Rose Gottemoeller on the NPT Review Conference, Russian saber rattling, and more

By John Mecklin | May 14, 2015


The month-long Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference now under way in New York has provided a stage for a long-simmering drama that revolves around one pillar of the treaty: a promise by nuclear-weapons countries to disarm. Many of the 185 non-nuclear weapons countries that signed the treaty, thereby agreeing to forego nuclear weapons development, are restive. Their disquiet has been stoked and organized to a degree during three recent international conferences that focused on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons, but were also seen as forums where discussion of the possibility of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons could begin. Though it supports an eventual goal of a nuclear weapons-free world, the United States opposes such a ban.

The discontent with progress toward disarmament—and the US response to that discontent—has made news headlines. But negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and Russian nuclear saber rattling are also at the top of public consciousness. So it seemed an appropriate time to check in with Rose Gottemoeller, the US State Department's under secretary for arms control and international security. In an interview last week, Bulletin editor John Mecklin asked Gottemoeller about the United States' approach to disarmament, how it is being received at the review conference, the stalled state of US-Russia disarmament talks, worldwide nuclear modernization efforts, US congressional efforts to play a role in approval of an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, and other matters in what has become, of late, a crowded nuclear policy landscape.

Bulletin: You were talking about the US message at the (NPT) Review Conference, that there actually has been disarmament progress enough. Do you think that message is actually getting through? The humanitarian movement seemed ready to do something about the NPT, the nuclear countries not doing anything about disarmament. Do you think there's been some, at least, tamping down of that sentiment? 

Gottemoeller: Well, I think there's a debate going on. There's no question about it. And you said the nuclear countries have done enough; I would take exception with that. We very clearly say that 4,700‑plus warheads is still too many. And the president laid out very clearly in April of 2009 that the United States will seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. And that is the guiding force of our national policy on these matters. So we haven't done enough. We still need to do more. And I want to put that out there very, very clearly. You know, the sense that somehow we're sitting back and resting on our laurels on [disarmament], it's not the case whatsoever. We recognize there's more work to be done.

But I just ask countries to acknowledge that we have reduced our nuclear warhead holdings by 85 percent since their Cold War height. That's total warhead holdings. But when you talk about operationally deployed warheads, the process of strategic arms reduction has brought those numbers down from the approximately 12,000 operationally deployed warheads in 1994 when the New START Treaty went into—I'm sorry, when the first START Treaty went into force.  And when New START's central limits are achieved in February of 2018, we will have 1,550 operationally deployed warheads. So 12,000 to 1,550 is significant. And we are just asking for people to acknowledge that progress so far.

But I want to stress again, we are not resting on our laurels here. 

Bulletin: Pretty obviously, for anything significant to happen in terms of arsenal reduction, the United States and Russia would have to talk about it. Is there anything in the foreseeable future where Russia and the United States would begin to talk about further reductions?

Gottemoeller: Well, we hope so. We have a very reasonable offer on the table for up to one‑third further reductions in operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads—that is, the so‑called Berlin Proposal from June of 2013. And our view is that it would be a readily achievable step, very practical, because it could be accomplished basically on the platform of New START. New START is working very well despite our bilateral differences with Russia over Ukraine. New START is being smoothly implemented.

I just did an event in New York on Wednesday with Mikhail Ulyanov, who's the head of the Russian delegation. And it went very well in terms of talking about the pragmatic inspection steps, our exchange of the notifications, database exchanges, all the bread and butter of treaty implementation in New START. Very smooth despite, again, our serious differences over Ukraine.

So that platform is in place, and our view is we would simply need to reduce the central limits of the treaty by approximately one‑third. So that would take the number of operationally deployed warheads down to approximately 1,000. So that proposal is still on the table. We think it's a good proposal. And we hope Russia will be willing to pick it up and proceed with it. It would be, in my view, rather straightforward to negotiate.

Bulletin: But as of now, nothing like, even a behind the scenes: "Well, in a little while we might talk about that?" No positive indication at all that you know of? 

