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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

You Can't Get There From Here

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Bush administration officials have become fond of describing missile defense opponents as being unable to escape "Cold War thinking." Yet by pursuing missile defenses so aggressively, President George W. Bush may himself prevent the development of the "new strategic framework" with Russia he has tried to champion and reinforce a world where relations are defined by the size and sophistication of nuclear arsenals. Despite Bush's stated intention to reduce U.S. nuclear forces to the lowest levels consistent with national security, the nuclear arsenals in both countries are at Cold War levels and postures.

Changing this situation is a precondition if the tone captured by Bush and President Vladimir Putin in Genoa is to be translated into real progress on strategic issues. Toward that end, high-level Russian and U.S. defense officials are meeting this week in Washington to discuss missile defense, nuclear arsenals and a new strategic framework.

To escape the Cold War mindset, it is useful to understand where both the United States and Russia are historically in terms of their respective nuclear arsenals and what those forces might look like if the administration unilaterally proceeds with its still-nebulous plans for missile defenses. A quick review of current forces shows how both countries remain trapped in Cold War postures and how deployment of missile defense will make escaping this situation even more difficult.

The United States and Russia currently deploy 7,200 and 5,600 strategic nuclear weapons respectively. While this represents a significant drop from the deployment high points of the Cold War, these numbers are historically very high. For example, the 7,200 deployed U.S. weapons is the same number the United States deployed in 1958, the same year Nikita Khrushchev became Soviet leader and the year after the launch of Sputnik. The Russian arsenal of 5,800 is the same size as that the Soviet Union deployed in 1980, the year following the invasion of Afghanistan. No one would argue that the numbers of strategic weapons deployed today reflect the nature of the U.S.-Russian relationship and there is a solid consensus in both countries that the size of the arsenals should be reduced.

The consensus quickly breaks down, however, when specifics are mentioned. Russia and the United States have signed the START II Treaty — still nonratified — that would limit the strategic deployed nuclear arsenals in both countries to 3,500 weapons each. Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin laid out the target of 2,500 deployed weapons each at their Helsinki summit in 1997, but the Bush administration's opposition to negotiated arms reduction agreements — and several other international agreements and negotiation — suggests it does not feel bound by any targets set by the preceding administration.

Russia has been pressing for agreement to limit the arsenals to 1,500 in each country. This number would resemble the arsenals the United States deployed in 1954 and the Soviets deployed in 1967. Moreover, this target reflects the downward trend of Russian forces driven by the rapidly aging nature of their arsenal. In sum, Russia wants the United States to cut its forces because Russia's are going down of their own accord and would like to invest its scarce resources elsewhere.

The United States, and specifically the Joint Chiefs and U.S. Strategic Command, have balked twice at going down below the 2,500 level, citing concern about their ability to adequately deter other countries with less than 2,500 strategic nuclear weapons. While agreement on the 1,500 weapon target was unlikely only a few weeks ago, one possible implication of the Bush-Putin agreement at the G-7 summit in Genoa to link talks on offensive reductions and defensive deployments may be a greater likelihood of agreeing to that level for both sides — if Bush can convince the military services to go along.

What to make, then, of missile defenses? Russia has been stating — and demonstrating through missile tests — that the unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty and the deployment of missile defenses by the United States will lead it to reverse the downward trend of its deployed nuclear forces. Current projections show that due to the aging of launch systems and with U.S. financial assistance, the Russian arsenal of deployed strategic weapons could drop to 1086 weapons by the year 2010 (the same number it deployed in 1966).

However, by extending the life of some of its aging systems and ramping up production of its latest land-based missile, which is capable of carrying three or four warheads, Russia could deploy as many as 3,600 weapons by the end of the decade. Thus, the worst case for U.S. defense planners is that Russia could increase its nuclear arsenal by 350 percent over projected levels in the face of unilateral moves by the United States to deploy missile defenses.

It is not certain that Russia would deploy this many weapons, since these numbers assume a maximum effort by Russia to maintain larger forces. The projection, however, shows a worst case situation, an approach similar to that adopted by the administration with regards to the ballistic missile threat facing the United States from states such as North Korea. Thus, any consideration of deploying missile defenses should take into account the extent to which the nuclear arsenals of established nuclear states will grow (or fail to shrink) as a result of deploying missile defenses.

If the administration is serious about seeking a new framework where nuclear weapons are not a major factor in the U.S.-Russian relationship, then it should focus on economic and political areas of agreement and cooperation, instead of taking decisions that force missile defenses and offensive weapons to the top of the bilateral policy agenda. Bush's advisers should realize that Russia will react to U.S. deployments of missile defenses by maintaining its arsenals at artificially high numbers, increasing the nuclear threat — accidental or otherwise — to the United States and undermining their very rationale for defenses.

Jon B. Wolfsthal is an associate of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.