"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."
– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Greg Thielmann

Books of Note

Eliminating Nuclear Weapons: The Role of Missile Defense

Tom Sauer, Columbia University Press, 2011, 155 pp.

Tom Sauer’s short but comprehensive volume analyzes the interaction between the goals of eliminating nuclear weapons and having a missile defense system to protect against any illicit nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that may appear. Judging nuclear deterrence unsustainable, Sauer assumes ultimate elimination of nuclear arsenals worldwide and does not dwell on the near-term difficulty of further reducing strategic offensive arsenals in an environment of unconstrained strategic missile defenses. He suggests that policy choices on missile defense will help determine whether global nuclear disarmament will be able to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Key to Sauer’s overall analysis is his contention that the actual technical capabilities of the current generation of missile defenses have been greatly exaggerated and that it is “extremely doubtful” a reliable missile shield could be built over the next couple of decades. He ranks the desirability of three possible configurations of missile defenses for achieving a stable and effective ban on nuclear weapons: Best would be a regime banning all defensive as well as offensive ballistic missiles; second best would be limiting missile defenses to theater systems; and third would be sharing large-scale strategic missile defense systems with all major powers. Sauer contends that other scenarios for missile defenses, including the current trajectory of U.S. programs, will lead to new arms races in defensive and offensive weapons.—GREG THIELMANN


Deterrence: Its Past and Future

George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, and James E. Goodby, eds., Hoover Institution Press, 2011, 230 pp.

This two-part book discusses the evolving role of deterrence and its utility against emerging international security threats. Part I is a compilation of summaries of papers presented at a conference on deterrence held in November 2010 at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Remarks delivered at the conference by former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), and Admiral Michael Mullen also are included in the volume. The summaries touch on a variety of issues, including the feasibility and challenges of preventing states from reconstituting nuclear arsenals after the elimination of nuclear weapons, the debate over de-alerting nuclear forces, and the need to reassess conventional thinking on nuclear deterrence in a multipolar environment in which nonstate actors challenge national security. In Part II, Steve Andreasen and Michael Gerson analyze how states with nuclear weapons (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and the United Kingdom), NATO, and Iran perceive the broader international security environment, view the role that nuclear weapons play in deterrence, and think about the abolition of nuclear weapons. The two authors focus on how these viewpoints are known and understood in the United States. The purpose of this approach, according to Andreasen and Gerson, is to prevent misinterpretation of other states’ views on the role and utility of deterrence. —KELSEY DAVENPORT

Op-ed: GOP candidates, what do you say about savings in military budget?



By Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association

The following piece was originally posted online at The Des Moines Register on August 4, 2011.

Washington is obsessed these days with reducing the deficit. The GOP presidential contenders crisscrossing Iowa give prominence to the issue as well. But even as they call for ever deeper budget cuts, they have been reluctant to look at trimming the $27 billion annual cost of operating and maintaining our bloated Cold War nuclear arsenal and the $125 billion planned for building new weapons in the decade ahead.

Iowa Republicans can use the state’s privileged place in the presidential sweepstakes to ensure that candidates stop ignoring the nuclear elephant in the room. They can refer to the dramatic deficit reduction proposal recently advanced by one of the most conservative members in the U.S. Senate, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who called for cutting $79 billion from U.S. strategic nuclear forces over the next decade.

The potential impact of fiscal policy on defense programs was highlighted last year by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he said, “the single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.” Coburn’s proposal addresses the way defense cuts can contribute in turn toward restoring fiscal balance — improving the economic fundamentals on which national prosperity depends, while maintaining the nuclear deterrent at the heart of U.S. national security strategy.

Further reductions in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile can now be safely contemplated, because the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is in force. The treaty, approved by the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan 71-26 vote last December, has enhanced predictability for both sides.

Without New START, Russia might have slowed the retirement of its older ballistic missiles, each bearing multiple, city-killing nuclear warheads. Without the hundreds of notifications about Russian strategic force activities that have been received under the treaty and the regular implementation of the treaty’s on-site verification, the United States would have much less confidence in assessing the status of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The presidential candidates should look at the nuclear balance of forces in the wake of New START. The Russians are already below two of the treaty’s three key limits — 700 for deployed missiles and bombers, and 1,550 for deployed warheads and bombers — nearly seven years before the deadline. The United States is moving slowly toward bringing its forces under the limits, which means it continues to spend money servicing and operating weapons deemed non-essential.

By the time the United States gets down to the treaty limits, it may have hundreds more operational warheads than Russia. It is likely to have 15 times more than China and 300 times more than either North Korea or Iran. U.S. conventional forces will be far superior to any adversary. In light of the growing strategic imbalance in our favor and in consideration of our dire fiscal straits, it is proper to question whether the Pentagon should carry out exorbitant plans to simultaneously modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad. Many defense experts, like Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say it doesn’t have the money to do so, given other requirements.

The Cold War ended 20 years ago. Our military leadership is now focused on the 21st century threats of nuclear proliferation, peacekeeping, and international terrorism. Even the commander of U.S. Strategic Forces, Gen. Robert Kehler, emphasizes that Cold War competition is over, that Russia is no longer an enemy and that weapons of mass destruction use by terrorists rather than Russia heads his threat list. The rationale is long gone for maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons, each many times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima 66 years ago.

Candidates who aspire to lead the nation need to be able to explain the connection between fiscal and security challenges. Iowa voters need to ask them to do so.


By Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association

The following piece was originally posted online at The Des Moines Register on August 4, 2011.

Washington is obsessed these days with reducing the deficit. The GOP presidential contenders crisscrossing Iowa give prominence to the issue as well. But even as they call for ever deeper budget cuts, they have been reluctant to look at trimming the $27 billion annual cost of operating and maintaining our bloated Cold War nuclear arsenal and the $125 billion planned for building new weapons in the decade ahead.

Country Resources:

Iranian Missile Messages: Reading Between the Lines of "Great Prophet 6"



Volume 2, Issue 10, July 12, 2011

In light of justifiable concerns about Iran’s potential as a nuclear weapons state, the country’s latest military exercise, ending last week, provided some grounds for qualified relief. Although the official commentary was predictably defiant in tone, the overall choreography and the weapons actually fired bespoke neither the intent nor a current operational capability for Iran to strike at Israel or Europe. The absence in the exercise of systems likely to serve as nuclear weapons delivery vehicles belies contentions that Tehran is moving rapidly to achieve such a capability.

“Great Prophet 6” Fireworks
In a ten-day extravaganza of martial events, dubbed “Great Prophet 6,” Iran conducted a prodigious number of missile launches, showcasing a variety of ballistic and cruise missiles, including some new missile types and a newly displayed silo basing mode. The live-fire exercises provided useful training for the troops and stimulated national pride among the population. Such displays of missile prowess also help Iran’s clerical government rally domestic support behind efforts to defy UN sanctions and send a warning message to potential aggressors.

Missiles Are the Measure
Missiles are the premier weapon of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran’s ballistic missiles, in particular, occupy an iconic place in the power pantheon – they are fast to employ, hard for an enemy to locate and attack prior to launch, difficult to intercept in flight, and can potentially serve as a vehicle for delivering nuclear weapons to targets far from the country’s border. Iran already has medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in its arsenal, which can reach targets not only in neighboring states, but also in Israel. Moreover, given the heavy concentrations of U.S. troops in the region, even Iran’s shorter-range missiles can easily and quickly put the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk.

Anti-shipping cruise missiles – along with mines – provide one of Iran’s most credible deterrent threats, because they enable Tehran to effectively exploit its geographical position by threatening to interrupt maritime traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, which carries a third of all the world's seaborne traded oil. Such a disruption, even short-term, would have incalculable effects on the international economy.

Iranian missile forces loom large in relative significance because of inadequacies in Iran’s air and ground forces. These forces “are sufficient to deter or defend against conventional threats from Iran’s weaker neighbors…but lack the air power and logistical ability to project power much beyond Iran’s borders or to confront regional powers such as Turkey or Israel,” according to a recent official U.S. assessment. [1] U.S. domination of the seas and skies in any military confrontation drives Iran into a disproportionate reliance on threatening to use missiles to level the odds. Even so, the practical utility of Iranian missiles is primarily limited at present to being an instrument of intimidation or terror when targeted against cities, given that Iran’s ballistic missiles lack accuracy against point targets and Iran’s cruise missiles are not suited to land-attack.

By acquiring nuclear warheads for its medium-range ballistic missiles, Iran could gain the ability to destroy specific targets. The deployments of missile defenses in Israel and the Persian Gulf are unlikely to give the defenders confidence that nuclear devastation would be averted in the event of an actual Iranian nuclear missile attack. Moreover, missile defenses are likely to spur rather than retard Iranian efforts to improve their missiles. Fortunately, Tehran would also be aware that its use of nuclear weapons would provoke retaliation that could result in its annihilation as a nation – a risk disproportionate to any conceivable gain.

What Did the Exercise Actually Demonstrate?
The majority of missiles launched over the course of the exercise were either short-range, battlefield weapons, such as the solid fuel Fateh 110 or cruise missiles, such as the Tondar and Khalije Fars that were claimed to be effective against ships and fixed targets in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. Of some two dozen missiles fired, only one was a medium-range missile with sufficient power and available space to carry a future nuclear warhead, the liquid fuel Shahab 3, a derivative of North Korea’s No Dong MRBM. Yet the Shahab 3’s range of approximately 1,000 km (with a 750 kg warhead) is not sufficient for it to reach Israel from a secure position in Iran. Iran has developed an advanced version of the Shahab 3, the Ghadr 1, to extend the system's range. This was accomplished by lengthening the airframe, using high-strength aluminum, and changing the shape of the missile’s warhead section. Yet the Ghadr 1 did not appear in the recent exercises.

The Iranian media also displayed, for the first time, underground missile silos, allegedly loaded with liquid fuel Shahabs. However, outside experts doubt the accuracy of the descriptions provided in the video coverage of the exercise and question whether Iran has any MRBMs operationally deployed in silos. In any case, such missiles would be far more likely to survive attack in a mobile basing mode than in fixed silos, which can be located in advance and effectively destroyed with little warning by the precision weapons available to the United States.

Iranian television reported further that Iranian forces had been equipped with a new, long-range radar system, the Ghadir, which was featured in the exercises.    

What Was the Intended Message?
Based on the statements of Iranian military leaders and reports in Iran’s media, the main messages of “Great Prophet 6” for friends and foe were: that Iran’s strength is increasing in spite of the UN sanctions; that Iran is not dependent on other nations for its defense; that Iranian missiles could not be effectively preempted or intercepted; and that any attack on Iran would be met with devastating retaliation.

The new radar and missile silos were offered as evidence than Iran cannot be disarmed and that retaliation was inevitable. The salvo launches of missiles were a reminder that missile defenses can be overwhelmed by numbers. The longer-range Shahab 3 symbolized Iran’s reach across the Middle East region, far beyond its own borders. Each of the systems displayed were described as the product of Iranian scientists and engineers, independent of reliance on foreign purchases or technical assistance.

