Will Russia Freeze the Deployment of Nuclear Weapons?

Warrior Maven

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By Peter R. Huessy - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist

(Washington D.C.) The United States is pushing Russia to agree to a freeze in nuclear warheads deployed in each of our deterrent forces. As well as a modest one-year extension of the 2010 New Start treaty, during which the US and Russia can define and verify exactly what warheads are being counted.

The issue at hand is the New START treaty expires in February 2021. But simply extending the treaty as would be relatively easy is not the best option. There are a number of important reasons this is the case, although from many accounts one would think the supporters of a full extension are the only ones in favor of arms control.

The New START treaty allows Russia and the United States both to have 1490 sea and land based strategic long-range missile warheads. Russia and the United States can also have 60 bombers that count toward the overall 1550 limit, although the bombers can actually carry as many bombs/warheads as technically possible. In short, the New Start treaty actually allows Russia to deploy roughly 2200-2300 warheads, pretty much the same level of warheads (2200) allowed by the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

Now, not all Russian long-range nuclear strike forces count, however. The Russian Backfire bomber is excluded. Also outside the treaty are these developing Russian strategic or long-range nuclear armed systems: (1) a nuclear powered cruise missile, (2) a drone submarine, (3) a long range sea-launched cruise missile, (4) a hypersonic speed missile—the Kinzal--that is ship launched, and (5) an ICBM range hypersonic capable boost glide systems. Combined these new systems are estimated to possibly bring an additional 400-500 warheads to the Russian arsenal by 2025.

But doesn’t the current New Start treaty allow the US to count Russian warheads? Not really. The United States can inspect upwards of 10 times every year Russian missile types and see what number of warheads the Russians claim are on each missile. But here is the catch—there are no high confidence verifiable limits on how many warheads can be carried by any of the hundreds of long range strategic missiles the Russians can have under the treaty. As a result, as my colleague James Howe has determined, Moscow could easily have over 4000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads now, just on those nuclear platforms covered by the New Start treaty.

Being able to add warheads to the treaty allowed number is not a new thing. Throughout the arm control era where forces were reduced starting with the 1987 INF treaty and then the 1991 Start I treaty, the United States and Russia kept a hedge capability—the ability to build back up if it was found the bad guys—the Russians—were reneging on their treaty obligations and breaking out from the treaty limits.

Placing no limits on the massive Russian upload capability is one of the serious flaws in the 2010 New Start treaty. It is also true the US can upload its forces from an official 1490 long-range warhead ceiling under the New START treaty. For example, the US can upload the Minuteman III ICBMs to 3 warheads (from one today) and the submarine launched D-5 missiles to eight (from 5-6 today), and eventually deploy 3000 fast flying missile warheads. But this upload would take 3.5 years to accomplish, while the Russians could upload to over 4000

in a matter of months. And this also assumes the US has sufficient tritium gas with which to deploy more nuclear forces.

And finally, one additional factor has to be considered. The Russians can build 1000-4000 warheads a year while the United States would be hard pressed to build an additional dozen beyond what we have in the stockpile available for deployment. The budgets being considered by Congress will eventually get the National Nuclear Security Administration or NNSA to a capability of building 80 pits --the key ingredient to a warhead—a year. But we are not anywhere near that capability today.

There is another very important limit in the New Start treaty that helps with deterrence. Each side can have 700 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles---nuclear mail trucks so to speak. The 700 SNDV’s for the United States are 400 Minuteman ICBMs each with one warhead. And 240 sea-launched ballistic missiles, 20 of which are in every one of the 12 Oho class submarines. And on top of that, 60 strategic bombers. As for the Russians they have claimed 592 deployed SNDVs, including upwards of 400 land-based missiles most of which can carry a lot of warheads beyond those we assume are now deployed.

These 700 Russian nuclear assets are what the US holds at risk or can target and destroy. This capability is what is considered the key to deterrence. Even in retaliation, if the US can destroy the remaining nuclear forces the Russians have after striking the US first, and we can also destroy the Russian’s top conventional weapons capability, Moscow will have insufficient military forces with which to carry out their hegemonic and imperial designs.

To the extent the US can target Russia’s nuclear strategic forces, we can do our deterrent job. But of concern to deterrent experts is that Russian mobile and other “exotic” missiles non-treaty constrained and deployed by Russia can give Russia considerable upload in warheads and greater SNDVs, and thus make the US deterrent job more difficult.

