The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms

The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms


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For some observers, nuclear arms control is either a relic of the cold war, or a utopian dream about a denuclearized planet decades in the future. But, as Brookings scholars Steven Pifer and Michael O'Hanlon argue in The Opportunity , arms control can address some key security challenges facing Washington today and enhance both American and global security.

Pifer and O'Hanlon make a compelling case for further arms control measures—to reduce the nuclear threat to the United States and its allies, to strengthen strategic stability, to promote greater transparency regarding secretive nuclear arsenals, to create the possibility for significant defense budget savings, to bolster American credibility in the fight to curb nuclear proliferation, and to build a stronger and more sustainable U.S.-Russia relationship.

President Obama gave priority to nuclear arms control early in his first term and, by all accounts, would like to be transformational on these questions. Can there be another major U.S.-Russia arms treaty? Can the tactical and surplus strategic nuclear warheads that have so far escaped controls be brought into such a framework? Can a modus vivendi be reached between the two countries on missile defense? And what of multilateral accords on nuclear testing and production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons? Pifer and O'Hanlon concisely frame the issues, the background, and the choices facing the president; provide practical policy recommendations, and put it all in clear and readable prose that will be easily understood by the layman.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815724292
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 10/11/2012
Series: Brookings Focus Book Series
Pages: 242
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Steven Pifer is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy studies and the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, where he directs the Brookings Arms Control Initiative. His long diplomatic career included considerable work on nuclear arms reductions and three years as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Michael E. O'Hanlon is a senior fellow with the 21st Century Defense Initiative and director of research for Foreign Policy at Brookings, where he holds the Sydney Stein Jr. Chair in International Security. His many books include Bending History: The Foreign Policy of Barack Obama , with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal (Brookings, 2012).

Read an Excerpt


By Steven Pifer Michael E. O'Hanlon


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ISBN: 978-0-8157-2429-2

Chapter One


NUCLEAR ARMS REMAIN the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. As 2012 draws to a close, Iran and North Korea tend to dominate the headlines about nuclear arms issues. To be sure, the efforts to dissuade the regime in Tehran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability and to persuade North Korea and its new young autocrat to abandon its already established nuclear arms program are critical challenges facing the United States. They will rank high on the foreign policy agenda of the American president in 2013, be it Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, as will concerns about keeping nuclear weapons and fissile materials out of the hands of terrorist groups.

But the presidential in-box will also hold a number of issues related to more traditional nuclear arms control that must not be ignored. These issues, the subject of this book, set the basic international context for all discussions of nonproliferation. They address the 95-plus percent of all global nuclear weapons and weapons materials still held by the nuclear weapons states officially recognized by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China. They greatly influence the tens of billions of dollars still spent on nuclear arms annually by the major powers today—and the deterrent role those weapons still play in contemporary international politics. They are central to relationships between some of the great powers, notably Russia and the United States but also China and the United States, and can affect the broader character of those states' strategic interactions. These issues are, in short, still crucial to matters of global war and peace today.

In April 2009, President Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia met in London, where they agreed to launch a negotiation on strategic offensive arms, continuing a practice of nuclear arms limitation and reduction negotiations between Washington and Moscow that dates back more than forty years. One year later, they met in Prague to sign the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The Obama administration considered the treaty a primary accomplishment of its policy to "reset" relations with Russia as well as the most important achievement in bilateral arms control in two decades. The treaty entered into force in February 2011; when its limits take full effect in 2018, it will constrain U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear forces to levels not seen since the late 1950s.

The arms control dialogue between Washington and Moscow over the past three years has addressed other questions as well, such as the relationship between offense and defense, the impact of missile defense, and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. But the tempo of discussions slowed greatly in the second half of 2011 and 2012, in large part because of presidential elections in the two countries.

Vladimir Putin's return as Russia's president in March 2012 surprised few, but the Russian bureaucracy nevertheless adopted a cautious stance during the election period and transition. Russian officials traditionally tend to display little creativity until they have a clear signal of direction from the top.

The American presidential election also had an impact. The Obama administration downplayed the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons that the president had painted in 2009 and followed a more careful line on arms control. Given other priorities and, in a heated presidential election campaign, the White House apparently wanted to avoid taking steps that would either complicate Obama's reelection drive or burden the future prospects for arms control. For their part, Russian officials quietly made clear as early as summer 2011 that they would not pursue new nuclear reduction negotiations with the United States until they knew who the American president would be in 2013, their experience being that Democratic and Republican administrations take very different approaches to arms control.


The U.S. president in 2013 will face an arms control opportunity. With good decisionmaking and a bit of luck on the negotiating front, he can help further reduce U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals while bringing nonstrategic and surplus warheads under controls for the first time. The two nuclear superpowers would still have 2,000 or more warheads each under the concepts we discuss—far more than the low hundreds likely required for even a fairly robust classic standard of deterrence—but far less than the 5,000 or so each has today. Associated steps could cap China's future arsenal and that of other powers too, at least through politically binding declarations, laying the basis for bringing those countries into the nuclear reduction process. This would be an unprecedented and highly useful accomplishment.

