Modernizing nuclear arsenals: Whether and how

By Eugene Miasnikov, Matthew Kroenig, Lu Yin, February 25, 2015

Between 2014 and 2023, the United States expects to spend $355 billion to modernize its nuclear arsenal. In subsequent decades, even higher expenditures are envisioned. But Washington is far from alone in modernizing its nuclear weapons. According to researchers from the Federation of American Scientists, "all the nuclear-armed states have ambitious nuclear weapon modernization programs … that appear intended to prolong the nuclear era indefinitely." Disarmament advocates believe such modernizations are fundamentally at odds with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons—while weapon states argue that, as long as nuclear weapons exist, arsenals must be modernized in order to keep them safe, secure, and effective. In a world where complete disarmament is nearly every nation's stated goal but disarmament seems by no means imminent, how should nuclear-armed countries approach the maintenance and modernization of their arsenals?

Round 1

Balancing modernization and disarmament

In nuclear arms control and disarmament, one sees two competing trends at play: an aspiration in many quarters to eliminate nuclear weapons and a practical desire among nuclear weapon states to modernize their arsenals. What sort of balance between these forces can be achieved?

Nuclear powers feel the need to modernize their arsenals for three main reasons. First, in today's international security environment, they still see nuclear weapons as necessary, mainly for deterrence purposes. Second, nuclear weapons continue to play a very important role in maintaining global strategic stability. Third, as long as nuclear arsenals exist, modernization is necessary in order to keep weapons safe and reliable.

Advocates for disarmament, meanwhile, argue that nuclear weapons must be prohibited and arsenals destroyed because of the disastrous consequences that would befall the human race if these weapons were ever used. Nuclear weapon states themselves, even as they emphasize the necessity of modernizing their arsenals, acknowledge that nuclear weapons ought to be eliminated eventually. For example, the Obama administration in 2009 launched a vigorous initiative toward achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.

But today's heavy US investment in nuclear modernization seems at odds with the objective of nuclear disarmament. Between 2014 and 2023, the United States is expected to spend $355 billion on modernization. Reductions in US warheads envisioned under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New Start) will be offset by upgrades in the quality of the US arsenal. Meanwhile, Washington's Prompt Global Strike and ballistic missile defense programs have posed new challenges to strategic stability.

China also feels the need to modernize its nuclear forces—in order to enhance survivability and maintain a credible minimum nuclear deterrent. But these are China's only objectives for its nuclear weapons. Among the five recognized nuclear weapon states, China is the only nation that has committed to an unconditional no-first-use policy. This policy has consistently placed restraints on China's nuclear force development (which, in any case, has never been a top priority in Beijing's military modernization drive). China consistently advocates for a world free of nuclear weapons. It has never participated in a nuclear arms race. It has never deployed nuclear weapons in any other country's territory.

Unfortunately, most nuclear-armed states—including the United States—still assign nuclear weapons a very important role in their strategies for safeguarding security. Washington, in its most recent Nuclear Posture Review, decided to no longer assign certain marginal or unrealistic tasks to nuclear weapons, but made no fundamental changes to the role of US nuclear weapons or to nuclear war-fighting strategy. As long as nuclear weapons play such a crucial role in US strategy, and as long as the United States maintains its desire for absolute security, Washington will not reduce its nuclear arsenal to relatively low levels or make dramatic changes to its current modernization program. Much the same holds true for Russia.

So, nuclear-armed nations see modernization as indispensable, but further disarmament progress seems impossible as long as modernization programs continue apace. What's the way out of this bind? The key—because national nuclear strategies determine the direction of nuclear programs—is to adjust national strategies so that less emphasis is given to the role of nuclear weapons.

If the United States and Russia significantly alter their nuclear strategies, further substantial reductions in arsenals are possible. If the two nations' arsenals are reduced, other states will be encouraged to consider how and when they might participate in multilateral disarmament processes. Multilateral disarmament will be no easy task—as shown by the history of US-Russia disarmament negotiations, even bilateral processes are very difficult. Still, further progress by the United States and Russia could serve as an inspiration to other nuclear-armed nations.

