Nuclear Weapons Control: Obama’s Challenge


Professor Keith B. Payne’s criticism of the Obama administration arms control protocol in the July 7, 2009 Wall Street Journal  focuses on 5 issues.

First, “Strategic requirements should drive force numbers; arm-control numbers should not dictate strategy.” The assumption is that the U.S. could and should have a nuclear weapons program that would be a long term beneficial security arrangement.

The second criticism faults the negotiations concerning a particular program: strategic force launchers.
The new agreement calls for each side to be limited to 500 and 1,100 each, a substantial reduction from the 1,600 launchers allowed under the 1991 START I Treaty.  Professor Payne tells us that this is a reduction which greatly helps Russia, because its store of bombers and  ICBMs are aging and will have to removed from service in the near future anyway.

Predictably, Professor Payne offers economic evidence to counter the obvious response; that Russia will just replace the launchers that are removed with a more modern and dangerous upgrade: “With a gross domestic product less than that of California, Russia is confronting the dilemma of how to maintain parity with the U.S. while retiring its many aged strategic forces.”

He tells us that a dramatic reduction in launchers could make the calculus for a first strike more favorable. It could also limit the ability of the U.S to react to a series of challenges which are now traveling just under the  visible horizon.

Professor Payne’s third objection targets Russia’s inventory of tactical nuclear weapons. Apparently the sheer quantity is truly astounding: Estimates place the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal at up to 10 times the size of the U.S. tactical nuclear arsenal. A Russian general is quoted to support the position that Russia will not voluntarily make any reduction in their tactical nuclear weapons inventory. Professor Payne suggests that the U.S. should withhold its assent to a reduction in strategic weapons as a bargaining chip to force a reduction in Russia’s tactical inventory.

The fourth objection focuses on Russia’s insistence that it will not engage in strategic launch controls unless the U.S. agrees to abandon a strategic missile defense program. Professor Payne indicates that the defense program has little to do with Russia, and, instead cites North Korea and Iran as the rationale for the defense program.

Fifth, and final, Russian violations of existing treaties should be addressed before the U.S. agrees to restrict its capabilities any further. Professor Payne cites Russia’s own publications for evidence that Russia has been violating the 1991 START I treaty.

Now, one would guess from reading Professor Payne’s column, that at the nuclear card game where America is betting its three year olds, all the risk is coming from the player who is trying to bluff America into an arms control treaty. No mention is made of the other player at the table: the player who is inviting America to continue to make bets without restraint to continue to bet on bigger, faster and more destructive nuclear weapons systems.

Fifty years isn’t worth everything, but 50 years is worth something, and what we clearly see in the 50 years since Russia first exploded it own hydrogen bomb is that America’s economic advantages have not been enough to make America safer. America is incomparably more vulnerable to Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons systems than it was in 1955. In 1955 Russia could only have actually threatened the United States if its bomber fleet could have fought through a withering American aircraft superiority for five thousand miles. Unlikely. The ballistic missile, the submarine launched missile and forty years of research on instrumentation changed all that. Today, it is virtually certain that Russia could kill tens of millions of Americans in less than an hour.

The change in the risk level with China has been even more dramatic. Maybe an effective arms control structure could not have been built in 1956, but if China could have been either convinced or terrorized into accepting a world where America had planes capable of delivering nuclear bombs into China by airplanes, but China had no comparable means of delivering nuclear bombs into Kansas, America would have been greatly advantaged compared to the current reality.

I suspect that America’s political leaders in 1956 would have recoiled from the notion that America should try to develop means to restrict the development of nuclear arms using the same logic Professor Payne uses 50 years later. That is, in 1956, the U.S. is very rich, China is very poor. Logic dictates that expending money on nuclear weapons will advantage the U.S. The reality, 50 years later, is that America can kill hundreds of millions of Chinese in a few hours, but China can also kill hundreds of millions of Americans in the same few hours: an enormous strategic upgrade for China in just two generations.

“Be careful above all things not to let go of the atomic weapon until you are sure and more than sure that other means of preserving peace are in your hands.” With this warning from Winston Churchill, Professor Keith B. Paynes concludes his warning against negotiating a new nuclear arms control treaty with the Russians.

Now I do not know when Winston Churchill made the statement, but he died in 1965, and let us assume for the sake of argument, that he made it in 1960. Consider what the nuclear arms race for 50 years has meant for British and American youngsters today.

Professor Payne knows that in the years since the Cuban Missile Crises in 1962, the United States has consistently enjoyed the type of economic advantage over Russia that it has today. Professor Payne also knows that in 1962 the Kennedy administration was afraid to attack Russia despite Russia’s blatant violation of the Monroe Doctrine, and blatant interference with American hegemony in Cuba, simply because President Kennedy and his advisers were afraid Russia’s response to an American attack would be its own nuclear attack on American Atlantic coastal cities.

Note well; Russia’s entire strategic nuclear arsenal at that time, not far removed from our agreed date of Churchill’s statement, was estimated to include 4 to 6 intercontinental ballistic missiles. America’s huge economic advantage in 1962 was not decisive in a showdown with Russia, because 4 missiles armed with nuclear weapons were precisely enough to force America to eat what otherwise she would not have eaten. There is no reason to expect that America would be any more likely to attack Russia today, now that the Russian nuclear arsenal totals over one thousand.

America has had the ability to destroy Russia and China with planes and missiles since the end of World War II. The most dramatic change that has occurred in the last 40 years is that first Russia, and now China, has developed the ability to also destroy America.

The emphasis that Russia has put, and is making on tactical nuclear weapons give us a glimpse how long nuclear weapons will be part of the human story. I think that any negotiation which requires Russia to destroy a really large fraction of its tactical nuclear firepower will be doomed. Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons program is about its final statement on what a successor to Germany will face today. It is the ultimate security blanket. That mountain of tactical nuclear weapons is Russia’s “Never Again.”

Finally, my response to Professor Payne’s 5 points: 1. The last 50 years indicate that America’s economic superiority has not functioned to improve America’s security from nuclear threat. 2. The margin for for all countries to react to a mistake in nuclear controls mechanism is much thinner than it was in 1956. 3. Economics have not proved to be decisive in the introduction of the increasingly lethal additions like the guided missile, or the instrumentation that would guide those missiles to population centers inside America. Professor Payne has no good evidence to suggest that economics will prove decisive in the creation or development of even more advanced weapon systems.
4. A clock is ticking on the ability of more and more countries to introduce nuclear technology into their own arsenals; the “proliferation issue.” If Russia and China and the U.S. could come to some type of nuclear accommodation among themselves, they could cooperate in using force against the addition of any more states to the club that could reach American soil with missiles.

If America had been able or willing to get Russia to accept the nuclear status that existed in 1962, when Russia had 4 to 6 missiles that could hit America, while leaving America’s ability to attack Russia with its much larger 1962 arsenal, America today would be more secure, and Russia would be less secure. There is a lesson here: The fact that the United States and Russia did not agree on an arms control treaty in 1962 made Russia more secure in 2009, and America less secure. America’s economic advantage was not dramatic enough to prevent Russia from reaching a rough parity with America in the most important strategic category: the ability to just kill everybody.

Now, I do not advocate the United States abandoning nuclear weapons, but I also see that one would have to be naive in the extreme to imagine that the Russians or the Chinese would “let go” of their nuclear capabilities. Consider what the Russians and the Chinese know precisely because they have a nuclear capability. They know Germany and Japan, or for that matter that the United States and Great Britain will not go on to their lands to do violence in the name of higher values. A “surge,” a “shock and awe” are not in their futures as long as they have a robust nuclear weapons program.







































































Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *