[This is my first online column in a series that will appear on the new site of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which just moved the Doomsday Clock to five minutes to midnight. I invite everyone to check out other columns as well - the contributors are Richard Garwin, Hugh Gusterson, Laura Kahn, and Dingli Shen.]
by Pavel Podvig
As if the nuclear arms control process didn’t have enough difficulties, in December Russia decided to deal it another blow. At the inauguration of three new Topol-M road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles, the commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces announced Moscow’s plan to equip these missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Few additional details have been released, but it appears that most of Russia’s about 150 Topol-M missiles will carry three--and maybe more--nuclear warheads, something they weren’t initially designed to do.
The problem with this decision is not that it would significantly increase the size of the Russian nuclear force. The total number of warheads in the Russian strategic arsenal will decline due to the withdrawal of older missiles. The most visible effect of this move would be the almost certain death of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which regulates U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament. The treaty is set to expire in December 2009, and it looks increasingly likely that no new agreement will take over. Theoretically, it’s possible that Russia and the United States can find a way to keep some of the treaty provision in place, but it’s hard to see how this could be done in practice. Russia’s attempt this summer to start consultations on this issue was met with a cold rebuff from the U.S. administration.
As regrettable as the end of START is, if it was the only result of Russia’s decision to go with multiple warheads on its new missiles, things wouldn’t be that bad. But this decision is part of a worrisome trend, in which policy on nuclear issues is completely divorced from reality and driven by the inertia of Cold-War institutions and concepts. The placement of multiple warheads on Topol-M missiles is simply a product of the Cold War’s bean-counting mentality, which dominates the discussion of nuclear matters in Russia today. MIRVed Topol-M missiles serve absolutely no purpose other than artificially inflating the number of nuclear warheads in the Russian strategic arsenal in an attempt to make it look “presentable.” No one in Russia is seriously asking how all of these nuclear warheads could help Moscow deal with its security problems.
Russia, of course, is not the only nuclear state that does not ask questions about the real purpose of its nuclear forces. The British government just released a white paper on the future of London’s nuclear deterrent, in which it found a creative way to avoid the hard questions. Unable to come up with convincing arguments for keeping its nuclear force, the British government simply claimed that it is not its job to do so. As Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in the white paper’s preface, “Those who question this decision [to maintain a British nuclear deterrent] need to explain why disarmament by the U.K. would help our security.” It should be the other way around--those who support nuclear weapons need to make a good case for how the weapons help security.
The U.S. nuclear policy also seems to be on autopilot, with plans to keep the capability to maintain an arsenal of thousands of nuclear warheads for decades to come. The discussion in the United States tends to focus on how to preserve the warhead production capability and not necessarily on why the United States would need nuclear deterrence and the nature of this deterrence. Even in their early January announcement, which was supposed to be a bold statement in support of a nuclear-weapon-free world, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and his colleagues failed to come up with ideas that could seriously change the nature of the debate. The list of measures they suggested--from lowering alert levels of nuclear forces to halting production of fissile materials--is very good, but these have been on the table for some time, indicating that there is a reason that they haven’t materialized yet. I have a feeling that something more radical is necessary for the idea of a nuclear-weapon-free world to gain serious attention. How about former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s old proposal--getting rid of all nuclear missiles? Could the United States do that? Unilaterally? That would send the right signal to Russia, Britain, and the other countries that are setting their nuclear policies for the coming decades.
Unfortunately, there is not much hope that the current political climate will produce proposals that could change the substance of nuclear policy discussions. Instead, we see the growing acceptance of the idea that nuclear forces should be preserved (more or less) in their current form, even if no one can clearly formulate missions for these forces. At the very least, the START process has kept some pressure on the United States and Russia (and indirectly on other countries) to think about nuclear arms reductions and has provided the framework for implementing these reductions. Now that this process is ending, there is nothing to replace it.