With Russia's announcement that it will build a new 100 ton intercontinental ballistic missile – apparently pursuing its own nuclear modernization program -- the Cold War, it seems, has returned. Russia is building a system with the ability to quickly add hundreds of new warheads to its inventory. And it is conveniently placing the blame on Washington for a continued nuclear "arms race." This accusation helps both the Kremlin and the American critics of US military modernization by adding yet more leverage against any US efforts at nuclear modernization.
The whole idea of "arms control" has been to reduce warheads to make the early use of nuclear weapons in a crisis unlikely. During the height of the Cold War, however, the former Soviet Union would repeatedly justify its nuclear missile modernization programs as a response to American missile programs, and echoing the American critics of our own nuclear deterrent program who portray the United States as the serial aggressor and Moscow as the aggrieved party.
Out of that concern was born what was then called the "nuclear freeze." If the United States stops its nuclear weapons programs, it was argued, the Soviets will follow suit. But, as one skeptic, former US Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, wryly noted, "We build, they build. We stop, they build."
Even though the US badly needs to modernize all three legs of its nuclear deterrent, 62 members of the House of Representatives have resurrected the nuclear freeze. Congressmen Markey and Frank, both Massachusetts Democrats, argue the US is spending too much money on nuclear deterrence -- funds, they claim, that are both unnecessary and counter-productive.
There is however, a slightly new twist to the arguments of the nuclear freeze proponents. The new culprit now allegedly standing the way of a nuclear-free world is not only US nuclear deterrence but missile defense. The theory is that our missile defense is what causes Russia to build more nuclear missiles to overcome it. But is this historically the case?
Russia, in the 2002 Moscow Treaty with the Bush administration, agreed to a nearly 65% reduction in deployed strategic nuclear weapons, and was relatively quiescent when the US removed itself as a party to the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty that banned all but a small rudimentary missile defense of each country's homeland.
Over the past decade, nevertheless, the US has built some 1000 missile-defense interceptors to defend against short, medium and long range offensive missiles from a variety of threats. But the US plans for building missile defenses in Europe to defend NATO and the US from Iranian rockets has been the single most important irritant in relations between the Russia and the US. Ironically, technical studies show such European defenses have no capability against Russian missiles aimed at the United States.
During the Bush administration, Moscow used the projected deployment of US interceptors in Poland, and associated radars in the Czech Republic, as leverage to change the governments in both countries. The Russians charged Poland and the Czech government with undermining peaceful relations with Russia and with having allowed themselves to be "bullied" by the US government. This bullying by Russia, which repeatedly beat them up over what it called US "hegemonic" military adventures, was effective in undermining these governments' ruling parties which had been allies of the US.
Unfortunately, nuclear freeze advocates in America have used the same arguments to try to stop US missile defenses in Europe among other places. American critics of missile defense said it would make nuclear arms reductions impossible, and cited Russian arguments making the same point. Eliminating both segments of the Bush-era missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic apparently were central to what has been termed a "reset" of US-Russian relations that had become increasingly acrimonious, especially over Moscow's continued subversion and attacks against the Republic of Georgia at the end of the Bush administration.
Now Moscow finds in convenient to deploy new missiles in Russia but blame the United States in a "He made me do it" security policy. If questioned, the Russians can quote any number of American critics of missile defense. These critics echo, and even claim to understand. Moscow's threat to withdraw from the 2010 "New Start" arms control treaty. Their solution? Do not build any more missile defenses, especially in Europe; then Russia and the US can continue reducing nuclear weapons. How ironic, therefore, is this administration's policy that it (1): rhetorically pursues a zero nuclear weapons goal, while (2) planning to build, as its initial elements, a replacement missile defense system in Europe, in Romania, at sea, and with radars in Turkey.
The number of Missile defenses protecting the continental United States has actually been diminished. A planned deployment of 55 missile defense interceptors in Alaska and California has been reduced to 30. The airborne laser, the kinetic energy interceptor and other sensor elements of missile defense have been put on the shelf or cancelled. And a future phase of US defenses in Europe has also been sharply curtailed in the defense bill just passed by the Congress.
This is all a replay of the Soviet Union's nuclear freeze campaign during the Reagan administration. Then, America kept its cool, modernized its nuclear deterrent, and leveraged arms control to pursue our own strategic ends, while laying the groundwork for the current inventory of over 1000 missile-defense interceptors of all kinds, now deployed world-wide in the defense of America and its allies. And at the same time, the US, through a series of four major nuclear arms control agreements, reduced US and Russian deployed weapons and stockpiles by close to 90%.
The announcement by Russia also has to be understood as a long-standing decision by Russia to move ahead with a giant missile. It shows they are still banking on nuclear war threats as the basis of deterrence and see the US as their primary enemy, despite US's best efforts to move the relationship elsewhere.
The US, through NATO, should stick to its "missile defenses" and its planned sustainment and modernization of the US nuclear umbrella deterrent. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained: "Our extended deterrent underpins our alliances in Europe and in the Pacific, and enables our friends, especially those worried about Tehran and Pyongyang, to continue to rely on our nuclear deterrent rather than to develop their own…. While some may not see a real nuclear threat to the United States today, we should be mindful that our friends and allies perceive different levels of risk within their respective regions. Here our arsenal plays an irreplaceable role in reducing proliferation."
The cost of such an effort is less than 5% of the current defense budget and costs 75 cents out of every $100 dollars we are planning to spend at the Federal level over the next decade --a modest price to pay to "provide the common defense."