Say this for Hillary Clinton: she knows how to follow her marching orders.
Apparently, all those years with Bill were excellent preparation for carrying out ill-advised or foolhardy tasks. From that ill-fated national health care plan to ignoring her husband's many indiscretions, Ms. Clinton is adept at handling chores that most of us would summarily reject.
Consider her newest priority as Secretary of State. Ms. Clinton has informed Congress (and her staff) that she wants early talks with Russia on "sharply reducing" the size of both nation's nuclear arsenals. The goal is a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which limits the U.S. and Russia to 6,000 nuclear warheads each.
Some wonder if a new accord is even necessary--but both countries are far below that total. The U.S. stockpile is believed to be at 2,300 warheads, and the Russian inventory is even lower. But Secretary Clinton and President Barack Obama are aiming for even greater reductions. How low are they willing to go? The Administration hasn't said--at least publicly. But, as with other Obama proposals, there are grave risks that may outweigh potential benefits.
Obviously, much has changed since the Cold War, when the United States and the former Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear-capable ICBMs, long-range bombers and ballistic missile subs deployed against each other. The reductions in nuclear stockpiles that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall were prudent measures, based on new geopolitical realities.
But the world has been anything but stagnant since the early 1990s. New threats have emerged, including the burgeoning superpower called the People's Republic of China. Beijing has invested heavily in strategic systems over the past two decades, and is now fielding new generations of mobile missiles (with a limited ability to strike the United States) and a new fleet of ballistic missile subs. More than a decade ago, a PLA general pointedly asked an American counterpart if Washington was "willing to trade Los Angeles for Taipei," an obvious reference to Beijing's growing strategic power.
So far, there's been no discussion of a similar deal with the PRC. Not that it really matters; China's military build-up shows no sign of slowing, and it's doubtful that Beijing would would accept a treaty that might deny them potential parity with the United States.
Russia is also in the midst of a nuclear modernization program. Older rail and land-mobile ICBMs are being replaced by the new SS-27. A naval variant of the missile has been developed for the next generation of Russian missile subs, which will enter the fleet in the coming years. Moscow has also added to its squadron of TU-160 Blackjack bombers, augmenting the Cold War era TU-95 Bear H. Russia would welcome a deal with the United States, particularly one that would "lock in" recent modernization efforts, while forcing deeper cuts in aging American systems.
Then, there's the larger question of what constitutes a sufficient nuclear deterrence in the 21st Century. Fact is, the U.S. arsenal has experienced a dramatic decline over the past 20 years, not just in terms of quantity, but in reliability and modernity as well.
The United States hasn't designed (or produced) a new nuclear warhead since the 1980s. Our ICBM force consists of three Minuteman III wings, based in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. Those missiles rolled off the Boeing assembly line in the early 1970s. But they're practically new in comparison to our B-52s, which still form the backbone of our nuclear bomber force. The newest "Buff" was delivered to the Air Force in 1962.
A number of military leaders, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General Kevin Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, have been pressing for modernization of our nuclear forces. In recent media interviews, Chilton noted that the United States hasn't conducted a nuclear test in more than a decade, raising questions about the potential reliability of our arsenal.
But the problems don't end there. Our "atomic infrastructure," which provides the intellectual and technical expertise needed to build nuclear weapons, is equally dated. Key production facilities date back more than forty years, and many of the scientists and engineers who built our last generation of "nukes" are approaching retirement age. To date, there has been no systemic effort to renew our production capabilities, or train a new generation of nuclear experts.
What does that mean for the Clinton-Obama plan to cut our strategic arsenal? For starters, the proposed accord will further reduce our aging stockpile and delivery systems, further reducing their deterrent value. And talk about "sharp reductions" in strategic weapons makes modernization programs an even tougher sell. That's one reason General Chilton launched his recent media offensive, trying to convince anyone who would listen that nuclear modernization is a critical issue, regardless of how large--or small--our forces might be.
Sadly, Kevin Chilton's warnings received little attention outside The Wall Street Journal, the blogosphere, and the military press. There's also no record of Ms. Clinton or President Obama consulting with General Chilton before announcing their plans for a START replacement.
As with other issues, the Obama team appears content to set the security agenda, with minimal input from their military advisers. By all appearances, Ms. Clinton has her marching orders, and she's determined to strike a deal with the Kremlin, with little regard for the long-term consequences.