New Strategic Experiment

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

New Strategic Experiment


Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today


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After a year of preparation, President George W. Bush announced his intention to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and the Pentagon delivered to Congress its revised nuclear posture review. With these actions, the Bush administration has set into motion a radical new effort to deploy unproven strategic missile defenses and to "reduce" strategic nuclear arsenals without arms control agreements.

The administration's ostensible goal is to provide a wider range of conventional and nuclear capabilities to respond to an increasingly unpredictable threat environment no longer dominated by Russia. But, in seeking greater flexibility, the administration's approach creates new uncertainties and obstacles to efforts to reduce the dangers posed by residual U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles.

Some of the proposals are clearly positive. The administration's plan could lead to a common-sense reduction in the number of U.S. deployed strategic nuclear weapons, which now number 6,000. The posture review also calls for a greater emphasis on advanced conventional weapons rather than on nuclear weapons to deter threats.

However, in the absence of agreed constraints on nuclear arsenals, U.S. and Russian planned nuclear force reductions, even if fully implemented, could be easily reversed. By requiring a Cold War-sized force of 1,700-2,200 strategic deployed nuclear weapons, the posture review also falls short of the president's worthy goal of moving beyond mutual assured destruction. If, as the Pentagon says, U.S. nuclear force planning is not driven by the "immediate" threat of attack from Russia, no more than a few hundred survivable nuclear weapons are needed to deal with plausible threat scenarios involving Russia or any other state. In addition, the Pentagon's plan suggests that nuclear weapons can play a role in our response to non-nuclear threats-a notion that is unnecessary given U.S. conventional military superiority and dangerous because it may encourage other states to follow suit.

The administration also claims that introduction of strategic missile defenses will deter other countries from seeking long-range missiles and, if that fails, will defend against a limited future attack. The posture review makes the bold assertion that potential rogue-- state missile attacks cannot be as easily deterred by the United States' overwhelming offensive strike capabilities. These conclusions come despite the fact that the intelligence community considers U.S. territory to be far more vulnerable to attack involving weapons of mass destruction delivered by nonmissile means. …

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