The Magazine

Nuclear Utopianism

The wishful thinking of U.S. arms control.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By KEITH B. PAYNE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Further, in its pursuit of arms control the administration has established rules for counting nuclear weapons that have little to do with the actual number of nuclear weapons, but do cloud the fact that the administration’s New START treaty effectively required only U.S. reductions. The administration’s frequent claim was that New START demanded 30 percent reductions in Russian nuclear forces. In fact, Russian officials happily state that New START demanded no Russian force reductions and that “during the negotiations the United States did not seek to eliminate, reduce, or limit any of [Russia’s] weapons or programs.” Russian officials also have stated openly that the number of Russian strategic nuclear forces in seven years should be 1,000 weapons above the putative New START ceiling of 1,550. Russia’s existing bomber force alone reportedly could legally carry 860 deployed strategic nuclear weapons above the treaty ceiling simply because they would not be counted under the treaty. The use of such contrived counting rules facilitates false comfort with regard to the nuclear balance.

Another such practice is the distinction made between so-called tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. This distinction was established long ago, largely for arms control accounting purposes. Tactical weapons, deployed on a variety of short-range delivery vehicles, are nearly impossible to count and keep track of, while strategic weapons on longer-range systems, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles and heavy bombers, may be counted and tracked more easily​—​although there remain difficulties here as well.

This distinction between tactical and strategic is a convenient arms control artifice, but it contributes to a significant misunderstanding of the nuclear balance. U.S. officials claim with satisfaction that we maintain nuclear parity with Russia because the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons is roughly the same. Yet Russia likely has thousands of tactical nuclear weapons that are not included in such an accounting, while the United States reportedly has hundreds​—​a 10:1 Russian advantage. Based on open sources, a comparison of total operationally available nuclear weapons that includes reported tactical nuclear weapons shows a Russian numeric advantage of at least 2:1. One may or may not care whether Russia has that advantage; but the claim of parity in deployed nuclear weapons should be recognized as a semantic game based on contrived counting rules.

U.S. arms control policy today appears to involve as much wishful thinking as those policies of the inter-war period so rightly condemned by George Kennan. They warrant the same sharp critique: “The evil of these utopian enthusiasms was not only, or even primarily, the wasted time, the misplaced emphasis, the encouragement of false hopes. The evil lay primarily in the fact that these enthusiasms distracted our gaze from the real things that were happening.”

Keith B. Payne, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, is a professor and head of Missouri State University’s graduate department of defense and strategic studies.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers