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Russian Offer on Warheads a Good Idea

While awaiting word on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin has reiterated his desire for deep cuts in nuclear forces.

He reportedly would consider a treaty permitting Russia and the United States only 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads each. Although Mr. Putin’s proposal springs largely from Russia’s economic weakness, it is a very sound idea. Whoever wins Florida’s electoral votes would be well advised to take his suggestion seriously.

Today, the United States has about 8,000 long-range or strategic nuclear warheads and Russia has 6,500—these on top of many thousands more tactical and reserve warheads on each side.

The strategic numbers are to be cut in half by START II, assuming that it actually goes into effect, and both countries are committed to a START III process to make further cuts. But discussion of reductions below about 2,000 to 2,500 strategic warheads has met resistance within the U.S. defense establishment.

Deep cuts to about 1,000 warheads on a side make sense. Ideally, that ceiling would apply not only to strategic arsenals, but to the total of all strategic, tactical and reserve warheads for each country.

In geopolitical terms, cutting U.S. and Russian arsenals to 1,000 warheads each has a simple and compelling logic. It is low enough to save lots of money, particularly in cash-starved Russia, helping it to improve the condition of remaining nuclear forces to make them more secure and less prone to accident. Even in the United States, the military could make good use of the $2 billion or more in annual savings to pay for the types of forces that it uses around the world.

Yet a ceiling of 1,000 warheads is high enough to allow the two countries to retain their nuclear superpower status, allowing these cuts to proceed without involving China, Britain, France and other nuclear powers. These latter countries, as well as Israel, each have nuclear arsenals of up to a few hundred nuclear weapons.

A ceiling of 1,000 warheads on a side also makes sense militarily. The Pentagon disagrees, claiming that existing nuclear war plans require thousands of warheads to cover all targets. But those war plans are fundamentally wrongheaded.

There is much to debate in the post-Cold War world about what nuclear weapons are for, the types of extreme scenarios in which they might be used and the morality of a nuclear attack. But there is no serious argument for keeping the ability to conduct nuclear strikes with thousands of warheads, which would mean Armageddon, killing hundreds of millions.

It could never be morally or militarily justifiable to use more than several dozen nuclear weapons, regardless of circumstances. Some argue that such “small” attacks would necessarily have to target population centers. That is wrong. One could destroy most of an enemy’s major industrial centers, key petroleum and metals industries and major conventional military infrastructure with only dozens of warheads.

To put it differently, imagine a conflict against the type of country the United States might fight in the years ahead. If Iraq attacked the United States or its allies with biological or nuclear weapons, for example, the United States might consider nuclear retaliation under some circumstances. But a morally proportionate, or strategically savvy, response could not cause the obliteration of an enemy’s society and population. Even severe reprisals would have to be judicious and careful.

Even in the dreadful scenario of a nuclear war against China growing out of a conflict over Taiwan, nothing more than very limited strikes in response to a Chinese nuclear attack could ever make any sense.

So Mr. Putin’s proposal is eminently sound on strategic and military grounds. It would also help him further downsize and secure Russia’s dilapidated nuclear arsenal. And as an added bonus, if the United States agreed to it, Russian officials hint that they might become more flexible about revising the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow U.S. deployment of a limited national missile defense.

Quickly accepting this Russian idea would be a fine way for whoever emerges from the mess in Florida to achieve an important foreign policy success and immediately begin to build momentum and legitimacy for his presidency.

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