However, if deployed warheads were frozen, and if certain systems were not permitted as part of such a freeze, then the US deterrent job could be more credibly done with the planned modernized force laid out by the 2018 Nuclear posture Review and for the past four years approved by Congress with but minor changes.

The point of the warhead limits being proposed by the United States is to begin the process of attributing a certain number of warheads to every missile, bomber, and submarine in the force. This was done under START I and led to its successful implementation and in 1991 a 50% reduction in deployed strategic nuclear weapons by both the United States and Russia, reductions first proposed by President Reagan some forty years ago.

Now a very difficult task will be to count all the warheads on theater or short-range systems which before today have not been part of any arms control agreement. Top US scientists are assessing how an arms control agreement on regional nukes could be verified as here the Russians have somewhere between 2000-5000 such weapons compared to 200 United States deployed theater systems in Europe. .

Now you can’t freeze what you cannot count. So, the idea is to agree on a freeze, and then

after you have extended the New Start treaty one year, you have some time to timely negotiate protocols and procedures to count warheads. Every missile and bomber would have to have an attributable # of warheads.

And the point of eventually including China in the arms discussions is to create transparency in the Chinese nuclear forces so that we know how many they actually have deployed as well as how many in their stockpile or reserve. And to get a sense of their nuclear strategy.

Years ago, former top Pentagon official Phil Karber examined the massive tunneling built by the Chinese where their nuclear armed rail mobile missiles were being hidden. I helped determine the cost to the Chinese of building the tunnels—in excess of $60 billion. China claims its missiles are not armed, with the warheads stored elsewhere. Then why spend so much money protecting unarmed missiles?

And if France or England are going to be brought into the discussions as Russia is proposing be done, why should China get a free pass and not tell the world how many nuclear warheads they have actually deployed in their nuclear forces?

NIPP’s Marc Schneider’s recent essay on the question of China’s nuclear arsenal is an excellent addition to the literature. It uncovers in great detail the false narrative that claims China has (1) only a very limited number of nuclear weapons, (2) a parallel minimal deterrent strategy, and (3) is logically under no obligation to be part of any nuclear arms control discussions.

Some critics question whether it makes all that much difference to count warheads. But determining the number of warheads our adversaries have deployed is important because at relatively low levels of warheads, cheating can be important. At the height of the Cold War, both the US and the Soviet Union had deployed strategic nuclear systems with over 10,000 warheads on various alert levels.

An additional few hundred would not have made much difference one way or the other. But at the current levels of deployed warheads, an additional or added deployment of covert warheads may embolden a country to take risks in international affairs they otherwise would not. Leaders of rogue or totalitarian states may very well believe a greater number of available nuclear warheads gives them a useable military advantage in a crisis or conventional conflict.

Years ago, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger questioned whether such was the case. He asked even if you had nuclear superiority “what would one do with it?” But if a national leader believes having such warhead numbers gives them an advantage, especially to take greater risks or embolden them to undertake planned aggression, numbers then do matter.

Thus, we come back to the beginning of this essay where actually counting nuclear warheads that are deployed and in the force of our adversaries is critically important. An accurate assessment of deployed warheads would achieve better strategic nuclear stability and further verifiable arms control.

As nuclear expert Franklin Miller of the Scowcroft Group has explained, a deterrent strategy must ensure that if an adversary strikes the United States or its allies with nuclear weapons, our

retaliatory measures will leave them with no useable military power with which to continue their aggression.

In short we take away those assets of national power they value the most. And if our adversaries have no effective military power left, their aggression will stop. No weapons left, no power left. That is the theory of deterrence, and this job is now being done superbly by our military and civilian authorities despite over two decades of prior inattention to the job.

However, that job can only be continued if our deterrent is both sustained and modernized as has been pursued by the Trump administration and Congress on a bi-partisan basis—although it would help if the defense budget for this year were approved at the full Presidential budget request as soon as possible. And if accompanied by a modest one-year extension of New Start accompanied by a verifiable freeze of Russian nuclear forces, then such diplomatic extension of our deterrent will only add to its credibility, all part of a strategy of peace through strength.

Peter R. HuessyMr. Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis, a Potomac, Maryland-based defense and national security consulting business, and Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute, a Senior Fellow at ICAS, a senior consultant with Ravenna Associates, and previously for 22 years Senior Defense Consultant with the National Defense University Foundation at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

He is and has been a Guest Lecturer at the School of Advanced International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, at the Institute of World Politics, at the University of Maryland, at the Joint Military Intelligence School, at the Naval Academy and at the National War College.


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