Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Long Game of Nuclear Disarmament

I’m hearing a certain amount of grousing that New START doesn’t take the numbers down enough. In one sense, that’s true. The United States and Russia will still have thousands of nuclear weapons, although once the reductions are in place, the numbers may go below ten thousand each, total, for the first time since the 1950s.

But nuclear disarmament is a long game, and it’s becoming clear that Barack Obama is quite willing to play the long game.

I think his long game on nuclear disarmament goes something like this: regularize nuclear disarmament talks with the Russians, get an initial success, move to some of the auxiliary problems, bring the allies along, move to deeper reductions. So far he’s got the first two, or will have when/if the Senate ratifies New Start.

The numbers in New START are low-hanging fruit, ripe for that initial success. It was essential to keep the verification measures of START I in place. Both Russia and the United States wanted that, with some modifications, so that was a likely success too. But the negotiations were primarily on verification, not numbers. Unfortunately, the numbers are easier to report. Verification is boring. So we will hear more about the numbers.

It’s nice to think that the move to a few hundred nuclear weapons could happen quickly, but in the world of Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, it ain’t going to happen. There are a couple of reasons for this: as the numbers get lower, the rules change, and the other nuclear powers need to be brought along.

Ain’t Nobody Goin’ To See Our Nukes!
That’s one of the primary rules of nuclear weapons classification. We have a general idea of how the Russians make their nuclear weapons, and they reciprocate. But there are some things both sides don’t know, and the more you know, the easier it would be to defeat those nukes or to make even better ones. Or so the argument goes.

In any case, the belief is real in government circles and was more so back in the 1970s. So, early on in arms control, counting delivery vehicles was a solution to that problem: each missile of a particular type represented so many warheads, each bomber, each submarine. The delivery vehicles were countable, and the warheads were hidden within. But when the number of warheads gets small enough, they must be counted individually. As must tactical nuclear weapons, the numbers being refurbished, and the parts stored. That’s why the Moscow Treaty limit of 2,200 strategic deployed warheads nets out to a total of ten thousand or so each for the United States and Russia.

That small number appears to be in the 500-1,000 total range. But the feeling is still strong that the other side shouldn’t know details of our warheads. At least two schemes for counting warheads without seeing them are being developed, one at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and one by a European consortium.

This is an extremely sensitive area that is going to require a lot more negotiation. Even these schemes will be looked at with skepticism. Any of us who have talked to members of the other side have had a moment in which we realized “Ohhhhhh! That’s how you do that!” No classified information is exchanged, just hearing an easy assumption, an elision, a juxtaposition of two comments. Crossword puzzle fans know that it’s easier to find the answer if you have a couple of letters.

As the numbers go down to perhaps 500 total for each, the two big nuclear arsenals will look more like those of the other nuclear countries. Britain and France have something like 200 each (with Britain going down to 160 in the near future), China likely has between 200 and 300, Israel has about 200 but won’t talk about it, and India and Pakistan have 75-100 each. North Korea is an outlier, and we can assume that talks there will continue (or not) pretty much as they have been. Iran has no nukes.

So at some point, those countries must be brought into the game. Too early, and they’ll sit back with their arms folded and say “You first.” Britain has been a bit more active in disarmament, but France is sticking with what it’s got for now. China and Israel aren’t saying much, and India and Pakistan remain fixated on each other.

The Fissile Material Control Treaty
For the long game, the others are being brought into the negotiations through the Conference on Disarmament, where a Fissile Material Control Treaty is being considered, at the request of the United States. Pakistan is blocking action there much as the Republicans are blocking action in the Senate.

[BTW, the US Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament is a woman, too: Laura Kennedy. Just sayin’.]

An FMCT would specify that signatories would not manufacture fissile material for weapons. The United States and Russia ended production some time ago; Pakistan thinks it needs more, and that’s its objection at the Conference on Disarmament.

So why go for an FMCT, as Obama has promised to do, if we’re not making the stuff anyway? Just to beat up on the little guys, as Pakistan contends?

An FMCT would open up a new inspection regime for enriched uranium and plutonium. Procedures would be developed, and the world would become accustomed to the idea that fissionable material is accountable to international authority. The big guys object to applying such a treaty to material that’s already been manufactured, but as the numbers go down, something is going to have to be done with those pits stored at Pantex. Russia has been selling the United States enriched uranium from its decommissioned weapons to be blended down for reactor fuel. If you get your electricity from nuclear plants, some of it is from decommissioned Soviet weapons.

There’s no overall accountability, though, for these materials, and even a weak FMCT would be the first step toward accountability for everyone. It would further encourage the repurposing of weapons materials for civilian power generation. And it would give an early warning of suspicious production or stockpiling. It would be the complement that is needed to inspection of individual warheads: what happens to them after they’re gone.

I’ve wondered why Obama explicitly made an FMCT part of his plan, but an FMCT that went in this direction would be an essential part of a world without nukes.

[Cross-posted at Obsidian Wings and American Footprints.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Israel has much less than 200, a number made up initially by Barnaby twenty years ago or so. Israel has 100, plus-minus, in the view of most enlightened gussers.