Reading Between the Lines
There are, however, other conclusions to be drawn from Iran’s flexing of missile muscles.  For those seeking to prevent or dissuade Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, the most important question is how much progress the exercises demonstrate toward Iran developing and deploying the missiles, which would carry nuclear warheads.

Realistically, medium-term delivery boils down to two existing systems: the liquid fuel, single stage Ghadr 1 MRBM, an advanced derivative of the Shahab 3, and the solid fuel Sejjil 2 MRBM, a two-stage system with sufficient range to target Israel from launch sites throughout Iran, but not yet operational. Neither missile was flown during “Great Prophet 6.”

The only MRBM launched was announced to be a Shahab 3, an unlikely candidate for fulfilling Iran’s likely nuclear delivery capability aspirations. It is possible that the Iranians foresee using the Ghadr 1 as a nuclear weapons platform, in spite of the disadvantages inherent to liquid fuel mobile missiles – in terms of their limited mobility and greater vulnerability to attack.

It is more likely that the Iranians see the Sejjil 2 as the preferred carrier for a possible future nuclear warhead. Iran is apparently feeling no need to exercise its only operational missile suited for the nuclear mission and the missile best suited for the nuclear mission has not yet reached an operational status appropriate for exercising. Thus, if the U.S. Government is correct in assessing that Tehran has not yet made a decision to build nuclear weapons, there would appear to be time for dissuading it from doing so.

A Long-Range Missile Threat Not Yet in Sight
In a 1999 National Intelligence Estimate, the U.S. intelligence community projected that Iran could test an ICBM within “a few years.” Most analysts predicted back then either “even odds” or a “likely chance” that Iran would test an ICBM by 2010. However, in 2009, senior military and defense officials testified to Congress that shifting from deployment of strategic interceptors to Europe in a third site to a program for deploying theater interceptors in a “Phased Adaptive Approach” was appropriate since the Iranian ICBM threat was evolving more slowly than previously thought.

The Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analysis reported to Congress in 2011 that Iran was fielding increased numbers of SRBMs and MRBMs, “continuing to work on producing more capable MRBMs, and developing space launch vehicles, which incorporate technology directly applicable to longer-range missile systems.” [2] The still unofficial Report on Sanctions of the UN Panel of Experts completed in May 2011 revealed that the Iranians had conducted two unannounced tests of the Sejjil 2 MRBM (in October 2010 and February 2011) [3] in addition to the five flight tests it had conducted since 2007. (A senior Iranian Republican Guard Corps Commander recently confirmed two previously unannounced “1,900 km-range” missile flights tests in February.)

The Iranians launched their second satellite in May 2011, using the Safir Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) and predicted that it would be followed by another satellite launch in the summer. Unlike the larger Samorgh SLV that had been displayed as a mockup in February, conversion of the Safir SLV to a ballistic missile would still only deliver a nuclear-sized payload about 2,100 km, according to the IISS Strategic Dossier, [4] roughly the same as the Sejjil 2 MRBM.

This summer’s “Great Prophet 6” exercise provides more evidence that, while Tehran makes steady progress on augmenting its stocks of enriched uranium and while R&D work continues on its most likely MRBM candidate for being able to deliver a future nuclear weapon within the region, Tehran’s present military focus is on demonstrating and enhancing its conventional capability to deter and defeat a preventive attack on the Islamic Republic itself. It has not flight-tested, or indeed even asserted a need for, an IRBM or ICBM – the missile categories most relevant to threatening the territories of NATO Europe and the United States.


1. Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran (Congressionally Directed Action), April 2010, p.7

2. Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2010, p.3

3. Panel of Experts Established Pursuant to Resolution 1929 (2010), Final Report, p.26, http://www.innercitypress.com/1929r051711.pdf

4. The International Institute for Strategic Studies: “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment,” May 2010, p.31


Volume 2, Issue 10, July 12, 2011

In light of justifiable concerns about Iran’s potential as a nuclear weapons state, the country’s latest military exercise, ending last week, provided some grounds for qualified relief. Although the official commentary was predictably defiant in tone, the overall choreography and the weapons actually fired bespoke neither the intent nor a current operational capability for Iran to strike at Israel or Europe. The absence in the exercise of systems likely to serve as nuclear weapons delivery vehicles belies contentions that Tehran is moving rapidly to achieve such a capability.

Country Resources:

Opening Pandora’s Box



Assessing the “Military Option” for Countering Iran’s Nuclear Program

Volume 2, Issue 8, June 10, 2011

Neither sanctions, cyber sabotage, nor off-and-on multilateral diplomacy has yet convinced the government of Iran to end its pursuit of activities that could give it the capability to build nuclear weapons some time in the next few years.

Iran continues to produce and stockpile low enriched uranium in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions that have repeatedly called for a suspension of its sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities while a diplomatic solution is pursued. Despite increasingly tougher international sanctions, Tehran is expanding its nuclear infrastructure without fully complying with its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards obligations. On June 9, Tehran announced its intent to accelerate its enrichment of uranium at the 20% level, substantially closer to that needed for bomb material.

Not surprisingly, some policy makers and commentators argue that the United States should consider-or threaten-the use of force to stop or damage Iran’s nuclear program. However, a closer examination of the limitations and severe costs and consequences of “the military option” suggest that for all intents and purposes it is neither serious nor prudent.

Military Experts Advise Against

It is no accident that some of those who have had to professionally consider the option of using a “preventive” attack to counter Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons are among the least enthusiastic about seeing it exercised. Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, referred last month to the possibility of an Israeli Air Force attack on Iranian nuclear facilities as “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”[1] Dagan later claimed that Israel’s last military chief of staff and the just-retired director of internal security were like-minded in opposing any such “dangerous adventure.” [2]

U.S. military leaders and senior defense officials, who possess many more assets than Israel to apply to such a task, sound no more enthusiastic. Former CENTCOM Commander Adm. William Fallon was conspicuously opposed while he had responsibility for U.S. forces in the region. Continued advances in Iran’s nuclear program have apparently not changed Fallon’s mind. He said at an American Iranian Council symposium June 7 that the best strategy would be to set aside the use of force against Tehran. [3]

While serving as 5th Fleet commander in the Persian Gulf, now retired Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff also warned publicly about the negative consequences of a preventive attack. Moreover, it is no secret that outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen and outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have expressed strong reservations about resorting to the “military option.” Members of Congress and the public would be well advised to take heed.

Unfortunately, “leaving all options on the table” has become standard political trope in Washington with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. In this context, the “military option” means an unprovoked “preventive” attack to eliminate Iran’s future nuclear weapons capability. But such an attack would not stop Iran’s program, and the international consequences would be severe.

It Won’t Work

The first point to consider in evaluating the military option is whether or not an aerial assault would be able to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. David Albright and Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security noted in a 2007 article that such a scenario was built on “a false promise because it offers no assurances that an Iranian nuclear weapons program would be substantially or irreversibly set back.” [4] There is even less doubt today that Iran would retain its relevant human capital and production base following an attack, and would still be able to launch a crash program to develop a bomb.

Experts differ on how long an aerial assault would set Iran back-from a couple of years to as much as five years-but most agree the setback would not be permanent. This reality helps explain why Vice JCS Chairman Gen. James Cartwright agreed with Sen. Jack Reed’s statement in 2010 Senate testimony that: “(T)he only absolutely dispositive way to end any (Iranian nuclear weapons) potential would be to physically occupy their country and to disestablish their nuclear facilities.” [5]

In this context, it is instructive to look anew at the conventional wisdom about Israel’s 1981 raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Generally regarded as a spectacular success, the attack did indeed delay Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. But Iraq’s determination to succeed was strengthened, its commitment of personnel and resources skyrocketed, [6] and its success at hiding its activities from the IAEA and Western intelligence collectors increased.

Of course, 2011 is a far cry from 1981 and Iran is not Iraq. But in most respects, Iran is considerably less vulnerable to a single strike than Iraq was and much further along in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. So it is realistic to assume that an attack on Iran can offer only delay, not prevent acquisition of nuclear weapons.

A Complex, Costly Operation

Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not limited to one well-defined facility that could be damaged with a quick, surgical strike. Because Iran’s nuclear facilities and support network is extensive and geographically dispersed, any military operation against it would probably require a “major air campaign,” lasting days or weeks, according to Jeffrey White, Defense Fellow at the Washington Institute and former career analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, speaking at an Arms Control Association briefing on June 7.

White added that the target list would likely extend far beyond Iran’s 25 declared nuclear facilities and related sites to include air defense sites, command-and-control nodes, and ballistic and cruise missile launchers. Beyond the strike assets, additional resources would be required for personnel recovery and post-strike battle damage assessments. A campaign of this magnitude would necessarily involve phases, allowing some Iranian assets not initially hit to be removed and hidden before being struck. The United States would soon confront difficult decisions concerning the need to go back in and re-attack surviving facilities or to disrupt the reconstruction of those that had been destroyed.

Little International Support

Few other countries would support a U.S. preventive attack and even fewer would participate in it, according to Career Ambassador Thomas Pickering at the June 7 Arms Control Association briefing. “Aside from Israel, no countries would be waiting in line to join (a U.S. attack),” said Pickering, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and five other countries, including Russia and India. Even those Arab governments that would welcome a diminution of Iranian power, including most of Iran’s Sunni neighbors in the Persian Gulf, would keep their enthusiasm well under wraps, avoiding provocations to popular sentiment in the face of yet another U.S. attack on a Middle Eastern Muslim country.

All of the countries whose continuing logistical support is critical to U.S. combat capabilities in the region-Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, and Pakistan-are strongly opposed to a U.S. attack on Iran.  A precipitous reaction to an attack from any one of them could easily cripple U.S. war efforts. China, which has increased its trade with Iran even after the imposition of UN sanctions, as well as Russia, would strongly oppose use of force and likely would block any effort to secure UN Security Council authorization for military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Creating All the Wrong Incentives for Iran

According to Rand Corporation analyst Alireza Nader, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, currently absorbed in a huge and divisive power struggle between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would be quickly reunited by an outside attack.

Nader, who also spoke at the June 7 Arms Control Association briefing, noted that Iran’s “very nationalistic” population, which is overwhelmingly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program and jealous of Iran’s sovereignty, would likely demand retaliation for a Western attack.

Such retaliation could take a number of forms, from ballistic missile attacks against U.S. military bases in the region and the cities, ports, and oil terminals of U.S. allies in the Gulf to missile and rocket attacks against Israel. The Jewish state could be attacked by Iran directly or indirectly through Tehran’s ally Hezbollah and ally of convenience, Hamas. Iran could also use the IRGC to attack U.S. troops indirectly by aiding and provoking Shia militias in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Energy Insecurity

A more direct target would be the petroleum tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, which carry nearly 40% of the world’s total traded oil. Iran’s regular and IRGC Navy elements have several methods for laying mines in the shipping channels of the narrow strait. Iran’s mobile anti-ship missiles on its Persian Gulf coast could do “a lot of damage” to shipping and be very difficult to hunt down, according to the Washington Institute’s Jeffrey White. Restoring safe passage for shipping could take days or weeks.