But there's a further complication—missile defense systems and Prompt Global Strike capacities pose a serious threat to strategic stability and to disarmament. New Start imposed no restrictions on the development of ballistic missile defense or advanced conventional weapons, and developments in either technology could trigger a renewed nuclear arms race. Consequently, great discretion is required regarding the development and deployment of such systems. (New Start, incidentally, also leaves the United States with a strong nuclear "upload" capability. That is, the United States retains ample space on deployed missiles to redeploy warheads that have been taken out of service. Russia, in contrast, has little upload capacity.)

Eliminating nuclear weapons does not appear feasible at this stage. Modernizations of nuclear arsenals are certain to go forward. But it's possible—and very important—to achieve a balance between modernization and disarmament. Under such an approach, nuclear strategy would be adjusted so that nuclear weapons assumed less importance in national security. The practical reasons for possessing nuclear weapons would gradually disappear. All nuclear-armed countries would be encouraged to reduce their arsenals. But it's the United States and Russia, the two nuclear superpowers, that must take the lead, establish trust, and set a good example for other nations.

Why US nuclear modernization is necessary

My childhood dream was to star in the National Basketball Association. But I stand only six feet one inch tall, I'm entering my late 30s, and I haven't played competitive basketball in over 15 years. My chances of playing at the professional level are essentially zero. Some might argue that, if I am to have any hope of realizing my boyhood wish, I should spend my days running wind sprints and practicing free throws. But that path would improve my chances from none to extremely slim, and would certainly take away from my duties as a professor, researcher, and analyst. In the end, it simply isn't worth ruining the life I have in order to chase a fantasy.

The same can be said of the United States' choices regarding its nuclear posture. Over the next decade and beyond, the United States will go through a much-needed modernization of its aging nuclear capabilities, and these plans enjoy strong bipartisan support. But some critics argue that the modernization project conflicts with stated disarmament goals, including President Obama's vision of bringing about "a world without nuclear weapons."

The fact, however, is that the world is characterized by intense security competition and sometimes outright conflict. Though some observers hoped that the end of the Cold War would bring the end of history, political discord among great powers has returned in recent years. Russia is using force to redraw the map of Europe. China is asserting revisionist territorial claims in East Asia. Over the past two decades, conventional military dominance has allowed the United States to de-emphasize its nuclear weapons, but the US conventional advantage is eroding as Russia and especially China build up their non-nuclear military capabilities. Moreover, nuclear weapons remain the ultimate instrument of military power—and Washington's potential adversaries, including Russia, China, and North Korea, are modernizing their nuclear arsenals with an eye toward using those weapons in the event of conflict with the United States.

This is reality.

Nonetheless, some argue that achieving the fond hope of complete nuclear disarmament requires the United States to cut its arsenal and refuse to modernize its forces. But other countries will not blindly follow Washington's lead. In recent years, as the United States has slashed the size of its arsenal, other countries have moved in the opposite direction, building up their nuclear forces. Complete nuclear disarmament may be desirable, but achieving it will require nothing less than a major transformation of the international political system. Simply allowing the US arsenal to rust away, therefore, will not meaningfully affect chances for eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide.

Failure to modernize would not contribute to disarmament—but more than that, it would be irresponsible. A crippled US nuclear force would embolden enemies, frighten allies, generate international instability, and undermine US national security. In other words, it would risk ruining the world that currently exists.

Rather than preparing for an alternate reality, therefore, Washington needs to build the nuclear forces that it needs in this reality. The United States must maintain a robust nuclear posture and fully modernize its nuclear forces, as planned. This means upgrading all three legs of the nuclear triad, refurbishing nuclear warheads, modernizing the production complex, and, if necessary, summoning the political will to build new capabilities to meet new demands. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put it in November, "Our nuclear deterrent plays a critical role in assuring US national security, and it is [the Defense Department's] highest priority mission. No other capability we have is more important."

Some might argue that modernization in the United States will spur reactions in other states, contributing to a new arms race—but, as pointed out above, modernization plans are proceeding apace in the rest of the world quite apart from any decisions being made in Washington. Critics also cite cost as an obstacle, but, at its peak, the nuclear upgrades will only account for around 5 percent of the defense budget. Thus, nuclear weapons provide a strategic deterrent at a reasonable price. Or, as incoming Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in 2013, "nuclear weapons don't actually cost that much."