Taken together, these efforts might also make it easier for a future president to consider whether the global elimination of nuclear weapons would ever be possible or desirable. More immediately and more to the point, these efforts would improve nuclear safety considerably. The next president could, in the process, save substantial sums of money in nuclear accounts at a time when federal budget pressures are enormous. He might also reinvigorate the improvement in relations with Russia that occurred on President Obama's watch but that deteriorated somewhat more recently, while reducing the odds of future U.S.-China strategic nuclear competition. And he could lock in the very useful end to nuclear testing among the major powers that has enabled the international community to apply pressure on proliferating states such as Iran and North Korea.

Because Russia remains the other nuclear superpower, many of the key nuclear questions in the next presidential term will focus on the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship. The yield—or destructive power—of each strategic nuclear warhead in the U.S. inventory today is six to as much as thirty times that of the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. New START allows the United States and Russia each to maintain up to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and up to 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles—intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers. With the dramatic changes that have taken place since the cold war, do the United States and Russia still need such large strategic forces? As the United States faces key modernization decisions, what kind of strategic forces does it want in the future? Should Washington attempt to negotiate further reductions in deployed warheads and delivery vehicles? If so, to what levels?

New START limits the number of deployed strategic warheads, that is, the warheads that physically sit atop deployed strategic ballistic missiles. But warheads that are held in reserve, referred to as nondeployed strategic warheads, and nonstrategic nuclear warheads fall under no constraints whatsoever. Indeed, New START limits only about 30 percent of the weapons in the current U.S. nuclear arsenal and a like or smaller percentage of the weapons in Russia's arsenal. American allies, particularly in Europe but also in Asia, would welcome reductions in Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons. At the same time, some NATO allies question whether U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons must still be deployed in Europe to deter an attack on the Alliance. Should Washington try to constrain these weapons as well as the category of nondeployed strategic warheads? If so, how might arms control deal with these weapons?

Missile defense also will pose questions in 2013. U.S. policy going back to the early 1990s has been to defend the United States against limited ballistic missile attack. Moscow has expressed concerns that missile defense plans announced by the George W. Bush and Obama administrations could eventually degrade the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent. U.S. officials accept the interrelationship between offense and defense but argue that Russia currently has little ground for concern. The United States and NATO have suggested a cooperative NATO-Russian missile defense arrangement for Europe, but the Russians insist first on a legal guarantee that American missile defenses would not be directed against Russian strategic missiles. The Obama administration is unwilling to go there, understanding that the current Senate would refuse to consent to ratify anything that constrains missile defense. Will the sides be able to find a way around this impediment in 2013 and achieve a cooperative NATO-Russia arrangement? Or will missile defense pose a contentious issue on the agenda with Moscow that inhibits further nuclear reductions and undermines broader relations?

The nuclear questions go beyond the United States and Russia. Other issues that will face the president involve a wider spectrum of national actors.

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996; the U.S. Senate debated it in 1999 but did not consent to ratification. China has not ratified the treaty either, although Britain, France, and Russia have. Going beyond previous bans on atmospheric testing and limits on the yield of weapons detonated underground, the CTBT would permanently prohibit all nuclear tests worldwide. The United States in any event has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992. Should the administration seek Senate consent to ratification of the treaty a second time? A verification system has been established that appears to make such a ban realistic; is that system sufficient to give the United States confidence that it could detect covert nuclear tests? Absent treaty ratification, does a continuation of the moratorium on nuclear testing observed by the five original nuclear powers (plus Israel) for a couple of decades still make sense for the United States? Are any changes needed in the means by which the U.S. Department of Energy, at its major weapons laboratories and other nuclear facilities, ensures the safety, effectiveness, and reliability of the American nuclear arsenal?

The United States and Russia are no longer producing highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium for nuclear weapons purposes. India and Pakistan are producing more fissile material; North Korea and Israel may be doing so in smaller quantities; and there is a modest amount of reprocessing of plutonium from the spent fuel of energy reactors in places like Japan. But with the superpowers out of the business of producing fissile material for weapons, it makes sense to ask if an accord could be reached to formalize and generalize the idea of cutting off the production of fissile materials. If a formal multilateral treaty regime cannot be established, would it be feasible to promote a moratorium—ideally not just on fissile material for weapons, but on all forms of fissile material, even those previously intended for commercial or scientific purposes?

As U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons inventories come down, two questions naturally arise. First, at what point does the arms control process potentially place the world on a serious trajectory toward zero (or very few) nuclear weapons, rather than simply constituting a continuation and extrapolation of classic arms control? Second, at what point must other countries be brought into the process so as not to create the potential for new arms races between one or more medium powers and the traditional nuclear superpowers, as the latter reduce their weapons holdings?


The president in 2013 will face a very busy agenda, with many issues, both domestic and foreign, competing for his attention. Why pursue further nuclear arms control when the cold war is more than twenty years in the past? Arms control is not and should not be considered an end in itself. It is a tool that, properly applied, can strengthen and enhance the security of the United States and America's allies. We believe that several reasons argue for going beyond the New START Treaty to pursue additional nuclear arms reduction steps that will make the United States and the American people safer and more secure.