Delays and uncertainties in the supply of oil from the Persian Gulf and spiking insurance rates for tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz would exert strong upward pressure on the price of oil-with a potential of quadrupling prices at the pump in the United States, according to some experts. Although Iran would have a disincentive for hurting the oil traffic on which much of its economy depends, it seems unlikely that it would tolerate military action against Iranian vessels without striking back at those ships vital to the economies of the United States and its Persian Gulf allies.

A Third Ground War?

As noted by Pickering, even a military attack on Iran with the narrowly defined objective of incapacitating Tehran’s nuclear weapons capability would run a serious risk of mission creep. Once engaged militarily, there could be pressures for incursions of U.S. ground forces to deny territory for missile launches against shipping, to rescue captured pilots, to aid anti-regime uprisings, or to secure nuclear materials. For the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, already stressed from a decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, such additional commitments would raise serious questions about long-term sustainability and personnel retention.

If using military force cannot foreclose Iranian nuclear weapons potential and the consequences of a preventive attack are so onerous that security officials have already taken this option off the table, it makes no sense to pretend otherwise. Indeed, as Fallon warned at the June 7 American Iranian Council event, extended public discussion of the military option against Iran could harm prospects for alternative resolution to the nuclear problem. [7]

Sit on the Box and Use Your Head

U.S. security officials continue to testify to Congress that Tehran’s leaders have not yet decided to build and deploy nuclear weapons. Iran experts, like RAND’s Alireza Nader, believe it is not too late to dissuade Iran from taking such a course. Sanctions are in place, which impose heavy costs on Tehran’s refusal to open Iran up to more transparent cooperation with the IAEA, and they have been sustained while maintaining solidarity among the Permanent Members of the Security Council.

The United States needs to continue looking for diplomatic pathways to expanding IAEA access to Iranian nuclear capabilities and personnel, and stop rattling Pandora’s box as if it contained a key to the Iranian nuclear puzzle.-GREG THIELMANN



1. Yossi Melman, “Former Mossad chief: Israel air strike on Iran ‘stupidest thing I have ever heard’,” Haaretz, May 7, 2011.

2. Ethan Bronner, “Former Spy Chief Questions Israeli Leaders’ Judgment,” The New York Times, June 3, 2011.

3. Elaine M. Grossman, “Former Diplomat, Admiral See U.S. Strike Against Iran as Unlikely,” Global Security Newswire, June 8, 2011.

4. David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, “A Witches’ Brew? Evaluating Iran’s Uranium-Enrichment Progress,” Arms Control Today, November 2007, p. 10.

5. Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, April 14, 2010.

6. See, for example: Bennett Ramberg, “Preemption Paradox,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2006, p. 51.

7. Elaine M. Grossman, “Former Diplomat, Admiral See U.S. Strike Against Iran as Unlikely,” Global Security Newswire, June 8, 2011.



Assessing the “Military Option” for Countering Iran’s Nuclear Program

Volume 2, Issue 8, June 10, 2011

Neither sanctions, cyber sabotage, nor off-and-on multilateral diplomacy has yet convinced the government of Iran to end its pursuit of activities that could give it the capability to build nuclear weapons some time in the next few years.

Iran continues to produce and stockpile low enriched uranium in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions that have repeatedly called for a suspension of its sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities while a diplomatic solution is pursued. Despite increasingly tougher international sanctions, Tehran is expanding its nuclear infrastructure without fully complying with its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards obligations. On June 9, Tehran announced its intent to accelerate its enrichment of uranium at the 20% level, substantially closer to that needed for bomb material.

Country Resources:

Subject Resources:

The Missile Gap Myth and Its Progeny

Greg Thielmann

Public misperceptions in 1959 and 1960 that the Soviet Union had opened up a dangerous and growing lead over the United States in the deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) had fateful consequences beyond influencing an exceedingly close presidential election. What was then labeled “the missile gap” also helped establish patterns in the nuclear arms race that persisted throughout the Cold War and beyond.

For the U.S. public, the missile gap burst forth spectacularly toward the end of the 1950s as a result of two developments in 1957. The first was the successful flight test of the Soviet SS-6 ICBM in August and the Soviet Union’s launch several weeks later of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, by the same rocket type. Both launches represented Soviet technological achievements not yet matched by the United States. Sputnik, visible in the night sky over the United States, was the more dramatic symbol of Soviet progress, but the ICBM test that preceded it had the more ominous and immediate security implications.

The second development was the secret completion in November and public discussion shortly thereafter of a presidentially commissioned review of U.S. nuclear policies by an outside and predominantly civilian committee, chaired by Horace Rowan Gaither. The Gaither Report, as it was called, warned that the Soviet Union could have a “significant” ICBM capability by the end of 1959, making the Strategic Air Command’s bomber fleet vulnerable to surprise attack “during a period of lessened world tension.” [1] Although classified top secret, some of the report’s conclusions, including its alarmist view of Soviet ICBM capabilities, were leaked to the press.

The shock of being bested in space by the United States’ superpower rival and the prediction by an independent, blue-ribbon commission of future Soviet strategic advances set the stage for the appearance of the missile gap. A sense of alarm spread, along with a narrative that the Eisenhower administration had been complacent in the face of an acute military threat. Influenced by a combination of inadequate information and partisan political motives, Democratic politicians cultivated the notion that the aging incumbent had been asleep at the switch and that a new team was needed to reinvigorate government and restore U.S. nuclear superiority.

In one sense, the Gaither Report’s findings and the January 1959 joint Senate hearings on missile and space activities merely led to a necessary and overdue adjustment in the U.S. psyche as a new and unpleasant reality of the nuclear age sank in: The United States had become profoundly vulnerable to foreign attack. However, the press and politicians outside the White House made little effort to discuss root causes or to put the report in perspective. Press characterizations were even less restrained than the language of the report itself. For example, The Washington Post provided its influential readership this description of the report’s contents: “[The report] pictures the Nation moving in frightening course to the status of a second-class power. It shows an America exposed to an almost immediate threat from the missile-bristling Soviet Union. It finds America’s long-term prospect one of cataclysmic peril in the face of rocketing Soviet military might.”[2]

Hyping Sputnik and the Gaither Report was very much in the political interests of Democratic contenders for the presidency in 1960. Judging from what is now known about the missile numbers, Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) consistently mischaracterized the strategic trend lines. For example, in an October 1960 appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, the Democratic nominee said, “The Soviet Union made the great breakthrough in space and in missiles, and, therefore, they are going to be ahead of us in those very decisive weapons of war in the early 1960s.”[3]

In other cases, Kennedy could gain advantage merely by describing the new reality objectively because of its unpleasant shock value to the U.S. public, which was only beginning to absorb the full implications of living in the nuclear age. Thus, he could say without hyperbole in his Senate floor remarks of February 29, 1960, “For the first time since the War of 1812, foreign enemy forces potentially had become a direct and unmistakable threat to the continental United States, to our homes and to our people.”[4]

The fault in Kennedy’s argument was not so much the inaccurate characterization of the Soviet missile numbers, for the intelligence community had provided him with estimates it later revised downward on the basis of subsequent intelligence collection and analysis. A more serious flaw was that he implied that a new administration somehow could alter the fundamental reality of U.S. nuclear vulnerability, which was not the case. Moreover, his focus on simple side-by-side numerical comparisons was misplaced; the more important question was whether the U.S. ability to threaten devastating nuclear retaliation was really in jeopardy.

Congressional hearings provided an ideal platform for amplifying the general theme that the United States was falling behind in the missile race and that numerical inferiority in nuclear missiles would be a game-changer. During January 1959 hearings, Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), who was also to be a candidate in the following year’s Democratic presidential primary, pounced on Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy’s stated unwillingness “to try to match the Soviets missile for missile”: “Then as I understand it your position is that we are voluntarily passing over to the Russians production superiority in the ICBM missile field because we believe that our capacity to retaliate with other weapons is sufficient to permit them that advantage despite the great damage that we know we would suffer if they instigated an attack?”[5]

CIA projections of Soviet ICBM numbers had been falling from initial estimates in late 1957 of 100 by 1960. By early 1960, the CIA was predicting 36 by the end of the year, based on an “orderly” production rate, reaching 100 by mid-1961. The Air Force intelligence estimate for 1960, which was 500 in late 1957, remained higher than that of the CIA throughout this period.[6] The first Soviet ICBM actually went on “combat duty” in January 1960,[7] and only two had been deployed by the end of the year.[8] The first U.S. ICBM, the Atlas D, had achieved operational capability in September 1959.[9]

Soon after the Kennedy administration took office, the missile gap started officially to evanesce. In a February 1961 press backgrounder on U.S. defense programs, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted that there were “no signs of a Soviet crash effort to build ICBMs” and concluded that “there is no missile gap today.”[10] By the end of 1961, it was clear and acknowledged officially that the United States, not the Soviet Union, held the lead in ICBMs and in most other categories of nuclear weapons as well.

It now is well established that the number of deployed U.S. ICBMs was never lower than the number of deployed Soviet ICBMs during the period of the alleged missile gap. Instead, it was the United States that enjoyed an early lead in ICBMs and maintained it until 1968.[11]

It is impossible to know how much a more accurate U.S. assessment of the strategic balance in 1960 would have altered history. With the benefit of half a century’s hindsight, however, it is worth reflecting on the factors contributing to this monumental error and on the ways the public can be alert in avoiding serious threat inflation in the future.

Possible Versus Probable

During the missile gap debate, as with many threat debates since, there was confusion about the numbers being compared. For the most part, the missile gap misperception grew from an “apples and oranges” comparison. The intelligence community projected how many missiles the Soviets could deploy in the future, not how many they would be likely to deploy. This number was only an estimate, less certain than the number planned for U.S. forces over the same time frame. Moreover, the projection for Soviet forces represented a worst-case estimate.

Only in January 1960 did the Department of Defense introduce into its estimates the notion of a probable rather than a possible outcome. In House Appropriations Committee hearings, Defense Secretary Thomas Gates emphasized the change: “Heretofore we have been giving you intelligence figures that dealt with theoretical Soviet capability. This is the first time that we have an intelligence estimate that says, ‘This is what the Soviet Union probably will do.’”[12] Even so, the growing potential gap forecast for the early 1960s described a circumstance in which all Soviet missile production resources would be focused on maximizing the number of deployed ICBMs. As it turned out, Moscow switched its focus to developing a newer type of ICBM, the SS-7, contributing to a slower rise in ICBM numbers. It also diverted significant resources from ICBMs into the production of SS-4 medium-range and SS-5 intermediate-range ballistic missiles. These shorter-range missiles could not reach the United States while based in the Soviet Union. Indeed, the later Soviet decision to base SS-4s in Cuba secretly was made in part to redress the overall strategic imbalance that Moscow accurately perceived as the Kennedy administration came into office.