In sum, there is no good reason for the United States not to follow through on its planned modernization of nuclear forces. Perhaps one day we will be pleasantly surprised by an opportunity to live out our fantasies. But until then, we must live up to our responsibilities.

Modernization and “zero”: Compatible tendencies?

Most nuclear weapon states, including the United States and Russia, have often declared their commitment to getting rid of nuclear weapons. But no nuclear weapon state will feel ready to abandon its nuclear capabilities unless all other nations do likewise. Nuclear arms are therefore likely to remain in military arsenals for a long time and nuclear weapons will continue to be refurbished. But even if one accepts as inevitable the modernizations of nuclear arsenals, can they be managed in such a way that they don't create obstacles to nuclear arms reductions and to complete disarmament in the long run?

The history of Russia-US arms control negotiations provides many examples of nuclear modernizations that created no obstacles to reductions—and that in fact were conditions for cuts. In particular, the US Senate's approval of New START in 2010 was conditioned on accelerated funding for modernizing the US nuclear weapons complex and ensuring the modernization of delivery systems. The logic in such a calculation is quite clear: Arsenal reductions must not create an appearance of weakened security. If nuclear forces are reduced in numerical terms, the need emerges to enhance the efficiency and survivability of remaining forces. 

In any event, history shows that nuclear-armed states continually modernize their nuclear weapons. But the factors motivating modernization, and the relative importance of those factors, have varied. In the Russia-US relationship, modernization has been driven by four factors: first, the emergence of new technologies making nuclear arms more efficient and allowing them to be maintained in safer, more secure ways; second, the development by an adversary of disruptive technologies such as air and missile defenses, antisubmarine warfare, and offensive long-range high-precision arms; third, a desire to broaden the functional capabilities of delivery systems originally designed for nuclear missions exclusively; and fourth, the limited service life of existing systems.

Conditions for the Cold War arms race were created by the first two factors—the emergence of new technologies that made nuclear arms more efficient and, especially, the development of disruptive technologies. Ballistic and cruise missiles as well as supersonic heavy bombers were a response to the development of air defenses, while nuclear-powered submarines and submarine-launched missiles with intercontinental range were a response to the evolution of antisubmarine warfare. The impact of ballistic missile defense during the Cold War is somewhat questionable—the effectiveness of ballistic missile defense technologies was quite limited in those days. Still, one cannot exclude the possibility that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty performed an important function by limiting these technologies. And who knows how different the evolution of strategic arms might have been if the parties had agreed to limit disruptive technologies such as air defenses and antisubmarine warfare? What's certain is that, during the Cold War, the qualitative modernization of nuclear arms proceeded so fast that new systems emerged long before the service lives of older systems were exhausted.

The end of the Cold War brought changes in the balance of factors affecting modernization decisions. Though certain US strategic programs continued in the early 1990s due to inertia (a build-up, for example, in new nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines), a general understanding was reached in the United States that the nation's nuclear arsenal was too large and had lost much of its value in the new geopolitical environment. The primary motivating factor for US modernization thus became a desire to make strategic delivery systems more "usable." The effort began by equipping heavy bombers with high-precision conventional weapons and converting them for non-nuclear roles. Air- and sea-launched long-range cruise missiles were also equipped with conventional warheads. Another development in this vein was the advent of the Prompt Global Strike program, which began as a plan to replace nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles with conventional warheads.

The United States has been modernizing its delivery systems continuously for two decades. But these delivery systems are approaching the end of their originally planned service lives, and their potential for further modernization is limited. On the other hand, accumulated technology advancements are now spurring the United States to build a new generation of delivery systems.

In Russia, for almost two decades, modernization programs suffered from persistent underfunding. The service lives of missiles inherited from the Soviet Union have been extended by factors of two to three. Indeed, Russia's ambitious programs to deploy new delivery systems—which will absorb the lion's share of a broader rearmament plan that, through 2020, will cost 20 trillion rubles—can be explained first of all by the impossibility of extending indefinitely the service lives of existing weapons. But a second factor has played a role in Russia's decision to develop new delivery systems. Specifically, the threat of US ballistic missile defense deployments in Europe, along with the development of US strategic conventional weapons, have been strong arguments in favor of developing new heavy missile and mobile railway systems. (However, it's unclear how these programs will evolve as Russia's economic situation deteriorates.)

