Parsing the Nuclear Posture Review

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An ACA Panel Discussion

Before its annual luncheon and membership meeting on January 22, the Arms Control Association held a panel discussion to examine the Bush administration's nuclear posture review, which was first outlined in a Pentagon briefing January 9. The discussion addressed the results of the review, the differences between this review and the one the Clinton administration conducted in 1994, and the review's impact on the Bush administration's negotiations with Russia on strategic nuclear reductions.

The panelists were Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association; Janne E. Nolan, senior fellow at the Eisenhower Institute; Rose Gottemoeller, senior associate with the Non-Proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Morton H. Halperin, head of the Washington office of the Open Society Institute and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The following is an edited version of the panelists' remarks and the question-and-answer session that followed.

Daryl G. Kimball

Good morning, and welcome to this morning's panel briefing on the nuclear posture review [NPR] and the prospects for U.S.Russian arms reductions. Before I introduce our expert panelists, I would like to put the topic in the proper context. In December, President Bush broke his campaign pledge to "offer Russia the necessary amendments to the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty" and abruptly announced his intention to withdraw from the treaty in June to develop, test, and deploy "limited" anti-ballistic missile systems to defend the United States and its allies.

But even without the ABM Treaty, missile defense testing cannot be significantly accelerated, and deployment of strategic missile defenses is many years away. Further, because it is too soon to tell whether the United States will deploy effective strategic missile defenses, it is too soon to conclude whether and how China and Russia may respond to them. Russia's relatively subdued initial response was based, in part, on the expectation that deep nuclear force reductions might be codified in a legal agreement rather than through unilateral declarations.

It is important to remember that the ABM Treaty was based on the premise that limitations on anti-ballistic missile systems create more favorable conditions for agreements to limit and eliminate strategic nuclear weapons. Despite a number of missed opportunities on the part of U.S. and Russian leaders over the last three decades to reduce and eliminate offensive nuclear weapons, the ABM Treaty did create the predictability and confidence that allowed for important limitations and reductions in superpower arsenals that have benefited the United States and international security.

Along with the likely-though unnecessary and imprudentwithdrawal from the ABM Treaty, President Bush appears to have abandoned the goal of formal implementation of START II-a major accomplishment of his father's administration-and the follow-on START III framework of 1997. It therefore becomes incumbent upon President Bush to demonstrate that he can succeed in achieving a new, effective, legally binding nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia in the absence of the ABM Treaty.

The negotiation of formal agreements can be time consuming. But then again, the president's proposed reductions would not be fully implemented until 2012. The president still has an excellent opportunity to lock in U.S. and Russian reductions and secure the detailed understandings, verification procedures, and warhead dismantlement procedures that the START process promised. Even with the prospect of U.S. strategic missile defenses, Russia is keen to secure an agreement codifying verifiable, irreversible strategic nuclear reductions in the range of 1,500-2,000 warheads.

Unfortunately, the president's preference for unilateral, voluntary transfers of operationally deployed strategic warheads to a reserve force and the Pentagon's nuclear posture review may have already poisoned the well. …