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
On February 9, 1988, President Reagan and his top aides met in the White House Situation Room to look at prospects for a strategic arms control treaty with the Soviet Union during Reagan's last year in office. Although Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had come close to a deal on deep cuts at the Reykjavik summit in 1986, they had yet to nail down an agreement.
Reagan had high hopes for a Moscow summit in the spring. He told his advisors to work hard toward a possible arms control treaty, if a satisfactory one could be hammered out. "We should all have our work shoes on," he insisted.
A few months later, on May 23, Reagan and his advisors met again in the Situation Room. At this point, the summit was a week away, but Reagan's advisors were at odds over missile defense. Exasperated, Secretary of State George Shultz declared at one point:
You know, this discussion highlights the fact that we can't get straight internally what we want. How can we possibly negotiate with the Soviets when we can't even articulate to each other what our position is in a meeting like this?
Once in Moscow, Reagan enjoyed an upbeat summit, but did not get a strategic arms treaty, and he left office without it. The following year, the new president, George H. W. Bush, was not in a hurry either. He started his term with a misguided "pause" in dealings with Moscow. Gorbachev was frustrated, and his national security advisor, Anatoly Chernyaev, called 1989 "the lost year." (The treaty wasn't signed until 1991, in the final months before the Soviet collapse.)
Why does this matter? Experience shows that "lost years" are all too common nuclear arms control negotiations. The best results come in those rare moments when national interests align and leaders summon the willpower to make compromises. By that yardstick, it looks like 2012 will be another "lost year." Presidential elections in the United States and Russia mean that leaders in both countries--which hold the lion's share of nuclear weapons in the world--will be preoccupied and cautious.
There's a strange complacency about nuclear weapons. For all their destructive power, we tend to forget about them. The last atomic bomb to be used in combat was more than 60 years ago (although thousands were blown up in tests during the Cold War.) Many people ask: why worry now? Didn't Presidents Obama and Dmitri Medvedev just sign a strategic arms treaty? Yes, they did, bringing the total operational strategic warheads down to 1,550 on each side. But thousands of other nuclear warheads in the United States and Russian Federation--at least 5,000, probably more, both tactical and strategic--remain outside the existing arms control treaties. It would make sense to corral them: get a precise fix on how many are out there, decide whether any must be retained for security, and put the rest on the conveyor belt to oblivion.
But negotiations require compromise, and that's difficult during political campaigns. Vladimir Putin has been weakened by the recent protests in Moscow. Although he is still expected to win the March presidential election, it may not be the best time for making deals with the United States. Likewise, Obama and the Republicans will be in a constant struggle over the next 10 months, hardly a good moment for bargaining with Moscow. In the American campaign, neither Republicans nor Democrats are expected to make nuclear arms control an issue this year; it hasn't cropped up once in the recent Republican debates.
So the next window for negotiations is 2013, at the earliest.
The lost year should be spent mapping out new approaches to eliminating the huge overhang of nuclear weapons from the Cold War, no matter who become the next leaders of Russia and the United States. Already, some policy discussions about the next phase are percolating in both capitals. The backlog of sticky problems between the two powers is growing ever larger, not to mention the nonproliferation challenges elsewhere.
Time to get the work shoes on.
To read the declassified minutes of the 1988 Reagan meetings, go to www.thereaganfiles.com and see the section on National Security Planning Group meetings. The two sessions were No. 176 and No. 190.
Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images
In remarks on Russian television today, President Dmitri Medvedev has turned up the heat in the long-simmering talks on missile defense. Medvedev voiced impatience with the United States, saying the negotiations are not making progress toward a common approach.
Why now? Medvedev has one eye on the calendar: the Russian parliamentary election is Dec. 4. The ruling United Russia party has been losing steam in the opinion polls and Vladimir Putin has already announced he intends to return to the presidency next year. Voters are yawning. Surely, Medvedev has made the calculation that a toughly-worded reprimand to the United States and NATO will play well.
President Obama has embarked on a phased, limited missile defense in Europe which the United States insists is not aimed at Russia, but rather at Iran. Medvedev said he doesn't believe it, and Russia fears that over the next decade the system could be used to undermine its own strategic nuclear deterrent. Russia has demanded legal guarantees from the United States, but the answer, so far, has been "no." Medvedev complained that Russia faces a "fait accompli" as the U.S. system is built. The Medvedev text is here.
Medvedev announced a series of potential counter-measures to a missile defense system, mostly things that have been floated before, such as new weapons which might penetrate any missile defense or disable it. Medvedev said "these measures will be adequate, effective and low cost." No doubt, they will be. The technical challenges to missile defense -- hitting a bullet with a bullet in outer space -- can be enormous, and have been daunting since the 1980s when President Reagan first dreamed up his Strategic Defense Initiative, the idea of a global shield that he promised would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."
Medvedev's latest message may be motivated by domestic politics and negotiating tactics, but it is also a reminder that even a small missile defense system is going to be a nettlesome sticking point with Moscow. Next year, one hopes, Russia and the United States will find a way to cooperate on missle defense, and move beyond it to deal with the large agenda of unfinished business in nuclear arms control. It is a lot more urgent and important.