Diverging perceptions. In both the United States and the Soviet Union (and later Russia), nuclear reductions were possible in the late 1980s and early 1990s because both sides realized that their accumulated arsenals were excessively large and the arms race was senseless. Since then, arsenals on both sides have diminished progressively. Modernization programs are unlikely to reverse this trend, despite deterioration in US-Russia relations over the last few years. But the two nations no longer perceive similar incentives where making further cuts is concerned.

In the United States, many people still recognize that the US arsenal is too large. President Obama, for example, announced in a 2013 Berlin speech that he would "seek further negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures." This proposal seems to have a strong pragmatic goal—to reduce the costs of future modernizations by cutting excess forces. In Russia, however, a number of current trends don't encourage similar viewpoints. In particular, many Russians perceive the unconstrained development of US ballistic missile defense and precision guided munitions as new threats that require a response. Often, these perceptions are influenced too much by emotion. Nonetheless, Russia's industrial and financial resources are limited. Moscow has no ability to influence the qualitative development of US arms. In such a situation, further US development of missile defense and precision guided munitions makes Russia less interested in pursuing the bilateral negotiation process and more inclined to reduce the transparency of its nuclear arsenal.  

In the best-case scenario going forward, US modernization programs will have a minor negative impact on bilateral relations. In the worst case, they will become an additional irritant in an already complex relationship. But it is unlikely that bilateral negotiations toward further cuts can begin unless US-Russia relations improve radically.

Even when prerequisites are met for further dialogue on nuclear arms reductions, ballistic missile defense and conventional strategic arms will remain crucial obstacles. Therefore it's important that the United States limit development of such weapons—or direct their development in such a way that other states won't have cause to worry about the survivability of the smaller nuclear arsenals that would result from agreed arms reductions.

Round 2

Introspection and security

All participants in this roundtable agree on one point—that nuclear weapon states need to modernize their arsenals. But Eugene Miasnikov and I diverge from our colleague Matthew Kroenig in important ways. Miasnikov and I, in line with traditional approaches to arms control and disarmament, favor a balance between modernization and arsenal reductions. In other words, we seek ways to make modernization and disarmament compatible.

Kroenig demonstrates excellent argumentation skills, but I dispute his view that the United States needn’t restrict its nuclear modernization plans or de-emphasize nuclear weapons in its national security strategy. Kroenig sees complete disarmament as "fantasy," and believes that "the United States must maintain a robust nuclear posture and fully modernize its nuclear forces." He even argues that the United States, if necessary, must summon "the political will to build new capabilities to meet new demands."

But Kroenig’s views conflict with the reality that the United States doesn’t need a large nuclear arsenal as much as in past decades. The United States enjoys unequaled strength in conventional military capacities. Washington’s advanced strategic conventional weapons, including those under development through the Prompt Global Strike program, can function both as a deterrent and as a means of wreaking mass destruction on an adversary—without presenting the moral dilemmas that would accompany the use of nuclear weapons.

It is partly for these reasons that the United States has already, to a certain extent, de-emphasized nuclear weapons in its security strategy. The 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review placed new limits on the circumstances under which the United States would contemplate using nuclear weapons. It asserted that no new nuclear warheads would be developed. Yet Kroenig remains a strong advocate of upgrading the US nuclear arsenal, without limits, and he continues to regard nuclear weapons as the ultimate instruments of military power.

Not that Kroenig is obliged to agree with his nation’s president, but Kroenig’s support for unbridled nuclear modernization stands in marked contrast to the Obama administration’s goal of establishing a world free of nuclear weapons. Obama, in his 2009 Prague speech, not only expressed this goal but also committed himself to continuous reductions in nuclear arsenals and to continuing disarmament negotiations with Russia. Perhaps Kroenig would dismiss Obama’s approach as "fantasy," but even US national security figures such as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and William Perry subscribe to largely the same goals.

That said, I very much concur with Kroenig’s view that general disarmament will require that the root causes of international insecurity be eradicated. What Kroenig doesn’t take into account, however, is that US desire for complete security is itself a force undermining global security. As Kissinger wrote in 1959, "The stability of an international system depends on the degree to which it combines the need for security with the obligation of self-restraint. … [T]o seek security entirely through physical domination is to menace all other countries. For absolute security for one country must mean absolute insecurity for all others."

