During his visit to Germany last week President Obama promised to seek negotiations with Russia for a new round of strategic nuclear weapons cuts and suggested that the time had come to talk with Moscow about tactical nuclear weapons in Europe as well. There is something to be said for both ideas, especially with respect to reductions in Europe, a continent no longer divided by mobilized armies.
But no national security issue is fraught with more potential danger than nuclear policy. In a world in which there are already seven acknowledged nuclear powers and at least two nations, Iran and North Korea, aspiring to join the “club,” it would be a mistake to think of nuclear arms control only in the context of U.S.-Russian relations.
The case for a new round of bilateral strategic arms reductions is sound. Twenty-two years after the end of the Cold War both Russia and the United States still have very large arsenals of nuclear weapons, arguably more than they would need even if both sides made substantial cuts.
Even with the NEW START treaty of 2010, Russia and the United States by 2018 will each have more than 1,800 strategic warheads available to ready forces, and large numbers more in reserve. Strategic warheads are those carried by weapons —missiles and aircraft — capable of striking at intercontinental distances.
Within these totals, NEW START limits each side to 1,550 operational warheads on land- and sea-based strategic missiles. Mr. Obama, with an eye on his stated goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons, has suggested these could be safely reduced to 1,000 on each side.
In bilateral terms, U.S. balanced against Russia, a case can be made that 1,000 operational missile warheads, supplemented by several hundred airborne weapons on each side, are more than adequate for mutual deterrence. But as Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested in 2010, the nation’s nuclear forces must be adequate not only to deter potential adversaries and reassure allies, they must also promote stable relationships with other major nuclear powers.
In short, China’s ambitions must be taken into account, and that is an argument for going slow in the reduction of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. Indeed, Russian authorities have said they will approach any new arms control talks with one eye on China.
The proposed new nuclear arms talks with Russia, then, are likely to be a drawn-out affair. A shorter path to significant nuclear cuts that promote stability could lie in talks on reducing or eliminating tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, provided we have the support of our NATO allies.
The end of the Cold War with its opposing armies in Central Europe has removed the main reason for the creation and deployment of these missiles and airborne weapons. Now would be a good time to find ways to safely eliminate them.