Twelve years ago, in October, 1999, the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Only 48 senators supported the treaty, falling short of the 67 required. In the debate, serious doubt was expressed about whether the U.S. nuclear arsenal could be kept safe, secure and reliable without nuclear explosive tests.
At the time, six former secretaries of defense in Republican administrations wrote a letter saying that if the test ban were to be ratified, "over the decades ahead, confidence in the reliability of our nuclear weapons stockpile would inevitably decline, thereby reducing the credibility of our nuclear deterrent."
The six former secretaries also said the relatively young Stockpile Stewardship Program, started in the Clinton administration, "will not be mature for at least 10 years" and could only mitigate, not eliminate, a loss of confidence in the weapons without testing. Although the treaty was rejected, the United States has continued to abide by the test ban.
Today, many fears voiced in the Senate debate have not materialized. That is the core message in an important report issued last week by a nine-member committee of the National Research Council. The panel, which focused on technical issues in the treaty, said the stockpile stewardship program "has been more successful than was anticipated in 1999."
They concluded that "the United States is now better able to maintain a safe and effective nuclear stockpile and to monitor clandestine nuclear-explosion testing than at any time in the past."
That is quite a milestone, and one that I have heard from other sources as well. Bruce T. Goodwin, principal associate director for weapons programs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told me in an interview last year, "We have a more fundamental understanding of how these weapons work today than we ever imagined when we were blowing them up."
The Stockpile Stewardship Program includes such things as surveillance of the weapons -- taking them apart and checking them. It includes non-nuclear experiments, and periodic life-extension programs for the existing weapons.
There is also a massive supercomputing program to simulate nuclear explosions, which has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1990s. According to the committee's report, the computing capability available to weapons designers "has increased by a factor of approximately one hundred thousand" since 1996. I wrote a story about this for The Washington Post in November. What I found in talking to scientists at Livermore is that they are using some of the world's most capable computers to create realistic models of what happens inside a nuclear explosion, when tremendous pressures and temperatures squeeze metals, including uranium and plutonium, to set off the nuclear blast.
The computer simulations produce a virtual window into what happens in an explosion. "This is millions of times finer than you could ever do in a nuclear test," Goodwin told me. "You could never see this process go on inside a nuclear explosion."
Such progress depends, in part, on the use of hard data from past nuclear explosions. Also, computer simulations are impressive, but they must be validated by modern laboratory experiments. All this is expensive: state-of-the-art supercomputers, advanced laboratory facilities, a modernized infrastructure and the need to recruit and sustain the best and brightest workforce. The committee said funding each of these is essential. But it seems a relatively small price to pay for an end to U.S. nuclear explosions.
We really have come a long way since 1999.
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
What's the value of a nuclear warhead today? Not the monetary value, but as a deterrent?
Nuclear explosions are frightfully destructive, and that's the point: to inspire fear, to deter an adversary. Atomic bombs still appeal to some nations and terrorists, making proliferation a constant risk. Fortunately, there are fewer nuclear warheads in the world than during the Cold War; down from about 60,000 to about 22,000 today, most of which remain in the United States and Russia. But the deterrent value of the arsenals isn't what it used to be. Both the U.S. and Russia face new threats -- terrorism, proliferation, economic competition, pandemics -- for which these long-range or strategic nuclear weapons are of little value.
AFP/Getty Images/Robin Utrecht
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
A new WikiLeaks cable plunges us right back into that mysterious calculus of warhead counting: how many nuclear weapons do we really need to remain secure in today's world?
The New START treaty would limit the United States and Russia each to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, operationally deployed. The treaty doesn't include thousands more strategic warheads in a U.S. reserve, and thousands more on top of that, the smaller tactical nukes, most of which are in Russia. One strong argument for ratification is that it will pave the way for a follow-on treaty that could reduce both these outlying stockpiles.
