The Future of Russian-US Strategic Arms Reductions: START III and Beyond
In theory, strategic nuclear arms are defined as those weapons that can perform strategic missions, such as decisive strikes against military, industrial and political centers of the adversary. Tactical nuclear weapons are those ones that do not possess such capacity. Within the framework of the Russian-American relationship, those weapons that are covered by START Treaties as well as long-range SLCM are no doubt strategic. Also, American nuclear weapons deployed in Europe do possess strategic capacity, but at the same time, the same type of Russian weapons can not perform strategic missions against U.S. territory.
However, for the purposes of this discussion, all nuclear weapons will be divided into three groups:
After the implementation of the INF Treaty and Presidential Initiatives (Bush - Gorbachev, Yeltsin), the third group consists basically of land-based and Navy aviation.
In September 1991, when it was clear that the Soviet Union was collapsing into several individual nuclear states, President Bush introduced a unilateral initiative to reduce and eliminate several types of tactical nuclear weapons. Soon, Gorbachev declared a similar Soviet initiative which produced 13-14,000 units of nuclear weaponry for Russia to destroy. However, all these weapons are scheduled to be destroyed by 2003 when their warranty life expires. Therefore, for Russia the task is to limit the production of new weapons intended to replace the old ones. There is a continuous exchange of information on the number of weapons of each type that are being eliminated, but information on these actions is kept confidential.
By the end of 1996, Russia had 4,000-5,000 non-strategic warheads. This weaponry is stored in Army, Air Force and Navy depots and under the custody of the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense. Decommissioned tactical warheads are stored in centralized depots, as well as in the depots of production and dismantlement plants, or are transported to liquidation sites. Currently, very few new tactical weapons are being produced since the production facilities' capacity is largely occupied with weapons being dismantled. However, new tactical weapons are being produced with a longer life of 25 years. Under current projections, by 2003, no more than one thousand tactical weapons will remain, though it is more likely that only several hundred will exist.
Tactical weapons have a very specific role in the Russian forces and have become even more important since the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the transition period until its economy improves and its military forces are modernized, Russia has to rely on nuclear weapons (including non-strategic ones) as a means to ensure its security. They serve four main purposes. The first is to compensate for the weakness of Russian conventional forces. Given the current economic and demographic crisis in Russia and the reductions in strategic weapons, tactical nuclear weapons are perceived as the only way that Russia can defend itself in the event of even a conventional conflict in the near term. Along with the European theater, tactical nuclear weapons are considered an important means to ensure Russian security in the East. In this sense, tactical nuclear weapons have been called the poor man's force equalizer. This is especially true in comparison with U.S. precision-guided munitions. Russia simply does not have the available money to engage in the research, development, and production of comparable weapons.
Second, tactical weaponry is thought to be the only way to equalize Russian conventional forces with NATO forces, which are estimated to be three times greater. Russia's conventional inferiority becomes especially pertinent as NATO expands eastward. At the same time, because NATO "tactical" nuclear weapons can double the effect of a hypothetical strategic strike, Russia is interested in removing all tactical weapons from Europe, pulling its own weapons beyond the Urals.
Russia's third purpose in maintaining its tactical nuclear weapons force is to counter the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. However, it is not yet clear if tactical nuclear weapons could be an effective deterrent against the use of chemical or biological weapons, but such a purpose still remains a possibility under consideration.
Finally, it is thought that tactical nuclear weapons might be useful in preventing or localizing regional conflicts. It has yet to be seen whether there is sufficient justification to use nuclear weaponry of any type in the conflicts possible in today's world.
Some say that tactical nuclear weapons might be more vulnerable than conventional forces, thus risking the provocation of a preventable war rather than establishing adequate deterrence. However, there is a general consensus in Russia that tactical weapons are still useful for several purposes, therefore it is highly unlikely that any agreement can be reached in the near future to eliminate these weapons. Furthermore, in addition to disagreement over which nuclear weapons should be classified as tactical, verification of the elimination of tactical weapons poses a difficult problem.
Sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) are another area of great concern to Russia. These weapons are not considered tactical nuclear weapons. They can be armed with nuclear warheads and can perform strategic missions. By 1997, four thousand Tomahawks of four types had been produced in United States, and production still continues and may be completed in 1998, with the production line to be preserved. Some of the Russian concerns are over the removal of 350 American W-84 nuclear warheads from the ground-launched Tomahawks liquidated under the INF treaty. These warheads could be used to equip remaining SLCMs. Different types of Tomahawk can be hardly distinguished, and can be easily converted from one type to another. It is presumed that both tactical nuclear weapons and SLCMs will be looked at in the context of START III reductions - in the Helsinki Joint Statement on Parameters of Future Reductions in Nuclear Forces the Russian and American presidents agreed that "in the context of START III negotiations their experts will explore, as separate issues, possible measures relating to nuclear long-range sea-launched cruise missiles and tactical nuclear systems..."
