Turning to America’s nuclear arsenal, many are arguing for deeper cuts in America’s strategic arsenal. Many would argue that such cuts should not be made unless Russia is willing to make similar cuts. If Russia is unwilling to make such cuts, should America go it alone? What areas of America’s arsenal would you see as ripe for cuts? Older bombers like the B-52? Land-based ICBMs?
I cannot for the life of me understand our obsession with doing things in tandem with the Russians, other than as a Cold War reflex that we can’t seem to shed. It’s interesting: the administration of George W. Bush is going to be vilified as a bunch of right-wing extremists for a long time over Iraq and the Middle East, but on arms control, there was a nugget of thinking at the core of the Bush 43 team’s thinking that was actually radically liberal, in a way, when it came to nukes. And that got lost in all the panic and anger after 9/11. But I think it’s a story worth telling for a moment.
Bush, like every other American president of the nuclear age, was shocked by the sheer number of nuclear weapons we have in our arsenal. JFK was disgusted by his briefing, as was LBJ; Nixon sent the Joint Chiefs back to the drawing board because he couldn’t get the numbers of casualties out of his mind, and Carter thought about slashing everything down to 300 weapons. Reagan snoozed through his nuke brief because he didn’t think it mattered, since he had no intention of learning how to push The Button. Even Dick Cheney — whom no one could accuse of being easy to scare — was appalled when he got his first nuclear plan briefing in 1990, when he was Secretary of Defense. (“Who ordered all this?” Cheney asked the Air Force general, Larry Welch. General Welch said: “You did, sir, you and your civilian predecessors.” Good thing I wasn’t SecDef, because that answer would have mightily ticked me off.)Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
So anyway, Bush said: let’s forget about arms treaties, and let’s just all cut weapons down to levels we think are sufficient for our own defense. This was partly because conservatives like Bush don’t like treaties in general, which constrain your ability to change your mind. But it was also because a lot of people, including hardline Reaganites, had finally said: What’s the point? Even Richard Perle, who was called “The Prince of Darkness” when he worked for Reagan, said that no one was going to use strategic weapons, and Bush sent him to the Pentagon to start getting rid of them. So why get tangled in red tape with the Russians over all this? It didn’t make any sense, and Bush made good on the idea by agreeing with Putin to jump down to 2200 weapons each — and then got there ahead of the Russians and the treaty deadline anyway.
Bush also wanted to get away from treaties because he wanted to junk the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which he did. The Russians didn’t much care; they knew it was outdated and they didn’t raise a fuss. This made some American arms controllers crazy, but the Russians shrugged it off, and understandably so.
But all of this took place in the shadow of 9/11 and the obsession with terrorism. Worse, Putin went completely off the rails in Russia, and there was no point trying to negotiate with a Kremlin that wasn’t interested in real progress. Nuclear weapons, never a priority after the Cold War, got put on the back burner first by Bill Clinton and then by Bush. And when the Bush people left, it was like we reset the clock back to 1986 or something: Hillary Clinton, in her confirmation hearing in 2009, went right back to the “only with the Russians” line, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.
Some of it, I believe, is because we have a generational lag: people like Clinton and Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright and others are just too old, too steeped in old-time Sovietology, and too marinated in the Cold War, to see past any arms control process that doesn’t include symmetry with the Russians. Here’s a trivia factoid that most people don’t know, but that the Russians think about a lot: Madeleine Albright, who is close to the Clintons, is someone the Russians really don’t like. She studied with Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom the Russians really hate. Condi Rice studied with Albright’s father. To the Russians, it’s all the same “family tree,” so to speak, and they see us as stuck in a Kremlinology time warp, populated by people who earned their chops during the Cold War. Dmitri Medvedev once carped that the U.S. government had too many Sovietologists in it, and he may have had a point. (Of course, the Russians are worse than we are when it comes to Cold War nostalgia, but that’s a whole different problem.)
Another problem is that the American right wing, much like its counterparts in Russia, can’t let go of the idea that the Russkies are going to airdrop into Seattle if we don’t have a perfect equivalence in nuclear arms. They’re as locked into Cold War thinking as the former Sovietologists in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. So it’s going to take a bold move, one that cuts through the bureaucratic and political resistance in the U.S. nuclear establishment, to get to dramatic cuts. I don’t see that happening in this administration, which burned its chips with Congress early on and could barely get the New START Treaty passed, which should have been a no-brainer.
As for what should go, the backbone of U.S. deterrence should remain with ICBMs and submarines. I am particularly concerned that people talk about getting rid of the ICBMs, which is one of the few things I think would be truly dangerous. The fact that ICBMs are located on U.S. soil is crucial: you want to make it so that anyone contemplating an attack on the U.S. deterrent has to contemplate the reality that it will mean a simultaneous strike on the United States itself. That’s a damn scary proposition: we might not retaliate with a full nuclear strike for someone sinking a submarine, but dropping a few hundred warheads on North America is a different ballgame entirely. Fighting at sea is risky beyond words; nuking the United States itself is just flat-out crazy.
I argue with my USAF comrades a lot about bombers. I don’t see the point of a nuclear-armed bomber anymore, and I haven’t since the end of the Cold War. I even convinced my then-boss, Senator John Heinz, to vote against continuing the B-2 in 1990. That’s not to say we don’t need a stealthy conventional bomber for long-range strike missions, but I think the scenarios where we put nuclear-armed bombers in the air as a warning, for example, are all straight out of the 1980s, and just aren’t meaningful anymore. In fact, those kind of Cold War moves could be dangerous: if I were a small nation with a handful of ICBMs, and I got wind of a bunch of ghosty Bat-planes taking off, I’d assume I was at the “use-em-or-lose-em” breaking point, because I’d never see them coming.
But I also have to say that some of my Air Force colleagues make good arguments about flexibility, recallability, and so on. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but they’re serious arguments from thoughtful people, and those make a lot more sense than the World War III stuff that still dominates discussions of why we need a “Triad” of delivery systems. I just don’t think we need that. But then, I don’t think we need more than 300 or 400 nukes, either — if that many.