Kroenig argued in his Round Two essay that Miasnikov and I "could have demonstrated greater introspection" in what we had written to that point. I would reply that the need for introspection cuts both ways. Successful mechanisms for nuclear arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation require that all nuclear-armed nations participate actively in these processes. So, as I’ve written before, the United States (along with Russia) should set an example for other countries—including China, of course—and lead the world toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. In that direction lies an achievable, sustainable path toward increased global security.

Tinkering won’t produce disarmament

This roundtable supposes a tension between the nuclear powers’ stated disarmament goals and their current plans to modernize their nuclear forces. But does such a tension in fact exist? That depends to a large degree on one’s assumptions about how global disarmament, if achievable, will most likely come about.

Many assume that disarmament will result from a slow, deliberate process in which the nuclear powers sign arms control agreements that gradually reduce the size of nuclear forces—until nuclear weapons no longer exist. This view appears to underlie Eugene Miasnikov and Lu Yin’s Round One essays. Both my roundtable colleagues criticize US modernization plans and argue that the United States should scale back those plans. Lu asserts that the United States (as well as Russia) should follow China’s example in de-emphasizing nuclear weapons. Both authors, meanwhile, raise concerns about US ballistic missile defense and Washington’s conventional Prompt Global Strike program.

In making their arguments, however, Miasnikov and Lu could have demonstrated greater introspection. The United States is debating modernization, but Russia is completing it. Moscow is introducing new intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarines. It has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by testing a new intermediate-range, ground-launched cruise missile. And, in defiance of its promises at the end of the Cold War, Russia retains thousands of battlefield nuclear weapons, ready for use. China has been commendably restrained in comparison. But it too is expanding and modernizing its nuclear forces. And though China trumpets its formal no-first-use policy, Chinese officials privately admit that Beijing might use nuclear weapons first under a narrow range of contingencies.

The United States, on the other hand, transparently disavows a no-first-use policy—precisely because, under a narrow range of circumstances, Washington might use nuclear weapons first. But if Washington truly sought a first-strike advantage, as Miasnikov and Lu fear, US ballistic missile defenses and Prompt Global Strike capabilities would look very different from the minimal systems currently deployed or under consideration.

On a more fundamental level, though, the thrust of my colleagues’ essays may be misguided—in the sense that it’s hard to understand how tinkering with nuclear modernization plans will directly contribute to something as profound as worldwide nuclear disarmament. Such steps would do little to address the security concerns that encourage states to possess nuclear weapons in the first place. As former US President Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, "[W]e do not mistrust each other because we are armed. We are armed because we mistrust each other."

Indeed, consistent with this perspective, the largest nuclear reductions in history followed immediately on the heels of the cessation of Cold War hostilities. Presumably, worldwide nuclear disarmament would require an even more radical reduction in tensions among all states. Proposals that recommend changing strategic postures as a step toward disarmament, therefore, risk confusing cause and effect.

Global disarmament will require nothing less than the eradication of the root causes of international insecurity. While ameliorating security concerns is no easy task, the United States over the past 70 years has contributed to this effort by providing the global public good of security. It has done this, among other means, by protecting Asian and European allies through the extension of a nuclear umbrella; by dissuading these allies from building their own nuclear arsenals; and by sparing Russia and China the necessity of engaging in dangerous arms races with regional rivals.

Due to recent Russian and Chinese actions, however, international stability is under threat. In the past year, Russia has violently occupied Crimea and invaded the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. It continues to menace the rest of Ukraine and Europe. China makes confrontational claims in the South China Sea. Its conventional military build-up threatens to overturn the military balance that has kept the peace in East Asia for over half a century—a peace from which China has benefited more than any other state.

From this perspective, the nuclear modernization plans of the nuclear powers may not be the most significant impediment to worldwide nuclear disarmament. Rather, the greatest obstacle may be revisionist foreign policies that imperil international peace and security.

Constructive steps, not dominance

It's inevitable that nations will modernize their nuclear arsenals, as participants in this roundtable agree. Two authors—Lu Yin and I—further agree that modernizations should be managed so as not to impede nuclear arms reductions and, eventually, complete disarmament. Matthew Kroenig, meanwhile, writes that "[c]omplete nuclear disarmament may be desirable" but he seems to discount it as an option worth pursuing. "[A]chieving it," he writes, "will require nothing less than a major transformation of the international political system."

