And then over time we can eventually get to zero, right?
At least that is what has been argued for the 65 years of the nuclear age by the proponents of what is now known as "Global Zero," the campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
And don't worry. A key part of their argument has been that even if the US reduces its nuclear weapons, we have a formidable conventional military protecting our security, right?
Not so fast.
To secure the next round in nuclear reductions, advocates are pushing a new argument that may now point us in very dangerous directions.
The US is running into resistance from Russia in getting reductions in nuclear weapons further than the 1550 deployed strategic weapons allowed under the recently passed and ratified new START treaty. One concern is whether reducing US capability to low numbers might well encourage other countries to build up to match our capability. Other people worry about our strong conventional capability and our ability to intervene against lesser capable countries with whom they may be allied: Other countries need their nuclear weapons to "deter us" we are told.
A new report from the Carnegie Endowment, "Low Numbers: A Practical Path to Low Nuclear Numbers," has turned long-standing nuclear strategy on its head. The new path to low nuclear weapons is not for the US to reduce its nuclear warheads along with Russia. It is for the US to dramatically and sharply reduce its conventional weapons such as tanks, tactical aircraft, and artillery.
The report's author, James Acton, argues that the Chinese and Russian fear of America's conventional military might be the driving force behind their acquisition and deployment of nuclear weapons. Without parity between our conventional forces, Acton postulates, they must keep sufficient nuclear weapons in their arsenals to counter US threats.
China comes into the picture, as one of the key assumptions has been that reductions to near the 500-1000 level of deployed nuclear weapons are "the next step" in US and Russian arms control. This would require, Acton argues, that other nuclear-armed nations join any such future agreement -- specifically China, and perhaps even Great Britain and France -- each of which has fewer nuclear warheads than either the United States or Russia.
The key arguments in the past used by advocates of lower levels of nuclear weapons, and eventually their abolition, have been two: (1) the US has such a strong conventional superiority over its adversaries that a much depreciated reliance on nuclear deterrence is possible; and (2) the most dangerous illusion is that the US cannot hold on to its nuclear weapons while at the same time stopping their proliferation to other countries such as Iran and North Korea.
For example, the founder of CNN, Ted Turner, once argued that it was unfair for the US to have thousands of nuclear weapons if Iran couldn't have at least "a few hundred." In response to demands that he give up his own small nuclear arsenal, Kim Jong-Il of North Korea is reported to have shot back: "You first."
So the future US conventional capability, including long range conventional strike capabilities, is not now going to be driven by our own security requirements -- specifically those of providing a security umbrella over more than 30 European and Asian allies --
but be based on the deployed conventional capability of two potential adversaries, China and Russia, which the US cannot exceed.
Why you ask? Well, the report argues that US "security guarantees" to France and Great Britain, for example, "exacerbated" their pursuit of nuclear weapons and thus contributed to proliferation.
In short, Carnegie proposes that the US jettison its support for allied security so that our allies will then feel comfortable supporting far lower numbers for our nuclear forces in order not to, as the report concludes, "give potent ammunition" to bolster the arguments of those who are "against arms control."
The downside to all this is US conventional capability, which now keeps the peace on the Korean peninsula and in the Persian Gulf, and which now risks being downsized not to the requirements of defending these, but to a perceived sense of "fairness" felt by -- of all people -- Moscow and Peking.
We are reminded by Acton, "Western arms control experts seldom appreciate the extent of Russian concerns with [our] high-precision conventional weaponry" while we are also simultaneously being assured by Acton that the "North Korea [threat] was almost never mentioned" by Japanese security experts with whom he spoke. Well, that certainly settles that.
The report argues that conventional imbalances are dangerous because they might afford the US the capability to "invade" either Russia or China or its neighbors. The report further warns that United States attempts to "assure our allies" of our protective military umbrella feeds "Russian fears" or "could prompt a serious backlash from Moscow" over US intentions.
It is Russia, however, which has all but invaded Georgia; engaged in high frequency cyber attacks on Estonia and Georgia; supplied advanced weaponry technology to North Korea, Iran, Syria and Venezuela; and has advanced a nuclear weapons use doctrine that
this author has characterized as "early and often," as in the charge to voters given to ward bosses by Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley.
It is also China's ally, North Korea, that has repeatedly committed murderous aggression against the Republic of Korea, to say nothing of the cooperation between North Korea, Iran and China on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology. And what are we to make of the fact that China now has in production more ballistic missile types than any country in the world? And it is OUR conventional capability that worries the Carnegie Endowment?
Given the administration's pursuit of a new strategic nuclear guidance, there are concerns on Capitol Hill that the US might soon be following Carnegie's advice: not only dramatic reductions in our nuclear forces but also in our conventional capability as well.
One analyst in a guest-blog distributed by Hudson's Director of the Center for Technology and Global Security, and formerly an adviser to the office of the Director of National Intelligence, went so far as to say US nuclear forces need not even match those of Moscow "in number or type" because the US necessarily has different deterrent aims which require different capabilities than Moscow, and thus does not necessarily require Washington to have numerical parity in our respective nuclear forces.
So now we have a prescription for multiple nuclear powers, each of parity with the United States, as well as conventionally armed, potential hegemonic states, each also of parity with the United States.
This eliminates the entire post-war condominium of US led security alliances that have kept the European and East-Asia peace for over half a century. Is this a good idea?
A few years ago, a US general officer asked the highest-ranking North Korean official ever to defect to the Republic of Korea, Hwang Jang-Yop, why North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-Il, wanted nuclear weapons.
"You do not know?" Hwang answered. "He wants to use them against you."
"But why?" asked the officer.
"Why?" Hwang said: "To reunify Korea by force under his rule."