In a recent posting, I pointed to a couple of new studies which suggest that we would be secure at far lower levels of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, perhaps down into the hundreds on each side. The just-published cable indicates that some in the Pentagon are thinking along similar lines, if not quite as radical. Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller briefed NATO allies about the Nuclear Posture Review on July 16, 2009, and the cable describes his remarks. (The posture review was being drafted then, and has since been issued; the New START treaty was being negotiated then, and has since been signed.) Miller told the allies that a range of 1,500-1,700 strategic warheads on each side was "militarily sufficient."
But he added that risks to "military sufficiency and to robustness" would come only if the level went below 1,300 warheads.
That's 250 warheads lower than the current treaty. Miller added that "future warhead reductions by the Russians would allow the U.S. to consider going lower."
There's a truth lying in plain sight here: The only reason we stick by these higher levels is because the Russians stick by these higher levels. Neither the United States nor Russia faces the kind of confrontation for which the weapons were built. There's no military purpose, no security gain to the higher levels. President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, issued earlier this year, admitted as much: "each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence."
The Cold War is long over. But our mindset is somehow locked in the past. We are still thinking "arms race" instead of looking squarely at today's threats and true needs.
It's time for some new thinking. If a top Pentagon official could tell the NATO allies more than a year ago that 1,300 warheads would be sufficient militarily, there ought to be no hesitation about New START -- and moving beyond it.
The new WikiLeaks documents show that Iran has been hunting for missile technology all over the world, seeking to buy gyroscopes, jet vanes and metals, and perhaps whole missiles from North Korea. But Iran also has experienced great difficulty building longer range missiles. Why? Some clues can be found in one of the most interesting documents just released, a briefing that Russian officials gave their American counterparts on Iran's progress, or lack of it.
A summary of the Dec. 22, 2009 meeting was marked "secret" but tumbled out on Sunday in the reams of memos released by WikiLeaks and major news organizations. Fourteen Russian and 15 U.S. government officials compared notes that day about missile threats from Iran and North Korea.
Judging by the summary, it was a lively back and forth, during which the Russians claimed the threat from Iran's missiles is not as great as some have predicted in the United States. The size and nature of the threat is important because it undergirds the U.S. plans for a multi-billion dollar ballistic missile defense system.
The Russians were prepared to talk "seriously" with the U.S. group, the summary says. Their message was Iran is struggling to lengthen the range of missiles that could carry heavy loads, such as a one-ton nuclear warhead, that might threaten the region or beyond. The Russians said their basic conclusion is that "Iran's ballistic missile program continues to be directed toward developing combat ready missiles to address regional concerns," not targets like the United States.
This was also the assessment made in May by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
In the December meeting, there was a sharp disagreement about the U.S. claim that North Korea sold to Iran a batch of 19 missiles, known as the BM-25. The transfer was first reported publicly in 2006; the BM-25 missile is supposedly based on a Soviet naval ballistic missile design, the R-27, known in the West as the SS-N-6. This missile was first developed in the 1960s and later modernized; it was in service in the Soviet Union until 1988. Iran has not tested any of the missiles it imported. The U.S. officials speculated that Iran may have purchased it to reverse-engineer the technology (although North Korea has been known to ship parts, expertise and manufacturing facilities as well as the missiles themselves.) The U.S. officials said photos of the Iranian space launch rocket, the Safir, show an engine which looks like the one on the R-27, as well as fuel tanks and welds that resemble it. The U.S. officials said they had received "direct evidence" of the missile transfer from North Korea to Iran.
But the Russians strongly dismissed the BM-25 as a mirage, according to the summary. They said Iran would not have purchased an untested missile, and they doubted whether it even existed. "For Russia, the BM-25 is a mysterious missile," the summary says. "Russia does not think the BM-25 exists." They asked why North Korea would sell an untested missile; the Americans responded: for cash.
Both the Russians and Americans acknowledged the limitations of Iran's older, liquid-fueled missiles, based on the Soviet Scud and its modifications, including the Shahab-1, Shahab-2 and Shahab-3. Both sides also seemed to agree that the Safir is not a military threat because of the small size of the payload.
