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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 25, April 1998

US Deterrence Posture and Requirements: Congressional Testimony

Statement, as prepared for delivery, by Edward Warner, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Threat Reduction, to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, 31 March 1998


"Transformation of the Nuclear Deterrent

Since the end of the Cold War, our nuclear deterrent posture has dramatically changed. Under the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiative (PNI), we decided to:

  • Eliminate our entire inventory of ground-launched non-strategic nuclear weapons (nuclear artillery and LANCE surface-to-surface missiles);
  • Remove all non-strategic nuclear weapons on a day-to-day basis from surface ships, attack submarines, and land-based naval aircraft bases;
  • Remove our strategic bombers from alert;
  • Stand down the Minuteman II ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) scheduled for deactivation under START I;
  • Terminate the mobile Peacekeeper and mobile small ICBM programs;


  • Terminate the SRAM-II nuclear short-range attack missile.

In January 1992, the second Presidential Nuclear Initiative (PNI II) took further steps which included: limiting B-2 production to 20 bombers; canceling the entire small ICBM program; ceasing production of W-88 Trident SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile) warheads; halting purchases of advanced cruise missiles; and stopping new production of Peacekeeper missiles.

The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which was the first comprehensive post-Cold War review of US nuclear policy and force posture, eliminated even the capability to deploy nuclear weapons (bombs and cruise missiles) on Navy surface ships. The NPR also established the strategic nuclear force structure which the United States will deploy under START II. Also in 1994, further reflecting the changed international situation, the US and Russia agreed to no longer target their strategic ballistic missiles against one another on a day-to-day basis.

As a result of these significant changes, the US nuclear stockpile has decreased by more than 50% since 1991. The most dramatic transformation in the US nuclear deterrent has been in non-strategic nuclear forces, or NSNF, which have unilaterally been reduced to one-tenth of Cold War levels. As a result, the only nuclear weapons remaining in the US stockpile are those carried by our strategic triad of ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers equipped with gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles, as well as our non-strategic bombs and nuclear-tipped sea-launched cruise missiles.

There has been a significant associated financial benefit. US spending on strategic nuclear forces has declined from 7% of the total DoD budget in 1991 to less than 3% today. We have no development or procurement programs for a next-generation bomber, ICBM, SLBM, or strategic submarine. The programs we do have are designed to sustain the safety, reliability, and effectiveness of our remaining forces, and to ensure the continued high quality of our strategic forces.

In response to unilateral nuclear reductions made by the United States, Russia made similar pledges in 1991-1992 to reduce its non-strategic nuclear forces. However, while it has reduced its operational NSNF substantially, it has made far less progress on these eliminations than the US. Consequently, the Russian non-strategic arsenal (deployed and non-deployed) is probably about 10 times as large as ours. However, Russian officials recently stated that the 1991-1992 NSNF pledges would be fully implemented by the year 2000, which would reduce the Russian advantage to about three or four to one.

Russian spending on strategic forces has also declined substantially since the end of the Cold War. Russia does have some new strategic systems under development - for example, a new single-warhead ICBM (the SS-X-27), a new SLBM (the SS-NX-28) and a new strategic ballistic missile submarine - but Russian development programs are much fewer in number and their pace is slower than in the past. While these new systems are intended to replace currently deployed systems that will reach the end of their service lives over the next decade, or that will be eliminated under START II, fiscal realities suggest that, even with these replacement programs, significant declines in Russia's strategic forces are still to come.

The Role of Arms Control in Achieving Stabilizing Reductions

In addition to the unilateral nuclear reductions we have made, the United States places great emphasis on achieving stabilizing verifiable, agreed reductions in nuclear forces through arms control treaties and agreements. The US and Russia have made great progress in this regard in recent years. START I, which entered into force in December 1994, will reduce each side's deployed strategic weapons from well over 10,000 to 6,000 accountable weapons by December 2001. The START II Treaty, signed in January 1993, was ratified by the US Senate in January 1996, but has not yet been ratified by the Russian Duma. When START II enters into force, it will further reduce each side's deployed strategic weapons from 6,000 to 3,000 to 3,500. More importantly, START II will bring about more stabilizing strategic force structures by requiring elimination of MIRVed ICBM launchers and elimination of heavy ICBMs (i.e., the Russian SS-18).

As mandated by Congress, the US is maintaining its strategic forces at START I levels until Russia ratifies START II. Accordingly, DoD is taking steps to maintain this option through FY 1999. The FY99 budget request contains an additional $57 million beyond what would have been previously anticipated in order to sustain our forces at START I levels. This force structure consists of:

  • 500 Minuteman III and 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs with multiple warheads;
  • 18 Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarines, each carrying 24 Trident SLBMs;
  • At least 71 B-52 bombers, each equipped to carry up to 20 nuclear-armed cruise missiles; and
  • 21 B-2 bombers, each equipped to carry up to 16 nuclear gravity bombs.

In accordance with direction included in the FY 1998 Defense Authorization Act, we are examining a number of options for maintaining START I levels beyond FY 1999 if necessary.

