Cartwright’s Disarming Approach to Missile Defense

The NATO summit in Chicago ended, as expected, with the Alliance and Russia at loggerheads on missile defense. With great fanfare, NATO inaugurated the first phase of its missile interceptor system. In response, Russia skipped the summit, tested a new long-range ballistic missile, and threatened to attack parts of the NATO missile interceptor system to be deployed in Eastern Europe. This is not progress.

Yet the United States and Russia must solve the missile defense puzzle if they hope to get on with reducing their nuclear arsenals below the limits set by the 2010 New START Treaty. Both nations have a keen interest in reducing the nuclear threats they face, stopping nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and redirecting scare dollars to higher defense priorities.

A new report, chaired by former STRATCOM commander Gen. James Cartwright, who oversaw U.S. nuclear forces under President George W. Bush and then served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls for deep reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals. The report, which laments that differences over missile defense are blocking the arms reduction process, includes a little-noticed but potentially game-changing approach to breaking the current impasse.

Gen. Cartwright and his coauthors go after the root cause of the problem: Moscow, they say, is not just concerned that the European missile system might be capable of intercepting a few Russian missiles.  Rather, Russian leaders are worried about the U.S. capability to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack and then use strategic missile interceptors planned for deployment in 2020 (the SM-3 IIB) and thereafter to deny a Russian retaliatory strike.

To those outside the Russian military, this fear sounds misplaced. It is unthinkable that the United States would launch a first strike against Russia or anyone else. Yet Cold War worst-case planning lives on, according to Gen. Cartwright (who was directly involved in such planning), and still drives the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship.  As the report puts it, “The bilateral nuclear arms control process and even the broader U.S.-Russian relationship has stalled” over this misunderstood Russian fear.

If fear of a U.S. surprise first strike that could “decapitate” Moscow’s nuclear forces is really driving Russian thinking, then small-bore proposals, such as limiting the capability of U.S. interceptors in Europe, will not succeed. Instead, Gen. Cartwright is proposing to fundamentally change U.S. nuclear posture to remove any credible threat of a U.S. pre-emptive first strike.

“By removing the technical threat of a surprise U.S. nuclear first strike, the United States could no longer theoretically decimate the bulk of Russia’s strategic forces, and the specter of U.S. missile defenses mopping up a small number of surviving Russian missiles after the strike would evaporate,” the study says.

How to remove this outdated first-strike threat is the focus of Gen. Cartwright’s proposal, which includes making an 80 percent reduction in U.S. nuclear forces, taking those forces off alert, and retiring all U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. Once this is done, “U.S. missile defense deployment would not pose nearly as great a technical threat to Russia, improving the prospects for a new round of fruitful U.S.-Russian nuclear arms negotiations,” the report says.

This is a very different approach to untangling missile defense than has been taken so far. Yet it is high time to shift U.S. forces away from their current capability to launch a surprise first strike, even if no one on this side of the Atlantic believes that to be even a remote possibility. From a hard-boiled military perspective, capability is everything and, according to Gen. Cartwright, this is a capability we no longer need.

The Obama administration is in the process of reviewing U.S. nuclear weapons policy to formulate its position for the next round of arms control talks. Removing any credible threat of a first strike against Moscow, along the lines that Gen. Cartwright suggests, should be considered as a key part of the next round of talks to facilitate future bilateral arms reductions and missile defense cooperation.

Twenty years after the Cold War’s end, there’s no need for Russian leaders to be lying awake at night worrying about a U.S. first strike, especially if that fear is standing in the way of reducing the Russian nuclear threat to the United States. The United States has stressed time and again that its nuclear forces and missile interceptors are not aimed at Russia. It’s time to bring U.S. nuclear force structure in line with its declaratory nuclear policy. —TOM Z. COLLINA

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