Strategic Uncertainty: Risks Associated With Unilateral Nuclear Reductions
By Mr. Donald E. Parman, Office of R&D Director, Integration Division, International Innovation and Interagency Programs
INTRODUCTION Throughout the long history of warfare and regardless of the weapon types involved, unilateral disarmament has rarely, if ever, produced lasting peace. Effective arms reduction has always required the active and verifiable participation of all relevant parties. After all, the purpose of arms reduction is not to reduce arms per se; it is to reduce threats. Since many political and military leaders acknowledge the unprecedented threat posed by nuclear weapons, it is understandable that they would seek to reduce or eliminate them. Accordingly, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has repeatedly reduced its nuclear arsenal, unilaterally and otherwise. While the decision to reduce arms is ultimately a political one, it is not a decision bereft of consequences for those charged with the obligation to render “best military advice.” Hence, regardless of what political ends reductions may achieve, they produce at least three enormously significant challenges for military planners: 1. they complicate force-on-force strategic planning; 2. they weaken deterrence credibility with allies and negotiation credibility with adversaries; and 3. they ignore strategic cultural considerations concerning how an adversary may respond negatively to such reductions.
IMPACT ON FORCE-ON-FORCE PLANNING Unilateral reductions can greatly constrain the ability of planners to array the nuclear arsenal against adversarial threats. A flexible response force with varied capabilities allows national leaders to keep a conflict at the lowest level while negotiating for an end to hostilities, while a unilaterally reduced arsenal limits the options planners have to recommend optimally tailored response packages. Ordering a full nuclear attack to respond to a limited strike of a few weapons serves no logical goal and will result in a full response from an opponent. For example, prior to the Cuban missile crisis many strategists believed that a nuclear attack was an all or nothing strategic event. President Kennedy stated during the crisis that any nuclear missile launch from Cuba against any target in the Western Hemisphere would be regarded as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States and it would be met with a full military response. Also constrained is the ability of operators, once hostilities have begun, to respond to adversary nuclear escalations. Escalation control allows for one weapon or many to respond to a threat posed by any part of an opponent’s arsenal of weapons, the supporting industrial base, leadership targets or command and control structure. Targeting flexibility allows for a conflict to be terminated at the lowest possible level by responding in-kind to a limited attack, buying time for political solutions. As more potentially adversarial states acquire nuclear weapons, the need for broader strategic escalation control options increases.
Moreover, unilateral reduction implies not only a reduction in the number of warheads; it ultimately also implies reductions in infrastructure. The larger the number of nuclear staging bases maintained by the United States, the more complicated the targeting task of an adversary becomes. At present, the United States has three remaining nuclear aircraft staging bases, two nuclear submarine bases, and deployed nuclear alert submarines at sea.
This is already a small number of nuclear staging base targets for a peer- or near-peer-nuclear adversary to plan against. Unilateral reductions exponentially increase the risk to the United States while commensurately simplifying the targeting task for an adversary.
There are 450 nuclear missile silos remaining in the nuclear Triad as formidable individual targets to any opponent. Missile launch silos are hardened, physically separated, and very survivable which represents a formidable deterrent to any adversary. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launch complexes and missile silos were intentionally separated by a minimum of ten miles between each silo and the launch control center (LCC) where missile crews stand ready to execute launch on command of the national command authorities. The ICBM component of the nuclear Triad represents the best option for a limited response to most threats because each missile can be launched separately and ballistic warheads can penetrate most defense systems. Each missile has built in redundancy to allow for command and control by at least five separate LCCs and a back-up aircraft based airborne launch and control system.
Unlike their sister service Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs), the ICBMs have redundant command and control launch capability and communications systems. ICBMs can be launched while under attack through several backup systems.1 By comparison, submerged nuclear submarines have slow delayed communications connectivity that may delay launch while messages are received and verified. Thus, unilateral nuclear reductions must first take into consideration the impact on the flexibility of a U.S. response to aggression and the vulnerability of strategic nuclear forces to attack. Politicians and planners must recognize that unilateral reductions to the Triad force structure will directly impact the individual and collective capability of the nuclear forces to respond appropriately with flexibility and survivability to any threat from adversaries impacting deterrence credibility.
