Excessive Force

Why Russian and U.S. Nuclear Postures Perpetuate Cold War Risks

By David E. Mosher and Lowell H. Schwartz

David Mosher is a RAND senior policy analyst with expertise in nuclear weapons policy and ballistic missile defense. Lowell Schwartz is a RAND associate policy analyst.

Russian strategic nuclear forces remain the only current threat to the national existence of the United States. Although the risk of deliberate attack from Russia has sharply fallen since the end of the Cold War, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized use of Russian nuclear forces has arguably risen. For example, Russia’s early-warning system has severely deteriorated, as has the country’s ability to keep its mobile (and thus survivable) nuclear forces deployed. There are additional concerns about the state of Russia’s command-and-control system and the rise of separatist violence.

None of the nuclear arms control treaties after the Cold War have dealt with the issue of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. Instead, these treaties have concentrated on reducing the total number of nuclear warheads each side wields. While these reductions are extremely important for improving the overall U.S.-Russian relationship, they do little to ease the risks of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. This is because those risks stem from the nuclear postures and underlying nuclear doctrines of each nation, which remain firmly rooted in the hostile relationship forged during the Cold War.

Thus, even as U.S.-Russian relations have improved dramatically to the point where the two countries are no longer enemies, they continue to view each other in nuclear terms. This imbalance in the political and nuclear relations between the two countries not only perpetuates the risks of accidental or unauthorized nuclear use but also fundamentally impedes further improvements in relations.

To break this impasse and to bring the nuclear component of the U.S.-Russian relationship into better alignment with the improving political relationship, we recommend a “phased” approach that can improve both nuclear safety and the overall binational relationship (see figure). A phased approach represents the best path for overcoming the inertia of the nuclear establishments while still allowing both countries to maintain nuclear forces at a size and posture appropriate for each stage of an improving relationship.

The first phase would entail immediate U.S. unilateral actions and commitments designed to demonstrate the seriousness of the U.S. intent to improve nuclear safety. For instance, the United States could pull its ballistic missile submarines and attack submarines away from Russia. The hope is that Russia would respond with its own unilateral measures. The immediate steps could then lead to near-term, medium-term, and long-term steps to improve mutual safety further.

The long-term goal would be to eliminate the nuclear element from the U.S.-Russian relationship altogether. At this future stage, neither country would view the other as a nuclear threat at all. The best example of this kind of relationship is the one between Britain and France. Both are nuclear powers with divergent views on some issues; yet neither country would consider using nuclear weapons or even military force against the other to settle a dispute.

The improving relations between Russia and the United States present a historic opportunity to solve one of the more vexing problems left behind from the Cold War: how to shrink the chance of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons to as close to zero as possible. Only a sustained, coordinated effort can solve this problem. Such an effort must begin with presidential leadership and commitment.

A Lingering Threat

The past decade has brought significant improvements in the relations between Russia and the United States. At the political level, the changes have been demonstrated most noticeably by Russia’s active assistance in the war on terrorism, even helping the United States to establish basing rights in Central Asia. Changes at the nuclear level have also been notable, particularly the May 2002 signing of the Moscow Treaty in which Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin each agreed to reduce their long-range nuclear warheads to 1,700-2,200 by the year 2012. That will be down from about 6,000 in each country in 2002 and more than 10,000 each in 1990.

Despite these positive steps, the grave risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons persists for three reasons. First, both the United States and Russia retain their Cold War postures of keeping their nuclear forces on high alert — ready to launch within a few minutes. Inherent in these postures, which promise the rapid delivery of a massive nuclear retaliatory strike, is the distinct risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch.

Second, Russia’s economic difficulties have exacerbated the problem. The country’s mobile nuclear forces — from truck-based and rail-based intercontinental ballistic missiles to submarine-based ballistic missiles — have been decimated in both size and readiness. Far from enhancing U.S. security, these vulnerabilities could push Russia toward a strategy of quickly launching its remaining forces at the first sign of an attack, to ensure their utility. The economic difficulties have also left the early-warning system in tatters and the military with morale and discipline problems. An eroded command-and-control system has increased the risk that nuclear forces could be launched by terrorists or rogue commanders.

