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Thielmann: Opponents of Nuclear Cuts Misread Trends

The press recently reported that the Pentagon is preparing options for President Barack Obama as part of the Nuclear Posture Review implementation study. The mere notion of restructuring U.S. nuclear forces unleashed panicked reactions from Capitol Hill’s most ardent nuclear weapons enthusiasts.

With the president reaffirming in his visit to South Korea that he will seek to negotiate further reductions, the pro-nuclear camp will be up in arms. It shouldn’t be.

U.S. security will only be improved by further reductions. For the most part, opponents of nuclear cuts focus their concerns on Russia, but they have difficulty figuring out how to characterize the Russian threat more than 20 years after the end of the Cold War. In one moment, they cite Moscow’s surly rhetoric and stated intention of reinvesting in Russia’s strategic defense budget. In the next breath, they dismiss arms control efforts as unnecessary in light of Russia’s decline and as irrelevant for addressing more urgent threats from China, North Korea and Iran.

Policymakers need to engage in a serious discussion about what the U.S. nuclear arsenal can and should deter, but smart planning should be grounded in the reality that the U.S.-Russia relationship, while contentious, is no longer the zero-sum game of a prior era.

A prerequisite for that overdue debate is a sober and realistic accounting of the existing balance of forces — a process fiercely resisted by devotees of nuclear weaponry. Thirty-four Members of the House wrote to Obama, warning of “the growth in quantity and quality of nuclear weapons capabilities in Russia, the People’s Republic of China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and, perhaps soon the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

They declined to provide a time frame for this alleged “growth,” no doubt because the reduction in Russian forces during recent years has actually led to an overall reduction in the number of nuclear weapons possessed by America’s potential enemies.

In an attempt at resuscitating a debate he lost in 2010, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) declared in February that “Not a country in the world has reduced warheads since the signing of the New [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] except the United States,” but the latest data exchanged under the treaty shows a March 1 Russian warhead number lower than the initial count one year earlier — already below the New START limit. The U.S. remained 187 warheads above the limit.

Of course, any consideration of U.S. nuclear policy should start with an evaluation of Russian trends because the nuclear forces controlled by Moscow dwarf those of all other nuclear weapons states, except our own. Such consideration reveals a continuing decline from the enormous arsenal Moscow inherited from the Soviet Union.

While both parties are obligated to reduce operational warhead levels further before the New START’s 1,550 ceiling goes into effect in 2018, many U.S. and Russian experts predict that Russia’s actual warhead count may fall significantly below that. This is a trend we should encourage.

Rather than giving Russia an incentive to rebuild its nuclear forces after their numerical decline, it is in America’s security interest to safely follow a similar path, seizing the opportunity to eliminate unnecessary U.S. nuclear forces and using the savings to provide a boon to America’s fragile economic recovery.

The anxious Representatives’ letter also warned of China’s “ambitious” nuclear program. But China fields about 50 warheads on intercontinental systems, compared with the 1,790 deployed by the United States — a roughly 36-to-1 ratio. And China has no intercontinental bombers, no adequate strategic warning and no multiple warheads on its ballistic missiles.

An objective look at the nuclear balance and the narrowed function of nuclear weapons should lead to a number of important changes, including eliminating categories of targets only appropriate for nuclear war-fighting rather than deterrence and easing requirements for rapid launch capabilities, thus removing pressure on national command authorities to make hasty decisions.

Empowered with updated and modernized guidance, American planners can significantly reduce the number of weapons in the nuclear arsenal, both enhancing U.S. national security and saving billions of tax dollars in the bargain.

Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association. Previously he served as a senior staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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