Typical Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Wing
In the United States 400 ICBMs remain and each missile launcher represents a hardened (including EMP protection) nuclear capable offensive weapon. Typical ICBM basing requires physical separation and redundant command and control capability which makes the Minuteman III sites more survivable and a formidable deterrent to an adversary and against nuclear war.
Any decision to reduce nuclear forces must take into consideration that no planner can guarantee that all nuclear weapons systems will reach their intended targets in the face of opposition forces and changing technology. Even if generated to alert, U.S. nuclear systems will face modern high-powered defense systems such as the Russian S-500 anti-aircraft, anti-missile system. The United States has not previously had to plan for this new perimeter defense weapon system, which bombers and missiles would have to breach.2 Such new technology would alter the strategic balance of deterrence forces and make any reductions impractical; indeed, it could result in a requirement for increased numbers.
U.S. nuclear bombers are not on alert day-to-day and are located at only three primary bases
IMPACT ON DETERRENCE AND NEGOTIATIONS Nuclear force reduction policy must consider the impact on deterrence, which is not a precise art, but one which must create doubt and strategic respect in the minds of opponents. Although deterrence is a difficult concept to measure, it is the foundation of U.S. nuclear policy. Consequently, both politicians and military planners must carefully weigh the potential effects of unilateral reductions on deterrence. Unilateral reductions fail to take into consideration that proper decisions on the amount of nuclear forces and any reductions to those forces must be determined by a balance of capability versus threat and what is needed to neutralize that threat. Creating in the mind of an opponent the belief that an unacceptable retaliatory strike would be launched against anyone who has launched an attack against the United States is the stated objective of America’s nuclear deterrence strategy. Some argue that one bomb is enough, others demand a variety of systems, and still others promote the idea that the threat of nuclear attack can be reduced or eliminated entirely through political agreement. Unilaterally reducing the nuclear forces also unavoidably impacts the confidence other nations have in U.S. extended deterrence agreements. Thirty countries have the potential and resources to develop nuclear weapons but instead have chosen to put their faith and confidence in the U.S. extended deterrent capability.3 The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has expressly stated that the alliance is built on collective defense with nuclear capability provided by the United States as the key component.4 NATO leaders have insisted that forward deployed U.S. tactical nuclear weapons remain in Europe as a deterrent to aggression.
B52s eliminated under the START Treaties were visible during destruction, and represented a verifiable negotiated reduction in forces on both sides.
Unilateral reductions do not demonstrably support negotiations calculated to encourage other nations to make similar concessions. Nuclear powers have reached agreement in the past on nuclear arms reductions, but only when one party has perceived an unacceptable threat to a strategic deterrence balance of forces with the opponent. In the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, both East and West possessed over 20,000 weapons, either active or in reserve stockpiles. Over the past 2 1/2 decades the United States and Russia have agreed to reduce the numbers of weapons and some types of weapon systems, with the U.S. claiming a reduction of over 75% since the fall of the Berlin Wall.5 A key to the success of these agreements was obtaining concurrence on the types, locations, and numbers of weapons at various locations or basing sites, and a subsequent verification of that data through a baseline visual assessment.6 Agreed bilateral reductions then followed. In contrast unilateral reduction decisions by the United States, such as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) of the 1990s, which resulted in less U.S. capability, and thereby less negotiation leverage when dealing with Russia, produced no verifiably reciprocal reductions by Russia.7 Although unilateral cuts to forces may be intended to ease tensions when an imbalance threatens deterrence, to dispel potentially destabilizing perceived of advantage in capability, or even simply to show good will, little if any evidence can be brought to bear to demonstrate that unilateral eliminations by the United States have done much, if anything, to encourage other states to follow suit.8
Moreover, despite all inducements to the contrary, some states remain outside of international agreements constraining nuclear development and do not share the desire to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world. Globalization poses an additional risk, since border and export controls are loosened in efforts to promote trade. That easing of control has been exploited in some cases to acquire materials necessary to make a bomb. The most widely known example is the A.Q. Kahn terrorist network that previously supplied nuclear enrichment materials to rogue nations including Libya and North Korea — all against the backdrop of unilateral nuclear reductions by the United States. Twenty first century nuclear arms reductions must take into account not only Russia but also the complicated dynamics of a multi-polar nuclear world. Unilateral reductions effectively ignore this dynamic because, apart from negotiated outcomes with appropriate verification regimen, there simply is no way to know what the full extent of the multi-polar nuclear dynamic actually is. Indeed as the Wiesner paradox suggests, if countries treat nuclear weapons as valuable components of their arsenals, then as fewer nuclear weapons exist, the ones that remain become increasingly valuable and they will be much more resistant to reductions.10 This makes the idea that an adversary state would simply reduce its arsenal because the United States unilaterally does progressively less credible.