Update: A good post on what it all means from Pavel Podvig.
Getty Images/Sasha Mordovets
When we think of nuclear warheads, we imagine those cone-shaped, threatening weapons perched atop missiles, ready to be launched, or bombs loaded aboard airplanes. These are known as operationally-deployed strategic weapons. But there are other strategic nuclear warheads that are not deployed, sitting in storage in both the United States and Russia. In fact, each country has several thousand of them. They are not covered by any treaty, and not checked by verification. There is no public accounting of the exact numbers.
Here’s a chance for President Barack Obama to take a lasting step toward his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It’s time for both countries to get rid of these excess warheads.
The U.S. warheads were put in a reserve, or “hedge,” in 1994. This was only about three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and not long after Boris Yeltsin had prevailed in a violent confrontation with hardliners in parliament. William Perry, then the defense secretary, said on Sept. 20, 1994 the hedge was necessary because of a “small but real danger that reform in Russia might fail.”
Well, we are 17 years beyond that. While reform in Russia has been very rough and incomplete, it certainly did not turn into the worst-case scenario that Perry worried about.
The nuclear hedge is still around. Why?
Getty Images/Alex Wong
When the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was first signed in the 1970s, it was hailed as a step forward in disarmament. There was no effective enforcement mechanism, but at least the major powers had agreed to outlaw germ warfare. In the years since, it has became clear that the lack of enforcement left gaping holes. The agreement failed to prevent the Soviet Union, aparthied-era South Africa and Saddam Hussein's Iraq from pursuing secret biological weapons programs. Jonathan B. Tucker, the author of Scourge and War of Nerves, and professor at Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany, says the treaty “lost a good deal of credibility."
Tucker has written a thorough and illuminating piece for Arms Control Today about the next review conference of the treaty, due this December. He points out that suspicions persist about noncompliance. The State Department's 2010 report to Congress noted that China and Russia have been less than full in disclosing past biological warfare programs, and suggesting that offensive programs may exist in Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria. Also, the treaty has only 163 member states, compared to 189 for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and 188 for the Chemical Weapons Convention. Tucker also says that fewer than half of the members participate in the annual confidence-building declarations. These forms were supposed to help boost transparency, since there is still no mandatory inspections or effective verification. But the confidence-building forms haven't even been revised since they were first instituted in 1991.
In the late 1990s, there was an effort to stiffen the treaty with a more forceful, legally-binding inspection procedure. This fell apart in 2001 when the Bush administration rejected it and the talks collapsed. The Obama administration has also shied away from the legal approach, and instead offered a "strategy" document on biological threats. Tucker criticizes the measures as "conceptually flawed or too weak to make much of a difference."
But Tucker says there is a chance to improve the treaty and make a difference at the review conference. He urges the United States to take good advantage of it, and offers a useful list of ideas. The treaty entered into force 35 years ago, and looks dog-eared. Not only has it been repeatedly violated with impunity, but the rapid pace of change in biotechnology is making it seem less and less relevant. Can it be saved?
Getty Images/Dimas Ardian
How many nuclear warheads are there still remaining in the world today? Five thousand? Ten thousand?
Would you believe 22,500?
Now, consider this: the New START treaty on strategic weapons, which is pending ratification in the Senate, would restrict each side to 1,550 warheads, or a total of 3,100 in both the United States and Russia.
Do the math. This treaty is not taking a big bite out of nuclear arsenals. If approved, there will still be more than 19,000 nuclear weapons in the world. And most of them will still be in the United States and Russia: tactical nuclear weapons (not covered by this treaty) and strategic weapons in reserve (also not covered) as well as warheads that are offline, waiting for dismantlement.
In other words, there is still a ton of work to do. What's odd about the current debate on whether to ratify New START is that no one really is arguing that we need so many nukes. No one can point to the threats that will be deterred. Indeed, now that the Cold War has ended, it is clear we have an overhang of weapons, far more than we need. They are like old clothes stuffed in our closet, and we just won't get around to facing the fact that we will never wear them again.
The current debate over New START is misplaced. The treaty is good for verification and continuity; the right thing to do is ratify it, and get moving to the next phase, which ought to get us to far fewer weapons. Smart roadmaps are already available. A surprisingly good stack of scholarship has come out recently on how we can reach that destination. These reports deserve to be read, not just thrown into a file drawer.
President Obama's Nuclear Posture Review acknowledged the nuclear overhang. The United States and Russia "each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence," the report says. This is a document intended to set nuclear policy for the next five to ten years, endorsed by the military leadership. They get it: we could go lower.
Then there's an important essay in the Sept.-Oct. issue of Foreign Affairs, which is based on extensive computer modeling. The five authors, including three from Russia with deep experience in Soviet and Russian nuclear forces, show that it is possible to get down to 1,000 warheads without weakening security on either side. Another report which endorses one thousand as a goal came out this week from the Council on Foreign Relations.
Also, take time to read the article in Strategic Studies Quarterly (pdf) in which three Air Force thinkers concluded that "America's security can rest easily" on a comparatively small nuclear force. The United States, they wrote, could "draw down its nuclear arsenal to a relatively small number of survivable, reliable weapons dispersed among missile silos, submarines, and airplanes." They said such a force might number only 311 nuclear weapons. They get it, too.
