Barack Obama's two speeches opening his second term--the Inaugural and the State of the Union--contained only the barest of mentions about reducing nuclear weapons and dealing with the legacies of the Cold War that still haunt us. Perhaps now is not the time. Certainly, these efforts take more than just a whim. They take enormous political willpower, and not only in the United States, but also in Russia and elsewhere.
Hopefully, the coming months will clarify whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has any interest at all in negotiations. Right now, the signs are not very good.
At the same time, if the president doesn't talk about an issue, if he doesn't build political support, then it will fade. That is why his recent speeches were disappointing. Obama has a lot he could talk about, even if the conditions are not particularly auspicious for negotiation. If he stops talking about nuclear issues, then support will diminish in Congress and in public opinion, and he won't have the political foundation for success if and when conditions change.
In March, 2011, the president's national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, delivered a keynote address at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. At that point, two years had elapsed since Obama outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons in Prague. Those two years were "exceedingly productive," Donilon declared.
"Despite this progress, however, we will not rest on our laurels. And I can tell you with certainty that President Obama won’t. Despite the many pressing global challenges that are competing for his attention, he has directed us to keep up the momentum and lay the ground work for additional progress."
"… we’re making preparations for the next round of nuclear reductions. Under the President’s direction, the Department of Defense will review our strategic requirements and develop options for further reductions in our current nuclear stockpile, which stands at approximately 5,000 warheads, including both deployed and reserve warheads. To develop these options for further reductions, we need to consider several factors, such as potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures that are required for effective deterrence."
"Once it is complete, this review of our strategic requirements will help shape our negotiating approach to the next agreement with Russia, which we believe should include both non-deployed and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. A priority will be to address Russian tactical nuclear weapons. We will work with our NATO allies to shape an approach to reduce the role and number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, as Russia takes reciprocal measures to reduce its nonstrategic forces and relocates its nonstrategic forces away from NATO’s borders."
"In advance of a new treaty limiting tactical nuclear weapons, we also plan to consult with our allies on reciprocal actions that could be taken on the basis of parallel steps by each side. As a first step, we would like to increase transparency on a reciprocal basis concerning the numbers, locations, and types of nonstrategic forces in Europe. We will consult with our European allies and invite Russia to join with us to develop this initiative."
"Achieving the next round of strategic arms reductions will be an ambitious task that will take time to complete. No previous arms control agreement has included provisions to limit and monitor non-deployed warheads or tactical warheads. To do so will require more demanding approaches to verification. We are ready to begin discussions soon with Russia on transparency and confidence building measures that could provide the basis for creative verification measures in the next round of U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reductions."
Since Donilon's speech, a lot of work has been completed in government, including the military. Planning, doctrine, targeting -- all of it has been reviewed and discussed. The bottom line is that further reductions could be negotiated without weakening our nuclear deterrent. Supposedly there are memos which are almost ready for the president's approval -- or perhaps have already been signed. But the president has said nothing about it. All this work has been in secret. And there it rests.
If Obama didn't want to talk about that, he might have mentioned nuclear testing. The latest blast by North Korea is a good time to remind people that the rest of the world has stopped nuclear testing. Obama might have delivered a pitch for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was signed by the United States but rejected by the chamber in 1999. At the time, there were doubts about whether it was possible to understand the behavior of nuclear weapons without periodically blowing them up. Now, we know, thanks to the stockpile stewardship effort and computational physics, that it is possible. The president has pledged his support for the treaty in the past, and the United States is not testing. But in his recent speeches, Obama didn't mention the treaty once. Why?
If the president could not bring himself to discuss testing, what about taking land-based nuclear-armed missiles off launch-ready alert? This is one place where risky Cold War practices could use some updating. Candidate Obama promised to do this in 2008--a step best taken jointly with Russia. The president seems to have abandoned the idea in 2010 with the Nuclear Posture Review. But it remains important. A detailed and careful study has just been published by United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, authored by Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists and Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources Defense Council. You can find it here.
By the way, would someone please slip this into the president's briefcase to remind him of what a good idea he once had? And stopped talking about?
Getty Images/John W. Adkisson
In his first inaugural address, President Obama made this pledge: "With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming plant." In his second address, the president again returned to climate change -- but dropped the nuclear threat. He didn't mention it once.
Perhaps it is not fair to read too much into this. But there's been a strange silence about nuclear arms control lately. It has largely been ignored in the public discussion of priorities for the president's second term.
No doubt, there will be plenty of arcane details discussed at confirmation hearings for Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretaries of state and defense, respectively. But what about the president? Does he still believe in his vision of "a world without nuclear weapons," described in the Prague speech of April, 2009?
Last year, election campaigns in the United States and Russia meant a lost year for nuclear arms control. Now, the campaigns are over, but the prospects are still cloudy, at best.
