Homeowners all across America are renegotiating their mortgages to lock in historically low interest rates. President Bush should do the same this week with nuclear weapons. He and President Vladimir Putin should take advantage of historically good relations to lock in deep reductions to both nations’ nuclear arsenals.

Bush seems to prefer a flexible rate approach, betting on a best-case scenario. Administration officials argue that U.S. security can be enhanced by adopting a new framework for U.S.-Russian relations that would replace formal, tedious arms control agreements with informal or political understandings. Negotiations would be replaced by consultations and buttressed by economic incentives. Obsolete treaties would be discarded and only vital treaties would remain intact. Not only would such steps enhance U.S. security in the near to midterm, they would also allow ties between Washington and Moscow to grow unfettered by Cold War-type interactions.

But there is no guarantee that U.S.-Russian relations will remain this good. It is simply prudent to take account of worst case scenarios when refinancing homes or planning nuclear policy. There are a dozen ways things could go bad. If they do, Russia might reverse its cooperation and revert to more competitive, even confrontational policies. Although Russia could not rebuild its forces to Cold War levels, it could greatly increase the number of weapons it otherwise would likely deploy at the end of the decade and take other steps to complicate U.S. national security objectives.

Expanding the Arsenal

We estimate that Russia’s deployed strategic arsenal will decline to just over 1,000 weapons by the end of the decade. However, through a variety of means, Russia could maintain a deployed arsenal almost four times larger than actually planned.

If the two president’s abandon the signed and ratified START II treaty (which bans multiple-warhead land-based missiles), as some Bush advisors urge, Russia would be free to keep many of its Soviet-era missiles and convert its only new missile, the SS-27, from one to three warheads each. It is possible that by the end of 2010, Russia could field over 3850 warheads and bombs. This is not a prediction, merely a description of the physically possible force, given sufficient finances.

The obvious question is, so what? Why should the United States care how many warheads Russia deploys, or vice versa? Does it matter if somehow Russia manages to deploy 3,850 rather than 1,000 warheads? The Bush administration argues that the nuclear arsenals of each state have little if any bearing on the deployments of the other and that, because the United States and Russia are not enemies, the United States should deploy those nuclear forces it deems necessary without consideration of the Russian arsenal.

In reality, however, the nuclear arsenals of both countries do affect one another. The reluctance of the U.S. Strategic Command to agree to a deployed nuclear arsenal much below the proposed START III level of 2,500 deployed strategic warheads is based primarily on its nuclear exchange calculations vis-à-vis Russia’s nuclear arsenal and its requirement to hold Russia’s nuclear and military targets at risk. Likewise, Russia, even in a cooperative environment with the United States, will continue to view U.S. deployments (offensive and defensive) as the primary factor in sizing its future force.

There are real dangers associated with large, deployed forces. Missiles with multiple warheads are considered high-value targets. In order to protect these assets, military commands in both countries keep such missiles on high alert, ready to launch within minutes. Given the poor and degrading state of the Russian early-warning system, the continued deployment of multiple-warhead ICBMs poses a major risk of accidental launch or launch-in-error, even during periods of strategic stability. Such risk could rise exponentially if U.S.-Russian relations deteriorate.

In addition, there are serious concerns about the physical security of Russia’s nuclear weapons. Currently, deployed weapons are guarded by elite troops and considered highly secure, but the same cannot be said of nuclear materials in storage, despite U.S. cooperative threat reduction efforts. A larger deployed Russian arsenal requires Moscow to maintain larger numbers of reserve warheads and nuclear materials, with security concerns growing in direct proportion to the size of those assets. The storage of warheads, assembled plutonium "pits" for warheads, and supplies of nuclear materials outside of weapons continue to pose a major security risk. Only dismantling the weapons and permanently disposing of the materials will eliminate this threat.

 

This analysis is adapted from a longer article, "What if the Strategic Framework Goes Bad?" in the current issue of Arms Control Today.