One can agree with that—but if reaching nuclear zero is desirable, as Kroenig admits, one ought to ask how nuclear-armed nations can advance this goal in the near term. Unfortunately, it's difficult to discern in Kroenig's approach to modernization any strategy through which the world could become a safer place. Instead, Kroenig focuses much of his argument on why the United States should maintain its military "dominance."

Kroenig writes that the United States has enjoyed "conventional military dominance" over the past two decades—and he is correct about this. During much of the two decades in question, US military expenditures were on the rise. The US military budget remains the world's largest, accounting for more than one-third of global military spending. China and Russia combined spend less than half as much on their militaries as the United States spends on its own. Yet Kroenig argues that "the US conventional advantage is eroding as Russia and especially China build up their non-nuclear military capabilities."

But exactly how much dominance must the United States enjoy—and at what price? For that matter, is US military dominance consistent with Washington's professed leadership in building a better, more harmonious world? A world free of war and fear? The sort of world in which, to borrow Lu's language, "[t]he practical reasons for possessing nuclear weapons would gradually disappear"?

How much is enough? Kroenig writes that "as the United States has slashed the size of its arsenal, other countries have moved in the opposite direction, building up their nuclear forces." But in fact, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom are decreasing their arsenals. Admittedly, India and Pakistan are increasing their nuclear forces—and China is likely doing so as well. But to the extent that growth in China's arsenal poses a problem, the solution lies in dialogue about transparency and arms control, not in military dominance. Such dialogue could lead toward capping the nuclear arsenal of China's neighbor India, which perceives China as a threat. This could make it possible to cap the nuclear capabilities of Pakistan, which perceives India as a threat. A build-up in the US arsenal, on the other hand, would not change perceptions or trends in South Asia.

The real question is how much modernization is enough. Which sorts of modernization would create obstacles to further cuts? Which would be neutral? Which might even contribute to disarmament? An example of a program that clearly undermines further disarmament is the ongoing US effort to improve the fusing systems of long-range land- and sea-based ballistic-missile warheads. The better accuracy and higher kill power of these warheads would dramatically reduce the survivability of Russian silo-based missiles. This in turn would make nuclear war more likely.

Kroenig seems to consider only two near-term options for managing the US nuclear arsenal, and both are extreme. One option is "allowing the US arsenal to rust away." The other is maintaining "a robust nuclear posture and fully moderniz[ing] … nuclear forces, as planned." But these two choices are not the only ones—many more options lie in between. For example, the United States could scale back plans to replace its existing fleet of submarines—that is, buy fewer boats—or it could delay plans to build new nuclear bombers. It could also abandon the program, mentioned above, aimed at building up first-strike counterforce capabilities. This would give the next round of nuclear reductions a better chance of success.

Round 3

Reasons for optimism

This roundtable, which began as a discussion about nuclear modernizations, has in fact highlighted the enormous challenges that surround efforts toward nuclear arms control and disarmament. Eugene Miasnikov has discussed Russia's nuclear posture and policies in light of the security concerns that Moscow perceives to emanate from the United States, and Matthew Kroenig has done likewise from a US perspective. Kroenig, for example, devoting much attention to Russia's activities in Ukraine, has written that "the United States should field the nuclear arsenal that is necessary to deter present threats to international peace and security." Miasnikov has expressed dissatisfaction about NATO's eastward expansion, writing that when Moscow withdrew its nuclear forces from Eastern Europe and territories of the former Soviet Union, "it did not expect that the West would seek to extend its military alliance closer to Russia's borders." One can see from Miasnikov and Kroenig's essays that sentiment in favor of developing and deploying nuclear weapons still runs strong, even decades after the Cold War ended.

Severe challenges surround efforts toward nuclear arms control and disarmament. Responsibility for addressing those challenges starts with the United States and Russia, which maintain huge nuclear arsenals, far out of proportion to their actual needs. These two countries can set a positive example for other nuclear-armed countries—or, by overemphasizing the need to upgrade nuclear arsenals and by failing to make deep cuts, they can risk setting off a nuclear chain reaction. Countries such as China, with limited nuclear arsenals, are concerned about the insufficient disarmament progress displayed by Washington and Moscow. China and other nuclear weapon states will hesitate to join a multilateral disarmament process if the United States and Russia fail to pursue deep cuts. Non-nuclear weapon states might be tempted to pursue nuclear capabilities. Increased proliferation could lead to nuclear terrorism.