The weapons haven't gone away just because we stopped talking about them. The United States and Russia still have the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. While there are serious concerns about Iran and North Korea, about India and Pakistan, among others, keep in mind the huge differences in scale. The arsenals of the United States and Russia are about 16,200 warheads, while the other countries in the world are estimated to have about 1,100 nuclear weapons combined.
The president's first-term New Start treaty with Russia established very important verification procedures, but it provides for only modest reductions in the two nation's stockpiles, down to 1,550 warheads on each side, after seven years. It was a stepping stone, but ought not to be Obama's last step.
A lot of thought has gone into the next moves, both inside the administration and outside. Scholars and non-government strategy groups have spent months coming up with detailed, useful reports about how to rein in the nuclear danger. This informal staff work is valuable, and ready.
For a roadmap of the possibilities, see "The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms," by Steven Pifer and Michael E. O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. The book is a sober, fact-filled assessment of the choices that Obama now faces. "Why pursue nuclear arms control when the cold war is more than twenty years in the past?" they ask. "Arms control is not and should not be considered an end in itself. It is a tool that, properly applied, can strengthen and enhance the security of the United States and America's allies." They offer seven arguments for additional nuclear arms control. Among them: to put under legally-binding, verifiable treaty agreements all those nuclear warheads which are currently outside the treaty system, both in the United States and Russia.
Another solid piece of work on this theme is the report "Trimming Nuclear Excess: Options for Further Reductions of U.S. and Russian Nuclear Forces," by Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, published last month. Kristensen says, "There are indications that, although U.S. and Russian reductions are continuing, both countries are becoming more cautious about reducing further… both countries are now investing huge sums of money in new nuclear weapon systems that are designed to operate toward the end of the century. Unless new unilateral reductions take place or significant arms control agreements are reached, large nuclear forces could be retained far into the future."
Yet another significant source of thinking about a new agenda is contained in Global Zero's U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission report of last May. The commission was chaired by retired Gen. James Cartwright, included Hagel, and the study was directed by Bruce Blair. The report provides a series of illustrative steps in which the United States could reduce its nuclear arsenal to a maximum of 900 total nuclear weapons, while increasing the warning and decision time. The report also envisions bringing in all the nuclear weapons powers for the first time for multilateral negotiations to limit nuclear arms.
But with all this intellectual firepower, why has the debate seemed to grow silent?
Vladimir Putin is one reason. Since returning to the Russian presidency last year, he has championed new laws intended to push back against pro-democracy protestors in the streets, and in some cases, against American influence on Russian society and politics. Most damaging of all, Putin rammed through the Russian legislature a bill that forced the abrogation of a bilateral agreement, which had just come into force a few weeks earlier, on adoption of Russian children by American parents. This was Putin's angry retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, legislation approved by the United States Congress and signed by the president that imposed visa and other restrictions on Russians believed to be involved in serious human rights abuses. The adoption bill seems to mark a nadir in recent relations between the two countries. Mistrust is again on the rise--corrosive mistrust.
One can only imagine the chorus of protests that Obama would face with another arms control treaty. It does not take a cynic to envision a Republican senator asking the question: If the Russians could so abruptly abrogate an agreement on adopting children which they negotiated carefully over a year's time, how can they be trusted to stick to an agreement on nuclear weapons? It is a very tough question to answer.
My own response to that is that nations don't have friends, they have interests. A treaty is a contract, and contracts are made to protect interests. It is in the interest of both the United States and Russia to avoid a nuclear catastrophe--an accidental launch, a loose nuke, a terrorist attack. Both countries possess thousands of nuclear weapons that are still not covered by any treaty, not subject to verification nor, in some cases, is the quantity even known to each other. These excess weapons are a legacy of the Cold War and really serve no useful military purpose today. Getting these warheads sorted out and locked down is in our national interest. Doing so should not be seen as a favor to Putin.
However, arms control does not exist in isolation from other issues roiling the relationship. It is hard to negotiate with Moscow or sell to Congress an agreement on something so consequential and difficult if there is an abundance of mistrust. Obama and Putin may need to reset the reset with Russia before they can do anything more on nuclear arms control.
I think Obama personally wants to do more, but much depends on Putin and how he sees Russia's interests when it comes to strategic weapons. In Moscow, there are some who think that despite the steady retirement of aging weapons from the Cold War years, Russia can modernize its arsenal, and doesn't really need another arms control agreement with the United States. For Putin, the question really boils down to whether he wants to spend heavily on that modernization, and whether he can sustain that resource drain, given other demands. The Russians are talking about building a massive new liquid-fueled, multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile. Do they really need it? Putin's actions since returning to office suggest he is heading toward a Fortress Russia, a more isolated, go-it-alone approach.
But these things tend to oscillate, and could swing in the other direction yet again.
Although Obama didn't mention nuclear danger in his speech, he has a very full inbox on his desk of possible initiatives and decisions.
The president's Nuclear Posture Review of 2010 must be implemented. For more than a year, staffs have been working on memos about how to execute the decisions from that document and what guidance the president ought to give the Pentagon. His decisions could set a path for future reductions in nuclear arsenals--potentially deep cuts, if he choose to go that way. But so far there has been only silence from the White House about this.