Third, U.S. strengths intensify Russian weaknesses. The U.S. Trident submarine force, with its accurate missiles and powerful warheads, continued to expand in the 1990s, making a significant portion of Russia’s silo-based missiles vulnerable. As long as Russia could deploy survivable mobile missiles and submarines — which it could in the 1980s — the country ensured that enough of its forces would survive to retaliate against a U.S. strike. But now, with only a few of Russia’s forces able to leave their silos and with sometimes not even one submarine at sea, the United States could deliver not just a retaliatory strike against Russia but also a devastating first strike. This imbalance could further heighten Russia’s feelings of vulnerability and its incentive to launch its forces preemptively.

There are three principal scenarios for accidental or unauthorized nuclear use. The first scenario is an intentional unauthorized launch brought about by terrorists or a rogue military commander. The breakdown of order in Russia, the economic difficulties and low morale of its military personnel, and the rise in organized crime and separatist violence have heightened this danger.

The second scenario is a missile launched by mistake. Such a mistake could result from a malfunctioning weapon system or a training accident. To date, Russia and the United States have made great efforts to guard against such accidents. Nevertheless, the probability of a mistaken launch has never been zero, and the economic and social problems in Russia have elevated concerns in the West about this problem.

The third scenario is a nuclear weapon launched intentionally but based on incorrect or incomplete information. If early-warning systems malfunction, they could signal that an attack is imminent when in fact it is not. Or a nonthreatening event might be misconstrued as an attack. Without a clear, accurate picture of what is happening around the globe, Russia might confuse a benign event (such as a space launch) for a nuclear attack. During the Cold War, Russia and the United States each developed a two-tiered early-warning system (using radar on land and infrared sensors in space) to guard against such events. But Russia’s space-based system is now essentially out of order, leaving the country with only a flawed radar system and greatly increasing the chance that an erroneous indication of attack could be mistaken as real. Thankfully, this concern is mitigated somewhat by the improved state of U.S.-Russian relations. U.S. and Russian political leaders today are less likely to believe they are under deliberate nuclear attack than they were during the tense periods of the Cold War.

Despite the end of the Cold War and real improvements in relations, both countries continue to view each other in nuclear terms. The risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons remains unacceptably high. Limiting these dangers will require not merely operational changes in the U.S. and Russian nuclear postures but higher levels of trust and cooperation.

The true solution to reducing nuclear risks is to eliminate the nuclear dimension of the U.S.-Russian relationship altogether. The phased approach that we propose acknowledges the link between nuclear safety and the health of the overall relationship. Near-term improvements in nuclear safety can build confidence between the two nations, thereby enabling more extensive improvements in the medium and long terms. Similarly, actions that improve relations can also lead to improvements in nuclear safety. These dynamics lead us to recommend what we call a “nuclear safety initiative” that encompasses multiple phases over the next 15 years. The timing could be quicker if conditions and leadership allow.

Immediate Unilateral Steps (2004)

Within the next six months to a year, the United States should take four immediate steps. It should “stand down” its nuclear forces to the levels specified in the Moscow Treaty. That means removing all but a maximum of 2,200 warheads from U.S. missiles and bombers and placing the warheads and weapon systems in central storage. In addition, the United States should pull its Trident ballistic missile submarines away from Russia, pull attack submarines away from Russia, and reduce the launch readiness of one-third of U.S. silo-based missiles — or about 150 silos. All four actions can be taken quickly and unilaterally. They would be intended to signal to Russia that nuclear weapons are no longer important to the relationship.

At the same time, the United States should commit itself to additional steps that would take some time to implement, either because they are technically difficult or because Russian participation is required. The most urgent commitment is to improve Russia’s access to reliable and accurate early-warning information. The United States should commit to putting early-warning sensors on its own silos, funding Russian early-warning radar stations, and continuing the joint Russian-American research efforts to improve the effectiveness of early-warning technology.