The next decades of the Cold War featured many instances of U.S. actions premised on the worst-case interpretation of future Soviet force deployments. However prudent the inclusion of such estimates in executive branch strategic planning efforts, they regularly were interpreted by congressional overseers and the public at large as predictions of what was likely to happen. Throughout the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the United States overestimated Soviet anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capabilities. Fears in the 1960s that the strategic missile defense system protecting Moscow was the harbinger of a nationwide network turned out to be unfounded. The Reagan-era depictions of Soviet progress in developing exotic directed-energy weapons proved greatly exaggerated.[13]

The virulent impact of worst-case analysis continued into the post-Cold War era. The Rumsfeld Commission’s 1998 report on the foreign ballistic missile threat concluded that several emerging missile states could develop and deploy ICBMs within five years. The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the ballistic missile threat was less alarmist than Rumsfeld’s report and included “most likely” as well as “could” projections, but it still gave pride of place to the worst case, as evidenced in the first two bullets of the NIE’s Iran section:

• “Iran could test an ICBM that could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload to many parts of the United States in the latter half of the next decade, using Russian technology and assistance.”

• “Irancould pursue a Taepo Dong-type ICBM and could test a Taepo Dong-1 or Taepo Dong-2-type ICBM, possibly with North Korean assistance, in the next few years.”[14]

Iran did not test either Taepo Dong system “in the next few years” and still has not tested an ICBM although “the latter half of the next decade” has come and gone. Furthermore, 13 years after the Rumsfeld Commission’s clarion call, no additional state has acquired ICBMs. Each of these predictions played a role in justifying a massive U.S. strategic missile defense effort and U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. The financial costs have far exceeded $100 billion, and the opportunity costs for reducing strategic offensive arms have been considerable.[15]

Source Bias

When estimates provide a range of possibilities—entirely reasonable from an analytical standpoint—the highest (or lowest) numbers in the range can be emphasized for political reasons. Postmortems on the missile gap myth note that Air Force projections of future Soviet ICBM levels were consistently higher than those of the other services and that Kennedy “chose to believe the Air Force numbers rather than the information he received from Eisenhower administration officials in both open and closed hearings.”[16] It is difficult to reach definitive conclusions about the motives of the Air Force or of the Democratic presidential candidates who relied on Air Force estimates. Nevertheless, the Air Force derived institutional benefits from rendering inflated Soviet missile threat estimates, and the Democrats derived political benefits from relying on them. The synergism between these two fueled the public perception of a gap, which turned out to be bogus.

It is the nature of the intelligence assessment process that those rendering the expert judgments are often the commercial or bureaucratic entities that benefit from the most alarming projections being accepted as reality. To obtain the “best” technical assessments of foreign missile defense capabilities, the government often hires firms that could be the recipients of contracts to develop offensive countermeasures or to establish a parallel program of U.S. defensive interceptors. Technical assessments of foreign submarine capabilities logically might be performed by the makers of U.S. sonars or torpedoes. This does not mean these projections should be dismissed or that good alternative sources are available, but it does mean that source bias needs to be considered.

An additional source bias in the case of the missile gap and in many subsequent threat assessments is so obvious that it often is overlooked. Potential enemies usually have an incentive to exaggerate their capabilities. After the launch of Sputnik, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bragged that his country’s factories “were turning out missiles like sausages” and greatly exaggerated the size and operational capabilities of the Soviet ICBM force.[17] Asked at the time by his son why he was doing so, he explained that “the number of missiles we had wasn’t so important.… The important thing was that Americans believed in our power.”[18] That potential U.S. opponents from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Ali Khamenei’s Iran want to exaggerate their capabilities is logical, but the U.S. bias in considering such governments’ claims is to assume they are masking hidden capabilities.

Misunderstanding the Numbers

President Dwight Eisenhower commissioned the Gaither Report because he wanted a second opinion on options for improving early warning of a Soviet attack and, in the event of such an attack, reducing the vulnerability of the civilian population. Eisenhower and two consecutive defense secretaries in the latter half of his second term displayed a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the nuclear balance of terror than many of his critics who raised the alarm of an impending missile gap. U-2 reconnaissance flights over Russia were collecting information that undermined some of the worst-case projections. U.S. programs to build and deploy ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles were well underway. However, the president and other senior officials failed in effectively conveying the strategic realities of the nuclear age to the public. “Their attempts to dismiss the Sputnik launch as a ‘scientific bauble,’ intended to be reassuring, were seen in many quarters as an indication of presidential complacency (or worse).”[19] Eisenhower’s unwillingness to divulge the U-2 information “led to the impression that his reassurances were based on nothing at all.”[20] When Eisenhower’s defense secretaries sought to explain to Congress that missile-for-missile comparisons alone conveyed a misleading impression about the U.S.-Soviet balance, they were interpreted as admissions that the U.S. administration “had conceded a crucial strategic advantage to its adversary.”[21]

The tendency for politicians to simplify the complicated logic of nuclear issues for partisan purposes did not end with the disappearance of the original missile gap. At the very time when the U.S. lead in strategic warheads was widening dramatically as a result of accuracy improvements and the equipping of ICBMs with multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles, an opposite impression was being conveyed by arms control critics. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), one of his party’s leading voices on defense issues, compared the size of U.S. and Russian ICBMs to the linemen of two competing football teams, implying that missile size was the only important metric of capability. As the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) yielded progress in capping the growth of strategic arsenals, SALT opponents made effective use of desktop ICBM models displaying U.S. (white) missile types and much larger Soviet (black) missile types side by side. The not-so-subtle message was that SALT had failed to prevent a new and ominous missile gap from arising. The impact was visceral; intellectual explanations of the significance of superior U.S. accuracy and warhead numbers and the invulnerability of U.S. ballistic missile submarines often fell on deaf ears.


It is tempting to dismiss the missile gap as a quaint artifact from an earlier time, an interesting historical example of the negative effect election politics can have on assessing threats. However, it also should be recognized as a phenomenon that has arisen repeatedly since the “cataclysmic peril” of the first missile gap quickly evaporated 50 years ago. During the three remaining decades of the Cold War, the United States often sought to close strategic gaps that the Soviet Union was perceived to be opening, only to discover much later that Moscow had been struggling mightily merely to catch up with the technological advances and superior resources of the United States. The rise and fall of the missile gap myth is a cautionary tale, which should continue to inform efforts to achieve more realistic and sober appraisals of the threats faced today.

Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, where he directs the Realistic Threat Assessments and Responses Project. He previously served as a senior professional staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 25 years.


1. Office of Defense Mobilization, Executive Office of the President, “Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age,” November 7, 1957. For a highly regarded analysis of the report, see David L. Snead, The Gaither Committee, Eisenhower, and the Cold War (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1999).

2. Chalmers Roberts, “Enormous Arms Outlay Is Held Vital to Survival,” The Washington Post, December 20, 1957, p. 1.

3. Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee, Freedom of Communications, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 1961, S. Rep. 994, pt. 3, p. 250.

4. John Kennedy, Congressional Record, 86th Congress, 2nd sess. (February 29, 1960): S3801.

5. Senate Armed Services Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee and Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Joint Hearings on Missile and Space Activities, 86th Congress, 1st sess., 1959, p. 53.

6. Jeffrey T. Richelson, “U.S. Intelligence and Soviet Star Wars,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1986, pp. 12-13.

7. Pavel Podvig, ed., Russian Strategic Forces (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. 182.

8. Robert S. Norris and Thomas B. Cochran, “Nuclear Weapons Databook: U.S.-USSR/Russian Strategic Offensive Nuclear Forces 1945-1996,” January 1997, p. 18.

9. Norman Polmar and Robert S. Norris, The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A History of Weapons and Delivery Systems Since 1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), p. 166.

10. Desmond Ball, Politics and Force Levels: The Strategic Missile Program of the Kennedy Administration (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980) (quoting articles in The Wall Street Journal on February 9, 1961, and The Washington Post on February 7, 1961).

11. Norris and Cochran, “Nuclear Weapons Databook,” p. 18.

12. Edgar M. Bottome, The Missile Gap: A Study of the Formulation of Military and Political Policy (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1971), p. 120 (quoting testimony by Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates before the House Appropriations Committee in January 1960).

13. David E. Hoffman, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (New York: Doubleday, 2009), p. 294.

14. National Intelligence Council, “National Intelligence Estimate: Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015,” September 1999 (unclassified summary) (emphasis in original).

15. See Greg Thielmann, “Strategic Missile Defense: A Threat to Future Strategic Arms Reductions,” ACA Threat Assessment Brief, January 26, 2011, pp. 3-4, www.armscontrol.org/system/files/TAB_StrategicMissileDefense_ThreattoFutureNuclearArmsReduction_2.pdf.

16. Daniel Horner, “Kennedy and the Missile Gap” (paper, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Medford, Massachusetts, May 29, 1987), p. 33.

17. Richard Ned Lebow, “Was Khrushchev Bluffing in Cuba?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 1988, pp. 41-42.

18. Sergei N. Khrushchev, Nikita Khrushchev and the Creation of a Superpower (University Park, PA: PennsylvaniaStateUniversity Press, 2000), p. 315.

19. Horner, “Kennedy and the Missile Gap,” p. 2.

20. Ibid., p. 3.

21. Ibid.


The misperceived "missile gap" became a significant issue during the period between the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the U.S. presidential election of 1960. The story of how it arose and then quickly disappeared 50 years ago carries relevant lessons for assessing military threats today.

ACA Senior Fellow Discusses Next Steps in Arms Control



What’s Up Next in Arms Control?

Prepared Remarks by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
Grinnell College Roundtable
March 14, 2011

In order to answer the question I have posed, I will first turn to what the Obama administration has said it would do and recall what it has done so far.

The First Two Years

Three months into his term, President Obama delivered a speech in Prague, the Czech Republic, laying out an ambitious agenda to move the world away from reliance on nuclear weapons, with the ultimate goal of eliminating them entirely.

Over its first two years, the Obama administration has been extraordinarily busy pushing a number of concrete steps to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons, end nuclear testing, secure fissile material, and strengthen implementation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

In April 2010 the administration completed a new Nuclear Posture Review that narrows the role of U.S. nuclear weapons and rules out the need for new types of nuclear warheads.

Later that month, Obama hosted an international Nuclear Security Summit that produced an action plan for securing the most vulnerable nuclear materials within four years instead of the eight years that had been planned.

In May, the U.S. led the 2010 NPT Review Conference to a successful conclusion with a 64-point action plan.  This was in contrast to a disastrous NPT Review Conference in 2005, which could not agree on any action plan, leaving many in despair for the future of the treaty.

At the UN, the administration pushed through a tougher set of targeted sanctions on Iran in response to NPT safeguards violations.  UN and unilateral sanctions have slowed down Iran’s nuclear program, buying some time and leverage for the pursuit of a deal to establish sufficient transparency to ensure the program is not used to produce weapons.

The biggest achievement so far has been negotiating and ratifying the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).  The President and his team negotiated the treaty with the Russians within the first year, and then, just in time for Christmas 2010, won Senate approval, turning back treaty-killing amendments that would have required renegotiation with Russia.

New START eventually won bipartisan support, passing 71-26.  Put simply it sets new, modestly lower limits on Russian and U.S. deployed warheads and delivery systems and re-establishes a robust, up-to-date monitoring system to verify compliance.  Later this month, a significant amount of data on strategic forces will be exchanged between the US and Russia.  45 days later, teams of inspectors will travel to sensitive strategic sites in both countries for the first time since the original START treaty expired in December 2009.

New START will increase predictability and transparency through enhanced on-site inspections that will provide more information on the status of Russian strategic forces than was available under the original START accord.

