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Couching Tiger, Hidden Dagger

January 6th, 2013 - 1:56 pm

The Obama administration has been looking for a way to conclude a treaty with Russia without having to submit it for ratification to the Senate as required by the Constitution. “President Obama has made eliminating all nuclear weapons his signature policy. In 2011, his New Start Treaty committed the United States to a ceiling of 700 strategic delivery vehicles and 1,550 strategic warheads. Now, as he promised in March, he seeks even deeper reductions through “a step we have never taken before—reducing not only our strategic nuclear warheads, but also tactical weapons and warheads in reserve.”

But the president faces the Constitution’s requirement that two-thirds of the Senate consent to any treaty. In 2010, the Senate ratified New Start with a vote of 71-26, but only after ending a filibuster with the exact 67 votes needed for a treaty. After his nasty re-election campaign, partisan budget wrangling and unfulfilled promises to modernize our nuclear stockpile, Mr. Obama will have a hard time finding 12 Republican senators to support any new nuclear deal with Russia.

Accordingly, a State Department advisory group headed by former Defense Secretary William Perry suggests that Mr. Obama ignore Congress. Its November report urges that America and Russia reciprocally reduce nuclear weapons without any international agreement: “Unilateral and coordinated reductions can be quicker and less politically costly . . . relative to treaties with adversarial negotiations and difficult ratification processes.”

Those who argue that the Constitution is an outmoded document which stands in the way of Peace should spare a moment to examine the relevance of the strategic thinking behind a US-Russia reduction. It implicitly assumes a bipolar world which no longer exists. In fact, a reduction of the sort envisioned by Obama will give a China an opportunity create strategic triangle via a so-called “sprint to parity”, which will not remain a triangle for long.

As Paul Bracken reminded us, we already live in a Second Nuclear Age. If China is tempted to sprint to parity, India will be incentivized to ramp up its arsenal to match China’s. And then Pakistan will inevitably follow suit to match India. And so forth and so on.

Come a Little Closer

Brad Roberts of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace spells it out. “For example, China’s possible ‘sprint to parity’ (by building up its arsenal to match that of the United States and Russia in a numerical sense) is a rising worry today for policy makers in both Washington and Moscow. Some in Asia also express concern about what level of nuclear prowess India might ultimately deem necessary to its desired political status. As the authors rightly argue, mitigating this problem will require bringing nuclear-armed states other than Russia and the United States into the formal reduction process.”

In other words, a US-Russian bilateral reduction of nuclear forces in a multipolar world could be destabilizing rather than helpful. It could lead to more nuclear weapons rather than less. In fact not a single nuclear power has given them up. Every year brings more entrants to the atomic club.

Will China now reach the level to which Russia and America have lowered themselves to?  They may already be almost there. Forget Iran. Forget Pakistan. Forget Iran even.The US is officially considering the possibility that China may have built many more weapons than it admits.

“The new National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed by U.S. President Barack Obama on Jan. 2, orders the Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) to submit a report by Aug. 15 on the ‘underground tunnel network used by the People’s Republic of China with respect to the capability of the United States to use conventional and nuclear forces to neutralize such tunnels and what is stored within such tunnels.’”

A Georgetown University team led by Phillip Karber conducted a three-year study to map out China’s complex tunnel system, which stretches 3,000 miles.

The 2011 report, “Strategic Implications of China’s Underground Great Wall,” concluded that the number of nuclear weapons estimated by U.S. intelligence was incorrect. His team estimated that as many as 3,000 nuclear weapons could be hidden within a vast labyrinth in several locations in China. U.S. intelligence estimates have been reporting consistently that China had, at the most, 300 nuclear warheads in its arsenal.

Karber’s report presents evidence of a complex system of tunnels in areas noted for nuclear testing and storage — a far greater subterranean cavity than needed for just 300 nuclear weapons.

The mandated report requires the Pentagon so spell out the unknowns. “The NDAA-directed report by STRATCOM must include identification of the knowledge gaps regarding such nuclear weapons programs and a discussion of the implications of any such gaps for the security of the U.S.”

James Holmes of the Naval War College is both startled by the lack of media interest in the story and dazzled by the strategic possibilities for the Chinese.

What should have been a blockbuster story occasioned barely a peep in the Western press, and elicited little response even in Asia. For lack of a catchier metaphor, call it the dragon that never roared. The most prominent outlet to report on what Chinese pundits dubbed the ‘underground Great Wall’ was Chosun Ilbo, in South Korea. The Washington-based Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief covered the story shortly afterward. That was basically it for original reporting.

The extent of Chinese underground missile network, Holmes notes, suggests that in the worst case that China may have nearly as many weapons as both Russia and the USA put together after Obama gets his historic reductions.

The very scale of the underground network opens up new vistas for Chinese nuclear strategy. The presenter at our conference reported piecing together various bits of data, and concluding that China may have constructed a far larger warhead inventory than most estimates hold. He projected an upper limit of 3,600 doomsday devices and delivery platforms, namely ballistic missiles of various types. The underground Great Wall could presumably accommodate such a force with ease. At a minimum, it presents Beijing new options. Think about it. The ‘New START’ accord inked by US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last year limits US and Russian nuclear forces to 1,550 deployed warheads apiece. Because of the fudge factor often built into international treaties, notes the Federation of American Scientists, the actual numbers permitted under New START come to over 2,000 warheads for each side …

it could upend the strategic balance overnight, achieving parity or near-parity with the United States and Russia in deployed weaponry. I’m not sure how much of this to credit, and the presenter freely admitted that there was a significant guesswork quotient in his figures. But then there was a significant guesswork quotient to the long-running speculation surrounding the Chinese aircraft carrier project, a project of far smaller consequence than a clandestine Chinese nuclear build-up. At a minimum it would be worthwhile to inquire into the veracity of Chinese reporting on the underground Great Wall, and to ponder the implications if reports are accurate. Let the debate begin—at last.

That is where Professor Holmes may be mistaken. The media has avoided this debate till now not because the alarming facts have been concealed from its scrutiny but because it is deeply invested in the narrative that nuclear weapons can be re-corked in the bottle if only America gives them up.

That is why America, alone of the existing nuclear powers, has refused to modernize its arsenal. That policy does not arise from an insufficiency of information but derives directly from an article of liberal faith. It is rooted in an unchangeable world view that can never seem to advance past the year 1968. It is as if policymakers were playing out an almost cinematic scenario as a realistic option: that if America disarms in a grand gesture, so in shame must everyone else.

Note they had bottles then. And bottle caps. Those things no longer exist. But song remains the same.

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