“The world we live in today is not a world that is ready for zero nuclear weapons,” he said, alluding to President Obama’s stated long-term objective for global atomic disarmament. “So what do we need to think about?”
Potential future threats are among those issues not yet fully vetted, he said. Advising that the United States continue to seek nuclear force “parity” with Russia, Kowalski said any contemplation of more profound U.S. reductions must assess where Moscow is headed with its own atomic arsenal.
“While we don’t anticipate that Russia would have the intent to pursue conflict, it would be irresponsible to ignore their capability,” he said. “Capabilities take years to develop; intent can change very quickly.”
Moscow has begun producing a new multiple-warhead ICBM, the RS-24, and is readying multi-warhead Bulava missiles for submarines. Yet, by the beginning of the next decade, roughly 98 percent of older missiles fielded in the Russian land-based force are expected to retire.
“The current production and deployment rate of new ICBMs is not fast enough to offset the old-missile retirements,” according to a recent analysis by nuclear-weapons experts Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris of the Federation of American Scientists.
“By the early 2020s, they will probably be down to something on the order of 400 delivery vehicles in their entire triad,” Kristensen said in a Thursday interview. “We have 450 ICBMs [alone].
The analyst, who directs his organization’s Nuclear Information Project, laid out the case for a fresh round of negotiated strategic arms reductions between Washington and Moscow.
“You can see the problem,” Kristensen said. “If we don’t change our posture,” Russia will be more likely to grow its nuclear force with weapons that increase the threat to the United States, such as developing another “new, multi-warhead ICBM,” he said.
Washington faces a window of opportunity in coming years that could head off an unnecessary post-Cold War arms race between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, he said.
“Even with [the RS-24 and Bulava] built, they will not be able to compensate for the reductions” due to retirement, in terms of even being able to meet New START warhead ceilings, according to Kristensen. “We need to go out and signal” a readiness to reduce U.S. forces alongside Russia’s -- “earlier rather than later,” he said.
Speaking on Capitol Hill, Kowalski also cited other potential global threats that might justify maintaining New START force levels, at least for the time being.
Without singling out China or other growing nuclear powers by name, the general said Washington must contemplate the “temptation that lower numbers might be offering other nations to expand their arsenals and to join us at the high end of nuclear capability.”