Anatoli Diakov stressed the magnitude of the disagreement between Russia and the US over tactical nuclear weapons. NATO forces had tactical weapons deployed during the Cold War to make up for a perceived inferiority of forces, planning to use them as part of a series of controlled escalatory attacks. Now that the Cold War is over and NATO forces are superior, the West wants to eliminate tactical nuclear weapons completely, but now Russia is using these weapons for the same purpose as NATO had slated for them prior to 1991. Especially as NATO incorporates former Warsaw Pact forces and moves closer to the Russian border, it becomes increasingly clear to Russia that it cannot give up tactical weapons. They will be vital to Russian security for at least thirty years. Certainly, it is not in any state's interest to use these weapons, but the United States often forgets that tactical weapons currently threaten Russia and not the United States. Because they are an integral part of the defense of Russia, some tactical weapons must be deployed. However, Aleksey Ovcharenko added that there are no longer any tactical nuclear weapons or nuclear cruise missiles deployed aboard Russian ships. At the same time, he stressed the importance of short range nuclear SLCMs for the Russian Navy as indispensable means to counter American carrier battle groups.
Ted Postol suggested, and Diakov agreed, that the possibility of eliminating short-range tactical nuclear weapons and SLCMs should be investigated. There was agreement that there is no mission that the United States cannot achieve without SLCMs, thus they are not useful to either country. However, Kadyshev felt that short-range tactical nuclear weapons are vital to Russian security.
Fetter began by reviewing the U.S. development of tactical weapons and strategies for their use. In the mid-1950s, NATO thought that it was conventionally inferior in Europe, thus the alliance looked for ways to remedy the imbalance. In this search, the United States built nuclear counterparts to every conventional weapon in its arsenal. This theory, subscribed to under the Eisenhower administration, was discovered to be flawed for two reasons. First, the use of these new weapons would destroy Europe in the process of saving it while unduly escalating the number of allied casualties that would accrue in a conflict. Second, the Soviet Union responded by deploying large numbers of tactical nuclear weapons. Thus, it seemed pointless for NATO to initiate their use. However, tactical weapons were useful as a political concept to reassure NATO allies that nuclear weapons would be used to deter the Soviet Union and defend Europe as pledged. The Europeans saw tactical nuclear weapons as a tripwire on the escalation ladder and are still opposed to having this indicator of the US commitment to the continent removed. The United States saw tactical nuclear weapons as a way to confine war to Europe while still following through on its NATO commitment to use nuclear weapons for Europe's defense. Currently, the US has 350 nuclear SLCMs in storage and 600 B-61 tactical bombs, less than 200 of which are deployed in Europe. The US plans to unilaterally dismantle its withdrawn tactical nuclear weapons without transparency agreements.
Even this greatly reduced tactical nuclear force is unnecessary. Since these weapons were originally designed to reduce the conventional inferiority of the NATO forces, it would seem that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic crisis facing Russia today would eliminate the need for US tactical forces. Furthermore, there is no reason that the U.S. strategic nuclear weapons force cannot provide adequate deterrence for America's NATO allies. It is unlikely that the populations of the European allies actually would resist the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. It is extremely unlikely that such a withdrawal would provoke the Germans to develop their own nuclear deterrent. Frank von Hippel concurred with this conclusion and added that German officials have made statements to the effect that they do not want U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil but are afraid that asking Washington to remove these weapons might offend their ally.
An additional benefit of eliminating U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe would be to help to reassure Russia of the good intentions of the United States. An intuitively fair agreement would be for the United States and Russia to pledge not to deploy tactical nuclear weapons outside their home territories. (Paul Podvig and Petr Romashkin noted that Russia has already done so unilaterally by withdrawing its tactical weapons from Belarus.) However, the United States is unlikely to agree to such a quid pro quo. Moreover, such a move would probably not counter the aggressive implications of NATO expansion, especially considering the utility that Russia sees in using tactical weapons as a substitute for their inferior conventional forces. Aleksey Ovcharenko added that Poland's offer to accept deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on its territory, though not accepted by NATO, is alarming to Russia, since tactical weapons deployed in Poland only make sense in the context of a Russia/NATO confrontation. They could not serve any other purpose.
