Bruce Blair, Victor Esin, Matthew McKinzie, Valery Yarynich and Pavel Zolotarev
For proponents of eliminating nuclear weapons, these events elicited both a nod and a sigh. On the one hand, they represented renewed engagement by
The New START agreement did not reduce the amount of "overkill" in either country's arsenal. Nor did it alter another important characteristic of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals: their launch-ready alert postures. The two countries' nuclear command, control, and communication systems, and sizable portions of their weapon systems, will still be poised for "launch on warning" -- ready to execute a mass firing of missiles before the quickest of potential enemy attacks could be carried out. This rapid-fire posture carries with it the risk of a launch in response to a false alarm resulting from human or technical error or even a malicious, unauthorized launch. Thus, under the New START treaty,
In the next round of arms control negotiations,
A stable nuclear deterrent exists between
Such a metric of stability was applied by nuclear planners in coming up with warhead limits for the New START treaty. After calculating the damage from a first strike against nuclear forces, they determined how many surviving nuclear weapons could be used in a retaliatory attack against targets of value -- economic and administrative centers. The planners assumed that in order for deterrence to be stable and predictable, a country had to be able to retaliate against 150 to 300 urban targets. These judgments played a key role in setting the warhead limit of 1,550 for each side in the New START treaty.
Many planners still contend that deterrence also requires the ability to retaliate against an opponent's leadership bunkers and nuclear installations, even empty missile silos. But this Cold War doctrine is out of date. Deterrence today would remain stable even if retaliation against only ten cities were assured. Furthermore, uncertainty and incomplete knowledge would make U.S. and Russian policymakers risk averse in a crisis rather than risk tolerant. So arsenals can safely be reduced much further than the New START level. But just how deeply can they be cut? And how can the reliance on a quick launch be eliminated while preserving strategic stability? To answer these questions, we created computer models that pitted U.S. and Russian strategic offensive forces against each other in simulated nuclear exchanges. We also modeled the thorny problem of missile defense systems to assess their impact on the stability of deterrence and to gauge at what warhead levels they become destabilizing.
We used public estimates of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces -- their number, accuracy, explosive yields, reliability, vulnerability -- and manipulated their launch readiness to test the effects of de-alerting on their ability to survive a first strike and be available for retaliation against urban centers. Because some range of uncertainty is associated with each variable, we ran the model simulation at least 100 times for each possible set of characteristics.
Our modeling found that
Dropping to 1,000 total warheads is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to arms control. To make further progress toward a nuclear-free world, it will be necessary to pursue even deeper cuts. These will depend on the state of relations between
The next stage in arms control negotiations should cover all the complex issues of nuclear weapons, including those surrounding both strategic and substrategic (tactical) nuclear weapons, as well as limits on strategic offensive weapons with conventional warheads. A realistic goal would be for
Because the delivery vehicles, or launchers, for tactical nuclear weapons can also carry conventional weapons, the treaty should place limits not on tactical launchers but on tactical warheads. It will be essential that all the tactical weapons in storage be inspected regularly to verify that the treaty's provisions have been implemented. Strategic nuclear warheads should ideally be kept separate from tactical ones. Since
Further strides toward nuclear disarmament will be possible only if the other nuclear powers freeze their arsenals and join in the negotiation process to reduce their forces proportionately. For this stage,
For almost half a century, about one-third of
Given the recent surge of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, the liabilities of maintaining such quick-launch postures are only increasing. In the future, the danger of mistaken or unauthorized use or of the exploitation of nuclear weapons by terrorists is likely to grow rather than diminish. War-ready nuclear postures keep hundreds of nuclear weapons in constant motion, changing combat positions or moving to and from maintenance facilities. This affords terrorists opportunities to steal them as they are transported and stored temporarily -- the relatively exposed phase of their operation.
These postures also perpetuate a mutual reliance on nuclear weapons that lends legitimacy to the nuclear ambitions of other nations. When more states go nuclear, intentional use becomes more likely, and deficiencies in nuclear command and warning systems multiply the risk of accidental or unauthorized use or terrorist theft.
