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The Ringwraiths of arms control are again with us, returned from well-deserved
obscurity, and back in the saddle in Washington. Through public statements and
private preparations the Obama administration is signaling clearly that its
approach to Russia will center on Cold War-era arms control precepts and
Although the Washington-Moscow relationship has, at Moscow’s behest, become
increasingly contentious and unpleasant, arms control is an odd and
backward-looking way to try to improve relations and ameliorate Russia’s
objectionable international conduct. A long Cold War history demonstrates that
arms control tends to make the relationship even more adversarial than it needs
to be, concentrates attention on peripheral issues, and fails to deliver the
security that supposedly is its central objective.
The Obama arms control agenda reflects the longstanding, attractive and
woefully simplistic notion that ever-lower numbers of Russian and American
nuclear weapons will create a more stable strategic relationship, diminishing
the threat of nuclear war. Arms controllers, relying on this superficial
analysis for decades, argued that reducing weapons levels would not harm U.S.
security because nuclear war was so destructive it was simply unthinkable, a
concept known as “automatic deterrence.” Later, they adopted a slightly more
nuanced position, acknowledging the need for a small nuclear force that could
survive a first strike, thus providing a “second strike” capability. These
flawed theories are back from the dead.
Accordingly, we now see suggestions for U.S. weapons levels that have more to
do with numerology than national security. Moreover, the Obama approach appears
to ignore the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, which represented a substantial change in
managing strategic relations between America and Russia, a change also reflected
in U.S. development of strategic missile defense capabilities. Ironically, the
treaty actually reflected the reduced role of nuclear weapons in American
strategy and enhanced roles for long-range, precision-guided conventional
weapons that the Obama administration now risks reversing by returning to the
arms-control approach of the SALT (strategic arms limitations) and START
(strategic arms reduction) models.
What should we do instead, and on what should Congress insist before the
negotiations proceed beyond the point of no return?
First, we must understand that agreed-upon levels of nuclear weapons address
only the most visible areas of military competition, not others that actually
may be more important. This has been a central fallacy of arms control since the
post-World War I naval arms negotiations, ignoring as it does wide and important
variances between the United States and Russia, such as weapons production
capabilities, levels of tactical nuclear weapons, intelligence assets, and total
national economic strength.
Moreover, U.S. nuclear capabilities provide a deterrence umbrella for its
allied countries, whereas Russia plays no such positive role.
Thus, the two countries are simply not “symmetrical,” but treaties with
specific warhead limits gave the illusion they are.
Second, the United States should decide what levels of nuclear forces we
actually need, and make that our objective, not pursuing an arbitrary number and
then trying to find national security justification for it. The latter approach
is not only dangerous but opens us to manipulation by our negotiating
adversaries, since under this approach one number has no greater intrinsic
security value than another. This is especially true when we understand that no
current or prior arms control treaty has ever actually required destruction of
existing warheads, nor do we have any known verification methodology that could
actually demonstrate compliance even if we could reach agreement on warhead
destruction as an objective.
Third, how we “count” nuclear capabilities is important. This is not a merely
technical issue, but carries profound implications for both our nuclear and
conventional capabilities. Under START counting rules, weapons levels were
imputed based on the capabilities of delivery systems, rather than actual
warhead levels. Thus, for example, each Soviet SS-18, capable of carrying 10
nuclear warheads was imputed to do so no matter how many were actually under the
Counting actual numbers is far more accurate. In the Treaty of Moscow, we did
so by counting only operationally deployed strategic warheads rather than using
imputed levels derived from artificial counting rules. Not only was this more
accurate, it freed up large numbers of delivery systems for conventional
warheads, making them more useful against the non-nuclear threats we
Abandoning Treaty of Moscow concepts and retreating to the START approach
would severely impede U.S. conventional capabilities well into the future
without in any way improving the U.S. strategic nuclear posture.
Arms control is one area where there will be substantial “change” between the
Bush and Obama administrations, one fraught with considerable risks, especially
if future negotiations embrace, as Russia wants, missile defense and space-based
The real arms control debate is not between those relaxed about nuclear war
and those seeking to avoid it, but between those who approach the problem
realistically and empirically, and those who approach it as a matter of dogma.
Unfortunately, the Ringwraiths now have the upper hand.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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