Two Triads: The Nuclear Equation

Visiting Media Fellow Michael Moran speaks with Janne Nolan, chair of the Nuclear Security Working Group at George Washington University, and David Holloway, Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies at Stanford University, about Russia’s nuclear capabilities and the state of treaties aimed at maintaining global nuclear security.

MORAN:  Welcome to Episode Eleven of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. Over the previous 10 parts of our series, we’ve often heard about the degree to which Russia simply is not in the same league with the United States in terms of economic, military power or cultural influence. This week we deal with one place where that is not the case: nuclear weapons. Russia remains a genuine superpower in terms of nuclear throw weight and the science behind it, and that alone would be enough to win it a seat at many of the world’s top tables.  I’m Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow for Peace and Security at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and my guests this week are Janne Nolan, chair of the Nuclear Security Working Group at George Washington University, and David Holloway, Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies at Stanford University, and the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History.

David, might I begin with a question to you about the health of the existing arms control understandings between the US and Russia. What aspects are stable, and where is the friction:

HOLLOWAY: Probably the most important aspect of the regime at the moment is that there are no formal negotiations going on arms control and that’s really pretty unusual if you look back over the 50 years of relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and then Russia. There are of course treaties which are in effect, the one most recently negotiated was the new START treaty, which covers strategic weapons, that is in force. It is apparently being abided by both sides. The inspections, exchanges of information are going forward in a satisfactory way. The question that arises is the question of whether to renegotiate or to extend the treaty which will run out in 2021. It could be extended for another five years, but that will soon enough become an issue for negotiations between the two countries.

Another treaty which is enforced is the treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF), which was concluded in 1987. That treaty has run into serious difficulties with claims and counterclaims about non-compliance with the treaty. The U.S. has made the argument that Russia has tested a system which doesn’t comply with the terms of the treaty in terms of range and Russia has said, well, what are you talking about? And the U.S. says, well, we have intelligence information about the testing you’ve been doing, and the Russians say well, will you please produce your intelligence information and the US has replied, no, we’re not going to do that. Then there are counter-charges on the Russian side about US activities. This has become a rather political issue, because under the treaty an organization was set up. I forget the exact name, but it was a commission which would deal with any issues that came up about the actual compliance with the treaty. It was a special verification commission. That has not met in many years, and commissions of that kind are normal with arms control treaties, because they make it possible to sort out any technical problems that arise over the compliance with the treaty or verification of compliance.

MORAN: There have been some very recent developments – the surprise deployment, according to US military sources quoted by The New York Times, of new SSC-8 intermediate range missiles by Russia along its western border. This on its face at least, violates the INF treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.

NOLAN: Well, the United States has been aware of Russian activities around this missile for quite a long time, going back to 2014 at least where intelligence reports revealed the test of a missile that seemed to violate the INF treaty, a treaty that bans intermediate range missiles, and actually there have been steady efforts to try to resolve this apparent violation since 2014, including as recently as November of 2016, when there was a special meeting of all principals to try to resolve the issue. Instead what’s happened, is that it’s reported that the Russians have gone ahead not just with the development of this missile but the actual deployment of the missile, which is an overt violation and imperils the continuation of the treaty as a whole. 

MORAN: The Trump administration has been silent. What should the US do to respond?

NOLAN: The first and most important response would be to organize an alliance-wide response to a provocation from Russia. Whether that takes the form of a military response is very much up for debate. The United States is not interested in re-kindling the debates of the past about having these kind of missiles deployed in Europe, certainly not the --- to respond to this, but there will be discussions about counter-measures, including missile defenses to respond to this Russian provocation. The big picture issue is the political one, which is that we need to understand why Putin seems determined to violate a very important element of the overall fabric of the regime, of US-Russian cooperation to reduce nuclear dangers.

MORAN: David, even before this development, there were calls in the US for an expansion of American tactical nuclear capabilities. Are tactical nuclear weapons like these SSC-8s being addressed through current arms control mechanisms, and what should we expect to change in this area?