Gottemoeller: Well, it's worthwhile talking to the Russians about it. Their position up to this point has been that we are concentrating at the moment on implementation of New START, and once implementation is completed in 2018, we'll look, or we'll see, or whatever. You know, they have different talking points in this regard. But their clearest talking point is that they're focusing now on implementation of New START. 

Bulletin: In the news, there's been on and off talk about alerting strategies [for nuclear arsenals]. There seems to be a little flurry of news coverage right now about some effort to get some sort of agreement on de-alerting with the Russians, or maybe even do it unilaterally. Do you think there's anything the United States could do unilaterally in regard to alert status? 

Gottemoeller: We've already done a significant amount unilaterally to reduce the alert status. As you remember, during the Cold War, our nuclear-capable aircraft were on day‑to‑day nuclear alert, meaning that we had 24/7 continuous flights of our command-and-control aircraft for the nuclear forces. Our nuclear-capable heavy bombers were on [air]strip alert, as well as nonstrategic nuclear aircraft, were also on day‑to‑day strip alert with nuclear weapons loaded on board them. So we made a decision long ago to take all of those aircraft off alert, and so the bombers are not on day‑to‑day alert at this point.

We've also taken steps, as you know, over time, which have been verifiable under the START Treaty and now New START, to so‑called "de-MIRV," that is, to ensure that there is only one warhead on each intercontinental ballistic missile.  And this reduces incentives for a first strike because it makes the target so much less attractive.

So we have done quite a bit in terms of enhancing strategic stability and lowering the alert status of our forces.

Now, I'm aware of the report you're talking about. It's the Global Zero report that came out this week. Obviously some very eminent authors were involved in it, with a lot of experience and intellectual firepower involved. We do not dispute their role; in fact, I welcome [it].  And I always say, coming from that world myself, I always welcome the role of nongovernmental experts in contributing to the debate. So I do want to stress that point.

But in this case, as I've seen the report, they make no arguments on the verifiability question. How would we go about verifying the de-alerting measures? And to me that question left unanswered really raises questions about whether the measures that they are proposing are stabilizing or not. Because if you can't verify if the other guy has de-alerted also, doesn't that create potential incentives for him to attack before we could increase our alert status in the time of crisis? You know, there's a link there between verifiability and whether such measures are stabilizing or not.

So I would like to see more debate. In fact, the debates on these questions in earlier periods of the 1980s and '90s did revolve around verifiability and whether we could come up with verifiable measures. And people were not able to fully answer that question at the time, although there were a lot of ideas out there.

So my view is, again, respect the authors very highly, but need to focus on this question of the link between verifiability and whether such measures are actually stabilizing. 

Bulletin: That sort of in my mind blends into talk about modernization of arsenals, and the directions of modernization, and whether there's actually something of a nuclear modernization arms race going on.

And I really just want to hear your view of US plans for modernizing its arsenals. How important is it that all three legs of our triad get modernized? 

Gottemoeller: Well, first of all, let me say that we are concerned about modernization of arsenals in certain parts of the world. We're very concerned about the stability issues that emerge in South Asia with those countries continuing to develop and modernize their arsenals. So there are concerns out there about modernization that we've articulated very clearly.

In the case of our own arsenal, there are just a couple of points I'd like to make. For one thing, a lot of people talk about modernizing the warhead arsenal per se.  And I think that that is a misnomer that I would like to really set the record straight about. When we talk about our stockpile stewardship program, our science‑based stockpile stewardship program, it is for the purpose—just as the president said in Prague—that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal. So stockpile stewardship is for exactly that purpose, to maintain safety, security, and effectiveness according to existing design standards. 

We are not creating new military capability in our warhead arsenal. And I want to get the record straight on that because there's a lot, again, a lot of, I would say, talk out there that somehow we're modernizing warheads, creating new warheads with new military capabilities. And that is simply not the case. We are maintaining our existing and steadily shrinking nuclear arsenal, nuclear warhead arsenal.

So that's one point.