The key issue is Iran's pursuit of more modern and powerful solid-fuel missiles that could hit medium-range targets, such as those in the Middle East or Europe. Iran has been working on such a missile, called the Sajjil-2, which it has flight tested. (See my earlier post about it.) In the meeting, U.S. officials were more worried about this than the Russians, who said Iran continues to stumble with solid fuel technology. "In Russia's view, Iran appears to be having very serious problems with engine development," the summary says. U.S. officials countered that Iran has a decade of experience with short-range missiles using solid fuel, importing equipment from China, and could now extend it to larger missiles.
The Russians said Iran was a long way from building intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States. "Russia said its bottom line is that Iran lacks appropriate structural materials for long-range systems, such as high quality aluminum," the summary says. "Iran can build prototypes, but in order to be a threat to the U.S. or Russia, Iran needs to produce missiles in mass quantities, and it lacks materials sufficient for the type of mass production needed to be a security threat. Russia further noted that the technology for longer-range missiles is sophisticated and difficult to master."
At another point, the Russians said they think the North Koreans are working on a new, 100-ton capacity rocket engine using older technology, clustering the motors or stacking them. But Russia said the technology hasn't been actually spotted.
AFP/Getty Images; from Iran's ISNA agency, the two-stage solid-fuel missile, Dec. 16, 2009
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.
What are nuclear weapons good for? In the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the answer was simple: deterrence. We put Moscow at risk of destruction to prevent our own annihilation. A 1984 television advertisement for Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign warned Americans to be wary, saying the Soviet threat was out there somewhere, “a bear in the woods." But today, the Soviet Union is gone--and there's an urgent need to re-examine the concept of deterrence.
The bear? Well, Dmitry Medvedev was wearing blue jeans during his visit to Palo Alto last week. The Russian president read his speech aloud at Stanford University from an iPad and signed up for Twitter. He was attempting to drum up support for building a Russian equivalent of Silicon Valley in a town outside of Moscow. If he manages to succeed at this feat, will the town be put on the target list for U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles? Let's hope not.
In fact, both countries still have thousands of ballistic missiles on launch-ready alert based on a concept of deterrence that is out of date. Last week, a group of Russian and American specialists sat down to talk about the future of nuclar arms control, and many of them touched on the need to rethink deterrence. The session was sponsored by the PIR Center, a think-tank on security and nonproliferation issues in Moscow, and the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation supporting efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
In a world without nuclear weapons, wouldn’t the rogue be king? And if there were international controls in such a world, would it be hard to detect the bad guys building a bomb?
One way to find out: be the bad guy yourself. The Henry L. Stimson Center has just put together an online simulation that allows the user to play rogue state decision-maker in the year 2040, navigating the pathways to building a bomb without getting caught. It’s called Cheater’s Risk.
Every day, we’re swamped by the news about nuclear nonproliferation. But this simulation is refreshingly clear on the major topics. You decide which country you want to play, the pathways, and roll the dice on the chances of getting caught at such things as obtaining the fissile material or assembling a weapon. Along the way there are short explanatory videos.
The underlying argument of Cheater’s Risk is that, in the event of disarmament, cheating on a treaty “is not a piece of cake,” in the words of Barry M. Blechman, co-founder of Stimson, who introduced the simulation on Thursday at Stimson’s offices in Washington. For a deeper look, there’s Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty, edited by Blechman and Alexander K. Bollfrass, on which Cheater’s Risk is based.
This is a project which seems to say: disarmament is possible with the right precautions and procedures. Some may argue with the larger goal, but in the simulation, the facts are presented clearly with sources and additional information a click away.
I took Cheater’s Risk for a spin, and selected the Russian Federation as my candidate for going rogue. In the end, I managed to assemble one to five nuclear weapons without getting caught. I had to weigh the risks at each stage of going faster or slower, of taking the uranium or plutonium route to a bomb, and other factors. At each stage, my choice was then tested on a grid that resembles the old game Minesweeper. You decide which square to click on. The grid is populated with success or failure squares corresponding to the risk of detection of your given choice.
The world is far more complex than Cheater’s Risk. There are no unpleasant coups or small wars in this game. The simulation focuses attention on the big choices. Can you, nuclear renegade, outfox the rest of the world?
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.