David HoffmanToward Smaller Nuclear Forces

There’s a serious new study by a group of authors in the United States and Russia being published in the coming days that calls for deeper cuts in nuclear weapons—well beyond those envisioned in the New Start treaty pending before the Senate.

The new study is based on extensive computer modeling of a nuclear war, and it suggests strongly that both the United States and Russia could preserve deterrence with fewer warheads and launchers than under New Start. The current treaty calls for 1,550 warheads and 700 active launchers on each side. But the computer modeling showed that further reductions to 1,000 warheads and 500 launchers—or, even lower levels—would not weaken security on either side.

The new study also shows that de-alerting would not erode deterrence. It offers a useful counterpoint to some in the Pentagon, who have argued that a rush to re-alerting in a crisis would create dangerous and destabilizing incentives to strike first.

No doubt the outlook is cloudy, at best, for further nuclear arms reductions by the United States and Russia. Sticking points abound: the asymmetry in arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons; Russian objections to U.S. missile defense plans; and U.S. reserves of non-deployed strategic warheads. On top of that, the political situation in both countries may not be conducive to deeper cuts in the next few years. But this new study ought to inspire the policy-makers and negotiators on both sides to get back to the table. There is clearly room to do more. The authors also call for other countries to begin to ponder lower levels of nuclear weapons along with the United States and Russia.

The conclusions are laid out in an essay in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs.

I think the piece is a welcome reminder, yet again, that Russia and the United States remain locked in a Cold War mindset long after that confrontation expired. They each maintain far larger nuclear arsenals than they need for deterrence. For another perspective which also suggested that the United States could rely on lower levels of weapons, see the article in Strategic Studies Quarterly earlier this year, in which three Air Force thinkers, James Wood Forsyth Jr., Col. B. Chance Saltzman (chief of the Air Force Strategic Plans and Policy Division) and Gary Schaub Jr. concluded that “America’s security can rest easily” on a comparatively small nuclear force. The United States, they wrote, could “draw down its nuclear arsenal to a relatively small number of survivable, reliable weapons dispersed among missile silos, submarines, and airplanes.” They said such a force might number only 311 nuclear weapons.

What’s interesting about the new study in Foreign Affairs is that three of the authors are Russians with extensive experience in Soviet and Russian nuclear forces. Not everyone in the Russian establishment is enthusiastic about deeper cuts; these are voices to be taken seriously.

The three are: Victor Esin, a retired Colonel General, former chief of staff of the Strategic Rocket Forces, and professor at the Institute of the United States and Canada; Valery Yarynich, a retired Colonel who served at the Center for Operational and Strategic Studies of the Russian General Staff, and is now a fellow at the Institute of the United States and Canada; and Pavel Zolotarev, a retired Major General, former section head of the Russian Defense Council, who is deputy director of the Institute of the United States and Canada. The U.S. authors are Bruce Blair, President of the World Security Institute and Co-coordinator of Global Zero, and Matthew McKinzie, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. All the authors are members of the research arm of Global Zero.

The study was supported by the Hewlett Foundation and the Fullerton Family Foundation.

In running their computer models, the authors say they used public estimates of U.S. and Russian forces. For the different scenarios, they ran more than 100 computer simulations of each, in an effort to get the best possible sense of what might happen in a real conflict. They are posting a detailed technical appendix here.

The authors conclude:

Once the New Start agreement is approved by the U.S. Senate, the arms control process between the United States and Russia needs to continue moving  forward. Washington and Moscow could easily reduce their nuclear forces to just 1,000 warheads apiece without any adverse consequences.

They could also de-alert their nuclear forces, diminishing the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch. Eventually, in concert with other nuclear states and after progress has been made on missile defense cooperation, they should be able to reduce their arsenals to 500 weapons each. Even after these deep cuts, hundreds of cities would still remain at risk of catastrophic destruction in the event of a nuclear war.