The president has called for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but he did not submit it to the Senate in his first term. Many of the technical objections raised in 1999 when the Senate failed to ratify the treaty have been overcome in the stockpile stewardship program. Is the president ready to spend some political capital and wage a fight for the treaty?
Missile defense remains a thorny obstacle to arms control negotiations with Russia. The president could apply some creative thinking here to overcoming Moscow's concerns, which are largely focused on later stages of the U.S. missile defense plan, five to seven years from now. The near-term problem is that no negotiations on reducing offensive weapons will get to first base until there's some common understanding on missile defense. If the U.S. missile defense program is not a threat to Russia's strategic deterrent, how do we make that case in a persuasive way that permits arms control talks on offensive weapons to move ahead?
As I have argued earlier in FP, the president ought to consider a bilateral agreement with Russia to take nuclear-armed missiles off launch-ready alert.
And it is worth keeping in mind that two large categories of nuclear weapons are still uncovered by treaty-- the smaller or tactical nuclear warheads in Russia, and the strategic warheads kept in reserve since the end of the Cold WAr by the United States. No one knows precise numbers, but there are several thousand of these weapons that should be counted, verified and brought under treaty. That's a worthy goal for a second term.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images
It's no mean feat to destroy an artillery or missile shell filled with a chemical weapon like VX, sarin, or soman. Very delicate operations are needed to drain the shell, then destroy the agent without harm to workers or those living nearby. Imagine the challenge of destroying 1.9 million shells in 110 buildings holding 5,400 metric tons of the deadly stuff.
That's what confronted Russia after the Soviet collapse at the chemical weapons storage site at Shchuchye, 100 miles from Russia's southern border. Today, those shells -- many of them stored for years in wooden warehouses with corrugated metal roofing -- are being dismantled and destroyed, and one important reason is the foresight of two senators 20 years ago.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, it left behind a vast arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials. Much of it was vulnerable. The Soviet system had controlled this stuff by strict rules and punishment of people, but when the party-state imploded, the physical protections were not foolproof. A lot of materials were kept secure by no more than a lock on the door and, perhaps, a wax-and-string seal.
Given Soviet secrecy, the condition of these industrial plants and storage facilities wasn't widely understood in Washington in late 1991 and early 1992, at the time of the fall. President George H.W. Bush, who took pride in his foreign policy accomplishments, was facing a difficult re-election campaign at home at a time of growing unease over a mild recession. People in his administration were loathe to consider aid to the former Soviet Union -- one of them said that the Russians should be allowed to go into "free-fall." Cold War thinking ran deep.
But Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) was alarmed by the nuclear security problems. He had witnessed first-hand the chaos and insecurity from his own visit to Moscow the previous summer, right after the failed coup attempt, and his concerns were amplified by his contacts in Moscow. Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wisc.) was also worried, although more about humanitarian disaster. Their first effort to craft a bill for Soviet aid failed to gain much traction on Capitol Hill. But Nunn did not give up, and when he joined with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) they managed to rally Congress to approve legislation that would transfer $400 million from other defense accounts to a new effort to secure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.
Over the years, this program proved its worth, helping Russia, which had an empty treasury, dismantle and destroy missiles, submarines and chemical weapons facilities, among other things -- including the construction of a huge chemical weapons destruction facility at Shchuchye. The program has since grown to $1 billion a year and expanded well beyond the former Soviet Union.
On Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed a report that it does not intend to extend the umbrella agreement for Nunn-Lugar when it expires next year. Sen. Lugar, who is leaving the Senate at the conclusion of this session, was recently in Moscow hoping to persuade them to continue the agreement, perhaps with amendments. Now it looks like the future of Nunn-Lugar faces more serious hurdles.
Russia was never comfortable with accepting foreign assistance like Nunn-Lugar, but it was also clear to many diplomats, scientists, engineers, and military people in Russia that their government could not do this alone in the turbulent years of the 1990s. Russia's treasury was nearly empty, and cooperation with the United States made sense in the face of dangers which the Russians understood all too well. Whatever wounded pride they harbored was swallowed in the face of more urgent needs.
Today, a resurgent Russia can easily afford to carry on the dismantlement and clean-up with its own money. That is one reason for their decision to end the agreement. Another one surely has to do with pride and the desire to shed dependence on the United States for anything. President Vladimir Putin has also recently kicked out the United States Agency for International Development, which was funding pro-democracy programs. Putin wants to project a Russia standing on its own two feet.
What will matter now is whether, without U.S. assistance, Russia has the willpower and the determination to continue the mission on its own. There will be a temptation to slacken off, to keep the old weapons just in case, and to devote resources to building new ones. In the Foreign Ministry announcement, there was a suggestion that Russia might be open to a new agreement that would better fit Russia's situation today. No telling what will go into such a deal, or whether it is even possible given the recent tensions, but it is worth a try. Nunn-Lugar proved quite durable during many ups-and-downs in relations with Moscow, and with a new agreement, there is still work to be done.