IMPACT ON ADVERSARY PERCEPTIONS Nuclear weapons still represent the ultimate weapon in the arsenal of nations around the globe. Possession of those weapons indicates a sophistication and developmental capability that gives the possessor, at a minimum, a perceived higher status in the nuclear club.9 The President of China has stated that nuclear states with larger arsenals (obviously referring to the U.S. and Russia) must reduce their arsenals first, implying that only through unilateral or bi-lateral reductions would China and others consider further reductions.10 Other countries seeking to join the nuclear club see U.S. unilateral reductions as a way to level the threat posed against them by the United States. Any unilateral or strategic arms control reductions must consider the cultural dimensions of cooperation and expectations of adversarial nations. National leaders may have their own cultural or political motivations which may include a political desire to promote national security while demanding to be treated with equal respect by any adversary. Religious and territorial disputes such as those between India and Pakistan are examples of nations with regional issues of culture that must be considered when offering unilateral or negotiated nuclear reductions. Terrorist attacks against India which were supported by Pakistan have already occurred and could pose a real and present nuclear danger as both states have a nuclear arsenal. Their consideration of unilateral disarmament is unlikely due to the problems of enforcement, unequal compliance, and uneven implementation. Compliance with international norms for such nations may be perceived as a loss of cultural prestige, security, and respect. If nations such as these believe there is inequity, then the result could be a desire to support nuclear proliferation to match or oppose perceived or actual threats to the balance of deterrence forces. Theorists have suggested several culturally based conditions which the United States should take into consideration when making decisions concerning unilateral reductions or negotiations. These conditions are: the identities of national cultures; dominant leaders; and also the military organizations. These factors have several implications for policy-making and academic research. The first implication is that a lack the cultural understanding makes deterrence less than a complete success in all situations. The second is that there needs to be a variation in the deterrence strategy that incorporates more specific attention to institutions, values, and culture in the target countries. Third, there needs to be more cross-national comparisons of systematic attention to cultural determinations of strategy. The fourth implication is that external threats possibly create a sort of cultural resonance that actually makes a national identity stronger.11 For example, current Russian arms buildups are supported by the population because President Putin has managed to successfully convince the citizens that Russia is threatened by the West. There appears to be a convergence of strategic culture studies with contextualizing strategic choice based on real or imaginary threats. Future U.S. foreign policy for reductions must incorporate these strategic cultural factors and not propose unilateral reductions. The result will be more successful negotiations with verification protocols and a tailored balance of deterrence.12 Some areas of the world are immersed in cultural and religious battles of ideology and desire military superiority to achieve political and religious objectives. Nuclear weapons are viewed as symbols of superior power and respect. It appears that the current U.S. deterrence policy is failing due to the rise of nuclear programs and modernizations seen in Russia, Iran and North Korea.13 In the Middle East the probable outcome of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons will be a cascade effect of nuclear proliferation in the region as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt and others as they seek a defensive parity or superiority to protect their cultural identity and national assets. The Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would be severely weakened if not critically damaged by such an outcome. All efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons would be undermined by this development. This would also be viewed as a failure of U.S. policy, and a major diplomatic defeat in the region and around the world. Those who acknowledge the proliferation concerns in the Middle East recognize that unilateral nuclear weapon reductions do nothing to quell the cultural and strategic desires to obtain or maintain similar weapons.
