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When is a Nuke not a Nuke?

by Benjamin Friedman

In May 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush will be in Moscow. There, he and Russian President Vladimir Putin hope to sign a written document that will codify their November handshake agreement to reduce strategic nuclear arsenals from current levels of 6,000 apiece to 1,700-2,200 by 2012. While any reduction in weapons deployed must be lauded as a step forward, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Bush-Putin plan nonetheless will leave the United States with the potential to deploy around 15,000 nuclear weapons.

The critical issue at stake is the counting rules being used: in particular, U.S. plans to keep many more than 2,200 weapons in storage for potential re-deployment later. With nuclear weapons kept in various stages of readiness and dismantlement, there are many ways to measure when a nuclear weapon is no longer a nuclear weapon, and thus many ways to count them. The recent U.S. Nuclear Posture Review reveals that despite the rhetoric focusing on cuts to the number of weapons actually deployed and ready to go, the Bush administration wants to keep the strategic flexibility a massive nuclear arsenal provides.

When politicians talk about nuclear weapons, they are usually talking about only a small portion of the U.S. warhead arsenal — the strategically or operationally deployed warheads. Those are the weapons Bush and Putin's agreement refers to and that are restricted under the START treaties. (The Bush-Putin agreement supplants START II, which called for reductions in deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to 3,500 each.) Under the agreement now being negotiated, the strategically deployed bucket will be partially emptied, while other buckets fill up.

According to the NRDC, the United States now has about 10,650 intact warheads in its nuclear arsenal. In addition, there are enough disassembled components for another 5,000 warheads in storage - the U.S. strategic reserve. The intact nuclear stockpile can be divided into two parts, active and inactive weapons. Weapons in the inactive stockpile have had their limited life components, such as tritium, removed. The active stockpile has three subsections: deployed weapons, the responsive capacity or hedge, and spares. Deployed warheads can be either operationally deployed or in overhaul. Operationally deployed warheads are attached to a delivery system, such as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At any given time, a certain percentage of the deployed warheads are in overhaul, being tested and updated. Warheads in the hedge are separated from their delivery vehicles, be they missiles or planes. Spare warheads can replace warheads in the responsive or operationally deployed categories. Out of all these categories, only the operationally deployed warheads are likely to be restricted by the Bush-Putin agreement.

While the reduction plan has not been finalized, if the agreement follows the Nuclear Posture Review, the majority of the "reduced" weapons in the U.S. arsenal will move from being operationally deployed into either the responsive or inactive categories. Very few warheads will be dismantled or destroyed. By 2012, there will probably be around 600 fewer warheads in the U.S. arsenal, because of the retirement of one type of warhead, the W62. That would represent a 6 percent reduction in intact nuclear warheads.

The nuclear stockpile can also be divided between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Tactical nuclear weapons fall into the same categories as strategic nuclear weapons, but they are unlikely to be affected by the Bush-Putin agreement. The critical difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons is in how they are intended to be used. Tactical nuclear weapons, smaller and shorter-range, are meant to be used against battlefield military targets. Strategic nuclear weapons are generally attached to long-range delivery vehicles, like ICBMs, and are more powerful. They are aimed at population centers or an enemy's nuclear weapons ? counter-value and counter-force targets in military vernacular, respectively.

The START treaties, and the Bush-Putin agreement now being discussed, do not deal with tactical nuclear weapons. The exclusion of tactical nuclear weapons from current U.S.-Russian discussions is unfortunate. Tactical nuclear weapons, because of their small size, are the weapons most likely to fall into terrorist hands — where they could be employed "strategically" in an asymmetric mode.

What are the security ramifications of these "reductions?" It is good for collective security to have more weapons moved into the responsive stockpile, because they are essentially deactivated, reducing the chances of an accidental launch. On the other hand, putting all these nuclear weapons in storage will be bad for security if the Russians do likewise. With an under-funded and degenerated command and control system, the Russians lack the resources to properly store and account for nuclear components, even with the U.S. aid provided through the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.

Assuming that the document produced for May does not necessitate the actual destruction of weapons, or even their dismantlement, as seems likely, the key question becomes how the Russians will respond to the American hedge. For financial reasons, Moscow may have to continue destroying weapons (destruction is cheaper than storage for Russia, unlike the United States). On the other hand, the Russian leadership may decide that maintaining a deterrent force requires mimicking the U.S. hedge force.

Moreover, the primary security threat to the United States is now terrorists, not the Russian and Chinese deployed strategic nuclear arsenals. The U.S. nuclear reduction strategy does not reflect that shift. If the new negotiations now underway lead the Russians to store inactive warheads, rather than destroy them, the United States will have marginally reduced one threat only to compound another. In that case, the only thing reduced would be U.S. national security.