be well established before the vote on the New Start Treaty with Russia in December 2010. In fact, the president’s own 2010 Nuclear Posture Review states clearly that nuclear reductions depend on a modernized and responsive nuclear infrastructure. The president assured the Senate of his intent to modernize or replace the strategic “nuclear triad” (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-armed bombers), while specific funding targets, over 10 years, were established to rebuild a nuclear infrastructure that dates back to the dawn of the nuclear age. Regrettably, that commitment seems to have dissipated.
Funding for the nuclear weapons complex is now $770 million short of what was promised to date. A vital plutonium-handling facility—deemed essential even by the president until last year and to be built at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico—has been deferred by at least five years, which probably means never.
It’s likely that additional cutbacks will appear in the fiscal-year 2014 budget request. Indeed, virtually all nuclear-modernization programs are now delayed by at least two years or, in the case of a new ICBM, have yet to be announced.
The claim that the administration has reneged on its nuclear modernization commitments is specious for numerous reasons. Let’s start with the argument that funding for the nuclear weapons complex (specifically the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) nuclear weapons activities budget account) is inadequate.
First, the cuts to this budget account were spearheaded by the Republican-led House, not the administration. In FY 2012, Congress provided $7.21 billion for NNSA weapons activities, a reduction of $416 million below the administration’s request. Second, the 10-year plan referenced by Corker and Inhofe was crafted before the bipartisan Budget Control Act was approved by Congress, which requires reductions in the projected growth of defense spending and could lead to even larger cuts if sequestration is implemented for the long-term.
Third, the budget request for the current fiscal year (FY 2013) still significantly increases nuclear weapons complex funding. The FY 2013 request is an increase of $363 million above the previous year’s level – no small feat in the current budget environment. Fourth, both the Senate and the Republican-led House Appropriations Committees funded NNSA weapons activities at the FY 2013 requested level. In addition, both Committees agreed that the plutonium facility at Los Alamos is unnecessary now because essential plutonium missions can be performed for less money by the existing complex.
The United States is also continuing to modernize its triad of nuclear delivery systems. Due in large part to the budget environment, the Pentagon’s FY 2013 budget request proposed a two-year delay to the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine replacement program to put it on a more stable and predictable footing. The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee did not increase FY 2013 funding for the new submarine above the budget request.
Most experts believe that the defense budget is slated for a haircut well below the initial $487 billion reduction scheduled to be implemented over the next decade – with or without sequestration (which would require an additional $500 billion cut). Such reductions are likely to require further adjustments to current modernization plans, since every dollar that is spent on nuclear weapons is a dollar that can’t be spent on other defense priorities. This is an appropriate tradeoff. Decisions about the future of our nuclear deterrent should be made on the basis of strategic need and affordability – not modernization for the sake of modernization.
Putting aside the many recent setbacks to the U.S. relationship with Russia, it seems unlikely that Moscow will agree to any further nuclear reductions without concomitant limitations on American missile-defense capabilities—a demand that will be a clear nonstarter for the U.S. Senate. As a result, such negotiations are likely to increase friction between the two countries. A far better approach would be to move beyond the obsession with numerical reductions and instead focus on improving nuclear transparency and on ensuring stability during crises—and not just for the U.S. and Russia, but for all nuclear powers.
It’s true that Russia (specifically President Vladimir Putin) has not showed much interest in further nuclear weapons reductions to this point. But Moscow may still have good reasons to engage. As Steve Pifer and Michael O’Hanlon point out, “The U.S. military can with its current force structure easily stay at the New START limits, while the Russian military must build new missiles to do so. Lowering the limits would offer Moscow a chance to save money. Also of interest to the Russians: putting all weapons on the table would mean constraining reserve strategic warheads, where the U.S. military has a significant numerical advantage.”
Corker and Inhofe are wrong to suggest that further arms reduction negotiations would undermine US-Russia relations. In reality, further reductions could enhance stability. For example, a new treaty limit of 1,000 deployed strategic warheads could dissuade Moscow from moving forward with destabilizing nuclear modernization programs – such as the development of a new heavy ICBM. Verifiable limits on non-deployed warheads and nonstrategic weapons could enhance stability by addressing Russia’s large stockpile of nonstrategic weapons, ensuring that nuclear warheads are actually eliminated as opposed to merely placed in storage, and providing greater transparency on all types of nuclear warheads instead of only deployed warheads.
To be clear, until the U.S. has a modern and responsive nuclear infrastructure—one capable of responding to any future challenges to the country’s strategic interests—no arms-control treaty is likely even to get a vote in the Senate. A presidential attempt to circumvent Congress by pursuing reductions unilaterally would be counter to the advice of the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and would be met with stiff resistance on Capitol Hill.
The president has a choice: running into a likely stalemate on nuclear disarmament or working with Congress on practical and realistic steps to stop nuclear proliferation and improve nuclear security.
Given the current budget environment, all of the modernization projects envisioned at the time New START was approved by the Senate are unlikely to be completed on time, if ever. In setting this as the precondition for Senate consideration of a new arms control treaty, Corker and Inhofe are in effect forcing the President to explore further nuclear weapons reductions without Senate approval.
In any case, as I’ve written and described elsewhere, there’s historical and bipartisan precedent for a non-treaty based approach. One option could be for the United States to declare to Russia that it is willing as a matter of national policy to reduce its deployed arsenal below the levels in the New START treaty if Moscow is willing to reciprocate. Such reductions could reduce Russia’s incentive to build a new heavy ICBM, save money, and pave the way for further reductions on all types of nuclear warheads in the future.