Is Arms Control Dead?

The drive for national missile defense could cripple almost a half-century of efforts to control and reduce nuclear arms.

Several prominent themes have emerged in the U.S. national security debate during the past few years: a trend toward unilateralism, a desire to be rid of the strictures of international conventions, and a quest for a more “realist” foreign policy. These themes form a useful background to forecasting the Bush administration’s likely policies on key national security and arms control issues. Unfortunately, when coupled with campaign speeches, cabinet confirmation hearings, and initial statements by senior officials, these themes, which are endorsed by a powerful conservative minority in Congress, suggest that the administration will not actively pursue traditional arms control policies or programs.

Indeed, this administration may well seek to deploy an extensive national missile defense (NMD) system with land-, sea-, air-, and space-based components; to amend drastically, circumvent, or abrogate altogether the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty; to forego the formal process of the strategic nuclear weapons reduction treaties in favor of unilateral reductions; and to refuse ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). If implemented, these actions would deal a serious blow to the international arms control and nonproliferation regime established during the past four decades.

One constant theme in the recent debate has been whether the United States should address security challenges interdependently or adopt a more unilateralist approach. Conservative political figures strongly believe that international organizations such as the United Nations as well as certain international agreements such as the CTBT detract from U.S. security more than they add to it. One prominent conservative, Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), said in 2000 that the United States needs “a different approach to national security issues…[one] that begins with the premise that the United States must be able to act unilaterally in its own best interests.”

A second theme, closely related to the first, is whether the United States should continue to be bound by international conventions. According to conservative commentators William Kristol and Robert Kagan, “[Republicans] will ask Americans to face this increasingly dangerous world without illusions. They will argue that American dominance can be sustained for many decades to come, not by arms control agreements, but by augmenting America’s power, and, therefore, its ability to lead.”

The vision of a United States unfettered by international agreements and acting unilaterally in its own best interests has recently been put forward in Rationale and Requirements for U.S. Nuclear Forces and Arms Control, a study published by the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP), a conservative think tank, and signed by 27 senior officials from past and current administrations. They include the current deputy national security advisor (Stephen Hadley), the special assistant to the secretary of defense (Stephen Cambone), and the National Security Council official responsible for counterproliferation and national missile defense (Robert Joseph).

The NIPP study argues that arms control is a vestige of the Cold War, has tended to codify mutual assured destruction, “contributes to U.S.-Russian political enmity, and is incompatible with the basic U.S. strategic requirement for adaptability in a dynamic post-Cold War environment.” Codifying deep reductions now, along the lines of the traditional Cold War approach to arms control, “would preclude the U.S. de jure prerogative and de facto capability to adjust forces as necessary to fit a changing strategic environment.”

Another theme in the recent debate is whether foreign and security policy should be based on “realism.” Believing that nations should act only when and where it is in the national interest and not for ideological or humanitarian reasons, President Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and Secretary of State Colin Powell have all criticized the Clinton administration’s foreign policy as having drifted into areas unrelated to maintaining the nation’s security, dominance, or prosperity.

Rice and other realist members of the new administration, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, support a robust national missile defense system and are reluctant to intervene militarily for humanitarian reasons. They would rely less on international organizations and are inclined to take a tougher line with China, Russia, and perhaps North Korea. Rice and others have criticized the Clinton administration for aiding China through trade agreements and transfers of sensitive technology as well as for underestimating the potential for scientific espionage by exchange scientists at U.S. national laboratories. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill has called loans by the previous administration to Russia “crazy” and has told the Kremlin to pay off the old Soviet Union’s debts and forget about new aid until it cleans up rampant corruption.

The defining issue

Missile defense is clearly President Bush’s top national security priority. Depending on the outcome of the administration’s current defense and strategic review and the extent of the NMD program it endorses, this decision could fundamentally alter the nature of U.S. security relations with potential adversaries, including Russia and China, as well as with traditional friends and allies.

At first glance, the outlook is grim, at least for those who believe that deploying NMD would be a mistake. The president and his top national security advisers have all publicly and steadfastly stated that the United States will deploy an NMD. Rumsfeld has called the ABM treaty, which restricts the deployment of defenses to 100 land-based interceptors, “ancient history,” and he and other members of the administration have said that the United States will go ahead with an NMD deployment even if Russia does not agree and in spite of Chinese concerns and allies’ uneasiness.

