FPI Bulletin: Why Rush to Cut U.S. Nukes Further?

June 19, 2013

In a high-profile speech today in Berlin, President Obama announced his plan to “seek negotiated cuts with Russia” in order to reduce America’s “deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third.”  The prudence of Obama’s plan, however, remains far from certain due to many stubborn problems.

President Obama’s plan to further cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal comes at a dangerous time.  The President sees his plan as the next step in someday achieving his dream of a “world without nuclear weapons.”  But the world has a vote, too, and even if Russia is open to further nuclear cuts—something which remains unclear at this point—other nations do not appear to share Obama’s aspiration.

In the Asia-Pacific, both China and North Korea are modernizing and expanding their nuclear arsenals.  In turn, that’s making Japan and South Korea—technologically-capable U.S. allies who have eschewed building their own atomic arsenals thanks, in no small part, to the preponderant strength of America’s nuclear deterrent—increasingly nervous.

While the U.S. intelligence community periodically estimates the size of China’s nuclear forces, House lawmakers want the President to certify that the intelligence community has “high confidence” in these estimates before the United States proceeds with further nuclear cuts.  The worry is that if the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal keeps dropping, it is conceivable that China someday could rapidly build up its nuclear forces in an attempt to reach game-changing numerical parity with the United States.  That’s why it’s long past due for Washington to stop thinking about any future limitations to nuclear arms in bilateral terms with Russia, and start thinking—at the very least—in trilateral terms with Russia and China.

In the Middle East, Iran—in ongoing defiance of both the U.N. Security Council and the 35-nation Board of Governors of the world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—is nearing the capability to make a nuclear weapon on alarmingly short notice.  If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it likely will spark a sprint for nuclear arms in the Middle East, perhaps led by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Some may argue that further U.S. nuclear reductions will help somehow to persuade China, North Korea, Iran, or other competitors to halt or even reverse their nuclear ambitions.  However, that argument calls to mind Secretary of Defense Harold Brown’s famous warning to Congress in 1979 about how U.S. restraint does not necessarily lead to restraint by the Soviets (or, for that matter, by other potential aggressors):  “when we build, they build; when we cut, they build.”

President Obama is also seeking nuclear cuts when the U.S. conventional military is getting slashed by sequestration.  In parallel to the Berlin speech today, the White House released a summary of Obama’s controversial new guidance on nuclear strategy—which, among other things, directs the Pentagon “to strengthen non-nuclear capabilities” as America seeks to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons.  

But here, the President’s directive for stronger conventional military forces is running into the reality of defense sequestration—legally-mandated automatic cuts that are forcing the Pentagon to cleave $52 billion in fiscal year 2014, and roughly $500 billion over the next decade.  That’s in addition to the $487 billion that the Defense Department is already cutting over a 10-year period.

U.S. military leaders have repeatedly warned that defense sequestration will be “devastating.”  In the near term, sequestration is worsening the readiness of America’s conventional air, sea, and land forces.  In the long term, it risks undercutting U.S. efforts to upgrade and replace its aging ships, submarines, fighters, bombers, and other conventional military platforms.

What’s more, sequestration endangers near- and long-term funding for ballistic missile defenses to protect the U.S. homeland from potential attacks by nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  Since 2009, President Obama has cancelled two successive plans to base anti-ICBM interceptors in Europe, and is now shifting the entire burden of protecting the U.S. homeland from ICBM attacks on to two anti-missile sites on America’s West Coast.

In an unclassified portion of an April 2013 report to Congress, the Pentagon warned that “[w]ith sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”  If Iran succeeds in building nuclear warheads and an ICBM, the United States will need a “third site” with anti-ICBM interceptors and related radar systems to better protect the East Coast from potential attack—and sooner rather than later.  However, sequestration is creating another obstacle to congressional efforts to fund and establish East Coast missile defense.

Given that the U.S. nuclear forces consume, at the very most, 4.5 percent of the Defense Department’s annual budget, further nuclear cuts will not provide anywhere near enough savings to pay the shortfalls of the Pentagon’s readiness and modernization bills.  In sum, so long as sequestration is law of the land, it will be impossible for the Pentagon to implement the President’s directive “to strengthen non-nuclear capabilities.”

Importantly, President Obama’s plan to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal should not bypass Congress.  The U.S. Constitution requires that the President get the Senate’s “advice and consent” in making and ratifying any formal international treaties.  However, key lawmakers worry that Obama may opt not to use a formal treaty to pursue future nuclear reductions with Russia.  Instead, he may try to negotiate with the Kremlin informal executive-level agreements known as “presidential nuclear initiatives” (PNIs)—which do not require the Senate’s “advice and consent.”

Key lawmakers have voiced many concerns about the use of PNIs to negotiate more nuclear cuts with Russia.  For one, PNIs would enable the White House to completely bypass Congress, and thus avoid public discussion and debate about the prudence of U.S. nuclear cuts amid the world’s growing nuclear threats and the risks posed by defense sequestration.

For another, the unclassified record suggests that Russia violated previous PNI agreements on nuclear reductions with the United States.  In October 2004, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen G. Rademaker told reporters in Moscow:  “We withdrew all of the warheads years ago [pursuant to PNI agreements] and completed dismantlement of the warheads last year.  At the same time President Yeltsin committed to similar reductions in Russian tactical nuclear weapons, but considerable concern exists that the Russian commitments have not been entirely fulfilled.” 

In May 2009, the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States chaired by former Secretaries of Defense William J. Perry and James R. Schlesinger more bluntly stated:  “Russia is no longer in compliance with its PNI commitments.”  In response to today’s Berlin speech, Congressman Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said:  "I have been urging the President through classified and unclassified correspondence to take seriously these violations by Russia since last year, but the President has ignored these concerns.”

Given the world’s growing nuclear dangers, sequestration’s damage to the U.S. military, and what’s known in the unclassified realm about Russia’s history of violating non-treaty presidential nuclear initiatives to limit nuclear arms, President Obama’s plan to further cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal appears imprudent.  There is a strong argument that the President should not rush nuclear reductions either unilaterally or through informal bilateral means like PNIs.  If Obama proceeds, then he should pursue a formal treaty process—requiring the Senate’s “advice and consent”—to advance any new effort to limit nuclear arms with Russia.

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