Problems for unilateral reductions are numerous because a culture of violence exists around the globe. This cultural violence, which sometimes escalates into larger conflict, has often been found to have a basis in political disagreement, religious differences, religious fanaticism, or is the product of criminal activity. Weapons do not represent the reasons for cultural violence or political conflicts and banning them through written agreements has proven to be problematic and unreliable.Decision makers have acknowledged that nuclear deterrence has a proven track record of success spanning decades despite or perhaps because of the destructive nature of nuclear weapons in the face of numerous cultural and political disputes. The consequence of seeking to unilaterally disarm under the assumption that the nuclear weapons are the reason for conflict ignores the more logical cultural or political basis. In Russia and in China defense expenditures are justified against real or perceived threats by leaders who have a shared cultural history of wars, invasion, and memories of the high loss of life in the Second World War. Attempts to gain Russian or Chinese reductions in nuclear arsenals must recognize cultural history and motivation for bargaining with assurance that they are left with superior capability or at least parity with potential adversaries. Unilateral reductions to the nuclear arsenal would potentially eliminate any leverage the United States has to motivate arms control negotiations with Russia and China. Another area of cultural concern is that of nuclear terrorism which is criminal activity often based on cultural, religious or ethnic bias. Counter-terrorism logically represents a reason to seek or support a Nuclear Zero program because the threat and likelihood of non-state actors acquiring a nuclear device would decrease if all weapons were destroyed. However, cultural fanatics or rogue states could obtain nuclear materials through networks such as the A. Q. Khan network and supply nuclear terrorists with weapons to use for the regimes’ coercive or destructive purposes. They could potentially develop a weapon or a dirty bomb themselves. As some argue for the Nuclear Zero movement, the likelihood of a universal ban on nuclear weapons that could be enforced, or even agreed to, is not a certainty. Since eliminating the science and knowledge skill sets needed for nuclear weapons is impossible, politicians and planners must create a national security strategy that considers the potential of cultural fanatics or terrorists finding a way to acquire a nuclear weapon or device with the intention of using it. A potential area of cultural concern for unilateral nuclear reductions and negotiations is that other national leaders may perceive U.S. unilateral disarmament as weakness, or arrogance, or both. It has been stated that achieving a world without nuclear weapons, Nuclear Zero, is a worthy goal to work toward.14 The high moral ground for such a position has been echoed by national military and civilian leaders at meetings such as the Nuclear Summit and in President Obama’s Prague speech. But what if the U.S. example of unilateral disarmament was culturally viewed as talking down to an adversary? For example, Russia culturally expects to be treated as an equal and for any negotiations to represent goals of national interest and asset parity. Bargaining represents a transaction where each participant brings something of equal value to any negotiation. Strategic respect includes the recognition that an opponent is negotiating from strength and shared intent, not from good will gestures which indicate superior attitudes or strength. Animosities between the United States and potential nuclear adversaries either predates possession of nuclear weapons by one or the other party or else does not fundamentally stem from the threat of nuclear weapons per se. This is certainly true of Russia which, although an ally in World War II, was hardly a nation that the United States felt it could trust over the long term. It is also true of Iran and China, whose respective regimes’ antipathy for the United States dates back at least as far as the time of their respective revolutions, if not earlier. While the United States might intend unilateral reductions to serve as a gesture toward the lessening of tensions, there is no evidence whatsoever in which to base the argument that unilateral nuclear reductions actually facilitate this aim. Indeed, Russia has not offered any unilateral reductions in its tactical nuclear weapons. If anything, Russia may be expected to demand that any nuclear reductions on its part include the promise of future treaty negotiations include U.S. anti-missile defense systems—and all of this as Russia continues fielding anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on its borders. U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and subsequent development of anti-missile systems had the stated intent of deploying those systems to defend Europe and the Pacific theater against rogue states and actors. Russia views these programs as an aggressive move to position missiles near its borders, thereby hindering negotiations toward any nuclear reductions.15