Ideally, Russia would respond with comparable unilateral actions of its own. Perhaps Russia would stand down the forces that it plans to eliminate under the Moscow Treaty, would promise to keep its ballistic missile submarines and attack submarines away from U.S. coasts, and would be open to discussions about further strengthening its early-warning systems.

Near-Term Steps (2006 to 2007)

Ideally within two or three years, the United States would have fulfilled its initial commitments by placing early-warning sensors on its silos and by having Congress approve money to strengthen Russian early-warning radar capabilities. The United States could also take further steps, such as eliminating the forces it had initially stood down and removing the W-88 warheads from its Trident submarines. The W-88 — the U.S. arsenal’s most powerful warhead — is designed specifically to attack and to destroy hardened Russian silos.

The two countries could now begin consultations on more sensitive matters, such as initial steps to reduce the launch readiness of nuclear missile silos and further steps to improve Russia’s access to early-warning information. Reaching agreement on reducing launch readiness will be extremely difficult and will require a good deal of mutual trust. Other near-term consultations could begin on how to implement a destruct-after-launch system capable of disabling reentry vehicles. Such a system would allow an additional 15 to 20 minutes of decision time.

Medium-Term Steps (2009 to 2013) and Beyond

As relations improve over the next six to ten years and the nuclear dimension wanes in importance, the United States and Russia could take more far-reaching steps to improve nuclear safety. For example, the difficult negotiations on reducing launch readiness could begin to bear fruit. The sensors used on silos for early warning could be modified to monitor the launch readiness of the silos in each country. By now, consultations might also have contributed to an agreement on whether destruct-after-launch systems would be feasible and, if so, how best to implement them.

The United States could immediately pull its Trident submarines out of range of Russia. The submarines are equipped with the U.S. arsenal’s most powerful nuclear warheads. Depending on the weight of the missile payloads, their range would be between 4,000 and 6,000 nautical miles (nmi).

The United States could take two unilateral actions in this time frame. First, it could adopt a new deterrence posture that moves away from reliance on rapid counterattacks against Russia and places greater emphasis on flexibility. Second, it could deploy a limited national missile defense system — but only if it did not adversely affect U.S.-Russian relations.

It is difficult to predict which steps would make the most sense much further into the future, but we can envision two future end states where forces are kept at reduced levels of launch readiness. In the first, the United States and Russia have essentially eliminated the nuclear aspect of their relationship. They keep a few forces on modified alert to address other nuclear threats and take all other forces off alert, with modest monitoring. In the second, the forces of all nuclear states are taken off alert, but only with extensive monitoring. Long-term steps would be implemented consistent with either one of these end states.

Bold moves such as those suggested here could greatly improve nuclear safety as well as enhance U.S. security in other important areas, such as nonproliferation and counterterrorism. These improvements in safety and security depend, however, on improving U.S.-Russian relations in other areas and, in the end, removing the nuclear component of the relationship altogether. This will not be possible without a sustained, coordinated effort driven by presidential leadership and commitment. The military complexities involved suggest that the U.S. and Russian militaries would also have to work together closely to achieve success.

The exact steps taken by the United States and Russia could surely differ from those suggested here, particularly in the medium term and beyond. But the details are secondary. What is most important is that the process begin immediately.

Related Reading

Assessing Russia’s Decline: Trends and Implications for the United States and the U.S. Air Force, Olga Oliker, Tanya Charlick-Paley, RAND/MR-1442-AF, 2002, 152 pp. ISBN 0-8330-3095-7.

Beyond the Nuclear Shadow: A Phased Approach for Improving Nuclear Safety and U.S.-Russian Relations, David E. Mosher, Lowell H. Schwartz, David R. Howell, Lynn E. Davis, RAND/MR-1666-NSRD, 2003, 179 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3346-8.

Future Roles of U.S. Nuclear Forces: Implications for U.S. Strategy, Glenn Buchan, David Matonick, Calvin Shipbaugh, Richard Mesic, RAND/MR-1231-AF, 2003, 146 pp., ISBN 0-8330-2917-7.