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THE GATHERING STRATEGIC STORM?
By Peter R. Huessy - Senior Warrior Maven Columnist
The United States and Russia are currently negotiating whether to extend for upwards of five years the nuclear arms agreement called “New Start”.
At the top of US concerns is how into the future promote greater strategic stability and incentives never to use nuclear weapons.
Signed in 2015, the nuclear New Start arms deal limits each side to 700 deployed nuclear platforms called strategic nuclear delivery vehicles. The number includes bombers, submarine launched ballistic missiles and land based intercontinental ballistic missiles. The United States has roughly 690 such systems, while the Russians claim just under 600.
The 2015 New Start also “officially” limits warheads to 1550. Except there is a special rule that allows 60 strategic or heavy bombers to be deployed but count toward the 1550 ceiling as only one warhead no matter how many gravity bombs or cruise missiles are carried by each plane.
Given these parameters, there are issues with the agreement that make a simple extension problematical. As former arms negotiator Rose Gotemoeller explained in a October 14, 2020 Carnegie Endowment seminar on the prospect of future arms control agreements, the Russians are less than enthusiastic about “intrusive” verification measures, even though better verification measures are needed for any future nuclear deal with Russia, including a New Start extension.
And as Alexei Arbatov, a resident at the Carnegie Moscow Center confirmed, any future arms control deal with Russia is not about trust but “verification”, a strong confirmation of former President Reagan’s warning that the United States should “Trust but verify.”
Verification is indeed weaker in the New Start agreement compared to the 1991 Start I agreement. For example, there is no portal monitoring of Russian missile factory production. Telemetry rules are such the Russians can hide or manipulate their missile flight test data. And surprisingly, there are no requirements that deployed ballistic missiles individually carry a certain limited number of warheads, as there was in START I.
Now the United States can inspect Russian missile sites up to ten times a year. And the Russians must furnish the US inspectors with a list of missiles and their warhead loadings at a particular site when our inspectors visit. When we inspect the missile, there is a shroud over the warheads—whether one or ten warheads. We have to guess that the number indicated by the provided Russian information is correct. But given there is no required maximum number of warheads that can be deployed on a missile type, the Russian missiles could be deployed with more than the allowed 1490 missile warheads, (1550 “officially allowed” minus 60 bomber “warheads”).
Now to be fair, every strategic nuclear reductions treaty we have signed with Russia including START I, START II, the Moscow Treaty and New START, included a preserved ability to upload or increase deployments should either party renege on their obligations.
This “hedge” strategy was simply considered a prudent insurance policy that any cautious party to the treaties would adopt. For the United States, for example, we can upload the MM III ICBMs by 800 total warheads, that under normal conditions could be added at a rate of three missiles per each of three missile wings each month, implying that we could complete the effort somewhat short of four years.
As for our SLBMs, or sea-based deterrent, each of our 20 D-5 missiles now carry an average of 4.5 warheads. Each missile could be uploaded to 8 warheads, implying over time the US could increase its warheads on its Ohio-class Navy ballistic missile fleet by 20 missiles x 3.5 warheads x 12 submarines or 840 warheads. Taken together for ICBMs and SLBMs that is a 1640 warhead increase or a doubling of the currently deployed ballistic missile warheads.
What about the Russians?
The raw numbers are impressive. The Russians could quite quickly increase their submarine warhead numbers to 1760 and their ICBM warheads to 1804, or by more than 2000 warheads. As for their bombers, the Russians could also expand their currently estimated weapon deployments by an additional three hundred for a grand total of roughly 2300 additional warheads.
But there are three additional factors that must also be assessed.
First, the US will replace its Ohio-class submarines with the new Columbia-class submarines starting in 2032. The breakout potential for the new Columbia modern sea-based systems is 480 warheads as the Columbia will carry 16 not 20 D-5 missiles.
Second, the Russians are building and deploying a number of new strategic, long-range nuclear systems not now included under the New Start limits, and estimates are that by mid-2025, the Russians could deploy 400 warheads on these new missiles.
And third, at what pace can the US and Russia expand their force deployments where it might result in certain grave strategic instabilities existing where the balance of power between the two nations is significantly uneven?
Now one can argue that the new Russians total of nearly 5000 long-range nuclear warheads deployed after a breakout –say after a projected New Start extension agreement expires in 2026 ---will still be adequately deterred by the US total of roughly 3000 deployed warheads if the US also can if needed and in a timely fashion expand its deployed nuclear forces.
To be clear, deterrence requires only for the US to credibly hold at risk the key Russian nuclear assets so these military capabilities do not remain in a sanctuary from which to strike at the US. The US deterrent now holds as STRATCOM chief Admiral Charles Richard has confirmed.