David E. Hoffman
One of the enduring mysteries of the Cold War is how both the Soviet Union and the United States managed to misunderstand each other so badly. With such vast military, industrial and intelligence resources deployed against each other, the superpowers nonetheless stumbled around blindly at times, caught in a fog of miscalculation and misunderstanding. There are plenty of examples -- the bomber gap, the missile gap, the Cuban crisis, Star Wars and germ warfare, to name a few.
These gaps and black holes of mistrust matter; the same problems exist today in other conflicts, such as the long-running dispute with Iran over nuclear weapons. We ought to realize by now that it is not only the weapons that are dangerous -- so is deception, misunderstanding and threat exaggeration.
Take a stroll back in time to another era of tension, and the story of President Jimmy Carter's nuclear weapons directive, PD-59, which has recently been released in full, thanks to the National Security Archive.
Carter signed Presidential Directive 59 on July 25, 1980, setting down new guidelines for the use of nuclear weapons in possible conflict with the Soviet Union. At the time, some U.S. strategists had come to the conclusion that nuclear war might not be a single spasm attack, but rather could unfold in a series of directed strikes. However abhorrent and irrational, the idea was that a president had to be prepared for nuclear war-fighting, at least as a contingency. (Soviet intentions were never very clear but intelligence reports had picked up evidence of underground bunkers being built to protect the military and political leadership in times of crisis, so there was worry they were preparing for nuclear war-fighting, too.)
The logic was this: if a nuclear wargasm was unlikely, a president needed to have options for a prolonged nuclear exchange, should deterrence fail. Carter's directive ordered revisions in U.S. war planning for such a possibility, including more discrete pre-planned nuclear attack options for the president. This had been a goal of the Nixon administration as well. It meant picking out not only military targets but also devoting some of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to hitting the Soviet "political control system" and industry.
While there are many fascinating aspects of this directive, one that offers lessons for today is how PD-59 was received by the Soviets. We don't know the full story, but they were certainly aware of it. Although the document was classified Top Secret at the time and not released, Carter's decision to sign it was leaked to the press, and there was an open hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at which Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown both testified. (In the middle of a presidential election campaign, no less.)
Andrew W. Marshall, the long-serving director of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, commissioned a study at the end of the Cold War to examine how the Soviet Union had made some of the key decisions about nuclear weapons in those years. As part of the study [pdf], Marshall offered some of his own recollections of U.S. policy in that period. He recalled:
"PD-59 was developed to reinforce deterrence by making it clear to the Soviet leadership that they would not escape destruction in any exchange. The objective was to clarify and personalize somewhat the danger of warfare and nuclear use to Soviet decision makers. Publication of selected elements of the contents of PD-59 was an integral part of the strategy, and Secretary Brown directed and personally cleared certain articles and discussions of the directive to ensure that Soviet leaders were made aware of some of its most important aspects."
According to John G. Hines, who led the study:
"Despite the fact that the U.S. had repeatedly and publicly declared its nuclear strategy to be based on deterrence, virtually all interview subjects stressed that they perceived the U.S. to be preparing for a first strike…. In addition, in PD-59 the Soviets saw a deliberate policy for launching a surprise, decapitating first strike against the Soviet leadership. The Soviets found this policy, backed up in the early 1980s by the technical capability to execute it, extremely threatening, especially in light of the pervasive memory of the June 1941 surprise attack, an experience which colored all Soviet strategic planning throughout the Cold War period."
We don't know all the ways the Soviet leadership reacted. But the years after PD-59 was signed were among the most tense of the Cold War, including the very dicey autumn "war scare" of 1983.
Feeling vulnerable, one thing the Soviet leaders did was to build a quasi-automatic system that could launch all their land-based nuclear missiles in a retaliatory strike in the event the leadership was decapitated. This system, known formally at Perimeter and informally as the Dead Hand, was not fully automatic -- the Soviets saw the dangers in that -- but it was partially automated, with the final decisions being left in the hand of a few duty officers deep in an underground bunker. How those duty officers would react at a time of nuclear war has always been a matter of speculation and uncertainty. The Dead Hand system was put on combat duty in early 1985, just as Mikhail Gorbachev came to power.
It is not known precisely what role PD-59 played in stoking Soviet anxiety about decapitation in 1980. (There were other reasons they might have been worried, including the growing accuracy of U.S. weapons that could strike Soviet command and control centers with little warning.) But the overall message that the leadership was in the crosshairs was well received. Hines interviewed Gen.-Col. (ret.) Varfolomei Korobushin, the former deputy chief of staff of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces. Korobushin played an important role in building the Dead Hand system. When Hines asked him if PD-59 had influenced the Soviet general staff's perceptions, the general answered by immediately associating PD-59 with decapitation. He said:
"Yes, but your PD-59 would have been futile. Right now we have a system in place which would automatically launch all missiles remaining in our arsenal even if every nuclear command center and all of our leaders were destroyed."
