Michael KreponCount Every Warhead: A Critique

Lyrics of the week

I’m looking and I’m dreaming for the first time
I’m inside and I’m outside at the same time
And everything is real
Do I like the way I feel?
When the world crashes in into my living room
Television man made me what I am
People like to put the television down
But we are just good friends
(I’m a) television man
–“Television Man,” David Byrne and the Talking Heads

There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own, believe me now
Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner
For there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne
–“People Get Ready,” Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions

I’m already on record as saying that the Trump/Bolton proposal to count every Russian and Chinese warhead is a worthwhile goal. And I’m on record as saying that it’s a scam designed to reduce or do away with a five-year extension of New START, the foundation for any serious effort to come up with broader coverage. Now let’s turn to the proposal itself, or at least the cartoon version of it that we’ve been given. How does the Trump/Bolton proposal stack up as arms control? Not good. Not good at all. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the fundamentals. What do we want arms control to accomplish? What should this practice be about? The Founding Fathers (Schelling, Halperin et. al.) said that arms control was about stabilization and risk reduction. Numbers became a means to this end, as did stabilizing forms of transparency. But the heart of the matter was stabilization and risk reduction. You don’t reduce nuclear dangers and weapons without stabilization and and a mutual willingness to reduce nuclear dangers.

How does the Trump/Bolton approach measure up to these fundamentals? Poorly. The Trump/Bolton approach is about transparency – the means to worthwhile ends – but not stabilization and risk reduction. Counting every warhead – assuming we could reach agreement on this with Moscow and Beijing – doesn’t stabilize anything. Nor does it reduce nuclear dangers and risks. It’s a measuring stick, and nothing more.

Why are we counting warheads? Is it to set ceilings on them? To reduce them? If so, what ratios does the Trump/Bolton proposal envision? It would be useful to know if this is part of the plan. Counting warheads alone does not reduce nuclear dangers. Counting warheads does not reduce warheads or their means of delivery. Every President with the exception of Trump since Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter has focused on ways to count both warheads and their means of delivery.

This general approach entailed assigning warhead counting rules to different types of missiles and bombers while employing national technical means and subsequently on-site inspections to verify warhead totals on deployed forces. Different counting rules have been applied at different times, but this approach has worked exceedingly well over the passage of time. By focusing on warheads and their means of delivery, arms control and reduction treaties reduced Cold War excess by 85 percent.

Perhaps because this approach was so successful, some deterrence strengtheners now feel uncomfortable with further reductions and have shifted gears to a count-every-warhead approach. Their preferred approach seems seriously deficient. Counting warheads without limiting their number and without limiting their means of delivery does not reassure, stabilize, and reduce nuclear dangers.

Counting every warhead provides none of the above unless there are limits on how these warheads reach their targets. A count-every-warhead approach, assuming it could be negotiated, succeeds as a transparency measure, but fails as arms control. It also fails to strengthen deterrence. To succeed at strengthening deterrence, an adversary’s warhead count would need to be combined with stabilizing and reassuring limits on their means of delivery.

The Trump/Bolton proposal is silent about means of delivery. What limits and ceilings would they propose for U.S., Russian, and Chinese delivery vehicles for warheads?  Don’t expect answers. They are not needed because they don’t expect success in counting every warhead. But a serious arms control proposal – one that reduces nuclear dangers and provides stabilization and reassurance — would answer this question. A serious proposal would cover launchers as well as warheads.

China will not join a three-power control regime limiting launchers as well as warheads that consigns it to a second tier. Insisting that China join Russia and the United States as a second-tier power would encourage Beijing to do exactly what Moscow did while awaiting the beginning of strategic arms limitation talks in the late 1960s – to rush to catch up.

A three-power, ratio-based approach invites a reinvigorated competition in nuclear arms. It would encourage Beijing, which has not taken the dictates of nuclear deterrence as seriously as Moscow or Washington, to make amends and to narrow these ratios, thereby defeating the purpose of these proposals. And if China rushes to catch up, as deterrence strengtheners fear, U.S. and Russian numbers would likely rise, as well. As the numbers grow, stabilization and reassurance would decline even if there are gains in transparency.

Insisting that China and Russia join a count-every-warhead regime fails as an arms control measure. It succeeds only as a diversion from true arms control. It’s a non-starter. It’s also a way to bury New START.


  1. Bill Moon (History)

    Absolutely agree with the assessment of the Administration’s intents with regard to counting warheads. Not sure I see how or why a ratio-based approach would necessarily invigorate competition. If China only seeks to maintain a retaliatory capability then they could consider a ratio based approach if it constrained the US and Russia, couldn’t they?

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