Unilateral nuclear reductions by the United States become particularly problematic in light of policy decisions that Russia considers to be antagonizing, such as any political or military signal that a former Soviet client states would be formally covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.16 Indeed, from a Russian perspective, Russia’s defensive border is gradually being taken away as the U.S nuclear umbrella unfolds and while NATO fields anti-missile weapons in the former buffer states of the Warsaw Pact. As NATO programs become increasingly robust Russian planners see little or no reason to reciprocate either past or contemplated U.S. unilateral nuclear reductions. Instead, the trend represents, and can only represent the planning need for Russia to increase the number of defensive weapon systems in the opposition to the perceived nuclear threat which must be countered. The effect of U.S. unilateral nuclear reductions is further complicated by heterogeneous perceptions with the United States itself. Specifically, U.S. planners must consider three different types of strategic culture: national strategic culture; military strategic culture; and service strategic culture. All three of these aspects of U.S. strategic culture react to U.S. unilateral nuclear reductions, and the reaction is not necessarily based on the same set of considerations.17 • For example, there is a strong national strategic cultural taboo against using nuclear weapons for limited warfare rooted in the belief that once they are released that they cannot be controlled. This cultural taboo extends itself to a national strategic culture that opposes peaceful nuclear explosions and even to controls on nuclear power production and materials. Hence, it is difficult for some to imagine nuclear weapons to have any utility whatsoever beyond the fact of their possession. • Nuclear weapons have had a limited enduring impact on the way the U.S. military conceives of war, because these weapons have largely been perceived by military planners as weapons of last resort, existing to deter or retaliate against a similar attack by an adversarial nuclear state.18 • In comparatively stark contrast, the individual the military services have, to one degree or another and from one time to another, embraced a service cultural desire to play a role in nuclear deterrence and defense — if for no other reason than to assert relevance or to secure a larger “slice” of the budget “pie”. One of the major domestic incentives for pursuing unilateral nuclear arms reductions is lowered expenses for the national budget. However, while the cost savings that reductions afford may seem politically appealing, unilateral reductions can just as easily create vulnerabilities that must be compensated for by larger and more expensive conventional force options. In addition to the potential size and expense of such options, it also should be noted that the effect of trading a lessened nuclear threat for a heightened conventional threat is one that is easy to predict.
This Ukrainian TU-160 Blackjack bomber along with all other nuclear systems and many conventional systems in Ukraine were eliminated to reduce the national budget when it was believed that non-binding international agreements would protect Ukraine from invasion.
Each country the U.S. seeks to reach agreement with on nuclear weapons will have unique cultural issues to address. Consequently, U.S. policy makers must recognize that unilateral nuclear arms reductions may not be viewed by negotiating partners in ways imagined by the United States. Moreover, U.S. policy makers must not lose sight of the historical lesson of “peace through strength” that has figured prominently into reduction negotiations ever since the Peloponnesian War. For example, with the best intentions the Budapest Memorandum was signed in 1994 by Russia, Great Britain, the United States and Ukraine promised that the signatories would not use force against Ukraine and would honor its borders in exchange for removing all nuclear weapons systems. Effectively, Ukraine went from being the 3rd largest nuclear power in the world to Nuclear Zero and also reduced conventional forces based on the assurances of this agreement in order to reduce the national budget. Now Ukraine is in a state of turmoil and at the forefront of a new heightened conflict between NATO and Russia, despite strong historical and cultural ties to Russia (Ukrainians founded Moscow as part of old Russ). In the negotiations the vulnerability was clear; the promises were precise. The conflict stands as an example of unilateral reductions which unintentionally led to unchecked vulnerability and widespread strategic uncertainty across Europe. CONCLUSION In sum, unilateral arms reductions are fraught with perils that no state can afford to ignore. They pose significant challenges for military strategic planners who, although they do not make national defense policy, must deal with the constraints imposed by unilateral reductions of any kind, especially nuclear reductions. Moreover, history provides policy makers with few if any substantive reasons to assume that the good will ostensibly intended by unilateral nuclear reductions will be reciprocated. This is especially true as the nuclear world becomes increasingly multi-polar, thus defying the basic assumptions undergirding nuclear arms control negotiations during the Cold War. Security strategists, all the while desiring a more peaceful world, must nevertheless approach security challenges as they actually present themselves and not merely as it may be wished that they should be. Consequently, the ultimate efficacy of unilateral nuclear reductions is something that raises many more questions than it affords reliable answers.