For another perspective, read the report last year by the Federation of American Scientists, which calls for a change in the nuclear targeting strategy that would also be a step toward much lower levels of weapons.
And for a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, read the Global Zero action plan, a phased approach that would start with the United States and Russia and then draw in the other nuclear weapons powers.
All of these reports face squarely the reality that times have changed, and the nuclear arsenals need to change too.
Barack Obama got off a good line at his press conference with Dmitry Medvedev of Russia. Obama noted that Medvedev had just opened a Twitter account, and added, "I have one as well, so we may be able to finally throw away those ‘red phones’ that have been sitting around for so long."
No, Mr. President. It is not a good idea to throw away the hotline to Moscow and use Twitter instead. But your comment is another reminder of important business that has eluded both the United States and Russia for too long -- reducing the possibility of misunderstanding over a missile launch.
The United States still maintains about 1,000 nuclear-armed missiles on launch-ready alert, in silos and on submarines, and Russia may have even more. If given a warning of a missile attack, a president would have only minutes to decide how to respond. In the digital age, we should be able to find a way to ease this dangerous situation and give a president more time to avoid a terrible mistake. Here's an earlier article about the dangers.
Obama acknowledged the problem in his Nuclear Posture Review, issued in April. The president decided not to change the current alert status of U.S nuclear missiles. But the report said "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."
Unfortunately, an agreement in 2000 between the United
States and Russia to set up a center to monitor ballistic missile and space
launches never got off the ground. The center would be a good first step and it
is something tangible Obama and Medvedev can do to ease the danger. It
mentioned by the presidents this week, but cries out for action. As long as
nuclear missiles remain on alert, we need more than a tweet to the Kremlin.
Update: In a joint summit statement on "strategic stability," Obama and Medvedev said they are committed to setting up this missile monitoring system, and that experts would meet "soon" to work on it. The statement is here (in pdf). Let's hope they have more success than the last attempt a decade ago.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN
After a painstaking, months-long process, one of the issues still being hashed out at the end of the deliberations on Barack Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review was whether his administration could finally go public with the precise number of nuclear warheads held by the United States.
Those arguing to disclose the total said it would set an example for the rest of the world. Obama's report was the first in the post-Cold War era to be entirely unclassified, and the document called on China, in particular, to be more transparent about its nuclear forces and intentions. An accounting of the total number of American warheads would be a highly symbolic move.
Those arguing to keep the number secret said it was too dangerous to reveal, offering states or terrorists seeking to build their own weapons a clue to the amount of fissile material necessary for a bomb. The fear was they might be able to calculate this by comparing the warhead total with previous statements on stocks of fissile material. (Update: the number was declassified on May 3, 2010.)
Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images
Arms control is not magic, even if it seems to have high priests and secret codes.
The lesson of the Cold War is that all those complex negotiations and treaties are not by themselves agents of change, but the result of much deeper, underlying forces and the actions of people. Sure, a treaty is vital to lock in decisions and prevent cheating. But of far greater importance are the reasons that brought the two sides to the table in the first place: economics, politics, technology, and military power, as well as the role of leaders such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The most effective nuclear arms-control measure of all time was not a treaty, but rather the demise of the Soviet Union and the superpower competition along with it. What caused it? A dysfunctional economic and political system imploded.
So let's hold off on the overheated hyperbole about the Prague treaty that U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are set to sign Thursday. As long as the weapons are still around and on alert, it is unquestionably worthwhile to limit them in a treaty with solid verification provisions. Obama promised last year in his speech in Prague to deliver a treaty that is "sufficiently bold." This one is sufficient, but it's modest, not bold.
Laying out a nuclear weapons strategy for the decade ahead, President Obama struck bold notes on rhetoric and promises in the Nuclear Posture Review report issued Tuesday. The document is filled with laudable goals that mark a change from the past and may help advance his dream of a world without nukes. But flying at high altitude also has certain advantages; you can avoid the rough terrain below. And down on the ground, the president stopped short of changing the status quo on critical issues that have lingered since the Cold War, such as tactical nuclear weapons and keeping missiles on alert.
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
Just one week into his presidency, on Jan. 27, 1969, Richard M. Nixon got an eye-opening briefing at the Pentagon on the nation's secret nuclear war plans -- the Single Integrated Operational Plan, as it was known then. "It didn't fill him with enthusiasm," Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, said later. The briefers walked Nixon through the absolutely excruciating decision a president would face upon receiving an alert of impending attack: whether to launch nuclear missiles.
The Davy Crockett was one of the smallest nuclear weapons ever made by the United States. Built in the late 1950s, and designed for the battlefields of Europe to stop a possible Warsaw Pact invasion, the warhead looked like a watermelon, being only 30 inches long and weighing about 76 pounds. From a portable tripod launcher, it could be fired at the enemy as close as 1,000 feet or up to 13,000 feet away. It was a weapon for nuclear war at close range.
But the little nuclear watermelon is a reminder of the big work still to be done in arms control.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.