Renovating U.S. Strategic Arms Control Policy

By Sokolsky, Richard D. | Strategic Forum, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Renovating U.S. Strategic Arms Control Policy

Sokolsky, Richard D., Strategic Forum

Key Points

Decisions on the next phase of strategic force reductions and how to achieve them will have to await the resolution of larger issues related to the future of the U.S. strategic force posture and national missile defense. Once the Bush administration completes its Nuclear Posture Review, however, it will need to decide whether to continue the Cold War-style strategic arms reduction process or explore alternatives for reducing nuclear threats to national security and transforming the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship.

The traditional arms control process of negotiating legally binding treaties that both codify numerical parity and contain extensive verification measures has reached an impasse and outlived its utility. Moreover, new U.S. strategic priorities will require changes in the ends and means of arms control policy.

The United States and Russia should embrace a radically new framework to achieve deeper reductions in strategic nuclear forces. The centerpiece of such a reform agenda should be arms control through unilateral and parallel unilateral measures. To jump-start this process, the administration should give top priority to repealing legislation that prohibits the Nation from unilaterally reducing strategic forces until START II enters into force.

Unless the United States embraces a more flexible and innovative approach to strategic arms control, progress will be stymied in developing a nuclear weapons posture for the new security environment.


There has been a tectonic shift in the strategic landscape since the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations concluded in the early 1990s. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact are defunct. America and Russia are no longer enemies and the nuclear arms race between the two countries is, for all intents and purposes, over. The threat of a surprise nuclear attack has all but vanished along with any plausible scenario between the two countries that could escalate to a nuclear war. The strategic warning time for reconstitution of a credible conventional military threat to Europe can now be measured in years. The likelihood that Russia could marshal the economic resources for clandestine production of new nuclear weapon systems on a militarily significant scale is extremely remote. The most serious security threats emanating from Russia today--poorly safeguarded nuclear warheads and materials and the potential proliferation of such material and expertise to states of concern--reflect profound weakness. Simply put, the proliferation risks attendant to a Russia in the throes of a long-term structural crisis are a far more serious security threat than SS-18 heavy missiles destroying U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in a preemptive first strike.

Consideration of future nuclear arms control options must also take into account long-term trends in Russian strategic force levels. With or without arms control agreements with the United States, Russia will not command the necessary resources over the next 10-15 years to sustain the number of deployed warheads (1,500) it proposed for START III. Moreover, economic constraints, combined with growing obsolescence, will also lead to a steep decline in its nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Russian production of strategic weapon systems has fallen dramatically over the last decade. Moscow currently produces a negligible number of ICBMs per year and will not be able to produce these systems fast enough to offset the growing obsolescence of its ICBM forces. Further, infrastructure and resources are lacking to sustain these decaying missile systems indefinitely or to support significant increases in force structure. The other two legs of the Russian strategic triad are in even worse shape. Since 1990, the last year that Russia produced any new ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), the number of SSBNs has dropped precipitously and will decline even further as older submarines are retired. …

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