FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
January/February 2002
Volume 55, Number 1
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Counterforce and the New Nuclear Posture
Strategic Security | Counterforce and the New Nuclear Posture

By Michael Levi

With much fanfare, President Bush last fall unveiled a new nuclear strategy he claims is unburdened by the dead hand of cold-war thinking. But when Pentagon planners revealed the nuclear force structure required by this new approach, they claimed that the United States still needs 2,000 active nuclear warheads. While the disconnect may appear confusing, what happened is quite simple: In spite of much rhetoric about moving beyond deterrence, key cold war requirements remain unchanged.

America will keep around 2,000 nuclear weapons deployed largely because it has a long list of Russian targets to aim at. In 1962 America adopted counterforce, the practice of targeting Soviet military assets, including Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) silos, as an alternative to aiming at cities. While it certainly takes only a handful of nuclear weapons threatening cities to deter a nuclear attack, it takes far more to account for every enemy missile; from that reality, the cold war arms race was born.

As many analysts have pointed out, President Bush's announced cuts will take US strategic forces to the lowest possible level consistent with counterforce. In this sense, the cuts, though dramatic, epitomize cold war arms reductions. Unless counterforce is abandoned, we can not honestly say that we have broken with the Cold War.

Unless counterforce is abandoned, we can not honestly say that we have broken with the Cold War.

Ending the targeting of Russian ICBMs would not only be a powerful symbolic act but would also deliver concrete security benefits. Because the US targets Russian missiles directly, Russia maintains its missiles on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch on warning of a US strike. Given Russia's old and unreliable early-warning system, this creates the real and terrifying possibility of an accidental nuclear attack on America. If the targeting of Russian missiles were stopped, the hair-trigger might be relaxed, and an immediate nuclear threat would be defused.

Why, then, are we not moving beyond cold war counterforce? An old argument claims that counterforce, by threatening weapons rather than people, is morally superior. But given the proximity of Russia's nuclear installations to its cities, a counterforce attack would still kill tens of millions. The morality argument fails.

Many have been concerned with the unilateral nature of the announced cuts, pointing out that since the target stockpile levels are not binding, they might easily be raised. Arms-controllers should seize on the flip-side: these levels can easily be revised downwards without entering a new series of negotiations. President Bush should take advantage of this flexibility to announce the end of counterforce targeting, and demostrate that shift through a cut to 1,000 nuclear weapons.

President Bush has rightly declared that it is time to move beyond cold war arms control. Yet we are being asked to believe that by simply abandoning arms control and declaring the end of mutually assured destruction, we have left the Cold War in the past. Things are not so simple. Fundamental nuclear doctrine, not the precise size of nuclear stockpiles, ties us to the Cold War, and only a break from that doctrine will move us beyond the perilous consequences it entails.

Michael Levi is the Director of the FAS Strategic Security Project.