Most missile defense supporters say that the need for NMD rests principally on a potential long-range missile threat from a few countries: North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. At a Munich security conference in February 2001, however, Rumsfeld broadened the rationale, claiming that the president has a constitutional and moral responsibility to deploy NMD to defend and protect the nation. But these arguments are irrelevant to the central question of whether NMD will ultimately enhance U.S. security. Constitutional and moral imperatives do not require evaluating whether the technology is ripe, whether the potential threat merits the political and strategic consequences of the response, whether the uncertain capabilities and benefits justify the equally uncertain costs, or whether other approaches might not better address the threat.

The central problem with NMD is that it will almost certainly lead China and Russia to take steps to ensure that their offensive forces retain the capability to deter. China, because it has only about 20 long-range missiles, would have to significantly bolster its strategic arsenal to maintain a credible minimum deterrent against the United States. The Chinese believe that the NMD system is actually aimed at them, not North Korea, because U.S. officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations have talked about being able to defeat a (Chinese-sized) force of about 20 warheads.

The Bush team seems to believe that resistance to missile defense results almost entirely from an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Russia, on the other hand, has not been as concerned about the deployment of 200 ground-based missile interceptors–the Clinton plan that the new administration considers grossly inadequate–as it is with the placing of missile defense components such as sensors in space. Russia (as well as China) would see this deployment as laying the foundation for a dramatically more comprehensive NMD system and also as a major step toward the military domination of space by the United States.

With its large offensive nuclear forces, Russia would have a variety of ways of responding to a limited or a more comprehensive NMD system. It could refuse to reduce its arsenal below a certain level, increase the number of missiles with multiple warheads, or aim more weapons at fewer targets to overcome the defenses. To increase the survivability of its weapons, Russia could emphasize mobile missile launchers instead of fixed silos. It could also deploy more cruise missiles, which can fly under missile defenses. It could develop and deploy more sophisticated decoys as well as devices aimed at confusing the tracking radars. To complicate U.S. national security efforts, it could increase sales of advanced technology to countries trying to build long-range missiles.

Senior administration officials are not impressed with this strategic analysis. All that NMD skeptics need, they claim, is a good tutorial on the subject. That will convince them of the benign intentions of the United States, the undeniable advantages of missile defenses, and the moral imperatives behind their deployment. In short, the administration believes that resistance to missile defense by Russia, China, and others results from an unfortunate misunderstanding, not from any strategic concerns or fundamental clash of national interests. As President Bush said about missile defenses at his February 2001 press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair: “I don’t think I’m going to fail to persuade people.”

Farewell to the ABM treaty?

In 1972, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed in the ABM treaty to limit national missile defenses. Because that treaty ensured the absence of any effective threat to retaliatory forces, it became possible to negotiate substantial reductions in strategic nuclear arms in the two START treaties. These agreements are scheduled to reduce the number of nuclear warheads on each side from more than 10,000 at the height of the Cold War to 2,500 or fewer (the Russians have suggested a ceiling of 1,500) if START II comes into force and if a START III treaty is ever concluded.

Both the United States and Russia have in the recent past described the ABM treaty as the cornerstone of strategic stability. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov pointed out in 2000 that the treaty was the foundation of a system of international accords on arms control and disarmament. “If the foundation is destroyed,” he warned, “this interconnected system will collapse, nullifying 30 years of efforts by the world community.”

The administration and congressional NMD supporters are seemingly dead set, however, on extensively amending, circumventing, or abrogating the treaty, which they believe limits the ability of the United States to ensure its own security. Ardent NMD supporters were never satisfied with the Clinton administration’s limited, ground-based interceptor system program. Senator Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and 24 other senators argued that the Clinton approach “fails to permit the deployment of other promising missile defense technologies, including space-based sensors, sufficient numbers of ground-based radars, and additional interceptor basing modes, like Navy systems and the Airborne Laser, that we believe are necessary to achieve a fully effective defense against the full range of possible threats.”

Calling for a more robust NMD deployment when not yet in office is one thing, but making it happen once in government is quite another. The administration is now reviewing the realistic options for a more comprehensive NMD system, and they will not find many. There is no hardware (except for a radar station) that can be fielded in the next four years, and it may not even be possible to deploy the Clinton system by 2007. Sea- and air-based systems, which would have a better chance of intercepting missiles by attacking them early in their flight path, will have practical problems involving basing (they will have to be located close to the threat) and command and control (their response will have to be virtually automatic to strike the target within 200 to 300 seconds). In any case, these systems would not be ready to deploy even if the Bush administration were to last two terms. According to Pentagon estimates, initial deployment of even the quickest option (a sea-based system using AEGIS cruisers) could not begin before 2011, and full deployment would not be completed until about 2020.