Against this backdrop, some pessimism is justifiable regarding the long-term goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from the world. But regarding the nearer-term goal of establishing smaller nuclear arsenals, cautious optimism is appropriate. Huge nuclear arsenals have become redundant in the post–Cold War security environment. Nuclear modernization and maintenance are very expensive. For the two nuclear superpowers, reducing arsenal size would simply be a practical choice. Even with smaller stockpiles of weapons, Washington and Moscow would retain their deterrence capability. They would also, at least partially, satisfy the disarmament expectations of the international community. Nations with smaller nuclear arsenals must also join arms control and disarmament processes in the long run. In the meantime, they must be careful not to impede bilateral reductions.

The complete prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons may be a long-term dream at this point, but the longest journey begins with a single step. A practical path toward disarmament can be set if all nuclear-armed nations take concrete actions such as dealing cooperatively with common security challenges, instituting or enhancing confidence-building measures, making careful plans for crisis management, and seeking to avoid miscalculations. In addition, nuclear-armed countries should seriously consider establishing a treaty that would, among signatories, ban the first use of nuclear weapons. Such a treaty would also prohibit using nuclear weapons, or threatening to use them, against non-nuclear weapon states at any time and under any conditions. National positions on such a treaty might constitute a litmus test as to whether countries are truly serious about nuclear disarmament.

Stability before disarmament

This roundtable has revealed certain broad areas of agreement among Lu Yin, Eugene Miasnikov, and me. All the authors believe that states should pursue disarmament as stipulated in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—but that nuclear modernization will be necessary as long as nuclear forces exist. Where my colleagues and I differ is primarily on questions of timing and sequencing.

Lu and Miasnikov appear to believe that there is a magical formula for the pace and scope of nuclear modernization efforts that will allow simultaneous deterrence and disarmament. I am skeptical that this is possible, or even that it represents the right way to think about the problem. I believe instead that the United States should field the nuclear arsenal that is necessary to deter present threats to international peace and security. At the same time, all states should work to reduce international tensions so that disarmament might be achieved in the future. If and when these conditions are met, nuclear drawdowns will easily follow.

More to lose. Both my colleagues accuse me of advocating absolute security for the United States. I am confused as to the origins of this charge, as I do not believe that absolute security has ever been possible for any state. Indeed, security is a scarce commodity, even in the 21st century—as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown.

In his most recent essay, Miaskniov wondered if I believed that "Russia’s nuclear arsenal [was] qualitatively superior to that of the United States." No, I don’t believe it is—but Russia has recently invaded a sovereign nation, engaged in nuclear saber rattling, discussed lowering its threshold for using nuclear weapons, and tested new nuclear capabilities. President Vladimir Putin has made thinly veiled nuclear threats. All this provides much reason for concern about Russia’s nuclear capabilities and its commitment to international security.

Miasnikov has argued that Washington and Moscow must save the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) if at all possible—and I fully agree. (Beijing has a strong interest in this matter as well, as China would be vulnerable to intermediate-range nuclear forces in Russia.) I am skeptical, however, of Russia’s intentions regarding the INF Treaty. For years, Putin has made no secret of his desire to break free from the treaty’s constraints. But if Russia does not return to treaty compliance, other nations will be forced to respond. The treaty is a "two-way street," to borrow the words of incoming US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter—who also said during his Senate confirmation hearings on February 4 that "If you don’t want to have that treaty, why then, you’re absolved from your restrictions under that treaty, and we are too." In the same vein, a ranking Pentagon official testified at a congressional hearing on December 10 that "We don’t have ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe now, obviously, because they’re prohibited by the treaty … but that would obviously be one option to explore." Europe is safer without these missiles, of course. But Moscow (and Beijing) have much more than Washington to lose if Russia’s actions unleash an unconstrained intermediate-range nuclear arms race in Eurasia.