New START has already helped reset U.S.-Russian relations and boosted U.S.-Russian cooperation to contain Iran’s nuclear program and secure vulnerable nuclear material, and of course it opens the way for further Russian and U.S. nuclear arms reductions.

By any measure, there has been considerable progress toward the longstanding U.S. goal—as reiterated by the President in Prague—of peace and security in a “world without nuclear weapons.”

But New START and these other initiatives are just that—a start. There is much more that needs to be done to reduce the nuclear weapons danger.

What’s Now?

Deeper, Broader, and Faster Nuclear Reductions

New START is a vital step, but it will leave the United States and Russia with far more strategic warheads, missiles and bombers than is needed to deter nuclear attack.  In fact, even after New START reductions are implemented, there will still be roughly 19,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, most of which are held by the two treaty signatories.

President Obama and his team have said the United States and Russia can and should pursue further verifiable reductions of all types of nuclear weapons—strategic and tactical, deployed and non-deployed.

Informal, early discussions are now underway. We believe the two sides can and should initiate formal talks before the end of this year.

The goal should be to establish a single, verifiable limit on the total number of nuclear weapons for each nation.  This overall limit would be in addition to a sublimit on the number of deployed strategic weapons—the traditional focus of reductions. This overall limit is important.  As the numbers of deployed strategic weapons shrink, nondeployed and nonstrategic warheads and their delivery systems have to be addressed.  It is also important that the most advanced nuclear arms control process establishes useful precedents for ultimately involving all nuclear-armed states – for example, by adopting a simple unit of measure that can facilitate transparency, accounting, and controls.

How low can U.S. and Russia go in the next round now that the sides have agreed to limits of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons?  From a geo-strategic standpoint, neither Russia nor the United States can justify more than a few hundred nuclear warheads each (including both strategic and tactical, deployed and non-deployed) to deter nuclear attack by any current or potential adversary.

ACA published a study in 2005 (“What Are Nuclear Weapons For?”) that outlines the rationale for a smaller nuclear force, 500 deployed strategic and 500 nondeployed strategic warheads on a smaller, mainly submarine-based triad. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, others have also argued that it is possible to get down to 1,000 warheads without weakening security on either side.

Of course there is the intriguing article in Strategic Studies Quarterly that concludes the United States could "draw down its nuclear arsenal to a relatively small number of survivable, reliable weapons dispersed among missile silos, submarines, and airplanes." Those authors argue that such a force might number only 311 nuclear weapons.

My own wish is that lower numbers will induce the U.S. military to push for movement away from the triad to a diad.  If we can give up the nuclear bomber leg of the triad, relying on the two most responsive and reliable legs, Navy SLBMs and Air Force ICBMs, we will save a lot of money and more easily move to lower numbers.  Of course many Members of Congress and nuclear theologians seem to confuse the triad with the Holy Trinity, but I note with satisfaction that even the Air Force Association recently argued that bombers should give up their nuclear weapons delivery mission.

For Russia such a negotiation would help address its concerns about the relatively larger U.S. upload potential that exists due to our larger number of delivery systems and reserve strategic warheads.

For the United States, such a negotiation would finally lead to an accounting of and reduction in Russia’s relatively larger and possibly insecure stockpile of stored and deployed tactical nuclear bombs.

Such reductions should, ideally, be secured through a New START follow-on treaty with robust verification methods.

However, given that the next round of talks will likely be more complex and time consuming and the new Congress is generally more suspicious of arms control, there are other nuclear risk reduction steps that should be pursued at the same time. For example:

  • The United States and Russia can achieve the reductions mandated by New START well ahead of the 2018 implementation deadline; and
  • President Obama needs to make good on promises to phase-out obsolete Cold War nuclear targeting plans and prompt launch requirements, which help perpetuate excessive deployments and raise the risk of catastrophic nuclear miscalculation. In a September 2009 Q & A published in Arms Control Today, then-candidate Obama said: “Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War.”

The NPR recommends consideration of measures to maximize the time the Commander-In-Chief has to make a decision to use nuclear weapons.  A reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately, but only the assurance that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems would survive an attack. Now is the time to implement these measures.

The Obama administration and NATO must also work through two other issues that could complicate further, deeper U.S.-Russian nuclear force reductions.

First, Russia is and will likely remain resistant to meaningful limits on tactical nuclear weapons so long as the U.S. continues to deploy even a small number of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.  As the new NATO Strategic Concept and U.S. military commanders acknowledge, these weapons have no military role in the defense of NATO.  Some may believe these weapons have a function as a bargaining chip or are symbols of the United States commitment to NATO.  Whether they are or are not, they are clearly obsolete relics of the Cold War.

To clear the way for a potential agreement with Russia on reciprocal measures to account for and reduce tactical nuclear weapons, the United States and NATO should agree to eliminate any formal alliance requirement for U.S. tactical nuclear warheads in Europe.

Second, Washington and NATO must work with Moscow to achieve meaningful U.S.-Russian cooperation on strategic ballistic missile defense.  Otherwise, future deployment of large numbers of U.S. missile defense interceptors targeting Russian strategic missiles could undermine the prospects for future nuclear reductions and exacerbate East-West tensions.

New START sidesteps long-standing U.S. and Russian differences over strategic missile defense – the parties essentially agree to disagree.  But the next agreement cannot avoid the realities of the offense-defense relationship.

When Obama shelved Bush administration plans to deploy an untested strategic interceptor system in Poland within five years, he was attacked by critics for placating Russia.  However Obama’s alternative, the “Phased, Adaptive Approach,” made far more sense from the perspective of Europe and the United States, as well as Russia.  It would provide a better capability to address current threats to southeastern Europe from Iran’s short- and medium-range conventional missiles and would obviously not threaten Russia’s strategic nuclear retaliatory potential through the current decade.  Because the plan is coherent, it automatically raises less Russian suspicions and thus creates the potential for cooperation rather than confrontation with Russia.

However, unless there is meaningful U.S.-Russian cooperation on strategic ballistic missile defense or limits on future deployment of U.S. interceptors, we will be forced to make a trade-off:  Either future reductions in eliminating real U.S. and Russian strategic weapons or nominal gains in defending against future imagined Iranian missiles.

Let there be no mistake, in the nuclear arms race, we are mostly racing with ourselves.  The only potential adversary, other than Russia, with nuclear-tipped strategic missiles is China and we have about 30 times more deployed strategic warheads.  Clearly we can go lower, and if we do, we can start engaging with the other nuclear powers in multilateral reductions.


Not only must the U.S. and Russia further build down their own arsenals, they must work harder to prevent the nuclear arsenals of other states from being built up. To succeed, the United States needs to solidify the global moratorium on nuclear test explosions by ratifying the Comprehensive nuclear Test Ban Treaty and to revive efforts for a global ban on fissile material production.

In Prague, President Obama called for ratification of the CTBT.  Today, the national security case for the test ban treaty is even stronger than it was when the Senate considered it in 1999.  Nearly two decades after the last U.S. nuclear test explosion, it is clear that the United States no longer needs or wants nuclear testing.  We have invested heavily in ensuring the reliability of our existing warheads without explosive testing. Over the past decade, life extension programs have successfully refurbished existing types of nuclear warheads.  Last December, the directors of the three U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories wrote that the administration’s $85 billion funding plan provides "adequate support" to sustain the U.S. nuclear arsenal indefinitely.  The lab directors' endorsement should put to rest any lingering doubts about the adequacy of U.S. plans to ensure a safe, secure and reliable nuclear stockpile under the CTBT.

Moreover, we know that further testing by other nuclear weapons states—including China, India, Pakistan—could help improve their nuclear capabilities.  We know that nuclear proliferants like North Korea or Iran cannot develop a reliable arsenal without testing.  So we are essentially abiding by the requirements of the CTBT without accruing the nonproliferation and security benefits.

Reasonable Senators should be able to understand this logic and be able to understand that the old arguments against the CTBT no longer hold water.  As former Secretary of State George Shultz said in 2009, “Republican Senators might have been right voting against the CTBT some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now.”

It is time that the Obama administration seriously engage the Senate on the subject so that the Senate can reconsider and vote on the treaty at the appropriate time—something the White House has not yet done.

In 2009, Obama also pledged to “lead a global effort” to negotiate a verifiable FMCT. The problem is that the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) where this negotiation occurs operates on the basis of consensus.  The FMCT is currently blocked due to opposition from Pakistan, which is locked in an arms race with India.

If talks at the CD do not begin soon, the Obama administration should pursue parallel, open-ended talks involving the eight states with fissile material production facilities that are not legally required to be under international safeguards. Even if talks do begin, they will likely drag on for years.

To hasten progress, the Obama administration should be prepared to act more boldly by proposing that all states with facilities not subject to safeguards should agree voluntarily to suspend fissile material production pending the conclusion of the FMCT.


The next steps in arms control will not be easy but none of the previous steps were either.  The American people expect their leaders to take action to reduce the nuclear weapons threat.  Additional pragmatic steps to reduce nuclear risk are essential and urgent.  Doing nothing is not an option.



Prepared Remarks by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association at Grinnell College Roundtable.

ACA Senior Fellow Talks Missile Defense at Penn State



Siren Song: Strategic Missile Defense

Prepared Remarks by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
Penn State University
March 3, 2011

Most of you in this audience will recognize sirens as mythical creatures from the Greek classics, dangerous bird-women, who lured passing sailors with their enchanting voices to shipwreck on the rocky shore.  Here is the encounter of Odysseus.  Warned in advance, Odysseus had his men stuff wax in their ears and had himself bound to the mast so that he could hear the sublime singing without dooming his crew to destruction.  Those with a more Germanic bent may visualize the maiden depicted by Heinrich Heine in his famous poem “Die Lorelei” -- Ihr gold'nes Geschmeide blitzet, and so forth.   The message is the same.  The girl’s face and voice are lovely, but if we don’t take our eyes off her and pay attention to the rocks, we’re all going down.  That is the thrust of my message today with regard to strategic missile defense – a siren song of our era.

Short Course

Before making my case, let me provide some context with a crash course on the weapons we’re talking about and a short review of the arms control treaties that have been reducing our bloated nuclear arsenals from their Cold War peak

First, The Weapons

Strategic offensive missiles are the ICBMs and SLBMs that can be launched from Russia to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental U.S. or vice versa, traveling 5,500 km in some 30 minutes.  The United States has only one missile defense system today that is designed to intercept such weapons, the Ground-Based Interceptor.  The so-called “GBI.” is a large multi-stage missile that destroys an incoming warhead by crashing a refrigerator-sized kill vehicle into it at extremely high speed.  The interceptor is guided by a variety of sensors -- one on the missile itself and others on satellites in space and in radars on the ground, like the Sea-Based X-Band Radar.  By 2020, current plans call for the U.S. to deploy a second type of interceptor missile, which can destroy ICBMs, the Aegis SM-3 IIB.  The other missile defense systems you read and hear about are for tactical or theater threats; they do not offer a means to defend against ICBMs.