Mr. Donald E. Parman's background in strategic planning is tempered by a career supporting nuclear deterrence, arms control, and partner nation capacity building. During his 40 plus years of military and government work, he has served as the nuclear war plans advisor at SAC and USSTRATCOM; as nuclear missile crew commander in three weapon systems and as an instructor in SAC, STRATCOM, USAFE and NATO. He followed that work by becoming an arms control expert as an INF, START, and CFE inspector and Team Chief and Deputy Commander of the Arms Control Detachment supporting OSIA - now DTRA Arms Control for all US Military Installation West of the Mississippi River.
He has worked as the Arms Control Implementation Chief in Kiev, Ukraine and as the lead for setting up the Joint CTR US-Russian Implementation Group discussion in Moscow where he served at the Defense Conversion Programs office of the US Embassy and then later as the first Attache for WMD Eliminations. He led US elimination efforts in Ukraine and Russia for the elimination of hundreds of nuclear capable aircraft and thousands of nuclear missiiles. He also served in the middle East during Desert Storm as the Executive Officer to the Commander of the deployed CENTCOM air forces at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and throughout that region.
Last year he deployed to South Korea at the acting Liaison Officer to USFK, CFC, and the ROK at Yongsan, Seoul, South Korea. His current work supports work in Japan and Lithuania to name a few key countries among the many international programs he has had the privilege to lead. Mr. Parman's bottom line is that peace through strength works and strategic plans to include our partner nations is critical to nuclear deterrence worldwide.
1David E. Pearson. The World Wide Military Command and Control System: Evolution and Effectiveness. Maxwell Air Force Base. Air University Press. P. 264.
2Vladimir Isachenkov. “Putin Promises New Weapons to Fend Western Threats.” AP. ABC News 10.
3Valerie Insinna, Dan Parsons. “In a Post-Cold War World, Uncertainty Surrounds Nuclear Triad.” National Defense. Aug 2013: 40.
4Lisbon Summit Declaration. Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Lisbon. 20 Nov 2010: Para. 30.
5David E. Pearson, Supra. 86.
6Susan Koch, “Appendix C. Cooperative Threat Reduction Negotiations: Lessons Learned.” Strengthening U.S. –Russian Cooperation on Nuclear Nonproliferation, Recommendations for Action. The National Academies Press, National research Council of the National Academies. 2005: 42.
7George Shultz, Steven Andreasen, Sidney Drell, James Goodby, ed. “Reykjavik Revisited, Steps toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons” Complete Report of 2007 Hoover Institution Conference held Oct. 24-25, 2007, at Standford University’s Hoover Institution in collaboration with Nuclear Threat Initiative. Stanford University, Hoover Institute Press. 2008: 126-129.
8Kieth Payne, Testimony Before House Armed Services Committee, Strategic Forces Subcommittee. 19 Mar 2013.
10 Kieth Payne, John Foster Jr. National Institute for Public Policy, “Nuclear Force Adaptability for Deterrence and Assurance: A Prudent Alternative to Minimum Deterrence.” Fairfax, VA. National Institute Press. 2014: 18.
11 Jeannie Johnson, Kerry Kartchner, Jeffrey Larsen, eds. Strategic Culture and Weapons of Mass Destruction. New York, PALGRAVE MACMILLAN. 2009: 35-38.
14 Adam Lowther. “The Logic of the Nuclear Arsenal.” Strategic Studies Quarterly. 3.4.2009. 8-20.
15 Vladimir Isachenkov. Supra.
16 Keith Payne, James Schlesinger. National Institute for Public Policy. “Minimum Deterrence: Examining the Evidence.” Fairfax, VA. National Institute Press. 2013: 16.
17 Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall. Deterrence and Strategic Stability in the 21st Century: The New Nuclear Employment Guidance. Aspen Strategy Group . 9 Aug 2013: 2.
18 Amy Woolf. “U.S. Nuclear Weapons: Changes in Policy and Force Structure.” CRS Report for Congress, 2004: 44.