Bush claims that Russia is no longer an enemy and that the major threats to the United States emanate from rogue states and terrorist groups seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the means to deliver them. Yet the candidate’s willingness to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and explore the feasibility of robust missile defenses (including space-based systems) should make the Russians leery that they are not regarded by him as the primary threat. Bush wants to assure the Russians that the United States is a peaceful nation but that it would not rule out building an expensive missile defense that could further undermine the effectiveness of Russia’s already deteriorating offensive nuclear arsenal. Bush’s pronouncement has the same audacity as the Clinton administration’s neo-Cold War policy of expanding the NATO military alliance eastward toward Russia and then telling the Russians they should be happy about the enlargement because “stability” in their neighborhood will increase.
The presumptive Republican nominee has also advocated significant cuts — perhaps unilateral — in offensive nuclear warheads in the hope that Russia will reciprocate with reductions of its own. But those reductions are unlikely if the United States builds a robust missile defense; in the Russian view, after any U.S. first strike, the limited number of surviving Russian warheads could be intercepted by comprehensive U.S. defenses. Thus, the Russians would probably be inclined to keep more warheads to increase the chances of penetrating U.S. defenses.
Furthermore, Bush’s proposed cuts — unilateral or otherwise — would probably not go below 2,000 to 2,500 warheads — the level to which President Clinton and former President Yeltsin agreed in the 1997 framework agreement to guide Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) III. The candidate maintains that the premises of nuclear targeting during the Cold War should not govern the size of the U.S. arsenal, but he also implies that he would not reduce the number of warheads below what the military planners say they need for targeting. But the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently testified before Congress that they would not support cutting the arsenal below 2,000 to 2,500 warheads. The Pentagon’s current blueprint for nuclear war — the Standard Integrated Operating Plan — retains roughly 2,260 warheads on alert to be aimed at nuclear, conventional military, defense industrial, and leadership sites in Russia. But by retaining enough warheads to kill those targets, the U.S. indicates that its nuclear doctrine is still aimed at fighting and winning a nuclear war — a nuclear posture that is dated and dangerous in a post-Cold War world.
Bush also would like to lower the high-alert status of U.S. nuclear forces and hopes for similar measures by the Russians. Such preparations for a quick launch of missiles on warning of an incoming enemy attack increase the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch — especially with the declining number of survivable Russian warheads and the unreliability of Russia’s early-warning system. But such reciprocal de-alerting by the Russians is unlikely if the possibility exists that the United States will build robust missile defenses. With a limited number of survivable warheads remaining, Russia might choose to launch missiles on warning of attack so that it could maximize the number of warheads that might penetrate the U.S. defense shield.
If the United States simply walks away from the ABM Treaty, Russia’s anger may result in less cooperation in safeguarding its dangerous nuclear stockpile. Most important, the Russians could simply sell rogue states sophisticated countermeasures that might undermine even fairly robust defenses.
In a post-Cold War world, scrapping the ABM Treaty and building an ambitious and costly NMD system to defend wealthy allies — who can afford to defend themselves — are a waste of taxpayer dollars.
If Bush seeks a radical departure from past U.S. nuclear policy, he should support the reduction of the U.S. arsenal to the 1,500 warheads proposed by Russia in order to win Russian agreement for the United States to build limited land-based defenses. Russia probably would eventually agree to renegotiate the ABM Treaty to allow the deployment of a limited number of interceptors that would be clearly intended to defend against small intentional or accidental attacks by rogue states. A larger NMD system is simply not warranted by the limited threat posed by rogue states and will make Russia — a nation with thousands of warheads on hair-trigger alert — very nervous. Bush is right to declare that the Cold War is over, but he must also transcend it in his own policy prescriptions.