A State Department board of experts is calling for steep cuts in U.S. nuclear forces beyond the New START treaty limits and recommends unilateral or informal reductions to avoid expected Senate ratification battles.
“Treaties are an important but not always necessary method for reducing nuclear arsenals,” the new report by the International Security Advisory Board says. “The United States has reduced its nuclear arsenal without negotiating a new treaty in the past—both unilaterally and reciprocally with Russia.”
A similar cut in nuclear forces could be considered again “as the United States reduces the role and number of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy,” the report says.
Disclosure of the State Department report comes as President Barack Obama, who has advocated eliminating all U.S. nuclear weapons, is close to approving a formal strategy that calls for deep cuts in nuclear forces beyond the 1,550 warheads mandated under the 2010 New START accord.
According to an arms control official, Obama earlier this month was ready to sign a new blueprint for the deep nuclear cuts as part of the Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study that has been ready for his signature for months but has been delayed until after the election. Officials familiar with that study say a draft included a recommendation to cut U.S. warhead levels to as low as 700 warheads.
The International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) report, signed by its chairman, former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, also recommends speeding up reductions or amending the New START treaty to include cuts in both tactical and strategic warheads.
The report also suggests that further nuclear cuts can be made through “parallel” U.S. and Russian reductions or even cuts by the United States alone.
“The question is of expediency versus certainty,” the report said. “Unilateral and coordinated reductions can be quicker and less politically costly, relative to treaty with adversarial negotiations and difficult ratification processes.”
However, the report stated that without a legally binding treaty informal agreements would lack the ability to verify the reductions through inspections. Also, without a formal treaty limit, all cuts can be reversed. “Either side could decide to redeploy or increase the deployments of weapons previously reduced,” the report said.
The report recommends three “modest initiatives” for the administration. They include moving up U.S. New START nuclear cuts from 2018 to 2015 and to remove from operational status all strategic warheads slated for reduction.
A second proposal calls for Washington and Moscow to “lay the groundwork” for cuts in tactical nuclear weapons as a way of “expediting the process for a future treaty.”
Third, the board report calls for “mutual” nuclear reductions below New START levels and including non-strategic weapons.
“The United States could communicate to Russia that the United States is prepared to go to lower levels of nuclear weapons as a matter of national policy, consistent with the strategy developed in the Nuclear Posture Review, if Russia is willing to reciprocate,” the report said.
“This could improve stability by reducing Russia’s incentive to deploy a new heavy ICBM.”
The report said the prospect for significant nuclear cuts beyond the three suggested areas is “small.”
“Arms control fatigue, electoral politics and the thorny issue of missile defense have all converged in 2012, creating poor conditions for trust and dialogue,” the report said.
Russia is demanding that the United States agree to legally binding limits to missile defense deployments in Europe. The United States insists its joint NATO missile defenses are part of efforts to counter Iranian missile threats. Russia regards the defenses as a threat to its offensive strategic missiles.
The administration so far has rejected the missile defense limits. However, Obama was overheard telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March that after his reelection he would have “more flexibility” in missile defense talks, comments widely interpreted by critics as a sign he will offer Russia limits on missile defenses as part of new arms reductions talks.
The Free Beacon obtained a copy of the unclassified 22-page report, dated Nov. 27. It is based on the work of a blue-ribbon commission of 24 experts including former policymakers and three retired generals.
Arms control experts on a study group directly involved in producing the new ISAB report include Joseph Cirincione, president of the anti-nuclear activist group Ploughshares Fund and Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, a defense policymaker during the administration of President Bill Clinton.
“One option is to amend the New START treaty to a lower ceiling,” the report says. “Another is to negotiate a new treaty on nonstrategic and non-deployed weapons or a new treaty aggregating all warheads. The amendment or new treaty would require Senate and [Russian] Duma approval.”
Russia currently has several thousand non-strategic nuclear warheads while the United States has several hundred. The U.S. tactical warheads are needed for so-called “extended deterrence in Europe and Asia that have prevented allies from developing their own nuclear forces.”
Critics have said cutting U.S. tactical nuclear weapons could lead other nations to build their own arsenals.
The report also states that cutting U.S. and Russian nuclear forces below the New START levels would allow both states to avoid “costly or destabilizing modernization efforts.”
That comment is likely to upset Senate Republicans who agreed to ratify the New START nuclear cuts in December 2010 only after the president agreed to commit to an urgently-needed nuclear modernization programs, including warhead life extension and new infrastructure projects costing $85 billion over 10 years.
The report also reveals that the New START treaty requires only the United States to cut its forces because it states that Moscow’s strategic arsenal will fall below START levels of 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicle and 1,550 operationally deployed warheads as Moscow’s nuclear forces reach the end of the life cycles.
As a result, Russia is considering building a new, heavy, multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile as part of its current nuclear modernization program, the report says.
By contrast, U.S. nuclear forces will slowly be cut to treaty limits by downloading warheads from land-based ICBMs and submarines and reducing launchers while modernizing strategic forces.
A senior Senate arms control specialist criticized the report. “How can it be that only two years after this administration said 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed delivery vehicles is, a, not something we had to reach until 2018 and, b, good until 2021 [when New START expires], that now we have to go lower, and on our own, with or without Russia?” the specialist asked.
“The answer is that it has always been easier for the disarmers to reduce American power than to get agreement with the Senate ever to do it,” the specialist said. “We now see this, plainly and in their own words. And we are going to fight it.”
The specialist said acting State Department undersecretary of international security Rose Gottemoeller will be asked to explain the disagreement in the future when she is expected to seek Senate support.
“Elections may have consequences, but this arrogant report speaks volumes about the empty, preemptive capitulation that has become the Obama record,” the specialist said.
“The Obama administration is hell bent to denuclearize the world starting with our arsenal,” said Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy. “The group they convened to provide political cover for doing so completely embraces this truly irresponsible and actually reckless policy approach.”
State Department spokesman Jamie Mannina said the ISAB "provides its recommendations to the Secretary of State."
"They do not set policy," he added.