At the March 1997 Helsinki summit, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin made commitments to promote START II ratification and to set a course for further strategic arms reductions once START II enters into force. First, although the original START II Treaty called for these reductions to be completed no later than January 1, 2003, the Presidents agreed to extend the START II reductions deadline to December 2007, allowing five more years to accomplish required eliminations and thus reducing the near-term costs of treaty implementation. Second, the Presidents agreed to deactivate by December 2003 those systems slated to be eliminated under START II, by means of warhead removal or other jointly agreed measures, thus enabling the sides to gain security benefits from the treaty in roughly the same time frame that was originally envisioned. The Presidents also agreed to commence negotiations shortly after START II ratification to conclude a START III Treaty that would set a limit of 2,000 to 2,500 deployed warheads to be reached by December 2007. Finally, they agreed that START III would be the first strategic arms control treaty which includes measures relating to the transparency of strategic nuclear warhead inventories and destruction of strategic nuclear warheads. However, President Clinton made clear that the United States will not negotiate START III until Russia ratifies START II.

In September 1997, Secretary Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Primakov signed several legally binding documents which codify the Helsinki commitments on START II: a Protocol extending the deadline to December 2007 for achieving treaty limits, and letters stipulating each side's agreement to deactivate by December 2003 the systems slated for elimination under START II. In addition, a Joint Agreed Statement was issued which records the agreement that downloading Minuteman III ICBMs from three re-entry vehicles to one can occur any time before the revised START II deadline of December 2007. After Russia ratifies START II, these documents will be submitted to the Senate for advice and consent.

If START II and its Protocol are adopted, the US strategic arsenal will be modified by the end of 2007 as follows:

  • The 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs will be eliminated, and each Minuteman III missile will be armed with only one rather than three warheads;
  • The SSBN force will be reduced from 18 to 14 boats, all equipped with the D-5 missile;
  • The number of strategic bombers will not change, but the cruise-missile capacity of the B-52 fleet will be reduced to stay within treaty limits.

Assuming Russia ratifies START II and we successfully negotiate a START III Treaty, once the START I, II, and III reductions are completed, the United States and Russia will have reduced their strategic arsenals by roughly 80 percent from Cold War levels and, of even greater importance, greatly enhanced strategic stability by eliminating multiple-warhead ICBMs.

The Continuing Need for Nuclear Deterrence

In view of all of the reductions we have already made and the steady progress of arms control, the question of why we need a nuclear deterrent at all following the Cold War is relevant.

The Clinton Administration answered this question in the Nuclear Posture Review. The NPR recognized that with the demise of the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the embarkation of Russia on the road to democracy, the strategic environment has been fundamentally transformed. Conventional forces can and should play a larger share of the deterrent role. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons continue to play a critical role in deterring aggression against the US, its overseas forces, and its Allies and friends. This is the case because the positive changes in the international environment are far from irreversible, and the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue States has grown.

The NPR reaffirmed that we need not only a strategic nuclear deterrent, but also flexible, responsive non-strategic nuclear forces. Maintaining the capability to deploy nuclear forces to meet various regional contingencies continues to be an important means for deterring aggression, protecting and promoting US interests, and reassuring Allies and friends. As stated in the NATO Strategic Concept, the US nuclear weapons deployed in Europe provide an essential political link between the European and North American members of the Alliance.

Russia has made great progress toward the creation of stable market democracy, and we do not regard it as a potential military threat under its present or any reasonably foreseeable government. ...

Nevertheless, Russia still possess[es] substantial nuclear forces and an even larger non-strategic nuclear stockpile. Because of significant degradation in its conventional military capabilities, Russia appears to be placing even more reliance on its nuclear forces. Russia's new national security concept, promulgated in December 1997, states that 'Russia retains the right to use all available forces and means, including nuclear weapons, if armed aggression launched against it threatens the very existence of the Russian Federation as an independent, sovereign State.' It also states that 'the main task of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation is to insure nuclear deterrence, which is to prevent both nuclear and conventional large-scale or regional war, and also to meet its allied commitments. To accomplish this task, the Russian Federation should have a potential of nuclear forces which can guarantee that planned damage will be caused to any aggressor, State or a coalition of States.'

We cannot be so certain of future Russian politics as to ignore the possibility that we may once again need to deter the nuclear forces of a hostile Russia should the current policy of democratic reform be replaced by a return to aggressive authoritarianism. We do not believe that such a reversal is likely and we are working hard to avoid it. Nevertheless, it is prudent to maintain a secure and capable nuclear force as a hedge against it happening.

Even if we could ignore a future threat from Russia, there is a range of other potential threats to which nuclear weapons are a deterrent. China has a significant nuclear capability, and its future political orientation is far from certain. In addition, the number of rogue States with actual and potential WMD programs is considerable. We do not regard these States as undeterrable, either in their incentives to acquire WMD capability or to use it. We believe that the knowledge that the United States has a powerful and ready nuclear capability poses a significant deterrent to proliferators. If any nation were foolish enough to attack the US, its allies or friends with chemical or biological weapons our response would be swift, devastating and overwhelming. As Secretary Perry said in 1996, we are able to mount a devastating response without using nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, we do not rule out in advance any capability available to us.

