arms reduction and MIRVs

mirv reentry

On June 24, the house committee on foreign affairs held an informative hearing on the nuclear balance of power between Russia and the United States.

An old treaty, START, is set to expire this december, and many think that it would be a good idea to have a replacement treaty to put in its place. One of the witnesses, Keith B. Payne offered this assessment of the negotiating stance of Russia:

Second, the Russian and U.S. sides have agreed that the post- START treaty will include reductions in the number of strategic force launchers, i.e., the number of deployed ICBMs, SLBMs — submarine- launched ballistic missiles — and strategic bombers.

Russian President Medvedev has said that Russia would like the number of these launchers to be reduced several times below the 1,600 permitted now under START. That is a smart position for Russia. It’s a very bad position for us.

Why so? Because the number of deployed Russian strategic ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers will drop dramatically with or without a new arms control agreement. Based solely on Russian sources, it’s possible to anticipate that within the next eight to nine years the number of Russian strategic launchers will have dropped from approximately 680 today to fewer than half that number simply as a result of the aging of their systems and the pace of their modernization program.

The Russians would like to make lemonade out of this lemon of their aging launchers by getting reductions in real U.S. systems without eliminating anything that they would not withdraw in any event. That’s not simply my conclusion; it is the conclusion of Russian officials and commentators as expressed in Russian publications.

Beyond the bad negotiating principle of giving up something for nothing, there would serious downsides for the United States in moving to low numbers of strategic launchers. For example, it would encourage placing more warheads on the remaining launchers — i.e. “MIRVing” — which is precisely what the Russians are doing.

Moving away from heavily “MIRVed” strategic launchers has long been considered highly stabilizing and a key U.S. START goal. Why should we now start encouraging MIRVing by going down to launcher levels?

As I understand it, MIRV’s are potentially destablizing because they concentrate the number of warheads in one place. Thus, they increase the number of warheads that can be destroyed in a first strike (this is known as the exchange ratio), thus making such a strike more attractive. This is an effect on the country that faces a MIRVed adversary. Also, the country that has the MIRVs may be more likely to escalate conflict because of this increased vulnerability (the warheads are concentrated in one place, encouraging the cliched “use ’em or lose ’em” attitude). MIRVs affect both countries in a nuclear conflict.

So, Payne’s point is that we shouldn’t reduce the number of launchers because then we will have to find some place to put the extra warheads, and we might put them on our current launchers.

I think this is a good point, but it’s a little overblown. Our submarine based nuclear weapons represent a completely guaranteed second strike capability, and so even if the exchange ratio changes substantially so that land forces become a tempting target, submarine forces will always remain essentially invulnerable. Also, we will not be tempted into a “use ’em or lose ’em” mentality with our sub forces because they will survive a first strike.

If anything, we should agree to huge decreases in our launcher forces, EXCEPT for submarine launched missiles. We should get a bunch of these missiles and then load them with MIRVs. Such a force would save us money, help us negotiate a total launcher reduction (even if we increase SLBMs), and increase the stability of our deterrent.


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