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Russia: Pentagon Says Some Nuclear Warheads Should Be Stored, Not Destroyed

  • Mark Baker

The Pentagon this week released details of a policy review that foresees reducing the number of deployed nuclear warheads in the American arsenal and shifting deterrence strategy away from a reliance on offensive nuclear weapons. The study is consistent with pledges by President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin to cut the numbers of warheads. But the study drew widespread criticism for calling for some decommissioned U.S. warheads to be stored and not destroyed. Many, including some Russians, are now wondering whether the U.S. is fully committed to genuine nuclear arms reduction.

Washington, 11 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. Department of Defense plan to reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads in the American arsenal has drawn fire from critics who say the U.S. may not be committed to genuine arms reduction.

The Pentagon released details of the long-awaited plan, called the Nuclear Posture Review, on 9 January.

The review foresees a reduction in the number of deployed nuclear warheads from around 7,000 to 3,800 in five years and further reductions to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads after that. It is part of a larger effort to shift U.S. deterrence strategy away from a reliance on offensive nuclear weapons in favor of a broader mix of nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities.

The cuts are consistent with an agreement in November between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin to drastically reduce the two countries' nuclear arsenals.

But one part of the plan has come under particular criticism. According to the review, an unspecified number of decommissioned U.S. warheads would not be destroyed but rather placed in storage for possible future use. Observers say it proves the U.S. is not genuinely committed to arms reduction.

Charles Pena of the Washington-based think tank the Cato Institute is one of those critics. He says the plan to store and not destroy the decommissioned warheads is "disturbing" and counterproductive.

"I think there are some inconsistent and disturbing aspects of the review. For one, President [George W.] Bush has said that we will reduce our strategic nuclear arsenal down to no more than 2,200 weapons -- and President Putin in Russia agreed to do the same," Pena says. "And now, we're finding out that there are these new counting rules that say, 'Well, if we take the weapons offline and don't deploy them and put them into storage, then that counts towards reducing to 2,200 weapons.'"

Pena says simply removing warheads sends the wrong message to Russia and other nuclear powers: "It creates an incentive for other countries to do the same, in particular Russia. I can't imagine if we're keeping extra weapons in storage, that the Russians are not going to do the same thing. So it defeats one of the primary purposes of reducing your inventories -- which is reducing your inventories."

Pena says a reluctance to destroy warheads reflects what he calls a lingering Cold War mentality among some members of the U.S. administration: "I think there are people inside the administration that still have this Cold War mentality that somehow the Russians are going to come back and be a threat to the United States. And if it's not going to be the Russians, then it's going to be the Chinese. So I think there's some of that thinking going on."

Assistant Secretary of Defense J.D. Crouch, unveiling the Nuclear Posture Review to reporters on 9 January, rejected the criticism. He said simply removing the warheads from the active force is a significant step: "The fact is, the important fact, and that's why I left it for last, is that we are actually taking weapons off of the operationally deployed force. This is the force that would be used in an extreme situation. Consequently, I think that is a very positive benefit. And I believe the Russians will be doing a very similar thing."

Crouch said that previous arms-control agreements usually did not specify that decommissioned warheads had to be destroyed. He also said the Bush administration is aware that Russia will probably follow suit and store some of its warheads instead of scrapping them.

Crouch said the policy review reflects a long-overdue shift in deterrent strategy that dates from the Cold War and the U.S.'s overriding focus on the Soviet Union. He says the Cold War approach was highly dependent on offensive nuclear weapons and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. He says in the modern world, where threats can come from any quarter, this strategy is no longer appropriate.

"Today we have a very different situation. We have a situation where the United States may face multiple potential opponents, but we're not sure who they might be. There are multiple sources, or potential sources, of conflict. We also have a new relationship with Russia that is heading down a much more positive course," Crouch said.

Crouch said that as part of the review, the U.S. will destroy 50 "Peacekeeper" missiles based in silos in the western state of Wyoming. Other cuts will come from a reduction in the number of nuclear-armed Trident submarines from 18 to 14 and banning the B-1 bomber aircraft from the U.S. nuclear fleet. Crouch did not specify the number or what kinds of warheads will be held in what he called an "inactive reserve," to be refitted on missiles if necessary.

Randall Forsberg, the director of the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, agrees with many of Pena's objections to the Nuclear Posture Review, but points out that such studies do have their value.

Forsberg says that, apart from the controversy over storing some of the warheads, the review is significant in that it commits the Pentagon to drastic cuts in nuclear forces.

"Confirming the proposal that President Bush had given us earlier, that the United States would aim to cut back to no more than somewhere between 1,700 to 2,200 deployed nuclear weapons -- I think that it's useful to have that be put in black-and-white on paper by the Pentagon."

Russia on 10 January appeared to criticize the Pentagon plan. Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said in a statement that further nuclear weapons reductions must be "radical, controllable" and "irreversible" so reductions do not remain only on paper.

The U.S. and Russia are expected to open talks on 15-16 January in Washington on reducing their nuclear arsenals. The talks are likely to focus on the scale of reductions and the kinds of weapons under scrutiny.