Ground-launched cruise missiles are not the only Russian nuclear capability that must be re-evaluated in light of recent events. Russia’s entire arsenal of 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which gives Moscow an overwhelming battlefield advantage against its neighbors (including NATO’s easternmost members), seems much less benign than it did one year ago. If Russia continues to make nuclear threats, and stubbornly refuses to reduce its nuclear forces through arms control negotiations, the West may need to take steps to ensure that it has credible options to deter and, if necessary, defeat Russian nuclear aggression in its near abroad.

Miasnikov rightly points out that decisions taken today about nuclear posture will have long-lasting consequences. The death of the INF Treaty could be a very severe consequence of ill-considered decisions. An even graver mistake would be NATO’s failing to maintain a nuclear posture sufficient to deter further Russian belligerence in Eastern Europe.

Nuclear decisions, long-lasting consequences

In Round Two, Matthew Kroenig wrote that "the United States is debating modernization, but Russia is completing it." It’s unclear what my colleague means. Does Kroenig believe that Russia’s nuclear arsenal is qualitatively superior to that of the United States? Such a belief has no basis in fact. If there was rough nuclear parity between the two nations at the end of the Cold War, Russia could not have outrun the United States in the intervening years. Development of military technology in Russia has been quite modest over the last two decades. The new Russian strategic missiles and submarines deployed over that time have mostly been based on technologies already developed by the late 1980s. And a simple comparison of US and Russian expenditures on nuclear maintenance and modernization undermines the notion that Russia could have outstripped the United States.

If Kroenig’s rationale for US nuclear modernization is not that the US arsenal is inferior, is he suggesting instead that the United States should dominate the world both in terms of conventional and nuclear capabilities? Lu Yin was entirely correct when she argued in Round Two that nations undermine global security when they seek absolute security for themselves. Kroenig seemingly seeks absolute security for the United States, and thus walks a path that leads toward global conflict instead of global peace.

Kroenig makes another suspect claim when he writes that "…in defiance of its promises at the end of the Cold War, Russia retains thousands of battlefield nuclear weapons, ready for use." This claim is simply incorrect. Russia has successfully completed most of the implementation work related to the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of the early 1990s, according to which the two sides pledged to reduce their arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons. Today, all Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons are housed at central storage sites operated by the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense. They are not deployed with delivery vehicles. They are not ready for use—unlike, for example, many intercontinental ballistic missiles on both sides, which are kept on alert and can be launched within a few minutes.

Russia has never promised to get rid of its nonstrategic nuclear weapons unconditionally. Still, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russia withdrew all nuclear weapons based within the territory of former allies in Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. But when Moscow withdrew its forces from these regions, it did not expect that the West would seek to extend its military alliance closer to Russia’s borders. Meanwhile, the United States continues to base tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. This represents a major obstacle to progress on the problem of nonstrategic nuclear weapons. In any event, there is a general consensus in the arms control community that the United States and Russia possess comparable numbers of nuclear warheads. Counting strategic and nonstrategic warheads, whether deployed or nondeployed—but not including warheads awaiting dismantlement—each side has about 4,000 to 5,000 warheads. Focusing too much on nonstrategic warheads obscures this quantitative parity.

Also bearing further examination is Kroenig’s assertion that Russia has, by testing a new missile, violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). One needs to exercise care in drawing such conclusions; publicly available evidence suggests that the issue is not so cut and dried. Indeed, both sides have raised compliance issues concerning the treaty. If the United States and Russia both believe that the treaty remains important, they should reconvene the Special Verification Commission, the group specifically established for resolving compliance issues. Continuing to make public accusations is not going to save the treaty.

Finally, regarding the situation in and around Ukraine, the crisis there certainly represents a major stumbling block to mutually beneficial US-Russia cooperation. But Kroenig takes too simplistic a view (and an incorrect one) when he writes that "Russia has violently occupied Crimea and invaded the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine." The issues surrounding the crisis extend far beyond the scope of this roundtable. Still, one point is worth making: The situation in Ukraine today is a tragic consequence of decisions taken long ago—in particular, creating artificial dividing lines where none existed before.

It is up to the American people to decide on the future size of their nuclear arsenal, and how much modernization it requires. But it is important to bear in mind that such decisions will have profound effects on the rest of the world. These decisions might promote, to borrow Kroenig’s words, a "reduction in tensions among all states," which would be conducive to further nuclear cuts. Or they might become a source of additional tension and mistrust.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons


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