The US nuclear deterrent also helps to discourage the spread of nuclear weapons among our allies and friends. The extension of our deterrent to those nations has removed any incentives they might have to develop and deploy their own nuclear forces, as many are technically capable of doing.

New Presidential Guidance for the Changed Security Environment

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), completed last spring, examined US nuclear strategy and force posture and reaffirmed the continuing need for a robust and flexible nuclear deterrent. In the QDR, nuclear forces were examined as an integral part of an overall review of defense issues. This review followed a path which led from the threat, to strategy, to force structure considerations, and finally to resource issues.

Last November, the President signed a new Decision Directive on nuclear weapons employment policy guidance. This directive was the first revision of such guidance in over 15 years, although US nuclear plans have been updated regularly to changes to subordinate documents and through Presidential Decisions such as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives and the Nuclear Posture Review. The directive takes account of the changes in our policy and force posture brought on by the end of the Cold War and builds on the conclusions of previous policy reviews, such as the NPR and QDR, to lead us where we are today.

The directive describes, in general terms, the purposes of US nuclear weapons and provides broad Presidential guidance for developing operational plans. It also provides guidelines for maintaining nuclear deterrence and US nuclear forces.

The directive indicates that the United States must maintain the assured response capability to inflict 'unacceptable damage' against those assets a potential enemy values most. It also posits that we must continue to plan a range of options to insure that the US can respond to aggression in a manner appropriate to the provocation, rather than being left with an 'all or nothing' response. The new guidance also continues our policy that the US will not rely on 'launch on warning,' but will maintain the capability to respond promptly to any attack, thus complicating an adversary's calculations. However, the new guidance eliminates previous Cold War rhetoric including references to 'winning a protracted nuclear war.' The directive reaffirms that the United States should have a triad of strategic deterrent forces to complicate an adversary's attack and defense planning. It also notes that our deterrent forces and their associated command and control should be flexible and survivable, to insure that the US will be able to make an adequate and appropriate response.

While the directive does not address arms control issues, per se, analysis undertaken in accordance with the new guidance shows that the US strategic deterrent can be maintained at the 2,000 to 2,500 strategic weapon level envisioned for START III as agreed in the 1997 Helsinki accord.

The Need to Keep Our Nuclear Deterrent Safe, Reliable, and Effective

... Currently, our nuclear weapons are safe, secure and under responsible custodianship. Moreover, we place high priority on maintaining and improving safety and security. Our nuclear safety record is extraordinary; although a few accidents have occurred over the past 50 years, no accident has ever resulted in a nuclear detonation, and the last accident of any kind occurred almost 20 years ago.

Because of changes in our posture and technical improvements made since the end of the Cold War, the likelihood of a nuclear accident has decreased significantly. Our strategic bombers are no longer on day-to-day alert; our surface ships and attack submarines no longer carry nuclear weapons. The Army and Marines have eliminated their nuclear weapons. Older weapons with less modern safety features have been removed from the stockpiles; technical safety mechanisms have been improved. And detargeting means that our nuclear-tipped missiles are no longer aimed at targets in any country. The number of nuclear storage sites has decreased by 75 percent and weapons have been consolidated. As a result of all these changes our nuclear weapons are much less exposed to accident environments.

In recent years, several defense observers, including some in Congress, have expressed concerns that the deterioration in Russia's early warning and nuclear command and control systems raises the risk of inadvertent nuclear war resulting from ballistic missile launch based on faulty warning information. Although the degree to which this is viewed as a significant problem varies, these same experts, in response, have called for reducing the alert status of US and Russian nuclear forces. While we continue to believe that the most direct means to achieving increased stability and security is via the negotiated, verifiable reductions of START II, an Interagency Working Group has been examining a range of measures that the US and Russia might take cooperatively or in parallel to address such concerns. A number of options have been studied and we are continuing our examination, but we have made no decisions yet on proposing to proceed with specific approaches.

... In conjunction with President Clinton's decision to conclude a 'zero-yield' Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the President stated that he is pledged to maintain a high confidence in the safety, reliability and performance of the nation's nuclear stockpile as a matter of supreme national interest of the United States. He also established a new annual process for certifying whether the stockpile is safe and reliable, and six concrete, specific safeguards that define the conditions under which the United States could enter a CTBT. One of these safeguards calls for a science-based program utilizing modern experimental facilities and computer simulations to insure a high level of confidence in the safety, reliability and performance of nuclear weapons in the enduring stockpile. Consequently, the Department of Energy has established an aggressive, well-funded Stockpile Stewardship Program designed to insure that our weapons remain safe, reliable, and effective in the absence of nuclear testing. The Department of Defense fully supports this program. ...


... We have made dramatic reductions in our nuclear deterrent forces and weapons, as a result of unilateral initiatives and formal arms control treaties. Such stabilizing, verifiable agreed reductions will continue to be a primary objective of the United States. However, for the foreseeable future, we will continue to need a reliable and flexible nuclear deterrent - albeit at lower force levels - to provide our ultimate guarantee against the gravest threats. ..."

Source: Warner - Nuclear Disarmament Must be Pursued Step-by-Step, United States Information Service, 1 April.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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