Thus, the Bush administration is faced with a paradoxical set of options. The more robust and presumably more effective the NMD design, the less likely it is to be developed and deployed before the middle of the next decade and the more disruptive it will be, because Russia and China will have to react more vigorously to preserve confidence in their smaller retaliatory forces. On the other hand, a less robust NMD deployment could conceivably be structured to accommodate the concerns of Russia (but perhaps not of China) and would stand a better chance of being deployed within two terms. In that case, however, the administration’s NMD program would look like the Clinton approach and have the same technological shortcomings when faced by a determined adversary with potential countermeasures. Moreover, whatever option is chosen, the ABM treaty will still stand athwart the program and, unless amended, circumvented, or abrogated, will limit the ability of the United States “to act unilaterally in its own best interests.”

Russia and China have already reacted with hostility to the possible demise of the treaty. In April 2000, when the Russian Duma finally ratified START II, President Vladimir Putin said, “We . . . will withdraw not only from the START II treaty but also from the entire system of treaty relations on the limitation and control over strategic and conventional armaments.” China has made it quite clear that it would be totally uncooperative in all multi- and bilateral arms control efforts if the United States proceeds with an NMD system. It is already blocking arms control discussions in the Conference on Disarmament and has not ratified the CTBT. Moreover, China has implied that it would call into question the legality of space overflight by military or intelligence satellites and would interfere with such satellites if necessary.

The Bush administration might be able to avoid these repercussions if it pursued a limited rather than an open-ended NMD program within a minimally revised ABM treaty; the agreement did, after all, originally permit 200 interceptors at two sites. This would mean deferring the development of sea-, air- and space-based systems and seeking Russia’s concurrence with the required treaty changes. But this sort of restrained and negotiable outcome does not seem likely. As Deputy National Security Advisor Hadley explained in an article published in summer 2000, the administration is likely to seek “amendments or modifications to the ABM treaty [that] should eliminate restrictions on NMD research, development, and testing and their ability to use information from radar, satellites, or sensors of any sort. This will permit any NMD system actually deployed to be improved so as to meet the changing capability of potential adversaries.”

The perils of unilateral reductions

During the presidential campaign, President Bush pledged to ask the Defense Department to review the requirements of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and to explore reductions, unilateral or otherwise, in the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Although he never indicated any specific level, Bush said he wanted to reduce strategic nuclear forces to the “lowest possible number consistent with our national security. It should be possible to reduce the number of American nuclear weapons significantly further than what has been agreed to under START II.” He said he was prepared to reduce the nation’s arsenal unilaterally, adding that he “would work closely with the Russians to convince them to do the same.” Once in office, Bush reiterated his pledge for unilateral reductions and ordered a comprehensive review of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

A further reduction in strategic nuclear arsenals, at least down to and perhaps below the proposed START III figures (2,000 to 2,500 strategic warheads, or about one-third of current deployed levels) would certainly be welcomed by the U.S. and Russian militaries and by the international community. But it would be better if these cuts were agreed to through a formal binding agreement subject to verification, which would increase transparency and mutual confidence and thus strengthen the stability of the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship. In addition, without formal agreements, unilateral reductions can be quickly reversed.

The underlying rationale for unilateral cuts in nuclear arms may well be to avoid further arms control obligations.

Two recent examples demonstrate both the utility and the potential problems with unilateral arms control: the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union and the moratorium on nuclear testing that the five declared nuclear powers adopted between 1990 and 1996. The PNIs, taken during the political disintegration of the Soviet Union, removed thousands of tactical nuclear weapons from operational deployment and placed them in secure central storage. In that case, unilateral measures were the only way to achieve a goal simply and quickly. Subsequently, however, the absence of any verification measures has led to U.S. concerns that the Russian military has not fully implemented the measures and that Russia’s stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons remains quite large.

In the case of nuclear testing, the unilateral moratoria were undertaken in anticipation of the negotiation of the 1996 CTBT. But with the U.S. Senate’s rejection of the treaty and the likelihood of U.S. NMD deployments, it is unclear how long the moratoria will remain in place. They have been under steady attack by conservatives in the United States, with reports of Russian “cheating” at their test site surfacing as recently as March 2001.

