Nuclear deterrent needs reform – US think tank

US nuclear experts have released a report on how the United States may reduce its arsenal to 500 warheads, while retargeting new strategic sites across Russia.

The 64-page report, entitled "From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence – A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons," says the US must review its policy towards the use of nuclear weapons in order to achieve its stated goal of a “nuclear-free world,” as voiced by US President Barack Obama during a speech Sunday in Prague.

“The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons,” Obama told the audience. “Now is the time for a strong international response.”

The report argues that with the end of ideological competition between the US and the Soviet Union, the very role of the nuclear weapons architecture has changed. But the current nuclear doctrine, “an artifact of the Cold War,” according to the American experts, fails to come to terms with the new realities.

From serving as a counterforce during the Cold War, nuclear weapons must be transformed into a limited instrument of “minimal deterrence,” and “not be assigned any mission for which they are less than indispensable,” the experts warn.

Nuclear forces are still on high alert prepared for a strike in a matter of minutes following an order. Today, American military maintain some 2,700 warheads operationally deployed with 900 on high alert, and 2,500 more are kept in reserve. The number is unnecessarily big, since there is no threat of a total war anymore.

The concept of “minimal deterrence” includes a radical reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, leaving but 500 by 2025. In the plan, submarine-based missiles and tactical nukes would be totally scrapped, leaving only intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic bombers on duty. These weapons are to be used only in the case that nuclear weapons are used by an enemy.

The report also advises a reset on targeting policy. Given the new realities, the prime targets for nuclear weapons should be a handful of key infrastructure facilities, like oil refineries, power plants or transportation hubs, the experts advise. Optimally, these should be located in desolate areas in order to avoid unnecessary deaths.

This revised strategy is in opposition to the current approach where cities, command centers and missile silos are considered the priority targets for a massive nuclear strike.


USS Florida, one of four Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (AFP Photo / US Navy photo by David Nagle)

The report details how a nuclear attack on 12 facilities in Russia would result in casualties ranging from 67,000 to almost 2 million people, depending on the yield of the warheads used. The result, according to the report, would cripple Russia’s economy in the event of a conflict. The paper calls the numbers “sobering,” and argues that the US nuclear arsenal is “vastly more powerful then needed.”

While it is difficult to paint a nuclear-war scenario in a positive light, the report shows a marked change of nuclear thinking from the former US administration of George W. Bush, which tended to place an emphasis on the nuclear advantage.

In the March/April 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, the US political journal, Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press argue in a highly provocative article (entitled “The Rise of Nuclear Primacy”) that “for the first time in 50 years, the United States stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy. It will probably soon be possible for the United States to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike.”

The writers argued that “Unless Washington’s policies change or Moscow and Beijing take steps to increase the size and readiness of their forces, Russia and China – and the rest of the world – will live in the shadow of U.S. nuclear primacy for many years to come.”

So should the call for a reduction of nuclear weapons be taken as a breath of fresh air in Washington, or is it a clever strategy to undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrent at a time when America is attempting to install components of its missile shield in Eastern Europe? That’s the way the proposal looks to a number of military strategists on the Russian side of the issue.

The proposal by the American experts will probably meet with a high degree of skepticism in Russia, argues Kommersant, the daily business newspaper, in an article devoted to the proposed change of US nuclear doctrine.

“Through negotiation the United States wants to make Russia reduce its nuclear forces to a level that can be countered by the American antiballistic missile system,” said Leonid Ivashov, president of the Academy of Geopolitical Issues and former head of the chief command for international military cooperation of the Russian Defense Ministry.

However, the US experts insist that the United States (and Russia) would set a good example to other nuclear countries if they reduced their respective arsenals.

“By abandoning its counterforce capability against Russia, the United States might be able to negotiate reductions in Russian forces down to the levels that they would have after a U.S. counterforce first strike, to the clear security advantage of both,” the reports says.

Other nations will follow suit, the experts believe, saying that “management of the Chinese threat in particular will be easier without their fearing a disarming first strike.”

Commenting on the report for RT, Konstantin Kosachev, head of State Duma committee on foreign relations said there are a lot of issues that should be negotiated before nuclear disarmament speeds up.

“We need to have better understanding on very essential issues like the linkage between armaments and defence systems, like the anti-missile defence. We need to know better what will happen with the warheads after they are dismantled – whether they will be destroyed or just stored in some warehouse. And definitely we need to know what will happen with carriers – the missiles which theoretically can be equipped with non-nuclear warheads and still be very destructive weapons,” he said.

Commenting on the report for RT, Konstantin Kosachev, head of State Duma committee on foreign relations said there are a lot of issues that should be negotiated before nuclear disarmament speeds up.

“We need to have better understanding on very essential issues like the linkage between armaments and defence systems, like the anti-missile defence. We need to know better what will happen with the warheads after they are dismantled – whether they will be destroyed or just stored in some warehouse. And definitely we need to know what will happen with carriers – the missiles which theoretically can be equipped with non-nuclear warheads and still be very destructive weapons,” he said.