Do we really need nuclear reciprocity with Russia?

General Kehler

In a conversation last month at the Council on Foreign Relations, General Robert Kehler, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, reiterated the longstanding position that as long as Russia and China have nuclear weapons, the United States needs to maintain a strategic nuclear arsenal as well. That’s U.S. policy, straight out of the Nuclear Posture Review of 2010.

Under the New START Treaty, the U.S. and the Russian Federation will equalize their strategic nuclear forces at 1550 warheads each. Gen. Kehler was asked about the talk floating around Washington that the Obama administration has been thinking about ways to get even lower — perhaps as low as 300 strategic weapons, a number put forward by Gary Schaub and James Forsyth at the Air War College a few years ago. Kehler said that the Pentagon was looking into it, which is probably going to be the Pentagon’s answer until we’re negotiating cloaking reductions with the Romulans.

There was nothing startling in Kehler’s statement that the United States would keep strategic nuclear arms as long as Russia and China (whom Kehler assured his audience were not viewed as enemies) had theirs. I doubt most analysts (including me, for one) would take issue with that. Global Zero isn’t possible yet, and maybe not at all — and maybe it shouldn’t be. But it is certainly not, as Kehler noted, going to happen anytime soon.

In a later comment reported in U.S. News, however, former Undersecretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy noted the major difficulty with getting to these lower numbers, specifically that the Russians won’t go there with us:

The sticking point to Obama’s goal is the Russians, who “seem to be going the other way,” says Michele Flournoy, Obama’s former Pentagon policy chief, citing a renewed emphasis on nuclear arms in military doctrine and increased atomic weapons spending.

“Even though a second Obama administration might see it as possible to do more reductions,” Flournoy says, “the challenge is getting the Russians to that point.”

That’s one of those sensible, obvious statements that seems unremarkable. The concept of mutual reductions has a provenance that goes all the way back to the Cold War; Hillary Clinton reasserted its importance during her confirmation hearings as Secretary of State years ago.

It’s simple. We can only reduce if the Russians do too. Obviously.

But why?

That one extra submarine could make all the difference between victory and defeat.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of automatic reciprocity. I don’t get it. I mean, I get it, as someone who was schooled in the classics of deterrence theory and all the Cold War theology of “mutual and balanced” reductions. But I never understood the obsession with numerical equivalence as a military matter, even during the debates over whether to junk SALT II during the Reagan administration, and I don’t get it now.

In my forthcoming book, No Use (Penn Press, 2013), I argue that “the Americans can seize the higher ground of non-proliferation by dashing past the sluggish Russians and beginning a serious reduction of the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal.” This position elicits alarmist objections that to do so will “upset the balance” and “undermine deterrence,” and all the other usual apocalyptic warnings.

But what evidence is there that this is a real danger? Would a world in which the Russians have 1500 nuclear weapons, and America has 750, be a world teetering on the edge of nuclear disaster? Why? Over what?

“Hide it? No, just park it here. The Americans will never notice. They do it with larger SUVs all the time.”

One of my favorite quotes in this regard was written in 1981 by Sir Michael Howard, who was then doing battle with the hard-edged realism of people like Colin Gray and their many scenarios for nuclear war, and it’s worth recalling here:

When I read the flood of scenarios in strategic journals about first-strike capabilities, counterforce or countervailing strategies, flexible response, escalation dominance and the rest of the postulates of nuclear theology, I ask myself in bewilderment: this war they are describing, what is it about? The defense of Western Europe? Access to the Gulf? The protection of Japan? If so, why is this goal not mentioned, and why is the strategy not related to the progress of the conflict in these regions? But if it is not related to this kind of specific object, what are we talking about?”

 Why do we assume that reciprocity must be the inflexible condition of nuclear reductions? Habit? Numerology? During the Cold War, we played number games for a lot of reasons, including putting the Soviets through their paces rather than granting them a superiority they might, for whatever ridiculous reasons,  find meaningful.

Arleign Burke was right, but he couldn’t take on the USSR and the USAF at the same time

Should we really bother with those same concerns today, or can we return full circle to the opinion of the U.S. Navy circa 1957 that 200 or so nuclear weapons would be more than enough to deter Moscow from…well, from doing whatever it was that they thought would be worth risking World War III.

At the least, I think we should question this constant and reflexive insistence on reciprocity, since it is so often asserted in the absence of confirming evidence (while there is actually some non-trivial disconfirming evidence, like President Bush 41′s unilateral dismantling of a large part of the U.S. nuclear force in late 1991).

Why hold on to this Cold War maxim, and thus let the Russians in effect dictate the structure of the U.S. strategic deterrent? The argument that numbers keep stability, rather than politics, was easier to make during the Cold War, but the collapse of the Cold War now seems to suggest that politics trumps numbers. It’s at least worth discussing without the automatic assumption that we can do only what the Russians will implicitly allow.

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  1. Sounds good to me — now let’s convince Kyl and Co.

    I believe the head of the AF’s strategic plans division said that 311 nukes would be enough.

    I think about 35 would be fine.

  2. I kind of always assumed that, deep down, parity just came down to prestige and CYA against superficial domestic political attacks.

    It’s probably also worth pointing out that a 750 warhead US force has much more counterforce capability against a 1500 warhead Russian force than the other way around, as the latter is concentrated on heavy silo-based ICBMs, and Boomers and TELs that never patrol.

  3. The argument has been made that in a crisis, any edge that was percieved to exist would confer advantage as to achieving policy objectives, although how it is that the first nuke would be used is something of a flight of imagination, since it’s hard to see how the looming abyss wouldn’t impose self-deterrence; “What happens then?”
    That was McBundy’s counter-argument as to irrealism in wargaming scenarios, if, the counter-argument of Gray has some force, which is that just because you don’t think that way doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t, especially across a cultural boundary. Once you accept nuclear deterrece, your arsenal is always tied to that of your opponents somewhat as a hedge against such unknowable risks, if that of course may someday kill all sorts of people.