Now, this week there's been a lot of debate out there about the new ALCM.  There were some testimonies on Capitol Hill that aroused a lot of discussion in the press. You know, our existing ALCM force, air‑launched cruise missile force, I remember it well. It was emerging on the scene when I was first working at the Rand Corporation in the 1980s. It's 30 years old at this point. And my view is that air‑launched systems are inherently more stabilizing for the reasons that have long been discussed. They are slow fliers. They give adequate scope for decision-making, not only in their slow flying nature, but in the fact that they are recallable. Again, if a decision is made to launch the bomber force, then they can also be recalled. And so there are certain very stabilizing aspects to bomber weapons as a kind of second-strike force, particularly.

And so I did want to stress that the arguments this week about the LRSO, the new long‑range stand‑off cruise missile program, I think people need to step back and look at the program both in stability terms, but also in terms of the exact nature of this planned purchase. 

The number 1,000 missiles has been out there in the press. But actually very few of those—a relatively few of those—missiles will actually be operationally armed and deployed in our nuclear force. They purchase for the life of a program. And I just talked about our existing ALCM having been built 30 years ago. So the program will last for a long time. You know, to have a thousand missiles for spares for testing, for the various other purposes that they are used for, is not in my view unreasonable. So again, just to put those few points on the record I thought would be useful. 

Bulletin: Do you know, off the top of your head, if that level, 1,000 over some period of time—will that leave roughly the same, or increase the number of deployed air‑launched cruise missiles? 

Gottemoeller:  The same. 

Bulletin: The same?

Gottemoeller: It's not going to increase the number of deployed [ALCMs]. And these systems, as you know, are accountable under the New START bomber-counting rule. And so there's that issue to consider. We have to think about how we're going to come down to the New START number, 1,550 deployable, operationally deployed warheads. So there is that overarching constraint.

Bulletin: Does it ever really frustrate you that in the general press, all the subtleties and the details you're talking about just seem to be blown right by in relation to nuclear matters?

Gottemoeller: Yeah. Yes. [laughs] It's a constant frustration. Because—and you know this well at the Bulletin—the level of knowledge among the general public and even among the expert community about issues related to the nuclear arsenal is rather low. There's a rather small group of experts who are actually focused these days on the details of nuclear policy, strategic stability, deterrence—all those concepts I think have gotten less attention in the last 20 years since the end of the Cold War than previously. 

Bulletin: I think that's obvious. I have to ask you about this, and I don't know how much you can talk about it. Congress is in the process of taking action that would supposedly have it review in some way whatever comes out as a final document in the Iran negotiations. I've read official statements from the administration.What's your view of what Congress is doing right now?

Gottemoeller: Well, you know this issue is not really in my job jar at the moment. It is the responsibility of—Secretary [of State John] Kerry himself has been very involved in the negotiations, but also our political under secretary, Wendy Sherman, is our lead negotiator on this.

I have seen the remarks out of the White House following [last week's] vote that the Senate version is something they can work with. If the House makes any changes, that will be problematic. So that's really all I know about what's going on. I have, myself, had an overarching concern since, frankly, the ratification process for the New START Treaty, that there is an increasing push over the line into the executive branch's constitutional authority, constitutional responsibility in conduct of foreign policy, and I know that that concerns the White House as well. I guess it's a normal enough push, and indeed the Senate of course has to advise and consent to any international treaty that the United States will enter into. But our view is it should be just that, advise and consent, rather than pushing into the area of the actual conduct of diplomacy, which in my mind this legislation is touching on that realm.

BulletinIt certainly seems to be touching on it. I've got a final question that, again, has been in the news a lot. Vladimir Putin's repeated reference to nuclear weapons in public: "Hey, you've got to remember we're a major nuclear power." Is that in your view his domestic political right and imperative, or does that mean something for US-Russian relations? Is there something to take away from that?

Gottemoeller: Our general view is that nuclear saber rattling is unwarranted. There's simply no threat out there that would warrant nuclear saber rattling, and nuclear countries have come a long way since the Cuban Missile Crisis and what went on at that point, and it's all been to the good in terms of enhancing stability, predictability, and mutual understanding. The 40-year plus history of our [moves toward] nuclear arms limitation and reduction I think speak of that very positive legacy. So our view is that making those kinds of remarks that seem to again rattle the nuclear saber simply don't have a place in this era, where we have a solid legacy of cooperation and mutual stability and predictability behind us.

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