The newly developing disagreements seem to imply that the opportunity to eliminate tactical nuclear weapons may have passed. Moreover, the United States also sees two potential uses in retaining a partial tactical arsenal. In certain cases, the US might want to use nuclear weapons of a lower yield. The smallest U.S. ballistic missile warhead has a yield of 100 kilotons while tactical weapons have yields as low as one kiloton. The US has also considered the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states, perhaps as a response to a chemical or biological attack, in which case the use of tactical weapons might be more appropriate than strategic weapons. However, given that the US has pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states, this would be a bad idea in any event.
After weighing the pros and cons of keeping tactical nuclear weapons, Fetter concluded that eliminating the weapons would be better and more stable for both the US and Russia. It is unclear that tactical nuclear weapons could be useful in any circumstance. The Russian rationale for keeping tactical weapons to deter a conflict with China is illogical. There is no reason to believe that China would run the risk of attempting an invasion of Russia. The Russians could respond with an incredibly destructive strategic nuclear attack, the resulting damage of which would not be worth any benefit that could be gained through a conventional invasion of Russia. Keeping these weapons makes it more likely that they will be used in a regional conflict, an event that both nations should try to prevent.
Keeping tactical weapons also runs a security risk. Tactical weapons in Russia are less closely safeguarded than their strategic arsenal and thus they are more susceptible to theft. There was great debate over this point. Fetter offered no proof of a disparity in the security of strategic versus tactical weapons, and the Russians were clearly offended at the implication that they are incompetent enough to let the security of their tactical weaponry be compromised. Michael Stafford added that official assessments of the situation were that the chances of warhead theft are small, but that the US was slightly more worried about the possibility of the theft of fissile materials. Aleksey Ovcharenko noted that tactical nuclear weapons are stored rather than deployed in most cases. In storage, they are more closely safeguarded and less likely to be diverted. Roland Lajoie said that Russians had argued that by keeping those weapons that are deployed on their launchers, the possibility of diversion would also be lessened
Aleksey Ovcharenko said that the tactical weapons which are the least likely for Russia to give up as well as the most likely to be deployed are those on submarines and surface ships. Eugene Miasnikov noted that there is a fundamental problem regarding tactical nuclear weapons that is not easily resolved. Tactical weapons look different from the perspectives of scientists and military officers. A scientist has the opportunity to look at the situation in general and can come to the conclusion that tactical nuclear weapons are dangerous because they could lead to the escalation of a conflict to the nuclear level. On the other hand, a military officer has a mission to complete. In the case of Admiral Ovcharenko, should a conflict arise, his task will be to defend the homeland against threats from the sea. He needs to consider worst case scenarios, and thus can come to the logical conclusion that it is impossible to accomplish his mission by only conventional means.
Fetter proposed three possible levels of reductions on tactical nuclear weapons that could be pursued. The first would be to create a tactical weapons-free zone in Europe. It would be difficult to reach this solution unilaterally, and the United States is unlikely to allow Russia to keep tactical weapons close to Europe while withdrawing its own weaponry. The second option would be to institute an overall ceiling for nuclear weapons arsenals within which the United States and Russia could mix between strategic and tactical weapons as they saw fit. This recommendation was offered by MINATOM and the Russian Ministry of Defense, but verification under this scenario would be especially difficult. The third option would be to ban all tactical nuclear weapons, the difficulty of which was discussed at length above.
Any of these options would require much more extensive warhead transparency regimes than have been considered thus far. Fetter stressed that better confidence would be needed to develop an acceptable verification regime for tactical weapons, but did not see the prospect as impossible. For instance, although it might be easy to hide excess stores of tactical weapons, hidden weapons would have to be located far from spots from which they would be deployed (such as ports or air fields) to escape detection. This would make it more difficult for these weapons to be retrieved and used quickly.
Several concerns were raised about choosing any option which would retain
tactical nuclear weapons in Russian or American arsenals. The likelihood
that a tactical nuclear attack would or could be both distinguished from
a strategic attack and treated differently is not very high. Many believe
that escalation from a tactical nuclear attack to the use of strategic
weapons is inevitable.
Blair and von Hippel presented their arguments for De-Alerting, a process of stepping down the tight coupled tension between U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.
The U.S. and Russia have carried over the targeting practices of the Cold War, maintaining thousands of warheads ready for launch on minutes of notice. This situation presents several problems, which de-alerting is intended to cope with.
First, this posture on both sides impedes the normalization of relations between the United States and Russia. It foments suspicion, and emphasizes memories of the Cold War and its associated difficulties.