Carter's directive was part of an internal U.S. planning process, and there's no doubt such a process was necessary. But the decision to provide some salient details to the Soviet leaders may have had consequences that were not fully understood at the time. Soviet paranoia about a U.S. first strike was already running very deep in the 1970s--but did the U.S. policy-makers know how deep? By sending signals on PD-59, did they cause the Soviets to grow even more worried about decapitation?
Oddly, the Dead Hand system was kept secret from the United States, and only came to light at the end of the Cold War. This made it even more dangerous. As I pointed out in my book, The Dead Hand:
"If the Americans had known of Perimeter--if they realized that decapitation of the Kremlin would trigger near-automatic retaliation--it might have given them pause. It might have been a deterrent. But in the peculiar dark world of the arms race, the Soviets treated the Perimeter
project as super-secret, and tried to mask what they had invented."
The lesson for today's confrontations: an adversary does not always see the world the same way we do. It is important to grasp how they are thinking, and not just by reading the headlines. One question that we might ask about Iran, for example, is this: what conclusions are they drawing from all the threats of an attack on their nuclear facilities? What signals are they getting, and what miscalculations might be afoot? We knew very little about the deliberations of Kremlin leaders in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Do we know more about what Iran's leaders are pondering today?
Looking back, one of the most unsettling phenomenon of the Cold War was the extent to which the superpowers, locked in existential confrontation, failed to see each other clearly. From the bomber and missile "gaps" of the 1950s to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the so-called "window of vulnerability" of the late 1970s and the Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s, the United States and Soviet Union repeatedly and dangerously misjudged each other's capabilities and intentions, hampered by secrecy, paranoia and fears of the "worst case" outcome.
Germ warfare offers another good example.
Both the United States and Soviet Union had developed biological weapons in the years after World War II, but in 1969, President Nixon announced the unilateral end of the U.S. program and destruction of the stockpiles. In 1972, the superpowers signed a treaty outlawing offensive germ warfare, along with other countries, and it entered into force in 1975. But in those years between Nixon's announcement and start of the treaty, the Soviet leadership secretly approved and began to build what became the largest biological weapons program the world had ever seen. Not only did it violate the treaty, but it explored the creation of novel pathogens for which there would be no antidote or vaccine.
Why did they do it? The question has never been fully answered.
New insights come from a comprehensive study just published by Harvard University Press: "The Soviet Biological Weapons Program: A History," by Milton Leitenberg and Raymond A. Zilinskas, with Jens H. Kuhn. The 921-page book is the result of 15 years of research. (Full disclosure: I have relied on both authors as sources, and shared my own work with them.) It is not the first book on the topic -- several earlier ones were written by participants, such as Ken Alibek and Igor Domaradsky, and I covered it in The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (2009.) But Leitenberg and Zilinskas drill deep into the institutional, scientific and personnel factors in the Soviet program.
When the Soviet leadership launched the secret program in the early 1970s, there was a sense among some of the country's best scientists that they had fallen behind the West in microbiology, and needed to catch up. According to Leitenberg and Zilinskas, the most influential among them was Yury Ovchinnikov, a remarkable biological scientist who was 36 years old in 1970 but already director of a prestigious research institute in the Soviet Academy of Sciences and who soon became a vice president of the academy. More than anyone else, Ovchinnikov persuaded General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev that the West was zooming ahead of the Soviet Union in genetic engineering, and they had to respond.
However, in a fateful choice, Ovchinnikov did not push for an investment in civilian science that would have benefitted millions of people with new medicines and methods to defeat disease. Rather, he turned to the military. The reason? They had the resources. "To get the attention of Soviet officials," the authors say, "all he had to do was suggest that the Pentagon was likely to apply the revolutionary new developments to R&D on super deadly pathogens for weapons applications." That opened the spigot of funding (even though the United States had announced an end to its program.) It worked, and in 1971 a decree was signed establishing the Soviet program as a military effort, which grew in subsequent years.
All the former Soviet officials and scientists who have spoken about the germ warfare program in recent years claim they were assured by superiors that the United States was continuing to work on biological weapons, perhaps hidden in in the civilian sector. Why was this belief held so widely? Why the dangerous misperception?
One explanation faults Soviet intelligence reporting on the United States. Soviet spies often sent in information based on flimsy evidence, emphasizing the worst-case scenario so they would not be accused of underestimating the threat, even if they wound up over-estimating it.
Leitenberg and Zilinskas add another disturbing explanation. They think there was a U.S. disinformation campaign to persuade the Soviets that the United States was in fact still working on offensive biological weapons. Details of such a deception operation are sketchy. If it happened, it may have backfired: the Soviets accepted the fake info, and accelerated their own work. What did the Soviets take away? Leitenberg and Zilinskas say they have seen no evidence in the materials they scrutinized that Soviet leaders acted specifically in response to the U.S. disinformation campaign. But there are still many mysteries. One thing is certain: the Soviets did, in the same time period, launch the enormous BW program.
