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By Peter R. Huessy - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist


Since 1972 the United States has sought to curtail the size of the nuclear forces of our prime adversary the USSR (and now Russia) with varying degrees of success. Under the original SALT I agreement the Soviets were assumed to have roughly 2500 long-range or what were known as strategic nuclear warheads.

By the end of the 1980’s, the Soviets were well on their way to building up to over 11,500 such warheads a nearly 500% increase from the SALT I levels. Most Soviet warheads were on long-range land-based missiles, with huge throw-weight, or the ability to carry multiple warheads on each missile. And because these missiles were solid fueled the alert rate reached close to 100%. The fear then and today is these missiles are first-strike weapons designed to pre-emptively disarm an adversary.

We now have a New START agreement with Russia, which the next administration will probably extend for five years. Most commentary on the treaty assumes the 2010 deal keeps US and Russian nuclear warheads at 1550. That number appears to be less than the warhead numbers allowed by previous arms agreements, and thus is considered less of a threat, especially for purposes of pre-emption, but it remains suspect.

What’s the real number? The real size of the Russian arsenal does matter.

The New START treaty allows the Russians to have 1,490 sea launched and land based strategic long-range missile warheads. The Russians may also have roughly 690 warheads available for their 60 bombers allowed under the treaty. Although the 60 authorized bombers are capable of carrying much more than simply one bomb the bomber is counted as only a single warhead.. [Other bombers such as the Backfire do not count at all].

This lack of fidelity in accounting allows Russia [and of course the United States as the other party to the treaty] to have roughly 2,180 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. This is essentially identical to the upper limit number allowed by the 2003 Moscow Treaty which allowed 2,200 warheads. In short, for twenty years, arms control has been at a standstill, providing Russia the breathing room they needed to have deployed or place under development some 22 new types of nuclear strategic long-range bombers, missiles, and submarines. According to official Russian sources, they have fully modernized 90% of their strategic nuclear forces.

So much for the idea that “arms control” deals stop our adversaries from building more nuclear stuff!

However, and more importantly, as explained by my colleague Franklin Miller of the Scowcroft Group, the New START also limits the total number of strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (SNDV‘s) to 700 deployed and 100 in reserve. SNDVs are akin to strategic nuclear mail trucks—bombers, land-based missiles, and missiles abroad submarines. They deliver the nuclear mail—warheads.

These delivery vehicles/weapons platforms (as well as their major conventional military forces) are the weapons we have to hold at risk to make deterrence effective. We would retaliate against the remaining forces in the Russian nuclear and conventional arsenal to make sure they could not achieve any hegemonic ambitions even after striking the US first. We would effectively eliminate their remaining useful military capability. [Could the Russians use everything all at once in a pre-emptive strike? Yes, they could go “all-in” but that is what nuclear expert Paul Nitze termed the “Armageddon option” in that such a huge strike would result in a massive US retaliatory strike where both nations would be destroyed.]

Today the Russians have close to 600 nuclear SNDVs deployed, which leaves them room to legally deploy an additional 100 bombers, submarine missiles or land-based missiles SNDVs but only if the warheads also deployed stayed within the 1550 ceiling.

Before New START the Russians had close to 400 SNDVs, having seen a dramatic deterioration in their nuclear forces in the immediate post-Cold War period, especially compared to the US 1100 SNDVs. General Cartwright told me he negotiated the New START treaty that cut US forces by nearly 40% to 700, while the Russian could increase their SSDVs upwards of 75%.

Today Russian mobile missiles, and exotic missiles, deployed by Russia’s beyond the New START limits, provide Russia considerable warhead upload potential and greater SNDVs than the New START treaty allows. Mobile missiles are very hard to verify and various exotic systems announced as being built by Russia are not necessarily under New START limits.

Furthermore, you cannot be completely sure that you credibly can account for the number of warheads the Russians have deployed under New START since you can verify only a relatively small percent of Russian missile and warhead numbers during any allowed inspection period. To be fair, our senior nuclear military commanders believe while New START has serious deficiencies, the extent to which New START allows for transparency (from annual inspections) of Russian deployed nuclear systems it is a valuable tool in the geostrategic toolbox.

However, the point of the US trying to get more credible and verifiable warhead limits, including short-range and lower yield nuclear weapons, is to begin the process of attributing actual and real warheads to every missile bomber and submarine in the Russian force; as well as accounting for warheads on theater or short-range nuclear delivery systems, which as of today are not part of any nuclear arms control agreement.

This is especially important in order to avoid the situation in the 1970s where the US feared and the Soviets believed the correlation of nuclear and conventional forces had moved significantly and dangerously toward Moscow.

It also might be useful to seek a freeze on currently deployed Russian nuclear warheads because you can’t freeze what you cannot count. Counting actual warheads would be required in order to secure transparency into Russian nuclear capability and strategy that the inspection process does not provide.

