The Emerging Nuclear Posture

 _____About the Author_____

William M. Arkin, a former Army intelligence analyst and consultant, has written extensively about military affairs, including several books on the topic. In 1994, his "The U.S. Military Online: A Directory for Internet Access to the Department of Defense" was published. It's now in its second edition. His Dot.Mil column, launched in November 1998, appears every other Monday on
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By William M. Arkin
Special to
Monday, July 30, 2001; 12:00 AM

The political tide on missile defenses is turning. With the agreement by Presidents Bush and Putin to develop a new strategic framework and lower nuclear arsenals, the Russian government is softening its opposition, and even Democrats on Capitol Hill are grudgingly donning anti-ballistic missile uniforms.

It is not coincidental, I would argue, that the one international issue that not two weeks ago seemed capable of upsetting stability between the nuclear powers is now the one that is yielding success for the Bush camp. Given how lost the new team is on defense and foreign policy (the White House was required by legislation to submit a "national security strategy" document to Congress by June 19 and has still not produced one), it makes sense that they can be convincing on the one issue they care deeply about.

The real secret of success is that the Bush team is giving Russia a huge hand just where it needs it. The emerging outlines of the administration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) proposes unilateral and deep reductions in offensive nuclear forces, with a package of measures to assure Russia, China and U.S. allies that missile defenses are benign. The question is whether the Bush team can truly reform U.S.-Russian relations and be believable as neither threatening nor pro-nuclear.

Emerging Partnership

Everyone, including Moscow, is aware that Russia can't possibly hope to compete - let alone keep up - with the United States any more on nuclear forces. Within seven to eight years, analysts say, Russia will not have more than 1,500 strategic warheads deployed. Even if Russia decided to actively thwart the terms of START II and keep multiple warheads on its land-based missiles, it could still only deploy about 2,500-2,800 weapons, most of which would be completely obsolete by the end of the decade. Only one significant intercontinental system, the SS-27 missile, is in production, to replace a deteriorating force that was never designed for longevity. The Bush administration is doing an enormous favor for Moscow by allowing an accelerated timetable of reductions.

Last week in Moscow, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, offered Russia a schedule to begin discussing both a new nuclear framework for defenses, and reductions. "We should be ready to move to a system of security more in accordance with our new emerging partnership with Russia," she said. As Rice sees it, "we don't see the need for a treaty regime here .... We would really rather do something that looks more like defense planning talks, ... not arms control negotiations, but consultations and discussions."

In a Nuclear Phase

The outlines of those talks are being set in the NPR, which is starting to gel inside the Pentagon around a set of phased deep reductions accompanied by a new articulation of U.S. deterrence policy, and a package of confidence building measures intended to assure Russia and China, and communicate U.S. resolve to the rest of the world. The nuclear posture review has a three phase design and time frame,according to a number of experts involved in the process.

The first phase, essentially awaiting Rumsfeld approval this week, according to Defense Department sources, ties together piecemeal decisions already made and committed under the START Treaties. This includes retirement of 50 Peacekeeper "MX" missiles with 500 warheads, placement of single MX warheads on Minuteman III missiles, and reducing the Trident submarine fleet from 18 to 14 boats.

This first set, experts say, is "doable" without any change in national guidance, that is, the Top Secret Presidential directive to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Strategic Command which specifies what U.S. nuclear forces must be prepared to do in crisis and war. "Though maybe not as innovative as a lot of people would like," one insider says, it is the whole package that should be evaluated. He sees the phased concept as an "orderly" approach to deep reductions: "go down, pause, keep insurance and a hedge, constantly posture yourself to be able to go down lower."

The second phase would be to unilaterally reduce further to some 2,000 warheads. This would be done through "downloading" the number of warheads on submarines, and reducing the day-to-day nuclear committed force, including potentially reducing the level of alert. At this stage, a new national policy would kick in: Sufficiency in strategic nuclear forces would be defined as a "core deterrent," with a "robust adaptive capability" to quickly plan for the use of nuclear weapons in response to virtually any contingency, and an ability to build-up, including restarting nuclear testing, were U.S. relations with Russia or China demand it. A new capability would be developed in the form of new "tailored" nuclear weapons to attack hardened and deeply buried targets. A retired officer intimately involved with targeting over the years says that there are somewhere on the order of 100 or more of these bunkers outside of Russia and China, bunkers that planners worry provides a sanctuary for rogue nations, thereby suggesting to them that they might be able to use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons with impunity.

In the third phase, seen as possible by the end of the decade, forces would decline to 1,000-1,500 warheads, with still lower numbers of missile warheads, and bombers transformed into "dual capable" airplanes like fighters, released from most of the day-to-day requirement to prepare for nuclear war. Though the cuts are anticipated to be unilateral, all along the way, the United States would take Russia's pulse to gauge its response, and it would undertake a number of new cooperative measures with Moscow. "As we reduce our strategic forces to [these] lower levels," commander of Strategic Command Admiral Richard Mies told Congress on July 11, certain things become more important even than numbers: "transparency, irreversibility, production capacity, aggregate warhead inventories and verifiability."

Insiders stress that unlike the early Clinton administration, when political appointees moved to eliminate land-based intercontinental missiles (ICBMs) in the 1994 NPR, the Bush team is completely committed to the U.S. missile force. "Do we want to have a posture where with 13 weapons, Russia could decapitate this country?" a former nuclear planner asks. The view in the NPR is that ICBMs are stabilizing. "He has to hold all of those silos at risk," the planner says.

Needed for What?

Is this the "totally different approach" that insiders claim it is? The central nuclear war plan, the SIOP, would not be eliminated as some would like to see, but the current nuclear warfighting requirement would be redefined as maintenance of a far smaller survivable U.S. force tasked just to hold "core targets" at risk, backed up by the "hedge."

"We need to escape from the inertia that has kept the concept of mutually assured destruction as the centerpiece of our strategic relationship with Russia," Under Secretary of State John Bolton said on Capitol Hill earlier this month. Easier said than done. When ICBMs are justified as sponges to soak up a Russian strike of hundreds or thousands of warheads, it should be pretty clear that despite the reasonableness of the Bush plan, throwing away old nuclear weapons may be a lot easier than abandoning nuclear war thinking.

It was Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney who said at the end of the Cold War that "you don't throw away your winter coat on the first warm day of spring." Many of the "hedges" and pro-nuclear facets of the emerging posture - the ability to upload missiles with more warheads when Russia's forces are deteriorating, building new bunker busting warheads, moving to quietly develop a new ICBM, and, of course, emerging national missile defenses that could be seen as the final component of a U.S.first strike - are likely to invoke coat wearers in Russia to wonder just what it is we have on underneath. The reductions, hedges, and cooperative measures may for all of the reasons Adm. Mies refers to about transparency, require formal understandings for all of this to work. This will be particularly difficult for the new team to pull off convincingly, given that another thing the Bush administration seems to believe is that treaties are bad.

© 2001 Washington Post Newsweek Interactive

[Traduzione in italiano: Arkin è il grandissimo parascienziato intercontinentale che aveva firmato l'analisi commissionata da "Grim-Pieces" dove l'uranio impoverito "era solo... propaganda di Saddam"! A Firenze si dice: se 'un son grulli...'un si vogliano!"]