In addition, overall warhead levels might not be as important as ensuring that first strike or pre-emptive strategies—at whatever level of warheads—are not enhanced by arms deals.
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Now that is especially true re the relatively new Russian “escalate to win” strategy. Here only a limited number of nuclear forces are being brandished, a number far lower than any contemplated future ceiling of a new arms control deal with Russia.
Having said all this, even the limited use of nuclear arms in a conflict may nonetheless be connected to the Russian overall strategic force structure that in the view of Moscow, gives them a useable and stronger “correlation of forces.”
The US might assess that such an strategic warhead imbalance is not important, echoing the comment once made by Dr. Henry Kissinger that even if you have strategic nuclear superiority, (more weapons deployed than the other guy), “what do you do with it?”
Past history however may be instructive on this matter.
Under the original arms deals with the then Soviet Union—SALT I and II—the growth of both the US and Soviet nuclear forces was baked into the deals. The Soviets increased their strategic long-range deployed nuclear warheads from 2500 to 11,500 between 1972 and 1981. The United States deployed slightly more than that number when all US bomber weapons were included.
Despite such large numbers for the United States, the Soviets breakout potential—a window of vulnerability President Reagan called it-- was very worrisome, particularly its large ICBM missiles with very large throw weight or warhead carrying threats.
In the Soviets view, in the 1970’s, the “balance of power” or the “correlation of power” had shifted markedly in Moscow’s direction, not the least of which was due to their robust nuclear modernization, where the Soviets deployed at least 21 new types of nuclear armed long-range ballistic missiles, bombers, submarines and cruise missiles—at the height of “détente and peaceful co-existence”.
By the end of the decade of the 1970’s, the Soviet “empire” had also grown considerably, with some 18 new nations either coming under the Soviet orbit or moving away from the United States.
In addition, Iran’s government was seized by Islamic jihadis determined to expel the US from the Middle East, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and toppled governments in Central America and the Caribbean, and their ally Saddam Hussein seized power in Iraq and subsequently went to war with what he assumed was a weak Iran.
It is obvious that each of these geostrategic factors are central to the conflicts the US has been wrestling with for the past four decades. In short, the correlation of forces matters, and weakness has consequences.
Thus, as President Reagan remarked at his very first press conference as President, the SALT agreements could hardly be considered “arms control” given the huge growth in deployed warheads contemplated, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of additional theater or what were considered “battlefield” nuclear systems left completely untouched by the SALT deals.
In seeking reductions, which at the time most conventional wisdom concluded was simply not possible, the Reagan administration wanted to turn the strategic balance between the US and the then Soviet Union markedly toward better stability and with less incentives to strike first.
That was to be achieved through a four-part process.
First, the US would maintain a credible, highly capable force of survivable nuclear forces, with an emphasis on forces at sea and flexible bomber forces on land, as well as a de-mirved (but very accurate) land-based missile deployment. .
Second, arms control would seek major reductions, a reverse of the SALT process that managed a huge growth in deployed systems.
Third, the US would seek deployments of missile defenses, not to weaken the deterrent forces of our adversaries but to undermine the ability of these same nations to threaten to strike first by blunting and significantly complicating any first strike plans.
And fourth, the US would also seek conventional arms limits, especially after a hoped-for collapse of the Soviet empire.
The US did credibly modernize its nuclear forces, and achieved in quick succession the INF, START I and START II nuclear treaties that combined eliminated some 10,000 Soviet warheads. Missile defense research and development took place, which by 2004 gave the US some critically important deployed defenses against nuclear armed rogue regimes and limited nuclear strikes.
And huge cuts in conventional forces and the collapse of the Soviet empire occurred, objectives originally mostly dismissed as fanciful by Reagan’s critics.
And thus, we come back to where we were at the beginning of this essay. In extending New Start, we would be cementing in the Russian breakout advantage and the admittedly weak certification measures—particularly the lack of warhead transparency. And not deal with the most insidious development which is Mr. Putin’s new strategy of escalate to win or a theory of victory over the US.
This “imbalance” leads to the obvious. It is important, even critical, that while the US goes forward to credibly modernize our nuclear forces, the US also seeks geostrategic incentives for the Russians to limit breakout capabilities, insure better verification, and move away from the unstable idea that nuclear weapons can credibly be used to coerce, blackmail and indeed “escalate to win.”
Fully accounting for strategic warheads should be part of such a package, but even more important will be to sharply lessen pre-emptive or first strike capabilities of our adversaries—by expanding if necessary our deployed platforms, enhancing missile and air defenses and ensuring we strengthen both nuclear and conventional deterrence by credibly holding at risk those military assets our enemies value most.
Peter R. Huessy – Mr. 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.