This is just a sample of the scope and depth of this sprawling new study. I have a feeling that students of the Cold War will be digging into it for a long time to come.
Photo above: the Soviet bioweapons testing grounds at Vozrozhdeniye Island
You are a special generation: born just after the Cold War, the first of the digital age, and fortunate to have enjoyed the longest economic expansion in American history.
It may be hard to believe, but the threat of nuclear war once cast a long shadow over our lives. Your parents probably recall huddling under their school desks in civil defense drills. Thankfully, that horrible specter has receded. We did not win the Cold War, but the Soviet Union lost it for reasons that are relevant today.
Communism denied individuals freedom to speak out, stifled information and monopolized power. It was mind-numbing, suffocating and once covered about half the planet -- hundreds of millions of people suffered through it in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere.
Imagine: there were special rooms in the Soviet Union where photo-copying machines were kept under lock and key so people could not share information on a page. Statistics about life expectancy were considered a state secret. In libraries, there were special drawers and whole rooms where forbidden literature was locked up by a paternalistic state. No Facebook, no Kindle, no freedom.
The Soviet Union expired for many reasons: over-militarization, a dysfunctional system of economic central planning, and a lack of civil society and rule of law. But one factor which we can see more clearly in retrospect was that, as a closed society, it could not compete with a wave of innovation, communications and new technology that was blossoming in the West. The advent of the personal computer in the 1980s empowered individuals to control and distribute information -- an idea that made Soviet bosses shudder. Later, the widespread connection of computers to networks triggered another explosion of innovation and prosperity, born and nurtured in societies that prized freedom and rewarded innovation. Mikhail Gorbachev's last-ditch bid for glasnost was certainly the right idea, but too late. Would Steve Jobs or Bill Gates have succeeded if they lived in Moscow in the 1980s? Probably not.
Today, the digital revolution has become a powerful liberating force for millions of people. China's burgeoning middle class is rife with ferment, making it harder and harder to sustain the Great Firewall. Events like the Zhejiang bullet train crash, once hushed up, are now shared with lightning speed on microblogs and provoke popular fury. In Russia, a single Facebook page was critical in organizing tens of thousands of people to protest Vladimir Putin's return to power and last December's fraudulent parliamentary elections. Russia now has 53 million people online, more than any other country in Europe. The Arab world was convulsed by demonstrations for democracy which spread like wildfire on the winds of social media and satellite television. The life sciences are in a period of discovery as exciting as physics was at the dawn of the nuclear age. The digital upheaval has transformed music, photography, news and literature, and a new video entertainment boom is around the corner. Already, 60 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute; more video is uploaded to YouTube in one month than the three major U.S. broadcast networks created in 60 years. We live in an age of person-to-person communications that are more fluid and accessible than at any time in human history. We routinely search across oceans of data in a fraction of a second.
And you can hold a device to do this in the palm of your hand.
But there are danger signs. The world is now totally dependent on connectivity. Finance, medicine, education, science, news, national security and culture are all reliant on networks. What if the power in a major American city is abruptly switched off by a single command from a remote server that no one can trace? Or a dam sabotaged? Or the wrong signal causing stock markets to crash? Computers have been such an impressive force for good that it may be hard to think about the underside, about an arms race in cyberspace, but it is plausible. The United States, China, Russia and others are now investing in offensive cyber weapons, and doing it largely in secret, without public debate.
In the early years of the atomic age, nuclear bombs were huge and unwieldy -- they weighed 5,000 pounds and had to be lofted across the oceans by airplanes that would take five hours to reach their target. Technology relentlessly improved the "absolute weapon" so that by the end of the Cold War, a nuclear-armed missile could fly 4,000 nautical miles in 30 minutes and hit a target in a circle with a radius of 560 feet. No doubt the threat of warfare in cyberspace will arrive long before we are prepared for it. The commander of U.S. Cyber Command said recently we have a better chance of detecting an incoming ballistic missile than we do a cyber attack.
The digital revolution is also upending our politics. It has enabled every one of us to effortlessly choose the sources we want for information, and to custom-build them. Inevitably and inexorably, this is breaking down the middlemen or gatekeepers who often sifted and synthesized in an earlier time: the newspapers, the book publishers, the broadcast radio and television networks. To an older generation, it is painful and disorienting to see these institutions suffer, but that is not the real problem. Until there are new gatekeepers (if they will rise at all) we have to fend for ourselves in the realm of information. Sure, it can be exhilarating: new products, smart start-ups, and relentless competition that stimulates ideas and opportunity. The levels of participation are astounding. If Facebook users were citizens of a nation, it would be the third most populous on earth. Yet, in the United States we are fragmenting into ever-smaller and more narrow niches. We have lost the ability to form consensus on the big issues, such as our fiscal future, or climate change. Clearly the first wave of the digital age has been chaotic and disruptive. It will fall to you and future generations to guide it to something more coherent.