Now, the Treaties

Less than one month ago, a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, called “New START,” entered into force between Russia and the United States.  This was the latest way station on the long and rocky journey toward a safer and saner world.  Some would say the journey began in 1963 when the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union signed a treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere (LTBT).  That historic milestone was reached shortly after the world came to the brink of the abyss in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  It also followed the circulation of reports showing that fission bi-products from atmospheric nuclear testing, such as Strontium 90, were showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth, all over the world.   Others would point to the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the starting point.  This treaty required the five countries which then had nuclear weapons to start getting rid of them and the states which did not to forego the nuclear option.  While both of these treaties are in New START’s “family tree,” the first binding bilateral limit on strategic arms was the 1972 Interim Agreement coming out of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, and known as SALT I.  The parent of New START is the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), signed in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhael Gorbachev.  This treaty marked the first time the sides had agreed to specific numerical reductions in their strategic arsenals, to be accompanied by on-site inspections.

…and the Dead Ends

The journey to New START has also been marked by some detours and dead-ends.  The Carter Administration’s intention of ratifying the SALT II agreement of June 1979 became politically untenable once the Soviets invaded Afghanistan a few months later.  The START II agreement reached in 1994 was ultimately doomed by George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which had been in effect for 30 years.  And then there was the 2002 Moscow Treaty (aka SORT).  Although this treaty was ratified, it was deeply flawed, lacking verification provisions, a definition of the items being limited, a timetable for reductions, and durability.  (It was, in fact only scheduled to last one day at the end of 2012.)  Good riddance to that one!

The Sound of the Siren

Throughout the long and arduous quest to reduce nuclear arsenals, the strategic defense siren has been singing.  In listening to that song – like the boatman on the Rhine or the heroes of Greek mythology – Americans have been diverted from the deep water channel that provides an eventual way out of our existential dilemma.  Moreover, our boat is taking on water, and may, even now, be heading for the rocks.

The most successful communicator for strategic missile defense was the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan.  Here are some excerpts from his famous “Star Wars” speech in March 2003:

“…rely[ing] on the specter of retaliation, on mutual threat [is] a sad commentary on the human condition. Wouldn't it be better to save lives than to avenge them? Are we not capable of demonstrating our peaceful intentions by applying all our abilities and our ingenuity to achieving a truly lasting stability?

“What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?

”…isn't it worth every investment necessary to free the world from the threat of nuclear war?

“I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

“… tonight we're launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history.”

Adding to the impact of these stirring words, the Pentagon later provided film footage of ballistic missile interceptors smashing into target warheads at incredible closing speeds, producing brilliant explosions against the blackness of space.  Commentators contributed the powerful metaphor of “hitting a bullet with a bullet.”  A lobbying organization called “High Frontier” offered animated videos showing U.S. x-ray lasers in space zapping swarms of warheads careening toward the American homeland.  These fantasy scenarios were picked up by the mainstream media and run whenever the subject of advanced missile defenses was in the news. When the Cold War deflated the perceptions of nuclear danger, the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission on Foreign Ballistic Missile Threats and a 1999 National Intelligence Estimate picked up the slack.   Each offered shrill warnings about the rapidly growing ballistic missile threat to the United States and its allies from “rogue” states.  And for a quarter century, a cheering squad of missile defense enthusiasts has been nourished by Congressional appropriation of some $5-10 billion/year to universities, research labs, and weapons manufacturers.

Physics Lesson

I think it’s now time in my narrative to impart a few observations about rocket science and physics.  The first technical challenge with strategic missile defense is related to the extremely high velocity of warheads once the propulsion phase ends.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) travel on a ballistic trajectory like an artillery shell.  Their “boost phase,” when the rocket engines are firing, lasts only 5-7 minutes.  Then, the warheads’ carrier, or “bus” separates from the large booster stages.  At burnout, the ICBM warheads are traveling 7 kilometers per second through the void of space—much faster than shorter-range ballistic missiles that have been deployed by the North Koreans and Iranians.  ICBM warheads are therefore much harder to intercept.  They even travel faster than the defensive missile interceptors stationed in Alaska and California.  With our current system “architecture,” we would probably get just one chance to look and shoot, before it was too late.

As the warheads travel through the mid-course phase in the vacuum of space, they are relatively small and have no heat signature, which could otherwise reveal their presence to infra-red sensors.  So very powerful radars must be used to detect and track these objects from thousands of kilometers away.  These very expensive and huge tracking radars themselves become very lucrative strategic targets in a crisis, because their destruction renders the entire missile defense system ineffective.  The U.S. system relies heavily on the Shemya radar located in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain and a sea-based X-band radar floating off Alaska in the North Pacific.  Whether or not they can survive at the outset of hostilities is a largely ignored issue.  Moreover, in a nuclear conflict, the radars’ performance can be significantly degraded by detonating a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere.

But the real glass jaw of strategic missile defense comes from the ease of spoofing the sensors.  The “bus” carrying the warheads can emit a cloud of chaff (composed of highly-reflective foil) as it releases one or more warheads so that the exact location of actual warheads is obscured. The bus can also deploy decoys (basically, mylar-coated balloons) along with the warheads.  During the warheads’ flight through space, most of their flight time, these decoys look the same as actual warheads to the radar.  There is much open testimony over the years about their effectiveness from those involved in designing ways to defeat Moscow’s strategic ballistic missile defense system in the late 60s and 70s.  There has been almost no operational testing of the current systems’ ability to discriminate warheads from decoys.

As if the problem were not difficult enough, the offense has another trick up its sleeve to defeat the defense. The warheads can be made to maneuver.  So to return to the earlier metaphor, it’s even harder to hit a bullet with a bullet when the first bullet starts to bob and weave.  Even though the U.S. has conducted flight tests with maneuverable re-entry vehicles, known as “MaRVs,” we never actually deployed any because other penetration aids were judged sufficiently effective.

My bottom line:  Missile defenses against ballistic missiles with conventional warheads may, in certain situations, contribute to national security, whether they are 20% or 80% reliable.  Missile defenses against nuclear-tipped intercontinental range ballistic missiles are worthless in deterring attack – think about “only” 20-40% of nuclear warheads getting through -- and disastrous in curbing the arms race.

The U.S. defense community has not been deaf to the lure of the siren song, but through most of the Cold War, it ultimately turned away.  It first gave up trying to protect the U.S. population from a deliberate Soviet missile attack, changing the mission of its ABM in the mid-sixties to protecting against a deliberate Chinese or accidental Soviet launch.  Then in the late-sixties it gave up population defense entirely by deploying interceptors around ICBM fields.  This was done in the hope of strengthening deterrence by affecting the exchange ratio in the Soviet calculus – how many attacking warheads would be needed to attack warheads in silos.  Finally, the U.S. won limits on the number and location of strategic defense radars and interceptors through the 1972 ABM Treaty, completely banning systems designed to provide ballistic missile defense of national territory.  The Pentagon and Congress later judged that even the U.S. ABM system allowed under the treaty was not worth the effort, and closed it down after only a few months of operation.  Indeed, it ultimately abandoned President Reagan’s “Star Wars” fantasy because Special Advisor Paul Nitze’s criterion could not be satisfied -- missile defense systems would have to be “cost effective at the margin,” meaning that they made no sense if an enemy could more cheaply counter a missile defense interceptor by adding an additional offensive warhead.

But alas, our ship of state did not make it free to open waters.

--  Spooked by a North Korean missile launch, the U.S. Congress passed the 1999 Missile Defense Act, which provided the legislative imprimatur to deploying a strategic missile defense system to defend U.S. territory against limited attack (whether accidental, unauthorized, or deliberate)…”  Senate passage was almost unanimous; the House bill passed by a ratio of more than 3 to 1.

--  In 2001 President George W. Bush announced U.S. withdraws from the ABM Treaty, which had served for 30 years as a linch-pin of strategic arms control.  Previous UN General Assembly voting had shown strong international support for retention of the treaty.

-- At Bush’s direction, the Pentagon rushed to deploy strategic defenses in Alaska and California by 2004, even before they had been operationally tested.

--  This Alaska- and California-based system remain largely irrelevant in defending against the huge potential intercontinental ballistic missile threat we face today (from Russia and China).  And the threat against which they were designed to defend is still not even on the near horizon, seven years after deployment.

--  The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty acknowledges in its preamble the interrelationship between strategic offences and defenses, but the treaty text itself remained missile-defense-friendly – leaving U.S. missile defense plans unaffected and papering over a significant difference between the parties on the impact of strategic defenses.

-- The Senate’s Resolution of Ratification decrees that there will be no negotiation on US missile defenses.

We have thus bought time for implementing New START as the next step in nuclear arms reductions, but we’ve made negotiating follow-on reductions virtually impossible until our divergent views on missile defense are reconciled.

The View from Moscow

Russian reactions to the New START treaty and the U.S. missile defense program are complicated and conflicted. Moscow appears satisfied that it can proceed safely with modest reductions in strategic offensive systems under New START and has accepted NATO’s stated intention to develop territorial missile defenses for Europe.

However, Russian officials continue to voice concerns about future improvements in U.S. missile defense systems, as they did in Russia’s unilateral statement to New START, warning against a “quantitative and qualitative” buildup.  Moscow has been dubious for a long time about U.S. portrayals of a potential strategic threat from Iran and North Korea – in public and in confidential dialogue with the United States.[1] Even after Russia’s acceptance of NATO’s offer to cooperate on missile defense, Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin openly declared, “Russia does not see any missile threats in northern Europe, so the [US] defense systems should not be deployed there.”[2]

Moscow appears to accept the logic of U.S.-Russian cooperation on missile defense, but remains skeptical such cooperation could ever lead to a safe and truly equitable joint relationship.  Russia demands full equality in the control of any cooperative approach to missile defense.  According to Russian Defense Minister Serdyukov, “We also want to ensure that Russia participates as an equal partner. Only then can a missile defense system be created that satisfies all sides.”[3]

In spite of President Medvedev’s upbeat rhetoric about his conversations at the November 2010 meeting of the NATO-Russia Council, his emphasis on “absolute equality” and endorsement of a side-by-side “sector-based” missile defense system appear to go far beyond the evolving concept articulated by NATO.  In fact, Medvedev’s characterization of his discussions does not seem consistent with the territorial defense plan outlined by NATO.  Moreover, his emphasis on the interrelationship between European missile defenses and Russian strategic offenses gives little support for the notion of a fundamental change in Russian strategic thinking.  According to Medvedev: “…countries still have their nuclear forces in place today, and when we look at missile defence we have to look too at the possible effects a European missile defence system could have on our nuclear forces.”[4]

So why are the Russians so paranoid?  The Cold War is over.  We’re both threatened by those crazy people in Iran and North Korea.  Why not cooperate to defend ourselves against the real potential enemy?

The Limits of Cooperation

It is possible that disparate U.S. and Russian assessments of the Iranian threat will begin to merge if the threat grows – and that continually improving US-Russian relations will permit an unprecedented level of missile defense cooperation.  Yet, there is reason to question whether such efforts will bear enough fruit to satisfy Russia’s concerns about the potential long-term effect of U.S. strategic missile defenses on Russia’s deterrent.  Consider the view from Moscow.  The U.S. internal debate on New START revealed great sensitivity within the executive and legislative branches of the US Government to granting Russia access to telemetry involving missile defense flight tests.  (Congress prohibits it.)  The United States has made clear that cooperation does not mean building a “dual key” system, requiring the involvement of each side to operate.  Sergey Rogov, Director of Russia’s USA and Canada Institute, comments that: “Russia and the United States hardly are ready to agree to create a joint missile defense.”[5] Both sides would likely wish to retain their ability to operate missile defenses independently of the other. This independence might actually contribute to stability in a crisis because each side would be confident of the ability to control its own assets, but it would not foster arms race stability because suspicions of intent would linger.

