The final report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States is out (via armscontrolwonk.com). This kind of documents rarely offer any breakthroughs and this one certainly didn't, suggesting status quo and gradualist approach to very much everything - keep the triad and tactical weapons, invest in warhead modernization, support NNSA, keep thinking about CTBT (but don't commit to ratifying it).
What caught my eye in the executive summary (I'm not sure the whole thing is worth reading) is the argument that the commission used to justify the size of the U.S. nuclear force. According to the report,
The sizing of U.S. forces remains overwhelmingly driven by the requirements of essential equivalence and strategic stability with Russia.
Hard to disagree. But why would the United States need to keep that "essential equivalence"? The answer is, apparently, because U.S. allies made it do so:
Some U.S. allies located closer to Russia, however, are fearful of Russia and its tactical nuclear forces. The imbalance in non-strategic nuclear weapons, which greatly favors Russia, is of rising concern and an illustration of the new challenges of strategic stability as reductions in strategic weapons proceed.
It is, of course, true that quite a few countries "located closer to Russia" don't really like Russia (and, unfortunately, they have their reasons), but I should say this strikes me as one of the flimsiest justifications for the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in years.
Why all of a sudden the "imbalance" is "of rising concern"? If anything, it's been there for ages. Then, I'm not sure there is much of an imbalance there.
According to the NRDC Nuclear Notebook, in 2008 Russia had about 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads. Most of these, however, are missile defense (100), air-defense (about 600) and naval weapons (about 700, mostly torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles, but some long-range SLCMs as well), that either do not contribute to the "imbalance" or are kept in storage. There are about 650 warheads that NRDC believes are assigned to the various tactical aircraft.
The United States, according to NRDC, has about 500 tactical warheads - 100 long-range SLCMs and 400 bombs (200 of which are deployed in Europe). Depending on how do you look at these numbers, you can see either a rough "equivalence" or an alarming disparity, but hardly anything that would justify the kind of alarmist language that the Commission used. (I would say that neither country has a reason to be proud of these numbers.)
I think the reason we see this kind of argument in the report is that the Commission simply couldn't come up with a good reason to justify the size (or existence, for that matter) of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Well, it should have said so - there is no good reason, the United States just built all those weapons and doesn't really know why it should keep them. Brining in Russia's tactical weapons as "threat du jour" is not really helping.