Second, Russian forces are now not deployed as much as they were during the Cold War. Submarines and mobile missiles spend less time deployed and more time in port or in garrison. This increases the vulnerability of the Russian forces. This, in turn, means that at any given time Russia has perhaps 200 survivable warheads, while the U.S. has approximate 2,000. This imbalance is detrimental to stability.
In crises, the forces of both sides would operate much as they did during the Cold War. This raises the danger that rational decisionmaking will not prevail in times of crisis, as these postures make unauthorized, mistaken or accidental launches more likely; and during crises, any number of dangerous events could take place.
From a U.S. point of view, things look worse in Russia than perhaps they are; however, they look quite bad. Going back only seven years, there has been a coup, a parliamentary crisis resolved by force, and so on. In addition, the problems facing the Russian nuclear forces are large: morale is low, the pressure on them is high for the reasons outlined above, and economic difficulties abound. Despite the repeated assurances of Russian officials and U.S. official visitors to Russia that everything is under control, Russian personnel are under tremendous stress.
Recalling the sudden unexpected disintegration of the USSR in 1991 and the trends observed before it, the Russian command and control network is now displaying characteristics that closely resemble indicators observed in the USSR in the 1980s.
De-alerting aims at extending the time required to prepare nuclear forces to launch. The United States and Russia need to fulfill the spirit of the '94 detargeting agreement, rather than just the letter of it. De-alerting would allow us to redress the problems of the current strategic imbalance described above. It would address the problem of accident, etc. by removing the availability of weapons.
For a proposal to satisfy de-alerting requirements, it must have three characteristics. First, it must actually increase launch preparation time; second, it must be verifiable; and third, it must not jeopardize the existence of a core force which is survivable, reconstitutable and capable of deterrence.
Blair noted at this point that deterrence should not be the primary concern of nuclear planners. Rather, safety and reassurance should take center position. The United States and Russia should take the lead in creating an international norm against the maintenance of 'alerted' nuclear forces. Further, de-alerting projects movement in the direction of the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Blair and von Hippel closed their session with a brief discussion of various specific de-alerting proposals as described in their article in Scientific American.
A general question was posed to Blair and von Hippel, asking them what the response had been at STRATCOM (U.S. Strategic Command) to the proposed removal of W88 warheads from Trident. Von Hippel replied that it was not really discussed, but referred to Ted Postol's analysis demonstrating that it wouldn't actually make a difference. Blair referred to his article, written with U.S. Senator Nunn in June 1997 which laid out many of the specific de-alerting proposals. This in turn led the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to do a detailed study of de-alerting options (led by then Vice-Chairman Ralston). That study was 'astonishingly positive' on de-alerting in general. Its primary reservations were: a good deal more intensive verification was required; concern was expressed over the stability of 'realerting' forces, and the possibility that even if the U.S. 'deeply de-alerted,' this might not remove the pressure for launch on warning policies because of command and control vulnerability,.
In response to a comment about the recent Nuclear Posture Review being in conflict with many of these proposals, von Hippel argued that people are much less invested in counterforce today, and we should be able to scrap it as a policy.
Blair announced that he'd like to 'pass the buck' to Robert Wertheim, who was on a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel on deep cuts. Wertheim said that the NAS study report on the future of U.S. nuclear policy defines preconditions necessary for deep cuts, along with associated changes in employment policies. For example, as the number of weapons decreases, the United States will have to get away from preplanned SIOPs (Single Integrated Operation Plans) altogether and move towards 'adaptive targeting'.
Ted Postol added that one benefit of the de-alerting proposal is that it stops ICBMs from firing at each other. Examination of U.S. and Russian silo-based ICBMs shows that they were designed to hit the other side's silos, which would be empty after a strike anyhow. So 'counterforce' is irrational in any case. He noted that the countersilo capability of Trident might make even a survivable Trident force a counterforce threat, which must be taken into account.
Harold Feiveson reported that during the visit to STRATCOM, he had expected to hear that de-alerting would drive the United States below a minimum required number of warheads. However, he didn't hear that; in fact, STRATCOM personnel seemed quite comfortable with START II/III levels, etc. At present the United States has 2,400 warheads on alert; it would have 980 after START II, and about 680 under START III. The target set hasn't been shrinking that fast; Feiveson stated that he believed STRATCOM's numbers were driven more by a desired number of U.S. launchers on alert than by the target set.
Bob Dietz noted that downloading the Trident to 4 warheads, a popular proposal, has the unintended and potentially serious side-effect of increasing the missile's range from 4,000 to approximately 6,000 nautical miles.