The most compelling reason to believe that cooperation will be insufficient is to imagine the United States in a position similar to Russia’s today.  Remember that the U.S. Senate had trouble even consenting to a nuclear arms control agreement that leaves U.S. missile defenses unlimited.  Unlike past strategic arms reduction treaties, New START did not pass overwhelmingly, even though it was a very good deal for us.  (It requires only modest reductions in U.S. offensive forces; it leaves force structures allowing the US to dominate treaty breakout contingencies; and it requires intrusive inspections that provide the US with critical information on Russian strategic forces otherwise unavailable.)  To expect the Russians to accept additional reductions in their strategic offensive forces without constraining U.S. options for expanding strategic missile defenses is unrealistic.

The Enduring Reality of the Interrelationship Between Missile Offense and Defense

The nuclear age carries a consistent core message concerning the interrelationship between strategic missile offense and strategic missile defense: a defensive buildup creates pressures for offensive countermeasures – and in such a competition, offenses are likely to cancel out the intended benefits of the defenses.  The offensive response occurs for two reasons:  First, because of the obvious need to compensate for the potential degradation in target coverage that could result from the other side’s ability to intercept incoming warheads; And second, because the missile defense programs tend to arouse suspicions about motives.  When the Soviets started deploying missile defenses around Moscow in the 1960s, the US found it “intensely threatening to our security,” according to distinguished scientist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, writing in 1964, “The fear of Soviet ABM[s]…seems to be more deeply felt than the fear of Soviet offensive forces.… This logic …led many people … to consider the Soviet ABM program as primarily intended to allow the Soviet Union to attack the U.S. without fear of retaliation.”[6]

A contemporary reference to the offense-defense interrelationship can be found in September 2010 remarks of U.S. Strategic Forces Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton: “As we develop missile defense capability, we don’t want to develop it in such a manner that the Chinese would feel that their assured response, their deterrent, is put at risk, because that would encourage them to build more intercontinental missiles or capabilities.”[7]

More Shields; More Swords

Although many missile defense advocates contend that missile defenses discourage the proliferation of offensive missiles, empirical evidence shows just the opposite.  Missile defense systems encourage opponents to hold on to their offensive missiles or create more of them.  This is what happened with the U.S. response to the Moscow ABM system in the 1960s; with the Soviet Union’s response to Reagan’s “Star Wars” in the 1980s; with China’s response to Taiwan’s deployment of Patriot anti-tactical missile defenses in the 1990s.  During the last decade, Iran’s considerable build-up of medium-range missiles has occurred in the face of Israel’s extensive build-up of missile defenses; Pakistan’s continuing build-up of nuclear tipped missiles has occurred as India launched its own missile defense effort.

The end of the Cold War and rapprochement between the US and Russia have helped convince the last four U.S. Administrations to alter the original mission of missile defense.  Instead of protecting against a catastrophic potential attack from Russia, the current objective is to protect against much more limited threats from “rogue” states.[8] Technical and budgetary obstacles have kept a lid on some of the more fanciful visions of the Reagan administration regarding lasers, particle-beam weapons, and space-based systems, narrowing the focus to more down-to-earth capabilities such as the GBI missiles currently deployed and a souped-up version of the SM-3 theater system (the Block IIB) that would give it anti-ICBM capabilities.  This system is in early development and is planned for deployment in 2020 under President Obama’s European Phased Adaptive Approach.  [Slide 5] Both systems are likely to be in the spotlight during negotiations of a post-New START agreement.

Some, like former Secretary of State Condi Rice, believe that the offense-defense dynamic was broken by U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002.[9] Yet, this interrelationship cannot be severed by unilateral action or simply dismissed as an attribute of the Cold War, for it flows not from history or treaty language, but from physics and psychology.

The governments in Washington and Moscow, which control the vast majority of the world’s long-range ballistic missiles, demonstrate today the same dynamic on strategic missile defense they have demonstrated for decades.  One side pursues a major missile defense program; the other side seeks to limit it through negotiations and mitigate its impact through improvements in its own offensive forces.  However, there is one major difference: Moscow and Washington have changed sides.

The Siren Song Surges

During a long period of equilibrium under the conceptual foundation of the ABM Treaty, the sides were able to cut in half their huge offensive arsenals.  But the siren song surged and safe passage around the rocks is again threatened.

Following passage of the Missile Defense Act of 1999 and U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty three years later, the conventional wisdom appears to have hardened around the notion that missile defenses should forever remain outside the arms control realm.  The 2010 elections would appear to have increased congressional determination to reject any limits on missile defenses. Changes in the New START resolution of approval constitute evidence of increased Senate resistance to such limits.

If we want further reductions in nuclear weapons and better protection against them spreading to other countries, we need to tone down or tune out the siren song of strategic missile defense.

One Approach

One approach to tackling this dilemma would be simply to create a strategic missile defense interceptor limit in parallel with limits on offenses, for example, reducing to a ceiling of 1,000 strategic offensive warheads and 100 strategic defense interceptors. The limit also could be geographical because the vulnerability of Russian ICBMs to interception by SM-3 IIBs would be affected significantly by the location of deployments.  Limits on the number deployed near Russia’s borders would be superficially similar to the numerical and geographical limits on strategic ABM interceptors in the ABM Treaty.  But the purpose of that treaty was to prevent the deployment of nationwide strategic ballistic missile defenses, principally through qualitative limits on radar construction.  Breakout potential then was controlled further by quantitative limits on strategic interceptors—200 in the original treaty, lowered to 100 in 1974—and by clearly demarking the performance characteristics of strategic and nonstrategic interceptors as was done in a 1997 agreement.[10]

In contrast to their position when the ABM Treaty was in force, the Russians now have conceded the principle of permitting nationwide strategic ballistic missile defenses.  They acknowledged in New START’s preamble that “current defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the parties.”  Indeed, the number of strategic interceptors that were allowed even under the amended ABM Treaty was much higher than the number of U.S. ground-based strategic interceptors deployed today and it’s probably in the vicinity of the number needed for the US to cope with likely contingencies from Iran and North Korea in the 2020s. Even after adding the upgraded SM-3 IIB systems envisioned for the end of the decade under Obama’s plan, total numbers still would be within the limits on strategic missile interceptors last enumerated in the ABM Treaty.  In 1997, Russia agreed that the performance of the original SM-3 and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)  interceptors were “non-strategic” and therefore should not create an obstacle to continued reductions in strategic nuclear forces as they become operational over the next five years.

We need to begin opening up a public dialogue on the real-world opportunity costs of opposing all missile defense limits. This dialogue should extend to U.S. NATO allies in Europe and the Pacific who directly face shorter-range ballistic missile threats from hostile states.  Let’s check this out.  Consider whether you would be able to answer yes to each of these questions:

-- Is a highly reliable missile defense potential likely to be affordable in the decade ahead, even assuming that it is technically achievable?

-- Is the value of unconstrained U.S. strategic missile defenses superior to the value of achieving additional reductions in Russian strategic offensive systems and of adding strategic nondeployed and tactical systems to the list of weapons to be cut?

-- Is keeping missile defenses unconstrained worth risking the chance of limiting the growth in Chinese strategic forces?

--  Indeed, can one even contemplate successful pursuit of nonproliferation if efforts to stem vertical proliferation grind to a halt as a result of missile defense deployments?

Unless we can confidently answer “yes” to each of these questions, it’s time to consider realistic alternatives to unconstrained growth in strategic missile defenses.  Put some wax in your ears to block out the siren song and let’s head for open water!


[1] A February 24, 2010, Department of State cable, released by WikiLeaks, reporting on December 22, 2009, talks on missile threat assessments between U.S.-Russian delegations in Washington revealed significant differences in the two countries’ official, classified assessments of Iranian and North Korean ballistic missile capabilities.

[2] Mikhail Fomichev, “European Missile Defense System Either With Russia or Against Russia – NATO Envoy,” RIA Novosti, December 2, 2010.

[3] “Moscow Wants to ‘Participate as an Equal Partner,’” Der Spiegel, October 27, 2010.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sergey Mikhaylovich Rogov, “The ‘Window of Opportunity’ Is Open,” Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, May 28, 2010.

[6] Freeman J. Dyson, “Ballistic Missiles,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 1964, p. 18.

[7] Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, “Nuclear Deterrence, START, Arms Control, Missile Defense and Defense Policy,” Presentation at the NDU Foundation Congressional Breakfast Seminar Series, September 13, 2010.

[8] A small but increasingly influential minority of missile defense advocates, such as Senators Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.), have explicitly called for broadening the objectives of missile defense to include providing territorial defense against Russia and China.

[9] See, for example, Condoleezza Rice, “New Start: Ratify, With Caveats,” The Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2010.

[10] The “New York Agreements on Theater Missile Defense and ABM Treaty Successor States,” signed by the United States, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine on September 26, 1997, included two “Agreed Statements on Demarcation,” identifying 3 kilometers per second as the critical performance parameter separating prohibited “higher velocity” theater missile defenses from permitted “lower velocity” theater missile defenses. For the text of the agreements and statements, see www.fas.org/nuke/control/abmt/text/abm_scc1.htm and www.fas.org/nuke/control/abmt/text/abm_scc2.htm. For a summary of the agreements and statements, see



Prepared Remarks by Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association at Penn State University.

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Strategic Missile Defense: A Threat to Future Nuclear Arms Reductions?


January 26, 2011
By Greg Thielmann


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With Russia’s ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the stage is now set for new discussions between Washington and Moscow on further steps toward reducing the two states’ enormous nuclear arsenals that together comprise more than 90 percent of total nuclear weapons worldwide.  Based on statements in Russia’s ratification documents and the statements of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, continued U.S.-Russian disagreements on missile defenses threaten to undermine those future talks.  U.S. policymakers need to consider ways to prevent strategic missile defense system development and deployment from becoming an obstacle to progress in enhancing stability and reducing nuclear dangers. In his latest Threat Assessment Brief, ACA’s senior fellow Greg Thielmann analyzes the nature of the U.S.-Russian missile defense challenge.


With Russia’s ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the stage is now set for new discussions between Washington and Moscow on further steps toward reducing the two states’ enormous nuclear arsenals that together comprise more than 90 percent of total nuclear weapons worldwide.  Based on statements in Russia’s ratification documents and the statements of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, continued U.S.-Russian disagreements on missile defenses threaten to undermine those future talks.  U.S. policymakers need to consider ways to prevent strategic missile defense system development and deployment from becoming an obstacle to progress in enhancing stability and reducing nuclear dangers. In his latest Threat Assessment Brief, ACA’s senior fellow Greg Thielmann analyzes the nature of the U.S.-Russian missile defense challenge.