As you take this immense revolution in your hands, don't be passive. Climb out of your foxhole and look at the world broadly. It will be a terrible disappointment if the technology and creativity of recent years results in a new isolation -- everyone looking down at their smartphones without looking up at the horizon. Our problems right now are too daunting.
And just as your parents and grandparents fought to liberate millions of people from an ideology that locked up photocopiers and books, so too must you be ready to take action, perhaps under entirely different circumstances. Freedom, competition, openness, democracy and innovation are treasured values for any age. They helped bring us to this moment. Don't lose sight of what you inherited and what you must do to nurture and protect it.
President Obama promised in his 2008 campaign to embrace the idea of "de-alerting," or taking U.S. strategic nuclear weapons off high alert. In one of his position papers, Obama said:
The United States and Russia have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. Barack Obama believes that we should take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert -- something that George W. Bush promised to do when he was campaigning for president in 2000. Maintaining this Cold War stance today is unnecessary and increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. As president, Obama will work with Russia to find common ground and bring significantly more weapons off hair-trigger alert."
The term "hair-trigger" is evocative, but imprecise. There are safeguards against a reckless hair-trigger launch. Perhaps a better way to put it is "launch-ready alert." Today, some U.S. strategic forces -- nuclear-armed land-based and sea-based missiles -- are still on launch ready alert. From the time a president gives the order, it is about four minutes for land-based and 12 to 15 minutes for sea-based missiles to fly.
This is an anachronism, left over from the Cold War, when rapid response was considered essential for deterrence. In an earlier post, I described some of the debate about it.
Once in office, Obama hesitated to keep his promise, probably on advice from the military. His first major study of nuclear weapons issues, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review [pdf], concluded that the "current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces – with heavy bombers off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs at sea at any given time – should be maintained for the present."
At the same time, the posture review found that "efforts should continue to diminish further the possibility of nuclear launches resulting from accidents, unauthorized actions, or misperceptions and to maximize the time available to the President to consider whether to authorize the use of nuclear weapons."
Now, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright (ret.) has headed up a new study by Global Zero that calls for de-alerting the nuclear forces, as Obama had pledged. One of the co-founders of Global Zero, Bruce Blair, has also championed the idea of de-alerting for many years.
The study suggests we need far fewer nuclear warheads than exist today, down to 900 total, with half of them in reserve. It calls for "a de-alerted operational posture requiring 24-72 hours to generate the capacity for offensive nuclear strikes, thereby relieving the intense pressure on nuclear decision-making that currently exists." The goal, the study says, would be to keep all bombers and missiles -- the delivery vehicles -- separate from the nuclear warheads in peacetime. Instead of four minutes for missiles and 12 minutes for subs, there would be a much longer window in which the weapons would be put back together.
Cartwright, who retired as vice-chairman of the chiefs last year, has gone further in backing de-alerting than did the administration in the 2010 review. The Joint Chiefs are known to harbor misgivings about de-alerting, fearing that once the delays are built in, there would be an incentive for an adversary to rapidly restore the ability to shoot first.
When I asked Cartwright about this, he noted that he's not suggesting de-alerting in isolation, but rather in tandem with deep cuts in nuclear warheads in both the United States and Russia, making it unlikely that either side could launch a decapitating first strike, and therefore making launch-ready alert unnecessary. Both countries would have to agree to a verified de-alerting scheme, he said.
An interesting tidbit: the Global Zero study says the United States and Russia currently maintain about one third of their forces on high alert, while the other two-thirds need 24-72 hours to reach launch-ready status. So, we're part of the way there--but not all the way.
De-alerting made sense when Obama proposed it the first time. One hopes he hasn't forgotten.
Getty Images/Michael Smith
The situation was perilous. When Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, was attempting to muster support to deal with loose nukes in the imploding Soviet Union in November, 1991, he faced skepticism in Congress. A recession was brewing and many senators were hesitant to support legislation that would send money overseas. Nunn overcame those doubts with the help of a Republican, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, who this week lost a GOP primary race and will leave the Senate after six terms. In the recent campaign, Lugar's opponent said he cooperated with Democrats too often. But as the following story illustrates, bipartisanship proved essential in the face of danger--and in the creation of perhaps the most successful foreign policy initiative by Congress in a generation.
Adapted from my book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (Doubleday, 2009):
With his own eyes, Nunn had seen the chaos on the streets of Moscow, and he knew of the potential for nuclear ccidents and proliferation, but the politicians in Washington seemed oblivious to the dangers. Some senators told Nunn they could not explain in one-minute sound bites why they should support his legislation, so they would not vote for it. Nunn went to the Senate floor November 13, 1991 and tried to break through the mood of indifference with a powerful speech. He said that even after the strategic arms treaty signed earlier in the year, the rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union, including the republics outside of Russia, still had fifteen thousand nuclear warheads to destroy, and needed help. “Unfortunately, nuclear weapons do not just go away when they are no longer wanted,” he said. The Soviet Union was short of storage space, transportation, dismantlement plants and equipment for radioactive materials handling. Nunn had learned these details from Viktor Mikhailov, the deputy minister of atomic energy, who visited Washington and pleaded for help.