Thus, if the US does extend the New START agreement, it would be helpful to freeze warheads at the same time—in principle—while over the next few years negotiate how best to verify such a freeze. A five-year extension provides time to negotiate protocols and procedures to count warheads. Every missile and bomber would have to have an attributable # of warheads, with each class of missiles/bombers having the same number of agreed upon attributable warheads.

Here is the dilemma. How sure can we be that such an agreement can be verified since there are current concerns that New START does not accurately ascertain the number of warheads the Russians have deployed, and can deploy in a breakout scenario?

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Of equal importance is the age-old question of what action the United States would take if we found Russia in violation of the agreed numbers. Under New Start it is difficult to substantiate a violation in deployed warheads because discrepancy in the fielded warheads inspected by the USA vs what the Russians told us was deployed is not a violation of the treaty. Some critics explained to me the treaty was designed that way so as not to call into question the treaty itself, no matter what “mistakes” the US found in its annual inspections of Russian nuclear assets.

What about China? The point of including China in the arms discussions is to create eventual transparency in the Chinese nuclear forces so we know how many nuclear warheads they actually have deployed, as well as how many in their stockpile or reserve, in order to help ascertain their nuclear strategy. The work of Henry Sokolski of the NPEC illustrates China has or is building the capacity to build tens of thousands of nuclear warheads from potential weapons grade nuclear material for which there is no nuclear energy production use.

If France or England are going to be brought into the discussions, as Russia is proposing, why should China get a free pass and avoid disclosing the world how many nuclear warheads they have actually deployed in their nuclear forces?

Marc Schneider’s recent essay on the question of China’s nuclear arsenal is an excellent think-piece and uncovers the false narrative that China has only a limited number of nuclear weapons, a minimal deterrent strategy, and consequently there is no necessity to include them in nuclear arms discussions.

When considering numbers of warheads, a further consideration on cheating needs to be addressed. When , the nuclear arsenal is reduced to the 1,500 to 2,000 warhead level, cheating becomes very significant because it is relatively easy to have 100, 200, or 300 covert warheads deployed; in the scheme of things those numbers might matter as opposed to an arsenal of over 10,000 warheads, where a covert deployment of a few hundred warheads might not matter strategically.

In the current environment, a few hundred extra warheads might very well embolden a US adversary to take additional risks in international affairs because of the assumed advantage in deployed nuclear weapons gives an aggressor. This also means a robust missile defense even if imperfect [which supporters assume it will be], contributes immeasurably to deterrence since it prevents an adversary from taking the risk of initiating conflict and can also counterbalance non-compliance..

Years ago, Dr. Henry Kissinger said nuclear superiority has no practical significance, as he asked, “What do you do with such superiority if you have it?”

Implying, of course, relative warhead levels may not matter.

A rogue nation, including China and Russia, may believe a greater number of deployed nuclear weapons gives them an advantage in a crisis, or conventional conflict, and enables them to take greater risks. An emboldened rogue nation may choose to engage in aggression because they believe numerical nuclear superiority gives them a practical real-world advantage.

It can also be argued numbers of nuclear warheads don’t matter. After all, China deters with 300 warheads superpowers that have over 2,000 warheads available for day- to-day deployment. But if that’s the case, why have nuclear arms control agreements in the first place? And why insist, as we have since 1972 and the first SALT agreement, the US have parity with parties who are willing to enter into arms control agreements?

In short, if numbers—the size of an arsenal-- don’t matter, why do we insist they do!? And why, when we sign such agreements, do we insist we must be able to “trust but verify” such numbers?

It appears numbers do matter, whether they are warheads or SNDVs.

Transparency, if effective, can avoid strategic surprise.

However, if transparency is absent, strategic surprise may well be on the geostrategic menu.

As stated at the beginning of this essay, since the beginning of arms control actually assessing the number of nuclear warheads was deemed important, even if only in rough terms.

Certainly, knowing what nuclear warheads and assets are deployed by our adversaries, is a critically important function in order to achieve improved strategic nuclear stability, and if possible, further verifiable arms control.

As a former US arms negotiator with the Russians explained recently, under the START series of treaties, warhead numbers became central to arms deals, as deployed long-range strategic nuclear warhead levels dropped nearly 90%.

The Commander of US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, emphasized that in facing both China and Russia as nuclear armed great power competitors, the US is entering an environment which is unique in history.

The challenge is to ask whether a simple linear reduction in warheads is the means by which to reach better stability. If the US wants to eliminate any incentives for our adversaries to use nuclear weapons against us, numbers of adversary warheads do matter, especially when the uncertainty surrounding their numbers and purpose is reaching dangerous levels.

Given these conditions, the US must continue to fully modernize its own nuclear arsenal, better monitor, and verify the arsenals of our adversaries, deploy more robust missile defenses, while being open to arms deals if they increase stability and the security of America and its allies.

Simply extending New START does not do the job.

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.