Such changes to the nuclear relationship between the United States and Russia should be accompanied by a change in attitude as well as forces: both countries must be more open in assessing nuclear threats and the requirements of deterrence.

Secrecy about safeguards against unauthorized or mistaken launches and about estimates of first- and second strike attacks hamper informed public debate and instill mutual suspicion. Open analysis can help inform the public and policymakers on the best way forward for nuclear policy, elevating the debate above the fray of politics, ideology, and secrecy to a higher plane of objective and transparent analysis. This openness could pave the way toward a safer and more stable world with fewer, and eventually zero, nuclear weapons.


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    For those not into such arcana, a colonel general isn’t a colonel, it’s a three-star general, generally equivalent in generalness to a US lieutenant general (O-9). I.e., a fairly heavy hitter in the military hierarchy.

  2. elizzar (History)

    Smaller nuclear forces are cheaper to build and maintain, easier to secure either from accidents, thefts, espionage etc., make your rivals less jumpy, show the rest of the world you aren’t hypocrites re: NPT, perhaps encourage other diplomatic progression / attempts, all whilst still retaining the ability to vapourise anyonoe who looks at you a bit funny (erm i mean threatens your fundamental existence) – all very good things ™
    so it’ll never happen 🙁

  3. John Schilling (History)

    Stable deterrence with on the order of five hundred actual warheads is I believe quite plausible. The suspiciously precise figure of 311 warheads invites skepticism, but I wouldn’t rule it out. It will be quite interesting to read the full study, when it becomes available.

    Going from 300-500 warheads to zero warheads, I’m not sure that’s reasonable and I definitely don’t know how to achieve it without great risk. As deterrent arsenals become smaller, they become more susceptible to breakout, strategic defense, and/or preemptive strike (possibly conventional), and I wouldn’t want to cast myself as the Russian general who has to guarantee the security of the motherland against such threats with say fifty warheads. Any idea whether the Foreign Affairs study considered these issues, or do we have to wait until September 1st?

  4. 3.1415 (History)

    Once US and Russia got their nukes to 500, UK, France and China would find it no long possible not to talk about reducing theirs toward the common goal of no first use and then zero nuke. The non-P5 nuclear states have to follow too. If the United States is still interested in global leadership, cutting the nukes is perhaps the best litmus test.

  5. elizzar (History)

    re 3.1415 – isn’t it pretty much the case that the UK, France and China have perhaps at most two hundred warheads (not sure on launch system numbers, but the UK supposedly has one permanent patrol sub. with i think 16 tridents, 3 warheads each, so ~50 ‘ready to go’ … these numbers of warheads are an order of magnitude lower than the vast usa / russian forces, and i doubt they would be reduced much lower – france may get rid of its remaining air launched systems, if anything i would suspect china of wanting to increase its arsenal. also, if the usa/russia did reduce to around 500 or so, wouldnt that make the other 3 SC countries more important in terms of their warhead numbers and less likely to reduce, to act as a more global balance and check and for guaranteed self protection? just wondering!

  6. Scott Monje (History)

    If the US and Russia do get down to the point at which they are no longer an order of magnitude above other nuclear powers, then the nuclear world becomes multipolar rather than bipolar. Does that substantially change the dynamics of nuclear power politics? Do potentially shifting alliances become more significant if, say, the combination of Russian and Chinese missiles suddenly raises their total above that of other powers?

  7. Robert Merkel (History)

    Does the required number of warheads depend on the ability to change targets in a hurry?

    I obviously haven’t run a simulation, but if the definition of “sufficient” warheads was based on the idea that a certain number of targets have to be destroyed with a sufficiently high confidence, it obviously makes a difference if you know that whatever warheads you have can be retargeted at will.

  8. joshua (History)

    The Foreign Affairs article is now online, but you need a subscription to read the whole thing.

    See http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66540/bruce-blair-victor-esin-matthew-mckinzie-valery-yarynich-and-pav/smaller-and-safer

  9. joshua (History)

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