HOLLOWAY: Tactical nuclear weapons are not being addressed through arms control at the moment. There is an imbalance here. Russia is thought to have far more tactical nuclear weapons than the United States, but we don’t know exactly how many – maybe 1,000, maybe 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons. The United States under the Obama administration certainly wanted in the next round of negotiations with Russia after the new START treaty in 2011 to include tactical nuclear weapons in the negotiations. There haven’t been follow-on negotiations, so that didn’t go anywhere.

The Russian position is that they need tactical nuclear weapons, because, first of all the argument was that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Army is much less powerful certainly than the Soviet Army, and much less powerful in aggregate terms than NATO. Although they don’t publicize this, or talk very openly about it, they will also say ‘yes, and we also have complicated relationship with China, and we might need tactical nuclear weapons for deterrence or for contingencies there.’ I think handling tactical nuclear weapons will be difficult. One possibility is just to try to go to totals for nuclear weapons on either side and to allow each side then to choose how to make tactical against strategic nuclear weapons. In a way, therefore, the issue is how do you broaden strategic nuclear reductions to encompass the non-strategic weapons as well. That does involve, again, of course, verification issues, you would have problems of knowing where warheads were deployed or where they were not deployed, where they were stored, and so that would involve again more transparency than we have seen very recently.

MORAN: All of this needs to be seen against two other backdrops. One is the fact that Russia is modernizing its strategic nuclear arsenal and the US is about to start doing the same. The second is the fact that US – Russian relations fell to a new post-Cold War law at the end of the Obama years, and remain highly uncertain early in Trump’s tenure. Can we start with the modernizations? What exactly is being done?

HOLLOWAY: Both sides are upgrading their triads, and Russia is a little ahead of the US on this, because it had older systems to replace and it’s deploying submarines submarine launched ballistic missiles, new land-based inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and strategic bombers. So, this is a heavy investment on the Russian part, and of course the US is planning the same: to deploy new submarines, ICBMS, and bombers. The focus has really been on the expense of this. The argument for the triad that’s made in both countries, in other words you have three different kinds of strategic forces, is that this is a factor in stability. If you go down to just legs of the triad, say by getting rid of the ICBMs in the US, then you would have a less stable relationship, that somehow the three legs make this a more stable relationship. I think that the new systems that are being deployed will of course be more accurate, and will be able to pose in some ways a greater threat to ICBMs if they’re in silos, or even if they’re mobile. Nevertheless, the basic relationship will remain – whereby either side could retaliate in a devastating way if the other side finds it attacked first. So, in terms of strategic stability, the argument is you need the triads for strategic stability, and I think that strategic stability at that level will remain, even with the deployment of the new systems because a nuclear war conducted with these systems would be so horrendously destructive.

MORAN: And horrendously expensive, yes?

NOLAN: The most recent estimates issued by the US government, by the congressional budget office, suggests that the monetization plan which was implemented and devised under the Obama administration will cost on the order of $400 billion dollars in the course of the next ten years. That’s about 50 billion dollars more than was earlier estimated, and is actually on the lower end of other private estimations for what such an ambitious package could cost. This involves the investment in all of the legs of the so-called strategic triad – the land based missiles, air force, and submarines, as well as investment in warhead refurbishment. This is all premised on still having forces within the START limitations. So that’s the upper end of what we are planning to do.… The Russians are spending a ton of money on nuclear weapons, and are also trying to catch up their conventional forces, but there’s absolutely no comparison between the technological capabilities of the United States at the conventional level, nor for that matter at the nuclear level. It’s just that the Russians have been playing catch up since the economy collapsed and the Soviet Union fell apart. 

MORAN:  Thanks to Stanford’s David Holloway and Janne Nolan of my alma mater, GWU. That’s it for this penultimate edition of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. Join us next time as we wrap the series up with a review of where US-Russia relations stand as the Trump administration nears the end of its first 1000 Days in office.  For now, on behalf of my colleagues at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this is Michael Moran. Thanks for joining.

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.