First, the size of the Russian nuclear arsenal, even once New START's limits are fully met, will mean that Russia still retains the capability to physically destroy the United States several times over. No other country can do that. Much has changed since the end of the cold war and collapse of the Soviet Union, and the U.S.-Soviet nuclear showdown of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s is happily a thing of the past. A major Russian nuclear attack probably will not be placed high on the president's list of concerns. But, as a general proposition, we believe that the fewer the number of nuclear weapons that can strike the United States, the better America's security. Nuclear arms control offers a vehicle to achieve that.

Second, a stable nuclear balance is one in which neither side has a strong incentive to strike first in a crisis. The Russian military has begun developing a new heavy ICBM to carry multiple warheads. If Russia proceeds to deploy such a missile, it would sustain the threat to U.S. ICBMs in their silos that is now declining as older Russian SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs are retired. In a crisis, a new heavy ICBM would pose an attractive target for U.S. attack, given the possibility of destroying many warheads by destroying one heavy ICBM. That development would not be healthy for strategic stability, even today. Further negotiated nuclear arms reductions that lowered the 1,550 limit on deployed strategic warheads could encourage Moscow not to go forward with a new heavy ICBM.

Third, with the exception of intermediate-range missiles, arms control has thus far left untouched nonstrategic nuclear weapons on both sides. Russia today maintains a sizable numerical advantage over the United States in these weapons. Although they generally lack the range to strike America, they pose a concern to U.S. allies in Europe and Asia. NATO leaders have called for steps to reduce the Russian nonstrategic arsenal, as did the Senate during the debate on ratification of New START. Arms control offers a path to achieve that goal.

Fourth, a major benefit of arms control is increased transparency regarding the other side's military forces. New START, for example, requires a detailed data exchange, semiannual data updates, and notifications of changes regarding a side's strategic forces. The treaty also allows each side to conduct up to eighteen short-notice, on-site inspections a year of the other's strategic systems to check the data provided. This kind of transparency provides the U.S. intelligence community and military with a far better understanding of Russian strategic forces than would be possible with just national technical means—the euphemism for things such as surveillance satellites—by themselves. That allows the Defense Department to avoid worst-case assumptions and make smarter decisions regarding how to equip, staff, and operate U.S. strategic forces.

Fifth, strategic nuclear forces are expensive, and the United States is approaching the point when it must recapitalize all three legs of the strategic triad. In the coming years, the Defense Department will have to make decisions on a new ballistic missile submarine, a new ICBM, and a new heavy bomber. The new submarines may cost as much as $6 billion to $7 billion each, not counting the ballistic missiles, and the Pentagon seeks to cap the cost of a new heavy bomber at $550 million apiece. All of this comes at a time when growing concern about the federal budget deficit places enormous pressure on the U.S. defense budget. Arms control agreements that reduce the number of new strategic systems that must be built can free up scarce defense resources for operations that the U.S. military is far more likely to engage in than thermonuclear war.

Sixth, arms control and U.S. nuclear force reductions can bolster America's nonproliferation credentials. The United States and Russia between them maintain well over 90 percent of the nuclear weapons in the world. An active U.S. effort to reduce those stockpiles—an objective to which the United States is committed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty—will give Washington greater credibility in seeking to discourage nuclear proliferation. One should be realistic. A new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms treaty will not persuade Tehran or Pyongyang to alter course on nuclear weapons; Washington and its partners must pursue other strategies to achieve those goals. A new treaty—or other measures that produce further reductions in U.S. (and Russian) nuclear arsenals—would nonetheless strengthen the ability of U.S. diplomacy to secure third-country support to apply pressure against proliferation elsewhere, including against country X, the country after Iran that may consider attempting to acquire nuclear weapons.


Excerpted from THE OPPORTUNITY by Steven Pifer Michael E. O'Hanlon Copyright © 2012 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword vii

1 Why Nuclear Arms Control Should Be on the President's Agenda in 2013 1

2 U.S. Nuclear Policies and Forces 15

3 Strategic Nuclear Force Reductions after New START 46

4 Addressing Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons 81

5 Missile Defense Issues 113

6 The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Stockpile Maintenance 139

7 Fissile Materials and a Production Cutoff 162

8 Multilateralizing the Process-and Aspiring to Zero? 175

9 Looking Forward 199

Appendix A Nuclear Arms Control Treaties 207

Appendix B Abbreviations 217

Notes 219

Index 231

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

" The Opportunity is an indispensable guide… It is comprehensive. It is practical. And it could not be more timely." —William Perry, U.S. secretary of defense (1994-97)

" The Opportunity is a must-read. It offers superb analysis and real recommendations…" —Ellen Tauscher, former member of Congress

"While some will disagree with Pifer and O'Hanlon's specific recommendations, no one can fault the clarity and fairness of their analysis… This book will be a valuable resource for policymakers, practitioners, and academics of all political persuasions." —Ambassador Linton Brooks, chief U.S. negotiator, 1991 START I Treaty

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