“Do we recognize the opportunity we have today during this period in history and the great danger we have of proliferation, or do we sit on our hands and cater to what we think people want to hear in this country?” Nunn asked. “What are the consequences of doing nothing?”
Nunn wondered what kind of one-minute explanation his colleagues would need if the Soviet Union fell into civil war like Yugoslavia, with nuclear weapons all over. “If helping them destroy 15,000 weapons is not a reduction in the Soviet military threat, why have we been worrying about these 15,000 weapons for the last 30 years? I do not see any logic here at all,” he said. The United States had spent $4 trillion during the Cold War, so $1 billion to destroy weapons “would not be too high a price to pay to help destroy thousands and thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons,” Nunn insisted.
“We have the opportunity for an unprecedented destruction of the weapons of war,” Nunn declared. Yet he warned, “We are going to sleep—to sleep—about a country that is coming apart at the seams economically, that wants to destroy nuclear weapons at this juncture but may not in the months and years ahead.”
“Are we going to continue to sit on our hands?” he asked. Faced with opposition, Nunn then pulled back the legislation.
Hours later, Alexander Yakovlev, the architect of Gorbachev’s perestroika, spoke with senators in the Capitol at an early-evening reception, impressing on them the urgency of the crisis. Two days later, Nunn relaunched his efforts. Two top officials of the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada—Andrei Kokoshin and Sergei Rogov—were both at that moment in Washington. The institute had long been a meeting point between American and Soviet experts on defense and security issues. Nunn invited them to a small lunch, to which he also brought Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, a leading Republican voice on foreign affairs. At the lunch, Kokoshin and Rogov warned that power was slipping away from Gorbachev by the minute, and that in a “worst-case scenario,” nuclear weapons could be caught up in the struggle for power among the Soviet republics. This was a volatile, dangerous situation, they said, urging America to “wake up.” Lugar told journalist Don Oberdorfer of The Washington Post that the lunch with Kokoshin and Rogov was “a very alarming conversation.”
On November 19, Ashton B. Carter, the Harvard physicist, came to Nunn’s office for a brainstorming session, along with Lugar; William J. Perry of Stanford University, who had been examining the Soviet military-industrial complex; David Hamburg of the Carnegie Corporation of New York; and John Steinbrunner of the Brookings Institution. Carter drove home the point that a Soviet collapse, now clearly visible from the daily news reports coming out of Moscow, was an immense security threat. “This is completely unprecedented,” Carter recalled saying. “Never before has a nuclear power disintegrated.”
The next day, November 20, Lugar announced his support for immediate action on legislation in a floor speech. He decried the “quarrelsome” mood in Congress in the face of “strategic danger” to the country. “Nuclear weapons do not simply fade away; they must be disabled, dismantled and destroyed,” he said.
On November 21, at an 8 A.M. breakfast, Nunn brought sixteen senators from both parties to the Senate Armed Services committee room, where the trillions of defense spending had been authorized over the years. He told them what he had seen in Moscow and turned the floor over to Carter, who delivered a presentation without notes. Carter said command and control over nuclear weapons could not be isolated from the troubles of society. “It’s not something that you can take for granted, that it’s all wired up in some way, and it will be okay,” Carter recalled telling the senators. The clarity of his presentation had an instant impact. The addition of Lugar was critical. Within days, Nunn and Lugar had turned around the Senate and gathered the votes for new legislation to set aside $500 million to deal with the Soviet nuclear dangers.
Visiting President Bush at the White House, Nunn and Lugar found him ambivalent. “I remember that he wasn’t saying no,” Nunn said. “He just was very cool to the whole idea. I think he was sensing the political dangers of it.” While Bush stood on the sidelines, Congress moved swiftly. The Senate approved the Nunn-Lugar bill by a vote of 86–8. Later, the total was reduced to $400 million, and it passed the House by a voice vote.
Nunn and Lugar took a gamble with history. Skeptics suggested it would be best to let the former Soviet Union drown in its own sorrows—to go into “free fall.” Nunn and Lugar did not agree. They helped Russia and the other former Soviet republics cope with an inheritance from hell. It was never going to be easy for a country so turbulent as Russia to accept the hand of a rich and powerful rival, and it wasn’t. Suspicions, delays, misunderstandings and errors were abundant in the years after the Soviet collapse. But overall, given the immense size of the Soviet military-industrial complex and the sprawling nature of the dangerous weapons and materials, the Nunn-Lugar gamble paid off.
And the gamble showed that bipartisanship can get things done.
The latest Nunn-Lugar scorecard of weapons dismantled and destroyed is here.
Nunn and Lugar in 2007/ David E. Hoffman
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.