Given these dangers, going off launch-ready alert would yield major benefits -- including opening up possibilities for still greater reductions in the size of arsenals. Although de-alerting was not on the table during the negotiations for the New START treaty, it should have been. The requirements of mutual deterrence between
To ensure stable deterrence with forces that are smaller and off alert, the nuclear forces of both countries should be divided into distinct components, each with a different degree of combat readiness. A stable deterrent whole would thus be constructed from more vulnerable, de-alerted parts. To demonstrate the stability of deterrence under such a setup, we again used simulations of nuclear exchanges. The latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review concluded that de-alerting "could reduce crisis stability by giving an adversary the incentive to attack before 're-alerting' was complete." We found, in contrast, that de-alerting does not create incentives for re-alerting and launching a preemptive attack during a crisis. In fact, done properly, de-alerting stabilizes deterrence.
In our model, the primary group of de-alerted nuclear forces for each country is the "first echelon." It consists of equal numbers of U.S. and Russian high-yield, single-warhead, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). These first-echelon ICBMs can be brought to launch-ready status in a matter of hours -- for example, maintenance crews would reenter missile silos to activate the launch circuits. Their primary role is that of peacetime nuclear deterrence for
The "second echelon" of de-alerted nuclear forces consists of a more diverse set of nuclear weapons, with equal numbers of warheads on each side but with asymmetry in the types of weapons. It includes both multiple-warhead and single-warhead weapons: submarine-launched ballistic missiles, silo-based ICBMs, and road-mobile ICBMs. In their day-to-day, off-alert status, second-echelon forces are quite vulnerable. But they are highly survivable when they are re-alerted and dispersed -- submarines surge to sea, for example, and road-mobile missiles dash into Siberian forests. These second-echelon forces take much longer to re-alert -- weeks to months -- than first-echelon forces. Warheads, for instance, might have to be removed from storage and mounted on missile launchers. But our results show that no advantage could be gained by any re-alerting of either first- or second-echelon forces. Deterrence is robustly reinforced by the lack of incentives to re-alert.
We looked at scenarios involving an attacking state and a victim state in which the attacking state secretly re-alerts its first-echelon forces and strikes the first echelon of the victim state -- a so-called counterforce attack meant to disarm the adversary and gain a strategic advantage. In these scenarios, the attacker expends more warheads than it can destroy and must assume that the victim will respond by firing its surviving first-echelon forces at the cities of the aggressor. If the attacker used some of its first-echelon missiles to strike the victim's second-echelon forces, then the aggressor would expose additional cities to retaliation by the victim's first-echelon forces.
In our model, after the initial attack, both sides would re-alert their second-echelon forces (for example, deploying submarines to sea), and the second echelon of the attacking state would strike the second-echelon forces of the victim as they were being readied for use. Our model allowed for some random variability in the pace of re-alerting by both side's second echelons in a nuclear war. What was left of the victim's second-echelon forces could then conduct further strikes against cities of the attacker. This scenario is the way to test whether deterrence is stable when forces are off alert. If the victim has enough residual capability to deter an attacker contemplating a "bolt from the blue," then deterrence is stable.
PARTNERS IN DEFENSE
Missile defense, a divisive topic during the lengthy back-and-forth over the terms of the New START agreement, threatens to derail the next phase of negotiations. In
When antiballistic missile (ABM) systems are small enough, they do not distract from the arms reduction process.
This noninclusive approach might lead to a new crisis in U.S.-Russian and NATO-Russian relations in a decade or so, when
That is why strategic missile defenses have to be kept from reaching a point where they can prevent retaliation by knocking out strategic offensive missiles. The results of our modeling for the 1,000-warhead level suggest that advanced missile defense systems, such as the SM-3 Block 2 that the
Even more important than such limits will be U.S.-Russian cooperation on the missile defense problem -- namely, an agreement to share control of missile defense systems. This arrangement should go beyond bilateral control to a broader European arrangement that at minimum should entail NATO-Russia cooperation. A cooperative system like this would not be a dual-key system that would give
The same logic applies to national and regional ABM systems, given the widespread geographic impact of missile defenses. For example, ABM operations in the
Once the New START agreement is approved by the
Such changes to the nuclear relationship between
Bruce Blair is President of the World Security Institute and Co-coordinator of Global Zero. Victor Esin is a retired Colonel General and former Chief of Staff of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces. He is a Professor of Military Science at the Institute of the United States and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Matthew McKinzie is a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Valery Yarnich is a retired Colonel and served at the Center for Operational and Strategic Studies of the Russian General Staff. He is a Fellow at the Institute of the United States and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Pavel Zolotarev is a retired Major General and former Section Head of the Defense Council of the Russian Federation. He is Deputy Director of the Institute of the United States and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
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(C) 2010 Foreign Affairs, September/October 2010