WASHINGTON — While awaiting word on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin has just reiterated his desire for deep cuts in nuclear forces. Reportedly, he would consider a treaty allowing Russia and the United States only 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads each. Although Putin’s proposal springs largely from Russia’s economic weakness, it is a very sound idea, and whoever winds up winning Florida’s electoral votes would be well advised to take his suggestion seriously.
Today the U.S. has about 8,000 long-range strategic nuclear warheads and Russia has 6,500 — on top of many thousands more tactical and reserve warheads on each side. The strategic numbers are supposed to be cut in half by START II, assuming that it actually goes into effect, and both countries are committed to a START III process to make further cuts. But discussion of reductions below about 2,000 to 2,500 strategic warheads has met resistance within the U.S. defense establishment.
However, deep cuts to around 1,000 warheads on each side make eminent sense. Ideally, that ceiling would apply not only to strategic arsenals, but to the sum total of all strategic, tactical, and reserve warheads for each country. One need not believe that it will soon be possible to abolish all nuclear weapons to support such an agenda for major additional nuclear reductions.
In geopolitical terms, cutting U.S. and Russian arsenals to 1,000 warheads on each side has a simple and compelling logic. It is low enough to save lots of money, particularly in cash-starved Russia, helping it to improve the condition of remaining nuclear forces to make them more secure and less prone to accident. Even in the U.S., the military could make good use of the $2 billion or more in annual savings to fund the types of forces that it actually employs around the world. Yet a ceiling of 1,000 warheads is high enough number to allow the two countries to retain their nuclear superpower status for now allowing these cuts to proceed without involving China, Britain, France and other nuclear powers. These latter countries, as well as Israel, each have nuclear arsenals consisting of up to a few hundred nuclear weapons.
A ceiling of 1,000 warheads on a side also makes sense in military terms. The Pentagon disagrees, claiming that existing nuclear-war plans require thousands of warheads to cover all targets. But those war plans are fundamentally wrongheaded. There is much to debate in the post-Cold War world about what nuclear weapons are for, the types of extreme scenarios in which they might have utility and whether it could ever be moral to actually undertake a nuclear attack. But there is not a serious argument for keeping the ability to conduct nuclear strikes with thousands of warheads. Attacks of that size would amount to Armageddon, killing tens or even hundreds of millions.
It could never be morally or militarily justifiable to employ more than several dozen nuclear weapons, regardless of circumstances. Some argue that such “small” attacks would necessarily have to target population centers. That is simply wrong. One could destroy most of an enemy’s major industrial centers, key petroleum and metals industries, and major conventional military infrastructure with dozens of warheads.
To put it differently, imagine a conflict scenario against the type of country the U.S. might really fight in the years ahead. If Iraq attacked the U.S. or its allies with biological or nuclear arms, for example, the U.S. might consider nuclear retaliation under some circumstances. But a morally proportionate, or strategically savvy, response could not cause the obliteration of an enemy’s society and population. Even severe reprisals would have to be judicious and careful. One might in theory detonate a few nuclear weapons over Iraqi troop concentrations (with the explosions occurring well above ground so as to minimize nuclear fallout). Or the U.S. could attack those Iraqi military airfields, depots, and rail and road lines where civilian casualties could be minimized. Even in the dreadful scenario of a nuclear war against China growing out of a conflict over Taiwan, nothing more than very limited strikes in response to a Chinese nuclear attack could ever make any sense.
So Putin’s proposal is eminently sound on strategic and military grounds. It would also help him further downsize and secure Russia’s dilapidated nuclear arsenal. And as an added bonus, if the U.S. agreed to it, Russian officials hint that they might become more flexible about revising the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow U.S. deployment of a limited national missile defense. Quickly accepting this Russian idea would be a fine way for whoever emerges from the mess in Florida to achieve an important foreign policy success and immediately begin to build momentum and legitimacy for his presidency.
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