By Jamshed Baruah
In run-up to the NATO Summit in Chicago on May 20, a new report is calling for abandoning the Cold War rationale and ushering in a systemic change in U. S. nuclear force structure, strategy and posture in order to address the security threats in the 21st century.
The impassioned plea has been made by the U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission of Global Zero, an international movement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
According to General James E. Cartwright, who heads the Commission, the U.S. nuclear deterrence could be guaranteed with a total arsenal of between 500 and 900 warheads, and with only half of them deployed at any one time.
Even those in the field would be taken off hair triggers, requiring 24 to 72 hours for launching, to reduce the chance of accidental war, says General Cartwright, the retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander of the United States’ nuclear forces.
The Obama administration is reportedly considering at least three options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons: reducing their numbers to 1,000 to 1,100; 700 to 800; or 300 to 400. The Global Zero report calls for such weapons to be reduced to about 450, while maintaining an equal number of stored weapons.
The U.S. and Russia have an estimated 5,000 nuclear weapons each, either deployed or in reserve. The two countries are already on track to reduce to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads by 2018, as required by the New START treaty.
“The strategy inherited from the Cold War which remains in place artificially sustains nuclear stockpiles that are much larger than required for deterrence today and that have scant efficacy in dealing with the main contemporary threats to U. S. and global security – nuclear proliferation, terrorism, cyber warfare and a multitude of other threats stemming from the diffusion of power in the world today,” says the report.
The 26-page report Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture Current avers that U. S. nuclear policy “focuses too narrowly on threats rooted in Cold War thinking, incurring excessive costs to prepare for an implausible contingency of nuclear war with Russia when there is no conceivable circumstance in which either country’s interest would be served by deliberately initiating such a conflict.”
The report warns that current U. S. nuclear policy also unnecessarily incurs risks of unintentionally initiating a nuclear conflict. By maintaining launch-ready nuclear postures just as they did during the Cold War, the United States and Russia run risks of nuclear mistakes that could have catastrophic consequences.
The Global Zero report notes that the U. S. and Russian arsenals have been steadily shrinking since the end of the Cold War 20 years ago and pleads for continuing these reductions. “Steep bilateral reductions in all categories of weapons in their stockpiles are warranted and should be pursued in the next round of U. S.- Russian negotiations. An arsenal of 500-900 total weapons on each side would easily meet reasonable requirements of deterrence and would set the stage to initiate multilateral nuclear arms reductions involving all countries with nuclear weapons,” says the report.
The United States should seek to achieve such reductions in ten years and plan to base its arsenal on a dyad of nuclear delivery vehicles, the report advises. The optimal mix of carriers would consist of ten Trident ballistic missile submarines and eighteen B-2 bombers.
General Cartwright and his team are of the view that under normal conditions, one-half of the warhead stockpile would be deployed on these carriers; the other half would be kept in reserve except during a national emergency. All land-based intercontinental missiles armed with nuclear payloads would be retired along with the carriers of non-strategic nuclear warheads, all of which would be eliminated from the stockpile. B-52 heavy bombers would be completely dismantled or converted to carry only conventional weapons.
Increase warning time
The report further asks the U.S. and Russia should to devise ways to increase warning and decision time in the command and control of their smaller arsenals. The current postures of launch-ready nuclear forces that provide minutes and seconds of warning and decision time should be replaced by postures that allow 24-72 hours on which to assess threats and exercise national direction over the employment of nuclear forces.
“This change would greatly reduce the risks of mistaken, ill-considered and accidental launch. It would also strengthen strategic stability by removing the threat of sudden, surprise first strikes. Any move by one side to massively generate nuclear forces to launch-ready status would provide ample warning for the other side to disperse its nuclear forces to invulnerable positions,” says the report.
It adds: “By increasing warning time through de-alerting, the new postures would actually increase force survivability and diminish the adverse impact of missile defences in the equation. Missile defenses would be less threatening to the other side’s larger retaliatory force and less undermining of the other side’s confidence in its ability to carry out effective retaliation.”
In the context of such reduced reliance on offensive nuclear weapons on launch-ready alert, the United States would increase its reliance on missile defences and advanced conventional forces in an integrated new strategy, explains the report.
The Global Zero expects these non-nuclear forces to replace nuclear forces. Their role in deterring and defeating a 21st century adversary, and in reassuring U. S. allies of Washington’s commitment to their defence, would be especially important during the 24-72 hour period prior to the possible generation of offensive nuclear capability. This time-limited role, however, would reduce the requirements imposed on missile defences and conventional forces. Missile defence architecture in particular could be scaled down, says the report.
The study further advises the U.S. to broaden the agenda of nuclear arms regulation to include all categories of weapons in all nuclear weapons countries. “Only a broad multilateral approach can effectively address the multitude of serious nuclear dangers found in other parts of the world. While pursuing bilateral negotiations to reduce the U. S. and Russian stockpiles to much lower levels, the two sides should initiate a multilateral process that would seek to cap, freeze, reduce and otherwise constrain the arsenals of third countries. Nuclear arms regulation must become comprehensive and universal,” Global Zero experts say.
They plead for extending multilateralism beyond nuclear arms reductions into the realm of multilateral security cooperation.