The Obama administration states in its just released defense guidance paper that perhaps America’s nuclear “deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force.”
What appears to be a public musing is, in fact, already becoming a diplomatic reality. The administration didn’t wait long after securing Senate ratification of the New START agreement, which limits the U.S. force to 1,550 operational warheads, to renew its push toward its cherished goal of zero nuclear weapons. In late December, “strategic stability talks,” regarding tactical nuclear weapons but widely believed to aim toward even deeper reductions in U.S. strategic forces, began with Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov in Washington, D.C.
In plunging down the path of continued disarmament, the administration and the whole Washington arms control establishment disregard dangerous developments from a world of rapid proliferation.
Authoritative sources report that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal—long estimated at 100 warheads—is in fact poised to grow larger than the arsenal of Great Britain, about double its previously estimated size.
This revelation became public late last year just as a national news story broke that a team of Georgetown University students challenged the defense community’s long-held assumptions about the size of China’s nuclear force. For years, China has sloughed off requests to enter into verifiable arms control agreements with an unverified assurance—that it maintains only a minimum sufficient deterrent force. These students shifted through publicly available material to conclude that the Second Artillery Corps of China’s People Liberation Army may in fact be fielding an enormous arsenal in a 3,000-mile tunnel complex.
And, of course, these two revelations follow an IAEA report that confirmed the obvious: Iran is producing a nuclear bomb.
So why, then, is the Obama administration responding to this breakout in global proliferation by negotiating like it’s 1989, as if all that matters is Washington and Moscow?
Why would it contemplate further cuts in the U.S. deterrent in the face of rapid proliferation? More inexplicably, why have we reduced our investment in nuclear strategy to the point at which Georgetown undergraduates can credibly challenge assumptions about the other 21st century superpower?
Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has systematically reduced the emphasis on strategic intelligence, as well as its investment in research and advanced war-gaming that once guided U.S. policy with clear-eyed analysis.
As a result, a number of questions that strike at the heart of our nation’s survival are not being researched, or even given sustained high-level attention.
For example, a large nuclear arsenal is one powerful dimension of superpower status. At what point might our lower force levels actually drive nuclear proliferation by tempting even poor countries to become nuclear peers of the United States?
Washington has long maintained a “friends and family” plan, extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella to more than 30 allies. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted that countries in the Middle East could be protected under the U.S. umbrella if Iran becomes a nuclear power. At what point does this shrinking U.S. deterrent lose credibility, stretching so thin that it tears? At what point do we actually encourage proliferation among allied nations no longer confident of our ability to protect them?
A larger issue: President Obama, in articulating a cherished goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, seems to conceive this goal of a nuclear free world, which many experts believed was at best the work of decades, as something that could be close to finalized in his second term. How is that going to work when most nuclear powers explicitly reject our zero vision?
The most sobering fact is that of all the world’s nuclear powers, every state has the industrial base to serially manufacture nuclear weapons, save one—the United States. We could, at best, build a few weapons in a lab. Our ability to get back into the business of mass manufacturing nuclear weapons by building a new pit production facility would have enormous environmental and budgetary costs. Given this, what will we do if we discover that we have cut so deep that other nations—individually or acting in concert—can now intimidate our allies, our forces abroad, and even threaten the American homeland?
If the course we are on is irreversible, what happens to our civilization, then, if we find that we have made the wrong bet?
Before allowing the administration’s nuclear-zero vision to advance further, Congress has a duty to investigate these vital questions.
The Senate should also serve notice on the White House that it is time to take a breather on more reductions until we better understand the implications of a world evolving on fast-forward. We need a pause and a plateau—a strategic pause in future negotiations and a plateau in U.S. force levels.
Mark Davis drafted START I arms control addresses as a White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush.