Study eyes 1,000 warheads

Draft State Department Report Urges Deeper Cuts To Nuclear Arsenal

By / August 15, 2012

The United States should offer to reduce its nuclear arsenal significantly below current treaty requirements to no more than 1,000 deployed strategic warheads and 500 strategic delivery vehicles if Russia is willing to reciprocate, according to a draft State Department report on near-term options for implementing more nuclear force cuts.

The report by the International Security Advisory Board also urges the United States and Russia to accelerate implementation of the New START treaty reductions and to lay the groundwork for future cuts to nonstrategic nuclear weapons. The report was drafted in May based on a study led by Graham Allison of Harvard University and overseen by former Defense Secretary William Perry. Inside the Pentagon obtained a copy of the draft report.

Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller briefly mentioned the study last week at U.S. Strategic Command's annual deterrence symposium, noting the board is "helping us with some big thinking," but she stopped short of revealing the board's recommendations.

The draft report calls for implementing a "mutual unilateral reduction" below New START, including nonstrategic nuclear weapons. "The United States could communicate to Russia that the United States is prepared to go to much lower levels of nuclear weapons as a matter of national policy, e.g. to no more than 500 strategic delivery vehicles and 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, if Russia is willing to reciprocate," the panel writes. "This could greatly reduce Russia's incentive to build a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile and allow the United States to reduce the scope and cost of its nuclear modernization plans."

Further the two sides could "define unilateral, cooperative steps for reduction of nonstrategic weapons, including appropriate verification measures," the report adds, noting any U.S. efforts to reduce to these levels or below for strategic nuclear forces and yet-to-be-defined levels for nonstrategic weapons would have to "address lingering concerns over asymmetries between U.S. and Russian stockpile composition, force structures and reconstitution capabilities."

The White House has been reviewing options for the future size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Retired Gen. James Cartwright, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has argued the United States needs no more than 300 nuclear warheads. STRATCOM chief Gen. Robert Kehler last week defended the current size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but said opportunities for future cuts merit "very serious" consideration.

In the near term, the board's assessment argues, there is little chance of achieving significant cuts beyond those outlined in the draft report. "Arms control fatigue, electoral politics and the thorny issue of missile defense have all converged in 2012, creating poor conditions for trust and dialogue," the panel writes. "These recommended steps, however, are modest enough that they could be implemented by a president with a strong national security record and a Russia suspicious of U.S. intentions, but facing budget pressures on its own nuclear arsenal." Even the panel's recommendations, however, might be opposed by Russia due to "cultural or bureaucratic barriers" to transparency and further cuts, the report notes. "These initiatives would test Russia's intentions to find possible realms of longer-term agreement," the panel writes.

In addition to proposed mutual unilateral cuts, the report also recommends both sides accelerate the pace of reductions already planned under New START. The treaty calls for the United States and Russia to each reduce their deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 and their deployed strategic delivery vehicles to 700. Although the deadline for the reductions is Feb. 5, 2018, Russia's arsenal is expected to shrink to roughly 1,100 accountable warheads and 400 delivery vehicles by 2020 as aging systems are retired, the report states, noting Russia is considering developing a new heavy ICBM to build its arsenal up to treaty limits. The United States, meanwhile, is slated to "proceed slowly down to treaty limits, downloading warheads from ICBMs and [surface-launched ballistic missiles] and reducing the launchers while modernizing its strategic forces," the report notes.

The countries "might consider announcing, as parallel unilateral steps, that they will implement the reductions prior to the 2015 [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] review conference," the report states. Further, the United States could "take off of operational status all of the strategic nuclear weapons it would be reducing," the report adds.

On the subject of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, the report also urges the two sides to pave the way for further cuts, expediting the process for a future treaty. To make treaty talks easier, the United States could work toward a shared definition of nonstrategic nuclear weapons, the study argues, noting both sides could also boost transparency and work toward verification of nonstrategic stockpiles. "Steps include reciprocally disclosing aggregate numbers of nonstrategic weapons -- beginning with 1991 data and working toward current data," the report states.

Officials could create pilot programs to start verifying the absence of nonstrategic weapons at facilities that housed them prior to the implementation of the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, the panel writes. The two sides could also begin "lab-to-lab cooperation" to resolve technical hurdles for verifying warhead-level reductions and dismantlement, the report adds. -- Christopher J. Castelli