The unilateral reductions suggested by President Bush would, if large enough, have undeniable popular appeal and would significantly reduce Defense Department spending on operations and maintenance. Unilateral reductions might also reduce negative repercussions generated by an NMD deployment or a decision not to ratify the CTBT. But in reality, the underlying rationale for unilateral reductions would be to avoid further arms control obligations, not to satisfy them. Rather than enhancing predictability in the strategic relationship, unilateral measures would introduce an element of uncertainty. Rather than improving transparency, they would only increase doubt. And rather than codifying smaller arsenals, they would satisfy those in the administration who dislike the structure and strictures of the existing arms control and nonproliferation regime and seek to retain for the United States the “capability to adjust forces as necessary to fit a changing strategic environment.”

Can the CTBT be revived?

The CTBT is the major unfinished work of the past decade in multilateral arms control and nonproliferation. During the campaign, Bush agreed that, “Our nation should continue its moratorium on [nuclear] testing.” He opposed the CTBT itself, however, claiming that it “does not stop proliferation, especially in renegade regimes. It is not verifiable. It is not enforceable. And it would stop us from ensuring the safety and reliability of our nation’s deterrent, should the need arise. . . . We can fight the spread of nuclear weapons, but we cannot wish them away with unwise treaties.”

The administration has three options for dealing with the CTBT. First, it could renounce any intention of ratifying it, which would free the United States from its international obligations under the agreement and be the first step toward resuming nuclear testing. But such a definitive rejection would provoke serious political and national security repercussions both at home and abroad. It would place the entire nuclear nonproliferation regime in jeopardy and could result in a major foreign policy crisis.

The second option would be to ignore the question of ratification. But this would certainly undermine and perhaps end international efforts to convince other countries to sign and ratify the treaty. Also, the current unilateral test moratoria among the major nuclear powers may not be strong enough to survive indefinitely without a formal international obligation not to test. China, which has signed but not ratified the CTBT, may feel compelled to further modernize its arsenal and to resume testing to develop more compact warheads in response to a U.S. NMD program. Pressures could also emerge within Russia to develop and test new weapons if it appears that NATO will expand to the Baltics and that the CTBT will not be ratified. In addition, if the United States does not intend to resume testing, why would it be preferable to ignore the treaty rather than to seek to impose a verified testing ban on the rest of the world?

Finally, the administration could conclude that the CTBT actually does serve U.S. political and/or security interests and seek ratification later in its term. During his confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Powell did not rule out this albeit slim possibility, although he said he did not expect Congress to take up the treaty in this session.

Such a marked reversal of policy toward the CTBT, however, could take place only after a thorough review of the treaty by the administration. Presumably, that review would adopt many of the findings in a recent comprehensive study of the treaty by retired Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued that the United States must ratify the CTBT in order to wage an effective campaign against the spread of nuclear weapons. Shalikashvili’s January 2001 report, requested by former President Clinton, outlines measures intended to assuage treaty critics, including increased spending on verification, greater efforts to maintain the reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and a joint review by the Senate and administration every 10 years to determine whether the treaty is still in the U.S. interest.

Secretary Powell, who backed the CTBT after he retired from the military, said that the Shalikashvili report contained “some good ideas with respect to the Stockpile Stewardship Program [the $4.5-billion U.S. program to maintain the reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons], which we will be pursuing.” More than 60 senators originally sought to postpone the 1999 treaty vote until the current session of Congress, and some Republican senators have said that they might reconsider their votes against the treaty if new safeguards were attached to it.

Such a policy reversal might become an attractive option for the administration if, for example, NMD deployment and the collapse of the arms control process resulted in a disastrous deterioration of relations with China and Russia. Alternatively, a new series of nuclear or missile tests (or some other dramatic event) involving India and Pakistan or a complete meltdown in the Middle East peace process might lead the administration to seek at least one major national security accomplishment to forestall the collapse of the arms control and nonproliferation regime.

In politics, the past is not always prologue. What is said while campaigning is often not what is done once in office. Before his election, for example, President Nixon pledged to build a 12-site NMD. In the end, he negotiated a treaty that allowed for only one site. The Bush administration may find that it is not able or that it is not wise to follow the lines adumbrated in their campaign rhetoric and put forward in scholarly articles published when the authors had no responsibility for the nation’s security. Government policies evolve, in most cases through a process of creative tension among competing bureaucratic interests and in the context of real-world political constraints. And despite protestations to the effect that no nation should have a veto over U.S. policies, the outside world–the U.S. electorate, the media, the allies, and even potential adversaries–will ultimately influence the final decisions. In today’s world, it’s not so easy to be an unfettered unilateralist.

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Cite this Article

Mendelsohn, Jack. “Is Arms Control Dead?” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 3 (Spring 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 3, Spring 2001