A discussion of a proposal to store guidance sets outside of missiles ensued; pertinent facts included the following: U.S. SLBMs can have their guidance sets removed/installed on board; it is a long process, and storage space in the submarine for the guidance sets may be a problem. Petr Romashkin reported that Russian ICBMs can have their guidance sets removed, but Paul Podvig noted that Russian SLBMs cannot be accessed in this fashion while on board.
The session began with the continuation of the discussion of the de-alerting presentation made by Bruce Blair and Frank von Hippel in the preceeding session.
Petr Romashkin said that he doubted that either occasional on-site inspections or "internal" measures (such as removing SLBM components) were the best approach to monitoring and implementing de-alerting. Compliance with such measures could only be observed at infrequent intervals, and thus probably not during a crisis. Instead, measures visible to national technical means (e.g., satellites) would be better. In response, von Hippel said he believed that measures to disable silos could be observed, since re-enabling the silos would require the use of heavy equipment (e.g., large cranes to lift silo covers). The randomness of challenge inspections was also emphasized.
Aleksey Ovcharenko agreed with the spirit of Blair and von Hippel's concerns, but thought they might be exaggerated; he himself was not as worried. He did see de-alerting as useful, but thought reduction in numbers was probably the more important priority. As a follow up, the Russians were asked if they felt uncomfortable with the prospect of further reductions, which would probably leave them with only one or two ballistic missile submarines at sea at any given time, without concomitant limitations on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. There was a sense that ASW was an issue of concern that should be discussed as part of the reduction process, but that they were not yet in a position to respond in detail.
It was noted that the U.S. national laboratories are opposed to dealerting as a response to Russian C3I difficulties, arguing instead that technical assistance would be a better approach. Blair agreed that technology sharing could be helpful, but that C3I shortcomings were not the only reasons for de-alerting -- the force structures themselves warrant it.
Finally, Blair and von Hippel were asked what they would recommend as a first step for American policymakers to take. Blair suggested immediate de-alerting to prospective START III levels (about 2000 warheads).
The ultimate goal of arms control and nuclear strategy in general is to leave both sides fully confident of their deterrent capabilities, while minimizing the possibilities of an accidental or unauthorized launch. As a result, the first priority of the disarmament process has to be to ensure that neither side will face incentives to adopt riskier policies, rather than to reach particular levels of warheads.
Yarynych believed it is important for the two sides to share information and undertake mutual activities to improve C3I. Referring to the previous presentation by Blair and Von Hippel, he felt the situation might have been painted a bit too darkly, but generally agreed that much could be done to improve actual C3I capabilities and each side's confidence in the other's systems.
On the general question of Russian ability to retaliate after absorbing a first strike, his own simulations show that under almost any conceivable circumstances there is a high probability that Russia could respond with at least a small (few tens of weapons) counterstrike. There would always be some possibility of a much larger response. Thus, the Russian response might be far smaller than a presumed American first strike, but would still be large enough to deter any decision maker -- and that situation is clear to Russian decisionmakers. Therefore, a retaliatory rather than launch-on-warning strategy is quite possible for Russia, and actual policy is moving in that direction.
Yarynych would encourage much more sharing of information on command and control systems. Though this has traditionally been closely-held information, he believed the Russians would be willing to move ahead, and noted recent advances from the American side (e.g., hosting Russian Strategic Rocket Force commanders at STRATCOM). Such exchanges should include not only technical details, but should cover the whole operational performance of command and control systems. For example, there should be discussions of how easy systems are to spoof, or how easily orders might be forged.
The de-alerting proposals previously discussed seemed promising, but would have to be carefully examined to ensure that there would not be any asymmetries in re-alerting potentials. If a "re-alerting race" broke out during a crisis, it could be dangerous. In the discussion that followed, others felt that there would be a sufficient safety margin that neither side would be likely to begin "crash" re-alerting.
The Russian delegation was asked if there have been any changes in Russian operating procedures since the end of the Cold War intended to put greater emphasis on negative control, possibly at the expense of positive control. There apparently has been a change on submarines, such that they no longer have the ability to launch without receiving authorization codes (all the necessary material used to be kept on the vessel).
Ted Postol took issue with the conventional wisdom that a "bolt from the blue" surprise attack is highly unlikely and thus should not be the overriding criteria in judging system response. He noted that there have been such surprise attacks throughout history (Pearl Harbor, the German invasion of Russia in World War II, Israeli surprise at the 1973 Yom Kippur War, etc). Unlikely as such an attack might seem, perhaps it is an important standard.
For more information, please, contact Prof. Theodore Postol (617-253-8077, U.S.A.) or Prof. Anatoli Diakov (095-408-6381, Russia).