Fuzzy Math in Arms Reductions

January 18, 2002 • Commentary

Candidate Bush pledged that he would unilaterally reduce the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal if he became president. Last November, President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin both declared that the United States and Russia would reduce their nuclear weapons by roughly two‐​thirds over the next decade, leaving each side with no more than 2,200 warheads. While not a formal agreement, this was considered a milestone in strategic relations between the two countries, swiftly achieving deep weapons cuts that could not be agreed to by a prior decade of formal negotiations. What got lost in the shuffle, amidst all the good news, was a statement released by the White House that changed how those weapons would be counted — from “weapons” to “operational nuclear weapons.”

Now the Nuclear Posture Review reveals that many of the warheads, bombs, and missiles included in President Bush’s promised nuclear reductions will be retained and kept in reserve, i.e., they will not be operational nuclear weapons and thus not count towards the 2,200 maximum. As such, they will be available for redeployment and potential use. This is an accounting sleight of hand, bad arms control, and bad policy.

The primary rationale for retaining more weapons in reserve is as a hedge against some unforeseen future threat. The perceived need for a reserve seems to reflect the thinking of many conservatives and military officials that Russia could one day again become a nuclear rival or that China could pose a future nuclear threat. But such thinking runs counter to the joint statement issued by Bush and Putin during their November 2001 summit meeting: “The United States and Russia have overcome the legacy of the Cold War. Neither country regards the other as an enemy or threat.”

If the United States and Russia have truly entered a new stage in their relationship, then actions should match the rhetoric. Even worse, this logic becomes a self‐​fulfilling prophecy. If the United States retains more weapons, so will Russia. And the Chinese will likely view the entire U.S. strategic arsenal — not just deployed weapons — as a threat and react accordingly. Counting rules that allow the United States to retain more weapons creates an incentive for Russia, China, and others to do the same.

According to Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, “Recognizing that the world can change in dangerous and unpredictable ways, we are putting more emphasis than we have in the last 10 or 15 years on that underlying infrastructure that allows you, including in the nuclear area, to rebuild capabilities or build new ones if the world changes.” But future large‐​scale nuclear threats are not going to appear overnight. Strategic warning about such developments is likely and will give the United States adequate time to respond. And if there is sufficient rationale to expand the nuclear arsenal (which, even at the proposed lower levels, would be large enough to incinerate any country), the United States does not need to have weapons on‐​hand for immediate deployment — new, more modern weapons could be built.

If the Russians decide to retain more weapons in storage, there are legitimate concerns about the safety and security of those weapons. By definition, they will be less secure than deployed weapons guarded regularly by military personnel. As such, they become attractive targets for terrorists seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. So taking the weapons off operational deployment without destroying them could possibly lessen U.S. security rather than enhance it.

There is also a potential cost consideration. Under the Nunn‐​Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, the U.S. Departments of Energy, State, and Defense provide financial and technical assistance for the safety and security of Russian and former Soviet nuclear weapons. Congress has appropriated more than $3.5 billion for CTR since the program’s creation in 1991. If Russia decides to retain more weapons in storage and the United States continues the CTR program, it will likely cost the American taxpayer more than if the weapons were simply destroyed. No matter how you slice it, decreased security and increased cost is not a good deal.

Thus, when both Russia and the United States agree to “reduce” their strategic arsenals by removing weapons from operational status, those weapons should be destroyed not stored. With so many weapons in storage, saying that each country has “reduced” its arsenal to a maximum of 2,200 warheads is fuzzy math.

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