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365 Days, Zero Inspections: Ratify New START



Volume 1, Number 40, December 3, 2010

One year ago this Sunday the United States lost its ability to "look under the hood" of Russia's nuclear forces.  U.S. on-site inspections in Russia ended last Dec. 5 along with the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Fortunately, the United States can restore those inspections by ratifying New START, which currently sits before the Senate.  President Ronald Reagan advised us to "trust, but verify," and it is no wonder that his secretary of state George P. Shultz--along with the secretaries of state from the past five Republican presidents--support New START.

Shultz, Henry A. Kissinger, James A. Baker III, Lawrence S. Eagleburger and Colin L. Powell wrote in the Dec. 2 Washington Post:

Since the original START expired last December, Russia has not been required to provide notifications about changes in its strategic nuclear arsenal, and the United States has been unable to conduct on-site inspections. Each day, America's understanding of Russia's arsenal has been degraded, and resources have been diverted from national security tasks to try to fill the gaps. Our military planners increasingly lack the best possible insight into Russia's activity with its strategic nuclear arsenal, making it more difficult to carry out their nuclear deterrent mission.

The verification provisions in New START are crucial to the U.S. ability to monitor Russian strategic forces. There is no substitute for on-the-ground information gathered by treaty-authorized inspections. Satellites and other intelligence assets cannot look inside Russian missiles to see how many warheads they carry, but U.S. inspectors under New START verification provisions would do just that.

Closing the Verification Gap

New START allows up to 18 on-site inspections per year, including direct monitoring of Russian nuclear warheads, something no treaty has allowed before.  Although the original START permitted 28 inspections, it had to cover 70 facilities in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, as Soviet strategic forces were spread across these four now-independent nations. Today, all former Soviet nuclear weapons and facilities have been centralized in Russia, and New START's 18 inspections need to cover only 35 Russian sites.

Moreover, New START's "Type One" inspections, which occur at bases for deployed missiles and bombers, can achieve two goals at the same time (confirm data on delivery vehicles and on warheads), for which two inspections would have been required under the original START. Together with the eight "Type Two" inspections of non-deployed systems, the 18 New START inspections would yield more critical data than the 28 inspections under START.

The updated system of information exchanges and enhanced on-site inspections established by New START would, in conjunction with satellites and other "national technical means," allow the United States to verify compliance with the treaty's lower limits on deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems.

Treaty is Verifiable

After hearing testimony in closed session from U.S. Intelligence Community witnesses, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) concluded in its Oct. 1 report that "the New START Treaty is effectively verifiable."  A July 30 letter from Secretary of Defense Gates to the committee reported the same conclusion from the nation's defense leadership:

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Chiefs, the Commander, U.S. strategic Command, and I assess that Russia will not be able to achieve militarily significant cheating or breakout under New START, due to both the New START verification regime and the inherent survivability and flexibility of the planned U.S. strategic force structure.

The yawning gap in the collection of strategic information will get wider the longer New START remains in limbo. Without New START in force, the U.S. Intelligence Community will not be able to predict with high confidence the status of Russia's nuclear forces, and both sides will be tempted to engage in more-costly force modernization and hedging strategies.

Speaking about New START ratification, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Nov. 16: "I think the earlier, the sooner, the better. You know, my thing is, from an intelligence perspective only, are we better off with it or without it? We're better off with it."

Prompt ratification of New START is the only way to close this verification gap. Failure by the Senate to approve New START would not only delay the re-establishment of an effective inspection and monitoring system for U.S. and Russia strategic arsenals, but would also kill prospects for limiting Russian tactical weapons, undermine U.S. nonproliferation leadership, and jeopardize U.S.-Russian cooperation in other fields, including containing Iran's nuclear program and support U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan.

New START's 20-Year Bipartisan Legacy

The first U.S. on-site inspection of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles took place 22 years ago on July 1, 1988 as part of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.  Previous treaties, such as 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, or SALT, did not allow for on-site monitoring but principally depended on "national technical means" such as satellite reconnaissance.  Satellites, valuable as they are, cannot look under roofs or inside missiles like human inspectors can.  INF's on-the-ground inspections were a major breakthrough in the Cold War, allowing increased transparency, predictability, and stability between the United States and Russia.

New START and its verification system is a direct descendant of the INF Treaty, which was negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified in 1987 by a Senate vote of 93-5.  After that, START I was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and passed the Senate 93-6.  START II, which never entered into force, was signed by President Bush in 1993 and passed 87-4.  President George W. Bush signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) in 2002, which passed in the Senate 95-0.

SORT limits, which do not kick in until the end of 2012, do not have a treaty-based verification system.  Aware of START I's pending expiration, in April 2008 President Bush agreed with Russian President Putin to seek a legally-binding post-START agreement, which was ultimately not realized before the Bush administration ended.

It fell to the Obama administration to negotiate a treaty to sustain this 20-year, bipartisan practice of intrusive on-site inspections.  New START provides a more streamlined and cost-effective set of verification procedures based on the original START and add new innovations, including direct monitoring of actual deployed nuclear warheads.

New START would modestly reduce U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads, from more than 2,000 today to 1,550 or less each on no more than 700 deployed delivery systems. Approval of New START would open the way to further reductions in other types of nuclear weapons, including tactical nuclear bombs, which are a prime target for terrorists.

The Time to Act Is Now

New START was submitted in May, and since then the Senate has held 18 hearings and four briefings, and the administration has answered almost 1,000 questions from senators. If the treaty is delayed into the new Congress, the Foreign Relations Committee would have to hold a new vote and new senators could ask that new hearings be held. Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) said Nov. 17 there would be "endless hearings, markup, back to trying to get some time on the floor.... It will be some time before the treaty is ever heard from again."

The United States has already gone a full year without on-site inspections in Russia.  We must not wait another year to resume them.

As the five former GOP secretaries of state wrote, it is "in the national interest to ratify New START."  It is time for senators on both sides of the aisle to come together to strengthen U.S. and global security by completing the process of "advice and consent" with a floor vote. --TOM Z. COLLINA and GREG THIELMANN


Volume 1, Number 40

One year ago this Sunday the United States lost its ability to "look under the hood" of Russia's nuclear forces. U.S. on-site inspections in Russia ended last Dec. 5 along with the original Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Fortunately, the United States can restore those inspections by ratifying New START, which currently sits before the Senate.

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New START Clears the Path for Missile Defense



Volume 1, Number 39, December 1, 2010

It is ironic that critics of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) use missile defense as an excuse to oppose Senate approval. In reality, New START clears the path for missile defense, as shown by the recent U.S.-NATO agreement to deploy new missile defenses in Europe.

Moreover, contrary to recent media reports, there is no U.S.-Russian "secret deal" to limit U.S. missile defenses--only a public effort to cooperate. Washington overtures to cooperate with Moscow on missile defense are nothing new; they began under President Reagan and continued under George W. Bush.

New START is missile defense-friendly

The only missile defense "constraint" of any kind in New START is the prohibition on converting long-range missile launchers for use by missile defense interceptors. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, testified to Congress that there are no plans to convert launchers, and that if any new missile defense launchers were needed, it would be quicker and cheaper to build new ones. None of the critics have explained how this provision limits U.S. missile defense options in the real world. Moreover, O'Reilly explained that the treaty "...actually reduces constraints on the development of the missile defense program [compared to the 1991 START agreement]," by allowing the launch of missile defense targets from airborne and waterborne platforms.

Some treaty critics also complain that New START's preambular language recognizes the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms. Yet including this simple truism in the preamble did not lead to any numerical or qualitative limits on missile defenses in the treaty. Moreover, the preamble also notes that "current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties" - a Russian acknowledgement that the 30 U.S. strategic ballistic missile interceptors currently deployed do not threaten Moscow's strategic nuclear retaliatory capability.

Also objectionable to critics is a (non-binding) Russian unilateral statement that New START "may be effective and viable only in conditions where there is no qualitative or quantitative build-up" in U.S. missile defense system capabilities and that such a build-up could prompt Russia to withdraw from the treaty. The United States issued its own unilateral statement in response, explaining that U.S. missile defenses "are not intended to affect the strategic balance with Russia," and that the United States intends "to continue improving and deploying its missile defense systems in order to defend itself against limited attack."

NATO endorses U.S. missile defense plan

The United States has made clear that New START would not prevent U.S. missile defense deployments. To prove the point, at the Nov. 19-20 Summit in Lisbon, NATO agreed to endorse the Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) to missile defense and the initial phase will become operational next year. The PAA provides a clear roadmap for U.S. development and deployment of future missile defense systems in Europe--during New START's duration--that is more responsive to present and near-term missile threats from Iran.

In Lisbon, NATO and Russia agreed to resume theater missile defense exercises and discuss ways to cooperate on missile defense in the future. According to the State Department, U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense is "intended to help improve our defensive capabilities, strengthen transparency, and reduce Russia's concerns about the United States' missile defense efforts by providing it with further insight into the nature of and motivations for U.S. and NATO ballistic missile defense plans and programs."

Talks on Cooperation, Not Limitation

Recent media reports implying that the United States was engaged with Russia in "secret talks" to limit missile defense are overblown and misleading. The administration made no secret of the fact that it was talking with Russia on missile defense cooperation and has been clear it is not discussing limitations.

At a June 17 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Gates stated: "Separately from the treaty, we are discussing missile defense cooperation with Russia, which we believe is in the interests of both nations." Moreover, the talks were not about limiting missile defense plans, but cooperating on them. "Such talks have nothing to do with imposing any limitations on our programs or deployment plans," said Gates.

U.S.-Russian efforts to cooperate on missile defense have roots in the Reagan administration, which offered to share missile defense technology with the Soviet Union. More recently, in 2004, under the George W. Bush administration, the United States began seeking a Defense Technical Cooperation Agreement (DTCA) with Russia. This agreement would have addressed a broad range of cooperative research and development activities, including missile defense. The last DTCA discussions with Russia were held in 2008.

Bush administration Assistant Secretary of State Stephen G. Rademaker said in 2004, "We want missile defense cooperation to be an important part of the new relationship the United States and Russia are building for the 21st century."

The Obama administration decided to pursue a more limited agreement that would only address missile defense cooperation, know as a Ballistic Missile Defense Cooperation Agreement (BMDCA). According to the State Department, the proposed BMDCA would "establish a framework to allow for bilateral BMD cooperation, including: transparency and confidence building measures; BMD exercises; data sharing; research and development; and technology sharing." The U.S.-proposed BMDCA specifically states that "This agreement shall not constrain or limit the Parties' respective BMD plans and capabilities numerically, qualitatively, operationally, geographically, or in any other way."

The Bottom Line

New START is a missile defense-friendly treaty. It does not constrain U.S. missile defense plans in any way. Nor is the United States engaged in secret side deals with Russia to limit missile defenses.

Failure to approve New START this year will jeopardize the current opportunity for the United States and Russia to work together effectively on missile defense. - TOM Z. COLLINA AND GREG THIELMANN




Volume 1, Number 39

It is ironic that critics of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) use missile defense as an excuse to oppose Senate approval. In reality, New START clears the path for missile defense, as shown by the recent U.S.-NATO agreement to deploy new missile defenses in Europe.

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