Matrix of Nonlinearity: Minimum Deterrence, Missile Defenses, and Nuclear Arms Reductions

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The strategic nuclear arms reductions of the Cold War era may have been procedurally painstaking, but they took place in a relatively uncomplicated technology and policy world compared to now. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which entered into force in February 2010, is a possible bridge between the sitzkrieg era of nuclear superpower arms control and the more demanding requirements of the early 21st century. The context for post-New START is highly embedded in national security policy complexity, including:

* the possible, but uncertain, continuation of the "reset" in U.S.-Russian political relations

* U.S. interest in maintaining Russian political support for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) diplomatic and military actions in Afghanistan, and Russian-American convergent interests on the issue of preventing terrorism

* Russia's declared intention to modernize its conventional and nuclear armed forces, including drastic reforms in conventional force structure and operations designed to leave behind the mass mobilization and conscript-based military of the past in favor of a smaller, more professional, and more deployable force

* Russia's 2010 military doctrine that leaves the United States and NATO among the placeholders for threat assessment, but without attributing to either a proximate menace, while acknowledging that the threat of global or major coalition war is less immediate than that of local wars and unconventional conflicts.

Even within the narrower spectrum of arms control per se, as between Russia and its arms control interlocutors, there is no obvious or uncontestable next step after New START. On one hand, prominent experts, including former Russian and American foreign policy officials, have urged a speedup in implementing the New START reductions, perhaps by as much as 4 years ahead of the agreed treaty schedule. (1) In addition, the Obama administration has already directed the Department of Defense (DOD) to consider the feasibility of additional reductions below New START levels. (2) On the other hand, some American politicians might be leery about revisiting the spirited New START ratification debates in a post-New START framework any time soon.

U.S. and NATO plans to deploy missile defenses in Europe increase the uncertainties related to post-New START reductions in long-range offensive nuclear weapons and launchers. The Obama administration plan for future ballistic missile defense (BMD) deployments in Europe, although less provocative to the Kremlin than the earlier proposal by George W. Bush, roiled the debate over New START and promises to figure into any post-New START negotiations. (3) On the other hand, NATO and Russia in March 2011 began high-level talks on possible cooperation in developing and operating a European regional missile defense system. (4) Can a possible path to minimum deterrence, based on post-New START reductions in offensive nuclear weapons, coexist peacefully with joint or singular missile defense deployments in Europe by NATO and Russia? This article considers some of the political and military backdrop for any transition to a post-New START regime of minimum deterrence by the United States and Russia compared to the currently shrink-wrapped version of assured destruction or assured retaliation. Second, it analyzes whether a minimum deterrence regime at either of two levels could provide for U.S. and Russian nuclear security and deterrence stability. Third, it discusses how defenses might complicate the picture of offensive force reductions as described.

Everything Old Is New Again

The idea of minimum deterrence has caught fire among civilian and military policy analysts and other close students of nuclear arms control. Minimum deterrence might seem an acceptable alternative to the more utopian construct of nuclear abolition, endorsed in principle by President Barack Obama and a number of leading former policymakers and military commanders. …